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.

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