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.
One of my most enduring mental images of my father is of him sitting on the edge of his bed at the end of a day, picking away at his acoustic guitar. But when he played in bands—which he did more as a hobby than a vocation—my dad was the bass player. He was a tall man, with a wide oval face that could hold a steely glare and an impish smile with equal credibility, and though he held plenty of jobs that required him to be in the spotlight—from disc jockey to preacher—I think he envisioned himself as one of life's reliable pluggers, hulking in the margins and keeping the beat.
When kids pretend to be rock stars, very few choose to play air-bass. Heck, I didn't even know what a bass guitar was until I was 12—and my dad was a bassist. I first started to notice the bass when my dad borrowed a laserdisc player from a friend and checked The Kids Are Alright out from the public library. As I watched the movie with him, he pointed out what John Entwistle was doing, and I began to understand who really put the meaty, beaty, big and bouncy in The Who.
Of course Entwistle's riffs were easy to hear, once I could differentiate them. He practically played lead on a lot of Who songs, and his solo on "My Generation" is one of rock's signature moments (and an inspiration to unsung bass players everywhere). But for the most part, if bassists are doing their jobs, the sounds they make get absorbed into the mix, filling out the arrangement in ways too subtle for the casual listener to pick up.
Even experienced listeners might have a tough time paying attention to what the bass is doing—or how any non-lead instrument is supporting the overall song. I've done a lot of reading of rock criticism, but I've never taken a music theory class, nor have I read much in the way of academic studies or explanations of how a composition comes together. I can make a pretty good case to excuse my ignorance: namely that I'm writing for a general audience likely to be crudely educated as I am, which means it makes more sense to speak in plain language rather than getting all scholarly. But I don't accept that kind of "I'm just one of you" argument from a politician, and it seems a little disingenuous coming from a critic too. There's no reason I couldn't bring readers up to speed on any terms-of-art I picked up from music theory, if I chose to make that kind of study. At the least, expanding my critical vocabulary could improve my ability to get across what I'm trying to say. (I've actually bought a few books about music theory at flea markets over the years; maybe next year's projects should be about becoming a student again.)
Of course a lot of actual musicians are equally clueless as to how they do what they do. Whenever I'm fumbling to describe an effect or a style—without the words at my command that any high school band geek would probably know—I think about Pete Townshend. I followed my father's lead and became a big Who fan as a teenager, and found myself returning over and over to two texts: Dave Marsh's Who bio Before I Get Old, and Townshend's late '60s interviews with Rolling Stone. To Marsh and to Rolling Stone, Townshend talked at length about what he was trying to accomplish with albums like Tommy and Who's Next (formerly Lifehouse), and he didn't talk in terms of measures and contrapuntal melodies, but about letting go of rigid structures and letting the audience shape the music with their responses. Granted, Townshend was likely high at the time, but as a teenager I found his ideas inspiring, even if I had no idea about the steps necessary to make them work. And neither did Townshend apparently; neither Tommy nor Who's Next ever fully dislodged from his head.
