I've been kicking around the idea for this series for about the last three years, and up until about a week before I finally pitched it to my editors, I'd conceived it very differently. The alphabetical trip through my collection was a last-second addition, and a good one as it turns out, since I've realized over the first six weeks that my original idea for what "Popless" would've been be–primarily me writing about music-withdrawal, plus some random revisiting of old favorites–wouldn't have filled much space each week. It would've gone something like, "Week Two: Still not missing new music much. Week Three: Missing new music just a little," and so on.
Still, the "stopping new music" factor remains a significant part of this project, so every six weeks or so, I'm going to take a break from the usual mini-essays and file a report on how life looks from inside the deprivation chamber. In brief, here's the first one:
Things aren't so bad.
Yes, there have been moments of weakness. A couple of weeks ago I read an upcoming schedule of new releases and saw that I'm going to be missing new albums by Sun Kil Moon and My Morning Jacket over the next several months, which is painful to contemplate. Also, the current buzz about Vampire Weekend got me tempted to click on a sample track but I held myself back. And the other day I was in a big-box store and from the music section I heard what sounded like a new Death Cab For Cutie song–though on further research, it probably wasn't–and I stood there for a moment, unsure whether I should be enjoying the music or ignoring it.
(Full disclosure: I have bought one new album. I got They Might Be Giants' Here Come The 123s CD/DVD for my kids, and I've listened to/watched a little of it. Maybe it's because I'm starved for anything fresh, but the few songs I heard sounded pretty wonderful. Or maybe I'm just seeing and hearing through the eyes and ears of my six-year-old, who already thinks of numbers as his magical little friends, and whose face lights up when the integers start dancing across our TV screen.)
As for the "getting rid of the junk I don't need" part of the project, I'm making some progress, but I'm probably cutting slightly less than I otherwise might've, because I'm doing it in public. Each week I anticipate what the comments might be if I strike through some old bluesman–even if all I've only got by him is one lame track from a compilation–and so I hesitate to delete. I suppose I could cut anyway and just not tell you all about it, but that seems unfair. Thus far, the only tracks I've routinely breezed by without mentioning in the column include the following: Songs from Stephen Sondheim cast albums (which are often indexed in a strange way that makes them inconducive to inclusion in a list of bands and solo artists), mash-ups (which aren't by real bands in the first place), and the little TV and movie dialogue snippets that I've accumulated and stored over the years.
Pacing-wise, I've managed to keep a 700-tracks-a-week rhythm going, despite the setback of Sundance and some unexpected family business that sent me to Nashville for two days a couple of weeks ago. (Although I actually got a lot of listening done on the road it was just writing that was hard.) Every few weeks though I flip through my collection to see if there are any CDs I still need to load into my hard drive, and in addition to finding some "As" and "Bs" I've missed (and will have to get back to at some point), I find I'm also adding another couple hundred tracks each week, which means that at my current pace, I probably won't get through my collection by the end of October. (In case you don't recall the parameters of the experiment, at the end of October I'm going to start buying the best-reviewed albums of 2008 and writing about them every week for two months to close out this series.) Come November, it looks like I'm still going to be sorting through the old pieces of the puzzle while I contemplate the new ones.
