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.
Before Ryan Adams started cultivating a reputation as modern rock's premiere burnout-in-the-making (and before he reformed, and became a reliable-if-a-little-dull old pro), he was a nobody from North Carolina, fronting the upstart alt-country act Whiskeytown. Adams began to draw attention from the cognoscenti with songs like "Empty Baseball Park," which takes an expression of reluctant reconciliation and expands it into an evocative sketch of small-town sparseness. "Stumble past the record store / End up at the movies," Adams sings, lamenting the go-nowhere patterns he keeps falling into with the same girl, while also describing what it's like to be bored and anxious in a place devoid of distractions. Add a few more details and "Empty Baseball Park" could be a musical version of one of Chuck Klosterman's essays about his misspent Midwestern youth.
At various points during the project, I've described my interest in punk rock and its various feeders and tributaries as "scholarly," and some readers have taken me to task for not being fully immersed in the punk scene. I never meant to give the wrong impression. It's not like I was listening to The Replacements with a notebook in my hand and a set of charts and histories spread out on my bedroom floor. I mean, c'mon, I was a teenager; I was hardly unmoved by punk's objective to irritate, agitate, binge and purge. And I was living in suburban Tennessee to boot—as Ryan Adams explains in "Empty Baseball Park," it wasn't like I had a lively cultural life to alleviate my typical adolescent ennui.
But as I mentioned back in Week 9's "Dilettantin'" essay, I've always been too much of a multi-tasker to commit fully to something as all-consuming as being a full-on punk. And I felt ridiculous when I tried. For the six months or so that I spent ripping up my clothes, scrawling political messages on blank T-shirts, and giving myself asymmetrical haircuts, I kept asking myself if really needed to wear a costume to appreciate Black Flag. (And was that costume still suitable when I was listening to The Band or Thomas Dolby?)
Even moving beyond the clothes and the hair, I've never been one to believe that you have to be immersed in a particular kind of lifestyle in order to fully "get" some kinds of art. Sure, it can help. (Being a pseudo-intellectual child of divorce with a thing for Pink Floyd and the Risky Business soundtrack probably made The Squid And The Whale more meaningful to me than it might've been to some.) But I'd never argue that people can't be truly moved by Loretta Lynn unless they grew up in Appalachia, or that they can't enjoy reading Tintin comics unless they were born in Belgium and spent time as a boy reporter. So why would I say you have to be an anti-authoritarian ragamuffin from a broken home to like The Germs? (And that if you're not, you must be some kind of poseur?)
Entertainment is almost always about escapism of one kind or another, even if you're escaping the blandness of your own life to vicariously experience the harshness of another. So I get why people would want to associate themselves with gangsta rap or death metal or straight-edge or shitkicker country or heroin chic or Sunset Strip horndoggery or what-have-you. Whether you've actually lived one of those lives or whether you just like to pretend, the power of music to define a whole world—complete with its own ideologies and fashion sense—can be overwhelming. And after all, we all get to pick our fantasies.
I just don't understand how you can settle on only one. Being exclusively hardcore—even if that hardcore-itude extends to punk, metal and rap—would be, for me at least, too much like having only one channel on my TV. (And having that channel be, like, Spike.) I think Ryan Adams would understand what I'm getting at. A lot of his post-Whiskeytown floundering had to do with him not wanting to limit himself to one genre or one persona. If he liked Britpop and glam-metal as much as singer-songwriter folk-country, why should he spend the rest of his career just as a raspy troubadour? After all, didn't he get into rock 'n' roll to avoid dead-end jobs?
