Archive for October, 2009

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I would play ghetto games, name my kids ghetto names: Little Mookie, Big Al, Lorraine…

October 30, 2009

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR

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Skee-Lo – I Wish
From: I Wish

Kids today won’t remember (kids today… don’t get me started), but there was a time when it was OK to release a rap single that didn’t need editing to flub over a curse word, ethnic slur or questionable description of a sexual act. While it’s true that most of these singles were released by Will Smith, not all of them were.

Skee-Lo probably had the last great rap single that required no on-the-fly edits, with 1995’s “I Wish,” one of the catchiest laments to height impairment ever to hit MTV and popular radio. The uniqueness of the song and the easy hook guaranteed a popular single, but it also (perhaps unfortunately) pushed the single and artist into novelty territory. Go ahead, name me another Skee-Lo song. The only other one I can remember is a rap version of that old “Schoolhouse Rock” song, “Mr. Morton is the Subject of the Sentence.”

The tragedy of it is that in the 1990s, the height of celebrating irony and “anti-” everything, Skee-Lo actually delivered the most pristine anti-rap rap song of a generation. You think about every other massively popular rap song of the era, and you think of necessary radio edits and over-the-top boasts about genital size (or, in the case of your Lil’ Kims and Foxy Browns, how fabulously skanky you were) or how incredibly awesome your hometown is compared to your rival’s hometown… despite the fact that the subject in question likely had never even met the aforementioned rival.

“I Wish” is all about how much the reality of it all sucks. Sure, Ice Cube did that a bit more poignantly with “It Was a Good Day,” but Skee-Lo made you get out on the dancefloor and celebrate the fact that life sucked, no one was going to pick you for the pick up basketball game and no way in hell were you gonna get the girl you wanted.

What’s more, Skee-Lo did it hilariously. Everybody knows the chorus to the song, but listen to the verses — there’s some observational humor at its finest within the rhymes. It’s hard to pick one particular favorite, but if pressed, I’d have to go with:

‘Cause when it comes to playin’ basketball, I’m always last to be picked and in some cases, never picked at all. So I just lean up on the wall or sit up in the bleachers with the rest of the girls who came to watch their man ball. Dag, y’all, I never understood, black, why the docs get the fly girls and me, I get the hoodrats. I tell ’em, “Scat, skiddle, skabobble,” got hit with a bottle and was in the hospital for talkin’ that mess.

Now tell me, what other chart-topping rap song of the day contained a boast about being laid up in a hospital for talking sh*t? What other rap song employed the word “overcometh”? If you listen to this, it’s actually quite intelligent as opposed to just the brainless boasts about sex, money and booze.

Of course NWA at the start of the 1990s and the surging popularity of West Coast gangsta rap shortly thereafter soon quickly defined the genre as a place for MCs to speak to the size of their weapons, egos, girlfriends’ breasts, junk (of course) and the importance of respecting them and their hometowns for it. Was all of it brainless? No, of course not — anyone who dismisses the genre as a whole is categorically ignorant, but the popularity of “thug life” meant that “I Wish” was the death rattle for the kind of rap that had flourished in the late 1980s — somewhat tongue in cheek and still rather clean.

Not that music should be judged by the inclusion of a “parental advisory” warning on the album artwork, but right around the time “I Wish” was dominating MTV airwaves (thanks to a Forrest Gump-referencing video), people seemed to stop taking rap seriously unless it did have that sticker attached.

And honestly, maybe that’s because it was the suburban white boys like me that thought “I Wish” was so funny. I imagine seasoned rap fans would probably view my reaction to “I Wish” the same way I would some popular teenage girl’s admission to liking the Jam because “That one song in ‘Billy Elliot’ is sooooo good!” I shudder to think.

But with a heavy-enough-to-be-credible backing track and a killer hook, “I Wish” still will get a lot of people jumping around if you put it on at a party in or a club now. And for better or worse, a lot of them will be whites that can’t dance.

Ah well, perhaps it’s just part of the song’s in-built irony.

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Just to keep believing.

