Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Rogaine Rock Z'Nuff

Do you remember Enuff Z’Nuff?

Nah, I didn’t think so.

Longtime reader “troutking” was kind enough to share a Rolling Stone article breaking down the “Best Hair Metal Albums” of a long-gone era, which is to say the hair and glam metal days of the mid- to late 1980s.

What happened? Has any section of music suffered more from hair loss than hair metal? Some “Incredible Shrinking Woman” toxic combination of Axl and Kurt, Grunge and reality, blew the hair metal train to hell and back.

Sure, the most notable songs of the era are still a part of our lives. In fact, hair metal and some of its poppier offshoots continue to populate a hefty portion of karaoke lists and New Orleans cover band setlists, mostly because these are the kinds of bars populated by idiots my age who forgot to grow up and sophisticate themselves (I include myself in this).

In short, we love reminiscing with the occasional hair metal hit, but nobody outside of biker bars or some Wooderson-type character from "Dazed and Confused" are scratching and clawing for it to make a comeback.

My recent understanding is that late ‘80s hair metal was run much the same way current country music is run, the way most of our collective pop music culture is run throughout history. The story of Alice Cooper's album "Trash," 17 years after he peaked with "School's Out" but remained beloved and busy, is the story of man who invented a hefty portion of what we connect with "heavy metal" looks and stage acts, hiring bigtime producer/songwriter Desmond Child to make Cooper relevant again. And it worked pretty darn well. Because that trick worked a lot back then and even today. Highly controlled by music producers and secret songwriters, far more about image and A&R than about the band or their aim.

Enuff Z’Nuff is the band who got swallowed by the machine in the last gasp days of the genre. They’re like that last brilliant smartphone before people started using chip implants in their skulls. (Except hair metal was never described by anyone ever as “brilliant.”)

In 1989, their eponymous debut album arrived with a surprising level of critical applause and a single that wanted desperately to be loved on MTV… but they never quite broke through, which appealed to my love of outsiders. I bought it in a discount bin in 1990, and then I bought their follow-up album, “Strength,” a year later.

What’s painfully obvious in hindsight is that Enuff is cut straight from the Beatles/Big Star/Cheap Trick mold. Mostly Cheap Trick. Except they signed at the worst time, and producers forced their power pop square into the round hole of hair metal.

I enjoyed “Strength” more because, while still polished and produced with thick layers of varnish, at least gets past an obsession with out-of-nowhere guitar solos and into the vibe of Cheap Trick v. 2.0.

Should you go hunting for “Strength” so you, too, can experience the brilliance that was Enuff Z’Nuff at their finest? Meh. Probably not. They were never a band that was gonna change your world. They were just really good with a hook and a riff. In 1989.

But Spotify doesn’t have it. Just a few songs pushed over to a Greatest Hits. Instead I’ve included a link to some of the songs from “Strength” currently available on YouTube, in my own order of quality from better to not so better (but still generally better than most of the crap coming from this genre in the late ‘80s):
The music isn't enough to grow your hair back. Once it's lost, no amount of Rogaine can bring back what was never meant to remain on your head.

Monday, October 12, 2015

ROCKTOBER: So Much for the Afterglow

I’ve been holding this in for a long time, but I’m not gonna be ashamed any longer. I’m tired of hiding this. It’s time to just stand up, semi-anonymously, and shout it via words in a blog:

I REALLY LOVE EVERCLEAR’S “SO MUCH FOR THE AFTERGLOW”!

When it comes to mainstream rock music from the late ‘90s, the general consensus can be narrowed down to two words: “Forgettable” and “Crap.”

Maybe that’s just my perception, but most rock music lovers see the progression of rock music after 1975 to be a downward-trending line, and the only difference of opinions involve how steep the drop is and how brief the bump from grunge -- the only upward trend anyone seems willing to concede -- lasted before things went completely off the cliff.

Of course I love late ‘90s rock. Not all of it, mind you, but plenty enough to have to own my love of it. Better Than Ezra, Dishwalla, Third Eye Blind, Counting Crows, Goo Goo Dolls, and of course, Foo Fighters. These bands, while no longer on heavy rotation in my listening life, are never far away, either. They drop by with a song on my iPod quite regularly, and rarely are those songs skipped.

