Friday, December 12, 2014

The Great Scenes: Jason Bourne and Filmdom's Best Fight Scene

Grantland today posted a long piece by Shea Serrano and Jason Concepcion about the greatest movie fighters ever. It's a really cool piece that I recommend everyone check out. Of course, there's no way anyone was going to agree with everything they chose (and omitted) , but it's a very good list with a nice mix of obscure stuff that I'd never seen before. It even highlighted a really cool moment from Jack Reacher, a decent action flick that no one seems to have seen. 

A list like Shea & Jason's is meant to provoke appreciation for its subject, not to be attacked via pointless argument, so before I start doing just that, let's all take a moment to celebrate how cool good movie fights are, and to thank Shea & Jason for reminding us. 

Overall, I don't find myself with too much to argue against. They definitely like Road House a little too much--and let's be honest, anyone that likes Road House likes it a little too much--and they somehow never mention anything featuring Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson, which feels like a tragic oversight. I know sergeants  John McClane and Martin Riggs aren't exactly the most graceful fighters ever to grace the silver screen, but they're the action stars that an entire generation was raised on, so they deserve a shout out. But those quibbles aside, the big gripe I have about the list is the absence of Jason Bourne. He should have been in the top 4 or 5 of Greatest Movie Fighters. 

What almost every fight scene on the Grantland list has in common is that--in some way or another--style trumps reality. Be it the soundtrack guiding our emotional response, long tracking shots, snappy dialogue among the fighters, exaggerated blood and/or sound effects, inventiveness in weapons that defy logic, blind protagonists, Jean-Claude Van Damme laughably screaming, Patrick Swayze ripping someone's throat out (literally!), Uma Thurman yanking out not one, but two eyeballs, Keanu Reeves doing Keanu Reeves things, Jackie Chan guzzling alcohol like he's Popeye power-upping through spinach, or someone backflipping off an elephant, every single one of the fight scenes highlighted in the Grantland column finds a way to deemphasize the possible reality of the situation. They all proactively act as entertainment, and find specific ways to make sure we're entertained beyond just the hitting. 

Okay, now hold that thought while I pretend to be an expert on something I know nothing about. 

Here's the best fight scene from The Bourne Ultimatum, which is the third film in the series and, for my money, the best action movie of the last 10-15 years. 

This is the most realistic fight scene I've ever seen in a film. I know this from my extensive experience in fights to death. (See, I told you I'd pretend to be an expert on something I know nothing about!)

Everything that I mentioned about being in the other fight scenes is completely absent from this one. Nothing jokey or hokey, ridiculous or self-consciously stylistic. The fighters never crack puns, scream dramatically, make cool poses to intimidate one another, or defy all logic of speed/movement/anatomy. There's no music to heighten the drama. It's simply two-and-a-half minutes of two people trying to kill each other with every ounce of savagery, efficiency, and concentration they can muster, and doing a damn effective job of it. No more, no less. 

I'm perfectly aware that there's a lot more editing in this scene, the shots are infinitely shorter, and that probably hides that the actors have a lot less skill than the actors highlighted in the Grantland piece. But the problem with the less-edited clips in the Grantland piece is that the choreography and scene prepping come across much more. We become more aware of the impressiveness of the craft. With the Bourne fight, the idea is that all awareness of absolutely anything in the viewer is eliminated except for the two characters trying to kill each other. It's all we can see, hear, or think about. 

It's also worth noting that Bourne's final disposal of Desh is far less showy and glamorous than any of the other fight scene climaxes. There's no Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. Bourne simply gets his opponent in a hold, and chokes him until he's dead. (Warning: I'm about to play an expert again.) That's how it would be! 

The pretentiousness often associated with critics of any discipline is that we try too hard to not be entertained. All of the fight clips in the Grantland piece are entertaining, and I truly love a lot of them. But they're all less impressive to me than the Bourne fight because the Bourne fight is the only one that isn't trying to entertain me--it's trying to show me truth. And I find that the most entertaining of all. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Song of the Day: Moby - Extreme Ways (2002)

Some songs just have a perfect time, place, and situation. A lot of songs we refer to as summer songs, or road trip songs, or campfire songs, or bar songs… But here's a song that's perfect for the isolation you can only feel at night in a big city. 

Let me set the scene for you: It's late at night in a big city, the bars have closed, the streets are empty, but the fluorescent lights are still all about you, soaking you in a million colors because you're the only thing in their path. You get in your car, hit the gas, and press play. 

It's those first two siren-like notes that immediately make you feel so cool, like the world is sitting still just so you can have your way with it. 

Virtually every pop song ever written about loneliness takes a sad tone. This one does not. "Extreme Ways" treats loneliness not merely as a proactive choice, but as a necessity, as though only you can handle the intensity of your life, and there's simply no practical place for anyone else. It powerfully creates the backstory of living an adventurous and dangerous life, so of course it immediately became the theme song for a film series about just that. 

