Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"This is the Life" / Living Colour / TIme's Up

This is probably one of the more obscure songs you'll see on this blog. It's the last song on Living Color's second CD, Time's Up which came out 20 years ago (!).

You remember Living Color from their classic hit "Cult of Personality". They arrived with quite some fanfare back in the late 80's. Cory Glover had quite a set of pipes and a beautiful set of dreads, guitarist Vernon Reid was hailed as a quasi-genius and the inheritor of Jimi Hendrix's instrumental wizardry, oh, and did I mention they were a black metal band?

Look, I'm not calling these guys a gimmick. They were a solid group, but I think that much of their media attention came from the fact that they were black folks playing traditionally white music for a white audience. They weren't the only ones, however, there was a small window when there was a burgeoning movement of black rock bands - in addition to Living Color there was Fishbone, 24-7 Spyz, and one of my all-time local favorites, Atlanta's Follow For Now. Not much came of it; the "movement" seemed to be more media-created than anything else, but we still were left with some solid music.

This album is, for some reason, inextricably linked with my freshman year in college. Of course, this is when it was released, but it seems to be a touchtone album of that time for me. I hardly ever listen to it anymore, as it's severely dated in both sound and production, but I remember loving it at the time. Let's recall that in 1990 Hair Metal was still king (I remember Sebastian Bach on the cover of Rolling Stone around this time), and although Living Color seemed to me more substantial than Warrant, Slaughter and the like, they were definitely tied to that genre.

Time's Up, looking back on it now, has some good songs. The title and leadoff track is a little slice of Slayeresque speed metal (with a Rush riff thrown in the middle for good measure), "Pride" is an Afrocentric polemic which touches on their identity as a black band ("Don't ask me why I play this music / 'cause it's my culture, so naturally I choose it"), "Love Rears Up It's Ugly Head" is probably my favorite tune on the album, a stripped down slice of neo-soul with an intro from Nat King Cole's "Lush Life", "Solace of You" has a light, sweet West African feel, the MTV hit and first single "Type" and second single and goofy gimmick-hit "Elvis is Dead" - all decent stuff. I can't say that it's an album I pull out often, if at all, to listen to, but I'm not skipping a track if one comes up on random.

"This is the Life" is the album closer and is a little bit more introspective (and, in my opinion, more ponderous and plodding) than the remainder of the album. It's probably best they saved it for last. It begins with some strange, almost tribal dissonance from Glover and Reid and the song proper really doesn't start until a minute and a half in. Glover really dials back his register to sing in a low, atonal whine which makes his grand release in the chorus nicely effective. Unfortunately, that vocal in the chorus is the best part of the song. The music never really makes any interesting changes, just stayting mostly in the same key and tempo (save Reid's solo, those are always fun to hear).

Lyrically, it's a nice, however trite message - accept the life you have; don't waste your time by wishing for something else or lamenting how things could be different, the grass isn't always greener, blah, blah blah. I have to give them credit, though, for the final verse as a nice way to end not just a song, but an album:

In your real life
Treat it like it’s special
In your real life
Try to be more kind
In your real life
Think of those that love you
In this real life
Try to be less blind

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Cologne" / Ben Folds / Way to Normal

Blog rules - I go random on the itunes and don't repeat minor artists, but do revisit the biggies. And Ben Folds is a biggie. Check here and here for previous entries if you're interested.

One thing I love about Ben Folds that I've mentioned before is the duality of his tone. He's got a smarmy, ironic, Gen X snarkiness in some of his songs, but then others are completely straight-faced, sincere, emotionally naked confessionals. "Cologne" falls in the latter category.

It stands to reason that a man who has been through three divorces would be pretty good at writing a breakup song, doesn't it? "Cologne" sets the melancholy tone early with the tinkling piano notes (with the song's little hook coming in at 1:20). In classic Folds style, his voice is at the forefront, accompanied only by piano (as it is through most of the song) so we can really catch the lyrics. So, let's check those out:

Here in Cologne
I know I said it wrong
I walked you to the train
And back across alone
To my hotel room
And ordered me some food
And now I'm wondering why the floor has suddenly become a moving target

What we have here, as I read it, is a man who (obviously) just walked his girl to the train station after a serious "relationship" conversation. It's probably awkward and uncomfortable - if it was a blowout argument he wouldn't be accompanying her, and besides, he just "said it wrong", something came out the wrong way, maybe he didn't really mean it, but it's out now and he can't get it back. I'm also thinking they were drinking pretty heavily. Things slip out easier then, and when he comes back, he's hungry and "suddenly" the floor's spinning.

