The song was “Sunshine Day,” by The Brady Bunch kids. All of us Gen-X fans in the crowd went nuts and sang along. We’d grown up with the early 70s TV show, and we recognized that a) it was campy bullshit; but b) it was also a really great song! The track in that post-mayhem context tickled our strong love of Letterman-esque irony. But it also catered to our real fondness for cheesy, 70s AM radio pop. That feeling of “the-70s-were-so-bad-but-I-love-them!,” is one I’ve maintained. I love the “Have a Nice Day!” bubblegum pop from my 70s youth, and the one-hit-wonders of the era particularly stand out.
Just like that Nirvana concert demonstrated, early 90s music fans loved the 70s! And I think early 90s alt-rock coincidentally reflected the 70s in the proliferation of one-hit wonders. Between 1993 and 1998, I had a 40-minute commute to work in the Bay Area. On the alt-rock radio station[ref]Kids, back in the day there were “radio stations” and they played music, and you could listen for free! The downside was that there were a shit-ton of ads, and you had to suffer through some goofy-ass DJs.[/ref] Live 105, a single song[ref]Okay, okay, I’m sure a few acts had two songs that got airplay. But come on.[/ref] from each of the following acts got significant airplay:
But my favorite one-hit wonder from the era[ref]There’s a good chance another song or two from that list will appear in this column.[/ref] is “Possum Kingdom,” from Toadies. The Texas band named the song after a lake and recreation area near their home, and they crafted a story about a vampire stalking its shores and boathouses. The first time I heard the song, I joined in the middle, and heard singer Vaden Todd Lewis asking, over and over, “Do you wanna die?” I thought, “This song sucks.” But after hearing it again, I realized it was just a horror story. The narrator is a vampire, not a proponent of suicide. I put aside my derision and just enjoyed the music.
Because the music fucking rocks. First of all, the opening riff establishes at once that the song is in an alternating 7/8 & 8/8 meter! As a fan of Rush and Yes and prog-rock, to hear a punkish band go full-on 15/8 (if you will) gets me excited[ref]Which I know is a weird reaction.[/ref]. The intro vocals include spooky delay and reverb, and it’s hard to tell where things are going. Until 0:25, when Lisa Umbarger’s bass enters, and Darrell Herbert’s lead guitar begins its curling, feedback-driven assault.
“Possum Kingdom” is great because of how it consistently builds and releases. In the second verse there’s a sort of plodding feel that quickly turns foreboding as Lewis sings “I’ll show you my dark secret,” and Herbert’s guitar re-enters. At 1:11, Lewis jumps an octave, and the energy is kicked up further, with drummer Mark Reznicek leading the charge. The chorus (1:27) has a clever, satisfying chord progression that resolves on Lewis’s “so help me Jesus.”
The power of changing dynamics (the “quiet, loud, quiet”) was a key feature of alt-rock and grunge. It was popularized by Nirvana, who admitted to swiping it from Pixies. Toadies use it to perfection on “Possum Kingdom.” Maybe it’s the continued, hiccuping 15/8 beat, or the creepy lyrics, or the simple, Jaws-music bass, but there’s a paranoia to the quiet verses that makes the loud choruses, when they arrive, feel like both danger and relief.
At about 2:30, the bridge (“give it up to me”) begins, which is either in 20/8, or a combination of 6/8s and 4/4. I don’t know enough music theory to tell. But I do know it adds to the ominous feeling of the song. At 3:16 there’s feedback and the band begins the long climb – you can almost feel the mosh pit preparing to explode – to the song’s final, uber-satisfying release at 4:23.
“Possum Kingdom” winds down, ending with a sort of sigh from the guitar. I always feel like I’ve been through an ordeal at the end. I myself don’t like to work out, but maybe this is the feeling exercisers enjoy afterwards? Toadies may have only ever had one hit, but of all the songs from those artists listed above, it’s my favorite.
Bee Thousand. Guided By Voices.
1994, Scat Records. Producer: Robert Pollard.
IN A NUTSHELL: Songwriting genius Robert Pollard leads his original crew of GBV bandmates through 20 songs of melodic brilliance. It’s the Thriller of the early 90s lo-fi movement, a collection of songs you just can’t get out of your head. There are sounds of doors slamming, guitars falling out of the mix and it all sounds like it was recorded on an 80s answering machine cassette. But they’re such great songs, I can’t stop listening.
And it really was nerd heaven. Among the young, single artistic crowd I gravitated toward, most everyone I met was really into music and books and movies and technology. We were all misfits, and it didn’t feel like there was a “cool” crowd, the usual group of meatheads and plastic smilers that had appeared throughout my life, taking joy in humiliating and excluding me and others like me. And misfits like me, especially those not far removed from high school, have a keen sense of who the “cool” crowd is. They’re the group around whom we feel the disorienting duality of a) not wanting to be part of, and b) desperately wanting to be part of. But in San Francisco, I could just talk about books and music and movies and technology and not worry about that bullshit.
That’s how it seemed, at first. But after a few weeks in town I realized that, even in my nerdy corner of SF, there was, of course, a “cool crowd,” a collection of those exclusive, snobby folks desperate to dominate others to mask their own insecurities. But unlike those classic 80s teen movies, they weren’t jocks or cheerleaders, they weren’t the children of the wealthy elite. This group was hidden in plain sight out in Freak City. They dressed like everyone else, went to the same places as everyone else, had the same habits as everyone else … and that was what made them so devious.
In bars and at concerts … especially at record stores, and most especially in snooty record stores[ref]Believe it or not, kids, there used to be entire stores that just sold records![/ref] … I noticed there was a group in San Francisco who seemed to be the typical outsider like me and everyone else who had moved there[ref]NO ONE you ever met in SF had actually grown up there.[/ref], but who went to great lengths to assert that they WERE NOT, in fact, typical anything. These people believed, and were out to prove, that they were the coolest of the uncool. They reveled in the fact that their style was unstylish and their tastes were distasteful. Like Bizarro is to Superman, these people were the direct opposite of the usual cool crowd, which made them the cool crowd’s scarier equal.
They were the Hipsters. The Hipster Bullies. And no matter how dorky and awkward you felt, you’d feel even more so when you realized these folks were even dorkier and more awkward than you … and that they sneered at you for not being dorky and awkward enough. You’d meet them at every party.
Oh, you think you’re goofy because you still collect baseball cards as a 25 year old? Meet Tiberius (so he claims) in the goatee, Buddy Holly glasses and (authentic) Atari t-shirt. He collects King Kong Kards from the 70s and calls your hobby “jejune” … just like that jock thought (apparently), the jock in the lunch line in 10th grade who yanked the baseball cards from your back pocket, right in front of J., your secret crush, and quizzed you on the player stats like a gameshow host for an audience of cackling lunch ladies and your relieved-not-to-be-the-target friends, making loud buzzer sounds every time you got one wrong, which made J. laugh harder than you’d ever seen[ref]She’d, of course, later date the jock.[/ref].
Are you proud to be a fan of Bugs Bunny cartoons? Meet Ladybug (yes, Ladybug) in the cat’s eye glasses, cocktail dress and faux pearl choker. She has a Master’s degree in Pop Culture Studies (!) and wrote her dissertation on Bugs Bunny cartoons and collects Warner Brothers animation cels from before WWII. She’ll explain why you should hate Bugs, who’s humor, she insists, is “too obvious” She’ll ask you, “… you can’t seriously like that shit, can you?” in front of 6 other grinning people who await her discourse on some Soviet cartoon goat from whom, she claims, “the essence” of Bugs was stolen.
