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5th Favorite Album: Oranges and Lemons, by XTC

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Oranges and Lemons. XTC.
1989, Geffen Records. Producer: Paul Fox.
Purchased vinyl, 1989.

IN A NUTSHELL: Oranges and Lemons, by XTC, is a collection of sounds and styles and ideas that delivers thoughtful, fun song after thoughtful, fun song. Main songwriter Andy Partridge keeps his mighty pen of cynicism largely sheathed in this effort, instead producing uplifting songs about the power of love – tempered, of course, by his biting wit. Bandmates Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory are excellent, as always, and the production is over-the-top in a way that sounds like just the right number of kitchen sinks has been thrown in.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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It’s not shocking to learn that I – a man who has spent the last 7 or 8 years maintaining a widely-read blog about all the records I like – was a child, in the 70s, with a very strong connection to music. The connection included (and still includes) physical reactions to the sounds. A friend and I were recently discussing the first time we experienced chills washing over us simply from hearing a song. It happened when we were kids, and for him it was CCR’s “Up Around the Bend.” For me, it was The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

The technical term for that sensation is “frisson,” and it’s a regular, physical part of my music-listening experience, as are dancing, laughing, whistling, singing, and even tears. The tears usually come from a lyric and melody that combine to heighten each other’s impact. For example, when I listen to The Replacements‘ “Here Comes a Regular,” I’m almost always on the verge of tears.

As a child, however, the experience of hearing a song could be too much for me to bear. The potential physical impact scared me, so I’d turn off these scary songs before I could find out what they might do to me. I was a 70s AM radio kid, listening to WLBR 1270-AM at the time, and it played only the blandest, mellowest, dentist-officeiest pop music of the era. The songs that frightened me WERE NOT the loud, horrorshow pieces that were popular then. WLBR didn’t play, so I didn’t hear, or even know about, Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper or The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. I didn’t know about the scary punks or the creepy art-rockers.

The songs that scared me were the sad songs, and I’m not talking about the kitschy, melodramatic story-songs of the 70s. Songs like “Run Joey Run” or “Billy Don’t Be a Hero“or “The Night Chicago Died” seemed goofy to me even as a young boy – which isn’t to say I didn’t love them! And I could recognize the point of sad love songs, so these didn’t scare me. The sad songs that scared me were the ones that seemed to express adult concerns that I couldn’t understand. Oblique lyrics (to my 7 year-old mind), when coupled with a minor key, made me feel like things were somehow out of control. When singing grown-ups expressed concerns about things I didn’t understand, I felt a physical response that made me turn off the music.

I found the phrase “There’s got to be a morning after,” from “The Morning After,” the theme to the disaster-film The Poseidon Adventure, quite upsetting, as it seemed ludicrous that a grown-up would even raise the question of whether a new day would come. The Sandpipers’ folky hit, “Come Saturday Morning,” made me wonder why the prospect of visiting a friend would seem so … foreboding. And “MacArthur Park” (the Richard Harris version, not Donna Summer’s disco hit) was just … weird. I still feel residual Willies from these songs, even just hearing a few seconds while I prepare the link.

A classic scary song for me is the Diana Ross smash, “The Theme from Mahogany.” (It’s interesting that 3 of the 4 are movie songs, where emotional impact is paramount.) “Do you know where you’re going to?” the song asked, and it wasn’t the improper grammar that disturbed me. As a 9 year-old, I found this question too psychologically loaded, too philosophically complex, to bear more than even one verse. (Until just now, I’d forgotten, or maybe I never knew, that the song included the upbeat middle section!) It’s a song that made me shiver as a child, a different sensation than the frisson I described, and it still makes me unhappy, even as an adult. See, as a 52 year-old man, I STILL don’t know where the fuck I’m going (to)!

Thirty (!) years ago I certainly had no idea where I was going (to), but I had somehow decided to pursue a Biology Education degree, and so it looked like I was going to teach school. It seemed like a decent plan – there were plenty of teaching jobs, I’d always loved school, I’d get my summers off … So, I knew where I was going (to), but the destination, the (to), didn’t feel right. As much as I thought teaching would be great, and I’d be a good teacher, something about it felt like the wrong path for me. But I stayed on the path nonetheless.

My ’76 Plymouth Duster. (And tree).

In the Fall of 1989, my destination every weekday was the Elizabethtown Area High School, in Elizabethtown, PA, where I student-taught Biology classes with a creepy teacher who went to prison for his awfulness. I wore dressy clothes my sisters had picked for me, and drove a bright blue ’76 Plymouth Duster to school every day. That Duster had come with a fancy tape-deck, state-of-the art in 1989, that was probably worth more than half of what I’d paid for the car. Tapes in rotation for my morning commute that year included Vivid, by Living Colour, and Green, by R.E.M., and Oranges and Lemons, by XTC. Pretty soon it was whittled down to simply Oranges and Lemons.

