03 March 2010

Things Blinking Across My Head

Would the Who have been a better band without Roger Daltrey? I recently saw an article (Rolling Stone maybe?) that I'm not going to bore anyone by linking to, wherein some poor music writer was contracted to deliver a very special message from Roger Daltrey, fresh off finally killing rock and roll music forever and ever at this year's Super Bowl Halftime Show. "I want to work with Jimmy Page," he said. "He needs a great blues singer to drive him. I am a great blues singer."

I love the Who. I really liked "My Generation" first because it sounded like punk rock to me, and because they were absolutely mind-blowing to watch as a live band in their prime. Being a Hendrix fan from deep in my soul, from way before my birth, I was always looking for a VHS copy of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival concert movie at Blockbuster, MooVIES, MediaWave, the Library- you know, no big deal. I don't remember how I came about it- I think VH1 played it periodically when I was in junior high- but seeing and hearing Jimi Hendrix play the guitar straight, unedited and in a full "concert" setting (Christgau: "less than extraterrestrial"- we'll ignore him on this) was life-altering to me. The sound of his guitar is shocking, totally powerful. You can hear jagged shards of electric noise branch off into fuzzed out octave parts, moaning and screaming at the same time. The way he just leapt around the guitar, not just tossing out single notes, but complex, thick, heavy chords and feedback. He has a naturally crisp, heavy blues tone at it's base, but what he lays over it is ferocious and violent and the most unique sound in modern popular music. It can't be described in words.

"Should words serve the truth?" - Watt

So of course no mention of Jimi at Monterey can be made without also mentioning the Who- their performances both have this very desperate, urgent quality, and also uniquely interact and play off of one another. Pete Townshend in the years since has always been at great pains to let us all know of the fight had about who would follow who (sorry, I had to)- both wanted to go on first, looking to upstage; the subtext of the story, of course, for Pete, being- "I was on his level."

Well no, he fucking obviously was not. A really interesting book could be written about that love triangle of late- 60's guitar gods, all getting their start in the UK. Clapton comes first as a blues virtuoso, Townshend pretty soon after as a brilliant sped-up noisemaker/ innovator and songwriter. Then comes Hendrix, who completely redefines the medium of the electric guitar like Joyce redefined prose and Prometheus redefined barbecue. Hendrix, for his part, is in many ways equal parts both- blues prodigy, technical and emotive master just like Clapton, but loud, abrasive, and experimental with a gift for songwriting like Townshend. Except, Clapton's never performed anything near Jimi's blues work on "Red House" or "Voodoo Child" or his performance of "Hear My Train A-Comin'" from Rainbow Bridge. In the same light, between Hendrix and Townshend, Hendrix is far and away the greater songwriter and studio innovator. Hendrix came and blew them both away at the same time and they both knew it.

Clapton chose to openly acknowledge it and humbly worship at his feet. Townshend, particularly in the Hendrix documentary, chose instead to express his more complex emotional reaction- jealousy, anger, awe, somewhat false bravado. Whenever he describes his experiences regarding Hendrix he is careful always to acknowledge the obvious about his tremendous talent, but is equally careful to never give an inch on his own position in the grand scheme of that "tradition." The story from Monterey goes that neither band wanted to go first because they were both known for their performance art-like stage antics- Eric Burdon describing Jimi's "making love to the guitar" while Pete's a "brutal rape." Interesting. Yeah.

Anyway, they argue backstage. Pete isn't having it when Jimi simply declares they're going on first. Jimi grabs his guitar, stands on a chair and stares Pete down as he plays his unplugged guitar. Townshend stares back. They flip a coin. They go to stage in this order: The Who, The Dead, Jimi, and then some boring comedown crap.

My friend Bill and I used to talk about music non-stop in college (seriously, it never ended), and easily the biggest disagreement we ever had was over this. Bill really hated Pete Townshend, mostly for the scene in Hendrix where Pete describes the Monterey story. "That guy is full of shit." I said I hated Clapton specifically for how he describes Jimi in Hendrix. "He's like a goddamn Star Trek geek about it. He knocks himself right out of Jimi's class. At least Pete has some fight in him." He thought (and, in a way, he's right) that humility was the more heartfelt appreciation, and that it wasn't bravado, it was pretension. I thought it was really telling ultimately about Clapton (I'm not as down on Clapton as it seems, but... yeah I don't listen to Eric Clapton at all. Ever.), and that Townshend was wrong, but right to think that highly of himself.

Of course, the final most telling layer of the triangle is- no one was askin' Jimi for anecdotes about Eric or Pete. (And the best line from that movie is Lou Reed's anyway- "Oh yeah, I thought Jimi was just such a bitchin' guitar player." "Was he better than you?" "No.")

Ultimately, how they react to his death is really pretty sad. Coupled each with additional tragedies, they both get heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol and all that fun business. I've always thought that it probably hit them both really, really hard- because, even though they've both, to varying degrees, become fairly bloated and uncomfortable versions of their younger selves (and don't say everyone does- there's Neil.) they're both people that would be particularly appreciative of what his ...event represented. And I'm sorry, before I leave Jimi altogether here, I have to say, since I put it on my speakers- I don't care if it's become a fratboy cliche or whatever- the sound on "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" is not of this Earth. If I can travel a little further up my own ass for a second here- the sound of his guitar is the sound of modern life, even still today. Plus I mean, "Machine Gun"? "Machine Gun"? "Machine Gun". "MACHINE GUN".

But my early love for Jimi lead me to this also legendary performance of the Who, which is really no slouch in it's own right. It is the performance that broke them in the States (or so the story goes, I'm sure the internet could cough up a reason why that's not really actually true) and killed me. I was obviously a really big Nirvana fan at this point, so the instrument smashing was cool to me. Keith Moon stuck out obviously, their senses of humor, the way there appeared to be like, two cliques in the band- the two straight-laced college guy types in Daltrey and Entwistle, and the pissy, annoying, funny, weird, tweaked out on speed and coke C-3PO and R2-D2 of Townshend and Moon. It was a weird dynamic- they sort of each took lateral "sides" of the stage. At their peak as a live band Townshend didn't really move far from his amp and thus didn't cross this "line" (he was close to get feedback, his big new trick), he and Moon flailing away like Animal and Dr. Tooth from the Muppets band. On the other side, Daltrey is doing this rote mic sling and delivering quaint, taupe-brown rock vocals with an almost off-puttingly blank blue stare ("Hey Pete, these lyrics for 'Behind Blue Eyes' are really pretty neat, where'd you come up with the idea for that?!"), with Entwistle directly to his right, never moving except to flick his fingers from his almost corpse-rigid body at his bass. He was a fucking unreal bass guitar player. When he sang "Boris the Spider" he'd grin and it was funny (PS Jimi's favorite Who song).

The Who were pure dynamics (MAXIMUM R&B), loud and quiet, restraint and unbridled energy. Kurt Cobain never really mentioned the Who (Townshend was in league with The Vedder) as an influence really, but they were, big time ("I'm a Boy," "Been a Son"). Nirvana was endeared to that dynamic style by the Pixies, but they got it in practice from the Who.

That's when I fell in love with the Who. I bought Live at Leeds first, figuring it was as close to Monterey as a record would get. There are a few albums you get and, between your natural excitement to discover them, the artwork that just strikes a certain tone on your way home to put it on, and the way it starts as the sounds open up- you just know that whatever comes out, it almost won't matter, you're going to love it. You're going to always love it. Another more recent example for me, actually, is the new Surfer Blood record, Astro Coast, which I basically haven't stopped listening to for more than a day or two since I downloaded it in November. It's the best guitar record since Murray Street. They're the first band to really meld all these trendy new styles- surf music, garage, the Beach Boys, Jesus & Mary Chain, a little Sonic Youth and 90s guitar-y/ production-y stuff like Pavement, Dinosaur and My Bloody Valentine- in a really compelling new light. There's that indescribable whiff of "East Coast college boy" on it too, which I get a kick out of personally. See also: Weekend, Vampire. Bear, Grizzly. Phoenix, . Like even more "boy in college" than Pavement even. Yes I know none of those bands are in college and that Phoenix are French and probably over 40 so should they count?- yes, I say they do. I saw Surfer Blood a week or so ago here in NYC and they were pretty good, kind of nervous to start. Maybe a little preoccupied with fine-tuning the gee-tarz too. Yikes. They caught some wind later in the show though, and it was a great time. They use some really nice, boutique fuzz pedals and have killer motherfucking merch.

