Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Top Dogs

When I was younger I always had a favorite band. It helped me to identify with myself saying, “This is who I am, and this is what it sounds like.” I think a lot of music lovers have favorite artists but I think just as many (if not more) don’t. There’s just too much good music out there to pin it down to one ultimate collection of tunes. Heck, there are too many genres, too many ways of approaching the same basic principle – expression through sound – to just say, “Ok, this one right here is the best there is…in my opinion.” But I have a touch of OCD and to help curbs those urges, I’ve almost always had a favorite band.

The first one, briefly but fervently, wasn’t a band at all but a solo artist, Howard Jones. I wore 1985’s Dream Into Action out and at one point almost insisted that my parents call me Little Howard. What an idiot. Ironically, I can’t stand that album now. Next was the juggernaut, the reason if you will, and the band that I “jokingly” say ruined my life…Duran Duran. I once admitted in 7th grade first period Algebra 1 to talking to my Duran Duran poster. Big mistake, but I survived it. In that same class I proudly displayed my freshly released/purchased copy of Notorious to my best friend Kevin, having picked it up the day after Thanksgiving in Tallahassee. Even now, 20+ years later, I get that album out the week of Thanksgiving and give it a few spins. And I have a good dozen other stories from those days with the DD boys hooked to them. They sparked my imagination, showed me how to pose and purse my lips and confirmed once and for all that what I wanted to be was a rock star. I even had dreams of joining the band as co-lead singer with Simon LeBon. And then on a weekend youth retreat I spent most of the time paling around with this guy named Scott West, the friend of a friend, and he brought with him a small box (you know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout) and half a dozen Led Zeppelin tapes. From that moment on, forget being a rock star, I wanted to be a rock god. Page was my idol. I must have watched The Song Remains the Same twenty times and the part where he’s sitting by a lake with his back to the camera and then turns around and his eyes are glowing orange still gives me chills (you know, when I think about it). My favorite t-shirt was a blue tie-dyed “Swan Song” logo shirt, shamelessly stolen off a bench at the beach when I went for a dip with some friends. And then things start to get fuzzy. I know that for a time Led Zep was king, no ifs ands or buts…however, hair bands were big, I hated (most of) them and Zeppelin was a lauded precursor of that trend, so I felt as if I had to find an “alternative” (you see what I did there) solution to that. I was already beginning to dabble in The Church and The Cure, just seeing what else was out there, but it wasn’t until 10th grade when I decided that “long hair in the back” was way uncool and Mad Bob’s big spiky do (with make up) was the new look. In a lot of ways I’ve never gotten completely away from that idea, and that year was the first time I was Mr. Smith for Halloween. I don’t know that they ever held the status of “my favorite band,” but for a time there was little else I listened to, so… In later high school I got more into punk and hardcore and the Descendents/All camp were easily my favorite band(s), though I maintained my more pop sensible (and Brit) leanings, and went through phases where I listened to everything from either Minor Threat to The Smiths almost exclusively. It wasn’t until college that I found another favorite band, the one I guess I’m most identified with amongst my friends, the one that gave me a lot of the ideas I hold onto in some ways even today, the band that made me want to really forget being a rock god/star and simply focus on an image and a life aesthetic that was drawn from the music I listened to. They’re also a band I hardly listen to any more. And I don’t have to tell you (my two loyal readers) who this band is, but for the sake of Mimsy who just stumbled on here looking for Jonas Bros information, I’ll say it out loud…Vampire. I kid, I kid. Joy Division. Bleh.

At one point in my early twenties I expanded my “all time favorite band” to a list of my “top ten all time favorite bands.” I was so obsessed with this list that I would repeat it to myself every night before I went to bed and eventually wrote it down on a scrap of paper and carried is with me in my wallet alongside a picture of Albert Camus. Whack job crazy, I know. I even got so bad as to write out a proper list that included band members and key albums and tried to make Karla memorize it. She didn’t ‘cos she’s got better things to do, but she saved that list and stumbled upon it the other day and we had a good laugh about it. I won’t repeat that list here ‘cos I’m not sure I’ll get it 100% right.

It’s been a long time since I’ve claimed an “all time favorite” band, and though I don’t listen to JD much these days, I’ve pretty much let them stay the default for lack of anyone better, because I’m not focusing so much on stuff like that and because people just assume it (yes, they really do). For a brief moment in 2004 I decided that the Pixies were going to take their place, but I retract that one.

But I realized that some of the bands I liked at one time and then denied or shied away from or got angry with but still kept in touch with, are really as important to me now, if not more so, than they were ten, fifteen or even twenty years ago. And it’s surprising how maturity has knocked some bands off (what I remember from) that old list, while others have withstood the test of time. I also decided there should be some requirements for these being my “all time favorite bands” as trends and sounds and albums and artists can suffer from the fickleness of human attention. They are as follows (and of course bulleted):

• Must be listening to for 10 or more years
• Must go through a listening phase at least every 6-12 months
• Must own most or all of their reasonably accessible material

And so, for the sake of OCD and because it’s Christmas, I present to you (in no particular order), my current and possibly inaccurate “Top 10 All Time Favorite Bands.”

REM—These guys are the reason for this list/entry. And here’s how… I can remember seeing their videos in middle school late on Saturdays on Night Tracks and feeling sorry for them ‘cos I didn’t think anyone cared. And then it was fun to say I hated them just to get a rise out of Cybil and Susan. And then Brent made me realize they were pretty amazing and I can remember sitting in Math 5 class my junior year in high school shaking with excitement ‘cos Out of Time was coming out that day and we were going to buy it and then listen to it at Brent’s. At the time it was great but in retrospect that album kinda blows…the beginning of the end? Sorta. By college I was over them, sick of Stipe, sick of his attitude and his weirdness for no good reason and completely unable to relate to their newer stuff. But I was also a young, angry indie-something and only liked/listened to the IRS albums out of principle, though Green received a begrudged nod of acceptance (because it is that good). Sometime after dating Karla I eased up somewhat. She didn’t care about indie ethics, she just liked good music and soon enough I was an in-the-closet fan of Automatic for the People. And so it followed that we were interested in hearing Up after Bill Berry’s departure and liked it enough to pick up Reveal, which is easily the best of their “space age” trilogy (that’s my terminology). But I still wouldn’t call myself a fan, they were just a band I listened to because I had for years and they had some great songs and albums and such. So stubborn. But you know, South Central Rain is a great song, right? And you know they made their television network debut on Letterman in 1983 while supporting Murmur and played that song when it was, to quote Dave, “Too new to be named.” And I seriously think about that every single day of my life. And this is why: REM were the most important American band from 1983 until, well, I’ve not decided until yet, but a mighty long time. And they’ve had their ups and downs and such, but I’m happy, even proud to say that they really matter to me, then and now. And I’ve even found it in myself to forgive Stipe. (Now Bono…that’s another issue entirely.)
Key albums: Murmur, Fables of the Reconstruction, Document

The Cure—I’ve touched on these guys a bit already. What really hit me about them around 1994 is that they are a band. A band. Not a group, not a production, not a bunch of ninnies in big hair and make up, but a full force rock act. I realized this watching footage of them playing in Hamburg, Germany on the Wish tour, some sorta small, dingy looking stage with cables and junk all over the place. They were raw and they were slinky and they were rockin’ it. With the wonders of you tube, you can find even older footage, especially an early 80s festival clip of Fire in Cairo where they just make it look so easy and fun. Robert and Co have really done a great job over the years of maintaining a certain image while shifting what that image sounds like. If I hear the opening cymbal crash of Killing an Arab or the tinkling keys of The Caterpillar or the orchestra warming up for The 13th, I always picture Robert with his big hair and pale face and lipstick smear grinning slyly off to the side and sauntering up the mic. I’ve not always appreciated or agreed with their (then) current sound or direction, but (as with REM) I’ve stayed true to the albums that got them there and more often than not, with repeat listens or time away from my first impression, found much of the more recent stuff to be as satisfying as their classic heyday. I’ve discussed these ups and downs with a couple of friend-fans in the know and the basic conclusion is that we became aware of them at an age when they’d already accumulated a pretty amazing back catalogue and after the Big D (see previous entry Dark Trilogy Part 1), with all of it’s shimmering grandeur, it’s pretty hard to come up with anything that compares, so really why try, why not just do something completely different? And that’s what they mainly sorta did with Wish (some pop-radio-fluff, some sweeping…er, boring…epics) and then really mixed it up for Wild Mood Swings and then flirted around with their “classic” sound on Bloodflowers and then just kicked out the jams on their 04 self-titled and again on this year’s 4:13 Dream. And with the exception of Bloodflowers, all of these are worthwhile efforts, giving the Cure a status beyond nostalgia and the aching, pining daydreams of a fifteen year old lolling on his bed and wondering why “she” doesn’t hurt in her gut for him like he does for her. (Knowing what I do now, I’d just as soon drown a good two thirds of those gals in “the same deep water” as give them another thought.) But having said that, an alternate conclusion was that after the Big D, The Cure should have hung it up. But only hindsight can tell us that, and it took missteps like Bloodflowers and a big chunk of Wish to make me realize that while these guys are very good at changing up a sound, that change isn’t always for the better. Perhaps this tarnishes their legacy, but I honestly believe there’s enough decent stuff from the past twenty years to make the struggle acceptable. And honestly, if I’m gonna pick up an album for a casual listen these days, 33.333% of the time it’s going to be Wild Mood Swings. Take that Disintegration.
Key albums: Faith, Disintegration, Wild Mood Swings