A few years after writing "Empty Baseball Park," Adams returned to the theme of wandering through hick wastelands on Pneumonia's "Jacksonville Skyline," a song at once more mature, more urgent, and more affected than he would've been capable of back when Whiskeytown started. By the time Pneumonia was recorded, Adams was beginning to buck against the idea of working with a set band, and starting to imagine a broader context for his career than the insular realm of alt-country. Still, Adams builds "Jacksonville Skyline" out of workshirt-worthy imagery and self-definition, from the overcooked ("I was born in an abundance of inherited sadness ") to the mundane (" and fifty-cent picture frames bought at a five-and-dime.") There's an element of autopilot to "Jacksonville Skyline," as though Adams had mastered this particular idiom and had learned to generate suitable lyrics and sounds practically on demand. And yet the song is far, far from impersonal. When Adams goes from singing about watching the soldiers on the weekends to becoming a soldier on the weekend, you can hear the echoes of the person he might've been if rock 'n' roll hadn't intervened. And behind the relief, you can hear the fear that maybe, unwittingly, Adams had still wound up conscripted.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
The Velvet Underground
Years Of Operation 1965-70 (essentially)
Fits Between Yo La Tengo and Galaxie 500
Personal Correspondence I've written a few times in Popless about what it's like to read about a legendary band before hearing their music, and how sometimes the sound in my head was far different from the actual records. In the case of The Velvet Underground, the great surprise to me was that a band so infamous for singing songs about drug deals and sadomasochism also recorded songs that were pretty, and poppy. (Although I shouldn't have been so surprised, since my first exposure to V.U. came via R.E.M.'s covers of "There She Goes Again" and "Femme Fatale.") Still, it's not like The Velvet Underground disappointed on the edge factor. If listening to Prince was like finding a copy of Hustler on the side of the road, then listening to The Velvet Underground was like finding a copy of Naked Lunch. Half the time, with songs like "Sister Ray" or "Heroin," I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing, nor could determine if Lou Reed was even singing what I thought he was singing. Part of that was Reed's fault. As a lyricist, Reed has penned some indelible lines, but he's also an incorrigible vulgarian, and sometimes he mistakes crudity for "telling it plain." The same applies to The Velvet Underground's music; without John Cale to provide a tincture of art from the start, Reed might've settled for mere garage-rock primitivism. But that's what made the band so beloved too, that songs about such dicey subjects were so catchy, direct and driving. I had the good fortune to come of age in an era when The Velvet Underground's albums were just getting reissued, after a decade-plus of being out of print. A lot of the pre-punk bands I read about in the '80s were hard to track down in record stores, but not only could I find V.U.'s four official LPs with no trouble, I also had access to live albums, outtakes collections and eventually even alternate mixes and demos. If you can define a person's musical taste based on which Velvet Underground is their favorite, then I wonder what it says about me that my favorite "real" V.U. record is the self-titled third one (so muted and drone-y) but that my actual favorite is V.U., the "lost" album that sounds like all the other albums all mixed together? It probably just means that I've never good at making up my mind.
Enduring presence? It's been said that only 500 people bought The Velvet Underground's first album, but that every one of them went on to start a rock band. I believe that only about 500 people are familiar with that saying, and every one went on to be a rock critic.
Years Of Operation 1990-2001 (for now)
Fits Between Mission Of Burma and Unrest
Personal Correspondence One of the major downsides to not seeing much live music anymore is that I no longer get that experience of discovering a band in concert before buying any of their records. These days, I often see the bands I like on TV, and I'm inevitably disappointed. But back in college and immediately afterward, I'd buy records by bands I'd seen live, and would often find the recorded version lacking. I remember it took a long time for Versus to live up to my first experience of them, in the tiny performance space in the back of Lucy's Record Shop in Nashville. My editor at the time knew a couple of the band members, and used words like "Burma" and "Mission" in describing to me how Versus sounded—which understandably piqued my interest. What impressed me the most about Versus' performance was how in the midst of these chirpy little indie-rock songs, Richard Baluyut would launch into eruptive guitar solos—almost like Bob Mould sitting in with Tsunami. I bought a copy of the band's EP Let's Electrify from the merch table, and the time it was a letdown in comparison to the show I'd just seen. (The guitar sound was tinny; the vocals thin.) Now, over a decade removed from seeing Versus live, and with the memory of that night fading, Let's Electrify sounds a lot better, and the records immediately after it—which once were equally unsuccessful to my ears—strike me as far more accomplished than a lot of the indie-rock of the era. Eventually, the studio version of Versus caught up with how I always figured the band should sound, and I'd stack up the albums Secret Swingers, Two Cents Plus Tax and Hurrah with some of the '90s best alt-rock. (I wouldn't put any of those records in the decade's Top 50, but if you combined the best of all three, that new album might come in at #51.) Mainly I think Versus learned how to play to their strengths, emphasizing Baluyut's guitar more and more, and giving their uptempo songs more drive. Or maybe I just feel that way because I never got to hear those later songs in concert, when they really cooked.
Enduring presence? I've only intermittently kept up with the various Versus-mates side projects. I've never heard Richard Baluyut's Whysall Lane, though I've enjoyed some of James Baluyut's work as frontman for the impossible-to-Google +/-. (But I'll be getting to them in two weeks.) Last I heard, Versus had reunited for a few gigs in New York and were considering a full-on revival. If they ever tour again, I'm there.
