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Popless Week 31: Mess Addiction

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.

Here's how it goes sometimes: A guy likes movies, initially because he's attracted to story and spectacle, but after a while, he sees so many movies that he starts to get tired of the same kinds of structure and style repeated over and over. So novelty starts to take precedence over quality, and the cineaste starts grooving on such esoteric virtues as slowness and murkiness. Or consider the music buff, who often gets jaded quickly and starts tossing around words like "overproduced" and "middle-of-the-road" to describe songs they can't abide, while championing acts that traffic in drone and distortion. Whatever the medium, that fan-driven attitude of "tougher equals better" can sometimes infect the artists themselves, as they tie their self-image to being difficult, and dissonance and obscurity become preferable to the solidly built and entertaining.

Back in 1989, Stephen Malkmus and his boyhood pal Scott Kannberg—both died-in-the-wool rock geeks—conceived Pavement as one of those mysterious European-style outfits that buries their personality behind their music. They adopted the "noms de rock" SM and Spiral Stairs, and started recording lo-fi DIY singles and EPs with their middle-aged wastrel neighbor, drummer Gary Young. Early in the band's career, Malkmus would claim that he improvised most of his lyrics and a good chunk of the music, but that was likely as much of a pose as the impenetrable graphics on Pavement's record jackets. Even at their sloppiest, Pavement's songs had a definite structure, and whatever lyrics listeners could make out clearly featured some well-turned phrases:

It didn't take long for Pavement to become a cause célèbre among indie-rock devotees, who eagerly sought out and dissected their early records. By the time 1992's debut album Slanted & Enchanted was released (over a year after it was recorded), the band had added members in order to become a more reliable touring attraction, and were on the verge of kicking out the sloppy Young. Even Slanted & Enchanted's more abrasive songs—like the stinging "Perfume-V"—work with more clarity and overall sonic oomph than anything the band had recorded before.

After the dismissal of Young, Pavement banged out Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, an album at once more random and experimental than Slanted & Enchanted and—when it counted—more clean and poppy. The record sold in the six figures, and scored a radio hit with the kicky "Cut Your Hair." Suddenly the band was being hailed as possibly the next Nirvana, and Malkmus was being talked about as a scathing social critic thanks to songs like the generational wrap-up "Elevate Me Later."

And that's when things started getting interesting—or annoying, depending on your perspective. Much as Nirvana's arrival as magazine-cover-worthy led the band to find unique ways to rebel—by wearing Ts for their favorite cult bands, or sporting a hand-made "Corporate Magazines Suck" shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone—the members of Pavement came up with their own petty protests. Kannberg flatly refused to appear on a Rolling Stone cover, and even after the departure of Young, the band's live performances were still often rambling and disheveled. When Branford Marsalis quit The Tonight Show, he cited the awfulness of the modern rock bands he had to watch every night as one of the reasons he couldn't be the musical director anymore, and anyone who saw Pavement shamble their way through "Cut Your Hair" in front of Leno and Marsalis had to imagine that they were one those bands Marsalis was talking about.

In a perverse way, the loss of Gary Young seemed to cue the rest of the band to pick up his slack (so to speak). Before, Malkmus had to construct songs that utilized Young's unpredictability, and he had to play and sing extra hard to compensate for any potential problems from the rhythm section. After Crooked Rain, Malkmus started singing with more indifference, and his mates seemed to follow his lead, trying to create an atmosphere where the rare moments of cohesion sounded like minor victories. Pavement followed up Crooked Rain with the sprawling, often off-putting Wowee Zowee, a record featuring some of Malkmus' best songs alongside some of his weakest—all of them performed through a sonic muck that at times seemed more like an affectation than a genuine expression of what the band wanted to be. Pavement's shot at enduring rock stardom misfired, and the band went on to record two more albums and a slew of singles that continued to slap together witty lyrics, endearingly off-kilter melodies and frustratingly bratty performances.

There are plenty of Pavement die-hards who consider Wowee Zowee to be the band's best album, and respond to that record's abundant imagination and brave embrace of chaos theory. It's undeniably a fun record, in its own wise-ass way. But seen from the perspective of what came afterward—two more hit-and-miss albums in which Pavement became hooked on delayed gratification—Wowee Zowee comes off more like a cowardly abdication of responsibility. During the remaining years of Pavement's run, Malkmus continued to whip up great songs, with lyrics that scanned like fiendishly clever little puzzles. And he continued to sing them as though he were walking barefoot across a hot beach, while his mates loped along behind

The destructive impulse in some musicians can be exciting in and of itself, and it's easy to understand why a lot of critics and music buffs gravitate towards acts that like to knock their own block towers down. But after a while, the knocking-down stops looking like creative courage and starts to look more like sadism, spiked with an unhealthy dose of adolescent petulance. There needs to be some element of contrast to make willful sloppiness work. In a movie, a long static take has more impact if it's not surrounded by a dozen more long static takes; in music, noise and aggression are often more effective if it's clear that a band is capable—and willing—to do something else.

