Monday, October 31, 2011

Songs for the Walking Dead

Last day of Rocktober. Day of loosing evil spirits. Zombies and vampires lurk.
Seems like a perfect day to celebrate the third-most important purpose of modern music: lamenting the Break-Up.

One of the best break-up quotes I’ve ever heard:
“Divorce is like a death in the family where the corpse continues to walk the earth.”

I first heard these sentiments from our former pastor, a man who served as one of many valued mentors in my life, although he was just passing along the quote. An intensely private man, Larry kept most of his personal life to himself, which weirded out most of the AARPies in our congregation, because our church has always been accustomed to extroverted and deceptively open leaders.

This much about him was public: he was divorced and remarried. He had two daughters from his first marriage. The divorce was the beginning of the end of his run at his previous church, and he disappeared from the pulpit for more than half a decade, during which time he remarried.

We were talking about marriage and love and heartbreak and all that jazz when he offered this Divorce = Zombies quote.

For reasons I can’t explain, he shared many additional details about his divorce with me, often while watching football and drinking beer. Maybe he was using this information in a pastoral role as a cautionary tale or a warning of what not to do. Maybe he knew I was more than bitter enough about church to handle anything he shared without my opinion of him or Jesus being at risk. Maybe it’s got to be hell on a pastor, everyone expecting you to be perfect or mostly perfect all the time, especially when you get thrice-punished for a divorce over which you had little control.

Whatever the case, the experience clearly tore a hole in his soul. It didn’t completely crush his spirit, but it broke just about everything else in him. His entire being must have felt like someone who has been in such a devastating wreck that his entire body was in a cast, with several limbs dangling suspended in the hospital bed. He speculated that, were it not for his devotion to and love for his daughters, he might have never healed.

Divorce is the break-up to which all other break-ups aspire. Cute Puppy Love Break-up Demons lick the scraps from the dining room floor of Divorce, their little puppy love tails tucked fearfully under their butts as they whimper under the table, their ribs pushing through their flesh while Divorce sits fat and slobbering and engorged on an overabundance of food.

When it comes to the battlefield of love, I’m like Morgan Freeman in Glory, the dude who walks out into the aftermath and piles up the bodies, except with nary a tenth of his wisdom. I’ve watched lots of good men and women fall on that field, but I’ve barely earned minor battle scars. Yet there's this twisted dark part of me that, in moments of insanity or weakness, wonders what I've missed out on. How screwed up is that??

I’d love to make some argument that we’re so spoiled in contemporary America that we even glamorize the value of break-ups, that the reason the marriage rate has gone down is because it’s more culturally celebrated to break up than it is to stay together, because staying together inevitably means that you choose to put up with entire truckloads of shit and flawed behavior from your significant other.

And I totally want to believe it, too, because it sounds so damn convincing.

Except there’s this whole Romeo & Juliet thing, which is a few decades old, serving as a reminder that we’ve romanticized break-ups since the dawn of the second female.

We may have always and forever romanticized break-ups, but not divorce. I don’t know many normal people who romanticize divorce. Plenty of people pull that D trigger too soon or too often, but they’re usually the ones who pulled the wrong M trigger when they walked down the aisle in the first place. Wrong marriages end in sad divorces. Right marriages end in sadder ones. But all divorces leave corpses walking the earth, some hungrier and more present and dangerous than others.

So, in honor of respecting demons on this Halloween, I pay tribute to the world’s only real zombie-maker: Divorce.

Below are a smidgen of recent favorite break-up songs. Trying to pick a Top 10 would be like trying to pick the 10 hottest women on the planet. It’s foolish to even try, and I’d wake up tomorrow with a totally different opinion anyway.

A Sampler for the Walking Dead:

Friday, October 28, 2011


"The past keeps knock-knock-knockin' on my door,
And I don't want to hear it anymore."

--Lou Reed

At this time of year, one of my favorite things to do is to "troll" on to see what cool Halloween songs are out there. I don't know if I'm too early, or if people aren't feeling it this year, or what, but I haven't been having a whole lot of success with that. Instead, I've been involved in a far more laborious process of trying to find the random song here or there that might have some tenuous connection to our most battered holiday.

But labor when searching for music usually equals fun, so I'm not complaining. Trying to build songs around a common theme is yet another way of discovering new music, and if you only have one way of locating new stuff in 2011, you're definitely missing out.

People try to mess with Halloween more than any other holiday, I guess because its roots are essentially not of the world of light. All of that darkness--plus the ghouls, goblins, vampires, demons, werebeasts, black cats, pumpkin people, and men and women dressed as provocative version of same in bars and at costume parties--scares those who are convinced that the world should be a safe place.

Halloween has become a night of unjustified terror for parents. The "trunk or treat" phenomena is the best current example of the fear paranoia that surrounds this holiday. Just tonight, the waitress at our local sports bar, a pretty sleazy place in a lot of ways, was extolling the virtues of "trunk or treat," calling it "a safe alternative, especially for young children." But that would imply that regular trick or treating is somehow unsafe, that urban legends about razor blades in apples and other things are somehow true. They aren't. Shit, the terrors in our neighborhood are the freaky Christian woman who makes children recite a Bible verse in order to get candy and the dentist's house that gives out toothbrushes.

So, if it seems like the wind is out of the Halloween sails this year, that's probably the reason why. Today's parents, the same ones who won't ever let their children's hands get dirty, have co-opted the simple joys of children walking house to house to collect unhealthy food from their neighbors. Heck, even back in the 60's, my parents made us bring the candy home so they could look at it and see what they wanted us to have or didn't. That's just parenting. But to take away the opportunity for children to enter the chaos, the harmless debauchery of Halloween, I don't think that's parenting at all. That's something else.

But, enough of that. I started off thinking about music. I think I found some pretty good stuff, songs that were sent to us, an old Lou Reed favorite, new things from other people's blogs. My thanks, as always, to those other blogs and the discoveries they provide us with whenever I have the time to look around.

Of course, along the way, I was bound to come across some songs that I liked that had nothing to do with Halloween at all, and those are represented here as well.

I hope there's a little something unplanned for your Halloween, a little something that causes a small fright or catches you off guard. And, just for the record, it's not my mix that I'm calling "Halloween-ish," it's the holiday itself, times being what they are.

I hope you enjoy this collection of songs that have everything and nothing to do with Halloween.

Harry Manx and Kevin Breit--"Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep" (mp3)

Laura Stevenson and The Cans--"Halloween, pt. 1 and 2" (mp3)

Monarchy (feat. Britt Love)--"You Don't Want To Dance With Me" (mp3)

Wolf Parade--"Ghost Pressure" (mp3)

Little Hurricane--"Give 'Em Hell" (mp3)

Guided By Voices--"The Unsinkable Fats Domino" (mp3)

Halloween, Alaska--"Empire Waist" (mp3)

Daisy McCrackin--"I Think I'm A Ghost" (mp3)

Nada Surf--"See These Bones" (mp3)

The Boxcar Lilies--"The Ghost Tree" (mp3)

Mighty Moon--"Vampire Plans" (mp3)

Lou Reed--"Halloween Parade" (mp3)

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Rusted Wheel - The Belle Brigade (mp3)
At Least I Have You - Mates of State (mp3)
Chances Are - Bob Seger & Martina McBride (mp3)

My single most favorite trend of the past 20 years in music is the surge in male-female musical groups.

Boy-girl duets is nothing new, mind you. Helloooo, Sonny & Cher? Donny & Marie? The history of pop music is replete with duets, from Kiki joining Elton to Rihanna guesting with Eminem or Coldplay.

But the fact is this: You put a male and a female in a song, singing into one another, singing around one another, singing on top of one another, and I’ll give your song five times the chance of success.

The song doesn’t have to be overtly sexual, because the allure of male-female singing goes far deeper than mere genitalia. It follows a rule similar to Jules' explanation of foot massages in "Pulp Fiction." A male-female duet hits me in the same core as bagpipes or African drums; something primal in me is instantly drawn to it.

