Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Like a Virgin" / Madonna / The Immaculate Collection Vol. 1

You ever notice how any analysis of Madonna has almost nothing to do with her music, per se, but more about her cultural impact?

I mean, whenever she puts out a new CD, the stories practically write themselves: "Madge reinvents herself....again!" or "Madonna still pushing boundaries!" or "Sexy sex sexpot! Sex!". I guess she brought some of that onto herself, as her image and "meaning" always seemed more important to her than did her music. Early on she decided she was going to challenge peoples' perceptions of femininity and sexuality, and she seems to have trapped herself in that, even 25 years later.

I'll try to focus on the music here - although I will say that with the exception of maybe Prince or Michael Jackson, no one else's music takes me back to the 80's and Hilsman middle school like Madonna. If you're my age, you probably remember the girls in your school wearing the bangles up and down their arms, the fishnets, the bow in the hair, the bright lipstick - there may not be a more iconic figure of the 80's than the first Madonna incarnation.

Hello, puberty!

As I mentioned, I think Madonna's music gets the short end based on her image, but I've always liked her stuff. I think my favorite song of hers is "Like a Prayer", just an epic, career-defining song. I'm also a fan of "Crazy for You" (ah, the memories of many an awkward middle school party) and more recently, "Take a Bow". It's cool to have an artist stick around so long and have so many great songs that you almost feel like you know them, that for every part of your life they have had a song for you.

"Like a Virgin" wasn't the first most of us heard from Madonna, as we had "Borderline" (another favorite) and "Lucky Star", but "Like a Virgin" felt different the first time I heard it. It seemed specifically formulated for pop dominance and social confrontation.

I knew, technically, what a "virgin" was when I was 12, but it was part of the greater mysteries that involved women and sex. I was, at the time, still pondering the greatness of my first open-mouth kiss and wondering about the implications of it all.

I knew as well that (at the time) the subject was a little bit taboo, and I would get embarrassed when I was in the car with my Mom and this song would come on. Lines like "touched for the very first time" and "feels so good inside" will do that to you, even if I couldn't explain what they meant if you asked me.

Then Madonna performed it at the first MTV video awards and removed any doubt as to the songs subtext, launching her into the pop stratosphere

Well, now I've gone and done it...I've spent this post writing about Madonna and her impact on my sexual identity during her first bout of superstardom instead of her music. As I mentioned, though, you just can't separate the two.

So here's an attempt at reviewing the song: The dated 80's keyboard riff that opens the song pretty mush sustains it all the way through, giving some depth to Madonna's paper thin voice (she was smart enough early on to realize this was NOT her strength and play up other parts of her performance and personality). The best part is the bridge right before the chorus, with the cymbal crashes in the back at the beginning of each of the bars. I also like the "gonna give ya" pickup after that goes right into the next verse (1:15 on the video). Nice, short little bridge at 2:10 consisting of, well, panting and moaning, back to the "You're so fine - and you're mine" line.

Hell, it's no use. I can't think of this song without the video. Madonna cavorting, grinding and writhing on a Venetian gondola pretty much was the epiphany which made me realize that girls were not at all yucky and that I would be amazed, frustrated, intimidated and manipulated by them for the rest of my life.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Angel Band" / Ralph Stanley / O Brother, Where Art Thou?

This is a good one from one of my favorite movies. I don't think this movie did much at the box office, but as an English teacher (and Cohen brothers fan), it certainly has a place in my heart.

See, this movie (Merk, Josh, Christian - just skip this part) is the Cohen brothers' version of Homer's "Odyssey" set in rural Mississippi in the Great Depression. George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill is Odysseus, trying to return home to his wife after being away for several years and encountering any number of supernatural and dastardly obstacles along the way. The movie is full of similarities to the original story, as well as quite a few in jokes that only dorky, quasi-literate people would get.

