Archive for November, 2009

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2009: 15 of the Best. #15…

November 30, 2009

Well, it’s that time of year again. Everyone’s doing their year-end lists and this blog shall be no exception. As was tradition at this blog’s previous address, we’re going to rank what (to my discerning ears) were the 15 best songs issued this year. Why songs? Well, because rating albums seems like a futile exercise. Nobody makes categorically perfect albums anymore (I blame the digital album and consumer need for 99-cent or $1.29 singles for this, but that’s a whole thesis I have yet to write), and most reasons that people get (and have always bought) albums is because they were attracted to a particular song, although not necessarily the single. So for 2009, here are the 15 best songs that found their way into physical and digital shops this year. And yes, some of them did come off some absolutely fabulous albums that are worth your further investigation.

#15 – Jill Sobule – Wendell Lee

From: California Years
Released: April 14, 2009
Label: Pinko
Buy it: Here.

The record business, like many of its brethren in this capitalist society, is in more than a bit of shambles in 2009. While other industries can blame a flagging economy, record companies were just entirely ill-prepared. Some are still trying to make the jump to digital music, others are (either nobly or stupidly) clinging to physical CDs or LPs and more than likely, your favorite record shop closed its doors for good relatively recently. It seems like eons since Jill was on a major label, but the problem with the indie labels in this market is that so few of them survive. So Jill raised $89,000 to finance the recording of California Years by going to her fans and treating the album like a PBS pledge drive. Donate this much, you get this. Donate that much, you get that. It’s a nifty way to do business in the 21st century, and the even better story is that Jill delivered on her fans’ investment. “Wendell Lee” is a great shot of post-breakup stalker culture in the 21st century, and the inexplicable need we all have (or at least feel) to search out exes on third party software such as Facebook, MySpace or Classmates (although, seriously, Jill — who uses Classmates?!) and give them a piece of your mind. Even if your mindset HASN’T changed that much from the fleeting moments right after you were dumped. Sage advice to everyone involved in a breakup (whether you were the dumper or dumpee) — delete the other person from your preferred social networking site. It’s better for both of you in the end.

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That crazy Santa Claus keeps knock-knock-knockin’ on the roof.

November 27, 2009

Alright cats and kittens, Black Friday is upon us, which means the official start of the Christmas season.

As has been tradition for the past four years I’ve been running the blog, 2009 brings a new Christmas mix as a present for all you dear readers and background music for whatever shopping excursions you’re mad enough to go on today and all the travels you’ll take throughout the next month. I’ve felt the mixes really started hitting their stride in 2007, and this year’s certainly lives up to the standards set by its predecessors.

Obviously the year’s end is always a good time around this blog — the “15 of the Best” series will debut next week — but the fun always starts with the Christmas mix and here’s hoping this (like the three Christmas mixes before it) adds a fabulous soundtrack to the season. Let’s get on wiffit!

Everybody’s Waitin’ For The Man With The Bag.
The “Ain’t Superstitious, But These Things I’ve Seen…” 2009 Christmas mix

Download Part 1 (tracks 1-10)
Download Part 2 (tracks 11-20)

01. Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra – Do You Hear What I Hear?
I know I’m going to catch flack from (and consequently maybe never make another radio appearance with) Grandma Cyd for going with the Ping Pong Orchestra’s take on this Christmas classic instead of Bing Crosby, but this version is just too cool to be swept under the rug. Kicking off a mix with an instrumental (nevermind one that passes the 4-minute mark) is a calculated risk to be sure, but I defy you to try not grooving out to this. Impossible. Plus the instrumental saves me from hearing my long-detested lyric in this song – “A child, a child, shivering in the cold, let us bring him silver and gold.” I’ve said it before and I say it again. Bring blankets, for Christ’s sake. Literally.

02. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Christmas All Over Again
Even if you never bought the second volume of that A Very Special Christmas series (which I still believe is a con – all those albums and you MAYBE get two good songs on each), you knew this song was a stone cold classic from the little snippet you heard while Kevin missed the flight announcement that he was on his way to New York City in “Home Alone 2.” Several of Petty’s latter day sins post-She’s the One can be forgiven because this song has reached a level of popularity that’s put it on the cusp of yearly carol-standard popularity not seen in a long, long time. I would say since “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but I’m sure all the Pogues or John Lennon fans would come bellowing at me. This is popular and somewhat obvious, sure, but it’s also incredible fun.

03. Lily Frost – I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm
I’ve fallen desperately in love with Lily’s 2008 album, Lily Swings, from which this is culled. For the album, she basically hired the Dukes and recorded 11 songs that Billie Holliday made famous. She held to faithful dusty arrangements, and the entire album is really a fabulous purchase, but this is one of the best versions I’ve ever heard of this song. The ultimate, probably, is Dean Martin’s, but Dean gets space elsewhere here and I think Lily’s delivery brings a little something new to proceedings, with a nice warm-me-up winter vibe.

04. Oasis – Merry Xmas Everybody
No doubt the Slade original is classic and this song has been butchered by many since its 1973 release (I’m thinking of Steps, mainly). I never gathered how many actual Oasis members are on this track – I always thought it was something Noel did especially for BBC radio during the 2002 Christmas season, but the next year it showed up on an NME compilation entitled 1 Love, where a bunch of contemporary artists covered old classics and this was listed as “Oasis” and not “Noel Gallagher,” so… With Oasis (definitely maybe) reaching the end of their rope this year, it’s a nice little memorial for this year’s mix, and Noel’s delivery does emphasize how sweet this song really can be.

05. Marcy Playground – Keegan’s Christmas
I feel like including Marcy Playground in anything is leaving me wide open to snide remarks or a general dismissal of this mix as a whole. I openly admit that the only other Marcy Playground song I’ve ever heard in my life is the one you have, “Sex and Candy,” and I still have no interest in pursuing their catalogue further. However, this cut landed on the Alternative Rock Xmas compilation and I was sold straightaway. Not because it’s the smartest or best thing I’ve ever heard, but that bouncing two-chord exchange during what I guess would be constituted as the song’s choruses are just irresistibly hooky. I have no idea who Keegan is and I’m not really moved by his conviction to his father that he knows Santa is on the roof, but I’m also nowhere near Scrooge-ish enough to deny a good hook when I hear one. I put Big Bad Voodoo Daddy on last year’s Christmas mix. What do you want from me?

06. The Jackson 5 – Up on the Housetop
I’m guessing this and other selections from the Jackson 5’s lone Christmas album are going to be hitting the various music blogs and Christmas mixes with additional frequency this year because of Mike’s breaking on through to the other side this summer. I actually listened to the whole album and was hard pressed to find a song to include here, and that’s for a number of reasons: 1.) terrible, hokey Christmas messages built in to the recordings, 2.) frightening lack of coolness (this is actually a recurring problem with several Motown Christmas albums – few diamonds in a lot of rough) 3.) perceived insincerity with the whole Jehovah Witness thing. But this recording stands out for a few reasons: 1.) You get to hear Marlon solo (very momentarily) 2.) You get to hear Tito solo (damn) 3.) You get to hear Michael totally sell out Jermaine. After Michael ribs him for asking Santa for girls, Jermaine counters that all his younger brother wants is toys, but since Michael’s got the mic, he curbs that by saying, well, he ALSO wants peace for everyone. If my little sibling pulled that kind of crap on me, I’d deck ‘em. Afterthought: Why doesn’t Jackie get a solo? It must have sucked being the oldest in that family.

07. The Cameos – Merry Christmas
Every year when I’m putting these Christmas mixes together, I dig through albums and albums of material to the point where my eyes and ears kind of go numb and all the packaging and music starts to sound the same. The bad thing about this is that it’s exhausting to the senses. The good thing about it is that it refines your ears to perk up when you hear something that’s really good. This track comes off a box set (box set, damn you!) of 1950s doo-wop Christmas tunes. Most are originals and are every bit as corny as you would expect. But I don’t know. There’s something really charming about this one, which was released as a standalone single in 1957. On Cameo Records. Crackerjack job they did in deciding on a group name, eh?

