Friday, April 30, 2010

SONG #103: Everything I Need


About once a year, I fall in love with an old song that completely takes me by surprise.  It's usually either by a band I've mostly disregarded, or just a song that slipped by me, or something that comes on the radio at just the right time to hit me just the right way.  I'm sure there are dozens of examples, but this one is one of the most vivid.  It's the first single off of the third Men At Work album.  

Did you even know there was a third Men At Work album?  I'm pretty certain that you didn't care.  Cargo, the second album, had two huge hits on it ("Overkill" and "It's A Mistake") but you could tell that time was running out on the band.  It's the classic story-- the band spent ten years playing pubs and writing songs, and the first album, Business As Usual, was the result of ten years of work together, and it exploded (thanks to MTV-- Men At Work was one of the first bands to hit via video, amazing since Colin Hay's lazy eye is even more distressing than Thom Yorke's) and became at the time the most successful debut album in history.  Cargo was written in a year, and it showed-- it was a lot spottier, though "Overkill" might be the band's greatest moment.  By the end of that tour, just when the band had finally scaled an international mountain, was headlining 20,000 seat sheds and arenas, and had the world at its feet, they completely fell apart and splintered over years-old grudges, fights over the money, jealousies about recognition, and sadly-stereotypical reactions to life in the fame fishbowl.  By 1985, basically only singer Colin Hay and his right hand man Pete Ham were left.  

When Two Hearts came out, no one was paying attention, including me.  I like the first Men At Work as much as any 80s kid, but it already felt dated by 1985, and I had moved on to hardcore punk and away from the Top 40 by then.  I remembered seeing the ugly album cover and laughing at it.  They were the Australian Hall and Oates, and the world moved on to INXS, Crocodile Dundee and Mel Gibson for its Aussie fix.

Fast forward to 1989.  I'm home for the summer from college, working a few random crummy jobs and basically killing time.  My folks were out of town, so I had the house to myself, and never really changed my nocturnal habits from the previous semester.  One bored, boring July night around 2:25am, I put MTV on, and the video for "Everything I Need" came on (God knows why-- Colin Hay's brother must have been a production assistant or something), and I was hooked from the first line by the melody.  I hadn't heard a Men At Work song in probably five years. and I thought Hay sounded terrifc.

The next day, I went to the Annapolis Record and Tape Exchange to look for a cheap copy of Two Hearts.  No luck, but even better, they had a ten cent copy of the actual 7" with the picture sleeve. 

I threw it on when I got home, liked it even more than I had half-awake the night before, and listened to it for about three days straight.

Why this song at that moment for me?  I think it has to do with a couple of things.  I was moved by the nostalgia of the first verse:

Movin' up and down and from side to side
With so many things to do
I want to go again I want another ride
This time should see it through
We never realized as the years rolled by
That we never really had a clue
But we knew one day we'd come alive
And in the end there's me and you

The way Hay sings "never really had a clue" gets me every time.  It seems like an apology to his fractured band, even as he continues to use their name, and even as he is moving on from them.  I think I was starting to feel that way about my hometown that summer.  I wasn't unhappy, but I was feeling restless and ready for something else.  I had friends home from college, and friends who hadn't left, but it all felt like an imitation of the high school kid who had been living that life authentically two years before. Two summers later, I'd move 3,000 miles to California and never look back.  I couldn't have put words to it at the time, but I think that, while that desire to go home and be with the people you grew up with is a powerful one, you do naturally begin to replace them with more adult concerns:

Oh my babe, she gives me everything
She gives me everything I need

I think this song tapped into that desire in me to move on to something I could love without the baggage of the past.

I also love what I feel like is the self-mocking bridge, where Hay goes reggae in obvious imitation of his previous work, and quotes one of his former songs.  It's a nice moment of levity that suggested to me that Colin Hay was a good guy who was aware that this might be the last time in his career that other people would pay him to make records. 

