Tag Archives: 1992

19th Favorite: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield

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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.
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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 XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.)

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 back, 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 19.

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”

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29th Favorite: Automatic For The People, by R.E.M.

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Automatic For The People. R.E.M.
1992, Warner Bros. Producer: Scott Litt and R.E.M.
Purchased, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Automatic For The People is a record that sounds a lot like growing older while retaining your old-school punk identity. Soft yet intense songs take on death, reminiscing and aging parents, yet it’s not a downer by any means. The band plays relatively few traditional rock instruments, and brings in an orchestra, to boot, but the songs sound fresh and somehow R.E.M maintains its independent, DIY spirit throughout.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I have a distinct memory of being a kid, probably about 7 years old, and hearing my mom and grandma discussing a woman whose husband had died, and that he was “only 42.” Now, in my elementary school years – particularly on weekends and in the summers – my mom and sisters and I spent a lot of time together at my grandma’s house. My dad would be home doing weekend car-repair or engine-building or some other manly art whose seductive qualities of oily aromas and physical domination over metal and internal combustion never held sway over me as he might have hoped. Even his enticement of a wad of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco of my own for the day couldn’t draw me to the garage, such was my fondness for trips to grandma’s house with my mom and sisters.

While my sisters and I played fun games, my mom and grandma would sit at Gram’s kitchen table and talk all afternoon, seemingly nonstop. It felt exhausting, so I stayed out of there. Sometimes my aunt or great-aunt would join them, and then it would be loud and exhausting, as they never provided a break in their patter to allow another speaker to enter, and so everyone had to use sheer volume to join in and make a point. These conversations were too loud to pique my interest (every kid knows the good stuff is always spoken about quietly), and their themes were too disjointed to follow in any case. A good conversation requires at least one person to be listening at least some of the time, and this never seemed to be part of the dynamics of the group’s discourse. So I never understood anything they talked about.

So the talk of the dead husband at “only 42” could have been about someone from church, a mother they knew, a character on The Guiding Light, or something they heard on The Fred Williams Show, the only person keeping WAHT-1510 afloat in the Lebanon, PA, AM radio marketplace dominated by WLBR-1270. Whoever it was, I had no idea why they kept speaking of 42 years old as if it was young. It was not young – it was ancient! I knew from reading the backs of my football and baseball cards that nobody who was any good was ever older than about 34. Sure, George Blanda played in the NFL into his 40s, but he’d stopped playing QB long ago and by then was only a kicker – not a real player. Once you were too old to play, you were better off dead, I figured.

As a now-50 year old, I would be saddened to hear that someone died at 42. (A real person, I mean, not a Guiding Light character.) However, I don’t think of 42 years as “young.” Improved diet and exercise has made 40+ year old athletes more common today than in the 70s, but the best of the best remain those in their 20s: i.e. Young Athletes. As for rock/pop musicians, it’s a similar story.

But this blog isn’t so much about artists as it is about albums. So if it’s rare for athletes and musical artists to be good into their forties (and I recognize the slippery nature of the word “good,” but I’m just going to leave it there), I wonder: is it rare for albums to be good into their 40s? Let’s take a look.

First of all, how to tell how “old” an album is? I don’t think it makes sense to look at the age of the artists. People and music mature at different rates. The Beatles made Please Please Me and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and all the records in between) in the span of 5 years, so the age of the musicians (early 20s to late 20s, in The Beatles’ case) doesn’t really correlate to the maturity of the music. I want to look at albums that are the musical equivalent of a 40 year old. So I need a way to compare peoples’ ages to albums’ ages, like folks do with their dogs and cats.

The average human lifespan, according to the googles, is 79 years. However, I don’t think all those years are really rockin’ years. I’d say the rockin’ years are really only between 15 and 65, giving us a rockin’ lifespan of 50 years. (Thirty years ago, the rockin’ years topped out at about 40, but since then the older generations, having grown up with rock music, have remained rockin’ longer. Plus there’s the fact that rock music is now music for the elderly, so 65 may actually be young.)

Now – how to convert those 50 human years to album years? Well, first we have to see what the average number of albums released is for any given band. I selected 30 rock bands somewhat randomly, meaning the bands that randomly popped into my head. I recognize this is not the definition of random, but this experiment isn’t really the definition of an experiment, either, so big whoop. I also chose bands, not solo artists, because solo artists put out all kinds of weird shit on record sometimes that can artificially inflate their numbers. (In the case of Hendrix, Petty and Costello, I only included albums recorded with bands.) Of the 30 bands I selected, the average number of studio albums released was 10.

So 10 albums per 50 rockin’ years equals 5 human years per album year. A band’s 3rd album? Like a 15 year old. Their 15th? Like a 75 year old. Athletes’ peak years of 20 or 30 would then be equivalent to bands’ 4th or 6th albums. This is unlikely to be true for all artists, but just like athletes, bands’ production matures at varying rates. If you’ve ever had a kid play youth sports, you’re familiar with the situation of the 7 year old whose skills are far beyond his playmates’, yet who by 15 years old is just one of the pack and no longer superior. Similarly, some bands have an awesome debut record and never come close again.

So, then, are there any 40 year old albums that are excellent? I mean MVP-caliber: a record operating at Tom Brady-level, not George Blanda-level. Well, there’s at least one on my list: Automatic For The People, R.E.M.’s 8th full-length, studio album. And not only is it a 40-year old album in age, but it sounds very much like middle-age, as well, a record whose excellence lies not so much in energetic, innovative style, but in its richness and depth. It’s the sound of the confident yet self-aware and reflective nature of one’s 40s, without the anxiety of weight gain, hair loss, crazy pre-teens in the house, crazier parents on the phone, looming college bills, declining basketball skills, and everything else negative on the other side of the hill.

I was into R.E.M. from the moment I saw them on Late Night with David Letterman in late 1983.