Of course, musical preoccupations can go the other way, too. Some critics—myself, for one—get exhausted by extremity and start to overpraise music that is florid and pretty, seeing crystalline beauty as the supreme value. But that's a neurosis for another day.


Pieces Of The Puzzle

OutKast/P.M. Dawn

Years Of Operation 1991-present/1988-present

Fits Between Funkadelic and Jungle Brothers/De La Soul and Stevie Wonder

Personal Correspondence Remember that scene in The Jerk when Steve Martin's character hears Lawrence Welk on the radio for the first time and runs around waking up the black family he lives with, yelling that he's finally found music that really speaks to him? I had a similarly embarrassing (and perhaps painfully revealing) experience with P.M. Dawn. I was browsing at a chain record store when the clerk started playing P.M. Dawn's debut album Of The Heart, Of The Soul And Of The Cross: The Utopian Experience. About three songs into it, I was convinced I was hearing the next evolution of hip-hop: a kind of rap more melodic and flat-out beautiful than any I'd heard before. I bought the album right away and started evangelizing about the band, even dragging my roommates to see them in concert. Of course, in the years to come, P.M. Dawn would be mocked by their peers as wimpy hippies, and they'd go on to release three albums of varying quality, distinguished primarily by their poetic spirit and inescapable softness. As I hope I've made clear by now, softness is by no means a deal-breaker for me, but over time, P.M. Dawn's celestial riff on rap and R&B; started to seem vaguer and vaguer, to the extent that I now find even that debut album too twinkly by half. I think back on the version of myself who fell hard for P.M. Dawn, and I cringe a little. (Not that I haven't already touted music in this series that others might fight even more embarrassing…and not that I won't continue to do so.)

So why combine an entry on the disreputable P.M. Dawn with the highly acclaimed, decidedly more substantive OutKast? It's not meant as a swipe at the latter, whose work I still find exciting. (I've never even tired of the overexposed "Hey Ya," perhaps because I have fond memories of dancing to it at my pal Scott's wedding.) But the shifting stance on OutKast among the critical elite is partly responsible for expediting my current estrangement from hip-hop. For a time, OutKast was one of the most respected acts in the genre, pumping out imaginative, forward-thinking records that sold well and topped year-end lists. Then they reached superstar levels with Speakerboxx/The Love Below, and immediately became a bludgeon with which some persnickety cultural guardians began to beat on the less rap-savvy. Because they'd become the only hip-hop act that a majority of critics agreed on, that made them automatically suspect among a vocal sub-group of those critics. These days, saying you like OutKast doesn't buy you any credibility than declaring your allegiance to P.M. Dawn would.

Enduring presence? Luckily, this kind of hand-wringing over what's cutting edge and what's wimpy and mainstream tends to fade over time, and 10 years from now, hardly anyone will remember that the award-winning, multi-platinum-selling Outkast were briefly on the outs—though it would help if Andre 3000 and Big Boi would reunite and work together an album to wash away the taste of the undercooked Idlewild. As for P.M. Dawn, I think losing a key member, waiting 10 years to release a new album, and appearing on the kitschy NBC series Hit Me Baby One More Time has pretty much doomed any chance that they'll rehabilitate their rep. Sorry, 20-year-old Noel.


Palace/Palace Brothers/Palace Music/Palace Songs

Years Of Operation 1992-96

Fits Between Cat Power and Lambchop

Personal Correspondence I was slow to warm to Will Oldham's Palace project, because in the early going it struck me that Oldham's raspy whine and indifferent guitar picking—while giving his songs a casual, honest feel—also made them sound kind of ungainly and samey. And given Oldham's background—scion of a wealthy Kentucky family, acclaimed child actor—he sometimes seemed willfully slack, playing at primitivism with his "mountain mystic" persona. Gradually though, I began to sense how Oldham's raw rusticity had a purpose: exploiting the folk-music tradition to increase the tension and excitement as his songs teetered toward the edge of abstraction. That said, I've generally been more appreciative of the relative polish of Oldham's Bonnie "Prince" Billy guise. I even liked BPB's revisiting of the Palace catalog with Nashville pros on the album Greatest Palace Music, a record that some dismissed as a stilted joke. Greatest Palace Music delights me for a number of reasons, including the presence of Hargus "Pig" Robbins, an industry veteran who's played on hit records by everyone from George Jones to Travis Tritt. Oldham's revamped "Gulf Shores" reveals the influence of Robbins, who plunks gently between the lines of the Palace classic, distantly answering Oldham's lyrics about defiantly and somewhat forlornly wasting away on the beach. To me, the best of Oldham's songs have always felt like country-rock standards in the making, lacking only a nimble steel-guitar line or a soulful backup vocal to push them up. So I appreciate Oldham making the effort himself, rather than leaving it to someone else to cover his music properly.