Finally, I love how life comes full circle sometimes.  Twenty years after I bought this single and spent a week lost in it, I opened for Colin Hay in SF with Megan Slankard, and he was one of the most down-to-earth guys I've ever opened for.  And I'll say this-- he can still absolutely sing his ass off (actually, he's better now in many ways), and no one loves his wife more than he does.  So while there seems to be a tale of acrimony and spite woven into the Men At Work story, Colin Hay is pretty believable as a talented, weird-looking guy who knows he got incredibly lucky in 1982, and has had the sense to recognize it,  stay grounded, and thank his lucky stars that people still come to see him.  It makes the final lines of this song amazingly autobiographical, considering they were written when the top of the mountain was still in his sights:

And if you think us fools and you criticize
Then my friend, the joke's on you, I'll say it again
Oh my babe, she gives me everything
She gives me everything I need


Thursday, April 29, 2010

SONG #102: The Joker


Will Ferrell's imfamous "cowbell" sketch has changed our relationship to "Don't Fear The Reaper" forever.  It is impossible now to hear that song without focusing on the cowbell.  It's like a drug-- you just sit there waiting for it to enter and then dominate the mix.  Thanks to the observations of my friend Jerry Becker, I am about to do the same thing to "The Joker" for you.  So be warned-- if you love this song, if your summers are filled with barbecues on the water and Steve Miller and Jimmy Buffett wafting through the citronella and the steady hum of insects, if you yourself secretly feel like the Midnight Toker himself, then you might want to skip this entry.  On the other hand, if, like me, your favorite version of this song is Homer Simpson's in the flashback to high school episode ( then read on, Macduff.

The cowbell of "The Joker" is, without question, the cymbal crashes made by drummer John King.  Let's just listen to the first forty five seconds together.  Go ahead.  Did you hear those cymbals?  I mean, REALLY hear them?  If you need to, go back and listen again.  The rest of us can wait.  


First, notice the double-clutch cymbal hits at the top.  King goes for it on both the one and the two, and the first one sounds like a mistake because of a colossally sloppy tape edit.  If you listen carefully in your right speaker, you'll hear that the cymbal was edited off the top, but then punched back in while it was still ringing, hence the halting, sloppy feeling at the top of the song.  It's the kind of thing you never hear nowadays-- a serious mixing error in the first second of a major label, million-selling single.

After that, we get cymbal hits in no discernable pattern.  Here's the way it breaks down:

(Crash!, Crash!) Some people call me the space cowboy yeah
(Crash!) Some call me the gangster of love (Crash!)
(Crash!) Some people call me Maurice
Cause I speak of the pompetous  (Crash!) of love (Crash!)

People talk ab (Crash!) out me baby
Say I'm doin' you wrong, doin' you wrong (Crash!)
(Crash!) But don't you (Crash!) worry baby don't (Crash!) worry
Cause' I'm right here (Crash!) right here right here right here at home

The only thing I can think of is that Jon was looking down most of the time while playing, grooving into his snare drum, and every time he looked up, he saw the cymbal, and thought, "Yeah!  Cymbal!" and hit it.  Almost NEVER on the one, mind you.  In 95% of songs, cymbals are used to accentuate the kick drum.  On this song, there are 31 cymbal hits (yes-- I had some free time today.  Sue me).  Nine of them occur on a downbeat.  The other 22 are spread randomly around the track.  I think "Joker cymbal" would make a great drinking game.  My favorite moment is the "don't you worry" line where John just keeps going back to the well.  Crash!  Crash!  Crash!  It honestly makes me laugh almost every time I listen to it.  It sounds like the way an eight year-old plays drums when you stick him behind the kit for the first time.  It breaks every rule of a drum track-- lay a foundation, don't pull focus away from the vocal, accentuate without derailing the rhythm, etc etc.  I'd love to know if this was a practice run-through that Steve just decided was good enough to use, or if this was John's vision.  "Listen, man-- I'm gonna WAIL on that cymbal, but NOT when you THINK I am!  It's gonna be amazing! (Snooorrrrrrrrrt)."**  

Try this game-- imagine King yelling "Yay!!!" out loud every time he hits a cymbal like the Crank Yankers puppet (; it brings a whole new level of meaning and specialness to the tune:

(Yay!, Yay!) Some people call me the space cowboy yeah
(Yay!) Some call me the gangster of love (Yay!)
(Yay!) Some people call me Maurice
Cause I speak of the pompetous  (Yay!) of love (Yay!)

People talk ab (Yay!) out me baby
Say I'm doin' you wrong, doin' you wrong (Yay!)
(Yay!) But don't you (Yay!) worry baby don't (Yay!) worry
Cause' I'm right here (Yay!) right here right here right here at home

"The Joker" is hardly fine art.  Or fine.  Or art.  But that drum track?  Solid.  Freaking.  Gold.

