Sunday, February 28, 2010

SONG #85: Stickshifts And Safetybelts


To close out February, the Pod spits up one of my favorite two minute songs.  This song will always be the sound of the interstate that connects Santa Fe to Rowe, New Mexico.  In my first year of graduate school, I was studying at the Native American Preparatory School (now sadly closed due to fraud and mismanagement-- a damn shame).  It was a beautiful place in the middle of nowhere, and every once in a while you just had to get off campus and re-enter the world, and that summer, that meant jumping in Tim's (remember Tim?  He turned 40 in a blog a few weeks ago?) jeep and hurtling to Santa Fe.  

In all seriousness, the only open bar in Rowe.

The soundtrack for all of those trips were mix tapes (remember cassettes?) that Tim's students had made for him for his drive from Las Vegas (Tim taught in Vegas for two years, which deserves to become a book) to New Mexico.  Many, nay most, of them were intolerable.  His volleyball players in particular served up a heaping stew of boy-band crap.  A few kids, though, had figured out who their teacher was, and had some solid tastes of their own.  Thanks to some Las Vegas teenager who recognized a teacher who cared, I got to hear this song for the first time, and then about fifty more times.

I had written off Cake as a joke band.  They're still a one-trick pony, but it's a damn good trick.  This song made me pay attention to them.  It's a total throwaway tune and a ripoff of "Hot Rod Lincoln," but everything about it is just perfect.  The lyric is adorable and funny without being cloying.  It harkens back to old soul music, when the vocal would suggest what's coming next instead of coming right out and saying it.  Great harmonies too.  The guitar playing is just white-hot-- I love everything that happens here, from the single note rockabilly twang to the driving chords that underscore the second half of the verse at 0:47.  Listen to that rhythm playing-- it's such a great contrast to the rest of the track.  The bass sounds terrific, and the skeletal percussion fits everything together.  I've probably listened to this song 100 more times, and I always start singing along at "Well a lot of good carrrrrrrrrrrrrrrs... are Japaneeeeeze!"  I can't help it.  

And can you imagine how good this sounds going 85 miles an hour in an open jeep on a deserted southwest highway at night?  It's the perfect soundtrack.  You can taste the dust in the air.  

Everyone has songs that transport them back to a place and time.  When this song comes on, it's 1997, I'm on my way to get a beer, and all is right in the world.

See you in March...


SONG #84: Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds


Will's final pick, and the song that pretty much puts him to sleep every night.

For the last two years or so, Will has fallen asleep to this Beatles album.  He has never once asked to alter his bedtime music.  He loves it, over and over and over again.  I'm not sure that he's ever even heard side two, because he's out like a light by "She's Leaving Home."

I wouldn't have guessed that the record would have such staying power (or that any record could).  I think it's partly about comfort (when we travel, I set up an ipod so he can fall asleep to it there as well) but it's also about loving the songs.  When he hears those songs out of context, he's always totally excited ("That's my record!", he usually exclaims) and he sings or drums along.  I actually think this record is perfect kids music.  Throw that Raffi record away, my fellow parents.  The Beatles are by themselves a truly universal language.

Will's pretty sure we all have the song title wrong.  "It's 'Lucy In The Sky With Ben,' Dad."  He's not sure who Ben is, but he likes being in the sky with Lucy.  It's apparently a happy song about two people on a fun trip.  Which is probably not too far off, really.

I loved this song when I was a kid as well-- The Beatles were the first band I flipped for, and I had a beat-to-hell copy of Sgt. Pepper I got for 25 cents.  It had a couple of cracks and pops that my needle couldn't handle, but I probably played it every other day in 7th grade.  "Lucy" has always been my favorite track, somehow-- it's not really my favorite song or performance on the record, but I think it's the most mysterious-sounding one, and the song when I was a kid that made me feel like I was listening to something special.  The imagery was completely mind-blowing for a southern suburban kid, and I love all the little musical touches throughout.  For me, it's the song that lets you know that each new track on the record could bring anything, and frequently did.  Check out Paul's bass line in the verses, for example-- it's ingeniously simple and counter-melodic at the same time.  And Ringo's drum hits that announce the chorus are a great example of his musicality-- as simple and as appropriate as possible.

I actually don't think Pepper is the best Beatles album.  By my count, there are six others that make for a better listen.  I totally understand why it comes in first all the time in polls, though-- imagine what it must have been like to buy Pepper in the summer of 1967.  No band had really put out a unifying concept record yet.  There had been weird records released, no question-- Zappa's Freak Out, for example-- and bands had started to experiment with the studio as an instrument and make things that sounded deliberately wrong or expanded (Pet Sounds), but for the most part, rock was still singles and AM radio and music for kids.  And then Pepper-- here's an album by the most famous musicians in the world on which they pretend to be other people, start stringing songs together musically and thematically, play rockers and ballads and dance-hall tunes and sitars and creepy circus music and sound collages, and all in 35 minutes.  Some of it has aged badly, but it opened up the possibility for a rock album to be... anything.  After Pepper, you could do anything you want, and while I think a lot of bands surpassed Pepper in terms of achievement, they never could have gotten there so quickly and with international buy-in without this record.  It's important that The Beatles made this record-- they took experimentation and some avant-garde understandings about art and identity and made them immediately mainstream.  It would have taken a decade for that to happen without them.  The Beatles' growth from 1962-1970 is, I think, the most dramatic movement from point A to point Z by any modern artist.

