“Sea Cruise” – single from 1959. Bouncy, exuberant, timeless.
(2 min. read)
*Note – I’m not going to try to rank songs, but I do plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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You never know when you’ll hear a song that sticks with you. For example, you might be in your early 20s, visiting a douchey high school friend in his Philadelphia apartment a couple years before you realize what a horrible human being he is. He might suggest going to some dive bar nearby, and you might stay when he leaves with some young woman. Maybe you stay because the little blues band that’s playing is really rocking. And that band might play a song you hadn’t heard before, but that is a classic old rock and roll tune that just completely rips.
That’s how I first heard “Sea Cruise.” I don’t know why I loved it immediately, or why it’s since become one of my all time favorites. But I did, and it is.
“Sea Cruise” opens with some nautical sounds to set the stage, then the drums, bass and piano immediately get the ball rolling. A honking sax plays a riff before Frankie Ford starts in wailing. His vocals really make the song rock, and you feel he REALLY wants the woman to go on that cruise. He sings with an abandon, nailing the syncopation and squealing “ooo-wee-baby.” The drums and horn section sound like proto-ska. It’s a beat made popular by The Skatelites, in the 60s, and The Specials, in the 70s. The boogie piano on top of it is super-infectious, and Ford sells those vocals for all he’s worth.
As happened constantly in the 50s, “Sea Cruise” was recorded by a Black artist, then remade by a white man, in this case Ford. In fact, Frankie Ford simply sang his vocals over the instrumental version of the original track. Typically, I’ll find the original version of such songs to be superior. And the original version, by Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, is really peppy. But Smith sounds too controlled, with a harmony vocal that takes the edge off the wild urgency of the song. It’s nice, but I prefer Ford. He really delivers some Little Richard-style chaos. It’s pure, old-time rock-and-roll, so it’s a fast-paced song that ends quickly, without changing much throughout. But that’s just fine, the song has everything it needs.
Ford himself was kind of a corny showman, as this American Bandstand clip shows. “Sea Cruise” went to #14 on the US charts, and Ford never hit the Top Forty again. But the one time he did, he really made a splash.
The Swing, by INXS 1984, WEA Mercury. Producer: Nick Launay and Nile Rodgers In My Collection: CD, 1994.
(5 minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL: The Swing, the 1984 album from INXS, is an album that to me defines an 80s sound. It’s got lots of synthesizer, clamoring digitized drums and a pinched guitar sound. These are characteristics I usually dislike, but INXS really makes it work. The songs are catchy and a bit funky, and the Tim Farriss guitar is always interesting and clever. Singer Michael Hutchence has an amazing presence, even on record. He belts and moans and burns on every song. It’s an album that’s not like a lot of others that I love, but I’ve loved it ever since I borrowed it from my sister’s old cassette box.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 70.
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The 80s were a muddled time for rock music. Wholesale technological and cultural changes were under way, and a shiny playground of new sounds and styles – synthesizers, digital production, MTV – left performers and listeners unsure of where things were headed.
Since its 1950s inception, there were two key postures of rock music and musicians clearly at odds with each other. On the one hand (as I’ve written before), it was a genre obsessed with sticking around FOREVER! Since 1958, when Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay,” the Immortality of Rock Music has been a rallying cry. The Who, Neil Young, and AC/DC are among the Classic Rockers who shouted it loud1, and countless others followed with the same message. The Italian heavy metal band Maneskin recently won the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, and announced “Rock and roll never dies2!”
On the other hand, rock and roll musicians have constantly pushed the boundaries of its sounds. The Beatles and James Brown shook things up in the early 60s, then psychedelia and prog-rock and funk took things in even wilder directions. An attempt to return to the simplicity of early rock and roll by the 70s punk musicians (i.e. The Ramones) only succeeded in whetting the public’s appetite for more new sounds. True artists are always looking to expand their horizons. Some of the acts that grew out of the punk scene even took the radical step of abandoning their guitars! Then hip-hop bubbled up and confused everyone, as the sounds were nothing like rock and roll, yet the attitude and spirit captured it perfectly.
This all begged the question of the 80s: if hip-hop is the new rock and roll, has rock and roll died? If something changes so much that it’s no longer recognizable, does it still exist3?
Frankly, that 80s sound never really worked for me, and I don’t have a great variety of Favorite Albums from the 80s. There are 30 on my list, but 11 of those are from 19804 and 19815, and sound very 70s-ish. Also, fifteen of the thirty are from 7 artists6 with multiple records on the list. To me, that “80s sound” was sterile and precise, rather phony, and very different from rock and roll.
But as a great poet once wrote, all this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted. The key, I believe, is that the machinery has to be part of the band’s internal conception of themselves as an artist. If you’re a guitar band and you try to throw some synths over your songs, it’s gonna sound shitty. But if you’re a band who’s had synths from the very beginning, the sound can really work. The Big 80s sound of The Swing, by INXS, really works for me.
Australia’s INXS were perfect for the MTV 80s. They were six handsome men (I guess dorky guitar/sax man Kirk Pengilly is handsome?), with a lead singer, Michael Hutchence, who was particularly sultry. Their sound was guitar rock, but with a strong dance beat and lush synth parts. They really popped on MTV, and I recall waiting all afternoon hoping the channel would play “The One Thing,” a great song with a video that, well, was quite appealing to the 14-year-old me. (It’s kind of a dinner party. Kind of.) By 1989 they were enormous, but throughout the early part of the 80s they seemed to struggle to gain traction. They were “too rock” for pop radio, and “too pop” for rock. My sister, Liz, owned several of their early cassettes, and that’s where I first heard The Swing. My eldest sister, Anne, had the magic milk crate of 70s LPs. Liz had the attache case of 80s cassettes7. I became a fan of The Swing right away.