Enduring presence? All of that said, I don't want to give the impression that I don't dig the Palace songs in their original incarnations. In fact, it's hard for me to choose which version of "Gulf Shores" I like best. Both are lovely ballads about the pleasures and stresses of idleness, but one emphasizes the washed-out feeling while the other stresses the appeal of doing nothing. Same song, same singer—different interpretations. Which only proves how flexible Oldham's songwriting can be.

Patti Smith

Years Of Operation 1974-present

Fits Between Lou Reed and The Pretenders

Personal Correspondence I bought Horses on cassette the summer before I left for college, and at one point during my freshman year, I discovered that if I started playing Smith's head-clearingly blasphemous rendition of "Gloria" the moment I stepped out of my dorm room, then I'd be hearing Smith's bookending moan of "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine" right about the time I reached the front door of the dining hall for breakfast. I can't count the number of times I started my day that way in the fall of '88. It's maybe a little too High Fidelity to make a list of the greatest album-openers of all time, but if I were to make such a list, "Gloria" would be in my top five. There's something thrillingly wrong about the way Smith replaces Christianity with the doctrine of Them, explaining her faith in rock by adopting the persona of a man-on-the-make who gets the girl of his dreams and wants to tell the world all about it. If "Gloria" had been the only song on Horses, the album would still be one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. After all the pompous attempts to elevate rock to the status of high art through elaborate stage shows and orchestral overtures, Smith took it to the academy by shrieking along to an old garage-rock single and showing that pop spirituality is all about a belief in feeling good.

Enduring presence? The rest of Horses—and the rest of the Smith discography, really—is frequently as brilliant, albeit a little anti-climactic. I can trace my ongoing (mild) disappointment with Smith to Horses' three-part epic "Land," a homely sister to "Gloria" that would be more attractive if it just fixed itself up a little. On the latter-day live version included on the 2005 Horses reissue, Smith seems to give up on "Land," choosing to reprise "Gloria" to create the climax that the weaker track only hints at. But there's a more obvious solution. After breathlessly chanting about a boy's dream of horses and tying it to the R&B; classic "Land Of A Thousand Dances," all Smith has ever had to do to complete the thought—power equals sex equals pop—is build to the "na na-na na-na"s of Pickett's version. Instead, she humps away but skips the orgasm. What a punk.

Paul McCartney

Years Of Operation 1970-present (solo)

Fits Between Buddy Holly and The Hollies

Personal Correspondence Somehow, when writing about John Lennon a few weeks back, I mistakenly gave the impression (to one disgruntled commenter at least) that I prefer Paul McCartney to Lennon. This is absolutely not the case…at least not anymore. As a kid, around 10—around the time Lennon died—I would've counted myself a McCartney-ite. Wings songs were all over the radio then, and came in so many different flavors, all designed to appeal to youngsters in thrall to an easy hook. And though I'm still in thrall to an easy hook to some extent, over time I began to notice how little substance there was to the majority of McCartney's post-Beatles efforts. Robert Christgau once described McCartney's solo career as "music for potheads," and that pretty aptly sums it up. There's a whole lot of "eh, good enough" to McCartney's music, as he comes up with a melody that sounds nice and then never bothers to develop it, or deepen it with lyrics that have any real personal meaning. Of course, sometimes that unfinished quality can be charming in and of itself. Consider "Every Night," one of the knocked-out ditties that comprise McCartney's debut solo album. There's really nothing to the song, and yet when McCartney brings the song to its non-chorus—a series of "woo-woo-woo"s—the casual feeling suits the songs's "Hey, let's stay in tonight!" message. It's just so homey.

Enduring presence? At a certain point though, McCartney needs to get out of the house. He's produced some absolute garbage during his solo career, along with about 15 songs that I keep in my iPod and return to fairly frequently. His music used to mean so much to me, but if he were to die tomorrow, I don't think I'd feel even the slightest twinge of grief. (Unless he died in some horrible, gruesome way. I mean, c'mon, I'm not a monster.)