** I have no idea if John King did drugs.  That's a shameless 70s stereotype, and I apologize for stooping so low.  But did you look at the cover of this album?  They were on something, wouldn't you agree?  Also, there's this:


Monday, April 26, 2010

SONG #101: Tightrope

Janelle Monae, 7", 2010

My friend Malik is a much cooler, quieter version of music fanatic than I am.  His tastes are broader than mine, but his appetite is equally voracious.  When he recommends something to me, I always check it out.  Two weeks ago, he sent me the link for this video.  And I'm ready to announce it as the single of the year.  I don't care what comes out between now and December-- I think this song is the "Hey Ya" of 2010, a song so great and all-encompassing stylistically that it can't miss.  I've listened to it at least 100 times in the past fifteen days, and there's no end in sight.

Janelle Monae is an Outkast protege, featured on the Idlewild Soundtrack.  She's made one album of her own stuff which I thought showed talent but not a ton of focus.  This song, however, announces her as a potentially major artist.

There are so many things that make this song work.  Let's start with the vocal.  In the age of pitch-corrected lead vocals with cloying, perfect harmonies, Janelle Monae is a throwback belter.  She SINGS the hell out this song-- no tricks, just a great voice under complete control.  I love the occasional background vocals-- they're cool and a little unsettling.  The chorus are full-throated celebrations of a great melody and backing track.  I've been involuntarily blurting out the chorus everywhere-- the gas station, in line at CVS, in the car.  It's such an ear-worm that I woke up yesterday morning and had to put my iPod on so I could hear it again.

If all "Tightrope" offered was a catchy single, that would be one thing, but the backing track is one of the most compelling I've heard on a pop song in years.  It almost sounds like a progression of pop music over its five minutes, with each verse taking us to the next decade's aesthetic principles.  Sound like I'm reading too much into it?  Bear with me:

The intro has the cliched announcement of the artists involved that was popular at the beginning of the decade, but then Janelle cuts him off with that great soul "Whoooooaaaaa!"  When verse one kicks in, it sounds like a old school 60s soul single, all bass, drums, and handclaps.  And these are not computers (or if they are, they're not meant to sound like them).  That's a funky bass player with a rock-solid drummer, and Monae takes that one note harmony and cross-checks the rhythm all the way through the verse.  In chorus one, a chicken-scratch funky guitar comes in, and now we're in the 70s.  This could be an Earth Wind and Fire track for a second.

In verse two, everything falls out but the drums, and check out the difference in the kick drum-- now we're using old drum machine technology sounds, and it's the 80s, with voice and drums only, early rap style.  In the second part of the verse, we get a film score horn section, and in the second chorus, they add a classic 70s string section to offer a counter melody.  It sounds like a Bond movie theme for a few seconds.  At this point, the song has used just about every dance track trick in the book, and we're at two minutes.

Then comes the rap break.  And even here, it's all about progression: the first verse is very 80s, straight up and down rhythmically, and then in verse two, things become much more syncopated, and the delivery much more sophisticated.  Like everything in this song, it's about establishing the baseline, and then pushing it forward.  Brilliant.

In the third chorus, the drums fall away, and Monae alters the melody and shows her ability to improvise.  It's a transcendent little moment, and could easily signal the end of the song.  Instead, we're just getting started.

Around 2:50, Monae calls out the band, and they deliver, with a fabulous horn chart right out of a James Brown live set, and again, it's all about building and rebuilding.  The last 90 seconds of the song are essentially instrumental, and feature ukeleles, a scratching DJ, floating strings, MC ad-libs, more horn melodies... it's sophisticated and complicated and packed with terrific ideas to the point where I can't believe it's a major label release, let alone a single.  If this blows up like I think it will, it'll be the most musical, challenging hit single in years.  Wow!  There's hope for popular music after all, dammit!

Finally, how great is the dancing in the video?  It's so exciting to see a young performer sell the song with talent rather than skin.  I know it makes me sound like a prude and a grumpy old man, but I'm tired of our public droolings over our young celebrities.  Janelle Monae seems completely in control of her image here, and that might be the most refreshing part of this tune.  Yes, Big Boi had a lot to do with the track, and his cameo is completely successful, but it's her show here from start to finish.  When she looks at the camera for the first time and starts singing, and those eyes explode, I feel like they're telling us to step back and give her room.  With pleasure, ma'am.

