Thursday, January 31, 2013

Music that Matters, pt 6

Go to see parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

52) The Who, I Can See for Miles: Sure, it's the power ballads like Love Reign O'er Me or Behind Blue Eyes that provide the meatiest carrion still picked over by industrial radio as well as served as progenitors for countless lesser power ballads to follow, but this nugget from '67 was the first Who song to boll weevil its way into my brain's deep cotton. Maybe it was the otherworldly guilt-tripping subject matter that sent my young mind a-reeling. Add to that Moon's superbly chaotic drumming, Townsend's wailing guitar chorus lines, Daltrey's perfectly attenuated vocal, and a hundred other things that all unfold into the brain pan like a magical musical burrito.

53) Elvis Costello, This Year's Girl: From '77 - '81 thereabouts Costello could do no wrong. Within that period two albums, This Year's Model and Armed Forces, offered up the radiant isotopic nucleus for the heaviest Geiger counter triggering of his career. (It must've also been those albums that elevated this bespectacled, pigeon-toed nerd into rock star hook ups with babes like ultimate groupie Bebe Beull.) Despite the Wave-ish Farfisa, spare arrangements, and spit-fueled vocals, Costello's music was always more old school than New Wave, no doubt a product of his bandleader dad's influence. His songwriting was craftier and the band was tighter than his peers even if his lyrics were a bit too abstruse. (One of the rare composers of the era who upheld the Beatles style "middle 8" bridge.) I single out This Year's Girl in particular because it was Song One, Side One and it's that stuttering drum figure begins a musical assault that'd carry him and us for the next few years. He was the Duke Ellington of the New Wave.

54) It's the Talk of the Town, Glen Gray and the Casaloma Orchestra (1942): My aforementioned Swing Era dad (R.I.P.) dug the Casaloma. I first heard this as a kid and it stuck to me like bacteria on a rock traveling from Mars. This was AM pop (it charted at #6) when ice wagons and rag men worked the streets and white people thought black face was funny. Sure, the lyric is waist high in saccharin sap and melodramatic cheese ("everybody knows you left me, it's the talk of the town") but the pathetic on-point delivery nails it all together in its ball-broken all male chorus. The melody is an ear worm of anaconda proportions and unless you're a heartless psychopath it should infect you like a dose of that Martian bacteria. Plus, this song appeals to all my many overwrought romantic notions about the era, when old maids were 26 year old virgins and men wore ties and fedoras and not sneakers and ball caps. The Talk of the Town is a banjo-driven sentimental journey down a heartsick tunnel to where life was harsher and the military was compulsory. You can thank your lucky stars it's a tunnel where you'll never have to live.

55) Al Green, Love and Happiness: As powerful, distinctive, and loaded with effervescent joy as Reverand Al's voice was, it's the band the pushes it over. They are a silky sexy, deep-in-the-pocket groove machine. The laid back drums with that fat hollow snare sound, the panty dew-inducing guitar licks, the panty-dropping organ, and a brass bed of horns that altogether were the perfect lingerie for Green's promiscuous vocal humps and trademark falsettos––more proof to what I said before about great production being the elixir of everlasting life for great songs.

56) Howling Wolf: We know that Blues is the uterus that sprung it all—its umbilical reaching back to both Africa and the vagabond troubadours of Europe—and Wolf owned it. I dig Muddy and Fred McDowell and Son House and Robert Johnson, et al, too, but if Wolf was a baller he would've had the best stats of anyone. Usually, I could give two hoots for purity––Janis, Jimi, The Yardbirds, Zep, Ten Years After, they were all cool too––but Wolf's blues is the purest 28 karat stuff there is. His voice is archetypal, his rhythms the prototype of sleazy stomp, and this dirty geezer knew how to ring the artful smut out of an entendre: No one ever moaned over the I-IV-V better.

57) Captain Beefheart, Ashtray Heart: It should be a given that Beefheart is brilliant without peer and, let's admit it, pretty difficult listening much of the time. All who claim to swoon over Trout Mask Replica probably haven't even listened to it in the last 30 years. Replica was ground zero for Beefheart's cacaphoneous version of abstract blues, a place where hard bop, psychedelia, guitar cage fights, and drums thrown down a flight of stairs all collide together beautifully. Beautiful like an altar made of human bones beautiful. (I also think Beefheart is the only artist who nailed and elevated the true spirit of the Blues from guys like Howling Wolf.) But Ashtray Heart is Replica evolved. When I saw Beefheart live it was this one that leaped out at me. (As if you could imagine anyone using this crazily marbled creature's heart this way...) Critics reference the "angularity and thickness" of Beefheart's sound. I say his sound is like trying to swallow a fractal shaped horse pill (how's that for a Beefheart title?) but sometimes the hard medicine, without the spoonfuls of sugar, is what we need.

