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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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

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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

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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

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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!"

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Song of the Day: Beck - Loser (1994, sort of)

Even though I was only 12 when it happened, I remember in the immediate post-Cobain reality of spring/summer '94 watching the media try and come up with an easy label and analogy for what the nation's youth was experiencing and how our generation would be defined. Maybe that effort was part of what propelled Beck's "Loser" into being such a big hit, or maybe the song was just that good and would have made a major impact even if Cobain hadn't died and the need for an anthropological dissection of alternative music culture didn't feel so immediate. But he did, and it was, and "Loser" immediately became labeled as the defining song of a generation. 

At the time, Beck felt like a probable one-hit wonder, arriving at the perfect moment to capitalize on the media's desire to summarize a nation's youth. Twenty years later, Beck is still going strong, undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of the '90s and '00s, with two Masterpiece albums to his name ('96's Odelay and '02's Sea Change) and several other very good ones. For these reasons (and others), it's interesting to go back and look at "Loser" as both an artifact of a time, and as the first gasp of a major artist. 

It's a little bit of a cheat to include "Loser" here, because the song actually came out a full year earlier, in the spring of '93. But that release was on a tiny label, with only 500 copies initially pressed. It was, however, what brought Beck to the attention of major labels, and after signing with Geffen, the song was re-released in the spring of '94, and that's when its major cultural impact began. 

Beck started out in NYC's "anti-folk" scene of the early-'90s, realizing that audiences were more likely to pay attention to his folk songs if they were backed by hip-hop beats and had absurd, non-sensical lyrics. Eventually that evolved into full-on rapping his lyrics over folk music, and the chorus of this song is actually (or artificially, depending on what you believe) Beck referring to his rapping ability. But as with so much art, sometimes the culture decides on a meaning that becomes more quote-unquote factual than the intended one. 

Since I wouldn't dare become the first person to ever write about Beck without referring to him as a musical chameleon, we'll go ahead and do that here. Sit down. (Waiting…) Beck is a musical chameleon! He's the Bowie of our era! He keeps changing styles! But seriously, part of Beck's genius is his ability to follow his muse across all genres and sounds without ever sounding like a tourist. His next album, Odelay, basically removed the folk part of his blueprint, made everything danceable, and flirted with electronica. Then Midnight Vultures removed the hip-hop influences and evolved into old skool funk. Then Sea Change totally shifted gears and is the best acoustic-based album anyone has released since Springsteen's Nebraska, as well as the second-greatest divorce album of all-time. And on and on and on. 

Could we see any of that in "Loser?" Yes and no. A major reason the song survives isn't merely due to importance, but quality. It's really good! It combines three seemingly disparate genres--folk, blues, and hip hop--in interesting ways that we hadn't seen before. In a sense, the lyrics of "Loser" are both the best and worst thing that could have happened to the song. Without a doubt, the lyrics are a huge reason it became a hit, and a huge reason that we remember the song as being so culturally significant. But the lyrics also obscure everything else. Because of that chorus and what it came to mean, we think of "Loser" as a distinctly time-and-place/you-had-to-be-there song, and that's not really fair. It's a song that seemingly only gets dissected in a lyrical context, and that undermines how good and interesting the music is. Sometimes that's just how it goes. 

But listen again to those opening twenty seconds, before the words start. Have you ever heard anything else like that? It sounds like it's being played on a broken guitar, merged with a beat that only could have been done on a Pro-Tools app. It's laptop music created before people used laptops to make music. And then it brings in some fucking sitar, because… sitar!! The words feel intrinsically linked to an exact time and place, but the music doesn't at all. No matter when you listen to it, those sounds come across as equally archaic and futuristic, which is the exact opposite sensation of carbon-dating than the lyrics evoke. I'm not sure how many people really recognized Beck's genius in 1994 (I was too young to be reading the good analyses), but looking back, it's inescapable. Regardless of what he said, Beck was a chimpanzee in the time of monkeys. 

