Popless Week 35: Adulteratin' The Blues

Popless Week 35: Adulteratin' The Blues

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.

According to legend, one night in the early 1930s, Robert Johnson showed up at the crossroads in the pitch of night and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talent. That's a cool story. But I like this one better: In November of 1936 and again seven months later, Johnson traveled to Texas to record a handful of songs in slapped-together studios, and the trebly, echo-y 78s that were pressed from those sessions would go on to capture the imagination of music buffs and would-be musicians around the world, establishing a model for many for how the blues should sound. Even now, some engineers work on vintage equipment—or experiment with microphone placement and filters—to replicate that spooky, middle-of-nowhere mood that Johnson conjured up with just his moaning voice, his fast-and-erratic acoustic picking, and the tin can electronics set loosely around him.

Shortly after I started getting more deeply interested in rock history in high school, I borrowed a stack of blues records—including one of the slew of Johnson anthologies available over the years—and was disappointed that I didn't feel the kind of immediate charge I'd expected, based on all the reading I'd done. I figured I was due for my own crossroads experience, even though I was just meeting Johnson in my suburban bedroom in the middle of the night. Instead I kept waiting for something to kick in. Drums, maybe. Or Mick Jagger's voice. I'd been thinking of myself as a purist, eager to scrape away the layers of crud that had accumulated on popular music over the decades in order to get back to the original machine. But what I discovered was that to a significant extent, it was the crud I'd been enjoying all along.

Over time, I've come to appreciate the blues more, helped immeasurably by my wife, who's more a devotee of all things archaic than I. But I'd be misrepresenting myself if I pretended that I generally prefer my blues straight and neat. I do like Robert Johnson a lot now—mainly because I get mesmerized trying to figure out where his guitar is going to go next—but for the most part I respond strongly to older blues recordings if they either capture something wild and spontaneous, or resemble mainstream pop in an unexpected way. On the former score:

Contrast the one-man-in-a-lonely-room sound of Robert Johnson to the crowded roadhouse bustle of Robert Nighthawk, who grew up in the South under much the same circumstances as Johnson, but moved to the city and picked up a certain urban rush in his music. This live take on "Honey Hush" is the sound of something happening. If you were walking down the street and heard this coming out of a nightclub, you'd most likely pat your pocket to see if you could pay the cover. This track is the blues as sweaty, transporting dance music, fully anticipating what the genre would become It's about as far removed from rock 'n' roll as a frankfurter is from a hot dog.

Still, contrast Nighthawk to a more industry-entrenched performer like Stax Records' Rufus Thomas:

Granted, Thomas is an unfair example, because his music is really more rhythm and blues, but Thomas' growly voice is as bluesy as it gets, and even this hooky dance song—later covered to good effect by The Rolling Stones—gets a lot of its thump from a choogling lead guitar that could've been swiped from a B.B. King record. Yet this recording is also clearly meant to be chart-bound, so it's a little tamer than Nighthawk. Which is fine by me, so long as it swings. The problem with a lot of straight-up blues in the rock era is that it's become awfully torpid. Witness Robert Cray:

In the '80s, Robert Cray briefly became part of what looked like a blues revival, spearheaded by Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and the ever-present Eric Clapton. Those acts—frequently championed by my father, and some of the older rock critics that I was reading at the time—are largely responsible for me avoiding most blues recorded after 1978, and even a lot recorded before. Cray can play like a dream, and he has a soulful voice, but too much of his music sounds downy, mellow—tasteful. It's meant to be heard in hushed nightclubs or on Austin City Limits, not in the kind of spaces where that Robert Nighthawk "Honey Hush" performance was recorded.

That's not necessarily meant as a knock on Cray (or ACL). But somewhat perversely, even though I'm deeply into certain kinds of soft sounds, the closer those soft sounds replicate the rigid structures and lyrical traditions of the blues, the more impatient I get. It may be heresy to say so, but I often prefer the appropriators, who take their own personal understanding of the blues—the parts of it they find exotic, or scary, or electrifying—and reinterpret it through their own cultural experiences. Whether it be The White Stripes wedding Howlin' Wolf to The Stooges, or Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones using the blues to evoke the epic and the disreputable, or Jimi Hendrix making the blues psychedelic, I'm usually more entranced by efforts to transliterate the form, and communicate something new with it.

This is not to argue in any way that The Rolling Stones are superior to the old bluesmen that they revered then ripped off. But compared to yet another familiar trip through the same 12 bars, I like it when artists pull it apart and goose it up. In the spirit of Robert Johnson and his personal devil, I like it when they sully it.

*****************

Pieces Of The Puzzle

Rickie Lee Jones

Years Of Operation 1978-present

Fits Between Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits

Personal Correspondence When my family moved into the first house we ever owned around 1983, my stepfather inherited his folks' pool table, which we put in the basement along with his drafting table, our biggest TV, some comfy furniture and a spare hi-fi. The stereo had an 8-Track player, and during one of my periodic trips to the flea market, I bought an 8-Track copy of Rickie Lee Jones, which I listened to a lot while shooting pool, feeling just like one of those Venice Beach neo-bohemians that Jones often sang about. Jones moved to L.A. as a teenager, and found a whole scene developing around the likes of Tom Waits (her one-time boyfriend) and Chuck E. Weiss (the inspiration for her biggest hit, "Chuck E.'s In Love"). Her debut album aimed to popularize the jazzier, more character-oriented version of West Coast soft-rock that her friends, lovers and mentors had pioneered, and the plan worked, briefly. Rickie Lee Jones became a platinum-level hit, capitalizing on Waits' and Joni Mitchell's experiments by smoothing them out and giving them a cocky, playful attitude. Subsequent Jones records failed to chart as high, sometimes because they were too tricky, and sometimes because they weren't all that good. Me though, I've always held on to that original image of Jones in her red beret, lighting up a cigarette on the cover of her first album. It always reminds me of idle afternoons spent chalking up a cue and knocking in billiard balls to beat of "Weasel And The White Boys Cool."