58) The Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil, live version from Get Yer Ya-Yas Out: "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band" (see my explanation of all of that here) put their magnum opus on a rhythm rack to see what could be tortured out of it. Keith plays his Chuck Berry chords fatter than Professor Klump and takes the first solo; Mick Taylor glides on the smooth bottom rhythm and takes his noodle turn second. Where Keith's solo sounds drowsy with medication, Mick's is a belly full of anti-depressants. Jagger supports with rooster yelps letting us not forget who rules the roost here. The needle through it all is Charlie who shuffles the beat as hard as Mohammed Ali. I particularly love his kinetic cymbalism toward the end that allows the collective energy to throw off some serious lightening. Here, the Devil gets his due.

59) The 5th Dimension, The Age of Aquarius: Sure, the 5th Dimension are your parents (or grandparents) Easy Listening but it's also pop of the highest order. Their sessions were loaded with legendary players, the vocal arrangements sophisticated, and those songs––damn, were they jolly and infectious. Homecoming queen prim lead singer Marilyn McCoo might've come off like a girl with an aspirin between her legs but boy if she didn't wrap her lips around a melody. On Aquarius the harmonies go orchestral and the group reveals a secret weapon never used before or again: Billy Davis Jr's testifying, crotch scraping shrieks. In the "Let the Sun Shine In" section the dude drops some hard chops. He may be no Otis but he does unleash a series of screams jagged enough to shrink even Wilson Pickett's man sack. And damn if we couldn't use some of the song's cock-eyed hippie mush about now: This should be every goggly optimist's theme song.

60) Nina Simone, Love Me or Leave Me, Sinner Man, I Put a Spell on You, Mississippi Goddam: Too many diamonds in this crown to choose only one; Simone's canon practically hemorrhages richness. She may've suffered from a bipolar disorder (she was never diagnosed) and if so proved that mental illness can find its greatest expression in music. She was angry and mercurial (often scolding her audiences) but the people who worked with her found forgiveness in her genius. She was also something of an alchemist too: she turned musical cheese into gold better than anyone, ever. Nina could channel both Bach and Iggy (before Iggy was Iggy) with equal grace. Laminate that to her history and the preternatural monkey buzz of her brain and together it burns like a Malibu fire in summer. Thank heavens for us she never discovered medication.

61) Joy Division, Heart and Soul: Another case where the right opening song comes at you like the first bullet out of the chamber. (The most memorable albums will always begin this way.) Here, it's the repeated hypnotic minor third bass riff (makes me think of Iron Butterfly) along with a skeleton thin accompaniment that takes this bullet's trajectory straight to the center of your brain and gives Closer it's vampire-like lifespan. I always was a bigger fan of Post-punk than Punk and this, one of the best named bands ever, was among the best of the early adapters. It's hard to separate the band's legacy from Ian Curtis's suicide and it'd be a lie to say that this event didn't give their music far more power than it might've had otherwise. Still, all these years later, the meteor crater this album created remains unfilled.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

She Wants More: Fanny and Butterboy

If it only were 1974!

The drugs! The sex! The macramé midriff tops!

That was the time when the leisure suited Me decade was snuffing out the last vestiges of Summer of Love idealism. Where 60s hedonism was about discovery and liberation, the 70s response was cynical and opportunistic. Chemical mind expansion had migrated into addiction and AIDS was on the horizon. But the 70s wasn't just all about solipsistic pleasure chasing, boundaries were pushed and paradigms were shifted, not the least of which were the roles of women. By 1974 the bubblegum anthem I Am Woman had just released its sphincter hold of the radio, sex was being discussed much more openly––Everything You Want to Know Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) was on many home bookshelves as was The Sensuous Woman/Man––and took a much more prominent role in popular music, e.g. Walk on the Wildside, Sexual Healing, Afternoon Delight, Pillow Talk, Jungle Fever, Lady Marmalade, etc... you get the idea.

But those songs all shared a mostly male point of view. Where was the frank description of the female side of things? Enter Butterboy: A women's perspective a million miles away from Chapel of Love or even Torn Between Two Lovers and the precious confessions of the likes of Carly Simon and Laura Nyro (not that precious can't have its place). Butterboy is something different, it throws down the sexy candor from the get go and doesn't even bother with the entendre: "He was hard as a rock but I was ready to roll..." And the chorus: "Go baby go (Get it up boy)/ Show what you know/ There's a fire down below." The narrator will claim she was "shock[ed] to find out [she] was in control" in her presumably new role as jockey of her own carnal rodeo. But, as might be expected of a woman's perspective, things are a little more complicated.