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Song of the Day: Nine Inch Nails - Hurt (1994)

One of the most fascinating anomalies to look at in the pop charts is when a true piece of art rock experiences huge crossover success to audiences that aren't looking for art. In the mid-'90s, Nine Inch Nails experienced that kind of success with their/his third album, The Downward Spiral, selling nearly four million copies during its heyday. 

Even understanding the times--1994 was clearly an era where great "alternative" albums were selling in vast quantities--the huge success of The Downward Spiral is still a bit strange. Yes, it's a great album, maybe one of the ten best albums of the decade, and certainly hugely influential. But that statement applies to dozens of albums that didn't sell for shit. The Velvet Underground didn't turn into mega-stars in '67 when they released one of the best albums of an era that had a huge appetite for new and edgy rock bands. 

The Downward Spiral was marketed really well. The album's cover art straddled a fine line between looking important and dangerous, which appealed to people across several demos, the key single, "Closer," had a chorus with the lyrics "I want to fuck you like an animal," which was basically mana from the gods to all teenage boys, and the video was one of the most artistic/innovative/memorable/disturbing/cool music videos anyone had ever seen. Trent Reznor was also good looking, ripped, badass, incredibly talented, and swore a lot, so he had a lot going for him. 

But still. I've been listening to this album a lot over the last few days, and two things really strike me: 1) Goddamn, it's still really good, and 2) Goddamn, It is amazing that so many people bought and loved this album, which is tremendously inaccessible for the 95% of it that does not feature the word "fuck." It might be the most widely heard piece of completely non-commercial music ever, which is difficult to process. 

In 1994, the album closer, "Hurt," really stood out for several reasons. It was sonically unlike the rest of the album, a very somber affair with almost no loud noises. It was somehow even bleaker than the rest of the album, which made it sound like the most dangerous song even though it was also the quietest--a reality that ought to have been mutually exclusive but somehow wasn't in this case. And the lyrics all felt poignant, even to millions of teenagers that had never tried heroin. 

Today, "Hurt" is still memorable for these reasons, and others. More than anything else on the first three NIN albums, this song pointed towards the sustained relevance Reznor would continue to have. The musical direction of the song foretold the softer sounds he'd explore on subsequent releases, the Johnny Cash cover introduced Reznor to new audiences and brought him back to the attention of old ones, and the more subtle atmospheric work of the track was the first real evidence of the type of work Reznor would eventually do in film composing, such as the Oscar-winning (and marvelous) score for The Social Network

It's also a song with a power that transcends its subject matter. While the song is about willful and powerless drug addiction, Cash's version--as well as time--have made it feel more universally about any type of pain we willingly subject ourselves to because we just can't help it. 

Of any song from 1994, this one might eventually prove to have the longest lifespan. 

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Song of the Day: Soundgarden - Black Hole Sun (1994)

When I think of the music of 1994, this will probably always be the first song that comes to my mind. While I unfortunately don't have a chart documenting exactly how many minutes I spent watching every music video on MTV rotation that year, I'd be shocked if this wasn't in first place by almost double whatever came in second. I honestly might have seen this video an average of three times a day in summer '94. It. Was. Everywhere. Everywhen. All the time. And that's cool, because it's a great song. 

I'd never heard of Soundgarden before this video, but I distinctly remember finding out they were also from Seattle was the first time I realized that the Seattle Scene was a quote-unquote thing. They became the de facto Band of the Summer that year for my friends and I, and the only reason Superunknown wasn't the first CD I bought is because my cousin had already given me a copy. In the same way "Smoke on the Water" was the first guitar riff everyone learned in 1974, "Spoonman" filled that role for everyone I knew that started playing guitar in the mid-'90s. 

Superunknown is the prototypical alternative album of the era: it's at least 20 minutes too long, has five totally transcendent songs, five completely forgettable songs that you skipped so often you literally forget what they sound like, and you almost always turned it off when it still had three or four songs left to go. It also has the standard-for-the-time over-produced booklet with lyrics that are difficult to read because they're obscured by the dark/cool graphics that we spent way too much time staring at, like the upside-down-pink-baby-silhouette. 