The opening track was produced by Chic mastermind and 80s uber-producer Nile Rodgers. He perfectly captures the band’s sound on “Original Sin.”
It’s got dance-track drumming from Jon Farriss, Andrew Farriss’s catchy organ riff, a pumping bass groove laid down by Gary Garry Beers, and funk guitars from Tim Farriss and Kirk Pengilly. Then there’s Michael Hutchence, who half purrs, half groans as he smolders all over the song. It’s basically a dance song, with great lyrics about bigotry that remain relevant 35 years on, sadly. I like the simple, shrieking guitar at 1:04, and I also like Beers’s bass sound on the second verse, where he walks up between Hutchence’s lines. There are little sax squawks from Pengilly, and metallic guitar stabs, and of course shimmery, atmospheric 80s synth. The result is a song that sounds like its own genre, a mutant dance/rock hybrid.
“Melting In the Sun” tries to pull off the same trick, but it’s not quite there. Maybe it lacks Rodgers’s funk touch? It’s got a groove, and there are some impressive bursts of guitar sounds from Tim Farriss. The lyrics are rather indecipherable. Mostly it’s a decent song that gets us to the next awesome song, “I Send a Message.”
By the band’s huge 1989 album Kick, the world was ready for riff-based dance-rockers like “New Sensation” and “Devil Inside.” On The Swing (and earlier), INXS established the blueprint. “I Send a Message” is a case in point. After a nice build-up, a riff that seems adjacent to Lee Dorsey’s “Working In the Coal Mine” is pushed throughout the song, while Hutchence finds a catchy melody to moan and growl over. It’s a song about missing a lover, and it’s bouncy and catchy. It’s got all kinds of electronic, synthetic sounds, and for some reason I love it! At 1:45 Hutchence asks Timmy to play it, and he obliges with a simple, sparse solo that fits perfectly. It’s one of my favorites on the record.
While I think of INXS as kind of a guitar band, they aren’t the type that has flashy solos or crunching power chords. But Tim does get to show off his stuff on “Dancing On the Jetty.”
You wouldn’t expect it from the gentle opening, but it turns into a dance stomper pretty quickly. There are lots of cool harmonics and little riffs from both guitarists, and at 2:49 Tim turns in an angry, atmospheric noise solo that would make Lee Ranaldo proud. The chorus is sing-along catchy, and its lyrics try to offer some respite from the daily news of brutality and strife. My downstairs neighbor in college loved this song. He’s the first person I met who I bonded with over our enthusiasm for The Swing.
The album title track begins with the most 80s-ish drums I’ve ever heard. I sprouted leg-warmers just hearing them. The lyrics are about life moving forward, but there’s not much life to the song as a whole. At 2:18 there are some more weird guitars, but they don’t really lift the song beyond its 80s plod. However, “Johnson’s Aeroplane” offers something different on The Swing.
It’s a bouncy shuffle that’s an ode to hard-working Australian farmers. The song leans heavily on Andrew Farriss’s synthetic violins, and at 2:05 sax man Pengilly plays a nice, distorted solo that almost sounds like a guitar. (I believe INXS were the last popular rock act to have a sax player as an integral part of the band8.) It’s a nice little song that really breaks up the album.
The 80s drums and synth-bass sound is prominent in “Love Is (What I Say).” It’s got a very catchy chorus, and moves along quickly. It’s an organ-heavy number, and Hutchence sells the thing, his voice as strong as ever on lyrics that, I guess, are a love poem? “Face the Change” is a funk-riff groove number. Beers’s bass is up and down and everywhere. In fact, it’s so snaky, it may be a synth. Jon Farriss can definitely lay down a groove, and Pengilly gets another sax solo. I don’t know what Hutchence is singing about (well, “change,” I guess), but he definitely makes it sound great.
Along with the opener, “Original Sin,” the band hits another dance-rock peak with the fun, driving “Burn For You.”
Once again, I simply MUST point out the very-very 80s touches. First of all, the sampled tribal drum rhythms that open the song, which predate Paul Simon’s Graceland by a couple years. Then, at about 0:50, the synthetic tootles. Those vaguely train-whistle-ish hoots were everywhere in that decade. (For some reason I associate them with movie soundtracks.) It all makes for a nice crescendo to the main track. There’s a great beat, and the background singers on the chorus with Hutchence (1:16) sound great. In the third verse Beers’s bass starts making the song pump a little harder (2:10). It’s a song about desire, and who wouldn’t want Michael Hutchence to tell them “Light me, and I’ll burn for you”? From 4:30 to the end, it gets kind of weird, as Jon Farriss starts playing strange beats, leading up to a creative ending.
The album ends on a low note for me, with the mishmash that is “All the Voices.” It’s got a great message of unity, the chorus is catchy, and there’s a bit of guitar I like, but to me it really sounds like a kitchen-sink of a song.
The Swing is a definitive album for “the 80s sound.” It’s got hooks, synths, drum triggers … everything you hope to hear if you’re into that nostalgia. But for me, it’s the songs that really make the record great. I was an 80s teen who didn’t like the 80s sound, but even I liked this record. I still do. It’s fun and catchy, and when the hits come, they really come hard.
