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

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"Soap Star Joe" / Liz Phair / Exile in Guyville

Has any other "important" artist had such a sad, precipitous fall as my girl Liz Phair?

The quality of her music has just taken an absolute nosedive with each successive album. She went from indie pop brilliance in 1993

To mawkish, Adult Contemporary crap in 2005

I mean, I know a girl's got to provide for herself and sell some CDs, but as a dedicated fan, it's just sad to see her neuter herself over the years. And judging by her album sales, I'm not the only one that feels this way - she was dropped from Capital Records after the poor sales of Somebody's Miracle. I own all of her albums, as I've mentioned before I'm a loyal fan of artists I love, but damn she's making it hard to maintain hope.

But for now, let's remember some happier times. Exile in Guyville, her debut was a HUGE album back in the burgeoning alternative scene in the early 90's. Importantly, hers was the first important female voice to emerge, paving the way for the Lillith Fair scene (don't hold that against her, though). Exile in Guyville, if you believe the rumors, was written as a feminist song-by-song response to the Rolling Stone's masterpiece Exile on Main Street (which would make "Soap Star Joe" the response to "Torn and Frayed", my favorite non-hit Stones song).

Both songs begin with a simple strummed intro and have a nice, mid-tempo sway to them. "Torn and Frayed" is about a dude named Joe (!) that's in a band but is having some issues. His coat is "torn and frayed", he's a drifter and a "deadbeat", is addicted to codine, but apparently is a hell of a guitar player to "steal your heart away".

Phair's "Joe" is the personification of American manhood, the Marlboro man:

He's just a hero
In a long line of heroes
Looking for some lonely billboard to grace
They say he sprung from the skull of Athena
Think about your own head
And the headache he gave

(you have to like the mythological allusion and clever turn of phrase at the end, huh?) And as if you didn't divine the Joe-as-archetype through the lyrics, she ends with this line:

Check out America
You're looking at it babe

Uh, thanks...

So, yeah, a big difference between the Stones' Joe and Phair's: the former being a veritable bum that pulls it together in time for incredible shows, the latter being American, Western manhood incarnate, a "hero from a long line of heroes", wearing tight blue jeans, sporting "thinning hair" and driving a pickup.

The sound of Phair's song is sparse, like much of Guyville - mostly just her strumming the chords, accompanied only by her unique, quivering voice and a few brush strokes on a snare. What amounts to a chorus (at 1:28 and 2:03) offers an echoed, haunting change (is it really a chorus if it's the same music but not the same words?) with a telltale Stones-ish harmonica finishing out the song. Most of the Guyville songs follow this structure; Phair plays around with conventional song structures throughout, often eschewing choruses, bridges, and rhyming altogether. It's this loss of experimental spirit that has let so many fans down; "sellout" is an ugly, overused word in music, but it's sometimes applicable.

I believe Phair still has some great stuff left in her. It's been five years since her latest album, the 90's are beginning to have a nostalgic return (it happens in cycles of 20 years), and music fans LOVE a comeback. All she needs to do is hook up with the right producer (i.e, not The Matrix /shakes head/), find her edge again, and await the plaudits that will certainly be tossed her way. Come on, Liz...we're rooting for you!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Revolutionary Generation" / Public Enemy / Fear of a Black Planet

It's really hard to overestimate the impact that Public Enemy had on my cultural development after I discovered them in high school. Though I grew up in a pretty diverse educational environment, PE was my first real foray into what one might call the American Black Experience. Until I started listening to PE I had never heard of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, or Eldridge Cleaver, never considered Malcolm X anything other than a rabble-raising black man, and found out that not everyone seemed to hold John Wayne or Elvis in such esteem as white folk.