Superunknown is nearly 70 minutes long, but almost no one actually spends that much time with the album. Eight of the fifteen songs pass the five-minute mark, which is ridiculous considering they're almost all standard verse-chorus-verse affairs. Here's the Superunknown that should have existed: Axe the last five songs entirely, because they mostly suck. Then cut about a minute out of all the others, and switch the first two tracks. Now you have a ten-song/40-minute album that starts with "My Wave" and ends with "The Day I Tried To Live," which is a perfect album closer. That album would be remembered as one of the undisputed best of the '90s. Instead, everyone remembers Superunknown as an album they really loved twenty years ago, and they're not sure why they never listen to anymore. 

As it is, "Black Hole Sun" is really the only song on the album that earns its run time. It grows climactic instead of repetitive. It's Soundgarden at their most Zeppelin-esque, with the distorted riff echoing "No Quarter," and Matt Cameron's thundering drum re-entrance after the song's false ending is one of the better John Bonham impressions ever recorded. The whole thing is sort of like an alternate version of "Stairway" filtered through the more dystopian songwriting style of the Physical Graffiti era. 

The video still makes no sense, and considering people my age saw it enough times to memorize every frame, trust me when I say that we would have made sense of it if there were sense to make. But one thing that's great about music videos is that it's the perfect medium to experiment with non-narrative filmmaking. Music videos don't need to make sense, they only need to evoke feeling and emotion. The individual shots of "Black Hole Sun" don't really add up to any story, but they do create the sensation of impending doom to an otherwise normal setting, and really, creating a sensation is all a music video should generally be trying for. 

If every band has a defining image, that image for Soundgarden is undoubtedly the band playing on that yellow hill, hypnotically staring up to the sky, with those ominous clouds racing around behind them. 

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Song of the Day: Weezer - In the Garage (1994)

It's hard for teenagers--and even some adults--to realize this, but eventually you have to accept that rock stars don't necessarily have to look like Rock Stars. For a lot of people in my generation, that idea was first implanted with this photo of molten hot uncoolness: 

When you're young, what music you like doesn't matter quite as much as what music you think you're supposed to like. In 1994, white teenage males were supposed to like alternative music, and one thing the great alternative bands of that era had in common was they all looked like complete badasses. Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Anthony Keidis, Scott Weiland, Trent Reznor… those guys all had a seemingly effortless coolness that just couldn't be contained. And then there was Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, wearing fucking khakis on the cover of their first album. 

Look at those losers. Nothing baggy, no flannel, no long hair or facial scruff, no shirts emblazoned with the logos of underground bands we'd never heard of, and named after an asthmatic condition. Even as a 13-year old that played Magic: The Gathering between inhaler puffs at the time, I felt like you had to try to be that uncool.

It's hard to say how we eventually came to accept Weezer. It definitely didn't happen quickly or easily. Their first two hits, "Undone - The Sweater Song" and "Buddy Holly," both felt like joke songs. Destroying sweaters and music videos set in Happy Days--this was just not "real" rock music. By the time "Say It Ain't So" became their third major hit, we'd all pretty much succumbed to buying the album, but we were still suspicious. While we were sure bands like Filter and Seven Mary Three were the next superstars, Weezer seemed like a band that would never be heard from again and future generations would mock us for listening to. Yeah, we were idiots. 

Looking back, Weezer's debut might have been the best American rock album of '94. Even if you'd go with The Downward Spiral, or Vitalogy, or Superunknown, or any other possibility, it's hard to deny that Weezer is firmly in the conversation, and maybe even in pole position. Its ten songs are mostly perfect, all catchy, all distinctive, well produced by former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, and the epic closer "Only In Dreams" was the kind of song other bands just weren't writing anymore. Unlike most other alternative albums of the era, Weezer doesn't feel bloated with a maximized CD length, three or four filler songs demanding to be skipped, and a momentum that all but ceased to exist by track 6. But no song quite told us who they were like "In the Garage."

