Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Thriller" / Michael Jackson

Juiced as I am over the 30th anniversary of Jesus of Cool, I know that in the real world, the big recent event was the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's Thriller. Nick Lowe only sold about fifty-leven copies of Jesus of Cool; Thriller sold 23 billion copies, or something in that neighborhood. Still, that's not why looking back at Thriller makes me feel depressed. It's because it marked the beginning of the end for me; that record album killed my interest in pop music for nearly 20 years.

I don't mean to get into any Michael-bashing here -- he's way too easy a target these days. I was brought up on Motown and I loved the Jackson 5; I'm not ashamed to admit I owned Off the Wall, either. Hey, there were some good dance tracks on there -- "Off the Wall," "Rock With Me," and especially "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," with their delirious marriage of funk and disco. Seamlessly slick, yes, but with such a propulsive joyful beat, you couldn't resist.

And the first singles to come off of Thriller were dyn-o-mite. It's hard to divorce them from the videos, of course; this was the heyday of MTV, and Michael Jackson was the king of music video. The first one I remember was "Billie Jean," which was absolutely superb. I was mesmerized by that menacing bassline, those zaps of synth, not to mention Michael's trademark gasps and chokes. Of course we all believed him when he protested "The kid is not my son!" (And that was before we knew anything of his personal life.)

Then came "Beat It", which was even better -- and, to my mind, the best music video ever. The choreography perfectly conveyed the waves of tension in this song, from the jittery verses to that howling chorus; it even managed to be about something -- a passionate inquiry in the nature of machismo. (Our first clue to Michael's troubled gender issues.)

And then, with an enormous amount of hype, MTV premiered the "Thriller" video. I remember watching it for the first time -- that bloated production, the jacked-up musical frenzy, the incoherence of the whole outing -- and thinking to myself, "I will never believe in MTV again." How could this piece of crap be the "masterpiece" they had promised? Music video used to be great short form moviemaking, kept to its taut 3 1/2-minute format, bing bang boom, get in and get out -- and now they were adding extraneous dramatic scenes, full sound-stage sets, Oscar-quality make-up effects, and a cast of thousands. And there was absolutely no dramatic pay-off. I actually shut off the television set, went into another room, and picked up a book. Henry James, probably.

The funk was completely gone, leaving only the most vacuous kind of disco in its place. Seamlessly slick, again, but this time coated with creamy plastic, a robotic rhythm, flabby riffs played in endless loops, and a wall of sound so dense I could never imagine a real band on stage performing it. It was the most soulless thing I had ever heard -- and from the Crown Prince of Soul, yet. It was a musical hunk of concrete, dropped on the unsuspecting heads of the record-buying public. And yet the record was simply flying out of the stores! Everybody had to own it! Clearly there was something wrong with me if I didn't like it.

Other tracks came and went. There was his duet "The Girl Is Mine" with Paul McCartney -- really a Paul McCartney song, though, and a sub-par one at that. (And you know me, I love nearly everything Macca does.") There was also a track called "Human Nature," which was particularly creepy -- "Tell 'em that it's human nature / Why -- why / Does he do me that way?" This song should have been admissible evidence in his trial; he'd have been convicted in a heartbeat.

I kept waiting to hear something that would redeem Thriller, that would make it worth buying -- but there was nothing. Instead, I got out my old Beatle records and decided that modern American music wasn't for me. I still listened to British pop for a while, but a steady diet of the Thompson Twins, Flock of Seagulls, and Tears and Fears just wasn't gonna suffice, and eventually even Elvis Costello started to go sour on me. I began going to the opera instead.

Thanks for nothing, Michael.

Thriller sample

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Well Respected Man" / The Kinks

When Diablo Cody went to collect her Oscar last Sunday night for writing the film
Juno, what song did the orchestra play? Even though most of the soundtrack is by Kimya Dawson, maestro Bill Conti went instead for "Well-Respected Man" -- great choice, sir!

When this song was released in 1965 (on the
Kwyet Kinks EP in the UK, the Kinkdom LP in the States), it sure didn't fit the mold the Kinks had established for themselves with songs like "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," "Tired of Waiting for You," and "Set Me Free." I remember hearing this one on the radio and being baffled when my older brother said it was the Kinks. Where were the grinding guitar chords, the inarticulate longing, the undertones of hostility and aggression?

Instead, here was a song that was actually...
perky. And all those words! I hadn't a clue what British music hall sounded like, but I certainly hadn't heard it in rock & roll before. The earliest similar Beatles tune I can think of would be "Drive My Car," which Lennon & McCartney wrote in October '65, a month after the Kwyet Kinks EP came out. Coincidence? I think not.

