Songs of the Year 1996

She said it’s cold
It feels like Independence Day
And I can’t break away from this parade
But there’s got to be an opening
Somewhere here in front of me
Through this maze of ugliness and greed
–The Wallflowers

Songs of the Year: “Novocaine for the Soul”, the Eels; “One Headlight”, the Wallflowers

Runners Up: “What I got”; Sublime; “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, Smashing Pumpkins

Honorable Mentions: “Old Apartment”, Barenaked Ladies;  “California Love” Tupac, Dr. Dre

1996 was the year that I dropped the transmission on the Ford LTD station wagon; but it is still filled with memories of music playing in that car. I can see the road I was turning on to when Sublime’s “What I got” was playing on the local radio station for the first time. I can remember where the snow was falling when I first heard the terrible and memorable lyrics “The world is a vampire / sent to drain …”

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I fixed my record player!

After months of doing nothing about it and occasionally asking the lead singer in my band for help, I fixed the receiver part of my turn table so I can again spin records. I missed it so much that I listened to records all morning while cleaning up the house and making breakfast instead of writing this very blog post that I started Sunday morning. My iPod is long broken, my cd collection is a mess and the PA in my jam room is not hooked up so the vinyl set up is my only way to let loose with the tunes besides a couple ancient radios. Vinyl is the best way to listen to music and I didn’t realize how much I missed it until the first few chords of the song below rang out in my living room at a high volume.

It wasn’t that I was lazy in attempting to fix my record player, I just have little confidence in my ability to fix anything. This is a silly notion since I am not a complete idiot and gain practical knowledge with my increasing years, Somehow, one of the two speaker wires in my left speaker had gotten wrapped up around a metal piece in the middle of where you hook the two wires. It must have been shorting out the whole system whenever I turned it on which is why it would play music for an instant then cut out. I rewound the wire, it fired right up and am proud. This song always pleases, although I’ve shared it before. It really enhanced my bacon cooking yesterday morning. I don’t know where I got it. It’s case is all messed up but it plays well so i assume it was a yard sale. I didn’t touch this record for years and now have it in heavy rotation.

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(Re-Play) Songs of the Year 1996

Do you ever sit around and wonder what you were doing or thinking about a year ago? One of the things about the internet age is that you can almost always come up with some documentary evidence to discover if not what you were thinking, then at least what you were saying you were thinking (or something like that).

With a blog, it is a bit more official. last year, around this time, I was thinking about the songs of 1996. So, in the spirit of all things being cyclical, let’s go back there again.

She said it’s cold
It feels like Independence Day
And I can’t break away from this parade
But there’s got to be an opening
Somewhere here in front of me
Through this maze of ugliness and greed
–The Wallflowers

Songs of the Year: “Novocaine for the Soul”, the Eels; “One Headlight”, the Wallflowers

Runners Up: “What I got”; Sublime; “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, Smashing Pumpkins

Honorable Mentions: “Old Apartment”, Barenaked Ladies;  “California Love” Tupac, Dr. Dre

1996 was the year that I dropped the transmission on the Ford LTD station wagon; but it is still filled with memories of music playing in that car. I can see the road I was turning on to when Sublime’s “What I got” was playing on the local radio station for the first time. I can remember where the snow was falling when I first heard the terrible and memorable lyrics “The world is a vampire / sent to drain …”

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Cover Songs: Pink Moons and Psycho Killers

In the past, I have spent a good deal of time talking about cover songs. I have mused about what it means to call a song the same song in different performances; I have tried to provide a typology of a cover-song; I have even dabbled in ‘arranged-marriages’ of sorts as I have tried to pair impossible, dream combinations of songs and performers.

One thing I have not talked about is the fact that certain songs should never be covered. Now, I know that such wide-open generalizations are inevitably proved false (you know, with all those monkeys working away on all those typewriters….), but I think there are songs that are so indelibly and unalterably bound to their performers that they should never be assayed by someone else.

What got me thinking about this? Last night my children politely requested their nightly dance party (at almost 3 and almost 1.5 years, they actually screamed for it, but I digress). I turned on the television to Music Choice’s (sadly and pathetically) default Adult Alternative station and the following abomination filled the air:

I don’t really know who Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren are and I am so incensed that I will not even bother to check them out Wikipedia. (How’s that for some false indignation?) Here’s the thing: “Pink Moon”, Nick Drake’s brief, ethereal and ephemeral anti-anthem, works because of its (1) simplicity, (2) beauty, and (3) brevity, all of which are made possible by the solo combination of Drake’s eerie/breathy voice and his iconoclastic finger-picking.  When the spare piano notes come in, their vibrattoed-brevity brings that solitary sense into relief like the light of the moon in a darkened sky.