There were thousands of these types out there, folks who’d been mocked and assaulted – verbally and physically – for their other-ness for as long and as hard as I had, and had responded by stockpiling their geekiness, building it up and molding it into a heavy club, making weapons of their Pez Dispenser collections, graphic novels and ironically-worn small-town-diner t-shirts. They clubbed first and asked questions later, assuming every new person they met was the lunch-line jock – even a guy like me, in sky blue Chuck Taylors and a Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt.
For a guy like me who liked music, The Music Appreciation Hipster Bullies[ref]They were brilliantly, and hilariously, brought to the screen in High Fidelity.[/ref] were the worst. There was a lot out there that I hadn’t yet heard. I was looking for new stuff, but there wasn’t much to learn from these folks. Bring up any band to any of these guys (and gals) and you were sure to get one of three responses:
1) (Dismissive snort). They suck.
2) (Dismissive snort). They USED TO BE good
3) (Dismissive snort). They’re okay, but they’re really just a rip-off of (insert obscure band from Japan/Finland/Ann Arbor).
But I gamely fought through the Hipster Bully bullshit to learn about Guided by Voices and Bee Thousand. There was a record store called “16th Note,” on 16th St. in The Mission District. It went out of business about 6 months after it arrived in 1994. But on one of my visits, a song on the sound system caught my ear, so I asked the dude behind the counter – who looked not dissimilar from myself – what it was.
“It’s the new GBV.”
“GBV?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of them.”
“You’ve never heard of Guided By Voices?” he asked in a way that – for a second – made me wonder if the words “Guided By Voices” were somehow indistinguishable from “The Rolling Stones.” He continued his belittlement with a sigh and a quiet “Wow,” then came around the counter and pulled out the CD Bee Thousand. In a bored, bemused tone that clearly indicated his patience with my ignorance was growing thin, he told me that he thought it was a good record, their fifth or sixth record, but that it wasn’t as good as their early stuff. The early stuff, he said, was pure brilliance, and, unfortunately, was NOT carried by the lame, hippy store owner. But he played a couple songs from Bee Thousand for me, said he’d forgotten it was so comparatively mediocre to the old stuff (though brilliant in its own right, he assured me) and I bought it immediately, wondering how I’d missed out on such an obviously prestigious and prolific band.
Now first of all, let me say this: the guy was obviously a good salesman who saw right away in me someone susceptible to anyone potentially scholarly[ref]A fault that led to probably more lousy music purchases than good ones.[/ref]. Fine. He played that part well and made the sale. But I bought it because it was good, not because of what he said. And I eventually learned that his talk about how good the band “used to be” was utter horseshit. I mean, maybe it was good and maybe it wasn’t – but that Hipster Bully didn’t know. True, the band had put out several previous records, but each one was cassette-only, with a couple hundred copies made. I guarantee he never heard them before! They weren’t widely released until 1995. He just knew they existed and saw an opportunity to bully me about my (lack of) music knowledge. The dick.
GBV is a band that lends itself extremely well to cult-like, possessive appreciation with an air of exclusivity. The band is singer/songwriter Robert Pollard and a cast of musicians that has been around since the mid-80s. Pollard is one of the most prolific songwriters of the past 50 years, having released over 100 albums (solo and GBV) since he began recording, and having published over 2000 songs through BMI[ref]As a comparison – and with the caveat that not all songwriters use BMI to administer song rights – Paul McCartney has 279 songs on BMI; Elton John 722.[/ref]. He’s estimated he’s written over 4,000.
Of course, “prolific” doesn’t equal “good,” but Pollard seems to have an extremely high percentage of good songs. He has a knack for melody and sound, and his lyrics are cool and strange, nonsensical yet accessible in the vein of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, or David Byrne, of The Talking Heads, or even Jon Anderson, of Yes[ref]Pollard is a big fan of 70s Prog Rock.[/ref].
The records he makes tend to sound charmingly amateurish – not in the songwriting or performance, but in the way they’re recorded. It’s a sound that was popularized in the 90s by bands like GBV and Sebadoh and Pavement, and categorized as “lo-fi[ref]For “low fidelity,” as opposed to “high fidelity,” or “Hi-fi.”[/ref].” The records were often recorded in basements and bedrooms on old equipment and on the fly.
The song that caught my ear at 16th Note is a perfect example of all that is Guided by Voices: the lo-fi sound, the irresistible melodies, the chiming guitars, the inscrutable lyrics. Behold “Tractor Rape Chain.”
Any song that – four seconds in – features a screen door, chatting voices and then – at 17 seconds – a bass that doesn’t enter the song at the same time as the rest of the band is definitely flaunting its lo-fi credentials. The feeling of the song is amazing – there’s a sense of sadness and loss to the verses, in lyrics about love coming apart. Yet the ranging vocal melody of the chorus, at 1:04, is uplifting, and dovetails beautifully with the ringing guitars and bass. The chorus/title lyrics are a mystery, and potentially off-putting. Pollard is certainly a word-salad expert, tossing in words because they fit the sound of the song, and there is differing opinion on what, if anything, they mean. Some have said they’re just words, others have proposed the strange idea that they refer to the lines that tractors make in fields of rapeseed. Either way, the melody cries out for the listener to belt them out, before they descend into the wistful feeling of “speed up, slow down, go all around in the end.”
The album opens with clarion, fanfare guitars and beautifully struggling, faux-British harmonies asking us if we’re “amplified to rock!” As the intro to “Hardcore UFOs” ends, the vocals fall out of the mix (0:53), making us wonder if GBV is still amplified. But it doesn’t matter.
Even when, at 0:58, the guitar goes out of tune, or at 1:22, when it appears the plug may have fallen out of it, the melody and confidence of the band carries the song. The lyrics are, well, words anyway. But there’s something about the song – and the balls of the band to make it the lead track – that hooked me right away. The song, and the album, have the punk spirit of “fuck you, this is the song, take it or leave it!” that I love. Plus it’s catchy as all heck!
The fact that Pollard was older than most of his 90s grunge cohort meant that he could reach for inspiration from his music fandom in the 60s and 70s without hiding behind irony. “Ester’s Day” sounds like Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd. The song “Echoes Myron” sounds like it could’ve been an AM hit in 1968.
Of course it would’ve been recorded more clearly and used orchestra strings. But the band’s harmonies on the bouncing melody sound right in any era. The “Men of wisdom …” harmonies, at around 0:45, are terrific, as are the vocals in the bridge at 1:17. The lyrics feature the phrase “Or something like that …,” which probably describes their meaning as well as I could.
And despite Pollard’s “advancing age” as compared to his contemporaries, in the 90s he and his band put on one of the best live shows you could see, with lots of songs, lots of beer, and lots of high kicks from the singer[ref]Pollard is so renowned for his high kicks that someone even held an honorary contest.[/ref]. I saw them in the summer of ’94 and it remains one of the best shows I’ve seen. And they are still doing it: I saw them again in 2014, and it was also one of the best shows I’ve seen! And selections from Bee Thousand are always featured. Such as the aggressive rocker “Gold Star for Robot Boy.”
It’s more ringing, chiming guitars – almost a buzzing sound. The recording gives the drums a boxy sound, but the singing carries it. The lyrics actually mean something this time, reflecting his experience as a fourth grade teacher, where the kids who did whatever the teacher said were rewarded. He says he felt like such a pupil when he entered the record industry.
You may have noticed that the songs tend to be short, under 2 minutes. Their brevity and the unfinished nature of most of the songs reminds me of Paul McCartney’s solo album McCartney. Songs such as “Demons Are Real,” “You’re Not an Airplane,” “Peep Hole,” “Awful Bliss,” and “Yours to Keep” barely (if at all) reach one minute in length. But they do display Pollard’s musical gifts. Other songs, like “Her Psychology Today,” could have been baked a little longer. One of my favorites of the weird and brief wonders on the album is the strange but excellent “Kicker of Elves,” which sounds sort of like a Britpop demo.