Trying to name all the current bands on my radar which exploit this weakness is virtually impossible. The Weepies, The Civil Wars, The Rescues, Mates of State, The Belle Brigade, The New Pornographers, Buddy & Julie Miller. Those are all bands who earn chronic rotation in my musical life.

Others include The Ting Tings, Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, Swell Season, Acid House Kings, Sleeper Agent, Black-Eyed Peas, COYOL. These are all without even looking at my iTunes collection. There’s no telling how many I’m missing.

Glee, the entire show, the cultural phenomenon, rocketed into instant success the minute they turned "Don't Stop Believin'" into a male-female duet.

As much as I adore ‘80s music and its place in my heart and history, its male-female combos kinda sucked unless they were one-shot deals. Roxette? Animotion? The Human League? Ace of Base? Just about the only one that comes to mind that earned much respect was Timbuk 3, and that’s a stretch.

The ‘70s and ‘80s seemed better about single-gender combinations, groups where multiple dudes shared singing duties or sang on top of one another. Hall & Oates, Tears for Fears, Wham, Alabama, The Eagles, Flock of Seagulls... the Beatles, even. Almost the only obvious exception that stands out is Fleetwood Mac.

But you sit me down and ask me to start rattling off all the songs from my life I’ve loved that harnessed the power of a male-female duet, and I might never find time to eat a meal again. Here’s what I came up with just on the way home from dinner tonight:
  • “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” - Elton John & Kiki Dee
  • “After All” - Peter Cetera & Cher
  • “The Next Time I Fall” - Peter Cetera & Amy Grant
  • “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” - Tom Petty & Stevie Nicks
  • “Endless Love” - Lionel Richie & Diana Ross
  • “Islands in the Stream” - Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton
  • “Kid Fears” - Indigo Girls & Michael Stipe
  • “I Knew You Were Waiting” - Aretha Franklin & George Michael
  • “It’s Only Love” - Bryan Adams & Tina Turner
  • “Up Where We Belong” - Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes
  • “Chances Are” - Bob Seger & Martina McBride
  • “U Got the Look” - Prince & Sheena Easton
  • “Summer Nights” (and most of GREASE) - Olivia Newton John & John Travolta
  • “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” - Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes
  • “Don’t Know Much” - Linda Ronstadt & Aaron Neville
  • “Almost Paradise” - Mike Reno & Ann Wilson
These all popped up in 15 minutes or less of driving. I’ve thought of at least several dozen more since then, and I haven’t even Googled “greatest duets ever” or anything yet.

I only made this connection, about my deep instinctive love for male-female songs, because I wrote about both Tina Turner and Bryan Adams. The truth is that I love their duet, “It’s Only Love” as much as if not better than anything the two of them created individually. Which is absurd, by the way. It’s not that great. Which means this is more about my own Kryptonite, my own Achilles’ Heel. But I wouldn’t trade it.

Rap and Hip hop men have always sensed the value of a well-placed woman. We would never know Rob Base or DJ EZ Rock if they didn’t enlist the assistance of a woman to tell us exactly What Took Two. C&C Music Factory never sells 10,000 CDs without a woman belting out that chorus. This continues today with B.O.B.’s “Airplanes” and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” just as examples.

I love all these songs far more than they probably deserve.

I wonder how much longer this trend will last? Or if maybe it’s a longer-term shift in music? Would Oasis even form in 2011 if Noel & Liam didn’t have a cute siren of a sister? Could Hall & Oates have even been born in the 21st Century? Surely they would have had to at least give themselves a different name that dodged emphasizing them as a couple.

Is it coincidence that, as our country and culture gets increasingly comfortable with homosexuality, we increasingly insist that our music resemble Adam & Eve more than Adam & Steve?

What about you, dear readers? Do you have a favorite duet, or a favorite band where the singing duties are shared across gender lines? Give me some names to feed this hunger of mine.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bryan's Song

Back to You (live acoustic) - Bryan Adams (mp3)
Summer of '69 (live acoustic) - Bryan Adams (mp3)

Bryan Adams was that slut in your high school no one admitted to bedding.

Words I’ve never heard uttered:
“Bryan Adams is my favorite all-time musician ever ever ever.”

Not once. I checked, and there's no record of anyone ever making this claim. Not male, female, or even a transgendered person in transition.

Recently, I heard a talking head point out that Mitt Romney had only won one single solitary popular election in his entire political career. That one-time victory to lead Massachusetts was the only time he ever won an election.

Bryan Adams is the Mitt Romney of pop rock.

Billboard named him #38 on their “Hot 100 50th Anniversary Charts.” That’s, like, #38 over 50 years of pop and rock and stuff. And you just know there were staffers in that room who saw Bryan Adams landing at #38 and threatened to burn down the building. “Fuck this. This is a joke. Bryan Adams shouldn’t be #338, much less #38 on this stupid list,” they surely said. "Hell will freeze over before we sign off on this." And then, predictably, like the wuss music nerds they were, they threw a Nerf ball at the glass meeting windows with righteous vitriol and accepted that hell would just have to freeze over.

Meanwhile, no one in that room would actually defend him. Everyone would just sit quietly in their Billboard meeting room chairs, shrugging their shoulders and sharing those higher-than-thou looks of disgust. But, in their heads, quietly to themselves, they’d be humming the tune to “This Time" or "Summer of '69."

BA had 5 different albums go Platinum in the U.S. For roughly a decade, Canadians used BA songs instead of their national anthem when TV service was announcing the end of air time*.

If you know your cheesy pop music history, then you’ve already formed a theory on when the BA Train went off the rails, and it’s eight cute little words. You know it’s true. He did it for you. Somehow Morgan Freeman and Alan Rickman get away with participating in this farce, but BA gets forever damned to the fires of sellout hell.

Here’s the real problem with this theory: it assumes that at some point people loved them some Bryan Adams, and to the best of my memory and understanding, this simply isn’t true. He was never loved. People never sat around water coolers asking each other:
“Hey, you pick up that new Bryan Adams album yet?”
“Shit, he’s got a new one?? When’d it come out?”
“Tuesday. There was a hundred of us camped out down at Record Bar Monday night waitin’ for the doors to open. We was so damn pumped.”
“It’s good, huh?”
“Oh man, everything you loved about Cuts Like a Knife and Reckless gets ramped up on this one. It’s just awesome.”
No, that conversation never happened anywhere in the USA. We didn’t brag about it. We didn’t show him off. We carefully and sparsely placed him on mixtapes, more than prepared to act like it was a mock-ironic decision if someone dared question it.

In fairness, this is probably the fate he deserved: popularity sans conviction.

Hell, I was one of his fans, and it’s taken me almost 500 words to even admit it. I buried it down here in the hopes that only a few people will mock me for it later.

It’s not like he was Debbie frappin’ Gibson or Tiffany or some shit. Yet how many rock stars of any stripe would inspire, by the mere mention of his name, another rock star to consistently lose his shit? You woulda thought Ryan Adams was being mocked for being Andy Gibb. BA never aided the Nazis. He never remade “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as some horrifying ‘70s movie. He just sang poppy rock songs and sold out a few dozen times.

I like Bryan because he made it OK to shout out "Me and my baby in a 69!" at the top of your lungs, and adults didn't seem to mind. I like him because he seemed almost semi-normal in a business (especially in the '80s) when some kind of costumed get-up or big hair or wild makeup or funky fashion statements or massive and obvious drug addictions seemed mandatory to even get your foot in the door. I like him because he crafted a mean damn hook that sold 10 million albums no one will proudly claim.

Like. Not love. Because nobody wants to own up to that level of devotion when it comes to BA.

* -- Yes, kids, there was a time in our world when most television stations signed off the air for a majority of the early morning hours. And yes, I totally made up the part about Canadian TV sign-off song, but it wouldn't surprise me. Canada is funny like that.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I'm With Aimee

Aimee Mann--"4th Of July" (mp3)
Ted Leo--"Freeway (live Aimee Mann cover)" (mp3)

Everyone has their favorite female rocker. Mine is Aimee Mann. Has been for some time. Continues to be.