This cover is earnest—the performers obviously love the song, but they just do too much. The two voices deprive the song of its solitary space; the extra instrumentation clutters up the sound; and the repetitions lengthen the time past its key feature: the almost orgasmic (if subdued) brevity that leaves you wanting more.

And isn’t that the central story of Nick Drake’s music and his life? The lack—the wanting, and the ultimate space of hope and disappointment left at the end?

The next morning, my good friend and sometime-commenter on this blog (who keeps threatening to write a post…) asked me about a song we used to cover when we were in a band, “Psycho Killer” by the talking heads. See, the band just released an earlier version of this song with a damn cello in it.

This version, I must admit, actually seems to reside somewhere between the 1977 version and the live version–it doesn’t seem to have the same stilted pace of the album version. It also seems to anticipate a little bit of the life of the much later live performance. When it comes down to it, though, the cello isn’t that noticeable or radical.

Now, here’s the problem with “Psycho Killer”. (If it is really a problem at all.) The version I grew up knowing (and ultimately the one our band covered) was actually from the live performance that became the sensation Stop Making Sense. In that live version, David Byrne walks on to the stage and presses play on a sound machine to produce the beat—he performs the song at a pace much faster than the album version for the most part alone.

The band slowly integrates into the music as the concert builds on. By the end of a few songs the stage is filled and the air vibrates with some of the most dynamic and symphonic sound to ever come out of lower Manhattan.  The album version of the song, however, is slower, almost sloppy even though recorded, and ultimately unsatisfying if you heard the concert version first.

Now, in between the original recording and the performance was over half a decade. Anyone who has performed the same song for a year, much less seven, knows that songs develop as if they are in fact alive: they mature and become more complex; sometimes they lose vibrancy and urgency. But what is important is that they, like the performer and the audience, change.

So, perhaps some of my resistance to hearing another version of this song and part of our cultural attachment to individual versions of songs is that they offer us the false promise of sameness—the recorded song stays the same, it doesn’t develop, it is like a photograph or a video: it is a fossilized version of something that once was. The song lives on forever. Psychologically, isn’t this an attractive flouting of the fact that we will not do the same?

Still Killing?

Still Killing?

The trick of this, though, is that the experience of the song has changed because we as listeners are no longer the same and we live with the earlier experiences of hearing the song as part of our memory and our associations with that piece.

Now, “Psycho Killer” is a song whose power rests not in its particular beauty or in the simplicity of its articulation but in its message and structure, does lend itself to different reinterpretations. One of our favorite bands, Bishop Allen, does a fine and light job of it here ( I do appreciate the nearly manic pace of this cover and the humorous intro-patter; the slight change in phrasing isn’t as effective; the overall effect, though, seems to channel more of the punk-era aesthetic that the Talking Heads came out of). And the original version of the song above shows us some of the surprising depth that can be plumbed merely by adding in new instrumentation or varying the pace.

The lyrics of the song also lend themselves to pointed reinterpretation—where one version of the song is plaintive protest, another is mocking jest. What would this song be in the mouth of someone more earnest? What if a Bob Dylan or Bright Eyes performed this song? (There’s my impossible recover request: Bob Dylan, performing “Psycho Killer”,  five years before it was written in Washington, D.C. during the unfolding of the Watergate Scandal. Don’t ask. Just imagine.)

Of course, it is not only a simple song that is hard to perform. At times, the more complex a song gets, the more it depends on a dangerous tension between execution and failure. One of my favorite Talking Heads songs, “Nothing But Flowers”, works only when performed with a paradoxical severe levity.

I love this song. And, when I heard it performed live by another one of my favorite bands, Guster, I thought I was going to die of happiness. And, for at least a minute of the song, I was filled with joy. But, slowly, the sound started to wash over me and I realized how it seemed only half-way there, like something essential was missing.

So, the moral of the story? (Wait, there was a story?) Cover songs are hard and delicate work. An artist needs to make the song his or her own without losing whatever is essential to the song’s core.

I think. Maybe. While I figure it out, here’s another cover to mull over:

Some more Political Songs

The Personal is Political, said Carol Hanisch. The guys in Fugazi know that

After I read my brother’s post about political songs, I knew that I couldn’t be silent. It is not that I do not like his list; in fact, I like it a whole lot. What I cannot leave untouched is his sense of disenchantment.  I think it is terrible that he feels so apolitical. I would call it tragic if it were not so common.