It’s a really remarkable melody. Pollard has a knack for writing these things – when the chorus kicks in, about 1:26, I get chills. Even though I have no idea what he’s singing, and even though the drums and guitars sound like sloppy kids, I love it. I’m not sure what it is about these songs that I love so much, but I think it’s all the great melodies. The guitars may be repetitive, as in “The Queen of Cans and Jars,” but I can’t keep the song out of my head. The drums may sound like tin foil, as in “Mincer Ray,” but I don’t seem to notice. The tempo might randomly change throughout the song, like “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows,” but I’ll keep listening.
Maybe I need a scientist to figure it out, as Robert Pollard claims to be in “I Am a Scientist.”
“I am a lost soul/ I shoot myself with Rock and Roll/ The hole I dig is bottomless/ But nothing else can set me free,” he sings. And maybe – in this instance – his words do actually mean something. I love this music – why try to figure it out? It’s the melody, the sound, the words … The Hipster Bullies were right about GBV – they are a special band. But the Hipster Bullies were wrong about everything else, and they still are. Music isn’t exclusive, it’s for anybody. Share it with as many folks as you can! And the music you like doesn’t suck. If it sucked, you wouldn’t like it! It doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out.
“Buzzards and Dreadful Crows”
“Tractor Rape Train”
“The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”
“Smothered In Hugs”
“Yours To Keep”
“Gold Star For Robot Boy”
“A Big Fan Of The Pigpen”
“Queen Of Cans And Jars”
“Her Psychology Today”
“Kicker Of Elves”
“Demons Are Real”
“I Am A Scientist”
“You’re Not An Airplane”
1994, A&M. Producer: Michael Beinhorn and Soundgarden.
IN A NUTSHELL: An album that is complex yet direct, mathematical yet artsy, loud and quiet and always compelling. I can’t say enough about drummer Matt Cameron, who keeps the changing beats steady and accessible. Guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd bring the crunch and bounce, but the handsome singer Chris Cornell often steals the show with his wide-ranging voice – maybe the best in rock in the past thirty years.
I’ve played music for a long time. Like many kids I banged on toy guitars and toy drums, blew through toy trumpets, and pounded on my family’s upright piano.
[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/first-band.jpg” captiontext=”The author playing guitar in his first band, ca. 1970, with sisters on tambourine and horn-ette and cousin on drums. As is typical, the band broke up due to squabbles over use of the drum chair and incompatible bedtimes.”]
But then shit got real beginning in second grade, when I started going to Mrs. Bombgardner’s house on Canal St. for weekly piano lessons. This lasted until the summer of 1976, when I began learning the trombone through my school district’s band program before entering 4th grade.
In these beginner lessons in piano and trombone – after we figured out how to make a sound on the trombone – most time was spent learning to read and understand the written music that was placed in front of us. All those numbers and letters and circles and dots and lines and Italian words … it all meant something and someone had to teach us what.
Learning to read music progresses exactly the same way as learning to read words does. Just as books for beginning readers have large letters, few words and cute pictures, beginner music has large notes, short songs and cute pictures. Easy concepts are introduced; repetition is stressed. Beginning word readers spend a lot of time on words that rhyme and opposites[ref]Having read lots of kids’ books to my kids, I’ve always been amused that children’s authors get credited as authors on books of rhymes or opposites! “I wrote this book: let me read it to you. ‘Tall. Short.’ So I had the artist draw a giraffe and a mouse. Continuing … ‘Large. Small.’ There she drew an elephant and an ant.”[/ref]; beginning music readers spend a lot of time on “Hot Cross Buns.”
As you read musical notes, you develop muscle memory. Your fingers[ref]And eventually your feet, too, when you start using pedals.[/ref] learn to move across the piano keys based on what your eyes see. On the trombone, your arm learns where to slide, and your lips and jaw learn how to buzz and adjust, respectively. With practice and repetition you learn what the numbers and symbols and Italian words mean, and you start to play increasingly complex music while spending less time thinking about the notes, or what your fingers (and feet), or arm and mouth are doing. Eventually, you can look at a new piece of music and play it pretty well the first time you try without really thinking much at all – a skill known as “sight-reading[ref]Skillfulness at sight-reading is one of the aspects of musicianship, along with tone and speediness, that begins to separate really good high school band musicians from average ones.[/ref].” This is, again, similar to learning to read words: capable readers no longer drag a finger along the text and sound out letter combinations – the decoding and comprehension are immediate.
This is about the level of musicianship I reached on the trombone when I stopped playing in high school – sight-reading well with a good-sounding tone. The muscle-memory I developed over 8 years was ingrained to a degree that to this day if I see certain bass clef notes, my arm still wants to move along; my jaw still stiffens or relaxes.
After high school I started learning to play the bass, but I didn’t start at my local fourth grade band room (which would have been really creepy), and I didn’t look at any notes. I learned from friends, like Dr. Dave, and he didn’t write anything down for me, he just showed me where my fingers should go, and I just sort of figured out what sounded good by playing along to Beatles and Tom Petty songs for several months. Eventually I became able to play along by ear with most any rock song, and to jam along on the blues with strangers at local dive bar open mikes. On the trombone, I could never play anything by ear, I always needed music. However, I could play some pretty complex trombone pieces by sheet music[ref]By the way, take a listen to my old trombone teacher, James Erdman, as the soloist in The US Marine Band in 1965. It’s pretty amazing[/ref], and I can’t do that on the bass. I became proficient on both instruments, but in much different ways. The trombone playing, from written music, feels “in my head.” The bass playing, by ear, feels “in my heart and bones.”
But whether playing by ear or by reading music, my level of musical understanding has remained very basic. I learned to transform dots and lines and Italian words into sounds on a trombone, and only on a trombone. I learned to hear and mimic rock and blues on the electric bass, and only the bass. But there are dozens of instruments[ref]That is, in Western music. Around the world there are thousands and thousands![/ref], capable of making a multitude of sounds across a seemingly unending range of pitches. All of these sounds can be organized together by pitch and tone and rhythm and timing in myriad pleasant-sounding ways. And that organization is based on – and can be described and communicated in – precise, mathematical terms that are concrete and anchored in physics; and these terms are then translated into musical symbols. I know nothing about all of that. I am fluent in trombone like an American high school Spanish student is fluent in Spanish; I am fluent in bass guitar like an intelligent, yet illiterate, Spanish speaker is fluent in Spanish. However, people who truly understand music are like linguists who are not only fluent in Spanish and all the other Romance languages, but can also explain the relationships between them. There are orders of magnitude in difference between my musical knowledge and that of, say, a music theory major. Yet I’ve helped write some really good songs.
The fact is, all those connections and relationships, and all those explanations of why notes sound good together based on physics and mathematics, are extremely UNNECESSARY in creating a great song. A great song exists in an artist’s brain, or a band’s collective brain[ref]Having been in a band that wrote songs together, and having tried – and failed – to write songs with other bands, I know first hand that there is a Collective Brain among bands who write music. It’s a mysterious entity, and its workings are obscure, but it does exist.[/ref], and it can be transmitted via sounds whether an artist is aware of chordal relationships and time signatures or not. And the ability to WRITE IT DOWN is certainly unnecessary – just as a story can be told aloud without writing it down. In fact, I’d wager that among all the musicians on all the albums I’ve covered, fewer than 10% can even read – let alone write – music. I’d further wager that if we don’t count session musicians who may have played on some of these records, the percentage of musicians on the list who can read music would plummet to below 1%.
