Showing posts with label old 97s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label old 97s. Show all posts

Friday, December 21, 2012

My Top Ten Eleven Albums of 2012

All in one place . . . like a  Christmas list. I'm not numbering them 1 to 10 because they're too good -- and too different -- to rank absolutely. Click on each title for a link to my original post.

Graham Parker & The Rumour:
Three Chords Good
Even I, a confirmed Graham Parker fanatic, didn't predict just HOW good this reunion album would be. I'm gobsmacked by its brilliance.

The Shins: Port of Morrow
A combination of gorgeous melody, striking lyrics, and a sweetly melancholy worldview -- it's almost drunkenly beautiful.

Corb Lund: Cabin Fever
Ranging from honky-tonk to rockabilly to bluegrass to Western swing, Lund doesn't approach country music like an artifact or an ironic affectation; he approaches it like a cowboy..

Rhett Miller: Dreamer
From the Old 97s front man, an entire alt-country album about love, lost and found, sour and sweet.

Paul Weller: Sonik Kicks
Ever the restless risk-taker, Weller loads up this album with studio effects and sonic experiments, while his insane commitment to melody and to syncopation shines gloriously through.

The Ben Folds Five:
The Sound of the Life of the Mind
I adore Ben Folds' solo work as well, but the driving energy and impish wit of the Ben Folds Five is something else.

The dBs: Falling Off the Sky
Reuniting this beloved late 70s band so many years down the road seems like a joyful and natural thing, judging from the copasetic energy of Falling Off the Sky.

John Hiatt: Mystic Pinball
Start to finish, that raspy voice, the visceral rhythms, the crunchy guitarwork, all come together to craft a sound so authentic and idiosyncratic, it fits like a glove.

The Avett Brothers: The Carpenter
Scott and Seth Avett have never shed the upbeat sweetness of their southern folk roots, even as they steer it into rock territory.

Mumford & Sons: Babel
Hipster indie Brits forge their own peculiar Americana sound, like O Brother Where Art Thou? meets Martin Amis, full of post-modern angst and old-time religion.

M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion
OOF!! Released way back last April, I forgot at first to put this on my 2012 top ten list. But I adore its acoustic reverbed charm, a retro-flavored meditation on love, loss, and resilience.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012
Sometimes I just have to surrender to the country fan inside me.

Rhett Miller: Dreamer
"Swimmin' in Sunshine"

Over the years the Old 97s have brewed up such a tasty blend of rollicking Texas twang and indie-rock sensibility, they've made it easy for me to get my hoedown fix without going full-on Nashville. There's something about them that I instantly loved, an ineffable personal connection that landed them immediately on the list of My Guys.  Was it the lead singer's plangent, slightly goofy vocals?  Or was it the songwriter's ear-worm melodies and sly lyrics?

The answer is: Both. And considering that the lead singer and the songwriter are the same guy, Rhett Miller -- and considering that he also records as a solo artist -- I cannot explain why it took me this long to finally buy a Rhett Miller album. Especially now that I've listened to it.

 The Dreamer is Miller's fourth studio album, following The Believer (2006) and The Instigator (2011) and -- breaking the title pattern -- 2009's Rhett Miller. My musical Christmas list has just grown by three titles.

There's still twang-aplenty, with pedal steel all over this album, and lots of uptempo numbers -- don't expect mopey singer-songwriter angst, even if the title promises dreamy idealism.  It's an entire album about love, lost and found, sour and sweet. No Big Statements, no snarky satire, no sonic experiments. Just a lovely record full of instantly loveable tunes. Like this one . . .

