Thursday, July 23, 2009

Road Trip 09: Fla or Bust!

It’s vacation time again and, per usual at this time in July, I’m headed back to PC to visit my mom and hang out on the beach for a week. Oh joy. I guess I’ve made the trip from Nashville to PC close to 50 times or more over the past 15+ years and each trip it’s the same question: What to listen to? And the same is true for any road trip for any reason, and used to I’d make a mix CD of stuff I was into or stuff I was trying to get into and it was cool to have a little document of a time in my life when I went to State College, PA or Franklin, KY. But how far can a mix CD get you? Exactly 80 minutes tops and that’s only if you happen to land it right down to the second. And if you’re like me, you can maybe go through a mix twice before you get bored with it. Plus, with the advent of the iPod/iPhone and play lists, etc, it’s sorta silly to make a limited time mix CD when you can virtually make a mix that goes on for days and days. But sometimes that gets boring too, and being the album guy that I am, I always like to have at least a small arsenal of CDs on hand to get me from point A to point B (or C, D, E, F, etc).

I used to put a lot of thought into which CDs I put in the case. I tried to plan it so that if anyone “cool” where I was going should happen to be in my car and be flipping through my case, they’d see a representation of all the great stuff I listen to, from classics like the Beatles and the Stones, to alternative mainstays like the Cure and the Smiths and then some more obscure, “If you know this then mega-points-on” stuff like Slowdive and Superchunk. Lame, I know, but that was me at 23 (or 33, I dunno), and of course nobody was ever in my car who gave a monkey’s rump, but I was prepared. The problem with this mindset is that while I had a double barrel blast of some really great stuff, it wasn’t necessarily anything I was in the mood to listen to at the time. So now that I’m older and less concerned with my “street creds,” I’m more apt to fill my case with things that I’m in the mood for or have proven to be good travel companions over the years. Also, when not flying solo, I have to consider what Karla can tolerate. And yes, I still have to throw in at least one of the Cure, the Smiths and REM to prove where I’m really coming from, but the rest could be anyone’s guess.

Below is what I’ve set aside for my vacation beginning on Friday.

The Smiths: The Queen is Dead – It’s hard to decide which Smiths album to choose. Usually on a road trip you want something relatively upbeat, and while Louder than Bombs has plenty of that, it’s also rather long (which can bog you down). The next logical choice is this one…’cos Vicar in a Tutu makes me bounce in my seat every time.

Rhett Miller: Rhett Miller – Of course I’m taking the new Rhett Miller!

Regina Spektor: Far – Of course I’m taking the new Regina Spektor (too)!

Blur: The Great Escape – I’m over a dozen years late for these guys but I’m catching up hard and heavy. Of the ones I’ve picked up so far, this one is the best for linear travel.

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks – I’m not sure how this one is on the road yet and almost opted for His Band and the Street Choir, which has seen a bit of service. Yet because Astral Weeks is so freeform and stream of conscious it may be perfect for zoning in those long, flat Florida stretches…but it may also make me weary.

Love: Forever Changes – I’ve had some good rides with this one and since I’ve not heard it in awhile, I thought it might be time to dust it off.

The Cars: The Cars – Isn’t it obvious? Let the good time roll!!!

Elefant: Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid – This is an amusingly melodramatic album that both Karla and I can agree on. It should kill the stretch between Birmingham and Montgomery.

Duran Duran: Big Thing – While not the best DD album, it has some enjoyable hits and some hidden album gems. I’ve had a few of the latter in my head recently so thought it would be fun to take it along. I’ve probably not heard it since the 90s, so we shall see.

REM: Monster – I promised someone (probably JT) that I would give this album another chance. To quote Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars, “I’m taking an awful risk, Vader.”

Depeche Mode: Sounds of the Universe – I’ve let this wonderful album slip away from me, and in preparation for the September 1 show I need to get reacquainted.

John Cale: Vintage Violence – Perhaps an odd choice given the low-key quirk-pop from our Welsh ex-Velvet, but it works pretty well for an easy, non-committal, get in the zone cruise and even more so with headphones on the beach.

Ride: Going Blank Again – This is a perfect traveling album and I’ve not gone on a trip longer than an hour since 1997 that it hasn’t been with me.