Written music is unnecessary in rock music. Even if one member of a band writes a song and brings it to the rest of the band to play, it’s very unlikely that any written music is involved. There may be some chords written down, but these are likely to be represented by letters (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, plus assorted sharps and flats and minors, as necessary) instead of dots, lines, Italian words, etc. The fact is, just as you don’t need to understand those dots and lines to appreciate a song, an artist doesn’t need to understand those dots and lines to write a song. Artists such as Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton … none of them could read music[ref]I didn’t include a link for all these references, but you can easily do a search and find information about these and other artists who can’t read music.[/ref], and they wrote thousands of songs. (Paul McCartney’s even written classical pieces, relying on arrangers to transliterate the instruments’ parts to notes on the page.) If you have the music inside of you, if you have that feeling, you will get it out of you and into an instrument some way, somehow, and others will feel it, too.
The point is this[ref]Yeah, yeah, I know, I need an editor.[/ref]: it matters little whether a musician can read or write music. All that matters is that it sounds good when it gets to your ears. And the reason I like Superunknown so much is that it touches the music-reader in me and it touches the music-feeler in me. It has unusual time signatures throughout that would seem to be challenging to read or write, but it’s got that straight-ahead driving rock sound, the guitar/bass/drums, the power that I love. The band has stated that they didn’t even think about, or concern themselves with, time signatures when they wrote the songs. They just played what sounded good and let the Music Majors figure out the math. And that process led to a masterpiece.
One of the most well-known examples of an unusual time signature is in the hit song “Spoonman.”
That first riff, right off the top, has seven beats to it – which is unusual in rock music. Rock and roll started as dance music, and since humans have two feet, dance music works best when there’s an even number of beats to a measure. So seven beats can feel awkward – and I mean “feel,” not “sound.” But drummer Matt Cameron, who’s responsible for keeping the rhythm flowing, is able to stay steady, constant, to a degree that you may not even notice there’s anything particularly different about the beat – but there is. That main riff is simply one of the best ever in rock, powerful and memorable, and I love the riff in the chorus, as well (which switches from seven to a regular four/four beat, just for kicks). The lyrics are actually about a man named Artis the Spoonman who played the spoons on the streets of Seattle, and who also played them on this track. I love the sound of this song, from Ben Shepherd’s rumbly, chunky bass at 2:00, and again at 2:50, to Kim Thayil’s slashing guitar throughout. Also, Chris Cornell has one of my favorite all-time voices in rock, and it’s on beautiful display on this one. This was a big song from the album, and it got a lot of airplay, and it deserved it.
Another song I love despite (because of??) its odd-feeling time-signature is the powerful “My Wave.”
Count along with Cameron’s snare drum, which goes BAP … BAP-BAP/ … BAP … BAP-BAP. If you count such that the first “BAP” is on two, and the “BAP-BAP” is on four-five, and start over immediately, you’ll be counting in 5/4[ref]And each of those beats will be a quarter note. And that’s about as much of a music lesson as I’m able to give.[/ref]. Despite this unusual beat, the song drives forward relentlessly. What catches my ear next are the strong vocals from Cornell. His melody is sparse but catchy, but it’s very rhythmic and sounds terrific with the 5/4 time signature. Guitarist Kim Thayil plays that simple, catchy riff, but throws in some neat sounds, particularly in the “My Wave” chorus, first at about 1:48, then he and bassist Ben Shepherd have some cool interplay around 2:15. The lyrics are sort of a “live and let live” manifesto, but the song is really about the sound and power. At about 3:40, an outro starts that changes to 4/4, sounds Eastern and then gets almost nursery-rhyme-ish. It’s probably my favorite song on the album.
But the craziest time signature on the record is unquestionably “Fresh Tendrils.” I’m not even sure how to count out a beat on this one …
It’s in 6/4, then 4/4, then 6/4, then at about 1:24 it goes all haywire and I can’t figure it out. Cornell’s voice is once again front-and-center, on inscrutable lyrics, but Thayil’s riff is really cool, too – he gets an unusual, trebley sound out of his guitar. Bassist Ben Shepherd shines, too. And for every song, just take it “as read” that I love what Matt Cameron’s doing on the drums. This band can really play, and I love this album!
I didn’t get into the band or the record because of its strange time signatures. I had heard of them way back in the late 80s, when my friend Eric used to go see them when they’d come on tour. They, and singer Chris Cornell, were featured on the very cool Singles soundtrack, and I liked a couple songs from their 1991 album Badmotorfinger. I heard the first single from this album, “Black Hole Sun,” and I hated it. But then I heard “Fell On Black Days,” and I loved it. I went out and bought the CD.
Of course, given my history, I notice right away that the song’s in 6/4[ref]Which – true – 6 is divisible by 2, so humans’ two feet might feel better about this song than 7/4. However, 6 is also = (2 x 3); and 3 is odd, and therefore not as comfortable on the feet as, say, 4/4 (which is even, obviously). So 6/4 still feels awkward to try to dance to.[/ref], but I also notice the cool little bend that Chris Cornell, playing rhythm guitar on this one, adds to the main riff, and Matt Cameron’s terrific kick-drum introduction at about 15 seconds. I haven’t mentioned much about bassist Ben Shepherd yet, but I love his rolling bass line on this chorus of this song, heard first at about 55 seconds. Cornell’s lyrics are a little more direct this time, about life with depression, and his delivery at times gives me chills. Lead guitarist Thayil again has that trebley, trembling guitar sound on his solo, beginning about 2:20.
It’s probably time for me to say a few words about Chris Cornell. First of all, I find him quite handsome – to a degree that I almost wrote about being heterosexual but sometimes seeing a man and thinking, “wow – he’s attractive.” But more than that I think he has one of the best voices in rock. He can sing sweetly and soft and he can shout and scream with the best of them. One of the first times I listened to him was on his solo song from that Singles soundtrack: “Seasons.” It’s just him on guitar and singing, and it’s excellent. And he’s also excellent when he belts it out – as in the title track from Superunknown.
It’s got a great Kim Thayil riff to open it up, and Ben Shepherd plays a cool bouncy bass line. But it’s Cornell’s show, howling and shouting lyrics about … geez, I don’t know, being yourself? I guess maybe. I really love these types of rockers, and Thayil’s Eastern-sounding guitar solo, at 3:52. (Speaking of Eastern-sounding, check out Ben Shepherd’s track, “Half.” Sheesh!) Another great rocker is the opening track, “Let Me Drown,” which has a cool, grinding riff and features Cameron’s inventive drumming and Shepherd’s bubbling bass (plus some authentic 90s-era scratching thrown into the chorus!). They also go all-in on the punk sound on the short, peppy “Kickstand.”The band sounds powerful on these driving rockers, but they also sound powerful – and plenty heavy – when they sling the slow, sludgy sounds of Seattle despair.
A good example is “Limo Wreck,” in which the band demonstrates it can do odd time signatures at a slow pace, too. It’s got cool guitar harmonics, a bass line that sounds like it doesn’t fit and lyrics about something. Another sludgy song is the excellent, but probably too-long, “Head Down.” And “Mailman” is definitely the sludgiest of the bunch. “4th of July” is also a good one in this style, although the beginning of the song makes me want to turn it off – but keep listening, ’cause it gets really good.
The album’s final song, “Like Suicide,” is my favorite of the slow ones.
Fittingly, given my love of his drumming, it starts with a martial beat by Cameron. Cornell shows off the full range of his voice on the song, singing lyrics that came to him when he saw a bird fly into his window and die. I like how his melody at times doesn’t seem like it fits the song, but it does. At 3:30, it starts to kick in, and Cameron plays some excellent fills. At about 4:31 Thayil plays another Eastern-inflected riff, a prelude to his cool solo at 5:15. It’s a great album-closing song, featuring everything I love about the album – except for the fact that the time signature is straight 4/4 the whole way!!