LINK:  (Though if you don't know what "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" sounds like, you're probably not reading this sentence.)

Thanks for DJing, Will-- back to the shuffle for the next entry.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

SONG #83: Get Off My Cloud


Will's pick #4.  It has taken him a while to wrap his brain around the concept of this song.   He keeps wanting it to be "Get Off My Clown."  That has led to several versions of the following conversation.

Will:  It's not 'Get Off My Clown'?

Me:  Nope. 'Get Off My Cloud.'

Will: But that makes no sense.

Me: How does 'Get Off My Clown' make sense?

Will: Because someone might be attacking your clowns.

Me:  You have clowns?

Will: Sure.

Me:  Do you run a circus or something?

Will: (Pause) Maybe you just have some clowns.

Me:  Hmm.

Will: (Pause)  How do you get on a cloud?

Me:  Well, it's a metaphor.  He's feeling good, like he's up on a cloud, and he doesn't want anyone to make him feel bad and bring him down off of it.

Will: It feels good to be on a cloud?

Me:  Well, like I said, it's a metaphor for feeling good.

Will: (Pause)  Wouldn't you fall through the cloud?

Me:  Again, he's not actually ON a cloud.  He's imagining that being on one would feel good, like he's feeling.

Will:  Because a cloud is not solid, Dad.

Me:  You're right.  Very good.

Will: You can't be ON one.

Me:  Nope.  He's imagining it.  Like you were imagining your army of clowns being jumped on.

Will:  Oh. (Long pause, then mumbled to himself)  I wanna get on a could.

This song comes from my favorite of the Stones' early 60s albums, and easily their sloppiest.  Some of the tracks on this record are so poorly played and recorded that I can't believe they were released.  Check out the original version of "I'm Free" on here sometime-- Charlie Watts makes a drumming error so egregious and stop-a-truck terrible that you'll think your mp3 skipped.  It didn't.  And the whole album is like that-- it feels like it was recorded in exactly the time it takes to hear it.  That said, the songs are so good that it hardly matters.  The Stones made three full-length records in 1965, and all of them have great tracks, but December's Children has half a dozen classics, including this irrepressible song.  Pick a thing to lock into-- Mick's hilarious, "maybe I have lyrics, maybe I don't" vocal;  Watts' snare roll; Brian Jones' little single note guitar figure; Richards' Frankenstein-subtle rhythm part; Wyman's bubbling and unconventional bass line.  It's all appealing.  

Then start listening for the mistakes-- the moment near the end when half the band heads to another verse and half heads to a chorus, and they don't really figure it out for a while.  The moment when the guitar players think that everyone is going to do triplets, and they don't, and they're left hanging.  The moment in the second chorus when everyone gets excited and speeds up, realizes that they sped up, and slow way down.  You get the idea.  There's a bunch of them in here, and there's something so charming and exciting about those mistakes now, since no band ever puts out anything spontaneous anymore.  All records are now perfect in the Pro-Tools age, and you lose these great moments of being in the room with the band figuring out the song with them.  And the Stones don't really improve with each take, anyway-- they elevate sloppy to high art.

Now can someone tell me where I can get some freelance clowns?


Monday, February 22, 2010

SONG #82: Battery

Metallica, Master Of Puppets, 1986

Will's pick #3.  Now before you think my kid has a mullet and is already drinking PBR, know that he's a sweet, perfect creature:

See?  Angelic is the word you're looking for.  So what is this child doing listening to Sabbath and Metallica and asking me repeatedly to play "Battery" for him?

In the case of this song, it's my fault.  Will fell in love with Batman last year, specifically the Batarang weapon that Batman utilizes so artfully.  He was telling me about it on the way home one day, and I told him I had a song about a Batarang.  And put this on.  Check out the chorus.  Does he not say "BAT-A-RANG!" instead of "BATT-ER-AY?"  Will heard that, and it was all over.  He now furiously air-drums in the backseat and lives to yell "BATARANG!" along with Mister Hetfield.

Once again, I must disclose: the Metallica guys were, until recently, neighbors of mine.  Two of them had kids in Will's pre-school, and I saw them in the parking lot all the time.  I once hung out with Kirt Hammett at the Paradise Lounge and watched a David Bowie cover band with him in the mid-90s.  In all of my minor interactions with them, they have been friendly, generous guys.

That said...

