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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The Shows We’ll Never See

The Younger J and I are true believers in the live show—when it is possible nothing matches the experience of seeing a band perform. Now, while at times the experience is sublime, at other times, it can also have a deleterious effect on your view of a band. Despite the outcome, however, the experience of witnessing a musical performance and, more importantly, absorbing the reaction of other audience members as well, alters your relationship with the music irrevocably.

(I was not a Bare Naked Ladies fan (back in the Gordon days) until I saw them live; their energy and improvisation made me respect a band I would have otherwise ignored. Conversely, my heart was broken at a Dandy Warhols show, but that is a story for another time…)

These days, I leave most of the concert going to my brother. I am old an ornery: most good shows start after my bedtime . (Old, Old Man.) But I do have some experience to draw on: my first show ever was Jerry Garcia; my last concert was the Austin City Limits. There are many and varied acts between.

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Luck of the Irish…Music?

 

I realize I’m several days past St Patrick’s day but I really wasn’t inspired to write this post until this past weekend. On Friday evening, my husband and I bought a pizza for our daughter and her babysitter, drove 45 minutes to our state capital and attended a concert given by the Irish Rovers.

Earlier this month I heard on our local NPR station that they’d be stopping in our small New England state during the “farewell to rovin” tour. I decided I would buy tickets for us to attend the show as my husband grew up listening to their music and he has been singing the same songs to our little one since she joined us in this world nearly 2 years ago. Prior to the concert, to fully embrace our first date night in months, we went to a bar that I hadn’t been to since my days in law school. We had a couple beers, smoked some cigarettes (gasp!) and met several people who were also attending the show. (Most of whom were decades older than us.).It was fun to talk to other folks as excited about the show as we were.

The concert was wonderful, the group played for about 2 hours. The band formed in the early 1960s and has changed over the years and replaced members who have moved on to greener pastures or to the great pub in the sky, but the current accordion player is one of the original rovers. They played new songs and old songs, well known hits and less known drogues. People of all ages enjoyed the show, multiple generations were in attendance.

When it was all over, the band sat in the lobby to do a meet and greet. We were lucky to speak to all of the members of the group and we bought a compilation of their greatest hits and they all signed the CD cover. (What’s worth noting here is that neither my husband nor myself could remember the last time we bought an actual CD!!!!) My husband told the lead singer how much it meant to him that he saw them play, as their music had come full circle in his life with his father singing their songs to him and he now sings them to our child. The lead singer seemed very flattered and moved by this comment and took a few minutes to chat with us which really was nice.
It was great to hear some live Irish music again. I have had the opportunity to travel to been to Ireland a couple of times as a good friend of mine from college pursued her PhD in Dublin so I had a free place to stay and an insider to show me the city. On each of my trips we frequented many pubs and I got to hear a lot of real authentic Irish music which was a real treat. So anyway, on our drive home from the Irish Rovers show that evening (around 11pm–the latest we’d been out in years!!!) I got to thinking about bands from Ireland and wanted to write a post about them. Groups like U2 and the Cranberries came to mind (those are the obvious ones), but I did a little bit of research as to other Irish bands. I’ll use the most well known songs of the Irish groups I chose just to make the list more familiar and thus maybe more enjoyable. Let’s get started.

U2: “Where the Streets Have no Name”

So clearly we can’t discuss bands from Ireland without mentioning the powerhouse of U2. The Joshua Tree is in my top 3 favorite albums ever and would be one of the CDs I bring to the desert island should I ever become stranded! This is one of U2’s most famous songs and is the first track on The Joshua Tree. The song was released in 1987 and has been used frequently in sports, including on a commercial for the 2010 World Cup and as the entrance song for the Baltimore Ravens football team and the Vancouver Canucks hockey team. I have never been lucky enough to see U2 in concert, but apparently the band still plays this song during nearly every performance.
Snow Patrol: “Chasing Cars”


This song was very popular during my first year of law school. It is on Snow Patrol’s 4th album and to be honest, I never even heard of Snow Patrol until I heard this song. I actually purchased the album, “Eyes Open” but wasn’t too impressed with the rest of the tracks. Other popular songs by Snow Patrol include “Signal Fire” (featured on the Spider-man 3 sound track) and “Run” (from their 3rd album).

