Thursday, September 27, 2007

A quick thought on Bluetooth techonology....

It used to be that if you saw someone walking around talking to themselves, you could be pretty sure they were a little crazy in the head; now, all you can be sure of is that they are fairly affluent with an active social life.

We Can't Work It Out: The Fab War -- Round 2

"Taxman" v. "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" v. "If You've Got Troubles" v. "Paperback Writer"

"Taxman" is a great satire on the power of The Man to regulate the man's dollar. It features punching guitar and some witty lyrics, including a reference to saving money by putting pennies on your eyes when you are dead. This is a modern twist on an old tradition, which I believe was used so that one would be able to pay for the poling of the ferry across the river Styx and into the underworld. Unfortunately, its still far from Harrison's best work. The aforementioned wit was included in a line which went "be careful, pennies on your eyes." This seems rather lazy writing as its grammatical structure, or lack thereof, forces the listener to work overly hard at figuring the line out. A great track, but not Harrison's best.

"You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" is one of Lennon's early Dylan rip-offs, and perhaps his best. "I can't go on feeling two foot small" is a neat grammatical construction reminiscent of Dylan. Lennon is at his most derivatively Dylanesque with the line "gather round all you clowns," and the use of acoustic guitars shows a move toward the folk genre. While parts of this song are great, overall it does sound somewhat rehashed, though well-executed and with excellent use of percussion with the tambourine and maracas combo.

"If You've Got Trouble" features a rip-roaring Ringo vocal and a driving bass riff over a steady beat. This sounds like a Lennon lyrics, and one of his most biting. He seems to be in Dylanesque mode here, emulating "Like A Rolling Stone"'s thematics, but making them completely his own. The Harrison solo that starts about 1:45 into the song bounces and cuts in equal measures. This song may not be the best song ever, but it features excellent performances by all involved, especially Ringo those driving drums and striving vocal make this one of the best tracks he sang.

"Paperback Writer" comes on like a power-chord avalanche. The dirty overdrive that characterizes this song is appealing and catchy. The lyrics are sort of silly, but they nail the kind of pleading that only a pulp writer can do. The echo effects and layered background vocals only add to the affect. Overall, this is one of The Beatles' strongest tracks, and certainly winner of this round, followed by "If You've Got Trouble," "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," and "Taxman."

Scores thus far:

Paul -- 8
John -- 5
George -- 3
Ringo -- 4

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

We Can't Work It Out: The Fab War -- Round 1

"Don't Bother Me" v. "If I Fell" v. "That Means A Lot" v. "I Wanna Be Your Man"

"Don't Bother Me," from With the Beatles, is the first Harrison composition to make it onto a Beatles album, and is a standout track on what is likely their second strongest early album (behing A Hard Day's Night). This guitar part is insanely wicked, especially the solo. The brushed percussion adds a nice tinge. Also, its a break-up song, which is always nice. Depression seems to make for better art, and this is a song of heartbreak where the lamenting male seeks isolation from family and friends; a lot more complex stuff than "Love Me Do."

Meanwhile, "If I Fell" is somewhat of a sappy love ballad, but a damn, damn good one. This excellent track from A Hard Day's Night is supposedly from the point of view of a man afraid to fall in love, though he sounds pretty head over heels already. The melody is super, though. The song caresses a gorgeous melody line through a mid-tempo swing that is perfectly punctuated by occaisional guitar jabs. Musically, this is among the Beatles best songs.

"That Means A Lot" was recorded, I believe, for Help!, though it didn't appear until Anthology 2. This song features some excellent drum rolls by Ringo along with some added maracas-shaking action. Musicially, the song is mostly percussive, and so it is up to Paul's vocal to make the song, and it does so gloriously. He snarls, howls and sneers his way through the song. Lyrically, the song seems to be about a suffocating relationship, where you know that "your love is all you've got." That sounds sweet, but the bitter angst of the bridge's "love can be suicide" shows the song's darkness.

"I Wanna Be Your Man" was Ringo's first Beatle-penned vocal lead on record (his first was the King-Coffin song "Boys"), but was intended to be written for fledgling Rolling Stones. The Beatles push through it like a barn-storm, but its all pushing. The song doesn't really have any nuance or soft edges to balance it out. The repetitive vocal just kills it.

"That Means A Lot" is the best of this bunch. Although rare, it is good enough to hold its own with any Beatles track, and is better than many of the tracks that did make it onto Help! After that, I have to go with "If I Fell" for its gorgeous melody and impeccable sense of timing. I love Harrison, but he has to take third in this round; "Don't Bother Me" is good, but its facing pretty stiff competition. "I Wanna Be Your Man," while driving, is definitely last place this time around.

For those of you watching at home, the scores thus far are:

Paul - 4
John - 3
George - 2
Ringo - 1

Monday, September 24, 2007

We Can't Work It Out: The Fab War -- The Prologue

Here's the premise: everyone fights over their favorite Beatle, but no one gets too particular. Paul is cute, John is political, George is spiritual and Ringo is fun(ny-looking). Most people are happy to pick the Beatle whose identity they most identify with and go from there. I decided that wasn't enough. Thus, here's what I am doing:

I have compiled a 22-song track list for each Beatle, respresenting both their contributions to the Beatles and their work as a solo artist. The track lists are arranged chronologically, and are my personal favorite tracks from that artist. This means that some artists have more Beatles work than others and so the chronology doesn't always match up, but nothing's perfect. Also, my taste is pretty idiosyncratic. Each track number on each list will go up against its own track number on the other discs in a four-song battle royale. The song that comes out on top will recieve four points. The runner up will get three points. Third place gets two points. The loser gets one point. (No, I don't foresee Ringo ending up with 22 points.) Following 22 rounds, scores will be docked points based on each Beatles' worst work (i.e., "Ebony and Ivory" and "Revolution No. 9"). Whichever Beatles emerges on top will become my new favorite.