Years Of Operation 1980-present (off and on)
Fits Between Camper Van Beethoven and The Modern Lovers
Personal Correspondence As a junior in high school, I joined the Quiz Bowl/Academic Olympics team, and encountered a new circle of friends (including my first real girlfriend) who were all decidedly different from my Honor Roll friends, my jock friends, my punk friends or my forensics friends. The Quiz Bowl crowd were an odd lot. They were academic overachievers, yes, but they weren't drones or freaks. They were a lot savvier than most of my other smart friends, who were exclusively grade-focused. The Quiz Bowlers I knew read books beyond what was assigned in class, and had tastes and styles that didn't precisely conform to any one clique. And I found this to be true of other Quiz Bowl teams too, when we competed against them. At my first citywide tournament, one team from Nashville's more high-toned school district came to the table wearing trenchcoats and sunglasses and sporting perfectly groomed hair, like they'd just stepped out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. And they carried a boombox, on which they blasted Violent Femmes' debut album before the round started. Like The Cure and R.E.M., Violent Femmes were a band enjoyed fairly widely, not just by alt-rock fans. They wrote catchy, snotty songs that adolescents of all stripes could relate to, and the fact that they said "fuck" a lot gave them a cachet that transcended high school factionalism. Still, as the cool, rich Quiz Bowl team sat calmly in their chairs, listening to "Please Do Not Go" at a fairly high volume for such a small university classroom, I felt like I'd found my role models. To be a badass at trivia, with a sharp sense of personal style, and to like Violent Femmes? That's who I wanted to be. A year later, having taken over as the captain for my school's Quiz Bowl team, I arrived at the citywide tournament with my own boombox, which I wasn't allowed to play in the rooms where the competition was held. So between rounds, I set up in the hall, leaned coolly against the wall, and listened to Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime, feeling totally awesome. Unfortunately, I'd set up next to a room where an actual class was taking place. The instructor came rushing out angrily and told me to switch the music off. I was through being cool.
Enduring presence? Though Violent Femmes is the band's one true classic, the follow-up Hallowed Ground is quite good too, and the Femmes recorded at least two or three worthy songs an album for the rest of the decade. Still, when I saw them live, circa 1992, they were fairly pathetic, running through all the old favorites at about three-quarters speed. The band was on the nostalgia circuit before Gordon Gano had even hit 30. I guess it's got something to do with luck.[pagebreak]
Years Of Operation 2000-present
Fits Between Bob Dylan and Clinic
Personal Correspondence If you'd asked me before this week to sum up The Walkmen, I'd have said that their first album was more noteworthy for its sound than its songs, and that they pulled it together for the one of the best albums of the '00s, the woozy 2004 disc Bows + Arrows, which focused the atmospheric jangle of the debut into something rougher and angrier (while no less lyrical). Then I would've referred to my review of the even rawer follow-up A Hundred Miles Off, about which I wrote, "As lead singer Hamilton Leithauser continues his Bob-Dylan-circa-1966 mannerisms, and his mates continue their dust-on-the-needle sonic aesthetic, The Walkmen careen through twelve songs that frequently devolve into sound-swallowing echo and boozy bellow, until the whole album becomes one long, moody abstraction." But listening to all three albums in succession this week, I heard a much clearer progression, to the extent that I now think A Hundred Miles Off might actually be superior to Bows + Arrows. In 2006, I wrote, "Too much of A Hundred Miles Off sounds enervated, which makes the rare uptempo tracks—like the zippy and shimmering "Good For You's Good For Me"—stand out like mountains at the edge of a flat desert landscape." Now, the album's general feeling of fatigue strikes me as an apt response to these perilous times.
Enduring presence? Around the time The Walkmen wrapped A Hundred Miles Off, they knocked out a song-by-song cover of Harry Nilsson's 1975 LP-length collaboration with John Lennon, the cult oddity Pussy Cats. Clearly Pussy Cats—with its heavy reverberations and wastrel decadence—inspired the overall tone of A Hundred Miles Off, yet like Pussy Cats, A Hundred Miles Off has a taste that can be acquired, with patience and repetition. Lennon and Nilsson came by their chaos honestly, trashing years of pop artistry in a few drunken weekends. Leithauser has never been a craftsmen on his idols' level, which means The Walkmen's sloppiness can sound more like, well, slop. Nevertheless, they're a band with a focused vision and a distinctive style. Now that it's November, I'm free to listen to their latest album. I'm looking forward to hearing if it's another step forward—though I don't know that I'd be able to tell right away.