(By the way, one of my favorite parts of this song is the little five note bass run he makes right after "food" in the verse (2:25) - in fact it's in the same place in each verse. Good stuff)

Then it's the first chorus (with the opening piano arpeggios behind it):
Four, three, two, one,
I'm letting you go
I will let go
If you will let go

The "countdown" there makes more thematic sense after the next verse, but isn't this just like a breakup? You may know it has to end - remember, I don't think there's a huge argument or anything here - but you can hardly bring yourselves to do it. You countdown, bargain, agree to still be friends, all the painful stuff that ,in the end, just leaves the wound open.

Says here an astronaut
Put on a pair of diapers
Drove eighteen hours
To kill her boyfriend
And in my hotel room, I'm wondering
If you read that story too?
And if we both might
Be having the same imaginary conversation

Here our dude's reading the paper, referencing this strange story form a couple of years ago about the NASA pilot who, in fact, put on adult diapers and drove all night to kill the boyfriend she suspected of cheating. Here, as I mentioned, the "four, three, two, one" countdown in the chorus can play both to a shuttle launch as well as the couple bracing themselves for the disillusion of their relationship.

One thing I like here as well - that feeling you have after a breakup of constantly wondering what your former partner is doing. Are they thinking about you too? Moving on? Out with a friend? Are they as sad as me? Would we be talking about this weird astronaut if we were together right now? Is she reading it at the same time I am, and are we thinking about the other reading it and having this "imaginary conversation"?

Back in the song, there's a brief bridge (with more astronaut imagery)

Weightless as I close my eyes
The ceiling opens in disguise

And the final verse:

Such a painful trip
To find out this is it
And when I go to sleep
You'll be waking up

I think the first two lines are pretty one the nose, no? The second speaks to not only the physical distance of time zones (remember the speaker's in Cologne, and I think it's safe to assume the girl's gone home to the States) but now the emotional distance as well. They are literally thousands of miles away, but in another way even further than that now.

A gorgeous, depressing song, but one that really captures the essence of a relationship dissolving. Based on the lyrics, though, I like to believe these two kids gave it another shot when he got back home. I hope they're happy, honestly...

To close, here's what I'm talking about with the two sides of Ben Folds. The album version of "Cologne" is pretty much just Ben, the piano, and that's it. (This is the closest I could find online)

But, as if he thinks that's too intimate, he has to release an over-the-top, ridiculous version with a full chorus, orchestral fills, and cheesy cinematography in the guise of a fictional European music show with a clueless host and a bizarre girl in a black cat costume. It's like insulating yourself from any real emotional outpouring in a way; it reminds me of the embarrassing morning one has after a night of deep, drunken conversation - a way of winking and saying, "Hey, I don't really mean this after all, ya know?"

(It is pretty hilarious, though)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" / Edie Brickell / Born on the Fourth of July Soundtrack

In high school in the late 80's, every girl I was friends with, and I mean EVERY girl, loved Edie Brickell. The Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars CD was a musical female Bible; she was the patron saint of the thoughtful, disaffected, moody teenage girl. Diaries, classroom folders and yearbooks had scribbled lyrics from "Circle". She just seemed to capture the zeitgeist of what it meant to be a adolescent girl back then.

And I'm not gonna lie, it wasn't too bad. Edie was easy on the eyes, and the music was nice when one was in the mood for some mellow tunes. I actually really liked the single "Mama Help Me" off of her follow-up album, but that was a litle bit darker and less accessable and didn't prove to be much of a hit. Then Brickell went on to marry Paul Simon, have some guiar stumming folkie babies, and was hardly heard from again(save the odd release).

In 1989, at the height of Brickell's popularity, the Tom Cruise war film Born on the Fourth of July was released. The soundtrack contained Brickell's perfect cover of this Bob Dylan song.

Here's the thing about Dylan: at the rick of losing any musical credentials I may have among people and alienating my Dylan-worshiping in-laws, I'm just really not a fan. I recognize his significant cultural impact, I appreciate his skill as a songwriter, but the perfomance just has never done it for me. The sloppiness of the music, the inscrutable, pretentious lyrics, that voice (though this is coming from a dude whose favorite band is led by Geddy Lee, so take it with a grain of salt), it's never worked for me.