I guess if I'd been clever enough to buy this album in June, when it was released, this sundrenched tune would have fit right in. On the other hand, it's even more welcome in the dreariness of pre-winter.
I suppose this isn't technically a love song as much as a wooing song. Over and over in the sweetly soaring refrain he promises, "We'll be swimmin' in sunshine," an image evoking warm glow on bare skin more than actual watersports.  Seductive as that image is, however, he balances it with a second refrain -- "What do I kno-o-ow about love / What do I know about love?"  That assertion of innocence, claiming his amateur status -- that's the final stroke to knock down her defenses, as the tempo ticks sweetly along, the melodic line bouncy and upbeat.
He's definitely courting like a gentleman: "I've got good intentions here today," he swears in the first verse, his voice high and earnest. "Sometimes intentions pave the way," he adds, confiding in a slightly husky, lower voice -- "You can ask my heart, / Put a lie detector on my heart." That lie detector line is a little absurd, and yet perfect -- how else to prove he's on the up-and-up? It almost makes her feel embarrassed to have doubted him.     
And he's not just out for sex, as verse two pleads: "I had a dream involving you and me / Talking on a train, and we'd agree / We got each others' back, / Right before it all goes black." There's a lovely ambiguity to that line everything going black -- perhaps it's just the end of the dream, or maybe a classic movie fade-out as the train goes into a tunnel (and we all know what that means). Or maybe he's saying he'll still have her back even when the world becomes dark and desperate, which of course it will do. I prefer the third meaning, and I'm a sucker for that kind of promise. 
So by verse three, he's wheedled us as far as the bedroom: "I've got good intentions here tonight, / I can see you wondering if it's all right / You can ask my heart, / Put a lie detector on my heart."  I can just picture him, all puppy-dog eyes and a hand across his chest like a Boy Scout. Who wouldn't give in?
Those twin refrains sail along dreamily through the final repeats, creating their own warm sunshine glow of sound.  Think the Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream" -- yeah, that kind of glow. It may be a seduction song, but it's a feel-good seduction song.  And what's so bad about feeling good? 

Saturday, July 02, 2011


Here's a slightly different twist -- this shuffle is not from my full music library, but my huge Vacation playlist, designed to provide road tunes for the July 4th exodus.  Pop it in the car's music player and enjoy!

1. Call Me The Breeze / Alan Price and Rob Hoeke
From Two of a Kind (1977)
Sorry to start out with an obscure one -- even I wouldn't own this album if it hadn't been for my lifelong Alan Price fandom.  Here he pairs with Dutch keyboardist Rob Hoeke (AP has this thing for collaborations with fellow keyboardists, from Georgie Fame to Zoot Money) to make a swinging little album that's actually a ton of fun.  Really, it should be better known.  This J.J. Cale cover is considerably peppier than J.J.'s laidback version; it really lets out the clutch and takes off.

2. Tighten Up Pt. 1  / Archie Bell and the Drells
From Tighten Up (1968)
"Hi everybody, this is Archie Bell and the Drells, of Houston, Texas. We don't only sing, but we dance just as good as we walk!"  Poor Archie Bell was already serving in Vietnam when the record he'd cut just before being drafted hit the charts.  It was all over the airwaves that summer, agitating dancing bodies everywhere, a marvelous melange of irresistible riffs cycling from instrument to instrument.  ("Tighten up on that bass, now....Now look here, we're gonna make it mellow now!")  A long cool drink of pure summer fun(k).

3. Helen Wheels  / Wings
From Band on the Run (1973)
Hang on tight!  Paul McCartney -- determined to prove that he could rock out without the Beatles -- tore into this road song with no brakes whatsoever. The internal combustion of those twin descending guitar riffs, the pavement-pounding drums, the thrumming bass line -- hell on wheels indeed! 

4. If I Had $1,000,000 / Barenaked Ladies
From Gordon (1992)
Barenaked Ladies are right up there with Commander Cody, They Might Be Giants, and Flight of the Concords in my pantheon of comic rockers. I love the call and response on this ambling country rocker, as the singer earnestly offers his riches to his true love -- but as for what he'd buy her with his lottery winnings... 

5. Rango Theme Song  / Los Lobos
From Rango Soundtrack (2011)
Fandango gave me this song for free after I went to see this animated movie last winter. (Okay, so I'll see anything with Johnny Depp in it -- wanna make something of it?)  But it soon earned a permanent spot in the rotation, a campy take on the classic western theme song, mariachi horns and all. 

6. She Loves the Sunset / Old 97s
From Blame it On Gravity (2008)
Throw in a cha-cha beat and some pedal steel twang and what do you have?  This winner by the delightful Old 97s.

7. Shiftless When Idle  / The Replacements
From Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash! (1981)
Well, this one sure puts the garage in garage rock.  Nobody else has ever stuffed this many car puns into one song, with the possible exception of Little Village's "She Runs Hot."  It only lasts 2:18, but that grinding gear-shift guitar, the relentless bashing drums, and Paul Westerberg's slightly strangled vocals defiantly break the speed limit, cruising with the top down, tossing beer cans out the back as they roar into the night.  