"Extreme Ways" is from the 2002 Moby album 18, and just a month after it's release it was used during the end credits of the first Bourne film, The Bourne Identity. The internet seems unsure of whether or not the song was created specifically for the film.  Regardless, it's one of the most perfect marriages of song-to-film that has ever existed--a marriage that proved so durable it continued through three subsequent Bourne films. 

All four Bourne movies end the exact same way--something happens that casts doubt about the fate of the main character, that doubt is slyly eliminated in a clever winking way, and that winking moment is immediately cut into by the opening two sirens of this song, signaling the end of the film and the rolling of the credits, and Moby reassuringly sings to us that "Extreme ways are back again."

Action franchises often get taken to the cleaners by critics and bloggers for recycling the same formulas again and again, but this is the rare exception. Not only does each of the four Bourne films end like this, they end exactly like this, and it feels perfect. It's just the sense of adrenaline inducement that a movie about Jason Bourne is supposed to leave you with. That's how you know a movie theme song gets it just right--when each successive entry in the series still ends with the same song and the audience wouldn't have it any other way. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Song of the Day: Blind Faith - Had to Cry Today (1969)

I've written before about my picks for the first moments of punk rock and indie rock, so I thought it'd be fun to make the same claim on heavy metal. Except I didn't have an answer, so that idea spent a while on my back burner. Then this week, as I've been going through another stack of CDs to potentially get rid of (or "edit," as my aunt calls it), I put on the lone album from 1969 super-group Blind Faith, which I probably listened to twice when I bought it in high school and has been collecting dust on my shelf ever since. It took all of ten seconds into track one to know I'd be writing about it soon. 

Blind Faith was Eric Clapton's fourth band in as many years, formed directly after the dissolution of Cream, almost by accident after a jam session with Steve Winwood while his own band, Traffic, was on hiatus. Their lone album has six tracks, the last of which takes up almost all of side two with relatively aimless Ginger Baker drum solos. Because the album had no hits and possesses easily the worst album cover of all-time (the kind that's so bad you hope prospective girlfriends don't even stumble upon lest you have to defend owning it), it's pretty easy to forget about its existence at all. Cream was great, Derek & the Dominoes had "Layla," and Blind Faith was just that side project in between that no one really cares about. At least, that's the narrative I had in my head. 

I don't really know what I was expecting when I put this album on the other day. I knew what "Presence of the Lord" sounded like because it was on a Clapton compilation I used to have, and it's vaguely boring church-ish blues, so I guess my memory had falsely carried that over as the sound of the whole album. Nope. The first song, "Had to Cry Today," now strikes me as the first heavy metal song. 

First, some timelines: Obviously this came out after Cream's entire career, and it's also after the first Blue Cheer album, the first Jeff Beck Group album, and the first Led Zeppelin album. But those all feel like distinctly hard-edged blues albums from which you can understand the advent of metal, but which don't fully feel like metal themselves. This is prior to Led Zeppelin II, all of Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple's In Rock (their first heavy album), and came out about the same time as the second Jeff Beck Group album, all of which are much closer to traditional metal. 

As with any artistic debate like this, the precise transitive moment is tricky, if there even is one. It's like Descartes' old philosophical question of replacing every board in a ship with a different kind of wood, one by one. At what point is the ship made of a different kind of wood? How many of our hair follicles have to go gray before we officially have gray hair? It's both trivial and arbitrary to pinpoint, but fun and somewhat informative to try. At least as informative as any other argument about pop music really can be. 

Anyway, this is my answer. This opening riff. This is the beginning of heavy metal. Crank it up, stretch out your devil horn fingers, make sure no one's looking, and bang the shit out of your head. And try to pretend it's not Steve Winwood's white-soul voice that you're doing it to. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!! 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Song of the Day: The Faces - Cindy Incidentally (1973)

For the second straight day, rock and roll has lost one of its greatest sidemen. Yesterday it was Bobby Keys, saxophonist for The Rolling Stones, and today it was Ian McLagan, pianist/organist for the Faces and Small Faces. I've written about The Faces before, how they were one of the five best bands of their era, but no one seems to have heard of them anymore. Because of that, comparatively few people will realize what a loss McLagan is, but he was one of the best and most beloved keyboardists in rock, having played at one point or another with virtually everyone. 

I own probably two dozen CD box sets, but my favorite one is the Faces' box set that Ian McLagan compiled in 2004, Five Guys Walk Into a Bar…, because it so gloriously and perfectly recreates the band as they actually were instead of how revisionist history might have dreamt they were. The set isn't remotely in chronological order, nor does it stick to a clear "highlights and lost gems" game plan like so many other box sets do. Instead, it haphazardly runs through 67 songs that range from the singles to drunken rehearsals with unintelligible band dialogue. 