Paul Simon

Years Of Operation 1971-present (solo)

Fits Between James Taylor and David Byrne

Personal Correspondence Paul Simon's Greatest Hits Etc. was in heavy rotation in our house when I was a kid, but I honestly didn't give the solo Simon much thought until the '80s, when the kicky single "Late In The Evening" was all over the radio. A few years after that, I saw Simon perform the wispy "Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War" on the short-lived NBC sketch comedy series The New Show, and I subsequently bought Hearts And Bones, a deeply underrated pop record that found Simon taking some tentative steps away from the middling easy-listening music he'd been making in the mid-to-late '70s, and trying to get back to the more exploratory place he was in when his solo career began. There are elements of gospel, island music, New Wave and classical minimalism on Hearts And Bones, as well as some of Simon's most lovely ballads. (Including the title track, a song I put on one of the first tapes I made for my future wife, and which she claims caused her to pull over while driving because she was weeping uncontrollably.) For my 16th birthday, my dad bought me the just-released Graceland, because he'd heard a story about it on NPR, and thought it would be something I'd enjoy. It was maybe the best, most thoughtful gift he ever got me. I took to Graceland instantly, and enjoyed its subsequent success. Even later reports that Simon stole a lot of Graceland's best songs from his collaborators—most notably Los Lobos—hasn't soured me on the record, though it has knocked Simon down a peg or two in my estimation. But that's okay; I've always cared more about the music than the man.

Enduring presence? At a certain angle, Paul Simon's career can look somewhat safe, as it progresses through folk, folk-rock, pop-psychedelia, singer-songwriter confessionals and worldbeat, all while staying in step with MOR audiences. But look more closely and Simon becomes a musical explorer, seeking to fill out literate story-songs and character sketches with snatches of everything from reggae to Phillip Glass. His songs rarely change, but Simon continually challenges his unerring sense of melody by introducing elements that comment on and sometimes work against the composition. I've always appreciated Simon's willingness to weave together his current obsessions, both musical and social. That's what made The Capeman a noble, in my opinion underrated experiment, and that's what made his most recent album—the Brian Eno collaboration Surprise—so lively. Throughout Surprise, Simon's lilting melodies step around Eno's factory clank, like some lithe woodland creature scurrying from a bulldozer. (Which is probably the way Simon likes to imagines himself.)

Paul Weller

Years Of Operation 1991-present (solo)

Fits Between Van Morrison and Joe Cocker

Personal Correspondence Because Weller's solo career has been so undervalued here in the states, I've sometimes felt like a reactionary when I've reviewed one of his '90s or '00s albums and advocated for their simple virtues. At its best, Weller's solo work has displayed the heft of classic British blues shouters, with a warm sheen that Joe Cocker hasn't known since Woodstock. Weller's also gravitated towards a gentle, up-tempo melodicism that sounds great in an easy chair. Is it on a par with All Mod Cons? Heck, no. Weller's best work will probably always be behind him, mainly because his sober style is best suited to the aggression of loud rock, not the looser feel of R&B.; Still, Weller has acquitted himself better than most other aging punkers. He still knows how to write a catchy tune, he's still got a flair for local color, and he's overcome his occasionally stunted song construction by expanding his arrangements and instrumentation. Solo artists can do that; it's one of the reasons that their careers endure, while bands tend to burn out.

Enduring presence? The blend of gruffness and grooviness that's been Weller's trademark since he began snarling out youth anthems in the late '70s has mellowed into a refined smoke, curling through songs that unify melody and atmosphere. "Out Of The Sinking" is maybe my favorite Weller song for the way it swings easily from hook to hook, setting a mood in which the lyrical pining for escape is made manifest. Meanwhile, Weller seems blissfully willing to let his voice, his guitar-playing, and his whole sonic persona dissipate into the air.



Years Of Operation 1989-1999

Fits Between The Fall and Sonic Youth

Personal Correspondence Last week, I mentioned that Nirvana was partly responsible for my career, because in the "everything's changing" atmosphere of the grunge/Clinton era, it was a lot easier for an awkward, unprofessional runt like I was back then to get a callback from an editor. I also have to give some credit for my career to Pavement, and specifically the college newspaper review of Slanted & Enchanted that convinced an editor in Nashville to hire me to work on his short-lived 'zine, and then to write for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene. I was inspired by Slanted & Enchanted to crank out some of the most evocative prose I could muster at age 21, and though it took me over a decade to get back to that Slanted place in my writing on a regular basis, the subsequent reviews I wrote of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Wowee Zowee, Brighten The Corners and Terror Twilight are among my favorite pieces from my frequently awful early years. Nevetheless, if I had to live the rest of my life with only one Pavement record, I'd eschew all the albums and stick with the four-song EP Watery, Domestic, which starts with shrill noise and ends with maybe the quintessential Pavement song, "Shoot The Singer," a string of clever-sounding nonsense that Stephen Malkmus somehow imbues with meaning. In fact, Malkmus' nuanced vocal performance here puts the lie to the idea that his singing on later Pavement albums sucked because he couldn't do any better. When he cared to, Malkmus could sing just fine.

Enduring presence? I pretty well covered Pavement in the opening essay, and will probably throw Stephen Malkmus a Stray Track when his turn comes around, but I wanted to go ahead an link to my Malkmus interview from a few years back, during which we talk about his vocals some. This was one of the first substantive interviews I conducted for this site, and while it was pretty choppy at times, I was excited that Malkmus and I had something close to an actual conversation. In a segment that got cut from the final edit, we even had a sizable digression in which we talked baseball. When I got off the phone, I felt like the coolest person alive. (Well, second-coolest.)