October 23, 2009

Fran Healy and Andy Dunlop of Travis are doing an acoustic show at the Majestic here in Madison tonight.

I’ve opted to go to this show, but I must tell you it’s been one hell of a dilemma for me when it came to the question of buying the ticket.

I know what you’re thinking — “Oh, for Christ’s sake, what’s the big issue?” — but, see, with Travis, I’ve been highly judgmental and critical since 2001. And the thing is, the year before, they were well positioned to go down as one of my all time favorite bands.

I know I’ve broached this topic before on this blog, but the shimmering brilliance of 1999’s The Man Who and the care-free bombast of their debut, 1997’s Good Feeling poised the band to be the next big thing in the UK and with an arsenal of nice melodies, big choruses and a self-deprecating and good-natured frontman, they seem well-positioned to hold the mantle for as long as they damn well pleased.

The vacuum created by the death of Britpop in August 1997 and Oasis’ ensuing three-year exile from the studio left the door open to anyone with a healthy knowledge of a few chords and an ear for a fist-in-the-air chorus, and Travis had both. What’s more, the refined and moody The Man Who SOUNDED like a band who’d studied Oasis B-sides and knew what the healthy masses of arena rock fans really yearned for. You need the transition from “All I Want to Do is Rock” to “Writing to Reach You,” dammit, because even if you’re a teenager with an overdeveloped taste for beer and a proclivity to use the phrase “Aw, f*ck off” a little too often — you’re still sensitive and (somewhat) deep too, dammit.

And if Oasis weren’t delivering “Talk Tonight”s or “Half the World Away”s to satiate that other side and Radiohead had all but given up that muse after 1995’s The Bends, well, who was gonna do it? Travis answered the call and was paid in spades.

And maybe through no fault of their own, everyone caught wind of just how easy that kind of songwriting was. Indie sensitivity gave birth to an entire range of emotive Brits from the intriguing (Badly Drawn Boy) to the obvious pretenders (Starsailor), and in their undying quest to identify the next big thing, British magazines lauded praise on everyone and everyone in between as if they were to be the next Beatles.

Travis could have enjoyed their time as shepherds of the movement, but the thing is a pesky little band called Coldplay released Parachutes in 2000 and posed a serious threat to Travis. Not so much because they had the tunes to match Travis’ power, but because people in America were taking a serious listen to “Yellow” and “Trouble.”

For Travis, the UK was a cakewalk. In 2000, they were festival headliners, enjoyed massive chart time and were actually lauded for tongue-in-cheek B-sides like an acoustic rendering of Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.” But outside of Anglophiles, Americans weren’t paying too much attention to them outside of enjoying “Why Does it Always Rain On Me?” every time it popped up on the radio. Travis put the time in to cracking in America. They supported Oasis on the US leg of the Standing on the Shoulder of Giants tour and I can distinctly remember seeing them as headliners in small Chicago clubs three times in the span of a year. The clubs never got MUCH bigger, but the sense was that all this work was going to pay off for something.

So imagine another British band with a big heady song about a color basically taking your template and strutting right into America’s heart. I was not there to witness it, but I have no trouble whatsoever imagining four Scottish dudes muttering, “Motherf*cker…”

And for years, interviewers went after Fran Healy and Chris Martin, both playing up their friendship and lauding each other, but one has to imagine it was a pretty easy PR option for Martin whose band was well on its way to U2-sized popularity, while Healy’s band was visibly set adrift by the Coldplay swell.

First there was 2001’s The Invisible Band, which was a decent record, but an outright rewrite of The Man Who, that seemed to scream, “Look, we were here first, we’ve been doing this, check the last album, dammit.” Then they got a bit more bitter and moody with 2003’s 12 Memories. I’m sure the video for “Re-Offender” was done somewhat tongue in cheek, but you have to think there was some truth in the jesting.

In 2007, they release The Boy With No Name, which was another pretty transparent grab at stoking nearly decade-old fire from The Man Who. The diehards loved it, but they didn’t generate new fans, so they decided to strip down and go rocky again for last year, Ode to J. Smith, which — all told — produced one really good song.