08. Count Basie and his Orchestra – Good Morning Blues (Real Tuesday Weld Clerkenwell Remix)
If my research is correct, I believe this track was originally recorded all the way back in 1937 with Jimmy Rushing taking vocal duties in front of Count Basie’s orchestra. It was updated for the 2008 Verve Records compilation, Christmas Remixed, to nice effect. Remixes have become a habitual inclusion on my mixes since the 2007 mix, and although there are heaps upon heaps of old Christmas songs remixed out there, it’s truly a long trudge to find the good ones. You see, the best remixes don’t simply put a loud, pulsating backbeat behind one line of a song repeated over and over and over. They should enhance the song. Give it a bit of new sheen. And give it a healthy (but not overbearing) groove. This is done to good effect here.

09. Peggy Lee – Winter Wonderland
The thing about “Winter Wonderland” is that everybody and their grandmother has done a version of the song, and it becomes increasingly difficult to find really good versions. This song seems like it was specially composed to walk the line between nice and hokey like a drunken backwoods barcrawler, and too often artists just stumble helplessly into hokey territory. To her eternal credit, Peggy found a nifty little groove to propel the song on her 1965 Happy Holiday album, but she damn near blows it by using a bit of her trademark “ad libbing” technique (perhaps most famously displayed in “Fever”) by substituting “Parson Brown” for “Santa clown.” It sinks that whole bit of the lyric. The image of being hopeless enough to have a snowman marry you is something everyone can subscribe to at Christmas time. But if the thing’s just a Santa clown, well… it’s only fun until the jerky kids down the street come destroy it. Even so, this is still one of the finest readings of the song out there.

10. Money Mark – Stuck at the Airport
I don’t know that this is strictly a Christmas song, but in that it was on last year’s Christmas compilation, This Warm December, it counts. And I will admit that as quirky as this song is, I really dig it. It likely will date itself in just a few years’ time by decrying a broken iPod and an inability to text (which sounds like a bullsh*t excuse to whoever’s awaiting said text – just my opinion), but given the headaches of being anywhere near an airport between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas, I think there are a lot of people that can understand where this guy’s coming from. Plus the song unwittingly gets extra points this season for the “Someone is sneezin’ on my carry-on bag” lyric. With H1N1 (I still prefer calling it swine flu) not having run its course in society yet, that’s definitely an added demerit to holiday traveling this year. Let’s hope the lyric stays observational and not ultimately tragic.

11. Kay Starr – (Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With the Bag
Apparently Kay Starr had a pretty big career in the 1950s, but I’m hard-pressed to remember or think of anything to her name besides this cut. I mean, even in the case of Brenda Lee, I do know ONE of her non-Yuletide tunes. But if you’re stuck with a seasonal hit, I guess the best you can hope for is the good fortune to have said tune played at bombardment level every December, which this song has since its release in 1950. It’s not the best holiday tune out there, but it’s nice enough, and it provides a bit of familiarity – which every Christmas mix truly needs. Don’t let the other bloggers fool you with unending streams of rarities.

12. Rosie Thomas – Why Can’t it Be Christmas All Year?
I’ll admit that I know jack about Rosie’s non-holiday repertoire, but was pushed to include this track after hearing it in passing during some shopping run last winter. I’m usually a sucker for piano-pounding numbers, but you had some horns on top of it, and forget about it – I’m sold. This song was one of the few originals to pepper Thomas’ 2008 stocking stuffer, A Very Rosie Christmas, which might have done better if it hadn’t shared a titular similarity with one of those god-awful compilations Rosie O’Donnell did when she still had her own talk show and inexplicable popularity. Thomas’ album is much better, of course, but buyers can be completely forgiven if they saw the title on a loved one’s Christmas list and said, “No, I’m not encouraging that.”