I sheepishly admit to you now how much I got into these guys: I purchased a leather African medallion that was all the rage in the late 80's (and wore it to school, even /slaps forehead/), the group I hung out with called ourselves (jokingly) the "9-8 Posse" after a line in "Rebel Without a Pause", I pattered my tuba section in the marching band /dork/ after the S1Ws, PE's stepping, uzi-toting, martial-arts-practicing security group, and I also bought a message in our school's Valentine's paper and simply put the PE logo on it

Yeah, I did

And I know I wasn't the only one Chuck D and the gang affected. White boys my age who were into rap back then were gaga over these guys. It is somewhat ironic when you think about it, as PE always took a pretty militant pro-black (but not anti-white) stance in their music, but I think many of us were drawn to the authenticity of the groups message, the rebellion in the delivery, and the dense production of the Bomb Squad, PE's sonic engineers (and don't forget that those first few albums were overseen by Rick Rubin, who already had endeared himself to suburban white boys through the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J). In many ways, PE was a rap group that took a Rock attitude and approach to its music (hell, they sampled Slayer in one song, for God's sake), and I think many of us could sense that.

PE certainly evolved as a musical force over time. Their first album, "Yo! Bum Rush the Show" was well-received (highlighted, in my opinion, by "Public Enemy Number 1"), but it didn't give any indication that their next joint (see what I did there?), "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" would be damn near revolutionary. Seriously, you can't consider yourself a true music fan if you don't own a copy of that album. It's one of the best in music history, genre be damned. "Fear of Black Planet", the follow up, almost reached the same heights, but was still great in its own right, containing what became the group's signature song, "Fight the Power"


Yep - 1989: my senior year, the best year in rap's history, and PE and Spike Lee scaring white people to death with "Do the Right Thing"

Anyway, let's look at the music. I measure rappers by three criteria: voice, flow, and lyrics. Chuck rates high on voice (that powerful, Don Pardo-esque baritone is distinctive and commanding) and lyrics, but not so much on flow. And it's hard to believe now that he's a reality show buffoon, but Flava Flav brought something to the table as well. However, as I mentioned previously, the Bomb Squard produced the tracks that really let PE shine.

If you check out the first minute or so of "Revolutionary Generation", you can pick up not only the huge beat and scratching of Terminator X, but also a clip of a MLK speech, an Aretha Franklin sample, and a bit of "Pass the Dutchie" from Musical Youth. Dense, complex, and challenging music. As you listen to the entire track, see how many different bits, pieves and samples you can pick out. This is one reason rap isn't what it used to be - where's the musical artistry?

Lyrically, this song is about showing solidarity with black women. Rap music is often criticized for its misogynistic tendencies, so kudos for Chuck for standing up for black women (though in retrospect, those Tawana Brawley references sting). He even acknowledges his past indiscretions in his own music ("So I said Sophisticated B , don't be one" - though that could be described as a cop-out, couldn't it?). Still, males in rap weren't approaching this subject in 1991. There's more lyrics here, so check it out for the full text.

Sadly, it seems that PE is now relegated to the old-school rap dustbin. They've attempted a couple of comebacks, but have never really fully reentered our musical consciousness (though they came close for a minute with "He Got Game" from old friend Spike Lee's film). I hope they will be remembered for their music as well as their message when it's all over with them, though.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Allergic" / Placebo / Without You I'm Nothing

Placebo is a nice mix of two or three of my favorite bands : the mysterious androgyny and Anglicanism of Suede, tight grooves and vocals reminiscent of Rush , and a little of Muse's progressive musicianship.

Like most in the States, I caught onto them with the single "Pure Morning", one of the best releases of the 90's.

Yeah, I'm not gonna lie - they sounded a lot like a new and improved Rush to me, and this was when Rush was in the lowest point of their career: they had just released the disappointing Test for Echo, Neil Peart lost his daughter in a car crash and his wife to cancer within a year, and it looked like the band was finished (but that's neither here nor there). Placebo looked like a good candidate to fill that void.

Despite my fondness for this album, it's the only release of theirs I have. They are a band I never kept up with like I thought I would. Maybe I should check back in on them and see if they have done anything interesting latey. They've all but dropped off the face of the earth in the States, but still have a nice following in the UK. They also recently had a hit with this Kate Bush cover, which I think's a pretty good remake.