The Church—These guys have been a definer of what I was about in my younger days up through the present – albeit a subtle one. See the Dark Trilogy Part 2 entry for how I got into them. It was a fluke to be sure, but a mighty important one. My favorite memory associated with them is purchasing their first album on cassette at the Cool Springs mall for something like $2.99 my freshman year at Lipscomb. When we left the store, we turned the corner and saw Alan Jackson, who was just beginning to make a name for himself in country music. The gals with me got excited and so being the green-haired idiot that I was, I said to him, “Hey, you’re that country guy, right?” And he said, “I am, but you don’t listen to my music.” I smiled, “Nope, I sure don’t.” “That’s ok,” he said. And it was, dude is rich without me. But about the band… What’s amazing about these guys is that they’ve had the heart of rock n roll (…and now sports) at the core of their being from the beginning. Their 80s material was straight up psychedelic pop, pure and pristine and equally fun to either sing along with or try and look dreamy and wistful (writing this entry, I’m beginning to realize how stupid music can make people, aka me, act) and their “post mainstream” work, basically everything for the past twenty years, has fanned out to embrace everything from moody ambient to quirky prog rock, all excellently executed and produced. This is a band that always knows what it wants to do and has no qualms about what anyone will think about it. And, as is so often the case, I’ve initially found many of these meanderings from 80s glory to be interesting but ultimately tedious listening. But in recent years, I’ve really come to appreciate much of their contemporary meterial and can honestly say that it will withstand the test of time far, far better than the roots from whence it sprang. And that’s not to diminish their pop beginnings. Again, this is a band that creates music for themselves first and for their audience second. Audiences are often fickle, but a band true to where they want to be can never make a mistake. The Church has embraced this idea, creating landscapes that give them places to hide (now that they’re older) and let the music paint the images. And no matter what your mood, a toe-tapping sing-a-long or a just a touch of atmosphere, you can find it all within one condensed unit, slickly packaged and delivered to your doorstep.
Key albums: Of Skins and Heart, Starfish, Uninvited Like the Clouds

Psychedelic Furs—For some time now I’ve not been much of a “lead singer” fan. Basically, you need to play an instrument or you need to go join a boy band. I’m serious. And there are exceptions. Bono in 1983, Michael Stipe in 1985 and Richard Butler, flat out whenever. I could never write lyrics like this guy. They’re nearly always a stream of conscious rant and yet nearly always make some sort of vague and shattered sense. Much of it is his delivery, in a raspy sneer that’s part Johnny Rotten and part 50s crooner. There’s a lot of beauty in the noise they put out, a lot of images they conjure up. It’s a shame that they’re only known for a couple of their more slick, radio friendly tracks. And those are good tunes, but the Furs were just as much an album band as a singles one. And they came around full circle with their sound. From their self-titled debut to their (for now) swan song World Outside, they came in and went out with a barrage, a wall of noise, one cultivated by chaos and the other by a mature piecing of sounds and ideas. Even in the mid 80s when they suffered from some over production, there was always the sense of menace, of something not right below the glossy surface. And for that reason I can forgive the occasional tinny drum machine, cheesy sax and dripping reverb, ‘cos these songs are good, would be devastating (and probably were) in a live setting, delivered hot and ready and downright sexy. Perhaps the Furs are resting on their laurels. Perhaps, unlike the Cure, they realize they’ve hit their creative high. I’ve always said Robert Smith should step out from under the Cure mantle and try something on his own, or at least with a different set of musicians, and that’s just what Richard Butler did, first in the 90s with his offshoot and somewhat successful Love Spit Love and then with a pretty satisfying and musically surprising solo album in 2006. Both efforts give a fresh perspective to the Furs’ catalogue, not showing what they would have become or should have been had they continued, but more simply what they were and so are, unchanged and just as glorious as they were when I first heard Imitation of Christ at J-Smith’s house back in 1995. It’s a shame that they’re not so much underrated and they are un-thought of. But for good pop rock that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but is definitely not a joke, you need nothing more.
Key albums: Psychedelic Furs, Talk Talk Talk, World Outside

The Pixies—I found these guys the same time as I did The Church and The Smiths, but I wasn’t immediately drawn to them. Basically I wasn’t ready. But a couple years later I was and I copied Theron Wallis’ copy of Bossanova onto tape and never looked back. For several months that was the only album by them I’d heard and so it was my “favorite” one. That all changed when I heard Surfer Rosa. And how. Those big drums, those spiky guitars and Black Francis wailing like a banshee. Who cared what he was talking about, I probably didn’t wanna know, but whatever it was, it rocked my face off. To this day, when that opening beat for Bone Machine kicks in, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’m going to get up and shake something. That album also contains what is arguably my favorite Pixies song…the highly overlooked and probably underrated (when looked at) Brick is Red. I can’t tell you why, but there it is. For my 19th birthday I got Doolittle on cd in a care package from my ex girlfriend (old habits die hard, yo) and with a copy of my own to listen to at will and leisure and on repeat, I soon had a new champion that reigns to this day. I can still remember times when hearing Kim say “I love you” during La La Love You would give me chills and just about shake a tear from my eye (and a little something else from a little somewhere else). She was every indie kid’s fantasy. Was being the operative word (sorry, babe). And then there’s that other album… The day I graduated from high school I was sitting in Kevin’s living room on that big white leather couch on shag carpet his folks had, listening to Psalm 69, hating it but commenting that it was at least better than Trompe le Monde. Geez, have I always been stupid? Out of either obstinacy or habit I continually slammed that album, saying that the “first three songs were good, and the last three, but the rest sucks.” And I can remember being sprawled in the backseat of a friend’s car in PC, driving around in the cove and listening to Planet of Sound at full volume and thinking “this rocks,” but by then I’d already made my statement and wasn’t about to back down. With years and repeated listens I’ve grown to accept that album, even enjoy it. I even once went as far to say that it’s a good Pixies album to listen to when you’re sorta tired of the rest, but honestly, anyone who could get tired of Doolittle is not a Pixies fan. Oh yes I did. And I tell you, Charles and the kids did a good thing when they nicely packaged all the b-sides onto one disc. Yeah, J-Smith complained ‘cos he’d already tracked down most of the singles, but it was a definite score for me. And the BBC Sessions are also a nice addition to their legacy. They may have tarnished what was with their reunion. I’m still undecided on that, though I’m glad to have seen them (extra special thinks to Lucy Spivey being born which enabled Paul to free up the tickets for me). At one point the Pixies were given the honor of being “the only US band I listen to.” Not sure if that was true or not, but I was the “Brit Boy” for the 97-98 season and they transcended international borders. Every successive generation of quirky, off beat kids will and should re-re-rediscover the Pixies. They will never die. They will never fade. And hopefully they will never make another album.
Key albums: Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Bossanova

The Doors—I can’t remember not listening to the Doors. Even when I didn’t own any albums I considered myself a fan because I got excited when they came on the radio or as part off the Closet Classics on MTV. I used to have this ratty old clock radio that woke me up at 5:53 every morning for school and late one night around middle school age I couldn’t sleep, so flipped it on for a bit of music to distract me. WPFM the great 108 was playing The End and it was in the middle bit where Jim is rambling about stuff. I was an excitable little cuss and easily spooked. I knew who the band was but I’m not sure I’d actually heard that particular song before. When it got to the part where “the killer awoke before dawn” I was sufficiently freaked enough to turn the radio off, but it stuck with me and soon after I started exploring Doors LPs at Camelot Music in the mall. At some point I picked up single disc best of and the first album, both of which I loved and it went on from there. An interesting side note is that all of the major relationships I’ve been in, we’ve always shared the Doors as a band we liked. Perhaps this applies to my belief that the Doors transcend not only genres and generations, never to be dated or duplicated, but musical toleration and preference. Of course Karla was the biggest fan of them all and that’s why she’s still around. I’m pretty sure the Doors are her all time favorite, A+, #1 band and I can think of many occasions driving down the road in the car when we’re both belting out Love Me Two Times at full capacity regardless of how lousy we may sound or goofy we may look (which, btw, we do not). And while I think the Doors are easily the best group of the 60s/classic rock era, always name dropped but never given their full due amongst the upper tier of elite rock gods, that doesn’t mean I think everything they’ve done is up to snuff – by Doors or any standards. With the exception of Touch Me, the entire Soft Parade album is a stiff, overproduced mess of by the book posturing and a bit of left-of-center quirkiness that I often force myself to listen to in order to become more familiar with, even though I’ll likely never, ever get into it. I’ve yet to meet a fan that didn’t pretty much feel the same. And it’s only been in the past year or two that I’ve gotten into LA Woman as an album…of course now that I am, yee-ha, good stuff. But as all bands should, the Doors were in constant metamorphosis. Though rooted in blues, they embraced psychedelic for a time, dabbled in jazz and a bit of folk and often let their classical leanings peak through amongst the hollering and the screeching. As my own musical output has steered closer to “traditional” rock and roll, the Doors have been a source I’ve pulled from and I can safely say that the Morrison Hotel album was pretty much the main influence to a good 1/3 or more of the songs I wrote for the first Heroes and Villains album (for better or worse…am I right?). I have no doubts that 20 years from now the Doors will be part of my musical catalogue and recent rotation just like they were 20 years ago.
Key albums: Waiting for the Sun, Strange Days, Morrison Hotel