Ray Davies knew what he was doing: The music hall style was perfect for social satire like this, and Ray gave it an extra spin with his slightly effete vocal and exaggerated pronunciation of the new polysyllabic lyrics. I love the eye-rolling emphasis of brother Dave backing up Ray on the repeated high notes of "OH SO good" and "OH SO fine" in the chorus. Between the bouncy rhythm and the flippant style, this send-up comes off as clever rather than vicious. There's always been a vein of sympathy in Ray's satire -- think of "Autumn Almanac," "Dead End Street," "Shangri-La," even "David Watts" (the one exception being "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" -- he doesn't cut that guy any slack.)

As the song develops, I feel more and more sorry for this well-respected man, boxed in by his job and his routine and his reputation and that awful controlling mother. I mean, what kind of joy is there, really, in a "world built 'round punctuality" and being "healthy in his body and his mind" and "doing the best thing / So conserva-tive-ly"? True, he is a self-satisfied prig, as Ray reminds us in verse three: "He likes his own back yard" (like in "Autumn Almanac," "This is my street / And I'm never gonna leave it"), he likes his cigarettes the best (were Jagger and Richards thinking of this song when they wrote "Satisfaction"?), and he even thinks "his own sweat smells the best." Notice how Ray gives up rhyming at this point, ending every line with the predictable "best," in perfectly clipped diction.

Ray explores the cracks in that polished facade in verse four: "And he goes to the Regatta, / And he adores the girl next door, / 'Cause he's dying to get at her." ("Regat-ta/ get at her" -- now there's a rhyme I would give anything to have written.) There is a bit of juice in the well respected man after all. But the manacles clamp down on him in the next line: "But his mother knows the best about / The mata-ri-mo-nial state." The guy hasn't got a chance.

Honestly, "You Really Got Me" disturbed me at age 10; I was way too young, and too much a girl, to become a Kinks fan based on those early singles. But this sort of stuff? It was
much more my cup of tea. Of course, just a few months later the Kinks would mysteriously disappear from the US airwaves, and I'd lose sight of them until 1971. But the seeds of my Kinks addiction were already sown.

A Well Respected Man sample

Friday, February 22, 2008


“Do Anything You Want To Do” / Eddie & the Hot Rods

I know, I know, you guys thought I’d end pub rock week with the Brinsleys – but there’s so much more to pub rock, I haven’t even scratched the surface. (What, no Ducks Deluxe? No Kilburn & the High Roads? No Fabulous Poodles?) And I really can’t check out without paying tribute to Eddie & the Hot Rods, a band I think of as the missing link between pub rock and punk.

Take a dose of Dr. Feelgood’s visceral energy and throw in the hard-hitting crunch of mid-60s American rockers like the Stooges and the MC5, and then play it at overdrive speed – that was the idea behind the Hot Rods (“Eddie” was actually their manager, Eddie Hollis, who wrote this song). They also were writing songs about adolescent hang-ups and attitudes, which spoke to the younger audiences moving into the old pub rock venues. And how could mellow country rockers play these stages after a band like Eddie & The Hot Rods (or their colleagues the 101ers, fronted by a pre-Clash Joe Strummer)?

“Do Anything You Wanna Do” is a very efficient bit of rock music, with a short intro and no down time whatsoever. We’re talking jangly power chords, fierce nonstop drumming (was Steve Nichols channeling Keith Moon or what?), and the urgent yelp of Barrie Master’s lead vocals. The lyrics are all about busting loose, too – an anti-authoritarian anthem as powerful as the Who’s “My Generation” was a decade earlier.

“Gonna break out of this city / Leave the people here behind” – anybody else reminded of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of this Place”? It taps into a level of pre-Thatcher-era angst as well: “Tired of doing day jobs with no thanks for what I do” and my favorite couplet: “Don't need no politician tell me things I shouldn't be / Neither no optician tell me what I ought to see.” And okay, it’s a little paranoid – “No one tells you nothing / Even though you know they know” – but it’s all part of the syndrome.

That frustration a kid feels when it seems like the System is stacked against him – the chorus nails it perfectly: “Why don't you ask them what they expect from you / Why don't you tell them what you are gonna do / You'll get so lonely, maybe it's better that way / It ain't you only, you've got something to say.” Doesn’t that just make you want to punch the sky?

Sure, it’s a classic sentiment, but every kid who goes through this feels like the only rebel in the world. And then you turn on the radio and hear a song like this and it’s like those musicians read your mind.

Pub rock had pretty much run its course by the time “Do Anything You Want To Do” hit the Top Ten in 1977. By this time, I guess Eddie & the Hot Rods had lost a little of their rawness -- like any ambitious band might when it starts to get radio play -- and with a wave of hungry punk bands coming up behind them, that lost rawness made the Hot Rods irrelevant. The Sex Pistols—who’d once been the opening act for the Hot Rods--had already released “Anarchy in the UK,” and The Clash and Elvis Costello released their debut albums in the spring. Eddie & the Hot Rods were quickly pushed aside--hey, youth culture can be cruel. But in retrospect, like so many overlooked pub rockers, they were a damn fine band.