"Allergic" is one of the more uptempo songs on WIthout You I'm Nothing. It's got a great crunchy bass sound to open the song, and the simple two chord structure of the song moves it right along. The vocals complement the simplicity of the tune nicely, as Molko quickly crams his words in the space created.

The end of each verse is cool too, one line - "You take a beating" followed by the guitar echoing the chord progression. Nothing fancy , no bridge, no musical masturbation, just keeping that groove intact throughout the whole song. (Oddly enough, when I first listened to this, I misheard that as "You take a BM", and now I can't get that out of my head).

The chorus is as basic as the rest of the song, with its repeated couplets of "The light divining / The light defining", and listen to the bass and drum combo, as they never stop the two chord groove they established back in the first few seconds.

The only variation to the song comes in its coda, as from the 3:00 mark on they add some discordant guitar sounds and drop the bass a little. It's cool how they hold that last note for a good twenty seconds or so too. It's a solid, no nonsense straightforward rock song. The video below is fan-made, as they never released this song as a single, but it's not bad as far as those go.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"Mahgeeta" / My Morning Jacket / It Still Moves

Despite having one of the stupider band names in music history (and despite their Furthur / jam band / hippie following), My Morning Jacket has quickly become one of my very favorite bands of the 'oughts.

At their best, their songs are just hypnotic, entrancing and lovely, with singer Jim James' soft voice lulling you into contemplation. Let it be known that thy can bust out a rock tune as well, but thats not my favorite mode of theirs. As in the song here, they often have a classic 1950's era rock sound, but adapt it for a modern audience. The beginning melody of "Mahgeeta" sounds as if it could have been from a Bill Haley and the Comets track back in the day, but they add enough contemporary styling to make it fresh. This produces a comforting mix of something new sounding but innately familiar as well.

It's a hard conept for me to explain, so, if you wish, read this essay by WIlliam Bowers from The DeCapo Best Music Writing 1994 compilation (start on page 34). I had heard of MMJ before reading this, but just in album reviews in music magazines (which always referenced their similarity to Neil Young). It was after this article that I decided to seek them out.

I started with Z, their fourth album and still my favorite., then moved to this one (It Still Moves), and then finished off by, um, "borrowing" a couple more from a somewhat loyal blog reader. I love having the whole catalogue of these guys, and putting their tunes on a long playlist while grading essays or just lounging around reading. Hell, they say it best themselves in the first lyrics of this song:

Sittin here with me and mine.
All wrapped up in a bottle of wine

For a real treat, if you're not familiar with them. start with Okonokos, a double live album recorded at the Filmore in San Francisco.

Wordless Chorus, one of my MMJ favorites

As with many of their tunes, one secret to "Mahgeeta"s sound is reverb - lots of it. The echoing, looping vocals and impeccable harmonies have everything to do with the mood these guys create. The song is deceptively simple, with a steady, staccato groove underneath, but the vocals really make it pop.

At 4:30, the vocals drop out, and you can hear how MMJ gets the Bonaroo-crowd following - they up the tempo and finish with a bang of a coda, complete with a flourish on the final chord. You can imagine this song would be drawn out and rocked pretty hard live, can't you?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Camel Walk" / Southern Culture on the Skids / Dirt Track Date

If ever there was reason to praise the itunes / digital music revolution it's for songs like "Camel Walk". SCOTS is a band with a schtick (not that there's anything wrong with that - so were the Ramones, The Cramps, KISS, The B-52s, Ween and The Hives) which is awesome for a song or two, but gets really old over the course of a whole CD.

As you can probably guess from just the name of the band, or definitely after watching the video or hearing the song, SCOTS's schtick is white trash. The faux country musical stylings, silly lyrics, trucker hats and beehive hairdos all attest to this. Having said that, let's look at "Camel Walk" on its own merits (ha).

