Friday, June 11, 2010

SONG #123: The Man Who Would Speak True

Blitzen Trapper, Destroyer Of The Void, 2010

Blitzen Trapper, from Portland, has not just a hilarious name, but already one very good record, Furr, under its belt.  This new record is definitely worth a listen as well.  I thought about writing up the title track, which is a wild, six minute affair that sounds like an appalachian King Crimson or Queen-- very cool.  This song, however, keeps sticking with me.

This is the kind of track that I love to make fun of-- it's an acoustic ballad harkening back to a musical style of maybe 70 years ago, recorded by folks in their late 20s.  The vocal is deliberately fantastical and folksy, telling the kind of lost Americana story that went out with interstates and fast food restaurants.  It's the worst kind of Coen brothers wannabe ripoff of the weird, nebulous American frontier.  Done poorly, it's one of the worst kinds of musical exercise.

All the more impressive, then, that this song works so well.  As much as I want to dislike it on principal, this song knocks me out.  I get lost in the story every time, and I love everything about the sound and performance.  The recording is terrific, with closely miked acoustic guitar and faraway harmonica, and the vocal is a perfect, world-weary fit for the lyrics.

And how is it that these lyrics don't annoy me?  They feature a woman named "Grace" (warning: double meaning), a "brokedown palace" (hello, Dead fans) and a judge sending the character away for the evil things he's done.  After two verses, the tune borders on parody.

It's the third verse that sells me on the song every time, and why I've found myself humming it for days:

They busted my mouth to get at my tongue
To see just how this had all begun
So I opened my mouth like a dragon's breath
I only spoke truth but it only brought death
And I laid those boys to rest
For the truth in truth is a terrible jest

As much as this song is looking back at old structures (musical, narrative, symbolic) that's a verse with a young man's 2010 understanding of the truth.  Who speaks it anymore?  And when does it do any good?  

In the end, though, the song connects with classic American 19th century transcendentalism in a way that feels authentic to me; the troubled character in the song finds meaning only in being Whitman's grass that grows under our bootsoles.

And they planted me by the sea
Now the birds of the air make nests on me

So there you go-- a song I love in spite of all my inclinations.  It must be pretty great.    Or I'm a sap.  Or both.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

SONG #122: Message Of Love

The Pretenders, II, 1981

The Pod is loving 1981 these days.  And why not?  Endless Love was cleaning up at the box office.  A young Tom Hanks was teaching us how to laugh in Splash.  My parents got cable and HBO accidentally didn't scramble their signal for six months, allowing me to see naked girls for the first time.  And Chrissie Hynde was the coolest woman in rock n roll and ruled MTV.

Chrissie Hynde's voice drives some people crazy.  I have friends who find it as annoying and off-putting as Geddy Lee's.  That seems especially true with women listeners, and with women singers.  A lot of female vocalists I know hate Chrissie Hynde's voice.

Me?  I can't imagine what annoys them, actually.  I have always loved the sound of her voice, and more particularly, her delivery.  I think listening to Chrissie Hynde sing "The Adultress" helped bring on puberty for me.  Yes, she sometimes goes to the vibrato trick a bit too much (turning the word "Kid" into Ki-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-d," and she's occasionally deliberately overdramatic, but to me, she sounds like one of the most authentic and genuine female rock voices ever.  Put it this way-- I believe her when she's singing, and that's about the highest compliment I can pay a singer.

Perhaps what she's singing about is part of the problem some people have with her.  On the first two Pretenders albums, Hynde is very revealing and sexually confrontational in her lyrics and in the way she sings.  "Tattooed Love Boys," one of my all-time favorite songs, is borderline pornographic.  I think some people assume it's some kind of act designed to titalate high school boys who don't know better.  Like me.  Perhaps, but I don't think so.  I think Pretenders albums reek with authenticity.  Hynde was truly an original-- originally from Akron, Ohio (as are Devo and The Black Keys-- what's in the water out there?) she left Kent State after the shootings, moved to London, and became a serious scenester, working at the NME and with Macolm McLaren right when he formed the Sex Pistols.  She formed the Pretenders at the height of the punk movement, and the gender/national hybrid of the band was immediately electric.