Enduring presence? When I wrote up Rickie Lee Jones for "Permanent Records," I was surprised by the negative reaction from a lot of commenters, who called Jones soft, annoying and phony—or at the least, represented in the column by an album that wasn't her best. To both camps I offer up a track from Pirates, the more musically and emotionally complex follow-up to Jones' debut. This song is reportedly a reaction to her breakup with Waits, and if you want to carry it this far, you can trace the arc of their relationship in the music itself, which goes from peppy and poppy to washed-out and dissolute, all over the course of four minutes.

Robyn Hitchcock

Years Of Operation1981-present (solo)

Fits Between Syd Barrett and John Lennon

Personal Correspondence I stumbled across Robyn Hitchcock when I was a senior in high school, and for a time I was buying a new Hitchcock album roughly every month, and trying to convert my friends by insisting they listen to one of Hitchcock's quirky/scary novelty numbers, like "The Man With The Lightbulb Head" or "Uncorrected Personality Traits." But while I was urging my friends to bop along to "Balloon Man," I was keeping Hitchcock's dreamier songs—the "Winchester"s and "Acid Bird"s—to myself. And I kept returning to I Often Dream Of Trains (still the key Hitchcock album to me), in which Hitchcock connects archaic Britannia to Freudian preoccupations, establishing that he's deeper than the average loon. It's always been a thin line that Hitchcock walks. His best "fun" songs, like Element Of Light's "Bass," throw out gleefully surreal imagery while simultaneously transcribing a neurotic's nightmares—but at their worst, those songs can also come off as pointlessly silly. His best "straight" songs, like the oddly titled "Flesh Number One," are classic guitar-pop, beholden to The Beatles and The Byrds—but if Hitchcock goes too classic, his music loses a lot of its necessary kink, and dries out. The one mode that Hitchcock has perpetually returned to with great success since I Often Dream Of Trains is that of the somber, haunted acoustic balladeer, represented here by "Glass Hotel," a song from the sublime Eye (and re-recorded for the concert film Storefront Hitchcock, the source of the version above). Even at his most fantastical, Hitchcock's bizarre lyrical imagery has always been tied to personal pain and yearning, and on songs like "Glass Hotel," the trip through Hitchcock's subconscious seems fully connected to what's going on during his waking hours.

Enduring presence? If John Lennon were alive today, I bet he'd be a lot like Hitchcock, putting out a new record every couple of years and continuing to circle the same lyrical and musical obsessions. And that might not be so bad. The most vital era of Hitchcock's music-making has long passed, but while I no longer look forward to his new records the way I did in the '80s, I nearly always enjoy them when I hear them. (And he still comes up with one or two stunning songs per set.) Final fun fact: The album Eye was the first record I ever reviewed "professionally." A friend of mine was editing The University Of Georgia's student paper, and needed a review of the Hitchcock album to tie in with an upcoming show, so she asked if I'd write it up. I knocked out 800 or so words and got paid five bucks. Off and running. [pagebreak]

The Rolling Stones

Years Of Operation 1962-present

Fits Between The Yardbirds and Chuck Berry

Personal Correspondence My folks were pro-Beatles but Stones-neutral (or perhaps even Stones-hostile), so outside of classic rock radio, I didn't have much of a grounding in The Rolling Stones until I started studying up in high school. I picked up a few of the essentials at the used record store: Let It Bleed, Beggar's Banquet, an off-brand compilation of '60s singles, and the official anthology of the '70s and early '80s hits. And then I stumbled across Aftermath for a buck at some yard sale or another, and bought it even though it'd never shown up on any lists of Stones essentials I'd ever encountered. I was immediately enchanted. Aftermath is the closest the Stones have ever come to making a successful "pop" album—in the sense that it's not as raw or raunchy as what the band recorded before or after—and yet it's still full of macho swagger, bluesy foundations, and the kind of offbeat musical experimentation that the Stones always seemed to gravitate to, for better or worse. (Line the Stones singles up from end to end and you'll hear a curious mix of songs awkwardly aspiring to stay in tune with the sounds of the times, and songs that sound almost completely removed from their peers in sound and style.) Aftermath is partly a road-not-taken for the Stones, in that they never really repeated its string of pop-minded tunes again, instead moving quickly into disjointed psychedelia before landing in their most fertile period, from 1968 to 1972, when they recorded Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St. back-to-back, and redefined rootsiness and menace in the thick of a rock era that was emphasizing the ornate and upbeat. I like the pop Stones, but I love the canonical Stones, who seemed to be working in a kind of fog, cranking out one classic song after another, all sounding wild and sloppy yet just cohesive enough.

