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Popless Week Ten: The Unkind Cuts

After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking the year off from all new music, and instead revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.

There's a school of thought that says art ought to hurt a little. Art should make your pulse race, your head turn away, your stomach drop and your perceptions change. If all art does is reassure you that everything about you is A-OK, then it's hardly art at all. Literature, film, music, painting… they shouldn't just move you, they should push you.

Me, I'm not so sure. I tend to think art should help you learn something about yourself by allowing you to empathize with the experiences of others. And while abrasion can be a valuable part of that process, relying solely on shock and awe is, ultimately, lazy.

Or maybe I'm just a wimp.

Until I was about 16 years old, I shied away from music that I feared would be too loud, too fast and too aggressive, and I'll be honest: a lot of that hesitation was straight-up snobbery. I grew up in a lower-middle-class family—bean soup and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner three times a week—but my parents stressed education and manners, and didn't like it when my brother and I associated with kids they felt were too crude. Our household watched "quality" TV, and listened to "tasteful" pop music. My dad may have been a country music buff, but he was more into Chet Atkins and Kris Kristofferson than Hank Williams and George Jones. He liked thoughtful, proficient performers, not hicks. (When he watched Hee Haw, it was to admire Roy Clark's picking style.) And because my mom knew I was shaken up by horror-movie commercials on TV—I still have nightmares about It's Alive—she refused to let me watch even the bowdlerized network versions of movies like Halloween.

So until I hit adolescence, I tended to think of metal and punk as music for dimwits—trash for the trashy. (Although the distinctions were fine. The Who and Rush were okay, but not Kiss or Black Sabbath—probably because the first two bands seemed a little smarter.) Still, anyone who takes a serious interest in rock history is eventually going to have to grapple with music a little rougher than The Beatles' "Come Together." As it happened, I met an older student at my high school who loaned me his copy of The Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks, and for the next several months he fed me a steady diet of music by punk and goth acts that I'd previously known only by name (if at all). Bauhaus, Joy Divison, 45 Grave, Meat Puppets, The Dead Kennedys…I didn't know how any of them were going to sound before I dropped the needle on their records. Would they upset me? Repulse me? Would I be condemned to Hell for listening to them?

Well, anyone who's familiar with the acts above should know that I didn't have much to be scared of. I already liked The Doors and David Bowie, so Bauhaus wasn't that big of a jump, and the Meat Puppets album my friend loaned me was Up On The Sun, which is decidedly mellow. So I eased into punk. I gave myself a choppy haircut, tore up my pants, and started hanging around people at school who did the same. I wasn't in it for the lifestyle—if anything, I was annoyed by the local punks' anti-authoritarian/anti-school chatter, which offended my honors student sensibility—but for the chance to be exposed to some new music. I wanted to learn more about the bands that were left out of Rolling Stone and its history books: Suicidal Tendencies, Sisters Of Mercy, Minor Threat, Skinny Puppy, et cetera.

But I hit a wall when I got to Crass. Another friend of mine—a smart kid who'd taken his interest in anarchy beyond drawing a big "A" on his notebook—foisted copies of Christ: The Album and Yes Sir, I Will and Best Before 1984 on me, and for the first time, I dropped the needle on some records that really did leave me shaken and unsure. The political songs of The Clash and Bruce Springsteen are nothing compared to the bombs thrown by Crass, who excoriated Western culture and called for new ways of understanding gender relations, class struggle and "revolution." Some of their songs had melodies, and some of them had ideas I could use. (I still ponder the chorus of "Bloody Revolutions": "You talk of overthrowing power / With violence as your tool / You speak of 'liberation' / And 'when the people rule' / Well ain't it people rule right now? / What difference would there be? / Just another set of bigots / With their rifle sights on me.") Others were shrill, disgusting, and—the greatest sin of all—tuneless.

Part of developing personal taste is figuring out your limits. I taped some of the catchier songs from my friend's Crass albums, then returned them. But years later, I bought a copy of Best Before 1984 on CD, because…well, because with so much poison in our culture, it's never a bad idea to keep an emetic around.