8.  Young Americans  / David Bowie
From Young Americans (1975)
Bowie put on his soul shoes, hauled in a gospel choir and a hot sax (David Sanborn!), and lit up the discos in the summer of '75 with this hectic take on American culture. ("Blacks got respect and whites got Soul Train...")   Bowie himself described it as "plastic soul . . . the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey."  Yep, that pretty much nails it.

9. Gone, Gone, Gone / Colin Farrell
From Crazy Heart: The Soundtrack (2010)
Who knew Colin Farrell could sing country?  As if Jeff Bridges' mesmerizing performance in this film wasn't enough, and all those superb Ryan Bingham-T. Bone Burnett songs too. This song nails the dieselbilly sound perfectly -- "I was born on a flattop two-lane, / Picked up a guitar, and every day I'd sing / Till I was gone, gone, gone..."   You just gotta drive to this one.

10. One More Day / Bill Kirchen
From Hammer of the Honkytonk Gods (2007)
Well, speaking of dieselbilly -- here's the king himself, pickin' and grinnin' with a fiddle and roadhouse piano.   "Well I reckon we all gotta pay the diagnosis / So I'm turning my two weeks notice / Then I 'scuse myself while I kiss the sky . . . I'm gonna live it up like there's no tomorrow / Crank up the love, turn down the sorrow, / Get my ducks in a row for one more day!"  Hey, a little shot of carpe diem philosophy is just what you need when you're heading out the door for vacation!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Let's get 2011 off to a shufflin' start...

1."I Want to Be an Anglepoise Lamp" / The Soft Boys
From Can of Bees (1978)
This is how Robyn Hitchcock started out -- the frantic beat sounds like punk, but the lyrics and spirit are way too art-school absurdist.  This track always makes me think of that classic Pixar short about the baby lamp, the one they played before Toy Story... 

2. "Surf Medley" / Junior Brown
From Semi-Crazy (1996)
Amazing surf guitar instrumental from country guitar whiz Junior Brown, channeling 60s hits like "Walk Don't Run" and "Secret Agent Man," plingy riffs soaring over a furiously slapping drum track.  Thanks to Napoleon Wakeup for this one!

3. "The Race Is On" / Rockpile
From a BBC radio broadcast August 1979
Dave Edmunds' rockabilly leanings took Rockpile down some dusty roads indeed (we shoulda known Nick would end up a country crooner).  But hey, who could resist covering this George Jones classic?  No Rockpile link, sorry (me and my bootlegs), but check out George's version.

4. "State of Confusion" / The Kinks
From State of Confusion (1983)
"The tumble dryer's broken, the telly's on the blink..." Poor besieged Ray Davies -- just can't cope with the modern world, can he?  Even in the midst of the Kinks' arena rock heyday, he was harping on the neuroses of "20th Century Man" and "Holiday."  And the girlfriend who leaves because the VCR broke -- sounds like "Sunny Afternoon"s girlfriend, fleeing home with "tales of drunkenness and cruelty."  Fickle females!

5. "Plastic Lips" / The Aquabats
From Charge!!  (2005)
Not all that different from the Soft Boys, really, though the Aquabats add a comic-book twist (dig the superhero costumes, despite physiques that the tights don't flatter).  Funny, absurd, hectic.  Love these guys live!

6. "Smokers" / The Old 97s
From Drag It Up (2004)
What?  You've been reading my blog for how long, and you still aren't an Old 97s fan? Shame on you.  It's alt-country for thinking people, with clever lyrics and just enough neurosis to balance out the yearning melodies. I love this atmospheric track, the hazy sound quality, the vocal riffs that curl upwards like a trail of smoke.

7. "Bummer in the Summer" / Love
From Forever Changes (1967)
Heh heh.  Talk about hazy.  Heh heh.  

8. "Secret Heart" / Ron Sexsmith
From Ron Sexsmith (1995)
Was it Elvis or Nick who first covered this sweet tune? Either way, I wouldn't have discovered this wonderful Canadian singer-songwriter without that, so thanks, guys.  Saw him open for Nick in '06, met him after the show -- he's just as much of a sweetheart as you'd think.  Of course Dan knows him, too, like all the rest of the Toronto music mafia.. 