If we've learned one thing from the history of rock artists compiling their own work, it's that they rarely know what the hell they're doing, and their misguided attempts at rewriting history only rob fans of informative listening experiences. Not so with McLagan, who proves to be one of the great exceptions. In the introduction to the box set, McLagan writes that he initially had it organized chronologically, but switched it because that bored him. He continues:

"So I sat down one afternoon, poured myself a pint of black madness, and put on 'Flying.' It was the first song Ronnie, Woody, and Rod wrote together, it was the first track we cut, and it became our first single. So it was the obvious place to start, a nostalgic beginning. But after that I was desperate to hear 'On the Beach,' and then 'Too Bad' followed it so well, and 'If I'm On the Late Side' was a natural after that. I was on a roll, pouring drinks and wiping tears from my eyes all at once."

He then also tells the story of how "Dishevelment Blues" came into existence, that the New Musical Express had asked them for an original song to include on a free flexidisc, and Rod suggested they give the publication this "abomination of a blues, knowing they wouldn't have the balls to use it. But they did." McLagan says he included it on the box because "piss-taking is part of what we were as a band." 

In addition to compiling the definitive history and portrait of the band, McLagan also helped co-write many of The Faces' best songs, and "Cindy Incidentally," which was one of the singles from their final album, is among their loveliest. You can hear in the opening piano melody just how crucial and stylish his playing was to one of the greatest rock bands ever. He'll be deeply missed, but don't feel sad. Instead, pour yourself a pint and press play. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Song of the Day: The Faces - Maybe I'm Amazed (1971)

My cousin has been begging me for a Paul McCartney song, but since I'm not in the business of just totally giving people what they want, he'll have to settle for this, which is arguably the greatest cover of a McCartney song. 

If every band in history were ranked solely by the size of the gap between how great they are and how popular they are (at least for bands whose greatness is higher than their popularity, not the reverse), The Faces would probably be number one. While they enjoyed a good amount of success in the early '70s while they were together, they seem to have been totally and utterly forgotten by history. They have zero name recognition. None of their albums are in print on CD. They have exactly one song that gets touched by classic rock radio ("Stay With Me"). They were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about 15 years too late. But Jesus, consider the pedigree! Three of their members (Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan, and Kenny Jones) were previously in The Small Faces, who were a hugely successful British pop band of the '60s, and two of their members (Rod Stewart and Ron Wood) were previously in The Jeff Beck Group, which was a very popular heavy British blues/hard rock band. And after The Faces broke up, one of them replaced Keith Moon in The Who (Kenny Jones), one of them became the second guitarist in The Rolling Stones (Ron Wood), and one of them became Rod Stewart (Rod Stewart). That's a huge amount of mileage in terms of importance and popularity, and yet the best work any of those five guys did was with this band. So why doesn't anyone but music snobs know who they are? It's a mystery. For people that care about the history of art forms, we always hope that things will get straightened out once the dust settles. And yet that doesn't seem to be working out for The Faces. 

One of the most overused words in rock criticism is ramshackle, and The Faces were the band that word was created for. My app defines ramshackle as "loosely made or held together; rickety; shaky." Ummm, yep. That's these guys. By all accounts they didn't get along great behind the scenes, with two different songwriting/singing factions in the band. When Ronnie Lane wrote their best song, "Ooh La La," there was such a fight over who would sing it between he and Stewart that Ron Wood (who was absolutely not a singer) finally ended up doing the vocal just so neither could be pissed that the other won the fight. And yet, that's part of the song's charm, that it was just sung by this hugely flawed voice, with the great Rod Stewart merely chiming in for harmony work. It sounds like something the band recorded at a drunken bonfire. It also sounds utterly wonderful. Further contributing to the ramshackle nature of the band was that despite none of them having notable drug problems, they notoriously played their shows so shitballs drunk that the concerts had a sort of "anything goes" atmosphere. They were The Replacements before The Replacements. They even used to have a bar on stage! And a bartender!!

But they made truly timeless and phenomenal rock and roll, so much so that all of the band's many flaws appear as charming elements of the whole package. With this song, recorded less than a year after the McCartney version, they begin by eliminating all of the tenderness and poignancy of the original, and then somehow relocating those things along the way almost by accident. It starts like bar band rock and roll. They're probably drunk, they're smiling, the drums are loud. The organ acts as the lead instrument. You could make cogent arguments about how tight the instrumentation is and how loose it is. That's the kind of thing The Faces were very good at--leaving you completely unsure about whether they were on the same page, but thinking that no matter how on or off they were was part of what made it so great. And then, at the 2:46 mark, Rod and Ronnie--band nemeses--join each other at the mic for one of the most lovely chorus harmonies you're ever likely to hear. For just over 30 seconds the rest of the band comes to a virtual halt, and we just get two guys who allegedly hated each other coming together for a sound so beautiful that it demands to be experienced as loud as you can handle it. While the McCartney version is romantic, this one seems celebratory. Rod and Ronnie, huge grins on their inebriated faces, passionately singing to the skies and loving every moment of it. It's no wonder they stretched the song out to six minutes. Why stop when you can sound like that? Then when it finally does stop, the last few notes seem sloppy and accidental. The Faces wouldn't have had it any other way.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on August 4, 2014

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Song of the Day: The Rolling Stones - Sweet Virginia (1972)

The wonderful Bobby Keys, who is probably the second-greatest rock saxophonist ever (RIP Big Man), died this morning after a long fight with cirrhosis. Born on the same day as Keith Richards, Keys was 70 years old. 

