Popless Week 28: True Believers

Popless Week 28: True Believers

After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.

Nashville is both the capital of country music and the base of operations for a large number of Contemporary Christian labels and bands, many of them populated by gung-ho folks who first came to town to study music (and the music business) at Belmont University. People are drawn to CCM for a variety of reasons: some because it may seem easier to break through and find a fan base in CCM than in the broader industry; some because they grew up with the genre and have a fannish interest; some because they come from strict church-going families and want to explore their passion for secular popular culture without upsetting their parents; and some because they're genuinely devout, and want to explore their personal relationship with the Lord in a format that'll reach a built-in audience.

During the half-decade or so that I covered the local music beat in Nashville, I talked to a few songwriters and musicians who were exiles from the CCM industry. They'd served time in bands and in the songwriting mills (sitting in suburban office parks with other songwriters, banging out bright, shiny praise songs by the sheaf), and they'd found the whole experience disillusioning. Off the record during interviews, they'd tell me how originality was frowned upon in CCM, and how their songs went through a rigorous editing process by their bosses, to make sure that that they adhered to the same sonic formula as everything else on the radio, and to make sure there weren't any lyrics that could be misconstrued as blasphemous, glib, or—worst of all—expressing any kind of doubt.

I grew up in the Bible belt, and have had ample opportunity to observe what I call "The Snackwells Effect" of religious-themed entertainment. Ignoring the old admonition about "be ye not conformed to this world," most Christian music, Christian TV, Christian videogame or Christian movie producers tout how indistinguishable their product is from the real thing. ("We spared no expense!" they'll say. "This looks like a real movie!" their audiences testify.) Many's the time I've flipped past a Christian-themed cartoon or a Christian radio station and have been momentarily confused by what I've stumbled on. And usually, what tips me off isn't the proselytizing, but the style. Just as a dietetic cookie often tastes too sweet, Christian entertainment often packs too much visceral oomph. The images on the screen are too clean and bright, and the music too boosted-up and busy. (Not unlike Radio Disney, but with more references to "Him" and "He.") Our local Christian pop station repeatedly touts their motto "Positive, Encouraging," and while I'll occasionally dial it up for 20 minutes or so in my car—just for the novelty of hearing something different—eventually the relentlessly upbeat tone starts to feel too forced. I start to get hungry for music that's negative, discouraging.

Having said that, I should add that I also resent the way the mainstream media tends to treat religion in America as a curiosity (or worse). I watched the premiere episode of The Secret Life Of The American Teenager on ABC Family a few weeks ago, and mixed in among the regular cast of ten or so teens were two had been tagged as "The Christians." Now, one-to-five may be a higher ratio of Christian-to-heathen than most high school soaps allow, but it still seems rigged, and out of touch. I've never attended a school in my life—college included—in which the majority of students weren't self-identified Christians. And out of that majority, only a handful were in the Young Life/True Love Waits/Campus Crusade crowd; the rest were casually religious folks who largely confined their faith to Sunday mornings, summer camps and saying grace before dinner. Oddly enough, The Simpsons frequently offers the truest depiction on TV of how religion and the American way of life intersect on a daily basis—not just because it features a cast of characters with diverse beliefs, but because those beliefs are portrayed as a routine part of everyone's weekly rituals.

When it comes to religion in music, I prefer artists who deal with their beliefs (and doubts) as one topic among many—who focus on originality and/or authentic personal expression, instead or working to marry a carefully vetted message to a market-tested sound. Barring that, I want my religious entertainment to be odd and funky. Give me low-budget gospel or spooky blues or jaunty klezmer music or something else completely outside the mainstream in its style and content. Give me something that emerges from a culture of its own. Give me a cookie that doesn't look or taste like every other cookie.

I'd say the same of patriotic music, or any song that tries to convey a direct political message (regardless of whether it's coming from the left or right). Bob Dylan irritated the old guard in the hootenanny scene when he started writing songs that weren't all about social justice and honoring traditional forms, and 15 years later annoyed the rock crowd when he started singing about Jesus. Yet Dylan's body of work as a whole paints a fuller picture of the human experience than the complete works of The Weavers or The Staple Singers (both of whom are wonderful in their own way). As much as I appreciate the blunt political diatribes of artists like Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked, to me one of the best political songs ever recorded is Midnight Oil's "The Dead Heart," which tackles colonialism from the perspective of the colonized, utilizing a sound that's at once triumphant and melancholy, in order to convey the emotions of a people who'd rather not be seen as mere victims. "The Dead Heart" has a straightforward message, but a complex presentation (unlike the same album's "Beds Are Burning," which is so didactic that it wears out its welcome.)

In the end, I'm more likely to listen to someone's opinions about global warming or the epistles of Paul if I also know a little something about what kind of food they crave, which is their favorite baseball team, and how much trouble they had getting their first marriage to work. Messages and music alike are more effective when they're presented by well-rounded human beings, not fervor-bots who've sublimated their selves in the name of some higher calling. I'm not opposed to Christian Rock in theory—or even in practice, in a few cases. But more often than not, "Christian rock" has as much in common with actual rock as Turkish Star Wars has with the actual Star Wars.