When I began learning to play instruments, I had no idea that the specific musical knowledge I picked up would affect my appreciation of all music. However, this doesn’t mean I immediately try to tear apart all the songs I like. I do not take such a logical approach to music, like a physicist attempting to reverse-engineer a product by pulling it apart and seeing what’s inside and how it works. I simply listen and like what I hear, which I believe is the spirit in which artists create. The underlying math can describe and communicate, it can enhance understanding, but that’s all in one part of the head. The artistry comes from a different part, the part that feels like the heart and the bones, the part that’s called the “soul.” This is how music connects with me, how Superunknown connects with me. Everything else is just lines and dots and Italian words.
“Let Me Drown”
“Fell On Black Days”
“Black Hole Sun”
“The Day I Tried To Live”
“4th of July”
The Decline and Fall of Heavenly. Heavenly.
1994, K Records. Producer: Ian Shaw.
IN A NUTSHELL: A cute little record with a cute cover, Heavenly only placed 8 songs on this album, and in this case Less is really More! Co-lead vocals from Amelia Fletcher and Cathy Rogers, whose voices blend sweetly on top of raucous drumming and subdued yet dirty guitar. It’s quite reminiscent of the Show Tunes I grew up listening to, and if that’s a strike against it: so be it! It’s fun and catchy, and it always makes me smile.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ “That’s so gay.”
This was a common phrase among everyone I knew growing up in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a put-down, though considered a bit gentler than saying “That sucks!” The origins of the phrase were clearly homophobic, equating “gayness” with the ridiculous, the stupid, the nonsensical events of everyday life. “That test was SO GAY!,” one might say, and the implication was not “I had to have sex with someone of my own gender during that test!” The implication was “That test was as ridiculous as someone who has sex with someone of their own gender.”
Some people argue that nowadays, among younger folks, this phrase is not homophobic. Young people in America have grown up in an era of increasing acceptance of gay men and lesbians[ref]And the entire LGBTQ community, and all the other letters that have been, and will be, added.[/ref], and although the phrase persists, to many the term “gay” now has two distinct meanings: 1) homosexual; and 2) stupid or ridiculous. Another example of such a word is “duck,” which can mean a quacking bird or an evasive maneuver. Some research shows the link between the two meanings of “gay” has been dismantled among younger Americans, just as the link between the evasive maneuver and the waterfowl – the name of which changed from the Olde English “ened” as people began referring to it “ducking” into the water – has also vanished[ref]Unless you stop and consider the two meanings, in which case it makes perfect sense. But even knowing that a duck “ducks” under the water, it’s not clear today whether the evasive move was named for the bird, or vice versa.[/ref]
But when I was a kid, the link between meanings was clear, and saying “that’s so gay” did not only mean “that’s so ridiculous” in a metaphorical sense. It also, very often, meant gay in an intra-gender-sex way. For example, “being in the marching band is so gay.” This type of statement did not only mean band participation was ridiculous, it also, by some bizarre 70s, rural, teenage logic, meant “those boys might have sex with each other.”
Now, I don’t believe MOST teenagers of the era sat around and considered whether this made sense, the idea that boys who derive pleasure from making music[ref]Or whose parents force them to pretend they derive pleasure from making music.[/ref] by blowing horns would also inherently derive pleasure from blowing each other. However, I do believe at least a few supposedly “straight” boys DID think about groups of other boys being gay, and were so uncomfortable with their own desires that these thoughts revealed that they then attacked the boys who reminded them of those feelings. I’m using boys/band as an example because the sense that activities (or clothing, or appreciation of musical styles, or enjoyment of certain types of food) imparted a level of “gayness” to participants was pretty gender-specific. Nobody thought band girls were lesbians, just as nobody thought athletic boys were gay.
But whether it made sense or not, this was a real concern to teenagers at that time and place: would what I’m doing somehow imply “gayness?” Sure, some things – holding hands with other boys,
painting one’s fingernails, fast dancing at a dance[ref]This may have been regional. I recall that when I went to college in Philadelphia, boys from the city and its suburbs did not believe fast dancing revealed one’s sexual desires.[/ref] – were clearly “gay.” (For boys, anyway – all of those things, even hand-holding, suggested no specific sexual orientation to girls.) But the line between “gay” and “not gay” could be arbitrary and fluctuate with the vicissitudes of teen life. When I was a freshman, in 1981, pink collared shirts and penny loafers would have immediately signaled an apparent fondness for dick. But the “Preppie” wave that crashed on the shores of other high schools in 1982 was finally hitting Bumfuck, PA, in 1984, and by my senior year one could wear such apparel yet still be assured of conveying an interest in vaginas for sex.
Most of these gayness tests and indicators were nonsensical, their systems for divination obscure, their application seemingly random. “Look at that fruit! He’s eating cake with frosting flowers on it!” “That kid watches Dallas. What a queer.” “You can tell by how he walks, he’s a fag.” It was like living under an oppressive regime, among a shadowy network of secret government agents who analyzed, closely, microscopically, every single data point you didn’t know you were generating, then revealed the humiliating results, loudly, in front of strangers and girls. I’m happy to say that in the enlightened era, and region, in which my own kids are growing up, the idea of being mistaken for being gay is not a big deal – it’s sort of like being mistaken for being left-handed or hazel-eyed. But in rural 80s Pennsylvania, it could seem like a life sentence.
Of course, musical taste was considered chief among all indicators of sexual orientation (for boys), a divining rod thought to have such fine sensitivity and precise calibration that a simple question of “What’s your favorite tape?[ref]This was the cassette era, after all.[/ref]” could possibly offer a readout not just on orientation, but also proclivities, past experiences and potential habits, as well.
The “safest” choice was Heavy Metal. Heavy metal dudes were tough and scary and drove souped up cars and spoke often, and loudly, of “gettin’ pussy,” and hung out with tough, scary, and often sexy girls, leading you to believe they weren’t lying. A love for true metal bands, like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and Motorhead, was the clearest hetero flag one could wave. (Although when Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford came out in 1998, he probably caused many former teen metal-heads to reconsider the calibration of their musical hetero-detectors.) However, as metal lurched toward pop, and the Def Leppards and Motley Crues and Ratts came to prominence, Heavy Metal gay-gauge readings grew murkier.
One’s taste in pure Pop Music of the 80s could offer more nuanced readings than the brute, yes/no results of the Heavy Metal test, but could also require more time spent analyzing the data that was generated. For example, it was the early 80s so everyone[ref]Everyone who had cable, that is.[/ref] loved MTV. Because of the novelty of the channel those first few years, it was expected, and “okay,” from a teen-gay-suspicion point of view, to enjoy songs from bands like Haircut 100 or A Flock of Seagulls or Human League. However, enthusiasm for such acts was a slippery slope. One had to make it clear that while you enjoyed some songs, and found the artists amusing, you were in NO WAY stating that you were a FAN! FANDOM had to be reserved for hetero-obvious bands like Van Halen and Blue Oyster Cult. Owning one (and only one) album by Yaz or Ultravox could be – possibly – okay, depending what other cassettes were in one’s collection. But you always had to do some explaining with these “fruity” bands: it had to be made clear that while one might like a Culture club or Depeche Mode song, it did NOT IMPLY AN ENDORSEMENT of anything else about the bands or their (supposed) lifestyles (which we knew nothing about but assumed we did).
A quick (possibly) note about R&B: I grew up in a VERY white area. I think there were 3 or 4 African American kids in my class of 320, and fewer than 10 total non-whites. There were a few (white) boys who were R&B fans, watched Soul Train, owned Dazz Band cassettes, and hopped on the Run-DMC bandwagon that – frankly – barely traveled through my town. This music was so far outside the realm of the rest of our understanding that it was like a brand new instrument at the CSI crime lab: results of gayness-tests from it were rendered useless while we tried to figure out how to generate data.
