Pop-Ambiguity

“I have climbed highest mountain / I have run through the fields / Only to be with you”
“I still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, U2

For years I have contemplated what I still see as one of the greatest three-song sequences on any rock album: the first three songs on U2’s 1987 release The Joshua Tree (“Where the Streets Have No Name”; “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”; and “With or Without You”). Love them or hate them (and I suspect once most of us get past any U2 antipathy created by the last decade there will be more love), these songs are immediately recognizable and eminently successful.

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Ten to 2013: Rethinking Pearl Jam

Is something wrong, she said
Well of course there is
You’re still alive, she said
Oh, and do I deserve to be
Is that the question

Pearl Jam, “Alive”

Recently a friend of ours, the marvelous and magnificent Moe, wrote a review of Pearl Jam’s latest release Lightning Bolt. The review isn’t tepid—it praises the album but concedes it is not the band’s greatest work—but it does inspire tepid feelings in me. And this is not because of the review; it is because of the band. A band that even my brother just took the time to consider more carefully.

I can’t think of many other bands that have been so successful for so long without impressing me (well, the Eagles, R.E.M.).

I cannot tell a lie: I owned this t-shirt

I cannot tell a lie: I owned this t-shirt

I can think of some pretty terrible bands that people seem to like regardless of all taste and reason (Maroon 5, Foo Fighters) but it is hard for me really to figure out the place that Pearl Jam should occupy. The band was huge in the early 1990s. It consciously and intentionally bowed out of MTV and its world but continued to release albums. I never listened to them. Was I wrong?

I am not completely alone in being confused about the attraction: LA Weekly lists Pearl Jam as one of the worst bands of all time describing the sound as “Boring, tepid, rehashed classic rock with a thin veneer of alt” . Now, while this declaration is in part meant just to raise some hackles and eyebrows, I have to add that it is rare that my brother and I completely agree in ignoring something. Generally, what I don’t care for, he will defend. And, generally, if we both ignore something, well…

But the litmus test for a band that transcends general mediocrity and confounds even those who would like to hate it is whether or not a majority of people who know of the band can identify a song they actually like by it despite whatever reservations or misgivings they have. I can think of at least five songs (maybe more) that I really do like (“Even Flow”, “Daughter”, “Better Man”, “Nothingman”, and Yellow Ledbetter”). So, I guess I need to revisit this.

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Baseball and Album Lineups: A Postseason Comparison

True Love.

True Love.

For the first time in four years, the Red Sox are back in the playoffs. Both of my children have only known a world where the Red Sox fold in August and September. This is not the worst tragedy—I lived this as a reality from birth until 2004. New Englanders have a manic relationship with their baseball team. Before the Patriots had Tom Brady, even as the Celtics set the standard for the rest of the NBA, Boston sports fans defined themselves by disappointment and failure. So, as part of my legacy as a New Englander, I think it is only fair that they feel some pain too.

And, yet, I find myself eager to watch this team in the playoffs. All season I have been unsure about this team—its rotating lineup, shaky pitching, and streaky habits have made me uneasy. But, of late, I have felt that this team is nearly the equal of 2007’s World Series Champions. (That said, I do fear the Tampa Bay pitching staff). However much I love this team, they will always pale in comparison to the greatest Red Sox team of all time (2004). No matter how much the new players impress me, no matter how deeply in love I fall with Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia, I will always have a place in my heart for the Idiots.

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Quick Post: Recent Acquisitions

While my brother waits for kegs to be delivered, I go on periodic music binges. I can confess this without guilt because I know that it is the first step towards healing. I get frustrated with my music library or irrationally exuberant about something I have heard and then I just start downloading. It is the internet I blame—before iTunes I used to troll through Amazon buying CDs with the justification that the used ones were cheaper. Now, even though I know the quality isn’t what it should be, sometimes I just can’t contain myself.records

When I was young(er), before the internet turned us all into more efficient and obsessive consumers, to buy an album was an event, a pilgrimage along back-country roads without shoulders and to one of the few places where new CDs could be purchased. It was momentous, as well, because it also seemed like an investment: I earned $4.25 an hour in my first job making pizza at Little Caesar’s. CDs, irrationally, cost between $12 and $18.00.

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Modern Classics: 13 Songs by Fugazi

Note: We think it is a good idea to review old albums in addition to new ones. Music isn’t fast food; some of it is meant to last.

Rated by Spin Magazine the 29th best album from 1985-2005 (behind albums by Oasis, Pavement, the Pixies, Wu Tang, Liz Phair and U2, to name a few, but ahead of The Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction), Fugazi’s 13 Songs (1989) is by far the band’s best album. Problematically enough (for those who care about albums), it is not even originally an album at all but instead the combination of two EPs.

The album consists of, appropriately, 13 pop-length songs (averaging under three minutes each). The energy, focus and style of almost any track on the album would best most tracks on the rest of Fugazi’s releases, if you prefer your hardcore to come in short melodic songs with beginnings, middles and ends. Perhaps more importantly, the music and its messages represent the best of what Fugazi has to offer.

The sixth song, “Suggestion”, is the heart of the album musically and ethically. If any Fugazi song could have been a popular single in the 90’s, it is this one. The chaotic guitars start out searching for a riff, anchored by the rolling rhythm of the bass and drums. The song’s title appears in the first line: “Why can’t I walk down the street free of suggestion?” The later “Is my body the only trait in the eyes of man”, at home in the overall song, seems as if it could have inspired the conversation that Edward Norton and Brad Pitt have on the bus in Fight Club when they point to a picture of a man with a six-pack and ask whether this is what a man looks like.

Indeed, social and capitalistic pressures on the definition of masculinity, the central idea of the song, features in the bridge-crescendo (“Suffer your interpretation of what it is….to be a man”). The song ends with something of a whimper (though not a whine) as the topic shifts to a female character, undone and victimized herself by the pressures and expectations of masculinity. The balance of personal reflection and social commentary over now dissonant and then melodic sound is essential what makes Fugazi unique.

From the first track, in fact, 13 Songs is exceptional. The opening bass line and sharp drum hits of “Waiting” preface nearly poetic lines (“I am a patient boy/ I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait / My time is water down a drain”). The vocals of the two singers (Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto) nicely contrast one another—the clarity of vocals on the first track is nicely offset by the more gravelly verses of “Bulldog Front”.

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