Do Anything You Wanna Do sample

Thursday, February 21, 2008


“I Love You So You’re Mine” / Dr. Feelgood

There was nothing country about Dr. Feelgood—just a super-charged R&B intensity that must have torn down the house at every performance. They qualified as pub rockers because they played the same venues, but trading in plaid shirts for mortician-like black suits and skinny ties, they definitely moved the scene into a new direction.

Feelgoods frontman Lee Brilleaux apparently had a riveting stage presence; I only wish I could have seen him (sadly, he died of lymphoma in 1994, only 41 years old). His voice had a dangerous rasp and snarl to it, and his material played into that, dwelling on the darker side of human emotions – jealousy, possessiveness, suspicion, revenge, the really juicy stuff. The main character in “I Love You So You’re Mine” is a compulsive egotist and misogynist, and Brilleaux plays him with zest.

There’s a great vein of dramatic irony running through this song: This guy is so determined to get his girl, he refuses to recognize that she may feel differently. I’d love to hear her side of things, but all we get is his bullheaded certainty. “Well honey I ain’t buying what it is you’re trying to sell,” he insists, “Cause when I look into your eyes now, I can see just how you feel / Forget about the lies now, Cause I know our love is real.”

I suspect those "lies" he's talking about may have something to do with the fact that she's interested in somebody else, damn it. Yet he chafes against having to stand in line, and he gets more and more flagrant with every verse: “One and one is two now, / There ain’t no room for any more / I don’t wanna make you blue now, / I’m about to lock your door.” This isn’t pleading or begging; it’s coercion. A threat of physical violence is right under the surface, underscored with a menacing harmonica and scolding guitar line (not to mention the smack-around drumbeat.)

And yet, round about verse three, his insistence actually begins to be a little intoxicating: “So what’s all this I’m hearing / About the way it’s gonna be? / Cause when the dust is clearing, / There’s only you, there’s only me.” There's something pulsing and immediate about that image; my defenses begin to crumble. "You better get it right now / Get your feet back on the ground/ I’m taking you tonight now, / You know I don’t mess around.” Well, all's I'm saying is, you can see how a girl might give in in the end.

Granted, this Feelgoods track comes from much later in their career, in the mid-80s. Unlike the earlier pub rock bands, Dr. Feelgood landed a major label deal and continued to tour in various incarnations until Brilleaux’s death. But while the later albums may have layered in a horn section or two, the sound stayed essentially the same – visceral, adrenaline-charged R&B with a cynical view of the war between the sexes. The sound may have been vintage but the sensibility put a whole new neurotic spin on things. Could New Wave be far behind?

I Love You So You're Mine sample

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


“Drinking Socially” / The Kursaal Flyers

Well, they called it pub rock, after all – it was bound to spawn a few drinking songs (and, being the 70s, a few toking songs as well). But this one is really brilliant, a boozy honky-tonk number loaded up with irony and snarky cleverness.

We all know what people say – “Oh, I only had one or two drinks” – it’s the great lie every barhound lives on. Kursaal Flyers frontman Paul Shuttleworth (who co-wrote this song with guitarist Vic Collins) plays this thirsty hypocrite to the hilt. “I’m a guy, I guess it’s true, / Who likes to take a drink or two,” he begins, soberly enough; “I’m just drinking socially.” Then, with a shrug, he adds, “And there are times I will agree / Perhaps I stretch to two or three / But I’m just drinking socially.” Oh, yes, of course. Shifting into confessional mode in the bridge, he amplifies: “Sometimes I drink a little more, / The weekends maybe three or four / Don’t you fret, I’ll survive / Long as I get four or five...”

And so it builds, until he’s sucking ‘em back desperately: “Clock on the wall says ten to eleven, / I’ve only managed six or seven” (remember, by law British pubs had to stop serving at 11pm back then). “No time for talking, I got here late,” he adds – can’t you just see him lining them up on the bar in front of him? “Might have time for seven or eight / But I’m just drinking socially.”

Somehow, the vagueness of that drink count makes it so much easier to pass off: “Don’t think about me I’m doing fine / I only drunk about eight or nine / And I ain’t counting, but then again, / I’d have to say at least nine or ten.” By the end, he’s on the floor, having drunk a dozen or more – but he’s still convinced he’s just “drinking socially.”

It’s in the second bridge where Shuttleworth really skewers the scene: “Now I’ve been drinking socially for quite a while / As I look around this barroom / I turn my head and smile.” The fact is, he’s not the only social drinker patronizing this establishment: “They say they drink specifically / For the good of their anatomy / But I know they’re social drinkers just like me.” Then he throws in a quick shout-out “Get social now!” and a delicious guitar solo ensues. I’ll drink to that.