13. Dean Martin – A Marshmallow World
The most famous version of this song for the last few years has probably been Martin’s comedic duet of the song with Rat Pack pally Frank Sinatra off one of his old variety shows and enlisted for duties as closer of the “Christmas with the Rat Pack” collection released in the former part of this decade. Martin originally recorded the song for The Dean Martin Christmas Album, issued in 1966 on Frank’s Reprise label. Now it’s popping up almost annually on Dean Martin Christmas compilations. Seriously, the estate is getting a little too free and easy about all these compilations. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You want to be productive, a lot of us would love some remastered original albums as opposed to the umpteenth reissue of “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

14. The Waking Eyes – Everybody Needs Somebody at Christmas
In continuing my personal crusade to get this Canadian band the increased international exposure they deserve, putting this track on the Christmas Mix was a must. Unless I’m mistaken, the song actually made its debut on the band’s MySpace page two years ago, but given that they had a lot of momentum last year with the release of the fantastic Holding On To Whatever It Is, the track was spruced up and released as a download-only single. The song’s muscular pop is everything you’d expect from the boys and while the thought of Matt Peters single-handedly saving Christmas because “Santa musta given up tonight” is a good chuckle – he has at least enough humility to admit he doesn’t look the part. But hey, if someone’s gotta save Christmas, I’m all for it being these guys.

15. Ledisi – Be There For Christmas
I mentioned the hokey messages built into Christmas songs in my little write up for the Jackson 5 track, but I feel inclined to reiterate the point here. I don’t know what it is about Christmas records, but artists for whatever reason feel some godforsaken need to mar their songs with little raps about the reasons for the season, and why all the listeners should have a Merry Christmas, and what they’re looking forward to at Christmas. I’ve never understood it. Good music should make you want to sing along. Those little messages are impossible to sing along to. And one of those little messages kicks off this cut, from Ledisi’s 2008 record It’s Christmas. I’d be a hell of a lot more critical of it if the song didn’t have the groove it does. The good thing is the nonsense is dispensed with quickly and it goes right into solid soul, so Ledisi gets a pass this time. But next time – and please, everyone else keep this in mind – if you’ve got thoughts to put on a Christmas song, just sing them. And try to do it in a catchy melody.

16. Charles Brown – I’ll Be Home For Christmas (Ohmega Watts Remix)
I still haven’t been able to track down where or for what exactly Brown originally recorded this track – which is not the “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” everyone is expecting. The original track with its guitar and prototypical synth effects sounds like a product of the 1970s, but it got a colorful boost from whoever the hell Ohmega Watts is for the Holiday Lounge compilation in 2004. The song doesn’t have too much extracurricular work done to it (which, as always, is the sign of a great remix), mostly just a heavy backbeat designed to make you dance a bit.  It loses focus a little toward the end, but for saving what would have otherwise been just a lost or rather unspectacular Charles Brown Christmas song from total obscurity, this remix gets a lot of credit. I mean, Brown did give us “Merry Christmas, Baby” and “Please Come Home For Christmas.” Most people are lucky to COVER one good Christmas song in their careers.

17. Thurl Ravenscroft – You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch
Sometime in the 1990s, this became a popular choice for punk and indie bands to cover in concert and on lo-fi Christmas compilations, but in all the years of other people doing it now, I’ve realized there’s simply nothing that matches with Thurl’s original vocal and delivery from the 1966 TV special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” My favorite lyric always changes any time I hear the song, but I think it should be everyone’s New Year’s resolution to call somebody they find particularly displeasing a “nauseous super-naus.” If not that, then certainly “you’re a crooked, jerky jockey and you ride a crooked horse.”

18. Chris Isaak – Hey Santa!
I’ve always kind of wanted to like Chris Isaak, but every time I see him in an interview he always comes off a little too smug for my liking, and the fact that he’s still getting mileage on “Wicked Game” (which I never thought was that sexy of a tune to begin with) also bothers me. However, I still dig “Somebody’s Cryin’” and I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the best rockabilly Christmas tunes I’ve ever heard. From the tone of that electric guitar to the impassioned “Honey, please come on home,” I’m sold. It’s really the only great thing on his Christmas album, but hey, better than nothing, right? Now stop being so smug.