It’s weird, because this is the music of my late 20s… which isn’t supposed to be all that meaningful. I mean, it’s not the music of my adolescence, when I was discovering my own taste. And it’s not the music of my college years, when every memory is pinned into place in my skull with a song or two. It’s the First Years of the Rest of My Life, where I’m grinding away at a job, discovering the mostly bliss and sometimes boredom of those newlywed years, wondering when hangovers started being less funny and more enduring.

Maybe it’s because I was always a slow learner. Not about books. I’ve always been decently booksmart. I mean about The Way Things Are. Street smarts. Life lessons. I was a bit delayed on getting the bigger picture about some things.

“So Much for the Afterglow” is an in-your-face celebration of how dysfunctional we all are, those of us stuck between the bottom rung and the top 5%, the people in that gray area between impoverished and luxuriant. They sing about the hypocrisies of suburbia, the endless ways parents manage to screw up their children, the ways childhood friendships never seem to make it to adult friendships without massive scars and metamorphoses.

My favorite songs from the album are also the ones that seem doomed to their own inevitable hypocrisy, songs about musicians selling out and letting others steer their fate. The whole album seems to be fretting over how we’re losing our souls… while the album, one could argue, sounds like they must’ve sold their souls to have it made in the first place.

I mean, “Sparkle and Fade,” their previous album and major label debut, still feels at least a little raw. The attitude and subject matter isn’t all that different -- Art Alexakis mines a small neighborhood of topical territory for most of Everclear’s still-going existence -- but several layers of varnish and production time went into “So Much for the Afterglow.” It’s cleaner.

And I like it. It’s sorta bitter and world-weary, but there’s this optimistic undercurrent to it all. The whole album says, “We’re all pretty f*#ked up, and our world and well-being are probably ultimately f*#ked. But we’re still breathing, and I’m not going to let anyone take what’s left for me to own. It’s mine. And maybe I’ll screw it up myself, but at least it’ll be my screw-up.”

Maybe the album remains beloved because that kinda sums up how I felt about being 25. Annoyed but optimistic. Far more attuned to all the hypocrisies around me than my own. And pissed off enough about people who suck enough to be angry, but not quite enough to be a Real Activist. Just enough to, like, crank the music louder, flip a few people off, and smile about it.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

ROCKTOBER: ELO vs. CSO

I have been too hard on Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra over the years.  The thickly-layered sound of many instruments, the underwhelming production of bass and drums, the harmonies that would be impossible for anyone but a record full of Queen-clones--all of these traits shielded the songs from me.  But while I might praise a Tom Waits for how his gruff voice and gymnasium percussion might mask a beautiful melody and pronounce that genius, I have not been forgiving of how, at the other end of the rock spectrum, lush production can make a song seem slick and slight.

I stand corrected.  I worked through a good bit of ELO's catalogue on Spotify recently, and what jumped out at me were the songs.  "Evil Woman," "Do Ya" ( which I eschewed in favor of the original version), and other songs impressed me with their craftsmanship.

Indeed, it was always only "Can't Get It Out Of My Head" that always got a pass from me.  For it was in that song that Lynne's vocal got passionate enough that he broke beyond the smooth production.  Limited vocal overlays, minimal overproduction, yes, that's what got me.  I couldn't find that honesty anywhere else in the canon.

But I forgot, I forget, that this is "prog Rock", or, better put, orchestral rock, and as such, that kind of raw rock influences are supposed to be minimized.

*****

This week, I attended a Chattanooga Symphony performance for the first time in probably 25 or more years.  We went for the expressed purpose of hearing Renee Fleming, "The People's Diva," and while her performances were spectacular, if all too brief, it is not her presence that left the dominant impression that evening.

It is more than once in these pages that I have stated in one form or another, "Live music is always worth making the effort to see."  How funny, in a way, that my vision forgot to include classical music.

While we might enjoy the light classical sounds piping overhead when we are shopping in The Fresh Market or in any other setting that wants to sound sophisticated, the reality is that classical music is never better than when experienced live.