Years Of Operation 1969-2003 (solo)
Fits Between Randy Newman and John Hiatt
Personal Correspondence "Werewolves Of London" was a classic-rock radio staple in the early '80s, but our local stations rarely went much deeper than that, so I tended to think of Zevon as some kind of novelty singer prior to his mid-'80s "comeback" with the playful, powerful, state-of-the-art rock record Sentimental Hygeine. Once I ventured back into the catalog, I quickly realized that Zevon was capable of penning picaresque story-songs so packed with memorable characters and witty, descriptive details that even now they reveal new depths of insight. But I wasn't exactly wrong in thinking of Zevon first as a comedian. If anything, Zevon often relied too readily on his facility for punchlines, forgetting that even the funniest jokes lose much of their humor after they've been heard once. Luckily, Zevon compensated with one of the most distinctive and appealing vocal/lyrical cadences in rock 'n' roll. His sinister mumble and "Mr. Bad Example" persona gave his songs about outlaws and yuppies an endearingly skewed perspective, but Zevon was also capable of achingly tender love songs, and songs that fall somewhere in between parody and sincerity. In my favorite Zevon song, "Splendid Isolation," when he sings, "Michael Jackson in Disneyland / Don't have to share it with nobody else / Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand / And lead me through the world of self," the line is wry and even somewhat profound. The song combines the mundane and the fantastic in a way that's quintessentially Zevon. It's funny too—but not too funny.
Enduring presence? Next to Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams, Warren Zevon is the artist with the most songs permanently installed on my iPod. I tend to keep my iPod playlists lean in order to fit in as much as possible, but if I end up with more than one Zevon song during a shuffle session, you won't hear me complain.
Years Of Operation 1983-96, 2000-present
Fits Between The Call and The Frames
Personal Correspondence Mike Scott of The Waterboys coined the phrase "The Big Music" to describe the sound that his band (plus Big Country, U2, The Alarm, Simple Minds and myriad others) perfected in the early-to-mid-'80s. Since I was fully in the tank for The Big Music—to borrow the political parlance of our times—I pretty much flipped my shit the first time I heard The Waterboys' third album This Is The Sea. Today, that album makes me wince a little, with its references to "the Pan within" and its untethered orchestral pomp. But I remember the way it made me feel at 15, not too many years removed from reading C.S. Lewis, and still so unschooled at romance that I could think a line like "your love feels like trumpets sound" was really deep, and not in the least bit corny. (Now I've stepped back through the wardrobe, and I tend to think that lines like that are deep because they're corny.) I also remember how betrayed I felt when Scott took the band in a different direction with The Waterboys' next album, the trad-minded Fisherman's Blues. I was a freshman in college at the time, still reeling from the letdown of U2's Rattle And Hum and lamenting the end of the era of booming drums and bagpipe guitars. I didn't want these bands to go searching for their roots in Celtic jigs and Delta blues. When Scott sang, "I have heard the big music / And I'll never be the same," I took it at face value. What a fool I was.
Enduring presence? I now find much of The Waterboys too painfully earnest and florid, but a handful of Scott's songs still stir. "The Whole Of The Moon" and "Fisherman's Blues" are two of the best pop singles of the '80s. And "December" properly encapsulates The Waterboys sound I like best, from the days when Scott played most of the instruments himself, building songs a layer at a time, while shooting for a sound akin to a stiff wind on a sunny day.
Years Of Operation 1964-2002 (solo)
Fits Between Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson
Personal Correspondence I went through my requisite Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash phases, but I didn't even give a second thought to Waylon Jennings until last year, when I watched a DVD compilation of Jennings' TV performances and subsequently fell fast and hard. I think I'd resisted Jennings in the past because there's no clear rock, folk or pop road into his catalog, the way there is for the freely collaborative and broad-minded Cash and Nelson. "Outlaw" or no, Jennings was straight-up country, and becoming a Jennings fan seemed too much like following in the footsteps of my trad-addled Dad. But while I enjoy Jennings' early, more rockabilly-tinged singles, it was those no-doubt, unadulterated country records that ended up knocking me flat. Jennings' '70s albums in particular have such purity. With only a few lines—some his own, some borrowed from friends—and a skeletal arrangement, Jennings could evoke a heartbreak and hope as elaborate as any symphony. I look forward to many happy decades catching up.
Enduring presence? Reviewing that DVD, Nashville Rebel, I wrote, "With his square face and scraggly hair, Waylon Jennings certainly never looked like a star, even in the elevate-the-everyday realm of country music; and he was neither a spectacular singer nor a top-flight songwriter. But Jennings had a dark aura that made him especially mesmerizing on-stage, where he'd growl about heartache and pluck at his gorgeous pearl inlay guitar, while the hottest C&W; players in the business worked up a good head of honky-tonk steam beside him. Just hearing Jennings ramble through Billie Joe Shaver's 'Slow Rollin' Low' isn't the same as seeing him and The Waylors on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, playing the song as though it was their last earthly deed. And given Jennings early-career friendship with the poor, doomed Buddy Holly, maybe he felt it was."
