Thursday, December 31, 2009

SONG #19-- Deeper Down


Happy new year!  What an appropriate track to come up at the end of the year, since Wilco (The Album) was my favorite album of 2009.  I'm glad to have the chance to respond to the critical backlash that has begun on this band, whom I believe to be the best American band of the decade.

I read all the "end of the year best of" lists like I'm sure many of you did, and Wilco is basically nowhere to be found.  Even in places where the album was originally reviewed positively, it's been replaced by lesser but hipper choices.  We've apparently all decided that Wilco is suddenly dad-rock, boring and old-fashioned, and critics, including older ones who should know better (I'm looking at you Greg Kot!  You wrote the biography of this band, raved about the album on Sound Opinions, interviewed Tweedy AGAIN, and then left them off your list in exchange for bands who sent you demo tapes?  Come on, man!  Act your age!  P.S.-- love your work), are trying to out-Pitchfork ( for those of you wondering what I mean) one another by embracing newer bands who, simply, aren't that good yet.  There's nothing worse than 50 year-old critics trying to pretend like they totally love bands that they know are pale imitations of something that's come before, but are trying to make the combover work and still hang out in the club and hit on younger girls.

I probably listened to 300 records released this year, including every record that made every top 10 list you can send me.  And this Wilco record is better than all of them.

Now.  I am indeed a dad.  I am also 40.  That apparently now means that I should go crawl in my hole with my precious copies of Hootie and the Blowfish and the Santana record that everyone bought and Buena Vista Social Club and Norah Jones' first record and the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack and get out of the way while music history is re-written by noble, riotous youth.  To hell with that-- I hated those records, too.  Moreover, there were plenty of newer bands whose records I enjoyed this year (especially Kasabian's-- that's good stuff) but those records were not as good as this one.  I don't love Wilco because they're boring; I love them because they're challenging and brilliant.  Nothing has changed in two years when they were "the American Radiohead."  How many times did you read that in 2007?  Now, 24 months later, they apparently suck, and critics who were fans a year ago are mockingly dismissive: Go away, you old farts!  There's 247 new bands from Williamsburg who need a gig!

                                                        Williamsburg: The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns...

Why is the new Wilco record better, you ask?  Let me count the ways:

1)  Other records were not as well-crafted.  The songs on this album are thoughtfully constructed (as we'll see in a minute).

2)  Other records were not as well-played.  The musicianship in this band is at the highest level.  I saw Wilco this summer, and it was a bold, daring 2 1/2 hour tour de force of rock music.  I've never seen a band play better as an ensemble than that night.

3)  Other records were not as well mixed.  This record sounds great, with a broad, deep mix with high highs and low lows.  It's panoramic in places.

4) Other records were not as diverse.  Too many modern albums take one sound, tone, key or rhythm and ram it home for sixty minutes.  The Wilco album is an album, meant to be played in sequence, with songs informing one another.  The whole is greater than the parts.

"Deeper Down" is the perfect example of what I'm talking about.  If "Deeper Down" had come out, exactly as it is, on a record by kids under 25 who no one had heard of, critics would be asphixiating under the weight of their own superlatives.  You want complicated?  You want challenging?  You want the opposite of feel-good dad rock?  Then listen to this track again, out of that context.

First of all, the music is both really complicated and instantly hummable.  There are two repeated chord patterns:  the first one, for the vocals, starts on Dm and resolves down to C in an eight chord walkdown.  It's a really clever way to move from Dm to C.  The solos are in Am, the relative minor to C, and those progressions are more complicated, moving from Am eventually back to Dm to return to the verses in a ten chord progression.  Moreover, the fourth verse adds a coda to the progression, setting up the second solo.

Both solos are also filled with brilliant playing and clever arrangement touches.  In the first solo, a haunting guitar is the dominant sound, but in the second solo, the band breaks out, with a mellotron keyboard going back and forth with a staccato, plucked guitar arpeggio.  I apologize for all music lingo, but it's complicated music, so I need these terms to give it justice.  There's more thought into the arrangement of "Deeper Down" than there is in the whole careers of some artists.

Most impressively, the band performs the track without a click track, so the beat floats and slows down at the end of each verse.  That kind of playing requires a brilliant band-- all of those starts and stops without any mechanization is serious business.  I saw the band pull off this song live, perfectly, and it was proof for me how much they've gelled as a band-- I don't know of too many bands who can play like this.

Finally, I love the lyric, which is evocative without being too obscure-- it's a song about finding meaning outside of traditional consciousness, either in a state of exhuastion or beyond where we usually go to find understanding.  I love the line "I adore the meaninglessness of the "this" we can express."  Not a bad summation of Tweedy's approach to his music for the last several albums, actually.

Why have we decided to grow tired of great bands so quickly these days?  Is it really the iTunes, downloading-frenzy culture that makes it so we can't pay attention to a band for more than thirty minutes?  That would explain why third-rate bands are getting so much attention in the blogosphere.  Everyone wants a new flavor right away.  Remember when you'd buy an album and listen to it a dozen times before you decided whether you liked it or not?  Things had a chance to sink in, to grow, to challenge you.  You'll forgive me if I don't join the parade of critics lining up to embrace whatever one-trick pony Pitchfork and its ilk have anointed this week.  I'm saving my praise for the emperors that actually have clothes, thank you.

You watch-- critics will take a sledgehammer to Wilco's next album in 2011.  They'll be wrong then, just as they're wrong now.  Go enjoy this record.  It's not boring, old, or tired.  It's just good.  Really, really good.  While that's not enough for this generation of ADD-addled critics, that's their loss, not ours.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm heading out to dance to Lady Gaga.