Belle & Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister – When you need to slow things down and mellow out, there’s nothing better.

Mojave 3: Excuses for Travelers – The title says it all, another fantastic road album and this one works especially well for nighttime cruising.

The Beatles: Abbey Road – My favorite of the later Beatles albums, the ever-changing suite of songs at the end is especially nice for breaking up the monotony.

Aerosmith: Toys in the Attic – ‘Cos sometimes you gotta rock and this album is as good as any.

Travis: The Man Who – This is Karla’s favorite band and it’s the album I’m most familiar with, so win-win.

Fleetwood Mac: Tusk – Karla isn’t such a big fan of the pre Buckingham/Nicks era (my favorite) and we’re both sick of the self-titled and Rumors, so this is a logical compromise.

Iggy Pop: Lust for Life – I’ve road-rocked on business trips to this album through over ten states (TN, AL, GA, MO, IN, IL, DE, PA, MI, VA, etc) and it hasn’t let me down yet.

Steve Martin: The Crow – I’ve seen Steve on a few late night shows doing his bluegrass thing and been impressed every time. I bought this album on a whim and have only really listened to it once. I’m hoping to add to that listen in Fla.

Journey: Greatest Hits – Sometimes you just need an album where you can sing along to every song. Look no further.

Cheap Trick: Greatest Hits – See above but a little but more legit.

Cluster: Sowiesoso – I really doubt this one will get a listen, it’s too “weird” for all others involved (ok, Fox honestly doesn’t have an opinion at this point), but if I get an hour alone and there’s a CD player at hand…kraut-rock on!

AC/DC: Back in Black – Because nothing says “Florida redneck” better than AC/DC.

The Doors: LA Woman – Traditionally this has always been my least favorite Doors album (even more so than the glossy-awkward Soft Parade), mainly ‘cos aside from Riders on the Storm I freakin’ hated every song on the album. But then a couple or so years ago I popped it in to give it another chance and it finally hit me. So now it’s moved up a notch to the second-to-last place of J-Morrison era Doors albums. Now it’s gonna get the official road test to see if it can beat out the debut (which is not road-worthy at all).

Frank Sinatra: Songs for Swingin’ Lovers – Just to add a bit of class to the collection and it’s something my mom will listen to (over and over again).

Meat Loaf: Bat Out of Hell – When you’re ready for some paradise by the dashboard lights…

Old 97’s: Fight Songs – It’s just not a road trip without Rhett and the boys and this is the one I’m always drawn to for some time behind the wheel. Fight Sleep Songs would work just as well.

Neil Young: After the Gold Rush – Everybody loves this album. And if you don’t, you’re wrong.

Cosby, Stills & Nash: Daylight Again – I predicted that I would really like this album despite pretty much detesting CSY (at least D-Crosby), and the album coming out in the bad-for-true-rockers era of the 80s doesn’t help. And while I don’t yet love it, I really do enjoy it. The dentist office cheese really hits me where I need it (er, whatever that means).

The Go-Betweens: 1978-1990 – I can never decide which Go-Bs album to take so this time I decided on a nice retrospective that includes “hits,” album tracks, a few stray rarities and nothing off that dreadful first album.

Chris Isaak: Mr. Lucky – Cruising to Chris Isaak has always been a good thing and since his new album is a return to old school form (again, not that he’s ever strayed too far from his path), let’s keep on shakin’ it to this one.
Sonic Youth: The Eternal – I doubt this one will get a play, but I need to listen to it more, so felt compelled to bring ‘er along.

The Cure: 4:13 Dream – Wish is usually my travel album but I’m sick of it and JT told me yesterday that he’s decided their latest release it brilliant, so I’ll see if he’s right or not.

The Pixies: Doolittle – Because it simply wouldn’t be a trip home without some Pixies coming along.