19. Allen Toussaint – Silent Night, Holy Night
Another instrumental, but anybody who’s ever seen or heard Allen alone at a piano understands what a fabulously regal experience it is. This cut showed up on the 1997 compilation, A New Orleans Christmas, released on Toussaint’s NYNO label. I liked “Silent Night” a lot when I was a little boy, but my attitude toward it has become less favorable as I’ve aged. Mainly because it’s such a religious song and whenever artists try to do it, they seem to feel like Jesus is right there in the studio with them, furrowed brow like an A&R man, going “Now come on guys, this is about my birth. Let’s class it up. OK. Take 2.” So you end up with a lot of very “proper” versions that are all well and good, but have all the fun of a Catholic mass. Give Toussaint endless credit for at least putting a little boogie into the keys.

20. Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – New Year’s Resolution
Not really a Christmas/holiday tune as much as a general male/female duet about the trials and tribulations of that funny old thing called love. Great soul ballad from 1967’s King and Queen album, but it’s hard to think of any instance where Otis misfired. And I feel it’s a more than appropriate end to this year’s mix as 2009 turns into 2010. But that just might be because my love/relationship-related resolutions always end up being about as solid as your resolution to exercise more and that one’s resolution to eat less McDonald’s. If we make it into February, fabulous, but if not, well, who remembered what was pledged Dec. 31 anyway?

Happy Holidays, everybody.

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Oh, sing me that song.

November 20, 2009

Any student of songwriting will be familiar with something that always comes up in lessons, interviews, autobiographies or what have you — write about what you know. If you’re a hopeless romantic that always gets shafted by love, well… there are emo kids out there waiting to hear you sing your diary. If you like writing about purple haze and kissing the sky, then have another hit of LSD and preach to the ones who see what you’ve seen.

But writing “theme songs” for your band or identity is something that’s not hugely prevalent in rock and roll. Mainly because when you think of “theme songs,” there’s one that always comes to mind and kind of sours ones appetite for trying to write one of their own. It’s kind of an arrogant exercise to write about how great you are or what you do, but it’s also not something that’s completely foreign to popular music either. Indeed, pretty much every successful rapper has staked a career on audacious boasts about how great they are, and you can certainly find theme songs in the catalogues of guitar-wielding troubadours.

For this month’s Friday Five, we take a look at five of the best theme songs that only ever worked in musical form and not as a dual intro song for a poorly-written television sitcom… which isn’t to say they couldn’t. It’s just good that they didn’t.

The Friday Five
Our Own Personal Theme Songs

Bo Diddley – The Story of Bo Diddley
Bo Diddley wrote a lot of songs about himself, and while this isn’t the best (that honor goes hands down to “Bo Diddley,” which was consequently on an album called Bo Diddley), but “The Story of Bo Diddley” which kicked off a 1959 EP has a great autobiographical touch to it. Plus the three chords turning over and over are just irresistible. The self-assured swagger of this song is no different from many of Bo’s other best songs, but the cocky laughs and way he describes himself as “a killer diller” are just pure magic. No one else could do this song like this for obvious reasons, but it didn’t stop them from trying, and even if you’re a white boy in the suburbs learning to play guitar, this one is an essential learning block.

The Mamas and the Papas – Creeque Alley
Not only a fabulously catchy story of the Mamas and Papas’ folk roots beginnings, but also an examination of their formative years rubbing elbows and trading jobs (and busking, of course) with members of the Lovin’ Spoonful and Byrds.  The song’s most famous line of course is the shot about no one getting fat except Mama Cass. It would seem that Cass had the kind of attitude to have a laugh about it in the context of it being a popular single, but you also have to wonder if this didn’t plunge some kind of knife into self-consciousness. Not only is the hook a crack about her weight, but the song also alludes to her unrequited love for Denny. Given that the band’s other hit singles alluded to inter-band love affairs and now John’s daughter is out telling everyone she had an incestuous relationship with her Papa, well… maybe they just found harmony in pain. But this is certainly the highlight of the band’s 1967 album Deliver.