I cannot believe what a train wreck Metallica has been this decade.  The documentary Some Kind Of Monster is one of the most unintentionally hilarious films ever made.  I don't know how they showed their faces in public again after that.  Don't get me wrong-- I have nothing against therapy.  In fact, I think everyone should do it.  What was so uncomfortable to watch was that these guys had reached their 40s without learning how to have a single meaningful conversation with one another.  It was like watching an old man try to learn how to ride a bike.  Moreover, the little svengali/ guru/ therapist/ mindraper they'd hired obviously got his degree from the Brian Wilson School Of Therapy.  The St. Anger album is so bad that it sounds like a Metallica parody album, and is the only record I know on which the drummer plays an anvil instead of a snare drum.  Their Bonnaroo performance was endearing in how sloppy and exhuasted they were, but they were cashed thirty minutes into the set.  I've never seen a band sweat so unhealthily like that.  And Death Magnetic?  Maybe I'm getting older than I think, but to my ears that's the most unlistenable, poorly mastered CD I've ever heard.  I feel like it makes dogs' heads explose from miles away with its devil frequencies.

Metallica does have one moment of undeniable greatness, and it's this album, from 1986, before the death of original bassist Cliff Burton and before the band's commercial success of the 1990s.  I was never into heavy metal, and I never even went through a metal phase.  I didn't secretly have an Iron Maiden t-shirt in my closet.  For me, it was all about punk rock.  I loved The Clash and the SST bands.  I loved my music loud and guitared and fast, but metal always sounded... well.. dumb to me.  I don't know how else to put it.  The songs were always about girls and cars and demons and black cats at dawn.  The guys in the bands were interchangeable and shirtless and spandexed.  The band names were forgettably similar:  Accept.  Dokken.  Krokus.  Krokus?

                                                                            Yes.  Krokus.

The videos were ridiculous.  Check out Patton Oswalt's "80s Metal" routine for the full story. ( about 3 minutes in.)  I could never get on board.  In truth, I listen to metal more now than ever before in my life, and it's all my bandmates' fault, who are plying me with Maiden and Pantera tracks that I can't deny.

There was something about Metallica that seemed different to me.  They sure didn't seem like they were trying to make any friends or meet girls; they were a hairy mass of drunken "stranger danger."  What got me to listen to them was a random encounter with the band-- I was in Edinburgh in June of '86 walking from one castle to another, and I could hear loud metal music coming from around the corner.  When I walked up, it was a bunch of Edinburgh metalheads lined up to buy tickets to the Metallica show happening that September (as it turns out, one of Burton's last shows-- he died in a tourbus accident two weeks later).  They were cranking Master Of Puppets on a boombox, much to everyone's general consternation, but I had to admit-- it sounded GREAT.  It wasn't tinny and trebly like so much other metal (that would come later in their career, after Burton's death, when the band punished Jason Newsted for being such a huge jerk as to join the band by mixing him off the next record entirely), and the band's timing and confidence were undeniable.  My Black Flag t-shirt impressed no one, though it did allow me safe passage, which is more than I can say for the grad student who, in trying to rush by, was assailed with a flurry of expletives that only the UK can deliver with such panache.  

When I got home from Europe, I bought Master Of Puppets, and it remains the one Metallica album I can listen to start to finish, and really the only one I need.  I find the first two a little hit and miss, and every album after this one has some tragic flaw (sound, songs, nail polish, etc).

"Battery" opens the album, and everything you need to know about the record happens in this track.  The song starts slow, with a terrible sounding acoustic guitar, but I love how mistreated it sounds.  The Metallica sound kicks in, but the tempo stays slow for over a minute.  Is this a power ballad?  Is it some kind of overture?   Finally, you get the release.  This riff is one of their best, and they're smart to keep the rest of the song short-- it's only four minutes from the here to the end, half the length of the rest of the tunes on the album.  

I've never been impressed with Hetfield's voice, so the verses aren't particularly memorable to me (and I assume they're about alienation or loneliness or being unforgiven or something like that), so for me, the song becomes memorable at 2:05, when Hammett plays a four second guitar solo.  That's right-- they give him exactly FOUR SECONDS to make an impression, and he kills it.  It might be the greatest teeny tiny solo of all time, and it's what takes the track up a notch for me.  That's the point when the song always wins me over.  Hammett gets his second moment to rip at 3:20, and takes full advantage.  This time, it's a classic metal break, lasting thirty seconds and featuring every trick he's learned up to that point.  By the four minute mark, you've either given up on the tune (and probably the band) or been sucked in.  As I type this, I can't help but nod along, and I'm typing too fast and making mistakes.  And I love the totally unnecessary ending in double time.  The song should end at 4:40, but the band tacks on one more pyrotechnic moment.

Metallica is perhaps my least favorite band name of all time (like naming your band Alternarock or Alt-Countrytime) and they've got some 'splainin' to do about a lot of their work, but I'll always have time for Master Of Puppets.


SONG #81: Highly Suspicious

My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges, 2008

Will's second pick, and one that he's loved since he first heard it.  