When we were in Cape Cod later that 16th summer, I bought Tommy at The Caped Cod CD store. I can still smell the moldy wood in the house we slept in, on vacation with the family as I absorbed that and Raw Power by the Stooges in one night (that's one grand fucking slam of a trip to the record store when you're 16 or 17), in pain with a sunburn, aloe cold on my skin. Raw Power won out both because it's simply better and because it was shorter and easier to immediately wrap my head around. That album is a whole 'nother post though- they haven't invented words for that album yet. If art is my religion then Iggy is St. Peter.

But Tommy always stayed with me. Initially I missed the heavy feedback and constant, driving speed but... I mean, I don't need to sell Tommy anymore. It sounds great. And I always thought this was the best execution of that story Towshend conceived (maybe that's obvious)- there's something faceless about it all that adds a creepy layer to the album. Maybe it was the cover too. Who's Next was great too, Quadrophenia. There's a lot to love about this band.

Of course, the Who are not the Who anymore. The Who were not the Who once Keith Moon died, and I say that not as some fanboy snit- I don't think it's a stretch to say that whatever Keith Moon "was", it was integral to their sound and presence and it was absolutely irreplaceable without completely changing the DNA of the band. But even if you concede that- when Entwistle died- it's just cashing a check now. I mean, come on. "Roger Daltrey?! The guy from CSI?) That's fine if that's your thing, but I can't imagine finding any of that appealing. Man, they were so bad at the Super Bowl.

But back to my point- Daltrey, in an effort to lure Jimmy Page into working with him, claims to be a "great blues singer." Now, I will acknowledge that I am not a Roger Daltrey fan, not so much as to say that I dislike him, just that I think he is there as a prop to hold up the fun parts. You could bend over backwards and be sore all day arguing he was a "great" frontman. He was a fucking snooze on stage and his voice was... solid. Unremarkable.

But no- I'm sorry, I don't buy "great blues singer." It made me think- if the Who were this tiny, scrappy power trio with the nutty (kinda thin-voiced) frontman ("nose on a broomhandle"), the nuttier drummer, and the statue bass player- would they have been any better? Maybe a bit dirtier, even punk-ier? A lot of what made Townshend great was his ability to roam, to basically treat singing duties as a whim- he was writing all the material, so he basically sang when he felt it appropriate- at great length very often. When he felt it time to simply stand back and focus on the rawking, he rawked, hard. So Daltrey does have that going for him- likable enough that he exists as a solid frontman when he's in his natural position, but bland and uninspiring enough that you don't miss him when Pete does- and he will- take over. If you listen to "A Quick One, While He's Away"- the Who's greatest song- you can tell especially that this is Pete's band. It's a mini narrative, and Pete comes out for the star parts, killing it on the sensitive, plaintive bits and letting Daltrey do his bloozy groawwwan thing. So that's the thing- Daltrey knows that was his role, and you can't blame the man for thinking a bit too highly of himself- hey, he got there. He earned that at least. Plus, I don't think there's any way the Who are anywhere near as successful out of the gate like that without Daltrey. He really "sold" the band.

So to sum up, dude, Tim- what is your problem? Live and let live, kind friend. Let Roger be Roger.

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20 November 2009

Best of 2009

  1. Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion
  2. The Flaming Lips- Embryonic
  3. Nirvana- Live at Reading
  4. Sonic Youth- Live Battery Park 4 July 2008
  5. Anni Rossi- Rockwell
  6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs- It's Blitz!
  7. Pink Mountaintops- Outside Love
  8. Pains of Being Pure at Heart- Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  9. Dinosaur Jr- Farm
  10. St. Vincent- Actor
  11. Neko Case- Middle Cyclone
  12. No Age- Losing Feeling EP
  13. Kylesa- Static Tensions
  14. Raekwon- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II
  15. Sunset Rubdown- Dragonslayer
  16. Dirty Projectors- Bitte Orca
  17. The xx- XX
  18. Bonnie "Prince" Billy- Beware
  19. Screaming Females- Power Move
  20. Oneida- Rated O
  21. Bat for Lashes- Two Suns
  22. Sonic Youth- The Eternal
  23. DOOM- Born Like This
  24. Crystal Antlers- Tentacles
  25. Pissed Jeans- King of Jeans

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19 October 2009


7PM - $5

  • INFO & RSVP here.
  • Become a fan of the show (before even seeing it!) here.
  • Email for info and tickets here.

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17 October 2009

1997: "I'm an island of such great complexity."

On February 11, 1997, Pavement released their fourth studio album, on Matador, Brighten the Corners.

On April 8, 1997, Sleater-Kinney released their third studio album, on Kill Rock Stars, Dig Me Out.

On June 16 1997, Radiohead released their third studio album, on Parlophone/ Capitol Records, OK Computer.

Sometime probably in early July, out of school and just starting work at my first job- a bagel store franchise called Einstein Brothers Bagels- I bought all three of those records in one stop. 1997 was a really weird year. The new job- where we were all forced, in the days leading up the the grand opening, to stand in a giant circle- it being mostly girls my age (just waiting to turn 16)- and take turns calling out our favorite flavor of Einstein Brother's bagel and then the name of someone else in the circle, pointing to them. Corporate "team building" stuff. There- we know names and favorite bagels. This was my first brush with anxiety as well- the moments leading up to work for the first probably two months were indescribably worrisome to me, every single time. I did make some cool friends- there was Jay, the drummer for a hardcore metal band who, though their name annoyingly escapes me at the moment, had a legit EP and sounded pretty professional (cookie monster vocals aside I guess). Jay could fucking play. He was gigantic, and even though I was easily 6'0" at this point, he towered over me. He played big brother, which included scorched-earth dead-arms that would come unprovoked literally out of nowhere and would be followed by some real shit-eating laughter. There was Mike, the frustrated, rosy-cheeked bad boy baker with eyes that were too close together. There was the other Mike, who was into punk like me. There was this older chick who I pestered because she liked the Beatles and the Pixies. There was Ryan, the badass skater dude who was into Nirvana. Stephanie, who was crazy cute. Sensing a theme here? I was a heat seeking missile for the tiniest bit of music interest. I would pry it loose every time though.

Right down the street from Einstein's was, sitting nestled on each side in one of those little mini-strips of stores littered over parts of Fairfield CT (and elsewhere), Murray's Records- owned and operated by Murray himself, a dead ringer for Patrick Swayze (RIP). I loved Murray's Records like I've loved very few things. I'd first gone because a friend at school had mentioned they had Nirvana bootlegs. All the guys who worked there were really nice, but also really cool. I remember the day Chris Farley died- in late 1997, I had to work at 6 AM and we were all up real early, sort of spooked out by it. Well I was anyway.

I went over on my lunch break after eating ("I'm Tim and I love Chocolate Chip bagels!") and bought my first copy of John Lennon's primal scream masterpiece, Plastic Ono Band. See, the CDs sat in the racks unwrapped, which was fucking incredible for a music nerd like me. I would spend hours there opening CDs I couldn't afford, taunting myself with the artwork and words spread out, tempting, already spending future paychecks almost entirely as they came. I'd just have someone change my check to cash and off I went.

So I brought Plastic Ono Band to the desk and the guy (not Murray, a scruffier, hipper dude I think named John) laughed a knowing laugh- "ah yes, perfect for family gatherings, quiet moments, before you go to bed..." Music nerd humor. I thought that guy was the coolest- they were never condescending.