In late summer, 2020, a good 6 months into pandemic living, I turned on the Emerson College radio station in my car during one of my infrequent pandemic drives. As often occurs in TV and movies, but rarely in real life, the young DJ immediately began speaking as if he’d been waiting for my arrival. “This one is the latest from Fantastic Negrito,” he said, and then he played this.
It turns out this “young dude” is a my-age dude, and Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is his third grammy-winning album in a row! His given name is Xavier Dphrepaulezz, and although he was originally signed to a label in the early 90s, his career has only taken off in the last few years. Like this latest release, his previous two records, Last Days of Oakland and Please Don’t Be Dead, both won a Grammy for best contemporary blues album.
But he’s not in the B.B. King/Stevie Ray Vaughn vein of blues. His blues spread into other genres, particularly R&B and soul, and sound somewhat like an updated Sly & the Family Stone or Stevie Wonder with a bit of the funk shaved off. Also, despite the content of his songs, his scratchy voice always has a hint of joy.
Fantastic Negrito may have the blues, but his natural effervescence doesn’t allow them to drag him under. He seems to know that the blues are just part of life, and so he might as well embrace them, too. Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? gets better every time I listen, and I’ve been listening a lot!
There are times I’d like to believe that I’m some kind of music connoisseur, and my appreciation is guided solely by an internal calculus equal parts cold intellect and refined perception. I imagine myself immune to the insidious pressures of savvy marketers, and well beyond the plebeian inclination toward popular sounds and style. But sometimes a Billboard Number One song has a certain something that reveals I am just one of the herd. I’ve enthusiastically agreed with the millions of passive, piped-in-supermarket-music-listening philistines and infrequent music-buyers who help catapult a song to the top of the charts.
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” by Tears for Fears, occupies my brain during late spring of every year. The song hit Number One in June of ’85 as I was rapidly approaching high school graduation. I’m sure someone at Mercury Records decreed this record would be released to coincide with graduations around the world. It has that life-lesson title, and a grad-card-ready opening line. (“Welcome to your life”). Plus, the repeated two-note verse feels wistful and unresolved until the satisfaction of a super-sticky chorus, mimicking the overlapping emotions at the end of an era. Also, it’s sung by two attractive men9, which doesn’t hurt record sales to teens. The suits’ cynical bet that it would resonate (even though the lyrics don’t really mean much) won big. The song has stuck with me for 36 years.
I led a dual life as a prog-rock fan and secret MTV enthusiast in spring of ’85. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a far cry from prog-rock, and the video is kinda lame. Still, it made an impact on me. I’ve always thought it’s a pretty great song. For one thing, bassist Curt Smith sings the heck out of lyrics that are basically a bunch of phrases crammed together. And as I stated above, the rather melancholy verses combine nicely with the upbeat chorus. The bridge, at 1:35, (“There’s a room where the light won’t find you”) is a meaty transition, and it leads into my favorite part of the song.
What I really like about “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is the guitar work from side man Neil Taylor. That beginning riff is pretty cool, and he repeats it after the bridge (2:00). After a couple measures of keyboard doodles, he re-enters with a great guitar solo (2:33). It’s brief, but combined with the rest of the parts of the song it sounds perfect. Then at 3:36 he plays a solo that’s weird and moody to close things out.
Tears for Fears, duo Roland Orzabel and Curt Smith and a backing band, seemed like a strange group. They made songs that weren’t really Top 40 and weren’t really rock, but got played on both formats. Their Songs From the Big Chair album was huge. They were big on college radio, and they continue to have a lot of songs played on Sirius 1st Wave. I’m still not a huge fan of theirs (although Head Over Heels was pretty catchy, and Sowing the Seeds of Love did a nice Beatle-y thing) but they sure did right on this one.
IN A NUTSHELL:Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the 1969 album from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, is one of my all-time favorite guitar records. Young is furious and loud and anarchic and chaotic on songs like “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl In the Sand.” The band behind him, Crazy Horse, is attuned to each other in such a way that they’re the tightest sloppy band ever recorded. But it’s not all flaming guitars, as the band includes some lovely country numbers and some solid rock standards.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10.
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When I started playing the bass guitar in the mid 80s, I did it the same way everybody else learned rock instruments back then. I listened to the cassettes I loved over and over, and I tried to pick out what I heard. A trombone player for years, I was familiar with how music “worked.” I knew about rhythm and scales, and a bit about keys, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. Also, the trombone is essentially an instrument that is played by ear, so my ear had been training for almost 10 years.
This problem with this technique is that if you’re a bit lazy, as I am, and you have a penchant for bands with virtuosic bass players – like Geddy Lee and Chris Squier and Paul McCartney – you’ll never play the music you love. So I started with classic rock radio songs that were a bit less ambitious for a novice. “Smoke On the Water,” by Deep Purple. “Wild Thing,” by The Troggs. “Good Lovin’,” by The Rascals. The point is, I only played songs I knew. I brought my bass to songs, but songs didn’t come to my bass.
That changed when I met Dr. Dave in college and we formed our band, J.B. and The So-Called Cells. Dave and his brother, John, knew many more songs than me, and they taught me so the band could play them. At the beginning, before I learned hammer-ons and pull-offs, and figured out some scales, songs with easy bass lines were paramount. Two of those songs (which, by the way, have bass lines that are not as simple as I originally played them) were from Neil Young and Crazy Horse: “Down By the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Both are from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Young’s first album with this stellar backing band. I bought the CD soon after I heard them, one of the first CDs I owned, and immediately loved it.