The Wedding Present
Years Of Operation 1985-present
Fits Between The Smiths and Josef K
Personal Correspondence Two of my closest college friends and I each had our own "import bands:" UK acts whose hard-to-find EPs and live albums we'd try to track down every time we happened to be near a decent record store. Mine was The Wedding Present, whom I first found via Beggar's Banquet's domestic edition of Bizarro (which I believe I picked up at my college newspaper's office while looking for CDs to sell for beer money). As a Smiths fan, I took immediately to The Wedding Present's muscular, warp-speed version of Smiths-ian angst-pop, though after hitting the import bins for copies of George Best, Tommy and some of the band's Peel Sessions, I began to notice the distinctions between Morrissey's withering put-downs and epic self-pity, and David Gedge's angry rants aimed at ex-lovers. Gedge has basically spent his entire career re-writing Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street," working almost exclusively in the second person as he lays bare his grudges, regrets, and raw sexual need. Despite Gedge's narrow focus, there was a time when The Wedding Present seemed poised to conquer the U.S. alt-rock market. After Bizarro, the band released the staggering Seamonsters, which made good use of producer Steve Albini's grasp of rock dynamics to put across a set of songs that combined Gedge's usual recriminations with some poignant reflections on childhood. And then after dominating the UK with their single-a-month project, the band signed to Island Records and collaborated with grunge-era titan Steve Fisk on what to me is The Wedding Present's most essential album, Watusi. Introducing a little more variety into the music without losing the essential fury, Watusi offered a punchy, catchy, funny study of romantic desperation. (It's high on my list of the best albums of the '90s.) In the years since Watusi, Gedge has broken up and reformed the band, and has continued to record EPs and LPs that sometimes make it Stateside and sometimes not. So The Wedding Present remains one of my "import bands," lo these many years later. Sometimes I wonder if that's why I like them so much.
Enduring presence? David Gedge's singing, like many British rockers' (Morrissey, Robert Smith, Ian MacCullough) is an acquired taste—it's a breathy, mewling sound that clings to the top of his mouth like moist bread. But Gedge can make it work when he wants to. On The Wedding Present's fantastic EP Mini, Gedge often let his voice trail to a mumble, allowing it to get buried by the songs' noisy, busy arrangements. The idea is to capture the frenetic, fleeting energy of rock 'n' roll in an intricate, memorable web. It's a rush best summed up in the chorus of Mini's song "Drive": "If you're driving / I'll go / And I don't care where."
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .
Venus Hum, "Springtime #2"
Nashville technopop act Venus Hum had the good and bad fortune to come along right as the music media was buzzing about "electroclash." Riding the hype, Venus Hum landed on a major label, released the superb Big Beautiful Sky, became go-to collaborators for other synth/dance artists, and then the big stonewall. The record-buying public let BBS gather dust, and in short order, the trio suffered the termination of their recording contract, lead singer Annette Strean lost her singing voice to vocal nodes, and changing musical trends put ice-cool pop-tronica out of favor again. Undaunted—or at least only slightly daunted—Venus Hum returned with another LP, The Colors In The Wheel, which found Strean no longer singing with operatic abandon, though still remarkably expressive, with a core of vulnerability. For a band founded by two computer programmers and a Montana-bred Broadway baby, Venus Hum has done a remarkable job of mixing emotional depth and technical precision in ways closer to moody Europeans like Björk and Hooverphonic than to the hard, buzzy dance music that typified electroclash. Venus Hum's songs are songs first and technical creations second, and most of them would survive the transition to acoustic piano and guitar without losing much.
Vic Chesnutt, "Forthright"
A lot of Vic Chesnutt's hardcore fans prefer his music the way they first heard it, on early albums like Little and West Of Rome, where the Georgia singer-songwriter relied almost exclusively on his craggy voice, coarsely strummed acoustic guitar, and remarkably vivid New South storytelling. But I have too many bad memories of hanging out in Athens bars and being subjected to interminable caterwauling solo sets by Chesnutt—usually thrown together so that he could pay off his bar tab. I didn't really start to enjoy Chesnutt's music until I heard him working with a full band on albums like Is The Actor Happy?, The Salesman & Bernadette and Ghetto Bells. Chesnutt gives his gutter-cat growl and shapeless melodies more body when he's fitting it into the context of an actual arrangement. Even a song like the spare, seven-and-a-half-minute "Forthright"—which mostly consists of a few idly plucked instruments and Chesnutt's dreamy, pleading vocal—sounds notably richer with just a few additional sounds adding atmosphere and scope.