There's probably a productive sidebar discussion about why we would even need to distinguish the female of the rock species, but, let's face it, comparatively, there just aren't that many women who really rock. And even some of those are women who rock occasionally or who have some uptempo songs.

I mean, Patti Griffin's "Blue Skies" is one of my favorite rock songs, but Patti is a folksinger, not a rocker. Emmy Lou Harris, especially live with Buddy Miller, can really kick it up a notch, or can crack her voice superbly over Daniel Lanios-produced soundscapes, but she sings country, with country sensibilities. I loved Linda Ronstadt's "How Do I Make You" back in the early 80's when she tried to embrace the punk ethic, but that was a convention for one album. I liked Belly, but I've lost track. I loved the Pretenders for about 3 1/2 albums. I liked the Fiery Furnaces when I saw them live a couple of years ago. But the woman who fronts a rock band that is her band that plays her songs, how many of those are still out there?

More likely, Aimee Mann is the female rocker. Not that you're going to bang your head against a wall listening to her. Because, first and foremost, you can't help but actually listen to her and her wonderfully-crafted songs. And she's got a bit of vaudeville, a bit of folkster, a bit of pure songwriter in her. But, primarily, she is a rocker. Here's why she does it for me:

1. Aimee Mann has a highly-developed sense of irony. She will play with every expectation you have, even within the context of a single song. She is well-read, connected, fearless. Who else crafts a song that compares a relationship to the Frankenstein monster? Who else turns a holiday like "4th of July" into a lament and an indictment of a lover who has done her wrong? Who else compares herself to a superball? Who else captures the graphic novel Ghost World in a song? Who else starts a song "You got a lot of money/But you can't afford the Freeway"? and finds a way to justify the lyric with the song?

2. Aimee Mann sings "fuck" and its variations more beautifully than anyone else. She tosses off "fuck" like other songwriters use the word "love." But not gratuitiously; instead, she uses it to cement her jaundiced view of the world and of love. Who else starts off a CD with lines like these:
You fucked it up
You should have quit
'Till circumstances had changed a bit

You fucked it up
You jumped the gun
I swore you off, but you climbed back on

Her last song on the same CD uses the "F-word" in a completely different way, perhaps to even greater effect, as she both celebrates and admonishes the naive:

All you want to do is something good
So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood
'Cause don't you know that you're a fucking freak in this world
In which everybody's willing to choose swine over pearls

A listener gets the sense that Aimee Mann does not worry about rules and conventions, that she is one of those very few artists who isn't thinking about how the song will sound on the radio. She is thinking about how the song will sound. And what it will mean. And what are the perfect words to convey that.

3. Aimee loves electic guitar. Her CDs are full of great guitar solos and great guitar sounds. Perhaps there is no band, no bandleader, with the obvious exception of Steely Dan's front men or Jimmy Page, who knows how to use guitar in the context of a song as well. Mann's songs are rife with stunning electric guitar work, but always in the service of the song. The simple reality of rock is that, in 90% of the situations, an electric guitar is the best way to forward a song through a melodic break. Mann knows this. Her sidemen and guest artists add superb touches to her songs.

I first connected with Aimee Mann when her CD, I'm With Stupid, came out. Her near-perfect, hard-to-get-released sophomore solo CD has been one of the most played CDs that I have every owned. A richly-layered songset, it wows you with every song, the word play, the creative melodies, the way themes musical and lyrical return in songs and in between songs, and, most of all, her controlled, nasal singing that is the best vehicle for her beautiful bitterness.

And, though we haven't talked about it specifically, what about her as a songwriter? Over the last 20 years, I'd say she is easily one of the top 5 songwriters in the business. In the rock world, at least, she has not female equal, few male equals. Though it must have felt like a slap in the face to Fiona Apple (who was dating director Paul Anderson at the time), it's not difficult to figure out why Anderson decided to feature Mann's songs almost exclusively in his film, Magnolia. She straddles the fence between intimate, personal statements and universal themes.

If she ever put out a "greatest hits" complilation, not that she has the commercial acceptance to do so, her fans would probably clamor for a 4-CD set. A single set of 12-15 songs could in no way capture her range; it would be a mere cherry pick of her best stuff.

While I don't claim to love every single song that she has ever written, there is no doubt that all of them are extremely well-crafted, that she doesn't toss a few throwaway songs onto a CD. Nope, her stuff is top-notch top to bottom. All of it serves the vision. And the great songs number in the dozens.

One of the great pleasures of Rocktober for me, maybe not for you, is that it forces me to zero in on someone like Aimee Mann, to spend a night listening to her and writing about her, and to realize in that time a greatness that I had probably taken for granted in all those years of adding song after song after song of hers to my understanding of who she is. All artists have peaks. Aimee Mann's string of CDs from Whatever to I'm With Stupid to Batchelorette #2 (and the Magnolia soundtrack) to Lost In Space marks one of the great creative periods of American songwriting that spans the two centuries most of us know. Maybe Steve Earle during those years, maybe Ryan Adams. No one else. And her newer stuff, in some ways even more ambitious, continues to delight, as well.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dear Musicians, Agents, and Other Industry Types Who Claim To Read Our Blog:

We write pieces about whatever we feel like and we post mp3s in support of those pieces. In fact, 98% of the time, there is some connection, however tenuous, between what we have written and what music we have posted.

Right now, we are celebrating "Rocktober," keeping our focus on musical trends and acts, past and present. We understand that you are looking for exposure, for yourself, your band, your client. We are interested in people reading our blog. So, we have a common interest: your music. We would like to use it, if it is appropriate for us. But that is all.

Here's what we are not interested in:

1. Your latest video, wherever it may appear.
2. Your song, available for listening in a way that is not friendly to what I just said (Soundcloud without download and all of that) or difficult to get to. We post mp3s; if you send them to us, we assume that it is because you want us to post them.
3. Your tour dates.
4. Your contests. And please don't tell us how sexy we are in order to get us to listen to your stuff. We already know that.
5. Any other information about you are artist or you as someone who represents an artist. Ok, maybe a little bit of who you are.
6. Any spin, as in who you think you sound like or who your musical heroes are.

We have writing ideas, however feeble those might be sometimes, and we try to use songs that support, illuminate, even ironically undercut those ideas. Sometimes we (especially Billy) will post a whole bunch of the songs that you have sent us. We would not post your song if we did not like it. If we do not post your song, it does not mean that we do not like it. You may have caught us at a bad time. We are amateurs. We have jobs. However, please know that it is your song that we are interested in.

We are not interested in what you look like, though we wish you the best.

We are not interested in your promo package. We probably are not interested in where you are from. We are probably not interested in your tour, unless you are coming to our area (the Southeast) and you would like us to come see your show, preferably for free if you want us to write about it. We will make an effort to do that; Billy has done it. It was weird for him, because we are guys who like to write about everything. We tend to be more social critics than music critics.

Nevertheless, we do have strong opinions about music. We have listened to a lot of music and we continue to listen to music, so we take any "professional" critics with a grain or two of salt. Probably, we have over 70 years of listening seriously and fanatically to popular music. If you send us music (in the form of mp3s), we will do our best to judge it on its own merits. We do not have any particular bias against any particular kind of music.

Our Ipods and Iphones and our computers have a lot of memory and are loaded with many songs, the vast majority of which we have purchased. If we do work for your song, in the form of writing and/or posting, then we may keep a digital copy of your song for our own listening pleasure. That seems like a fair trade; we do not make any money maintaining this blog and it is exhausting to try to sort through all of the mail that we receive, much of it not relevant to what kind of presence we have developed over the last 3 1/2 years.

We do not like to be the victims of mass marketing or junk mail any more than you do.

If you truly are a "fan" of Bottom Of The Glass, as so many of your emails suggest, then you will send us an email with a brief introduction and an mp3 or two attached. You will have sent it because you have checked out our blog and gotten some sense of what kinds of music we like. Rocktober is an especially good time to do that.