It was so complicated. Life is so much easier when you’re tolerant and open-minded. And while homophobic hatred and violence are still all too common, we’ve come so far that today’s straight teen boys can even love an openly gay singer, and nobody bats an eye. The gay punk band Pansy Division has been carving out a career for 20 years[ref]Lesbian artists, from k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, to Syd and Young M.A., have been making hits even longer.[/ref]. However, as ridiculous as all that worry and anxiety might seem now, and for how much it seems like so much of a “characteristic of the era,” there’s one musical style that has always been, and continues to be, associated with gay men: the Show Tune.
I have always really enjoyed[ref]A residual fear from my teenage years prevents me from typing “loved.”[/ref] Show Tunes. As you can imagine, I guarded this fact vigilantly as a high-schooler. (I can’t even imagine the psychic trauma that goes along with guarding more important facts about one’s self as a growing teenager.) Growing up, my mom had quite a few 8-track cassettes of various musicals – like Annie and Fiddler On the Roof – that she listened to, and even more old albums of Cast Recordings. My family went to see many of the musicals the local high schools staged, and whenever PBS showed The Music Man (which was a yearly pledge-drive event for WITF in the 70s) we watched it together[ref]I also recall watching MGM’s celebration of the movie musical That’s Entertainment on TV with my very excited parents at some point as a teen.[/ref]. My love of music developed, in part, around these songs, and I grew fond of the melodies and clever wordplay that characterize most of the Show Tune songs. Because plot points and motivations are often given via songs, Show Tune melodies are typically simple and catchy, so that the performers’ words are clearly understood. And these characteristics continue to be part of most of the rock songs I enjoy, too.
The first time I heard the band Heavenly, I thought it was the name of a musical. Sometime around 1994/95, while living in San Francisco, I didn’t have a car – but I had a job about 30 miles away from my house. Luckily, my good friend Ximena and her roommate The Count also worked at the same place, so I paid them to drive me to work for a few months. We listened to lots of great music on those rides, and some not as great music, too. One of the CDs they favored was The Decline and Fall of Heavenly. Maybe folks who didn’t grow up around so much Oklahoma! and Damn Yankees wouldn’t have considered it, but my first thought was “I can’t believe Ximena and The Count like Show Tunes!” Ximena has been one of the biggest musical influencers (and influencer in life in general!) I’ve known, and The Decline and Fall of Heavenly is just one of several albums she inspired me to buy!
The first song on the album is “Me and My Madness,” and the vocals enter immediately, front and center, and grab the listener’s ear, while guitarist Peter Momtchiloff follows their melody with bouncy fills. Heavenly has two singers, Amanda Fletcher and Cathy Rogers, and their voices blend beautifully – like two well-cast actors in a movie musical! The singers nicely trade lines at the end of the verses, for example at about 0:12, and their voices are charmingly sweet. However, the lyrics describe the inner turmoil (madness) of someone in a new relationship, and the sweetness gets rather raucous and “grungey[ref]In the parlance of the times. It’s by no means ACTUALLY grunge, but I could hear a record exec making the claim.[/ref],” a satisfying change of tone, in the verse, about 1:30. Special mention should go to Matthew Fletcher, as well, whose drumming always keeps this one, and most of the songs, firmly in the rock genre with driving, flailing beats. Together, the band and its songs create a strange amalgam of lightness, depth, sweetness and darkness. And they keep it up on song two, “Modestic.”
This time the introductory faux-trumpet provides that feeling of Movie Musical Magic. This song continues what will be revealed as the band’s typical approach: sweet, light voices singing angry, harsh words – this time a plea for a boyfriend to get the hell out of the house (and to herself to follow through on kicking him out). The harmonies are tight, during backing oohs and aahs, and blend perfectly in the chorus, as at about 0:42. And who can dislike any song with the words “malicious intent” prominent in a pre-chorus?? Once again, Fletcher’s drumming keeps it all driving, and the band adds a nifty, goofy 60s-esque organ solo at about 1:50. It’s a fun song.
And the band seems to have a million of these fun melodies up their sleeves – even though the album is made of 8 quick songs. The band dials the energy back a bit on the next one, another song featuring the vocal talents of Amelia Fletcher and Cathy Rogers, this time trading lines and intertwining melodies on the mellow groove of “Skipjack.”
It’s got great little guitar figures from Momtchiloff, and a 70s-style, Gold-Plated-Diaper-Worthy cowbell from Matthew Fletcher. But A. Fletcher and Rogers steal the show, especially beginning on the second verse, about 0:47, when they sing two melodies. Once again, the lyrics indicate they’ve chosen the wrong guy. In my mind, the pair are once again standing on a stage, singing their parts to move the action of the story along, just before Act One ends – but Momtchiloff tosses in a nice guitar solo to end the song, and pull it back to the realm of rock (sort of.)
This band has a sad story. After this album they recorded one more, but on the eve of its release drummer Matthew Fletcher committed suicide. The band decided to break up. (Singer Cathy Rogers somehow ended up becoming host of the TLC’s “Junkyard Wars,” believe it or not.) The song “Itchy Chin” features Matthew’s bass drum, prominently.
My favorite song is probably the wonderfully titled “Sperm Meets Egg, So What?” a direct look at unwanted pregnancy from a class of people who too often are unheard in the question of abortion: WOMEN!
I like this song for the same reasons I like XTC’s song “Dear God.” Because it’s a good song with direct lyrics that take on a contentious issue that – in my mind – isn’t even remotely controversial. In “Dear God” it’s the question of atheism; in this case it’s the idea that a grown woman is a human and a mass of cells is not. The lyrics are pretty funny, actually, and the song is a sort of 60s rave-up, with piping organ and frantic guitar lines.
So there you go. I don’t know what my love of this album says about me. I’m sure the me from 1984 would have made assumptions about the now me for liking this record. But in all things, humans like what we like and we are what we are. I could try to not like show tunes; I could try to not like The Decline and Fall of Heavenly. But I don’t think I’d be any happier. Maybe it’s true – this album is “So Gay.” But so what?
“Me and My Madness”
“Three Star Compartment”
“Sperm Meets Egg, So What?”
“She and Me”
Made in USA. Pizzicato Five.
1994, Matador. Producers: Maki Nomiya, Yasuharu Konishi, K-taro Takanami
IN A NUTSHELL – 90s Japanese dance pop that sounds like the soundtrack to an Austin Powers movie if it starred Hello Kitty instead of Mike Myers. But I mean in a really, really good way! It’s fun and energetic and full of happiness. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I can’t imagine a scenario in which it would be higher than 86, but I do love it!
“Hold on to sixteen as long as you can/ changes come around real soon make us women and men.” – John Cougar (nee Mellencamp)
“Bullshit.” – Me.
At a certain point in life, you have to grow up. That point will be different for everyone. Some folks – the FBLA types, who attend high school wearing business attire – are ready to move to grown-up-hood by the time they’re 14. Others find themselves in their twenties beginning to tire of their mom continually putting their good sweaters in the dryer, and realize that maybe the problem isn’t really with their mother.