Monday, December 28, 2009

SONG #18-- Lose Yourself


Eminem has been most valuable to me in the last decade not as an artist, but as a terrific example of America's obsession with cultural authenticity.  When you're trying to explain the concepts of Othering and race as a cultural construct to high school students, Eminem is a pretty accessible example.  He seems to be the first white rapper to receive full and complete access to the entire hip-hop community.  Unlike many of the white rappers who preceded him, Eminem was able to seem not like a contrived, cultural appropriator (Vanilla Ice) or a synthesized hybrid of hip-hop and more traditional white musical forms (Beastie Boys).  Instead, he was just a "real" rapper, whatever that means.  To use a metaphor deliberately, Eminem cloaked himself in cultural blackness, and everyone believed him.  He therefore reminds me of a kind of rap Elvis Presley.  The phrase "keepin' it real" which dominated pop culture in the last decade was the rallying cry of Eminem's career.  Now, of course, he's a joke.  A man worth millions is no longer from 8 Mile; if he wanted to keep it real now, he'd write about taxes and marketing meetings.

Perhaps knowing that his race was always going to be a flashpoint issue in his career, Eminem strikes me as the most paranoid white artist I've ever heard.  His albums feel claustrophobic all the way through-- even the "funny" songs employ humor to push people away.  The singles that ended up as rallying cry for a generation of angry white kids remind those kids that they are not him and never will be.  Eminem has always been an island unto himself.

I don't know how seriously to take the furious misogyny of his catalog.  I'm fascinated by his palpable hatred of women and his obvious love for his daughter.  He may just have a classic madonna/whore thing going, but I've thought that, more likely, he is a damaged, furious person who was willing to spew out his worst thoughts to millions in a desperate plea to be heard.  I don't think he hates women nearly as much as he hates himself.  I imagine that he was hoping for help instead of adoration, and America built him a pedestal instead.  So now he just gives us what we expect, and he's bankrupt as an artist.  I hope that means he's figured out more of how to be a person.

So here's the question that I think it's worth asking about Eminem's art:  is he an authentic artist drawn to rap music because it first voiced and then gave him the outlet to speak about his considerable pain and dysfunction, or is he a calculated abuser of rap stereotypes to take advantage of his whiteness and a white community ready to champion a white kid who black kids also think is the real deal?  Is he an example of a deracinated American future or a minstrel blackface backward step?

I don't have a answer.  I do think, though, that this song is the closest thing we have to one.

I'm not a very big Eminem fan; I feel like I'm being bitched at most of the time.  Eminem is like that friend who, when he gets drunk, won't stop talking your ear off about his problems and also won't fall asleep.  His catalog screams "HELP ME!" to me, and I know that's not a popular opinion-- most people hear it as a defiant middle finger to the rest of us, a classic American cry of independence and rejection of the center.  Something like this:

But here's the thing-- that's such an obvious pose.  I Google image searched Eminem looking for a photo where he's smiling, and stopped looking after a hundred photos.  I'm sorry, but an authentic person would be caught smiling at some point by a camera somewhere.  Only someone always wearing a mask would never smile, ever.

"Lose Yourself," though, has the ring of authenticity more than anything I've ever heard, read, or seen of Eminem.  It's ironic that I'm going to try to suggest that this song is Eminem's most genuine moment, since it's the signature track of a film that turns his already-constructed rap persona into a film character.  We're at least four iterations away from a "real" person by the time Eminem performs this song, but perhaps all that distance allows him actually to be real for once.

FIrst thing to notice is the guitar-based backing loop; this song was obviously constructed to cross over as much as possible.  As the lead track to a major studio film, it had to capture as big an audience as possible, including folks who don't like rap music.  It's the most rock-oriented instrumentation of all of Eminem's singles, and as a result, speaks indirectly to the racial tension of his whole career.  Here's a potential way for all white folks to access rap music, originally a black musical form.  It's an update of Run-D.M.C. rapping with Aerosmith.

The first verse is brilliant in its simplicity and the imagery it employs.  I love the detail of throwing up "mom's spaghetti" as he waits to perform.  It's a humanizing moment, Eminem with his guard down.  Perhaps because he's writing in third person (so rare for a rapper, sadly) he can be more complicated in his characterization.  He's having the classic "freeze" dream of any performer.  In the second half of the verse, Eminem shows off the lyrical dexterity that makes him an undeniable talent.  All of the triplet figures that dominate the second half of the verse are terrific ("oh, there goes gravity / oh, there goes Rabbit he / choked, he's so mad but he / won't, give up that easy / no, he won't have it he / knows, his whole back's to these / ropes, it don't matter he's / dope...").  It adds to the sense of tension while also letting us know that if this kid can get over his nerves, he's going to be outstanding.

The chorus speaks to anyone from the lower or middle classes, whether we're talking about an audition or a performance or a college application or a job interview:

"You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo"

It's great advice for anyone who doesn't have a safety net-- live a passionate, purposeful life.  That's what missing from so much of Eminem's other music: purpose.  The nihilism that dominates his catalog is what holds it back.  A true nihilist doesn't make art, doesn't try to create or connect or figure things out. 

In the second verse, he summarizes most of his back catalog in thirty seconds.  He's honest about the emptiness of fame because of the lack of connections to other people; women leave him, and he's estranged from parenthood.  Albums' worth of vitriol about his favorite subjects (women, fame, society) are dealt with here in a more communicative and thoughtful way.  You can skip the first album if you listen to this verse.  Ultimately, they say the same thing.

In the third verse, Eminem switches to the first person, and for me, that's the moment that blows the song open. If indeed he's talking about himself here, then it's an honest, critical appraisal of the choices he's made and cuts through all the cartoonish, foolish imagery of his previous work.  Instead of cutting up women and throwing them in the trunk of his car, "I'm a change what you call rage."  The art itself becomes what matters, not what you think about the artist, a crucial difference.  It's not a verse about how no one will ever understand him; it's a verse that begs for understanding.  The performance is outstanding; I love when he runs out of breath before "Teeter totter" and leaves it in-- it adds to the tension.  The last lines--  "Mom, I love you, but this trailer's got to go / I cannot grow old in Salem's lot / So here I go is my shot. / Feet fail me not cause maybe the only opportunity that I got." sound not unlike words used by F. Scott Fitzgerald to describe another poor, unsatisfied American with dreams of greatness and cultural escape.  In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald  describes the transformation of his main character from a North Dakota farm boy to Roaring 20s billionaire in a way that startlingly mirrors the transformation of Marshall Mathers into Eminem:

"Just why these inventions were a source of satisfaction to James Gatz of North Dakota, isn't easy to say.