Given the depth and breadth of his output, I think it’s hard to imagine loving everything the man has released. For me, however, I can say that I am willing to give multiple listens to anything Neil makes with Crazy Horse as the backing band. In 1969 the band consisted of Billy Talbot on bass, Ralph Molina on drums and Danny Whitten10 on guitar. They’re a loud, raucous band with just the right level of sloppiness to make Young’s rockingest songs sound immediate and furious. Even the most pop-oriented of their songs sound like your kid’s band in the garage. (But better.) For example, the lead track, “Cinnamon Girl.”
First of all, this entire album sounds best LOUD and on well-separated speakers, or headphones. So much happens on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere that you’ll miss things if you don’t listen that way. For example, there are either three guitars on this song (one left channel, and another on the right, with a third that enters with the vocals, buried deep on the right) or Neil’s playing on the right side is such a sonic wonder that it creates the effect of multiple guitars. “Cinnamon Girl,” like every song on the album, features wonderful interplay between Whitten and Young on guitar. The riff is sticky and classic, and Billy Talbot’s bass is nice and bouncy. Neil and Whitten harmonize about a spice-hued woman they’d love to meet, and when they hit the bridge (“Pa sent me money …”) at 1:51, it’s one of the most satisfying changes in music.
“Cinnamon Girl” also includes an oft-repeated, very impressive Neil Young guitar feature, perhaps the first time he put it on record: the one-note solo (2:07). The man can do more with one note than anybody else. It’s such a fun song, you might as well watch them play it live in 199111.
Up next is the western title track, again featuring excellent dueling guitars.
Whitten and Young again handle the co-lead vocals. It’s a song about being sad and lonely in L.A., a common theme in popular music. I want to point out that on every Crazy Horse album, Billy Talbot’s bass sounds perfect. He has a sort of no-bullshit tone that I can’t really describe, other than “no bullshit.” It sounds like your bass guitar sounds when you plunk along in your bedroom. I also really love the “La-la-la” backing vocals in the chorus.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is like one of those salted-caramel desserts. For every flailing, distortion-heavy, salty number like “Cinnamon Girl,” there’s a softer, acoustic, country-tinged piece of sweetness. The first example is “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long).” Robin Lane provides dual harmony vocals, creating lovely three-part harmony with Neil’s thin tenor. It’s a thoughtful song about getting through difficult times, and the value of friendship. It’s acoustic, but I do like the metallic sound of Neil’s right-channel guitar, particularly in the chorus.
Up next is the saltiest song on the record, the (perhaps metaphorical) murder ballad “Down By the River.”
This song is built so simply, but adorned with so much amazing electric guitar, it’s like seeing a souped-up ’57 Chevy on the road. There’s just something cool about it, and I don’t know why. Actually, I do know why – it’s all about Neil’s guitar playing. I will demand now that you listen to this on well-separated speakers (or headphones, although it’s so much better reverberating off the walls) or stop reading now. It begins with scratchy strumming on the right side, then an introductory solo, not really a riff, enters on the left. Then Talbot and Molina enter. So look, Neil’s voice isn’t gonna be everyone’s cup of tea, and I get that. If it’s not your’s, pay attention instead to the left guitar, and the careful picking it does. Pay attention to the band’s “Ooo-la-la” backing vocals and three-part harmony, or the nice bass behind the word “rainbow.”
At 1:54, in the right channel, the first of Neil’s epic solos begins with (if my count is right) 38 identical notes, and it is sheer genius. Whenever he solos, Whitten’s left side guitar plays curlicues and varied strumming, and it all sounds so good. You can get lost in Neil’s solos – they last for minutes and just take you away. There’s another at 6:05, and a last weird, shimmery one at 7:07. As for lyrics, the song is either about America’s Favorite Podcast Topic (i.e. a woman murdered by her man) or a metaphor for lost love. (Neil’s offered both theories himself.) When I hear this song I can’t imagine the band could outdo it. But wait …
Before I get to that, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere has a couple sweet dollops of Americana for you. “The Losing End (When You’re On)” is a country lost-love lament with nice harmony vocals from Whitten. Throughout, Neil shows off his Western guitar technique, then calls either “All right, Wilson Pickett” or “Wilson, pick it!” (probably the latter, since this is definitely not an R&B tune) before taking a cool solo. “Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)” adds violin to the mix on a rather English Folk story song. It has some good vocals and ethereal guitar, but frankly the song doesn’t do much for me. And that screechy fiddle begins to wear on my ears, especially 5-plus minutes of it.
Okay, can Neil and Crazy Horse top “Down By the River?” I’d say they do with the awesome album closer “Cowgirl In the Sand.”
The song sits coiled for 30 seconds, then springs forth with Talbot’s rangey, bouncing bass and Neil’s right channel solo jittering all over the place. That bass drives the song, and he switches it up throughout, always playing basically the same thing – with a touch here and there to keep it interesting. Molina’s cymbal-heavy drumming is sloppy-great, and Whitten’s strumming is fun and inventive. The lyrics are dreamy and vague, and rather dated, and many have tried to interpret them. But I rarely come to Crazy Horse for lyrics.