Would Pete Townshend—the son of two musicians, and likely more classically educated than most guitarists of his generation—had been more successful at achieving what he meant to achieve had he dedicated himself to the nuts and bolts of his craft, rather than gallivanting around the world taking drugs and cashing checks? Perhaps. Or maybe The Who's albums would've sounded overly studied and dryly intellectual, rather than messy and visceral and thrilling in their thwarted ambition. Maybe it's enough that Townshend was able to convince other people to help him build the outlandish. At the least, it was his good fortune that he had Entwistle around to carry the lumber.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
The White Stripes
Years Of Operation 1997-present
Fits Between Led Zeppelin and House Of Freaks
Personal Correspondence The White Stripes' ascendancy coincided with a shift in my way of thinking about music and film. In the '90s, during my first decade as a pro critic, I was deeply concerned with sincerity and authenticity, and looked askance at artists I considered to be hucksters. But around the turn of the millennium, I started to see appropriation and phoniness as a fundamental right of pop artists, and I began to appreciate the bravura with which some of those artists constructed their personae. Like a lot of people, I came to The White Stripes' via White Blood Cells, which I didn't hear—and thus didn't get to write about—until well after the hype started building. By the time Elephant came out, I'd spent a year thinking about the band, and I wrote the following: "I can't blame anyone who regards The White Stripes' snappy look and garage rock variations on dirty blues with suspicion. It's not like coordinated clothes and raucous Muddy Waters steals are tough to pull off, and it's not like The White Stripes are the first guitar-and-drums duo to make a virtue of stripped-down necessity. (See also House Of Freaks, Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, early Spinanes, and on and on.) Nevertheless, the Stripes are legitimate rock stars, thanks primarily to Jack White's offbeat sense of humor and his left-field pop sensibility. Simply put: The man can write a hook, and he knows how to marry them to sweetly odd lyrics about kids on playgrounds, Detroit auto factory pollution, and the correspondences between Citizen Kane and a failing relationship. White makes boasts as strong as, 'Everybody knows about it, from The Queen Of England to the hounds of hell' and as vaguely threatening as 'I'm going to Wichita,' while stopping every now and then to spit out snaky electric guitar leads. He seems interested in the blues and its variants mainly for the inherent simplicity, which matches the sentiments of giddy goofs like 'The Hardest Button To Button' and 'Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine.' In Elephant's centerpiece, the seven-minute slow-stomp 'Ball And Biscuit,' Jack White lays down a line of bullshit about being 'the seventh son,' and though it would be easy to take umbrage at a runt like White pretending to be wicked, it's just as easy to relax, and remember that rock music is often about taking what's real, and turning it into play."
Enduring presence? A scattered few may have predicted that The White Stripes would become international rock stars based on the band's first two catchy, witty neo-garage albums, but even those early supporters probably doubted that Jack and his ex-wife Meg would be able to maintain creative momentum with a sound based solely on drums, guitar, and the occasional piano. Given the peppermint candy drum kits and red-black-and-white costumes, The White Stripes clearly have as much affinity for pop art as roadhouse boogie. They're put-on artists, no doubt. But between Meg's reticence and Jack's habit of feeding mystique-building baloney to the press, the band has become heirs to the room-filling, attitude-heavy pseudo-blues of The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin. When I interviewed White prior to the release of the wonderful Icky Thump, he talked about his interest in the transient qualities of performance, and how he likes working with Meg because together they create something like a happening. In concert, Jack tends to hide behind a mop of black hair when he's at his audience-facing microphone, but push his locks back when he's at his Meg-facing microphone, which he jumps to when he wants them to goose each other. The spontaneous tempo shifts and loud-quiet dynamics establish a framework within which White can work in little fillips at the end of a guitar solo, and spout a line of patter in a carnival barker growl. White's persona is part hype, and part sincere shilling for the ecstatic, liberating effect of roots music. But most of all, it's fun.
Years Of Operation1964-present (off and on)Fits Between The Kinks and The Pretty Things
Personal Correspondence I was devoted to The Who and Pete Townshend as a teenager, then found Townshend's combination of neediness, arrogance and pretension grating in my 20s. But in my 30s, right around the time I started to celebrate bravura (as mentioned in The White Stripes entry above), The Who came back to me in a big way, and Townshend's weaknesses suddenly seemed more like strengths. In some ways it's easier to stick to the early Who, which banged out catchy, ferocious rock singles with an art school sensibility and the careless muscle of a street tough. And it's definitely easier to shrug off the later Who, which wrapped songs in synthesizers and frequently broke from hammering away at an audience to coo pretentious nothings in their ears (as parodied so savagely in This Is Spinal Tap). But of all the big-name, multi-millionaire, classic-rock-radio-staple British Invasion bands, The Who are the ones that strike me as the most humanly flawed, and thus the most approachable. There's a real continuity between the protozoan howls of early Who singles like "My Generation," and "Substitute," and the mid-life-crisis Who albums like Quadrophenia and Who Are You, where those dispatches from the post-juvenile id are recontextualized by an adult—one who has compassion and nostalgia for the angst of his youth, but also understands that brutal compromises must be made. Townshend's initial burst of creativity from 1964 to 1970—as he learned how to write songs in a voice all his own, then immediately tried to use that voice to say something more personally revealing than "Hope I die before I get old"—has rarely been equaled in popular music, and I'm sure Townshend has often wondered exactly how he made it happen. But I admire the way he's continued to bull ahead even when uninspired, and how he's sometimes made his inability to be brilliant the subject of his songs. In a way, Townshend laid out the course of his whole career in the opening lines of The Who's first single: "I've got a feeling inside I can't explain." And in a way, I started loving The Who again when I realized how much I sympathized.