I was a little late to the My Morning Jacket party, arriving around 2005's Z album, and they remain a very hit/miss band with me in the sense that I usually love their albums when they first come out, play them a ton, and then never touch them again after about three months.  Looking over the space they inhabit in the 20K list, they have a lot of entires, but I rarely choose to listen to them.  When they come on shuffle, I'm never bummed, but they can't quite get over the hump with me.

I'm not sure why that is-- they have all the elements of rock music that I love.  They write good tunes.  They play and record them well.  They have a distinct sound (Jim James' crazy reverbed voice) and their cover choices are terrific.  They are also a great live band, whom I've seen twice, and James is not a puppetmaster; the band has a distinct, engaging personality.  I keep expecting them to join the ranks of bands like Wilco and Gomez in my upper echelon, and instead, I find their work fairly forgettable after the fact.  I suppose we all have bands we think we'll love more than we do, just as we have bands that we love a lot more than we think we will.  My Morning Jacket is definitely one of the top examples of the former for me (and come to think of it, Black Sabbath might be an example for me of the latter).

With that caveat, this band is still one that I'd recommend checking out in earnest.  This song, however, has cost them a ton of street cred.  Until "Highly Suspicious," MMJ was a band that hipsters could love without worrying that they were accidentally listening to "rock" music (I love when a 20 year-old tries to introduce me to a band that has "reinvented" the "rock" sound, and they play me something that I listened to 25 years ago.  My favorite recent example:  Surfer Blood.  Who knew that The Outfield was an important, watershed band in rock history?  Don't get me wrong-- I love the Outfield, but I'm not about to anoint Surfer Blood as the next Pink Floyd.)  Anyhoo, MMJ made rock fans and "rock" fans happy.

And then this song-- it is easily the most love/hate song in the band's catalog.  It's either a terrific reinvention of Prince's "Kiss" with tongue firmly in cheek, or the most disastrous misstep in search of a radio hit by an important band in the last ten years.  For some, it was proof that MMJ is a band with a sense of humor.  For others, it was a betrayal, proof that the band are not "artists" after all.

Me?  I freakin' love it.  I think it's hilarious and catchy and obviously meant to entertain.  James' vocal is a total crackup and so much fun to sing along to.  Who knows what the hell he says (or cares)?  When it comes on, I sing something like "Waitin' for the potum and the pocis collide, Scrummin' in the fault of the town..."  All that matters is that you can double the robot chorus.  This moment is when Will shines.  No one can sing "HIGHLY SUSPICIOUS OF YOU!" with the conviction of a 6 year-old.

The death of humor in rock music over the last decade is concerning-- believe me, nobody takes this stuff more seriously than I do, but life without humor isn't really living.  So many modern bands are SO earnest and SO hurting (looking at you, emo kids) that it's hard to take them seriously.  I felt the same way about the Goth movement.  Nobody's that depressed all the time.  I know that most of those Goth kids laughed with one another when no one else was watching, and found ironic humor in having to put on a Der Weinerschnitzel outfit over the black hair and fingernails.  The Cure were unlistenable to me until they started to have fun, and then I totally got it.  For me, "Highly Suspicious" is proof that MMJ finds joy in their work, and that's a huge bonus if you're going to try to win me over with an eleven minute jam.

And any song that ends with that interesting a guitar solo is OK by me. 


Sunday, February 21, 2010

SONG #80: Iron Man

Black Sabbath, Paranoid, 1970

What better way to celebrate the week off than to blog to you Will's first five picks for his CD mix that we started making together this week?  These are currently Will's (age 6 1/2) favorite songs, and they've all been in heavy rotation for a few years now.  I'm not sure what links them in his head, but let's take them one at a time and see if we can find a pattern.  Regardless, I thank my lucky stars every day that my son would rather air-drum to Black Sabbath than sing along to the Vegi-Fundamentalist-Tales.  I'll try to get through all five as fast as I can.

So here we go...

Will's Pick #1 is from Black Sabbath's second and greatest album, Paranoid, which has most of the Sabbath songs you know even if you're not a fan.  It came out only a few months after the band's trippy and genuinely chilling debut album, which is a very different affair.  The first Sabbath record has two ten minute suites that give a new meaning to the word "dirge."  I had a friend in college who broke up with a new girlfriend because she played him this record a few weeks in and told him that she thought it was "beautiful."  (He's the same guy who gave Will a Vegi-Tales CD, actually.)  By the second album, they'd tightened things up and realized that they needed a few catchy numbers to win over fans.  I don't know if I'd describe "Iron Man" as catchy, but it's certainly memorable.  The riff is a classic sludgy affair from guitarist Tony Iommi, and it has four distinct sections.  The first is the one everyone knows (I... AM... IRON MAN!).  The second acts as a bridge between the verses, and is a little more subtle, but not much,  The third, which becomes the heart of the chorus ("Nobody wants him... he just stars at the world"), starts to show the band's agility, and the fourth, my favorite, leads into the double-time guitar solo where the band proves it can actually play.  Sabbath for me is always at its best when Ozzy is not singing; I really love the sound of the band, especially when it speeds up the tempos.