I’ve written before about seeking out Beatle-esque bands in college and becoming an XTC fan. When Oranges and Lemons was released in the Spring of ’89, I went out and bought it on vinyl. I loved it, and part of loving a vinyl record for me in those days included immediately duping it onto cassette so it became portable. It’s a positive record, with upbeat songs celebrating life and love, and dollops of cynicism and doubt to keep things level. As I drove in my Duster each morning, aimlessly drifting toward a future of standardized tests and testy parents, the songs and messages on that cassette soothed my undiagnosed depression. They helped me make it through when I didn’t realize I could take control and decide for myself where I was going (to). The album resonated then, and as I got older and had kids and learned to manage my mental health, it just got better and better.

The opening track is one of the most affirmative and philosophically optimistic songs I know, and it sounds super-cool, too. The Middle-Eastern sound salad of “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

What a start! The song is a welcome letter and instruction manual, of sorts, (“Don’t hurt nobody/ Unless, of course, they ask you”) to newly born babies on planet Earth. It is crammed full of instruments and sounds, and gives the feeling of walking through a Moroccan bazaar (I assume.) I got into XTC as I looked for Beatle-y musicians, and this song is similar to much of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in that beneath all the sounds, the rock instruments are doing fabulous stuff. The whirling electric guitar behind the vocals in the verse (0:15), the chop guitar in the chorus (0:42), the Colin Moulding’s bass throughout, and the excellent Middle Eastern guitar solo by lead XTC-er Andy Partridge (2:15). The song has numerous details that encourage multiple listens, and it’s a fabulous introduction.

The song effortlessly flows into what may be my favorite song of all time, the brilliant “Mayor of Simpleton.”

Speaking of “frisson,” this song almost always delivers it. The precisely meandering bass line is (dare I say?) McCartney-esque, the call-and-response vocals are beautiful, and I love the melody. But the lyrics make it for me, as Partridge ingeniously describes why he’s too dumb for the woman he loves, and why it doesn’t matter. “If depth of feeling is a currency/ Then I’m the man who grew the money tree /And some of your friends are too brainy to see /That they’re paupers and that’s how they’ll stay.” For a person like me, who shivers and tears up at songs, those words resonate. The band put out a clever video for the song, and tried to make it a hit, and while it only hit #72 on Billboard‘s pop charts, it did reach #1 on their “Modern Rock Chart,” whatever that is.

XTC is an interesting band that started as a 5-piece then dwindled over the years. By the time of Oranges and Lemons, it consisted of Partridge, Moulding, and Dave Gregory – each of them guitarists and multi-instrumentalists. Partridge handled the bulk of the singing and songwriting, but Moulding contributed several, including the lilting “King For a Day.”

Due to Partridge’s extreme stage-fright, the band stopped playing live in 1982, but to support this album they made videos and did a few TV and radio performances, usually performing Moulding’s songs. This song has great vocals, including Partridge’s ringing harmonies, and terrific drums by session-man Pat Mastelotto, whose work on the entire record is great. The lyrics also express the view, shared by the band and expressed throughout the album, that money and consumerism isn’t as important as love and art. It has a tremendous bridge (2:10) that seamlessly leads back into the chorus. Sometimes, as my friend Johnny has pointed out, “Colin has Clunkers.” But this song stands out. “Cynical Days,” however, is a Colin Clunker. And Partridge’s “Here Comes President Kill Again,” while promoting a world-view I support, is rather boring.

Another blatant expression of the power of love is the aptly titled “The Loving,” which argues for a Christ-like love for all people. Partridge doesn’t refer to Christ – like me, he’s an atheist – but what he describes is just that. His call for love is more specific on “Pink Thing,” a celebration of fatherhood and his newborn child. (It’s been pointed out that the lyrics very well may refer to his penis. I prefer the former interpretation.)

It’s got a cool calypso beat, with nice guitar figures in the background, and the chord change in the chorus (“That man isn’t fit to enter heaven …”) is fabulous. As usual, the band’s harmonies are tops, and the jazzy guitar solo at 1:55 is really cool, and the ending (2:40 – 3:48) is great. In addition to addressing his child, Partridge assesses his relationship with his dad in the South African-themed “Hold Me My Daddy,” a song Partridge claims he and his father chose not to discuss.

The songs on Oranges and Lemons have a variety of styles. Colin Moulding gets introspective on the rolling, bouncy “One of the Millions,” a bit of an anti-self-help song that tumbles along on a terrific bass line and has some great transitions between acoustic and electric. The angry she-done-me-wrong songMiniature Sun” is a jazzy, barely-fit-together number. “Chalkhills and Children” is a dreamy ballad that sounds like it could have fit on the band’s previous album Skylarking. And nearly all the songs throw as many sounds and instruments as possible into the mix, including the fabulous “Merely a Man.”

The song opens with a ranging bass line and percussive dual rhythm guitars that together are almost (almost!) funky. The guitars are really cool, and again they approach (but only approach!) the late-era Beatles’ knack for putting multiple cool guitars low in the mix. Nifty guitar fills (1:00, 1:30, etc) abound, and Partridge does some near-scatting on lyrics that are as uplifting and once again espouse the power of love. By 2:00, a trumpet fanfare is added, multiple voices are singing along, and it begins to sound like several guitars have been added. It’s a cool song, probably over-produced, but I love it.