That's it. We will do our best from here. Thank you and Happy Rocktober!


Bob and Billy

P.S. It took sifting through well over 100 emails to find this sweet little track:

Chris Cubeta and The Liars' Club--"All We Are" (mp3)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Scotland Uber Alles

Human Error - We Were Promised Jetpacks (mp3)
Conductor - We Were Promised Jetpacks (mp3)

God I wish I were in Scotland.

My father-in-law hops the pond and lives over there four months out of every year, and the jealousy practically seethes through my skin when he visits us. My Scottish blood wants to push out of my body and attack him like a Scottish badger.

If I were in Scotland, I could wear a kilt. I could slice the throat of any Englishman who mutters the words “Prima Nocta.” I could sit at some sophisticated pub drinking dark delicious slightly warmish beer across from Tilda Swinton and talk about how totally kickass she was. I'm sure she'd totally dig me.

But what I could really do while wearing a kilt and killing Englishmen and drinking and wooing kickass actresses? Tilda and I could be in any music club in the friggin’ country, and odds are there’d be some mega-awesome rock band playing. Scotland has arguably the best collection of rock bands ever to hail from a single teensy country.

Scotland has 5.2 million people. Which is to say, it’s the population of Atlanta... with lots and lots of rocks.

I have at one point or another owned records, cassettes, CDs or mp3 albums of the following Scottish artists: Frightened Rabbit. We Were Promised Jetpacks. Belle & Sebastian. Big Country. The Jesus & Mary Chain. Primal Scream. The Shamen. Simple Minds. Teenage Fanclub. Travis. Texas. Glasvegas. 1990s. Cocteau Twins. The Soup Dragons. The Twilight Sad. Snow Patrol.

To be fair, Scotland is also home to Franz Ferdinand, which goes down in my own history as the most overrated indie band in the last 30 years. But hell, no place with 5 million people can be perfect.

By comparison, Atlanta has given me The Marvelous 3, Indigo Girls, The Black Crowes and maybe Sugarland. I’ll even throw in Cee-lo Green just for the sake of amusement. I’ll be forever grateful for Amy and Emily, one of my all-time favorites no doubt, but the collective army of Scot-Rock tops ‘em and their Atlanta minions handily.

The Onion’s AV Club has a much more erudite breakdown of Scot-Rock, but I happen to think mine is more convincing. Because I make bad kilt jokes.

Anyway, the latest holy musical selection emerging from the crags is In the Pit of the Stomach, the sophomore release from We Were Promised Jetpacks. I’m pretty sure I remember one of our regular commentators -- was it BeckEye or Cinderkeys? -- proclaiming it the best band name of the 21st Century, and dammit it’s gotta be somewhere near the top. Their song “Quiet Little Voices,” off their first album, was easily one of my favorite songs from 2009.

This band is crunchy and sonically explosive and mumbly, and this album definitely kicks those qualities into a higher gear than their first go-round. I’d suspect this has to do with being able to afford better recording equipment or an adrenaline junkie for their producer, but I only know slightly more about music production than I do about Scotland.

I was never a big fan of the Shoegaze Movement in rock, but this band leapfrogs that with their noise. It’s noise with a hook. It’s noise with a hook that gives me this flutter of hope and happiness in my core, and I couldn’t tell you whether that’s the intent of their lyrical direction. Plenty of dark lyrics in these songs to be sure, but something there feels good, feels alive, feels vibrant. Shoegazing never made me very happy. It just pissed me off.

We Were Promised Jetpacks' first album was good. This one is better. If they can stick to alcohol and avoid too many other spoils of success -- other than kilts -- this band should be around and kicking Britpop’s ass for at least a few more albums.

Sylvia Plath

Ryan Adams--"Sylvia Plath (live)" (mp3)
Paul Westerberg--"Crackle and Drag (original take)" (mp3)

Kiss me and you will see how important I am.
--Sylvia Plath

The creative, wild, self-destructive, educated, dangerous, sexual, brilliant, despondent, vulnerable, unrestrained, unsaveable woman. The femme fatale. The woman with a thousand faces. The woman as muse.

That woman, or at least the archetype that she has become, is Sylvia Plath, confessional poet of the 50's and 60's, who died by suicide in 1963.

It might seem strange to be writing about Sylvia Plath during a month devoted to music, but then she is the inspiration for two of my favorite songs of this eleven-year-old century--Ryan Adams' "Sylvia Plath" and Paul Westerberg's "Crackle and Drag."

I am not surprised at all that Plath would become a muse for these two esteemed songwriters. What man doesn't think he could have done something for Sylvia or her equally well-groomed, urbane counterpart, Anne Sexton? I had been looking for a context in which to explore this fascination, which I share, for it is the subject of the songs that attracts me as much as the songs themselves.

The two songs could not be more different.

Ryan Adams' composition is elegaic, comic, and casual, an imagined life, not with Sylvia Plath, but with "a Sylvia Plath." He works the archtype, the woman who is unbound by Earth's rules, who indulges her every whim and fancy and who would take you (him) along for the ride. While he teases her behaviors and his own desires to share in them, his soft, sparse piano accompaniment mourns her absence, as if the worst loss one could possibly have is the one that he never had to begin with--she who would take you way beyond your established boundaries, but safely. His Plath is the passionate creature unconcerned for her own outcome, the woman he might have a fling with, knowing for any number of reasons that it could not possibly last, but knowing that he would indulge anyway:

And she and I would sleep on a boat
And swim in the sea without clothes
With rain falling fast on the sea
While she was swimming away, she'd be winking at me
Telling me it would all be okay
Out on the horizon and fading away
And I'd swim to the boat and I'd laugh
I gotta get me a Sylvia Plath

Westerberg's song is a frenetic rocker with urgent, rising guitar chords and verses that are nearly shouted, built around the details of Plath's squallid death, caring for her children in a cold, London flat before taking care of herself in a different way, using the gas in the oven:

She made a good go for a weeping willow
She closed the windows and made herself a pillow
And took a long deep breath
While her babies slept

Doomed, tragic, neglected by the end, this is the Sylvia Plath who was likely bi-polar, waking in the middle of the night to write stunning, manic poetry that has lasted longer than anything her brief, controlling husband has ever written. The constant repetition that she "made a good go for a weeping willow" suggests an empathy, an understanding on the part of the songwriter that she did the best she could with her mental state and circumstances.

See what I'm doing? I'm subtly making the case that Ted Hughes was never good enough for her, that he wronged her for leaving her with two small children. The woman who started their relationship by ripping the flesh of his cheek at a cocktail party in an act of wanton carnality could never, in our internal narratives, be served by one flawed mortal man. And so we despise him. I do. He is Yoko to her John Lennon, perhaps more talented, but completely unsympathetic and doomed himself to live decades beyond her legend.

Men want to rescue, and they want to rescue the Sylvia Plaths. They want to rescue the doomed, even rescue the unrescuable long after there is any chance of rescue. They want to dream of that rescue, that turning of a strong tide. The very idea enrages our women--those who are strong, stable, balanced, sacrificing in everyday ways without grand gestures, not projecting a victimhood of time, upbringing, or circumstance. But we cannot help it. We are men. We hear her siren song even across the decades. We send out our own songs in return.

Which song is better? There is no comparison, which is to say that the two songs tap into such different parts of the myth that, besides references to the same subject, they share little in common. Adams' makes me feel empty; Westerberg's taps into my own moments of desperation. Listen to both, and then go back to the source.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I Remember California - R.E.M. (mp3)
Anna Begins - Counting Crows (mp3)

Almost every female in the history of my life has a theme song, even if they don’t know it. They usually don’t. These aren't the carefully-chosen songs to match a person's entire significance, but rather the instantaneous gut reaction that glues people to a specific and indelible moment, usually early in my memories with them.

