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!)