As a fan of the band (I honestly don’t root against them, you know), it’s hard not to listen and think they’re still conscious of being in competition with Coldplay. I wish they didn’t care so much, because despite the escalating ticket sales (and prices), Coldplay’s music has gotten worse since Parachutes.

But I suppose the best analogy (and any male who was a fan of Travis in 1999 or 2000 will appreciate this analogy) is warming up a girl for a relationship by going the “friendship” route she insists upon because she doesn’t want to ruin that special bond. So you work at the friendship line for weeks, months, hell, maybe years. You spend time together, you tell each your thoughts that you don’t tell anyone else. You have jokes that no one else gets and while you want to scream from the mountaintops how good you would be for her and that she probably knows it, you know that any rash move like that could blow the whole operation. So you build up, and just when you’re about to make the small-but-firm move to push things to the next level, some guy who looks just like you comes in with a mix tape and is cocksure enough to get a date.

F*ck that guy, right? He’s scoring off all the priming you did, and is it going to send you into a jealous fit? Yeah. Are you gonna go off with some girl you probably never would have otherwise? Yeah, probably, because you don’t know what else to do.

I mean, hell, why do you think early on in the American version of “The Office,” it was Travis’ “Sing” that Pam and Jim were listening to on shared iPod headphones that night in the parking lot? Travis is the culmination of that kind of “almost” frustration.

And as a fan that damn near wore out the “Coming Around” single in 2000, well, I’m still waiting for the care-free album for which that tune should have been the trailer. It’s been almost a decade.

But to say that everything in the past 9 years has been subpar would be unfair. And for this month’s Friday Five, let’s celebrate the diamonds in that multi-year rough.

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The Friday Five
Travis’ post-big time moments of glory

Travis – Somewhere Else
The best tune from the moody 12 Memories, and while it warms the cockles of my heart that they never put this one out as a single, part of me wonders what kind of popularity the never-issued single missed out on. This song is arguably the best thing they ever wrote, and to end up as a deep cut on the album that would become forever known as “the low-selling one” seems a little criminal. But it’s also good to know you can pick up the album with a bad rap, work your way through it and find an absolute gem like this. No matter how inconsistent their albums may be, there’s always going to be one cut that floors you.

Travis – Walking in the Sun
The obligatory “new” cut for 2004’s greatest hits compilation Singles. Put up alongside the songs that made them as big as they were at the turn of the century, this cuts fits in beautifully with the nicely balanced electric and acoustic guitar interplay and a gorgeous little chorus that burrows itself comfortably into your head for a long time after listening.

Travis – My Eyes
Given The Boy With No Name‘s conscious similarities to The Man Who (and The Invisible Band), I actually think it’s a big compliment to say this is really the only song on the album that sounds like it could have fit on The Man Who (and let’s not kid ourselves, “Selfish Jean” is great, but that would have been a killer Man Who-era B-side, a la “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” or “High as a Kite”). The fatherhood theme was already tackled with “Flowers in the Window,” but this one works a bit more effectively and the “Welcome in, welcome in” bridge is just solid gold.  This one did make it out as a single, but I think the choice in making the cookie-cutter “Closer” the first single (Ben Stiller staring video and all) probably quelled a few expectations. Ah well.

Travis – Lovely Rita
Given the country’s proclivity for celebrating musical anniversaries and pumping nearly every music magazine full of “Best British Albums EVER” lists, it’s probably no surprise that the BBC commissioned a lot of popular acts to rerecord songs from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album for a big “Wasn’t that album great?” radio documentary in summer 2007. The one question I had is why on earth that question needed to be asked, but c’est la vie. Beatles covers are dangerous waters to go treading into as 12 bands found out (even Oasis’ cover of “Within You, Without You” sounded like a bit of a train wreck), but lo and behold, Travis were the only ones to hit it out of the park with a to-the-detail faithful cover of one of the album’s most underrated songs (even down to employing the comb and paper). Watching this video in 2007 reminded me how much I loved them when I was 18.