I heard this song quite often in the mid 90's on a local Athens station, 103.7, which played a great alternative mix (that station then became "classic rock" - ugh- and just recently changed to pop music. So, if you're scoring at home, that's Radiohead to Nazareth to Miley Cyrus) I was instantly intrigued by it's greatness, and the fact that it annoyed my girlfriend to no end make it even more fun to blast in the car and sing along to.

It's hard to get a handle on the complex themes of this song. FIrst of all, I'm not sure what "walking like a camel" means. I'm thinking it has a sexual connotation, given the mentions of "thorny boots", and I'm picturing a camel walking in my head, but it's not adding up. Maybe if one is, um, aroused, one may tread carefully as a dromedary? I don't know.

What brings brilliance to the song is the vending machine snack shoutouts. One of my favorite lines in the song comes early on :

Who's in charge here? Where's my Captain's Wafers?
Don't go 'round hungry now!
Baby, the way you eat that oatmeal pie makes me want to diiiie


He ends the song with this gem
Little Debbie, Little Debbie!
I'm a comin' on home, baby!

So, the consumption of prepackaged snacks, "special outfits" and quarters under high-heeled boots really gets this guy going, or "camel walking". I....guess. Fun times anyway.

Musically, I love the whip cracks, followed with perfect timing by the singer's howl. Also love that sliding bass riff, and you can't deny that they hit a pretty good grove at times in the song (check that part at :24).

So, let's just have fun with this one. Lots of the music I love the most is so damn earnest and serious, so it's good to change it up with a song like this now and again. As for the video below, it's interspersed with footage from a Ben Stiller movie, "Flirting WIth DIsaster" on whose soundtrack this song appeared. Never seen the movie, but parts of it seem to fit OK, especially the opening image of the dude licking his lady's underarm.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Angels" / Robbie Williams

Interesting thing about Robbie Williams…he’s England’s version of Justin Timberlake. Just as JT was the breakout star of 90’s boy band N’Sync, Williams was part of England’s biggest klan of non-threatening cute teenagers, Take That.

Embarrassed that I remember this

Both guys took a risk by dropping their respective cash cows to strike out on solo careers, which was viewed by most observers as a huge mistake, but both ended up exploding as solo artists.

The major difference is Willams’ inability to “break” in the US, whereas Timberlake has done well for himself over the pond. Beginning in the late 90’s, the music press was touting Williams as the Next Big Thing in the US. He did have a minor hit in the states with “Millennium”, then had that really weird, gross video in which he strips off his skin and muscles while he’s dancing, which seemed to immediately undo any momentum he’d built. It just never happened for the man here.
Not helping here

So here we have “Angels”, which, apparently was as big in England as….I’m not sure there’s an apt comparison. I remember seeing a documentary on Britpop, Live Forever, that speculated that this song was the death blow to that musical era. I happened to come across it through one of my favorite music magazines, England’s Q, when they published a special “1001 greatest songs ever” issue a few years ago. The description sounded interesting, so I gave it a download.

And, look, there’s no way I can really defend this song, It’s cheesy, melodramatic, and calculated, but I can’t really deny the goose bumps at the chorus, and not to get too maudlin, but hearing the lyrics

And through it all, she offers me protection
A lot of love and affection
Whether I’m right or wrong

And down the waterfall
Wherever it may take me
I know that life won’t break me
When I come to call
She won’t forsake me

I’m loving Angels instead

and realizing they are about his late mother really strikes a chord with me, sentimental sucker that I am.

I think this was Robbie Williams' last big gasp at becoming big in America. He must have figured if this song couldn’t do it, it wasn’t meant to be (and thank GOD Jessica Simpson’s version didn’t become a hit. I was terrified that this would happen).