Brian Eno—Eno is the reason for so much. He’s one of those legendary names amongst musical knowers, hallowed and revered, and you know what? He should be. Without realizing it, everyone who has enjoyed popular music for the past 20 odd years can thank Brain One for some of that. Talking Heads, U2, Paul Simon, his production work, even for artists I don’t care for, is warm and appealing and gives said album a touch of class it would have never received without him doing whatever it is that he does. I mean if he can make Coldplay that much less stagnant, then he must have some magic up his sleeve. It’s been said a million times, but it’s true: he’s a pioneer in music, which is never more evident than on his own musical output. His take on pop is zany and fun but just as dark and sinister, sometimes soothing, sometimes jarring, but always what it should be, creating the right mood structure in a predetermined pattern for the listener’s enjoyment, never dull or tedious or out of place. He’s a calculated artist in his search for sounds, and while some things may seem to fall at random, it’s only because he has willed it to be so. The godfather of ambient music, he’s the reason I’ve found krautrock through his work with the likes of Cluster and Harmonia, which has expanded my beliefs in the possibilities of what music is and could. Structure and chance, serenity and chaos, noise and silence, it’s all here. He’s an accessible outlet to the realization that music can be faceless and formless but never soulless, enabling artists to make an enjoyable racket from box fans and tin cans with the help of a half-baked fx processor. The possibilities are now endless.
Key albums: Another Green World, Before and After Science, Cluster & Eno

The Smiths—In 11th grade I told Susan in the hall that I could no longer start my day off properly without listening to Is It Really So Strange?, Sheila Take a Bow, Shoplifters of the World Unite and Sweet and Tender Hooligan. I think she responded, “That’s nice.” She was a bit of a shrew. And I only told her that because she’d given me Louder Than Bombs for my seventeenth birthday and it was just another way of thanking her by letting her know how excited I was. Girls, they suck. Regardless, that album always conjures up feelings of new discoveries, especially in the opening run of Sweet and Tender Hooligan, realizing I’d never heard anything quite like that before. How could something be so musically uplifting and yet lyrically morose? Please assign the corresponding words with the corresponding style. But I was being forced to expand here, finding it awkward but in no way unpleasant. And The Smiths were always brilliant at that sort of thing. Louder Than Bombs carried me quite well on its own for several months before I finally picked up another album…when on my 18th birthday I was given The Queen is Dead. Holy haunting Moses. This was real music expressing what I was really going through, and the deciding moment when I knew I wanted to make my own music not to (just) pick up girls, but to let others out there know that they weren’t alone in how they felt. The longing of Back to the Old House (“When you cycled by, there began all my dreams”), the ache of Half a Person (“I’ve spent too long on your trail”), the isolation of What She Said (“How come someone hasn’t noticed that I’m dead”), the blissful content of There is a Light That Never Goes Out (“To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die”), it was all there along with a quirky wit that I could appreciate if never duplicate. The sometimes juxtaposition of lyrics and music made it all that much more poignant, a true reflection of life – smiling in our misery, wary in our joy, us sensitive types never can seem to get it quite right and the Smiths are the perfect soundtrack for such an outlook. And technically speaking the boys were spot on. There was never a better backing band for a singer, precise and intricate. The rhythm section of Joyce and Rourke (I’ve often said) were equally as integral to the band and Morrissey or Marr, their parts often songs unto themselves, which stripped down and re-layered with different words and guitars, could have created entirely different ideas. And Johnny Marr showed me the beauty of layering –multiple guitars doing multiple things in such a way as to weave a tapestry of sound that is a sum of its parts and yet when unraveled, each thread is a work of beauty in and of itself. And though I’ve felt frustration over the years with their seemingly endless string of pointless best of collections while several b-sides and random tracks still float about in obscurity, the bulk of the music is readily available and painfully worthwhile. If Meat is Murder doesn’t spin my player at least once every two months, then something’s not quite right.
Key albums: Meat is Murder, The Queen is Dead, Louder than Bombs

The La’s—I think Cybil had this one on cassette. I say one ‘cos the La’s only put out one album; ramshackle and lovely, they hated it and we loved it and the head scratching on both ends continues nearly 20 years after the fact. We were sitting on the floor in my parent’s living room, it was summertime I think (it’s always summertime in FL), I think Cybil was dating Mark and I was trying not to date anybody. We listened to the album about ten times back to back on this lousy little tape recorder I had and then left to do I don’t know what. I had a hard time finding a copy of my own in PC and it wasn’t until I went to college and J-Smith had it on cd that I was able to hear this wonderful band again. Of course we all know the classic, glistening all-chorus single There She Goes, made famous by So I Married an Axe Murderer and infamous when Christian pretty band Sixpence None the Richer covered it (‘cos it’s about HEROIN, yo!!!). And as much as I love that song, there’s so much more to this band than that 2 minutes and 42 seconds of pop glory. From the plucky strum of Son of a Gun to the chaotic descent of Looking Glass, we’re taken on a retro emotional journey through twelve tracks about various characters expressing opinions on society, love and the joy of life. Sadly the band stopped there, but in some ways this is all you need. With repeated listens you can find more to love, more to draw from. In recent years the La’s have been highly inspirational to me, not only as a posturing 30 something too old for the face he wants to show the world, but also as a something kind of musician. Lee Mavers showed me how to direct phrasing and deliver understated vocals that can only be truly picked up and appreciated when really, I mean really listened to. The more recent release of the BBC Sessions and a deluxe edition of the album not only gives us a few non-album cuts, but of course different takes of the tunes we already have. And each take rather recreates the songs, making them equally familiar and yet a new experience all the same. I imagine a live performance would have been a rebirth each and every night. Too bad I was young and American at the time. Would another La’s album be seen as a second coming? Likely. Would it be any good? You know, probably. Will it ever really happen? I doubt it.
Key albums: The La’s, BBC Sessions

Mojave 3—Neil Halstead is the Dylan of our generation. There, I said it. And having said that, what more is there to say? When the noise of Slowdive settled down, Halstead re-emerged with a softer, subtler unit (with lovely-voiced Slowdive alum Rachel Goswell in tow) that absolutely sent chills up and down my spine when I first heard it. Ask Me Tomorrow is such a delicate, beautiful album that I almost hate to listen to it today for fear that I will disrupt the way it continues to make me feel from when I listened to it non stop at the age of 23. Even now I will only listen to it in an absolute perfect setting – no distractions, lights low, comfy pillow. Unfortunately that almost never, ever happens. And that’s why they gave us some more albums to enjoy. There is a theory that the better Star Trek movies are the even ones. I think the same may be true for odd numbered Mojave 3 albums. That’s not to say that Out of Tune and Spoon & Rafter aren’t good albums, but they both catch the band in transition phases. You have to hear the “end results” in Excuses for Travelers and Puzzles Like You before you can fully appreciate the developmental sounds in the other two. But once you do, the entire catalogue is greatly enriched. And you know, this is just a personal theory. I doubt Neil and Rachel and crew have anything remotely akin to this in mind when they’re writing and recording, but it’s obvious that they are always moving ahead, ever so slowly leaving that first shimmering gem behind, careful not to retread covered territory and yet never fully receding from the original ideas that instigated the band’s sound in the first place. Neil has helped me as a songwriter, showing me it’s ok to tell stories, to write lyrics that “make sense” (thank you, Karla) and to not hide what you’re saying behind a wall of sound – acoustic guitars and vocals are just fine and sometimes more powerful than a hammer to an anvil. Mojave 3 seems destined to obscurity, but their music will absolutely remain relevant because Neil writes and sings about every day things, the wishes and regrets of an everyman, and anybody can relate to that if they let themselves.
Key albums: Ask Me Tomorrow, Excuses for Travelers, Puzzles Like You

Below are a few bands that didn’t quite make the cut for various reasons or technicalities.

Belle & Sebastian—I love these guys, I own everything they’ve put out, I listen to them a lot, but I can’t always relate to their goofy, off kilter mope on a personal level. If it’s not something I could have said or felt, then it can only go so far.

The Judybats—These guys should have been up there, but others were just more important. Too me they’re too special to try and replicate. Plus, they lost me after Down in the Shacks… Sorry, Jeff.

The Misfits—What can I say about this band that they don’t say for themselves? Nothing. Flat out the best punk/hardcore band out there and still a source of demonic fun. And I love to strum out renditions of their songs on my acoustic.

Depeche Mode—When I was a courier in 96/97 I listened to DM nearly non stop. I was all things synth. And then I got burned out and nearly disowned the band. But honestly, they’re the one 80s act who have logically progressed with each album and stayed consistently worth the money to purchase said album. Martin, I’ll never doubt you again.

Robyn Hitchcock—A painfully underrated everything from guitarist to lyricist, heck, even vocalist. He picked up where Syd left off and never looked back. He has a back catalogue so vast that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with or ingest once you get your hands on it. But in recent years I’ve found that his new releases are often the best of the year. Where most artists simply stagnate out in their 40s, Robyn has managed to put out arguably the best work of his career for the past 10 plus years. I don’t wanna go backwards!

Tim Buckley—What an enigma. I can appreciate everything he did even if I can’t listen to all of it. His freeform jazz influenced mid period is almost anti-music, which makes it both brilliant and nearly avoidable. But his early folk-psychedelic days are unmatched and the shamefully derided “white funk” albums closing his career are valuable as well if for no other reason than they’re an accessible resource to the powers of his voice.