It's hard not to hear "Iron Man" as a autobiographical song.  If you check out the live versions of "Iron Man" on YouTube from 1970, Ozzy is painfully awkward.  He claps like Bigfoot, can't stop playing with his hair, and seems to feel completely out of place unless he's banging his head.  I've always thought he was the Iron Man, forged in the grit and steel of industrial Birmingham, only beloved when he's making a spectacle of himself, and secretly wishing he could burn down the whole sneering planet.  For me, Black Sabbath is the sound of industrial English adolescent rage at seeing no future beyond their parents'.  Instead of building more blooze-rock for the London scene that would always look down at them, Sabbath built their own unapologetic, metallic beast and trounced and trampled right over swinging London and found an international audience more than ready to fistpump along.  Americans could easily tap into Sabbath's class-based frustration and cartoonish imagery.

I played this for Will when the Iron Man movie came out, and someone gave him an action figure.  He loved it instantly, and we made up a story about what was happening in the instrumental breaks.  We decided that, during the guitar solo, the Iron Man was saving a village that had shunned him earlier, and that they came to understand and accept him even though he was different.  Will's understanding of the song is as a kind of Frankenstein with a happy, singalong ending.  I think that's a fair interpretation of these lyrics:

Now the time is here
For Iron Man to spread fear
Vengeance from the grave
Kills the people he once saved

I appreciate his optimism, though I think he's a tad more upbeat than the boys in the band.  Far be it from me to supress his sense that the Iron Man just needs love like the rest of us.

Black Sabbath is dumb and about as subtle as Glenn Beck, but they're (dare I say it?) fun, and I listen to the Paranoid album all the time.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

SONG #79: Loose Booty


Told you I'd make up for it.  Two in one morning!

The short version of the history of Sly And The Family Stone goes like this:

1) Sly gets a start as a hip SF DJ, and his exposure to Haight Street and the Summer Of Love leads him to start his own group.

2) Sly & The Family Stone, a multiracial, multi-gendered group representing the brave new inclusive world of Planet Hippie, explodes with hit singles, a killer live show, and is a hybrid of James Brown funk, Bay Area jam bands, and the pop consciousness of a former DJ who knows a hit when he hears one.  They make some of the greatest music of the late 60s.  The steal the show at Woodstock.  The sky's the limit.  

3) Sly goes cookoo for cocoa puffs (and coca leaves).  He misses concerts, dives headfirst into a mountain of cocaine, makes a brilliant cry for help/ dance with the devil album called There's A Riot Goin' On in 1971, and basically disappears.
Classic Sly footage from the Dick Cavett Show:

4) Sly lurks reclusively in a mystery pad, throwing darts at a photo of Prince for the rest of his life.

Because most of Sly's catalog has been out of print or woefully attended to since his fall from grace, I had no reason to believe otherwise myself, so I didn't bother to listen to Sly's 1970s output for years.  The album covers from this era don't exactly lead one to want to investigate further, either.  I find this cover a little heartbreaking, actually.  Sly is trying to seem like a family man-- there he is with beautiful wife and Sly Jr., looking upward with a look of what I assume he thinks is bemusement and thankfulness.  Knowing that the truth was so different (and still is-- Sly remains a completely unreliable and damaged guy, if perhaps well-intentioned) only makes a photo like this one more poignant, and I assumed that listening to the record would be like slowing down at a car wreck.  I only found myself owning it because, finally, Sly's albums got the attention they deserve, were all released at once in fantastic new sounding editions, and this one came in the discounted box set.  

Little did I know that I'd been digging mid-70s Sly for years.  This song's riff is also the basis for "Shadrach" from Paul's Boutique.  (The chant through the track is "Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego.")  When that Beastie Boys record came out in 1989, Small Talk and most of the Beasties' source material was completely out of print and impossible to find.  So when I heard Paul's Boutique for the first time, all those samples from lost 70s funk albums were from outer space.  There was no wikipedia site to break them down for you.

Now, don't misunderstand me-- this album is deeply flawed, and not worth buying.  (At some point, we'll get to 1973's Fresh, Sly's most underrated work, but that's for next time.)  Sly was slipping, and in fact had already descended into a deeply reclusive place.  What's amazing to me is how terrific this track is considering his state of mind.  The beginning is immediately arresting, and then it breaks down to Andy Newmark's fabulously funky drum break with "Rusty Allen"'s bass bubbling and bomping all over it.  (Apparently, most of the bass on these later tracks is Sly himself.)  Part of what makes "Loose Booty" so fun is how modeled it is after early Sly hits (the call and response vocals, the shared lead part among several members of the band) but also how of its time it sounds.  It suggests that, it Sly could have kept it together, he would have at at least one more brilliant album in him.  This song is not a voyeuristic view of madness; it's just a damn fine pop-funk song.

