Friday, August 27, 2010

SONG #142: New Year's Day

U2, War, 1983

We start today with one of my favorite bass player jokes.  

A band is on stage playing.  The singer is singing, and thinking "I'm gonna totally hit on that girl in row five when we're done."  The guitarist is playing, and thinking "I think I need some new pedals.  Maybe a new amp.  I don't have the right tone tonight."  The drummer is playing, and thinking "This sucks.  I should have gotten more money for this gig."  And the bass player is playing, and thinking "A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-D-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A."

I think of that joke when I listen to early U2 records (and especially when I watch early footage of the band).  As much as I think Adam Clayton's playing fits the early U2 albums like a glove, and he's obviously a crucial aspect of the band's personality (and apparently kept them from disappearing into hard-core Opus Dei Catholicism) he's not the most dextrous player in the world.  Nevertheless, he's a great example of a guy who wrung just about all he could from his talent (his real talent seems to be being a famous rock star-- he does that side of his job admirably), and even though he's the worst musician in the band, his contributions to early U2 are invaluable.  

"B (Sunday) D (Bloody) G (day!)"

In fact, this album and the first Violent Femmes record are what I learned to play the bass to.  I bought a bass in the summer after 8th grade and came home with it knowing only how to play "Smoke On The Water," so I pulled out the two albums with the bass playing I most admired and started playing along.  By the end of the summer, I had both those albums covered, moved on to Who records, and that was basically that.  I didn't really play much bass in high school-- I got to when our bassist did lead vocals for a few songs-- but I finally had the chance in college to dig in to the instrument more thoroughly, and these days it's definitely my instrument of choice.

My first bass.

"New Year's Day" was such an important song to me on so many levels.  I heard it for the first time right before a weeklong class trip into the woods of Wye Island.  That week was easily the most unhappy week of my young life-- I was in the depths of 8th grade awkwardness as deep as one could go-- and when I got home, I took a 45 minute shower, made my folks drive me to the mall, and I bought War.  That kid on the cover said it all; that is exactly how I felt.  I even looked a little like him, only far less tough and able to stand up to a camera.  I played that record out for the next month.  Literally, I ended up needing to replace it from overuse a year later.

I don't know if I have the critical perspective necessary to make this assertion, but this song seems to stand head and shoulders over every U2 song that came before it.  I love the first album Boy, and some of those songs have aged extremely well, but it sounds like a young band's first record.  While that's part of its charm, the recordings lack a little confidence and muscularity in the playing.  The second U2 album, October, is one of the worst second albums ever made by a major artist.  It's close to being a career killer.  Only "Gloria" survives as a listenable track.  Some of the songs still translated live, it's true, but it did not suggest a band on the rise.  In fact, it seems as if the band considered breaking up for a number of reasons.

A lot was riding on War, then, to solidify the band, and "New Year's Day," the pre-release single, had to deliver.  The first five seconds tell you that the band has upped the ante in every way.  First, there's the sound of the track.  Those bass notes are enormous-- they fill up your speakers and headphones.  Those piano keys play a perfect, instantly memorable tune, and then Bono and the drums come crashing in.  The drums finally sound as big as Larry Mullen's playing.  The production here, by Steve Lillywhite, is as important as any of the band's contribution.  Lillywhite's long career was made right here.  It's also the first album on which Mullen recorded with a click track, and the difference is immediately noticeable.  Gone are the time fluctuations from the early songs, and it gives this track the propulsion it needs to last over five minutes.

Edge's playing is much grittier here as well.  A lot of the guitar part sounds improvised and designed as a response to the vocal line, and while there's nothing complicated going on, Edge's choices are terrific.  The two note figure that rests underneath the line "I... will be with you again," for example-- it's just four notes, but it fills up the sound without cluttering it.

The other great thing about "New Year's Day" is that it's not a "safe" single.  Unlike "I Will Follow" from the first album, it doesn't even seem like an attempt to write a hit.  It's almost six minutes long, and it's close to a full minute before the vocal starts.  Moreover, it's a piano-based song, one of the few in the band's catalog, so it doesn't even introduce the band's signature delay-pedal sound.  Instead, Edge chicken-scratches through the breaks with some of the funkiest (and perhaps the only funky) playing of his career.