A little background going in:

Paul McCartney -- bass, keyboards, drums, etc.

Paul was probably the poppiest composer of the group as well as the most stereotypically cute. He was an ace of bass as well as a menagerie of other instruments. This meant that he'd sometimes become control freakish and insist on playing everything himself, which probably played at least as big a role in the breakup of the Beatles as Yoko did. He led Wings in the seventies and has toured extensively. Despite horrid duets with Michael Jackson, he had the longest marriage and was probably the most commercially successful solo artist among the Beatles, if that counts for anything.

1. That Means A Lot
2. Paperback Writer
3. Eleanor Rigby
4. Here, There and Everywhere
5. Got To Get You Into My Life
6. Penny Lane
7. When I'm 64
8. Hello Goodbye
9. The Fool On the Hill
10. Rocky Raccoon
11. Back In the U.S.S.R.
12. You Never Give Me Your Money
13. She Came In Through the Bathroom Window
14. You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)
15. Come and Get It
16. Junk
17. Uncle Albert/Admirable Halsey
18. Maybe I'm Amazed
19. Live and Let Die
20. Band On the Run
21. Ever Present Past
22. Mr. Bellamy

John Lennon -- rhythm guitar, piano:

John was the most political and likely the most stereotypically "artsy" Beatles. He divorced his first wife Cynthia in favor of an avant garde Japanese artist. He was rawly emotional in his songs, presaging the emo movement by decades and accomplishing more than it could hope to. He also discovered several artists and had great names for the bands he was associated with, such as Plastic Ono Band, Elephant's Memory and The Elastic Oz Band.

1. If I Fell
2. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away
3. Nowhere Man
4. In My Life
5. Wait
6. She Said, She Said
7. Strawberry Fields Forever
8. I Am the Walrus
9. Sexy Sadie
10. Dear Prudence
11. Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey
12. Revolution
13. Hey Bulldog
14. Come Together
15. Don't Let Me Down
16. Across the Universe
17. Working Class Hero
18. Instant Karma!
19. Imagine
20. Jealous Guy
21. #9 Dream
22. Woman

George Harrison -- lead guitar:

George was the spiritual Beatles, and also a crack guitar player. His influence can be heard in the work of everyone from Prince ("I Could Never Take the Place Of Your Man") to Dean Ween ("What Deaner Was Talkin' About"). Despite having his hot, hot wife stolen by Eric Clapton, he still nice enough to organize the Rainbow Concert that helped bring Clapton out of a downward spiral caused by his heroin addiction. When not helping to save overblown rock stars, Harrison helped out the starving children of Bangladesh and hung out with Hari Krishnas. He later became de facto leader of the Traveling Wilburys, the superest supergroup ever to walk the planet.

1. Don't Bother Me
2. Taxman
3. I Want to Tell You
4. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
5. Savoy Truffle
6. Not Guilty
7. It's All Too Much
8. Something
9. Here Comes the Sun
10. Old Brown Shoe
11. For You Blue
12. I Me Mine
13. I'd Have You Anytime
14. My Sweet Lord
15. What Is Life?
16. Crackerbox Palace
17. When We Was Fab
18.Handle With Care
19. Heading For the Light
20. Cheer Down
21. Any Road
22. Pisces Fish

Ringo Starr -- drums:

Ringo was everyone's buddy. He wasn't a great drummer, but he wasn't a slouch either. He replaced the showier Pete Best, which most people lament but it was better that way for the band. Ringo's steady-but-not-too-showy drumming provided a perfect backdrop for the Beatles. Also, when uberdrummer Keith Moon recorded his solo album, Two Sides of the Moon, he hired Ringo to play drums, so he can't be all that bad. Ringo had a great sense of humor. He was friendly, humble, and a much better songwriter than anyone ever gives him credit for.

1. I Wanna Be Your Man
2. If You've Got Trouble
3. What Goes On
4. Yellow Submarine
5. With A Little Help From My Friends
6. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
7. Don't Pass Me By
8. Good Night
9. Octopus's Garden
10. The End
11. Beaucoups of Blues
12. It Don't Come Easy
13. Early 1970
14. Back Off Boogaloo
15. Photograph
16. I'm the Greatest
17. Oh, My My
18. Snookeroo
19. Only You
20. (It's All Down To) Goodnight Vienna
21. Wrack My Brain
22. Fading In and Fading Out

Sunday, September 23, 2007

100 Albums, 100 Words (60-51)

60. Northern State – Dying In Stereo (2003)

This album works because Hesta Prynn, Guinea Love (Spero), and DJ Sprout are master signifiers, verbally cutting down men with verbal acumen. Case in point: “like Derek Jeter, I’m-a make you stop short.” Here Hesta Prynn is signifying on other MCs who think they’re dope; most MCs are male, thus she is spittin’ it at men. Derek Jeter, short stop of the New York Yankees, is a symbol of masculinity. Here she flips the position he plays into “stop short,” simultaneously disrupting Jeter’s masculine power and harvesting it for her own use in signifiying on other (mostly male) MCs. Boo-yah!