I don't remember when it was, but it seemed like right around the same time- probably the moment I started picking up music magazines- I kept reading everywhere, in scattered places, about these three bands I'd never heard of who all sounded really exciting. Sleater-Kinney was from Portland, OR and "Rolling Stone" said that, at that time, they were on of the drop-dead best live bands in the world. That piqued my interest big-time (this was back when "Rolling Stone" was occasionally worth reading). The other was the massive amount of attention being given to Radiohead's new album, OK Computer. I didn't know much about Radiohead- their name was was carved into the desk I sat in for Western Civ freshman year of high school- two lines, hyphenated. This was a bit before I'd come to embrace, in specific, Britpop (which is what I assumed Radiohead was) and, more generally, most anything English recorded from 1980 on. I was (and kind of still am) bigger on American independent music. I digress.

But the word on this one was that it was of another stripe. If I'd known, I'd already have been digging on The Bends, because OK was nothing new. But it was new in it's greatness, and how immediately obvious it was.

The last band, the most an overthought of the three when I headed over to Murray's after work that day some time in the early summer of '97, was Pavement. The only thing I remember thinking- from those moments I can recall when I knew of this band but wasn't yet completely in love with it- was that "Rolling Stone" gave their new record, Brighten the Corners, a four-star rating, which was a big deal to me back then (Dig Me Out got four as well, OK the eye-popping five). Such was the fever to buy more music I was under, the more precise my measures of acquiring the best I could find became. I scoured the internet on awful pre-Google and Wikipedia fan sites for lists (this is where my love for lists comes from). Let's say Kurt Cobain tells me in some old interview I find to go fucking listen to Beat Happening right fucking now- I need to know which is the best record, and not some crappy b-sides collection or awful live album (ps- it's Black Candy). This was important stuff. I bought The Rolling Stone Album Guide (and still own an updated copy) and could probably still rattle off some of the rankings. They weren't always right (and are rarely so now), but it was a great, great resource.

"Rolling Stone" also, in this review, made mention of something that should have tipped me off- that Pavement was, at it's core, a fantastic god damn guitar band. They have in common with REM a lot of things- but chief among them is the relationship people have to the respective bands' lyrics- they're often frustrated by their obscurity- though in different ways- and it sort of hangs over what is otherwise brilliant music. Stipe's early works were nearly incomprehensible- probably in that they were likely direct references to things that had meaning to him and him alone (and there's certainly something to that). Malkmus' inscrutability is much more rooted in an arm's length- they get roped into being called "slacker rock" sometimes (the same way Nirvana gets roped into "grunge") in part because of this- there's a quality to SM's lyrics that is very much of that era- slightly sarcastic, seeming to want to really be vulnerable and detached at the same time. Again- that tension. All the great shit has it.

So that's naturally the focus with Pavement, and while I love Alex Ross' "New Yorker" piece on the band following Brighten's release (it's in the Nicene Creeders liner notes and definitely worth checking out)- focusing largely on Malkmus' lyrics. Ross notes how most of them exist only as phonetically pleasing in nature. Their ability to fit so seamlessly into his really unique phrasings, despite being angular and articulate at the same time- like a jigsaw puzzles falling into place. It all tends to lend the somewhat absurdities in the bare recitation of the words some pretty cool new and independent meanings. The way they catch rhythm influences how we interpret it. "Most bands were worrying about tackling a concept album- SM's never written a concept song."

So I bought all these three on a total lark one day- three CDs being a pretty solid chunk of change then and now. Of course, Murray's had punch-cards, so how does that hurt me? Months later I was the proud owner of a free copy of the Who's Live at Leeds.

I play Dig Me Out still- I've put "One More Hour" on a few mixtapes. I remember how cool it felt that I was into some angry female punk band from Oregon. They were catchy fucking songs, all about the inter-band romantic tensions (or so I've read). It also has one of the great album covers ever- a great re-imagining of the Kinks' Kink Kontroversy. I saw them years later in New York, and while I thought "Start Together" or "Oh!" were going to be my favorites, "Words and Guitar" fucking melted my face off like a Garbage Pail Kids card. Like end of Raiders of the Lost Ark style. They really were an amazing live band.

Dig Me Out was an intro to a group I still love to this day, but I don't look at Dig Me Out on quite the same plane as the other two. To me, Dig Me Out was their first really great album, and you can take the cover and the sound as a sort of statement that they were ready to branch their sound out a little more, which was cool. Carrie Brownstein talked about loving Pete Townshend which I could really relate to (I worshipped the Who then). She even had a red SG like me. They were moving away from being a riot grrrl punk group and more towards just being a really great rock band. So I think of this band, I think of the three headed monster that is the "Start Together" single/ One Beat/ The Woods. But Dig Me Out is still the shit, mon freres.

"The other two," though, totally blew my mind. I'm going to take a general pass on the OK Computer thing just because it's been done to death and it's becoming increasingly hard to find new ways to say it's close to perfect. I generally think it takes a long time to feel out where a really great album fits in among other really great albums- you can pick the diamonds out, but it takes time to get them back to the surface to compare to the others. Or something.

Some, though, just burst out and it's obvious. Sgt. Pepper's is the classic example (Patti Smith's stories about staying up all night with "A Day in the Life" the day it came out, Jimi learning the title track over the weekend and killing it live in front of Paul days later), but there's London Calling, Blood on the Tracks, Thriller. They're like Babe Ruth at-bats. You seem them coming down the pipe and you think, "I bet he hits a bomb." And then yeah, he does. He hit fucking 60 that year. OK Computer is a no doubt member of this club. It's a weird list- it's not necessarily the best of the best- some records become richer and more rewarding as you slowly acquire a taste for them. Still, OK Computer, with that catastrophic riff opening up "Airbag" (their most underrated song, I think)- just announced itself. It was the first time I was listening to stuff outside my comfort zone of guitarbassdrumswords, and that it was so rewarding made me excited listen to exponentially weirder, wilder stuff.

The Pavement thing hit me harder though. Those are the years when your favorites come in chiseled in stone. You take to something and, if you really love it, you take to it. Jerry Seinfeld has a great bit about how men dress- you can tell what decade he was like 17 or 18 because that's where his taste in clothing freezes. It's true in a lot of ways with music too, and it's only natural- it's when we're most passionate about nearly anything, and when discovering This New Thing really means something special. So yeah, this is when I found Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges. They stuck with me, sue me.

I remember the line, from "Transport is Arranged," where SM says "I vent my spleen at the Lord/ He's so abstract and bored/ Too much milk and honey." I still think that's really funny, but I also remember then, going to school at a Jesuit high school, that this was a dude that probably came from a similar background as me. To this day I don't really know if that's true (where would one go to check on that anyway?), but I immediately identified with him and how he wrote, maybe starting with that line (or the still used "What about the voice of Geddy Lee?..."). I started writing a lot around then, and I wrote songs on my guitar too. All my shit, from this point forward, really read like Pavement lyrics and poetry and all that early-teenage stuff. I liked and read a ton of other stuff, but it was really one of those "if he's doing it, I can do it too" things, owing less to what I thought was his reachable level of talent and more to the personal identification I'd made. I felt like Malkmus and I would be buds. Now I'd probably want to hang with Bob (who is fucking hilarious, let's just be honest. He did a column in one of those old Grand Royal magazines the Beasties put out- came with a bitchin' iron on transfer- on horseracing, which he is an avid follower and participator in).

The guitars on this album are, to a guitar-sound junkie such as myself- almost orgasmic. SM and Spiral Stairs are right there with Thurston and Lee as my favorite guitar duos ever. Pavement produced all their own records (save for OK Computer fifth Beatle/ producer Nigel Godrich), and their sound slowly evolved in it's own way with each one. Say whatever you want about the rest of it, Brighten is the best sounding Pavement record. This is the sound I think of (along with a couple other scattered records) when I think of whatever I'd call a "perfect sound," in a tortured sort of way. The little middle boogie on "Embassy Row," the fucking rawk part on "Transport is Arranged," the dueling Velvet strums on the "Qasar in the mist/ the kaiser has a cyst" line from "Stereo." The way this record sounds is how I want records to sound. Especially after the '02 remaster.