The Cranberries: “Linger”

The Cranberries have also been around forever and are one of the better known groups from Ireland. I remember them most well from the early 90s, when their album Everyone Else is Doing It so Why Not me? was released. They reigned the alternative music world for several years and in 2003 decided to separate and pursue individual careers. The band reunited in 2009. I picked “Linger” as the song to feature here because it was one of the first songs released in the United States and it’s the one I like best.
VAN Morrison: “Brown-eyed Girl”

Here’s a really well-known song by an Irishman! Van Morrison wrote this song in 1967 but he started his career in the late 1950s. This song has been covered by countless groups, including the elderJ’s high school band, whose version of course is my all-time favorite. Great fact about Van Morrison: He’s known as “the Belfast Cowboy.”
The Irish Rovers: “Drunken Sailor”


This is an old favorite of mine. My parents also used to sing it often. This song has been performed by several artists in addition to the Irish Rovers, including Pete Seeger. The Rovers play this song as their encore song in their shows and it calls for some pretty fun audience participation. We heard this song at the show last Friday, participated when they asked and sang along with the group. It was a lot of fun and the audience was lively and excited!
Seeing the Irish Rovers was a great experience and I am happy that I felt inspired to write this after thinking about Irish music and artists on our drive home that evening. Brothers, friends and random readers, feel free to add your thoughts or songs to this list!

Songs of the Year — 1992

Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head,
“One” , U2

Songs of the Year: “Smells like Nirvana”, Weird Al Yankovic; “One”, U2

Runners-Up: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Nirvana; “Under the Bridge”, Red Hot Chili Peppers

In the year that They Might Be Giants released Apollo 18, Alice in Chains released Dirt, Blind Melon debuted and Dr. Dre changed the world with The Chronic, I was listening to Weird Al Yankovic.

My 1992 was two different years—half of the year capped off a bright and happy boyhood. The other half portended a mopey, angst-ridden adolescence. 1992 was a year of transition whose boundaries can be sensed in the music I listened to and the technology that provided it.

I wore this cassette out

In one half of the year I was still analogue. At the zenith of my boyish geekness, a circle of friends and I (all male, of course) circulated copies of every Monty Python cassette and every Weird Al tape. The last cassette I ever bought was Off the Deep End. I wore that out by copying it, by listening to it while mowing the interminable lawn, and by rewinding and fast forwarding ad nauseam.

So, while the rest of the world was learning about the weather in Seattle and trying on flannel, I was doing my penance for geek heaven. I learned all of Weird Al’s polka medleys by heart. I knew every Monty Python sketch on tape. I think that my friend and I actually performed the “Lumberjack” sketch at a school assembly. Others were wearing Guns N’ Roses shirts and carrying skateboards (ridiculous things in a place with mostly dirt roads…); I sang about suspenders and a bra.

It isn’t that I disliked Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, I just didn’t care much about it. It didn’t mean anything to me (yet). Now, Weird Al’s parody was a different story altogether. The tracks on Off the Deep End were the best produced of his career; the parody sounded like the original. In addition, the lyrics seemed, to me, to be witty and just juvenile enough (animal noises? Check.)

Call and Response: Religious Songs

As we come to the high frenzy of this holiday season, I’d like to turn to one of my favorite exchanges from the past year, when my brother and I stopped being silly and got a little serious about, you know, religion and stuff. It seems that this is the season for that sort of thing, right? So, this is a re-post, but updated and just right for the longer nights and the colder days.

In last year’s honest, and soul-baring post, my brother daringly ventured into one of the two subjects verboten at dinner tables and water-coolers throughout the country—religion (we crossed the politics line a few times in the past few months, so why not get this one over with?). I responded with an ambling, sometimes senseless, and mostly unclear comment.

My brother’s moment of clarity and its relation to music, however, deserves more thought. It deserves more time. It deserves a weighted and patient consideration. Yet, I fear, I may not be the right person to do this. As I said in response to my brother, music is the one thing that has made me feel a sense of something greater (unlike writing, music can be powerfully communal). Despite these feelings, I remain skeptical and unsure whether feeling something beyond yourself has anything to do with the divine.

“Down to the River to Pray”, Alison Krause

This beautiful song has been in my head off and on since I first heard it on the soundtrack to O, Brother Where art Thou. The fact that the “Sirens” sing this song in the movie points to an uncomfortable connection between Homer’s seductive and dangerous creatures and religious music…

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Apocalypse Playlists: Songs for the End

In the spirit of Halloween and the depressive fog that fall can bring, I am combining two posts my brother and I wrote last year into one massive Apocalyptic post. Enjoy?