I come for Neil’s flaming guitar, which solos for nearly 2 minutes before the vocals even begin. (Nice backing vox from the band, once again, by the way.) And when they hit “play this game” (2:32), and pause, it gives me chills. Then they speed up slightly (to my ears) to allow Neil play ANOTHER one-note solo at 2:59. The guitar thrashes and grinds for over two minutes, and Young’s high-pitched voice re-enters, a great counterbalance to the chaos. At 6:08, Talbot plays his own one-note bass line, and it seems to piss off Young, based on the fiery fretwork he offers next! Look, I don’t know how the fuck to write about how amazing this next part is. The band and Young on their own wavelength as they grow and diminish as a single unit. It’s otherworldly. There’s so much to hear in it.
Boy, I think I have to go take a rest after that. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is an album that takes me places. It takes me back to learning my bass, and learning the extreme joy that comes with making music with friends. The energy you hear in the interplay between the four musicians is something you can actually feel when you play songs with people you love and trust. That’s probably why I like the record so much – it helps remind me I’m a human connected to others.
The song “Undecided Voters,” from Kiwi Jr., popped up in my Spotify feed recently, and, sadly, I’m now familiar with the creepy feeling of having a computer understand my personality and tastes, so I didn’t even think twice. I just heard the song, loved it, and thought, “I gotta hear more of this!”
Cooler Returns, from the Canadian quartet, sounds like a cross of some of my favorite old and not-so-old bands. I hear some Modern Lovers in the deadpan vocal delivery of front man Jeremy Gaudet, and the double guitars of Gaudet and Brian Murphy, with the propulsive rhythm section of bassist Mike Walker and drummer Brohan Moore, call to mind Parquet Courts. Their loose sound and quirky style give them a Pavement vibe, as well. Cooler Returns puts those sounds I like to great use in songs that are catchy, fun and invite repeated listening.
Opening track “Tyler” starts in a singer/songwriter vibe, then introduces jangly guitars and rangey bass as Gaudet speak/sings about some strange events. But the closing song, “Waiting In Line,” might be the best example of what the band’s doing.
Throughout, the lyrics on Cooler Returns are obscure stories told by an outside observer, in a vein of Steely Dan or Belly. “Maid Marian’s Toast” demonstrates the band’s facility with melody, and introduces some harmonica. The songs are all catchy and interesting. “Only Here for a Haircut” is a swaying feast of slide guitar and backing vocals. “Guilty Party” is my favorite song on the record. It’s a bit of a rave-up, with a catchy riff and nice vocal harmonies. The title track is a Strokes-esque piece, but a bit less arch.
The songs are generally under 3 minutes, and the spare nature allows for interesting additions, like the instrumentation (is that an accordion?) and multiple sections in “Omaha.” The song “Nashville Wedding” is a jangle-fest with lyrics expressing a desire to “strangle the jangle pop band.” “Dodger,” in which Jack the Ripper plays “Daytripper” on the bari sax, is a simple, fun number chugging along to a circular riff, before introducing a few new patterns.
The guitars on the record are cool, bouncing off each other playfully, and the vocals and melody are strong, with nice harmonies. The songs are often supported by piano and keyboards to fill out the song. It’s a record I recommend to anyone with a taste for jangly, clever, tuneful bands.
Generally speaking, each musician in a three-piece band has to be doing something noticeable to make their songs cook. There’s too much space to fill for a guitarist to simply strum lightly. The bass player can’t play basic root notes, and the drummer can’t merely keep a beat. There has to be more going on to properly support the song, and “Funk #49,” by The James Gang, is a perfect example of the three-legged-stool of the power trio.
The James Gang consisted of everyone’s goofy guitar-playing uncle, Joe Walsh, with Jim Fox on drums and Dale Peters on bass. Walsh would later join the Eagles, putting a jagged guitar edge onto their smooth country rock, but in “Funk #49,” as with all the James Gang songs I’ve heard, Walsh is the centerpiece. He manages to make both his voice and his guitar sound a third of the way through a case of Carling beer, and I mean that in a good way.
“Funk #49” opens with a sloppy guitar cadenza. This mess of notes in the left channel tumbles across to the right channel, where the proper riff takes up residence. At about 0:10, Fox and Peters enter, and they propel the entire song. Despite its title, it’s not really funky in a Parliament or Prince style, but there is a rawness and bounce to the rhythm that seems to make the title fit.
Walsh starts singing around 0:17, and his voice is unmistakeable. He sings about a girlfriend who appears to be untrue, but it’s hard to take him seriously. “Funk #49” sounds like it was a cool studio jam, but then Walsh realized he needed words. The verses are brief, and there is no real vocal chorus. At 0:28, Walsh and Peters play a descending riff that serves as the chorus, and Fox adds cool fills. The bridge, at 1:33, sounds like a dairy cow lost in a jungle, as cowbell and rainforest screeches accompany Fox’s drums. (Again, I mean that in a very good way!) Then at 2:12, Walsh plays a solo, of sorts. As with the opening cadenza, it’s a sound only he could make. Walsh is like Mike Campbell and Mark Knopfler. He’s a guitarist with an unmistakeable sound, and he lets it fly on “Funk #49.”
The band spends the last minute having a blast on their respective parts. It’s a cool, different song, but not really one-of-a-kind. Earlier, the band had recorded “Funk #48,” which is similar – although this time with a vocal chorus. (I guess “donk-da-donk-da-da-donk-da-donk” qualifies?) But “Funk #49” brings the melody and the sound. It’s a song I never turn off, and I always turn up.