59. Saturday Night Fever (1977)

This album could be titled Bee Gees Greatest Hits, Plus. As great as the Bee Gees songs are, both the infinitely popular “Stayin’ Alive” and the actually good “You Should Be Dancing,” the real gems are in that plus half of the equation. Both classically-inspired instrumentals are good, but “Fifth of Beethoven” stands as one of the best instrumentals ever. “Open Sesame” is perhaps the best track Kool & the Gang ever recorded; who can resist the “genie of sound”? Sure, maybe they didn’t need to include two versions of “More Than A Woman,” but this “Disco Inferno” still burns.

58. Black Sabbath – Paranoid (1970)

Ozzy’s crowning achievement, Paranoid is both wicked and good. Case in point: “War Pigs/Luke’s Wall.” “Luke’s Wall” is the definition of instrumental wickedness as Tony Iommi’s guitar swirls around and around. “War Pigs,” the other half of the song, is a righteous denunciation of war for profit. Denouncing the capitalist pigs of the Military Industrial Complex, it is heavy metal’s “Masters of War.” In addition to “War Pigs,” “Iron Man” and “Paranoid” feature the catchiest riffs. “Faeries Wear Boots” is one of the quirkiest titles for one of the coolest songs. Paranoid deserves its spot as a heavy metal landmark.

57. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)

In middle school, everyone wore flannel. Granted, at my school that was as much indebted to the rise of West Coast gangstas as to grunge, but, really, are they that different? Both attempt to authenticate the voice of a disgruntled youth culture. Regardless, I wanted blue-and-black plaid to rock with my canvas K-Swiss. What my mom bought me was a lavender-and-green plaid Ralph Lauren. You can’t get street cred in that, and it’s a bit too bourgeois for Cobain. Now, more working class than thug, I still want the black and blue, if only to fulfill my manufactured proletarian fantasy.

56. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II (1969)

The “Stairway to Heaven” is like the stairway up the tower of Babel – it leads to inflated pride for seventies’ rock enthusiasts, but the guitar playing is so intricate and beautiful on “Ramble On” that it makes one forgive the references to Lord of the Rings. “Ramble,” along with “Thank You” and “What Is and What Never Should Be,” make this one of the most lushly gorgeous albums ever. “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker” hang on some great riffs and are as experimentally melodic as metal can get. Meanwhile, “Living Loving Maid” cleans house in the straight out rocking category.

55. Guns’N’Roses – Appetite For Destruction (1987)

James Brown writes a song about traveling from city to city on tour; Ernest & Julio Gallo name a bum wine after it, on which Axl Rose gets shitfaced and writes the hardest-rocking tribute to alcoholism ever. The Gallo brothers had the gall to demand payment from G’n’R, but I can almost guarantee they never paid James Brown. Along with the obvious hits, “Mr. Brownstone,” “Out Ta Get Me,” “Think About You,” (featuring Izzy Stradlin’s underrated songwriting) and “Rocket Queen” help to ensure this album’s lasting appeal. You can almost hear the grit of hard living on the Sunset Strip.

54. Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding (1967)

This album must have sounded like a wet noodle lashing against the monstrous wall of psychedelia when it was released, but its quiet, understated strength made it determined to stand, and it killed psychedelia in one decisive blow. From its rustic matte cover to its simple acoustic strums, John Wesley Harding exudes rootsiness, and is the granddaddy of alternative country. But there’s more going on here, too. The album’s cryptic vignettes, littered as they are with outlaws, retell Biblical tales within the context of the Old West. Dylan records his first piano-based masterpiece here too with the majestic “Dear Landlord.”

53. Outkast – Stankonia (2000)

Stankonia, on the strength of “Ms. Jackson,” is almost the great sensitive male hip-hop album that it probably would have been had Andre 3000 gone it alone, but, even with the inclusion of “Gangsta Shit,” this album comes close to the mark. Big Boi’s contributions are certainly no detriment either, especially on the delightful “We Luv Deez Hoez.” “Gasoline Dreams” remains a bluntly scathing commentary on the glut of white (read: corporate) america (sorry, Marshall, but your song can’t compare). The album does leave one mystery unsolved though: just what are they saying at the end of “Bombs Over Baghdad?”

52. Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982)

Following Nellie McKay’s Get Away From Me, this is the second Geoff Emerick production on this list, and perhaps the more Sgt. Pepperesque of the two. Sonically, it resembles the Beatles’ golden period with tinges of Tin Pan Alley. Thematically, the album deals with just what the title suggests, imperialism in the bedroom. This takes shape in a number of forms from incest to molestation to good old-fashioned domestic abuse. Costello masterfully explores the social implications and consequences of these grim practices with an emotional sensitivity that is bared out by a keen focus on the details of paralyzed hearts.

51. Nellie McKay – Pretty Little Head (2006)

It is hard to follow up perfection with brilliance, but that is exactly what Nellie McKay did with Pretty Little Head. Mostly, the album is very good, particularly on tracks like “Columbia Is Bleeding” and “The Big One.” “Pounce” is a personal favorite, especially with its guilty pleasure “meow” chorus. The album buoys itself with many short songs; had it cut off the screamed outro and, possibly, the intro of “Mama and Me” then it would be much more accessible. Likewise, the slurred vocal of “Pink Chandelier” kept it from reaching its full potential. Of course, perfection rarely strikes twice.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Worth Playing More than Once

A beautiful album in its own right, the Once soundtrack amazes even those who haven't seen the movie (like me). Killer melodies and earthy instrumentation give the album a humbly ambitious feel that works perfectly.

Although one might assume this album has overly-pompous-art-house prior to listening, the album also has a song called "Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy." The song begins with the phrase "Ten years ago..." that melodically and lyrically echoes "Long Black Veil," where the lover suffers the death penalty to avoid admitting that he slept with his best friend's wife. Here, there is a similar love triangle, but the other man is a friend of the woman's rather than the man's, making it a much simpler triangle. Despite being simpler, the song carries a similar emotional weight.