Pearl Jam

Years Of Operation 1990-present

Fits Between The Who and Crazy Horse

Personal Correspondence Here's another band that I missed seeing in concert during my college days, only to catch them on TV a couple of weeks later and realize I'd made a mistake. I was never all that gung-ho for Pearl Jam's Ten, but when I saw the band on Saturday Night Live barely a month after they'd played the University Of Georgia's Legion Field, I could tell that they were, at the least, a live band to be reckoned with. My disgruntlement with all things Seattle led me to write a pan of Vs. as one of my first post-collegiate professional reviewing assignments, though I now think I was way too harsh on that record (which honestly and earnestly tries to build on the success of Ten by expanding Pearl Jam's musical vocabulary). I started to soften on Pearl Jam around the release of Vitalogy, another eclectic and somewhat reckless album that kicks off with one of the band's most ferocious rock songs, "Last Exit." In essence, Pearl Jam has always been a better-than-average club band with a great vocalist, but great rock vocalists aren't that easy to find, and however annoying Vedder can be off the stage, he consistently delivers the kind of powerful vocal performances—at once tender and fierce, with astounding tremolo—that has made his band's rep. The problem is that for every stirring rocker or ballad they crank out, Pearl Jam remains every bit as capable of lumbering head-bangers and aimless, pseudo-smart thrashers. Great rock vocalists may be hard to find, but great rhythm sections can be even harder—and more often than not, Pearl Jam's rhythm section simply doesn't swing.

Enduring presence? Pearl Jam has been carrying too heavy a load almost from its inception: first cursed as the ambitious, arena-ready lamprey riding Nirvana's back, then lauded as the savior of modern rock after warring against Ticketmaster and MTV. After a stretch in the early '90s as arguably the most popular rock band on the planet, Pearl Jam has settled into an unexpected place as the grunge-era Grateful Dead, with a low-key mass-media presence, a rabid cult following, and a chorus of wary-but-respectful critics ready to proclaim each new album "the best since Vitalogy." But like its fellow Seattle scene breakouts (Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, etc.), Pearl Jam has never exactly burst with timeless melodies. A good Pearl Jam album is more a string of immediate, visceral experiences, where pounding drums and grinding guitars give way suddenly to moments where Eddie Vedder moans dreamily. The band gladly sacrifices fluidity for drama.

Pere Ubu

Years Of Operation 1975-82, 1987-present

Fits Between Devo and Talking Heads

Personal Correspondence I have absolutely no memory of why I bought the Pere Ubu rarities anthology Terminal Tower when I was in high school, except that I'd probably seen the band in the New Wave concert film Urgh! A Music War, and I'm sure I'd read glowing reviews of their early albums in some of the rock history books I pored over back then. Whatever the reason, Terminal Tower was a tough one for me to grasp immediately, even though I now realize that it's maybe Pere Ubu's most accessible record top-to-bottom. Coming off the streets of Cleveland as a garage-rock band with high ideals and an artsy bent, Pere Ubu has frequently favored abstraction even on "pop" albums like The Tenement Year and Cloudland. But the early recordings on Terminal Tower have a certain nimbleness in their apocalyptic rumble. They're scary as much for how smart they are as for how dark. And speaking of scary: When I was in college, I interviewed Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas while sitting outside the venue where Pere Ubu was about to open for the Pixies. He was gruff but patient, and I remember him offering some dazzling analogy about music was like the Diet Coke can he was holding. I wish I could remember what his point was. I'm sure it was persuasive.

Enduring presence? Pere Ubu is another one of those great, essential bands with a discography too unwieldy and erratic to suggest a clean introduction. Aside from Terminal Tower, maybe the easiest Pere Ubu record to find and enjoy would be their debut, The Modern Dance, an American post-punk landmark littered with more straightforward songs. The track "Untitled" off Terminal Tower offers an early version of The Modern Dance's title track. Not just post-punk, but post-everything, Pere Ubu's messy dissection of the modern condition chugs along like a subway train, breaking at the chorus for random street noises and guitar skronk. It's the kind of modernist art-rock that Talking Heads was going for early on, only less clever and more sloppily human.

Pernice Brothers

Years Of Operation 1996-present

Fits Between The Smiths and E.L.O.