They were fascinating, with a bouncy, bass-driven, jangly guitar sound and a singer who was unintelligible but compelling. When the band talked to Dave, after they played the hit “Radio Free Europe,” the singer shyly sat on the riser, then they played a song “too new to be named,” the wonderful “So. Central Rain.” I loved them. However, I was going through a musical identity crisis at the time, trying to get into the hard rock and heavy metal sound that was entrancing rural, white, male Northern U.S. teenagers at the time. I didn’t love it, but I wanted to fit in and didn’t want to seem weird, so I kept my secret love for R.E.M. hidden while claiming a fondness for more “acceptable” hard rock artists. But I always bought their cassettes.

Automatic For The People was released in the fall of 1992, a year after Nirvana’s Nevermind brought college rock to the mainstream. It seemed like everything in rock music was now big and loud, with distorted guitars, howling vocals, pumped up bass and dance-beat drums. R.E.M. had, frankly, lost me a little bit with their 1991 mega-smash album Out of Time, the first album of theirs that didn’t play on a constant loop on my cassette player. Still, I went out and bought Automatic For The People.

And I was disappointed. Where were the jangly guitars? That strong, lead bass? The odd, moaning vocals? This album was all slow songs, mandolins, piano and orchestra. I put it aside. (At least it didn’t have any songs with a guest rapper, something from Out of Time that really confounded me, but that now seems quaintly nifty.) It wasn’t until I revisited it a few years later that it became one of my favorites.

Right off the bat, the album sounds different than anything else happening at the time, and different from what R.E.M. had previously delivered. “Drive” is a slow acoustic song referencing a 70s glam-rock hit that builds to crunching guitar backed by strings, yet somehow manages to put me in a mind of childhood.

It sounds rather menacing, and sets the trend for the album of simple songs that build intensity gradually by adding instrumentation and sounds. You might not notice, but when Pete Buck’s electric guitar pierces the gentleness at 2:00, and violins begin furiously sawing, it’s suddenly a far more intense song than that opening acoustic guitar signaled. As for lyrics, I learned as an R.E.M. fan from the beginning never to worry too much about meaning. Stipe’s lyrics are all about feeling, and this one feels like an older guy wistfully reminding kids to use their youth wisely. Plus, for years I thought he referenced infrequent Bugs Bunny nemesis Blacque Jacque Shellacque, which I loved. (He didn’t.)

It was an unusual song in general, and very unusual as a single. The entire album is unusual, clearly accomplished by a band doing exactly what they want, and it’s this spirit of self-determination that, to me, gives the album a truly punk spirit – even though few punk songs are waltzes that prominently feature a triangle, like the next song, “Breathe.”

Singer Michael Stipe has said the lyrics are about his dying grandmother, and her strength at the end of her life. But the instrumentation and the build of the song make it not sad and mournful but uplifting. Bassist Mike Mills’s backing vocals (“Something to fly!”) at 1:56 mix with drummer Bill Berry’s (“I have seen things/You will never see”) and give the song a touch that elevate it. Buck’s distorted (backwards?) guitar at 2:20 provide dark color, and as the song moves toward its conclusion it truly sounds like the most uplifting song imaginable about a person dying.

These themes and songs were quite unlike anything else in 1992, and I can see why it took me a few years to catch on. It’s a mature record, a 40-year old record, and I needed to be closer to 40 to get it. Closer to a time when one’s parents may be struggling with their health, when a song like the lovely reflection on loss “Sweetness Follows” has more resonance than it might to a typical 25 year old.

For a mellow album, Automatic For The People has quite a lot of feedback and distortion from guitarist Buck. There’s a feedback “solo” from 1:56 to 2:25 that is haunting and beautiful. Stipe’s voice is strong and charismatic, and while it was always Buck’s guitar and Mills’s bass that kept me coming back to R.E.M. over the years, this album is really a showcase for Stipe’s singing. The harmony vocals by Mills are also terrific.

But the album’s not all slow songs about death and loss. From the time Stipe branched out from his early word-salad lyrics, the band has had political songs (“The Flowers of Guatemala,” “Exhuming McCarthy,” “World Leader Pretend“, etc.) and on the rousing “Ignoreland,” they issue a call to action for the 1992 national elections.

This upbeat rock song was one of the songs I liked when the album was first released. It has the characteristic Berry tom-happy drumming, and Mills all-around-the-neck bass line. The rhythm section is supplemented by producer Scott Litt on funky clavinet (heard about 1:40) and harmonica. Buck plays a simple riff, without his usual jangle, that complements Stipe’s (admitted) spleen-venting. It’s got that upbeat, driving R.E.M. style that I’ve always loved. Similarly, the rather crazy and somewhat mindless but absolutely fun “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” has their early upbeat style as well.

It’s one of Michael Stipe’s, and the entire band’s, least favorite R.E.M. songs, but I like it. I like the seeming nonsense lyrics (which may be about living in a cheap motel), Mike Mills’s organ, and the harmony vocals throughout. Mills and Berry are two of my favorite harmony singers in rock. Producer Litt uses their vocals as an instrument on the subtle ode to physical affectionStar Me Kitten,” extending the pairs oh’s and ah’s into unending notes – an homage to an old 10cc song. The band does great stuff without vocals, too, on “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.”

The upbeat songs are the exceptions on Automatic For The People, however. Instead of loud songs with thumping beats, the band here finds power in a smoldering energy that builds to a satisfying conclusion. “Man On The Moon,” one of the biggest hits on the record, is a lilting country-western tune that bursts into a full-throated, sing-along chorus. It’s an ode to the surreal 70s comedian Andy Kaufman. In another hit, “Everybody Hurts,” Stipe’s lyrics hearten the discouraged while the simple song swells into an orchestral storm. (All the strings on the album were written and arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, by the way.)

The record is all about subtlety. It celebrates the gray and undistinguished facets in a world where so many wish to see black and white. This may be why it appealed more to the aging me than it did to the younger me. The perspective gained from several more trips around the sun can enhance the world around you. It can put you in a place where a song like “Nightswimming” can move you nearly to tears.