So far though, I don't think I've run out of things to say, even though I keep coming back to the same basic mix of indie-rock, classic rock, '70s/'80s pop, roots music and vintage R&B.; Every time I start a new column I panic a little, but then I look at the list of bands coming up (like this week's Bruce Springsteen, Built To Spill and The Byrds), and I feel a sense of calm. Thus far, the problem hasn't been finding something to write, but figuring out where to stop.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1968-99
Fits Between America and The Bee Gees
Personal Correspondence Back when my best friend and I were finding out all we could about music by haunting used record stores and raiding our parents' record collections, he tried to sell me on the idea that Bread was rad, but I wouldn't buy in. I was pretty sure the only reason he liked Bread was because they were readily accessible in his dad's stack of LPs; and besides, I couldn't get behind any band that would record a song called, "Baby I'm-A Want You." I can embrace my wimpy side, but there are limits. Then, a couple of years ago, a bunch of acts I like recorded a Bread tribute album, Friends And Lovers, and somewhere in the middle of playing Josh Rouse's cover of "It Don't Matter To Me," I had a moment of clarity. In a fever, I wrote the following review: "The critical establishment of the '70s helped define rock's canon, by speaking out passionately against pretension, programmatic pop, and sickly-sweet soft rock. But those guys weren't always right. Time has shown rock critics' knee-jerk rejection of disco to be partly rooted in a kind of misguided purity, bordering on bigotry; and it's only a matter of time before the long-standing prejudice against California folk-pop falls away, and people start to realize the powerful fantasy world that bands like Bread represent. Friends And Lovers: Songs Of Bread is one of the best products yet to emerge from the insidious "tribute album" genre, in part because it has a better line-up than most of these things–the likes of Josh Rouse, Cake, Paula Frazer and members of The Posies contribute tracks–and in part because the musicians know why they're here. In Rouse's plaintive cover of 'It Don't Matter To Me,' the pop-folk hero sings at his highest and blankest while steel guitar, bass and drums ripple below; and suddenly it's clear how strong the pull of '70s AM has been on Rouse's entire career. Even when the bands mix it up some–like Call & Response does with their bossa nova flavored 'Baby I'm-A Want You' and Cake does with their wiggy southern-psychedelic 'Guitar Man'–Bread's ethereal melodies and tame romantic obsessions carry the song. These aren't put-ons or parodies. This is Bread reconsidered as the sound of rainy west coast days, calling out across the continents to transistor radios in sunny suburban kitchens."
Enduring presence? I bought The Best Of Bread shortly after Friends And Lovers came out, and I'm still digging it. I guess the "yacht rock" movement has never gained enough momentum for Bread's critical reputation to get resuscitated, but anyone who sings as well as David Gates–and with such a gift for slowly creeping melodies–won't stay in disfavor forever.
Years Of Operation 1988-present
Fits Between Pixies and Guided By Voices
Personal Correspondence For a time, it looked like Kim Deal's little side project was bound to outpace the Pixies in terms of chart success and lasting impact, but the pressure of making the band a going concern apparently overwhelmed the Kim and her already-messed-up sister Kelley, and over time, Frank Black's slow-and-steady approach has won the race. (Though the Pixies still reign over both of them and have provided them both with a handy cash machine in recent years.) That said, The Breeders' Pod and the Safari EP were essential listening back at the dawn of the '90s, revealing how much Kim Deal's pop sense had helped mitigate Frank Black's shock tactics on the Pixies' early records–as well as how much occasional Breeder Tanya Donnelly could be offering to Throwing Muses. The band's big mainstream move Last Splash was beefier and more eclectic, but less fleet–with the exception of songs like "Cannonball," "Divine Hammer" and "Saints," all of which presented Deal as an alt-rock queen in waiting. One who ultimately refused her crown.
Enduring presence? Why isn't there a The Best Of The Breeders out there? Sure, they didn't record much–and their 2004 comeback album was weak–but the 14 or so top Breeders cuts would make for some exciting listening. Better than The Best Of Belly, that's for sure.
Years Of Operation 1995-present
Fits Between Billy Bragg and Dashboard Confessional
Personal Correspondence Conor Oberst rubs a lot of folks the wrong way with his floppy hair, sad eyes and searing self-absorption, but I tend to feel towards him and his music the way venerable old entertainers used to feel about the latest flash-in-the-pan pop star. "The kid's got talent!" I sputter, as everyone around me rolls their eyes and backs away. But he does! He really does! Oberst's main problem to date has been that his ambition often exceeds his ability. (Well, that and the fact that he's an insufferably pretentious emo-boy.) On the other hand, when he showed off a new maturity and control on last year's Cassadaga, the results were kind of dreary, and overshadowed by the more off-the-cuff songs on the preceding EP Four Winds. So maybe he needs to push himself and move out of his comfort zone in order to come up with anything worthy of passionate debate. Oberst's career peak to date was the simultaneous release of the reckless synth-pop experiment Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and the graceful country-rock effort I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, two albums that showed off the range of his gifts and obsessions, while still remaining concise and accessible. And though he still has the bad songwriter habit of falling back into the same cadence over and over again–a bush league maneuver–Oberst's got the skills and the fan base to come up a really timeless and enduring LP someday. I'm betting it happens sooner rather than later.