I really love what I think of as an XTC throwback song, “Across This Antheap,” which reminds me of their song “Meccanik Dancing” from the 1978 album Go 2.

XTC started out as an angular guitar band on the definite New Wave edge of the punk movement. By Oranges and Lemons, they’d transitioned into an arty pop band (I’ll refrain from making another Beatles reference … oh wait, I think I just did?), but this number, a long diatribe against a modern life that can trample the human spirit, shows the band still has a foot in the 70s scene – despite the languid intro, and trumpet and violins.

When I was student teaching at Elizabethtown High School, it was the fall semester, which meant I was listening to the album around Halloween. It makes sense, then, that the song “Scarecrow People” remains lodged in my brain.

It’s a warning about global environmental catastrophe, which, obviously, has gone unheeded. It uses the album formula of cool guitar and bass, with lots of noises thrown in. There’s a bridge, at 2:00, that transitions to a weird guitar solo at 2:24, then builds beautifully into the final verse, at 3:00. The song is more evidence that the songwriting on the entire album is brilliant.

The other song I remember as Halloween-y, and one of my favorites on the record, is the freaky, warbly “Poor Skeleton Steps Out,” a collage of sounds that is the band at their most inventive.

The plodding, physical bass supports all sorts of percussive sounds, including an acoustic guitar that sounds detuned, a xylophone that sounds like dancing bones, and – as usual – excellent harmonies. It’s a song about the universality of human beings, and includes Partridge’s usual wit. The song always takes me back to the fall of 1989, driving my Duster to school each morning, but not really knowing where I was going (to). It turned out I never taught professionally, but Oranges and Lemons made my daily drive amazingly enjoyable. Elizabethtown Area High School was only a temporary stop on a 30-year ride that has had multiple stations along the way, and continues moving forward.

But maybe the destination doesn’t really matter much. Back in the mid-00s, when everyone was getting GPS consoles to put onto their dashboards, I instead got a subscription to Sirius satellite radio, and a bulky radio unit to stick onto the dash of my ’98 Saturn wagon. I realized then what that choice says about my outlook: I may not know where I’m going (to), but I’m sure going to enjoy the ride.

TRACK LISTING:
“Garden of Earthly Delights”
“Mayor of Simpleton”
“King For a Day”
“Here Comes President Kill Again”
“The Loving”
“Poor Skeleton Steps Out”
“One of the Millions”
“Scarecrow People”
“Merely a Man”
“Cynical Days”
“Across This Antheap”
“Hold Me My Daddy”
“Pink Thing”
“Miniature Sun”
“Chalkhills and Children”

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67th Favorite: Skylarking, by XTC

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Skylarking. XTC.
1986, Virgin Records. Producer: Todd Rundgren.
Purchased ca. 1989.

skylarking album

67nutIN A NUTSHELL: A concept album exploring the cycles of life. Lush orchestration, witty but deep lyrics and full of catchy melodies, this album could be compared to some by a more famous British band, but it stands on its own merits. Some songs run together, some stand on their own – and perhaps their most famous song, “Dear God,” is featured as well.
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Consider the term “Beatle-esque.” (Or perhaps it’s “Beatlesque,” which is admittedly easier to type, but just doesn’t look right.) beatlesque It is a word that is thrown around a lot in pop culture, probably the most common Pop-and-Rock-Music Related “-esque” word there has ever been. A quick check of the googles returns 25,400 results for “Beatle-esque,” as compared to a surprisingly small 4,470 for “Rolling Stones-esque,” a stout 10,500 for “Bob Dylan-esque” and a surprisingly strong showing of 7 for “Men Without Hats-esque.”

It’s a term that to this day continues to becheaptrick thrown at artists that you’d expect, like Cheap Trick, artists you wouldn’t, like Stone Temple Pilots and Kiss, and even artists who severely cheapen the term. But like many terms popularized in the media, it is usually a lazy piece of shorthand that without context for the reader could indicate any number of things. The band were innovators in many ways – musically, of course, but also in terms of style and culture and – some would argue – everything! So what does it mean to be “Beatle-esque?”

beatlesI’ve listened to my readers, and both of them have said, “enough with the Beatles stuff.” But the issue of what the term means is supremely important to Album #67. Without delving a bit into the concept, I’d simply be writing some stuff about a record, instead of boring you regaling you with insights and stories from my boring fascinating life. Certainly my interest in the term is largely what brought me to Album #67, so I want to take a little time to consider its meaning.