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Pieces Of The Puzzle

Michael Franks/Michael Hedges

Years Of Operation 1973-present/1974-97

Fits Between Al Stewart and Rupert Holmes/Will Ackerman and Leo Kotke

Personal Correspondence At some point in the mid-'80s, my dad started taking an interest in jazz, but only inasmuch as it intersected with music he already liked and understood. He wasn't taking a trip with Ornette Coleman, in other words; he liked the light jazz-fusion guys and the singer-songwriters with jazzy inflections, like Michael Franks. Meanwhile, my mom and stepfather were getting into New Age music. They had zero interest in crystals or healing or freeform pan-flute solos, but they dug the collected output of Windham Hill, and we spent a lot of time in the family sedan grooving to Shadowfax and Michael Hedges. In both cases, I found my parents' new pursuits to be a welcome change of pace from the bluegrass and classic rock my dad usually listened to and the sappy adult contemporary my mom tended to play. Franks I liked because he was like a smarter, more light-fingered variation on the radio-ready soft rock of the late '70s; and Hedges I liked because he had such strong musicianship, and because at his best—as on the practically perfect instrumental LP Breakfast In The Field—he had the capacity to create something so pristine and natural-sounding that it left me agape. I had some friends in high school—my drama class pals, mainly—who bought into New Age beyond the music, and I spent the occasional Saturday night enduring some dreary ritual at a downtown crystal shop, or nursing the one glass of soda I could afford at a local riverside café that hosted acoustic acts. The funny thing is, that café—Windows On The Cumberland, for my fellow Nashvillians—was also a regular haunt of my mom and stepdad when they went out. Our paths never crossed there—probably because I was following behind them.

Enduring presence? My jazzy/woodsy/folky phase didn't survive senior year of high school, and to be honest, I can only take Michael Franks now in very small doses. His urbane sophistication now seems kind of small-city to me—Cincinnati, not New York. Hedges though, I still like so much that I even enjoy his sometimes cringe-inducingly sincere vocal album Watching My Life Go By. I saw Hedges in concert when I was in college, about six years before he died. I hadn't bought any of his albums since high school, and I went more or less for nostalgia's sake. I'm glad I did—Hedges was an authentic entertainer, as ingratiating as he was virtuosic.

Michael Jackson

Years Of Operation 1972-present (solo)

Fits Between Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder

Personal Correspondence It may be hard to believe now, after all his career and personal missteps, but in the early '80s, Michael Jackson was one of the few pop phenomena that almost nobody hated. He was the E.T. of pop stars: as sweet-natured as he was culturally and technically groundbreaking, and with the instincts of an old-fashioned entertainer. I had a copy of Thriller—it was practically issued to children back then, like polio shots—and even though I was more into album rock than Top 40, I admired the album's hooks and diversity, and the bubbly keyboards of Greg Phillinganes (the record's unsung hero). By the time Bad came out, the tide was already starting to turn. What had seemed calculated but in a smart and generous way on Thriller now seemed too cold and clamorous. (In Jackson's defense, that's pretty much how all music sounded in 1987.) The exorbitantly priced tickets and relentless merchandising of The Jacksons' Victory tour hadn't helped; nor had the ubiquitous Pepsi commercials. People even started suggesting that Thriller wasn't all it was touted to be, and that Off The Wall was Jackson's real masterpiece. (I'm inclined to agree with that, actually; maybe it's a simple case of over-saturation, but I'd rather hear "Rock With You" than any song on Thriller right now.) I never bought Bad, and haven't bought any Jackson album since Thriller, aside from a couple of anthologies. In a way, the Thriller experience—which took almost five years to play out—made the idea of ever buying another Jackson album seem ludicrous. Michael Jackson's music was everywhere in the '80s, so who needed to own a physical copy? It would be like buying bottled water. (Oh wait…)

Enduring presence? Thriller had its big anniversary reissue rlier this year, accompanied by a lot of think pieces about whether the album holds up. It's almost impossible for me to judge, frankly, because I've heard those songs so much that I can't really take them in with fresh ears. I do still like "P.Y.T." and "Human Nature," for what that's worth, and the guitar solo in "Beat It" still prompts a little twinge of nostalgia, amid memories of what that rock/R&B; crossover meant back when the song was released. Jackson receives—and deserves—a lot of credit for crossing the invisible color lines at MTV and rock radio, and probably did as much as hip-hop to integrate mainstream popular culture. But at the same time, I can't help feeling partly responsible for Jackson's downfall, because I chuckled and smirked along with everyone else at all the jokes about his bizarre behavior, and I get the feeling that someday, after Jackson's gone and his kids write memoirs and we get the full story of what went down at Neverland and who got hurt by it, we're all going to wonder why we found this tortured freak and his reported perversions so funny. It's an American tragedy, honestly.