But first, who was Fanny? An all female outfit led by the Philippines-born and California raised Millington sisters, June and Jean. Consensus is they were "the first notable/successful hard rock group made up entirely of women." ("Hard" may be a stretch here but notable––sure––although it's not as if there weren't others.) Of course, they were about 10 years behind Suzi Quatro's sisters, the Pleasure Seekers. (Wiki says Fanny was the third all female group signed to a major label.) Like the Quatros, Fanny were musicians of the sort that could've owned bands like The Bangles and The Go-Gos. Keyboardist Nickey Barclay worked as a session musician and played on Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour while the whole band backed-up Barbra Striesand for her rock album, "Stoney End." These ladies weren't just frontin'.

While Butterboy may extoll the liberation of "casual, quick relations," this self-empowerment has its issues. Jean Millington sings to her liaison, "give me more" and he only responds "you're too much." (After all, she says "get it up boy" and not "tongue out til you drop a lung out.") Still, her tool's flesh failures are still not something to sneeze your coke-riddled nose at. Remember, 1974 was only two years after Roe vs. Wade and the pill, introduced in 1962, had only been in wide use for a few years. This was an America where a flaming Conservative president like Nixon could sign a Title X into law (1970), a program which would have government pay to make birth control available for low-income and uninsured women. (The same kinds of women who were called "whores" in the 2012 election cycle.) Considering the post-War milieu in which Fanny came of age, Butterboy's directness was some bold in your face stuff.

And the song just plain rocks. And rocks hard despite its watered-down guitar cocktail, most of its juice coming from the swinging wah-oo-wah-oos, strutting baseline, and the bangin' Jerry Lee lite piano, not to mention a hook worthy of hanging a side of beef. Its bodacious boudoir confessions––hard to imagine any female performer getting equivalently raw these days (unless it's not men you're talking to)––wouldn't make the song worth discussing without it.

Interesting to note the cheesecakey image at top was off-brand for them. (I'd guess some A&R types had ordered them to sex it up.) You can see them in dressed-down action at their website here.

This video, on the other hand, may be the exception: They praise the "stimulating" qualities of tea and the camera lingers for some leering butt shots.

More history on the band here.

Fanny: Butterboy (1974)

Here they are performing some earlier material. Note the condescending intro:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

More Connecting Tissue: Suburban Lawns Again

Surprisingly, to me anyways, my previous Suburban Lawns post has proven to be one of this blog's most popular ever. Still is. Maybe it shouldn't be too surprising when considering a Google search reveals a still thriving large-ish cult audience out there and even now the band has representations on MySpace, Facebook, Tumblr, Wikipedia and countless other blogs besides this one. Mind you, this is a band whose modest commercial peak was over 30 years ago and its only album has probably been out of print for nearly as long. (It's currently being traded for $35 to $100+.) So who is this cultish audience, second and third generation New Wavers? Well, thanks to their steadfast preservation in interwebs amber, their cult may yet go on for unhatched generations to come.

Previously, I went on about my infatuation with Su Tissue, the band's singer and figurehead. After rereading this more recent interview with guitarist Frankie Ennui  (nee Rick Whitney, a practicing lawyer for the last 20 years) I discovered that in my lack of due diligence I may've overstated her creative role. It appears the band's material was mostly written by the guys, lyrics included, though her vocal stylings––arguably the reason for the band's posterity in the first place, and in the case of Janitor, the janitor/genitals concept––were all her own. It was she who provided the band its highlight reel.

But, as often happens, it's the figurehead we remember most. They're the brand. And if it's a cute chick up front, all the more. (This was also the case with the band I was in, where the fetching non-writing singer was fetching most of the attention.)

In any event, theirs was a brief moment but one still very much worth savoring: Enjoy.

Suburban Lawns, Janitor and Green Eyes from Suburban Lawns (1981) 
Suburban Lawns, Flavor Crystals from Baby EP (1983)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

About Five Yards of the Eight Miles: The Byrds Live, 1970

Once in a dark long ago, it might've been The Merv Griffin Show I was watching but I distinctly remember a comedian doing a bit on the premise that all one needed to sell a magic act was a really good drummer. He then demonstrated by performing a completely inept magic routine accompanied by a drummer with monster chops (lots of cymbals). The bit was modestly amusing but for some reason I never forgot it.