Keys, named to play piano and defiantly turning to the sax, was a great rock and roll rebel who started touring with Buddy Holly when he was just 16. He became one of the great session players of the '70s, recording with Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, John Lennon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and several others. But, of course, he's best known as an honorary member of the Rolling Stones, appearing on virtually every Stones album and tour since first teaming with them for '69's Let It Bleed

There are numerous spotlights for Keys' work; His solo on "Brown Sugar" is widely regarded as one of the great sax moments in rock history. He also has a long solo on "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," virtually dominating the second half of the song. My personal favorite Keys moment is his first major Stones contribution, "Live With Me," which is the only rock song I've ever heard to use bass and sax as its two lead instruments. Sadly, the only good live version I could find video of is the excellent 2005 one from Martin Scorsese's concert film Shine a Light, with Christina Aguilera on co-lead vocals, and you should definitely seek that out if you haven't heard it. But I can't deal with that video, because watching 62-year-old-Mick-Jagger grind on 24-year-old-Christina makes me nauseous.

So instead I went with this under-heard gem from the Stones' magnum opus, 1972's Exile on Main Street

I've always regarded Exile as like a Masters Thesis on what rock and roll fundamentally is. It's grimy, rebellious, and mostly recorded in a basement while the Stones were in tax exile. It's a long swirling mix of country, blues, soul, gospel, and everything else, soaked to drowning in drugs and swagger. But good god is it transcendent. Every song feels like a piece of rock and roll dictionary that exists outside of time, like it was discovered on some archaeological dig, all carbon dating attempts failed, and no one bothered to wipe the dirt off--or "scrape the shit off," as Jagger sings here. 

"Sweet Virginia" feels a bit like an attempt to write an early-twentieth-century Carter Family number. It's a song where a long sax solo just should not, would not, could not work. And yet, there it is. I love at the 2:29 mark, where Mick introduces Keys' solo by saying (something like) "Come on Bobby, bring it on home to Texas!"

No matter where he was, who he was playing with, Bobby Keys always brought it on home. He'll be missed. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Song of the Day: Steve Earle - I Feel Alright (1996)

When Steve Earle titled his 1996 album I Feel Alright, few musicians had earned more of a right to the term. After releasing  his first four albums between 1986-1990, Earle's heroin & cocaine addiction spiraled out of control, resulting in two arrests, 60 days of jail time, lots of treatment and rehab, and a long recording hiatus. He had also been divorced four or five times by this point--Wikipedia's chronology of Earle's seven marriages (and counting--ladies, he's currently available!) is a little too hazy for an exact number. 

When Earle finally emerged from this period with his fifth album, 1995's Train A Comin', he was a changed man, relatively over his bad habits, and reinvented as a sort of country-er Springsteen, one of the great Americana singer-songwriters of contemporary music. In the liner notes of his second "comeback" album, I Feel Alright, Earle writes that when he was locked up, he avoided doing time in solitary by promising a friend he would get out as soon as possible and make another album. Then, at the end of the story, Earle writes, "SO I MADE TWO," with the capitalizations all his. Nick Hornby wrote an interesting essay ten years ago about this small symbol of defiance, that the capitalization of that statement made all the difference to Earle. It wasn't merely that he made two albums upon getting out of jail, BUT THAT HE MADE TWO. After all, he felt alright. 

"I feel alright" is one of the most important things any of us can ever say to ourselves. It's a lesson I can never learn or emphasize to myself enough. Just this morning, I was lamenting everything I felt like I need to do--the need to constantly read, write, watch, listen--just constantly consume and process more media to better understand it all. And my wonderful girlfriend said to me, "guilt and shame are not good motivators." She's right. But you know what IS a great motivator? Feelin' alright. 

One of my favorite films of the year is Whiplash, which is currently in theaters, and the key idea of the movie is that one character believes "Good job" is the most harmful thing you can ever say to a talented person, because it stifles the hunger to be better. This isn't true with all people, and with me it certainly isn't. With some people, Michael Jordan, for example, it might be crucial. Jordan thrived on doubt, while some feel crippled by it. One thing I love about the movie is how it forces you to confront the idea of what drives us, what motivates us, and whether any of the ends might justify the means. 

I wonder what Steve Earle would say to the film. Did addiction, jail, and divorce bring out his best? If he could do it all over again, would he avoid drugs and trouble, potentially at the cost of his best and most vibrant music? As he says in the song, "I been to Hell and now I'm back again." Was that a necessary part of the journey? Did it take years of feelin' awful to finally feel alright? Can you have one without the other? 