Travis – Something Anything
The aforementioned one good cut from last year’s Ode to J. Smith. I don’t doubt they still can rock and bring the balls they did on 1997’s Good Feeling — this song is proof enough. But this was the only song that merged the balls with the Travis-brand catchiness. And that’s the important difference, you know… I don’t think Coldplay could do a song like this.

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That’s when you realize you’ve been shot down.

October 19, 2009

People don’t talk about Michael Penn enough. Myself included.

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I don’t know what it is about him as an artist — I know there are a lot of people out there that really like him (myself included), but it always takes a song of his to pop up on shuffle for me to go, “God, that’s a good song. That’s a good album too. I should listen to that again.” As a fan, I feel a bit guilty about that… and the fact that of all the seasonal mixes I’ve done to date, only one song of his had made it — “No Myth.” I know, I know… but there are more seasons to come, aren’t there.

Anyway, over the weekend I had my iPod on shuffle as I did a bit of work around the apartment and “Cupid’s Got a Brand New Gun” from Penn’s debut album March cropped up. I started singing along and thought more about it — it’s actually my favorite song on that record, and just might be my favorite song in Penn’s oeuvre. Unless I’ve heard “Walter Reed” or “Bunker Hill” that day.

But what “Cupid’s Got a Brand New Gun” has is somewhat of an anomaly for any artist — two really great recorded versions of the song separated by almost 20 years.

When compiling the tracks for his 2007 career retrospective, Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea: A Michael Penn Collection, Penn made the choice of not only digging up demos and alternate versions of his tracks, he also took to the studio to record some updated versions of his tracks.

A lot of artists will do alternate versions or revisit songs written and recorded before — the Beatles with “One After 909,” Oasis with “Fade Away,” countless songs Sinatra would rerecord from Columbia to Capitol to Reprise — but usually you can find one version that’s clearly superior to the other.

With “Cupid’s Got a Brand New Gun,” I just can’t decide. They’re both brilliant.

Michael Penn – Cupid’s Got a Brand New Gun [March]

Michael Penn – Cupid’s Got a Brand New Gun [Palms & Runes, Tarot & Tea: A Michael Penn Collection]

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Tell me twice.

October 15, 2009

Here’s hoping that army of producers that Michael Jackson was apparently working with over the last 8 years is sitting on some good material, because the two posthumous “new” songs we’ve heard from the late gloved one aren’t really spurring severe reflection on talent lost.

Death is a bitch.

Death is a bitch.

Shortly after Jackson’s death this summer we get a sample of “A Place With No Name”, an unabashed and uninspired (well at least these 24 seconds) of America’s “Horse With No Name.” Now we get “This is It,” which is a pretty pedestrian ballad to begin with, but now gets added media hype because Paul Anka’s come out saying he cowrote the song in 1984 and it was already released as “I Never Heard” by Safire in the 1990s. Pretty average back then, too. Regardless, Anka’s going to get credit and 50% royalties now, which I’m sure the guy who wrote “Diana” and “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” really needed. As cheesy as both of those songs are, they’re still miles better than “This is It.” Especially “Diana.” If I’ve had a few, I quite enjoy that one.

I’ve read a bunch of quick-hit news posts about how America actually granted Jackson permission to swipe their biggest hit for his own song, but surely the guy wasn’t delusional enough to believe singing new words to one of the most familiar melodies of the past 40 years was going to constitute any semblance of creativity. Surely working with some of the most formidable producers in popular music could have given him some kind of insight into the art of sampling as opposed to outright musical hijacking. You know, like how the Verve went and pilfered one section of an orchestral recording of a popular song for their biggest hit. I mean, Christ, why not work with P. Diddy? He hasn’t done anything worthwhile since he was pinching 1980s hits for his own 1990s hits. Those were somewhat blatant lifts too, but at least they were enjoyable.

The tragic thing, of course, is that in the wake of Jackson’s death, everyone dug out the old albums and singles and realized what a great songwriter he was in his prime. If you can find it, listen to the demo of “P.Y.T.” which is completely different from the Quincy Jones-reworked cut that ended up on Thriller. I mean the guy was letting go of songs that most artists/songwriters would kill for when he was 22. Should’ve dug some of that up — polished off “Carousel” or something.