adeleWhen you consider that The Beatles released their first single in the UK, “Love Me Do,” in October, 1962, and their final album, Let It Be, in May of 1970 it is shocking to realize how many different styles the band packed into such a tiny window. For comparison’s sake, let’s say theirs’ was an 8-year recording career. As I type this, it is now 2016. In February of 2009, the Grammy awards were held celebrating the recording industry’s achievements for 2008. The Best New Artist award was handed to Adele. In the past 8 years, she’s released three albums, and each has been wildly successful by sticking to a winning formula of heartfelt ballads and a few upbeat pop songs sung by an extremely talented vocalist. In the same span, The Beatles released 13 albums and twenty-four singles that weren’t on any album. The hit songs were as diverse as “Please, Please Me,” “Norwegian Wood,” “Lady Madonna,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Come Together.” I’m not trying to make a case for or against either artist. Both have their merits, and the music and entertainment landscape in the early 21st century is not the same as it was in the mid-20th century, so any comparisons will be challenging. However, it is easy to see that – given the breadth of diversity in their respective musical careers – the term “Adele-esque” is going to be a more precise descriptor than “Beatle-esque” will ever be. So let’s look at some of the meanings of “Beatle-esque.”

When The Beatles burst onto the scene, they sort of beatles1combined the sweet harmonies of The Everly Brothers and the greasy stomp of Eddie Cochran with the wild abandon of Little Richard. They were a group of four that wrote their own songs and played instruments while they sang, which was rather unique in an era of mainly vocal-only groups and solo artists with backing bands.

By 1965, the charts were packed with Beatle-esque bands such as mosquitoesFreddie and the Dreamers (seen here doing a dance that was definitely NOT Beatle-esque!) and Herman’s Hermits. And mop-top inspired characters were popping up on shows like Gilligan’s Island and The Munsters. Beatle-esque bands like these have continued through rock history. The line of bands with jangly guitars, a rock beat and harmony vocals stretches from The Byrds through R.E.M. to Franz Ferdinand and college rock bands of today, like The Twerps.

The other very Beatle-esque characteristic of the Beatles boybandsfrom the early-to-mid-60s era was their image as cute-boys-who-sing-and-act-charmingly-goofy-and-a-bit-naughty-yet-non-threatening-to-preteen-girls. While The Beatles made terrific music, they also starred in movies that inflated this image, bantered with reporters in a disarmingly snide manner, and offered witty quips whenever the opportunity arose. They (and the media) established a template for “Boy Bands,” and the chain of unfortunately-labeled “Beatle-esque” boy-bands – from The Bay City Rollers to New Kids On The Block to One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer (and even Boys Who Cry!) – has continued. I guess the band has to take some responsibility for all of them. However, they obviously found the phenomenon troubling. You see, by 1965, they were clearly a worldwide phenomenon, and the entertainment industry was capitalizing on the whole enchilada, music and image. The next year The Monkees debuted on American TV, both singing and acting Beatle-esque. But by 1966, the only thing not Beatle-esque was The Beatles.
psych
The Beatles famously stopped playing live after their August, 1966, performance at Candlestick Park and continued peppersmoving away from the catchy guitar pop they’d mastered, toward a more experimental and studio-affected sound they’d already played around with on songs like “Rain” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” and (most weirdly, so far) “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Love You To.” Songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “I Am The Walrus” got more strange, songs like “Penny Lane” and “The Fool On The Hill” got less rock ‘n roll, and the sound culminated in the formerly-un-Beatle-esque but now definitely a new-definition-Beatle-esque album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967. I’m not saying The Beatlessatanic were the originators of psychedelic, orchestral music in rock, but works by new artists like (The) Pink Floyd and established artists like The Rolling Stones were nothing like the Mop Tops of 1964, yet were now being called “Beatle-esque.” This line of Beatle-esquetry traveled through The Electric Light Orchestra, served as the ontogenesis for prog rock, was heard in some late 80s pop songs, and has continued through 90s bands like Olivia Tremor Control and Tame Impala today.

letitbeFinally, after Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles became an anything goes, kitchen-sink, music-first-image-later band, unbound by styles or labels and as such helped engender the use of the term “artist” to describe pop/rock musicians. This Beatle-esque characteristic of dedication to artistry has continued to touch musicians from Joni Mitchell to Talking Heads to Beck to Radiohead to Kendrick Lamar.

So “Big Fuckin’ Deal,” right? The point is, if you go looking for something “Beatle-esque,” there are very few artists who won’t – in some way – fit the bill. I know from several experiences that you may find something great! But usually not. I’ve written before about the fact that my reaction to the horrible music of the late 80s was to seek out new music from classic rock bands of the 60s and 70s that, unfortunately, turned out to be every bit as horrible as the rest of the 80s music I was hearing on MTV and the radio. As a huge Beatles fan, part of this frantic search (which unfathomably ignored the actually awesome music being produced at the time!!) for good music caused me to search for bands described as – you guessed it – “Beatle-esque.”
xtc_5

As an early-adapter of MTV back in 1981, wmmrI’d been familiar with the band XTC for many years. They were one of many new artists that were suddenly part of my consciousness, and it seemed like their catchy number “Senses Working Overtime” was played routinely. But by 1986 they’d escaped my consciousness. That year I was in the gym playing pick-up basketball at PCPS, in Philadelphia, when WMMR played O and Lwhat I thought was a rather disturbing song called “Dear God,” with children’s voices bashing religion, and when I heard the announcer say it was XTC, I thought, “Wow, that old MTV band is really desperate for airplay, being controversial just to get it.” But I did find the song intriguing and catchy, and I grew to like it. Three years later I kept hearing XTC referred to as Beatle-esque, so I went out and bought their LP Oranges and Lemons on vinyl the week it was released. That album made me a fan of the band. After a drunk guy in a Skylarking t-shirt told me at a party that Skylarking was even better than Oranges and Lemons, I went out and got it on vinyl as well.