Now songs that are Dylan covers I generally like. Of course, there's Hendix's "All Along the Watchtower" (considered by many to be the greatest cover of all time); I just recently heard a cover of "Girl From the North Country" by Lions on Sons of Anarchy - an incredible song that I downloaded before I even realized it was a Dylan cover, and there's this Brickell cover here. Dylan can compose a hell of a song, but his performance just leaves something to be desired.

I've never heard the original of this song, and it's probably just as well, because I always listen to this without any preconceptions or comparisons. It made sense once I found it out, though, as you can recognize some classic Dylan elements such as the wordiness, the odd imagery, the symbolism and the folk structure.

Brickell's gorgeous voice probably gives the song the biggest improvement. My favorite part of the song is the very beginning with the strummed intro and her crystal-clear tone lulling

Oh where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh where have you been, my darling young one?

(And check out the chord change on the second "one" there - what a great punch, and it's repeated throughout the song)

The first verse is just Edie and the guitar, which is nice, but it's best just to ignore the lyrics about misty mountains, sad forests and dead oceans. I mean, I consider myself pretty well versed in poetic devices and symbolism, but come on. After the chorus, she adds more instrumentation, which makes the drop back to just her voice and the guitar very effective at the beginning of the third verse (3:03).

After that, I love the slow build from quiet to loud as Brickell takes advantage of the "Where the...." refrain which is repeated over and over and builds tension and intensity, finally dropping it off at 4:27, (on the word "sinking"). Finally, a really nice job with the false ending, "I'll know my song well before I start singing" and trailing off with a false ending at 4:34 before poping out with the chorus once more, and I just love how she belts that bad boy out - I still get chills when she hits the "Raaaaaain" high note at the end of the song.

Here's Dylan's version

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"Damage, Inc." / Metallica / Master of Puppets

Oh, Metallica…*sighs, shakes head*

Back in high school in the late 80's, Metallica was probably my favorite band. To this day, one of the best shows I've ever seen was Metallica and the Cult (with Steve Jones!) at Atlanta's Lakewood Amphitheatre on the "...And Justice for All..." tour in 1989. Then came the pile of crap called the "Black Album". Then came forcing Jason Newstead out, then Lars and Napster, a shameful episode that found a band taking its fans to court, more crap albums, and you have what you've got now.

Seriously…they went from this:

To this:

Metallica is a band at which I can pinpoint the first time I heard them. I was on a family vacation to Jekyll Island in 1986 between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. I was all about the classics at that time – Zeppelin, Floyd, Rush, etc. I met a kid down at the condo at which we were staying who was into music too. I had just bought Electric by The Cult and was really digging that “tape”. I told this kid to check it out, and he slipped it in his walkman.

He took a listen, grinned, and said, “Not too bad. Now you listen to this” and then handed over Master of Puppets.

Just the imagery of the tape cover told me I was in for something new and exciting, something semi-dangerous and challenging. As I stared at the picture of rows of graves under a blood red sky, I hit play and heard the first chugging chords of “Disposable Heroes”

Some seven minutes later, I turned the tape player off and looked at the kid. I’m sure my eyes were big as saucers because of the big smile on his face, “Good stuff, huh?” he said as he took his tape back.

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t ever listened to anything out of the mainstream. In ninth grade I tried on punk for size, but it was nothing to the euphoric feeling I got from Metallica.

This is one reason I hate them so much today : to go from being so great and important (not just to me, but important musically) to geezers today feels like a complete betrayal. Add to that Lars Ulrich’s and James Hetfield’s general douchiness , and they are just so easy to hate (pity Kirk Hamnett, who always seems like an easygoing fellow, and the sting of bass players - Cliff Burton, Jason Newstead and currently Robert Trullilo – who forever seem like the coolest dudes in the group whenever they are in it).

So let’s remember the good times with “Damage, Inc.”, shall we?

The final song off of the aforementioned Master of Puppets, it’s one of the group’s most famous and lasting. It begins with some slow, building guitar work from Kirk before breaking into the classic Metallica crunch at 1:20. Even for a Metallica tune, it’s a damn scorcher, roaring along at breakneck speed.