Enduring presence? In the meantime, I still have a soft spot for Bright Eyes, even at their most shrill, and I'm continually taken aback by the moments where Oberst's proudly blemish-y lyrics meet a melody and arrangement that make navel-gazing awkwardness a virtue. Example: My favorite Bright Eyes song, Digital Ash's "Light Pollution," a bitterly ironic and passionate reminiscence of a political-minded mentor who was undone by the capitalist sprawl he railed against. The beauty of the climactic line–"I bet the stars seemed so close at the end"–turns an angry moment into a fitting tribute.
Years Of Operation 1969-74
Fits Between The Band and The Blasters
Personal Correspondence As proof that you're never too old to discover something you should've known decades earlier, I offer my so-far brief, happy affair with Brinsley Schwarz, a band I'd always regarded as a footnote in the career of Brit-rock icon Nick Lowe (even though I'd never actually, you know, heard them). Last year–after, I add with some embarrassment, I'd interviewed Lowe about his excellent 2007 album At My Age–I stumbled across an article about Brinsley Schwarz that mentioned their album Nervous On The Road as the supreme artifact of the pub-rock era. Since I'd always wanted to venture further into pub-rock than my handful of Graham Parker records, I went looking for Nervous On The Road on CD. And since I never just dip a toe in where I can dive, as soon as I saw that all six Brinsley Schwarz albums were available on three two-fer CD sets, I bought the whole damn discography at once, and spent about a month playing them over and over and over in my car. Yes, even the band's much-maligned debut album: a shameless attempt to rip off Crosby, Stills & Nash that would be appalling, except that I like Crosby, Stills & Nash, almost as much as I like Nick Lowe. Of course Brinsley Schwarz does get better after they move past the CSN and Band homages and start working in some Van Morrison and British skiffle. Nervous On The Road and the final album, The New Adventures Of Brinsley Schwarz, are the work of a group of young musicians eager to embrace the variety of new sounds emerging on the radio in the UK in the early '70s, and it's no surprise that when the band broke up and Lowe went solo, he became the go-to guy for young punk and New Wave acts looking for a sympathetic ear in the producer's chair. Lowe new what it was like to fumble along, trying to find the formula for greatness.
Enduring presence? We've had box sets and revivals for nearly every underground rock movement of the '70s and '80s, so the time has definitely come for a pub-rock revival. I want new pub-rock-influenced bands, a sweeping Rhino box set, and some kind of oral history, perhaps assembled by Simon Reynolds. Get to it, zeitgeist.
Years Of Operation 1972-present (E Street era and solo)
Fits Between Woody Guthrie and Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels
Personal Correspondence I've already written several thousand words on Springsteen for this site, so you'll forgive me if I don't wax rhapsodic here about how Bruce Springsteen has been a foundational part of my music-listening–and music-writing–since I was 14. Anyway, most of my personal Springsteen stories are either routine or are too involved to get into here. (I wrote a whole short story when I was 15 about the painful night when I bought Greetings From Asbury Park after being ditched by some cooler high school kids I thought I was hanging out with; and I still remember my anxiousness at 17 when I tried to hide from my punk friends that I'd bought a copy of Tunnel Of Love along with the latest by The Smiths and The Jesus & Mary Chain.) What I will say though is that over the past couple of weeks of Popless, I'm starting to realize something about my taste: I'm drawn to a lot of different styles of music, but I especially like when artists deliver something immediate, accessible and even primitive, but with the knowing touch of a theoretician. You can hear that approach all over my favorite Bruce Springsteen album The River and its spine-tingling outtake "Be True." This is rowdy frat-rock with adult themes, pitched to listeners who are too preoccupied with work, children and complicated relationships to rock the way they used to, but not to old to want to.