Victoria Clark & Company, "Statues And Stories"
I've been skipping past the showtunes in my collection because it's an organizational nightmare to list all the permutations of people singing on cast albums; and anyway, 85% of my musical theater collection is Sondheim, and I wrote a long Sondheim appreciation last year. But I can't resist this song from Adam Guettel's Tony-winning The Light In The Piazza, which evolves past Guettel's usual Sondheim Lite affectations and adds more overt, classically Broadway flourishes. By and large, I was disappointed with The Light In The Piazza cast album (I haven't seen the show), because I was a big fan of Guettel's eclectic, witty, poignant Floyd Collins, and The Light In The Piazza strikes me as too repetitive and broad. But this song is really lovely, evoking the mysteries of old world Europe as they unfold to wide-eyed American tourists.
Vince Guaraldi, "Cast Your Fate To The Wind"
If you asked any random music critic or music buff to do a project like this one, that person would most likely have a very different set of musical interests and musical histories than my own, but nearly every one—if he or she were honest—would admit that much of their early understanding of jazz was shaped by Vince Guaraldi. If you're an American born in the '60s or afterward, you grew up watching the Peanuts holiday specials, and even if you didn't pay close attention to Guaraldi's scores, the plaintive piano and laid-back rhythms must've insinuated themselves into your subconscious. Prior to A Charlie Brown Christmas, Guaraldi had already won a Grammy for his song "Cast Your Fate To The Wind," which may be his most famous non-Peanuts recording. Still, when my kids walked into the room while this song was playing, they stopped what they were doing and walked over to the computer. "Hey, it's Charlie Brown music," my daughter said. I wonder what she'll think years from now, when she hears Coltrane, Brubeck, Monk and the like?
Vince Taylor, "Brand New Cadillac"
Webb Wilder, "How Long Can She Last"
Because I rarely read labels or liner notes when I was a teen—mainly because I often duped records from friends, or bought "Nice Price" cassettes with no liner notes—there are a host of cover songs that I used to assume were originals. Not until I heard Taylor's "Brand New Cadillac" on the Rockin' Bones box set a couple of years ago did I realize that The Clash didn't write the song for London Calling. (Though The Clash did add the line "balls to you, big daddy," which I always miss when I hear this version.) It's a testament to The Clash that they recorded a "Brand New Cadillac" that sounded creditably like an original 1979 version of rockabilly, because too many modern rockabilly recordings sound corny and even a little clownish in their overt retro leanings. Another rare exception: Webb Wilder's 1986 album It Came From Nashville, which compiles early singles and live performances by Wilder (and the loose assemblage of fellow Nashville songwriter mill grinders and studio musicians he dubbed "The Beatnecks"). Though steeped in a retro sensibility—and injected with B-movie references and TV host smarm—Wilder in the '80s was no mere throwback. He fit squarely between Steve Earle and post-R.E.M. college rock, sounding as sharp and relevant as his younger contemporaries.
The Vogues, "Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye"
Perhaps best known (by my generation at least) as the band responsible for The Drew Carey Show theme song "Five O'Clock World," The Vogues had a fairly long run in the '60s, especially after they moved away from youthful(ish) pop and embraced their easy-listening side, recording airy covers of contemporary rock and folk tunes. And so we get this: Leonard Cohen, reconfigured for the TV variety show of your choice.
The Vulgar Boatmen, "We Can Figure This Out"
Aside from sharing personnel with The Silos and The Mysteries Of Life, The Vulgar Boatmen shared a sensibility, preferring simple, rootsy songs about everyday experiences and concerns. The no-big-deal-ness of The Vulgar Boatmen was a selling point in the '90s, during an era of grungy bombast, but much of their music has proved too plain to endure. Still, I miss the days when there were a dozen or so bands recording songs like this, competing to see who could out-ordinary each other.
The Wackers, "Travelin' Time"
These early '70s also-rans opportunistically—but charmingly—combined Cosmic Americana and bubblegum, with a few traces of early glitter-rock stirred in. A lot of their music sounds too blatantly constructed, but songs like this sunny shuffle are a treat. "Travelin' Time" is like the theme song to a family sitcom that never got made.
The Waitresses, "No Guilt"
I can do without "I Know What Boys Like," which wears out its welcome 30 seconds into its three-minute running time, and though I like the Square Pegs theme song, I don't think it's any kind of all-time classic. But The Waitresses are responsible for two of my favorite pop songs of the '80s, both of which are more moving than they seem like they should be. One is "Christmas Wrapping," a tale of loneliness and unexpected holiday romance that nearly always chokes me up; the other is "No Guilt," a post-breakup declaration of independence that comes on all brassy and defiant ("I know the price of stamps now!") and then ends with Patty Donahue muttering, "Everything's great," as if trying to convince herself.