Peter Gabriel: So – As much as I hated Sledgehammer when I was a kid, this album is an amazing listen with a lot of classic cuts and I’ve grown very fond of it over the years – even Sledgehammer (“Open up your fruit cake”).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nostalgia: 80s Edition

I’m not sure what made me think of these guys, but today I got a hankering for some Simple Minds. Of course most folks know them from their almost one hit wonder status with the incredibility catchy Don’t You (Forget About Me) from the Breakfast Club soundtrack. I say almost ‘cos that song’s popularity gave them enough exposure to also launch their next album, Once Upon a Time, into the US Top 10 in 1985. (They were already well established in the UK, Europe, etc…FYI.) Of the several hits from that album, Alive and Kicking is probably the best known. And having said all of this, I’ve never been a big Simple Minds fan, with the aforementioned album being the one I’m most familiar with. Even though they’re linked with Post Punk and New Romantic and all the stuff I’m into, the other things I’ve heard just haven’t caught my ear enough for me to keep listening. But one thing that’s great about certain tracks on Once Upon a Time (as well as Don’t You (Forget About Me)…which does not appear on the album and which ironically, or not, they did not write) is how they manage to build a song up to a logical and emotional crescendo that absolutely hooks into your soul and rips you from the terra firma onto the astral plane (yes Bill, that’s a shout out to you and my way of saying “sorry” for poo-pooing your “three back to back songs” choice the other night). A perfect example is in Alive and Kicking and the “Don’t say good-bye, don’t say good-bye” build up to the second chorus when everything comes together perfectly and for a moment I’m dancing on air (or on the side of a mountain like they are in the video). What’s even more brilliant about this song is just after that climax, how it immediately drops down to nothing but a simple, chiming piano for a few measures before jumping back into the song…but in a much more relaxed, laid back, “we’ve done our job, now we’re gonna just groove for a bit” sort of way. You only get that high point once, and an additional time would cheapen the beauty of the first time.

Always leave them wanting more, kids.

But really, my inspiration for this post was not Alive and Kicking, but one of the more minor hits from Once Upon a Time, All the Things She Said. This song is pretty standard New Wave pop, in a good way, with over processed lead guitars, that all tell galloping bass and loads of murky, swelling keyboards. Things are going along quite nicely when all of a sudden that hook drops down from the clouds, this time in the form of a middle 8 that (in contrast to Alive and Kicking) at first slows everything down a bit and then hops back into pace with one of those lines and melodies that not only drags me up into the heavens, but nearly 25 years into the past – a geeky, messed up 6th grader totally enamored with this strange, crazy music they played on the radio, dancing in his room and wondering why (but never mind why what). Every time I hear this song, especially the break down, I’m instantly taken to those younger days and I’m blasted by a feeling of insecure but exhilarating awkwardness in my gut like butterflies; it's a tingly, almost numbing sensation that would be akin to “seeing the whiteness” in a religious experience…and who’s to say it isn’t? And again, you only get said break down that one time in the song…and that’s really all you need.

So say what you will about the 80s (and I’ve said plenty), those dated, over the top songs can pull you back to a specific time, place and feeling better than any other brand of music out there. And I guess for me that’s probably true because I was there living and listening as it happened, wide-eyed and taking it all in, letting the music fill in the empty spots between the broken pieces. And there are dozens of songs that can do this for me, and this is something I’ve thought about a lot over the past 10 or so years, but I usually can’t name any until I’m there in the moment, hearing one of those songs and being mentally and emotionally teleported back to 198-whenever.

However, there are two exceptions. The first, and lesser known, is 1983’s Send Me an Angel by Real Life. These guys were definitely one hit wonders and I don’t really know anything about them (rather can’t recall what I once read up about them) outside of this song and that I believe they’re from Australia. But every time I hear that eerie, female falsetto “Oooh-oooh-ooh” intro, the hook comes out and I get this almost out of body experience. And in this instance, once the chorus hits, I’m not so much transported to a specific memory but a general place and time, a simpler, happier part of my life, and I can’t help but get a little emotional because I think of all the people I’ve lost who can never return (i.e. who are now angels), especially my father (even though he’d have hated this song), who were still in the world in 1983, doing their deal and contributing to my existence in a positive, loving way. And this isn’t the only song that does this, so there’s something else that the 80s can do that most other genres (if we’re calling “the 80s” a genre…and right now I am) can’t, and that’s pull a specific emotion out of me. And if everything plays out just right, it'll bring me to tears.

And I’m a man, so I can admit that. Wanna fight?

