Archive for January, 2010

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Even though the devil’s all up in my face.

January 29, 2010

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR

Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – Tha Crossroads
From: E. 1999 Eternal

I’m not so ignorant that I’m going to dismiss all hip hop music right out of hand, but I think there are a lot of songs I liked, or at least tolerated in my teenage years that I probably wouldn’t even give a second thought to if they were released today. It goes with the territory when you’re a teenager and has already been explained time and again in this series — a large part of social acceptance when you’re a teenager is what pop culture nuggets you’re aware of. You don’t have to like them, but you know them well enough to fake it.

When I go back and listen to “Tha Crossroads,” it strikes me as a really f*cking weird single. I honestly have no idea what else Bone Thugs-N-Harmony ever did besides this and backing up Mariah Carey in one of those first “Hey, look I have cleavage” videos she made. I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone didn’t remember the guys in that video, though. They’d have good reason not to.

But with gangsta rapper casualties happening with surprising (or maybe unsurprising) frequency in the 1990s — especially considering the genre had also been born that decade — elegies became the new chart-toppers. Puff missed Biggie. Tupac missed himself.

And Bone Thugs-N-Harmony missed Eazy-E. Well, they missed Eazy and a lot of other people (including Uncle Charles, y’all). Eazy gets name dropped in the song and makes a couple of cameos in the video. It makes sense — he founded Ruthless Records, signed this group and this was the first Ruthless release following his death. But “Tha Crossroads” is really more of a bit of hip-hop/gospel meditation on death in general. And it’s not a really uplifting one at that.

If I’d had the need or desire to actually check out the lyrics to this song during the height of it’s popularity, I might have found it a bit less bleak (“Now follow me roll, stroll whether it’s hell or it’s heaven”), but to be honest the song scared the sh*t out of me when I was 13 — particularly because of that overproduced video with a somewhat Samuel L. Jackson Shaft-looking Death sulking around the ‘hood and taking souls at will. I think most people remember the bit when Death shows up on the front porch and offs the old man — when the eyes gloss over in black. It’s not like it gave me nightmares, but somehow in my early-teenage mind I figured that’s what death was going to be like. Some ominous looking dude showing up on my doorstep and touching my forehead. And freaking out whoever might be playing cards with me.

Silly, right? Then again, how do I know that’s how it won’t go down? Crap.

Anyway, since there weren’t many other mainstream Eazy-E tributes to be heard and the video was flash enough to get a lot of attention, MTV put the song into heavy rotation in 1995 and 1996. The song actually made it to the top of the Billboard charts and somehow got a lot of white suburban teenagers to start discussing the crossroads and who they might hope to see there.

I’m not going to dispute the fact that death sells and in that everybody’s lost someone in their life, it’s a pretty easy topic to make applicable to any listener. But the cynic in me also winces every time an elegy goes to #1. I’m not impugning the motives of the group for writing the song, but I cast a wary eye to the A&R man who listened to this and thought, “Jackpot.” If someone — particularly a fellow artist — dies, isn’t it a better tribute to revisit that person’s catalog? I kind of enjoyed seeing Michael Jackson’s records resurface last year. But when that cheap cash-in attempt was made by pushing Jermaine’s version of “Smile” as a single? Well, just look at the iTunes reviews. I don’t think I’m alone in my cynicism.

Maybe that’s not the point of “Tha Crossroads” — maybe the point was to make everyone reflect a little bit on their own mortality and the lives of family and friends lost, but it has ALWAYS sounded weird coming up on the radio in between other hip hop or popular songs encouraging promiscuity and, if need be, murder. How do you dance to this? Certainly it’s got a nice slow groove to it (lifted from the Isley Brothers, if anyone’s taking notes), but I can’t imagine a slow jam with a pretty girl to this would be as romantic as a slow jam to the Isley Brothers. Are we supposed to mimic the moves of the group in the video? Again… it just seems off.

Nevertheless, I knew the song well when I was 13 and when I unearthed the sucker for this series, I was surprised by how many of the words I remembered (if I ever really knew exactly what they were saying). It’s a weird song to be a #1 and it’s still a weird video, but hey, how many 1990s hits can you say that about? Probably every one I’ve featured thus far. Out of place as it may sound on any mix or radio station outside of a funeral home, I’ll probably still be singing along should it come on.

But if a Samuel L. Jackson Shaft-looking dude shows up at my door and raises his fingers to my forehead, I’m gonna be pissed.

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I’ll try to do my best to hit you where it counts.