Enduring presence? As hard as it is to hear "Jumpin' Jack Flash" or "Satisfaction" or "Start Me Up" for the umpteenth time, there are plenty of classic rock Stones staples—like "Sympathy For The Devil," "Gimme Shelter," "Brown Sugar" and "Tumbling Dice"—that I never tire of. Sometimes I do get bored with the Stones; and there have been times when I've trimmed my Stones playlist on my iPod down to about 12 songs. But I'd been meaning to revisit my collection for a while, so this week I started fresh with everything in play, and now I'm back to about 50 Stones songs on my iPod. I imagine I'll gradually get tired of all those again, and I'll cut them, and then a few years later I'll drag my CDs out again and put them back. It's like my own little personal version of The Rolling Stones' touring schedule; just when you think you never want to see them again, they get back on the road, tempting the true believers.

The Rosebuds

Years Of Operation 2002-present

Fits Between Yo La Tengo and Spent

Personal Correspondence I was blown away by this North Carolina band's debut album The Rosebuds Make Out, with its big hooks and catchy choruses recalling The Modern Lovers and Marshall Crenshaw. Singer-guitarist Ivan Howard and his cowriter-keyboardist Kelly Crisp—a married couple—followed that debut with the quieter, less energetic Birds Make Good Neighbors, then followed that with the oddly technopop-inspired Night Of The Furies. I loved Bids almost as much as Make Out, but respected Furies more than I actually enjoyed it. The Rosebuds are one of the more interesting young indie-rock bands working today, but at the moment they're more a "pet band" than a cause I'd champion, because frankly I worry that the arty conceptualizing of Night Of The Furies is less a bold experiment than an example of clever musicians prematurely abandoning songcraft. But those first two albums are so good—as is the Unwind EP between them—that I'm hoping they assuage my concerns on album number four and become as great as I'd pegged them to be back in 2003.

Enduring presence? Listening to all three albums again this week, I discovered more continuity than I'd imagined, though I still think the electronics-heavy Furies is a misstep, no matter how uptempo and breezy the songs often are. All things considered, The Rosebuds' best album may well be Birds Make Good Neighbors, which is all about deep twang, railroad rhythms, and innocence reclaimed.

Roxy Music

Years Of Operation 1971-83 (essentially)

Fits Between David Bowie and Simple Minds

Personal Correspondence Sometimes, when left to my own devices at the mall in my early teens, I'd head to Waldenbooks and flip through a coffee table collection of noteworthy rock album covers, many of which were rather risqué. For example: Roxy Music's Country Life, which features two blank-looking models in see-through underwear, framed in stark light against a backdrop of prickly pine trees.

I don't know what kind of music I expected to go along with the pictures on Roxy Music's covers, but it wasn't what I heard on the used copies of Siren and Greatest Hits I unearthed in my junior year of high school. In their artful appropriations of cabaret, lounge music and art-rock, Roxy Music at their best managed to make music that was at once catchy, pretty, and naggingly abrasive. They amplified some of the more cloying aspects of popular music, purposefully throwing the composition out of balance—much the way Roy Lichtenstein blew up comic book panels until we could count every Benday dot. So really, the Country Life cover photo exemplifies Roxy Music perfectly, in that it's blunt, vacant, seductive and artificial all at once.

Enduring presence? Rather than "enduring presence," how about some enduring questions: Once Brian Eno left Roxy Music, did Bryan Ferry continue to advance the band's original vision of ironic sophistication, or did he drop the irony? And does it matter? Can an album like Avalon (or even the relatively slick Siren) be enjoyed on its own merits as light, creamy pop, or does it represent a betrayal of everything Roxy Music stood for?

Roy Orbison

Years Of Operation 1954-88

Fits Between Carl Perkins and Andy Williams

Personal Correspondence It used to be that Orbison's name wasn't bandied about as much as his Sun Records mates Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis when it came to discussions of influential rockers, though Orbison did seep back into the culture through a few fissures, whether via cover versions by Linda Ronstadt, Don McLean and Van Halen, or through the mention of "Only The Lonely" in Bruce Springsteen's mini-epic "Thunder Road." Later in the '80s, post-Traveling Wilburys and Blue Velvet (and just before he died), Orbison started to get his due as a performer and songwriter and all-around gentleman, but all of that was just around the corner the day I discovered a metal box that contained all my mom's old 45s, including the Monument single that featured "Crying" on one side and "Candy Man" on the other. There weren't too many buried gems in that box of 45s, but I kept playing that record over and over. I found it almost uncanny that I could put this small circle of plastic on my cheap stereo turntable, drop a needle on it, and hear Orbison's soaring voice weaving between an elegant string arrangement on "Crying," or hear him grunt and purr like a sexy loverman on "Candy Man." (It was like discovering a ViewMaster projector that could project Casablanca onto my bedroom wall.) I tried to picture my mom as a teenager, buying this single and listening to it surreptitiously (since my grandparents didn't really approve of rock 'n' roll). I even asked her about it once, but she didn't remember a thing, and wasn't even sure if she knew the songs—though when I sang a piece of "Crying," she did recall the Don McLean version. So maybe she never bought that record at all. Maybe some kindly supernatural entity slipped it into that battered green metal box, for me to find, spin, and reconsider what I thought I knew about popular music and teen culture in 1961.