The other song that comes to mind nearly everybody in the world including my father (though possibly not my mother) has heard, and that’s Here Comes the Rain Again by the Eurythmics. This time it’s a specific memory – or rather several but the same instance – of lying in bed in early 1984 listening to Rick Dees’ Weekly Top 40 on Sunday nights via this horrible clock radio, and since this song got all the way to #4 it was pretty late (likely close to 10:00…eek!). Of the three songs mentioned in this entry, this is the one that at the time simply scared the PJ bottoms off of me, and seeing the video with the beautifully androgynous though equally terrifying Annie Lennox certainly didn’t help matters. At this point I was still a year or two away from realizing that music was going to be the impetus (and of course eventual downfall) of my life, and while Here Comes the Rain Again is pretty tame in comparison to a lot of what’s come since (and was out there even then), The Eurythmics did their part to set the stage, and this song certainly shook the tan off this little Flor-idiot who heretofore mainly listened to what his father did: jazz, classical, singer-standards and local country. Unfortunately I can’t list the Eurythmics (or any of these bands) as a real influence, ‘cos aside from Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), I pretty much can’t stand anything else they ever did…even though I respect them and really do like the idea of them. I dunno, maybe I should give Touch or the Sweet Dreams album another chance, ‘cos it has been a few years since my last try.

And that’s another thing about the 80s…while there were lots of big hit songs that we all know, there weren’t too many big hit albums. And yes, I am aware of some exceptions, but when you think about it, especially in the early part of the decade, music fans were more fast-paced, flippant and fickle even than they are today; more interested in fashion and the one or two surface level hits they could dance to and not so much a long play of 10 or 12 songs that you would sit and listen to in your room alone or with friends, as had been the norm in the late 60s and throughout the 70s.

But then again, I wasn’t overly cognizant in those days, so what do I know?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Year That Was 1989

We all know about watershed years, those times when all sorts of pivotal things happened in the world of this and that. For movies a watershed year was 1939 with the likes of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, and in music 1977 was a good time, with astounding debuts by Talking Heads, Television, the Clash, etc and then landmark releases from previously existing artists, for example Iggy Pop’s twofer The Idiot and Lust for Life, Bowie’s twofer of Low and “Heroes” (actually, Bowie was all over Iggy’s two albums as well) and Exodus from Bob Marley and the Wailers. (If I left out a big ‘77 album for you, please don’t scream at me, I personally can’t stand “Heroes,” it’s just one that came to mind.)

But you know, I realized a few weeks back that a couple of my long-standing favorite albums are turning twenty this year (I know!) and so I decided to check out 1989 in music on ol’ Wikipedia, and you know what…I think 1989 was a (much overlooked) watershed year in music as well.

Here are just a few examples:

Stones Roses – Stone Roses: I’ve spent a lot of time making fun of this band – a lot – and much to the chagrin of JT and J-Smith back in the day when this album was only a wee tyke of ten. I used to call their self-titled debut a great album by a lousy band. And to be fair…that statement is sorta true and false. True because aside from the debut, a handful of singles and one or two songs off the long postponed and highly disappointing (except to Simon Pegg) second and final album, these boys put out some pretty iffy stuff at best. But my statement is false because there’s no way a lousy band could produce the twice-aforementioned self-titled debut. Seriously, in a word I could describe this album thusly: flawless. I’ve never been a fan of the baggy, Madchester beats that gave us the dreadful likes of the Happy Mondays, the Charlatans and 808 State (oh Manchester, so much to answer for), but I have to admit that when it’s done right, it’s pretty fantastic. I think for me what sets the Stones Roses apart is the incorporation of more melodic pop and rock elements into the stoner-trippy-funk rhythms and strums of most of their contemporaries. Ian Brown sang with a cocky sneer that made Sir Mick look more like pantry boy than a menace and John Squire…well, he could shred when he had to and often did. In some ways this album, especially its more drug-dazed dance moments, is a bit of a guilty pleasure; but the simple fact of the matter is that it’s 100% infectious and grooves like nothing else you’ll hear from this movement or any genre that claims an influence. From the arrogant leer of I Wanna Be Adored, to the equally haughty I Am the Resurrection (yes, he’s making that reference), it’s nearly 50 minutes (well, depending on which release you have) of dangerous fun. Go get the deluxe reissue when it comes out…I know I will.