The greatest TV show of all-time, The Wire, has something to say here. One of many things the show did so well is end each season with a montage, showing us what difference--if any--it all made. The Season 2 ending montage was set to Earle's "I Feel Alright," and it begs the question of whether we all just have to keep saying that, no matter the result of our actions. Progress is slow and non-existent more often than it's anything else, but we still have to believe that our efforts towards progress ultimately matter. 

When Steve Earle released I Feel Alright, he had no way of knowing if it would find an audience, or if people would respond to it, but that wasn't the point. The point was being able to write in those liner notes that HE MADE TWO. That's what made him feel alright, which is all any of us can do. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Song of the Day: Coldplay - Life In Technicolor (2008)

It's rare that a song title can be powerful enough to not only affect how you feel about the song, but also how you process it. The opening track on Coldplay's 2008 album, Viva La Vida, is one of the only songs that's ever had me before it even had the chance to say "Hello."

Working with Brian Eno for the first time gave Coldplay the same reaction as Dorothy exiting her black & white Kansas and emerging into the Technicolor world of Oz. That's what Eno does--he brings you to Oz. 

Most of the great producers have their schticks. Rick Rubin likes to bring things back to basics and distill artists to their core essences of greatness. Spector loved his Wall of Sound, but even more importantly, he liked creating something huge and cacophonous for great vocalists to soar over. With Eno, everything does the soaring. 

I believe without exception, every major rock artist to team with Eno has done the best work of their career under his tutelage. Bowie had his Berlin Trilogy (Low, "Heroes," and Lodger), Talking Heads released a three year trio of great albums that culminated in Remain In Light, which might be the best album of the '80s, and U2 emerged out of their early great-but-limiting post-punk style to change the entire industry twice with Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. All of these artists were great before they met Brian Eno, there's no disputing that. But "Great" has degrees, and Eno helped them all tap into a higher power. He's music's Phil Jackson--the coach lucky enough to mentor the best, but the coach the best trust will bring out their best. 

It's hard to say who Coldplay were prior to Viva La Vida. Their first album was a good post-Britpop album, their second album was phenomenal, and their third album was one of the most disappointing artistic stagnations in recent memory, something so worrisome that it questioned whether they'd ever matter again. Cue Eno. 

I love that Viva La Vida had the audacity to open with an instrumental, and I love even more that it's called "Life In Technicolor." It's the moment in a movie where you eschew dialogue and let the lushness of the cinematography do the talking. Just shut up and bask in the beauty. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Song of the Day: Mickey & Sylvia - Love Is Strange (1956)

I haven't written about any songs from the '50s yet, and now seems like a great time to halt that conspicuous absence. But instead of the usual suspects--Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, etc.--let's start with one of the greatest songs of the era that everyone knows but no one knows who it's by. 

I've known and loved this song for a long time, and for much of that time I even knew it was by Mickey & Sylvia. But, like everyone else, I knew nothing about who they were. So here're some fun facts after a bit of research conducted 20 minutes ago:

--Mickey & Sylvia were a black R&B duo, but Mickey had red hair because it was suspected that his father was a white Irishman. 

--The duo released a total of nine singles, and this was the first. But this was also the only one to crack the Top 40 (it peaked at #11), meaning Mickey & Sylvia were one of the first--and still greatest--One-Hit Wonders. 

--This song was written by Bo Diddley, who never released his recorded version. Officially, the songwriting is credited to Diddley's wife, presumably to keep it away from his music publishers. 

--Many years later, after reinventing herself as a bit of a disco artist in the '70s, Sylvia founded Sugar Hill Records, which released the first several rap singles, included "Rapper's Delight" and "The Message," both of which she produced. So for those keeping score at home, even though none of you have heard of Sylvia Robinson, she performed one of the greatest early rock singles and produced several of the greatest early rap singles. That's both bizarre and amazing, especially for someone who did so little in the two decades between. 

Anyway, here's the elephant in the room:

Yep, everyone too young to be in the AARP probably only knows this song from its famous use in Dirty Dancing, and to be fair, it's a memorable sequence that highlights the song really well. It's also used in in the first Terrence Malick film, 1973's great Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as two lovers/murderers on the run, hiding in the woods and dancing to this song between crimes. It's the movie that provided the name for the great Springsteen track "Badlands," as well as the subject matter for the great Springsteen track "Nebraska." 

But all of that information would be useless if this song weren't great, and it is Great. Most people who hear it only think of the sexy vocal interplay, which, to be fair, is probably Rock and Roll's first great moment of foreplay. But if you can try and tune out the vocals and just isolate the guitar, it's some of the most expressive and minimal guitar playing you'll ever hear. In just a small handful of notes, it somehow unleashes the full range of emotions in both rock and blues, and the best parts of the song are when the vocals stop and let the guitar do the talking. Even though Dirty Dancing used the song for that bit of vocal intercourse, Swayze couldn't help himself but to rock out with some fine-ass air guitar. That's as it should be. I find it difficult to listen to this without summoning my creepiest best John Mayer face. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Song of the Day: Sam & Dave - I Thank You (1968)

It's Thanksgiving, and I wanted a song that reflected the spirit of the day. You didn't have to love me like you did, but you did, but you did. AND I THANK YOU!