Exile in Guyville, by Liz Phair 1993, Matador Records. Producer: Liz Phair and Brad Wood In My Collection: CD, 1994.
(Five minute read)
IN A NUTSHELL:Exile in Guyville, the 1993 album from Liz Phair, helped usher in lo-fi 90s rock. It’s a diverse record, with some songs qualifying as rockers, a few as singer-songwriter musings, and some that are downright strange. The production from Phair and Brad Wood, who also drums and plays bass, places Phair’s unusual voice at the center of the proceedings. Whether she’s belting it out, using a lilting soprano, or delivering lines in her slackery, raspy growl, she always sounds good. And the lyrics are varied, too, even if they mostly focus on life as a young woman in music. Sometimes they’re direct, sometimes they tell a story, often they’re simply poetry. Eighteen songs may be a handful too many, but overall, this collection stands the test of time.
THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 30.
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The lucky among us will eventually arrive at that nebulous, confusing, perhaps decades-long holding pattern called Adulthood. Before we get there, we spend a lot of time trying to understand it.
As young kids we ape the grown-ups on TV, playing spies or house, as we try to figure it out. We fantasize about becoming mechanics or doctors or basketball players or dancers, but Destination Grown-Up lies in the distant future. Regardless of whether we pursue those childhood dreams through our ever-changing adolescence, an annoyance common to Adulthood gradually reaches into our lives: obligations. We have to pay for things. We have to meet people we don’t want to meet, and be places we don’t want to be, and plan for a future beyond Saturday night, all because it’s what mature people do. Adulthood looms over everything, and we try to keep it at bay in bars and ballfields and video game screens. Still, we know the inevitable awaits.
So how will we know when we arrive? Obligations are always part of the picture. I’ve been buying baseball cards with my own money since elementary school, and was compelled to attend church until I finished high school. As a young man/old boy, I guessed that when all the frivolities of youth were finally stamped out, I’d know I was an adult. When I no longer played pickup basketball, and stopped doing stand-up and acting, that will be the sign. The day I finally blocked up my new-music ears and started the adults-only complaint that “the music today just doesn’t compare to the stuff from my youth” … then I will have, sadly, arrived.
I first listened to Exile in Guyville in late spring, 1994, at an afternoon party, of sorts, in the apartment of an older couple who were friends of my new girlfriend. A recent emigre to San Francisco, I’d been dating Julia about 6 months, and this party was going to be one more new experience in a year full of new and exciting experiences. Determined to evince the persona of an ever-intrepid sampler of new and exotic encounters, I’d offered a resounding “Yes!” when she’d asked me, “Do you want to go meet Sharon and Jim’s newborn twins?” A part of me couldn’t believe I was going to spend an afternoon with a couple of incontinent, drooling, crying weaklings. (The twins, not the parents.) And even though I’d met and enjoyed the company of Sharon and Jim many times, now that they’d become parents, it felt impossible that I’d have anything to discuss with them. But … obligations, y’know?
We sat in the couple’s sunny living room, and Jim handed both Julia and me a swaddled little bundle like he was handing out hoagies from A&M Pizza. (I needed some assistance to properly hold the kid.) He moved to the stereo as we cooed and chirped at the sleeping infants and chatted with Sharon about her new life as a mom. Then Jim put on Exile in Guyville. As a new music fan and longtime subscriber to Spin magazine at the time, I’d heard a couple tracks on the radio and read a few things about Exile in Guyville over the past few months. The song “Never Said” was getting a lot of airplay. But I hadn’t heard much of it.
I don’t want to overstate the impact of the moment, but that’s about when I knew I was an adult. We were doing non-youthful things – handling babies and talking about parenting – but also enjoying new music. I felt as if I was in a scene from some TV program from the 60s, The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched, and instead of placing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the Hi-Fi, my neighbor just slid Exile in Guyville into the CD player12. I liked the record, we discussed it, and I went out and bought it soon after. Even as an adult I could like new music. I kept playing basketball and performing comedy and acting, too.
Exile in Guyville opens with a song that exhibits most of what makes the album tick. The subtly rocking “6’1″.”
It opens with a strumming electric guitar, and the bass and drums entering quickly to propel things along. Phair’s facility with melody and unusual song structure is also on display. It’s bouncy and catchy, but warmly unpolished. The entire record has a lo-fi sound that was popularized at the time by bands like Guided by Voices and Sebadoh. Phair’s work is a bit less messy, but still, her thin, inexact voice and rough guitar give the record an immediacy and energy. This isn’t to say I don’t like her voice – I really do! And the harmonies sound great, as well. The lyrics are about standing up to the douchebag boyfriend, in which the 5’2″ Phair acts as if she’s 6’1″.
The same features are on display on the rousing next song, “Help Me Mary.”
This one’s a bit more driving, with Brad Wood’s bass pulsing throughout. The guitar riff is pretty cool, and Phair’s gruff voice is perfect on this song about being a strong, resilient woman in a scene dominated by thoughtless (or worse) men. Her words about locking doors and memorizing rules, and the seesawing self-esteem that such efforts cause, ring true. Meanwhile, Phair plays some great guitar lines throughout.