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Michelle Shocked

Years Of Operation 1984-present

Fits Between k.d. lang and Ani DiFrano

Personal Correspondence From what I'd read about Michelle Shocked when she first started getting press, she really didn't sound like my kind of musician. Mumbly, trilling, lo-fi songs about kicking around trainyards in B.F.E.? Not really my thing. But then I saw her open for Billy Bragg in Atlanta—a set I was dreading before it started—and I was so charmed by her playful stage banter and tuneful songs that I scooped up The Texas Campfire Tapes and Short Sharp Shocked the next day. Neither of those records gets talked about as much as they once did, but they hold up well: Campfire for the intimate, off-the-cuff beauty of songs like "5 A.M. In Amsterdam" (a song I think about whenever I hear the name of my friend Scott's daughter, Isabel…or "Isabelle Ringing," as I'd like to call her), and Short Sharp for the way it translates Shocked's quirks and political preoccupations to a more polished country-rock format. I still hear "Anchorage" every now and then over the satellite services that restaurants and grocery stores use, and I wish Shocked had held to the simplicity, directness and wit of that song, rather than starting to take herself, her music and her message so seriously. (One more thing about Shocked that I can't shake: I had a girlfriend for over a year in college who looked a lot like her, especially when she cut her hair short and started wearing more hats.)

Enduring presence? Writing about the trifecta of albums Shocked released in 2005, I tried to put her career into perspective, noting, "Michelle Shocked has often accused the music industry of treating her wrong, but then, she's the kind of iconoclastic, rootsy artist who tends to fall between the show-business cracks. It was easier for Shocked in the late '80s, when 'the new folk' movement was ascendant and her itinerant-punk Woody Guthrie shtick caught the fancy of the college-rock crowd. By the time Shocked shifted from the hummable protest songs and character sketches of her early albums to the semi-strident 'history of Americana' that followed, her casual fans had moved on to Tracy Chapman and/or Ani DiFranco. So Shocked went the indie route, self-releasing albums that ran her traditional folk moves through filters of gospel and island rhythms." I've been deeply disappointed in Shocked from the '90s on, but I haven't abandoned her either. I keep picking up—or requesting from publicists—the albums she puts out every few years, and I usually find a song or two on each that are so good it almost makes me angry.

Midlake

Years Of Operation 1999-present

Fits Between Dire Straits and Fleetwood Mac

Personal Correspondence I had one of those Life Without Buildings-type epiphanies the first time I heard Midlake's The Trials Of Van Occupanther back in 2006. It was just another record in the promo pile, but when I popped it in and "Roscoe" came on, I stopped what I was doing and called my wife into the room so she could hear it. A week later, I wrote this gushing review: "Just the opening half-minute of 'Roscoe,' the lead track on Midlake's sophomore album, generates the kind of knowingly resigned, darkly ritualistic mood that was all over FM radio in the mid-to-late-'70s, in the era of Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, and Dire Straits. The mellifluous, murmuring double-tracked croon of bandleader Tim Smith spirals through echoing piano, muffled drums, and quietly slashing electric guitars, all so commanding that there's no better way to react to it than to find a window to stare through—preferably one facing a grove of trees, swaying in an autumn wind. It's the kind of song worth stopping everything for. Then again, so is 'Bandits,' which marries an archaic-sounding melody to humming organ and rippling piano, and 'Head Home,' which builds to a dramatic guitar solo that sounds like a tin shack beset by storms, and 'Van Occupanther,' a steady piano march leavened by the sound of a Mellotron and Smith cautioning, 'I must be careful now in my steps.' With The Trials Of Van Occupanther, Midlake has built a fragile fantasy world out of pieces of American history, the resonant sounds of churches and small-town music halls, and a basic sense of compassion. Songs like 'Young Bride' and 'Branches' practically tremble, as they pulse along on steady keyboards and woven-silk guitar, keeping Smith braced while he sings lines like, 'It's hard for me, but I'm trying.'

Van Occupanther's spell finally breaks a little more than halfway through its 11 tracks, when the songs begin to feel more fussed-over and conceptual and less organic, but the warmth never fades. When Midlake reaches the album's brief, moving conclusion, 'You Never Arrived,' it's earned the pangs of recognition it'll get from those listeners who grew up with this kind of music seeping into the mystery-infatuated compartments of their collective subconscious."

Enduring presence? All I have to add to the above is that I no longer think Van Occupanther fades down the stretch; I love the album from start to finish. Also, I picked up the band's more rudimentary Bamnan And Silvercork and think the songwriting has a lot to recommend it, even though the production and playing are rougher, and lack the gossamer beauty of what was to come. There's reportedly a new album due later this year, hopefully around the time I get to pop my head back up and listen to new records again.

Midnight Oil

Years Of Operation 1973-2002

Fits Between INXS and U2

Personal Correspondence Anyone who grew up in Nashville in the '80s and liked alternative rock went to pretty much any show that seemed remotely cool, even if the band in question was more "mainstream" than snobby alt-rockers usually preferred. It was the summer between high school and college when I saw Midnight Oil at The Cannery, almost on a whim. It was a hot night, and the large-ish club was packed so tight that I didn't get admitted until about four songs into the headlining set. I didn't know much about Midnight Oil at the time. One of my cousins was a fan, and a few years earlier, when I spent a weekend with him in D.C., he showed me an episode of Thicke Of The Night on which Midnight Oil performed a handful of songs from 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, including the incendiary "The Power And The Passion." By the summer of '88, the band's Diesel And Dust album was a hit, so I headed up to the Cannery with the singles in my head. But I wasn't prepared for the sheer force of a by-then-well-road-tested touring band, or for the larger than life personality of frontman Peter Garrett, whose freakish charisma was really too big for that Nashville club stage. He pontificated, he jerked about, he howled to the rafters. As I recall, the show ended with an extended version of "The Power And The Passion," during which Garrett patrolled a miked-up, metal-festooned stage set with a drumstick, turning everything he could find into part of an unstoppable beat. I saw them live again two years later on the Blue Sky Mining tour, in a big outdoor amphitheater, and less was lost in translation than you might think. In fact, I tend to think of Midnight Oil as a live act first and foremost. I like the trifecta of 10, 9, 8, Red Sails In The Sunset and Diesel And Dust (the latter just reissued in a nice package, by the way) quite a bit, but at the moment my favorite Midnight Oil album is Oils On The Water, a live album drawn from the Red Sails tour that captures the range and rage of the Oils at their peak.