Hynde is hardly the whole show.  It was a terrific band, especially in its first incarnation with Martin Chambers on Drums, Pete Farndon on bass, and Jim Honeyman-Scott on guitar.  In fact, The Pretenders might be the greatest female-fronted band in rock history not named after the singer (Scandal featuring Patty Smyth is disqualified for that "featuring" thing.  Also for sucking.)  In addition to making great records, they were an incredible live band-- check out the full concert that comes with the reissue of this album; they were the real deal.  All four of them were accomplished at their instruments, they had great songs, and their interplay as band members was truly impressive.  If they had been able to stay together for five years, I think that they would have been one of the biggest bands in the world.

Sadly, the excesses of rock n roll destroyed the band.  Both Farndon and Honeyman-Scott died of drug-related accidents within two months of one another.  Hynde soldiered on with Chambers, making one more great album in 1983 (Learning To Crawl) but it's all been downhill from there.  She still makes albums, but now they're essentially solo albums, and there's no magic left.  I saw the band in the 90s, and I kind of wish that I hadn't.

This song is the first single off of this second album, which strangely got panned when it came out.  Why?  For being named II a la Led Zeppelin?  For being too similar to the debut?  It's obvious that people were WAY too critical back then-- listening now it sounds like a bold, fresh, hook-filled album.  "Message Of Love" is a great example both of Hynde's tuneful writing and the band's excellence.  Check out that drum pattern, and the interlocking guitar figures.  This song is hard to play-- we covered it a few years ago at an SFSC event, and it's damn tricky to keep that groove going.  I also love the contrast between the angular verses and those lush choruses.  The "talk to me darling" that closes out the song is downright romantic, especially for a band this aloof.

Youtube only has a live version from ABC's Fridays show (anyone remember that show?  It was CRAZY-- coked-out performers fighting onstage in the skit and a raucous, drunk crowd hooting along to the bands.  It remains probably the rawest, most real TV rock band footage there is  Just search Youtube-- there's tons of it by all kinds of great groups.)  This clip gives a good sense of the band's alchemy, though Farndon is completely wasted and makes at least four giant clams in three minutes.

To celebrate Bonnaroo's opening day tomorrow, we'll be looking at Blitzen Trapper next.  See you then.


SONG #121: It Must Be Love

Madness, Stand Alone Single, 1981

I know this song was pretty much ruined by its inclusion in a dumb Levi's ad in the 90s, but I still have a soft spot for it.  Let me count the ways...

First of all, it was on a mixtape that my college girlfriend made for me, which was the first time someone had made me a mixtape for the purposes of hitting on me, so that qualifies it for 20K status right there.  Any song whose secret message is "You're cute" is a good one.  (Other songs that were on that tape that I just can't save from themselves: "Oh What A Night" by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons and "Same Auld Lang Syne" by Dan Fogelberg).

Second of all, Madness was one of those bands that helped us little suburban kids know that much cooler stuff was going on elsewhere.  MTV turned Madness into a US hit, mainly because the band were smart and utilized the video format to emphasize how fun they were.  I remember watching the "House Of Fun" video and wanting to be in a band just like that.  It also made me want to go to London immediately.  The next night, I went to a middle school dance where multiple .38 Special songs were played by the DJ with no sense of irony.  In the context of sleepy southern Midatlantic teenagerdom, Madness seemed like the epitome of cool.  Frankly, it sounded like it was coming from another planet.

Third, there aren't that many good Madness songs, so if you want to pay them homage, you sort of have to put this song on your iPod.  Madness is one of those bands you want to like way more than you actually can.  They just weren't very good.  Listen how incapable the band is of keeping the tempo throughout-- it's really up and down.  Moreover, this song is one of the few hummable Madness songs.  Way too many of their songs are a riff played for four minutes while someone yells a slogan over it.  ("Toasting," they call it sometimes.  "Bad" is another word for it.)