As my brother and I texted back and forth during the Walking Dead premiere on Sunday night, we got into a conversation about what would be a good playlist about the apocalypse. Granted, you almost certainly would not be listening to any tunes in the event of a catastrophic world event, instead focusing on any route of survival. So, I leaned more towards songs about the end of the world and ended up having to cut my list down to accommodate the end of the world as we know it.

No, I did not include anything by R.E.M., although I hope my brother does. I don’t think the world is actually going to end in December of this year 2012 because most simply, we don’t have all the information even to know what the whole clock even means. When the Spaniards came to the New World, they burned much of the written record of the Mayans after witnessing a human sacrifice complete with the heart being taken still beating out of the victim’s chest.

I mean come on, what use could the history of a people who are so obviously heathen homicidal maniacs possibly be? (If it’s not obvious, this is sarcasm) It’s really too bad because there is much information we could have used and I don’t think we have a real grasp on who they were as a people so this end of the world thing pertaining to their calendar is probably bullshit.

Unless our sun does burn out or we are hit be some giant celestial object or some massive nuclear war, the end will probably be a very gradual ordeal that no one generation will remember. Rarely does anything huge happen in history quickly. Nevertheless, the end of the world, or conception of it at least, has inspired a lot of good music

1. “The Weight”- The Band

Hard to believe this beloved anthem of the hippie generation is about the end of the world, but it is one of the themes. Robbie Robertson has said it is about that and the impossibility of always being a good person. It may not seem obvious, as it is an upbeat song, but think about it.  Some guy named Luke is waiting on the Judgement Day and the Devil is floating around.  It never occurred to me until I read into it a little.

I always associated this song with Easy Rider and my father, a former motorcycle enthusiast and eternal hippie. It’s interesting also that the song talks a lot about asking other people for help, favors being traded for favors. In an apocalypse style situation, you would have to depend on whoever else was around and I’d imagine the currency system as we know it would go right to shit.  Even now in the rural area I live in, I often trade labor for labor with friends but I think this is a dying thing in the hectic 24/7 over-connected and electronic society we live in. Unfortunately, I think it would take an ending of the world as we know it to get people to work together.

2. “Electric Funeral” Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath is one of my top five favorite bands. I really don’t talk about them enough on this blog and how awesome they are. I know Ozzy made himself look like a fool on MTV a few years back and his solo work never did much for me, but Black Sabbath is the real deal. They created heavy rock as we know it, obviously with help from a few other bands, and basically all metal and heavy rock now is Sabbath in some respect.

For coming out in the afterglow of the swinging 60’s and singing about dark scary things in down tuned jams that lurch along, they deserve some type of medal. Nobody sounded like them and I just love that they put this stuff out not caring if anyone even wanted to hear it. This cheery little number is about atomic bombs and the chilly aftermath of nuclear winter. I love the guitars in this and the tempo break near the end. This is a mainstay of their music, the long and slow climb and then a kick up into a faster time with an ill guitar solo. Never gets old for me and I hope that if you haven’t ever tried Sabbath out, that you go ahead and give it a whirl.

3. “Pink Moon” Nick Drake

I never had any idea that this song was about the end of the world and it probably isn’t. I was having difficulty coming up with a different song so I googled “songs about the apocalypse  and this one popped up. Nick Drake is really great if you don’t know him, kind of like Elliott Smith but from way earlier and with less of an output. Exceptionally pretty songs but very morose.  Is this about the end of the world? I think Drake’s world anyway because he did die accidentally through a lethal combination of medications.

The couplet “None of you stand so tall, Pink Moon will get you all” is quite a bit more ominous than the melody would suggest. Is the pink moon a result of nuclear winter like in “Electric Funeral”? Who could be sure but I really dig this song. Great for summer nights at the end of the world.

4. “The End” -The Doors

The classic break-up tune and what a jam it is. I loved this song from the first time I heard it as the jets napalmed the hell out of the jungle in the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now. Although definitely about a break up, this is a great song about the end of the world as well. I think Morrison always wrote lyrics open to interpretation and this is one of the best. Like the Sabbath, it slowly builds through cool jazzy riffs and Morrison’s stoned poetry full of images of despair and Oedipus. I absolutely love the jam at the end, it feels like some type of tribal dance thing and it inspires me to take my clothes off and bang my chest like a chimpanzee. I think that would help in the high stress of an apocalyptic event.