Like most cities of any size these days, Chattanooga is blessed with a crackerjack symphony where the conductors are more than competent and the musicians are crisp and precise.  Certainly, that was on display the other night.  While I'm not excited to hear them perform Beatles' tunes or Big Band numbers, which they must do to appeal to the popular crowd, when our symphony goes straight classical, nailing instrumental pieces by Mozart or backing the last songs written by Strauss or the like, their live "vibe" is as soaring and spectacular as a rock show.  We just forget that, don't we?

*****

And so I celebrate ELO tonight.  I celebrate Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Procol Harum and all of the other bands that ventured into rock while pulling the classical touches (and sometimes entire orchestras) with them.  That move can seem pompous, pretentious, or pandering, but tonight it feels like they knew the power of the live symphony, the live soprano. The music that has survived for centuries.

Those of us who have celebrated rock's many influences for many decades have, most likely, left the classical influence out of that celebration.  ELO's biggest commercial moment was likely providing the theme song for years for ABC's Wide World Of Sports.  The other prog rockers get little love these days.  In fact, it was their influence, as much as anything, that led to the punk rebellion which changed rock forever (or at least from strings to synthesizers).

If you have the chance to hear a symphony live, take it.  What other group that large plays so cohesively, so beautifully, so precisely?  That's what ELO tried to superimpose on their sound with some, otherworldly success.  That's what your local symphony does as a matter of course.  And all music is worth hearing live, including classical.  Especially classical.  Rockingly classical.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

ROCKTOBER: Do-Re-WE

Very few songs are about us.

Take a listen. Spin the dial on the radio, or run a playlist on Spotify, or Shuffle your iTunes, and pay close attention to the personal pronoun. It’s always “I” and “me” and “you.” Once in a while it’s “they” and “them.” But rarely is it “we” and “us.”

When “we” or “us” means “you AND me” -- as in a couple united in a struggle against the world, or against one another -- that’s not the rare WE I have in mind, because tons of songs refer to a couple as a “we.” (Think: Pat Benatar’s “We Belong,” or Bowie’s “Heroes,” or Sugar’s damning “The Act We Act.”)

What is rare is the artist and the song willing to speak for a whole group of people.

A few years back, I read a compelling and quirky novel called “Then We Came to the End” by Joshua Ferris. The book’s audacious for its attempt to tell the story of a dysfunctional modern corporate office space through the plural personal pronoun protagonist of “we.” When something happens to a character, “we” saw it happen. “We” heard it. “We” thought it. On occasion, the device is revealed to be insufficient to the task, but it mostly holds up, and at times it creates a different kind of intimacy and involvement for the reader, as if the reader is one of the people who works in one of the regional offices, or perhaps four floors down.

“Make Them Gold,” a new song off the latest CHVRCHES album, brought this to mind. The song stood out for me because it addresses a “we”:
No one tells us what is hard and what is fair
And we will deliver once we know where to fall
We are made of our longest days
We are falling but not alone
We will take the best parts of ourselves
And make them gold
So I played a quick game. What songs, without cheating, without sifting through my iTunes collection, could I name in 5 minutes that are about a collective “we”?

Here’s all I could think of that qualified:
  • We Will Rock You - Queen (and “We Are the Champions,” natch)
  • We Do What We’re Told - Peter Gabriel
  • These Days - R.E.M.
  • It’s the End of the World - R.E.M.
  • We Are Young - fun.
  • We Didn’t Start the Fire - Billy Joel
  • How Far We’ve Come - Matchbox20
That Queen double feature is the ultimate us v. them anthem in Rock History. Peter Gabriel and BIlly Joel, R.E.M. (“It’s the End…”) and Matchbox20 are going for something more disturbing and cautionary, for a shared responsibility in how things have turned out. With “These Days” and fun., it’s a sort of anthem cry to the younger generation to step up and own the day or night. Time to be the adults in the room instead of waiting for the adults -- who generally suck, by the way -- to step up.

Here’s what I appreciate about the songs I just listed: they make me feel something entirely different than the standard lovelorn or smitten song, different than the song about the search for self or identity, about the individual’s need to find acceptance or escape. There’s just something different to a song that’s about US, a you and me and them us that means we share responsibility or shame, culpability or hope. Whatever it is, it’s US. WE own it. Some portion of ALL of us. Together.

