Popless Week 16: Backtrackin'

Popless Week 16: Backtrackin'

I'm writing this from sunny, gaudy Las Vegas, where the first thing you learn when you step off the plane is how to say "no." The first time an official-looking person hands you a flyer, asks where you're from, and offers to set you up with a good deal on dinner and a show, you might be curious enough to listen to the pitch. But once you realize that it's all a scheme to get you to hear a time-share presentation—and that every other flyer-slinger on the strip has the same goal—you start saying "not interested" even if someone just smiles and waves at you. That's the problem with the whole salesman/prospect relationship: it corrupts the very notion of "friendliness." Salesmen start by asking about your family and in no time flat, their questions forge a syllogism designed to make it impossible for you not to buy a side of beef—even if you don't have the freezer space.

When people ask me how this project is going, and whether I miss listening to new music at all, my usual response is that the pangs come and go. Every week or two an album comes out—or I get a press release for an album that's about to come out—and I start to pine for that old feeling of opening up a much-anticipated CD for the first time, and listening to it cold, not knowing whether the songs that stand out immediately will seem too obvious a month from now, or if the common reaction of mild disappointment will gradually transition to grudging affection, and then fiercely protective love. Listening to a new album is kind of like moving someplace new—or even just going on vacation—in that it takes a day or two before you can orient yourself, and realize where you're going to be spending most of your time

And yet, this week in Vegas, while surrounded on all sides by machines and people working to turn my head and pluck my wallet, I realized that there's plenty about keeping up with new music that I don't miss. I don't miss the off-balance release schedule, which has critics and editors struggling to find material to fill the space one week, and then having to compress and oversimplify their thoughts on a stack of worthy records the next. And I don't miss the steady flow of hype and pitches that often determine what's worth writing about. When this project ends, I'm going to take my time to pick-and-choose what I'd like to catch up with, with no sense of obligation beyond my own curiosity and natural inclinations. Because whether it's buying meat, looking at rental property, or falling in love with a new album, it's really better to move at your own pace, without getting swayed by the promise of a free buffet.

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Since I'm technically on vacation and would rather be floating on an inner tube down the man-made concrete river behind my hotel, this week's column will be a short-ish follow-up to Week Seven's "The State Of The Popless," answering some recurring questions that have come up in the comments and in my conversations with friends:

"You've said this project is partly about what you can get rid of. So how's that part going? How much are you deleting each week?"

I'd say I'm eliminating about a fifth of my collection, give or take. But it's hard to pin down exactly, because I'm mainly transitioning the way I store my music. Some of the artists that haven't received a "strikethrough" notation on the "also listened to" list, I've still dumped their actual CDs, and am only keeping their best songs on my hard drive. And some of the artists that have gotten stricken only had one or two songs on my hard drive the first place. When this whole project is done, I expect that my physical CD collection will be cut roughly in half, and will contain only box sets, albums I consider good-to-great, and hand-picked compilations burned onto disc for backup purposes. And nearly everything in that collection should fit on my hard drive.

"You've only made it through F, and the year's almost a third of the way done. Are you going to be able to finish listening to your whole collection by December?"

Well, there may have to be some adjustments made to the timetable down the line. If I've crunched the numbers correctly, even though I've only gotten through six letters of the alphabet, I'm still about a third of the way through my collection. (Yes, 6 x 3 = 18, not 26, but there are some dud letters yet to come.) But I took this week off, and I've got another vacation coming in June, and the Toronto film festival for a week in September, so there will be some setbacks. I've been thinking up some contingency plans in case I need to go into overtime in '09.


"What's surprised you most about the project so far?"

Mainly how much I've learned from you readers, and how the Popless comments section has become a fairly relaxed, not-too-obnoxious place for people to talk about their favorite bands and to grill me about what's been left out or unremarked upon. I'm always surprised to see which acts you think I've missed the boat on—some of which I've heard and have never given much time to, and some of which I've never even heard of. I've tried to be comprehensive in my music-listening life, but like everyone, I have gaps.