January 26, 2010

“Where’s Paul gone off to?” I hear you all wondering. I do. I hear you wondering. It’s an inner ear problem I’ve had for ages…

Well life gets busy and sometimes you have to spend days working on work and weekends working on projects for relatives and when all this adds up, you know, it gets very difficult to talk about music. No, never mind. I can always talk about music. But writing about it, ah… that becomes more difficult.

Anyway, I’ve been remiss this month in not offering up a “Vs.” contribution to the three of my monthly series, but I plan on rectifying that today with a guy who’s taken himself (and others) on in previous “Vs.” posts — the Modfather, Paul Weller.

Last week, I was perusing the Onion’s AV Club fine “Gateways to Geekery” essay on Northern Soul music, which did a positive service for people everywhere by ending the meditation with the video for the Style Council’s 1983 single, “A Solid Bond in Your Heart.”

As a longtime Weller fan (and avid Style Council defender), this heartened me. But it was weird, because “A Solid Bond in Your Heart” was just one song that I never really cottoned on to. It’s not to say I hated it — it just never seeped into my appreciation the way “Speak Like a Child” or “How She Threw it All Away” did. I suppose part of it was the fact that I was trying to get into the Style Council when I was a high schooler. That was probably hard enough in the 1980s (once I interviewed Old 97’s guitarist Ken Bethea, and when talk veered from Oasis into Paul Weller, he confided he’s never liked Paul Weller because when he was in high school, a certain breed of people liked the Style Council — and it was those people), but trying that group on in 2000 and 2001… let’s just say there weren’t many people at Willowbrook High School at the time to talk in depth about the 12″ version of “Long Hot Summer.” In fact, one of my best friends still gives me guff for liking the Style Council.

But as Weller has proved time and time (and time and time) again since splitting the Style Council, you strip away the abominable ’80s production and you have some of the finest songs he’s ever composed. And even with that production, I think the stuff still works. It admittedly took me a few years to gain a full appreciation, but the Style Council kicked a lot of ass. And Confessions of a Pop Group is one of the finest albums of Weller’s or anybody’s career — “Life at a Top Peoples Health Farm” and all.

Nevertheless, “Solid Bond” just never got back around to stirring me up. Still a bit too young to appreciate the Style Council with few music snob gusto, I reverted to the Jam in my high school days, and soon learned that Weller had actually composed the song as a contender for the group’s farewell single in 1982.

When Paul Weller split the Jam in 1982, he shocked tons of his more ardent supporters. Not only was he walking away from a group still in their prime (six albums and each one getting progressively better, Weller was only about 22 years of age), but to turn it around the very next year as part of a 1980s mod jazz duo with a bit too heavy of a leaning on French imagery was tantamount to pissing all over the moped and parka culture.

But it’s also fair to say that the people who didn’t get the jump might not have been as interested in the songwriting as they were the image. In rock and roll, certainly that’s important… but I ask you: What of the two lasts longer?

Would “Solid Bond” have been a more appropriate sendoff for the Jam than “Beat Surrender”? There are a lot of people who think so. In John Reed’s biography of Paul Weller, My Ever Changing Moods, a DJ tells the story of Weller not being able to decide on the two:

“I remember sitting down with Paul in a hotel room in Weymouth and he played me two songs,” remembers DJ Tony Rounce. “He said, ‘I dunno, whatcha reckon for the next single? It’s really between these two, whaddaya think?’ I said, ‘Solid Bond’ is far and away the single. He said, ‘Well, I’m saving that.’ I thought, ‘Who are you saving it for!? Somebody on Respond? A rainy day? For Christmas?'”

Actually, he was saving it for a damn fine edition to the Style Council’s early output.

The version the Jam recorded has a nice punch to it, and has a far more rhythmic base to it, but the Style Council’s version (even with the flamboyant hits of saxophone) MOVES. It’s got life. It’s got verve. It sounds hopeful and sunny. It’s the kind of thing that makes you go, “Oh yeah, this is why music affects so many people…”

Something about seeing the video last week made me dive right into my CD collection for the Style Council disc I’d bought all those years ago when I was in high school. I put on “A Solid Bond in Your Heart” and put it on repeat for the next 45 minutes. I recommend starting your day with it, actually. Really hard to spoil things afterward…

But that’s just my take… I can think of a few people who would say the Jam version pisses all over it. What say you?

The Jam vs. The Style Council
“A Solid Bond in Your Heart”

The Jam – A Solid Bond in Your Heart

The Style Council – A Solid Bond in Your Heart

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Well, I’m just not singing along.