Fourth, it's got a lot of nice touches.  I like the pizzicato strings that float in and out.  The horn section is great.  And I love the ridiculous scouse accent of the singer.  Don't you feel like talking in a British accent after listening to this song?  Why can't Americans get away with singing in dialect like that?

Finally, there's something so evocative about this song of a particular moment in pop music.  In that early 80s moment when MTV exploded, British music was integrated and upbeat, and The Specials, Madness, Fun Boy Three and the like were all over the airwaves and suggesting that the angry sneer of punk might have a lighter, more joyful side.  Rarely is pop music that unabashedly fun while still retaining musicality.  So I guess that's it: this song is fun, and doesn't try to be anything else.  Seems like a good way to kick off the blog's summer.  


Saturday, June 5, 2010

SONG #120: I'm Waiting For My Man

The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967

I have to start this one by asking for some folks to weigh in on the argument that has flared up in my NRBQ post comments (lesson learned-- don't let a post sit alone for more than a week, or people will start picking at its flesh like carrion).  Here's the question: how should you judge my 20K selections?  Some feel that you need to look at the band's total recorded output and look at the percentage included: for example, band A releases 50 songs, I include 45, 90%;  band B records 500 songs, I include 100, 20%.  Result-- I prefer Band A.  Others feel that you look at the absolute value number: 100 is more than 45, so I prefer Band B.  Thoughts?  Couldn't care less?  Inquiring minds want to know.

It's appropriate to ask that question at the start of this post, as this band has one of the most significant absolute value scores of all time.  The famous line about this album is that only 500 people bought it when it first came out, but they ALL started bands the next day.  A band that sold fewer than 50,000 albums while it was together, it has come to be regarded as one of the most significant bands in rock history.

I'll admit to having hot and cold moments with the Velvets.  There are times when all I want to listen to are these early VU albums-- I find them sonically arresting and evocative and really pretty magical.  I feel transported when I listen to this record in the right mood in a way that most music can't pull off.  There are even times when Nico's voice doesn't completely bum me out.  I know the first four Velvet Underground records about as well as I know any other four albums.

And then... there are times when these records sound too amateurish to me.  These were records made quickly with little money by neophytes, and sometimes the ragged tempos and missed notes and pitchy vocals grate, and I wish that the band had practiced some more.  There are times when Nico sounds like a complete joke and embarrassment to me, and the cult that has surrounded Lou Reed and all his efforts is laughable.  SOME of Lou Reed's stuff is terrific.  SOME of it is among the worst music ever made by someone with talent.  The fact that there are people right now writing voluminous defenses of Metal Machine Music and Mistrial makes me sort of hate the Velvet Underground.

All that said, I never feel anything but complete and total love for this track, my favorite of Lou Reed's and one of my all-time favorite songs period.

Let's talk about that backing track.  Mo Turner's drumming here matches the music perfectly-- the steady, propulsive eighth notes through the song are just what the doctor ordered.  No fills, no changes to the rhythm, just the occasional rise in volume and then return to the beat.  It becomes hypnotic after a while, and it's an example of her completely original but unskilled style fitting music perfectly.  I also love the crush of banged piano throughout; it sounds like there are six hands playing at once, and above it floats Sterling Morrison's gentle little guitar figure.  The combination of pounding rhythm and airy soloing fits the subject matter like a glove.