Enduring presence? Have Midnight Oil been forgotten? Do people just think about Garrett's bald head and skeletal frame, and the band's punchy singles, and forget about how well-crafted their albums were, and what a presence they were on stage? True, their last couple of albums weren't so great, but during their first decade, they were among the most powerful rock bands in the world. Why aren't they talked about more?

Miles Davis

Years Of Operation 1944-91

Fits Between Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk

Personal Correspondence When I was first getting into jazz, Miles Davis loomed as an imposing, daunting figure, because of the sheer volume of his output and its reputation for being sometimes hard to parse. One of my roommates dove into Davis with Bitches Brew, which isn't exactly a clean way into the catalogue. I bought Sketches Of Spain and In A Silent Way (paired on a 2-for-1 cassette) and liked them both, even though neither of those records well-represent Davis' body of work. It took me a couple of years to work my way to the Davis album that most reasonable people start with, Kind Of Blue, and I got there because of one scene in the Wolfgang Petersen/Clint Eastwood actioner In The Line Of Fire where Eastwood's character listens to "All Blues" while unwinding. From there I moved into the large body of work Davis created in collaboration with Gil Evans, and I confess that I've been kind of living there ever since. There's something about the lushness and smokiness of those Davis/Evans recordings that supplies what I'm frequently looking for in jazz: miniature narratives, sketched in mood.

Enduring presence? One of my goals for next year is to renew my jazz education, starting with Davis and his post-1970 work. But I acknowledge that I'll probably never be more than a dabbler when it comes to jazz and especially to Davis. You could dedicate the rest of your life to collecting and studying Miles Davis, and never exhaust the subject.

Minutemen

Years Of Operation 1980-85

Fits Between Wire and Big Boys

Personal Correspondence Of all the bands that I got into thanks to Michael Golberg's 1985 Rolling Stone article "Punk Lives!," the one that I've had the longest, most fruitful relationship with is the Minutemen. Reading about Double Nickels On The Dime was intriguing enough—A band playing 90-second covers of Steely Dan, CCR and Van Halen, in between punky, jazzy, haiku-like songs about political action and popular culture? I want in!—but the descriptions alone didn't really tell the story about that record or the band. Minutemen were born outside the proper Los Angeles punk scene, and developed an ethos based on openheartedness, working-class politics, and artistic adventure, rather than any codified notion of cool. D. Boon, Mike Watt and George Hurley were self-taught, and gravitated to punk because it let people like them get on stage, even if they were more into jazz, funk, and Credence Clearwater Revival than thrash. And once they got to the stage, they stood out from the rest of the west coast punk pack. Everyone else may have tried to look outrageous, but the could rarely match the oddity of Boon strangling his guitar and bellowing, Watt popping his bass and puffing, and hulky Sean Penn look-alike George Hurley tapping at his drum kit like it was a typewriter. (Some week I'm going to have to dedicate a whole Popless essay to drumming.) I dug the band's brevity, their good humor, their willingness to try anything and their utter lack of concern about whether they're particular interests would be seen as "with-it." They got a pass for being classic rock guys playing punk, because they came from the sticks, worked their asses off, and were just genuinely good dudes. No one could hate them.

Enduring presence? Double Nickels isn't just in my Top 10 albums of all time, I think it's arguably one of the 5 best albums of the '80s. (Not that I have a list handy.) Just like Meat Puppets' Up On The Sun, Double Nickels encapsulates the follow-your-dream spirit of SST Records and the post-hardcore scene, and it's also a cluster bomb of musical and lyrical ideas, popping off 40 times an hour. Post-Nickels—and especially following the death of D. Boon—Mike Watt has become increasingly idiosyncratic, developing his own lingo full of dropped "g"s, guttural profanity, and references to "spiels," "jamming econo" and "hellrides." His solo albums have been ambitious and strange, and aren't recommended for neophytes. But for those who've followed his career with congenial interest for decades, Watt's open-hearted dispatches from Pedro about parents, friends, music, sickness and death have more appreciable gravitas than some emo kid whining about how his ex-girlfriend never called him back.