Personal Correspondence Joe Pernice's Scud Mountain Boys were always a difficult group for me to get behind, because no matter how gorgeous their spare, literate folk-country sounded, Pernice's earnest vocals always seemed to be bordering on the parodic—as if he were making fun of his own music by investing it with exaggerated sincerity. The same problem cropped up on Overcome By Happiness, the debut album by Pernice's most enduring outfit, the Pernice Brothers. Even so, the switch in medium from stark country to orchestral pop allowed Pernice's level of sincerity to seem a little less faux. Maybe it's because fey white boys sound more at home singing pretty pop songs, or maybe it's because the extra instrumentation gives Pernice's pale skin some much-needed blood. Either way, it was nice to hear his witty, self-deprecating lyrics presented in arrangements that sound so fresh and bright, that you'd swear you'd heard them before, slotted between Poco and America on some Classic Cafe radio show. In his Pernice Brothers guise, Pernice has continued to slap the sweetness of '70s AM pop over airy folk songs, and has produced two full-length albums—The World Won't End and Yours Mine & Ours—that are ridiculously rich in beauty and meaning, as catchy as they are caustic. Enduring presence? The persistent problem with Pernice Brothers is that they can be too much of a good thing. It's entirely possible that Joe Pernice has had all the creative breakthroughs he's going to have in his career. No matter what name he slaps on his literate, soft-pop singer-songwriter projects—Scud Mountain Boys, Chappaquiddick Skyline, Pernice Brothers, or something new—they all fall back on pretty melodies, sweet orchestrations, and smart lyrics steeped in regret. Still, like The Smiths and The Psychedelic Furs—two bands that had as big an influence on Pernice as '70s AM pop—Pernice Brothers continue to make impossibly catchy and pretty music, cloaked in ache.


Stray Tracks

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

Operation Ivy, "Knowledge"

What I most appreciated about the recent documentary Punk's Not Dead is that it doesn't entirely buy the notion that the true spirit of punk was co-opted and debased by the wave of pop-punk acts that emerged in the early '90s. Instead, the movie sees punk as having a continuity that stretches forward and backward, perpetually speaking to some new group of teenagers in search of something they believe to be "authentic" (for whatever reason…however spurious it might seem to grown-ups). I was in the target demographic when Operation Ivy stormed out of the Bay Area, but for some reason, they never penetrated my circle of punk-minded friends, so I caught up to them late, post-Rancid. I'll offer some comparisons of the two—and a spirited defense of Rancid—in about a month, but for now I'll just say that while I like Operation Ivy, I have the disadvantage of hearing them first from a distance. To me they just sound like a very good punk band with a gift for writing sing-along hooks. If I'd heard them at the right time in my life, I'm sure I'd feel that they were something more.


Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, "Messages"

Prior to seeing OMD open for Depeche Mode on the Music For The Masses tour, my only exposure to the band had been hearing "If You Leave" on the Pretty In Pink soundtrack and "So In Love" on some tape my brother made. The Depeche Mode show was at an outdoor amphitheater, and OMD started playing while it was still daylight, as the crowd milled about, trying to find a good spot on the grass (or trying to find a friend who could sneak them down front in time for DM). I was one of that milling crowd (and I did manage to sneak down front, as it happened), but I remember stopping my milling cold when OMD started to play this song, a technopop ballad I'd never heard before. Especially in the gloaming, "Messages" sounded like it was beaming out into the encroaching dark—a last call of a kind, entrusted to the electronic impulses we all rely on to convey what we most urgently need to say.

Ornette Coleman, "Congeniality"

I won't insult the jazzbos by pretending I have some deep connection to or appreciation of Ornette Coleman. I only own one Coleman album, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, which I pull out about once a year and revisit. I originally bought it because it was on sale, and because Coleman was one of the artists mentioned in the Mo' Better Blues rap song "Jazz Thing" (he "was another soul man," if I have the rhyme right). Also, The Jody Grind used to cover Coleman's "Lonely Woman," which is Shape's opening track. I wasn't that keen on Coleman's version right away—too ragged and freeform for me, and more demanding of my attention than the kind of jazz I was looking for at the time—but I gradually came to appreciate the way Coleman explodes jazz improvisation by actively working against the idea of a clean, steady groove. This Shape song is a prime example of what I'm talking about. The tempo, the riff, the jam—it all keeps changing.

Os Mutantes, "A Minha Menina"

I should probably talk about Os Mutantes' major contributions to the Tropicalia movement in Brazil, and how they integrated acid-rock into traditional South American music, helping to pave the way for some delicious hybrids that North American pop fans are still discovering and chewing over, decades later. But mainly I'm including this song this week for all my fellow attendees of last year's Toronto International Film Festival. Hey buds, remember that recurring pre-show cel-phone movie with the guy combining separate shots of his facial features? This is the song from that thing.