My mother’s song, for example, is “Delta Dawn,” the Tanya Tucker version. If there’s lyrical significance to this connection, it’s happenstance and not intentional. I just think back to my earliest memories, and this is the song I think of.

We were sitting in a neighbor's living room, and I heard my mom sing along with Tanya on the radio, and I just knew I had to learn this song. I was four. 

I’ve never told my mother this, because I’m not sure what she’d think about it. Considering that I’ve often been a very intentional person when it comes to songs and lyrics, I’d have a tough time convincing her there wasn’t some secret motive or message behind it.

That’s true of most of the songs connected to most of the girls and women I have known. They would almost certainly read more into the connection than was intended.

With my first girlfriend of sorts, Amy, it was Rick Springfield’s “Affair of the Heart.” We had no affair, and we had young clueless hearts, but she gave me Living In Oz as an unexpected birthday present, and I never forgot it. I can even tell you the exact spot on the playground where I sat on a bench and unwrapped it, and the look on her face, of fear and trying not to care too much followed by that ecstasy of mere relief when I looked genuinely pleased.

Or take Daisy, the regular BOTG commentator I’ve known since high school.

Her song? “I Remember California” by R.E.M. I connect this specific album quite directly with Daisy, because I remember being with her at the record store -- was it Camelot Records? -- in the mall when I bought it. And I remember listening to it sitting on the floor in her bedroom.

I remember Daisy liking this song a lot, and I remember having no clue why. The song never did a damn thing for me. Which is precisely why I connect it with her. And the connection doesn’t go a centimeter deeper than that.

The way I remember it -- and I’m absolutely positive she’ll correct me if I get it wrong -- listening to this album was one of the first instances when I remember being in her room, and I remember being all excited and nervous that I had a female friend (whom, yeah, fine, I found attractive) who was willing to let me into her private life, her personal space.

People will do lots of wild and extreme things to be near people they’re attracted to, so listening to “I Remember California” a few dozen more times than I was inclined seemed a laughable toll for the opportunity.

The song I most immediately connect with my wife is “Anna Begins” by the Counting Crows.

“August & Everything After” was the first album we landed on when we started dating, a common ground between her background of Billy Joel and Elton John, and mine of... well, the rest.

In this rare case, the song was lyrically relevant and awkward and beautiful, and the words filled up the corners of my mind like a slow flood with each passing week. Indeed, when I met my wife, I had grown quite comfortable with the notion of being single and completely expected to remain that way until sometime far, far down the road. I’d tried the college relationship thing several times, had failed miserably for all of the trite reasons, and had accepted my fate with fading pity and increasing glee. While my friends were all smothering -- often uncomfortably -- under the weight of strange relationships, I was a non-slutty free agent, enjoying the occasional date, answerable to no one, and riding the wave of semi-popularity from my weekly newspaper column.

J insists on the whole love at first sight story. She knew I was the one the minute she met me. Yada yada.

I’m not saying the whole series of events wasn’t a weird thing. I’m not saying there wasn’t something extraordinary or at least suspicious and serendipitous about those initial encounters, how things worked out despite the obstacles that got in our way. And this song was part of that. Counting Crows had hit a different level of popularity by Spring Break, and we were on our third or fourth date shortly after that, and this became the cassette that played whenever we were in the car together.

And Adam Duritz kept insisting, through this song, that I was really going to regret it if I didn’t let this girl in. Other than Adam, I’ve only known one other white guy who could pull off dreadlocks. His name was Bozart. Bozart got pulled over driving our rented Winnebago in Key West because we were all passed out drunk. Bozart had a 15-minute conversation with the two police officers about how irresponsible and childish we were. It wasn’t the cops who kept the conversation going; Bozart just had to know how long he could pontificate with them without them ever getting suspicious about his state of mind. With dreads.

My point being, I respect the otherworldly wisdom of white men in dreads. I probably owe Adam a thank you card for my wife and my children. Maybe this post will suffice.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

80's Music: An Alternate History

The Db's--"Love Is For Lovers" (mp3)

The key to U2's entire success as an international mega-band was the video, I think it's "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," where Bono is heaving from exertion, steam billowing from his mouth and nostrils, while he holds a flag at an outdoor concert. That's where he established himself as the young, virile, passionate, sexual leader of a fairly mundane band. It was the image, not the music. I'm not even a U2 fan, and that's still the first image I see when I think of them. And that, in a nutshell, was the 80's.

Mother of Jesus, the 80's sucked musically! I look back on those years with near loathing the farther I get from them. At the time, I suppose I got sucked into it, wowed like everyone else by MTV and music videos that sold the songs with something other than their aural qualities. But now, I see the 80's for what they were.

Trapped between two angels--the "Good Angel" of Punk and the Bad Angel of Disco, the decade ushered in what was probably the worst decade of musical crap since the 1950's. You know I'm right. I know that many of you hear the popular songs of those ten years and revel in the nostalgia of your childhoods because those were your songs. I acknowledge that; unfortunately, I am also old enough to have a more jaundiced perspective. The 80's were, for the most part, just plain shit.

Punk knocked established rock and roll off its game. And probably with good reason. By the time punk made its presence known in the late 70's, Zeppelin was done, the Who were done, the Stones were done. By the time the punk sensibility spread in the early 80's, the "serious" singer/songwriters like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, etc. couldn't figure out what they were supposed to say. Jackson was singing about "Lawyers In Love" and Neil was supporting Ronald Reagan. By then, the "progressive" bands had deteriorated into bloated silliness and spent the rest of the decade trying to adapt to the demand for shorter, poppier, upbeat songs with embarassing results. Genesis, replacing Peter Gabriel with Phil Collins, was the most successful, but Gabriel figured out commercial success, too.

Disco initiated a corruption that has plagued popular music for decades. The return of the notion that popular music was mainly for dancing led to a total sacrifice of the song in favor of the beat (a trend which has been revived this century) and the promulgation of dance music from the exclusive clubs of the late 70's to the masses merely spread the disease.

Established bands were left trying to navigate between the Scylla of punk and the Charybdis of disco. A few, like Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads and the Pretenders and even the Cars were still new enough and artistic enough that they could chart those waters, make their own ways to safety and success without losing too much integrity. But they were the exception, and by the end of the decade, even they were pretty much finished.

Yeah, the 80's were terrible, or at least the music that people listened to was terrible.

Luckily, two people rescued the 80's for me--Nikki Hasden and my friend Bush. Nikki was an un-hip looking Mom who had scored the music review gig at the Chattanooga Times where her husband worked as, I think, managing editor. Miraculously, in a small Southern city with no music scene, she blessed us with nearly impeccable taste and a great ear for what was going on that wasn't on the TV or the radio. It didn't take more than two or three of her "finds" before I began to trust her implicitly. She introduced me to the Db's, Chris Stamey, Dave Alvin and Steve Earle, among many others. She led friends of mine to equally engaging finds like Morphine and the Waterboys. Although she didn't like Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, she put them on the radar and we found our way to them anyway. I have stuck with Lloyd Cole ever since.

My friend Bush, who was in college during the heart of the 80's, tutored me differently. He turned me on to R.E.M. (after a lot of convincing) and just kept going from there to bands like Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., Jason and the Scorchers, Other Bright Colors, The Donor Party, Guadalcanal Diary, and all things Mitch Easter. His mantra was fairly simple: he wanted it to rock. Whenever I get distracted, even now, he sends me the reminder, in one way or another, that it needs to rock.

It is through the dual lenses of Mrs. Hasden and Bush that I usually view the 80's, and because of that, I view that decade far more positively that it has any right to deserve. At some point, you reach an age, especially with music, no doubt with many other things, where you get stuck in ruts or where you have to rely on least common denominators like MTV to point you toward what you don't know much about. I have been in that position many times since I started buying popular music in 1965. Thank God I had these two people to give me some guidance, and even more, some hope about the future of music.

I look back at those days even now, and I realize that those were watershed moments for me, that even as people my age and older have given up on popular music, content to listen to what they are already familiar with, I keep venturing forward to discovery, mostly because there were those two people who said, in effect, 'Don't give up. There's better stuff out there.'