The simple, circular piano of Mike Mills carries Stipe’s lyrics that somehow conjure both the excitement of childhood and the melancholy of reflecting on those happy memories. Each verse builds gently, adding strings until an an oboe solo and full orchestra enter. It’s the kind of song that I would’ve hated as a kid watching R.E.M. on David Letterman in 1983. But as a middle aged man, it trips a certain nostalgia trigger – not nostalgia as in “this is the music of my youth,” but as described in Don Draper’s Carousel pitch on Mad Men: “a place we ache to go again.” It’s a powerful song (and Mike Mills’s favorite R.E.M. song, according to his Dan Rather interview.)

It’s true the album has all this slow, orchestral, emotional music. But yet, to my ears, it retains that punk/alternative spirit of “we’re doing this our way.” The songs don’t sound like a band just decided to write the same old shit but add some strings. The ode to 50s screen star, and tragic man of his era, Montgomery Clift, “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” uses mandolin, accordion and a thunking rhythm to support a catchy melody. Like the rest of the record, it doesn’t sound like anything else in pop/rock from 1992 – it just sounds like R.E.M. It’s one of my favorite songs on the record, and one of two songs about Montgomery Clift that I love (the other being “The Right Profile,” by The Clash.)

Ah, middle age. It’s an astonishing place to find oneself, with more past stretching out behind you than future that lies ahead. You look over your shoulder and it can seem like that’s where all the best stuff lies. But Automatic For The People is a middle-aged record (40 years old in human years, remember?) that shows it’s possible to maintain excellence as you age and grow. In the final song on the record, “Find The River,” lyricist Stipe seems to make the point that all there is to life, really, is experience and memories. Maybe the question of whether 40 year olds can be excellent is moot; perhaps experience and memories are where “excellence” lies as our personal river approaches the ocean that awaits us all. (Or maybe that’s just old-man-talk!)

Track Listing:
“Drive”
“Try Not to Breathe”
“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”
“Everybody Hurts”
“New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”
“Sweetness Follows”
“Monty Got A Raw Deal”
“Ignoreland”
“Star Me Kitten”
“Man On The Moon”
“Nightswimming”
“Find The River”

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63rd Favorite: Turns Into Stone, by The Stone Roses

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Turns Into Stone. The Stone Roses.
1992, Silvertone. Producers: John Leckie; Peter Hook.
Purchased 1992.

turns into cover

nutshell63IN A NUTSHELL: From sixties-sounding psychedelic pop to hypnotic dance grooves, Manchester’s The Stone Roses pump out gem after gem in this collection of singles and B-sides from the band’s early years. Guitarist John Squire is masterful, drummer Reni conjures sick beats and sweet harmonies, and the band is in top form throughout – except for a couple duds.
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“We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages.”
– Jack, Lord of the Flies

“Can’t crow before I’m outta the woods, but there’s exceptions to the rule.”
– “Diamond” David Lee Roth, “Little Guitars”
dlroth
On the whole, in my life, I’ve been a pretty fastidious rule-follower. My parents were rule-followers, and they taught their children to be rule-followers. This obeyhelped my sisters and me grow into conscientious and respectful adults, however, only after several years as boring teenagers. We’ve come to understand, I believe, that rules often have gray areas, subtleties and complexities that make following all of them all the time rather difficult. However, this hasn’t prevented our default rule-worship outlook to seep into conversations between us as adults from time to time, such as the following exchange from a few years back:

ME: This show I’m in is actually making a little money now! I’ve gotten a little bit of pay, a few bucks a night – not enough that I’d declare it on my taxes, but still something.
SISTER (who had just become a CPA): I need to stop you right there. Don’t tell me anything else about this. As a CPA, if I hear of any wrong-doing or attempts to evade taxes, I am obliged to report that information to the IRS.

I was the type of kid who found it frustrating and upsetting that kids around me either couldn’t or didn’t care to follow the rules.

unruly“Please take one handout, and pass it to your left,” a teacher might say, and I’d dutifully do so. Meanwhile, it seemed like everyone around me was asking, “What’s this for? How many do I take? I don’t want this big stack of papers!!” They’d talk while directions were given, goof off while they were supposed to do something, then interrupt the whole class because they hadn’t paid attention. I couldn’t wait to become an adult, when (I assumed) everyone would follow directions like they’re supposed to.

Then, at the first meeting I attended as a young professional, the entire handout scene above was repeated, but only with grown-ups this time.

My mom didn’t have a lot of rules, or methods for enforcing rules, but she had a lot of expectations. What I mean is, we didn’t have chore charts, or swear jars, or rewards for good grades. My sisters and I were simply expected to help out when asked, to not swear and to get good grades.

My mom kept my sisters and I under control by dressing us in hideous costumes as punishment. (Actually, this was fashionable 1976 Easter finery.)

Now that I’m a dad, I have no idea how she pulled this off! My kids have rebelled against every family directive, battled every parental edict, and presented complex foundational and procedural arguments challenging teenboth the internal family logic and the standing in the greater society of each and every rule my wife and I have crafted. It has been exhausting.

When I reflect on these parental challenges, I wonder if we made a mistake in not spanking our kids. (Continuously.) My sisters and I weren’t spanked often, but it happened enough times in our young childhood that it did what spanking proponents advise it does: it made us stay in line so that it didn’t happen again. It was the classic deterrent. In my family, it wasn’t called “spanking,” which sounded fancy to my ears, the kind of thing kids with butlers would get. It was called “paddling,” spooneven though it was always delivered with an open hand, never an implement. (My mom liked to threaten us with a wooden mixing spoon that was extra terrifying because it had been stained with red food coloring, earning it the nickname “The Bloody Wooden Spoon,” a nickname my mom detests to this day because threaten as she did, she never really walloped us with it – that I can remember.)

The discipline led to a pretty strong rule-abiding streak through high school. It’s what kept me from joining most other high schoolers at parties where alcohol flowed. Well, that and the fact that I had no friends. But mainly, it was the rules thing. A fondness for rules is also a big reason I consider myself a punk rock poser, despite my experiences with a rock band.

bonnieclydeMy rule-questioning really only began in earnest when I made the decision to move to San Francisco, which seemed pretty outside-the-rules to me when I did it. It was in San Francisco that I met a woman who at first seemed to be breaking every rule in her path – or at least significantly questioning them. She wasn’t dishonest, and she wasn’t an anarchist, but if there were rules that made no sense she had no qualms about ignoring them. Sure I’d driven over the speed limit and jay-walked a few times, but this woman was the first person who ever made me think about where rules come from, and who it is that is making them and what they mean to me. Her rule-questioning impressed me so much that I ended up marrying her!