Enduring presence? Because of their heavy British-ness and Townshend's conceptual and theatrical pretensions, The Who have a different sort of fan base than most classic rockers. They're almost like the biggest cult act in the world, if that's not too much of an oxymoron. Or at the least, they're some kind of bigger-than-life superhero version of a rock quartet. (The Fantastic Four say, or Challengers Of The Unknown,) For Who fans, it's easy to conjure a mental image of the band in full flight: Roger Daltrey swinging his microphone, Townshend windmilling, John Entwistle standing stock still, and Keith Moon pounding away recklessly, his drums sounding like the rapidly beating heart of a teenager veering between ecstasy and disillusionment. In fact, forget Townshend's lifelong struggle to articulate; watching Keith Moon rip through "I Can't Explain" is really explanation enough.[pagebreak]
Years Of Operation 1994-present
Fits Between Stephen Stills and Neil YoungPersonal Correspondence I liked Wilco's AM reasonably well, but it didn't automatically change my perception of Jeff Tweedy as the other ex-Uncle Tupelo guy, even though he'd clearly moved beyond the rigid folk, punk, and country-rock turns of his old band in order to dabble in bluegrass, swamp-rock, and early Beatles jangle. No, Tweedy didn't become a major player in my eyes until Wilco's stunning Being There, which took an aggressively eclectic and confident approach to heartland rock, reminiscent of Tom Petty and John Fogerty. Being There is a big, important-sounding record: Two CDs' worth of spirited, carefully crafted, endlessly inventive American popular music. The record opens with "Misunderstood," a piano ballad about wasting time in a dead-end town; and when the song unexpectedly veers into violin-fueled noise in Tweedy's final refrain, the rickety sonic construction underscores the way rock 'n' roll can provide a cathartic release for people who feel ground down by their surroundings. The whole album continues in that vein, matching the urgency of the performances to Tweedy's innate understanding of how rock 'n' roll can both make life bearable and can haunt a person with its unfulfillable promises. Stretching Being There to two discs may have overstated those themes a bit—it's as though Tweedy decided to release a classic album and its disappointing follow-up all at once—but perhaps Wilco needed the sprawling space to reach a newer, deeper level. Following that lead, Tweedy has continued to overreach, whether it be via the production frippery of Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or the downer jams of A Ghost Is Born. So if I bristle when some smug critics wave off Wilco as "Dad rock" or "NPR rock," it's in part because I think dismissing the validity of music that appeals to public-radio-listening parents is really fucking shallow, and in part because those kind of flip knocks ignorantly gloss over the story of the person making the music, and what he's struggled with—creatively more than personally—over the past 20-plus years as a working musician. For Tweedy, the journey of Wilco has been about finding his own identity, and figuring out the best way to present it. His music may not be for everybody, but his dilemma should be familiar to anyone who's ever gathered an audience then tried to come up with some way to entertain them.
Enduring presence? Or maybe I'm just defensive because Wilco has become one of my favorite bands. Reviewing last year's Sky Blue Sky, I wrote: "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot may have been the best and worst thing to happen to Wilco: Worst because it invited a backlash among fans who balked at Jeff Tweedy, one of roots-rock's premiere tunesmiths, pulling his songs apart in a fit of inexpressible irritation; and best because Tweedy almost immediately rejected that style of album-making. While the songwriting on A Ghost Is Born and the new Sky Blue Sky remains restless and occasionally experimental, the songs themselves are much less fussy, and more of the moment. Again and again, Wilco builds quickly from lovely, breezy openings to rough-hewn jams, spotlighting loose guitar interplay and chunky rhythms. Again and again, the band starts a song that sounds like it could be a new pop-folk standard, and then abandons it after a minute or two to go rooting around in the soil. When Wilco rocks, it goes full-out, as deep in the pocket as six alt-rock-addled boys can go. And in between the loud, jammy interludes, Tweedy coos sweet words of regret and reconciliation, poignant but never pat. The soft rock sheen always sports thin cracks, letting in fresh air."