McAlmont & Butler – The Theme From McAlmont & Butler
David and Bernard are still best known for their stupendous 1995 single, “Yes,” but I still say their real genius rests in the underrated 2002 album Bring it Back. This blistering cut kicks off the album, alluding to the “stratocaster kind of guy” and  his partner who can “sing like a bird,” but the track isn’t so much an examination of the two as it is just a soaring album opener that goes right for the listener’s jugular. It builds and builds into a cinematic experience and if the chorus isn’t one of the most glorious things you’ve heard, well… check your soul. Part of you has to be a bit pompous to write this kind of song, but I’m reminded of that old adage about talking the talk AND walking the walk when I hear this.

Ocean Colour Scene – Better Day
As hard as OCS could rock in the mid-to-late 1990s (see “The Riverboat Song” and “Hundred Mile High City”), lead singer Simon Fowler was already showing a heavy preference for folkier, Ronnie Lane-tinged songs. The beauty of the band at that point was that they countered it with heavy guitars and drums to give the songs some muscle — latter day OCS songs have just kind of stayed in the folk area with little rock to buoy it. Simon wrote this as an autobiographical piece about the band’s formative days (Sonny, Stevie, Minnie and Harry are Simon, Steve Cradock, Damon Minchella and Oscar Harrison respectively), while the lyrics also give nods to Paul Weller and the band’s manager, Chris Cradock. It’s got a heavy melancholy tinge to it, but listen to the guitars and drums and how much punch they give this thing. While the Marchin’ Already album came out on the eve of Britpop’s demise in 1997, it proved the band’s most successful chart offering — peaking at #1 in the UK charts. Too bad America never quite caught on. We couldn’t have all enjoyed this? Come on.

Old 97’s – The One
The 97’s actually wrote this one back in 1996 after being signed to Elektra records and making the jump from the indie scene of Bloodshot and into the major label territory where a lot of their alt-country peers were making a killing. Appropriately, the song paints Rhett, Murry, Ken and Philip as a gang of bank robbers California-bound and hell bent on taking the money and running. The boys never had the stones to put the song on their major label debut, Too Far to Care, however, and for more than 10 years, the song squandered its life away as part of Rhett and Murry’s acoustic sets as the Ranchero Brothers. But 12 years later and back on the indie label circuit, they found a comfort level suitable for giving the song a proper recording and used it to bring up the rear of 2008’s fabulous Blame it on Gravity. And the fact that it sounds like a Too Far to Care outtake is by no means a strike against it.

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I have trouble now even remembering.

November 19, 2009

I never really got fully on the Fiona Apple train. I remember she was hip in the late ’90s and a lot of my female friends at high school all seemed to swear by the Tidal album and some of the pervier dudes found the “Criminal” video ridiculously alluring (I don’t know if it’s weird that I never did).

But I remember the first time I heard the song “Extraordinary Machine.” It was a rainy day, I was in my car and it came on NPR (which is weird because I listen to the radio so rarely in my car — I must have been changing CDs). It stopped me. I just listened and thought, “My God is this clever.” I remember hearing it again at a New Year’s Eve party in Chicago and demanding people in the room quiet down so I could listen to it.

Eventually I got around to getting the album, but because of my indifference to Fiona’s career up to that point, I really had no idea about Extraordinary Machine‘s backstory, nor its involvement with one of my several untouchable musical darlings, Jon Brion.

For those who don’t know the story, Apple started working on the album in 2002 with Jon Brion, who apparently wanted to do the album to pull himself out of his own emotional turmoil after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend while he was scoring Punch-Drunk Love (one of my favorite films and soundtracks, mind you). Apple agreed, but she didn’t have a ton of songs.