This song is about scoring heroin in Harlem.  It could so easily be cliched; white boy from a private university wants to play bohemian and hang with his negro brethren.  It has never felt that way to me, though, even if I think Lou Reed is sometimes exactly that kind of poseur.  It's the brilliant simplicity of the lyrics that keeps it effective, and frankly unsettling:

I'm waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, 125
Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive
I'm waiting for my man

I love the "my man" reference.  The "man" is his dealer, and you know that they have no relationship outside goods and services, but this kid is buying more than drugs-- he's buying access to some kind of artistic authenticity that is going to betray and destroy him.  He needs to believe that he's special to his dealer, that he's welcome in this world.  I also think the "twenty-six dollars" is genius.  The specificity of that sum: drug dealers don't make change, and drug addicts know exactly how much money they need for the next fix.  It lets us know that the voice in the song isn't playing around with heroin-- he's got a habit, and he's in trouble.  He's also ashamed and self-loathing.  Matching that lyric with the brash, exciting backing track is a thrilling effect.

Lex and 125th today, peddling a different kind of drug: I'm lovin' it!

This kid is also smart-- he knows that he's out of place and at the mercy of this guy.  Passing strangers ask him "Hey, white boy, what you doin' uptown?" and his dealer is "never early, he's always late / First thing you learn is you always gotta wait."  The powerlessness of the vocal is out of place with power of the backing track.  Again, I love that incongruity.

The song ends with the singer high and temporarily without concerns:

Baby don't you holler, darlin' don't you bawl and shout
I'm feeling good, you know I'm gonna work it on out
I'm feeling good, I'm feeling oh so fine
Until tomorrow, but that's just some other time
I'm waiting for my man

Then song then slowly fades without a solo and with a few random bass flourishes.  Two chords, back and forth, never changing: just like the addict's wheel of misfortune.  What an incredible song!  Consider that the #1 song in America the week this song came out was "Dedicated To The One I Love" by The Mamas and the Papas, and you'll get a sense of how groundbreaking and out of step this album was with its moment.  It was telling stories that wouldn't go mainstream for several more years.  This song transcends any concerns I have about the band's inflated importance or its reliance on connections to Warhol to be worth remembering.  Do you like punk rock's brash, insolent honesty and directness?  Then thank this track for helping to get that ball rolling.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

SONG #119: Auctioneer (Another Engine)

R.E.M., Fables Of The Reconstruction, 1985

Or is it Reconstruction of the Fables?  Those crazy kids with their palindromic album covers!

R.E.M. is one of those bands that helps you figure out how old someone is.  If you bring up R.E.M., and the person mentions any album in the band's 1983-1987 run (Murmur through Document), then he is in his late 30s/ early 40s.  If they bring up the band's commercial heyday of 1988-1992 (Green through Automatic For The People) then he is in his early 30s.  If they say, "R.E.M. blows," then he's in his 20s.  If they say, "Who?," then he's in college.

I fall into that first category, and like so many folks in my generation, I loved this band from 1983 to 1987.  Only The Replacements, the Minutemen and Husker Du were more beloved in my collection, which tells you more about my personal issues with anger and frustration than about the quality of those bands in comparison.  R.E.M.'s first five records are truly remarkable-- they are chock full of great songs, played well by a supportive, close-knit band who were able to combine a bunch of classic rock elements in some very original ways.  They had mystery (what is Michael Stipe saying?  what's wrong with him?) hipness (they covered Big Star, Deep Purple and the guy from Foreigner's solo stuff in concert) and smarts (they were a curious and edicated college town band, and they shared publishing and songwriting equally on every R.E.M. song so no fighting or bad feelings about one member making more than another-- YOUNG BANDS, take note!!).  They deserved all the credit that they received.

Now... if you're a slightly younger person, then you probably think it got even better.  They finally had some hit singles (starting with Document's "The One I Love") and then had a series of HUGE albums: Green, Out Of Time and Automatic For The People.  At that point, they were the biggest band in America; they dominated MTV, and it looked like they might reach the pantheon of stadium-sized bands.