5. “Santa Monica” Everclear

Another song about suicide and certainly the only one I like by this band. But what a song, from the very beginning fuzzy guitar riffs to the ending lines of “Let’s swim out past the breakers and watch the world die” Some thing about that really makes me happy like, ok it’s the end of the world but at least we have each other.

In some respects,  our world is pretty cluttered up right now so maybe we could use some massive cleansing to work out the kinks. I don’t hope a bunch of people die or anything but just from watching the nightly news it’s clear we need to make some serious changes in the way we treat each other. The word apocalypse, from the Greek, means revelation of something hidden. Perhaps we need to swim out past the breakers, watch the world die and find whatever it is inside of us to come alive. I look forward to re-posting this in December of this year and think we will be around quite a bit longer after that.

(if you think there’s more to say, my brother does too: he wrote his own damn list)

Well sure as planets come, I know that they end. 
And if I'm here when that happens, will you promise me this my friend? 
Please bury me with it! 
I just don't need none of that Mad Max bullshit.
-Modest Mouse

 

Recently, my brother listed his favorite songs about the apocalypse. For various reasons, I cannot let this post stand alone. (This says far more about me than about my brother or his post.)

Why are we obsessed with the apocalypse? I actually ask this of my students on a semesterly basis. I think that the answer, if there is one, is partly psychological and structural. First, we know that we begin and end individually—part of our death drive or obsession also nearly demands contemplation (and fantasy) about everything expiring just as we will.

In addition, there is a structural logic among the cultural offspring of the Abrahamic religions. We tell the story of the world being created. Logically, that which is created must eventually be destroyed.

(Oh, and science supports this. Oh, and we keep destroying things. And, by the way, our lifestyle and growth rates are unsustainable….)

So the Younger J confessed that during the premier of The Walking Dead we were texting song lists back and forth. My brother’s list is great and, I am sure, cooler than mine. His music taste and knowledge can be so much deeper. My corresponding ‘interests’ are random and aesthetically scatter-shot.

Oh, and I am also pissed that he stole my shtick and mentioned that apocalypse is Greek in origin.

So his list is good, but it isn’t mine. In ascending order of my subjective taste (from best to 8th best), here are my favorite songs about the apocalypse.

 

1. “(Nothing But) Flowers”, The Talking Heads

The happiest song about the end of the world—at least on the surface level. I have loved this song since my best friend in high school (a previously mentioned Lead Singer) played it for me when we were in 7th grade. I can still remember the road we were on, the caravan his parents were driving, and how hilarious we both found the song.

While I still see the humor in it, I think that Byrne’s lyrics are more satirical and cynical. His post-apocalyptic paradise is one where men cannot adjust—not because it is too terrible or tough, but because it is too wonderful.

This was a discount store,

Now it’s turned into a cornfield

you got it, you got it

Don’t leave me stranded here

I can’t get used to this lifestyle

2. “Bury Me With It”, Modest Mouse

What more is there to say about this great song? I love the frantic balance of the multi-syllabic verses with the almost-screamed chorus. The instrumentation supports the contrast beautifully. This is Modest Mouse at its most quintessentially schizophrenic.

When I ask my wife about post-apocalyptic scenarios (on the occasions she will entertain my hypotheticals), she insists that preparing for the occasion is a waste of time. She says she wouldn’t want to survive in a world undergoing whatever cataclysmic event could be called an apocalypse.

Besides loving the late alt-rock crunch of this song (and, in general, appreciating the even quality of Modest Mouse’s work), I love this song for this one line: “I don’t need none of that Mad Max bullshit”. The command of the title and chorus (“please, bury me with it”) reflects my wife’s opinion just enough to demand the inclusion of this song.

 3. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, REM

I know my brother didn’t include this song because a lot of people despise REM. In fact, of the seminal early alt-rock bands REM get the least respect and probably garnered way too little attention when they called it quits. I think that this comes from a few things.

First, REM had too many styles and took risks (“Shiny Happy People”? Worst song by a great band). Then, when REM broke through it was with the wrong music. “Losing My Religion” was a fantastic song, but not grungy enough or angry enough. Who wants contemplative when you can be mad?

Second, “Everybody Hurts”. When I first listened to Automatic for the People (and “Drive” had just been released) I knew that “Everybody Hurts” was going to be a big hit. But like similar 1990s explosions (say, Hootie and the Blowfish and Forrest Gump) what seemed initially universally appealing, aged quite poorly. Now, “Everybody Hurts”sounds like a parody of itself.