Skylarking has many hallmarks of a “concept album:” many songs xtc_1related to a main theme (cycles of life), that are connected to each other (many run together with no break between them), and containing first-person lyrics sung from a definite point of view. The record was produced by longtime artist and producer Todd Rundgren, who suggested the idea of a concept album, but who famously did not get along with the band, causing a rift that exists to this day! I find the album is best-appreciated if one can listen to it from start to finish. However, as with all great albums, the tracks are strong enough that they stand out by themselves, or in any order.

The album opens with nature’s sounds of summer, various chirps, croaks and whistles that eventually set the rhythm for the first two tracks, “Summer’s Cauldron” and “Grass.”

“Summer’s Cauldron” sounds to me like a hot summer day, when the humidity is so dense that you mouldingjust want to lie in the shade, close your eyes and wish for a breeze. Colin Moulding’s bass is gooey and thick behind the bugs and birds and Todd Rundgren’s melodica, and Andy Partridge sings mostly nonsense lyrics that still perfectly describe the feeling of a summer’s day. After the first verse and chorus, Partridge’s voice is doubled an octave higher, and backing vocals and counter melody from Moulding and Dave Gregory are added, increasing the song’s summer lushness. It builds to the 3:22 point, where the second song, “Grass” begins.

XTC songs are usually written and sung by guitarist Andy Partridge, and the ones that aren’t are written and sung by bassist Colin Moulding. “Grass” is one of Colin’s songs, and it’s an ode to, let’s say, the youthful physical expression of fondness and attraction set in the great outdoors. It’s a natural segue from the first track, and features orchestration (including pizzicato violins behind the verses that sound great) that helps continue the summer feel. It ends with the outdoor orchestra of bugs and birds that began the song, completing one of many cycles on the record.

Another Colin song, “The Meeting Place,” follows, and it’s sort of the enantiomer of “Grass.”

This time Moulding’s lyrics describe a meetingplace winter rendezvous, with coats on the ground, where someone might hear. The song has a nice circular guitar riff, and in the second verse Partridge sings a counter-melody that I love. It’s a great number, and gives the listener a feeling – together with “Grass” – that a love songs may abound on this album. Band leader and renowned prickly cynic Andy Partridge dashes those ideas immediately with the caustic next song, “That’s Really Super, Supergirl.”

Nobody writes biting, revenge lyrics quite like Partridge. xtc membersHe’s a very smart man with a gift for words and a righteous attitude, and that leads to great lyrics. It’s a catchy song with cool vocals and more great bass guitar from Moulding. Third XTC member, Dave Gregory, plays a marvelous, bouncy guitar solo starting at 2:06. This song does call to mind for me a breakup I had many years ago with a Supergirl. When I first heard the song soon after I thought, “Yes! This is perfect!” So many years later now, and I don’t remember why it connected. But I still like the song – cruel though the lyrics may be.

The rich, orchestral linked-together songs continue with two rainy spring-themed songs: the lovely “Ballet For A Rainy Day,” and the rather whiny “1000 Umbrellas.”

What I love about both these songs is are the lyrics. “Ballet For A Rainy Day” presents lovely imagery of the colors on a rainy day. And the music behind it sounds like a warm, drizzly late-spring morning. xtc_4At about 3 minutes a very (dare I say??) Beatle-esque string arrangement transitions the tune to “1000 Umbrellas,” a song that I don’t love despite it’s super-clever rhyme scheme and wordplay from Partridge.

The song that was a terrific closing number to Side One when I had the album on vinyl, and that is now just a cool song in the middle of all the tracks, is the celebration of Mother Nature “Season Cycle,” a fun, catchy number with lyrics that manage to rhyme “cycle” with “umbilical” in a way that you’ll love if you’re an Andy Partridge fan, and despise if not.

I love the background vocals on this song, and of course the lyrics. They ask who could be responsible for something so glorious as the world we inhabit. He lands briefly on the idea of a supreme being, but rejects it quickly and finally decides it’s so beautiful that Earth and heaven are one and the same. One of the reasons I took to Partridge’s lyrics when I first heard them is that at the time I was questioning the religious beliefs I’d grown up with, and this song mirrored thoughts I’d come to on my own – that the world around us is so wonderful, why would we ever seek to imagine something better, or more beautiful? The idea of a “better place” sounded silly to me, as it (apparently) sounded to Partridge, as well.