Led Zeppelin—In the past year or so I’ve picked up all the albums I got rid of my first week of college. So that was about fifteen years of silence. And yet LZ has always been a part of me even when I neglected them. I’ve found more enjoyment in rehashing these old classics than I thought would be possible and it was worth the stupidity of turning my back on them just to re-discover them again.

The Go-Betweens—A mere technicality of years keeps these guys off my list. Of course I’m not sure who they would replace. “Ours go up to eleven.” There you go. Another enigmatic shifter of a band, each successive album reaffirming their brilliance and giving new meaning to what came before. In 1999 and 2000, every song I wrote was inspired by something I found in the Go-Bs.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Doin' it on yer own...

Solos…they’re as much a part of rock n roll (jazz, big band or, heck, even country) as sex and drugs. But are they worth it? Well, some would scream a resounding YES and others would shrug and say, Eh, whatever… I’ve found myself in both camps over the years. At one point I (braggingly) made the comment that I didn’t listen to any bands that soloed. That was a stupid thing to brag about and it wasn’t even accurate, but “back in the day” the aesthetic was so fed up with musical overindulgence that any single notes beneath the 5th fret were stopped at the gate and forcibly turned back the way they came. This was sometime in the 90s. I can’t remember when exactly, but I’ll blame ’94 (you know, the year Kurt died).

These days, with classic rock now (un)surprisingly hip again, solos are widely acceptable, provided they’re tasteful – defined as: a burst of feedback, a few well executed runs along the fret board, a coupling of notes that are basically just a picked out chord – it all qualifies, it’s all good, it’s whatever gets you from the second chorus to the third verse or takes you out of the bridge or finishes the song up or whatever.

Your wankers like Yngwie J. Malmsteen will still meet with a certain amount of derision amongst the “indie” crowds, though folks do tend to smile (with nostalgia) about Vai or Satriani, and I’m sure more than one corduroy wearing, coffee indulging, Pavement reissue purchasing thirty-something has a tattered cassette of Surfing With the Alien that they can’t let themselves drop (of course they never actually listen to it either…liars).

I believe the main concern here, at least in my book, is this: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Often with these longhaired chops-cats it seems that technique, prowess and how many notes you can weld into one measure takes importance over things like melody, structure and downright common sense (aka listenability). I mean guys, I’m SO glad you can do that stuff, but really, please, three notes per second is absolutely acceptable, even laudable, and probably more than Jandek can do (who?).

I admit I once denied Zeppelin like Peter to Christ and there were times when I would scoff my silly middle school years when I actually owned a Yardbirds album. But today I proudly sport my AC/DC t’s (and keychain) and will probably listen to Houses of the Holy over Daydream Nation if given the choice (and so would Thurston).

Overall, rock soloing standards like Page, Clapton and Hendrix are again back in good standing and given their dues by folks below the 50-something mark who “get it.” (Honestly, I’m not sure that Hendrix ever fell out of vogue, the man is unparalleled and, much like the Doors, seems to span inter-generational borders.) Perhaps this is because so many alterno-rock legends began name dropping folks like Rush and Cheap Trick and it made us realize, “Hey wait a minute…,” or maybe That 70’s Show (oh, that wily Hyde) tricked enough of us into thinking it was cool until it finally was again or maybe, just maybe, it was always cool and we were just idiots.

Be that as it may, the solo debate, as in yea or nay, is one not often refuted these days. You could possibly argue that it’s a necessary evil, something that’s expected of you now and then to prove you’re a legit rock act or so you can nod back to where you came from. But my guess is that folks who don’t have solos can’t play them, and those who can choose to do so tastefully.

Having said all of that, I present you (and ask for your) top 5 all time favorite guitar solos, in order and bulleted for my enjoyment.

• U2 – 11 O’Clock Tick Tock: You want a live take of this one, especially from their ’82-‘83-era heyday. The Edge takes Bono’s already impassioned vocals to new heights. Twenty-plus years later it never, ever fails to give me emotional chills.

• Shudder to Think – Red House (Funeral at the Movies version): A song that builds in stages, this solo is the climax; heartfelt, precise, it’s a work of beauty in and of itself.

• The Smiths – Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before: Simplicity at its best, this three-note ride out takes one of the Smiths’ most “melancholy-bouncy” songs and sends it into the beyond. I can picture JM turning and looking off to an uncertain future every time.

• Def Leppard – Photograph: Any longhaired guitar wanker can riff off a bunch of notes like a gunslinger, and often they do to the detriment of the song. What’s fantastic about this solo (and many of DL’s solos) is that it’s well written, meticulously scripted and perfectly executed. Rock-n-crunkin’-roll!

• Life Without Buildings – 14 Days: Life Without Buildings’ jerky post punk sound was a sum of its parts, more about rhythm and beat than showcasing any one member. But when a solo is called for, it’s delivered quirky and methodic and like nothing you’ve heard before or probably will again. (Psst, and they could even do it live!)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Follow Up to Brilliance

We all know and love them, those basically perfect albums that not even some of the greatest bands have, but when they do, are all anyone can ever talk about despite what greatness may (or may not) come before or after. They’re an Achilles heal really, ‘cos once they reach that point (shall we say musical Nirvana), everything else they ever do will be compared (quite harshly) to that one shining achievement. A few (random) examples would be…

Boston: Boston (1976)
Sarah McLachlan: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)
David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
The Cure: Disintegration (1989)

These aren’t necessarily my favorite albums by these artists, nor their financial, creative or influential peaks, nor am I saying they should have called it quits afterwards. But I am saying that from what I’ve heard and read and from conversations I’ve had with music lovers over the past 20+ years, these are the albums that folks tend to nod to enthusiastically should you bring up said artist. And these could be debated (as always, music is in the ear of the beholder), and for that reason I couldn’t include folks such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the B-52s (left field, I know). ‘Cos different “experts” will argue that Dylan was over when he went electric, the Beatles when they stopped touring, the Stones when Brian Jones checked out and our friends from Athens before the first album came out. And to all of that I would say, “Incorrect,” but I would also respect that opinion and say this…

How do you follow up a hallmark album? Should you?

The obvious answer is: Yes! And yet often times, with hindsight: No!!!

There’re lots of reasons for this depending on the artist and the viewpoint of the listener. And I’m not here to discuss any of the aforementioned artists or albums, but an album by an artist of whom many, MANY fans include their eponymous debut within the pantheon of ultimate albums and even consider it, as it was with me, an essential rites of passage into the hallowed halls of “alternative” music. That debut album is, obviously, by the Violent Femmes. And I am not here to sing the praises of that album, which are evident and many to so, so, so many people. What I want to do is give a shout out to an album that came out six years later, one that fans overlook and the band seems to pretend doesn’t exist, and that is 3.

Granted, I’ve only met a handful of really hardcore VF fans. Most folks will swear by the debut, give Hallowed Ground or Why Do Birds Sing a familiar wink and possibly own the jumbled compilation Add It Up, but even that is stretching it. In fact I’ve only met two people who have heard anything after Why Do Birds Sing (and I admit I am not one of them) and they agreed with me that 3 was a much underrated classic.

After the multi-instrumental hoot of The Blind Leading the Naked (another minor masterpiece), Gano and the gang scaled things back considerably for 3. That’s not to say it’s a jump back to early classics. This album presents a band that is older, tighter and more in focus with the type of sound they want to create and what they want to say; something that harkens back to previous glories but also looks to where they want to be in coming years. Every song is well crafted (rather than seemingly bashed out for use busking on the streets) and subconsciously catchy. It may take two or six listens, but you’ll find yourself (in my case years after my last listen) singing (and maybe even hip-twisting) along to the opener Nightmares or the slightly Latin-flavored Outside the Palace. And as far as poptastic numbers go, that’s about it. Everything else is a mellower affair…or a more hectic one.

Honestly, it’s a more sobering listen than anything else I’ve heard before or since, and perhaps this is why fans of their quirkier stuff will skip over it. Even when it’s trying to be funny it’s really just coming off as spooky, like the weird guy who lives next door and steps out on his porch every now and then in a bathrobe and black socks…aka Gordon Gano. And a lot of this is due to his vocal delivery. Where it was whiny but endearing when he was ranting out teen angst classics like Please Do Not Go and Promise; delivering this more self conscious set of lyrics, one sometimes feels less of a complaint and more of a threat. And gone are the lost in infatuation (or lust) days of “Why can’t I get just one screw?” It’s obvious now that the objective has been obtained and he’s now experiencing the pains from the back end of a relationship (Nightmares, Telephone Book, Mother of a Girl), and has become cautious, even a bit paranoid about taking another dip in those waters (“What am I gonna do, if I see someone I’d like to do something to…people are dying”). Careless love has changed. This is a world, in 1988, that is still fresh in the panic of AIDS, unsure what to do with this new contagion.

Gordon has always had a touch of a sinister streak, a peppering of violence to give his aching a little more kick. This is usually from a longing to have someone he cannot (pretty much the entire debut), or to get the people roused and ready to overthrow a government in the wrong (Blind Leading the Naked’s Old Mother Reagan, No Killing, etc). But now he doesn’t seem to want anyone for any sweetly romantic purposes, or to sway your political beliefs; his angst has become rage, turning in against family, Just Like My Father (“…he hurt my mother, I hurt her worse!”), and the general public, Fool in the Full Moon (“Following women after dark, nobody knows what’s in my heart…”). Even his faith in God seems a bit shaken. Nothing Worth Living For takes the ache of Good Feeling and drowns it in a sea of doubt, while Lies berates the charlatan practices of not only religious leaders, but the government and literary minds as well. The album closer, See My Ships, seems to sum up his worries, his despair, his anger, his disbelief in three odd minutes of bemoaning, begging the second coming of Christ because he now lives in a world where fathers are killing their sons and we’re living in days of shame in cheap thrills.