The album is 18 songs long, and as with many lengthy records (but not all) I think it could have been trimmed down. However, 18 songs is key because that’s the length of The Rolling Stones’ masterpiece Exile on Main Street. In early interviews, Phair claimed Exile in Guyville was a song-by-song response to that Stones record, an idea doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. (Try it – you’ll see.) However, this type of endeavor is just the sort of thing that gets (mostly male) music-nerds hyped up and arguing over whether or not it’s true. And since the record is partly about Phair’s experience among those music boys, this sounds to me like both a clever joke at their expense and a way to get them to listen. Anyway, “Glory,” a brief cut that may be about either a creepy guy or a lovable dog, isn’t one of my favorites.
“Dance of the Seven Veils,” featuring just Liz and her Fender Jaguar, is also just okay, although I like how she varies her voice as she hits the chorus. It also displays her penchant for using “bad words” (the “C” word here), which caused a bit of controversy back in the day, as well. But when her songs work, Phair really produces gems. For example, “Never Said.”
The vocals are the key to this song, with Phair rasping the lead while also layering background vocals behind it. The music’s ascending chords are simple but catchy, and guitarist Casey Rice rings out a single note over top. It’s a very laid-back sound, perfectly supporting Phair’s vocal delivery. The lyrics actually read as an angry rebuke, but the song has a more Gen-X, slacker “whatever, dude” vibe. “Soap Star Joe” has a really cool strummed guitar pattern, with squawky harmonica and distant drum cracks highlighting sections. It’s an unusual-sounding singer-songwriter piece that may be about the silliness of male models. The harmonica that finishes the song is great.
Phair returns to the quiet place on “Explain It to Me,” a subtle piece with inscrutable lyrics. (I would like someone to Explain It to Me.) “Canary” introduces the piano into Phair’s repertoire, recorded in a lo-fi way that suits her voice. Exile in Guyville was among the first wave of alt-rock records by women. Coming just after Juliana Hatfield and Belly, joining artists like Hole and Fiona Apple, these were welcome voices in a testosterone-heavy rock scene. “Canary” offers a look into what it’s like to be a young woman making a go in a traditionally man-dominated field.
The next song, “Mesmerizing,” builds brilliantly from those slow songs.
It starts off sounding like another slow, dreary piece, but adds a bass drum and maracas, which are enough to kick up the energy. Phair’s voice is watery and distorted, and it sounds great, particularly the “I-I-I-I-I like it” (1:38). The guitar playing is terrific, with a nifty solo from Rice at 2:02. It’s one of the few songs on the record that does kind of reflect Exile on Main St., with the sparse arrangement and a guitar solo overtop. Then there are the lyrics, which seem to comment a bit on “Rocks Off.” In a way, this all reminds me of a softer White Stripes kind of song.
Up next is another number that had folks clutching their pearls in ’93. After decades of men bragging about their varied, numerous sexual exploits, some people weren’t prepared to hear a young woman sing “Fuck and Run.”
Whereas the dudes have always sung about their lack of feelings over these situations, Phair actually explores the emotional impact of the situation. (Something I’m certain those dudes always felt, as well.) The lyrics are great, as Phair asks for a boyfriend (with great self-harmonies), and all that “stupid old shit/ like letters and sodas.” It’s actually a very romantic song. Musically, it’s bouncy and light. I like the transition when she sings “I can feel it in my bones/ I’m gonna spend another year alone” (1:49). “Girls! Girls! Girls!” is almost a companion piece to “Fuck and Run.” It’s a strange little guitar number with creepy vocals responding to the main lyrics, which offer a different perspective of her love life, with Phair now relishing in manipulating men.
My favorite song on Exile in Guyville is “Divorce Song.” Despite its lo-fi production and Phair’s gruff voice, the song packs an emotional wallop documenting what sounds like the last time a couple will have the same fight they always have.
The song takes a long time to finally get to the chorus, but when it does Wood’s bass drives the song forward. At 1:48 the bass rings out some high notes behind Phair’s “you put in my hands …”, and for some reason that really adds to the lonely feeling of being in a fight with a partner. The song sounds great and has a cool little harmonica-led coda, as well. “Shatter” is another slow song, not too distinct from the others, about Phair’s devotion to a boyfriend. “Flower” continues Phair’s efforts to make your grandparents uncomfortable, as she sings her desire to get very physical with a guy she’s into. She proto-raps the dirty (and funny!) lyrics behind weird guitar spikes and an angelic vocal riff, which enhances their effect. Hey, if Robert Plant can say he’s gonna give his lady every inch of his love, why can’t Phair say she wants her man’s fresh young jimmy?
Another favorite of mine is “Johnny Sunshine.”
it starts as a sound-collage, a meditation on one chord. Two crunchy guitars support her as she lists all the shitty things her partner did. The second time through, she adds a lament in a higher register. Phair has a voice that can go many places, and in this song she shows it off. At 1:17 she breaks out her light and airy soprano voice, as the song slows to a turtle pace. It’s really a terrific vocal demonstration, and it’s also a pretty weirdly constructed piece of music. “Gunshy” is a gentle, weird song with great guitar picking. (It also includes a reference to the 70s comic book sensations Sea Monkeys!) It’s the best guitar song on the record, with multiple parts fit together like a puzzle.