At 1:50 they introduce the five-chord hook of the song, a descending riff which is one of the most recognizable in their canon. The lyrics tend toward the trite (“Living on your knees, conformity / or dying on your feet for honesty”) and cliched (”Fuck it all and fucking no regrets”) but have some nice imagery of blood, wild animals (razorbacks, jackals, hunt, instinct) and general mayhem (steamrollers, slamming, agony).

It’s more or less a “We are badass, don’t fuck with us” tune, the type they used to write in their sleep (“Hit the Lights”, “Whiplash”) before they completely quit trying.

Anyway, some last few cool part of Damage I love: the whispered song title, the bridge / breakdown at 3:14, the little drum fill and the “Go!” at the end of it (3:47) leading into Kirk’s killer solo, and my favorite part has always been the little syncopated twist they put on the main riff at the end of the song (5:19).

It’s really bittersweet to listen to the first four Metallica albums – Kill Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and …And Justice for All. Those albums are about as close to perfection as hard rock music gets, and it’s just a shame to consider what’s become of them. I heard they can still bring it live, but they lost me long ago, unfortunately.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Coward of the County" / Kenny Rogers / Greatest Hits

Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits holds a fair amount of nostalgia for me. When I was in second and third grade after I got off the bus to come home for the day, my Mom usually had a nice snack for me and was playing one of two albums: this one or The Oak Ridge Boys Greatest HIts. We would sit and have something to eat, chat about my day, then play a game of Clue or Life or something like that (I remember thinking that in "Lucille" I thought it was awfully unfair that the narrator's wife left him with "400 children and a crop in the field". Just wrong, that was)

One thing I love about this song and many of the classic country songs are that they're story songs. You can have a pretty nice complete narrative in three or four minutes in a great country song, sometimes with a nice ironic twist ending if you're lucky. Kenny's got some great ones too: besides this one and "Lucille", there's the classic "Gambler", and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town", about a VIetnam paraplegic who's begging his wife to stay with him (with the terrifying to me at that age line: "If I could move I'd get my gun and put her in the ground")

So what's going on in "Coward of the County"? A poor boy named Tommy is teased for running from fights ("The folks just called him Yella'" as the narrator says). There's more to that story, though. The song's narrator is the boy's uncle ("I looked after Tommy cause he was my brother's son") and is raising him because Tommy's Dad died in prison. So our narrator knows why Tommy won't fight; he heard the last words Tommy's father said to him, giving us the song's famous chorus:

Promise me, son, not to do the things I've done.
Walk away from trouble if you can.
It won't mean you're weak if you turn the other cheek.
I hope you're old enough to understand:
Son, you don't have to fight to be a man!"

It's not all bad for Tommy, though, he's in love with a girl named Becky. Unfortunately, some local miscreants the Gatlin boys see something they like in Becky too. The song describes the next event as such:

One day while he was workin' the Gatlin boys came callin'.
They took turns at Becky... and there was three of them!

Now, I really wasn't sure what "taking turns" meant when I was seven....but I was pretty sure that it wasn't good. Especially the way Kenny delivers the last part of that line - doesn't sing it, and pauses right before it to get the full effect (3:37 in the video)

Tommy comes in and sees Becky's "torn dress" and "shattered look", walks over to his Daddy's picture (and hears the words of the chorus again) and then turns as if to leave, prompting taunts from the Gatlin boys. Then comes the turning point of the song, spoken again, with another pause for emphasis:

But you could have heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door

Tommy proceeds to kick the collective Gatlin boys' asses using "twenty years" of pent-up rage, then speaks again to his dead father, playing with the words of the chorus ever so slightly (and giving us our twist):

I promised you, dad, not to do the things you've done.
I walk away from trouble when I can.
Now please don't think I'm weak, I didn't turn the other cheek,
And papa, I sure hope you understand:
Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man.

Again, this song's all about story. Chuck Klosterman, a social and music critic I love to read, has a great essay about modern county in his book Sex, Drugs, and Coco Puffs.

More or less, he says county music is unique because the lyrics are the center of the song. They are always easy to understand, and the music almost always takes a backseat to the lyrics. I'm no country expert, but it seems he's right about this - when you listen to country, the music is really forgettable and generic. It's just background noise so the lyrics can be presented to the listener. That's all to say there's not much for me to analyze musically here, other than some typical pop-country tropes: the strummed acoustic guitar, the shuffling beat, the female harmonies on the chorus. Kenny has an all-time classic voice, though; it's warm and intimate, a little raspy around the edges, and instantly familiar.