If every musical artist of the 20th century were ranked by the size of the gap in how little they recorded to how much I love them, Sam & Dave would almost certainly be #1. The important part of their career really only lasted four years, they released a total of four albums, and probably fewer than 100 songs. But to me, Sam Moore and Dave Prater ARE Soul Music. 

Their vocal interplay was incredible, with most songs acting as a sort of call and response, like they were perpetually in the midst of their own party. It's music that always feels like it's in the heat of the moment, only existing at its peak. The mix of guitar and horns is generally perfect, with both making their presence felt but neither pulling too much attention from the vocals. 

And at the center of it all is Sam Moore, whose voice is like sizzling butter rocketing out of his larynx. It shoots out with a fiery crackle, but immediately melts on impact, coating you in its tasty juices. And then Dave, usually coming in second, relaxes things a bit with his deeper voice, but growls with a potency all his own. Together, they captured the passionate emotional fluctuations of some of the best soul music ever written. 

Sam & Dave-- You didn't have to make it like you did, but you did, but you did. 

And I thank you. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Song of the Day: The Stooges - Down On the Street (1970)

Something that's always fascinated me about pop culture is the power of moments. How does one moment affect certain people in just the right way, so that it starts a trope, a movement, a trend, a scene, a revolution? Can we trace these things back to where the snowball first formed? Can we look at definitive points in time as the first roll of the snowball? With certainty, no, we cannot. But argumentatively, we absolutely can. 

So let's imagine punk rock is a snowball. We can point to so many things from the '50s and '60s as aspects of the snowball taking form, but can we find a moment where someone pushed it downhill, and set in motion the ability for it to gain speed and mass? I think that moment is exactly 44 seconds into the first track on the second Stooges album, 1970's Fun House

Everything up to that point in the song, in The Stooges career, and in rock and roll, flirted with that sort of fury, abandon, defiance, and nihilism, but hadn't quite gotten there yet. And then Iggy shouts "In the wall!" like he can no longer be contained by the previous standards of whatever garage rock was up to that point. A new style was necessitated into existence by the power of that scream. 

The Iggy of this period was less a predictable character of energetic craziness that people generally knew how to consume, and more of a genuine danger that was capable of anything. The above photo is one of my favorite images in rock and roll, because of how messianic it looks, like the audience had, in that moment, found the precise deity they needed. 

The thing about any style of rebellion is that eventually it feels tame, usually sooner rather than later. That's why rock and roll had to lead to Rock, to metal, to punk, to hardcore, to noise, to death metal, to hip hop, to grunge, to gangsta rap, and on and on and on. Nothing that your parents rebelled to can ever feel rebellious to you, by very definition. Each generation needs their own soundtrack of defiance. 

But it still retroactively feels like Iggy discovered something fundamental in that moment of screaming for the wall. This was by no means the first time singers devolved to primal scream during rock music, but it does feel like the first time the music devolved right along with the singer. Rock has a long history of excellent screamers, Lennon and McCartney still being two of the finest. But every time they screamed it felt like their rage was kept in check by the beautiful melodies they were counter-balancing. 

Not so here. The Asheton brothers were not keeping Iggy in check during those moments, but rather finding sonic ways to scream right along with him. There would be consequences. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Song of the Day: Gil Scott-Heron - Ain't No New Thing (1972)

With the depressing verdict in Ferguson, MS, coming down yesterday and deserved national outcry over what it all means, it felt like the perfect time to share Gil Scott-Heron's profound lament, "Ain't No New Thing." 

This song mostly speaks for itself. It's proto-rap, pseudo-jazz, percussive soul poetry. With flute. It isn't directly about anything to do with Ferguson, but really, as Scott-Heron tells us at the song's conclusion, "America is always the same old shit." Misfortune that befalls minorities just matters less to The Man than misfortune that befalls people who look like The Man. 

This really challenges our notions of what a song fundamentally is. There's no real melody to speak of, but there is music. There's no singing, but there is chanting. There's no rock and roll, but there's lots of stickin' it to the man. 

These words have a power that halts whatever you're doing and drops your jaw. "White people couldn't dig havin' their daughters go to no shows and cream over no black man wigglin' on the stage, so consequently, they invented Elvis Presley and let him do it." I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to hear that said in 1972, when the civil rights movement and the changes it wrought were still fresh in the minds of listeners. 

In 1963, Sam Cooke passionately spoke to millions with the immortal words "A Change is Gonna Come." And change did come, a whole lot of it, and now we have a black President. But there's still so much that doesn't change, or at least changes very slowly. 

"We're used to havin' white people try to rob us. Why don't they steal some of this poverty?" 

"Cultural rape, and no geographical boundaries on white hate."