Despite all the rule-breaking, it's such a singalong.  Bono's vocal is tremendous here, one of the best of his career.  Those high notes he hits near the end are lost to him now, and probably because of how much gusto he put into them as a kid.  It's hard for me not to scream along by the end, even though I never had those notes in the first place.

Say what you want about U2 (and I'll have plenty to say later about their more recent catalog) but this song encapsulates pretty much what there is to love about rock music.  A great track for the first day of school, don't you think?


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

SONG #141: Stand Up

Al Green, Call Me, 1973

Hello again!  Thanks for indulging my vacation-- I almost wrote a blog or two on the road, but I had really let my brain settle in at about 80% functionality, and I figured I better wait until I got home to try to communicate anything.  Not that I'm at full strength today-- I just took a two hour nap this afternoon after sleeping in.  Hopefully, you had a chance to read some old blogs in my absence.  More likely, you just now thought, "Oh, right!  That blog!"  Either way, back to business.

Most of the time, vacation for me means not much music.  I'm surrounded by people I rarely get to see, and by the time I put Will to sleep, I can barely keep my eyes open.  The one musical moment that does stick out from the last two weeks happened at the beach with the blog gal's family.  My sister-in-law Annie (who is a real writer-- her book's being excerpted in Time Magazine in a month or so) was cooking, and had Pandora playing on her laptop, and one fantastic soul song after another came on.  I went in to compliment her on her taste, and when I discovered it was a free internet radio station, I thought of how much easier it is now to hear music than when I was a kid.  

Take today's artist, Al Green-- when I was in high school, no Al Green records were in print.  Crazy, but true-- he hadn't been put on CD yet, and the Hi Records catalog was in shambles.  So if you're me, and you want to check out this "Al Green" you've been hearing about, you either have to listen to soul radio and hope you get lucky (and there's no soul radio in the 'burbs), go to a used record store and pay way too much for a used copy of one of his records, or just put him on the "to hear someday" list.  It was a great day in the reissue-crazy 90s when I finished my "to hear someday" list (not sure who the last artist was-- maybe German art-weirdos Can).  My sister-in-law is not a record collector, but thanks to Pandora, she's extremely well-versed in classic soul.  That's a beautiful thing about the internet age, and it reminds me why not everyone has a 20K iPod.  If you don't mind someone else playing DJ, you don't need one.  

The other thing that struck me as I casually listened to Pandora's choices for an hour was that, one after another, they were soul artists who had incredible hot streaks, and then completely crashed and burned.  My one decent epiphany of the vacation (other than I need to be more careful when I bodysurf at 40 than at 30, and that ice cream always tastes better dipped in chocolate) was that soul singers share a remarkably similar career arc to comedians.  Both seem to discover their voice, absolutely own their art for about five years, and then lose their touch utterly and completely.  That doesn't happen in other fields-- painters don't have five year hot streaks, nor do writers, or even other genres of musicians.  It seems particularly to plague comedians and soul singers.  As Howard Cosell used to say, let's go to the videotape:

Visionary, great comedians who suddenly lost it and became shockingly unfunny:

Bill Cosby-- Owns the 1960s.  By 1979, his standup is wretched.  His TV career follows the same pattern-- The Cosby Show was solid (if unwatchable in reruns), but all other attempts were cringeworthy.  Plus, there's Leonard Part 6.

Richard Pryor-- Owns the 1970s.  As funny as a person has ever been.  Then, suddenly and tragically not funny around 1982.  Legend forever tarnished by The Toy, perhaps the most misguided film by any major comedian.


[ney-der, ney-deer]–noun: the lowest point; point of greatest adversity or despair."

Robin Williams-- Amazingly funny from late 70s to early 80s.  If you haven't heard his first comedy album, Reality... What a Concept, try to find it.  I think it's genius.  And then... have you seen a Robin Williams movie lately?  Hoo boy.  Low point by far: Patch Adams.  Absolutely unforgivable.  That movie was so manipulative and cloying and awful that I felt like I'd been emotionally harassed by it.  It's the film equivalent of the date-rapist preppy guy in 80s teen flicks.