And while Brighten does not rank high amongst their five studio albums, there are some things to consider along with this. All five Pavement albums are capital-G Great. The first two are in the hall of fame, Wowee is the one the hardcore fans (me) gush over, and Terror Twilight has some of their strongest songwriting. So where Brighten ultimately places along that list is largely irrelevant anyway. In addition to this, Brighten's material is the work that translates best live- "Type Slowly" became, with "And Then (the Hexx)" (a Brighten-era song that ended up on Terror Twilight), one of their guitar freak-outs- where SM and Spiral would get to spin their web of chord shapes and bouncing harmonies. "This next song is called 'Fin,' EFF-EYE-ENNN... like a shark!" Malkmus says this before the band plays a gorgeous version of the song from the Record Store exclusive live album Live Europaturnen MCMXCVII. It makes me laugh every time. He says it so strangely. Stuart Berman from Pitchfork wrote, in a great write up after the reissue, that "Fin," the album's closer, was "among the most affecting in the band's catalogue", and that while it signified really for the first time the next phase of the Malkmus Sound as it were (thicker, fuzzier, drawn out post-punk jams- and a cool twist: drummer Janet from Sleater-Kinney plays with singer/ guitarer SM from Pavement now in the Jicks), it also marked the end of goofball Pavement. Except for the "Carrot Rope" video, obviously.

(I love Wowee Zowee unconditionally, but I am more excited to hear "Type Slowly," "Transport is Arranged" or "The Hexx" than I am anything from that record (when I see them live and my head explodes next September, that is). Well, "Fight this Generation" would be cool. Whatever, I'll move on.)

I got really into Brighten, then soon bought Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain really close together. Slanted was an early favorite, but Crooked has won out all these years. That album is just the best. Recorded on 30th St. right above Rogue Music (and not in fucking California).

Later that summer my grandfather died, and I turned 16. It was really sad, but I started feeling really creative, and Pavement was a huge part of that for me. I used to turn my room into a recording studio and rock the fuck out, dubbing over myself four or five times, building up sounds with my guitar. It was fun. I've looked everywhere for those "albums" I recorded (I remember the names of all three of them) on tape, but I can't find them anywhere. The first one, the one I recorded summer of 1997, probably sounded a lot like Slanted and Enchanted (but by a 15 year old who couldn't really play a guitar) crossed with the first Ramones record (but by a 15 year old who couldn't really write songs) and a generous helping of Nirvana (but by a 15 year old armed with a $4 microphone from Sam Goody and a boombox), which was more or less the ketchup of my musical diet- I had it with everything. I called it Plastic/ Electric, which I still like.

Everybody that's read this far probably has a year they remember, almost a romantic one with music- where everything feels so great and sky-high and you can't get enough of any of it. There were a lot of other great albums released that year too- Shellac's Terraform; Belle & Sebastian's breakout, If You're Feeling Sinister, Ween's classic The Mollusk; Mike Watt's Contemplating the Engine Room; Elliott Smith's best record, either/ or; my favorite rap single of all time, Wu Tang Clan's "Triumph;" Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One; Dylan's epic Time Out of Mind; "Spin" Magazine Album of the Year, Cornershop's When I Was Born for the 7th Time; Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating Through Space; Mogwai's Young Team; Blur's Blur (their "Pavement-y" sounding album, with "Song 2," which may or may not be about Bob Nastanovich); Bjork's Homogenic; Built to Spill's Perfect From Now On- of course, the Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape- I really loved the Foo Fighters then (they also reissued the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, which is in-fucking-credible).

If you remember, this was when everyone was supposed to be listening to "electronica," which more or less fractured into a millions smaller (and ultimately really cool) parts on arrival and never happened like everyone was saying it would. It was also the start of the Spice Girls, which, in the wake of the grunge and alternative late-decade swoon, reaffirmed the audience and viability of R&B/ dance based pop music. From there came the NSYNCs and Backstreets on the bad end and the influence of early Michael Jackson through the emerging hip hop thing on the good end (bringing us close to where we are now, with most rock music still basically absent as a consistent presence on pop charts).

All of which obscured what was a pretty great year for new music.

(I had a similar feeling in 1999, my first year in college in New York, going to the movies. My friend Bill and I saw almost literally everything- I was really interested in movies then, and it turned out to be a sensational year- a whole ten years ago, and a handful of full fledged classics. I feel lucky for those things.)

Murray's closed down a couple years later- obviously a dying breed. I got to relive my record store fetish by working at one for three years in college. A whole other ball of wax: the music of '01/'02...

Pavement- "Fin" live from, I believe, '97.

Pavement- "Stereo" a pretty crappy music video, but some funny Bob stuff and West in a Civil War outfit. Plus, the "I know him, and he does." Priceless.

Sleater-Kinney- "Words and Guitar" live at CBGB's, 1997

Radiohead- "Airbag" live on Jools Holland, 1997

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28 September 2009

B.A. Robertson- "Knocked it Off" b/w "Sci-Fi" (1979 Asylum Records)

This one called out to me from the Bleecker Bob's crap bin- the front cover is a fairly ugly and hacky cartoon illustration of, one had to assume, Robertson himself- complete with a frighteningly huge nose and Shadoe Stevens haircut, leaning up against a giant fountain pen looking like he was shooting a promo for his new comedy-drama from 1981 on CBS about a private eye who likes to go clubbing. Then, looming on the back was, in fact, Robertson himself- this time posed with his guitar, his shadow on the wall. Skinniest jeans and a floppy hair cut. Plus, these insane lyrics:

Some of us have talent
And some of us just haven't
Some are super sensitive
Like Mr. Spock

I have my creativity
Think of my sensitivity
You know I really love my art
We think you are boring

Well, turns out Robertson was a fairly successful late-70s/ early 80s pop star on the UK charts- "Knocked it Off," which reached number eight, was the follow-up single to his biggest hit, "Bang Bang," also from 1979 (they're both off his Initial Success album).

It's hard to really land on an opinion for this song. My first reaction was just short of disgust because it had those synthesized disco strings as part of the opening riff, but it does have a really cool hook that's too snotty to be disco. It starts with those strings before leading into a group of singers hush-singing the title over a funky little guitar part.

His vocal performance is pretty cool- the new wave kind of sneer sound there a bit, plus he's a Scot. The start-stop rhythm of that big chorus is great, too. Those fucking string sounds are just terrible though, and not even funky enough to have that going for it. These passages sort of remind me of "Tonight's the Night" era Rod Stewart- just way overdone on the obvious disco touches. That sliding, gilded sound that has a really pallid undercurrent. Hate it. The best you could say for it would be the slight Paul Simon via Graceland influence on the tight little guitar part.

He certainly seems to have a sense of humor- which may shed some light on the disco hybrid of the verse, but I sort of doubt that. Those parts sound dated in the worst way, nothing particularly interesting about the sound of it. The hook comes in and out more as it moves along, and so the new wave half seems to win out over the soul of the song.

If nothing else, this song is far more interesting than the bare printing of his lyrics would suggest. What about these lyrics compelled him to include them on the back cover of a single? During the verses, over his glittery backwash of sound, he does sort of bark out a lot of these words- almost like Stipe in "It's the End of the World As We Know It." I guess it's possible he thought some of these little bon mots ("Tell them they can stuff it/ I'm not gonna ruff it/ In some Granada Ghia/ I was top of the pops") were clever in that concise, brief sort of way. Filling up space?

Either way I think, if nothing else, "Knocked it Off" is an interesting drop in the bucket of my theory that rock lyrics, with some very notable exceptions, are more or less interchangeable, or- insignificant. What appears (and really is, actually) almost painfully stupid on paper can actually stand by and support a song in just filling a simple role. I've always felt a great song can have pretty dopey lyrics. Vice versa, too. I mean, I'd read and was excited about hearing these inane lyrics being performed in earnest... and I still barely noticed them when I put the record on. Well, except the "Spock" line.

I know a lot of people really respond to new wave in general- the best of which I really like too. But in a lot of ways, a song like "Knocked it off" is the worst of new wave- somewhat formulaic, opportunistic (hammering tracks laid already by punk, disco, funk and rockabilly). New wave was, at it's worst, a vulture of a genre, picking off still twitching parts from already-dying styles.