In the video below The Byrds present "a little taste of Eight Miles" which here means 10 minutes of dicking around on the opening vamp, verses be damned. At this stage the band was sliding into a softer country sound so the arrangement seems a bit odd. (Country was a leave behind from the recently exited Gram Parsons.) The guitarists seem mostly indifferent and their parts sound phoned in. The trademark Rickenbaker 12-string lines are just about DOA. It's the drums and bass (mostly drums) that are left to tear the roof off the sucka. The cameramen and editors figured this out quickly as the rest of the band gets little notice including leader and last original Byrd standing Roger McGuinn. What we're left with is drummer Gene Parsons and bassist Skip Battin (formerly with Kim Fowley [!] among others) playing for their lunch money like it was The Last Supper.

The other guitarist in the video is Clarence White, a session guitarist and sideman with a deep résumé. The line-up in the video provided the band with its longest and most stable roster even as its fortunes were foundering. Distancing themselves from the psychedelia of their earlier albums and along with it the counterculture that was their audience––a point made worse by their choice to perform in apartheid South Africa at the time. Instead, they embraced country music which was about as far from counterculture as they could get. The result was their records weren't getting played and sales dropped precipitously. Their association with wildly successful Easy Rider may've helped save them from total oblivion.

"Time has nobody and nobody has Time," to paraphrase Captain Beefheart. Though time has been good to The Byrds' legacy and as it turned out the move into country proved visionary: The Byrds (with Graham Parsons) are credited with recording the first ever country-rock album, Sweethearts of the Rodeo. (The country move would also prove controversial: Reaction to their appearance at the Grand Ole Opery was received somewhere between the booing of Dylan going electric and the chair throwing of Stravinsky's debut of Rites of Spring.)

Anyway, back to my premise: Maybe it's true that the right stick man on drums can overcome even the most inept magic. The Byrds offer proof.

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Master Before the Wage Slaves: Joshua Bell in the D.C. Metro

Here, the world renowned Joshua Bell and probably not his 300 year old Stradivarius performing a concert for commuters in 2007. What happened during those 45 minutes has since become the viral stuff of urban legend: Great violinist plays for an audience too philistinized by the pressures of their soulless daily lives to take notice. Over a thousand pass him by, seven stop to listen, only one recognizes him.

There may be more to the story.

Bell played "masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls." There was no catchy pop or even Boston Pops to prick up ears dulled by their daily drudge. Then there's the choice of the harried morning hour versus the more relaxed evening one. This hidden camera event was designed by a Washington Post columnist as an experiment but it may not have been an experiment at all. It's been argued that control factors were tilted for maximum effect: What happened was exactly what they wanted to happen. Cynics might say that the real purpose wasn't to enlighten us to the tender beauties surrounding us but most likely it was a PR stunt.

If so, it worked beautifully. The video went wildly viral and its subject won the writer a Pulitzer Prize. (Must've been a lousy year for muckraking.) Here's the story as it appeared in the Post.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Music that Matters, pt 5

42. Naked City, Latin Quarter: Naked City figurehead and instigator John Zorn is another one of those mad geniuses who has far more respectability than listeners. His is music as conceptual art. Zorn describes the music of Naked City as akin to the experience of turning the dial on your radio (for those who remember what that might've sounded like). This song represents Naked City lite but it's good description of what they do: changing tempo, rhythm, mood, and volume abruptly and often jarringly, not unlike the WeeGee photos featured on the cover (see above). The band loves to go from melodic sweetness to violent anarchic noise on a dime. Naked City is a bipolar thought experiment that wants to expand the possibilities and boundaries of art and pretty much does.

43. Blonde Redhead, I Still Get Rocks Off: Critics have categorized their sound variously over the years but I find such labels mostly useless. Twin Italian-born, Montreal-raised males and a Japanese female living in New York is probably as good a description as anything else. Add heavy strains of Europeanness, a deep sack of smart influences too difficult to trace, cool embroidered guitars, astute drumming and the resulting sound is unlike whatever you're used to––which is a good thing. Plus, I think a girl singing about getting her "rocks off" is just a plain great idea––a whole onion's worth of subtext worth peeling there. I've loved this band since the beginning and they've never disappointed.

Here's the song with diced up random Tarantino images that're pointless but seem to work anyway.

44. Yoko Ono, Plastic Ono Band; Why?: I make my case here.

45. Television, Marquee Moon: A brief comment made earlier here but to add: I still regularly listen to this album from 1977 and submit that it's still as good as it ever was. This is the essence of a classic sound––musicianship from both heart and head, a sound too wiley to categorize, lyrics both smart and abstract that avoid the topical, guitarsguitarsguitars, and a rhythm section that kicks the ass of your rhythm section. No one ever got laid because they were in this band but, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, the glistening nodules and stiffening giblets will explode in your mind and not your pants and that's OK. They may just be the Stephen Hawking of Garage Rock.