It was not to be.  Drummer Bill Berry had a brain aneurysm on stage and had to quit the band, and with his departure, the wheels came off the cart.  R.E.M. has soldiered on, making a record every two to three years, but without any impact.  By my count, they have released exactly six decent songs in the last 15 years.  There are now many more bad R.E.M. records than good ones.  It's heartbreaking-- there are few bands who have lost their way so publicly and obviously as this one.

I'd argue that, in fact, it all started in 1988.  I find those years when R.E.M. ruled the charts pretty underwhelming.  Plus, those albums have aged horribly in terms of sound.  Go back and listen to Green-- sonically, it's like have your teeth drilled-- so trebly and high-end dominated.  That whole late-80s period are, to my ears, the most grating-sounding years in rock.  (Except, of course, for the compression-obsessed years of this last decade.  2000s-era pop music is going to sound horrendous in 20 years).  

It's tough to have loved a band so much for five years, and then found them disappointing and downright bad for the next 22.  Therefore, whenever my pod throws up an R.E.M. song from the glory years, it's a revelation to remember how much I love that old music.  Even with over two decades of mediocrity, there's no denying the magic of the early stuff.

Case in point-- here's a deep album track from the third record (the weakest of the first four).  All Youtube has to offer is a live version, but that's OK; my fondest memory of this song is from a live show.  I saw R.E.M. on the Pageantry tour in 1986 at the Smith Center at GW.  They were truly outstanding, and this song was one of the highlights.  On record, it was a quiet, propulsive little song at the end of the album, but live, the band spit it out like a punk rock song.  

It's a creepy, haunting tune to begin with, seemingly about the secret lives one can lead if you're willing to live life on the road:

She didn’t want to get pinned down by her prior town
Get me to the train on time, here take this nickel make a dime
Take this penny and make it into a necklace when I leave
What is at the other end, I don’t know another friend
Another wife, another morning spent
Listen, listen to the auctioneer
Another engine, another engine

Stipe's lyrics were always obscure at first (no "Everybody Hurts" on this record), and he mumbled on purpose to make the lyrics less important, but I always liked these, especially the line "Some things are givens, and others get away."  I feel that way all the time.

It's a great example of what this band used to do so well-- the rhythm section is tight but very open; Mills plays like a McCartney disciple.  Over that, Peter Buck finds the perfect balance between slashing rock guitar and the delicate picking of the Byrds that was his signature trademark.  Only three minutes long, they're able to imbue the song with quite a bit of drama and tension.

The live version here is great, but by the time I saw them a year later, they had started to project films behind the band, and for this number, it was a black and white film of the view from the front car of an old rollercoaster, and while he sang, Stipe dipped and moved with the coaster's motions.  It created the wonderful, haunting vertigo sensation-- I'll never forget it.  They were great theater as well as a great band that night, and it was their absolute high point.

Or was it KRS-One's rap on "Radio Song?"  Tough choice...

Any other nominations for bands whose later years almost make their early years unlistenable?  


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

SONG #118: I Smell A Rat

Buddy Guy, Stone Crazy!, 1981

Buddy Guy has enjoyed almost two decades of "elder blues statesman" now.  He has recorded and toured with Eric Clapton, made a series of major label records, been revered up and down and all around, and I couldn't be happier for him.  He seems like a genuinely nice guy who more than earned his right to play to adoring crowds and make a little money in his golden years.  Frankly, Chicago Blues needs him-- he's a great face for the city and its major musical export.  That said, I haven't liked ANY of the music he's put out in the last twenty years.  There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, worse than politely played blues music.  I find it so antiseptic and boring that I get an immediate headache.  Everything great about Guy's approach to the guitar was cleaned up and edited out of his last however many records (I lost count).  They are depressingly unlistenable-- music for libraries and museum collections.