I’m sorry I couldn't find an mp3 to post, but you can find this track on the Kursaal Flyers’ CDs Golden Mile or Hit Records. The Flyers had a good run with pub rock, scoring one Top Ten hit, “Little Does She Know” in 1976 (this was all in the UK, mind you – not a whisper of this reached us in the States); drummer Will Birch eventually wound up in the Records (remember their power pop hit “Starry Eyes”?), while guitarist Graeme Douglas went on to Eddie & the Hot Rods. Some of them still get together for Kursaals reunion gigs in London from time to time -- I assume drinks are served.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


“Namali” / Bees Make Honey

Pub rock didn’t stay in that mellow, countrified groove for long—not with their audiences urging them to get wild every night. If you listen to studio recordings of Bees Make Honey, they rollick along in a rambling honky-tonk mode, but I’ve got a disc of live performances that shows them cutting loose – hoohah!

I suspect you couldn’t help but dance along to this song, no matter how crowded and sweaty the venue (or how sticky the floor). These songs were recorded in 1976 live at the Nashville Rooms, which along with the Tally Ho and the Kensington were the prime pub rock venues. This was actually a later Bees Make Honey line-up, the earlier ones having gotten discouraged and quit in 1975. The only constants were Irishmen Barry Richardson and Mick Molloy. (Rod Demick, a later addition, wrote and sings this track.) But as the liner notes to this great 2-CD collection Back on Track point out, the Bees were “too high on music, too low on image, to make it big.”

High on music indeed—that’s what I get from “Namali.” It’s basically just another song about a girl the singer digs. The lyrics aren’t much, a lot of “I’m a fool for you” and “Can’t get you out of my head” type stuff. But this band is playing impressively tight—at first the instruments bounce around in different directions, but like a whiplash they jump back together to hit those three big rhythmic chords at the end of the verse. The main thing is the chorus, which punches urgently through its chord changes up the scale—it’s like shifting gears, the motor running louder with each phrase: “Na-ma-li! / Got to find out / Gotta find out / Gotta find out / The right way of getting thro-ough to you.” I love it when men beg like this.

Then, suddenly, they click into another mode for the bridge, legato and dreamy and minor-key folky: “Playing my guitar, working out my line / At every place from here to who knows where / Maybe I was born to cast my fortune to the wind, / But I don’t want to travel down a road that never ends.” It’s like an entirely different song; maybe he is just trying out another way of getting through to her (remember Stephen Bishop playing the guitar on the stairs of Delta House during the toga party?). More and more these days, I love tempo changes; that’s how you know you’ve got human beings on deck, not a drum machine and a metronome. Was it disco that killed tempo changes?

Beneath those rockabilly riffs, the whole thing’s moving in the direction of power pop. Like a Pinter play, it’s all in the silences, those split seconds when the whole band stops abruptly right on cue. Were Bees Make Honey major artists cruelly ignored by the music industry? Maybe not, but for sure they were enjoying themselves the night they recorded this song – and I’m betting their audience was having fun too.

Namali sample

Monday, February 18, 2008


“Goodbye Nashville”/
Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers

Last May I devoted an entire month to the British invasion; surely Pub Rock deserves at least a week of its own. I’ve been listening to a lot of this mid-70s British music lately; I love its stripped-down, cheeky, infectiously fun vibe. I figure any scene that gave rise to Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Graham Parker, and Joe Strummer has got to be worth listening to, right?

For several reasons (check out Will Birch’s fascinating book No Sleep Till Canvey Island for the whole history--order it here), the first pub rockers were country rock wannabes, overlaying their Cockney vowels with exaggerated Arkansas twangs and throwing in all the banjos, mandolins, and Crosby Stills and Nash-ish harmonies they could find. (Hey, if those Canadians in The Band could do it, why not a bunch of Brits?) At the same time, given the venues they were playing, they had to speed up those plodding country rock tempos, to keep things hopping at the bar.

Take this 1974 tune by Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers, one of the first mainstays of the pub rock pubs: the whole point of the song is that they’re transplanting country music to North London soil. It reels off a travelogue of American cities – Boston, L.A., Memphis, San Diego (love the sliding yelp on this one), San Francisco, Birmingham, San Jose--and throws in exotic mentions of steel guitars and dobros, before mournfully announcing, "But now I'm going back again / My fortune ain't been found / It's goodbye, Nashville / Hello, Camden Town."

“People seem to think that I’m insane / They don’t know the way it goes / Playing in that game,” lead singer Phil Lithman wails, holding up Camden as a sort of desperate last alternative. Lithman, it’s true, did try out San Francisco for a while in the late 60s; I don’t know why he moved back to London, but there sure is a shadow of disappointment here. They rattle off those place names, hurtling headlong for the drawn-out harmonies of the refrain. Of course, the singalong part of the song, that’s the most important. Cheers, mate.