46. David Bowie, Let's Spend the Night Together: I often argue that Bowie's career has produced more A-list albums than just about anybody. Someone then may counter with "What about Neil Young?" Of course, a reasonable argument could be made for Young but not on my compass. For me, Bowie's ingenious reworking of this warhorse goes interstellar when Mike Garson's piano comes in. Garson is one of those supremely chopped jazzers who often get creatively manacled with their own impressive technique. Jazz is full of guys like that (Stanley Clarke, Al Dimeola, etc). Somehow Bowie wisely foresaw the magnitude of possibility in their collaboration. Garson is amazing elsewhere on this album too (Aladdin Sane, Lady Grinning Soul) as his piano strikes ring with the caliber of an anti-aircraft gun. That he'd later go kind of obnoxious on David Live is OK because the sludgy viscosity of the chords here––which are as close to heavy metal as a piano gets––are worth whatever his other misdeeds. Also: THIS is what a cover song should sound like.

47. Ian Hunter, eponymous first album, the first three on side one: I was in middle school when this came into my life and those first three may've been my virginal teenage version of kundalini. They flew off the record like a flurry following an Ali Shuffle in good part because of the combustible petards of Mick Ronson's space-age Chuck Berryisms. As a singer I think Hunter is way underrated––his combination of unctuous ardor and male bravado with a thick slathering of humor are the true heart of rock and roll. (Elvis understood this once, briefly.) Arguably, for Hunter and Ronson both this was a career high point. (See a promo for Once Bitten Twice Shy from 1975 here; Who Do You Love and Lounge Lizard.)

48. Afghan WhigsFountain and Fairfax: I've often made the argument that anger and despair make for the best kind of art. This album could be that argument's quintessential case study. Greg Dulli wrote a great record about the many cuts one makes on the double blade of drunkeness and the bitter despair contained in this cocktail is masterful and as rancidly fresh as can be––when the bandages are pulled off they're going to be dirty. A great album but Fountain and Fairfax is its jagged peak. (A rousing version of the aforementioned and another song, Going to Town, here.)

49. Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, Indian Rope Man: Julie Driscoll was a swingin' London chick with a face like Twiggy and a voice like a soul sister virago. Her taste for ultra-mod hairdressers and trendy stylists didn't mean that she wasn't the real thing. England produced several of these white chick singers that never quite caught on in the U.S. and maybe it's because compared to the bad ass American soul singers of the time they were a little fey. Still, Julie deserved her place and her timely hybrid of psychedelic R and B has aged remarkably well. Brian Auger for his part was quite the Hammond chopper and together they cooked some spicy noodlings. Indian Rope Man was one:

50. The Byrds, So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star: Production may be the invisible hand that propels greatness into immortality. How many beloved Beatles songs are just so because of the acute production layers? (To wit, the Indian sounding gamaks of Baby You're a Rich Man––an explanation of some of the magic here.) So, when a folky (and later, country) outfit like The Byrds hang some trumpet and latin percussion onto a great riff and McGuinn's brilliant nude-descending-a-staircase style lead guitar, it raises an otherwise Top 40 ditty to the everlasting life of a classic.

51. Violent Femmes, Country Death Song: Murder ballads probably go back to the time of medieval troubadours: Tuneful tales designed to be compelling enough to loosen coins from reluctant pockets. Gordon Gano goes beyond troubadour here and sings this song as if he were making a confession. Maybe one of the greatest murder ballads ever. And according to this, he wrote it when he was in 10th grade! This song––and album––may have the dubious honor of inspiring many a lessor band, but here pushing a child down a well has never been so chill-worthy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013: The Year We Made It Possible

People who know me––or any reader of this blog––knows that I'm not one for puffy platitudes or buffed-up optimisms. That doesn't mean I don't believe there aren't rosebuds to be gathered, coffee to be huffed, and days to be seized––and today would be a good one. The first step in a blister-inducingly long journey ahead that, whether we end up where we'd planned, is worth going on because it's the going that transforms us. Another weekend medicating in front of the TV with the complete seasons of some industrial entertainment ain't the way there: Bet on that. But, to go somewhere we've never been, to expose some new part of ourselves in a new project, to endeavor to better understand the people around us, as well as the plentitude of new music and books to devour, that may very well be. It's worth the experiment. 

The world gets better one individual at a time: That could be us. Believe this: It won't come delivered by a man wearing a suit. Do something new and love it. Let's make 2013 the year when we didn't wait.  

Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.  Picasso