"Long Black Veil" gathers much of its power from the long-standing weight of traditional music; this power reappears elsewhere in Once. The cellos and violins in "Gold," for instance, recall traditional celtic music. If asked to name instruments common to celtic music, these would be two of the last instruments I named, but they add a noticeable Irish flavor to this song. (As does the vocalist Fergus O' Farrell; what a great name! He sounds particularly Irish on phrases like "and if a door be closed.")

"Fallen From the Sky" and "Trying To Pull Myself Away" sound to me like stolen melodies. "Trying To Pull Myself Away" specifically sounds like something 90s, perhaps by the Gin Blossoms, though I can't place it. The songs sound instantly familiar, and I've tried my best to track down their source; unable to do so I can only conclude what this album shows all along: Glen Hansard has tapped into the collective unconscious.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Never Turning Back; New Album a Testament to Mavis' Strength

From the swampy opening chords of "Down In Mississippi," it is clear that Ry Cooder's musical direction produced one of the finest albums of 2007, Mavis Staples' powerful We'll Never Turn Back.

Although Mavis is the star here, that "We" in the album's title is worth examining. Best known as a member of the Staple Singers, Mavis Staples, along with her family, helped politicize gospel music and use it as an instrument for societal change. That same spirit prevails here, as Mavis is clearly singing of a post-Katrina America, as made clear by the exclamation "broken levees, lyin' politicians" in the funky "99 and 1/2 (Won't Do)."

It is important to bear in mind that gospel music is communal. Though there may be a lead voice, in takes a whole choir full of people to join their voices together and overcome. Gospel music started on plantations where one's only hope was being free in the afterlife. Several gospel songs, such as "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" became codes of how to escape to freedom in the North. These songs were always sung together because community was necessary; no slaves would have escaped the horrible institution of slavery had they not banded together. Love for each other and a desire to help others are the bedrock of gospel music. The "We" in this album's title encapsulates that reality of working together. The communal nature of gospel makes this album call out to the listener and ask them to join in fighting injustice themselves.

Despite the message, musically this album is amazing. On several tracks Mavis is joined in singing by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, famous for her work with Paul Simon on Graceland. Jim Keltner's drumming is spot-on as usual. This may be my first time hearing Mike Elizondo, though at various times I found myself amazed by both his bass and piano playing.

The song selection is also amazing. Mavis chose several classic gospel tunes, several in new arrangments. "99 and 1/2" is peppered with references to the contemporary political situation, and is only strengthened by them. "Eyes On the Prize" is a strong reworking of "Gospel Plow."

"Down In Mississippi" is an amazing track with Mavis building it up with personal stories of her role in the civil rights movement, including a narrative of her accidentally integrating a washroom as a very young girl. Another highlight of that song is pointing out the irony that white men were more likely to be arrested for hunting rabbit out of season than for killing a minority.

Two original songs prove two of the strongest. "My Own Eyes" is a strong statement that lays out Mavis' world view. "I'll Be Rested," one of my favorite tracks on the album, features a listing of fallen civil rights activists and related figures, ranging from the well-known (King, Robert Kennedy, Emmett Till) to the obscure (Andrew Goodman) to somewhere inbetween (Medgar Evers); all of them should be more well-known than they are today, as should Mavis and her beautiful music.

(Mavis Staples is coming to Manhattan, KS to perform at McCain Auditorium October 28.)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Carolina Chocolate Drops

If you are tired of all the crackle you get listening to your favorite tunes on wax cylinders and shellac, try spinning the Carolina Chocolate Drops album Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind. Lively throughout, this piedmont-style banjo-fiddle music is what my friend Matthew Webber might refer to as old-timey squared. This description wouldn't be far off, as I would more likely expect to find them listed among the artists on Harry Smith's American Folk Music than on the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? When it comes to the real Americana sound this is it.

Dona Got A Ramblin' Mind covers much ground despite being all traditional music. "Starry Crown" starts the album off with a gospel fervor. Some of the songs are straight up hoedowns, with "Ol' Corn Likker" even including square dance calls. Other songs are terrific murder ballads like "Tom Dula" and "Little Sadie." The group's version of "Dixie" is especially powerful; here, the band sticks to a straight instrumental, cutting the lyrics and thus robbing the slave-owning South of its pride.The album's truest gem for me, however, comes in the form of a breathtaking acapella performance of "Little Margaret." Rhiannon Giddens gorgeous voice leaves the listener as broken as are the song's characters.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

100 Albums, 100 Words (70-61)

70. Van Morrison – Common One (1980)

Van Morrison chants this album like a mantra, imbuing it with its own holy flavor. This is fitting as a short of loose spirituality is present thematically. Musically, this is a cousin of Astral Weeks, but lyrically it seems to vaguely deal with some ancient, mysterious power. Morrison seems to be speaking most explicitly about the power of the arts, as implied by his own musical prowess and also through a litany of literary giants he names, including Catcher In the Rye and the poetry of Blake, Eliot, Coleridge and Wordsworth. But really, it’s the music here that matters most.

69. Aerosmith – Rocks (1976)

Rocks is the grimier of Aerosmith’s two great albums, and its “Rats In the Cellar,” one of the hardest songs ever, provides a nice contrast to “Toys In the Attic.” The band has gone from fun to ugly, from high to low; it serves them well. This album also features some of Aerosmith’s wilder experimentation, featuring Whitford and Hamilton on lead guitar and Perry on bass and vocals at various points. Most will remember the hit singles, “Back In the Saddle” and “Last Child;” they are the only foundation upon which this heavy of an album could have been built.