There always is. Count on it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Gift

Had a strange encounter before class the other day:

ME (seeing a student with headphones and an Ipod): Hey, what are you listening to?
STUDENT: I'm not listening.
ME: Oh, I know. I'm not accusing you. What were you listening to?
STUDENT: I haven't been listening.
ME: Yeah, I get that. What do you like to listen to?
STUDENT shrugs.
ME: Tell me one band that is on your Ipod.
STUDENT shrugs.
ME: Okay, just one song. Just tell me one song on there.
STUDENT: Why are you asking me? It's kind of creepy.
ME: I love music. I like to know what people are listening to. I like ideas. You won't even tell me one song?
STUDENT: A bunch of country stuff.

And on it went. And it reminded me that listening to music has become an incredibly private activity for many people, and that the more that increases, the less we will want to explain, or justify, or get feedback for our listening choices. Or, apparently, even let anyone else know what they are.

One of the unfortunate side effects of the increasingly portable, increasingly personal use of music is the near inability to give music as a gift. Not unlike the Kindle problem, where once you've finished reading a great book and you want to share it with someone that you know will like it, the collection of songs that a person amasses on Ipod, laptop, smart phone, Cloud or, more likely, all of the above does not travel easily to other people.

I've begun swapping Kindles within my family, but still haven't been able to get my head around even handing my Kindle off to a friend down the street. Maybe someday.

Maybe this increased solitariness was intended. I know that sometimes all of us who are using eMusic are buying the same eMusic, which seems redundant. I can't imagine that merchandisers are displeased with that.

But there has always been something communal about music as well--the stack of 45's on a phonograph, the mixtape of legend, the 'I burned you a mix' of just a few years ago. Heck, go back even farther to the simple 'Hey, you've got to hear this song.' Music was community, as played, as performed, as listened to. Gesture aside, that doesn't really work with one earbud in your ear and one earbud in your friend's ear.

And now, even the idea of burning a CD for another person is almost redundant, is slow and inefficient, seems like it's almost too much trouble. To hand someone a CD is to hand them a piece of technology that is very, very close to being outmoded. They will have to load it into a computer that many computers no longer have. They will have to download it, quite possibly have to enter the name of each track, artist, album manually, then upload it to the host computer and then connect their Ipod or phone and upload it again.

Just a couple of years ago, that seemed worth the trouble. Now, well, I have to admit that when people give me CDs they've burned, those CDs pile up until I can get a block of time and load them in all at once. Which is not to say that I am ungrateful; on the contrary, I am sad that the gift is gone.

We don't even buy other people music anymore. We buy them credits so that they can buy music. If that.

So, yes, I am sad that the gift of music is, if not gone, being pushed aside as inconvenient. Over the years, there is no telling how many bands I "discovered" because someone else--friend or music magazine or discount bin at McKay's--presented me with a mix, a playlist, a sampler. Now, I'm searching on my own, most of the time, and, frankly, the search isn't as fun as it used to be.

Here is a sampler of songs that have come my way in the last several months courtesy of friends still handing out the gift of music:

1. Eliza Gilykson--"Welcome Back" (mp3)

2. Ryan Adams--"Come Home" (mp3)

3. Bearfoot--"Tell Me A Story" (mp3)

4. Richard Shindell--"Reunion Hill (live)" (mp3)

5. Toad The Wet Sprocket--"All I Want (live) (mp3)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Triumph of... What, Exactly? Lamination?

Hold On - Triumph (mp3)
Magic Power - Triumph (mp3)

Our Saturdays had a beautiful predictability about them. That’s one benefit of being a nerd with strong, unbreakable nerd friendships. You know not much is going to happen on Saturday, and you still look forward to it with giddy anticipation.

I would wake up around 8:30 and do chores for a couple of hours, raking leaves or mowing the lawn or some other mildly uninteresting outdoor task for which my father paid far too nicely, even if at the time I thought it was cruel for me to work while my wealthier friends got allowances just for maintaining a regular heartbeat.

By noon, I would be done, and soon thereafter a predesignated mom would take myself, Andy and Scott to Comics & Curios, the penultimate comic book store anywhere near Chattanooga. We would obliterate every penny of our allowance on comics -- saving up for a date was, well, pointless -- and head home with our newly-acquired stack.

We were usually back by 2 p.m., and we would rush with our booty to one of our bedrooms -- usually the bedroom of the boy whose mom drove that week -- where we would begin our beloved ritual. One of us would take the bed, one would take a bean bag, and the other would spread out on the carpeted floor. No location was superior to another. We would agree upon the first album to be played, start it on Side A, Song 1, and begin delicately devouring the comics.

We ate comic books like we were the highest order of food critics, treating the pulp fiction funny books with worshipful reverence. Once we had tasted every word balloon on every page, we would digest the meal by delicately placing these treasures into a comic bag, adding two strips of Scotch tape, and place it aside for the next course.

The ritual usually required that a second album be played, but rarely did we need more than a single extra side.

By 3:30, we would be on our bikes or adventuring in Andy’s pool until dinnertime, when we would disperse with our separate families. We would then return -- usually to Andy’s basement -- where we would invest our evening hours on role playing games while MTV pulsated in the background.

This ritual got lost some of its power once Andy moved away for college. And then adolescence and my desperate need for belonging caught up with me, sending my knife firmly into the back of Saturday comic book reading.

Last week, while eating fried chicken and drinking cheap beer with Bob, I thought about Triumph, and Triumph reminded me of those Saturday afternoons.

There really was a band named Triumph. They really existed.

If you are a male between the ages of 35-45, there is a 14% chance the name Triumph is sitting there in a very dark corner of your mind’s attic, covered in dust and cobwebs, buried under piles of Super 8 film and flimsy unprotected comic books that would have been worth sooooo much money if only you’d taken better care of them.

Triumph was a Rush derivative.

No, seriously. These three Canadian dudes were a laminated, mimeographed version of the greatest band the Great White North ever gifted to the universe. Triumph sounded like a lighter, wimpier, poppier version of Rush. Like, intentionally.

Like, these guys got together and said, “You know, those Rush guys have something amazing going on. We should sound exactly fucking like them. We’ll take over the world!!”

I can genuinely love Rush and still scratch my head that a band would want to base their look and sound on Rush.

How perfect that the two best songs from this talented, laminated trio were both songs about music itself? “Hold On” and “Magic Power,” borne a few years and a few albums apart, are close siblings in the rock pantheon, both basically about how music makes the world go ‘round. But really, if we’re being honest, both songs are just attempts to pop-ify “The Spirit of Radio,” Rush’s own mind-blowingly awesome song about the same thing.

Triumph’s saving grace is written in their song, however. Sentimentality trumps the critical eye, and the handful of Triumph songs I loved for no good or explicable reason in my youth are now an embedded part of my life’s soundtrack. If I can’t get past my love of Power Pack or Alien Legion, then I sure as hell can’t get past Triumph.

Listen to your heart! Hoooowoooowooold on... to your dreams!!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Best Working Band in America is...

likely one that you've never heard of.

Richmond Fontaine--"Barely Losing" (mp3)
Richmond Fontaine--"Lonnie" (mp3)

I never heard of Richmond Fontaine, either, until I "crossed the pond" a few years ago. Not literally, sadly. But my wife did give me a subscription to Uncut that Christmas, the British magazine which is arguably the top music magazine out there these days, especially in terms of the range of music it exposes a reader to through articles, reviews, and a "complimentary" CD.

Sometime during that year, which must have been around 2005, their lead-off review in the new releases section was about Richmond Fontaine's Post To Wire. Which they handed 5 stars (out of five). And I was, like, what? Who are these guys? Five stars? But the review gushed so convincingly that I ordered the CD and played it repeatedly once it arrived. And I was hooked.