Enduring presence? I hope that Orbison doesn't get lumped in with '50s/'60s kitsch, just because so many of his songs have been deployed in movies semi-ironically. Here's how I tend to think of Orbison: As a kid I had a pretty extensive baseball card collection, and I decided early on that since I couldn't afford to get old cards featuring baseball's biggest stars, I'd focus on acquiring a reasonably complete run of one of the respected-but-not-revered players. I settled on Ferguson Jenkins, and by the time I sold off my collection at 15 (in order to have more money to spend on records), I'd picked up about a dozen or so Ferguson Jenkins cards. Even today, I perk up when I hear Jenkins' name mentioned on baseball broadcasts. In a way, Roy Orbison is like Ferguson Jenkins for me: A hall-of-famer whom everybody likes, but not too many people adore. He's my kind of player.

Run-D.M.C.

Years Of Operation 1983-2002

Fits Between The Sugarhill Gang and LL Cool J

Personal Correspondence One summer Saturday afternoon in 1984, I was flipping through channels when I happened across a one-off syndicated special called Graffiti Rock, which offered a sort of primer on hip-hop culture. Rap had been around for a while by that point, but its infiltrations into the mainstream—and thus my consciousness—had largely been limited to a few novelty singles and rip-offs. Graffiti Rock brought together all the different strands of what was really going on New York, explaining breakdancing, scratching, graffiti art, rap battles, and all the new hip lingo. The centerpiece of the show? A performance by Run-D.M.C., who rocked through "Sucker M.C.s," demonstrating how they were elevating the art of rap through feats of phenomenal vocal precision. I have no idea why that show aired in Nashville—I've since learned that it was made as a pilot for a series that didn't get picked up, and that it only aired in a few markets—but by the next week, Paul Shaffer was raving about it on Late Night With David Letterman, and by fall, everybody at my high school seemed to have seen it. Run-D.M.C. albums weren't all that easy to find at the local record stores, but all the jocks in my school had apparently tracked them down, and there was a lot of aggressive beat-boxing and boombox-blasting going on in the cafeteria and in the parking lot. In fact, I borrowed Run-D.M.C.'s first two albums from a football player I'd been tutoring in algebra. It was a strange reversal; I was scouring record shops for obscure records by bands like The Smiths and New Order, and the popular crowd was out stocking up on Kurtis Blow and Kool Moe Dee. I felt a little shut out of the genre at first, just by virtue of its fan-base, but if Run-D.M.C. accomplished nothing else, they helped legitimize hip-hop as a viable, enduring artform in the eyes of critics, businessmen, and—most importantly—kids. By the time Raising Hell came out, there were no longer the same divisions as to who could be a hip-hop fan and who couldn't. That record was universal.

Enduring presence? In retrospect, what I like about those first three Run-D.M.C. albums is how they capture the sound and feel of what was going on in the scene much more precisely than some of the highly produced rap singles that had been popular before. That's not to take away from Kurtis Blow or Grandmaster Flash or The Sugarhill Gang or any of those dudes, but Run-D.M.C. made records that largely consisted of a beat and two voices, with just a little scratching and a couple of sampled hooks thrown in. It was aggressively DIY, and inspired scores of other to buy a cheap drum machine, pick up a pen, and let rip.

[pagebreak]

Ryan Adams

Years Of Operation 2000-present (solo)

Fits Between Gram Parsons and Morrissey

Personal Correspondence In the early going, Adams was so damned prolific, dashing off stacks of songs with roots so deeply in the work of Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, Van Morrison and Elton John that I wondered if he was more a skilled mimic than a boy genius. He knocked out songs where the words seemed like an afterthought, songs that rolled on interminably, and songs that were all atmosphere and no earth. But as he moved into his late 20s, the restless dilettantism and staggering output of music no longer carried the same air of egotism crossed with hucksterism. Instead, Adams' lack of focus seemed more indicative of youthful exuberance, and his habit of cranking out songs and moving on seemed an expression of openness and generosity. It was as though he wanted to get it all down on tape as fast as he could, while the inspiration was still flowing. Even now, Adams may smear stolen Americana and traces of post-punk on his palette and then slap the mess he makes directly onto the canvas, but he produces some rewarding hues amid the splatter. Adams' problem is that his melodies flow so easily and his arrangements are so basic that it can take a half-dozen listens before one of his songs really blooms—if it ever does. Still, amid the clutter and fog, Adams has recorded a handful of my favorite albums of the '00s: the sparse and direct Heatbreaker, the decayed and worldly Love Is Hell, the sprawling and earnest Cold Roses, and the stock-taking Easy Tiger. And that's not even taking into account the great songs—some officially available, some not—that he's produced in passing. I spoke with Adams last year and found him remarkably down to earth and humble, aware of his own gifts and limitations. I'm not as worried as I used to be that he's going to crash and burn early, leaving behind a good-looking box set. Instead I worry that he's going to stay so consistently good that no one will pay attention when he records something as awesome as "When Will You Come Back Home," a song as pretty and affecting as a slow sunset.

Enduring presence? Maybe the problem is that as Adams has become more reliable, he's gotten a little duller. Truth be told, the absence of Adams' arrogant asshole persona lately has been felt, since his cockiness was often part of the point. From the moment Adams burst onto the scene, fans, critics and industry types have urged him to discipline himself and stop playing the unreliable, self-destructive rocker-clown. But what incentive does Adams have to comply, when some of the most focused, artful and affecting work of his career gets greeted with a shrug?