January 15, 2010

Whatever happened to the great duets albums? My theory is they got killed around the time of Sinatra’s first Duets record in the early 1990s. The idea was solid — team Frank with a bunch of popular contemporary artists and watch the money roll in. For that album it did, and for the second volume it did, if to a little lesser extent.

But the only great thing those albums really did was inspire one of “Saturday Night Live”s best skits of the 1990s.

In actual fact, the albums weren’t genuine duets — the artists were actually adding their vocals in separate studios to pre-recorded tracks, and it kind of gave way to bastardized albums now like Forever Cool that allow Robbie Williams’ vocals to be overdubbed on a 1960s Dean Martin recording and put out the impression like “Oh yeah, these guys were best buds… in an alternate universe… that only this record’s executive producer imagined.” It happens a lot with classic Christmas albums too. “How can we keep Nat King Cole’s Christmas album relevant? Add Natalie Cole! By God, it worked with ‘Unforgettable’!”

How quickly people forget that some things just don’t need tampering.

Now and again a good duet comes out, and no, I’m not referring the U2/Green Day thingy. The good ones now are parceled away on B-sides (Arctic Monkeys/747s “Baby I’m Yours) or deep into albums that people download for some other song. It’s kind of sad that, say, Harry Connick, Jr. and Dr. John don’t go “New Orleans Piano record? Yeah, why the hell not?” But hey, I’m just a fan, not a manager.

For this month’s Friday Five, we look at five of the best and genuine fun duets ever recorded. The most recent one was done 21 years ago. Le sigh.

The Friday Five.
Proper duets.

Bobby Darin & Johnny Mercer – Who Takes Care of the Caretaker’s Daughter
God bless Darin’s manager Steve Blauner for thinking about pairing Bobby with Johnny Mercer for a full album in 1961, Two of a Kind. Although Mercer had arguably gained a lot more popularity as a lyricist than a singer himself, he had a damn fine set of pipes and his personality and range played off Darin’s like a match made in heaven. The whole album features lesser-known songs, but Darin and Mercer attack them all like they’re huge hits, and with Ahmet Ertegun producing and Billy  May conducting the orchestra, it’s fun as all hell. I could have selected any duet from it, but this is a great one — from Darin’s Elvis impersonation to a rare instance of Bobby being able to make Johnny giggle. Most of the time on the album it’s the other way around.
Genuine fun moment: At 1:10 when Darin begins the “Who gets tense with the tent maker’s daughter?” verse. Bobby’s laughing to start it, which gives Johnny a little chuckle too.

Dinah Washington & Brook Benton – A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)
Two of soul’s finest voices recorded a great little album, The Two of Us, together in 1960, and this simple little shuffle is far and away the highlight. It’s too bad this never got the same kind of popularity that “I Got You Babe” did, as this way more digestible. Then again, it’s better this kind of remained a deep cut/under-the-radar type thing. Makes it a lot more satisfying listen now and a real treat for anyone who hasn’t heard it yet.
Genuine fun moment: At 2:10 in the ad-libbed outro when Dinah goes “Ahhhhhh and you got what it takes.” Brook’s “Ha HA!” reaction is priceless.

Louis Prima & Phil Harris – I Wan’Na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)
This almost doesn’t count, and it shouldn’t count, either. Louis really steals the show here in the best musical moment from 1967’s The Jungle Book (which in itself says a lot, but I say this is the best song from any Disney movie ever). But when Phil Harris’ Baloo joins in the party, it’s too impossibly fun. Ever since I was a kid, this is what I always kind of felt duets should be like. Just two dudes (or a bear and monkey, I guess) scatting off each other and having a laugh. What’s even more surprising about it is how genuine it sounds despite being recorded at separate times in separate studios. Prima’s band laid down the basic track and vocals early, and Prima left room in his scatting for Harris to fill in later. Harris filled in the gaps beautifully — to my critical ears this still sounds like the two of them in front of the same mic just grooving out. Still looks great, too.
Genuine fun moment: At 3:49 — Louis: “RAAAAR RAAAAR!” Phil: “Get MAAAAAD baby!”

