Archive for February, 2010

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I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me.

February 24, 2010

CONFESSIONS OF A ’90s SURVIVOR

The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony
From: Urban Hymns

This is probably the hardest “Confessions” post I’ve had to write yet in that I’m a huge Verve fan, the proud owner of each of Richard Ashcroft’s solo albums and I rate Urban Hymns as one of the five greatest albums of all time. Trying to put what I consider to be one of the finest songs of the decade in the same category as I did with songs by the Backstreet Boys and Barenaked Ladies seems to tread a bit too close to sacrilege, but hey, my whole appreciation of the Verve started the first time I heard “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”

As a rabid Anglophile in 1997, it didn’t take much to tip me headlong into the Verve’s back catalogue, and the fact that the band was Oasis-approved only made my investigation of earlier albums such as A Northern Soul that much more enjoyable.

But not everyone was as obsessive as I was in the latter half of the ’90s. For a lot of people, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was simply a great slice of fist-in-the-air bravado that seemed nicely tailored to temporarily serve as a personal creed, whether you were working out, stuck in traffic or watching the end of a melodramatic teen movie.

And don’t tell me the song’s testosterone-laced video didn’t give you a bit of inspiration as you trudged down your own neighborhood sidewalks or high school hallways. Ramming your shoulders into those of a passerby, hopping on the hood of a car and/or completely ignoring a woman giving you a face-to-face verbal undressing didn’t make you any less of an as*hole in 1997, but at the very least it put things into context. Didn’t matter where you were headed, the point was to not let anyone get in your way or intimidate you (and yes, Chumbawamba will also address this topic at a later point in this series).

To describe exactly why or how the sampled strings combined with Pete Salisbury’s militant drumming stirred up triumphant emotions in people is beyond me. The simple answer, I suppose, is that’s the power of a good song. Some tunes makes you want to nod your head, others make you want to sing along. Songs like “Bitter Sweet Symphony” are enough to make you want to take over the world for the few minutes it’s on. And if you think that’s hyperbole, I might ask you why Nike incorporated it for seemingly that very reason.

You also had to give the band credit for building a monster out of such an obscure sample. While Puff Daddy was establishing himself as alpha male by rhyming over 1980s hits and identifying samples had become the dominant theme in hip-hop culture, the Verve decided to transpose the formula on rock and roll. Instead of taking the Noel Gallagher-like easy road of lifting an identifiable riff for your own purposes however, the Verve raided the vinyl shops and  uncovered an album of early 1960s Rolling Stones hits symphonically arranged under the moniker of the Andrew Loog Oldham orchestra.

Apparently this is how said orchestra hears “The Last Time.” I’m still not completely sure I follow.

But while Marc Bolan’s estate never phoned up Noel Gallagher to inquire about “Cigarettes & Alcohol,” Mick and Keef got a bit pissy that six notes from an orchestrational interpretation of their hit had been pinched for one of the biggest songs of 1997. As a result, Richard Ashcroft shared co-writing credits with Jagger and Richards and all the royalties from the Verve’s biggest song had to go to the Stones’ former publishing company, ABKCO. Oldham also sued the Verve in 1999 to try to get a cut of the profits the song continued to turn in.

Pushing the injustice a little further still, Mick and Keef really had no standing whatsoever to get so protective in the first place.

But of course all that lawyer business was only interesting to the people that were wound up enough by the song in the first place to wrap themselves up in the Verve’s musical output. Urban Hymns shifted a lot of copies, and I’m sure 75 percent of the people in the world that own A Northern Soul or A Storm in Heaven only made the purchase because they believed Urban Hymns was so powerful.

For a major sect of society, though, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was enough. The single would do, or the video… or the edited version that continually popped up on radio throughout 1997 and 1998. As all popular songs in the 1990s did, its time came and went and relegated a band capable of producing one of the greatest albums of all time to “one-hit wonder” status.

Of course, the song’s sheer musical force also gave it a better degree of staying power than, say, “I Want it That Way” or “Tha Crossroads.” The Verve coasted through a decent-enough reunion run in 2008 that produced an album of entirely new material but still was  powered by the public’s lasting reverence for “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” The song is now a touchstone for any 1990s montage sequences and even found itself at the center of the most heated debate about 2005’s Live8 benefit.