Years Of Operation 1956-present
Fits Between Ray Price and Waylon Jennings
Personal Correspondence I didn't have my own car until almost a year after I graduated from college, so I frequently traveled back and forth from Nashville, TN to Athens, GA via Greyhound Bus. On one of those trips, I found a cassette copy of Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger in the $4.99 rack of the bus terminal's sundry shop, and since that album frequently showed up even on rock magazines' best-of-all-time lists, I picked up a copy for the road. As it happens, I can't think of too many albums better-suited for a bumpy bus ride through the back country. For one thing, Red Headed Stranger tells a story after a fashion, about crimes of passion and the long road to recovery. It's also a strikingly spare record, stepping back from Nashville's "countrypolitan" sound of the '60s and helping to usher in a new era of traditionalism and simplicity (at least among a few key artists). In other words, Red Headed Stranger sounds like it came from just the kind of American nowhere that Greyhound winds through on its way from city to city, and it both diverted me and moved me as I endured the long journeys home. After that record, Nelson became a big star, and went on to have a career that mixed saccharine pop crossovers with lonesome cowboy songs. For the most part though, Nelson has maintained his affinity with the Young Turk singer-songwriters who flooded the country-music capitals of Nashville and Austin in the '70s. After all, it's not like Red Headed Stranger is Nelson's only great, ambitious album. For example it's immediately preceded by Phases & Stages, an attempt to chart the end of a relationship from the wife's point of view (on side one), and then the husband's (on side two). The songs are linked by a miniature theme song, which pops up repeatedly like the bumper music on a sitcom; and unlike the spare Stranger, Phases & Stages sweetens its sour scenario with jammy roots-rock. It's like a John Cassavetes film, edited for television and scored by The Grateful Dead.
Enduring presence? Of the "Outlaw" trifecta of Nelson, Jennings and Cash, Nelson arguably had the best voice and the most focus. He's been generally savvier about his career—IRS problems and pot busts aside—and has put together a body of work that's easier to navigate than his fellow highwaymen. But there's also a higher percentage of schlock in the Nelson catalog than in Jennings' or Cash's. He's burned steady, but he's only occasionally burned bright.
Years Of Operation 1976-present (off and on)
Fits Between Pere Ubu and Minutemen
Personal Correspondence Because of R.E.M.'s cover of "Strange" and the frequent mention of Pink Flag in articles about the Minutemen, I knew Wire were a significant band in post-punk and art-rock history, but the Wire described by fans and critics was very different from the one I heard on college rock radio at the time. Over their now-32-year-long career, Wire has experimented with brevity and long drone, and has played music for dancing as well as music for staring intently at blank walls. The band has made guitars sound like power tools, or rushing streams, or forests of birds. And on a semi-regular basis, Wire has dropped all illusion of compositional intelligence and stripped down to a jittery, fuzzy groove dubbed—on the seminal 1986 techno-thrash single "Drill"—its "dugga dugga dugga" style. The Wire I first knew was the Wire of "Drill" and the Wire of the technopop delights "Ahead" and "Kidney Bingos." They were all about the machines, and the beat. So when I finally heard Pink Flag (followed closely by Chairs Missing and 154), I was taken aback by the prevalence of guitars on Wire's early albums, as well as their stylistic breadth, which ran the gamut from bashing punk to soft pop to experimentation-for-experimentation's-sake. But mostly, with Pink Flag in particular, I was impressed with the same thing that impressed people who first heard Wire back in the late '70s: the way the band said what they intended to say then quit, whether it took one minute or six.
Enduring presence? Lately, the reformed Wire has been cross-pollinating its disjointed early work with the poppier dance grooves of its mid-'80s comeback and a mutant strain of headbanging fury that's only tangentially been part of prior Wire. For sheer blitzed mayhem, few of the current wave of new rockers, neo-garagers and retro-punkers can match "Spent," which drives dual live-wire guitar riffs and shredded shouts around in circles, getting off on aggressive aimlessness. It's an exciting four-and-three-quarter minutes of rock music, especially given that it comes from the minds and hands of men in their fifties.