9. "Rocky Road" / Nick Lowe
From Party of One (1989)
Speak of the devil.  Okay, it's a perfectly pleasant track, but -- dare I say it? --a tad generic, sorta like a mash-up of earlier songs like "Raining Raining" and "I Can Be The One You Love."  On the other hand, it's my fault for keeping every single track he's ever recorded on my iTunes; I'm bound to get a little filler occasionally.  Doesn't mean I'm going to delete any of it... 

10. "Seventh Son" / Georgie Fame
From Seventh Son (1969)
And if it hadn't been for Van Morrison and Georgie Fame, I'd never have discovered Mose Allison.  Nobody else gets that intersection of Delta sharecropper blues and beatnik jazz quite like Mose.  Georgie's organ goes crazy staccato on this one -- "Everbody's talkin' 'bout the seventh son / In this whole wide world there is only one / And I'm the one, the one they call the seventh son." Cheeky!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Holiday Album Buying Guide

Nothing I like better Christmas morning than to find neat little 5-by-6-inch wrapped rectangles under the tree.  (Used to be 12-by-12-inch -- but there, I'm dating myself.)  And if you're like me, you don't want to leave the selection of your new holiday tunes up to chance and the questionable tastes of your friends and family -- you want a readymade list of excellent new CDs to request ahead of time. Why, you might even want a list of CDs to buy for other people, while we're at it! Normally I'm not much of a list-maker -- well, not like Uncle E, at least -- but as a public service, herewith is my end-of-year round-up . . . .

1. Imaginary Television
Graham Parker 

I  love this record for many reasons, but mostly because it's the album that got me back into Graham Parker, launching a months-long voyage of discovery.

I first blogged about the track "Always Greener"...

2.  Lonely Avenue

 Ben Folds and Nick Hornby

 Well, technically it's just Ben Folds -- British novelist Nick Hornby
 doesn't perform on the records, he just contributed the lyrics.  Just.

Check out my blog post on "Belinda."

3.  No Better Than This 
John Mellencamp 

I won't defend every record John Mellencamp's ever made -- I'll just say that this stripped-down, acoustic, monoaural, back-to-the-roots effort may be the finest thing he's ever done.

Here's my take on "Love At First Sight."

4. The Grand Theater, Volume One
The Old 97s

This Austin-based outfit definitely keeps the alt in alt-country, and I have never yet heard a track by these guys that I didn't like.  This new album is just insanely smart and funny and fun to listen to.

Check out "A State of Texas"... 

5. My Dinosaur Life
Motion City Soundtrack

Neurotic emo-pop is so not my thing -- so why I'm such a fan of this band?  Witty little portraits of slacker angst, amped up with tons o' melody and a mosh-pit tempo.

Exhibit A: "Skin and Bones"

6.  A Word to the Wise
Bill Kirchen

Now for something completely different -- the rumpled musings of veteran musicmaker Bill Kirchen, accompanied by an amazing set of equally experienced guest stars. 

Take a spin with "Shelly's Winter Love" and you'll see what I mean...

7.  Contra 
Vampire Weekend

Okay, so those duelling Subaru and Hilfiger commercials have pretty much ruined the perky world-pop charm of "Holiday." Nevertheless, the fresh sound and lively indie energy of this young band started 2010 out on a very high note for me, and I still grin when any of this album's song rotate up on my shuffle.

Here's where I started, with  . . . yes, I'm afraid it was "Holiday".  But maybe someday we'll be able to enjoy it again!

8. The 88
The 88

I'll admit that Ray Davies' seal of approval gave this L.A. band a huge boost in my estimation.  But there's nothing not to like about this tight, melodic album, which takes pop music back from the schlockmeisters and gives it a good name again. Sorry, I never got around to posting here about this album, but I did review it for Blogcritics.

9. Junky Star
Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses

Bingham's work on the Crazy Heart soundtrack vaulted him onto my alt-country playlist; this album proved to me that was no fluke.  I've only started listening to this one -- haven' t done a blog post on it yet -- but trust me, there are plenty of dark, nuanced, twangy pleasures to be found here. Townes Van Zant would approve, I suspect.