2000s survivors love it. 1990s survivors that remember the video and what that song first meant detest it.

Did Richard Ashcroft sell out? Did Coldplay just unapologetically jump on the coattails of a song far better than anything in their own catalogue? F*ck all the lawsuits surrounding the song — this still seems like its gravest injustice.

But it’s a bitter sweet symphony. That’s life.

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It’s the tick of our time and the tick in her hair that made me feel so strange.

February 11, 2010

Despite many of my friends’ best efforts, I haven’t yet been able to crack the “Oh, you must love…” enigma that is (are?) the Kings of Leon.

One of my best friends has been on me about getting into them since they put out their debut album when I was still a collegiate chap, and now all the fuss and hysteria surrounding this “Use Somebody” song makes me think one of two things. 1) I completely missed out on the band’s up and coming years and trying to get into them now would stink of Johnny-Come-Latelyism, or, 2) Has it already been about 5 years since they were first being pushed on me? Either way, I still don’t care.

I’ve heard “Use Somebody.” It’s not a *bad* song. But that doesn’t mean I’ll ever understand the hype.

But back in September when I interviewed Craig Reid of the Proclaimers, he cited the Kings of Leon as a permanent fixture on the stereo system as the Proclaimers made their way through another American tour. Craig’s got pretty decent taste in music, so I thought maybe I should give them another chance. Especially as the Proclaimers’ one-off cover of “17” last year almost bested anything on the whole of the Notes & Rhymes album (“Wages of Sin” excluded, of course).

Anyway, for this month’s “Vs.” I thought we’d take a listen to the two versions side by side.

I don’t know what it says about me that I tend to enjoy songs about being attracted to younger girls. From Travis’ “U16 Girls” to Rooney’s “Daisy Duke,” singing about illegal love just seems to bring out rockers’ finer songwriting sensibilities. I’m sure some Big Brother agency is reading this is and preparing for thorough searches of my computer’s hard drive, but while forbidden love tends to make for nice songs, I can honestly say I’m probably more likely to chase an older woman. A comprehensive look at the girls I’ve dated in the last few years would back that up — the average tips slightly to women that were either by weeks, months or years my senior.

Anyway, enough self analysis — “17” is another fine addition to the pop lexicon of writing about underage girls. Not quite as catchy as “Daisy Duke,” but still finely crafted with some nifty lyrics to drive the point home — “I could call you baby, I could call you dammit, it’s a one in a million” is a nice one, and who isn’t encouraged to stay by a rolling Spanish tongue?

Musically, Kings of Leon, give it fine modern rock bluster on their Only By the Night LP and the “ooohs” during the chorus are a fine touch. Still, it feels a little like a mile-run used to feel to me in junior high. You have those bursts where you feel like you can finish the sucker in seven minutes flat, and then those draggy bits where you’re sure it’s not going to end for another half hour.

The Proclaimers version stays a bit more on a constant track. Recorded last year for an EP named after the track, I still have not found a version that contains any tracks besides it. So while it’s technically wrong to call the “17 EP” an EP at all, my genuine favoritism of the band makes that easy enough to forgive.

The Proclaimers are actually a damn fine covers band, hitting homers time and again with the likes of “King of the Road,” “Five O’Clock World,” “Get Ready,” “Whole Wide World,” and “(I’m Gonna) Burn Your Playhouse Down.”

The charm in their take on “17” is that they return the instrumentation that defined their 1987 debut, This is the Story — acoustic guitar, sparse harmonica and the Reid brothers’ strong vocals. Musically, it’s not the most virtuoso performance you’ll ever hear, but as they do on pretty much every song they’ve ever recorded, the vocal blend is just amazing.

I’m a stone cold Proclaimers fan, so I’ve got to go with their version in this fight, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who would argue it isn’t a patch on the Kings’ version. Your thoughts?

Kings of Leon vs. The Proclaimers
“17”

Kings of Leon – 17

The Proclaimers – 17

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Try my love again.