When I say the sound was stripped down, that doesn’t mean these guys couldn’t play their instruments; the picking on this track is incredibly deft. It isn’t slickly produced, though; it has a real front-porch freshness, clean and straightforward. That one-take vitality was a hallmark of this pre-New Wave phenomenon. The band split up after their 1974 album Bongos Over Balham, but as rock pedigrees go, Chilli Willi’s is impeccable: drummer Pete Thomas ended up as one of Elvis Costello’s Attractions, Paul “Bassman” Riley hooked up with Graham Parker’s Rumour, Paul Bailey formed Bontemps Roulez, Martin Stone was in the Pink Fairies, and Lithman moved back to San Francisco and a band called the Residents.

So here’s the thing that mystifies me: I never liked Crosby, Stills & Nash, so why do I dig this knock-off of their sound? It must be the complete unpretentiousness of Chilli Willi. CSN always looked so earnest, so impressed with the magical blending of their beautiful voices – not so these upstart Brits. They’re just glad no one’s thrown them off the stage yet, and they'll keep hollering and hooting until last call. It’s all about the spirit of the thing--and that, they’ve got down pat.

Goodbye Nashville sample

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Hackensack" / Fountains of Wayne

Pure pop doesn't get any purer, or poppier, than Fountains of Wayne. They've got the whole package: engaging witty lyrics, hook-laden melodies, and a clean tight sound that makes it all go down like butter. Get one of their songs in your head and it's likely to be in there for days.

The one on my constant replay right now is called "Hackensack," from Welcome Interstate Managers. The New Jersey reference is typical FoW material, but it doesn't really have to be Hackensack; it could be any middle-class suburb. Here's the set-up: The singer is sending this song out to an old girlfriend who is now a minor celebrity, reminding her that "If you ever get back to / Hackensack / I'll be here for you." We kinda know she'll never come back; hey, he kinda knows it too. But a guy can hope, can't he?

He's following her career, wistfully, from afar: "I saw you talkin' / To Christopher Walken / On my TV screen." (Score points just for referring to Christopher Walken.) Then he shyly catches her up on what he's been up to: "I used to work in a record store / Now I work for my dad / Scraping the paint off of hardwood floors / Hours are pretty bad." That's how life slowly closes in on you, isn't it? At least the record store job was fun, but there was no future in it; taking over the family business, now that's a future . . . of sorts. Then why doesn't he sound more excited about it?

This guy is just so sweet, slowly sliding into his middle-class mid-American dead end life. The only thing that keeps a light going for him is the thought of that girl out in L.A. or wherever, who might still remember him. I'll bet she does now; I'll bet in five years she won't. And that's why the refrain is so poignant: "But I will wait for you / As long as I need to / If you ever get back to Hackensack / I'll be here for you." He really shouldn't be waiting for her; he needs to get on with his life. But she gives his life one last glimmer of glamour -- he doesn't want to let go of that, not yet.

This isn't a love song, really. It's a song about modern American discontent; this guy can't be happy in Hackensack, not so long as this phantom girl is out there. What's brilliant is the bouncy light touch FoW uses--that soft drum track ticking along, the hooky guitar line, the slightly flat boyish vocals, those dreamy falsetto back-ups on "I will wait for you." His life is tripping gently along just like this song--it's not horrible, it's just not . . . Special. And we were all promised Special.

FoW does suburban angst better than anybody else (except maybe Ben Folds). What kills me is that all the 20-somethings whose lives they're writing about probably aren't listening to these tunes, they're listening to Amy Winehouse and Justin Timberlake and -- well, I really don't know who, I'm so far off that middle-American wavelength. But they should be listening to Fountains of Wayne, and making these guys the pop stars they deserve to be.

Hackensack sample

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

“In A Moment” / Ray Davies

I keep forgetting that Ray Davies’ new album, Workingman’s CafĂ©, is coming out in the States next week – I pre-ordered mine so long ago (plus I already have the UK version, which was released last November, and the 10-track freebie from the Sunday Times—but I had to have it all; after all, this is RAY).

Ray Davies performed this new track from WMC last night at the Tibet House Benefit, which unfortunately I did not attend (anybody who saw me there must have been hallucinating). It’s a natural choice for Ray to have done last night, not only because he wrote it in New York, but also because it doesn’t sound like an old reworked Kinks song--this is the new solo Ray, and I love it. I love the loose-limbed rhythm of this song, Ray’s breathy vocals, the almost reggae-like way he accents odd syllables. It’s really a mood piece, not a story—coming from one of the world’s great storytellers, that’s surprising--but that just proves Ray’s willingness to grow as an artist.

A single harsh guitar strum wakes us up, then Ray begins, in a husky earnestness: “Sunlight, and the city / is barely awake.” I love that time of day, too; I’m captivated at once. As he says at the end of the verse, “Still I love the dusk, the dawn / Between times / They are mine.” He tries to pin it down in the bridge, saying, “Everything around is so transitional / Momentary lapse of rational.” Those abstracts seem out of place in a rock song, I’ll admit; they grated on my ear at first. (Plus “rational” doesn’t seem right – shouldn’t it be “rationality”?). But as the song goes on, I realize that the struggle to put things into words is a big part of what’s going on.