But still, I sort of liked this. Here's B.A. today. As for the song- check it out:


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14 September 2009

WANNABES- "Dead True" b/w "Itchin' Jenny" (1992/ Biffco Records)

Wax. So a few weeks ago I decided that the act of walking into one of NYC's remaining few record stores and buying a 7" that I was either entirely unaware of or something unique/ funny would be excellent fodder for a little feature to be done here. Plus, hey, it's not much but patronizing record stores is important.

I'm not sure what ended up happening to my old turntable, so getting the new one has been some slight delay. That being said, I have stocked up on some stuff that I think will, at the very least, be fun to write about. Fun to read about is another story altogether (it always is).

My first selection is (technically) the b-side of a single from a band called The Wannabes. I came upon the Wannabes while sifting through the "indie" bargain stuff at Bleecker Bob's. As you can see above here, it was labeled by someone, somewhere as being "GRUNGY TEXAS." Christ, man. Sold!

Near as I can tell, this is the Wannabes Myspace page. Of course, owing to their status as an underground rock band, a name like the Wannabes- it could be anybody. However- the bio starts by describing them as "Austin’s favorite band to see when nobody else good is playing," and goes on to describe their beginning: "crawled out of the DFW mid-cities in 1985 where nobody good was ever playing with the help of founding members and childhood friends, Jennings Crawford and Hunter Darby." That sort of feels right. Plus- when you hear the song- this band is from Austin.

And so it is right- here they are on AllMusic- which, in their overview, mentions this very single. It's actually sort of important info- AllMusic lists "Dead True" as the A-side, which is news to me since both sides are labeled "B" (cute) and "Itchin' Jenny" - the song I'm going to look at- is so clearly better. Either way- they mention it came out in 1992, and I can report from the label that it was on Biffco Records, possibly a one-record storefront. There is, however, a British label called Biffco that put out the Spice Girls records among others. Doubt it's the same one.

I think the story of this find is that ridiculously perfect classification Sharpie'd on the front- "GRUNGY TEXAS." Grungy actually might be a bit of a misnomer- they're closer to something like the Replacements sloppiness and who-gives-a-shit vibe (present more early on for them) plus something off of Nuggets- garagey, catchy, simple riff-rock- but it's the "TEXAS" that nails it. This is a Texas band.

It starts with that early-90s indie driving rhythm and strumming- there's some really cool second-guitar stuff on the opening riff, which is what makes this promising from the get-go. The danger for a band like this, honestly, is that they start drifting into Soul Asylum territory- which is a really inauthentic bar band sound. There's something about the buoyancy of the riff that makes it mostly immune to going too far in that direction, though. Or, likewise, making it sound too BUZZ BIN or, yeah, "grungy." It's a nice balance of sounds- even some Neil on the crashing open chords.

I love a great guitar sound, and "Itchin' Jenny" has a really great, sharp guitar sound, especially in the few parts where they stray a bit from pub rhythm and into some dueling guitar parts. They're spare enough that you know these guys were worried people would think it indulgent, which is a shame because they're good at it. Maybe there's more of it on the rest of their catalogue.

This is a really dynamic, well produced little song. Turns out, as I'm just now discovering- it was produced by a guy named John Croslin, who went on to work with Guided by Voices, Spoon, and Mates of State. Sort of not surprising- it really does sound that good. I was expecting something considerably sloppier, like it was recorded in someone's shed or something.

The vocals really aren't much to get excited about- the slacker-sneer of that time. The lyrics are mostly mumbled throughout but what you do get is fun, and pretty clearly not the point. I like the vocal parts too, right down to the intentionally dodgy stabs at harmony.

So "Itchin' Jenny"- the far superior b-side to the plodding "Dead True"- is a really solid rock-n-roll song, deftly maneuvering over it's three-and-half-minute lifespan around every pitfall you'd expect them to stumble on as the song starts. But it rocks, it moves, and then it ends. Can't complain about that.

But you know what I like to think about? I like to think about what kind of journey the Wannabes had. These guys met in high school- they're amazing when they're in their niche- they weren't great guitar players, but they could catch fire with that casual, insistent stomp. I bet they got on stage every single night and just killed it. They were a band that seem to inherently understand what it was to be "in a band," in terms of chemistry and direction. They were obviously a live band- they relied nearly completely on dynamics- but they have a sound, an identity. This is what can be truly exciting about independent American music- the way this band can be such unknowns up East, but are likely still legends in Austin. They're one of those great "scene" bands- the ones that open for everybody and have the local sound boiled down perfectly. "Itchin' Jenny" is on a lot of jukeboxes down there, I promise you, and not too many up here. That that sort of provincial gap can still exist is fun to me, for some reason.

Now, if you Google "Itchin' Jenny," besides a lot of links describing it's use as slang for female genitalia there is this account of a reunion gig for the band in October of '01, a positive review:

While the evening clearly belonged to the Wild Seeds, the Wannabes and the Rite Fliers turned in solid, enjoyable sets as well. The 'Bes opened with two new tunes but then stuck to their own classics, to the delight of their loyal following (not coincidentally the same audience as that for the Seeds). "Itchin' Jenny," "Every Star Mary," "Boxing Manual" and a ferocious "I Am God" displayed their easy mastery of melody and louder-than-God crunch, and set closers "You May Be Right" (yes, the Billy Joel song) and "Glandma" proved that punk rock doesn't have to be anarchy to be exciting.

That last line is very, very true and a great observation (about this band especially). Then, a listing for the 1992-93 Austin Chronicle (the newspaper that "discovered" Daniel Johnston) "Austin Music Awards," (awards that are a pretty big deal locally in Austin) where "Itchin' Jenny" came in as the third best single of the year, behind only Arc Angels' "Sweet Nadine" and Ricky Broussard's "Angels Cry."

Here's the song to listen to- check it out!


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29 July 2009

We're Still Broadcasting...

... just trying to finish work on a long-term project, so this place has suffered. Tonight, as part of my "tiny distraction time" I made a list of my 25 favorite books. OK I made a list of my 55 favorite books but I'll spare you that level of insanity.

A lot of these really had a lot to do with how this project comes out for sure.

  1. Ulysses, James Joyce
  2. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  3. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  4. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson
  6. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
  7. Billy Budd: Sailor (An Inside Narrative), Herman Melville
  8. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  9. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  10. Blood Meridian, or: the Evening Redness in the West, Cormac McCarthy
  11. Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
  12. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James
  13. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  14. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  15. The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1: The Inferno, Dante Alighieri
  16. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
  17. The Power Broker, Robert Caro
  18. Dubliners, James Joyce
  19. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  20. The Waves, Virginia Woolf
  21. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
  22. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  23. James Joyce, Richard Ellman
  24. Daisy Miller and Turn of the Screw, Henry James
  25. The Victim, Saul Bellow

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06 July 2009

Record Review: Redd Kross- "Neurotica" [1987]

__ _ __1/4

Redd Kross is so many things. They're the late-80s answer to Big Star- a loud, rocking pop group that fell out of print and never got it's due. They're an almost perfect midpoint between the Replacements cock-rock noise swagger and the weird, ethereal big pop punk of the Pixies. They sound like Minor Threat doing Gerry Rafferty covers. If you took the brain of a kid watching TGIF and put it in Wayne Kramer's body. This album has earned "cult" status because it was so hard to find and so many musicians named checked it. Which is fine I guess, but were circumstances more kind, they'd be legends, subjects of more line-by-note dissections than nearly any band of that era.

Because they were oddly reflective of that time, when popular music truly began abandoning classic structure and started, well, "commenting" on itself. Hip hop was taking a generation of music, cutting it up and spitting it back out in it's own purpose. Hardcore and heavy metal were using similarly brutal noises to reflect an aesthetic (in one sense at least). Redd Kross probably didn't hew too close to this path, but what makes this album great independent of the drama surrounding it's availability and how it measures up to that "cult" of statuses is it's ability to take something somewhat nostalgic and formulaic and emulating in nature and make it immediate, fresh and energetic. It's such an exciting juxtaposition that you can't help but admire it and, ultimately, embrace some of it's out-there flaws. They were children of the 80s- very comfortable their whole career acknowledging, interpreting, re-fitting and referencing everything around them they loved. The Exorcist, Jim & Tammy Fae Baker, Tatum O'Neal. I think of Neurotica in much the same way people describe, for instance, Paul's Boutique- cartoony, frenetic. But they're both just so much fun, you have to take them seriously. Nothing as well crafted as "Janus, Jeanie and George Harrison" can be ignored.