Paul McCartney & Elvis Costello – You Want Her Too
In the time since his late 1980s collaboration with Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello’s gone on to collaborate with just about everyone, but Attractions aside, he’d really been his own man up until then. Whether the collaboration helped stop Macca’s 1980’s slide (Can anyone listen to the second half of Press to Play?) is also a good point of debate, and their work together produced many songs finer than this one (“My Brave Face,” “Veronica,” “The Lovers that Never Were,” “So Like Candy”…), but this proved to be the only true duet and a walloping one at that, from Macca’s 1989 record Flowers in the Dirt. It’s hard to believe anyone would challenge McCartney for a girl’s hand (especially at any point during Linda’s life). Still, this song is a hell of a lot more believable than Macca/Jacko’s “The Girl is Mine.” And Elvis is audibly reveling in his role here as the snarky antagonist. But the best thing is the vocals they both deliver — the impassioned screams on the chorus seeming to prod each man’s emotion just a little further. The fade-out with the big band horn bursts seems like a knowing tip of the hat to the past — “Remember those great duets from that time? Yeah, we just added a nice one ourselves.”
Genuine fun moment: Although you can’t hear either of them laughing (might break the song’s sentiment), you can really hear them winding each other up at the 1:55 mark. Paul: “Oh my conscience is clear and STRONG!” Elvis: “YES! SHE SAYS I’M JUST THE BOY FOR IT!”

Sammy Davis Jr. & Dean Martin – Sam’s Song
Sam did a pretty great duet with Ol’ Blue Eyes, too — “Me and My Shadow” — but that song doesn’t have the camaraderie of “Sam’s Song.” When Frank and Sam sing together, Frank kind of sounds like the big guy gracious enough to let another guy take a little bit of his vinyl space. But when Sam and Dean sing together, they riff off each other fabulously. Given that this was recorded in 1966 (for The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show), they had a lot of time to finesse their interchanges at the legendary Rat Pack summits in the early part of the decade. Sure, there are a few ridiculous moments — the whole “Clyde’s Song” bit, for example — but it genuinely sounds like these two are having a blast together in front of the mic.
Genuine fun moment: At 0:40 when Dean asks “Sam who?” Sammy replies “Sam Houston.” Dean’s bemused “Oh…” response is almost enough to make me believe that bit was ad-libbed.

Have a good weekend, all.

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Car seat is freezing.

January 9, 2010

I last did a Winter Mix in 2008, but I skipped it last year because of the conversion to the new blog site and a general apathy towards the season last year anyway.

But seeing as how the blog is getting more frequent (relatively, of course) updates now, it seems mighty unfair to leave all you good readers with no mix until spring rolls around again. After Christmas, there’s still a hell of a lot of winter to go, you know, and it’s only natural that a handful of good tunes could make the insufferable days a little more sufferable.

Here’s 20 I think should help.

The Winter’s Tale
The “Ain’t Superstitious, But These Things I’ve Seen” 2010 w
inter mix

Download Part 1 (tracks 1-11 in a .zip file)
Download Part 2 (tracks 12-20 in a .zip file)


01. The Bird and the Bee – Last Day of Our Love
This song is culled from Inara and Greg’s 2008 EP “One Too Many Hearts,” which is a very charming little set of songs (as all their EPs and LPs are). This may not be the finest moment on that EP (that honor has to go to the faithful cover of “Tonight You Belong to Me”), but this song is awash in that Bird and Bee sheen and the pulsating strings and keyboards just add a lovely little soundtrack to the coldness of the season. May not warm you up in itself, you know, but still brings a bit of a smile to your face.

02. Jon Brion – Theme
One of the many lovely instrumental bits Brion composed for the 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Maybe I think this song has a winter feel because of the movie — the scenes of Joel and Clementine driving around on cold days and nights and that great scene during the memory erasure montage where they jump out of bed on a snow-covered beach. This piece has a beautiful tone to it and a very beguiling charm that seems to innately makes you that happy kind of sad.

03. Oasis – Waiting For the Rapture (Alternate Version #2)
This outtake was pinned onto the deluxe edition of Oasis’ fabulous 2008 album Dig Out Your Soul, and likely represents the way Noel Gallagher originally intended the song to be heard. The “Five to One” pastiche of the final version that made the album certainly has its own brand of awesomeness, but there’s also a great brooding feel to this version that gives you a little chill. Noel sings in a voice just a little above a whisper, exchanging all the conviction of the final version for a bit more foreboding. Still romantically tinged, of course, but something about slowing the song down and delivering like this makes it a bit more dangerous than with the electric guitars and big rock and roll stomp.

04. Joy Division – Atmosphere
This song was originally a French-only B-side, but after Ian Curtis’ suicide, the song gained new legs and kind of worked as his (and Joy Division’s) almighty epitaph. Like the whole of Joy Division’s catalogue, there’s no really friendly sing along feel to this, but there’s a certain indefinable quality here that makes it 10 times more hopeful and optimistic than anything else they ever did. Maybe it’s the synthesized strings and chimes, or maybe it’s the repeated orders of “Don’t walk away in silence.” Pretty much any Joy Division song could be on a winter’s mix, but this is more for those sunny winter days that are brutally cold. Yeah, it’s still a pain to be outside, but something about the sun being out makes everything slightly more bearable.