Eventually we found ourselves raising two kids, a scenario that elicited the question: how do we go about instilling a healthy understanding of rules to them? finsterWell, I jokingly said above that we should’ve spanked our kids, but I don’t really believe that. We didn’t spank, and my reasoning was always, “I’d never hit anybody else, why would I hit these little beings that I love? (Even when they are huge pains in the ass. Which they can be, let’s not kid ourselves.)” And I think the evidence has backed us up on that decision.

We’ve bought into the late 20th/early 21st century parenting strategy of “consequences.” Of course, this strategy is much easier to implement when you have a two year old who you can outwit, and whose temper tantrum will last 15 minutes until she gets bored and starts drawing or playing with her dolls. It’s orders of magnitude more notobeychallenging when you have a 17 year old with car keys who typically goes to bed two hours later than you do.

We’ve tried to have rules that are consistent with who we are as people. For example, my wife and I have a tendency to swear – perhaps a lot, who am I to say?? But anyway, I don’t believe that words are “good” or “bad,” but rather “appropriate” or “inappropriate.” We’ve instilled in our kids that they can use any words they want, but they’d better be sure what’s acceptable when they use those words. I’ve always said, “I don’t care if you swear, but your teachers do. I’m not going to tell the teacher ‘My kid’s allowed to swear.’ I’m going to take the teacher’s side.”

So, anyway, my kids haven’t (yet) gotten into serious trouble. They’ve been able to follow rulebookenough of the rules around them that we get good reports about their behavior from the schools, their friends’ parents, coaches, etc. They have a lot of time ahead of them, so they might fuck up someday, but so far it’s been good. I think they have a healthier attitude about, and less stress related to, rules than I did as a teen ager.

I bring all this up because there was a time in my life when – in each and every situation involving them – I would have thought, “rules are rules, and darn it – I just have to follow them!” And at that point in my life, Turns Into Stone would not be found on this list of favorite 100 albums. You see, the rules I established years (!) ago plainly state “compilation albums are ineligible.”

Now, it is true that I’ve already had a compilation album on the list, Pizzicato Five’s Made in USA. HOWEVER – alexI didn’t know that it was a compilation album until I started writing about the record! At that point, my rules committee got together, and after several days of careful consideration they reached the conclusion that because of my lack of knowledge at the time of compiling the list, an exemption would be granted allowing the inclusion of the record. This is not unlike the time I was on the game show Jeopardy!, and in answering a question about a Gene Kelly movie, I said “American in Paris,” and Alex Trebek, douchebag that he is, went to the judges for clarification that indeed, this was an acceptable response for a movie titled An (emphasis mine) American in Paris.

In the case of Turns Into Stone, I am fully aware that it is a compilation album, and I DON’T CARE! TAKE THAT, Alex Trebek and your dumb judges!!!

See? I don’t care about the rules! But before you think I’m just an out-of-control Anarcho-Syndacalist with no regard for a decent societal structure, I’d like to offer a bit of reasoning. The Stone Roses, you see, signed two EXTREMELY BAD contracts as a young band in the late 80s. bandofyearOne was with their svengali-manager, Gareth Evans, a bombastic blowhard who’d fit perfectly as that idiotic, bigoted man-baby Donald Drumpf’s running mate. Evans, in turn, signed a contract with Silvertone Records that was so bad that a UK court eventually voided it. During the time that this court case was running its course, the band was precluded from recording any new material. The band’s first record had been a huge success in the UK (and a big hit on US college radio), so Silvertone Records wanted to capitalize on the success. They compiled several of the band’s singles – songs that never appeared on any other album – and released it as Turns Into Stone.

The fact that none of these songs appeared on any other album is what I roses_1like to call a “mitigating factor,” and so I have no qualms about including it. My rules committee, however, was furious about it, and even held an emergency meeting to consider its options. I testified at the meeting and stated plainly that even if they ruled against me, they’d still be left with the problem of STOPPING ME from including it! They did rule against me, and when I announced my decision to include the record despite their ruling, several members of the committee resigned in disgust. It was a tumultuous couple of weeks, but when the band phoned me with their support, I knew I had made the correct decision.

I bought this CD when I was living alone in a really cool part of Pennsylvania called Mt. Gretna. It’s an artsy gretnacommunity in the woods, full of summer cottages, some of which have been winterized, and a big lake for swimming and a big ice cream shop for gorging. I lived there during the summer of ’92, in a one-bedroom cottage, and it was great. I’d go play gigs with my band, go work at the aspirin factory, and come home and listen to records until I went to bed. I listened to Turns Into Stone so much that summer that when I listen to it today, I still smell the pine trees and honeysuckle, and feel the cool night air seeping through the day’s waning, humid sunlight. I can almost see the lightning bugs starting to flicker.

A song that elicits similar warm, carefree feelings is “Mersey Paradise.”

It opens with a nifty guitar figure from John Squire, the drums and bass crash in, and then Ian Brown’s distinctive, Mancunian voice enters. This song has a 60s British Invasion sound, but updated with prominent drums. “Mersey Paradise” exemplifies everything I love about this band, and this album particularly. Squire’s guitar is full (although quite trebley in this song) and fills all the spaces, and his riffs and lines are interesting and sound cool. Brown’s lyrics describe a rather renibrowndepressed young man along the banks of the Mersey River considering suicide in the river (his Mersey Paradise). Dark lyrics for such a sunny song! Drummer Reni, who helped popularize that “Madchester” beat that was so ubiquitous in music from the early 90s, is one of the most creative drummers of the era. And he also is responsible for the band’s “secret weapon”: the killer harmonies evident throughout the band’s body of work. I love Squire’s guitar solo, at 1:51, and how the band comes out of it with harmonies blazing, culminating with Brown’s breathy “Oh yeah …” at 2:20. It ends cleanly and perfectly, as a perfect pop song should.