Vain – No Respect: I know you’ve likely never heard of this band. But if you have, rock! I never really went through much of a hair metal phase. I just thought it was silly. Unfortunately a lot of good bands like Def Leppard and Ratt got lumped into that mess, and then others that could have made the genre halfway legit got totally overlooked, like Pretty Boy Floyd, the Sea Hags and my personal favorites…Vain. (Incidentally, all the debut albums by those three bands came out in 1989.) The closest thing Vain ever had to a hit was the wah-wah heavy Beat the Bullet, but even then it wasn’t really close. The interesting thing about hair bands was that they were really only one or two clicks off from glam. In spite of the platform shoes and heavy make up, glam certainly gets a lot more respect from critics and music fans. Vain really straddled the line, ‘cos they had all the big dos and fast tricks of the hair boys, but enough gritty bravado to make Davy Vain’s love-angst-society-party tunes and somewhat whiny moan just a little more kick arse than their more popular counterparts. And probably what set them apart, and even kept them down, was that while Poison and Warrant did it all tongue in cheek, with a wink and smile, Vain didn’t seem to be fooling around -- when they were angry they were bad news, and when they partied they were worse. It’s a shame these guys never caught on ‘cos every song on No Respect is a good slice of amped up American rock n roll, all the subjects you wanna sing along about and plenty of fast flying solos to keep things spicy. And for me it’s one of the two most nostalgic albums on this list; reckless nights driving around PC in Casey Tuggle’s Camaro, red light racing with Mustangs and Corvettes down Harrison Avenue, egging cars, driving by the Baroness’ house, laughing a lot – and cranking Vain up to eleven.

Pixies – Doolittle: Everyone loves the Pixies. Well, obviously not everyone, ‘cos they’re hardly a household name. But everyone who should does. You know what I’m sayin’? I mean these guys are gods, legends, leviathans amongst college/indie rock, and each of their four albums have made the “top whatever” lists for countless demographic/publication polls over the years. However, I would wager that a good 98% of fans would name Doolittle as their overall favorite, as well as a desert island disc for any occasion. To me this album runs like a greatest hits, a near perfect set (with Silver being the exception) of quirky-catchy rock tunes spearheaded by Black Francis’ endearingly plaintive howl, back-driven by the tight as nails Deal-Lovering rhythm section and fleshed out with sonic blasts of pure energy that only Joey Santiago and his Les Paul Gold Top could possibly muster. My first exposure to the band was via MTV and the Here Comes Your Man video, which I detested – and liked the song even less. But I was young and dumb and Robert Smith was king and these off beat but normal looking mouth hangers just weren’t doing it for me. So, a couple of years later it was a hard sell when a friend of mine wanted to pop a tape of theirs in the cassette player of my car. I wish I could say that tape was Doolittle, but it was actually Bossanova, and yet my love of that album soon brought my ears to the one we’re focusing on now, and I finally understood what it meant to be a Pixies fan…and even liked Here Comes Your Man (but not Silver). Brash and boisterous, some of the greatest hooks, riffs and screams you’ll ever want to hear, this is pop music held up against the fat/skinny mirrors at a carnival, all the melodies coming at you (and sticking) from a direction you don’t expect, even after the 25th, 250th and 2500th listen (and I’m somewhere in between those last two). At times fun (Here Comes Your Man, La La Love You), a slight bit unnerving (I Bleed, Hey), a touch thoughtful (Wave of Mutilation, Monkey Gone to Heaven), sometimes just straight rockin’ (Mr. Grieves, Crackity Jones) but never dull (besides Silver), if you’re looking for music that’s as immediate as it is obscure, look no further.