Enduring presence? Has Springsteen taken the new mantle of "The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz?" There aren't that many musicians of his era willing to hustle so hard to sell records: doing morning talk shows, touring the world, partnering with major media outlets Springsteen may not be a chart-topping multi-platinum artist anymore, but he'll beat the bushes to roust out every fan he still has.
Years Of Operation 1956-59
Fits Between Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers
Personal Correspondence I saw The Buddy Holly Story on TV when I was 10 or 11 years old, and I remember being impressed by the scene where Holly fights for creative control in the studio, so that he can make records that sound like what he hears in his head. Even though the movie's an exaggeration, Holly was keenly interested in studio techniques, and was reportedly making moves towards becoming a behind-the-scenes producer/songwriter/mogul in New York City before fate intervened. His own music always maintained a core of "authenticity"–born of Holly's close study of bluegrass and roadhouse–but in general, he wasn't really about trying to recreate the visceral kick of a live rock show. Holly took the grammar of rock and country and delivered it with the sophistication of a mainstream pop singer. Just listen to "Love's Made A Fool Of You"–one of the first songs Holly wrote, but one of the last he recorded. It's almost wholly a studio construction, arranged and separated in such a way that the best the listener can do is imagine how it would sound in a club or a concert hall. It's a record, first and foremost–proud of its own artificiality, and how good it's going to sound on the radio in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere.
Enduring presence? Would Buddy Holly's albums in the '60s have been totally mind-blowing, or would he have become Pat Boone? Did music really die on The Day The Music Died?
Years Of Operation 1987-99, 2007-present
Fits Between Dinosaur Jr. and Soul Asylum
Personal Correspondence I have no recollection of why I bought the first Buffalo Tom album, except that it was on SST, a label I respected, and the band was from the Boston area, where a lot was happening at the end of the '80s. I also think I'd heard them compared to Dinosaur Jr., who at the time were arguably my favorite band; and I may have even heard their eruptive first single "Sunflower Suit" on college radio, where it fit snugly alongside early Flaming Lips and late Hüsker Dü. So I bought Buffalo Tom, and thought it was a passable sub-Dinosaur noisy rock record. I liked the band's major label debut* Birdbrain even better, though it still sounded a little derivative of other bands from the Boston scene. And then Let Me Come Over holy shit, Let Me Come Over. I no longer think–as I did when I was 21–that Let Me Come Over is one of the greatest American rock albums of all time. It seems too clunkily earnest to me now; too drippy. But in cutting the aimless aggressiveness of the first two albums with a healthy dose of folk-rock, Bill Janovitz and company made a roots-bound alternative album with a far more forward-thinking approach than Uncle Tupelo's landmark debut No Depression. (Though, to Uncle Tupelo's credit, Still Feel Gone got to where Let Me Come Over got first, and in some ways more successfully.) The arc of Let Me Come Over, from the yowling "Staples" to the shaky ballad "Crutch"–the latter a song that recedes nervously whenever you try to get close to it–remains impressively eclectic and tuneful. I was happy that Buffalo Tom broke wide with album that followed, Big Red Letter Day, but for that album and 1995's Smitten, Janovitz streamlined the sound a bit too much, losing a lot of the human flaws and quirks that made their early work so lovable. Unlike most of their contemporaries, Buffalo Tom got radio play, TV exposure, and (I assume) the money that comes with it. But creatively, they peaked before anyone was really paying attention.
Enduring presence? A very good comeback album last year bodes well for Buffalo Tom re-entering the consciousness of rock fans. If someone wanted to start playing "Sodajerk" on commercials again, that would help too.
*Major label in this case equals Beggar's Banquet, where good bands have gone to die for decades.