I think, sadly, that Sly doesn't get the credit he deserves (because I think he made some of the greatest soul music ever recorded) because he lived.  If he had died like Jimi or Janis, he'd be referred to in the same revered tones and there'd be essays about all the music we lost.  Instead, he's a living casualty, and more likely to be a punch line.  Like Brian Wilson, he's not coming back from wherever he's gone to.  

                        Ladies and Gentlemen: Sly Stone has left the building.  And, perhaps, the realm of human rationality.

Saltine tasted great, by the way.  Thanks for asking.  Thinking of trying toast for lunch. 


SONG #78: Sick As A Dog


I offer this song as explanation for the dead airspace.  Sorry for the week of blog silence, but I got a sadistic stomach bug right after the Super Bowl that a) caused me not to eat anything for 65 hours b) made me lose so much weight that multiple people have asked me how I did it (answer: you don't want to know) and c) allowed me to quote Richard Pryor* as I thanked Newton for gravity over the toilet bowl multiple times.

One of my favorite liner note moments comes from R.E.M.'s Dead Letter Office, which features a great cover of "Toys In The Attic."  In the notes, Peter Buck says, "If you grew up in the 70s, you liked Aerosmith."  It's such a wonderfully true statement.  Aerosmith got terrible press all through the 70s.  They were derided as a cartoonish version of The Rolling Stones, and critics just savaged them as they drugged themselves into a late 70s stupor that almost claimed the group.  But you know what?  Those critics didn't grow up in the 70s, and so Aerosmith's American brashness and unapologetic love for pop hooks wasn't for them.  Critics couldn't forgive the band for so obviously wanting to be popular, but Aerosmith has always had as much to do with the Raspberries as Led Zeppelin.  At their best, they sound like a power pop band pretending to be a heavy metal band, and sometimes that's a fabulous combination.

It certainly is here on one of my favorite Aerosmith tunes, from a silly, 29 minute record from the bicentennial year.  There's nothing subtle about Rocks-- the songs are blunt and short, the cover obviously took at least five minutes to conceive and shoot, and the stylistic variations of the previous year's and far superior Toys In The Attic are gone.  In its place is some hard pop-rock with a series of show-offy vocal performances that steal the show every time.  What sells this song is not the solid but predictable guitar lick but those wonderful, multitracked "Please"s that are the cornerstones of each verse.  Steven Tyler is generally a complete weirdo, and these days he's starting to look more like a melted candle than a person, but he's a fantastic musician.  In the documentary about the making of the Pump album, Tyler proves himself to be a terrific, effortless singer, a great drummer, a natural songwriter, and a narcissist that would make Charlemagne say, "Wow, that guy needs to think about other people every once in a while."  He sounds great on this track, even if his vibrato at the end of the verse lines is sometimes almost Striesandesque.  The chorus is fine, the half-time bridge at 2:45 is a nice touch, and it fades on a classically tasty Joe Perry solo, but the song will always be the "Pleeeeeeeease" song to me.  

Other than "Please," the lyrics are pretty dumb and utterly forgettable.  It's definitely one of those songs you sing along to that ends up sounding like "Pleeeeeeese... you gotta rawp me in the long/ Pleeeeeeese... I gotta snop the blue ba song..."  I love the use of the word "loo" in line two-- it's so great when bands try to use slang from other cultures.  It just never works, even when your British accent has become second nature (looking at you, Billy Joe Green Day).  But this song is not about communicating anything-- just turn it up and yell "Pleeeeeeeeeze" at the right moments, and it should make you feel good.  Better than I have this week, at any rate.

I like a bunch of tunes from Pump, and I thought Alicia Silverstone was a great second guitarist (she was in the band in the 90s, right?) but for the most part I can take or leave Aerosmith's second act, remarkable as it is.  For me, the years worth knowing about are 1975-1976, and "Sick As A Dog" is as fun a place to start as anywhere.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a saltine calling my name.


* It's a family blog, so you'll just have to know which bit I'm talking about.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

SONG #77: Angels Of The Silences


Today is my former grad school roommate and awesome friend Tim's 40th birthday.  Because he now lives in Asheville, NC, I rarely get to see him.  Because he also has four kids, all under eight years old, I also rarely get to talk to him.  When I do, our conversations sound a lot like this; "So, yeah-- things are good.  My class is (DO NOT PUT THAT IN THE DOG!  HE DOES NOT LIKE THAT!) Sorry.  My class is reading (THAT IS NOT FOOD!  DO NOT PUT THAT BACK IN YOUR MOUTH!) Sorry.  My class is reading (sound of minor explosion. OK.  OK.  EVERYONE JUST REMAIN CALM.  THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER IS UNDER THE SINK JUST LIKE LAST TIME.)  Hey, dude.  I'll call you right back."

I also am totally disorganized and perhaps a little cheap, so he has no present arriving today for him, (and I'm not even exactly sure that it's today.  It might be tomorrow.)  But I know what it's like to turn 40, and even though he's a totally well-adjusted youthful guy like me, the day I turned 40, I struggled.  I had the urge to get out the old Ocean Pacific corduroy shorts and crank some Men At Work.  