February 4, 2010

Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson always get looked over on Feb. 3, don’t they? I mean, DJs will probably spin “Chantilly Lace” and “La Bamba” (and maybe “Donna”) at some point today, but when you stack up those two artists against the work of Buddy Holly, well how can you compare?

This post will do nothing to give Valens and the Big Bopper any extra love (although eternal credit to Ritchie for “Come On Let’s Go” and the Bopper for writing “Running Bear”).

Ah, but Buddy Holly. The true music fan’s unending source of wonderment. His professional recording career didn’t even last two years and yet the gulfs he jumped between “That’ll Be the Day” and “True Love Ways” are enough to make the Beatles’ progress in their seven-year recording career look like it unfolded at a snail’s pace. What if Buddy hadn’t chartered that flight 51 years ago tonight? What advances could he have made by the end of 1959, let alone into the 1960s? Honestly, the mind boggles.

But at the same time, Buddy was never immune to some of the same song writing traps that many popular artists fall into when they stumble upon (or hear) a chord structure they particularly like. Some time in 1957, Buddy probably heard Mickey & Sylvia’s top 40 hit “Love is Strange” and the humming and hawing over a moderate A-D-E progression. Now did Buddy plagiarize it and make all of his songs sound the same? No. But it popped up with as much frequency as one progression might in the course of a year and a half’s worth of songwriting.

The obvious song Holly mirrored “Love is Strange” with is “Words of Love.” Ah, but there were a few more…

Buddy Holly – Words of Love
“Words of Love” was recorded in 1957 and issued as a single on Coral records, but it also made Holly’s sophomore album, Buddy Holly, in 1958. Not only is the guitar pattern strikingly similar to “Love is Strange,” but Holly also injects his own brand of “Hmmm-hmmm-hmmm”s into the song. It’s more famous, of course, for being one of the first examples of double tracked vocals in pop music, but given how much historians knock other artists for pinching Buddy’s stuff, it’s always bemused me that few people stop to go, “Well, Buddy stole that idea, actually…”

Buddy Holly – Listen To Me
While “Words of Love” found its way on to Side 2 of Buddy Holly, “Listen To Me” actually made Side 1. Listeners could be forgiven for thinking they were hearing an alternate version of the same song — different lyrics and an altered melody, sure, but tempo and guitar-wise, “Listen To Me” is the direct spawn of “Words of Love,” which I guess makes it the niece of “Love is Strange.” Still a fabulously beautiful song in its own right and the middle section provides a gorgeous change of pace, but I have to wonder if Buddy was writing this going, “Can I use the same progression again? At this tempo? Well, why the hell not…”

Buddy Holly – Dearest (Fragment)
A few weeks before his death, Buddy committed a bunch of new song ideas to tape in his New York apartment, and “Dearest” was among them. The apartment demo made both my Autumn mix last year and (more famously) the “Juno” soundtrack, but last year’s Down the Line: Rarities compilation provided a fresh version version of it that, although incomplete, sounds a little clearer than the version that made its way to a million posthumous bootlegs and compilations. “Dearest” is a little different from “Words of Love” and “Listen to Me” — he’s stuck a capo a few frets higher on his guitar, but it’s still that moderate A-D-E progression driving the song. And even though the musical backbone is relatively unchanged, this is still somehow a unique and beautiful tune.

Buddy Holly – Love is Strange
Holly also recorded a home demo of the song that inspired so much of his own work, and this was included on the Down the Line compilation. Following his death, the song along with many of his apartment demos, got posthumous studio embellishment which kind of tainted its original charm. The original demo has a very nice, warm and intimate feel to it. I suppose I understand wanting to try making it more commercial, but this is such a precious little moment… why screw around with it?

The point of all this is not to look at Buddy’s catalogue and say, “Oh look, he just kept doing the same thing over and over.” I mean his genius is that he found new ways each time of doing the same thing — blatant though it may be. None of these songs are as good as “Maybe Baby” or “Well… All Right” in my humblest of opinions, but then again… I highly doubt I could ever write something as fabulous as “Words of Love” or “Dearest” or “Listen to Me” over the same three chords.