Another 60s-style guitar pop song is the beautiful “Going Down.”

Singer/lyricist Brown this time spins a lovely description of that joyful lightness one experiences during the early phase of a romance, when everything seems perfect. His love, Penny, who lives just thirty minutes away at No. 9, listens to Jimi Hendrix on her record player, manitastes like sunscreen, and calls to mind great art. He sums up the feeling of new love in the final stanza: “To look down on the clouds/You don’t need to fly/I’ve never flown in a plane/I’ll live until I die.” Reni provides amazing harmonies throughout, sometimes in counter-melody. Squire’s guitar is cool, yet restrained, but the hero is bassist Gary “Mani” Mounfield, particularly at 1:43. It’s not intricate or challenging – it just sounds cool. And that’s what I like about all Stone Roses songs: they sound cool!

Guitarist Squire is not well-known in the US, but in the UK he is regarded as one of the greats. He plays a funky style, with great tone and creative licks. “Going Down,” above, mentions Jimi Hendrix, and in the song “Standing Here,” Squire shows his love for the man in his opening riff.

His guitar throughout the song is complex and requires repeated listens squireto catch all the neat little bits he throws into the mix. Drummer Reni provides a shuffling beat that keeps the song bouncing along while Brown sings of unrequited love. I particularly like how the band stops and starts around the lyrics “I don’t think you think like I do,” for example around the 1:28 mark. It’s a subtle thing, one of the many small aspects of the song that makes it so enjoyable to me. The song turns into a different song around the 3:09 mark, with an extended coda with nice bass work and the repeated refrain “I should be safe forever in your arms.”

These 60s style pop songs, featuring clever guitar and groovy bass and drums, make up one side to the band’s recorded material. brownAnother example of this style is the lush “Where Angels Play.” It’s one of Brown’s best vocal performances on the record, featuring a wide-ranging melody and a catchy “there’s something happening” bridge. Brown is notorious for being a disappointing singer in concert, but as a solo artist he’s had several top ten songs in the UK. He’s built a career on stage presence and confidence, and on the Stone Roses’ studio work, he sounds terrific.

Another style of song that The Stone Roses perfected is the catchy-guitar-rock-song-that-also-sounds-sort-of-danceable-but-sort-of-not-really-but-is-regardless-really-cool. Two examples are featured on Turns Into Stone, including “The Hardest Thing In The World.”

This song again has the ripping John Squire guitar, the bouncy Mani bass and classic Reni backing vocals. It’s a song I belt out whenever I listen to it, singing about life on the road, and I play air guitar and air bass and air drums and sing harmonies, as well.

Another in the same vein, and my favorite song on the album, is “What The World Is Waiting For.”

It’s a guitar and bass workout. Reni provides the funky shuffle, and Brown sings about the folly of financial pursuits. It’s getting repetitive, I suppose, but I love listening for all of Squire’s tricks he pulls. There’s so much happening on his guitar, supported by a brilliant rhythm section, that I always find something new each time I listen.

roses_2

The Stone Roses also were known for lengthy, groove-oriented jams, with repetitive drums and bass and plenty of space for Squire to create his unique soundscapes; these songs were perfect for the ecstasy-fueled raves common in “Madchester” and elsewhere at the turn of the 80s/90s decade. Turns Into Stone contains a number of these, and the most familiar is “Fools Gold.”

This is a hypnotic song that I find can transport me, and make me move. The melody is catchy, with lyrics again featuring an anti-materialism theme. roses_concertThe first 5:40 contains the melody, with vocals and cool guitar, and then the final four-plus minutes are a canvas for John Squire and his wah-wah pedal to go to work. Throughout, Reni and Mani work their magic. Two other songs in the hypnotic-groove category are the rangey, guitar-workout “One Love” and the smoldering “Something’s Burning.”

The other songs on the record include a Peter Hook remix of “Elephant Stone,” from their debut album, that I think sounds ridiculously lame; and a backward version of “Where Angels Play” (another type of song The Stone Roses recorded, thankfully in far fewer numbers than the other genres) titled “Simone.”
roses_3
So there you have it. My rule-breaking selection. I’m awaiting lawsuits and a barrage of negative press from this selection, but I will hold firm. Apparently those paddlings I had as a child didn’t keep me in line like my parents hoped they would! But this is how I roll. In the words of Ian Brown, from “What the World is Waiting For”:

Here comes the wise man
And there goes the fool
You see that burnt out world that he is living in
I don’t need to look for the rules

TRACK LISTING
“Elephant Stone” (12″ version)
“The Hardest Thing In The World”
“Going Down”
“Mersey Paradise”
“Standing Here”
“Where Angels Play”
“Simone”
“Fools Gold” (12″ version)
“What the World Is Waiting For”
“One Love” (12″ version)
“Something’s Burning” (12″ version)

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77th Favorite: Dirty, by Sonic Youth

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Dirty. Sonic Youth.
1992, DGC. Producer: Butch Vig and Sonic Youth
Purchased: 1992.

album cover

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL – Crazy, noisy, punky rock that sounds orchestral, powerful and catchy – even if not everyone in the band can actually sing or play their instruments properly. The sound is the thing, and this record has sounds galore.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It had a little more diversity, and if some of the really lousy songs had been left off.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
tromboneWhen I was a freshman in high school I played trombone in the marching band. I’ve written about this before, but to recap: the trombone players rode on the same bus as the drummers, who were nearly to a person obsessed with Neil Peart, the drummer from Rush. This meant I heard a lot of Rush, and the music took hold and I became a fan.

peart

My oldest sister had, by this time, moved out of the house, and I noticed that she’d left behind an old milk carton crate, milk crate1a forgotten must-have from the album era, highly prized and often-stolen from convenience stores and dairies because they were seemingly designed by record companies to be the perfect size to store a few dozen albums. In fact, some states outlawed these crates’ use for containing anything other than milk, such was the burden that crazed album enthusiasts placed on the dairy industry in their attempts to hold all that rock!crate warning