Years Of Operation 1977-93
Fits Between The Blasters and The Clash
Personal Correspondence Shortly before Sonic Youth made punk rock safe for aesthetes on the east coast, X did the same out west, fusing art and music unpretentiously. X's songs were fluidly aggressive but conceptual, ladled from a thick stew seasoned with rockabilly, Catholic icons, artifacts from seedy motel rooms, and droppings from rabid wolves. I'm pretty sure the first time I heard X was when album-rock radio started playing the band's walloping cover of "Wild Thing," a masterful exploitation of the arena rock aesthetic that didn't really match the sound of X at any other time in their career (not even on the mid-'80s major label cash-ins). The first X album I bought was More Fun In The New World, and though the band has arguably made better records, I can't think of one that makes a better introduction to X, since it catches them poised between ratty punk and mainstream rock, exploring their interests in country music and funk along with their signature style, and making direct nods to Woody Guthrie, Motown and their favorite American post-hardcore bands. It's that cultural awareness—and the purposeful channeling of same—that endeared X to me when I was 15, and I still respond strongly to their mix of the high-minded and gutter-bound. I'm even willing to admit something kind of embarrassing: Whenever "See How We Are" comes up on my iPod, I find myself wishing I was young enough (and talented enough) to try out for American Idol or one of its imitators, just so I could share with the world X's most powerful anthem, about the separation we all keep between our reality and how we choose to perceive it. I guess something about X just brings the teenage idealist back out in me.
Enduring presence? Let's take a moment to give all four members of X their due: moaning thrift store poet Exene Cervenka, the dapper, deep-voiced John Doe, Lionel Hampton-loving drummer D.J. Bonebrake, and hot rod superhero guitarist Billy Zoom. Not since The Who has a quartet had such distinctive, clashing personalities, or such a unified vision.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .
The White Animals, "Don't Care"
Straight to you from Elliston Square, here's the band that was Nashville's Great Rock Hope prior to the emergence of Jason & The Scorchers. Founded by a group of Vandy students, The White Animals were a party band first and foremost, blending college-rock jangle, garage-rock raunch, and—for art's sake—an eccentric interest in dub. They won converts at concerts up and down the Eastern Seaboard, but they never really recorded a great record, and couldn't make many inroads with critics. Still, for Nashville kids who grew up in the '80s, The White Animals were a big deal as much for their reputation as their music. They were a symbol of possibility, proving that we didn't have to wait around for the big-name touring rock acts to add Nashville to their itinerary. We could just as easily grow our own.
White Zombie, "Thunder Kiss '65"
To be honest, I never gave White Zombie a second thought when they were MTV staples back in the '90s, though I did appreciate that they were more groove-oriented than a lot of the grunge-metal of the time, and seemed to be having a lot more fun than their Ozzfest contemporaries. But now that Rob Zombie has established himself as one of the most interesting (and potentially influential) genre filmmakers of the '00s, I'm inclined to return to White Zombie and see if I can hear the seeds of the grimy vision that flowered in The Devil's Rejects. But at the moment, all I have by White Zombie are a few compilation tracks. Any suggestions for an album to buy?[pagebreak]
Whodini, "Magic's Wand"
Whodini's "Freaks Come Out At Night" and "Five Minutes Of Funk" were staples of the schoolbus when I was in junior high, but for some reason I wasn't aware of this Thomas Dolby-produced Whodini track until about five or six years ago. What strikes me about it—besides Dolby's appealingly wiggly synthesizer—is how prematurely nostalgic it is for hip-hop's golden age. It's only 1981, and Whodini is already reminiscing about jamming at the neighborhood center. They were pining for the old school before the dismissal bell had rung.
The Wildbirds, "Shake Shake"The Wombats, "Kill The Director"
Every now and then, publicists send me teaser CDs for albums by bands that are getting a big label push, and then they neglect to actually send me the albums when they're done. (And not coincidentally, those albums often stiff . not because I didn't write about them, but because the label withdrew their support.) In the end I'm left with a handful of good songs on my hard drive and no idea what happened to the bands who recorded them. Here are two: one by the Kings Of Leon-esque The Wildbirds, and one by Liverpool's The Wombats. Both of these bands were being promoted heavily in 2007, but a cursory Google search didn't turn up much in the way of coverage in '08, when their full-length LPs were released here in the States. Did their label drop the ball? Did music writers fail to spotlight two worthy bands? Or are these two entertaining rock songs just anomalies by mediocrities?