"Your terminal illness is funny if I put this red nose on!  Watch!  I'll show you!  Knock knock.  (Who's there?) The angel of death.   HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!  Want me to do a funny genie voice?   Hello?"

Eddie Murphy-- Owns the early 1980s.  Replaces Pryor as funniest man on earth.  And then... wow.  He now seems to be in a race with Burt Reynolds to see who can make more terrible movies.  By my count, it's still a landslide at 40-23 Burt*, but Eddie has decades of crud ahead of him.   Eddie does have nine good movies, but only two since 1988.  And Norbit and Pluto Nash should each count as -10.

What can you say here?  Truly-- what possible caption could communicate what's going on in this photograph?

Jerry Seinfeld-- Owns the early 1990s.  Has had the good sense to go into semi-retirement just as he started to grate.  If he comes back, I believe we're in for some serious schtick.  How quickly have Seinfeld reruns aged, by the way?  It's crazy-- they look and sound and feel really old already.  It's like watching Love, American Style.

There are plenty of other examples (George Carlin, Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Martin, Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, David Cross, etc.)  Needless to say, I'm pretty scared to see what Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle do next.  They both feel like they're staring at the abyss to me.

So there you go-- comedians seem to be able to put their finger on the pulse for about five years, and ride the zeitgeist, and then they're not only done, but totally superfluous.  Once they lose their connection, their ability to hear the hidden rhythms in our society, they can't communicate at all.

It's the same with almost every soul singer that I love.  Here's an incomplete list off the top of my head, but enough of one to make my point:

Aretha Franklin-- After scuttling for years, she strikes gold at Muscle Shoals in 1967 with Atlantic, and is the greatest singer on the planet for about five years.  Then she rides the "Freeway Of Love" to the all-you-can-eat diner for the next 40 years and counting.

Eddie Murphy in Norbit.  No, wait  That's the other... oh.  Oh, dear...  um...

Bill Withers-- Makes a series of terrific sides in the early 70s; by the end of the 70s, he's the worst kind of sappy, syrupy hack.

Bonnie Raitt-- Don't think she's a soul singer?  Listen to her first five albums or so.  Then do yourself a favor and STOP LISTENING!  It gets really sad really quickly.  I'm thrilled for her that she had a resurgence and made some dough-- she seems like a terrific person-- but I'm not a huge fan of those records.

Lauryn Hill-- I think the Fugees record and Miseducation are great.  Ms. Hill then seems to have gone quite mad.  The MTV Unplugged 2.0 record is among the worst I've ever heard.  It's like watching someone pretend to be a star in her bedroom through a two-way mirror.  So disconcerting.

Otis Redding-- Now, Otis dies at the height of his fame, so he's a different story, but my guess is that the 70s would have been very unkind to him.  Perhaps my favorite singer of all time, by the way.  If I had to pick one voice, it might very well be Otis Redding.

Stevie Wonder-- If you count Little Stevie Wonder and Grown-Up, Artistic Control Stevie Wonder as two artists, then he belongs here too.  Stevie will get his own blog someday.

Prince-- Again, Prince needs his own entry, but if you take away his work from 1980-1987, would you even consider him a good artist?

Curtis Mayfield-- Starting to see a pattern here?

Donny Hathaway-- Or here?

Mable John-- See Blog #8.

Sly Stone-- See Blog #79.

See what I mean?  There's something going on.  What is it about comedy and soul singing that links them in this way?  Why are these careers impossible to maintain?  

Here's my theory: to be a great comedian, you have to be willing to reveal everything about yourself.  You have to be unafraid to admit to your greatest weaknesses and faults.  While you're usually likable because you're so funny, you also usually reveal yourself to be miserable at the same time.  Comedians are rarely having a good time-- it's what allows them to tune in to society's foibles in ways that the rest of us can't.  The greatest comedians always make me feel smart because they make me say "Yeah!  I noticed that too!" to myself, and then incredibly dumb because I needed them to point out the importance of that insight I knew but had done nothing with.