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Miracle Legion

Years Of Operation 1984-96

Fits Between R.E.M. and The Reivers

Personal Correspondence I've written before about "pet bands:" the ones that some critics or fans persist in loving and touting even though the community at large has no real interest. The college-rock cast-offs Miracle Legion may have been the first "pet band" that I recognized as such. When I was younger, I often failed to understand why the catchy alt-rock bands I liked couldn't break through on the radio—nevermind their cruddy production and off-key vocals—but Miracle Legion seemed doomed to unpopularity to me even when I was buying all their records and seeing them live and writing glowing reviews. They did come close to breaking through, with their lone major label album, Drenched (which may be the only entry in their out-of-print catalog that can still be found relatively cheaply), but though the album was slick and hooky, Miracle Legion's brand of uptempo, melodic meat-and-potatoes jangle-rock wasn't selling in the age of Nirvana. Bandleader Mark Mulcahy continued his journey into cult-ville by providing the music for Nickelodeon's offbeat kids' show The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, and he's gone on to record some solo albums and take part in some other unusual theater and art projects. But it's the 10 years of music he made with Miracle Legion—always respected, rarely loved—that is his real legacy, and almost no one gets to hear that stuff anymore. I'd be thrilled with a reissue project—especially since all my old tapes sound so tinny and thn, even after I transferred them to CD—but I'm a realist when it comes to Miracle Legion. We fans are devout, but we are few.

Enduring presence? So why didn't Miracle Legion catch on? Blame R.E.M. Miracle Legion's debut EP The Backyard sounded uncannily like Fables Of The Reconstruction-era R.E.M., and R.E.M. remained a reference point throughout the band's career, even after each band had moved in different directions. There were so many R.E.M.-ish acts around then that they were hard to keep straight, but for my money, Miracle Legion were the best. (Aside from R.E.M. themselves, of course.)

Mission Of Burma

Years Of Operation 1979-83, 2002-present

Fits Between Pere Ubu and Hüsker Dü

Personal Correspondence Mission Of Burma doesn't really qualify as a "pet band," because they were widely acclaimed in their original run and often cited as an influence throughout the '80s, especially by fellow Boston-area scenesters like Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Blake Babies and The Lemonheads, who each aspired to MoB's mix of brute force and nimble musicianship. Still, once the college-rock era ended, the band seemed doomed to die out as a reference point for the next generation of bands (and the critics who write about them). In the early '80s, Mission Of Burma had a reputation as the loudest band on the club circuit, which forced the band into early retirement when guitarist Roger Miller developed acute tinnitus. But Burma's loudness wasn't really comparable to any punk or metal act. The band just vibrated heavily, through songs that combined erratic melody, Morse code rhythms, and siren-like instrumental interludes. I'm happy they reunited a few years ago, not just because they went on to release two very strong albums, but because a new generation has gotten a chance to hear songs that sound at once alluring and terrifying, with a complexity and ferocity that sounds like Steely Dan playing through an air raid. Two decades on, Mission Of Burma is sweating out the same nightmares, making art-damaged music that rattles and collapses, leaving amazing debris.

Enduring presence? The documentary This Is Not A Photograph, about the Mission Of Burma reunion, contains a couple of great quotes from drummer Peter Prescott, who'd had some rough times in the business in the decades since the band ended. At one point, Prescott is worried that the reunited Burma is doomed to be "a lame version of what we did we were younger." By the end, even he appreciates their enthusiastic welcome back, saying, "I feel like I'm getting way more than I deserve, which is fine. I spent years getting way less."

Mitch Hedberg

Years Of Operation 1989-2005

Fits Between Steven Wright and Henny Youngman

Personal Correspondence I've been mostly skipping past comedians in my summaries of what I've been listening to, even though I have a bunch of comedy albums, and have burned some of them onto my hard drive. I'm including Hedberg mainly as an excuse to post audio files of a few of my favorite jokes, and to link once again to my interview with him, conducted the day after my daughter was born, with me feeling very unprepared. I hadn't had time to do more than cursory research before calling Hedberg up, so I didn't know enough to delve into his troubled history with drugs or TV executives. I called him in the afternoon and I believe I woke him, since he sounded more out of it than usual when we started talking (though he warmed up by the end). Hedberg died about six months later, and I immediately regretted that I blew the opportunity to do a definitive interview with someone who's gone on to become something of a cult figure (and who hadn't really been interviewed at length before). But you know, I re-read that piece this week, and it's not as bad as I thought. I may have dropped the ball, but Mitch carried it a long way all on his own.

Enduring presence? I quote Hedberg in my daily life as much as I quote any other comedian (or comedy). The line above about writing down jokes? That's pretty much how I live my life: laziness crossed with self-justification.

Modest Mouse

Years Of Operation 1993-present

Fits Between Built To Spill and Death Cab For Cutie

Personal Correspondence Say what you will about Modest Mouse's career trajectory, but there have been few musicians as committed to espousing a unified worldview through his songs than Isaac Brock. Modest Mouse has released album after album and song after song about traveling through vast, unmanned spaces, while Brock's echoing guitar patterns and mobius-strip lyrics evoke the feeling of staring ponderously at endless nothing. The band has borrowed unapologetically from prog-rockers like Rush, post-punkers like Joy Division, and has even drawn on elements of alt-country and white funk—all in the name of roaming through the uncharted territories of rock 'n' roll and keeping diaries of what the experience does to the head. Brock's vocal stylings fall halfway between enraged square-dance caller and depressed rapper, but at the core of his nightmarish, perpetually elliptical vision is a rather touching analogy for life and how we live it: always repeating and always returning, but also always feeding each other. The swirling, droning music is the appropriate backdrop for the message. Brock and his band are both providing the soundtrack to long journey and warning their passengers that the ride may be neverending. There's no destination here, only further travel.