Built To Spill
Years Of Operation 1992-present
Fits Between Neil Young and The Steve Miller Band
Personal Correspondence For about 10 years running, before marriage and children intervened, Scott Tobias and I would get together every March for the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, and spend four days gorging on hoops, junk food, and a long line of chatter about movies and music. During the first halves of the games, we'd often put the TV on mute and take turns playing each other new bands we'd found. (One year, we both bought copies of The Trouser Press Guide To '90s Rock and spent the weekend looking up bands we wanted to check out.) Built To Spill was one that Scott turned me onto. He brought Perfect From Now On to me a few months after it had come out, and put it on while we were watching a game. I didn't pay it much mind until "Untrustable" came on at the end, and then I had one of those, "Hold on a second who are these guys?" moments. Something about Doug Martsch's accusatory whine and insistent guitar just woke me up. Perfect From Now On became the defining record on 1997 for me, though it retrospect it's hard to extricate the many happy hours I spent playing that album from the time I spent with There's Nothing Wrong With Love, Ultimate Alternative Wavers and The Normal Years, all of which I gobbled up at the same time. (I had just discovered CDNow and I was working at a job that paid real money, so nothing I wanted to hear was off-limits. It was a golden age.) The more concise 1999 record Keep It Like A Secret was another five-star winner (give or take there are a couple of clunkers on there), but after that, bandleader Doug Martsch seemed to freeze up some, and both his solo album and Ancient Melodies Of The Future showed a once-vital talent fumbling for something to say–and not seeming to care much whether he came up with it. (I interviewed Martsch once, and can attest that he's not exactly the most enthusiastic guy you'll ever meet.) Luckily, 2006's You In Reverse restored order, and reminded me why I fell for BTS in the first place: those expressive guitar solos, stretching towards the horizon. There are a slew of Built To Spill songs I could've picked for my sample track, but "Carry The Zero" pretty much defines what I love about the band, from the lilting melody to the guitar coda that keeps spiraling up and up and up, fading out early so as to give the impression that in some universe, Martsch and company might still be wailing.
Enduring presence? The superb You In Reverse and the reportedly stirring tour that followed–one that I missed when it came through my region, sadly–helped restore Martsch's reputation some. They're an ideal band for the jam circuit in some ways; I wouldn't be surprised if in a few years there are package tours built around bands like Built To Spill, My Morning Jacket, Band Of Horses, The Hold Steady indie-rockers who put the accent on the "rock."
Years Of Operation 1992-97
Fits Between The Chills and Yo La Tengo
Personal Correspondence Back at the end of the '90s, I made a mix tape filled with Butterglory, Small Factory, and about a half-dozen other lo-fi indie-rock bands, and I titled the tape "The New Folk," because I had some kind of crackpot critical theory I was flogging at the time. Basically I was arguing that the more low-key DIY indie-rockers were the heirs to the tradition of the folk musicians of the late '50s and early '60s, except that instead of drawing on rare Folkways recordings, the new breed were taking post-punk singles and obscure college rock and showing how that music was relevant to a certain kind of modern American experience–the experience of feeling rootless and restless in Nowhere, USA. Or maybe that experience was only relevant to me. Certainly Butterglory never became popular outside the small circle of people who liked muted, jangly guitar and sweetly out-of-tune vocals. But for us, Butterglory was beautiful.
Enduring presence? The more Butterglory became enamored of complex orchestration, the further they moved away from the effortless charm of their early recordings. Beulah followed a similar career track, but their fuller albums paid off in ways that Butterglory's never quite did. Butterglory's later albums were too weighed down, and that same sluggishness has carried over to Matt Sugg's post-Butterglory work, on his own and with White Whale. But man, in their heyday, Butterglory really were something. Package their best 30 songs–as I've already done on my iPod–and you might find a critic or two willing to trot out references to The Chills and Yo La Tengo. Sort of like I already did.