James Gatz--that was really, or at least legally, his name. He had changed it at the age of seventeen and at the specific moment that witnessed the beginning of his career--when he saw Dan Cody's yacht drop anchor over the most insidious flat on Lake Superior. It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon in a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants, but it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a rowboat, pulled out to the Tuolomee, and informed Cody that a wind might catch him and break him up in half an hour.

I suppose he'd had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people--his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God--a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that--and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end...

He knew women early, and since they spoiled him he became contemptuous of them, of young virgins because they were ignorant, of the others because they were hysterical about things which in his overwhelming self-absorbtion he took for granted.

But his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the wash-stand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing...

To the young Gatz, resting on his oars and looking up at the railed deck, the yacht represented all the beauty and glamour in the world. I suppose he smiled at Cody--he had probably discovered that people liked him when he smiled. At any rate Cody asked him a few questions (one of them elicited the brand new name) and found that he was quick and extravagantly ambitious. A few days later he took him to Duluth and bought him a blue coat, six pair of white duck trousers, and a yachting cap. And when the Tuolomee left for the West Indies and the Barbary Coast Gatsby left too."

You can argue that I'm being suckered-- it's the calculated movie song, after all, and maybe all Eminem is doing is selling me the version of him that I want instead of the "real" one that the hip-hop community already knows.  (It is apparently the most successful rap song in history, so I'm not alone if I'm being played.)  Maybe I want him to be a Whitmanesque figure seeking connection when he's just the voice of hopelessness that permeates young black America (The Wire, for example).  Maybe I'm Nick Carraway, forgiving Gatsby for his immoral pursuit of dollars because I need him to be something that he just isn't:

"Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction--Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life..."
Maybe, ultimately, it's the tension of not knowing what to think that makes the song so good.  That confusion, that tension, always makes for great American art.

Eminem has obviously reached his tipping point; he seems to be done as an artist with something to say or offer.  His moment has passed, but all the issues and lessons that his career reminded us about our culture remain, and I'll be interested to see if his career ends up making us a little smarter about race and identity or not.

Finally, since she's in this film, I pour one out for Brittany Murphy, another reminder of how much as a nation we like to create and then kill heroes.  Maybe Eminem's smart as hell to keep that mask on; at least then we can't get to him.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

SONG #17-- One Of These Nights


I'm sure to annoy some folks with this one-- some of you are thinking, "Awesome!  I love The Eagles!"  Some of you are thinking, "The Eagles?  What the hell?"  Allow me to explain...

In my experience, The Eagles are quite the polarizing band-- in the 80s, they were in the same category of guys like Jimmy Buffett.  If you liked them, then you were probably a casual music fan who liked to sing along to music that didn't ask much of you: harmless music.  Bands like The Eagles made music for the lawn at Merriweather Post Pavillion.  They had also broken up, and were dinosaurs by 1981.  They were the most uncool band on classic rock radio.  The snobs wanted nothing to do with these guys.  Guess which camp I fell in?

In my defense, it wasn't just about the band's blandness.  If you grow up in a southern border state like Maryland, you have to make a decision quickly about how you feel about countryish stuff, so The Eagles weren't just another band.  They were southern rock for white kids who wanted to dabble in the confederacy without going full-on Molly Hatchet redneck.  That's never a harmless visitation.  Your "yee-haw" factor could be a pretty quick marker for how you felt about race, class, and politics.  It was a quick trip from "Yeah, I like The Eagles" to "Yeah, I like drag racing" to "We could have won the war if Lee had kept pushing into Pennsylvania after Gettysburg."  As a result, I shied away from all that lazy, fake country stuff.  To me, The Eagles sounded just like the rich racists hanging around the yacht club telling stupid jokes and waiting to go to Hampden-Sydney.

Moreover, the former members of the band were doing everything they could to tarnish their reputations with horrible 80s releases.  I fully acknowledge the brilliance of Don Henley's "The Boys Of Summer" (written by Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, by the way) but let's not forget the drivel and pap that oozed from these guys in those years-- "Smuggler's Blues"?  "Dirty Laundry"?  There wasn't much for an Eagles fan to point to in defense of the band.

Now, here it is twenty years later, and I play in bands with young musicians who love The Eagles.  Love them!  I didn't believe them for years.  "Really?  We're going to listen to The Eagles?  On purpose?"  I've actually had to cover Eagles songs on stage without irony!  I never thought that would happen.

But I'm an open-minded guy.  This summer, I sat with the entire Eagles catalog (1972-1981) and listened to it.  The hits, the album tracks, everything.  And here's what I discovered:

It turns out I was wrong back in the day-- The Eagles weren't racist.  Instead, they were intense, dark narcissists and easily the most self-congratulatory sexist writers of the decade (sorry, Billy Joel: you get the silver medal, and we'll get to you at some point).  Do me a favor and peruse the track list of your Eagles Greatest HIts album (or whatever Eagles collection you bought in a moment of weakness).  The first, classic version covering 1971-1975 features songs about (in order): picking up women on the road for one night stands, cheating women, lying women, leaving women in the morning to catch the tour bus, giving it to troubled, confused women, regretful hangovers, finding relief in the skilled physical talents of loose women, and regretting that you're too much of a self-obsessed fraud actually to love someone.  Don't be fooled by the titles:  EVERY SONG is about how a woman can't quite understand, comfort, satisfy, fulfill or live up to the expectations of the singer.  THESE guys:

LOOK at these guys!  Who the hell are these posers to be complaining about the inauthenticity of others?  No wonder the women they meet are so worthless; these guys are looking for female versions of themselves.  Narcissus' pond would tell these guys, "Enough, already!  Focus on something besides yourselves!  You make me sick!"  For me, that's what makes the Eagles most insufferable.  Not the flaccid music (of which there is a copious amount) but the flaccid personalities.  They bore me in the truest, most perfect sense of the word.  Yes, there are some good songs, but so many are turgid and syrupy and bereft of any rock and/or roll.  They are the Matchbox 20 of the 1970s.  The Eagles are perhaps the most overrated band in the world.