See, I feel  apolitical too. We live under a political system that is at best a plutocratic oligarchy where corporations are citizens. Our elections are so corrupted by money that we spend the GDP of some nations on elections. Even English speaking allies like the Canadians and British think our system is ridiculous.

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Love and the Lumineers

In the hit single “Hey Ho” from their debut album, the lead singer of the Lumineers declares that he can write a song (“I don’t know where I went wrong / but I can write a song”).  The album that contains this line proves the claim to be both hubris and truth. At least two of the songs are transcendent. Others are less than overwhelming.

After my brother posted his confession that he had endured terrible music all day just for the chance of  hearing “Hey Ho”, I decided that I should take a listen. Now, rather than telling me it was a good song and insisting I might like it (perhaps fearing another Gotye incident), my brother posted an entry about the song and left me to my own devices.

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Leon Russell: Master of Space and Time.

Leon Russell took off his ever-present sunglasses the other night at a very small show in a barn in the woods of Maine and he looked right at me. I felt like something close to God stared directly into my soul. Very few musicians are as important to me personally as well as to popular twentieth music in general. His ideas and style have influenced everybody from George Harrison to Elton John and, at the golden age of 71, he can still melt your face playing piano. His name is Leon Russell and he is the Master of Space and time.

Leon is a piano player from Oklahoma who first captured my attention on a hazy day in the summer in about 2006. I haven’t mentioned him much before, using one of his Bob Dylan covers for a piece a few weeks back. My hippie neighbor Fred, who is about eight feet tall and the subject of an upcoming entry of his own, picked me up in his rusty old Subaru outback with a 12 pack of  Miller High life and a bunch of cds he had found in an old trunk.  I got in the car under the context of going to move some wood from one side of his driveway to the other but ending up driving very slowly in a large field nearby, drinking most of the beer, and listening to tunes. I learned a lot about Frank Zappa and Emerson, Lake and Palmer that day, but I want to focus on the major find which was Leon Russell. It was this song that sucked me in.

It didn’t hurt that we were having a few beers and driving in the woods, but this song bowled me over. I must have listened to it twenty times that afternoon/evening,  amongst many of Leon’ s solo songs on a retrospective disc Fred dug up somewhere. I then got the Fred version of the legend of Leon Russell.

The guy is basically a jack of all musical trades, from songwriter to producer to musician to singer and so on. He started playing music as a kid in Tulsa and at some point, moved to Los Angeles and eventually became part of the group known as “The Wrecking Crew”. These “fuckin bad asses” were supposed to be the best studio musicians in town and played on hits from the Beach Boys to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band. Eventually, Leon started writing songs with some pretty good success, such as the following.

Everybody from Christina Aguilara to Ray Charles has covered this song and it’s also where he gets the name “The Master of Space and Time” . The excellent lyric states “I love you in place where there is no space or time” and this is around the same time Leon got perhaps his best known gig, as band leader for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour backing Joe Cocker.  According to the liner notes of that best of disc, this tour was nuts and everybody was on drugs, but watch the video beneath. Leon looks like he is in his prime, the rest of the band is killing it, and Joe Cocker is his typical arm flailing awesomeness. More on that top hat shortly,

As things go, Leon got pretty big on his own right and split from Joe Cocker to start making his own records. His first had the track “A Song for You” which would go on to be a huge hit for so many along with one of my personal favorites, “Shootout on the Plantation”. Take the time to google this  self titled first album and you will be amazed at the line up of players, with Cocker, a few Rolling Stones, and even two Beatles in attendance on the sessions. This guy clearly had come clout back in the day and from this performance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, he also had the chops to keep all these famous folks around. Just look at the guy, Fred is right when he says he’s a bad ass.

Unfortunately, his own records never sold like the ones he wrote and played on so sometime in the mid 1980’s, he kind of went obscure. He played gigs to pay the bills and it got pretty destitute to the point where his tour van was almost not functioning. I got all of this post 197o’s info from a great movie called The Union which tells the story of the making of the album with the same name by Leon and Elton John. If your watch these live videos  that I have included, you can see the gigantic influence and Elton does acknowledge it a lot. He does say some things that I think make Leon look a little bad, but all in all it is an immensely powerful movie about a musician  who is absolutely amazing. Here’s a great track which Leon wrote for Elton.

So why do I like Leon Russell so much? There is nobody like him, from his style of playing piano to his lyrics to his distinct singing voice. While he can play in any genre, it’s almost like anything he plays on just becomes it’s own Leon genre. Although I have heard many of his studio parts, as I am sure you have if you ever listened to Oldie’s radio, I prefer his solo work.  Nobody does all the work he does on a track anymore either, like “Out in the Woods” where Leon did everything except play bass. He has a distinctive style that has already stood the test of time.