Like "Pink Piece of Peace," this record has a punk heart. These were a pair of brothers that started a band in middle school in suburban California- and even considering all the huge hooks, Sunset Strip noodling, psychedelic sound and frosted cereal references- these were punk kids. The kind of 80s punk kid that was becoming much less didactic and narrow minded in what he/ she listened to and watched and bought. So these guys started out in the same scene with Bad Religion and the Circle Jerks, their first ever gig opening for Black Flag- and covered the Shangri-Las. And even have a little Butthole Surfers in their sound.

The first song is the title track, and it sort of has a "Sgt. Pepper's" opener feel to it, leading into "Play My Song," a stoned rocker that kicks off the album proper- big thick guitars, harmonies, hooks and solos. Fuzz for miles.

Another record it reminds me of is Slint's Spiderland, the 1991 "post-rock" classic that was so simple and yet inexplicably unique sounding. They both have a closed-off, insular sound to them, like they were created in total obscurity. Of course, there's those "serious-young-man" stories you hear about the guys in Slint going nuts making their record in Louisville backwoods. The big difference here is that Redd Kross were from California and ate lots of sugar.

Still- there's something about that proto-stomp on "Peach Kelli Pop" that reminds me of some of the more rhythmically effusive moments of Spiderland. Until the chorus, of course. They both share a weird, just-post-adolescent grain in the growl of the vocals. That sound is sort of like a spirit that permeates both records- and is what makes all the new, discovery-of-sounds on them that much more exciting.

There are the big epics like "It's the Little Things," and the little right-cross punk tracks like "Tatum O'Tot and the Fried Vegetables." The songs move really well between these styles I think because it has that lean, distorted reverb late-80s college rock style production, done to perfection here by Tommy Erdelyi (Ramone). Let's check out his production credits for a second here, leaving aside for a moment his amazing work as the Ramones' original manager-turned-drummer.

The Ramones- The Ramones [1976]
The Ramones- Leave Home [1977]
The Ramones- Rocket to Russia [1977]
The Replacements- Tim [1985]
Redd Kross- Neurotica [1987]

Very underrated. A shame he hasn't done more of these. Either way, the Redd Kross/ Replacements connection here is interesting because both bands had a very similar relationship with the mainstream hair-dominated rock scene in the mid-to-late 80s. Both Redd Kross and the Mats used, like these bands, elements of glam, thrash, psychedelic and old school rock and roll in their sounds. For that time period, arguably the most influential band in the whole of pop history was the New York Dolls.

But Redd Kross and the Mats also listened to hardcore, and it was that emergent scene that completely removed any compulsion to be what it was those bands... were. You could argue that the hardcore strain replaced by the New Wave of British heavy metal one would make hair metal, but that was also a huge influence on Metallica and thrash metal becoming more musical, so that doesn't totally work, but it's close.

Redd Kross and the Replacements also had great, wry senses of humor- the Replacements less so, and really, they were the far superior band anyway. But neither band took itself inherently seriously, which for a beer-chugging group of scrawny Midwesterners, made for a go-for-broke sound that held to that "wire with too much current going through it" maxim. For Redd Kross, stuck in sun-soaked suburbia, it manifests as attention deficient, pent up exuberant energy. No hook is "too" big, no song can rock "too" hard.

Neurotica has, relative to it's peers, a lot to live up to. In typical fashion of the 1980s, skimming through a list of the albums released in a given year begins to yield a shockingly strong mountain of work. This album came out the same year as Prince's Sign "O" the Times, Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Sonic Youth's Sister, U2's The Joshua Tree, REM's Document, Husker Du's Warehouse: Songs and Stories, Eric B & Rakim's Paid in Full, The Smiths' Louder than Bombs. Maybe it isn't the epic peak some of these represent, but it has earned it's status as a "lost classic." Echoing the beautifully articulated and lonely-nowhere-America pop genius of Big Star, Redd Kross is a perfect summer rock record, tons of fun and always something weird to hone in on.

Put on yr love beads and check it out!

Live in 87, the title track:

Here's the band LIVE from Santa Monica Pier in 1982 (5 years before Neurotica):


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05 July 2009

Boldly Stepping Into the Twitter Era

I don't want to get started on the Twitter thing. Let's just all accept it and move on. I think it could be fun- I'll sort of jot out what I'm listening to at the moment every so often, and you can check it out, suggest some stuff to me, all that sort of stuff.

Plus I'll enjoy looking back at what I was listening to across long periods of time.


To better serve our Twitter Overlords.

ps- you'll also note, on the right at the bottom of the sidebar, a place to enter your email and receive updates every time I post something, if the whole "taking life as it comes" thing isn't really your style.

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01 July 2009

On "Thriller"

I've been giving Thriller a lot of spins these last few days for obvious reasons, and it's just impossible not to be moved to talk about it. For me.

Michael's recorded output as a solo artist centers around his Off the Wall/ Thriller/ Bad trio. He had solid singles both before and after, but that's the work you hone in on immediately. What's interesting looking at them in a group like that is the progression in tone. Off the Wall is his sex record, a statement of new maturity, his big coming out party from 1979. You can see more parallels in what he's doing here in both sound and subject matter with what both Madonna and Prince- the other two arms in the Holy Trinity of 80s Pop- would later broach. It's aimed at the dance floor and grown ups- the Baby Boomer generation he entertained as a kid with his brothers, the people knee deep in cocaine and shiny glass orbs and a manic need to dance. This isn't a disco record, and that's why it's so interesting. You can see here a near perfect dry run of what he perfected on Thriller- this unbelievable mixture of soul, R&B, funk, gospel and some of the catchier fringes of rock and roll- the Beatles, obviously, Brian Wilson, Elvis. It's weird considering this is an absolutely perfect album, and yet it's not as good as Thriller. That's because Thriller bends realities, bro.

Bad is actually kind of a bummer of a record. It's got some of his coolest work for sure- the title track, which is that classic moment of an artist completely in control of the winds of popular trend; "Dirty Diana," his Prince challenge rocker; "Smooth Criminal," his gangster movie homage (Michael was a huge movie buff). Bad also represents the final stage of Michael Jackson, amazing singer. As he started at about 10 he was a pure, unadulterated stream of exuberant joy- just a real clear as bell tone and straight ahead delivery. But as he got older he started using words and syllables as percussive instruments, often inserting little "yip"s "shamoan"s along with stuff like the Manu Dibango African call and response coda on "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" from Thriller. Bad is heavy with those, and they still sound good. They'd become a crutch afterwards.

But really, the album has a really thunky dark sound to it- the synthesizers were deeper, darker. The lyrical content, especially considering where we know he ends up, is kind of depressing. "Man in the Mirror" can be seen as either a really beautiful parable of self improvement (humility- the single thing Kanye didn't swipe from Mike) or- what's that line from The Sopranos? "Depression is rage turned inward." "Leave Me Alone" is the obvious example (the sharp edges of the song got bent back a bit by the self-parodying, honestly playful video)- read those lyrics. They're very claustrophobic, and sounds a lot like one of those Brian Wilson cry-for-help songs. Even the reading of "The Way You Make Me Feel" seems angry, upset. These are still classic songs, but the sound of the record is- likely intentionally- worn down, conflicted and confused. Who wouldn't be? He was arguably the most famous person in the history of human civilization, next to maybe Jesus Christ. Think about that.

"Bad" is weird. Why "bad"? He absolutely popularized that gift to modern slang- "bad" being "good," and "tough." It was intended as a Prince duet, which Prince wasn't really into. I think I kind of prefer it this way- both those guys ate up way too much space to have made that work. If you lived through the 80s though, you remember people in the square community sort of chuckling about that new kid-speak. "Hehe. Bad means good now, huh? These kids."