And yet... I love this song.  In spite and because of everything ridiculous about it.

So let's get to this ditty, one of the half-dozen Eagles songs that doesn't make me groan.  It has a terrific introduction-- the sliding bass figure and the sloppy guitar slide up to E that introduces the song sounds like the LA freeway at night, all slinky.  It's a perfect intro for the first verse.  I like the super-dramatic E minor at seventeen seconds as well-- it's everything that cheesy and mawkish about the band, but it works here.  They were always more of a musical-style rock band anyway-- why hasn't there been a musical based on The Eagles yet?  That would be a colossal hit-- all the songs already sound like "Rent" anyway.

The first verse is perfect-- the drums are open and loping, and there's tons of space in the groove.  Nothing sounds quite like the 1970s to me as this song (except, perhaps, for "Baker Street").  It's the sound of rich men with nowhere they have to go, reflecting on the paradoxes of stardom, and getting ready to bed the next gal in the line of faceless, forgetful one night stands:

"One of these nights..."  -- just what to you mean, boys?  What kind of night?

"One of these crazy ol' nights" -- OH!  Those crazy ol' nights!  Got it.

"We're gonna find out, pretty mama, what turns on your lights."  And there it is-- that leering, slimy sexism.  First of all, "we're"?  Yuk.  Either he's already assuming that he's in there (and therefore the song is preening and over-confident) or the whole BAND is heading over, and that's just disconcerting.

"The full moon is calling, the fever is hot / and the wicked wind whispers and moans / You got your demons and you got desires but I got a few of my own."  The hilarious imagery nothwithstanding, it's the last part of the verse that makes it an Eagles song.  Yes, you have demons and problems, but SO DO I!  What about ME?!  LOOK AT ME!!  LOVE ME!!

It feels as if we're headed to a big, rockin' chorus, but it's the Eagles, so instead, we go limp-soft for an Air Supply/ Seals & Crofts moment.  (Enjoy that insanely final high note on the song's fadeout, too-- nothin' says Ladies Man like the High G.)  We find out that this gal is good for that time "in between the dark and the light."  But that's it.  Otherwise, we're Already Gone and we have to Take It To The Limit for The Long Run and Take It Easy cause we're Desperados and I Can't Tell You Why you're a Witchy Woman with Lyin' Eyes who isn't worth The Best Of My Love so I'm livin' Life In The Fast Lane so soothe my Heartache Tonight because I'm a Victim Of Love.  You get the picture.

So this song is absurd, but it holds up the best, sums up the band's achievements in five minutes, and has a killer guitar solo at 2:20 to boot.

And the final reason "One Of These Nights" is the pinnacle of The Eagles for me?  About twelve years ago, I was in Honolulu walking down the main drag near the beach at around 1am.  It's a really touristy, antiseptic street, full of big stores and burger spots.  I believe I had just gotten ice cream in a crowded Haagen Dazs: that kind of street.  It was packed with Japanese tourists and midwestern families enjoying the novelty of hot weather in the middle of the night.  As I came to a crosswalk, I noticed two guys standing conspicuously on the corner.  They were plastered and shirtless and giggly and had on cut-off jean short shorts and flip-flops.  They were wearing sunglasses and had Sonny Crockett-style beards.  One of them had a boom box, hit play, and out of it?  "One Of These Nights."  They walked into the street a little bit (it's a pedestrian mall, so no cars) and when the singing started, they looked at each other, said "Yeahhhhhhhh" quietly, and stripped.  They were great at it, mesmerizing.  Time and the surrounding crowd stood still.  Right around the first chorus, after teasing us with the inevitable, Dude #1 reached in and yanked out his little Glenn Frey.  That was when the mounties moved in-- four bored cops on horseback dismounted and took these guys out.   As they were being cuffed, face and junk-down, in the street, The Eagles continued to remind us that anything can happen on these crazy ol' nights.  It was the greatest music video never made.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

SONG #16-- The Other Way Of Stopping


Peter Buck once said in the liner notes of Dead Letter Office that "If you grew up in the 1970s, you liked Aerosmith."  I think the same thing could be said about The Police.  I was lucky to go to a small school with a class of kids who had unusually highly developed tastes in music (we had all had mandatory, daily music class in elementary and middle school-- it was conservatory-level music theory for everyone) but there were still factions and arguments about what bands were cool or not.  I can't remember anyone ever saying anything negative about The Police.  They crossed all genres; they were the one tape everyone could agree on for a road trip or a party soundtrack.

This track closes the band's third album.  It's a throwaway instrumental, one of two on side two.  Zenyatta has a ton of padding on it-- it reminds me of a Van Halen record in that way.  It has half an album's worth of classics, and the band just stretched and filled and noodled around until they had 35 minutes and could sell it as an album.  Also, like Beatles For Sale (another mid-career, padded album) the band sounds a little tired, drained from the road and going nonstop for three years.  Still, it's the last Police album that sounds like it was made by a little indie band instead of World Superstars.  In the case of Zenyatta, I think the thrown-together quality is charming.  The album has some of my favorite Police music on it (especially the first three tracks), even though it's not even remotely their best record.

This instrumental speaks, I think, to the band's universal appeal.  It starts as a brooding bass and drum track, seeming to signal a doomy rocker, but then Andy Summers comes chiming in with a little guitar melody, and after 45 seconds or so, it's clear that what we're hearing is what we're gonna get.  And it's bright and quick and propulsive and makes you want to drum the steering wheel.

The lead instrument on the track, without question, are the drums.  Stewart Copeland's fills that signal the shifts from the A to B melodies are unmistakably him-- no one uses the drum flam like Copeland.  The fill at ten seconds that introduces the guitar is one of my all-time favorites, period.  I remember sitting at Chris Love's drumkit during breaks at band practice in high school trying to teach myself to play that fill.  (I also tried to learn the fills in "Tom Sawyer"-- we'll cover Rush some other time.)  I love the total absence of overdubs until the final minute-- it's a live track, essentially.  It sounds like a warmup jam that the band decided would make for a funny coda to the album.  It's also the only time that Andy would have the last word on a Police album-- his overdubbed guitars close the record with his skewed sense of melody, always the Police's secret weapon.

