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.