10. Propellor Time 
Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3

I want to resist -- but I can't.  If Robyn Hitchcock's peculiar psych-folk-punk music is a minority taste, then count me in that minority.  The odder his lyrics get, the more off-kilter the melodies become, the happier I am.Inexplicably, I never got around to reviewing any tracks from this album; in lieu of that, may I provide a link to the weird and wonderful video for "Ordinary Millionaire".

11. Brothers
The Black Keys

So who says we have to quit at 10? If we did, I wouldn't be able to mention this album -- another fairly new acquisition that I haven't yet written about -- a deeply, deeply funky artifact by a duo that look like standard-issue Williamsburg hipsters.  Go figure.  All I know is, these tracks put me in a souled-out trance, putting the hip in hypnotic.

12. Soulsville
Huey Lewis & the News

Let's make it an even dozen, then, and throw in my old boyfriend Huey Lewis, who delivers a heartfelt tribute to the vintage soul numbers that inspired his own career. A guilty pleasure, perhaps, but it is full of that patented Huey Lewis genial charm, and if it's not a groundbreaking, it is listenable as hell.

I did blog about this one, homing in on "Respect Yourself."

Still got room for a few more stocking stuffers?  Let's throw in Jon Lindsay's Escape From Plaza-Midwoodand Edward O'Connell's Our Little Secret, my two great slush-pile finds of the year.  Of course we're already looking forward to 2011 for the US release of Ray Davies' See My Friends and Greg Trooper's Upside-Down Town (no Amazon link yet but I'll keep you posted). The music never ends!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"A State of Texas" / The Old 97s


I swear, this has nothing to do with the fact that the Texas Rangers knocked my Yankees out of the playoffs this week.  (Frankly, the Rangers deserve to be in the World Series a hell of a lot more than the Yankees do.)  It was more on account of my buddies John and Tim over on the Kinks Fan Club board, who lately have been tirelessly promoting the musical heritage of the Lone Star State. Even during last week's orgy of British rockers, I kept discovering new veins of Tex-arcana to explore -- it seemed high time to roll out this project. 

At the risk of being random, I thought I'd start out with one of the younger bands (despite their geezer-ish name), The Old 97s.  I've been nuts about these alt-county/indie darlings ever since I discovered them about a year ago. Their new album The Grand Theatre Volume One just came out a couple weeks ago, and I finally got my copy on Friday.  (Boo to the New West publicity department, though, who routinely blew off my request for a review copy -- which is why you won't be seeing a review of this marvelous LP from me on  By the way, that "Volume One" is for real -- there's supposed to be a second Grand Theatre album coming out in January, with a whole other set of tracks. Hoping it'll be anywhere near as good as this one, I'm pre-ordering it NOW.


To fill in a little history:  The Old 97s are from the Dallas area (Texas is so big, always best to specify the locality) and started playing together in 1993.  Along the way they've released maybe a dozen albums; lead singer Rhett Miller (originally from Austin) has also released a handful of solo albums. Under the Old 97s name, though, it's been the same four guys the whole time -- Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murry Hamilton, and drummer Philip Peeples -- and, while Miller may do the lion's share of the songwriting, they share songwriting credits on most tracks.  That may explain why the band hasn't foundered on the shoals of Miller's obvious star quality. 

"A State of Texas" comes about halfway through the album, and it's a perfect mid-tracklist pick-me-up.  I love its boisterous energy -- reminds me that these guys got their start as a Dallas bar band, and they still know how to kick it out.  The raison d'etre of this number is blissfully simple:  It's Texas patriotism all the way, name-checking local landmarks and exclaiming over and over again how much they love Texas.  Considering how much time they spend on the road, or hobnobbing with other name musicians in New York and Los Angeles, it's nice to see them reaffirming their Texas roots.  (Interesting to note that the record was largely recorded in Austin, at the Texas Treefort, with Jim Vollentine producing.)

I've love Bethea's fasten-your-seatbelts guitar work on this track -- is it something in the Texas water that breeds superspeed guitarists? -- backed up with Peeples' whizbang drumming. Miller's anxious-earnest tenor seems to race to keep up, sneaking gasps of breath amidst a torrent of lyrics.  He reels images past us -- country dawns, night skies over the plains, crowded honkytonks, spooling highways -- like a cardsharp shuffling his deck, or maybe a caffeine-revved trucker speeding down empty stretches of West Texas interstate.  It's just a delirious joyride of a song.