Years Of Operation 1981-2004
Fits Between Flipper and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown
Personal Correspondence My trepidation about the heavy and dark made my initial forays into punk rock kind of rough. I was always a little afraid before I dropped the needle for the first time on, say, The Dead Kennedys or Suicidal Tendencies, because I was worried the music was going to be too abrasive, and maybe even too subversive. And sometimes it was. (Case in point: Crass, coming up in a couple of weeks.) And sometimes bands that had scary-sounding names weren't so scary after all. Meat Puppets and The Flaming Lips were far more lyrical than I was expecting the first time I heard them, on Up On The Sun and Oh My Gawd!!!, respectively; and the Butthole Surfers songs that got played on my local college radio station were so weirdly hooky that I finally broke down and bought Rembrandt Pussyhorse before I went off to college. As it happens, that might've been the friendliest way into the world of the Buttholes, being more artsy than the "theater of cruelty" trappings they usually favored. The further I went back–and eventually forward–the odder and more unsettling Butthole Surfers got. Yet even though Gibby Haynes' drug-fueled experiments were more truly dangerous than bands with rawer fronts, he had a puckishness about him that put even the Surfers' most violent moments in a frame.
Enduring presence? Because The Flaming Lips stole a lot of Butthole Surfers' stage shtick, I'm not sure people who didn't experience them firsthand will know what a sick, silly carnival a Butthole Surfers show could be back in the late '80s. The band also didn't do its legacy any favors by growing most dramatically in its first five or six years, and then sticking around for another decade or so, looking increasingly tired. But there's still a lot of fertile material in those early records, and it would behoove some young bands to reap what's already laying there, helpfully sowed.
Years Of Operation 1975-1981, 1989-present)
Fits Between Herman's Hermits and The Sex Pistols
Personal Correspondence One of the beauties of the British music scene is that the press, the bands, the fans and radio alike tend to treat the outré and the mainstream as all part of the same pop continuum. When I used to read NME and Melody Maker in my college library, I was always amazed by the acts that actually sold records overseas, and made the charts. Only that "everything is art"/"everything is a commodity" outlook could produce a band as great as The Buzzcocks, who took the inspiration of The Sex Pistols and funneled their punky energy into zippy singles with a slight smack of bubblegum. I've never been as ga-ga for The Buzzcocks as some, but they're definitely a hard band to dislike, because Pete Shelley and company poured a full measure of wit, passion and melodic know-how into every song.
Enduring presence? Pop meets punk. Pretty much every chart-topping non-Nickelback rock act of the past 5 years should cut Pete Shelley a check.
Years Of Operation 1964-73
Fits Between Bob Dylan and The Beatles
Personal Correspondence A colleague of mine once started an e-mail discussion about who belongs on the list of the greatest "American" bands of all time, with the parameters for inclusion being enduring influence and indigenous sounds. At the time I argued for Credence Clearwater Revival and Sly & The Family Stone, but that was about a year before I fell for The Byrds really hard. Although The Byrds might have too many strains of Euro-folk and British Invasion to completely pass the "American" test, the progression they made from their early "let's get rich adding jangle to Dylan" efforts to their later forays into trad C&W; and earthy psychedelia pretty much defined the path that American rock bands at the end of the '60s had to follow. (Was it just the competitive spirit between all these bands that led them to change so fruitfully, so quickly?) I thank The Byrds for a lot: For giving me a way to properly appreciate David Crosby, for turning me onto Gram Parsons, for helping to explain where Big Star, The Soft Boys, Tom Petty and R.E.M. all came from, and for convincing me that there were a slew of amazing rock albums that rarely get mentioned whenever music magazines makes lists of the greatest of all time. For example: Fifth Dimension, Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers.
Enduring presence? In the world inside my head, no one argues about "The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones" without throwing The Byrds into the mix as an upstart contender.
From the fringes of my collection, a few songs (some great, some not-so) to share .
Brenda Holloway, "Every Little Bit Hurts" The last time I tried an insane music-related project was in private, and I only made it about six weeks before I fell behind and quit. Starting on January 1st, 2003, I kept a journal in which I intended to write about one Motown song a day from the two Hitsville box sets, in order to explore whether the familiarity of Motown hits kept them from being relatable as music, as opposed to the soundtrack to every '60s-themed movie and TV show made in the past 10 years. What I found was that some of the lesser-known Motown stars were revelations to me–like Brenda Holloway, the classy west coast version of Diana Ross, and arguably the best female vocalist Motown had in their stable, pre-Gladys Knight. This song has been recorded by many, but I can't think of anyone else who's given it the full dramatic sweep that Holloway does here.