But anyway, I found my sister’s old crate of albums, and somewhere in that red, Turkey Hill-labeled, high-density polyethylene treasure chest I noticed a particular album by a particular Canadian band

exitIt was a live album, Exit … Stage Left, and it was a veritable Greatest Hits package, with live versions of the biggest and best songs from the band’s late 70s/early 80s heyday.

record playerI played it regularly on my family’s old record player in our musty, unfinished basement, but I soon found this situation very limiting. I needed to listen to the music in places besides my dank basement. I wanted to play it on my mini-“boom box,” so I could take it with me. I’m sure ifmini boombox I had asked the good folks at Mercury Records, the record label selling Exit … Stage Left, what I could do about this problem of mine, they’d have happily told me, “Don’t worry! We sell cassette tapes of all your favorite Mercury artists! Just head on down to your favorite record store and pick one up for $7.99! That’s a buck less than vinyl!”

exit cassetteBut that seemed ridiculous, and a waste of money, since I had the music right next to me in my sister’s milk crate! I needed a way to get that music off the vinyl myself.

For you youngsters, this all took place in the early 80s, well before the dawn of digital music. It’s common nowadays to think that Napster and Limewire and other such services were the beginnings of music theft. But these sites merely made it easy. In the analog days of the 70s and 80s, if you wanted to steal music you turned to cassettes.

maxellWe didn’t really think of it as “stealing,” though, did we? It felt more like borrowing

Analog record-to-cassette “borrowing” is to digital music “file sharing” what an intricately planned heist is to online credit card theft. Both are crimes, but one takes planning, resourcefulness and creativity, while the other simply requires a modem. A criminal who pulls off a bank heist, while surely a crook, can be viewed with some healthy admiration. Okay, sure, I wouldn’t want my kids to grow up to be one, but I can review everything that went into scoring a heist and think, “wow, that person really worked their butt off to get that dough!”

However, an online thief is simply a lazy turd.

And as much as I’ve been guilty of both music-related crimes (allegedly), I think it holds true that digital music theft (while now thoroughly ingrained in modern culture) is for lazy turds.

In the case of the planning and execution of the crime of stealing music analog-style, the first thing you needed was a cassette recorder. In the early 70s, cassette tape recorders became a bit of a fad.

tape recorderThey were handheld, with a cool microphone that you could thrust in front of a friend or parent to play investigative reporter, a Presidential Current Events-inspired pastime for kids in the Watergate era. However, as The Brady Bunch superbly demonstrated, a misused tape recorder had the power to hurt others, as well.

pete bradyAnd there was no greater misuse of a handheld cassette recorder than that of trying to record music. I recall dangling that microphone in front of a radio playing a favorite song, or placing it on the floor in front of the stereo console, then listening back to the tape and thinking, “This sucks.” The product was fuzzy-sounding, monaural, and immune to modification by playback controls such as treble and bass. Plus if you happened to cough or speak during the recording process, your tape was ruined.

These recordings sucked so bad that it soon became clear to electronics manufacturers that the public demanded – copyright law be damned – that their pirated music sound as good as possible. And the average listener didn’t have the dough to spend, or time to waste, on hooking up high-falutin’ reel-to-reel contraptions to the family stereo. So the stereo manufacturers started building cassette recorders right into the console itself, where it could perform its recording magic within its electronic guts.

cassette console

This meant a music thief could simply drop a blank cassette tape into the console, place a record on the platen, and press record – a simplification that inched the practitioner closer to the Lazy Turd status of thieves.

Except for one thing: The Blank Cassette Tape itself!

You couldn’t just drop any old tape into the console. The blank cassette had to be chosen carefully. The first consideration was the length of the tape, measured by time.

tapesThe cassette tape manufacturers provided options in 30 minute increments, from 30 up to 120. The tapes were called “C-30,” or “C-60,” etc, depending on their length, but for most album recording projects, 90 minutes was perfect. This provided the thief with two 45-minute sides to load up with music.

timerFor a double album, like Exit … Stage Left, one 90-minute cassette would hold the entire 77-minute record, but it wasn’t perfect. There would be about 4 minutes of blank space at the end of each side of the cassette, meaning that on playback I’d have to fast-forward at the end of album sides 2 and 4 before flipping the cassette to hear the next side. This fast-forwarding was stressful on the physical tape, and helped to degrade the sound on the cassette quite quickly.

I wrote earlier that this process never really felt like “stealing,” but everyone knew it was. The cool 80s New Wave band Bow Wow Wow (of “I Want Candy” fame) actually recorded a paean to album theft by cassette called “C30 C60 C90 Go!.” It was the world’s first cassette single, and included a blank Side Two so folks could record their own “B” track. The big record companies weren’t amused.

thiefAnother consideration in theft planning was blank cassette quality. There are certain products one can buy whose quality is generally independent of the manufacturer. Store-brand plastic utensils, or yellow mustard, or spiral-bound notebooks will most likely be indistinguishable in performance from their more expensive, name-brand counterparts. Cassettes, however, did NOT fall into this category. Buy a set of 5 Ames-brand 90-minute cassettes for the price of one Maxell tape, and you’ll find yourself with about 30 total minutes of decent-sounding music. The rest will hiss and fade and sound not much better than that product from the dangling microphone.

But back to my quest to get live Rush onto my boom box. I bought some 90 minute blank cassettes and planned my heist for a weeknight when I didn’t have band practice or much fly tyinghomework. Our stereo was in the basement, so that my dad could listen to his Big Band albums and whistle along while he tied fishing lures or built muzzle-loader rifles down there. I went downstairs and got to work. I popped in a cassette, played the records (loudly, so I could enjoy them) and pressed the “Record” button. Seventy-seven minutes later, the deed was done.

cassette cover
I finished the job by meticulously writing song titles on the blank cover provided with the cassettes, and by gently placing cassette stickers (also provided) on both sides of my cassette. And there it was: the music from a vinyl album was ready to be played on my mini boom box. I climbed the stairs satisfied.

When I opened the basement door my dad was seated at the kitchen table, near the top of the stairs.