It's a great companion piece to show to my students after reading the Odyssey, and I'm always pleasantly surprised at how much the kids usually like it. And how can you not love a movie with scenes such as this - Ulysses and the boys meeting the "Sirens"

Most of the public, though, remember this movie for the soundtrack. It was a minor sensation, selling eight million copies and building primarily through word of mouth. It even spawned an near hit with "A Man of Constant Sorrow" on some country stations.

"O Brother Where Art Thou?" seemed to presage America's brief dalliance into roots music, the reverberations of which are still being felt in indie rock by way of alt country (Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis, DBT, etc.) I'm always interested in the deeper sociological meanings behind popular phenomena, especially as it pertains to music, and I'm still trying to figure out what the popularity of this soundtrack "meant" at the time. Maybe it was a backlash against the highly synthesized, prefab, sheen of the teenpop explosion of Brittany Spears, The Backstreet Boys and N' Sync who were huge at the time? I'm not really sure, but that's my best guess.

The version of "Angel Band" in the movie is not performed by Ralph Stanley, however. It's done by the Peasall Sisters, a real gospel group who provided the songs that Ulysses' daughters performed in the movie. You can hear the song at the very end of the movie, as Ulysses and his reunited family (Spoiler!) stroll across town.

I probably shouldn't say it, as Ralph Stanley is one of the iconic bluegrass / folk singers, but I like their version better. Part of that may be that Stanley provides the voice to "O Death" during the KKK scene in the movie, the scariest part by far, and it's hard to hear his voice without thinking of it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

"Blow Out" / Radiohead / Pablo Honey

I have to give my wife credit for buying this Radiohead CD way back when before they somehow became the be-all-end-all of modern music.

Although, to be fair, my wife had a habit back then of buying CDs for the one "hit" song (like this, this and this - thank God for itunes, huh?), so she just bought it for "Creep" obviously. Not that that's anything to be ashamed of, as obviously many, many people did the same.

I know it's been mentioned and discussed a bit, but it really is amazing that what looked to be another 90's alternative one-hit-wonder somehow blossomed into a full fledged juggernaut.

I remember hearing "High and Dry" and "Fake Plastic Trees" off of The Bends back in the mid 90's and thinking it was interesting to hear from Radiohead again, as I fully expected not to. Then one summer's day I caught the video for "Paranoid Android" and was completely blown away, causing me to rush out and buy OK Computer, perhaps the best CD released in the 1990s and still one of the best ever.

Love! Love.

Then, holy shit, the hype went into overdrive, and this is where Radiohead and I parted ways. With great fanfare they released Kid A and Amnesiac on the same day (a douchey move in itself - Correction: not on the same day - actually a year apart.) and I remember some of my coworkers being in such a lather to buy these that they slipped out of work to run to the store the Tuesday they were released.

When I finally got around to listening to them, I had a full on ..."Meh". I was OK with that, and I know some of my best friends and people who's musical tastes I respect very much will disagree with me here, but I find them to be boring now. The worst part of it all is the critics and hipsters absolutely fawn over whatever these guys put out, giving anyone who doesn't like their stuff the ol' Emperor's New Clothes, condescending "Oh, you just don't get it" response.

Radiohead has reached the point that they could put out an entire CD of feedback and test pattern noises and it would be hailed as revolutionary, futuristic genius, and I just find it all really really dull and annoying. Sorry. That's one reason I don't get into the big Coldplay pile on, either. To everyone who says they are just making a living on what Radiohead used to do, I say "Yeah!" Radiohead used to put out lovely, mellow stuff like Coldplay does now. Dammit, somebody's got to have melody and proper song structure! Lay off Apple and Moses' Daddy!

Anyway, enough with my Radiohead issues. I'm really hearing this song for the first time myself, and I like it. Judging by the many Youtube clips, it seems to be a pretty popular track of theirs too. It starts off with the good old, dreamy Radiohead we used to know, all falsetto singing and noodlely guitar, until they turn the petals on at 1:22 and start in with the "loud" part of the "soft/loud" structure that made "Creep" so successful.