Sadly, it all just ain't no new thing. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Song of the Day: Neko Case - Man (2013)

When I lived in Indianapolis my favorite music store was Indy CD & Vinyl, and their artist labels often had nicknames or various sub-headings written in by the staff. The Neko Case section heading read "Neko Case--Alt. Country Goddess!!" So I always think of that when I'm listening to her. 

Case's discography is remarkably consistent. She's been releasing albums about every three years since the late-'90s and every single one of them is a B+. You definitely get the feeling that she hasn't made her masterpiece yet, but every album is very good and absolutely worth having. She straddles a good meeting point between indie rock, alt. country, and singer/songwriter, and she combines a beautiful voice with very wry and witty lyrics, of which this track from her latest album is a great example. 

Three more fun facts about Neko: 1) She moonlights as the co-lead singer in the Canadian indie-rock collective The New Pornographers, who are also quite good. 2) She openly laments that she doesn't have any groupies and wishes she did. And 3) Her backing band is called "Her Boyfriends," so the marquee at her shows always reads "Neko Case & Her Boyfriends." She's a keen chick.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on June 15, 2014

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Song of the Day: The National - This Is the Last Time (2013)

When I first started doing these posts about a month ago, it wasn't my intention for them to skew so frequently towards decades old music, so I'm going to write about some of my favorite recent stuff for the next several days, starting with probably my favorite band of "Right Now." I guess the way I define that as which band that is currently in the midst of their absolute prime do I love the most? Answer: The National

I first heard these guys in 2007, but they had been around for several years at that point. Their '07 album, The Boxer, was what exposed me to them, and it's a fantastic work. Their sound on that album (which apparently was a bit of a departure from their previous work, but is how they've sounded ever since) was equal parts U2, Leonard Cohen, Joy Division, and Nick Cave, and I'd never quite heard anything like it. Then, in 2010, they released High Violet, which is a strong contender for best album of the last five years. (Kanye's Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the main competition.) High Violet is one of those rare albums that within the first few weeks of listening to it, I sort of knew it would be an important album to me for my whole life. 

About a year ago they released their latest album, Trouble Will Find Me, and this is my favorite song on it. Last summer was a really difficult time in my personal life, and this is the song that become my anthem during that period. Towards the end of the song, a sort of second bridge comes in with singer Matt Berninger's beautiful baritone chanting "I won't be vacant anymore!" Let's just say those words and sonic moments really spoke to me. 

There are a lot of things I love about this band, but two main things immediately hit me every time I hear them. First, they write beautiful melodies and always seem to know exactly when those melodies are best served by somber piano or driving guitar/drums. They straddle that old Pixies "loud-quiet-loud" cliche better than any band has in a long time. And second, Berninger's voice, which cuts to the emotional core of the tracks, and his words which seem simultaneously impenetrable and universal. Like Jeff Tweedy, Berninger's lyrics don't prompt me to do too much analysis of them, but I always feel like I understand them on an implicit level that defies any tangible grasping. One of the best examples is from this very song, when Berninger sings "You're love is such a swamp." Those words really hit me last summer, and they still do. The great songs have a way of doing that.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on June 14, 2014

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Song of the Day: Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information (1974)

A few months ago I finished reading The Rock Snob's Dictionary, which is a semi-satirical book that details everything alleged "rock snobs" know about music that the average person does not. There are a lot of artists featured in the book that I was already familiar with, but also a lot that I wasn't, and I tried to check most of them out as I was reading about them. This book helped me discover a good 8-10 artists that I'm really excited to have finally heard, as well as another several artists that I know I never want to hear again. I'm sure I'll be featuring many of the artists this book helped me discover in the coming weeks and months, such as The Flatlanders, E.S.G., and Gene Clark, but up first is Shuggie Otis, who is thus far my favorite artist the book turned me on to. 

Here's a bit about Shuggie- He's the son of 50's star Johnny Otis, he began playing and recording professionally at the age of 15, his debut album came out when he was 18, he was invited to be the second guitarist in The Rolling Stones at 21 (taking the place of Mick Taylor, who had just quit; When Shuggie turned the gig down, it went to Ron Wood), and he also released his masterpiece at age 21, the album Inspiration Information, of which he played every instrument and this song is the title track. When that album received rave reviews and commercially flopped in 1974, Shuggie went into semi-retirement and obscurity, not releasing any further music until the 2000's. 

The easiest way to classify Shuggie is that he was Prince before Prince. He was a musical savant who began recording very early, played every instrument himself, produced himself, forged a style that drew equally from rock, soul, funk, and jazz, was a truly gifted guitarist, and was a very fair-skinned black man with cool hair and a strange mustache. But whereas Prince's early career failures (tepid sales for his 1980 masterpiece Dirty Mind, being booed off the stage opening for The Rolling Stones that same year) fueled him into another stratosphere of greatness, Shuggie allowed those same failures to convince him to stop making music. It's a sad story. Some people are cut out to use failure productively, others are not. But man oh man, the genius was there. For anyone wondering how pop/soul music evolved from the late-60's psychedelic stylings of Sly Stone and Arthur Lee to the late-70's pop/disco sounds of Michael Jackson and Prince, Shuggie's work is a prime cog in that evolution. 