This album is edgy and nervous, the thoughts and fears of a paranoid. And yet there are moments of levity (Fat), seeming relief (Dating Days) and even determination in hope (Outside the Palace). But still these aren’t the carefree jangles of earlier days (I Held Her in My Arms, Black Girls, Prove My Love), he’s just trying to find something positive, something to smile about in all the discontentment, but still with a world weary sensibility that can’t help but creep into his voice and lyrics. And Brother Gano’s not really saying it’s all over, but it’s for sure on the way and he is not only powerless to stop it, he may just join in on the carnage.

I got this album in high school, a discarded item from my friend Donnie Wiggington (who also introduced me to the Feelies and the Descendents). His thought was that it basically wasn’t the first album, so why own it? And no, it’s not the first album. There will never, could never be another opener like Blister in the Sun, a riff so immediately recognizable that you could this moment walk into a room a 50 people, ages ranging from 15 to 45, whistle that three note ditty and have 98% of the room: clap-clap, clap-clap. That song is the Femmes’ More Than a Feeling or Ziggy Startdust (or Changes, or Modern Love, or whatever). And the rest of the album pretty much follows that standard, one instant classic after another.

I don’t know what it is about these albums that seem to hit everyone the same way and stand the test of time. Perhaps it’s the batch of songs, the chemistry of the band, the producer, the way the needle (or laser) hits the groove. And while most bands never, ever achieve such fantastic heights again, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to offer, something worthwhile, something else that can be respected and enjoyed, just perhaps not in the same universal-fanatic way. And taken on it’s own merit, the Violent Femmes’ 3 is a quiet, understated classic. It’s a band trying to remain relevant in changing times, while still holding on to the peculiarities that got them there in the first place. Most of these tunes won’t make you want to dance, and they surely won’t find you screaming “Everything, everything, everything, everything!!!” at the top of your lungs, and they won’t even get you up in arms, ready to take on the dark forces of your world. But what they do have to offer is for those in a pensive, sullen mood, ready for some reflection, ready for someone to voice the frustration you’re feeling, and you can sing along as well.

You can get it for cheap…

You can hear a truly danceable tune…

There’s a video for Nightmares, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to have it…the heck??? But here’s a “video” for the studio-live blend of Lies from the Add It Up comp…

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dark Triology Part 3

I have to admit that my third choice in the Dark Trilogy is a rather odd one, or perhaps a less obvious one. There are dozens of others I could have chosen, or should have chosen, and maybe even by the same artist (maybe).

I sorta have this theory about album covers that sometimes holds up and sometimes doesn’t. And the basic idea is that the color and/or design of the album pretty much set the tone for the sound of the album (which you would think would be the purpose of an album cover, but so often this is not the case). And really, I’ve not been far off with my first two entries. The Cure’s Faith is a washed out gray, very drab and low key, with something that looks like a face leering out from the right side (though it’s actually, so I’ve read, a picture of an old abandoned abbey). And while the Smiths Meat is Murder sports a white cover (perhaps representing the bounce and pop of several of the songs), the picture(s) therein is a still from the Emile de Antonio documentary In the Year of the Pig that discusses the origins of the Vietnam War. Pretty bleak stuff.

And if you’ll look at the picture up top, you’ll see that today’s album, REM Fables of the Reconstruction (aka Reconstruction of the Fables), sports a fairly somber cover, with an overall sepia tone (at least my faded copy), and amidst the four cornered pictures of the band, a burning book. This could merely state that they’re destroying everything you’ve heard about the subjects at hand and creating a new version, or, as with me, you could think of dreaded censorship, or it could mean nothing at all. And the latter is possibly most probably the case simply because in a recent online Q&A (which is truly a great read if you’re a fan about the meanings of songs, etc, Michael Stipe basically said (and I can’t find the exact quote) that the lyrics to first few albums meant absolutely nothing. Which for the most part, especially on Murmur, I’m pretty much relieved to hear, ‘cos I thought dude was crazy. And this is also nice because here I don’t have to interpret Stipe’s lyrics literally.

This is yet another album where even your more hardcore fans sort of set it to the side and don’t give it much credit. Big mistake. For a time this was my favorite REM album. Right now it’s at number three, though that can change. But just because it’s shifted in status doesn’t mean I think any less of it, it’s just that I’ve discovered something new and wonderful about another album that I heretofore (man, I love that word) had not noticed.

But I digress.

A pervasive subject of Fables seems to be location or distance (in either time or space), i.e. travel or the urge to move on or to make a change or to grow older or to long for something else, a place other than the one you find yourself in. Desiring the unattainable, being forced into the unwanted, these are the images of loss and regret that Stipe conjures from the dark for Buck, Mills and Berry to piece together.

And this is possibly the overall theme of the album (when you pick out lines that make sense). The moody Driver 8, the ultimate train song, is passingly hopeful, “We can reach our destination but we're still a ways away," while Can’t Get There from Here (as if the title isn’t enough) says, “If you're needing inspiration, Philomath is where I go.” (Which, again, makes little sense, but it suggests movement, getting somewhere, change.) Less direct examples are in the quirky opener Feeling Gravity’s Pull, “Time and distance are out of place here,” or the completely obscure Life and How to Live It, “So that when you tire of one side the other serves you best.” (It’s worth tracking down several bootlegs from 1985 where this song is listed and hearing Stipe’s story behind the lyrics.)

It’s no surprise that so many of the lyrics are about being in another place as the band recorded Fables of the Reconstruction in England, in the winter, in a cold, damp, half condemned studio. And so the music reflects the sentiment, the longing to be elsewhere, another place, another state of mind and since this isn’t possible, it’s expressed through the only outlet readily available.

Despite purchasing this album in high school, I don’t really have any vivid memories connected to it, which is odd since so many of my musical associations were formed at that time; though I can imagine the ancient, mossy oaks of the Cove (an area of PC) with roads running along canals and small bays while Green Grow the Rushes provides a perfect soundtrack. And once my friend Steve (then Steev) and I played a very last minute and shambolic version of Driver 8 for a handful of friends before heading off to do something with our night. (Also, I can never pass by an old abandoned train on some dilapidated piece of track without that opening riff echoing through my head.) Mainly Fables has been an album that has stuck with me in my close subconscious. I’ll pick up Murmur or Document or Green or Reveal for a causal listen before this one, but I always know it’s there, a lingering presence. Aside from Murmur (which is hallowed to me as the greatest album ever…EVER), if I could only own one REM album it would be Fables, simply because it represents the band at possibly their most vulnerable, partly shedding the protective shell of their early obscurity, when they were confirmed but not completely confident, when they knew where they wanted to be but not quite how to get there. Their following two releases, Life’s Rich Pageant and Document, would find them fully realized and major label worthy, and Fables of the Reconstruction solidified that foundation, providing REM with a dark past, some skeletons to rattle in their closet and a reason to break into the light of day.

Buy it!

Green Grow the Rushes

Driver 8 live (and smokin’!)

Even as I write this I’m thinking of other albums that could have easily made the dark cut, and perhaps they’ll get a proper shout out one day, though most likely under a different context. So here, in alphabetical order by band, are 13 runner-ups.

Afghan Whigs—Gentlemen: The album of 1994 and the musical definition of the term misogynistic. Nowhere else will you find a collection of tunes more blatantly embittered and spiteful towards the female sex. And the shrugged acknowledgment by the male of the species does little to redeem these thoughts and actions, as regret and repentance are simply shadows on the backdoor.

Arcadia—So Red the Rose: The lesser known splinter project that also created the Powerstation and easily the best thing “Duran Duran” ever did, this collection of sometimes low-key, sometimes lush, sometimes theatrical pop classics, broods with an underlying intensity and near-malevolence never found in their more popular incarnation.

Bauhaus—Burning from the Inside: With Peter Murphy partially down and out with illness, it was all hands on deck to fill in the gaps and the boys who would later become Love and Rockets provided amply. Previous albums were all stark, dark affairs, but it all came to a head here. The edgy feelings between Murphy and his mates created energy both beautiful and sinister, some of his most bitter lyrics fuelled by instrumentation equally textured and sparse. It’s an avalanche of emotion and yet, after the nine plus minute rant of the title track, there is a glimmer of light in the closing track, Hope.

Beatles—For Sale: This is the sound of a band worn out, unsure of where it is or wants to be, and truly digging into the vault of its self-examination to provide material for a seeming non-stop train ride. When the first three titles of the album bear names such as No Reply, I’m a Loser and Baby’s in Black, you know that there will be little to laugh about on this trip. Even lighter numbers like I Follow the Sun are delivered with a twist of world-weary acceptance.

Belle & Sebastian—Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Pilgrim: Here is a band in transition. With key and founding members departing soon after release, it’s obvious from this helter skelter collection of songs covering several different styles as well as topics as broad and succinct as war and rape, that the days of whimsical melancholy from earlier efforts has been left far in the dust.