The cycle of life among humans is explored on what was once Side Two. xtc_3Whereas Side One mostly described the world around us, Side Two describes us within the world. “Earn Enough For Us” and “Big Day” both take a rather dim view of the human experience of marriage, while “Another Satellite” takes a similar view of relationships. “Earn Enough For Us” is what passes for a guitar track on this album, a driving pop rock number with a somewhat McCartney-esque bass line and lyrics describing a common worry for men in the late twentieth century and today, despite rising gender equality in America.xtc_1Big Day” is a Colin song that points out that the glory of the wedding can fade pretty quickly. “Another Satellite” is a cool-sounding song on which Partridge uses his venomous lyrics and astrophysical wordplay to target a would-be suitor – and makes the listener think that maybe Supergirl did the right thing in dumping his ass.

The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” is a nifty jazz piece with lyrics that either argue for more introspection, or advise against it – depending on your outlook. Colin’s “Sacrificial Bonfire” is a deceptively light, tribal take on the deep topic of humans’ historical urge to punish others to elevate themselves. Colin’s other song, “Dying,” is what my friend Johnny might refer to as one of “Colin’s Clunkers.” See, it seems like every XTC album has a song or two by Colin that, well, just don’t live up to the typical XTC standard. Thus Johnny, a big XTC fan, coined the term “Colin’s Clunkers.”

The most famous song on the album, the one I heard on the basketball court back in the day, is Andy’s slam on religion and belief, “Dear God.”

It’s one of my favorite songs, not just because of the lyrics – which thoughdear god biting and focused on Christianity, are an honest questioning of the nature of faith – but also because I like the acoustic guitar riff. This song was incredibly controversial for a song that wasn’t really a hit. It was even controversial among the band and producer Rundgren – though not because of the content. Maybe it’s a little manipulative to the listener to have a child sing a verse, but that’s my only quibble with it. When I first heard it, I thought it was a blatant attempt at publicity by the band. But after I became a fan, I realized it was just an artist expressing his view – one not too dissimilar to that “Smart Beatle,” John Lennon. And as an atheist myself, I find it nice to hear some non-religious viewpoints out there in the media once in a while. Whatever your viewpoint, it’s a song most listeners won’t forget.

So, is the band, and this album “Beatle-esque?” Well, they’re definitely not a boy band, but they do make some catchy guitar pop songs, and they sure threw in a lot of orchestral pieces on the songs, and I think they’ve got an artistic drive to what they do … But really – what does it matter? Being a Beatle fan brought me to XTC and Skylarking, but it isn’t what kept me listening. I kept listening because I love the music.

Track Listing
“Summer’s Cauldron”
“Grass”
“The Meeting Place”
“That’s Really Super, Supergirl”
“Ballet For A Rainy Day”
“1000 Umbrellas”
“Season Cycle”
“Earn Enough For Us”
“Big Day”
“Another Satellite”
“The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”
“Dear God”
“Dying”
“Sacrificial Bonfire”

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96th Favorite: De Nova, by The Redwalls

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De Nova. The Redwalls.
2005, Capitol Records. Producer: Rob Schnapf.
Purchased ca. 2006.

de nova

nut 96IN A NUTSHELL: As “Beatlesque” as Beatlesque can be, these four Americans know their way around melody, harmony, song structure and – best of all – lead guitar that supports the song throughout. The album presents a bit of a conundrum, as their Beatles sound is what I love, but it also probably limits my enjoyment. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it had 3 fewer songs, and one or two of the remaining had been more “Redwallsesque.”

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Imitation has always been inextricably bound to rock and roll music. Nothing that has come down the pike (aside from a few unlistenable things) has been truly original – it has all been based on something that came before. (And even the unlistenable stuff is a mutation of previous, listenable music!) When I was a kid, they said that “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and his Comets, was “the first rock and roll song,” as if Haley had gone to bed one night as a classical guitarist, then sprung from bed the next morning and suddenly pooped out a backbeat, 12-bar blues and a simple, repetitive melody.

haley cometsAnd listeners were supposedly suddenly hypnotized by a sound the likes of which had never been heard before, as if Poseidon himself had risen from the sea and unleashed his magnificent ichthyological ensemble on terrestrial beings everywhere. under sea

Other smarter, better writers than me have discussed at length the dangers of simplifying historical narratives (and for a historical topic as insubstantial as popular music, danger is probably too strong a word), but nonetheless I’ll point out that describing a single song as “the first” of any genre will obviously leave out much of the story.

Bill Haley had heard all kinds of music in his life, I’m sure, and “Rock Around the Clock” probably sounded like much of his musical repertoire, and similar to what he had been hearing among his musical colleagues, particularly his black colleagues who couldn’t get their songs heard by the white populace – artists like The Four Blues. Much has been written about white American musicians co-opting black American music, (far less has been written about black American musicians co-opting white music, but it has been done) and while it’s true that societal racism was at work in popularizing white artists like Haley, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis while many African American artists went unrecognized, something that’s not considered very often in the discussion is the fact that these artists – both white and black – were making music that sounded the way it sounded not because they were trying to cheat someone else out of recognition or money (at least not until Led Zeppelin, anyway) but because it was what they liked and what they heard around them. Musicians tend to play the music they like to hear, so it makes sense that “new” music will sound very similar to “old” music, and that white cats who dug the new sound (in the parlance of the times) would reproduce it in their own way. I doubt that anyone in the 70s really thought the “first rock and roll song” was by Bill Haley – I think it was more about hyping up the TV show Happy Days than anything else.