But it’s the hindrance of songwriters aging isn’t it? Aside from Paul Weller, who seems to be one of the few songwriters out there determined to better himself with each passing year. Look at Paul McCartney — sure we all thought Memory Almost Full was a God-given gift two years ago, but how much have you listened to it in the last year? The Fireman album, then? Yeah, not so much. It ain’t no Abbey Road. Let’s be honest — it ain’t no Venus and Mars, either.

And who knows, maybe Paul Anka really needs to cash in Michael Jackson’s death as much as everyone with a hand in his estate does. I mean, the last notable thing Anka did was the big band-tinged covers album Rock Swings. Funnily enough, you know what one of the best cuts was?

Paul Anka – The Way You Make Me Feel

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I’m in the groove.

October 7, 2009

You were getting sick of seeing that image of Ben Folds at the top of the page weren’t you? I’m sorry… things get too busy in the fall. And even though I should be sitting in a chair with a hot pad around my neck (got a nasty bout of whiplash in volleyball last night — those concrete walls really should let you know you’re dangerously close), I’m trying to do right by you dear readers and provide some more good tunes and debating ground.

We’re in a new month now, so I guess it’s time to reset the monthly series, the first of which as always is “Vs.”

This month we pit a bunch of early 1960’s American soulsters against another bunch of early 1960’s British stompers as they both take on one of the most beloved call and response songs of all time, “Do You Love Me.”

“Do You Love Me” was written by Berry Gordy in the formative days of Motown Records, and had the Temptations not scurried out of Detroit on a 1962 night to take part in a gospel music showcase, it could have been the band’s first major hit. As luck would have it, the Contours were hanging around the studio, consciously straddling the line of being dropped after producing a run of non-hit singles, but Gordy was so enthused by his new composition that he put the band in the studio immediately to cut the track.

With the background music provided by the Funk Brothers (who would backdrop several of Motown’s very best offerings), Billy Gordon delivered an impassioned lead vocal and the sheer energy of the song would result in more than a million sales of the single, as well as climbing to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962, and peaking at the top of the Billboard R&B chart.

It would get a second appearance in the Top 20 more than 20 years later when “Dirty Dancing” became a late 1980s sensation and introduced a whole new generation of kids to just how fun the song truly is. Of course, people say it’s the only song the Contours ever really had, and while it’s the only hit they had, I’d point you in the direction of “Just a Little Misunderstanding,” which was also on the Do You Love Me? (Now That I Can Dance) album. Fabulous tune and a true Northern Soul classic.

As popular as the song was on these shores, it (along with several other R&B cuts) blew a bunch of Brits away, including those who were forming their own bands at the time and needed material to fill out their sets. Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and the Hollies both added “Do You Love Me” to their repertoire, but no British act ever attacked it with the verve the Dave Clark Five offered.

The cut was included on their 1964 debut album, Glad All Over, which was better known for its title track and the pounding “Bits and Pieces,” but Mike Smith delivered a lead vocal on “Do You Love Me” that rivaled the energy of Billy Gordon’s two years prior. And the pounding production provided on Glad All Over gave the song, like many DC5 cuts, absolutely pulsating out of your speakers. Plus, how can you argue with this great British choreography?

I wrote a blog early last year where I questioned the DC5’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I felt bad enough when Mike Smith died a few days later, but I feel even worse about it today as I pour through a number of DC5 cuts and realize they really were a great little band. Does it mean I’m any less angry that they’re in while neither the Small Faces nor Faces are? No, but… I’m a little bit more forgiving now. I mean let’s face it — the thought of a bunch of limeys covering an American soul tune? Sure a lot of British bands with varying degrees of success, but this is as about a cocksure cover as has ever been recorded.

Better than the Contours? I honestly don’t know. But I’m willing to say it’s at least as good. Settle for a draw?

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The Contours vs. The Dave Clark Five
“Do You Love Me”

The Contours – Do You Love Me

The Dave Clark Five – Do You Love Me