I don't know why, but Zenyatta Mondatta always reminds me distinctly of winter; I must have first heard it in February or something, because when this album comes on, my tactile memory is being either in a darkly-lit, overheated room in a sweater, or walking outside, freezing, with a Walkman on.

What are your favorite instrumental tracks?

I'm gonna take a few days off for the holidays-- have a great one, enjoy this first batch of tunes, and I'll see you at the end of the month.  Thanks so much for reading so far, and please invite others into the conversation.  The more, the merrier.  Peace and love to ya.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

SONG #14 & 15-- Slit Skirts, Eminence Front

Also available on Live At The Fillmore, 1996

Also available on It's Hard, 1982

When the pod throws these up back to back, I can take the hint.  Warning:  this one might be a little lengthy.  As Townshend used to say when the band played Tommy straight through-- "Hope you enjoy it-- it's a long haul."

1981 is the year when I went from loving music to hearing music.  I was good enough at the piano to play a bunch of songs that I loved, and I had found a used record store (here's to you, Annapolis Record Exchange) that would sell me beat-up used records for 50 cents apiece.  That allowed me to acquire the whole Beatles catalog and memorize it (scratches and all) in about six months.  I had also made a friend who shared my love for music and who could play the drums, and I was spending a lot of Saturday nights at his house really learning how to play.  (Thanks, Chris.)

That year, sixth grade, a few important things happened for me.  First, everyone in the class grew but me.  I had always been the shortest, but now I was the shortest by a lot.  So short, in fact, that they started running a series of weird tests on me at Johns Hopkins to try to diagnose my slow growth.  I was suddenly much worse at sports in comparison to everyone else then I ever had been-- I had never been a star, but I had always been able to hold my own.  Needless to say, girls and I developed a silent understanding that I should check back in with them in five years.  I was smart, but wasn't enjoying school like I had before.  I felt like a tiny, loud lab rat.  I can't imagine I was much fun to be around all the time, and I was pretty damn lost; the next four years were rough, and suddenly that Beatles music seemed a little too upbeat for how I was feeling.  I needed something that could voice my sense of invisibility.

In 1981, The Who put out Face Dances, and made three videos for the fledgling MTV.  One Friday afternoon in the fall of 1981, a classmate mentioned that there was a new channel on cable that only played music.  I went home that night and surfed until I found it-- channel 33, or something like that (in those days that was the very end of the dial.  We had gotten cable about two months before after moving and realizing that we could only get two channels without it at the new place.)  I had an ambivalent relationship with TV at that point; I liked it, but I could also take it or leave it most of the time.  I found MTV and caught the end of "Freeze Frame" by the J. Geils Band.  I was unimpressed-- they were painting each other, and the song was all over the radio.  "I get it.  They play the top ten.  Whatever."  Then came the next video-- U2's "Gloria."  What the hell?  I had never heard of these guys, and they looked and sounded great and were a total mystery.  It was like finding a cool, lost radio station.  Next up was The Who's "You Better You Bet."  It was the first time I saw Pete Townshend play guitar.  I got the call from upstairs to turn off the TV.  But I'd seen enough.

The next morning, I got my folks to stop at the Record Exchange on the way home from whatever morning errands we had to do.  They had no U2 records (had never heard of them, actually) so I asked them what Who record to get, and paid twenty cents for a truly savaged copy of the singles collection Meaty, Beaty Big and Bouncy, took it home, and put it on.  The first three tracks were so scratched that the needle couldn't even groove the record.  It couldn't make any purchase until track four.  So what I heard was about ten seconds of snippets of music, scuffs, static, and... "I Can See For Miles."  For the first time.

And there it was.  The sound of my loneliness and arrogance and hopes and fears and shames and ultimate belief in my own self.  Can you remember where you were the first time music truly and utterly knocked you sideways?  This crisp Saturday early afternoon in October of 1981, standing in front of my stereo in my room, I heard myself played back to me.  I stood there just watching the old US Decca label spin around and looked at the album cover while "I Can See For Miles," "Pictures Of Lily," "My Generation" and "The Seeker" played back at me.

I looked a little bit like the kid in the back of the photo leaning against the door.  I spent the rest of the day playing those four songs over and over.  I didn't even bother to flip the record over until the next day.  By that night, The Who were my favorite band.  They still are.

The following fall, The Who came to the Capital Centre on their "farewell" tour (there have been seven tours since), and suddenly they were all over the radio, and every upperclassman in the school had Who fever.  By then, I had picked up copies of the all of the band's albums except Quadrophenia (just too expensive) and The Who By Numbers (I only knew the song "Squeeze Box," and didn't like it).  I knew I wasn't going to be able to go; I was twelve, it was a weeknight, and the ticket was too expensive.  But I felt the excitement of it as if I were going too, and eavesdropped the day after as the seniors talked about it.  I think not going and imagining the show turned out to be better than actually going.

The Who, of course, were not teenagers anymore in 1982.  They were jaded rock stars with drug and marriage problems.  Their 1982 tour was a pretty mirthless affair, resulting in a lot of good but not great concerts.  The album they toured behind, It's Hard, is a punching bag for critics; "It's Hard to listen to this one!"  Har dee har.  It is a bad record, though it's light years better than Endless Wire from 2006.  That is one howling dog.

Pete Townshend, the Who's guitarist and songwriter, was in trouble in 1982.  His life was falling apart (and not just because of his terrible haircut).  He wanted out of the band, and he made his point best by releasing solo albums in 1980 and 1982 that are far superior to The Who's own records.  While touring America with The Who, Pete put out All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.  It's hard to imagine a musician getting away with that now (Hey!  How about if I release a competing solo album at the same time as I'm touring with the group?  What do you say, fellas?)  He was drinking too much, disillusioned and confused what to do next.

These two songs, then, represent the world of Pete Townshend that year, and taken together, they're also a pretty great summation of how I was feeling in 1982.