After all, being only human—and Ray’s a great chronicler of human failings—we often overreact, or read a situation wrong, or just plain have lousy timing, don’t we? And often it's those things that kill a relationship, not the grand romantic twists of fate. With tantalizingly vague descriptions, Ray depicts those knife-edge moments when love turns to hate, or joy to pain; when you change your point of view, or just look away, and suddenly the whole affair goes sour. “In a second you can look away / Turn around to find it’s all changed.”

That tripping syncopation and staggered syntax are perfect for a song about relationships going out of kilter. Even though he tries to end on a positive note – “But in a moment / Hope will find a way” – it’s not very convincing. If anything, this song is kin to a couple of sleeper Kinks gems I’ve always loved, “Stormy Sky” and “Lost and Found” – it’s got the same floating-above-it-all quality, a philosophical detachment that I find oddly comforting. Sure, things are crap, but we can rise above it, can't we?

I suspect this won’t go down in the pantheon of great love songs – but then the Kinks were never big on simple love songs. (Tortured love songs, that’s another matter.) But the restless dreaminess of this song is totally seductive. It’s a watercolor, not a big broad canvas, but drawn with all the delicacy and feeling of a master.

In A Moment sample

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"Solo (So Low)" / Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson's breaking my heart. Again.

I popped his new CD Rain into my car stereo for the first time yesterday, and it shook me to the roots. I wasn't prepared for such naked emotion (though I suppose I should have been, after his previous Volume 4). But here it came, song after song, about foundering affairs with thorny lovers; and it's not just the heartbreak, it's the midlife heartbreak that's so acutely described that it sucked me right in.

Well, I won't go into the whole sequence right now, although Rain is that rare outmoded thing, a record album where song follows song with deliberate purpose. But by the time he gets to track 7, we're deeply commiserating with our dear friend Joe, so unlucky in love. And then he goes into this majestic piece and lets it all hang out.

As the title suggests (did nobody ever think of that play on "solo" before?), this one's just Joe and his grand piano. Is there anybody else working today who can do such things on the keyboard as Joe Jackson? On this song, it's like Chopin mashed up with Keith Jarrett, with a little Erik Satie thrown in for good measure. Even those driving repeated chords, crescendoing and decrescendoing, are so suffused with hurt and longing, they simply kill me.

This a song about hitting rock-bottom, and it feels so real, like we're watching Joe sitting alone in his flat in Berlin, bashing miserably around on his piano. The details are so evocative -- "It's just what it seems / An empty thing / Waiting on somebody who never calls / Listening / In the night to something scratching round behind the walls" (all those vague "somebodies" and "somethings", the terror you can't name). In the next verse he sketches more details: "The cupboards are bare / So now to dine / On three stale crackers and a fifth of gin." It's literal and it's metaphorical -- he's so overwhelmed by self-pity and loneliness he can't tell the difference any more.

The third verse is the killer: "Scared to find / Someone in the mirror who you can't recall / Pale and lined / Talking to himself and saying 'Fuck 'em all.'" The scathing way Joe spits out that last phrase is so hurt and human, it scares me. You've really got to hear this with the melody, though; those alternating short, aimless lines with the long rushed-together ones is marvelous. The way some lines hang wistfully on a high note, others slide hopelessly down the scale -- well, this is the work of a songwriter who really knows what he's doing.

Between the lines, you guess that they've already broken up ("after storms" he says in one bridge, and "peace at last" in the final one, though both phrases dangle awkwardly on dissonant chords). That's why the next-to-last bit is such a heartbreaker: "Though one must admit / Chances are few / To try to be / Someone new." It's that exhausting effort, to start over again again (and AGAIN), that makes this a midlife song. When you're young, you think the end of one love is the end of everything. When you're in your 40s (or 50s), you know it isn't--but that's no consolation when you know you'll just have to go back out there again, bruised and scarred, with less hope than ever that it'll work this time.

See what I mean about heartbreaking?

Now here's the beauty part: tracks 8 and 10 turn it all around. But don't let me spoil it for you; go get this album and find out for yourself.

Solo (So Low) sample

Friday, February 08, 2008

"What's the Matter Now?" / Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen

Being in a bluegrass mood got me to listening to Bill Kirchen again, which sooner or later was bound to get me pulling out the classic album Lost in the Ozone, by Commander Cody. It's snowing outside but this tasty bit of vintage ham-and-grits warms me up just fine.

Now, I have to make one big embarrassing admission: For years I got Commander Cody and Captain Beefheart mixed up. I remember albums by both of them in the guys' record collections I'd thumb through in college, but I can't recall anybody ever actually playing them. It never seemed important to me to learn the difference.

Well, I was wrong. I've listened to Captain Beefheart now and it just doesn't do it for me (please, somebody, explain what I'm missing). But I completely dig this Commander Cody stuff, with all its honky-tonk piano and country twang geetar and deadpan humor. These guys deliver the same sort of fun as the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, only less esoteric and arty; they're like all those British pub rockers I love, but much more lazy and laidback.