The song is obviously a little brother to the "Beat It" conceit- urban dischord. What made Michael so relatable and cool was that he was able to acknowledge and represent what kids felt, what it was really like to be a young person- which, of all Michael's gifts to popular culture, may be his coolest. Because while Bad marks the end of his reign as an immediate, relevant popular force (though he didn't go down without a fight on Dangerous for sure), and stands as the beginning of a time where the mere mention of his named pleaded for- and never failed to produce- a joke, Michael Jackson was here merely following up in approach something he defined and revolutionized on his previous record, Thriller.

Thriller is, obviously, the 1982 bridge between OTW and Bad. It's an incredible piece of work. It is joy made reality, it is feeling in your lungs on the first real day of spring. Forty-two minutes and nineteen seconds worth of what it feels like to kiss a girl you really dig the first time. The ringing, grooving, universal nature of this record is hardwired into our DNA as people. Not liking this album is fucking perverse.

Why? What happened? Why did he become so popular? I think it happened in between Off the Wall and conceiving it's follow up when Michael decided that, instead of aiming his focus at the audiences that grew up with him, he would instead talk directly to the kids turning 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. The kids who, ignored as the Baby Boomer generation held a navel-gazing death grip on popular culture due to their then 20-years gone cultural upheaval, had absolutely no one seeking to entertain them. No one. There were Saturday morning cartoons, the emergence of video games, Steven Spielberg, Pee-Wee Herman and Michael Jackson. That is it (a landmine of a list all things considered so let's just move on).

And isn't every great spurt of popular music movement a redirecting of attention to an ignored audience? Elvis bringing "black" music to white audiences. The Beatles shouting at the post-war brood. Punk and metal for all the kids sick of stale Stones and Zeppelins and Whos. Nirvana for the Big Hair Holocaust. Hip Hop for black and underground kids that liked to dance and listen to tons of vinyl. Michael Jackson was just such a starkly huge moment though, that you have to wonder- what was it about that era that was so desperate for something different? I don't really know, and I was way too young to give you some anecdotal evidence or whatever, but I'd say that while the Baby Boomer Generation certainly gave us very many unimpeachable classics- they hung around way. too. long. The end of that run was not pretty, either, and is actually what so many people incorrectly let factor their view on 80s style and culture (well that and hair metal I guess). But that's obviously wrong and Thriller is probably as much as you need to say about it.

Think about it. Where Michael implied the verb "to fuck" on Off the Wall, it's confused and somewhat naive young(er) love on Thriller. Where his focus on Off the Wall is all manner of physical contact and dance and sweat, Thriller is everything that stridently adolescent kids think about. Gorey horror movies (and why are those so resonant- a lot can be said about what zombie movies can represent as an analogue for adolescence but I'm not going to say it because I'd sound like a real jerk), the opposite sex, sex, falling in love, heartbreak, confusion, it's really funny and lighthearted in parts. Most especially though was that sort of no-care-in-the-world joy that helped sell the album to everyone that had a soul. It really turned the young kids on because it was one of them talking about what they were thinking about, and it made everyone else remember exactly what it was like to be of that age and at the mercy of those feelings. Plus they all remembered him when he was "yay high!" That generation was then entering the first pangs of nostalgia as well, and this frankly didn't sound that much different than the Motown and pop they were reared on (just that much better).

Of course, these are some songs, too. The first track, my personal all-time favorite Michael song, is "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin," six minutes of an effortless Frankensteining of styles, sounds, and interlocking parts. It's a funk song at heart, and the African "mamma-se mamma-sa" chant at the end is on the shortlist of greatest moments in pop history. The song almost sounds how the Bad video looks (excepting his new dark/ S&M leather look from that era). A bunch of kids puffing their chests. "You're a VEGETABLE! I HATE YOU!!"

"Beat It" totally rocks it and is a dark horse for "what's Michael's best video that's not 'Thriller'?" It does have a weird after-school special vibe to some of the lyrics, but what Michael was so good at was acknowledging the temptation and the confusion with the decision. "I get it. You want to go kick this dude's ass. I'd want to kick his ass too. But guy- it's not worth the trouble. Trust me." That's how these things succeed (and I hope this demographic stuff doesn't sound cynical, I think the whole idea of engaging kids like that in any medium is really cool, and rock n' roll probably always did it best)- you relate, you don't tell.

Of course it should always be noted for the record that Eddie van Halen

a) recorded the face melting guitar part, and got that door-knocking sound by rapping on his guitar to get a little feedback
b) pussied out on the video shoot because he was "worried" the song was going to "be a bomb" and "make him look bad."
c) did it free of charge/ royalties (think about that for a second) because he thought it'd just be a cool thing to do, and claims still to not regret that decision.

Eddie van Halen: so hard to love, so hard to hate.

I'm not going to say a lot about "Billie Jean," but we should all acknowledge that as Americans, that song is as much a part of our cultural history as nearly anything else we've produced in 232 years (233 in a couple!). It's pop music. It is, by it's very nature and sound and presentation and definition- "popular" music. Lyrically it's sort of a bit of benign sexual boasting alongside a cautionary note not unlike the one in "Beat It." Sex is fun, but it's some real shit. And if you're famous, very expensive on occasion! Ugh. Moving on again.

The album is titled Thriller, taken from the title of the coolest song on the album, the single greatest music video ever, and example "A" numero-uno of his weird, twisted genius. There were the studded white gloves, red-leather jackets, the out there dance moves and video concepts, the working with Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Quincy Jones (who knew Pablo fucking Picasso), the crotch grabbing, the weird mouth noises, the Kafka-esque (kidding) panther transformation. But with Thriller, he centered his big huge hit monolith pop record around a song that was built with horror movie synthesizers, Vincent Price monologues, and lyrics about werewolves and flesh eating undead. Then he made a video where he turned himself into said flesh eating zombie and did a huge, elaborate, creepy line dance where like-minded monsters mimed like mummies and strutted around doing things you'd never seen before. Don't doubt Michael Jackson. Rod Tempterton wrote the actual song, and it has traces of Parliament-Funkadelic/ Sly & the Family Stone in it's genes (funk is goofy), but he conceived of that entire affair, threw it out there and didn't bat an eyelash, and the whole thing worked. That's awe-inspiring to me.

And it's so cool! The video is such perfect entertainment. The gore that's so fun to revel in. The hangin' out with a cute girl and going to the movies. It's spooky and startles you at that age, but it's not grippingly scary. I think that's John Landis' best "movie." It's a classic. One of my favorite things about Michael was how into film he was- his videos were always great concepts, obviously, but they always looked fucking fantastic, and it was because he worked with the best whenever he could. So much has been said about his being the first artist to really utilize the music video as a legitimate vehicle for new music and expression, and a legitimate part of what a "record" would be considered from that point on (sort of similar for a lot of artists of the 80's era to the way classic "tours" of earlier generations were and are chronicled). That's absolutely true I think, but it's also worth noting that whoever that first artist was going to be, it could just as easily have been someone who was interested in making a cheap, impactful, cynical product that never aged well and never really made the concept as open to continued innovation (prior to it's death some 7 or 8 years ago). Elvis had that dumb fucking redneck Col. Tom Parker. Thank that hoary mixture of fate and coincidence for Quincy Jones, right? Instead of suffering through that generation's Blue Hawaii or whatever, I plan on putting the "Thriller" video on as soon as I finish this, and I will love it.

This album is an artist at his absolute sun-kissing peak; the best songs on the album ("Wanna Be Startin' Somethin," "Beat It," "Billie Jean") were the ones written by Michael. The others are all incredible- "PYT" especially, as great a horny love song as has ever been recorded (also Janet Jackson's first appearance on a record... as well as La Toya's), but this is largely a single vision realized. He was cool, he was confident, and it was impossible to fathom someone who could perform on stage like this person could. Who else? Iggy Pop in his prime. Prince. Jimi Hendrix. But this was music for everyone. It's so great because it's so universal and so weird. It rewards re-listens, like the little guitar noodle overdub during the last chorus on "Billie Jean." The beat the Miami horns come in on during "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin." But you know this album. Everyone does. Isn't that something? I think that's something. Imagine making something this great.