I'd better confess right now that I've never been to Texas, unless you count changing planes at the Dallas airport (I don't). But I've been hankering for a while to get down there; I'm not buying a Stetson or cowboy boots or anything, but I could definitely do some barbecue.  Oh, yes, Texas Week -- that should cure the lonesomes those British rockers left me with.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


All things considered, I've decided that Amazon is not really so evil -- which is why I'm adding a widget for you to sample, or even buy, the music I'm writing about here.  (Always looking for a way to post mp3s easily without ripping off the artists.)  Let me know what you think...

1.  No Baby I / The Old 97s 
From Blame It On Gravity (2008)
The twangy roots of this band keep drifting closer and closer to pop -- an intersection I love.  Rhett Miller has that husky good-boyfriend earnestness down just right. "Blame it on gravity, yeah / Blame it on being a girl" -- ooh, we ladies LOVE a man who understands. 

2.  "In My Life" / The Beatles
From Rubber Soul (Remastered) (1965)
This is one song I often forget to add to my Favorite Beatles Songs list -- why? Tender nostalgia for "people and friends that went before" might seem odd, coming from musicians in their early 20s -- but I bet their Liverpool past truly seemed like another lifetime by the time of this masterpiece album. Love that Bach-like twiddle in the middle eight!

3. "Ram On" / Paul McCartney
From Ram (1971)
Not more Beatles, but pretty damn close. I do love the lounging, slightly scruffy vibe of this song. Despite the naif mandolin strumming (or is a uke?), this song is layered, jazzy, hazy -- stoned, man. 

4. She Gets Me Where I Live / Al Kooper
From Easy Does It (1970)
This spangly, synthy soul-rock track swims in its own psychedelic haze, with some seriously cool-cat horns spinning out of control (not to mention oceans of strings, sometimes with spiky little plucked notes).  When Kooper was on his game -- and he was really on his game with this album -- he was like a painter, slapping sounds onto his canvas.  

5.  "Mr. Reporter" / The Kinks
From The Great Lost Kinks Album(1973)
Dave Davies' early stab at satire (the Kinks never did have an easy relationship with the press).  On this album of bootleg tracks, the tinny quality of this song -- not to mention Dave's quavery vocals -- are more like a demo, but it's still a spunky bit of fun.  

6. Elizabeth Jade  / Robyn Hitchcock
From Jewels for Sophia (1999)
Talk about music as painting -- sometimes Robyn Hitchcock's lyrics are almost like Cubist art, layering cryptic fragments of description onto a boppy track of bouncy punk-pop that is way too danceably fun to resist.

7. Steppin' Out / Joe Jackson
From Night And Day (1982)
Jeez, I love this album. Joe Jackson steered New Wave music daringly far in the direction of George Gershwin and Cole Porter. A gorgeous champagne cocktail tribute to Manhattan, and just about as far from punk music as you could get.

8. Stop / Lizz Wright
From Dreaming Wide Awake (2005)
A beautifully languid, deeply sexy track. Wright's voice has an almost Nina Simone-like richness, with all those dark tones underscoring the desire that simply saturates this song.

9. Hit The Road Jack / Ray Charles
From Genius -- The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection (2009)
Soon as you hear that descending riff from the horns, you know it's this sassy bit of R&B. Those finger-wagging back-up singers are half the show; I love their saucy interplay with Ray, his slightly craggy vocals full of exasperated pleading. 

10. This Is How I Know / Ron Sexsmith
From Exit Strategy of the Soul (2008)
With every album, Ron Sexsmith dares to get more and more explicitly spiritual, while his folk pop takes on more jazz tinges.  I suppose this track doesn't have to be about sensing God's presence (are you kidding?  that would be pop suicide), but that's the level where it works best for me.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"She Loves the Sunset" /
The Old 97s

Here they are again -- didn't I write about these guys, like, two weeks ago? But I've been doing a little housecleaning on my iTunes, and when I got to the Old 97s' most recent album, Blame It On Gravity, I found it just about impossible to prune down the numbers of tracks I'm keeping on my hard drive. And I'll let you know, I'm generally ruthless when it comes to editing the music on my hard drive.