*****************

Stray Tracks

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

Ricky Skaggs, "Lost And I'll Never Find The Way"

For a time in the '80s, Skaggs' old-fashioned bluegrass sound became surprisingly popular on country radio, offering a glimmer of hope that trad-country could survive The Mandrell Era. In a way it's perfectly appropriate that Skaggs' rise would parallel the introduction of the compact disc. His picking is so clean, and as captured digitally, the sound of his combos is often as crisp and refreshing as mountain air.

Ride, "Furthest Sense"

Of all the dreampop/shoegazer bands I obsessed over in college—Lush, Pale Saint, My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver, etc.—Ride was the one that most let me down. The band's early EPs and debut LP were all so exciting, with their old-fashioned freakbeat melodies and guitars so molten that they practically dripped wax, but with each album Ride stepped further and further out of the fuzz and flicker, and became just another dull, kickless modern rock band. Strong start, big stall—not much of a ride at all, really.

The Righeous Brothers, "Just Once In My Life"

The Ronettes, "Be My Baby"

As odd as it may sound, there are sonic similarities between this Righteous Brothers number and the Ride song above. They're both built on swirling, somewhat dreamy melodies, and both dramatize the emotion in the lyrics with bombastic production. Phil Spector's wall-of-sound here makes the music seem a step too slow, and the voices a shade too deep. It's like the entire song is pushing through a swimming pool. Meanwhile, with The Ronettes, Spector shakes off the damp and revs the motor, creating a feeling of restless anticipation. The Righteous Brothers' track is all about being discombobulated and knocked asunder by the prospect of losing love, while with The Ronettes, the message can be summed up in three words: "Tonight, for sure."

Rilo Kiley, "Portions For Foxes"

I found the early Rilo Kiley records a little too formless, and the less said about the Radio Disney-ish Under The Blacklight the better, but I thought More Adventurous was one of the best rock records of this decade, full of polish, drive and thorny emotion. I wrote up this song from More Adventurous for our inventory about music that makes us cry, saying: "This lovesick lament doesn't sound especially sad, with its pinging guitars and kicky backbeat. But the frank lyrics—and the resigned way Jenny Lewis sings them—build to a regretful, shattering resolution. Addressing an occasional lover whose charms she can't seem to shake, Lewis describes how, in spite of her friends' warnings, she's compelled to call him up and see what he's doing. And then 'The talking leads to touching and the touching leads to sex / And then there is no mystery left.' Halfway through the song, her guy goes out tomcatting, but she forgives him because 'I do the same thing / I get lonely too.' As Lewis moans about how she's 'bad news,' everyone who's ever been unable to stop themselves from making a romantic mistake has to feel a deep chill."

Ringo Starr, "Photograph"

Believe it or not, I first became familiar with this song via the Camper Van Beethoven cover version, not Starr's original. Or maybe it's not so hard to believe. They didn't play a lot of Ringo Starr on the radio when I was growing up, and for good reason: much of his output is outright awful. ("Photograph" excepted obviously; and "It Don't Come Easy.") Starr's solo career was propped up to a large extent by his famous musical friends, and by the unspoken understanding in the '70s that anything an ex-Beatle did was automatically worthy of at least some baseline appreciation. I think the rock fans of the era were convinced that if they were nice enough to all The Beatles, the band would get back together. That kind of "whatever you say" treatment of rock's royalty led to a lot of rot and depravity, and a lot of lousy records. There's a great scene in the essential documentary series All You Need Is Love (now available on DVD!) which cuts between The Who's Keith Moon singing horribly off-key into a microphone, and the finished recording where his voice has been sweetened. The song still stinks, but at least Moon doesn't make a fool of himself in the final mix. In the '70s, that was good enough.

Rinôçérôse, "B. Jones: Last Picture"

Röyksopp, "In Space"

In the years immediately following the release of Air's landmark Moon Safari, Europe sent out wave after wave of lounge-y chillout acts, often indistinguishable in name and content. One of my favorites was Rinôçérôse, a French outfit who made one slick Air-ish LP (Installation Sonore) and then followed it up with the cleverly conceptual Music Kills Me, which tied the electro-leisure movement to the thick streak of morbidity that's run through the history of rock music. The album's theme may just be a hook, but it's enough to give the band's neo-easy-listening sound the illusion of depth. On of my other favorite post-Air acts was Norway's Röyksopp, who built on Air's soulsick sophistication and arid '70s nostalgia, adding a kind of radiant warmth meant to beat back the Scandinavian frost.

[pagebreak]

Robbie Williams, "Strong"

Robert Palmer, "Woke Up Laughing"

Robbie Williams at his peak was like a radio-friendly version of Pulp, singing with an equal measure of cockiness and forlornness about a life of excess. Williams has a hell of a voice, but his material has been consistently shaky, and as hard as I tried to appreciate his busy production in the late '90s—not wanting to be pegged as some kind of sonic snob—the clanging guitars and chunky rhythms often ground down some of Williams' best songs. Still, I had hopes for a while that Williams might become the new millennium version of the erstwhile Robert Palmer, a veteran UK pop-rocker whose enduring virtues were his vocals and his eclecticism. I don't have much use for the bombastic Palmer hits of the late '80s, and I'm annoyed that he got so remix-happy on his anthology records late in his career, but before we were married, my wife turned me onto the low-key, funky pleasures of Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, and to the lilting island rhythms of some of Palmer's late '70s/early '80s records (from back when every British star worth his salt decamped to a beachside resort for tax purposes, and to steal some cool sounds).