Actually, I had heard them on an Uncut compilation CD earlier, heard their song "Western Skyline," a rich, lengthy, harrowing song with one of the best uses of pedal steel that I've encountered. But I had no context for them then. And that is kind of the problem. It can be a little hard to get them without a context. I know I've put 2-3 songs on mixes for friends over the years, songs that I think are standout tracks, but that didn't seem to resonate; at least, no one ever mentioned them.

I could stop here and go do some research on Richmond Fontaine and pretend that I know something about them, but I think I'll just forge on ahead. They are from somewhere "out west," like Wyoming or one of the Dakotas (Ok, I peeked--they're from Portland, Oregon). Their lead singer/songwriter is one Willy Valutin, a lyrical talent in the vein of Raymond Carver or Tobias Woolf (and also an author in his own right), telling the tales of working or non-working people living out rural, perhaps transient, lives. They are those other people you see in casinos when you go with your dad or a bunch of pals. those other people who leave the receipt hanging in the ATM machine. They are those people you see hitchhiking on the interstates where no one is supposed to be hitchhiking. They are those people who live in the homes in small towns that you pass through by accident.

With none of the Romanticism of a Springsteen or a Petty, Valutin populates his songs with characters for whom the slightest shred of possibility is a source of light. One of my favorite songs, "Barely Losing," tells the story of a couple on vacation at a sleazy casino, taking pleasure in the fact that things haven't gone as badly as they might have. Another, "Polaroid," tells the story of a wedding meeting barely minimum standards of happiness:

Everyone inside was half ruined and almost gone
Outside in the frozen parking lot
He held her in his arms
As he led her inside her glasses fogged from the cold and
They both stood there dressed in their best clothes
"Has anyone here seen my dad" the girl called
"Cause he hasn't been to work and I don't know
Where he lives anymore"

Not everyone lives their life alone
Not everyone gives up
Or is beaten or robbed or always stoned
Not everyone

The bartender bought them rounds
And made a toast and
With a Polaroid he took their picture and hung it
Up on the bar mirror all alone
And for a little while it was like
The whole world was alright like
No one was beaten or forsaken or had given up
When they'd just seen light

Valutin's songs are powerful, visceral statements of desperation the likes of which no one else is written. Not all of them are easy to listen to. To enter a Richmond Fontaine CD is to enter a fully-realized world of songs and narratives that, even if the characters don't overlap, connect in tone and purpose.

Musically, Richmond Fontaine is not overwhelmingly talented. They have grand musical ideas, but when you hear them play live, you realize that they can't always pull those off. They've got all of the parts worked out but they don't fit together perfectly. It doesn't matter, of course. At least not to me. What they have instead is the authenticity earned from all of years playing in the dumps and the dives and the union halls. They're a home-cooked meal, not a chef's offering. And, frankly, some of their songs are more musical landscapes for Valutin's lyrics than actual songs. But even those are so powerful that a listener just gets caught up in the stories. A current live favorite of mine, from a recent CD We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River, is "Lonnie," a reflection on that friend that you've tried to help but realized that you can't do anything for:

I ain't going to worry about you anymore
You can keep living that hard if you want to, but the only point you got now is dying
I saw your aunt in the store
She couldn't keep from saying horrible things about you
But the thing is they're all true

I've seen you lying on your back
Ambulance sirens heard after that
I've seen that place you were living, but I won't tell anyone about it or the years of Western Union
If you come back I hope I remember you
But you know it's getting hard to
If you come back maybe they'll come back too

Richmond Fontaine cements a reality I have been slow to realize, that "alt-country" was not a phase in popular music like grunge or hair metal. It has always been part of the undercurrent, as performed by the likes of Hank Williams, Graham Parsons, the "Outlaws" (Willie, Waylon, etc.), Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Whiskeytown and numerous other practicioners. It reminds us that if you don't know the highways, you don't know America. Not that other part of it, anyway. It may be a part of America that you don't want to know about, but trust me, Richmond Fontaine will tell you about it anyway in the excrutiating, honest detail that sometimes allows popular music to transcend into art.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Cougar and the Horse

What's Love Got to Do With It - Tina Turner (mp3)
River Deep, Mountain High - Tina Turner (mp3)

Tina Turner used to scare the shit out of me.

Tina was my universe’s First Cougar*, the woman who stood there looking all older and shoving all that intense sexual experience in your face and daring you to not be impressed with her.

In 1984 I was 12. Ike started beating Tina before I was even an itch in my daddy’s pants, and she’d dumped him before I hit Kindergarten, so I knew nothing about her previous musical existence. When she released “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and walked down those city streets with enough teased hair to snare birds and small twin-engine airplanes, I knew nothing of her past. That video was my introduction to Tina. And she scared me.

Whereas older guys saw Tina struttin’ around The Big Apple as her way of reclaiming territory, of repossessing her rightful throne as the Queen of Rock, I just saw this scary big-haired black woman to whom I damn well better say “yes ma’am” when replying to her.

Most people focus on Tina’s legs -- because they are a damn fine pair of legs, especially at a time when most women were covering theirs up with leg warmers and spandex. But I never could see her legs for her hair, teased up and blonde and electrified.

To this day I can’t see what made “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” or its video popular. Nothing in the lyrics was terribly memorable. And the instrumentation, even by ‘80s standards, is hardly worth raising an eyebrow. It’s just this one long stretch of mellow rock that only once or twice gives you a chance to even appreciate her voice. And seriously, the video is pretty awful.

This won’t get me backstage passes with Tina, but I didn’t find her the least bit attractive. To be fair, the guys from The Fixx or Men At Work were nothing to look at either, but I don’t recall members of the opposite sex drooling all over them. Tina’s video did. Everywhere she walked, men worshipped her, and I simply didn’t get it.

This is the woman who sang “Proud Mary”? This is the woman who sang “River Deep, Mountain High”?? Hell, Tina and Bryan Adams covered the same general subject matter with their 1985 song “It’s Only Love,” a much more infectious song.

In hindsight, and with the benefit of a broader musical education, I get it. That song was her return, and it almost didn't matter what song she returned with, because everyone in music was cheering for her.

Fortunately, if I was initially turned off of Tina because of crap, she won me over with crap as well. Her role in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome as Aunty Entity was just perfectly awesome. That's the kind of character that fit my idea of her: vicious and nasty on the inside, but able to cover it with some smiles and sensuality, a kind of new age Cruella De Vil. The movie dragged on too long in parts, but her scenes, and the scenes in the Thunderdome, were awesome. And she almost looked good in that metallic dress with the low cleavage.

But nothing about Tina, and I mean nothing, could have rendered me as aghast as 1989 video for “Simply the Best.” The song, I like. But the video almost kills it. If Tina is indeed the Queen of Rock, then this video is her homage to Catherine the Great. It’s her visual love song to a horse.

I still can’t figure out exactly what the director is trying to do. Are the horse and Tina kindred spirits? Is he saying the horse’s legs are as sexy as hers? Is it an homage to Seabiscuit? Enquiring minds need to know!!

* -- With the possible exception of Rue McClanahan’s character Rose from “The Golden Girls.”

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Insta-Hit (or immediate thoughts on the current state of music)

The War On Drugs--"Come To The City" (mp3)
The War On Drugs--"Baby Missles" (mp3)

As a fan of both NFL Football and the Edwin Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero's song, "Home," I was nevertheless crushed when the two combined forces for an advertisement last year. At the time, I was just settling in with the song, enjoying its quirky goofiness as well as the kind of immediate emotional response it evoked with its straightforwardly-romantic lyric, "Home is wherever I'm with you." I have rarely played it since.

And that's my own quirk. When I hear a song too much, when I think I tapped into it before it became a hit, I usually turn away from it when it becomes popular. But here, we're talking about something different. The almost-immediate co-opting of music as soon as it is released, sometimes even before.

I heard Eminem's "Stan," long before I heard the Dido song "Thank You" that he sampled as the transition between his spoken verses. His story of an obsessed fan is evocative in its own right, but nothing compared to the power of the Dido song, and once I heard her fully, I always resented the way Eminem's hit used the power of her voice and emotional aloneness as a shortcut to create depth for his tale.