Then again, some of those missing artists are only absent for clerical reasons. Until last week, there were about 40 or so multi-artist anthologies and soundtracks that I'd never gotten around to loading onto my hard drive, and though most of the artists on those sets I only have one or two songs by, some of them are well-represented in my vinyl or cassette collections, and so one song would've been excuse enough to write a little something, or at least to acknowledge that I'm aware of them. Now that all those comps are loaded—along with some full albums I mistakenly missed during my weekly pass through my physical CD collection—there should be fewer accidental gaps.

But as a way of nodding to completism (as well as giving me an easier workload this week), here's a rundown of some great songs I've missed over the first 15 weeks—some of which are by artists that I'd always meant to write more about. At the end of the rundown you'll find an abbreviated list of other "name" acts that came up in this week's sweeping-up process.

The Missing

Al Green, "Back Up Train"

I had Green on the "also listened to" list way back in Week One, and left him out of the mix primarily because the only song I had on my hard drive at the time was "Let's Stay Together," which I figured everyone already knew was awesome. I was still establishing a process back then, and when I was doing my weekly sweep for CDs that needed to be added to my hard drive, I forgot my Al Green anthology, because it didn't occur to me to flip through my CDs all the way to the "G"s. Now I flip through my entire collection every few weeks, and then stack a big block of CDs behind the couch in our living room—thereby adding to the clutter that this project was supposed to help eliminate. And I've finally gotten around to adding more Green. This track pre-dates his big '70s hits, and I picked it because it stands apart from the sonic unanimity of those sultry, slow-simmering soul tracks of the '70s "Back Up Train" is a fairly routine late '60s R&B; number, but Green presides over it like the genteel preacher man he is, even though he's unable to keep his ecstatic inclinations tamped down for long.

B.B. King, "I Got Some Help I Don't Need"

King's another one I intentionally skipped the first time around because I didn't have his anthology loaded onto my hard drive. Also, I wasn't really ready—and I'm still not—to write about the blues, and rock music's appropriation thereof, and where my sympathies lie. (Here's a preview: When it comes to trad, I'm pro-adulteration.) Anyway, if I'd written about King a few months ago, I would've pointed out that some of my favorite music by the classic blues guys—King, Muddy Waters, et cetera—comes from the late '60s and early '70s, when the attention of bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones made old-school electric blues commercially viable, giving the masters the chance to head back into the studio and record classic-sounding songs in somewhat modern styles. In this 1972 single, King generates a late-night, urban vibe, giving the proper frame to his technical proficiency and emotional remove.

Banda Black Rio, "Maria Fumaça"

I got this one off a terrific compilation called Samba Soul 70, which pulls together songs from the post-Tropicalismo movement in Brasil, when artists were borrowing from American R&B; more than rock and psychedelia, and the result was songs like "Maria Fumaça," which sound like the theme song to some syndicated late afternoon talk show, given a Latin twist.

The Bar-Kays, "Son Of Shaft"

With all due respect to Isaac Hayes' original "Theme From Shaft," this riff on Hayes' hit recorded by his labelmates The Bar-Kays is an ideal way for people suffering from "Shaft"-burnout to rediscover what makes that song so amazing. It's not just the bad-ass patter; it's that wickedly snaky guitar riff, which uncoils dangerously across a floor of brass.

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Barry Black, "Mighty Fields Of Tobacco"

I've written about Eric Bachmann's work with Archers Of Loaf and Crooked Fingers, but up to now I'd skipped covering his solo albums and this striking Archers-era side project, in which he invited friends from the North Carolina music scene to help him realize his post-rock/classical-minimalism fantasies. Frankly, before I heard Crooked Fingers for the first time, I had hopes that Bachmann was going to head more in this direction, combining the slacker-punk of the Archers with more freewheeling instrumental experiments—sort of like he did on AoL's All The Nations Airports. I think Dignity & Shame by Crooked Fingers comes closest, but I miss the outright what-the-hell-ism of Barry Black's first album (though not so much its dreary follow-up).

The Beefeaters, "Don't Be Long"

I'll be revisiting the killer five-disc late '60s/early '70s Elektra retrospective Forever Changing quite often in the weeks to come (now that it's finally loaded on my hard drive), but I'll kick things off with this early effort by the band that would become The Byrds. As a precursor to The Byrds' poppy jangle, "Don't Be Long" is pretty good, even if the pieces aren't yet all in place. There's a grandeur that's missing. This is more like two miles high, not eight.