New Order – Technique: I think this is my favorite New Order album, or it would be if that bloody awful Fine Time wasn’t on there. Still, a bad NO song is better than anything by Happy Mondays, so… What I love most about this album is how well it rocks. New Order have often been acknowledged for making dance music “cool,” and deservedly so ‘cos they did it in a way that was innovative and unique, remaining equally of the moment in which it was inspired as well as timeless and fresh today. For me Technique is a MUCH underrated, overlooked and almost thrown to the wayside album from their classic 80s heyday. It seems most fans agree that Movement was the band shedding their Joy Division skin, Power Corruption and Lies saw them experimenting with where they wanted to go, Low-Life and Brotherhood and all those singles around those days established them as innovative pop icons…and then oh yeah, Technique. Well, whatever, ‘cos this album takes all the best stuff they were doing before and ties it up in a tech-bow (see what I did there?). And that’s why it’s so endearing to me, ‘cos while there are some fantastic and truly rave-worthy acid house dance tracks on here (Round & Round, Vanishing Point), there are just as many that simply play out like a rock band (All the Way, Love Less, Run), and these latter are not only my favorite tracks on the album, but some of my all time favorite from the entire New Order catalog. I guess the thing with Technique is that it’s a bit of a transition album, from the dance-punk highlights of the mid 80s to the more earthy, introspective textures of Republic (the other contender for my favorite NO album), after which they inexplicably stopped for eight years before 2001’s Get Ready, which showed them doing “their thing” in the light of the 21st Century. But if you want a good summary of the band’s sound that’s also a good and proper album (as opposed to a ‘best of’ or singles collection), Technique is the way to go. I would not lie.

Tom Petty – Full Moon Fever: I just watched a great documentary on Tom Petty that covers his entire career. And when it came time to talk about his solo debut, boy, it really got a lot of flack from band mates (understandably) and the record label (who said it didn’t sound like him…say what?) and just about everybody who heard about it besides anyone who was actually working on it. The song that caught the most grief? Free Falling. I kid you not. Two words: Their bad. Everyone knows that this was a juggernaut of an album, TP’s biggest to date, and spawned five hit singles, two of which are rock anthem classics (amongst several others that TP has penned). I’m not a huge expert on Tom but I’ve heard most of the cannon, at least every stage of it, and to me this is the Tom Petty album. Sure, it’s more radio ready, less ruckus and red-eye, but lets face it, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were always a sort of weird hybrid of Lynyrd Skynyrd swamp rock and Flock of Seagulls synth pop…it was a logical step of many to choose from, and it paid ol’ Tom back to the tune of like 5 million copies sold in the US alone. But more than just being a popular album, it’s also a good one, with Petty at his witty, satirical and just straight rockin’ best. If you were a dumb kid like me who loved everything about rock n roll at the time this came out, this album was a godsend. And what’s great is that it’s just as good at age 20 as it was upon conception.

Since you know the hits, here are a couple of key album cuts:
Love is a Long Road
A Face in the Crowd

The Cure – Disintegration: What could I possibly say about this album? I’ve referred to it, usually as the Big D, probably close to a dozen times or more in the history of this blog. Why do I call it the Big D? Well, because for one thing this is a big album; over 71 minutes long, with big songs, averaging close to six minutes each, with a big, epic, layered, weighty sound that absolutely drenches the listener in a near suffocating blanket of beautiful melancholy and world-weary imagery. Plus, this is where Mad Bob and the boys had their first big “hit” with Lovesong so it was a commercial breakthrough as well. Most importantly, it was a big (understatement) part of my life when I was 15 years old, already a few years immersed into music, but seriously starting to look for genres that were not like what was readily available on the radio. I would listen to this album constantly, as loudly as possible (per instructions within the liner notes), always alone in my room, often with the lights out, staring at the ceiling or the darkness or the light between the curtains and projecting myself 150% into everything Robert was singing about – from the aching lost-love of Pictures of You and Last Dance, to the isolation of Plainsong and Closedown, to the nightmare strangeness of Fascination Street and Lullaby, to the ultimate despair of Prayers for Rain and The Same Deep Water as You – it all spoke to me, absorbed me and at the time defined me. But for me the icing on this bittersweet cake (especially now that I’m older), worth the cost of the album and the three greatest back-to-back string of songs on an album by the Cure or any other artist, is the closing three tracks: Disintegration, Homesick and Untitled. The title track’s tumbled, cascading montage of deceit, disloyalty and damnation builds itself into a frenzy and literally explodes before disintegrating (oh yes) into the soft, downbeat piano phrases of Homesick, an aching and self explanatory number that then segues perfectly into the aptly named Untitled – who could put a name to a song where one “never quite knew” exactly what to do, realizing the problem is within themselves and now all is lost. Everything the Cure is widely known for (all the doom and gloom, which we know of course is not 100% accurate) can be summed up in these three songs and this last, unnamed track in particular; a rather fitting moniker for a band so difficult to define. I don’t really listen to this album any more, as there are two or three others that I’ll pick up first when in a Cure mood. And not because I think it’s aged poorly or not what I remember it to be – the Big D is all it once was and more – it’s just that in my fast paced, no time, work-a-day adult life, I just don’t have the leisure, the need if you will, to sit in a dark room and listen to the most depressing record ever pressed to wax and pine after girls whose names and faces I no longer recall and have no desire to. The Cure never made another album like this, nor could they have. While earlier affairs such as Pornography and The Top were equally (if not more) bleak, they were never as elegant, never as openly sentimental, never so quietly loud as Disintegration.