"Eminence Front" is the better known song, perhaps the last popular Who track.  It's a classic Townshend creation, pushed foward by a rhythmic synthesizer pad that recalls "Baba O'Riley."  The busy rhythm of the synth is offset by the simple drum and single note guitar line that repeats through the whole song (an ostinato, if I remember my musical terms correctly).  Over that, Townshend wails about isolation  and indifference, meaning replaced by hedonism:  "Sun shines, and people forget."  It's one of my favorite first lines of a song.  In the end, the song for me is about greed and unearned confidence.  It's also wonderfully cynical-- no one has come to a realization of their unhealthy adapted behavior, and instead they "join the party dressed to kill."  It's a song about false bravado and entitlement: the rock star side of Townshend's life.  Musically, what pushes the song to the next level is Townshend's guitar playing.  Certainly one of rock's most engaging rhythm guitarists, on "Eminence Front" Townshend plays one of his greatest solos, angular and dissonant and at the edge of his ability.  I love how unhinged it is, and that it introduces the song.  It takes almost two minutes before we get to the first verse.

This version here is, I think, the best version of the song.  It comes from a soundcheck at the Capital Centre on that '82 tour, and tells so much about the band.  It's much more raw and unrehearsed than the album version, and because the band is playing with no intention of being heard, they play loose and free.  It's much more interesting than the official versions.  You can hear and see it here:


It's a performance video, but unlike most, we see the band arriving and preparing for soundcheck over the intro, and learn so much about the personalities of the individuals.  (And The Who were individuals-- this band was never "All for one and one for all.")  First up, there's Kenney Jones, newest and doomed member, alone on stage trying to look comfortable.  Roger arrives next, via limo.  He's all business, but smiley.  He a pro.  Next comes Pete and John, via Econoline van.  Pete looks distracted.  He stops to talk to the crew (that's Bobby Pridden with the balding head, longtime Who soundman and punching bag) and he's already obviously concerned about something specific in the show.  Behind him, John is all rock star-- leather jacket and leather man purse.  Once on stage, every man is an island.  Pete stops by to smile to John, but he's obviously bored.  Roger is trying to get used to his guitar; he looks awkward.  Kenney is still futzing with his kit.  It's not a glamorous presentation of the band-- it reminds us what touring is.  Seven hours of waiting, two hours of playing, drive all night, repeat.  It's work.  The Who is a job, and these guys are bored, distant veterans.

But over all of that bored band footage, Townshend rips off one of his best solos on tape.  When he comes in to sing at first, he seems disinterested, but then he can't help himself.  By the first chorus, he's lost in the tune.  Roger thinks they're having a laugh-- he's smiling and looking around, but Pete has his eyes closed, and by the end, he's playing as hard as if the arena was full.  And at the end, he's right back to business, talking to the crew; "I thought that was a bit better."

The video sums up Pete in a nutshell; he is both a pampered, bookish dilettante who has been famous since adolescence and is used to having it all, rolling into soundcheck after the heavy lifting is done and lost in his own head.  At the same time, he's disgusted by his own shallowness and wishes he could hold himself to a higher standard; he's a true artist who wants the band to push itself.

That's the same tension that informs "Slit Skirts."  If "Eminence Front" is Townshend on his yacht, then "Slit Skirts" is Townshend looking, soberly, into a mirror.  It's the voice that kept Townshend relatively sane, the one that kept him surrounded by the same group of true friends since art college.  "Eminence Front" explains how Townshend almost ruined his life; "Slit Skirts" is why he's still with us.

Unlike the petulant partier inhabiting "Eminence Front,"  Pete admits here how lost he is:  "I was just 34 years old, but I was still wandering in a haze."  Taken together, the two songs form a modernized version of "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot.  In "Slit Skirts," Pete is like "a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floor of silent seas."  He can't commit to friends, to lovers-- he's restless and bored, and feeling disconnected from himself.  More than anything, it's about not knowing how to age gracefully.  "Can't pretend growin' older never hurts."

I felt like I had great insight into the mid-life crises of my friends' parents after listening to that song.  I could see the dads and moms of my friends try to come to grips with aging and no longer being children of the 70s.  In those marriages, "recriminations fester[ed]" and we kids had to make sense of it, make our own rules of how to be good to one another.  I also think "Slit Skirts" served as a warning to me in high school about not partying my way out of my own personal discomfort.  I never have been much of a drinker, and part of why is hearing about the morning afterwards in songs like this one.

The songs are linked musically-- "Slit Skirts" ends with one of Townshend's most pithy solos, and his vocals on both tracks are among his most careful.  Sometimes Townshend's vocals feel tossed off, but not on these tracks.  The main difference between the tracks, really, are the bands themselves: on "Slit Skirts," Townshend is using a younger, hungrier set of musicians, and it shows.  Even on a track as deliberate and arranged as "Slit Skirts," you can feel the thrill of the musicians to be playing with him.  (The rhythm section was from the one-hit wonder band Big Country.)

To Townshend's great credit, he has never written to any audience but the one that grew up with him.  There's nothing more embarrassing than musicians in their sixties writing about girls and rocking and going all night.  Townshend wrote his last anthem about the power of rock when he was 26 years old; since then, he's been exploring what it means to grow old and try to hold on to that love for rock music (a topic he shares with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, another one of my favorites).  "Slit Skirts" has aged better than most songs written in the 80s, mainly because that feeling of "wandering in a haze" is hard to shake.

Some songs you grow up with, and some songs you grow into: it's always a little bit of both with me and The Who.

Slit Skirts link:

Monday, December 14, 2009

SONG #13-- Oh, Sherrie


First off, say "'Oh, Sherrie,' Steve Perry'" out loud to yourself.

As you can imagine, not all of the 20,000 songs are unquestionable classics.  In fact, I'll bet at least 500 of them will turn out to be of dubious quality.  But that's the point of a list like this: we all pick up scars and detritus along the way.  I have a shoulder that goes numb a lot of the time.  My right pinky toe always has a split nail.  And I like it when "Oh, Sherrie" comes on my iPod.

Now, this song objectively sucks.  I know this to be a fact.  But every time this video came on in 1984, I watched it.  Every time!  This is the same year I bought Husker Du's Zen Arcade and listened to it 150 times.  Some ear-worms are beyond your control.