“I don’t know what you call that crap,” he said, “but it sure isn’t music.”

“It isn’t music,” he said. I am still confused by his words.

Knowing my dad, and how indirect he always was with his communications, I think what he meant to say was: “I’m angry because I wanted to go downstairs and tie fishing lures, angry dadbut you were blaring music down there so I felt uncomfortable, and I don’t feel like a father should have to ask a son to turn off music – I feel like my son should know not to play loud music when I want to be in the same room – so now I’ve just been sitting and stewing up here, and eating 4 apples and hunks of Muenster cheese, and the more I hear that guy screaming on that record, the more it makes me think I’m a failure for not going down and telling you to turn it off, and not getting you interested in tying flies, and not teaching you to like good music in the first place, but I don’ t know how to express all that bullshit so I’ll just claim it isn’t music instead of addressing what I really feel, which is hereditary-based depression manifested by indecision and self-doubt.”

Instead he said “It Isn’t Music.” It still doesn’t make any sense.

Because what IS music in the first place? I’ve spent too much time already blabbing about stealing music to delve very deeply into this question, but I do have a few thoughts.

Clearly, music is sound organized in such a way so as to be pleasing to hear. sitarBut “pleasing” is only pleasing because you’ve been conditioned to find it so. Consider that there are a billion people in the world who recognize this as some of the most pleasing music ever produced. And there are 2 billion people who instantly recognize this as pleasing, too. Even more astounding, there are billions of people on Earth who DO NOT recognize THIS as pleasing!!! Furthermore, consider all the billions of Homo sapiens who have ever lived on Earth, and those still living today, come to think of it, and think if “pleasing” would be the word chinese musicthey’d use to describe this! Clearly, music doesn’t have to be pleasing to a listener to be considered music.

My dad was wrong: that crap he heard WAS music, and he knew it was music. It just wasn’t pleasing to him.

I hear stuff all the time that makes me wonder, “who in their right mind would ever find this pleasing?” In particular, I’m thinking about “avant garde” type stuff, by artists who I admittedly have never allowed myself to explore too deeply. The Sun Ra Arkestra, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, or Captain Beefheart.

avant gardeI have a low tolerance for such noisy and, to my ears, nonsensical stuff. However, as with all art, I have a respect for the artists performing it. I like the people who do the weird stuff, even if I don’t appreciate their art.

. I think of them as modern day PT Barnums, daring critics to admit their stuff is bullshit and thus risk being seen as not intellectual or sophisticated enough to “get it,” and in the process shining a light on the ridiculousness that is Arts Criticism in the first place.

barnum

Of course it could just be that I’m not intellectual or sophisticated enough to “get it.” Or maybe my tastes just differ from the people that like that stuff.

A band that fell into this category of musical PT Barnum for me was New York City’s Too-Cool-For-You Sonic Youth. I first started hearing their name in college, in the late 80s. I heard they were punk, loud, noisy … As a prog-rock and Beatles snob at the time, they sounded exactly like the type of band I’d hate.

sonic youth 1
I recall in the Fall of 1989 seeing part of an episode of a great old TV show of the era, the late Sunday night NBC program Night Music, hosted by David Sanborn, in which eclectic musical acts played live. The episode featured, among others, The Indigo Girls and Sonic Youth. I don’t know why I watched, but it was most likely to see The Indigo Girls, whose song “Closer to Fine” was currently being played on rock radio. I remember seeing this performance by Sonic Youth and thoroughly hating them.

“That’s not music,” I’m sure I thought.

About six months later I’d become friends with one of the biggest music taste influencers of my life, punk rocker Eric V. His band mate at the time, Don, had performed on that episode of Night Music, banging on the keyboards with Sonic Youth. band standingEric and I shared a house and worked together and got to be very good friends. I never got him to share my enthusiasm for Van Halen or Yes or Rush, but he opened my ears to many, many acts I grew to love: The New York Dolls, Nirvana, The Plimsouls, Stiff Little Fingers

He initially failed to get me interested in Sonic Youth. I’d seen too much of them on TV the year before to be swayed. But they had a new record out, he said, called Goo, and he was sure there was some stuff in there I’d enjoy. He played me the songs “Dirty Boots,” and “Kool Thing,” and I went out and bought the CD. A couple years later Dirty hit the stores, and I bought it the first week it came out.

band drumsticks

Sonic Youth are an unusual band in that the guitarists, Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore, don’t tune their guitars. Well – they’re tuned, but rarely in a traditional fashion. And they don’t always play chords or notes, per se, with those alternate tunings. thurston 2They are just as likely to bang them against the ground or smash them together, or rub tools against their strings, or simply shake them in front of an amp and let the feedback howl and wail. Or they may wedge a few items among the strings, then play some chords that way. Frankly, I don’t know what the hell they do to get the sounds they get. What I do know is that when Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore was asked to be part of The Backbeat Band in 1993 – a band comprised of alt-rock 90s stars hired to record a soundtrack of versions of early Beatles (non-Lennon/McCartney) hits, like “Twist and Shout” and “Money” for the film Backbeat – Moore claimed he couldn’t remember the last time he played traditional chords on a traditionally-tuned guitar.

smell the horseAll that craziness can cause outrage among some music fans. The brother of frequent 100FaveAlbums character and long-time friend of mine Dr. Dave and some friends saw Sonic Youth open for Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 1991, and returned from the show with palpable fury in their voices, hatred in their eyes and a sense of accomplishment in their demeanor at having booed the band off the stage after a few songs’ worth of tool-gouging, amp smashing ridiculousness.

I’ve never seen the band live, and I don’t know what I’d think of them live, but I do know that when I hear what they produce on record, much of it sounds soaring, symphonic and powerful, with great melodies and some of the best rock drumming I’ve heard. All these characteristics are on display on Dirty.

The album opens with “100%.”