But she must have allowed it. Edwin Sharpe must have allowed it. The various artists who are getting their first public exposure through GAP commercials or Volkswagen ads or "hip" television shows that need background music for particular scenes must be allowing it. Or else their record companies are and there's nothing they can do to stop it.

Or else, they simply want the exposure, any way that they can get it. Because here's what is the simple reality of modern music: there is too much of it. I know that I can't possibly listen to everything that I want to, not between older artists that I keep up with and the new stuff that comes out in volumes. Heck, I can barely stand to look at our BOTG mail more than once a month or so, not because we aren't being sent quality stuff. We are. A lot of it. But when I open that email and see the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of artists trying to get a listen (some of whom you know, and know quite well), I am simply overwhelmed. I worked through pages of it back in June, writing letters to artists and their managers and their agents, promising to post this or alert people to that or download something later.

They were promises I couldn't keep. I followed through with exactly one of them--a fingerpicking guitarist from Europe--wrote a post on fingerpicking and posted three of his pieces. Don't think that I don't feel some guilt for the strangers I let down. I do. But it overtook me so completely that I couldn't handle the anxiety it was creating, so, like many of us, I have avoided it since.

So, yeah, I understand how cut-throat it is out there and how difficult. But giving away songs so that they can become insta-hits is not the way to go. Unless you and your band are looking for a quick cash-in because you don't think you've got whatever it takes.

What concertgoer wants to go hear Bob Seger sing "Like A Rock" when he or she has heard the chorus of the song 100 times as part of a truck commercial? What credibility can an artist have singing such a song, knowing that whatever he originally intended his song to mean, it now shares an additional, explicit meaning--a celebration of the performance and durability of a truck? How can we enjoy the neo-hippie vibe of Edwin Sharpe's "Home" when we hear it as the backdrop to fans cheering in gigantic football stadiums. Do we really crave the familiar so desperately that we're comfortable with such an easy alliance between art and advertising?

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe these are the End Times, at least the musical end times. Maybe nothing is intended to be around for long, let alone last for decades, be celebrated for its influence on what followed. Maybe the connection between Madison Avenue and music has been the norm since the Andrews Sisters were selling U.S. War Bonds and the corporate media was creating the Monkees as a safe alternative to 60's music spiralling out of control and I've just chosen not to see it as the norm.

The America I prefer is the one where Ronald Reagan completely misunderstands "Born In The U.S.A." and looks like an ass doing so. It is the America where the most sordid of Michael Jackson's many sordid acts was the purchasing of the Beatles' catalog and subsequent allowing songs like "Revolution" to be used in Nike commercials.

To the young bands wondering whether or not to compromise, I would suggest that in spite of so many changes in the promotion and marketing of popular music, it's still possible, and in fact necessary, for a band to earn its credibility on the road, playing great shows and catching the ear of listeners like me who came to hear the headliner and ended up liking one of the opening acts better. By all means, get your music out there by making full use of the Internet and its many avenues, but if someone tells you that your song would be perfect for a Bank of America spot, then run. Run fast. Run far.

One band that gives me great hope these days is The War On Drugs. Landing somewhere between U2, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, LCD Soundsytem, the hypnotic repetitiveness of a latter-day solo Springsteen show,an overly-assertive reverb engineer and all of the music currently out there, these guys or this guy (I really don't know) has the urgency, the inventiveness, the low-fi attractiveness that keeps me listening forward instead of just backwards. "Baby Missles" is the best song I've heard this year; it captures the sense of urgency I'm feeling--about everything. If you've heard The War On Drugs in a commercial somewhere, please don't let me know. I'd prefer to keep that small bit of bliss.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Come Back, Dire Straits

Dire Straits--"Down To The Waterline" (mp3)

Was there ever a safer, more pedestrian rock band than Dire Straits? Bunch of not great-looking guys who didn't break through until they were a bit older, who never had any particular intrigue associated with the band (except that Mark Knopfler's brother quit after their second record, but, heck, what brothers don't fight in rock bands?), whose sound was about as palatable as any two-guitars-bass-and-drums outfit that has ever come along, whose radio and MTV hits from "The Sultans Of Swing" to "Money For Nothing" were both wildly overplayed and always welcome when they came on. Band with a signature sound, based on Knopfler's unique guitar sound (though he and Richard Thompson got into a tiff, arguing over who came up with the sound first--my money is on Knopfler, who certainly uses it to greater effect) and gravelly but endearing vocals. Who blew in out of nowhere, like Van Halen and at about the same time, with a unique sound and a song, "The Sultans Of Swing," that became as ubiquitous as just about anything to every hit the radio, and with good reason, since it had a fresh, minor-key melody and that guitar that no one had ever heard before. Who barnstormed through the concert halls and stadiums of the world for many years as a premiere act who had fans shouting out the words and drinking the Dire Straits Kool-Aid, which went down easy. What wasn't to like? Who cranked out something like 6 albums over ten years or so and then hung it up, or, more likely, Knopfler hung it up. You had to think he was getting tired of it, since he a) branched off into the more bland Notting Hillbillies for a CD and b) brought the pedal steel player from that band into Dire Straits to serve as a foil for his own lead guitar, which he seemed to be getting tired of. The last CD, On Every Street, was kind of a tired effort all the way around from the way-too-long-without-enough-Knopfler-guitar opener to "The Bug," which was clever for a listening or two and then became kind of obvious. But for the title track, most of the songs sounded like weaker retreads of other Dire Straits songs. And then they were gone.

And yet, I'm not sure that there's a band that I miss more, a band that I regret not seeing more, a band whose comeback would rouse me from my smug I-don't-do-reunions stance more. The Dire Straits catalog contains some of my favorite songs, most of them "off-hits" in the sense that they might be concert favorites but they weren't necessarily radio hits--"Down To The Waterline," "Once Upon A Time In The West," "Lady Writer," "Communique," "Tunnel Of Love," "Telegraph Road," "It Never Rains," "Brothers In Arms," "On Every Street."

There is something so endearing about Dire Straits, particularly about Mark Knopfler as songwriter, singer, guitarist. I'm not sure that I can quantify it. Sure, he meets my criteria for a great guitarist--any time that I hear him play, I immediately know that it's him (listen to how Steely Dan uses Knopfler's sound to great effect on "Time Out Of Mind"). Sure, he plays in such a casual way that it always seems like he has another gear that he could shift into if it became necessary, but it never does because he favors melodic playing over speed.

I think, more than anything, it's his Romantic vision. That manifests itself first and foremost in his penchant for Scotch and Irish melodies, reflecting civilizations that have perservered, at least philosophically, against great oppression, meeting their fates with both resignation and a refusal to give up. And songs like "Brothers In Arms" or "Telegraph Road" or "Tunnel Of Love" reflect that perspective in situations involving war, love, even the formation of entire societies.

There is no doubt that Knopfler gained, as a songwriter, from his time spent with Dylan, working in on Dylan's "Christian" records. His outlook became more political, more interested in social commentary, and songs like "Industrial Disease" and "One World" and such really started to push him into new directions. That and the ways that his guitar provided atmospheres as much as it provided solos. His solo records seem safer than that. But you don't get Romanticism from Dylan; he's far too eccentric and self-entrenched for that. No, along with Springsteen, Petty, and perhaps a few others, Knopfler is one of the few Romantics in rock, a relatively-rare species that I happen to cherish.

And so, it's the possibility of that next gear that keeps calling to me. Not as a guitarist--I think Knopfler's range and limitations have both been explored thoroughly in his solo career. We know what he can do; we just don't know how he might use it differently. The whole Dire Straits concept has to have something to do with it, because none of Knopfler's expansive solo work has hooked me in the same way that Dire Straits songs have. Sometimes, I think, it's just a couple of specific guys you play with and the expectations that go with that particular band that push you more than you can ever push yourself when you have complete control.

Come back, Dire Straits. You are like comfort food, and I need some comforting.