I think that the best way to write about this song is to walk us through the truly fabulous video.  It's one of my all-time faves.  So click here:

We start with the big budget castle marriage, with Steve Perry looking like King Farquad.  With the crown on, he looks like the Burger Prince.  He then erupts in incredulity because the video is just not him, and strips off the costume at 0:56 to reveal "him."  Wow-- love the tight jeans and the open shirt with the truly epic mullet.  The video then does a "Spinal Tap" parody, with poor Steve Perry caught in the crossfire of the modern music industry.  They need him for the video, for a meeting, to meet the press... I mean, it's just brutal.  It's not as if he has just left the most popular band on the planet to launch a hubris-tainted solo career with this video, right?  Who the hell do these people think he is, a famous singer?  I like at 1:01 when he says "I wanted so much more" but then suggests that the big-budget setup with the "battle to the death of good and evil" doesn't fit his timeless love song.  I mean, I'm sure Steve had no idea what the video was going to be about when he showed up.  He had only sold 30 million Journey records-- he's a neophyte, a young, innocent newcomer.  Almost virginal, if you will.

Once his manager liberates him from the soul-sucking chaos, Steve hits the stairwell at 1:55 and... BAM!  That VOICE!  The POWER!  It's quite overwhelming.  It makes everyone else go into slow motion for a moment.  And what a beautiful love song it is:  "Well you shoulda been GONE! / Knowing how I made you feel / And I should've been GONE! / After all your words of steel."  So we have a couple that treats each other like garbage.  It gets worse.  They apparently make each other "burn" (someone needs to take Steve to the clinic) and he's confident that "you'll go on hurtin' me."  Whee!  Love!  It tastes like ashes in my mouth!

Here are a few more choice highlights:

At 2:05, he grabs the railing, all angry-style.  Great move.  Don't screw with Steve Perry.

At 2:20, Sherrie arrives, and she is cute as a button, but at 2:45, Steve greets her with a withering look through iron gates.  The symbolism is overwhelming.  Something has come between them; mainly, the unnecessarily creepy bridge he's singing.  "Hi, honey!  Thanks for coming to the shoot.  Maybe I hate you!"  Sherrie has to hang out there at the foot of the stairs all hangdog and nervous for another minute and a half.

At 3:29, the production manager rips up the schedule for the day.  "Those damn rocks stars and their realness!  Now we'll never finish the dream sequence!"  The weenie director has to be restrained by the manager!  All hell is breaking loose.  He's been off set for 90 seconds!! What kind of a schedule were they on?  Did they have another eight minutes before the Mihalovich bar mitzvah needed the place?

At 3:36, we learn that Steve is a man of the people.  His guitar player is here!  After a hearty handshake, he grabs the extra's lute so he get to wailin'!  And this comes twenty years before Sting turned the lute into a rock instrument!

Freeze frame the video at 3:45.  Check out Steve's face.  Take your time.

At 3:46, Sherrie is laughing and thinking, "My god!  The BROOM is bigger than you!"  I mean, seriously!  Steve Perry is dwarfed by a regular house broom!  Couldn't they have cut that down for him?  He looks 4' 8".

Then we get 15 seconds of all the extras and crew sitting around waiting for this jackass to get back to work.  They make it seem like he's been singing for six hours.    It would seem that the guitar solo would lead into the chorus and reconciliation.  But NO!  Steve's gonna stick it to Sherrie with another creepy bridge, where the notes he hits at 4:13-4:16 can only be described as wolf howling.  I love the totally inappropriate smile he flashes as he tells her how bad they are for each other.

4:23: Steve has to stay on the steps because she's three feet taller then he is.  And nice jeans!

And then, paydirt!  At 4:29, our lovers come together, and... Steve kisses her on the outside shoulder.  It is hoooooooooooooooot.  He is so comfortable around women, our Steve!

5:00-- "I kinda like you, baby."  I can't tell you how many times that worked in 1984.  All you needed was that and Kevin Bacon's "Let's dance!" from Footloose, and you were in there!

And he won over the crew!  They love him.  But then, rebel that he is, Steve walks off that damn set!  Right off the damn set!  Sadly, the video cuts out before the last line, which is, "Steve, don't go!  The label loves you!"  That kills me.  It's by far the most realistic moment in the whole thing.

I was in 9th grade in 1984, and the "Oh, Sherrie" video suggested that tiny, troll-like men could score cute, chipmunky babes.  I wanted, nay needed to believe it.

SONG #12-- Rain



I know I'm not in any way unique in claiming "Rain" as one of my favorite Beatles tunes, but sometimes hipster geek music critics are absolutely right.

I first heard "Rain" when I was twelve or thirteen on the 1970 compilation album "Hey Jude" released after the breakup to keep people interested.  I liked it, but I really fell in love with the tune in 2004 while learning to play it as an encore in the Rich Price and the Foundation set.  Since then, I really can't get enough of it.

This track (Ringo's favorite of his drum performances) is just spectacular in all its stoned, raggedy glory.  Try this first-- put the song on and listen to it, and then immediately start it over.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.  Can you believe how much they slowed down from the beginning to the end?  That will never happen again-- with Pro Tools and the click track, bands keep the beat perfect.  I haven't recorded in analogue since 2003, and it really is so much faster to record to a click digitally-- you can edit together performances, choose little moments here and there, and record an album in probably 1/5 of the time.  If I were a new artist, it's how I would record.  You do lose, however, the organic feel of a band ebbing and flowing with the beat.  I rarely prefer it when a band decides to use a click and backing tracks live.  Bands that do give up the spontaneity of the moment, and "Rain" is all about that.  This track inhales (quite a bit before they start playing, it appears) and exhales.  Ringo's fills and McCartney's bass here are one organism, and there's no attempt to hold it together cleanly.  It's supposed to feel like 3am, and I find the overall affect hypnotic.  I've now listened to this song seven or eight times in a row while writing, and I'm eager to hit replay every time.