There isn't any "message" in a song like "What's The Matter Now?" -- nothing but a leisurely rhythmic stroll that leads us from one solo to another ; some twiddling on a tinny piano, a shuffling steel guitar, a meandering fiddle solo, and a loping bass. The singer wanders in from time to time to scratch his head and wonders what his woman's up to, singing in a woeful, baffled voice, "What's the matt-errrr now? / What's the matt-errr now? / Well I haven't seen my baby since way last spring / Tell me pretty mama did you bring that thing? / I want some honey from that honeycomb (gimme!) / Tell me what's the matter now."

This guy is so clueless. His wants are simple: he hasn't seen her in ages, he wants some love, and he just can't fathom why she has to make it so complicated. That classic honeycomb metaphor is just graphic enough to make me snort. MEN! If he really thinks he can just walk in, probably without washing his hands or nothing, and get a piece of that action -- well, buddy, you got another think coming.

It's like Nick Lowe* sings in "People Change," "Storybook love, meant for each other / And now she treats you like a brother / And you don't know what you've done / Or even how to make it right." I'll side with the ladies here; men can be so dense sometimes. If I have to tell you what's wrong, then what's the point?

Of course this track is really all about those loose-limbed, easygoing solos; the singer can moan and complain all he wants, those playful instrumentals make sure we don't take him one bit seriously. Every once in awhile somebody hoots in the background, just to keep the roadhouse vibe going, and eventually a slightly offkey barroom chorus harmonizes in sympathy. Sure, there's the old war between the sexes, but hell, sugar, have another beer and it'll be all right.

What's the Matter Now? sample

* You knew I'd bring him in eventually.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

"Kansas" / Fred J. Eaglesmith

Here's another thing the internet is good for; occasionally on a message board or music site you hear tell of musicians who're never gonna get played on the radio--not even Sirius or XM--who're never gonna be nominated for a Grammy or a CMA, or interviewed in the New York Times. And provided the recommendation comes from someone whose taste you trust, you know you have to follow it up.

So thanks to my Kinks friend Jim (a.k.a. Nappers) for dropping the word about Fred Eaglesmith. That rattled around in my brainpan for a few weeks, until by chance I was offered a album of his to review for -- not even a new release, but his 2006 CD Milly's Cafe. The first time I put that baby on my CD player, I was just blown away. So how come Steve Earle gets all the press and this guy gets none?

This is a whole album full of lonesome-highway songs, ballads about forgotten Americans, done in an exquisitely worn and scrubbed style. "Kansas" in particular has the light touch of a true master: the whole thing's just a guitar, a bare whisper of drums, and a particularly effective Dobro. About fifty percent of the lyrics of this song consist of the line "It's always Kansas" repeated over and over, but if you think that's lazy songwriting, you are completely wrong. Playing up the creaky, weary edges of his voice, Eaglesmith is taking on a character here--a guy who's inarticulate in the first place, and numb with heartbreak on top of that. I don't know about you, but I'd be suspicious of any guy who could spin fine phrases in the middle of that kind of grief.

Have any of you ever driven across Kansas? Well, I have, and I know just what Eaglesmith's talking about here. The yawning emptiness of a straight-shot west Kansas highway is exactly where all the thoughts you're trying not to think will catch up with you. As he remarks in the second verse, "Those sad sad songs / On the radio, in the jukebox in the truck stops / They don't bother me, you know / I can face the day / I can walk away / I can tell myself I'm gonna be okay." That's how it works, all right; for a while you're keeping it together, you're proud of yourself. And then you let your guard down, and suddenly you're a mess all over again.

Or as Fred puts it, "It's always Kansas / That's where I fall apart / That's where my broken heart / Catches up with the news." That seems to me an pretty astute insight into human psychology--that gap between knowing something and accepting it can be HUGE. As T.S. Eliot once wrote, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." We're catching this guy at the very moment where he can finally admit that he's lost his woman, and I can just imagine the dull agony of that long drive from Leavenworth to Dodge. I see the guy through a rain-spattered windshield, sobbing; and yeah, I know I added those details, but it's Eaglesmith's genius to pull you into his storytelling and let you take over for yourself. (May I add here that Bob Dylan still hasn't learned how to do this?)

It doesn't have to be Kansas, really; it could be the A train, or the Staten Island ferry late at night, or the Stop & Shop check-out line--any place or any time where your heart catches up with the news. The news could be 20 years old, even; it doesn't matter. We all have some kind of Kansas where we always break down, and somehow just having it put into a song helps.

Thanks, Fred; and thanks, Jim.

Kansas sample

Friday, February 01, 2008

"Cruel to Be Kind" / Nick Lowe

In the end, I suppose, we'll see all the answers and understand how everything is connected. But until we hit that nirvana state, the best we can do is study song lyrics. And when I run into a set of lyrics that connects Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, AND Ray Davies--well, imagine the explosion of little lights inside my brain.