Bjork, "The Boho Dance"

I wrote about Bjork when she came up back in Week Five, but I didn't include a sample track because in the early going I wasn't yet putting up a track for every artist. Now that I'm able to pluck this song from last year's not-always-successful Joni Mitchell tribute album, I'll retroactively give Bjork her moment of audio. "The Boho Dance" happens to be one of my favorite Mitchell songs, and though I miss Mitchell's jazzier arrangement from The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, I think Bjork's decision to make this a vocal showcase proves both the sturdiness of the original and the power of Bjork's voice to command attention.

Bloc Party, "Blue Light"

When readers pointed out the absence of this band from Week Six, it was one of the first times that I realized I had some major, unintentional gaps on my hard drive. It's not like I'm a huge Bloc Party fan—I like about half of each of their albums, plus a few otherwise uncollected songs from the EPs and singles—but I have a really strong 50-minute homemade Bloc Party anthology I listen to fairly often, and it's highlighted by this song, which transcends the band's various post-punk influences and presents something simple, personal and oddly pretty.

Blossom Dearie, "Figure Eight"

This I got from The Squid And The Whale soundtrack, and it's one of the many songs from that movie that brought home how much Noah Baumbach's troubled boyhood ran in tandem with my own. This is such a lovely song, and one that I'd all but forgotten in my adulthood until I started showing the Schoolhouse Rock DVD to my number-obsessed son, and my wife and I both found ourselves tearing up when this song appeared. (That closing line about infinity—so unexpected, so poignant—slays us every time.) It's remarkable how deep an impression the music of our youth can leave. It can be as powerful a memory trigger as smell. And you don't even have to wait until you get older to get nostalgic. A few weeks ago, as I was revisiting Elliott Smith, my kids were playing in our front room when Smith's cover of this song came up, and they immediately stopped what they were doing and looked at me. "Dad, can we watch Schoolhouse Rock?," my daughter asked, for the first time in months. Why yes. Yes you can.

Boogie Down Productions, "South Bronx"

As I recall, nobody even pointed out the absence of BDP back in Week Six, which I'm worried says something about the group's enduring influence. Most of my Boogie Down Productions and KRS-One records are on cassette, but I do have Criminal Minded on CD, and while that record—considered by some to be proto-gangsta-rap—doesn't really reflect the more challengingly political artist KRS-One would become, it's arguably his best album from a groove perspective. Credit goes to DJ Scott La Rock, who was killed after Criminal Minded was released. And songs like this "my hip-hop youth" memoir point the way towards the quirkily personal and weirdly educational tracks to come on By All Means Necessary and Ghetto Music.

Bruce & Clifton Green (w/Tweedie Gibson), "My Lord Help Me To Pray"

I used to be on Rounder Records' mailing list, and about a decade ago they sent me Kneelin' Down Inside The Gate, a strange and beautiful collection of Bahamian gospel. The interplay of these three voices—from the evangelical to the aspirational to the downright weird—encompasses pretty much the whole of the Christian religion. It's like the holy trinity of gospel vocals.

The Caravans, "Walk Around Heaven All Day"

And here's an entirely different kind of gospel song, culled from the Vee-Jay records box set. I like the spareness of this track: just a free-form organ and piano, and a vocal that emphasizes the peaceful aimlessness of the afterlife.

The Chesterfields, "Ask Johnny Dee"

The wonderful compilation CD86 collects singles from the UK indie-pop movement of the mid-to-late '80s, and this song is more on the poppy end, in that aside from the lo-fi production, it could fit alongside something by The Smiths or The Lightning Seeds. But that production also helps make the song, giving a sense of what it's like to stand in the shadow of stardom, and feel insignificant.

Cold Grits, "Funky Soul"/ David Sea, "Let's Just Get Together"

Here's two tracks from the quite fine The Soul Of Neal Hemphill, a collection of R&B; singles from the Birmingham scene. The Cold Grits song is a greasy instrumental that verges on the manic, while the David Sea song is decidedly mellower. The latter has a simple sentiment—damn it, let's just screw already—but Sea imbues it with boyish sweetness.