It's not just that powerful rhythm section; the guitar here is wonderfully chiming and psychedelic, and the picked guitar figure is a great complement to McCartney's thick, notey bass.  The lyrics are classic Lennon sixtiesbabble, but who cares?  It's perfect.  And when the backing vocals kick in with "When the sun shines down," as Liz Lemon would say, you want to go to there.

"Rain" was the b-side to "Paperback Writer" in 1966, and doesn't appear on a proper album.  (That might be the greatest two bass performances of McCartney's career back to back right there-- what a week in the studio for him!).  You can get it on Past Masters, but that's only the stereo version.  I prefer this mono version which is only available in the crazily expensive mono box set, sadly.  Hopefully they'll rectify the situation soon.

I'd like to close by saying that I compared the new remasters, stereo and mono, to the Purple Chick and Dr. Ebbetts versions of the Beatles catalog that I had painstakingly tracked down, and EMI finally got it right.  (Purple Chick and Dr. Ebbetts were bootleg labels that did "needle-drop" captures of original, pristine vinyl Beatles albums and remastered them for CD.  They were so much better than the original CDs that it was embarrassing.  The official Abbey Road was, until this year, one of the the worst sounding major label CD I owned, unacceptable when you're talking about the most important catalog in recorded music.)  I always think the big labels are going to get it all wrong, but in this case, they really did a magnificant job.  If you want to hear The Beatles as nature intended, then you need go no further anymore.  Finally, these songs sound as great as they are.

Today's question:  what's the worst song about weather ever recorded?  (My first nomination off the top of my head: Storm Front, Billy Joel).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

SONG #11-- Naima


So let's get this out in the open early-- I'm a rock 'n' soul man.  Plenty of other stuff is going to come up from time to time, but I'm not a jazzbo.  In fact, there are times when I share the opinion of a very good friend and brilliant musician whose response to jazz is always, "Jazz just makes me angry."

I know what he means-- there's nothing more fascist than a modern jazz concert.  They are so often always the same.  Here is a diagram of every song in the last jazz show I saw:

Band plays the head/lick
Sax player takes 128 bar solo
Guitarist takes 64 bar solo
Piano takes 64 bar solo
Bass takes 64 bar solo
Drums take 64 bar solo
Sax takes 128 bar solo
Band plays the head/lick

For two hours.  Always the same, in the same order, every time!  Can't the drummer go first sometimes?  No?  Never?  And the audience resembled a tennis crowd more than anything: polite clapping after every solo, enthusiastic clapping at the end of the song.  No whooping.  No cheering.  No interaction.  I expected an umpire in a chair to say "Quiet, please" before each solo.  I felt like I was there merely to keep an "important" art form alive, like going to a quilt-making fair.

Then there's the jazz show that's trying to bring back the reign of the Beatniks.  Usually that show will also include some "confessional poetry" performers and maybe even a mime.

The thing I love about popular music is that it's music for the people.  It's a living, breathing art in the right now.  Jazz used to be that music, and now it's headed down the road that classical music has embraced; it has a niche audience with rules for how to enjoy it.  That kind of stuff always makes me bristle.  I hate golf courses with dress codes, private clubs, public decency ordinances... well, now that I live in Berkeley, that last one is probably more helpful than I realize.  The point is that jazz brings with it a snootiness that is slowly killing it as an art form.

That all said, and with all my prejudices firmly admitted, I fell hard and immediately for the sound that John Coltrane makes with a saxophone.  I don't have any understanding why it's so different, but it's so much more sonorous and full than other players.  Part of it must be terrific engineering; his recordings for the Presitge label don't have the same impact as the ones made for Blue Note, Columbia (this one) and Impulse; Coltrane was blessed to work with talented recorders of music.  But it also must just be the man himself and how much force, breath, talent and will he pushed into the instrument.  The stories of Coltrane's commitment to his craft once he kicked heroin are legendary.  He was a theorist who could play any scale in any key.  His practice regimen makes David Helfgott's preparation for the Rach 3 in "Shine" look like band camp.  There are plenty of guys with otherworldly chops who I find worthless.  (Does anyone else remember when Clinton went on MTV and said his favorite sax player was Kenny G?  Kenny G is definitely the Monica Lewinsky of sax players: brilliant at the one skill he has, but also kind of hateful for that skill at the same time.)  So it's not the speed or the theory or the mathematics of his playing: it's the artfulness of it, and "Naima" is the perfect song to demonstrate what I mean.

I think "Naima" is Coltane's most beautiful song.  Actually, I think it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard, as pretty as "Waterloo Sunset"  or "O Holy Night."  The melody, even though it's complicated chordally, is rich and immediately recognizable.  The bass is just an octave pedal throughout, some of the most restrained playing on a jazz song that you'll find.  The song is so light and wispy that if Coltrane weren't such a master of breath control, holding these notes out so elegantly, the song might not work.  It's full of open space.  Coltrane is so restrained, in fact, that he leaves the bulk of the solo section to Wynton Kelly's piano, who keeps it lovely and short-- he takes a chordal approach that McCoy Tyner would perfect in Coltrane's dream band that came together just a few months later.  When Coltrane does come back in, he sticks to the melody, making every note count, until the song ends with a beautiful upward climb until it fades.  It's only four and a half minutes, and the best word for it might be sublime.  It has always sounded like dawn in New York City to me.  The light is just breaking, street lights are turning off, cabs are the only cars on the road and most are out of service and headed to a garage, folks at diners are either just getting the day started or winding down a long night, and there's a peacefulness that will be interrupted soon.

Coltrane is as guilty as anyone sometimes of playing 5000 notes when five will do, but on "Naima" he's as tasteful as any musician can be.  This song represents to me the heights jazz can reach.  Below is a link to a great NPR site where they offer five Coltrane songs, including "Naima" (so check it out there).  If you want to see how crazy things got in just eight years, scroll down to "Mars."  It also allows you to hear "My Favorite Things," maybe in my personal all-time top twenty, so hopefully the Pod will get to that one soon.

And yes, I'm aware that many rock concerts are formulaic as well.  I was a Kiss fan, remember?

LINK:    Just scroll down a bit for "Naima."