The Church—Starfish: With an opening line like “Our instruments have no way of measuring this feeling,” it’s evident from the moody bass and menacing guitars that feelings are not good. Kilbey and Co wind their way through ten flawless cuts, each drenched by a shower of doubt and self-awareness, jibes at society, at love, at religion and a healthy dose of mythological imagery to tie it all in a neat bow.

The Cure—The Top: Essentially a Robert Smith solo album and often dismissed by fans (as well as the band), The Top is an overlooked and underrated classic. It’s only flaw is that it’s too powerful, too good at what it does, as these songs grouped together can prove a dense and heavy a barrage of sour times for the average listener, even the weathered Cure fan, where even the light and flirty tinkling of The Caterpillar can’t break through the morass. If I’m not mistaken, however, this is M-Sullivan’s personal favorite.

Depeche Mode—Black Celebration: With a catalogue full of dark albums, for a band to not only acknowledge but commemorate the bleakness of their sound means that they are embracing their demons and bending them to their own dark will. This album perfectly bridges the gap between DM’s earlier “Casio” sound and the earthy, more realized tones of Music for the Masses and the classic Violator.

PJ Harvey—Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea: Bad love, heroin, whores, suicide, Polly Jean delivers it all with a straightforward pop sensibility that is neither the “grunge” influenced grit of her debut or the organ heavy experimentation of To Bring You My Love. Every track is instantly accessible and yet immediately disturbing as she moans, screeches and thrashes, weaving her tales of urban distress and depravity.

Joy Division—Closer: I could easily throw Unknown Pleasures in here. But Closer took the sparse, open darkness of that debut and looked within, what the man and the band were made of, wrapping itself in a gauze of complete self-evaluation, and finding very little to be pleased with. While Ian Curtis’ lyrics pull up images of gladiatorial bouts and marriages falling apart, they were much more personal than the rest of the band realized until after his death by self hanging in May 1980. Closer was released posthumously.

Low—I Could Live in Hope: Despite it’s title, this collection of dirges denotes all the reasons why one could not live in hope. Never again was the band so fragile and consistently beautiful, allowing the songs to carry themselves as far as possible in open space before fading away into sad obscurity.

New Order—Movement: After Curtis’ death, the remnants of Joy Division became New Order, but despite this “fresh” name, the band still had a dark skin to shed and acknowledge the start of their evolution with this gloomy collection of lyrically obscure songs, equally an homage to their fallen comrade as it is a turning point towards a brighter future.

Travis—12 Memories: A shout out for Karla, here are 12 brooding pop songs that have long left the “young man good times” of Good Feeling and replaced the atmospheric dreaminess of The Man Who and The Invisible Band for a heavier, more unsettling sound. Principle songwriter Fran Healy admitted his frustration with the record industry and life in general while writing this album, especially in the wake of the near fatal/debilitating accident of drummer Neil Primrose, which is completely obvious in his lyrics and voice.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dark Trilogy Part 2

For about a week to 10 days in eighth grade, I would get off the bus and run the quarter of a mile or so down from the stop to my house, bust through the front door and turn on the TV in my room where MTV was already queued (if you will) to show me the following three videos (and I’m going to use bullets because they’re awesome):

• The Pixies: Here Comes Your Man
• The Church: Under the Milky Way
• The Smiths: Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before

It seems like there was a video by the Farm too, but they suck.

And then on a Thursday, Under the Milky Way was replaced by the Church’s second single from Starfish, Reptile, and I ran out and bought the album the next night.

But this entry is not about that album. Say what?

That brief week and a half was one of my earliest introductions to “alternative” music and to three of the bands that would come to represent me in my maturing years and still do so to this very day. And the next of these bands I was to delve into, roughly three years later, was The Smiths, when Susan and Cybil bought me Louder Than Bombs for my 17th birthday. But this entry isn’t about that album either. C’mon, dude! Nor is it about Strangeways Here We Come, where the aforementioned Smiths video/single came from. All right, let’s get to it…

Ok, it’s about Meat is Murder. Oh, eek, that one. Yes, that one. It’s amazing to me how this album sports one of if not the biggest mantra that the Smiths are known for and yet is pretty much overlooked, even by many die hard fans, in the Smiths catalogue. I’m sick to death of hearing about how perfect The Queen is Dead is, or how underrated Strangeways is, or how they were at their best when they were at their freshest with the debut. Those are all great albums, I’m not arguing that, but why is it that Meat is Murder is pretty much only known for that phrase and the song How Soon is Now? That song wasn’t even supposed to be on the stupid album. And it’s boring. Bleh. Ok, ok, I’ll settle.

I’m not here to argue the perfection of this album. In fact I think it’s flawed in many ways, which is part of what makes it so endearing. I mean as I’m listening to it right now, I’m reminded why I really don’t care for Barbarism Begins at Home. It just goes on forever with no purpose. I mean it’s a nice groove, but cut it down by two minutes, please! And yet I love the very end when the bass does that little funky alteration to kick out the song. It’s the little things, people. All right, I need to focus here and get back on topic, which overall is the Dark Trilogy, installment two, The Smiths: Meat is Murder.

Where my first installment, The Cure’s Faith, used imagery (both musically and lyrically) to deal with the murky mope of skepticism and seclusion, Meat is Murder takes issues head on and at face value, and often with a back beat and strum that is quite uppity. And herein lies another brilliance of music, when you’ve got a tune that has the mindless kids shaking their arses off on the dance floor, but also crying themselves to sleep later that night.

As I’ve said before, the song as a whole is what counts, and so the music comes first while the lyrics only find import if the song hits me at the right level (yes, there are lots and lots of songs where I can beat out every random fill or guitar lick on the steering wheel, but not sing one complete verse). And most anyone in the know who knows me can tell you that my all time guitar hero is Johnny Marr. And never did he shine so brightly as he did in his four-year tenure with the Smiths. And while he is a large part of the music, let us not forget our friends Andy and Mike on bass and drums respectively, without whom the Smiths may have been a great band, but definitely not the same band, the band we all love or at least love to hate.

Johnny was big on layers, and often had two (or more) guitar melodies running over the strummed chords. This leaves me wondering which ones he would have played in a live setting (enter Craig Gannon), and I love seeing/hearing early live stuff and exactly what he’s doing on stage, which in some cases (as in Pretty Girls Make Graves), was better than what was on the album. But, more to the point, here on Meat is Murder, all these different parts are open and evident and not (as with the Queen is Dead) lost in a heavy coating of reverb. And the boys work up several styles here to accent these brilliant riffs and progressions, from straightforward alt-rockers (I Want the One I Can’t Have, What She Said), to rockabilly (Rushholme Ruffians, Nowhere Fast), to straight up balladry (That Jokes Isn’t Funny Anymore, Well I Wonder) and even a bit of funk flair (Barbarism Begins at Home). Plus, there are lots of the little tidbit oddities that I love to discover in music, and which can really make a song jump from good to great or great to brilliant, all over the place on this album. Two examples (bulleted again, for my amusement):

• During and after the chorus of Nowhere Fast, the guitar is chiming along, a minor, melancholy little run that perfectly compliments the lyrics (“And when a train goes by, it’s such a sad sound…”), followed by a forlorn little two-note slide, almost like a sigh. Brilliance. I find myself thinking about that little section a lot and wondering how awesome Johnny thought he was for coming up with it and wishing I could figure out a way to rip it off myself without being obvious. Ah well, I probably couldn’t play it properly anyway…
• And again, the title track, a very ominous tune, the true anthem of vegetarianism; halfway through the second verse, at the 3:18 mark, the drums accent a most foreboding line (“It’s not comforting, cheery or kind…the meat in your mouth as you savor the flavor of murder”) with a very loud and obvious fill across the toms, which is off putting not only in the context of the music (for those of us who like our fills to come in the right places), but also in the overall unease of the song’s theme -- the consumption of flesh.

And, of course, there’s a lot of jangle here (so much of the music I love has jangle to it), something that always denotes a good time, but not without a sense of attack, a certain menace that sets the tone for what Morrissey is clearing his throat to tell us about.

So let’s touch on that a bit. Moz really has a lot to say here. From the brutality of the British school system, to the aimless, shiftless nowhere-to-go state facing society and particularly young people, to child abuse and forlorn loves and disconnection from people and, of course, the meat industry. And he’s not just saying “this sucks” because it does, he’s giving us the grit, as in opener The Headmaster Ritual (a rather menacing title that is never used in the song itself), his young boy character complains of a schoolmate who “grabs and devours” and “kicks me in the showers,” as well as “bruises bigger than dinner plates,” and constantly laments his desire to go home. Or, in Nowhere Fast, his comment to the monarchy staying suspicious and aloof of the commoners, as the queen thinks them “selfish and greedy,” purposefully keeping them down and in a backward age. And on the less political-social level, within the confines of disenchanted youth, What She Said is “How come someone hasn't noticed that I'm dead and decided to bury me, God knows, I'm ready.” And I couldn’t allow myself to mention this album without giving a shout out to quite possibly my favorite Smiths song, the truly underrated and truly overlooked Well I Wonder, a very low key tune that sums up for me everything about being 15, clumsy and shy, and melodramatic in the infatuation of some silly girl, “Gasping, but somehow still alive. This is the fierce last stand of all I am.”