B-52’s – Cosmic Thing: Scoff if you like, but I love this album and I think it’s simply the best thing our fun pals from Athens ever put out. The first time I heard it was at the local college radio station in PC where I was working for part of a dual enrollment class with my high school. (GO DOLPHINS!) There were a couple of girls in that class who were seniors and “alternative cool” and very excited about this album coming out, and since they’d sorta taken me under their wing, they wanted to make sure I heard it. I was both happy to oblige and happy with what I heard…but the fact that hits like Roam, Love Shack and Deadbeat Club were all over the radio, MTV, shopping malls and elevators, I never felt the need to run out and purchase the album. When I got to college several of my friends owned it, so again, all I had to do was pinch it from their stash to get my fix. But then I found myself in my mid 20s and in a bind…’cos nobody I saw frequently had ready access to it and baby needed another hit, so I bought it for myself. What I love most about this album is that while the hits are each a confectionery contagion, the real gems are in the album tracks, where our buddy Fred Schneider gets more time at the mic and where the punk-club roots of their earlier years get a nice airing out. This is most evident on the tribal, environmental rant Bushfire and the slinky, sultry Topaz. Cosmic Thing was sort of a weird hit for ’89 ‘cos it was like a last minute throwback to the synth pop of the earlier part of the decade, especially at a time when big hair at the top of the charts was most likely on dudes. Also, in its own fashion this album paved the way (along with the Cure’s Disintegration and REM’s Out of Time) for “alternative” to hit big and see its commercial heyday a few years later. But we won’t fault the B-52’s for that, ‘cos the road they paved to get us there is still golden.

Three quick ones:

Bob Dylan – Oh Mercy: Produced by Daniel Lanois, this definite return to form (as in consistently good material) is slick in all the right ways, and Most of the Time is simply the greatest break up song ever. Though not quite the full comeback folks had been hoping for (Under the Red Sky was a turkey), it still gave the people hope.

The Sugarcubes – Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week!: After the first album folks stopped paying attention until Bjork went solo, which is a shame ‘cos the Sugarcubes’ second album is pretty fantastic and the originator of the “whoop-whoop” siren (Speed is the Key).

The Replacements – Don’t Tell a Soul: This was my first introduction to the Mats via I’ll Be You on MTV, but when I looked for this album all they had was Pleased to Meet Me, so I got that instead – and it’s honestly the better album. But Don’t Tell a Soul is good too.

So, happy birthday, guys! I know you're not old enough to drink yet, but at least you can get into the club.

This post here is basically the inauguration of a new series I’m installing called “The Year That Was,” where I’ll either be picking the one monumental album for any particular year, or as in the case when there are too many to choose from, simply doing a run down of my personal favorites. It’s sure to be a hoot, so c’mon back.

And yes, I know I’ve not done my latest random release, but I’ve been distracted. Like you care anyway…

Friday, July 10, 2009

Simple Songs Say So Much

I’ve often been impressed, and at times frustrated, by artists with the ability to get so much out of something so basic. Namely, creating a full song complete with verse-chorus-verse action, a definite beginning, middle and end, and tons to make you listen closely…only to realize that the song is made up of just three chords. Not only is this a testament to the wonder and magic of music, but to the ability of any musician who can conjure a flowing, dynamic song from just four, three, even two chords repeated over and over again. And it’s proof that you don’t have to be all over the place with your chord structures (Mr. Bowie) to write a complex and in depth piece of music (though knowing all those funky chords sure is impressive).