In the first verse, Rivers tells us he relishes playing Dungeons & Dragons and reading X-Men comics, and not even the cool, contemporary Jim Lee-drawn X-Men. No, the '80s X-Men of Kitty Pryde and Nightcrawler, who by '94 were on a British super-team that even American comics readers barely cared about. I mean, after that album cover, we didn't need any further evidence that these guys weren't cool, but they just kept on giving it to us. Eventually, of course, you learn that really being cool is being who you are, unapologetically and without ulterior motive. In that, these guys were ahead of the curve, and that's what this song is all about. 

"In the garage, I feel safe. No one cares about my ways. In the garage, where I belong." That's the chorus, and it speaks to anyone who feels like their treacherous uncoolness could be exposed at any moment, which is basically every teenager on the planet. But even at the age where being uncool feels like the riskiest thing anyone could do, we still have a safe place for it, and eventually that safety net of our real selves expands out to the public world once we relax and let it. Weezer had already reached that relaxed state, which is why they could announce so emphatically and obviously on their album cover that they wouldn't be playing the same image game everyone else was. 

(Two years later, Rivers took the not-your-daddy's-rock-star thing even further by opening an album with a song about how depressing it was to have sex with groupies--a subject that Mick Jagger and Gene Simmons apparently forgot to ever weigh in on.) 

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Song of the Day: Weezer - Tired of Sex (1996)

Venturing into the emo scene yesterday with Jimmy Eat World reminded me of this song, which might be my favorite "pure" emo song. By purest, I guess I mean not just emo in terms of artist or sonics, but really emo in its lyrical and emotional content. For anyone that doesn't know, "emo" is short for "emotional rock," and it's a scene that sprouted up in the early-to-mid 90's which basically melded punk/grunge/alternative guitar style with lyrical content about the artist's lack of satisfaction with their own love life. The critics of emo, of which I am often one, deride it as whiny, but the generation of teenagers who loved it were as passionate about it as any fans of a music scene you're ever likely to see. 

Along with Jimmy Eat World, Death Cab For Cutie, Dashboard Confessional, and a few others, Weezer were at the forefront of the emo scene and probably the biggest stars, so much so that they received a backlash of fans claiming they weren't emo enough. (Yes, that really happened.) Weezer became mega-stars with their debut album in 1994, and then again with their third album in 2001, but in between they released their second (and best) album, Pinkerton, which very nearly ended their career in 1996. In the history of rock music, few follow-ups to blockbuster albums have ever bombed as magnificently and completely as Pinkerton, but that's only where its legend starts. The casual Weezer fans (which were most of them) hated Pinkerton, because it was depressing and introspective whereas their debut was happy and catchy. But the hardcore fans of the emo scene adopted Pinkerton as an instant classic, and it became one of the most notable "cult classic" albums of its era. 

"Tired of Sex" was the opening track on the album, and that sequencing was probably the worst commercial decision of the band's career even if it was a great artistic one. Somewhere infinitely beyond the realm of ‪#‎whitegirlproblems‬ and ‪#‎firstworldproblems‬, Rivers Cuomo introduces us to the concept of ‪#‎rockstarproblems‬, and whines about how despondent he is from having sex with an endless supply of groupies. While he's spending every night with a different girl (the horror!), he laments his inability to "make love come true." This, folks, is as emo as it gets, but what a great song. The desperation in the vocal, the drums used as a lead instrument, the disjointed guitar that almost sounds like it's choking… And then the screaming, pleading passion that exudes out of the last verse when Rivers wails "Tonight, I'm down on my knees! Tonight, I'm begin' you please!" This is a prime example of when rock and roll becomes great art. There is no commercial aspiration in this song whatsoever, and placing it as the opening track surely contributed to the album's disastrous sales performance. But that decision is also part of the reason this album is a masterpiece. As a tone-setter, it's magnificent, and as an emotional palette cleanser, it prepares the listener for the next 9 tracks that follow. This may have been the sound that plunged a popular band back into obscurity, but it's also the sound of an important artist at the top of his game.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on June 12, 2014

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