Enduring presence? From album to album, Modest Mouse has made forward strides, usually alienating old fans along the way. To me though, what's fundamental about the band hasn't changed: Brock's whole persona—the thematic anchor to his band's rambling indie-rock excursions—emerges from insights he's gleaned while traveling in circles in the middle of nowhere. Modest Mouse's music sticks to cycles of drone and wave because that best emphasizes its creator's obsessions.

The Monkees

Years Of Operation 1965-70 (essentially)

Fits Between The Hollies and The Archies

Personal Correspondence When I was still in the single digits, I was as obsessive about watching The Monkees in syndication as I was about watching Batman and The Price Is Right. (Honestly, you could probably triangulate my taste and personality from childhood to now just by using those three shows.) I knew nothing of the controversy surrounding The Monkees—Did they write their own songs? Did they play their own instruments?—I just thought of them as colorful characters, indistinguishable from the ones I cheered for on Saturday morning cartoons. (My favorite Monkee was Mickey, because he was the wackiest.) But I liked the songs, too, which were eclectic, zippy and surprisingly loud for a family-friendly show. Later I discovered that the band did write some of their songs, and that by the end of their run they were playing their own instruments, but I'm still not one to pick nits with the earlier, less organic version of The Monkees. The people behind the show knew what they were doing, and they represented the Sunset Strip scene reasonably well, both in sensibility and sound. I heard a quote once from Stephen Stills (I think), who said that every rocker in L.A. in 1966 hated The Monkees, even though a year earlier every one of them stood in line and auditioned to be on the show.

Enduring presence? Though slagged as a prefab rock band with cynical intentions by the rock press of the '60s, The Monkees' reputation has been rehabilitated over the years as people have come to realize how much of an effort the band made to use their moment in the spotlight to run a little wild. The last season of their show is utter Dadaist mayhem, and the feature film Head—while pretentious and silly in equal measure—is legitimately mind-blowing at times. And then there are songs like my boyhood favorite "Randy Scouse Git," which is some kind of weirdo pastiche of music hall, orchestral bluster, acid rock and old movie soundtracks. This shit was on TV, man.

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Stray Tracks

From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….

Mercyland, "Eula Geary Is Dead"

Because Mercyland main man David Barbe went on to play bass with Bob Mould in Sugar, Athens' Great Punk Hope received a posthumous singles compilation on Rykodisc—an odd turn of events, but a welcome one. Mercyland never quite fit into the Athens music scene during their heyday. They were louder and tighter than most, and if Barbe hadn't had a lucrative side career as a studio owner and producer, I wonder if he would've considered moving Mercyland to a more punk-friendly city, like Chapel Hill or D.C. The band mined the "fuck conformity" vein too often, but while their lyrics were simplistic, their music rarely was. They could roar like rampaging bear, but they always knew what they were doing, and usually varied their attacks.

The Merry-Go-Round, "Time Will Show The Wiser"

I wrote about Emmitt Rhodes' post-Merry-Go-Round solo career a few months back, and now here's the original stuff: sunshine pop with a stronger grounding in Americana than most. Fits between: The Free Design and Buffalo Springfield.

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Metallica, "Killing Time"

The local album rock station in my area used to play the syndicated show Metalshop late on Saturday nights in the '80s, and if I was still awake, I'd listen. Heavy metal wasn't really my thing—and still isn't—but I was impressed with how many metal bands in the mid '80s had more in common with punk than with Twisted Sister. I first heard Metallica on Metalshop, and they became for me an example of the kind of "pure" metal band that I respected a lot, even if I had no interest in buying their records. In fact, aside from my DVD of Some Kind Of Monster (one of the greatest rock docs of all time, in my opinion) the only Metallica record I own is the double-disc Garage Inc., which puts the band's full-on assault in service of punk and metal cover songs that are more… I don't know, is "fun" the right word?

The Meters, "Cissy Strut"

M.F.S.B., "Sexy"

Mickey & The Soul Generation, "Up The Stairs And Around The Bend"

Here's a trio of funk/R&B; instrumentals, custom made for crate-diggers and retro revivalists. When it comes to bands like The Meters (from New Orleans) and M.F.S.B. (from Philly), the regional affiliation is as significant as any of the fluke hits or sample-worthy grooves they laid down. The Meters were integral to Louisiana's rootsy soul scene (there were Nevilles and Toussaints involved, for heaven's sake), while M.F.S.B. helped codify the string-soaked "sound of Philadelphia" that would eventually become the framework for disco (and David Bowie's Young Americans album). As for Mickey & The Soul Generation (from San Antonio), they were the kind of near-forgotten, niche-y local legend that modern bands like The Dap-Kings pay homage to. They cut sides that made clubs and low-wattage radio stations across the southwest come alive.

Mew, "Apocalypso"

Mew's offbeat 2005 song-suite And The Glass Handed Kites is a seamless set of billowing Euro-pop, spiked with thick, elastic bass and a sound as resounding-yet-claustrophobic as the inside of a bell. Songs like "Apocalypso" roll through like a cold front, dropping electric pulses of guitar, synthesizer, and big-beat drums. What it lacks in variety—or, honestly, melody—it makes up in the windswept mystical air and triumphant tone.