68. Blues Brothers – Briefcase Full of Blues (1978)

I understand the argument that this is perhaps the fakest blues album ever, and I may even accept it, but fake as it is, it’s a damn good jump-blues imitation. As the brothers prophesize in an onstage speech, this album brought to life for several people a dying genre and introduced this music to audiences who otherwise might not have heard it. Its hard to believe that John Belushi didn’t truly believe in this music, and his homage shows as he calls out Floyd Dixon and Willie Mabon. Hiring members of the Stax house band wasn’t a bad move either.

67. Led Zeppelin – Untitled (1971)

The hardest of rock albums. Although “Stairway To Heaven” is among the most overrated songs ever recorded (there’s a reason it was never released as a single), that doesn’t mean it’s bad (nor that I need to read fantasy novels until I know who the “May Queen” is and how to “spring clean” her) and the rest of this album is terrific. John Bonham’s drumming on the opening of “Rock and Roll.” Robert Plant’s soaring vocals on “Battle of Evermore.” Jimmy Page’s exquisite picking on “Going to California.” John Paul Jones thundering bass on “Misty Mounain Hop.” This just rocks.

66. Van Halen – Van Halen (1978)

The incendiary eight-finger tap erupts from the vinyl grooves as Eddie Van Halen’s fingers spin faster than the turntable. This album announced the arrival of 80s hair metal two years before the decade began and even longer before the genre established itself. Van Halen is the template, offering up all the staples of the genre. Party tunes built around scorching riffs (“Runnin’ With the Devil”), a front man who walked right out of a comic book (Roth), and at least one great power ballad (“Janie’s Cryin’”?… well, this is pre-Hagar). Unfortunately, these atomic punks would only stay together through 1984.

65. No Doubt – Rock Steady (2001)

Rock Steady encapsulates good times. It is a rhythm record, one that exudes danceability and builds its shifts around the texture of the tempo. Despite the occasional semi-clunkers (“Running”), the album is very listenable throughout, featuring three terrific singles and a slew of other gems, like the stalker fantasy “Detective” and the Prince-induced fever of “Waiting Room.” The latter especially stands out. Prince produced this and his fluttering falsetto provides backing vocals on the chorus; it’s his best performance since the 1980s. Most of all, this album is the best piece of evidence that Gwen never should have gone solo.

64. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (1959)

I place a high premium on lyrics, but some records stretch sounds out in such new ways that words would only detract, and Miles Davis experiments in improvisational scales fit the bill. The jazz album to have is one which moved jazz beyond be-bop and into a new age, breathing new life into it and influencing just about everything to come. In addition to Davis’ visionary fervor, the sidemen aren’t bad either: Coletrane, “Cannonball” Adderly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, not to mention Wynton Kelly. From the opening notes of “So What” you know this is something special.

63. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1952)


62. Arrested Development – 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days In the Life of… (1992)

When Speech gets to preaching on here he is able to infuse a bleak political landscape with healing spirituality, is able to both criticize the downfalls of organized religion, particularly Baptist churches, while expressing how a life lived for God should be a progressive lifestyle. “Mr. Wendal” taught me what good hip-hop could be like, and “Fishin’ 4 Religion” and “Give A Man A Fish” continued to mine that same vein, politically educated, intellectual lyrics that tickle the mind rhymed over a delectable bass beat laid down by Headliner. Oh yeah, that and “Tennessee” and “People Everyday” are endlessly danceable.

61. Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow (1967)

Time for a myth-debunking pop quiz!

1. Which of the following statements is NOT true. Grace Slick:

a. was hot until she discovered 80s fashion.
b. is credited with writing the groups second biggest single, included here.
c. is the core of the group.
d. stole “Somebody To Love” from her previous group.

2. Marty Balin is:

a. the nucleus Surrealistic Pillow is built around, having helped compose five tracks, and three
by himself (including the sublime “Comin’ Back To Me”).
b. an excellent guitarist.
c. a founding member of the Airplane.
d. All of the above.

Answers: 1.c., 2.d.

Ty Pennington

Ty Pennington always seems to go out of his way to look like he doesn't know what a comb is. His scraggly soul patch doesn't help things much. I'm all for facial hair, but that thing has got to go.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Can I Keep This Pen?

Fem-hop trio Northern State's third album posits the question Can I Keep This Pen? The answer, I suppose, is that you can, but you may want to consider throwing it away or at least putting it far, far away in a drawer for the next several years.

That's harsh, I know, but I had been anxiously awaiting this album since before I knew Adam Horowitz was doing some work on production, and that just took my expectations to a new level. I adore Dying In Stereo. All City feels like it makes some concessions to market expectations for the sake of Sony (especially on "Summer Never Ends"), but that shouldn't have been a problem with Can I Keep This Pen? since Columbia dropped Northern State several months ago.

Unfortunately, weak writing and a move away from mad beats towards odd mixes of organs and acoustics meant that this wasn't near the album it could-a, should-a, would-a been. Would it be like this if it was up to you? It wouldn't were it up to me, but it's up to Spero, Sprout and Prynn.

One thing that defines rap is an MC's ability to clown. Previously, Northern State rocked this. For instance, they once claimed "Edmund Hillary couldn't climb this." Telling the man who climed Mt. Everest that he's not as good as you're rap is pretty tight. Now Northern State is relying on "your mom" jokes, which isn't necessarily bad in and of itself, but its bad when all you've got is "I heard your mom drives an ice cream truck." First of all, its hearsay. Second of all, ice cream trucks rule. I love me some ice cream and I love the song the truck plays (which would have made a nice sample around then). I'm supposing this crack is rooted in the fact that ice cream truck drivers probably don't make much, but classism has never sat well with me.