Yorke comes back in with the second verse at 1:48, but he full thoated now, and they keep the distortion turned up now. Nice. Then, they drop completely down at 2:16, almost to a whisper in what serves as a short bridge of sorts. Then the song ever so slowly builds back up, adding a little bit of instrumentation at a time, until 3:12 when they begin the longest, awesomest guitar note I've heard.

I mean, this thing starts out sounding like an air raid siren, and keeps going, and going and going, slowly ascending in pitch all the while. Just when you think it will finally It keeps on and keeps on, with the drum and bass going the heck off behind, until it finally releases at 4:27 or so. That's over a full minute of straight, Sonic Youth-esque noise, and I loved it. I'm willing to bet that's a concert highlight, and just to prove it, I found a clip of them preforming "Blow Out" from 1994. (Wow, Tohm Yorke hasn't changed a bit, has he? yeesh)

Overall, I'm happy when itunes give me a new discovery, and this is just found money right here. Well done Radiohead, and I'll still hold out hope that one day you will bring the fuckin' rock again.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

"Moonlight Feels Right" / Starbuck / AM Gold



Nope - Uh-uh.

Oh, hell yeah!

I'll have you know that one of my very favorite music genres is 70's AM pop. I don't mean disco stuff, or Zeppelin / Stones songs (though I love that too) , I mean the lite pop hits, often by one hit wonders, that played on AM radio back in the 1970's. And I don't like it in a kitchy, ironic way either. I really do enjoy listening to it, and this song might be my favorite of the bunch.

I really don't know how I came to know this song, or any others like it. For some reason these songs give me a huge wash of nostalgia, even though I can never put my finger on a specific instance that I remember hearing them. Almost all of them remind me vaguely of living in Barnesville Ga (when I lived from year one to year five before moving to Athens), riding around in the family's huge red Pontiac with my Mom, me leaning over the middle seat (car seats? In the 70's? Pshaw) and listening to the radio as we drove around town. I think I somehow just absorbed all of these 70's songs into my memory banks though pure osmosis, and even today when I hear one I haven't encountered in a while I get a sudden rush of recognition and an instant return to feeling four years old again. It's amazing how music can do that.

So, that's all to say that I have no idea who or what Starbuck is or was, but damn I love listening to this song. It begins with very warm synth sounds (futuristic!) backed by a funky little guitar chord on the backbeat. The delivery of the verse is great - the singer (Bruce Blackmon) delivers a lazy, swingy, loungey kind of vocal, just cool and hip as the 70's could get. My favorite part of the song actually happens at the end of every verse, just before the chorus (at :50, 1:38 and 3:13 on the clip)- a throw off little "ha-ha" that he just tosses in there. Something about that is so silly that it's almost magical.

The chorus just repeats the song's title , answered by a "bling bling" from the keybord, while the synth is repeating the five note hook. Then we're back to the verse and doing it all over again. Let's take a look at the second verse's lyrics:

We'll lay back and observe the constellations
And watch the moon smilin' bright
I'll play the radio on southern stations
Cause southern belles are hell at night
You say you came to Baltimore from Ole Miss
Class of seven four gold ring
The eastern moon looks ready for a wet kiss
To make the tide rise again

There is some pretty nice imagery there for a pop song, and I like the narrative idea too. Not too often are "southern belles" mentioned in pop hits, and it's got to be the only song ever to hit the charts to name check Ole Miss. A check of Wikipedia shows me that Starbuck is actually from Atlanta (!), so there's your southern vibe right there.

Then, following this verse, we get the kicker that could only be recorded in the 70's, the part that takes this song over the top....MARIMBA SOLO! (1:55 on the video) Seriously, listen to it. It kicks ass, and it's so out of left field that it works perfectly.

So here's the song and an appropriately cheesy youtube clip of it too. If you choose to download it for your collection, but don't want to admit it, it's OK. I can love 70's music enough for the both of us.