So they started working together on material, but the lack of direction and deadlines seemed to bother the label heads at Epic a bit, who wanted a deadline and some ear candy after Apple’s 1999 album, When the Pawn… proved to be a bit of a commercial disaster. Work continued through 2003 between California and London, but Epic wasn’t hearing anything it could push as a single, and despite futile additions and reworkings of songs, things weren’t clicking for the label.

This had a two-pronged effect. On one hand, Apple’s fans wanted the damn album. Articles and interviews with Brion were coming out where he seemed to speak favorably about the album’s material, however difficult it may have been to record. But Epic still wasn’t interested and sat on the album, so as things go in this day and age, tracks started to leak out of the vaults and on to the Internet.

Epic wanted the damn album too and Fiona went back into the studio without Brion to try making more commercial versions of the songs on which they’d previously toiled. Finally in October 2005, the official version of Extraordinary Machine hit store shelves with production duties handled by Brian Kehew and Mike Elizondo, the producers basically stripping all the Brion-produced tracks down to Apple’s piano and rebuilding from there.

Hardcore fans (or those with passing interest in great shelved albums) probably have both versions of the record, so it’s created a debate amongst Apple fans for years as to which versions are better, and hey — why not use that as the leap off point for this months’ “Vs.”?

Unsurprisingly I find a lot of the Brion versions of songs preferable — “Better Version of Me” wins by miles as far as I’m concerned — but “Tymps” presents a real headscratcher for me.

On one hand, I LOVE the Brion version. The live drumming is just ten kinds of fabulous and the instrumentation veers into a bit of a cooky direction, but it’s kind of absurdly brilliant. The “proper” released version is a bit more syncopated, relying on processed beats and synths, but at the same time, it’s got its own kind of power — although it careens off the tracks momentarily at the 1:49 mark.

And frankly I think the strength of both versions is in Apple’s songwriting. It’s a wonderfully self-conscious song and Apple’s delivery highlights the “…dammit” feel in both.

But for the drumming alone, I gotta go with the Brion version. You?

Fiona Apple vs. Fiona Apple
Used to Love Him vs. Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)

Fiona Apple – Used to Love Him (Jon Brion version)

Fiona Apple – Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song) (Final version)

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It’s the great “I am.”

November 9, 2009

I moved to Madison in the summer of 2005, and one of my earliest memories of living here that summer was reading a review of this Illinois-themed album by some indie folk artist that I had never heard of, but who apparently had been around a few years and was now 2/50ths of his way in to doing an album based on each of the states.

It’s as interesting a concept today as it was four years ago, but here at the close of 2009, we’re still only 2/50ths in (well… maybe 2.8/50ths in, if you want to count an album of extras and outtakes and a soundtrack album about a New York road).

Oh, but guess what? Unless your an Illinois or Michigan resident, your state probably isn’t getting a look through Sufjan’s eyes.

Sufjan+Stevens

What a joker.

Here’s the thing about calling a self-proclaimed premise a joke four years after the last proper state album: it’s probably something you should’ve said during the Illinois blitz.

See, a bunch of good-natured people that still don’t know how to pronounce your first name were easily fooled by such a prodigious/prolific boast, because you were able to release TWENTY-ONE more songs about Illinois after your first album of TWENTY-TWO Illinois songs the year before. But then, later that year, a FIVE-CD Christmas box set.

I mean, by God. We live in a day and age where fans hang on for three, four, five, ten, twenty years for just 10 more songs from their favorite artists. Embarrassment of riches? Maybe. But, see, the thing is… do even the cool, hip indie lot that worshipped at the Sufjan alter in 2005 and 2006 care anymore?

And looking back, how well has the Illinois album aged? It’s not to say there aren’t perennial classics out there — it’s just that every time I go back, there’s fewer and fewer songs I really want to hear. In fact, I’d say the only guaranteed tracks I’ll play anymore are “Jacksonville” and, if I’m particularly wistful about something, “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is out to Get Us!” (which is really money for just the last minute or so).