Will Hoge, "Let Me Be Lonely"
I've been disappointed by the arc of this Nashville roots-rocker's career, which started out with such an explosion of force and creativity and then retreated to uninspiring conventionality. In 2001, I was excited by Hoge's studio debut Carousel, which found him dancing in the same shoes as Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and every other sweaty pilgrim who looked for the meaning of life between the scratches of a flea market 45. Sounding like a jumped-up Counting Crows, Hoge hopped and roared, blasting forth with purposeful energy and the joy of music-making. Hoge recently suffered multiple broken bones in a traffic accident. Here's hoping that when he recovers his health, he also recovers his fire.
Will Oldham, "O Let It Be"
I've written up Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Palace already, but I so dearly love Joya—the only official LP credited to "Will Oldham"—that I thought I'd close out Oldham's presence in this project with one of my favorite Joya tracks, which finds Oldham in a profoundly mournful mood, using up the last of his energy to complete the day. (By the way, on iTunes, Joya is credited to Bonnie "Prince" Billy, so this may no longer officially be an Oldham song. But I'm including it anyway.)
Will Rigby, "Ricky Skaggs Tonight"
The Woodward Brothers, "Hot Rod Race, Navy Style"
Here's a couple of country-rock/rockabilly novelty tunes: The first a tall tale about a bluegrass legend, performed by Carolina Rock stalwart Will Rigby; the second a story about bad-assin' across the waves, by the long-forgotten Woodward Brothers. Both are perfect for iPods set on shuffle, breaking up the blandness of any mix with the sweet taste of cornpone.
William Ackerman, "The Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter"
Speaking of music just right for certain occasions, here's a song by the founder of Windham Hill: a guitarist who lacks the energy, virtuosity and daring of Michael Hedges, but who's terrific at creating pleasant aural environments for listeners to relax in. Light some scented candles, slip into your pajamas, close your eyes and just breathe.
William Bell, "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man"
Wilson Pickett, "I'm A Midnight Mover"
And now for a couple of Stax/Volt artists: one well-known, one a little less so. Bell cut his most enduring hit—1961's "You Don't Miss Your Water"—before a stint in the military sidetracked his career, then recorded his amazing debut album The Soul Of A Bell in 1967. That record—made in collaboration with Isaac Hayes and David Porter, among others—is divided into two halves, spending the first six songs revisiting the stately paced laments that first made Bell's name, and stringing them together like one long, dignified expression of loss. Then, for side two, Bell picks up the pace, bringing southern grit to the swinging R&B; style of the day. Pickett, meanwhile, came south from Detroit, and brought that rollicking style of soul with him, recording songs that were brassy and sweaty and just a little bit indecent. Both artists are rooted in gospel, but they follow decidedly different routes to salvation.
William Shatner, "It Hasn't Happened Yet"
The largely spoken-word album that Shatner made with Ben Folds a few years back is surprisingly effective, even though some of that effect is about making listeners cringe. Still, Has Been is a real record, with real songs, some of which are moving and curiously revealing. The best in the latter regard has to be the torchy, melancholy "It Hasn't Happened Yet," in which Shatner laments the lack of certainty in his life, even at this late date.
Willie Williams, "Master Plan"
Wilson Simonal, "Nem Vem Que Nao Tem"
The Clash covered Williams' "Armagideon Time," but he recorded quite a few similarly offbeat reggae and dub singles for Studio One, including the woozy, catchy call for peace "Master Plan." Simonal, meanwhile, is one of the few Brazilian pop artists to cross over to worldwide success, most notably with the hit "Nem Vem Que Nao Tem," an expression of roguish glee that offers another response to this world of strife: a sardonic chuckle and a fuck-you attitude.
Wire Train, "Chamber Of Hellos"
Like a lot of American new wave bands—including their San Francisco neighbors and 415 labelmates Translator—Wire Train hung on for the better part of a decade despite never landing a big hit outside of college radio. They played a lot of opening sets on arena tours, and landed on a movie soundtrack or two, but never created a sound distinctive enough to whip up much of a groundswell of support. Now they're one of those bands whose music for me conjures up general impressions of a time and place, but no specific memories. Listening to "Chamber Of Hellos" is like visiting an '80s theme park, but not at all like connecting directly to my youth. Luckily, I like theme parks.