Robert Downey Jr., "Your Move"

It's hard to believe that the actor who dominated the summer as the coolest Tony Stark I could've possibly imagined was—just a few short years ago—something of a joke in popular culture, reduced to meandering indie flicks and an oddball pop album. The highlight of The Futurist is a Yes cover in which Downey duets with the song's original vocalist, Jon Anderson, and to be honest, despite the corny interpolation of "Give Peace A Chance," I really like this version of "Your Move," and The Futurist as a whole. Can the next Iron Man be a musical, please?

Robert Earl Keen, "The Front Porch Song"

Rocky Votolato, "The Wrong Side Of Reno"

Last week many of you demanded that Keen be included in this week's roundup, so by popular demand, here's one of my favorite Keen songs, co-written by Lyle Lovett. I'd be lying if I said I was any kind of Robert Earl Keen aficionado. I have a couple of albums and a couple of extraneous songs, and I like them all fine, but Keen belongs to the tribe of smart, rootsy Texas/Tennessee singer-songwriters that were thick on the ground when I was growing up in Nashville, and I'm afraid I still resist their charms more than I should, just out of habit. That said, I'd like to hip Keen fans to one of the new breed of smart, roosty singer-songwriters. Ex-punk Rocky Votolato—another Texan, like Keen—has developed into a fine troubadour, delivering winning story-songs over minimal instrumentation. On his best record The Brag & Cuss, Votolato expands his sound, serving up a laid-back country-rock style that has a lot in common with Stephen Stills' warm, catchy early '70s albums, but with a voice that comes off more fragile and modern.

Robert Plant, "Big Log"

At their '70s height, Led Zeppelin's press aversion—combined with their cultivated air of mystique—gave the band's members the remote, radiant stature of gods. That divine light began to dim in the mid '80s, right around the time Robert Plant and Jimmy Page began popping up on MTV regularly, trickling their talents through unwieldy supergroup projects like The Firm or The Honeydrippers, or through their relatively tame solo work. Let's face it: "Big Log" is hardly the sort of song that inspires young rockers to climb mountains. And yet I really love this song (just as I love Plant's late career reinvention as country-blues journeyman on albums like Dreamland and Raising The Sand). There's a sense in which a song like "Big Log" is all about Plant doffing his stage persona and settling back down to human level, with just a synthesizer and a guitar between him and his fans. He's weary now, diminished, and ready for our hospitality.

Robert Pollard, "I'm A Strong Lion"

Pollard's been releasing solo albums throughout his 20-year stint as Guided By Voices frontman, and given that he was the band's only constant member, it could be argued that every GBV album is essentially a Pollard solo album. Lately though, Pollard's work under his own name has become ever-more eclectic and overstufed, and fraught with that chronic DIY adjective: "uneven." For every sharp guitar-pop gem, Pollard cranks out two toss-offs where the music falls apart quicker than he can slap it together. It's as though he needs to crank out a bunch of crap to get to the creative place that produces songs like this one-minute beauty. But it's sure hard to pay proper attention to Pollard's genuinely good records over all the throat-clearing. The best fans can do is try to keep each other informed of which of the multiple Pollard releases each year find him flowing instead of ebbing. His best recent work follows the form of a '70s AM rock song, but bears lines of distress—not unlike the way old album covers feature the faded outline of the record within. And that seems to be the feeling he's going for. I get the feeling that Pollard would be perfectly happy if he never had to release an album, but could just travel around from flea market to flea market, slipping them into the two-for-a-dollar pile.

Robert Wyatt, "A.W.O.L."

For the past couple of decades, Wyatt has honed his approach to making "Robert Wyatt music," which requires assembling an eclectic rock orchestra capable of shifting between pop, jazz, blues and worldbeat, as they follow the path laid out by Wyatt's stream-of-consciousness songwriting. The recent Comicopera was in my opinion one of Wyatt's best, capturing the way he pieces together styles that don't match, as though dreaming the history of popular music and getting the details wrong.

The Roches, "Acadian Driftwood"

It's sheer serendipity that this track—one of my favorite Band songs, interpreted well by The Roches—comes up a few days before I set off to Toronto, and as another hurricane threatens the Gulf Coast. I'm don't think The Roches' version is as strong as The Band's—I miss the mix of voices—but the song's sad history lesson and enduring regional pride is still incredibly moving, whether you're contemplating "the land of snow" or "the sugar fields up from New Orleans."

The Rock & Roll Dubble Bubble Trading Card Company Of Philadelphia, "Bubble Gum Music"

Rockwell, "Somebody's Watching Me"

When critics tried to dismiss the treacly teen-friendly pop wave of the late '60s as "bubblegum," the genre's impresarios embraced the term, assembling one-off bands to knock out singles that trumpeted their silliness in the band names and in the lyrics. Sure, this line is a tad defensive: "The Grateful Dead just leaves me cold / And Herbie Alpert makes me feel too old." But given that the critics decrying bubblegum were often standing up for music that was just as vapid in its way, I'll allow it. After all, it's not like bubblegum represented anything new in pop—or like it ended anything. I mean, isn't the Michael Jackson-sponsored Rockwell hit "Somebody's Watching Me" just '80s bubblegum, trading off the spooky dance-pop vibe of "Thriller?"