It's doubly depressing in Guy's case because he was the real deal, one of the grittiest players of his generation.  And that's the interesting part of this story.  Buddy's career was not a steady arc from clubs to arenas.  Before Buddy made his comeback in the early 90s, he, well, "went away."  For almost two decades, Buddy Guy was a forgotten player who was occasionally mentioned in interviews by guys like Keith Richards, but like so many players of his generation, Guy had it rough for a long time.  His inferior white counterparts were playing blooze boogie to stoned throngs of rock air guitarists, while Guy was still hammering away at the old chitlin' circuit and playing to handfuls of purists.  And when the racist music industry finally re-embraced black music, it was disco, not the blues, that they went for.  To Guy's incredible credit, he bided his time, got even better, and when the window of opportunity re-opened, he played his way through it.

This song, the opening track of Guy's most consistent record and the last good one he has made, marks the intersection point between forgotten Buddy Guy and rediscovered Buddy Guy, between raw, unedited Guy and the made-for-VH1 version you hear now.  Guy recorded this record for Alligator Records, a Chicago label started by Bruce Iglauer basically to put out a Hound Dog Taylor record ("Give Me Back My Wig," for you Stevie Ray Vaughan fans that think he wrote that song and invented blues guitar).  Iglauer quickly assumed the mantle of trying to get a generation of authentic Chicago blues players on tape with as little studio meddling as possible.  As a result, the Alligator Records catalog up until about 1987 is chock full of really listenable and gutbucket blues performances.  In my opinion, this album is the best Alligator Records released as well.  Sadly, in 1990, the label actually started to turn a profit, so what did they do?  You guessed it-- they hired better studios, spent more money, and scrubbed the soul and the authenticity right out of the recordings.  So sad-- Alligator almost overnight became unlistenable in the 90s as well.  They made records for an imagined crossover audience, not for themselves, and that was that.

This album also marks the moment that I first became aware of Buddy Guy, thanks to the student bookers of the Haverford College concert series.  For a tiny little school, we had some very cool bands come through in my four years there (as well as some REAL clunkers-- anyone else remember Blind Idiot God?).  One freezing winter night, Buddy Guy and his hired-gun quartet came to sleepy Suburban Philadelphia and absolutely blew the house down with one of the best and funniest shows I've ever seen.

First of all-- Buddy was not a slick presentation in 1988.  He looked like a guy that had been living in bars for 20 years.  His haircut was truly a relic-- his jheri curl put Erik LaSalle's in Coming To America to shame.  

"But baby, it's our engagement party...."

He was wearing a polka dot shirt that has since become a trademark, and had a wireless guitar, allowing him to sprint into the audience and start soloing in someone's very startled face.  Guy is the Keith Jarrett of guitar players, growling along to his own playing.  Once you get used to it, it's totally endearing, but the first time you see it, it's like watching someone who is about to strangle his guitar and stomp offstage.

Guy also was working through his frustrations at his anonymity.  My favorite moment in the show occurred when he stopped a song in the middle and said, "Hey, you all like Eric Clapton?"  When we cheered back, his said, "I taught that boy how to play!  I can do Clapton better than Clapton!"  He then powered into "Sunshine Of Your Love" and tore it apart for about five minutes.  Then BAM!  "How about Hendrix?  You like Hendrix?"  Cheer.  "I can do Hendrix!  Hendrix stole that stuff from ME!"  And then five minutes of "Purple Haze" or "Voodoo Child" or something like that.  It was all terrific.  LOOK AT ME, DAMMIT!!  YOU NEED A GUITAR HERO, LITTLE WHITE KIDS? I'M RIGHT HERE!!  Even with his journeyman band, he killed.  (Conversation between me and the sax player after the show.  Me:  Hey, man.  Great show!  Him: (Ten second pause).  Where are the joints?")

It worked on me.  I went out the next day and bought this record (at the time, his most recent record!), and while it hasn't aged that well, "I Smell A Rat"  is still a great performance and showcases Guy's talent.  It has Guy's terrific signature style, lots of distortion and treble, and TONS of growling.  This is the album that finally allowed him, a decade later, to have the hero moment he deserved.

And hey, it's not like Eric Clapton has made a good record in 36 years, either.  But that's another blog.