Know what this list of songs needs to make it more about US and less about ME? Some additions! Leave some of your favorite “We” songs in the comments section so I can make a killer playlist of The Greatest WE Songs!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

ROCKTOBER: The Dancingest Man In Rock and Roll

You probably think it is Mick Jagger.  Or maybe Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis.  Maybe even Michael Jackson or Bo Diddley.  You would be wrong.

The Dancingest man in rock and roll is none other than.....................Neil Young!

That's right.  There is no person in the history of rock more obsessed with dancing than that flannel-wearing Canadian you have seen awkwardly stalking and stomping across the stage in time to his ragged music and scattershot solos.

So, maybe it isn't him dancing that this post is about.  Instead, it is his obsession with a girl or woman dancing that has pervaded his music, probably as the dominant motif in the canon of a man known more for  iconic protest songs, experimental sidetracks, grunge guitar, and idiosyncratic career moves.  But through it all, the songs have been about dancing.

Start with his earliest tunes, like the never-recorded-by-him "Dance, Dance, Dance", to know that his dance obsession has been going on for seven decades now.  By his second solo record, he was asserting that "When you dance/ I can really love."

Even the Spanish conqueror Cortez "came dancing across the water/ with his galleons and guns."  And in the classic guitar workout, "Like a Hurricane," he begins with "Once I thought I saw you in a crowded, hazy bar/ Dancing on the lights from star to star." In the allegorical "Mideast Vacation," he says, " I was Rambo in the disco/ I was shooting to the beat."

The title track of Harvest Moon is an autumn dance under the night sky.  His final song lament on Life is "We Never Danced."  On the recent Psychedelic Pill, both the title track and "She's Always Dancing" focus on the image of a girl dancing, the girl in the former song's moves being compared to a psychedelic pill.  "Wrecking Ball," off of Freedom, urges a woman to "wear something pretty and white/ And we'll go dancing tonight."  On the never-released-on-CD Time Fades Away, the disturbing closer, "The Last Dance," builds its metaphor around the notion of the drudgery of daily life being that sad culmination of who we are.

The other examples, which encompass Young's entire career, are too numerous to mention.  The dude likes women who are moving in time with the beat.  So, what's your theory?  A central motif of his life?  Lazy songwriting that falls back on the same stock ideas over and over again?

Here's my theory:  Neil Young has an expansive vision of freedom, and nothing strikes him as more freeing than the willingness to dance.  It is a chance to lose all inhibitions, to become one with music or rhythm or nature.  So the image of the girl dancing, the woman dancing, the goddess dancing is the ultimate attraction for Young, an image that always calls to him like a Siren from the distant shores of a romanticized vision.

I'm not much of a dancer myself.  Neither, I suspect, is Neil Young.  When he explodes on his guitar, with frenetic runs and random squawks, he isn't typically rhythmic.  He is above the rhythm.  It is there to allow him to go as far out as he wants and to try to come back.  But underneath, there's always an awkwardness to his playing, a blistering clunk.

And then there is that woman dancing.  "See the girl dance," he writes.  "I want to see you dance again," he writes.  "When you dance I can really love," he writes.  He almost seems to want to say, Tell me how'd you get so free?

And then there is Sun Green, the heroine of Young's Greendale CD novel.  Eventually, she breaks the bonds of society, but it won't let her go, especially the FBI:

"Now when she goes dancin'
She has to watch her back."

Until she finds Earth Brown, who dances with her in perfect unison and off they go on a cosmic quest to save the planet.  I don't quite pretend to understand all of it, but I'm pretty certain of this:  in Neil Young's universe, you connect to someone by dancing because it represents the potential freedom in both of you.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

ROCKTOBER: 28 Days Later: The Musical

How many listens does it take to know how much you love an album? How many listens does it take to know whether it's "good" or "great" or "decent"?

I think we can all agree that "terrible" is, generally speaking, quickly identified, but the degrees of greatness to which an album can ascend -- or fail to -- is rarely so simple.

One of the injustices of our world is that music critics are expected to, within a couple of listens, expected to pass a final say on the quality and value of an album.

In my own experience, I think it takes a full lunar cycle to know just how good an album is and just how much you really love it. If it takes 28 days for a zombie apocalypse to end the world as we know it, it should take about that long to know how deeply a CD of songs has attached itself to your limbic system. As the trailer says, it takes one day for exposure, three days for infection, and eight days for an epidemic. 