Walter Egan, "Magnet And Steel"
A couple of years ago, I heard "Magnet And Steel" on some '70s-focused digital-cable radio station and had one of those common-but-still-welcome moments where I suddenly became actively aware of a song I'd heard off-and-on throughout my entire life. I did some quick reading up on Egan, and after seeing that he'd written songs for Emmylou Harris before hooking up with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks for his first two solo albums, I snagged a CD that contained both those records, certain I was about to hear a pair of lost gems from the '70s. Alas, I found them both pretty dull and filler-heavy, aside from about three songs on each. (Not coincidentally, these six tended to be the songs that featured Buckingham and Nicks most heavily.) I did however glean this fun fact: Egan's album Fundamental Roll—with its cover images of short-skirted cheerleaders at sunset—made a Playboy list of the sexiest album covers of 1977. Screw the Grammy's—that's an award.
War, "The World Is A Ghetto"
Luscious Jackson's Jill Cunniff once said in an interview that she wanted her band to channel the good vibes of a late '70s Central Park concert by War, but while I enjoy the easy cruise of "Low Rider" and "Cisco Kid," my favorite War song has always been "The World Is A Ghetto," which combines the socially conscious R&B; of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder with the bunch-of-people-banding-together approach of Chicago. War always finessed the pop/R&B; hybrid better than most, and here they use it to produce one of the few "Look outside your window, people!" anthems that never sounds out of date.
Washington Social Club, "Breaking The Dawn"
Given the tradition of committed, fan-focused, punk-leaning acts from Washington, D.C.—from Bad Brains to Fugazi to The Dismemberment Plan—it takes guts for a quartet of upstart young rockers to call themselves Washington Social Club. It's like a bunch of late-coming northwesterners picking the name Seattle Grunge Committee, or some Detroiters cooking up The Motown Garage Band. But Washington Social Club proved it could carry off the name on the near-perfect debut album Catching Looks, with its rousing vocals, rolling rhythms and springy guitars. The band bangs out inviting, clean college rock—and that "college" designation is important, because Washington Social Club isn't really "alternative," "modern" or "indie." The frame of reference is the late '80s: The Replacements, Pixies, The Woodentops, The Wonder Stuff, Guadalcanal Diary, Billy Bragg and the like. Even if WSC co-leaders Martin Royle and Olivia Mancini haven't heard half of those bands, they've still inherited the spirit of sweaty, shouty, riveting rock 'n' roll that engages the modern world in non-didactic ways. I noticed this week that the band has a new album out, about which I've heard little. But now that it's November, I can check it out for myself. I'll report back when I can.[pagebreak]
The Weakerthans, "Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault In Paris, 1961)"
Winnipeg's The Weakerthans combine witty, moving character sketches with slightly off-kilter pop-rock, hearkening back to the wry roots of Can-indie. The band's recent LP Reunion Tour built on 2003's excellent Reconstruction Site with a deeper, more carefully crafted sound, but with the same involving stories of sometimes-happy, sometimes-pathetic obsessives. But Reconstruction Site is still my favorite of the band's four LPs, because it contains one of my favorite songs of the '00s in "Our Retired Explorer," a rolling two-and-a-half minutes in which the doddering narrator reminisces about Antartica and admits that though he doesn't really understand what his host is talking about, he must thank him "For the flowers / And the book by Derrida."
The Weavers, "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine"
This isn't the kind of song one would ordinarily associate with Pete Seeger, but he and his Weavers-mate Lee Hays adapted it from a Leadbelly standard, adding new verses and making it into a dreamy love song. It's the dreaminess that appeals to me. Semi-sweet and semi-comic lyrics aside, the tone of the song isn't too far removed from "Sixteen Tons." It depicts marital love as grueling work—more rewarding than mining coal perhaps, but just about as taxing.
I'm distrustful of smart-asses, so I've never been fully gung-ho for Ween, who often strike me as too smart for their own good. But I dig the way that the Ween boys never run out of ideas. After 20 years of deadpan art-pop in-jokes, Dean and Gene Ween could record the most earnest love song ever written, and their fans would still nervously assume—or at least hope—that their tongues were firmly in cheek. The band has perfectly mimicked a wide range of genres, from country-rock to grunge-punk to sappy AM soul, and have sung deceptively happy-sounding songs about sex fiends and spiritual phonies. Ween has lately been embraced by the jam-band community because of their instrumental dexterity, but for stylistic range and casual command, Ween's closest rival may be Prince, circa Sign O' The Times. Only Ween's much funnier.