So, flame away if you must. However, before you do, watch him perform this in front of 350,000 at Knebworth and see if you can deny it’s not just a little bit great.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Riding on the Rocket" / Shonen Knife / Let's Knife

Imagine, if you will, that on an alternate world the Ramones were not tall, goofy Greenwich Village Jews, but three tiny, smiling Japanese women that can barely speak English.

That, my friends, is Shonen Knife.

I bought Let’s Knife After seeing the “Riding on the Rocket” video late one night on 120 Minutes or something. I was strangely fascinated (and probably deep into a few beers, truth be told). There is something strangely alluring and fascinating about Shonen knife, this song, and this video. I had to have it.

These ladies play some fine pop music for sure, and you have to love the Japenglish that they use (“Blue eyed kitty cat say / Please take me with you” @ :25) Plus, with what other bands can you hear a song about a popular Asian toilet cleaner?

“Riding on the Rocket” is indeed a catchy little number, what with the three-chord fuzzed out guitar riffs, the cute cooing of the adorable ladies, and the sing-along chorus. My favorite part, though, is the little breakdown of planets at the end of the chorus – “Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars” – it gets thisclose to being a little metal, doesn’t it?

In all honesty, though, songs like this make me appreciate MP3 and digital music that much more. This song is lots of good fun, but over the course of an entire CD? Not so much.

Check out the video, a fine example of the surreal, wacked Japanese culture I love. Ride the rocket with Shonen Knife, people. Come on!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Reason to Believe" / Bruce Springsteen / Nebraska

(Remember, as Springsteen is one of my all-timers, he gets the benefit of a repeat review. For previous Springsteen musings, see here)

Nebraska is a unique little record. It lies chronologically between The River, which spawned the hits ("The River",“Fade Away” and “Hungry Heart”) to the stratospheric smash Born in the USA.

It sat for the longest time, unnoticed in the Springsteen pantheon, sandwiched between those two classic Boss rockers. When he put out The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1994, it began to get attention as it was an easy reference for what he was trying to do with that album. Nebraska is, in one word, stark. From the desolate album cover, to the depressing narratives in the songs, to the sparse instrumentation, the entire work is bleak.

Most of the songs on Nebraska concern people who are down on their luck, who have run afoul of the law, who have nothing left in the world and seek some type of escape or salvation. Many are told in first person, with Springsteen performing only on acoustic guitar and harmonica. In fact, the first version of mega-hit “Born in the USA” was originally a Nebraska cut. Check out this version, and think about how much differently people would have approached this song if it was released like this instead of how it was misinterpreted it as a pro-USA fist-pumping anthem (as, admittedly, I did as a twelve-year-old)

“Reason to Believe” is one of the most interesting songs on the album. It’s no accident that it comes at album’s end, as it is the ONLY song on the entire record which offers some type of hope (despite it’s opening imagery of a bloated, dead dog in a ditch)

The message of ”Reason to Believe”, of course, is easily summed up in its chorus :
Struck me kinda funny seemed kind of funny sir to me
How at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe

After describing scenes of despair in each of the verses – the dead dog, a man leaving his pregnant girlfriend, the circle of birth, death and marriage, Springsteen lets us know that you have to find some reason to carry on and cling on to the promise of a better future

The protagonists of the songs before this one – Johnny 99, the out-of-work auto worker who robs a store and kills a man, Joe Roberts of “Highway Patrolman” who lets his brother accused of murder escape to Canada, the young boy in “Used Car” who sees his family’s financial struggles and swears he will buy an new car one day - don’t have any hope, but escape is offered us at the end. And, despite the depressing mood of this record, this closing song is a nice contrast to its eponymous opener, a retelling of the real-life cross country murders Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate which ends with the ominous lyric:
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world”
. Not to mention, this is probably the only song on the entire album that isn't written as a veritable dirge. It's an upbeat, shuffling toe-tapper, and suprisingly closes the album with a feeling of happiness.

So we begin with “A meanness in this world” and end with a “reason to believe”. That’s Nebraska, and that’s Bruce’s America. Do yourself a favor and pick this album up is you have a chance.