As I said earlier, this is a long record, and I’d have liked it better if it was cut down to the 12 best. But it finishes on a couple strong notes. “Stratford-On-Guy” starts with a flange, and describes a flight landing in Chicago, her adopted home town. She delivers her very poetic lyrics in her typical slacker style, and I like the chorus. “Strange Loop” bops along to end the record on an upbeat note. Well, musically, anyway. Lyrically, it’s a precursor to “Divorce Song,” expressing a desire to stop fighting.
Even though I’m now an old(er) man who has supposedly been a grown-up for decades, it’s not hard to recall the confusion of what adulthood would mean. It seemed to click for me when I heard this record, but that doesn’t mean I understand it 30 years later. I’m still not sure if I know what I’m doing, but I still like listening to Exile in Guyville.
Ultra Mono, by IDLES 2020, Partisan Records. Producer: Adam Greenspan and Nick Launay
(2 minute read)
After Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Boltcutters and Naomi Wolfe’s Uncomfortable, this record was my favorite of 2020. IDLES is a British punk rock act called the most aggressively positive band around, and they make loud, violent songs in which singer Joe Talbot sings (shouts?) about peace and kindness and acceptance and love. It’s a juxtaposition that, surprisingly, works really well!
I first caught them on YouTube as part of NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series, and they were unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard. I immediately identified them as right up my alley. The belligerent tone, the pounding beat, the cool guitars … I wanted more. Then I looked up their lyrics and found they align quite nicely with my own UU-ish ethos, and, well, I was on board. IDLES takes on hatefulness, toxic masculinity, class, immigrant rights, and other social topics, and on Ultra Mono they pound the ideals of love and kindness into your head with ferocity.
A perfect example is “Kill Them With Kindness,” a song espousing radical caring of others set to a smashing thump. On “The Lover,” the band comes close to a dance beat while Talbot defends his compassion with the words “Fuck You! I’m a lover!” He stated, “It’s like a defiant smile in the face of assholes who can’t just accept that your love is real. It’s like, ‘I’m not lying. I am full of love and you’re a prick.’” IDLES want to turn this aggressive positivity into action, too. “Mr. Motivator” implores us to “all hold hands/ chase the pricks away!”
Many songs on Ultra Mono make the case for change. “Carcinogenic,” an infectious groove, shines a light on the plight of the working poor. “Model Village,” another bouncy number, takes a close look at the social tyranny of conformity and hatred in small town life. “Ne Touche Pas Moi,” with guest Jehnny Beth, attacks misogyny and sexual harassment, particularly in the mosh pit at shows. IDLES slow things down a bit with “A Hymn,” another ode to love and kindness. Other songs include “War,” “Grounds,” “Anxiety,” “Reigns,” and “Danke.”
It might sound from my description that the songs are very heavy, or emotionally taxing, but drummer John Beavis keeps things moving and danceable, while guitarists Mark Bowen (a practicing dentist in his spare time) and Lee Kiernan are as inventive as they are aggressive. Bassist Adam Devonshire provides terrific low-end support, and together IDLES sounds like a sonic force. Why not shake your fist and dance and rage about love and kindness? Ultra Mono makes it happen.
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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I am not generally much of a lyrics-guy. I’d guess that for each high-end-lyricist on my 100 Fave Albums list, like The Replacements or Elvis Costello, there are twice as many lyrics-aren’t-really-the-point acts, like Van Halen, R.E.M., Jimi Hendrix or Belly. If lyrics are meaningful or clever that’s cool, but it’s not a characteristic I seek out in music. But in rare cases, like with “Freedom ’90,” the lyrics of a song are what draw me in. This is 100% the case with “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.”
I’m not an expert on the band, which has been around for thirty years, but I know that they’re basically one guy: John Darnielle. For years he released acoustic albums as The Mountain Goats that he recorded directly into his boombox. Eventually he got a band and toured extensively, and they’ve remained active, releasing two albums in 202013. I also know that people are usually in one of two camps regarding The Mountain Goats. Camp One is “Who are The Mountain Goats?” Camp Two is “I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats.” I’m between camps. I like a lot of what I’ve heard, but for me a little goes a long way.
Darnielle is also a respected novelist, with a National Book Award nomination and a gig as National Book Award judge to his credit14. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” is actually a micro-short story set to music. In three brief verses it grabs you by the collar and shakes you up, then leaves you to think about the consequences in its coda.
I don’t want to spoil it, but I’ll just say this: in the song, two (perhaps) Bevis and Butthead types are punished for dreaming a dream of death metal stardom. In the end, the fears of the adults come true, not because of the death metal, but because of the punishment. Darnielle weaves the story with minimal words. The (perhaps) shocking “Hail Satan!” coda speaks volumes in two words. The brilliance of it all is that the story doesn’t turn to violence or spectacle to make the point. But it definitely makes the point that children will carry with them the scars of childhood in ways we may never expect. (By the way – Martin Seay, in Believer, wrote about this song far more eloquently than I could!)
The music is just a scratchy recording of an acoustic guitar, with Darnielle’s thin voice over top. His nasally voice is, I think, the reason I’m not more into the band. But as this live version of the song shows, he is a very compelling performer. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” has stuck with me since I first heard it 15 years ago. Just like a good novel should.
In even MORE rock-and-roll-style news, the band is being forced to take a drug test because of allegations about their performance!
This reminds me of a joke that I thought was peak hilarity as a 7 year old. “TED: This is the axe Washington used to chop down the cherry tree. FRED: Really? Why, it looks brand new! TED: That’s because over the years we’ve replaced the handle three times and the axe head twice.” Classic.