The concept of being a snob in any field is one I struggle with whether or not to embrace. On the one hand, I don't like being pretentious, and I prefer to be someone who champions quality and tries to find larger audiences for it as opposed to snickering in my exclusivity. I'd much rather great obscure bands (and films, and television shows, etc.) find more people to appreciate them than to revel in what I know that others don't. For great art to survive and thrive, it needs paying audiences. The casualty of a great talent like Shuggie Otis is that audience was never found, and thus the art stopped coming. But one thing I do embrace about the snob label is that the best snobs are always searching for more understanding, more works to admire, more greatness to appreciate. They're always championing the unfairly forgotten parts of history that deserved more recognition, and without them, there wouldn't be any books trying to tell people who Shuggie Otis was. So today, at least, I'm begrudgingly proud to be a Rock Snob.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on June 13, 2014

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

Song of the Day: Paul McCartney - Jenny Wren (2005)

Do you ever feel absolutely positive that you read something once, but then all attempts to prove that something even exists fail and you question if you made it up? Well, I remember reading something Bill Simmons wrote about Greg Maddux several years ago, during one of Maddux's final seasons. This piece of writing does not seem to exist on the internet, because I just spent over an hour searching for it. But whatever, the memory is very clear to me. 

Anyway, Simmons was talking about watching Maddux in the twilight of his career, on the wrong side of 40, and seeing him make some amazing defensive play, initially being shocked at how good and effortless the defensive instincts of Maddux are, and then (and I'm paraphrasing here, because I cannot find the damn quote) "I caught myself and remembered, 'Oh yeah, it's Greg freaking Maddux! The greatest defensive pitcher of all-time!'"

I find myself thinking of that idea a lot, because I'm frequently in the position of watching creative geniuses do great things past the age when it's still expected of them, and I have to take a moment, step back, and remind myself that, 'Oh yeah, it's Greg-Freaking-Maddux, the greatest defensive pitcher of all-time! Of COURSE he can still do that!"

And I find myself thinking that about Paul McCartney probably more than anyone. 

Paul McCartney has had one of the strangest solo careers of anyone, ever. When The Beatles broke up in 1970, Paul immediately released his first solo album, which featured "Maybe I'm Amazed," one of the greatest songs he'd ever written. He followed that up the next year with the very good and underrated Ram. Then came two bad albums, then the mini-comeback Band on the Run in late '73, then nearly 25 years of shit. You would be hard-pressed to find any musical genius in history to ever have a two decade run of worse output than what Paul put out from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s. Sure, there are some good songs scattered around, but are you missing anything if you own none of it? Nope. 

Then Paul improbably turned it all around in '97 with his Flaming Pie album, and he's basically stayed at that level of quality since, reminding us over and over again for six albums and counting that he's still Paul Fucking McCartney, and he was a Fucking Beatle, and how dare we assume he'd lost his fastball?? 

There's nothing in this late run of good Paul albums--Flaming Pie, Run Devil Run, Driving Rain, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Memory Almost Full, and last year's New--that reinvents the wheel, or changes music, or is even essential owning. But they're all in the good-to-very-good range, and that's saying a lot after the startling-in-its-consistency shite that Paul had been putting out for the previous quarter century. And these albums do change Paul's legacy. They forever remind us that Paul McCartney still deserved his middle name--the one that wouldn't let him f-f-f-fade away. 

Those six albums are littered with good songs, but "Jenny Wren," from 2005's Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, is my favorite. Ignore, for just a minute, the trailblazing innovations of The Beatles, and try to focus in on precisely what Paul was so good at. The man just knew a damn melody. On any Beatles album, you could pick out the worst McCartney-penned song of the bunch, and it was still gorgeously hummable. It's why "Martha My Dear" has always been one of my favorite Beatles songs--it's a song no one ever thinks about, but it's so lovely and simple. That's what Paul's musical identity was at its very best, lovely and simple.

The cynic here might watch this video and point out that Paul's only rewriting "Blackbird," and that's precisely why we shouldn't care. But I feel the opposite. So many great artists spend their entire careers grappling with the same ideas and themes. Woody Allen has written and directed 40 movies, and they mostly feature the exact same three plots. We don't love him for his plots, we love him for the ongoing commentary he gives us on his ideas of love and life and how they change and evolve over time. That's what made Flaming Pie such a welcome revelation in McCartney's discography--it was the first time he started looking back on his best ideas and interacting with them again, instead of merely re-milking the same udders. It's a subtle difference; trying to live off the same ideas versus trying to see how they change and evolve if you actually let them breathe and unchain their inherent formulas. For 25 years, Paul was shackled to silly love songs, but then he started really looking at why his early love songs weren't that silly. 

I hope a lot of you are hearing this song for the first time. I hope you're initially shocked at how simple and elegant and lovely it is. And then I hope you catch yourself and think, "Oh yeah, it's Paul Fucking McCartney!"

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!