Deerhoof, "The Galaxist"

I avoided writing about Deerhoof in Week Eleven because I couldn't find my copy of Friend Opportunity, the album of theirs I like best. (It turned out to be in my car.) I like the other Deerhoof albums reasonably well too, but Friend Opportunity is damn-near perfect in the way it shifts from experimental to hooky to riffy without a clear sense of logic. I had a hard time picking a song from any other album that encompassed what I love about Deerhoof, and a hard time settling on just one from Friend Opportunity. I settled on "The Galaxist" because it captures the albums full range: its weirdness, its rockiness, its beauty.

Elephants Memory, "Old Man Willow"

I saw Midnight Cowboy for the first time in a bowdlerized TV version when I was in high school, and when I found the soundtrack at a used record store shortly afterward, I bought it in large part because I wanted a copy of this song, which plays during the movie's psychedelic party scene. I'd never quite heard music like this before I saw Midnight Cowboy, because I hadn't yet bought my first Velvet Underground record, and wasn't yet into the output of 4AD. I'm still kind of amazed that "Old Man Willow" made it onto a movie soundtrack, because while it's easy to dismiss the song as some movie producer's clichéd idea of "hippie music," it's far more avant-garde in conception and execution than the fake go-go sounds that populated most of the era's youthsploitation. This song's kind of a mind-blower, to tell the truth. I think the guys and gal in Deerhoof may have listened to it a few times.

The English Beat, "She's Going"

If I'd had The English Beat loaded two weeks ago, they definitely would've been a "piece of the puzzle," because I listened to I Just Can't Stop It and Special Beat Service about as much as I listened to anything during my high school infatuation with '80s Britpop. Special Beat Service in particular—as represented by this song—is a pretty amazing album, pushing beyond the simplicity of two-tone to encompass a variety of emerging immigrant cultures, all while asserting the band's "Englishness" in the form of a sound in step with the breezy style of early '80s radio.

Eric B. & Rakim, "I Know You Got Soul"

I have to confess that I didn't really get Eric B. & Rakim the first time around, probably because they were more club-oriented than the other hip-hop of their era, and at the time I was more into the rock-minded minimalism of Run-DMC and Boogie Down Productions and the assaultive maximalism of Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys. In 2008, "I Know You Got Soul" is more where my head is at, hip-hop-wise.

Fear, "Let's Have A War"

I used to have a theory that nobody ever bought the Repo Man soundtrack; they just had a copy they either duped or stole from somebody else. Now that my Repo Man soundtrack is loaded up, I can talk about some of the tracks that introduced me to L.A. punk. I almost wrote up Circle Jerks' "Coup D'Etat" this week, but I like this classic Fear track a lot more, probably because it's so beefy that it could almost pass for a hardcore version of Van Halen. It's also got the perfect sentiment for a punk anthem, at once witty and pissy. "There's too many of us" indeed.

Fela Kuti, "Zombie"

See Femi Kuti entry, two weeks ago. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Among the rest… Aaliyah, Alabama 3, Albert King, All-Time Quarterback, Alternative TV, Arvo Part, Ash, Ashford & Simpson, The Avengers, Barenaked Ladies, Béla Fleck, Bert Jansch, Better Than Ezra, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, The Black Crowes, Blaine Sprouse, Blancmange, The Blue Notes, Blues Traveler, BMX Bandits, Bomb The Bass, Book Of Love, Boyz II Men, Brian Eno, Busta Rhymes, C&C; Music Factory, The Canadian Brass, Candlebox, Carla Thomas, Carly Simon, Chaka Khan, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chumbawamba, Cibo Matto, Circle Jerks, Collective Soul, Crash Test Dummies, The Cult, Dada, Das EFX, David Holmes, Dead Prez, Deana Carter, Deborah Harry, Deee-Lite, Deep Blue Something, The Dentists, Des'ree, The Dickies, The Dictators, The Dils, Divinyls, Eddie Floyd, Eddie Kendricks, EMF, The Emotions, En Vogue, Erasure, Everlast and Faust

Next week: The regular format resumes, with coverage of artists ranging from Gang Of Four to Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, plus a few words on pop and politics.

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