But regardless of the actual age it happens, eventually, your best bet is going to be to embrace the reality that a) you’re going to have bills due each month; b) you’re going to have to work a job(s) that pays you enough to cover those expenses; and c) you’re going to enjoy (a) and (b) more if you find a close friend or friends to spend your time with.[ref]As with everything, this isn’t true for everyone. Some people do well without (a), (b) and (c), or with only certain parts of them. Others will find themselves just happy to know how to use the new footnoting tool they’ve discovered in their blogging software.[/ref]
As a forty-seven year old, I am aware of several people around my age who are still desperately clinging to some winnowing thread of adolescence. In men, this usually manifests as a compulsory need to find someone/anyone to go out drinking with, who also has a connection to a coke dealer, and who especially won’t mind if you crash on his TV room floor a couple nights a week. This “adult-escent” is the guy who stopped hanging out with you and your friends twenty years ago – right around the time you all got real jobs and steady partners – but who you still see around town occasionally, when you’re out for a drink with friends, and who invariably wobbles up to you and says “it’s been too long, man!” and asks, “how’s your kid?” – followed by, “oh, you have two now? I just never had time for a wife and kids – too busy,” and then introduces “my buddy, Chase,” who is 20 to 25 years younger than you, and who has been standing there touching his goatee repeatedly, twitchier than a nervous squirrel.
Many of these celebrations of youth are an expression that the childlike characteristics of wonder, joy, honesty and friendship should be held onto in one’s adult heart. This idea can be the germ of a really good movie (or a really bad one.) And we all could probably use a little childlike grace in our adult lives.
But such pop culture endeavors miss a huge, important fact about children. You see, children aren’t simply beatific, golden vessels of kindhearted love and altruistic intent. Children are actually selfish, irrational, shortsighted assholes, too.
They are just like every awful boss you’ve ever had – demanding, inflexible, prone to obnoxious outbursts, and masters of manipulation and emotional blackmail.
These negative traits aren’t a result of poor parenting, no. They are wired into every normal human that is born, and the purpose of parenting is to rid the little person of them as thoroughly as possible so that he or she can reasonably function in a society with others who may or may not continue to exhibit these traits as adults. Parents wring these negatives out, they gently wipe the negatives off, they trick them into going away, they hassle them out so they’re not inclined to return. They frighten the negatives into hidden corners and shame them into dark, locked closets. They embrace the negatives until the negatives are no longer fun, they facilitate open dialogues about the negatives until they are too bored to stay. In short, they do everything they can to remove the childish from the child. This is what parents do. They have to do it because if they didn’t, the world would have even more selfish pricks than it already does – truly a shocking thought.
What I’m saying is that children are overrated. Childhood is overrated. Don’t get me wrong, there are some positive things to be said about both, but the Cult of Children sometimes obscures the reality that being a grown up is pretty fuckin’ kickass, too.
Ask any child. Go ahead, ask them what they want to be. They want to be GROWN UPS. They pretend to be grown ups. They try to act like grown ups. They make their Barbies and Lego guys be grown ups. Has anyone ever heard 7 year olds playing with Legos say, “Okay, this green guy is Tommy, and he and Danny are going to have their moms call Dylan’s mom to see about a play-date.” NO! Tommy and Danny and Dylan are always full-grown MEN, working together as full-grown men, doing full-grown manly stuff, like building space stations and surviving slow-motion 1000 mph crashes as their winged motorcycles smash into dinosaurs and Patrick Star, causing a debris field of small animals, bent Yu-Gi-Oh cards and a Spiderman leg.
Maybe people tend to discount the joys of adulthood because childhood dreams – like crashing winged bikes into dinosaurs, or running a clothing shop/veterinary clinic for pop stars and their pet bunnies – rarely come true. This may cause a young adult to feel lied to. But when you get past the fact that most kids have an impractical (to say the least) comprehension of what adult life is like (which, by the way, is another negative about kids – a warped view of life), and really think about life as an adult, you realize that it’s actually usually a pretty fun time.
Pizzicato Five’s Made in USA is on my list of Favorite 100 albums because – as goofy and lighthearted and carefree as the music may sound – it reminds me of being an adult. More precisely, it reminds me of coming to the realization that I AM an adult. I listened to this record a lot at a time in my life when it struck me: “This Is It. I am a grown up. This right here is my dinosaur wing-bike crash.”
In January 1995, a few weeks before the 49ers beat the Chargers in Superbowl XXIX my girlfriend, Julia, and I moved in together in a cool 2 bedroom apartment in a house in the Bernal Heights section of San Francisco.
I had been living on my own for several years, in various places, with roommates and without roommates, so it wasn’t simply being away from my parents that caused the Grown Up feelings. I think it was a sense of permanence, that I had met a person with whom I’d probably spend many years, and that together we’d decided to merge our lives.
There was a large kitchen/dining room area in the very center of the apartment, and it was the perfect place to put our stereo and collection of vinyl albums and CDs. Anything playing on the stereo was easily heard throughout our home.
Now, Julia likes music and knows what she does and doesn’t like, however she’s not what one would call a “music enthusiast.” She likes funky soul and punky rock, and though she isn’t one to go out and buy herself music or follow bands, if she was, the act that I think would best describe the type of artist she’d follow would be Fishbone. Fun, melodic, energetic music. That’s what she likes. She’s a big fan of most anything by Prince, whose music usually falls into this category.
Some of the music that I liked to play wasn’t especially appealing to Julia, so I started widening my sphere of record-buying to include music I though she’d like to hear, too. Our good friend Ximena, who somehow always knew about new music first (and was particularly savvy about cool female Japanese acts, for some reason) told me about Pizzicato Five, and I went and bought Made in USA on her recommendation. I liked it a lot, and Julia did too. That CD spent a lot of time in our player while we went about the ordinary tasks, and spent extraordinary times, being grown-ups together.
It turns out that Made in USA breaks one of the rules I established for my Favorite Albums list: it is a compilation album. However, I didn’t know that until I started writing this post and reading up on the album! According to the extensive research I did, Pizzicato Five was a popular Japanese band who were part of a new wave of Japanese music called Shibuya-kei, which ”is known for eclectic and energetic compositions that often pay homage to late 1960s English-language Pop Music.” The American label, Matador, took some songs from each of their earlier Japanese records, put them together and called it Made in USA, a reference to the Japanese town of Usa, which was rumored in the 1960s to have been renamed so that cheap items for export to America could carry the meant-to-confuse label of “Made in USA Japan.”
Because I didn’t know the album was a compilation album until earlier this month, I have asked the judges to allow it into the list despite it being against the rules. After careful consideration they have agreed by a vote of 1 to 0. I’m glad they did, although this is the type of record that demonstrates perfectly why I would make a lousy music critic (and, in fact, why I think music critics – maybe all criticism? – is 99% horse shit). I can’t listen to the record “objectively,” whatever that means, as it is so wrapped up in so many memories from my life. I think it’s a great record – but if you’re not me, you won’t like it for the same reasons I do.
San Francisco in the 1990s was very exciting, and the neighborhood Julia and I lived in was particularly so. We were there as the World Wide Web grew from a opalescent puddle in Silicon Valley into a gigantic bubble surrounding the globe, and many of our neighbors were the people doing the huffing and puffing to keep the thing inflated and growing. We left just before it burst, kicking ourselves over not buying that $165,000 modest home near 22nd St. in 1994 (which didn’t have parking!), the one that would have been worth about $1,000,000 by 2000, when we left.
But while we were there, we had a blast together, and with our friends. That’s what Made in USA reminds me of – having a blast with Julia and our friends, and it made the list because of the great memories it conjures.
The first song on the album is “I”.
This swingin’ accordion-driven number (and you’ll hear that “swingin” and “accordion-driven” turn out NOT to be mutually exclusive) sets the tone for the record. If you, the listener, can get into the charm of Maki Nomiya’s sweet voice, and ignore the fact that the words are in a foreign language; if you can appreciate the light jazz-combo, 60’s bounce of the song, and don’t find it too cutesy; if you can appreciate an accordion, and not immediately discount it … if you can do all these things you’ll likely appreciate the record. If you can’t, there might not be much for you here.