Mia Doi Todd, "The Last Night Of Winter"

I was so impressed with Todd's 2005 album Manzanita that I dug up some of her earlier records, from when she was a fairly straightforward coffeehouse folkie, and frankly, if I'd heard Todd from the beginning, I probably would've bailed on her as an artist long before Manzanita rolled around. Those first few albums are spare to a fault, while Manzanita siphons some of the folk away from "the new folk," aiming for a sound at once forward-thinking and classically rooted. Todd has a smoky mysticism and freeform beauty that recalls Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Joni Mitchell—with some of that sound supplied by members of neo-psychedelic outfits Beachwood Sparks and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. The easy-gliding "The Last Night Of Winter" in particular makes a long-distance relationship sound like an act of romantic heroism.

Michel Legrand, "The Jitterbug Waltz"

Given how dedicated the French New Wave directors were to learning the techniques of classic cinema and then chopping them to pieces, it was inevitable that they'd gravitate to the music of Michel Legrand, who took what he learned from working with American jazz legends in Paris and applied it to orchestral music that sounded at once sentimental, lush and subtly disjointed. This track comes from Legrand's classic 1958 album Legrand Jazz, which features Miles Davis, Bill Evans and John Coltrane (among others). It's alternately lovely and jolting, not unlike the techniques he'd later lend to the films of Godard and Demy.

Mike Douglas, "The Man In My Little Girl's Life"

My little girl is going to be four this August. The other day she told me that she was allergic to boys. I'm hoping she stays that way.

Mike Post, "Hill Street Blues"

Post is one of the few TV composers whose themes have gotten radio play and have even become hits. The full-length version of the Hill Street Blues theme (featuring Larry Carlton) arguably helped vault that series from ratings-challenged critical fave to Top 10 show. At the least, it served as an overture for what viewers would see each week. The bluesy and jazzy notes spoke to the show's gritty cops-and-robbers milieu, but the plaintive piano introduced the depths of character and emotion that were always in play. At a certain point, you didn't even need to watch the whole show to get it what it was going for. The theme was enough.

The Millennium, "It's You"

The Millennium were arguably the best project that sunshine-pop stalwart Curt Boettcher was ever involved with, showing a sonic sophistication and maturing approach to the vocals and lyrics. Sadly, The Millennium bombed out on the radio just like so many other Boettcher-fronted outfits. But they left behind songs like this one, which I can almost imagine the participants in The Elephant 6 Recording Company discovering in a used record shop—lightbulbs popping over the heads the whole time.

Milton Nascimento, "Anima"

My wife and I didn't have a band or a DJ at our wedding, but I made a tape of some our favorite songs—the kind of gentle, romantic ones that wouldn't scare off the oldsters—and we played it on a boom box in the corner of our reception hall. For people in that corner of the room, the music was too loud.† For those anywhere else in the room, the music was inaudible. Ah well. The tape included a good chunk of Beleza Tropical, including this early '80s Nascimento classic, which exhibits a little but of awareness of the influence Brazilian music was starting to have on American and British art-pop at the time, and seems to borrow some of that influence back. What instruments are playing over the bridge? Pan flute mixed with wood-blocks, or something else entirely? Whatever it is, those little runs never fail to delight.

Minibar, "Choked Up"

My first exposure to this Ryan Adams-penned song—easily the highlight of the pre-release version of Pneumonia—came via its cover by Minibar, a British band that briefly aspired to join the American alt-county movement. Reviewing their 2001 debut album Road Movies, I wrote: "Is there such a thing as British Americana? The UK quartet Minibar claim the quintessentially Yankee rock band Wilco as a primary inspiration, and have hired T-Bone Burnett—who has spent over two decades producing such rootsy Americans as Counting Crows and The Wallflowers, not to mention writing neo-folkie tunes of his own—to produce their debut album Road Movies. The band's songs do, in fact, sound as though they emerged from the rolling Western plains of the US, rather than the narrow streets of their original home. Over the plaintive piano and slide guitar of 'Choked Up,' bandleader Simon Petty delivers a marvelously modulated melody in a raspy voice that sounds like a sober Paul Westerberg, circa 1989. In track after track, the tunes cascade across pristine arrangements, draped in tastefully rough guitar leads and filigrees of acoustic instrumentation from harmonica to banjo. It's all very neat and nice: dusty, but a clean kind of dusty."

Ministry, "Thieves (Live)"

I'm not sure why but Ministry's hybrid metal and electronica has so often thrilled me, when I have minimal interest in either genre on its own. In my pre-iPod days, I used to blast Ministry over my Walkman while taking long walks through campus, feeling a destroyer of worlds.

Mink DeVille, "Let Me Dream If I Want To"

This pastiche of Lou Reed and Television by their NY contemporary Mink DeVille sounds like what would've happened if all those CBGB art-punkers had tried to write a hit song. This song never actually became a hit—and it tends to be left out of the "Blank Generation"/"See No Evil" canon—but in some ways represents the smart, streetwise attitude of the early American punks than the more rarified music to come.