05. The Raveonettes – Here Comes Mary
Everything about this song sounds straight out of 1958, which I’m sure was Sune and Sharin’s intention, but it still baffles me that this is actually a product of 2005 and their excellent album Pretty in Black. The melody and harmonies bear a striking similarity to the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream,” but with a lyric about a suicidal girl who’s just had her man die, the comparisons probably don’t go too far. Although I wonder if the Everly Brothers could’ve sung a song like that on Ed Sullivan in the late ’50s… Anyway, the bleak storyline aside, this song positively shimmers and for my money, is the best thing the duo has done.

06. Damien Rice – Lonelily
I never got onto the whole Damien Rice train that everyone else did in 2004 and 2005. It was all just a little too college-popular for me, but I was also chasing a girl for a little while in 2005 that was absolutely crazy for him and I thought if I was to have any shot with her, I would have to do my due diligence and try to get into him myself. This was the only song that ever struck me. Maybe it’s appropriate as it kind of describes what happened between me and her, but my chief memory of this song is a late-April snowstorm (as we’re prone to in Wisconsin) and driving to meet her for lunch as this song played. Something about it seemed very promising, and so this song has always carried a winter feel for me.

07. Electronic – Can’t Find My Way Home
Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner didn’t venture into other bands’ material too much when they were working together as Electronic, but this Blind Faith deep cut provided them a lovely little opportunity to pay due respects to the past and put their own unique stamp on the song. Pulled from 2000’s sorely overlooked Twisted Tenderness, this is the kind of thing I think a lot of people would have enjoyed a lot more from Electronic — some incredible Johnny  Marr acoustic and electric guitar work, prominent but not overbearing synth and programming work by Barney, and a fabulously direct but unimpressive vocal.

08. Ben Folds Five – Brick
A recent entry in my “Confessions of a ’90s Survivor” series, but the song really is too good to be hamstrung by its popularity in wildly expansive musical decade. I don’t know of any other songs dealing with abortion that were this popular or this effective, but if the plodding bass and drum lines don’t stir up a bit of coldness, Folds’ description of the fateful day — down to the smells and feel of the journey between the apartment and clinic probably will get you. Of course, the chorus is still pretty gorgeous and saves the song from making you want to down all the Prozac you have left. It sent the Whatever and Ever Amen album into the stratosphere and pretty much unfairly pigeonholed the band of smartasses as a troupe of heavy balladeers, but eh… between tongue-in-cheek covers of “Careless Whisper” and “Bitches Ain’t Sh*t,” Folds is doing a pretty good job of keeping the stigma at bay.

09. Betty Carter – I Can’t Help It
Beautiful pull from Carter’s 1958 album Out There With Betty Carter, this song just sounds to me like a Saturday inside watching a crazy snowstorm outside the window. Of course, many great female jazz singers should be able to deliver that kind of calm in the storm feel, but the production here — and the way Carter backs off the mic to wail “That’s the way that I am, I don’t know how to share” at the 1:24 mark — it’s a great combination to illustrate calm in the storm.

10. Billy Bragg – Ash Wednesday (Band Version)
A lot of Bragg fans missed this track, as it was tucked away as B-side to the 2008 “I Keep Faith” single, and, to my knowledge, only made available to those who could track down the single on iTunes. I don’t know if there is an acoustic or non-band version, like the rest of the Mr. Love & Justice album, but something about this minimalist melody and furrowed-brow delivery makes me think it probably found its most powerful delivery in this state.

11. Phoenix – (You Can’t Blame it On) Anybody
My personal favorite Phoenix track and the centerpiece of 2004’s Alphabetical album (“Everything is Everything” is good, but it ain’t this good). Like many of their tracks, the productive gives the track a cold sterility, but the groove is just perfect and warms any listener up to it. If this is the sound of falling in love with bespectacled Italian girls, well I’m looking that much more forward to my trip over there come this summer. They also need major kudos for using the line “Let me misunderstand you” in the chorus. In writing, it doesn’t look like much, but listen to that line. Very powerful. Maybe I’ll use that next time I’m picking a girl up…

12. Noonday Underground – Go it Alone
Noonday Underground is the kind of band you don’t know enough about and definitely need to check out, because it’s categorically enjoyable groove music. Everything great about the band is captured on their 2002 album Surface Noise, which includes this ice cold cut. Simon Dine is the brains behind the outfit and you can tell by the soul grooves he puts together that it’s no surprise Paul Weller is eager to work with him time and again. Daisy Martey’s vocal on this thing is all kinds of cool. Listen to how she lets go at the 1:50 mark with that “What do I need to erase?” line. It’s those little moments that make you love music.