Most of us real music lovers, when we buy an album, listen to it on some level of heavy rotation for the first week or so, faithfully giving it our time if not our undivided attention. We want to like it, and we want to give it every chance to impress us.

Some albums, like Chvrches' new "Every Open Eye," immediately grabs our attention, tugs at the right heartstrings and the right sonic canals, and we know we like it. What we don't know is what we'll think of it in five years. Will we remember one song? Two? Will we recall half the CD and still be able to sing along with at least the chorus?

Others, like Kacey Musgraves' "Pageant Material," is an instant sugar rush of tightly-produced country. But 28 days later, you wonder if you'll ever go back to it. It was cotton candy. It was a funnel cake. It was the state fair you are glad only comes around once a year so you don't realize how underwhelming it actually is to ride that sketchy Tilt-A-Whirl or the Ferris Wheel that didn't go nearly as high as you remembered.

And then there's albums like the Brandon Flowers solo project, "That Desired Effect," which survived that first week thanks to the mostly positive critical reviews and my true appreciation for 3/4 of The Killers' song collection. But 28 days later, I knew there wasn't a dang song on that album I'd ever pull back up on my iPod, not a single ditty that would make its way into a mix CD or a playlist.

Most college football fans worth their salt hate the AP rankings for the first month or so. Most of us wish they'd hold off on ranking teams until at least now, because voters rely on name recognition and hype. There's nothing else to go on until the teams have been on the field and played some real competition. If those rankings started just now, most of the SEC wouldn't even be on the list.

Isn't most music the same way? Doesn't it deserve to get to play around in our heads for a few weeks before we start ranking it?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

ROCKTOBER: The Short Verse

If I pick on Tom Petty tonight, it is out of love, for I would just as soon listen to a Tom Petty song these days as pretty much anything else.  There's only one problem: Petty is much too dependent on the "short verse."

The term is mine.  I don't know if there is any official name for it.  But the short verse occurs when the first verse of a song is, say, 8 lines before it gets to the chorus, but then the second verse, and maybe even subsequent verses are only 4 lines long in order to get back to the chorus more quickly.


On his last CD, the very solid Hypnotic Eye, this trend is quite apparent.  On "American Dream, Plan B," for example, the first verse goes like this :


I’m gonna make my way through this world someday
I don’t care what nobody say
American dream, political scheme
I’m gonna find out for myself someday
But I’m half-lit, I can’t dance for shit
But I see what I want, I go after it
And my girl’s alright, treats me nice
Sayin’ nothin’ but a woman puts out that light

And that is the set-up to the song.  We meet the persona.  We learn his situation.  But when we get to the second verse, which is cut in half. 


Oh well, my baby no doubt dreams further out
Makin’ moves to get us someway someday
Well my honey don’t trip, shoots from the hip
Tell me everything gonna be 


The next verse is also shorter.  For me, it kills the organic nature of a song.  It makes the song feel like it is the very pop construction that it is.  Which isn't what I want to know.  I want to feel like I have immersed myself in the story of any song that I am listening to, and when my expectation of significant exposition is undercut, I am shocked out of the song.


Petty, of course, is not the only artist who does this.  It's pretty standard practice. But what it says to me is that the songwriter, or maybe even the arranger or producer, knows the song has a pretty catchy chorus and that rather than anything the song might actually have to say, it is more important to get back that chorus and to keep drilling it home into the listener's brain.

When, with apparently clueless lack of song awareness, head Herman Hermit Peter Noone announced in "Henry The Eighth," 'Second verse same as the first,' that was his admission that there was nothing  much to the song and even less than we had hoped for.  As if he said, we will just be filling minutes by repeating the same words all over again,

The short verse feels the same way to me.  It is kind of like a weak poem where, rather than enjoying the fact that there is an underlying structure to the poem, the structure itself becomes the issue, so much so that it overwhelms the words.  Cut the words short or don't even bother writing as many in order to get to that chorus.  That's the impact of the short verse.