This is a great song both to open the album, and to introduce a listener to the sound that is Sonic Youth. It’s a catchy, poppy song in which the noisiness is mostly relegated to the background. (Except for the first 15 seconds of the song!) steve shelleyThose 15 seconds end with Steve Shelley’s drums bringing order to the chaos, a role he expertly fills throughout the album. The Sonic Youth noise can sound disorganized, but when the band puts breaks into a song – for example, at 0:50 and again at 1:53 – it demonstrates there is a scheme to what’s happening, and also helps reorient the listener’s brain to it. And Shelley continues to provide the order. Kim Gordon’s bass also is key in Sonic Youth’s musical plan by keeping the noise tied to a backbeat. But I wouldn’t enjoy all that noise if the melody wasn’t catchy, and what I love about this record is that most of the melodies are. Thurston Moore sings this song, about the band’s deceased roadie Joe Cole, who was killed in an armed robbery. The band also salutes Cole on the cool-sounding, stream-of-consciousness groove of “JC“.kim bass

Sonic Youth melodies can come from the vocals or from the instruments – even through all that background tumult! A good example is my favorite song on Dirty, “Sugar Kane.”

“Sugar Kane” opens with an orchestral flourish, sounding like a disturbed symphony’s fanfare, then breaks into the four-note riff that drives the song. But those weirdly-tuned guitars make that riff sound full, and the extra embellishments by guitarists Moore and Lee Ranaldo stand out against them. It’s a very musical noise. lee 2Moore again carries vocal duties, singing about … well, I don’t know. Cocaine? Love? But when he gets to the chorus, at about 1:10, the guitar plays a repeated, noodley line that has always drawn me right into the song, and then the band exits the chorus (1:25) with two emphatic chords and a flanged exit back to the verse. After two verses, another common Sonic Youth tactic is employed – the noise/freakout interlude. These freakouts often sit where other bands would insert a guitar or piano solo. This one starts at about 2:32, with that disturbed fanfare from the beginning of the song. There is a bit of guitar soloing in there, and it all collapses around some church chime-like amplifier noise (3:20), and then softly plucked guitar lines (3:30) softly bring the band back to the melody. I find all this noise and fury and changing dynamics quite compelling and stirring. It’s very classical-music-sounding to me, which probably indicates how limited my knowledge of classical music is! concert 1Within that noise, sounds emerge that are big and important, like a symphony. I may not have any idea what notes the band is playing, or how I’d ever try to reproduce it on my own guitar, but it is a sound that connects with me. And if it does all that, it must be music, right?

Perhaps the most symphonic-sounding songs on the record is “Teresa’s Sound World.”

The song builds and releases (eg 1:37 to 2:37) throughout. The lyrics are teresas ampagain rather indecipherable. Yet all that cacophony somehow connects with me. And while it sounds like random noise, there’s nothing random about it. A photo of Ranaldo’s prepared amp used for “Teresa’s Sound World” shows that there is some method to the madness.

But not all Sonic Youth songs contain inscrutable lyrics. Another side of the band – befitting their punk rock roots – is their fierce, kim thurstonleft-leaning, socially-conscious lyrics. Bassist Kim Gordon, wife (until recently) of Thurston Moore, frequently sings the political songs. My favorite Kim song on Dirty is “Shoot,” an abused woman’s perspective on domestic violence, and her dream of retribution.

kim singsThe music behind the lyrics is menacing and creepy, and explodes into violence, particularly between 3:00 and 3:40. As always, Shelley holds it all together. Gordon isn’t exactly a singer – I guess she’s more of a vocalist. But I’ve stated many times that I’m comfortable with vocalists that aren’t talented singers. Her delivery in this song enhances the effect of the lyrics. Gordon also “sings” the feminist anti-objectification/harassment song “Swimsuit Issue.”

My favorite Gordon-vocal song on the record is “On the Strip.”

It’s a straight-ahead SY song, with good harmonies, and a great guitar hook behind the “Hold Tight” lyrics of the chorus. It also features a patented SY noise-break (2:46 – 4:27) that sounds as much like a plane crash as anything on a pop album since Pink Floyd included the sound of an actual plane crash on The Wall.

“Youth Against Fascism” is a political song sung by Moore, railing against the first Bush presidency and its first Iraq war.

It features Fugazi mastermind, Ian MacKaye, steve shelleyplaying a scraping, keening, guitar line beneath the vocals. It’s a catchy song with a catchy vocal hook, “It’s the song I hate! It’s the song I hate.” In fact, even with all the noise, it may be the most “normal” sounding song on the record. Shelley lays down a great drum beat, one can hum along and shout the chorus … It’s so normal, you could imagine Fall Out Boy covering this song, which may mean it’s very bad, or very good. I’m not sure. But it’s definitely not something you’d typically hear about a Sonic Youth song.

thurstonOther tracks I must mention on this lengthy album – so long that it would just BARELY fit on a C60 cassette if I were back in my parents’ old basement stealing music – include “Chapel Hill,” the opening riff of which always makes me smile. Once again I have to call out Shelley’s drums, and the noise break around 2:20 in which he kicks up the tempo to a furious pace, then settles it all back down to a really cool ending. “Wish Fulfillment” was written and sung by guitarist Lee Ranaldo, and is one of the most emotional songs on the record. “Purr” has a great guitar riff and lots of energy, while “Drunken Butterfly” is a crazy-sounding song with lyrics pulled from old songs by the band Heart (?) and a cool video featuring puppets of the band.

Dirty is music. I’m sure of it. Just like Benny Goodman or Carole King or Mongolian throat-singing or Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Even if my dad wouldn’t have recognized it as such.

But it doesn’t matter who else recognizes it. No one else will appreciate a song or album exactly the way you do. And that’s what makes music great! It is personal – you are the only one who gets to decide what your ears and brain perceive. Others will tell you The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson are great, and Nickleback and Taylor Swift are terrible. But you get to tell them they’re full of shit. And you are correct. Even if nobody else agrees.
band 1

You alone get to decide the music that’s worth stealing. (But support the artists – minimize your thievery, okay?)

Track Listing
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Swimsuit Issue
Theresa’s Sound World
Drunken Butterfly
Shoot
Wish Fulfillment
Sugar Kane
Orange Rolls, Angel’s Spit
Youth Against Fascism
Nic Fit
On The Strip
Chapel Hill
JC
Purr
Creme Brulee

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