Welcome, "All Set"
Seattle psych-pop band Welcome filled their debut album Sirs with false starts, false notes, herky-jerky beats, and echoing vocals, and set the tone with the album-opening "All Set," which sounds like a skipping 45 from '68. Welcome deconstructs post-British Invasion with the kind of savage imagination that bands like Lilys and Spoon have previously applied, and though the band really only has that one trick, it's a wower.
Wheat, "No One Ever Told Me"
Massachusetts-born art-poppers Wheat followed a curious arc over the course of their first four LPs. The band's 1998 debut Medeiros was the result of a year's worth of bedroom recording, and had the handmade charm and niggling impact of most indie-rock. For 1999's Hope And Adams, Wheat collaborated with Flaming Lips boardman Dave Fridmann, who helped tease out pretty melodies and pump in some blood, for what proved to be one of the richest, most affecting indie releases of the decade. Wheat frontman Scott Levesque spent the next three to four years discovering that he didn't like dealing with the snobbery associated with being a cult act; so, reteamed with Fridmann for Per Second, Per Second, Per Second Every Second, Wheat made a conscious effort to alienate its former fanbase, recording a slick record that sounded a little like a fizzier John Mayer. But Levesque didn't change his songwriting style, so about half Per Second consisted of the kind of fragmentary lyrics and melodies that sound obliquely meaningful in a washed-out, dreamy indie context, but sound thin when overwhelmed by artificially beefy production. Wheat then retreated to a relatively lo-fi mode for 2007's Every Day I Said A Prayer For Kathy And Made A One Inch Square, an album that takes the band's piecework approach to songwriting to a new extreme, in tracks that are little more than a series of impressions. I'm not sure where Levesque goes next. When his elliptical lyrics and here-and-there arrangements fail to cohere, Wheat doesn't sound like much. But when a Wheat song works, it's unlike anything else.
Whiskeytown, "Bound To Happen," "Win," "Sitting Around," "Tilt-A-Whirl"
If you'll pardon the indulgence, since I've written plenty about Ryan Adams both in this week's entry and in Week 35, I'll close out the column with four Whiskeytown songs that have been widely bootlegged but never officially released. "Bound To Happen" and "Win" are from the lost album commonly known as Fucker, and both show Adams working in his best off-the-cuff mode, knocking out easygoing pop-rock songs that don't sound like much on first pass, but get permanently lodged in the brain after a few spins. "Sitting Around" is from Forever Valentine, and is one of Adams' atmospheric acoustic ballads, relying heavily on his sweet rasp to add color and shade. And "Tilt-A-Whirl" is a dreamy piece of guitar-pop that was scheduled to be released on Pneumonia before the album got shelved, re-mixed and re-arranged. ("Tilt-A-Whirl" used to be the second-best unreleased Whiskeytown song, until "Choked Up" finally started showing up on anthologies.) I think if Adams had his ideal career, he'd be a late-'70s major label recording artist, releasing a 10-song album every nine months with two hit singles, three buried gems and a side-ful of filler. These songs would be the gems.
Regrettably unremarked upon: The Ventures, The Verve, Viva Voce, The Von Bondies, The Waco Brothers, The Wallflowers, Wanda Jackson, Weezer and Wham!
Verde, The Vern Williams Band,
Vernon Reid & Masque, The Verve Pipe,
The Vestals, Vexers, The Vibration, The
Vibrators, Vic Godard & The Subway Set, The Viceroys, Vickie Baines, Victor
Bermon, Victor Green, Victory Mansion, The View, The Vines,
Vinyl Kings, The Violinaires, Virginia Rodrgues, The Viscounts, The
Visitors, VNV Nation, The Vocokesh, Voice Of The Seven
Woods, Voices And Organs, Voicst, The Volebeats,
The Volunteers, W.G. "Snuffy Walden, Wade Flemons,
Wakefield, Wally Pleasant, Walt
Wilkins, Walter Becker, Walter Salas-Humara, Waltz For Debbie,
Wanderléa, Wang Chung, The Waphphle, The Warlocks, Warm In
The Wake, Warsaw Falcons, Warp Nine, Warren Zanes, Washdown, The Waxwings,
Wayne Hancock, Wayne McGhie, Wayne Wonder, We All Together, We Are Scientists,
We Are The Fury, We Ragazzi, We The People, The Weather, The
Weather Prophets, The Webb Brothers, Wee Hairy Beasties, The
Weird Weeds, The Weridos, Weldon Irvine, Wendell Harrison, West Coast Revival,
West Indian Girl, West Magnetic, Westbam, The Western States
Motel, Westside Connection, The What Four, What Made Milwaukee Famous,
?, The Whigs and Whirlybird
Next week: From The White Animals to X, plus a few words on academic music study (and bass guitar)