Those of us who listen intently to songs that we really like don't want to have that experience cut short for whatever reason it is that drives the short verse--loss of inspiration, or simply the need to have a song fit the constraints of a certain length.  If a song has a story to tell, it should overflow word wise, if needed, or expand beyond four minutes, or at least not be slave to even a catchy chorus.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

ROCKTOBER: Ryan Does Taylor

photo courtesy of mashable.com
Ryan Adams' re-envisioning of Taylor Swift's 1989 CD that I have not heard is nothing short of staggering.  That's right.  I'm clarifying my stance up front: I have not heard Swift's versions of her songs.  Oh, I've heard "Shake It Off" (who hasn't?) either in passing or in quotation or in performance by my wife's grandniece, but not her songs in her settings.  But I have played the shit out of Ryan Adams' versions over the last 9 days.  My whole family has.

The short version of what I'm about to say: everybody wins here.  Swift wins because the Adams covers have me listening to, respecting, and, most of all, digging her music.  Adams wins because he has taken what are presumably overproduced pop songs and stripped them down to their bare essentials in ways that other ears (mine) can now hear them.  So, yeah, I win, too.

And Billy, my blogmate, wins because some months ago, he was trying to figure out what constitutes good songwriting, and he put up a Taylor Swift song, "Out Of The Woods" against a Ryan Adams song ("Am I Safe?" Was it?  I don't remember).  How prescient now that Adams has brought the two visions together.  And Billy is right, "Out Of The Woods" is a wonderful song, maybe the best on the CD.

I suppose that some of you think that I am writing with one hand tied behind my back, having not heard the Swift versions?  Do you need to hear Dylan's original "All Along The Watchtower" to know that Hendrix's is transcendent?  Must you know Oasis's take on "Wonderwall" to know that Ryan Adams' cover is a great song?  I don't think so.

All I need to know is that Ryan Adams has a new CD of songs by another artist and that songs 1-9 are wonderfully rendered versions of the songs, regardless of what the originals might sound like.  Which is an admission that after "Wildest Dreams," I'm mostly ready for the CD to start over again.  If Adams's version is in the same order as Swift's then she has front loaded her best songs, as Adams himself has been known to do.

Here's what I like.  I like the variety in the songs.  In tone, theme, and melody, it doesn't feel like the same song one after the other.  It doesn't feel like she has a few hit singles and doesn't care about the rest of the songs.  The songs are well-crafted.

And here's what I like.  Whatever the originals may have tried to accomplish, Ryan Adams knows how to sing them, how to arrange them, how to serve them.  There are no solos.  There are no extraneous instruments.  If the song needs a beat, he includes; if the song is more of an intimate confessional, he strips it down.  I did read one review which attempted to refute the notion that Adams had found the sadness in the songs.  The review argued that the sadness was always there.  That is likely true, but that doesn't mean that Adams hasn't played it up.  One need only listen to us version of "Shake It Off" to get a clear sense of the artist ignoring critics in order to pursue a vision.

At the same time, Swift's assertion in Vanity Fair that she does not see songwriting "as a weapon" is only confirmed when she has sch a sympathetic interpreter walking over the same words, perhaps even drawing on his own marital break-up for power, but not condemnation.

Back in the 60's and early 70's, if an artist put out a great song, other people would cover it almost immediately.  Each successive version might have its own run on the charts, it's own consideration from critics.  That trend has been lost until now.

Ultimately, I, not surprisingly, see this fascinating musical occurrence  as a tribute to Ryan Adams, who magnanimously acknowledges Taylor Swift's songwriting craft for those of us who never would have known.  She certainly doesn't need that for her commercial sales, but one has to think, based on her tweets while Adams worked on this, that she craves more than money and adulation.  The recognition of other acknowledged songwriters seems to matter to her.

Adams, on the other hand, stands to gain little, if anything, from this.  Derision from rabid Swift fans who, because of their cognitive dissonance can't acknowledge that some of his versions, I am certain, are superior.  Condescension from those who see this as some kind of toss-off on his part. it isnt like the music world will say that he has gained some credibility bycovering Taylor Swift.

And it isn't like he is lacking inspiration.  He could probably put out a new song every single day and most of them, would at least be pretty good.  But Ryan Adams has a complex muse that he follows, and wherever it takes him, he goes all in, and that is certainly evident on 1989.  he honors the songs while making them his own, which is a pretty neat trick.  Plus, he will get me to listen to her versions, an even neater trick.

P.S.  Welcome to Rocktober.  It's waiting for you.