Another problem is the rhyming itself. Northern State has tried to expand their rhyming ability and try to push in some new directions, but its just not working. I'm not saying you can't rhyme "chagrin" with "ottoman," but if all you have to get across with the rhyme is that "MTV much to my chagrin is about as exciting as an ottoman" then its not convincing, especially when you also try to get "diamonds" and "long island" to rhyme as well. I mean, I understand that MTV being as boring as an old-person word for sofa is frustrating, but this sounds about as exciting as Woodrow Wilson trying to start shit with the Ottoman Empire, which is to say less exciting than MTV.

Both of the above examples are from the album's opening song, "Mic Tester," but the album doesn't get better from there. Elsewhere they crack on someone by saying they are "gonna be spinning like [a] rotiseree." I understand the girls are all vegetarians, but I'm sure you can cook an eggplant on a rotiseree and it would taste damn good. That's a compliment, not an insult. Elsewhere, the girls are listing lists of things they hate in rhymes, and come up with this gem (parentheses mine): "Violent Pornography (keep it goin' girl), Police Brutality (that's right), Ethnicity (uhh.... you lost me.)" How does Ethnicity fit? How can they hate it? Even if they want to try playing the colorblind card, they know race and ethnicity are different things; I still remember them celebrating their Italian pride.

One thing that made the first album so pleasurable was that it intelligently snuck in politics among amazing rhymes. On the second album, the songs got a little didactic at times as the focus on politics increased, except for the last track, "Summer Never Ends," where they basically sell out to the Cosmogirl image they were deriding in "Girl For All Seasons." Here they find themselves pushing that further, and becoming materialistic and classist at times.

At one point one of the girls compares herself to Boss Tweed because she's "large and in charge." It would be cool to establish how she was different than Tweed and then claim to be in charge of him. Unfortunately, being like Tweed isn't cool. Tweed was a hardcore party organizer who is responsible for some of the most vicious abuses of labor our country ever experienced. Tweed owned New York back in the days before things like minimum wage and child labor laws.

In "Suckamofo," a song notable for cussing as much as just about any other song I know, the girls attack a "suckamofo" who is looking at them: "It seems you lack employment and I don't exist just for your enjoyment . . . so suckamothafucka get out of my way." I would expect the Northern State I fell in love with to have sympathy for those without jobs, although I don't know why I should expect that out of the new Northern State when I can't even expect logic; the same suckamofo who has no job in the final verse begins the song with a Hummer, which I suppose he must have paid for with welfare money.

When Northern State does try to get political at the end of "Suckamofo" the attempt falls flat: "This is going out to the Democrats. In 2004, y'all came real whack. But now that we got some real candidates, can we please come correct in 2008?" I get what they mean, but there were good candidates in 2004. Howard Dean was doing great for awhile. Also, every year there are several great candidates who simply lack the funds to win the nomination, and 2004 was no exception to that rule. Elsewhere the girls suggest that "while we dropping bombs, why don't you ask your moms." This vague suggestion to try problem of bombings is beyond trying to figure out. What are we supposed to ask them? Do our moms control the bombs?

Despite all these weaknesses, to be fair they are several glimmers of hope.

Some individual lines do remind me of the power of early-Northern State's metaphors, such as "I use the microphone like a judge with a gavel." The idea of using the mic to pass judgement and spread morality is great. In "Mother May I," which unfortunately features a curiously annoying chorus, Hesta lays down one of her best lines on the album: "I like my coffee with lots of gin." I drink coffee with lots of stuff, but drinking it with gin is pretty unique. It is these kind of original details which humanize Northern State and make them endearing.

The song "Iluvitwhenya" reclaims Biggie's "Big Papa" through repetition of the title phrase, feminizing it and making it safe for women. The lack of spacing is postmodern and reminiscent of the opening of Toni Morrison's Bluest Eye. The song ends with one of the girls' boyfriends listening to a playback of one of their songs and saying "baby, play it one more time." This steals any thunder Britney Spears might have left and places it in a feminist context.

The album's peak comes with the penultimate song, "Three Amigas." This western adventure follows in the tradition of the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere." It opens with a twang-talkin' narrator setting the scene, much like in the Dr. Dre-Eminem "Paul Revere"-inflected joint "Bad Meets Evil" (if you haven't heard it, its on the Wild Wild West soundtrack and may be the best thing they recorded together). The concept alone is enough to sell me on it, but it also features some skillful rhyming. Hold-'em-playin' Hesta claims that "at the poker table y'all could call me Miss Deal," as fine a pun as one could hope for.

Another thing about Northern State that has always thrilled me is how they interpolate obscure Bob Dylan lyrics into their songs. On the first album, "The Man's Dollar" snatched up "I'll drink when I'm dry," featured in both "Moonshiner" and "Standing In the Doorway." In Ignite off of All City, the girls pick up on a rare recitation of the poem "Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie" with "your pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead." On this album, I thought I'd found a Dylan reference, but I was wrong. Still, I found something almost as good: a Marty Robbins reference. Marty Robbins is one of the original country singers, best known for his ballad "El Paso." The girls not only take the location of Rosa's Cantina from there, but they also steal several lines. While running from the man whose woman he lured away, Robbins steals a horse, singing "I picked a good one; it looked like it could run. Up on his back and away I did ride." The girls refigure this as "I picked a good one; it looked like a good one. I hopped on his back and away I did ride." "Could run" transforming into the repetitive "good one" is a problem, but "hopped" is a much better word than "up." The "h" recalls the horse that was stolen while the "p" links it to the verb "picked," the word that substitutes for stealing.