And some of this was not relevant in 1992 (some seven years after the album’s release) to a 19-year-old American college student, or now a 35-year-old white-collar worker, but the sentiment is there, the realization that all is not well with the way things are. And truly it never will be, but pointing out the fact is not enough, you have to make a change by making a difference -- don’t eat meat, don’t let the system consume you, don’t be a douche, whatever it takes. Right? Am I babbling here? Yes.

Honestly, to me overall, this is the quintessential Smiths album. Lyrically and musically, it all comes together here. Never were there more signature licks from Marr, never was Morrissey more observational and droll without being overly obscure, never were Rourke and Joyce put more to the test to keep a myriad of styles and textures in place for their often dueling duo of frontmen.

Meat is Murder is a rant and a wail, though sung in a croon, and Morrissey and Co are dire and full of ire and ready to start a fire (ha, ha) in the hearts of the youth of any generation and beneath the seats of all ruling parties. You’ll tap your feet to a good half the tunes here, but you’ll feel the tension, and that will make you look a little deeper and see that those bouncy guitars are just a façade.

Purchase this album here…

And since the Smiths never did many videos, here’s a live clip of Nowhere Fast…

And a fan vid of Well I Wonder, which was never played live…

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dark Trilogy Part 1

Since we’re in the week of Halloween, I thought I’d pick a few albums with a darker theme to ramble about. No, there won’t be anything obvious like Misfits or Bauhaus, but what I’ve chosen, to an extent, won’t be entirely off the mark. So, to start off, a little bit of history…

It’s early March, 1990, around 10:15 on a Saturday night (you’re about to see why that’s funny) and I’m driving my mother’s faded maroon 1986 Oldsmobile station wagon through the byways of outlying Panama City. This is old Florida, none of the gaudy neon and tacky beach paradise attraction my hometown is infamous for. I’m in the sticks and I know it. The air is chill and damp and smells of moss and silence and the paper mill. The sky is dark and wide and probably without stars. The fog stretches like ghost fingers across the occasionally lit road where a nocturnal creature of any kind could step out and give a fright.

The soundtrack for this dismal setting is equally so, the Cure’s Faith, released in 1981. This is an album for empty nights and wide spaces, very minimalist, sparse and dreamy, no complex beats or time changes or intricate guitar runs. For the most part it takes its time, drawing out slowly, only a couple of songs with any sort of energy to accent and bring contrast to the overall somber mood. It’s layered and involved and yet easily executed by three or four musicians (as long as the guitarist has an echo pedal). The methodic drums, pulsing bass and swirling washes of guitar and keyboards create a landscape for Mad Bob to croon about every dejected teen’s favorite subjects: isolation, doubt and death.

The Cure was still a relatively new discovery for me in those days. I already owned Boys Don’t Cry, Standing On a Beach and Disintegration (or the Big D as I like to call it), so I had an idea what I was in for when I bought Faith at Camelot Music a couple of weeks before. I had somewhat befriended the manager of the store, a 30 something guy who loved Led Zeppelin and to whom everything else was but a secondary footnote. I was a bit nervous when I came up to the counter with my purchase. He looked down at it with friendly skepticism and said, “So this is what you’re getting into now?” I mustered all of my courage and squeaked in mock defiance, “Yes.” The college aged girl with him behind the counter, who didn’t strike me as the type, glanced over at the CD and said, “That’s good stuff, you leave him alone.” Whew.

I wish I could remember my first listen to this album. The impressions I got. If I’d sat transfixed for roughly 40 minutes or read a book or watched the Cosby Show on mute. Even with a fair sampling of the band, I still had no idea what to expect. All I’d had to go on was the album single Primary (which I thought was fun and catchy) from the Standing On a Beach comp (I only had the cassette, where the CD version, I now know, has Other Voices as well). I knew it would be different from the jangle and post punk of Boys Don’t Cry, but had no clue that the flange heavy drive of Primary would easily be the lightest, most hopeful moment on the entire album. Again, I had the Big D as a latter day reference, but that full, shimmering barrage of keyboards and chiming guitars made the themes of love and loss and ultimate despair seem natural and fitting. So nothing had really prepared me for the blatant and in most ways unexplained desolation that was, and is, Faith.

Again, I can’t remember my first impression, but I can remember the day after, or at least the Monday after, walking through the halls of A. C. Mosley High School with The Drowning Man spinning in my head. Weaving through the other students, books under my arm, head slightly bent, I was there but I was not there, wrapped up in this song, this album, this secret that I was now in on, something to set me further apart from the jock/prep/redneck monotony I found myself surrounded by. I believe it was Cindy Shirley I ran into first, and when she asked me what was up, I told her I’d discovered something really great, something life changing. She seemed interested, maybe impressed, probably just being polite, and I know that at some point I let her borrow the disc. Turns out she wasn’t impressed. Why did I like her again?

So, back to the station wagon… I’m coming into town again, lights from gas stations and convenience stores streaking the inside of the car. In the rearview mirror I can see the faces of my companions, three girls (one of them Cindy), in the seat behind me. They’re all quiet, seemingly bewildered, and pale, I can definitely remember pale. I’m not sure if they’d been arguing, they usually were (none of them spoke to each other within five years after high school), or if they were as drawn into the music as I was, wrapped in a shell of quiet yet beautiful anxiety. (Well, Cindy obviously wasn’t, but anyway...) It was a mellow mood, thoughtful, and I was probably hoping that this new, cool music I was playing would convince one of them to like me. Especially since it was obvious that the fact they’d just seen me play my first ever show (my black Gibson “Ripper” bass occupied the passenger seat beside me) at a house party down off of John Pitts Road wasn’t doing much in that area.

The fact is, they, and most people, don’t get as obsessive about music as I do. They probably didn’t mind it, maybe even enjoyed it, and probably did or eventually would own a copy of Standing On a Beach or the Big D, but they wouldn’t invest in the catalogue, and certainly weren’t setting down any foundations, allowing the rhythmic drone of All Cats are Gray or the biting lash of Doubt to design the blueprints for what would be the rest of their lives.

Faith has done this for me.

And that’s an interesting analogy being a Christian as well, and even more so because this album is bookended by songs with (anti) religious themes. The Holy Hour (which I later learned via a live bootleg was dedicated to Ian Curtis), with its heavy bass and understated beats, and its Catholic/Anglican imagery, denounces the blind devotion to religion (“I cannot hold what you devour”), watching people go through the motions mindlessly and not seeing the purpose or the fulfillment. And again on the title track, another prominent bass line carried by modest drums, where the “narrator” realizes he can’t continue in his present direction, yet can’t rely upon the words and actions of others, so is forced to go away “alone, with nothing left but faith.” But in what? Bob never says.

In between anger and uncertainty with his faith, Robert’s lyrics focus on the things that have brought him to this point; the anger and uncertainty of relationships (The Funeral Party, Doubt), anger and uncertainty with self (Primary, Other Voices, The Drowning Man) and, the near centerpiece of the album, All Cats are Grey, a brief (lyrically) ode to the loss of identity and the complete paranoia of walls closing in. This is an album often painful to listen to, and should only be done so to either confirm or fully realize your morose feelings or bring you down a notch when you think your continuous good mood might be getting on your friends’ nerves.

Nearly 20 years and countless listens later, Faith is still a desert island disc for me. Still my all time favorite Cure album. Still in my top 10 no matter what else I stumble upon. I may not listen to it as often as I do something like Boys Don’t Cry or Wild Mood Swings (the first nine tracks on that album are a hodgepodge delight), but neither of these albums set the standard for me. It’s the perfect balance of what 17 Seconds began and Pornography welded into a standard that has, unfortunately, labeled the Cure as the godfathers of goth, a style they unwittingly helped to create without ever hoping to.

At the time I accepted that Faith was a collection of murky gems just beneath the crust of the mainstream waiting to be plucked and enjoyed. By the simple fact that it was there, and had been for nearly a decade, I took for granted how it was made and why. Even now, through the eyes of someone who has written songs and played in bands, I’m not sure how this music came about, what the initial seeds were. As best I can tell, Robert and the boys listened to rock and roll, Hendrix and the Beatles and the Doors, with not even so much as some Eno or Kraftwerk to say, “Hey, how about looking over here?” (I don’t know this for sure, so correct me if I’m wrong.) Earliest on they were Buzzcocks rip offs (who wasn’t for awhile?) before developing a jangle pop sound that was uniquely their own. And perhaps (because of reverb and echo vocals and such) this “second sound” nodded towards what was to come, but aside from the title track, there is absolutely nothing (and I’m open for arguments here) on Three Imaginary Boys that would truly clue anyone for what came next: the quiet haunts of 17 Seconds, the bleak trances of Faith, the outright rage of Pornography. And, to continue my tangent here, that’s the beauty and the misunderstanding of the Cure. Because after the one-off single Charlotte Sometimes, they would abandon that outright doom and gloom (aka goth) sound for a slew of singles that, while perhaps a bit dark in tone, especially on the b-sides, were decidedly more bouncy, upbeat and downright danceable. In other words, the Cure are chameleons. They may have a signature feel, but not a signature sound. You follow me here? And though sometimes their forays into lounge or indie rock work and sometimes not so much, the point here, which is not the point of this entry really, but why not…is that they in a lot of ways represent the entire embodiment and point of music, by dabbling and experimenting and therefore creating something that is completely different and often enjoyable.