Broken Social Scene, "KC Accidental" There's probably no way that Broken Social Scene can recreate that bracing feeling of You Forgot It In People, the indie-rock record that restored a lot of people's faith in the idea of music nerds futzing about in home studios packed with their friends and their friends' instruments. (The quality of that record is especially remarkable given that, on their own, the various members of BSS tend to sound far more routine.) In a technical/songwriting sense, the Canadian collective's self-titled third album is arguably superior to Forgot. But it doesn't have a "KC Accidental." It couldn't, because you can't surprise people with the same trick twice.
Brooks & Dunn, "Caroline" It's hard to separate the Brooks & Dunn industry–which includes a fair amount of pandering to their boot-scootin', flag-wavin', defiantly reactionary fan base–from the band's actual music, which is often quite strong. Even without the studio pump-up, this morose lost-love ballad from the very good album Red Dirt Road would be catchy, but that studio pump-up is interesting in and of itself. Just listen to everything that's in this little throwaway song: some fiery electric guitar, a whole bunch of aimless twang, organ fills, R&B; shouting in the background, punchy drumrolls, sudden falsetto there's no card left unplayed. And there's something to be said for muscle for muscle's sake. I like to think of Brooks & Dunn as country's answer to Van Halen, cranking out crowd-pleasing, arena-filling anthems, polished up to reference-quality. If I bought a new stereo system, I'm not so sure I wouldn't test it out by playing 1984 and Red Dirt Road back to back.
Brother Johnson Witherspoon, "That's Enough" I'll talk more about the phenomenon of Christian Rock some future week, but here's a track that explores the gray area of marrying the secular and the spiritual. Is there a point where a gospel song gets so funky and raw that it crosses the line from sacred to profane? I know what my conservative Christian in-laws would say–and even my fairly liberal dad felt uncomfortable listening to rock 'n' roll on Sundays. To be honest, I don't get much of a transcendent, spiritually uplifting vibe from this song. It sounds a little mean in fact and I think that's why I like it.
Bruce Cockburn, "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" It's strange how some things sneak onto the radio, either because of a strong push by a major label or because of a thriving local fanbase. I don't know if it was a regional thing or what, but in the mid-'80s, Nashville's album-rock station WKDF played the hell out of "If I Had A Rocket Launcher," the anti-imperialist single from the fifth album by veteran Canadian folk-rocker Bruce Cockburn. Later, when I got out in the wider world, I discovered that the average rock fan I met wasn't familiar with the song. Cockburn was always more a favorite of the singer-songwriter obsessives (which probably explains his popularity in Nashville). I've listened to a fair amount of Cockburn's work in the decades since and I like him generally, even if he can be a little on-the-nose with his lyrics, and a little too enamored of the latest recording technology. And I still think that "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" is a boss single.
Bruce Hornsby & The Range, "The Valley Road" Because I didn't really start driving until after I graduated college, I spent a lot of time riding in the back of my parents' cars in the '80s, listening to adult contemporary radio. By the middle of the decade, when all the mainstream producers discovered synthesizers and drum machines, the soft-rock genre became a largely indistinguishable mix of electronic chug and twinkle. In that context, Bruce Hornsby was fairly refreshing, because beneath the thick plastic casing, there was an actual piano, and a semi-soulful voice, and some well-written pop ballads. I used to cross my fingers and hope my parents' favorite radio station would play "The Valley Road," because if I strained real hard, it almost sounded like a Band song. Unlike most everything else on AC radio at the time, "The Valley Road" didn't just lie there–it had momentum.
Bryan Adams, "Run To You" I can't make much of a case for Bryan Adams as an underrated artist. He's a decent balladeer, and anyone who's kept his career viable for so long deserves at least a nod of respect. But there's really only one Bryan Adams song that gets my blood flowing, and it's this hard-charging, engagingly urgent anthem. It comes from that small, wonderful window of '80s album-rock, just before the producers fell into line with what I describe above in the Bruce Hornsby write-up. Those early-to-mid '80s records were booming and glimmering, but they weren't yet synthetic. I'm not one of those "synthesizers suck and guitars rule!" guys by any means, but some sounds don't go so well together, and arena rock backed by drum machines and laden with synth washes tends to lose some essential musicality–not to mention some essential rock thrust. "Run To You" may be a machine-tooled hit, but the sound is righteous.