And that's it- because it makes you happy and it makes you dance and it makes you think and it makes you listen again and it's as good proof as any that, in the end, we're not a failed species.

Video needs no introduction.

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29 June 2009

The Music of 09 (Halfway Mark)

  1. Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion
  2. Sonic Youth- The Eternal
  3. Sunset Rubdown- Dragonslayer
  4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs- It's Blitz!
  5. Anni Rossi- Rockwell
  6. Dirty Projectors- Bitte Orca
  7. Grizzly Bear- Veckatimest
  8. Neko Case- Middle Cyclone
  9. Pains of Being Pure at Heart- Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  10. Dinosaur Jr- Farm
  11. Bonnie "Prince" Billy- Beware
  12. Kylesa- Static Tensions
  13. Phoenix- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
  14. DOOM- Born Like This
  15. Pink Mountaintops- Outside Love
  16. Black Math Horseman- Wyllt
  17. Bat for Lashes- Two Suns
  18. Screaming Females- Power Move
  19. Antony and the Johnsons- The Crying Light
  20. Crystal Antlers- Tentacles
  21. Japandroids- Post-Nothing
  22. Mastodon- Crack the Skye
  23. Woods- Songs of Shame
  24. Wavves- Wavvves
  25. Absu- Absu
  26. Sir Richard Bishop- The Freak of Araby
  27. Passion Pit- Manners
  28. Melvins- Pick Your Battles
  29. Sunn O)))- Monoliths and Dimensions
  30. Deerhunter- Rainwater Cassette Exchange

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28 June 2009

Record Review: Erykah Badu- "New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)" [2008]

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Have you ever heard this album? Have you ever listened to this shit? New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) is without a doubt the best funk album released this decade, and one of my favorites ever by anyone. I like this album more than any other Erykah Badu album, and I really, really love her records. I like this album more than The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I like it as much as I like all my Sly & the Family Stone albums. It's right next to the Ohio Players' Gold, Funkadelic's Maggot Brain and Michael Jackson's epic Off the Wall. Listen to this album.

Why? Erykah Badu is a fucking presence, that's why. She's got a layered, eccentric, "hot" voice that really compliments her material that is always at turns brilliant, twisted, bizarre, messy, strange, drop-dead beautiful and always interesting. So sometimes a record is great because of one of any number of elements, but Amerykah succeeds by being a triumph of nearly every one imaginable- craft, songwriting, musicianship, tone, production- whatever. This is an amazing sounding record, coming at you from so many angles, succeeding with every new, fresh, exciting idea she tackles.

Recorded at the end of 2006 at Electric Lady on 8th St. between MacDougal and 6th Avenue in New York City, the album debuted in the early part of 2008. Though Badu has primary writing and production credit, she works here with a wide range of collaborators, including Madlib and 9th Wonder. She more or less split the all of the instrumental work with Om'Mas Keith (Sa-Ra, Jill Scott, Jurassic 5)- the entire album has a more organic, jammy vibe than most of her work- think more Fela Kuti than James Brown.

I'll be honest too and say that I sort of like wondering if this girl is completely off her tree. Her lyrics are all over the place, but in the best way- stoned out imagery, mystical, overtly sexual, drug-obsessed (that totally insane a cappella outro to "The Cell" that just never stops and keeps repeating), at times mildly political- but only the variety that seems part of the redirected portion of the "make the personal, political" mantra. I also really love militant black power lyrics (probably a stretch to call anything here that, but her Farrakhan mention made me remember this)- not necessarily because it engages me on a political or social level really, but for a couple other reasons. Firstly, it's a tie to the past- hip hop has a strong arm on it's family tree for topics such as this- Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, countless others. That, on an aesthetic level, is a positive for me.

I also think it says something about an artist. By and large, those are sentiments people really aren't feeling right now- or at least, it feels like an atmosphere where thoughts and ideas like that are ripe for being torn from their context and vilified. For better or worse, it's a different atmosphere. But her saying it anyway- well, she's someone who'll say a lot of things, I think. Erykah Badu really has some fucking guts, and you can tell it when she sings, when she performs, and when she comes out with new albums. It's all over. I don't think you can fake that. Hip hop has become an epic financial and material dick-measuring contest, so anything innately personal is refreshing and, unfortunately, tends to stick out. By all rights she should probably be an underground artist, but she's not. Why? The presence, that's why!

The record starts with "Amerykahn Promise," a wide open hippie funk jam that owes debts to Sly & the Family Stone, Sun Ra and some classic James Brown. It is that classic R&B/ hip hop "intro track", a swinging jam that sets a tone and doesn't really set out to do too much. I've always thought this was one of hip hop's strengths (even as, eventually, it grew to be a crutch and part of it's bloated death), the way so many of the early artists began approaching albums almost more like movies than traditional "song collections." The skits, the themes, the introductions, the big coda songs. They're big entertainment vehicles, maxing out every single available bit of space such a thing could possibly occupy. Obviously this idea originated in large part with Thriller, but the finer point was put on it by albums like Three Feet High and Rising and Fear of a Black Planet. The song has a great chunky, organ-y rhythm to it, but it's like the sound is a ghost. Like they all played along to the track and then took it off the final mix. The song is bookended with the Wu-style kung fu sample, and ends with that Prince-inspired completely bizarre Five Percenter spoken word stuff- wondering in a computer voice about her "42 Laws," and opining that the answer she's given "isn't science." Yeah.

"Soldier" is more classic Erykah- the frenetic, fanatic edges worn down, but commanding just the same. The lyrics as they start are a little "inner city kids" boilerplate, but it evolves into this call-and-repeat epic about what seems like an intellectual or, at least, social Black Separatism. She's not letting anyone off the bandwagon, either.

And if you think about turning back
I got that shotgun on ya back
Said if you think about turning back
I got that shotgun on ya back

Reads like a Western. It was released only as a promo single after "Honey," which was the First Single From the Album. Regardless- I'm pointing it out because I really think it's her best vocal performance on record. She sounds unreal on this song. Unreal.

"Soldier" aside, any great funk album should be, on some level, a challenge. The great ones are almost like bouts of exercise- they exude sweat and pace and endurance. They've always been sex on wax. So, it follows that any great funk record worth it's salt has a few songs that break the six-minute line. James Brown's late career classic The Payback has an average tune time of over nine minutes!

New Amerykah is every bit a success on that level, as well (three songs six-minutes plus!). It's a breathless amalgamation of sounds and noise and ideas and they all seem to cohere to that opening tone laid down by "Amerykahn Promise." She's sliding along a scale from her more eccentric, out-there observations and translations (the sound collage at the end of "The Twinkle" sounds like something that could have come from the nexus of a "High Times"/ ComicCon Venn diagram) to her more basic, direct, soul/ R&B roots. I love the tension that seems to exist among many great records- the way Neil Young is able to balance his many different faces on Rust Never Sleeps or the back and forth from mindfuck to twee pop on The Velvet's White Light/ White Heat. There's something about a musician torn between those two places: the marketplace and the darkest corner of a recording studio. This is unquestionably one of those sorts of albums. I think what ultimately makes them such fascinating single statements is the way they all deal with the tension, which seems to be to swing wildly from one end to the other- tempering the flaring, jarring pet sounds closest to their hearts with the broad, unifying sounds that speak to a more "convenient" but real gift.

Sometimes there are albums, like, say the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady, that are great because every single second is packed with harmonic bliss. They're really full collections of really fulfilling songs. This is not what Amerykah is. Amerykah is a full-volume piece of work, a traffic jam of sounds that need to be taken in sum and not out of context or, really, as eleven independent states. Though they're asked to do so on occasion, in their ideal state they don't exist independent from their brothers and sisters, and instead feed off of and support one another to create a larger, more powerful whole.

A new Amerykah. Get it?

Here's a version of "Soldier" performed live on VH1:

ps- Erykah sat in with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon on Friday and mentioned that she was currently in the studio working on New Amerykah Part Two, which is fucking exciting.


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