As I said, in some ways this frustrates me. First off and naturally, as a somewhat musician myself, I’m constantly scratching my head at folks who can just pick up a guitar, rattle off G, C & D (the chord holy trinity of rock n roll) and pull out an instant melody so unique and perfect that you’d have thought they’d spent hours working on it. My friend Steev has that power -- and he uses it quite well I might add.

But another frustration is what to me seems like a lack of originality and/or just plain laziness. Plus, also as a somewhat musician, it just seems boring. The Cranberries are a prime example. Pick up any of their albums and a good 75-90% of the songs are just 2-4 chords jangled out ad nauseum. If I were the rhythm guitarist in that band I’d die of ennui, especially since, from the live clips I’ve seen, Dolores O’ takes the majority of the solos. Often in my youth, when I still listened to them quite a bit, I would complain how she’d seem to just bash out four chords, wail on something she was angry about and expect the boys to keep up. But, you know, if it works for you (and they’ve sold millions) and you can still pull out some good songs (which they have plenty of), why not? This is not a post about the Cranberries though, so I will not let it linger.

Really, sometimes you just don’t need anything more. If you’ve got the melody and the lyrics and it only takes three or four chords to support them…have at it! Here are a few bands/songs who have done just that.

U2 – With or Without You, # of chords: 4 –Even when I was a massive anti-anything-after-Unforgettable Fire U2 fan, this song always held a special place in my heart. Why? Because it rules. The key here is the build up, from that well known, relaxed drum pattern, to the simple yet penetrating bass line and then the Edge’s whining, sustained guitar before Bono gives it to you straight in the gut, “See the stone set in your eyes….” By the time it’s all said and done, the tempo hasn’t changed but the intensity is brimming to the point of boiling over and just at the right moment, the pot is removed from the stove and everything settles down again; meanwhile you’re wiping a tear from your eye and that bass line hasn’t changed once. Genius, pure and simple.

Galaxie 500 – Tugboat, # of chords: 2 – Galaxie 500 is one of those bands that for years I’d heard of but never really heard and when I finally did I was like, “You dope, you’ve SO been missing out.” I could have used these guys when I was twenty-something, ‘cos their simple, relaxed, melody-driven songs are the stuff of indie rock legend; so elegant, so seamless, they often come close to collapsing under the weight of their own melancholy. Tugboat is one of those lazy janglers that sneaks up on you, starting off quietly, seemingly innocently, and before you know it, you’re caught in a whirlpool of drum rolls, cymbal crashes and screeching guitars, and then the wave that grabbed you sets you back on shore -- shaken, stirred, but ready for another ride.

Mojave 3 – Love Songs on the Radio, # of chords: 4 – When I was 23 I must have listened to Mojave 3’s debut album about 5000 times, and this song kicks off that delicate masterpiece. Cinnamon sweet, the flour to this track is the flowing lap steel and the icing is Rachel Goswell’s lilting vocals, taking you to places you always wanted to go, but never knew the way. Laid back but on target, this is music for a waking dream, walking through tender moments, stolen kisses in darkened corridors, a sigh before falling asleep. Please do not operate heavy machinery while listening.

Joy Division – Transmission, # of chords: 2 – In a word: authority. When I was a huge (no, HUGE) JD fan and reading every little scrap I could about them, this was the song that seemed to stand out most to folks (well, before LWTUA), especially in a live setting. When they were finished playing, audience members were often too stunned to do anything but stand in awe of the avalanche of sound that darn near took them out of their shoes. There’s just something about this 2-note bass line that drills straight into you, and when the rest of the band kicks in, you just need to hold on for the duration. By the time you’ve hit the final chorus of DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, DANCE TO THE RADIO, if you’re not up on your feet doing something, it’s only because you’re too overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of this song to do more than keep breathing.

James – Sometimes, # of chords: 3 – I remember the first time I heard this song was in the car, pulling into a Mexican restaurant and it was one of the few times I’ve completely stopped everything I was doing until I could hear the entire song. “Wow,” is what I said when the DJ came back on, “wow.” This song is sort of a rant, but in a very poetic way, not expressing anger or distress, but calling out a feeling, a sensation, “Sometimes when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul.” And really, that says it all right there.