Buck Owens, "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass" As much as it irks me to hear perfectly good rock songs run through the dehumanizing late-'80s producer mill, I have a perverse soft spot for the veteran folk and country artists who tried to contemporize in the late '60s. This groovy Buck Owens single adds some psychedelic fuzz to the Bakersfield sound, and while it's still essentially Buck, it's also a snazzy relic of a time too-soon past.
The Budos Band, "Ride Or Die" On the flipside, I'm never entirely sure what to do with modern bands who dedicate themselves to recreating that past, right down to the production techniques. It's true you can learn a lot about the Civil War by becoming a re-enactor, but if you do it long enough you start worrying more about whether the buttons on your jacket look right than whether the cause of states' rights should extend to the ownership of human beings. That said, I like it when a retro act like The Budos Band goes out of their way to come up with a song that doesn't just sound old, but sounds like it belongs in the past. If I had heard this on a compilation of forgotten '70s movie themes, I'd think it was awesome. So, in an objective sense, it should be no less awesome given its current context. (Though I still prefer The Dap-Kings.)
Buffalo Springfield, "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" The big Neil Young discussion will have to wait–as well as the big Stephen Stills discussion for that matter–but I can't just blow past Buffalo Springfield without pausing to enjoy one of my favorite songs of all time. Buffalo Springfield were in some ways a fairly typical product of the late '60s Sunset Strip scene, except that they were graced with some exceptional players, and some very strong songwriters–and not just Stills and Young, either. But Young was clearly the wild card that made the hand more interesting, and even though his output with the band was fairly meager, Buffalo Springfield would've been about on a par with The Youngbloods–a not-bad group, by the way–were it not for songs like this off-kilter hybrid of the rootsy and the cosmic. Young wasn't allowed to sing this one, but the band's label apparently though enough of "Clancy" to make it their debut single. This was definitely a time when people weren't afraid of aspiring to the level of myth.
Burl Ives, "Lavender Blue (Dilly, Dilly)" I'd like to think that songwriters like Neil Young–and Bob Dylan in his Big Pink phase–were training themselves to get to a place where they could, without thinking too hard, create something as miraculous and indelible as this traditional English folksong that Burl Ives recorded for the Disney curio So Dear To My Heart. In just over a minute, Ives welcomes the listeners in, sits us down, says something odd and interesting, and then escorts us out the door, strangely satisfied.
Burt Bacharach, "South American Getaway" I'm more enamored of the idea of Burt Bacharach than the actual songs he wrote with Hal David–many of which I do like, but which too often have the gratingly repetitive quality of commercial jingles. This sweeping instrumental is more of what I like from Bacharach: crazy arrangements and studio trickery just for the fun of it, coupled with a genuine attempt to take the listener to another place for five minutes.
By Divine Right, "The Slap" By Divine Right's Sweet Confusion is one of the best under-known records of the '00s. In my review back in '04, I wrote: "By Divine Right recklessly smears the distinctions separating classic rock, punk, R&B;, and indie-rock to forge a weather-beaten sound that matches the album's title. Sweet Confusion's first song, 'The Slap.' jumps from Strokes-esque jagged jangle to a '60s garage rave-up to a weird, almost Yes-esque instrumental break, before finishing with a rush of hard-rock noise. By Divine Right has a history of making forceful, catchy music, but Sweet Confusion does more than just rage full-on; bandleader Jose Miguel Contreras is at his most open and aware here, spinning his influences into one long, sturdy rope. The album traces rock's evolution from primal dance music to heady mind candy to something like art." Listening to the album again this week, I stand by that ridiculous hyperbole.
Listened to, unremarked upon:
Next week: From Cactus World News to Chet Atkins, plus a few words on elusive musical auteurs.