Ozark Mountain Daredevils, "If I Only Knew"

Paul Williams, "I Won't Last A Day Without You"

A publicist sent me a copy of the other OMD's The Car Over The Lake Album when it was reissued about six years ago, and while I had far more awareness of the band's name than their music, I was still surprised to hear that they sounded…well, like this song. I guess I expected something more Ozark-y, more mountain-y, or more daring. (I later realized that I was familiar with Ozark Mountain Daredevils' biggest hit, "Jackie Blue," which is in the same cooing soft rock vein as this song.) I know this is mostly due to fuzzy-headed nostalgia, but sometimes I think I could spend the rest of my life listening to music like this, so cozy and sleek. It's that abiding affection for the easy that also led me to spring for a pricey anthology of Paul Williams a few years back. My memories of Williams from my childhood are of a doughy, pale man practically indistinguishable from the Muppets he often appeared with on TV, but in some ways Williams had a career similar to Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and Neil Diamond, in that he was another hit songwriter who became a distinctive performer in his own right. I can't say that Williams' own recordings stand up to the trio above, but songs like the minor hit "I Won't Last A Day Without You" represent a clear vision. This is music that conjures up dimly lit lounges, variety show lens flares, and bolts of satin.

Paddy McAloon, "Sleeping Rough"

Following up on what I wrote about Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Paul Williams above, here's a lushly orchestrated ballad from the frontman for cult UK soft-rockers Prefab Sprout, one of my favorite bands of all time. The Sprout's Popless entry is right around the corner, but since McAloon's oddball solo album I Trawl The Megahertz—with its symphonic instrumentals and 20-minute poetry reading—got almost zero attention when it came out five years ago, I thought I'd share the song on the album that comes closest to conventional. Like a lot of the record, it sounds like an extended bridge to a pop fantasyland that McAloon never quite reaches. The journey though, is a dream.

Pale Saints, "Time Thief"

There was a time when Pale Saints were mentioned alongside Lush and Ride as the standard-bearers for the short-lived shoegazer movement, but Pale Saints' contributions to the genre don't get cited as often as they probably should. The band's debut album The Comforts Of Madness is hardly a masterpiece on the order of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, but its arguably the most cohesive and consistently moving LP other than Loveless to come out of that first shoegaze wave. (I might put in a good word for Swervedriver's Raise too, except that I'm not sure Swervedriver should be strictly classified alongside the other Creation/4AD bands.) "Time Thief" is the last song on The Comforts Of Madness, and brings the album's separate threads of noise, moodiness and arty drone together into a climactic finale.

Paolo Nutini, "Jenny Don't Be Hasty"

Here's a useless piece of Popless trivia: Paolo Nutini's These Streets is one of two albums I received as gifts last Christmas, a few days before I shut off all new music. So for the last week of 2007 and the first week of January, These Streets was pretty much all I listened to in my car, until I figured out how to integrate other CDs into the mix. I like Nutini—I saw him live on TV and was impressed enough by his off-the-cuff blue-eyed soul to put his album on my Amazon wishlist—but I sure wouldn't want to make These Streets the only record I played for an entire year. I'll be curious to hear what he does next, though. There's a lot of promise on that first album, but to my ears, he hasn't yet figured out how to work that amazing voice into songs dynamic enough to support it.

Paper Lace, "The Night Chicago Died"

Every era has some weird songs that become hits—have you listened to Taco's "Puttin' On The Ritz" or Murray Head's "One Night In Bangkok" lately?—but the early '70s seemed more wide open than most for one-hit wonders and quirky novelties. I mean, what the hell is this song? What was in the air in 1974 that made people want to hear an eccentric evocation of the Al Capone era, as performed by a band of Brits?

Patty Griffin, "No Bad News"

Griffin is an alt-country artist—more by necessity than design—who's shown the confidence to incorporate elements from disparate genres to support simple songs that follow the up-sloping contours of her phenomenal voice. Last year's Children Running Through is arguably her best album, highlighted by "No Bad News," an aggressive acoustic anthem that has Griffin stammering words of hope obsessively over hard strumming, as though performing an exorcism at a fiesta.

Paul Burch, "Lovesick Blues Boy"

Paul Burch plays drums and vibraphone for Lambchop and leads his own richly traditionalist country band The WPA Ballclub, and for both outfits, he strives to recreate the pitch and tone of old radio broadcasts. At their best, Burch's solo albums survey the range of romantic emotion from desperation to giddiness to quiet contentment, and though Burch's smooth twang and heavy reverb give his songs the surface texture of recordings from late 40s, the records as a whole aren't as hidebound as they seem. The galloping guitar and moaning steel of "Lovesick Blues Boy" comes off as dulled and muted in a way uncommon to the period the song evokes, which effectively distances the feeling of heartbreak. The song is softer and dreamier than its old-timey origins, and throughout his career, Burch has similarly smeared together honky tonk and big band pop, taking classic melodic structures and a general sense of reserve from both. All his echo and blur is like the memory of a touch, if not the touch itself.