And the thing about it is… a lot of the “history” contained on the Illinois album seems like it could come from a cursory glance at the Illinois history page on Wikipedia. I know he read a lot more — The Avalanche verified that, but when you break down the first Illinois album, it’s really just a lot of incidental music tied together by loose themes. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is really just about a sick girl. An Illinois slant on it would have been how all school children in that state can’t believe their luck to have a day off when that rolls around. “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” is as an appropriate placement on an Illinois album as a song called “Jeffrey Dahmer” would be on a Wisconsin album. But that doesn’t mean it’s hugely state specific — I’m sure someone in Marilyn Manson’s band has a surname of Gacy. Even “Chicago” is really just used because it rhymes with “All things go.” He talks about driving to New York in that song too.

So on that note, how hard is it, really to write more state albums? Obviously the guy has great musical proclivity, so I’m not doubting the fact that he can continue tying chords and melodies together. The fallacy of it all though is that he’ll have to languish years in research. It’s like that “South Park” where Cartman talks about how easy it is to write Christian pop music — you just substitute the “girl”s and “baby”s with “Jesus.” Write a song about a lonely girl in the mountains — you can tie that to tons of states. Basic knowledge of John Wilkes Booth? There’s something for the Maryland album. Something about an alligator? Boom, the Florida album’s first single. Hell you could probably think of 10 songs just on general Wisconsin stereotypes. That’s how easy this truly is.

But you know what? If and when the next state’s album comes out, no one’s going to talk about how ridiculous or general it truly is. That talk won’t start happening until your 15 or so states in and every album contains an incredible amount of songs about loneliness. Because even though it’s four years on from Illinois now, the question on every passing fan’s lips still is “What’s going to be the next album?” And if 2005 and 2006 prove anything — it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what state you want to do. Because people feel like they know more about a state’s history after Sufjan sings about a farmer in a rural town no one outside of that state has heard of.

When I graduated high school in 2001 and was looking to head up to Milwaukee to attend Marquette the following year, the talk on everyone’s lips was where and why people chose to go to college. I had a high school friend that went to Millikin in Decatur. I’ll never forget her friend being abhorred by the decision and breathlessly exclaiming to me, “Decatur? What the hell does she want to go to Decatur for? Where is Decatur? Who goes to Decatur? Who cares about Decatur?!”

I think a lot more people did after summer 2005.

Sufjan Stevens – Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!
I feel like I owe some small apology to my general comment about only rudimentary research being done for the whole Illinois album. I know this song dug a little deeper. The chicken-mobile, for instance, is a Decatur thing. But still, it’s still mostly about familial relationships, no? You’re telling me this kind of stuff doesn’t happen in Nevada?

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I’m a damn good excuse for a man.

November 5, 2009

I know I put 747s on one of my seasonal mixes (the one from last spring, if I can remember correctly… and I’m pretty sure I had their version of “Blue Christmas” on last year’s Christmas mix too… yeah), but have I afforded this one-shot band any other blog space? I can’t recall.

747s

The downside of the 747s one-album career is that despite turning out one of the niftiest retro-rock albums of this decade with 2006’s Zampano,their biggest claim to fame is co-starring on an Arctic Monkeys’ B-side on an (admittedly) inspired version of “Baby I’m Yours.” Certainly there are worse fates out there, but for a band that knew how to write a tune on its own, well, it’s kind of a kick in the nads for the rear-view mirror.

I’m not sure I ever found out why 747s packed it in… maybe they got sick of journalistic cliches announcing they were ready for take off and corny such plays on their name, or maybe the songwriters in the band just decided they’d be better off on their own (which I’m not sure if I’d agree with since I haven’t heard a damn thing out of any of ’em).

And maybe it’s kind of cool that if they truly are no more, they left a small but durable little body of work in their wake. This past weekend I happened across a non-album single they did in 2006 called “Equilibrium.” Great stuff. Hell, this is the kind of stuff that WASN’T making the album? They shouldn’t have packed it in. We need a band solidly churning out this kind of stuff.

747s – Equilibrium