"She Loves the Sunset" is the kind of song you want to play LOUD out the window on a summer afternoon like today. That cha-cha-cha beat is irresistible, though the pedal steel keeps it twangy; Rhett Miller's vocals lay on just enough ironic exaggeration to keep the alt in their sound. What's it about? Why, nothing much -- loving a girl who loves the sunset is about the extent of it. But the guy sounds so exhilarated, so dumbfounded by his own good luck, that it gets by on charm alone.

The more I listen, though, the more complicated this blissed-out love seems. First of all, the girl's got some issues: "She loves the sunset / She loves the cocktail bell / She loves the trembling, that evening brings, / Or might as well" -- he knows perfectly well that she's a teensy bit of a head case. (Aren't we all?) But he still loves her. Now I'm nervous -- is this love reciprocated? But no, verse two tells us: "She loves the sunset / She loves me also" (whew!). They seem well-matched -- "She loves me trembling, /And everything, oh I can tell / There is no other man in her dreams / Although every so often it seems -- " Then he breaks off, unable to complete that thought; instead he stubbornly repeats, "I love a girl / She loves the sunset."

"Oh, it’s the simple things," he declares in the bridge, " oh, but simple things are scarce / You’ve got to figure out / About what, and for whom, you care." Tangled grammar aside, he's getting at something important -- sometimes the best course in love is just to close your eyes and go with it.

In verse three, he stubbornly declares, "Let's say the trembling / That evening brings, / Is just the cold." (I love the way he carries that loaded noun "trembling" through all three verses -- that's craftsmanship.) Yep, he's made up his mind to be in love, and nothing's going to stop him. "I hope I’ll always be by her side," he adds, slowing down gingerly as he reflects, "Even if I’m just along for the ride . . . ." You can almost see him shake himself, then launch back into "I love a girl / She loves the sunset." It's the power of positive thinking.

A final cha-cha-cha and one last echoing twang, and they're outta here. Perfect.

She Loves the Sunset sample

Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Jagged" / The Old 97s

A fellow Kinks fan sent me a compilation CD of this alt-country band's music, and I've been digging it ever so much, thank you. What's really amazing, my teenagers actually don't scream and make me take it out of the CD player when we're in the car.

This is what the record companies can't seem to figure out: music sharing is good business for them. Sure, my friend ripped off 16 tracks and gave them away to me for free. How is that worse than the old days when people lent their vinyl albums to each other? That's how you learn about new artists, especially now when radio sucks and the independent record store is dead. (Even the chains are dying -- I just heard that the Virgin Records Mega-Stores are vacating Times Square, the only place my son has ever had that quintessential bin-browsing experience.)

Now that I've listened to this sampler, I'm sure I will buy Old 97s CDs -- and I certainly wouldn't have if she hadn't sent me this. All those Nick Lowe samplers I sent to friends a couple years ago? Every one of those people bought Nick's new CD last year. (Note to self: Send out some Ron Sexsmith samplers to whip up the audience for his new CD, due out July 8.)

But back to the Old 97s. This song, from their 1999 album Fight Songs, is the first track on the sampler, so it's the one that hit me first. And what a great first impression it made. On this one, the alt side outweighs the country -- just listen to the buzzing guitar work and skipping drumbeat, or the indie whine and mumble in Rhett Miller's vocals, perfectly appropriate for the subject matter. "I would give anything," he frets over and over in the chorus, "Not to feel so jagged." It's an odd word to use -- it's anything but a cliche -- and as soon as I heard it, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

It's not love that doing this to him -- or is it? "What remains of the day remains to be seen / By the TV that we never turn on / Each other's enough / I never had it so rough / Ever since I been gone." You tell me what's going on with these people. But I like the opacity of this situation; I really feel his misery, when he can't even put into words what's going on. "White noise swells in my head," he says in verse two; "It's the summertime / But it's the dead of the fall / It's the dead of the night / Hell yes I mind." Whoa, there's some existential angst for you. That never goes down well in Nashville (but Austin might get it). "I couldn't drink enough to make this make sense," he adds, "But I think I'm gonna give it a try."

What I like about this song is that it doesn't have to get all moany and mopey to express depression. They've found another grammar -- a restless guitar line, jerky rhythms, fretful octave jumps in the melody, obssessively repeated lyrics, a pained wail at the end of every chorus. It's about depression, but it's not one bit depressing to listen to. Now there's a feat for you.
Jagged sample