And, to come back into focus here, that’s what was done with their slew of three albums in the early 80s, with my personal favorite and the crowning achievement of the lot being Faith. They started with what they had, instruments and a desire to make something that wasn’t and as a result made something that not only is, but has been for nearly thirty years, where the influence is obvious in bands like Low and Codeine. Not to mention a slew of goth’s subgenres like industrial and emo.

Today the Cure (FINALLY) released their long anticipated 13th album 4:13 Dream, and I don’t expect it to be anything like Faith (and I haven’t found out yet thanks to stupid Amazon), nor do I want it to be. That moment has passed, those demons have been dealt with. Faith is an album of youth at odds with the state of things, and mostly itself. Age doesn’t necessarily bring hope or wisdom, but it brings the realization that things can be dealt with, that most anyone can cope. Though it’s still fun to rant and reminisce.

Faith was remastered and reissued in 2005 with a bonus disc of rarities. A lot of it is pretty great stuff, but only if you’re already a fan of the album. So instead pick up the single disc version and have yourself a good cry.

And here’s Primary…

And the video for Other Voices… (Isn’t Robert dreamy???)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Going Blank Again

This is more than just a state of mind… As I promised/suspected, this blog endeavor has come off to a slow start. And part of that has to do with time availability and part of that has to do with exactly which album to choose on my inaugural review (a term I use very loosely). Again, this is supposed to (mainly) be a blog about albums that have meant something to me over the years and that the average Joe and Flo aren’t necessarily listening to. Not that it’s all about overly obscure music, but mainly lost and/or forgotten releases that have withstood the test of time but not memory.

And so, based on the little comment exchange between Josh and myself on my first entry, I’ve kept coming back to Ride’s 1992/sophomore effort “Going Blank Again.” For those of you who don’t know, Ride was part of the “shoegaze” movement, a “genre” of music and, yet another, branch of Brit Pop. It was coined by the British music press in the late 80s/early 90s as a way to describe the stage presence of the bands more than any pervasive sound, style or desire to be grouped in with said genre. Other standout examples of shoegaze would be Slowdive, Chapterhouse and My Bloody Valentine. (

On Ride’s early singles and debut album (the chaotic yet beautiful “Nowhere”), I’d lump them in with the shoegaze “sound.” But here, on “Going Blank Again,” (GBA) Ride began to branch out a bit and embrace, if ever so slightly, their influences as far as structure and execution go (more on that later). Gone are the hectic, ramshackle drums and the meandering, brittle guitar runs that made “Nowhere” sound like most of the songs would collapse in upon themselves at any moment (not that there’s anything wrong with that). On GBA, the delicacy of “Nowhere” has been replaced by a rush of urgency (as opposed to a gentle wave), accented by chunky hooks, straightforward beats and catchy choruses, making the album an immediate, whimsical and absolutely fulfilling piece of pop gold. And while, depending on my mood, I may prefer the sentimental weavings of “Nowhere,” it (for the most part) can’t provide the one-two punch and instant gratification of GBA.

Not that there’s a lack of emotion here. Critics, even those who are favorable, have often given Ride a bit of a hard time with their lyrics. And perhaps some of them lack a bit of “weight,” but does that make them any less meaningful? Lines like, “Hit him again, he’s crazy,” from “Not Fazed” may not hold the political/social significance of Dylan or the poetry of Morrissey, but they’re not really supposed to. Ultimately, this is still pop music, and Ride knows this. There’s no message, just the music. Plus, to me these words are cryptic enough that they could mean almost anything or absolutely nothing. Are they phonetics simply providing syllables for a vocal melody to follow, or is there a story behind such a line? Is that story a bunch of early twenty-somethings (the age of these guys when this record was made) being rowdy and rambunctious or some disturbing and violent incident that they witnessed or even participated in? Either, neither or something else completely -- it doesn’t matter. These lyrics are sung with a sincerity that, to this listener, sells them outright, makes them completely believable and therefore valid. Plus, I’m a big advocate of the song making the meaning. I initially don’t pay much attention to the words. Instead I listen to the song as a whole, looking for subtle drum hits, guitar runs, fuzzes of noise, and if the music is able to strike me on an emotional level (which this album does in so many ways), then the lyrics behind them suddenly become something profound and significant. An example is the epic, shambling (literally) “Cool Your Boots,” a haunting ache of a song seemingly about that age-old theme, unrequited love/love gone wrong. When a line like, “When I’m printed on your wall, my face won’t change at all, the smile beneath my hair, hangs lifeless in the air,” is delivered with such bittersweet melancholy that you can picture the girl (or boy) from your own life who sent such a pang through your heart, you’ve touched on the point and purpose of music, the emotional connection. And it makes the somewhat awkward (for rock and roll) chorus of, “I’m shuffling away, with nothing much to say,” quite poignant.

And really, the important thing about GBA is the music, including the vocal melodies, regardless of what is (or isn’t) being said. The boys in Ride are proficient players, but they’re not show-offs. They know what to do to take a song where it needs to be. From understated and nearly buried leads to bursts of sonic noise, each note, thud and “oooh” is delivered in a casual, seemingly random way, yet everything falls into place as if completely planned. It’s obvious from the slow build of opener “Leave Them All Behind” that they’re here to make their music and not prove any individual prowess in the process. The proof is in the songs, in the way the band meshes together to form a sound that is their own and yet nods back to previous heroes. With GBA, they took the fuzz and the jangle of their current times, now nearly twenty years ago, and evoked the spirit of the times as many years back and more, the true spark of rock and roll.

Unfortunately it was after this slice of brilliance that Ride lost me. With their next (and final) two albums, they dove headlong into nostalgia, into 60s British Invasion (for us here in the US), all but mimicking the sounds of three decades previous and going so far as to cover The Creation’s “How Does It Feel to Feel?” (almost verbatim). And, to me, all of this was much to the detriment of the band, weakening their initial sound and purpose. Many folks would (and have) argued that “Carnival of Light” is a logical progression and excellent third album based on what GBA does in its last few tracks (which are, ironically, pretty much my favorite on the album, though for reasons other than where they headed next). And, outside of a couple stray tracks, pretty much everyone was disappointed in the band breaker “Tarantula,” the album that came out just as I was beginning to hear about these guys. Alas, always late for the party.

But it’s up to you, the listener, to explore and decide for yourself.

And, having said that, it makes sense that the band should push forward (while looking back), as I’ve always associated this album with movement and travel. Not so much because of the words/music itself (though admittedly over half the songs like, “Time Machine,” “Chrome Waves,” “Mouse Trap,” “OX4” and the aforementioned “Leave Them All Behind” and “Cool Your Boots,” suggest some semblance of another place or getting from here to there), but because when I first began really listening to this album, when I was right around the same age as they were when they made it, I was working as a courier in a law firm and spent a lot of time driving around town, and this album was one of the top three to always find it’s way in the (at the time) tape deck. This then merged into a trend and later ritual of always listening to it on my to Panama City to see my folks, especially when driving alone, with the stereo at full blast and the seamless flow of the songs propelling me to my destination. And isn’t it quite fitting, for me anyway, that the closing words of the entire album are, “I’m going home….” Yes, I thought so as well.

Now, for your listening, viewing and browsing pleasure…

A BBC session version of the album track “Not Fazed.”

The video for the album single “Twisterella.”

And of course a link to purchase the album. I’ll suggest the 2001 reissue with the excellent b-sides including, oddly enough, the title track and the mesmerizing “Howard Hughes.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What it's all about...

Sometimes I’ll aim my friend Josh and say, “For $400 million, guess what I’m listening to right now.” He’ll do the same. When one or the other gets it wrong, we’ll give hints (e.g. This band had an arcade game based on them.), but that brings down the prize money considerably. It’s silly and (maybe) ultimately pointless, but it gets us through a slow work day, and sometimes it reminds one or the other of some band or album that we loved a decade ago yet because of the fickleness of human nature, have let fall into obscurity ‘cos the new Interpol is just so amazing that you forget they got a good 2/3s of their sound from the Chameleons. Oh yes they did!

So, I’ve toyed around with the idea of some sort of album blog/review site for awhile now. And having said that, I’m really not sure what I’ll do with this if much of anything at all. I think I can say for now that it will not be a review space for the new album by _________ as there are plenty of places for that. I think for me it stems from listening to an album that I’ve owned and loved for years and expressing why it has withstood the test of time when others have just sat the shelf. Having said that, if the new __________ comes out and I just love it and I have to get it out there, I might say a bit, but I could just as easily retract said thoughts a few months or years down the line. Some music I believe is for the moment, and some music is for the long haul. I want the majority of these posts to be about the long haul.

Also, the idea here is to introduce, remind or confirm to readers (assuming there are any) that these albums are out there. Comments and thoughts and perspectives are always welcome. I may not agree with them, but if they’re respectful I’ll treat them as such.

And having said that, this space won’t necessarily be limited to just me rambling about some album or other, there will be other things music related, maybe even non music related. I'm a big fan of lists too. Again, I’m just feeling it out, seeing if I like this medium or not. Also, I don't know how often I'll post, maybe daily, but I doubt it. I'd say randomly at best, or whenever I'm moved by the spirit to talk about an album or something.

Honestly, I have no idea if I can write much on any album without saying “the singing is really pretty” or “the guitar really rocks” over and over again. I imagine these posts will be more nostalgic than critical, but that’s ok too, ‘cos to me music is supposed to speak about life, the good and the not so good; and let’s face it, the not so good generally makes for a better song. So ladies, keep breakin’ those hearts and us boys will do our part as well.