13. Sleeper – Come On Come On
It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know about Sleeper in the 1990s. Between Justine Frischmann, the Spice Girls and Diane out of “Trainspotting,” my teenage mind had enough UK ladies to think about, but since finding out about Sleeper a couple years ago, I’ve fallen desperately in love with the Louise Wener of 1995-1999. One view of the “Nice Guy Eddie” video should more than explain why, but the other thing about Wener is that she could write a fabulous little song time and again. This ethereal little piece never got much exposure since it was a B-side to the overlooked-even-in-England single “She’s a Good Girl,” so I feel a sense of civic duty in making this as available to the masses as possible. That way I can go, “You know, that Louise Wener…” and more of my American male friends can say, “Oh, dude… I know.”

14. Elliott Smith – Twilight
I don’t often listen to Smith’s posthumous album From a Basement on the Hill, because aside from the opening “Coast to Coast,” it just feels a bit too much like a funeral record to me. Posthumous albums should be more like wakes, I think. Given’s Smith’s suicide, the album just invited all sorts of lyrical overanalysis, and while his output during him time on earth wasn’t exactly of the “Hooray for Everything!” variety, there was a bit more charm. The crickets on “Twilight” kind of make it a bit less wintery, but the way he just seems to hit the guitar and the absolutely-defeated delivery… this thing is just cold. I’m sure everyone’s been in a relationship and thought “This other person seems to get me a lot better,” and while that’s probably served as a lot of couples’ ruin, it’s never sounded quite as painful as when Elliott sang about it. Still, this is kind of pretty.

15. Keith Richards – Hate it When You Leave
This song is the single reason why Keef should be everybody’s favorite Stone. Forget the riffs, forget the “cockroaches and Keith Richards” jokes, forget the complete embodiment of rock and roll that he is. Just listen to this. He’s not a great singer, this song features no flash guitar solos — just a bit of musing on a tired Motown-era beat — but it’s more effective than anything Mick Jagger’s ever done on his own and it’s more powerful than anything the Stones have done since Some Girls. The rest of 1992’s Main Offender isn’t a patch on this song, but this is the kind of track that makes an otherwise iffy album entirely worth the price of purchase.

16. Fiona Apple – Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
I know I said in a recent “Vs.” that I prefer the Jon Brion-produced version of this song that featured fabulous live drumming and a carnival-esque backing, but this version from the “proper” version of Extraordinary Machine, is a bit more appropriate for a winter mix. The keys and beat just sound like icicles falling, and while this version lacks the verve of Brion’s, Apple’s take-no-sh*t delivery mirrors the mindset of pretty much everyone (in Madison at least) around the time of the third or fourth big snowfall of the season. The camaraderie and willingness to help neighbors shovel is out the window as everyone takes an “everyone for themselves because this now is everyone else’s fault” mindset.

17. Tom Waits – Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis
A lot of bloggers put this song on their Christmas mixes, and while I’ve noodled with the idea, I just don’t see this song as a Christmas song. I can listen to it any time of year, although the sentiment does seem tailor made for a cold winter day. Waits reads the letter with no defined lyrical form, just in his pained growl over a sad piano and electric piano backing, but it suits the song so perfectly. And while I find parts of it absolutely hilarious — “Still have that record of Little Anthony and the Imperials, but someone stole my record player, now how do you like that?” But I also find the end of the song where the author admits everything is a lie and she just needs a bit of cash heartbreaking every damn time I listen to it. From 1978’s Blue Valentine, this is not only the best moment on the album, but it’s one of the best moments of Waits extensive catalogue.

18. Radiohead – 15 Step
Radiohead’s kind of like Joy Division in the sense that you could probably make a winter mix out of their songs alone, but this thrilling opening to the In Rainbows album is one of the better (if less obvious) candidates. Something about the frenetic beat reminds me of driving down a just-cleared road after a big snowstorm. Hitting a few patches of ice, newly popped potholes — never really getting into a comfortable groove and gripping the steering wheel just a little tighter than you normally would. Of course, when the guitar comes in, it’s kind of that chill moment you get when you realize driving is far from ideal, but it’s also not quite as treacherous as you thought it would be.  Doesn’t mean you don’t continue squeezing the wheel, though.