I think his music also represents a certain time in my life, the college years they’d be called if I were to write a memoir. I listened to his music hard when I lived with my ex-girlfriend in a tiny apartment, one time buying a bunch of his records instead of saving money to cover rent. I never once introduced him to somebody who didn’t become a fan and one friend texted me the night after I saw him at like the crack of dawn. In short, it reminds me of a certain time that I really enjoyed but will never return to. The ex, who once told me listening to Leon Russell made her like me more, is long gone but I hope that she can still enjoy the music. That was the biggest thing we had together and although we ended badly, I look back on most of my time with her fondly. Here’s a good jam.

When I got the chance to see him the other night, still incredibly impressive at age 70, I obviously was thinking of my history of being a Leon fan and how quick things change. Watch that movie with Elton, the same goes for Leon, barely getting by one day and getting Grammys the next. I am very lucky for the show I saw as it was basically in a barn in Maine and I was probably twenty feet from one of my most revered musical idols. Check out the venue, it’s very cool. I also go to attend the show with two old friends whom I introduced Leon to years ago. In fact, the tickets were a wedding present to one of my friends whose wedding I was actually the best man for, so that was a cool experience in itself.

He played every song I’d want to hear except “Shootout on the Plantation” and had an amazing young band backing him. He is moving pretty slow and he has a laptop to remember lyrics, but don’t let this take anything away from him. He is amazing and I would pay a hundred bucks to see him again, Leon Russell is the Master of Space and Time and if you have a chance, discover it yourself.

Bob Dylan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I have a love/hate relationship with Bob Dylan. I spent much of my teenage years as an avid fan who thought the man was pure genius and could do no wrong. I attended a show of his, my first big rock show, when I was a sophomore in high school and even though his vocals were difficult to dicipher at times, he still rocked my world. His band rocks and always will because of the legend that has grown around the man; so, this is one reason to see him in itself.

He is probably one of the best lyricists ever and has the unique ability in much of his work to write lines that seem to come directly from your own mind. For example, I think that “Dont think twice, It’s Alright”  perfectly expresses the feeling of breaking up with somebody but in a good way and is probably my favorite song along side “When I Paint my Masterpiece”.  But of course, Bobby won’t let anyone listen to his songs for free so I include a killer cover here, the singer I am sure you will know and is dear to all our hearts.

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Pop Imperfection: Every Rose has its Thorn?

“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew” – Jack Gilbert

In the three minutes or so of the average pop song, there is ample opportunity for mistakes. Large mistakes in lyrics or instrumentation make some songs seem like bad ideas from the start. Single strange points can be repeated ad nauseam to undermine otherwise effective pieces.

At times, choices that seem terrible and jarring can be repeated enough to wear the listener down, to bully into submission. (Rihanna’s repeated “ella” in “Umbrella” was initially so offensive to me that I tried to turn the radio off every time it came on. My wife made me leave the song on. I can now listen and appreciate the song—even if I still don’t like it.)

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Why are they Giants?

I only know one thing for sure about They Might be Giants and that is that my brother the Elder loves them and has for as long as I can remember. I don’t think there are many bands I have liked consistently from a young age. In fact, the only two I can think of are Zeppelin and the Beatles but even that’s not the same because the eras of the two bands that I really like changes constantly. Sometimes I want early 70’s acoustic Zep instead of later more experimental stuff and once in a while I’ll listen to the early poppy Beatles instead of the super trippy stuff I normally take from later on the 60’s. I think the Elder likes They Might Be Giants all the way through and, although I don’t share his enthusiasm, I certainly respect his fortitude.

The only personal connection with the band I have is the one song I love by them, “Particle Man”. I had heard the song from my brother at some point but I really knew it from a Tiny Tunes episode where the cartoon characters actually act out the lyrics. It is funny and very well done. I believe “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” was also done in this way but I’d never had the same regard for that song.

My sophomore year of college was a big year. It was the year I declared my major and the year I met the girl I’d date for all of college and graduate school only to break up right before I received my master’s degree. Also, it was the year I partied the most and one song I had to hear after hours of Dead and Allman Brothers tunes was this song (“Particle Man”). It always provoked me to make some type of crazy dance and yell the lyrics which made absolutely zero sense to me. It is supposed to be about characters in the most literal sense, according to Wikipedia. I am not sure what that means.

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