(Random thought – look at that Bill Haley and His Comets photo again. Can you imagine there was a time when a rock and roll band had use for an accordion player in the mix?? Although, when I l look closely, it appears to me that maybe he’s being phased out of the band)

Another reason musical artists copy others (although, as Picasso supposedly said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”) is because the listening public wants to hear what they know. Acts from Bill Haley in the 50s through Radio Disney artists of today have benefited financially from having a recognizable sound that becomes distinguished precisely because it is not distinguishable.

beatlemaniaIn the 60s, the wave of Beatlemania was followed closely by ripples of Beatle-somia. other bandsActs like The Dave Clark Five and The Knickerbockers capitalized on their Beatle sound, and Hollywood executives put together a mock-Beatles band, The Monkees (complete with animal name and misspelled long “E” sound) that was wildly successful (in large part because of the quality of songwriters they hired.) Even big-time artists with careers of their own took a shot at incorporating That Beatles Thing, such as The Rolling Stones’ answer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album Their Satanic Majesties Request.satanic maj

In the early 70s, the sensitive singer-songwriter James Taylor began pumping out his string of earnest, mellow hits and before you could say “Don’t let me be lonely tonight,” sensitivethe airwaves were flooded with story-songs sung by a dude with an acoustic guitar sitting on a stool. They didn’t all sound like James Taylor, but this fact was actually part of the imitation: each artist’s singularity was what was being marketed at the height of “The Me Decade.

Whether musicians are consciously trying to sound like what’s come before, like Kingdom “wir klingen genau wie Led Zeppelin” Come or whether a band just had a sound that some record exec thought sounded like, say, Led Zeppelin, one of the best ways to get some traction as a musical act is to sound like another musical act.

(A quick aside: Musical imitation also remains a booming industry in the nightclub concert circuit. lez zeptragedySo-called “Tribute Acts,” whose members imitate other bands with varying degrees of accuracy and sincerity, are some of the highest-grossing unsigned acts performing today. I’ve seen both Lez Zeppelin, an all-female Led Zeppelin tribute act that is remarkable in both its power and its musical chops, and Tragedy, an as-good-as-it-sounds Heavy Metal Bee-Gees Tribute Band, which melds metal and disco and both acts put on some of the best shows I’ve seen. There’s a tremendously interesting book about tribute bands called Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band, by Steven Kurutz, which I highly recommend!)

(One more thing here: One of the first “Tribute Acts” I remember was Sha-na-na, sha na na
a group in the 70s, named for a distinguishing musical feature of 50s doo-wop music, who covered 20-year old rock and roll songs, and who [after warming up the crowd at Woodstock just before Jimi Hendrix (!)] parlayed that narrow ability into a successful TV variety show – one of the most successful syndicated TV shows of all time! zimacostnerTo put that in perspective, imagine a few pierced guys dressed in flannel and thrift shop clothes today calling themselves, say, “Distortion Pedal,” and having a hit TV show on which they perform old hits by Bush and Lit and Fuel in between telling corny jokes about Zima, “Virtual Reality” and Kevin Costner. It boggles the mind.) (And it sounds like a great skit idea for Portlandia! Someone call Fred and Carrie!)

As has been well-documented here in this blog, I am a Beatles fan. To summarize, I really like The Beatles. beatles fan Billions of people are, or have been, Beatles fans over the past 50 years or so. I won’t go into details, but if you want you can read this dude’s BA thesis, written a few years ago by a student at a Marasyk University in the Czech Republic.

Since I like The Beatles, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the years I’ve enjoyed many acts that have been described in the press as “Beatle-esque.” Cheap Trick, XTC, and Matthew Sweet beatare a few acts whose albums are close to my heart (and possibly part of my Top 100??!!??) – acts that don’t exactly sound like The Beatles, but that clearly were strongly influenced by them. I know I like the sound, so I keep my ears open for acts described as “Beatlesque.”

At some point around 2005, probably on a message board about Stand-Up Comedy, I became aware of the existence of a young band from the Chicago area called The Redwalls that had a serious Beatles thing going on. band I think a friend’s band may have opened for them somewhere in the Boston area. I checked out the name on Youtube, and came across what has become one of my favorite songs ever: their first single from De Nova, “Thank You.”