So, as a lame present, I'm making this blog about one of his favorite songs, and a tune indelibly linked to our friendship.

Full disclosure: the Crows are locals, and I've played and worked with three members of the band, so there's a chance that I don't have critical distance here.  They are seriously good guys and damn fine musicians.  How about this?  I think there are too many ballads on their new album.  There.  I said it.  See?  I'm not sucking up here.

I've always had a theory that, among serious music fans, there are two kinds of music listeners (with gradations in between).  The first is captured first and always by the vocal and its melody.  For those folks, that is always what matters.  They might not even notice the backing track at first.  The other group is almost the opposite.  For them, it's the sound of the band that matters first.  They might not notice the vocal right away, and will find their attention divided throughout the song between the melody and the backing track.  If you want to know which listener you are, answer this simple question, and you'll know definitively:

Which Counting Crows album do you prefer:

1) August And Everything After (Round Here, Mr. Jones, Rain King)
2) Recovering The Satellites (Daylight Fading, A Long December)

If you answer #1, you're a vocal/melody person.  If you answer #2, you're a sound/band person.

I skew way towards option #2.  I love that first album, but I think Recovering The Satellites is one of the best records of the 90s, and this song is my favorite moment on it.  August is a song record, basically fantastic demos fleshed out in a series of grueling rehearsals.  It feels very much like a band (successfully) trying to make a grand statement.  It's impeccable.  The second record sounds like a band letting it rip, trying out random arrangements, letting things swell and stretch and be imperfect.  It's lovable.  Ideally, a great band is capable of both.

I first heard this song at a Crows show at the Fillmore in 1996, when they played all of Satellites before it had been released at a special, quickly-announced show.  They played for over two hours, and most of the set was all new, unknown material.  It was a really interesting way to fall in love with a new set of tunes-- you almost never have that opportunity anymore.  I went with a vocals first gal, and she had a rough time.  She didn't like not knowing the songs, and when Duritz sang the songs off of the first album, he altered all of the melodies, to her great consternation.  "Why won't he sing the song?  I hate that!"  Until she complained to me, it hadn't occurred to me to be bothered by it.  To me, it was obvious that Duritz was thinking of himself as the band's seventh instrument that night, and he was improvising and looking for a new part like everyone else.  That night was all about the monolithic, powerful roar that the band had tapped into.  I've seen the Crows multiple times since then, but I've never seen them blow a house down like they did that night.  That night, they deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as their influences.  (See?  More criticism.  This blog has nothing if not integrity.)

Two years later, and Tim and I are in Oxford for the summer for grad school.  We're in an intensive James Joyce class, and I'm writing a paper on madness in Shakespeare's later plays.  Heady stuff.  About three weeks in, there was a giant CD and record fair in the town hall, and we went and were blown away.  There were thousands of bootlegs for sale, stuff we've never seen before, and a bunch of new releases that we had been unaware of with our noses in crazy difficult books.  One of the things we bought was the live Crows album that was half an MTV Live show and half a VH-1 live show.

(Side note-- you can tell so much about music and its marketing in 1997 from this live album.  Disc One-- "Hey kids!  You like that rock n roll music with the guitars and the Ooh la las, huh?  Then check out Counting Crows all loud and happy on MTV!"  Disc Two-- "Hey, aging rockers!  Like your music acoustic and slowed down and a little cappucinoed?  Then check out Counting Crows on VH-1 Storytellers!"  "Hey, America!  Confused where you fit demographically?  Just buy this, pick your Counting Crows, and you can figure it out for youself!"  "Hey band!  Want to see how we envision your entire career arc summed up in one album?  Here ya go!")  

We got back to the apartment and put on "Angels Of The SIlences."  After thirty seconds, it was clear that it was going to be Tim's Song Of The Summer.  For the next month, every time I went to grab him from his room for class or dinner, he had it blaring.

I don't blame him.  I had done the same thing two years before.  I bought Satellites as a double album vinyl, an old school, 60 minute London Calling-style double, and I put on side one and was immediately hooked.  It's a fantastic sounding record, all warm, distorted tones, deep drums, piercing solos and thoughtful arrangements.  "Catapult," the first track, is a killer opener, and just as you're recovering, "Angels" comes fading up in a roar of feedback.  It's the Crows' most aggressive number, and they are surprisingly authentic as a forceful band.  It's recorded so hot that it sometimes sounds like it's going to distort, but it's also completely under control.  The guitar solo is one of my favorites-- it's crafted and written, but it's played loosely and spontaneously.

The lyric is Duritz at his inscrutable best and least maudlin.  Its full of evocative lines that you can make mean what they need to mean to you.  I love the chorus, in which he finds rhymes mid-line and breaks many conventions about how to put a hook together:

Waiting for you
All my sins I said that 
I would pay for them if I could 
Come back to you 
All my innocence is 
Wasted on the dead and dreaming

There's no rhyme scheme here, but the half rhyme "sins" and "cence" hold it all together.  Moreover, almost all choruses are two or four lines long; here, we have two groups of three.  It's inventive and unconventional without sacrificing any of the appeal.  Whenever a band can pull that off, it's totally worth celebrating.