Rod Stewart, "The Killing Of Georgie (Parts I & II)"

I considered including Stewart among the "Pieces Of The Puzzle" this week, because I love Every Picture Tells A Story so much, and also like a lot of his scattered singles—like this bold 1976 tribute to a slain gay man—but the fact is that my Stewart fandom is pretty narrow. I like Stewart in Faces/Picture mode primarily, and beyond that I feel like he's wasted that great raspy rock voice on cheap nostalgia and sodden kitsch. I mean, c'mon… "Love Touch?" "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" It's all such a long way from "Gasoline Alley."

The Rogers Sisters, "Zero Point"

When this song came up in my library this week, I was sure it was from some late '70s/early '80s punk/New Wave anthology or another, but it turns out I actually got it off of Yes New York, a collection of songs drawn from the early '00s neo-post-punk movement in NY. I know jack-all about The Rogers Sisters—except that according to Wikipedia they broke up last year—but damned if this song doesn't deserve to be resuscitated. It's a throwback, yes, but a punchy, danceable one. Any Rogers Sisters fans out there want to speak on their behalf? Are their entire albums this good?

Rogue Wave, "Like I Needed"

A lot of people really hate these indie-rockers for any number of reasons, but bandleader Zach Rogue serves up a lot of what I look for from the genre: steady drone, swells of emotion, and running mumbled commentary on how the right partner can save a body from self-absorption. Rogue Wave's basic approach to song arrangement is to alternate shimmer and pummel, taking dreamy melodies and crashing them into currents of distorted electric guitar. The band likes to recreate the sensuality and panic of a romantic walk through a driving rainstorm. Ever since Rogue stabilized the line-up, Rogue Wave's music has gotten a lot tighter, with more instrumental interplay. The result, on last year's very enjoyable Asleep At Heaven's Gate, was effortlessly poppy numbers that ran on just long enough to find new chambers to resound in.

Roky Erickson, "You Don't Love Me Yet"

As one of rock's legendary weirdoes, Erickson has rarely gotten his full due as a songwriter. For all his psychologically damaged tunes about zombies and spacemen, Erickson's also been readily capable of catchy, easygoing folk-rock numbers like this mid-'80s gem. Consider this: the same year this song was released, chart-toppers included "We Are The World," a-ha's "Take On Me," Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is," Tears For Fears' "Shout" and Madonna's "Into The Groove." Talk about a disconnect.

Ron Sexsmith, "Wishing Wells"

Throughout the latter half of the '90s, Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith was a reliable source of tasteful folk songs for the kind of music fan who distrusts genius and values classicism. But in the '00s he began to expand his musical vocabulary, and scored one of the best LPs of the decade with the richly orchestrated, poppy Retriever, an album which suggests what would happen if the hooks of a circa 1982 Marshall Crenshaw met up with the sophistication of Elvis Costello today. It's unmistakably a Sexsmith effort: it has his sweetly shaky voice, his spare guitar twang and his fluid melodies. But whereas in the past Sexsmith's sound has felt at once too precise and too remote, with Retriever he brings a subtle urgency to a set of songs that could double as proverbs. The album offers warnings and reassurances, as Sexsmith indicates repeatedly that he's discovered something of value that he's not going to let out of his sight. The best song on the record (and maybe Sexsmith's career) is "Wishing Wells," a "time to put away childish things" command set to a swinging beat and propulsive guitar, and spiked with unnerving lines like, "I fear sometimes / We ain't got a hope in hell."

Ronald Isley, "In Between The Heartaches"

For some reason, the open arrangement of this classic Burt Bacharach written-and-produced number reminds me a lot of Stephen Sondheim; I hear a touch of Sunday In The Park With George in the bridge, and since that's my favorite Broadway show of all time, the similarity is doubly affecting. My wife, listening to the song for the first time this weekend, described it as, "People trying to explain something that can't be explained." The effort alone is touching, as is the fact that Bacharach and Isley come thrillingly close to explicating why people risk pain for fleeting moments of happiness.

The Roots, "Rolling With Heat"

At the start, The Roots' addition of live instrumentation to hip-hop was something of a gimmick—and an instant in-road to the Lollapalooza generation—and then for a time it became something of a musical liability. There's a different feel to hip-hop when it's being played with real drums and real guitars; there's a measure of assaultiveness that can be off-putting. (Which is why all those armies of rap-rock acts at the end of the '90s grew so tiresome so quickly.) But at the start of the '00s, The Roots figured out better how to temper the live element of their music with the artificial elements that so often make hip-hop sound like the present and future of popular music. The band's albums are still hit-and-miss, but the potential upside has improved considerably.

Rosco Gordon, "Cheese And Crackers"

Rosco Gordon's 2002 death passed largely unnoticed, except by obsessive fans of early rock and R&B.; A one time Sun recording artist, Gordon wrote hits for Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and pioneered a kind of lazy-beat soul sound that later drifted to Jamaica and became ska. After decades out of the spotlight, Gordon released an album in 2000, and had been working sporadically on a follow-up when he died. The results of those sessions were released in 2005 as the weird and wonderful No Dark In America, which alternates deeply personal lamentations with low-stakes novelty vamps like "Cheese & Crackers" where Gordon's career-long fascination with unsteady rhythms pays off in a song where the erratic structure matters more than the lyrics.