But I don’t care about any of this. “It’s the end of the world…” is one of the few American made indie-rock songs from the 80s that (1) almost everyone knows, (2) many have imitated , and (3) sounds like nothing else. REM was one of the most important and influential bands on College Radio—they didn’t break through with a consistent style and image like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or Green Day, but they took more risks.

There is something about the insouciance of this song that is reassuring. I also have fond memories of covering this (rather poorly) with one of my bands. It is successful because of the radical juxtaposition of the end of all we know with a feeling of not sorrow or elation but measured acceptance.

And, if you’re living through the apocalypse do you want to take risks and feel fine about it or what?

4. “Eve of Destruction”, Barry McGuire (P. F. Sloan)

This is a phenomenal protest song that I grew up hearing on the radio (since my parents only listened to Oldies stations). I love the gravel in the vocals and I love the melody and desperation in the song. Now, I know that this is not literally a song about the apocalypse, but rather one anticipating.

Nevertheless, I guarantee that if there were a cataclysmic event occurring, too many of us would be in denial about it and would ignore voices like McGuire’s as if they were panicked Chicken Littles. And, hey, it isn’t like Global Warming is a serious issue. Or that overpopulation will eventually outstrip developments in agriculture. Or that we’re playing with house money when it comes to the fact that we haven’t used atomic/nuclear weapons since WWII…

5. “Seconds”, U2

Speaking of nuclear weapons and bands that no longer get sufficient respect: U2 has almost become a dirty name to ‘real’ music lovers. Bono is a megalomaniacal self-mockery at this point and while many praised All You Can’t Leave Behind, the band should have been disbanded after Zooropa.

But, to be fair, how many bands have given the world so many great songs? This song is about nuclear holocaust. As the Historian and I used to discuss, people just a little younger than we are (say, the Younger Js age), fear terrorists and Global Warming (and Zombies, fake things). We were raised with the fiery fear of nuclear war. I remember attack drills. I remember the 80s arms race. Even in my 30s, I still mistrust Russians because I was born and bred to expect a war of total annihilation in my lifetime.

So, this song takes me back to when I first started listening to U2 and when we didn’t have to hear random and unexpected attacks or religious war or Y2K.

6. “California Love” 2Pac (Featuring Dr. Dre)

I know that this song isn’t really about the end of the world. Including it also made be feel bad that (1) I didn’t include Tool’s “Aenima” which is also a song about California (and the world ending). But, Tool gets a little too heavy for me and I love this song.

What makes it fit for this list, though, is the video. Dr. Dre and 2Pac in a Mad Max party? It might not be the safest place to imagine, but what the hell do you expect from the end of the world. Count me in.

7. “Come to Daddy”, Aphex Twin

All I have to say is this. If the end of the world is anything like this video, I don’t want to be there.  Also, if you’re short on reasons that mankind may not be worthy of survival, watch this video.

( That was only partly a joke)

8. “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”, The Dandy Warhols

So this song is only partly serious. A great rock song—and the song the Lead Singer mentioned above said was the only one ‘half-assed’ music fans would know. This was the song that put the band on the map and which also inspired a great parody from the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

It is also a reminder that, should the end times come, survival will be random and serendipitous. The best won’t survive. The most well-prepared will not prevail. It will be chaos. Chance will preserve few. Some of those will be survivalists. Some will be honest and virtuous. But many will also be criminals, drug addicts, and, most of all, the ruthlessly selfish and opportunistic.

And, with that thought in mind, maybe I will join my wife and Modest Mouse to ask for this: if the world starts to end, please, bury me with it.

 

Mash-up Repost: Bands with numbers in their name from the Nineties

numbersSo, my brother wrote this post a bit back and I have been thinking about it. I wrote a response. Both generated some debate, so for the first time, I have mashed two of our posts into one terrible Frankensteinian beast. Any ideas for bands we’ve missed or explanations for the phenomenon?

Here’s my brother’s bit to begin:

It occurred to me the other night that there were a lot of  bands with numbers in them from the Nineties. I think  Seven Mary Three was the best. I came to this conclusion after a long conversation with an elementary school friend last week  with whom I enjoyed many of these songs. The football game was not very exciting because the Patriots were like seven touchdowns ahead. I decided to have a mixed drink and this turned into why Seven Mary Three was a better band than Third Eye Blind.  We had to first determine which bands were up for consideration. For instance was 311 up for the best band with numbers in it from the Nineties?

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