Minus The Bear, "The Game Needed Me"

Modern indie-rockers have been increasingly leaving behind the careening, bellowing, eccentric-studio-rat model of the '90s for a sound that's tighter and slicker. Seattle's Minus The Bear is one of those remodeled indies, taking an approach that's at once poppy and subtly progressive, in the mode of The Police and latter day King Crimson. "The Game Needed Me" works with insinuating rhythms and string-bending guitars, while frontman Jake Snider mutters and moans a set of declarative statements in the voice of a generation: "We're all just selling time," "We've got a lot to lose," and so on. The song might be a critique of materialism, but what lingers are the spooky atmospherics and clattering percussion. "The Game Needed Me" is the aural equivalent of a shadowy, deserted street, and a moment of existential terror.

The Miracles, "Ohh Baby Baby"

This may be the best slow-dance number in the Motown catalog, and a great sex song too (though I guess that's redundant). The lyrics has Smokey Robinson asking for a second chance from a girl he wronged, and doing so in such a smooth, faux-sincere way that you just know that he's already on his way to bed as he's singing. He's holding her hand and kissing his way up her arm. He's unzipping the back of her dress. She's not saying no. Musically, the song works because of the deliberate pace and the way that the backup Miracles harmonize with the quavering strings. Robinson's in full control, too, maintaining his standard fragility without giving into to quavering. He sounds like a guy who you wouldn't know was sad unless you leaned in a bit.

The Misfits, "Where Eagles Dare"

I've always been more a Cramps man than a Misfits man, but every time I hear this song, I think about switching my allegiance. How come there are so many great rock songs that use "son of a bitch" as a key line? Is that phrase just inherently "rock?"

Missing Persons, "Windows"

There are any number of fascinations surrounding Missing Persons, from songwriter/drummer Terry Bozzio's association with Frank Zappa to his wife Dale's photo spreads in Hustler to the way the band poured all its creativity and commercial moxie into the stellar debut album Spring Session M and then quickly faded, two albums later. This song is one of my favorites from the American new wave—between Dale Bozzio's orgasmic hiccup and the lilting synths, "Windows" lurches awkwardly and endearingly from sexual come-on to genuine yearning. I'd like to think that this is the song that runs through the heads of exotic dancers while they're stripping to "Pour Some Sugar On Me."

Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, "Shake A Tail Feather"

Ryder was an inspiration to Bruce Springsteen's stage persona and Bob Seger's early career, and in some ways he could be called Patient Zero for the idea of taking garage rock and R&B; party records and turning them into frugtastic frenzies, played at warp speed.

Moby, "Flower"

I understand the criticisms that say Moby is little more than an appropriator and a canny self-promoter, and that his wildly successful mash-ups of old blues/gospel records and modern dance tracks are just ways of making Starbucks patrons feel hip and mod and connected to the past, all at once. There's truth to all of that. It's also true that Moby's records wouldn't have been so successful if they didn't fill some deep need for cutting futurism with traditionalism that existed in people at the end of '90s, even if they couldn't have articulated that want exactly.

Molly Hatchet, "Flirtin' With Disaster"

When I think about the current (and under-acknowledged) diversity in southern rock, I reflect on Molly Hatchet, a hard rock band—practically heavy metal—considered southern rockers primarily because of their accents and subject matter. Molly Hatchet were southern, but not bound by any expectations they didn't make for themselves. You've got to give it up for a band with such a dogged commitment to their presentation that they were still slapping the same Frazetta paintings and banner logo on their records as late as the mid-'00s.

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Regrettably unremarked upon: Merle Haggard, Metric, Mice Parade, Michael Franti, Michael Penn, The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Mills Brothers, Minnie Ripperton, The Minus 5, Missy Elliott, Mix Master Mike, Mobb Deep, Moby Grape, Modern English, moe., Mogwai and The Moldy Peaches

Also listened to: Meredith Brooks, Merv Shiner, Messer Chups, Metal Hearts, Metallic Falcons, Mezzanine Owls, Mgmt, Micah Blue Smaldone, Micah P Hinson, Michael And The Messengers, Michael Brook, Michael Hall, Michael Hurley, Michael Johnson, Michael Kelsh, Michael Manring, Michael Sembello, The Michael Shipp Xcursion, Michael Snow, Michael Yonkers, The Michaels, Mick Farren & The Deviants, Mick Jones, Mick Taylor, Mickey & The Milkshakes, Mickey Newbury, Micky Jupp, Midfield General, Midnight Bowlers, Midnight Movies, Mighty Mighty, Mighty Purple, Mighty Walker Brothers, Miguel Mendez, Mike Bloomfield, Mike Dillon's Go-Go Jungle, Mike Downey, Mike Farris, The Mike Flowers Pops, Mike Ireland & Holler, Mike Johnson, Mike Selesia, Miles, The Miller Sisters, Milosh, Milton Banana Trio, The Minders, Mindy Smith, Ming Tea, Minipop, Minmae, Mint, Mint Royale, Minute, Mira Billotte, Mishka Shubaly, The Missing Links, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, The Moaners, Mobius Band, Mocean Worker, Mochipet, Modey Lemon, Modjo, modlang, Mofongo, Mofro, Mohair, Mokie J.J. & R.O.B., Moleque De Rua, Moloko, Money Mark, Mongo Santamaria and The Monitors

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Next week: From The Moody Blues to Neil Young, plus a few words on "dark albums."

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