Royal Crescent Mob, "Nanana"

Though the Mob only got it together for one top-to-bottom great record—the should've been a smash Spin The World—the concept of a Replacements-like Midwestern rock band with a jones for The Ohio Players instead of Big Star was an appealing one, and in a perfect world, Royal Crescent Mob would've had the career that the Red Hot Chili Peppers did. (The Mob were certainly more legitimately fun than the often faux-fun Peppers.) At the least, this song about livin' large in the fashion industry should've been ubiquitous back in 1989. Man, what happened?

Rufus Wainwright, "My Phone's On Vibrate For You"

I've really come to love Wainwright over the years, after being skeptical about his debut album, which prompted me to write, "Wainwright's one of those dogged idealists who makes a virtue of archaism, and it's true there's some inherent appeal to hearing Wainwright's exploratory piano rags backed by lush strings. It's almost like the last 50 years of popular music never happened, except that Wainwright's inspiration seems to stem more from Elton John's early epics or from Stevie Wonder's outré '70s songs; and unfortunately, Wainwright's vocals are downright expressionless, rendering him unable to carry slow songs the way John and Wonder can. Wainwright's music rises and falls based on how slow and flat his voice sounds and on how much patience the listener has for his persistent lack of verve or joy." Since then, I've picked up a lot more nuance in the voice I once called "expressionless," and I've gradually begun to grasp the extent to which Wainwright's vision is about channeling what showfolk call "his personal business" through outsized theatrically.

Rupert Holmes, "The People That You Never Get To Love"

I had a brief fascination with Holmes five or six years ago, after reading his wildly entertaining and trashy showbiz novel Where The Truth Lies. I'd known prior to reading the book that Holmes had transitioned from soft-rock songwriter to playwright and mystery buff, but Where The Truth Lies was so good that I decided I needed to give the musician behind "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" and "Him" a second chance. Alas, I found Holmes' Harry Chapin-esue story-songs to be too cutesy by half, though in slogging through his greatest hits collection, I did come across this sly little fantasia, about idle romantic daydreaming. It's as sappy as you might expect, but I find it more compelling than it deserves, because I often get distracted by passersby, wondering what it would be like to live their lives—or share their lives.

Rupert's People, "Reflections Of Charles Brown"

Since I missed "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" a few weeks back, here's a total rip-off, recorded by the frequently awesome Les Fleur De Lys under a one-and-done pseudonym. I think you'll feel the lack of Procol Harum's build-and-release, but otherwise this is a likable curiosity.

Rush, "Freewill"

Somehow as an adult, I've ended up with more male friends who are die-hard Rush fans than I ever knew when I was a younger man. The only Rush fan I really had any contact with growing up was my brother, who got pretty heavily into them around the time of Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, when they were improbably uniting the metal, prog and New Wave tribes. I was a bit too young to grasp the awesomeness of those albums (outside of the radio hits), and once I shifted to college rock in the mid-'80s, I often mocked Rush openly, dragging out my brother's copy of Hemispheres so my friends and I could make fun of the lyrics to "The Trees." As an adult, I acknowledge that Neil Peart's sci-fi-inspired sermonizing can be heavy-handed and even cringe-inducing at times, but I also appreciate how Peart's idiosyncrasies—and oh yeah, his drumming—give Rush an identifiable personality. Without the lengthy Ayn Rand riffs, Rush would be… well, I was going to say Triumph, but they're pretty political too. And so is Saga. Man, what is up with the Canadian prog-metal bands and their elaborate social statements? (And what about the voice of Geddy Lee? How did it get so high?)

*****************

Regrettably unremarked upon: Richie Havens, Rick Springfield, Ricky Nelson, RJD2, Robbie Fulks, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Roberta Flack, Robin & Linda Williams, The Rocket Summer, Rodney Crowell, Roger McGuinn, The Rollins Band, Romeo Void, Ronnie Hawkins, Ronnie Milsap, Roseanne Cash, The Runaways, Ryan Scott and The RZA

Also listened to: Rick Dees, Rico Bell, Riddle Of Steel, Right Said Fred, Rinder & Lewis, Rita Wright, The Ritchie Family, The River Bends, Riverboat Gamblers, Roaring Lion, Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock, Rob Swift, Robben Ford, Robbers On High Street, Robbin Thompson, Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise, Robert Francis, Robert Jay, Robert John, Robert Knight, Robert Lowe, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Sean Leonard, Robert Skoro, RobinElla, The Robot Ate Me, Rock-A-Teens, The Rockin' Pontoons, The Rocking Chairs, Rod Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers, Rodney Trotter, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, Roger O'Donnell, Roger Sanchez, Roma 79, Roman Numerals, Ron Goodwin & His Orchestra, Ron Grainer, Ron Wood, Ronan Tynan, Ronnie Burns, Ronnie Dee, Roogalator, Rooney, Roots Manuva, Rosario Blefari, Roscoe, Roscoe Robinson, Rose Royce, The Rosenbergs, Rosetta Stone, Rosie Thomas, Roy, Roy Budd, Roy Hamilton, Roy Hargrove, Royal 7, Royce, Rubén Rada, Rubyhorse, The Rugs, RuPaul, Russian Circles, Rusted Root, Rusty Lemon, The Ruts and Ryan Cabrera

*****************

Next week: A hiatus—I'll be attending the Toronto International Film Festival, and blogging daily, and not listening to much music—and then the week after from Sade to Simple Minds, plus a few words on the homestretch of this project.

Filed Under: Music

More Popless