The album, called The Archandroid, drops in May.  It's a concept album about a futuristic city in which Janelle plays an alterego.  I say bring it on.  If it has a few songs even remotely this good, Janelle Monae's going to be the story of the year.  Get in early so you can say, "Yeah, knew all about that."

Enjoy, and you're welcome.  Though you should really thank Malik.  

P.S.  Line of the year so far: "We call that classy brass..."


Sunday, April 25, 2010

An Explanation and Apology

Hello everyone.  Where have I been, you've asked (some of you a little angrily).  Well, dear readers, you have a right to know.


1.  I have barely concealed contempt for my readers.

2.  I second-guessed all of my opinions and went into a shame spiral.

3.  The Biggest Loser got down to the final eight contestants.

4.  Fantasy baseball started.

5.  My bands started gigging again-- three great gigs in three weeks.

6.  T Ball started, and as head coach of the Sand Gnats, I have BIG responsibilities.

7.  The new puppy May hit the "teenage" years and ate all my socks, requiring much darning.*

8.  My all-senior Shakespeare class was so focused that I had no time for anything else. **

9.  I had to figure out who Kim Kardashian is.

10.  And Justin Beiber.

11.  I watched Office Space on Comedy Central for the 327th time.

12.  Almost a dozen interesting records were released, so I was actually doing some heavy listening.  More on that later.

13.  I was on a visiting committee for an Islamic K-12 in Sacramento.  No joke there.  Just really interesting.

14.  I overslept.

15.  My hard drive crashed.

16.  I watched Rollerball.  Again.

17.  We bought MLB.TV this year, which means every game is on my iPhone.  Every freaking game.

18.  I went to the dentist for the first time in twelve years.

19.  Which was interesting.

20.  The good news is I apparently have horse teeth-- no cavities or major problems.

21.  The bad news is that you should go to the dentist more often than that.

22.  Because the scraping that happens after twelve years is, well, loud.  And long.

23.  My favorite line came five seconds in; "Hmm... well, you're gonna bleed.  No question."

24.  That said, it was remarkably pleasant, considering a pointy hook gouged blood and tartar and twelve years of bad decisions out of my mouth for 75 minutes.

25.  I ate a Taco Bell beefy 5-layer burrito and woke up in the hospital.***

26.  I made the mistake of reading the Sunday New York Times and got so depressed that I couldn't function for a few days.

27.  I got a little hooked on the show Parenthood.

28.  I read the new Led Zeppelin biography by Mick Wall.

29.  I also read the unauthorized history of The Simpsons.

30.  Lessons learned from those two texts: invent a cartoon family if you can.

31.  If a legend about you, sharks and groupies starts to surface, do nothing to discourage it.

32.  Money frequently ruins the relationships among otherwise pleasant people.

33.  Back to me:  there's a creepy, beat-up ice cream truck that cruises our neighborhood at dusk that I've been trying to monitor.  It might as well say "Pedophilemobile" on it.  It plays the song playing in the background of "Silence Of The Lambs" when Jane Gumm says "It puts the lotion on its skin..."****

34.  I edged the hedges in front of the house with an electric edger.  I'm glad there's no video of it.

35.  I went to see Hot Tub Time Machine.

36.  That took me back to 1986 for a few days.

37.  I saw Public Image Limited with The Beastie Boys in 1986.

38.  Amazing that both of those bands are still making records.

39.  I decided to Google a crush from 1986 that I never had the guts to ask out.

40.  She's an award-winning neuroscientist on the faculty of a famous university.

41.  Seriously.  

42.  Somebody clipped my parked car and tore off a side mirror.  No note.  

43.  That person is probably also against the public option for health care.

44.  And a Yankees fan.

45.  I spent some serious time working on the pithiness of my Facebook updates.

46.  My rock 'n' roll class is getting ready for its final exam.

47.  They are going to crush it on Sunday, May 30th.  12 kids, 25 songs, 90 minutes.

48.  I grew complacent.

49.  I disrespected the craft.

50.  The introduction of the Milky Way "all-caramel" candy bar required serious focus.

* Whatever that is.
** One guy brought the wrong book to class THREE TIMES.
*** Didn't happen.  But I'm obsessed with Taco Bell's new menu, which should be called, "Screw it-- let's just try to kill people."
**** It actually plays "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," but it's so run-down that it sounds like creepy clown music from a horror movie dream sequence.

I hope that clears everything up and re-engenders good feelings all around.  

See you soon.