I've had lots of fun recently revisiting some of the old classic country music like this from the 60's and 70's (In fact, I highly recommend this station out of Monroe, GA). There was a time when I guess I considered myslef too hip to admit it's enjoyable (and that I enjoy it), but it's definitely a part of my musical upbringing that I'll always carry with me.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Army of Me" / Bjork / Telegram

My wife is the big Bjork fan in the family, accounting for the four albums of hers on my itunes. I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan, but I enjoy the occasional song. I really liked The Sugarcubes, one of those "underground / progressive" bands from back in the 80's (as we called them before the genre "alternative" became established), especially their modest hit from '88, "Birthday", a great tune that still holds up well today:

"Army of Me" is a pretty badass song for one reason - that ominous, rolling bassline which doesn't let up for the entire song. I'll be damned if anyone can make any sense of Bjork's lyrics, even if they can decipher them, but the lyric that stands out that gives the song its title: "If you complain once more / you'll get an army of me" makes me chuckle a bit. Bjork, with her Icelandic, pixieish* voice and persona, doesn't lend well to tough talk like that. It actually is kind of adorable, which really just defeats her purpose. Oh, well.

*Any writing done about Bjork and her music is contractually obligated to include either a reference to Iceland and / or the word "pixie". Just following through, here.

Love the video, though. Typical Bjork surrealism - the tiny girl driving an immense tank with a full set of teeth, a gorilla dentist, Bjork playing secret agent and blowing up a museum....good stuff.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Senses Working Overtime" / Mandy Moore / Coverage

You may be asking yourself what a 38-year-old, married, father of three is doing with a Mandy Moore song (or two) in his itunes collection, and it's a fair one to ask.

First of all, it's not originally a Mandy Moore song. "Senses Working Overtime" is by the brilliant English pop group XTC and this version appears on Moore's album of covers called, er, Coverage. Second, as I have owned up to before, Mandy Moore is on my list of five (she's 26 now, so that's not creepy...right?). And, finally, Ms. Moore (I refuse to call her Mrs. Adams) is a pretty talented singer who has a nice interpretation of this song.

Mandy Moore was lumped in with the Brittanys and Christinas of the pop word back during that teen explosion of the late 90's, but she never quite took off the way those two did. She's seemed to have found more success as an actress now than as a musical artist, but I always suspected that there was a little bit more going on (musically) with her than the rest of the 'tween queens. This was somewhat justified when I found out she covered artists like XTC, Joe Jackson, Cat Stevens, The Waterboys, and Joni MItchell on this covers album. She seems to be a very mature musical artist now, unconcerned with album sales and motivated by a love of music (and, again, a profitable acting career gives one that luxury).

Moore doesn't add too many twists to her version of "Senses", but I do enjoy some of the changes. The XTC version takes a bit to get going, beginning very quietly and then getting louder toward the chorus, but Moore jumps right in with the "1-2-3-4-5" bit (the most cringeworthy part of the cover, in my opinion). Her version swings a little more too, though "swing" is a relative term when discussing two rather square artists.

As with most pop acts, the chorus and / or hook is where the tale is told, and "Senses" has a great one. I'm not crazy about the high-end overdubs Moore has on the "counting" bit, but I do like the smooth, fretless bass added underneath. I miss the little guitar jingle after the "counting" that XTC has, though to be fair Moore isn't attempting a rock cover, so no guitar is meant to be noticed anyway.

My favorite part of Moore's version is just a really brief bit - at the end of the chorus the delivery of the line

Trying to taste the difference between a lemon and a lime

I love the way she ever-so slightly draws out the "L" sound (alliteration, kids!) and puts a very slight hitch in her voice on the word "lime". It's also nice how the chorus ends softly, with an almost a cappella part on the "church bells softly chiming" line, the harmonics suggesting chiming bells themselves.

All-in-all, a cover that doesn't necessarily improve on the original, but does give a different perspective which is what a great cover should do And props to Ms. Moore (see, Mandy? You don't even need to change your name!) for digging deep in the pop vault to dust off a little gem like this.

And for comparison's sake, here's the original