19. Morrissey – Late Night, Maudlin Street
I’ve always thought this song was a little too over the top, and one of the prominent reasons most people think of Morrissey the way they do. It’s more than 7 minutes of melodrama, there’s nothing about the music that makes you want to move — in fact, it almost forces you to sulk as you listen. But the reason I don’t skip ahead to the next track every time I’m listening to Viva Hate is that lyrically, there’s some genuine Morrissey brilliance in here. The admission of sleeping with a framed picture being “silly,” the profession to love at first sight being real, and the potent quotable: “But you without clothes, oh, I could not keep a straight face. Me without clothes? Well, a nation turns it back and gags.” Unless you’re a through-and-through Morrissey-phile, it’s hard to find a proper place to put this song for good listening. Even on Viva Hate, its a little more laborious than it needs to be. But a winter mix? Ah, we just might have found a home, Moz.

20. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – Hang On
Partly because you need something sprightly to follow “Late Night, Maudlin Street” and partly because you need a bit of brightness to pull you through the always unreasonably long winter, Isobel’s porcelain voice breezing over a great little guitar hook is a good send off for this kind of mix and the bright spot that makes the rest of winter not look so bad. Even when the f*cking groundhog sees his shadow. A lot was made about Isobel and Mark’s first teaming on Ballad of the Broken Seas, but 2008’s Sunday at Devil Dirt — which this comes from — also deserves a good listen. 


Stay warm, folks.

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Yes, I know, it’s too late.

January 6, 2010

So as you may have noticed, during the month of December, all monthly series were suspended for the best tracks of the year countdown and Christmas mix madness, but one of my friends I happened to grab a drink with during my Holiday break gave me a bit of guff for not doing a “Confessions of a ’90s Survivor” during November. Since the Christmas mix went up right after Thanksgiving, I remembered he was right and decided to make that up as quickly as possible.

The “Confessions of a ’90s Survivor” is one of this blog’s most consistently popular sections, so the good news is to all you readers that there will be two this month.

And since I got reprimanded to make things right from November, here’s my answer.

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR

Backstreet Boys – I Want it That Way
From: Millennium

Pop music, and the way it constantly moves in cycles, always fascinates me. Certainly there was no real inkling throughout the 1990s that any boy band would have the opportunity to reach the same kind of popularity that the New Kids on the Block had in the late 1980s and the very early part of the 1990s. Nevermind the age-defined audience that you’re only going to be able to tap into for a precious few years, the fact of the matter is that the grunge movement of the early 1990s seemed tailor-made to blow out the pop fluff that had gotten a little too comfortable in the mainstream.

The advent of gangsta rap, Britpop, industrial and goth seemed like strong reinforcements to keep boy bands at bay, but alas, you look through the charts and there was always a Take That, Soul For Real or Westlife hovering and ready to pounce. Because there are always going to be 15-year-old girls, this is the cross music aficionados have to bear.

I distinctly remember “Rolling Stone”s first review of the Spice Girls’ debut. It was before “Wannabe” went radioactive and when it was reasonable to believe that five British girls singing about friendship and sex — well, sex if you’re decent enough to also respect a girl’s need to hang with her friends — probably wasn’t going to generate more American interest in London than Bush, Oasis, the Prodigy and Elastica combined, much less a major motion picture. In fact the review made a point of comparing the Spice Girls to little more than a female New Kids on the Block. Ouch.

But for whatever reason, manufactured pop found it’s way back out of the containment zone in 1996 and 1997 and not only did we have to worry about five (admittedly attractive) limey women, but a whole rash of bottled-blonde teenage boys out of Florida.

Could any of us take the Backstreet Boys seriously? Well as a high school male at the time of their rabid popularity, no, certainly not. At least not if I wanted to live another 10 years to blog about how stupid it all was. But it’s not like they were that great of a group, anyway. The way Max Martin was writing pop hits in the late 1990s, I could have been an international superstar — gawky frame draped in oversized T-shirts and all. That doesn’t mean I would’ve been a particularly good showman. I like to dance, but I’d say I’m average at best. I like to sing, but I would never say I’m particularly good at it. And neither were any of these five chuckleheads. I’m supposed to be impressed because you can spin a folding chair around and sit down backwards on it? F*ck off.

But before old Papa Lou got himself in trouble for ponzi schemes and kiddy-fiddling, he damn well knew how to capitalize on the hormonal freak-out ability of teenage girls. The Backstreet Boys’ and NSYNC’s first albums were simply dangerous forewarnings of what was to come. Britney Spears got all popular in 1998 to get everyone crazy for the boys’ return in 1999.