Hopefully these glimmers that Northern State still has the magic can transform into a great album that shows they can still write as well as any mc in the game.

Thursday, September 6, 2007


I've never had much appreciation for Whoopi Goldberg. I think that's mostly tied to her having been with Ted Danson, who I've also long despised. Now I have a reason to loathe Goldberg independent of her Cheersful frolics.

On The View Whoopi attempted to defend Michael Vick by pointing out that dog fighting is fairly common in the South. As Whoopi should know, the South is a pretty backwards place. Throughout the early part of the twentieth century, lynchings were also commonplace in the South and are likely more commonplace there now than in other parts of the country. This does not in any way make lynchings excusable. Whoopi's argument seems to be that Vick was simply ignorant that dog-fighting was an issue. Ignorance is one thing, but common morality is another.

Whoopi also compared dog-fighting in the South to cock-fighting in Puerto Rico, which is another nightmare in semantics. My problem with this doesn't stem from seeing dogs as more personable and therefore more valuable, making cock-fighting an unfair comparison; animal cruelty is animal cruelty any way you break it down. (I'm by no means a vegetarian, but animal deaths should not come about by needless torture, and their deaths should serve as utilitarian a process as possible, not simply food.) My problem with Whoopi comparing dog-fighting to cock-fighting is that in doing so she is essentializing the Puerto Rican people and perpetuating stereotypes. I would suppose that in the South a very small number of people are actively involved in the dog-fighting circuit. Some people in the South are likely also involved in cock-fighting circuits. In Puerto Rico, I doubt that a large percentage of people are involved in cock-fighting rings, but from Whoopi's quote it seems that a large number of Puerto Ricans support cock fighting. Perpetuating negative stereotypes about one group of people in order to make the sins of another group look normal in comparison isn't going to help any one out; those with sense still know that Vick is wrong, but those easily persuaded by sound bites might view Puerto Ricans in a dimmer light from now on.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Memory Almost Full

When it was announced awhile ago that Paul McCartney would be releasing an album of new material, Memory Almost Full, exclusively through Starbucks' hearmusic (tm) label, I was skeptical for two reasons. First of all, Starbucks is such a large corporation that I'm naturally wary of it. Recently one moved to Manhattan, KS, threatening two privately owned coffee houses and bakeries, Radina's and the Bluestem Bistro. It doesn't appear to have much success so far, although Starbucks is sold in several on-campus locations at Kansas State University and at several other locations throughout the city. Its brand is omnipresent.

The other reason I was worried is probably the more shallow -- the album is by Paul McCartney. Paul has never been my favorite Beatles (that's George!), and I blame him (perhaps unfairly) for breaking up the Beatles. My reasoning on this is that, starting with "Yesterday," Sir Paul would often refuse to allow the other Beatles to play on his songs. I would imagine that Ringo, for instance, was particularly hurt when a frustrated Macca kicked him off of drums during the recording of "Back In the U.S.S.R." Also, except for his first solo album, a few select singles and various segments of Wings, I haven't found Paul's post-Beatles output particularly interesting. To be honest, some of it is absolutely phenomenal, but early eighties output like "Ebony and Ivory" and "The Girl Is Mine" is legacy-killing.

After hearing a snipped of "Dance Tonight" on an iTunes commercial, I bided my time until I could find the album on sale and then quickly snatched it up. "Dance Tonight" had sounded like a revelation; fun music to just dance to. I absolutely loved it. Hearing the song in full, I realized that the excerpt simply repeated itself without ever filling out any more. I was a tad bit disappointed.

My initial disappointment faded with subsequent listenings. "Ever Present Past" may be my favorite post-Beatles McCartney song. The beat is funky and contemporary. The line "I don't have time to be a decent lover" is simultaneously simplistic and powerful, if only for its strong confessional nature. This is something we've all felt at some point and been either too inarticulate or too scared to express so clearly as McCartney does here.

"Mr. Bellamy" is another standout track. The piano hook that it hangs on is killer-diller. The funky voice modification on the voice talking to "Mr. Bellamy" is spot on, robbing the songs assumed-authority of its ethos. "Mr. Bellamy" becomes a classic characterization, combining Bartleby the Scrivener's calm refusal with the wisened introspection of the sage on the hill.

There are several other highlights as well. "See Your Sunshine" sounds like romantic comedy soundtrack filler, but from a smart romantic comedy that I wouldn't mind watching. "Grattitude" is one of Paul's rockingest post-"Oh Darling!" vocals. "The End of the End" is a great concept.

Overall, the album is probably as strong as anything McCartney has made, with the possible exceptions of McCartney, Band On the Run, and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey." The only real complaints from this end are the over-nostalgic indulgence of "Vintage Clothes" and "That Was Me." While Nostalgia can be made fresh (see "Ever Present Past" where others' nostalgia of McCartney becomes a nuisance), these songs are like Hallmark-card rehashes. And while "That Was Me" is at least mildly likeable in spite of itself, "Vintage Clothes" sounds like a commercial for an overpriced thrift store. Still, if this album is any indication, Sir Paul isn't content to rest on his laurels quite yet.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

100 Albums, 100 Words (80-71)

80. Metallica – Ride the Lightning (1984)

At the opening of “Fight Fire With Fire” one may think that Metallica has gone soft; after a few seconds the song breaks into a rock-hard riff that maintains the melodicism achieved in the introduction. “For Whom The Bell Tolls” makes Cliff Burton’s case as the great lost bassist. “Fade To Black” is a great ballad. “Creeping Death” is speed metal. Metallica has songs which are better than just about anything here (“Master of Puppets,” “Unforgiven,” “One”), but on no other album have they been able to sustain such a high level of searing guitar work and excellent songwriting throughout.

79. Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose (2004)

Loretta looks like the queen she is gazing out from the front yard on the cover of Van Lear Rose. Jack White was able to revitalize her career, inspiring her to write the whole album and providing some fiery licks. As a result, the album includes some of her best material, including “Portland, Oregon,” (I need to try sloe gin fizz.) “Family Tree” and “Van Lear Rose.” “Mrs. Leroy Brown” is one of the funniest novelty songs ever, and one of the smartest – a post-modern response to the misogyny of men characterized by Jim Croce’s folk-hero “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”

78. Hank Williams III – Straight To Hell (2006)

While I may not be quite the crazed drug addict Hank III paints himself to be, I’ll sure as hell drink to it, toasting Kentucky Deluxe to “Pills I Took.” We share so many things… a hate of mainstream country, a seething hate for Kid Rock, and a love of our “Country Heroes.” Also, anyone who makes a forty-two minute song, even if it is a medley, is cool in my book. Estranged from Wal-Mart, Hank Jr., and even his own record company, Hank III has space to be a “Crazed Country Rebel,” and makes this, the essential cowpunk record.

77. Aerosmith – Toys In the Attic (1975)

Permanent Vacation (before they added the wings logo to the cover) was my first tape, but Toys In the Attic was my second, and my first real introduction to what rock’n’roll could be. It established Aerosmith as my first favorite group, which they remained from 1987 through 1992. The song titles alone intrigued me; “Uncle Salty”? Best of all, this is the songwriter’s favorite Aerosmith album; not quite as rocking as Rocks, but better crafted and more melodic. “You Hear Me Crying” is the band’s best ballad and “Round and Round”’s circular riff makes it live up to its name.

76. Elvis Costello and the Imposters – The Delivery Man (2004)

Alternating between rockabilly rave-ups and tear-jerkers, Elvis Costello created one of the finest country albums ever, and perhaps too sincere in its aims to even label it alt. country or country rock. Of the rave-ups, “Bedlam” is the most mind-blowing, featuring a barnstorming bass line and jagged guitar riffs. Cameos from Emmylou Harris bring to life the best ballads, especially “Heart-Shaped Bruise.” Musically it could be King of America 2, but thematically it deals with heartache among the working class and the hot-button topic of religion and politics, most specifically the evolution-vs.-creationism thread that runs through "From Monkey To Man."

75. Bob Dylan – Oh Mercy (1989)

Although Time Out of Mind received more attention, this was the true beginning of Dylan’s comeback. Here Dylan first teamed with Daniel Lanois, who provided the swamp-like feel Dylan needed to examine the world’s moral compass, as he does on “Ring Them Bells” and “Man In the Long Black Coat.” “Most of the Time” features a killer bass line and heartbreaking tension in the lyric. “Where Teardrops Fall” is gorgeous. There are weaknesses: “Political World” gets preachy, though it rocks; “Disease of Conceit” is ick; “Born In Time” was left off. Still, this album holds its own among Dylan’s best.

74. U2 – Achtung Baby (1991)

Sometimes, sequencing is everything. On Joshua Tree, the hits are all front loaded, whereas here “One,” “Mysterious Ways” and “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” are spread out enough that the magnificent songs between them – “So Cruel,” but also the transcendent “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?” and the intricate blaze of “The Fly” – receive the attention they deserve. Released as singles, these songs didn’t perform as well as some of the other songs on the charts, but their placement on the album makes them stand out in contrast to their surroundings; this is why Achtung Baby works so well.

73. Bob Dylan – Modern Times (2006)

Modern but not contemporary, this album conjures the ghost(s) of T. S. Eliot (and Henry Timrod) to help make sense of this mortal plane. In Chronicles, Dylan claims that he prays that he can be a kinder person, something that each of us wants. That idea is present throughout this album, an album haunted by the apocalypse as much as any other in Dylan’s career. Dylan’s wry observations, set to rockabilly boogies, mid-tempo shuffles and rich piano ballads, thrust the world’s flaws in our face and ask us to accept the world anyway; a brave solution in a troubled time.

72. June Carter Cash – Wildwood Flower (2003)

One experiences a slight twinge when hearing June Carter declare “all the injuns in them hills have gone berserk” in “Road to Kaintuck.” Eek! This pang comes not only from the slur she has just spouted, but also from the virile force of anger her voice ushers forth. It’s scary. Even at 73 June was the toughest lady on either side of the Mississippi. The duet with Johnny on “Temptation” makes “Jackson” pale in comparison. June’s homespun commentary, particularly her stories about Lee Marvin, tie the album together, giving the ancient songs a continuity and a place in American tradition.

71. Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

Sweetheart of the Rodeo served as country rock’s coming out party, hosted by Gram Parsons. Perhaps the best track here is “Hickory Wind,” featuring an aching melody both sung and written by Parsons. McGuinn sings on the majority of the album, much to Parsons chagrin, though the results are as delightful as anyone could hope for. The song selection is another joy, mixing the traditional (“I Am A Pilgrim,” Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd”) with covers of contemporary material (Dylan’s “Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”). It is this album we have to thank for Wilco and The Jayhawks.