The feeling of dressing up, going out and enjoying a meal with someone you love is definitely a grown-up feeling. Contrast that with the nasty food kids enjoy, like Kraft mac n cheese, frozen pizzas and a squirt of ketchup on warmed, breaded nuggets of “chicken.” One point for adult-hood.
Next up on the album is a number that continues to make its way onto any playlist I create that requires an invitation to dancing: “Sweet Soul Revue.”
It’s got a funky Motown-sounding bass line, and nifty TSOP-sounding horns and violins, and a backbeat that doesn’t quit. The melody is catchy, but – as with most of the songs on the album – it’s difficult for me to sing along to. But Nomiya does throw a hearty “Bay-bee!!” into the chorus a few times, allowing non-Japanese speakers such as myself to shout along a little bit.
This song reminds me of throwing parties at our house, and trying out recipes for cocktails, main dishes, desserts, at a time when we still had time and money to subscribe to – AND READ – Bon Appetit, Saveur and Cook’s Illustrated.
We’d have friends to the house and talk and laugh and eat and drink, then clean it all up and plan the next one. Parties like that are a reminder that kids have to go to bed way too early, and if they don’t they turn into insufferable whiners. Staying up til 3 am, and remaining well-mannered and fun (except for the occasional over-indulgence, which in itself is an adult thing) is very grown-up.
Another great dance song on the album the oddly-yet-perfectly named, “Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond.” Listen, and you’ll see what I mean:
It’s the sound of 60s supermodel sensation Twiggy leaving a Carnaby St. boutique to meet Sean Connery’s tuxedoed 007 at a Soho club for drinks. Right? But if they spoke Japanese? And did the Watusi to sample-filled 90s dance music? Well, anyway, that’s how it sounds to me. It has violin samples and rolling tympanis – a lively dance song that’s fun and adventurous. It’s a movie song, and Julia and I saw a lot of movies back in the day.
Basically, the kinds of movies children don’t like. And that’s another thing about kids – all the lousy movies. For each gem, like The Lego Movie, there are fifteen turds, like Planes. (Actually, that’s probably a better ratio than you get with grown-up movies, but most grown ups are smart enough to know that NOT EVERY movie will be good. Kids think they’ll all be awesome.)
Pizzicato Five doesn’t just do catchy, funky dance numbers, it can also throw in a slow love song, as well. Take, for example, “Baby Love Child.”
Even a slow groove is made interesting by this group. They include samples of horns and voices, some turntable scratches, and keep the drums and bass as funky as ever. And as always, Nomiya’s vocals and interesting vocal style draw the listener in. She may be too cutesy for some, but I find the cutesiness fits with the style of the songs. The lyrics on this song (in English!) are unusual. Instead of the typical love song pronouncements of “I love you, I want you,” the subject and object are reversed, becoming “You love me, you want me.” It’s either an interesting lyrical device, or a result of poor translation. (Probably the former.)
The song conjures memories of just spending time with J. Our neighborhood, Bernal Heights, had a beautiful path up the side of the hill, with stairs built in, and also slides, to make the trip back down faster! We would hike up to the top of the hill and walk around the top – a bit of open space in the middle of the city (or, “The City,” as SF is known by locals.) This was a favorite activity of ours. We would also go to farmers’ markets on weekends, or spend a morning reading the paper at one of The City’s seemingly thousands of pre-Starbucks independent cafes. (Muddy’s, Muddy Waters, Common Ground, Java Source, Martha and Bros. …) We would visit cool SF places, like the Musee Mecanique, and Camera Obscura or go to Fort Funston to watch the hang gliders or to The Golden Gate Bridge to walk and enjoy the sunshine (although it is MUCH LONGER than I ever imagined, so I never walked across the entire span. Plus the cars go really fast and are really close to the walkers. And on the opposite side of the speeding traffic is a 220 foot drop.)
Or we’d ride our bikes across The City to Golden Gate Park, and then on to Ocean Beach, on a circuitous path called “The Wiggle,”designed to miss the 43 or so hills in San Francisco. Or we’d just go to Noe Valley or Hayes Valley or Market St. or North Beach or The Haight or The Mission, or any other neighborhood in The City, shopping, planning, spending time.
Another mellow song is the swirling, vaguely Middle Eastern sounding “Magic Carpet Ride.”
Despite the mishmash of sounds on Made in USA, the band definitely has a way with a dance beat and song structure. The build into the “Magic Carpet Ride” chorus swells in a satisfying way. This song is one of the few sung in English, and the lyrics have a typical “we’re in love, life’s a magic ride, let’s take it together” sensibility. But honestly, you don’t listen to Japanese pop music for the lyrics. You listen for the spirit of the music, because it’s joyful and fun, and it might remind you of all the time you spent with a loved one in the great outdoors, visiting exciting areas around the Bay Area. Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, Mt. Tamalpais, Big Sur, Lake Tahoe, the Pacific Coast Highway, Half Moon Bay, the Berkeley Hills, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, the Sierra Nevada … San Francisco is a place where you could wake up and go to the beach, then drive an hour for a hike in the woods, then drive two more hours and go downhill skiing. Opportunities for outdoor activities abound, and Julia and I enjoyed spending it outdoors as much as we could.
We had time to spend, if not much money to spend, and it was wonderful to spend it together. It was the kind of time that kids HATE. Which is one more thing that The Cult of Children forgets: kids are always BORED. “I’m bored! This is boring!” Few kids appreciate the value of time well-spent with a friend, or friends. And NONE appreciate spending it with someone of the opposite gender! Kids are so weird. Who wants to return to that lifestyle?
It’s worth pointing out here that kids can’t legally drink alcohol – another strike against them. How “wonderful” could childhood really be if no booze is allowed? Ever been invited to a friend’s wedding, then find out the reception will be dry? That quickly waning smile on your face – corners of your mouth receding to form a tight little line between your lips – as you consider the prospect of three people on the dance floor doing the Electric Slide, while everyone else shovels food as quickly as they can so they can leave and hit a bar somewhere – it’s the same fading smile you get when you stop to consider whether childhood was really as great as everyone makes it out to be.
Of course, adulthood isn’t all wonderful. There is the drudgery of going to work every day, the anxiety of having to get something repaired but not being able to just have your parents do it, the pressure of having to prepare food EVERY SINGLE DAY. Similarly, Made in USA isn’t entirely wonderful. Pizzicato Five seems to have a childish streak of their own that keeps them from knowing when enough is enough. The songs “This Year’s Girl #2” and “Catchy” start fun, but both seem interminable by the end – repetitive silliness reminiscent of some kid telling you the “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?” knock-knock joke over and over. It’s cute at first, but wears thin real damn quick.
But the record closes with a joyous song that ties up everything nicely. In the same way “I” set the table for the album, “Peace Music” provides the perfect close:
It’s a catchy, happy 60s pop song with 90s samples that makes me wish I knew Japanese so I could sing along. There’s also a slight wistfulness in the melody – the sound of something good coming to an end.
Obviously, I find myself doing some heavy cataloging of memories when I listen to Made in USA. And the memories are all golden, perfect. The music sounds like nothing had ever gone wrong. But of course, that’s just a trick of memory – one of the downsides of adulthood. So I’ll say one final good thing about kids and childhood: at least kids are too young to have any memories older than, say, four years. So they can’t look back at the past and distort it in their minds. They are capable only of living in the present – the place we should all try to stay. Listening to Made in USA makes living in the moment difficult for me. But that’s what makes it so great.
Sweet Soul Revue
Magic Carpet Ride
Baby Love Child
Twiggy Twiggy / Twiggy vs. James Bond
This Year’s Girl #2
I Wanna Be Like You
Go Go Dancer