FInally, what an ending!! From 2:22 to the end, it's exciting as hell-- there's the band coming back in with one guitar not even bothering to hit a chord, the fake ending, and when Duritz starts screaming "I'm gone!!" and the drums dig in even harder, my steering wheel is in mortal jeopardy.  It's a good old-fashioned fist-pumping rock moment.

So happy birthday, Tim!  Go get yourself a pint and scream along. And don't worry, man--  40 is the new 37.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

SONG #76: Boogie On Reggae Woman


So this song changed my life.  Seriously.

It's 1993.  I'm in my third year teaching, and I have officially fallen in love with the job and the Bay Area.  I'm 24, and the world is my oyster.  Except-- I'd been working so hard that I'd forgotten to have fun for almost a year.  I had stopped playing music.  I was working fourteen hour days and collapsing every weekend.  I was coaching and tutoring on the side and just barely squeaking by financially, so while I was loving life Monday to Friday, I was spending waaaaay too many weekends in Lonelyville, population me.  

Therefore, as the fall of 1993 approached, I decided to get "out there," wherever "there" was.  I said yes to every invitation to anything, and tried all kinds of "let's meet some friends" things: mountain biking, salsa dancing, poetry readings.  I joined a softball team.  And I'll be honest-- I was a little rusty.  I felt the forced nature of it all.  I felt like a guy trying to meet people, which, as we all know, is hugely appealing.  I don't think I reached Flounder "You guys playing cards?" levels, but it wasn't very pretty.

And then came the cold, crappy November night when one of my new colleagues was going out dancing with some college friends and invited me along.  I, of course, said yes, but feared the worst.  I wasn't a dance club guy, and I saw another long, awkward evening ahead of me with a "what's wrong with me?" drive home.

Instead, it was the turnaround moment of my 20s.  The drive in was hilarious, as my buddy's friend was drunk when I picked them up, and treated us to a stream-of-consciousness rant about whatever went past the window.  To park, we had to move what can only be described as a demonically-soiled mattress out of a parking space.  The club was Nickie's BBQ, a dive in the Haight in a neighborhood that is now totally gentrified (Nickie's got a facelift, too), but back then was just downright sketchy.  Like all clubs in the mid-90s, it was packed.  Remember when people went out to have fun?  I used to go see a local band on a Wednesday night in the early 90s, and there'd be 300 people there.  

We found the rest of their friends (including some central casting statuesque Nordic women) shoehorned our way in, somehow got drinks, and before I knew it, we were stuck in the middle of the dance floor.  My buddy's friend, now so drunk that he was beyond being able to answer questions like "What's your name?" and "What do we breathe to live?" immediately crashed into a huge dude, a piece of the mountain, who turned around, sized up the situation, and informed me, "You all go down if he keeps it up."  It was so crowded that I was making contact with at least seven people at once.  It was a touch-and-go moment.  Was I going to bail?  Get my ass kicked?  Have a claustrophobic freak out?  Spend the night feeling like Wyatt in Weird Science?

Or, was the DJ, at that EXACT moment, going to put on "Boogie On Reggae Woman" by Stevie Wonder?  To my shame, it was not a song I knew initially.  I recognized Stevie's voice right away when it came in after a minute, but I hadn't dug into his catalog very deeply.  But those drums kicked in, that bass synth started swooping, that skank scratch guitar locked into the groove, and everything in the world slowed down.  The giant dude smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and turned back around.  The whole room settled into the groove in seconds, and suddenly we weren't crashing into one another-- we were a slow motion music video.  At that precise moment, I danced for the first time in my life without any shred of self-consciousness or premeditated planning.  In my memory, the DJ turned it into an extended remix by folding the song on top of itself; it felt like it lasted for ten minutes.  To this day, there's not a groove out there that moves me like this one. For me, it's the Alpha and Omega of dance songs.  When Stevie yells "Can I play?"  during his harmonica solo, it's as close as I get to testifying.  When it was finally over, I felt like I had shed fifty pounds of all kinds of weights off of me.  I don't remember more details about the rest of night, but I don't need to.  I didn't leave with anything or anybody that night except a completely recovered sense of self.  Remember when Austin Powers realizes that he had his mojo all along?  It was like that, except without Heather Graham.

The next morning, I woke up feeling better than I had in a year.  I drove to Maximum Music in San Rafael, went to the used records bin, bought Fulfillingness' First Finale, and blasted Stevie Wonder all weekend.  Several important things happened that night-- I began a love affair with soul and funk music that hasn't abated for a day sense, I recalibrated my life in some very healthy ways, and I stopped looking for "out there," and naturally and immediately discovered it everywhere I looked.

You know that song "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life?"  Sometimes, baby.  Sometimes.