The Woggles, "Abba"
Two Woggles stories: I interviewed Woggles frontman Manfred Jones for the UGA paper back around 1991, before I knew much of anything about the neo-garage movement, and I found his advocacy of old records over CDs (and the way he stayed in character even in interviews) to be incredibly bizarre. Now, nearly twice as old as I was then, I better understand Jones' clinging to his favorite past. Second story: I drove back down to Athens to see some friends in early '93, and went to see The Woggles because a girl I liked—whom I'd been exchanging letters with for a couple of months—had started playing organ in the band while preparing to move up to Charlottesville to work on her doctorate. This picture is small, but she's the blurry one up front, and she's still every bit as awesome, even with two kids clinging to those fabulous gams:
Wolf Parade, "Grounds For Divorce"
I've got the new Wolf Parade sitting on my iPod right now, and considered listening to it this week, since my moratorium on new music has been lifted, but I decided that would run counter to the spirit of this project. So here's some quick thoughts on the old Wolf Parade, cribbed from my review: "Following the dual models of Modest Mouse and The Arcade Fire, Apologies To The Queen Mary is aggressively poetic, and hand-crafted by the kind of scary idealists capable of bellowing lines like, 'I'll draw three fingers on your heart / One of them will be me as a boy / One of them will be me / And one of them will be me watching you run.' The band's melodies are counterintuitive, and their instrumentation deceptively busy. For the most part, Wolf Parade makes a big, echoing noise with guitars and keyboard, while steady-on drummer Arlen Thompson provides the foundation and the frame. It's a rare band that sounds equally indebted to Talking Heads, Big Country, and Pixies." Good enough? Okay, now I'm off to listen to the new one.
The Woodentops, "Everything Breaks"
What I liked best about this mid-to-late '80s British alt-pop act was the way nearly all of their songs sounded like they were composed by someone sitting underneath a train trestle, using the steady clatter of boxcars as a metronome. This song, the concluding track on The Woodentops' one great LP Giant, sums up the band's permissive stance on disorder, along with their casual elegance.
Woody Guthrie, "Two Good Men"
Guthrie wrote and sang a whole suite of songs about Sacco and Vanzetti back in the '40s, and this song to me is the best of the bunch, serving as a kind of overture to the project. "Two Good Men" explains who Sacco and Vanzetti were, and why their story affected Guthrie so much. Most importantly, in the line "left me here to sing this song," Guthrie establishes the responsibility of pop artists to engage with their times, and carry on the traditions they consider important.
Wool, "Kill The Crow"
This song is Stray Tracks in a nutshell: An excellent, largely forgotten modern rocker by a band that I honestly care nothing about, beyond this song. I've increasingly used Stray Tracks over the course of the year to write about great artists I like more than love, along with some semi-favorites, but the original intent was to spotlight songs like this one, which stick around on my iPod year-after-year, because I honestly enjoy hearing it, even though I have no interest in hearing a whole Wool playlist.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Widespread Panic, Willard Grant Conspiracy, William Orbit, Willie Nile, The Wolfgang Press, Wolfmother, Wooden Wand, The Wrens and Wyclef Jean
Also listened to:
White Denim, White
Flight, White House, The Whitstein
Brothers, Wilbur Hatch & Orchestra, The
Wilders, A Wilhelm Scream, Will Kimbrough, Will
McFarlane, Will Stratton, Will Taylor &
Strings Attached, Will.I.Am, The William Caslon Experience,
William Duel, William Lee Ellis, William Onyeabor, Willie
Hutch, The Willowz, Willy DeVille, Willy Porter,
The Wilsons, Windjammer, Windsor For The Derby, Winston's
Fumbs, Winterpills, Wisdom Of Harry, Wiseguys, Witch Hazel Sound, Without
Gravity, The Witnesses, Wolfgang, The Wolfhounds, Womack
& Womack, Wonderful Smith, The Wonders, Wooden Shjips, Woodrow Jackson
Orchestra, The Woolies, World Leader Pretend, Wormbelly, Woven Hand, Wreckless
Eric, Wreckx-N-Efftect, Wretch Like Me, The Wyos, The
X-Executioners, X-Ray Spex, X27, Xavier Rudd, Xisco Ponce Jr. and Xiu Xiu
Next week: From XTC to !!!, plus a few true confessions