Paul Pena, "Jet Airliner"

Pena's unreleased 1973 opus New Train briefly became a big deal when it was re-released in 2000 to capitalize on Pena's revival as a Tuvan throat-singer (as documented in the 1999 film Genghis Blues). New Train is a likable record, and though it probably wouldn't have made Pena a superstar had it come out when originally intended, Pena's groovier original version of "Jet Airliner"—later popularized by Steve Miller—should've had a chance to become a hit.

The Paybacks, "Love Letter"

Proving once again that timing is everything, Detroit's muscle-rock outfit The Paybacks dithered too long and failed to cash in on the garage-rock revival of the early '00s, even though nearly every article about the Detroit scene cited the band as the best of the bunch, and lead singer Wendy Case in particular as a star in the making. This lead-off track to the The Paybacks' third album Love, Not Reason is a beautiful beast, full of crushing guitars and tribal drums—like glitter-rock with a rusty edge. And Case remains a primal force: Pat Benatar with a fat lip and a black eye.

Peggy Lee, "Winter Wonderland"

Peggy Seeger, "Gonna Be An Engineer"

Here are two contemporaneous versions of mid-20th-century womanhood: one a mainstream pop singer, the other a dissident folkie, both with an amazing vocal presence. I haven't previously posted any of the preponderance of Christmas music I have on my hard drive, but Lee's version of "Winter Wonderland" transcends the holidays. It's sassy and seductive. Seeger, meanwhile, uses her sass in a different way, to define herself as someone who won't be chained to a bedpost, stove or crib.

The Peppermints, "Yes It Is"

I frequently find that when I strike through—or just don't write about—bands like The Peppermints, who are geared more toward abrasion and experimentation than striving openly to move or entertain, I get comments along the lines of, "You don't know what you're missing." But you know? I think I do know. I usually keep a little something by the noisy bands that seem to have a little something on the ball, but I mostly keep them around for contrast and research. When I'm driving or walking or working or cooking or just hanging out, this isn't the kind of thing I want to hear. I can appreciate it, but it's not something that I enjoy easily.

Percy Faith & His Orchestra, "Theme From A Summer Place"

Theme. From A Summer Place. A Summer Place. The Theme. From A Suuuuummer Place.


Regrettably unremarked upon Otis Redding, Ozzy Osbourne, Panda Bear, Papercuts, Paul Anka, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Paul Duncan, Paul Oakenfold, Paul Westerberg, Paul Weston and Pedro The Lion

Also listened to: Ollie & The Nightingales, Olu Dara, On! Air! Library!, One Night Band, Onelinedrawing, The Only Children, The Only Ones, The Oohlas, OOIOO, The Open, The Optic Nerve, Orange Juice, The Orange Peels, Oranger, The Oranges Band, The Orb, Orbital, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou Dahomey, Orchestre Régional De Kayes, Organized Konfusion, Orgone, The Original Blind Boys Of Alabama, The Original Cyndi, The Original Five Blind Boys Of Alabama, The Originals, Orlandivo, Orval Hale, Os Paralamas Do Sucesso, The Osbourne Brothers, Oscar Brown Jr., Oslo, Osunlade, The Other Half, Otis Clay, Otis Gibbs, Otis Rush, Otto Luening, Ours, The Outfield, Outhud, The Outsiders, Over It, Over The Atlantic, Overpass, The Ovulators, Owen, Owusu & Hannibal, Ozomatli, P.O.D., P.P. Arnold, Pacific Gas & Electric, Pacific Ocean, Page France, Paik, Pajo. Palaxy Tracks, The Paley Brothers, Palomar, Pam Tillis, Panama, Panda & Angel, The Panda Band, Panic! At The Disco, Pantera, Panther, Papa Byrd, The Paper Chase, Paper Lace, Paper Lions, Papo Felix, The Parish Festival, Park, The Partridge Family, Pascal, Pash, The Pastels, The Pasties, Pat Brennan, Pat Carrolls, Pat Hunt, Pat Kilroy, Pat MacDonald, Pat Peterman, Pat Shannon, Pat Upton, Patterson Hood, Patrice Fontanarosa, Patrice Holloway, Patrice Rushen, Patricia Vonne, Patrick Cleandenim, Patrick Park, Patrick Watson, Patrick Wolf, Patrizia & Jimmy, Pattie Brooks, Patty Larkin, Patty Loveless, Paul Brill, Paul Cebar, Paul Curreri, Paul Kelly, Paul Murphy, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Paul Schwartz, Paul Siebel, Paula Frazer, Paulinho Da Viola, Paulson, Pavel Vernikov, Pearlene, Pee Wee Crayton, Peech Boys, Peel, Peeping Tom, Peerless Quartet, Peglegasus, Pell Mell, The Pendletons, Penetration, Pennsy's Electric Workhorses Songs, People, People Like Us, People Noise, People Press Play, People Under The Bridge, Perfections, Performers and The Perishers


Next week: From Pete Townshend to Polvo, plus a few words on outmoded media