And “I Want it That Way” represented the horrible realization that popular music might never again be about being able to play a guitar. It would just be about peroxide, a rudimentary ability to dance, shady, overweight, middle-aged balding managers and a Swedish songwriter in the frightening habit of being able to finance castles with 3-minute songs.

You look back at the song’s video now, and it’s easy to laugh. Private jet! Hangar full of girls! Stupid dancing in white outfits in an airport check-in area! Of course it’s funny. Now we have the hindsight of “House of Carters” and the blonde one’s abnormal desire to be black at 30-odd years of age. What about the little red headed one… he found Jesus, right? The purported “bad boy” of the group looks like those self-absorbed dudes in my college philosophy classes that wanted to tell you why they appreciated Kierkegaard on a much greater level than you. And the other two… well who cared about the pony tail one and as for the tall one, wasn’t he about 40 when this video was filmed? Hilarious.

Ah, but now think back to 1999 and how often this video was on MTV and VH1 and how frighteningly often it was on both simultaneously. Guys like myself decried it at every opportunity and made mental notes of all the stupid little features (e.g., the “bad boy” holding up two fingers and a thumb when he asks if he’s your “one” desire), but frankly, the amount of airplay this crap got seemed to be some kind of sign of the apocalypse. When NSYNC followed with that one-two punch of “Bye, Bye, Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” well… mankind looked decidedly screwed.

And what kind of message did it send to high school boys anyway? If all the girls we were after were interested in stupidly-dressed dudes with $300 haircuts you could probably fake for the cost of a bottle of gel, we could probably get creative. But access to private jets and dance routines in airport terminals? I guess in that economy anything was possible, but if we couldn’t do that, maybe the best we could do was tolerate the girls we liked obsessing over one of them and putting their CDs on in our cars. Sometimes accepting defeat is what you have to do to win a girl’s heart.

I distinctly remember walking out of Willowbrook High School one day in the fall of 1999. A school bus was sitting outside with members of the cross country team awaiting to depart to some meet in some other Chicago suburb. As I walked to my car I saw a senior lower a window toward the rear of the bus and negotiate his upper torso through the small opening. Provoked by I don’t know what, he started making a raise the roof motion with his hands and screaming at the top of his lungs:

“TELL ME WHY-EE!!! TELL ME WHY-EE!!!!”

Was he mocking the song? Entirely possible. Was he doing it to get the attention of a female teammate? Entirely possible.

A big part of me is glad bands like the White Stripes and Strokes came along shortly thereafter to put this kind of music back into its corner.

Another part of me wonders how many more years the Jonas Brothers have. And I don’t care that two of ’em play guitar.

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Everybody knows I’ve been wasting my time.

January 5, 2010

You know what’s strange? I took a week and a half-long vacation that started the evening before Christmas Eve (Christmas Eve Eve, if you will), with my heart set on relaxing, doing some writing for non-jobalistic reasons and getting to a bunch of things that had escaped me throughout November and December because of the crazy pre-holiday rush. Not a lot got done.

And keeping tabs on this blog was one of the things that got lost in the shuffle. It’s not that I don’t mind the break from work and the time with family and old friends, but blimey if the days don’t seem just as filled as they do when you’re not “working.”

So a minorly-belated Happy New Year to all you dear readers, and here’s a promise that posting and those much beloved monthly series will resume. And yeah, there’s still a lot of winter to slog through yet, so the 2010 winter mix is not far behind.

For now, I apologize my absence and simultaneously request your forgiveness by way of song.

The Dave Clark Five – Everybody Knows (I Still Love You)
If you’re an average DC5 fan, that is, you don’t change the station when “Glad All Over” or “Catch Us if You Can” comes on the radio, you’ll probably really dig this track and might even look a little deeper into the band. If you’re a true blue DC5 fan, you probably already know this song intimately and are prepared to argue it’s merits as possibly the very best thing in the band’s catalogue. On the surface, it’s a strange choice to secure that title — surely “Because” is prettier and “Glad All Over” and “Bits and Pieces” are miles more fun. Hell, this song doesn’t even scratch the 2-minute mark and was tucked inconspicuously away on the generally unremarkable Coast to Coast album. But… jeez, listen to it. I don’t know if it’s the jabs from the organ, the tight harmonies or the way Mike Smith’s vocal dominates the verses, but this song just demands you listen over and over and over again. Moreso than the song that actually uses that lyric, in fact.