What first captured my attention in this song was Andrew Langer’s guitar. It had become very rare, by 2005, to hear modern bands play the style of lead guitar heard on this song. I believe it was the influence of Grunge and 90s punk that caused the lead guitar to become so diminished in rock music. Bands like Nirvana and Green Day might throw a guitar solo into a song once in a while, but if they did, more often than not – as in the guitar solo in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – the solos sounded ironic, lead guitarlike an outright mocking of the idea of a “Guitar Solo.” Even less popular than the Guitar Solo was the idea of a “Lead Guitar,” that is, a guitarist who plays something other than chords and rhythm throughout the song. Lead guitarists like Don Felder, from the Eagles, and Jeff “The Skunk” Baxter, from The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, and George Harrison would fill up songs with all sorts of interesting fills and figures that added color and texture to a song. Part of the ethos of punk and grunge was to strip away all the frills and leave behind the power of a simple, loud song. I can appreciate this aesthetic, but I also really love a well placed, cool-sounding guitar. And “Thank You,” and the entire De Nova album, has this type of guitar work throughout.

The next thing that really drew me in to the song was the melodic, boop-de-dooping bass work of Justin Baren, one of the two brothers who lead the band. He plays a true Lead Bass, in the manner of classic rock bassists such as Paul McCartney and John Entwistle. Lines of melody that have their own path, but juxtapose perfectly with the guitar and the vocal melody. The vocals, on this song and throughout, may be what cause most listeners to immediately state “Beatlesque.” Logan Baren has a nasally, distinct voice, with a hint of a British accent (maybe he was hanging out with Madonna, another American with a British accent), that calls to mind at once John Lennon. lennon There have been other singers that sound a lot like Lennon, but Logan Baren may be the closest match who is not genetically linked. He sings in a deadpan style, but somehow he sounds sincere. The lyrics in “Thank You” are a nice reflection on a longtime love, and the entire piece works on all levels.

I immediately went out and bought the album. I was not disappointed by the rest of the songs.

The Redwalls have a bit of a political bent to some of their lyrics. The song “Falling Down”

is a screed against political censorship which humorously, and blatantly, uses several “words you can’t say on TV” to make the case for freedom of speech. This album was released around the time of that Great American Dark Nightmare of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Nipple,oops which, if you don’t remember, caused politicians across the political spectrum to take action to protect the nation’s youth from naughty words and glimpses of boobies while, shockingly, doing nothing to prevent lousy halftime shows at every Super Bowl since then. [Except Bruno Mars in 2014, which was actually pretty good.] “Falling Down” is a mid-tempo song with a bouncy drum beat, nice guitar work, and the Everly Brothers-esque vocal harmonies that are featured in most Redwalls songs. The voices of the brothers Baren, who trade off lead vocal duties, blend perfectly.

The songs “Glory of War” and “Front Page” also go political, offering a Redwalls take on war and violence and disarray in the modern world. Their political songs’ lyrics are not so overt, and don’t make you feel as if you are attending a political rally. The songs are good and catchy, and after a listen or two the lyrics start to come into better focus. The band definitely takes a “first, make catchy songs” approach to their work, and sound like they’d rather shoehorn an odd lyric into a good song than take the song in an odd direction. But their lyrics are never bad.

A close second for my favorite song on the album is “It’s Alright,”

which starts out as a straight-ahead rocker in the verse, lyrically referencing The Doors, but in the chorus (around the 50 second mark) throws in a tempo change, stellar harmonies, and drum break which sound – I’ve been trying to avoid the “B-esque” word, so I’ll say – Liverpudlian! liverpool In a great way. Again, the guitar work is nice throughout the song, continuing to be one of my favorite aspects of the band.

The Redwalls show their peace and love leanings in the excellent song “Build a Bridge.”

The song offers the cool hippy sentiment “Build a Bridge/and bring both sides together.” It starts out with a simple piano and builds to include horns and orchestration, and this makes the peace lovesong sound important, epic. The catchy sing-along chorus brings to mind the end of the night at a jam session with friends, in which anyone in the room is invited to join in. I think this band has a tremendous songwriting talent, for making the kind of song that makes the listener feel like part of the same club. Some bands can present music that makes me, as a listener, feel not cool enough to “get it,” but The Redwalls invite you in.

So? What are you smirking at? Because this band isn’t all that original? Okay – so what?!? The band obviously likes The Beatles, and so do I! I don’t mean to be defensive. It’s not the only thing I like about them – I like their songs, their harmonies, and especially their guitar. So what if they throw in backward guitar that could have been lifted off Revolver, in songs “Back Together” and “How the Story Goes“? What does it matter if a song like “Hung Up on the Way I’m Feeling,” with its sleepy lead bass, oohs and ahs, and close harmonies, sounds like it might have been cut from the side two medley of Abby Road ? Is it so wrong to have an affinity towards the best band ever? Does it really matter that “Rock & Roll” sounds like it might have been played in The Cavern Club in 1963? I don’t mind at all. The Redwalls are Beatles-ish, but I think they have enough of their own thing going, too. And they don’t pick obvious Beatles songs to cover live, so I like that, too!

Besides, if you’re going to pick a band to copy, you might as well pick the best!
simpsons

TRACK LISTING
Robinson Crusoe
Falling Down
Thank You
Love Her
Build a Bridge
Hung Up on the Way I’m Feeling
On My Way
It’s Alright
Front Page
How the Story Goes
Back Together
Glory of War
Rock & Roll

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