Great soul music does the same thing to me.  The best songs make me feel smart because I can get lost in the music and agree with all the musical choices being made, and emotionally smart because they make me feel consciously in ways I had felt only subconsciously .  And then, at the same time, I feel dumb because I needed a song to show me how I was feeling.  That's my admiration for both forms.  They give me that sense of catharsis that we've been searching for since Aristotle coined the term; both forms make me feel better because they explain to me why I wasn't feeling better to begin with.  

And that's why I think you burn out after half a decade-- who can keep up that kind of honesty and pace and openness and rawness?  Things get in the way-- for example, you make money, or you get married, or you have some kids, or you finally go to therapy, or you're consumed by your demons, or whatever.  Any one of those changes can disconnect you from the secret voices you were hearing.  You need someone else to carry that load.  And so the torch keeps being passed to the next brilliant misanthrope who tears him or herself open so we can see ourselves.

Now... I told you all that to tell you this.**  The thing that struck me about that Pandora playlist was that you could let all that music blend together so easily and use it as a nostalgia soundtrack.  In the early 80s, the movie The Big Chill suggested that 60s soul music was invented for 30-something white people to listen to at reunions while they cooked dinner together and realized the existential nightmares their lives had become without peace rallies and flower power.

Boy did I hate The Big Chill.

To Pandora and my sister-in-law's credit, in the hour I listened, I mostly heard songs on the 20K list.  Nevertheless, great soul music and good soul music sometimes is difficult to separate.  It has a sound and a feel, and if all you're listening for is that, then it's easy for lesser artists to slide right on by.  Same with comedy-- any good comedian can hang in there for five minutes.  "Hey-- I was just on a Jet Blue flight, and I was wondering what would happen if that crazy flight attendant was the pilot???  I think it would go something like this..."

Which brings us to this Al Green song.  I've chosen this song so you can ask yourself this same question-- is this song good or great soul music?  This song is from Green's best album, but is not a song that's ever received significant airplay.  

The truth about Al Green's work from this period is that it all sounds the same-- there's a very specific aesthetic to the Hi Records catalog, and every song follows it.  On the Al Green records of the early 70s, I think they hit on a pitch-perfect approach.  The first thing you'll notice is the drums.  These are the most straightforward, untreated drum tracks you'll ever hear.  It's hard to play that slow and simple and specifically, but these tracks pull it off over and over, with the bass offering small rhythmic alterations with extremely tasteful fills.  Then there's that fantastic guitar-- just a hint of distortion, bubbling around the beat and vocal, emphasizing the most melodic qualities of the electric guitar.  The final touch are the horns, always understated but essential-- you might not even notice them in the verses until your second time through the track.  Listening to early-70s Al Green makes me feel like I'm moving in slow motion.  It's as slow as a song can be and still be dance music, but it's serious dance music-- if the term wasn't woefully underused, I'd say "Stand Up" is, more than anything, sexy.

The final piece of the puzzle, of course, is Al Green's voice.  He's got such complete control over the songs from 1971-1975 that what he does sounds effortless.  I can tell you that these songs are hard as hell to reproduce, though.  Trying to cover Al Green songs will make you feel pretty unfunky pretty quickly, especially if you have to try to sing them.  Green holds notes forever with painful dexerity-- I don't know how he keeps notes going using so little breath.

Robert Christgau says "Stand Up" is the "subtlest black identity song ever."  Interesting reading-- it does sound like a call to arms to take advantage of the moment-- "tomorrow's about to come."  I like the reading of the song as a more laid-back "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" or "We Got To Have Peace," but Green's work is rarely that overtly political, so I read it more as a song about being and living in the present, which would thematically connect it to his best love songs.

You can argue that this tune is a not-as-good rewrite of one of Green's hits, and maybe you're right, but to me, I think that misses the point.  Al is so tuned in to his art in 1973 that songs like "Let's Stay Together" or "Here I Am" are pouring out of him.  It's good to pause and appreciate all the songs from that moment, because it's never coming back.

Irregardless***, it's nice to be home.  Time to do eleven loads of laundry.  I think I'll put on my Motown's Hits To Do Laundry To playlist...

* Thank you, IMDB.
** Thank you, Bill Cosby.
*** Thank you, Massholes.