I'm talking, first of all, about "Cruel to Be Kind," Nick Lowe's one (and, sadly, only) chart-topping hit song. It came out in 1979, and I'm ashamed to admit that, although I heard it constantly on the radio, I didn't register whose record it was. (The same is true of Dave Edmunds' "I Hear You Knocking"--what kind of a fog was I in?) I knew who Nick Lowe was, all right; he was Elvis Costello's producer. I saw his band Rockpile perform live in 1978, but . . . well, to be honest, they didn't make a big impression on me. That was the night of the weirded-out Van Morrison concert . . . well, it was the 70s, details tended to go hazy in the 70s.

And when I did hear "Cruel To Be Kind," I thought it was a golden oldie -- that clean retro-pop sound was pure early 60s, wasn't it? In fact Nick did write it ages earlier, when he was still with Brinsley Schwarz. The other members of the band rejected it then, but he pulled it out again for Labour of Lust -- and by some stroke of fate, finally got his moment in the Top 40 sun.

Now, years later, I listen to "Cruel to Be Kind" and . . . well, I'm baffled. When it was just another song on the radio, I didn't notice, but now I'm tormented by the fact that This Song Just Doesn't Make Sense. I mean, I get that the guy in the song is being treated badly by his girlfriend.
As Nick puts it, in his plaintive boyish vocals --"Oh, I can't take another heartache, / Though you say you're my friend, / I'm at my wits' end!" My favorite line comes next: "You say your love is bona fide, / But that don't coincide with the things that you do." (few songwriters can use words like "bona fide" and get away with it; it's that deft mid-line rhyme with "coincide" that pulls it off. )

But her defense -- in the chorus -- is totally specious. She says she has to be "cruel to be kind, in the right measure / Cruel to be kind, it's a very good sign / Cruel to be kind, means that I love you / Baa-a-by / You've got to be cruel to be kind." I know that this "cruel to be kind" business comes from Shakespeare--in Hamlet, Act III, scene iv, if you want to get specific. In this song, though, the logic just doesn't fit. I can't see how the girl's cruelty has any ulterior purpose; it's just a glib excuse. Yet the poor sucker singing this song actually buys it, willing to go on taking her crap so long as he can stay in this relationship.

Naturally, this makes me switch into Unreasonable Fangirl mode. What sort of woman would be mean to Nick Lowe? Doesn't she appreciate that she's the luckiest creature on the planet to be with him? Let me at her; I'll scratch her eyes out...well, like I said, this song works me up. At one stroke, Lowe makes us hate this manipulative woman and pity the spineless shlub for staying with her. And yet that arrangement is so darn bouncy, with its matey back-up harmonies and power-pop guitar, the sickness of this relationship slips right past us.

If I had paid attention to "Cruel To Be Kind" in 1979, though, I might have noticed that its title "coincides" with a line from a Kinks song: "The Hard Way," from the 1975 album Schoolboys in Disgrace. Schoolboys came at the tail end of a string of, um, eccentric Kinks albums, in which Ray Davies blithely followed his theatrical muse. I saw the Kinks perform this show, in full costume, in 1976 in London, though my memories of that night are a little muddled (detect a theme here?) Honestly, it's not my fault, the Kinks themselves had no idea what was going on on stage that evening.

At any rate, the line in question comes in a song when the evil Headmaster is preparing to punish the disgraced schoolboy of the title (a character loosely based on Ray's rapscallion brother Dave). "Now it's time for confrontation," the Headmaster warns, darkly, "And I'm tired of being patient / So I've got to be cruel to be kind."
I don't buy the Headmaster's excuse either--he loves being cruel.

I used to worry that Nick had nicked this line from Ray (Nick has been known to steal entire songs), but now that I know Nick wrote his song earlier, I can sleep again at nights. Not only that, but I can credit both my favorite songwriters with a Shakespeare allusion, which obviously makes me a high-toned intellectual too. Or something like that.

So where's the Elvis Costello connection? Well, it's a stretch. I'm sure as a schoolboy Declan Macmanus read his Shakespeare, it's possible he was still a Kinks fan in 1975 (though I doubt it). But on his 1982 Imperial Bedroom album, on the opening track "Beyond Belief,” Elvis almost says it, in an insinuating hoarse whisper: "Charged with insults and flattery / Her body moves with malice / Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?" He did have to rhyme with "malice," of course. But I've always heard it as “cruel to be kind,” especially as he shifts the rhythm, as if to match Nick's song. Imperial Bedroom was the first original LP Elvis recorded without Nick Lowe in the control room--was this a shoutout to his missing pal? I like to think it is.

It has occurred to me that if I didn’t spend so much time thinking about stuff like this, I could actually do something with my life. But would it be this much fun? Nah.

Cruel to Be Kind sample