Pieces Of The Puzzle

Years Of Operation 2000-present
Fits Between Fugazi and The Hold Steady

Personal Correspondence It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about this Toronto band's assaultive, nerve-jangling rock that's so effective, but from the moment I heard 2003's Shine A Light, I was in Constantines' thrall. At the time I wrote: "Shine A Light, is arguably engaged in the new-rock discourse, given the band's simultaneous embrace of classic-rock bravado and splatterpunk nightmarishness. Singer-guitarist Bry Webb sounds like he's been shouting across a room for an hour and can now only hoarsely grunt and squeak while the rest of his quintet zooms hard, sweating up front so as to give an excuse for the lengthy, bass-led instrumental interludes to come. The group frequently wanders into still valleys before chugging back up, properly balancing bounce and punch—Constantines may be the best band since Archers Of Loaf to marry intelligence and brute force. Shine A Light can be practically celebratory; and it can also knock listeners down, as on the harsh-edged bounder 'On To You,' which starts with kicks and coos and ends in rasp and accusation. As Webb breathlessly intones lines like 'I'm learning to survive / on earthworms and houseflies,' and drops obsessive references to pigeons, dogs, fire, and poison, Constantines generates a jarring-but-tuneful vision of desolation. It's music for an overheated, off-the-books hideaway, with its doors barricaded to stave off impending doom." Tournament Of Hearts carried that mood even further, while also letting in a little more light. It's an album without as many readymade anthems, and yet is every bit as transporting a record as Shine A Light. I'm not one for tossing around phrases like "post-9/11," but Constantines are one of the few bands who seem to have woven the anxieties of the terror age into their art, without being overt about it. They make music that stands defiant, then trembles, then reaches out.

Enduring presence? I don't always think of Constantines when someone asks me to list my favorite current bands, but they'd easily be in my Top 10, and maybe Top 5. Each of their last two albums finished towards the top of my best-of lists in their respective years, and their debut album would've too, if I'd heard it in time. New album due next month. Man, I can't wait to hear it. But I've gotta.

The Coral
Years Of Operation 1996-present
Fits Between Gorky's Zygotic Mynci and Love

Personal Correspondence The Coral too—like Constantines—seem to be making music that's haunted by the fears of our age, even as the band apes the styles and sounds of 1966. The band's best album, The Invisible Invasion, is dotted with lines like "Conspiracy in the corridor," "There'll never be another century," and "The madman's in the desert," sung by James Skelly in an even-toned voice that makes the prophesies of doom all the more unnerving. The music is bouncy and buzzy too—like an dose of levity in the face of annihilation. My problem with The Coral is really just that I always want to like them more than I do. I'm in favor of them in the abstract, but the majority of their songs fall just short of unassailability. Either the chorus is too blandly hooky, or the band's arty touches too jarring, or something. A few years ago, I might've counted The Coral among the best bands of the '00s, just judging on potential. Now I'm not so sure.

Enduring presence? In the battle of the sax-aided Liverpudlian retro-pop bands, I'll still take The Coral over The Zutons, because The Zutons seem to be working their sound with an ear towards chart success, while The Coral seem to be following their influences wherever they lead, regardless of commercial appeal. (I don't usually care about those kind of distinctions, but it doesn't help that The Zutons' songs, "Valerie" aside, come off kind of flat and soulless.) That said, I still don't think The Coral have made a top-to-bottom great album, though The Invisible Invasion comes closest. (I didn't hear last year's Roots & Echoes). I've trimmed my Coral collection down to one hourlong playlist, which suits them well.

Years Of Operation 1993-present (solo)
Fits Between Cocteau Twins and Pizzicato Five

Personal Correspondence I went through a J-Pop phase in the late '90s, spurred by my interest in Pizzicato Five and Cornelius' US debut Fantasma. The former sounded like all the kitschiest pop music of the '60s, '70s and '80s, mashed up and recombined and sent shooting forth at a hundred miles an hour. The latter's much the same, though Fantasma draws on more respectable influences—hip-hop, prog-rock, grinding guitar-punk—alongside junk like cartoons and sci-fi movie soundtracks. Fantasma fulfilled a lot of the promise of sampling culture, by taking Cornelius' cultural influences, reproducing the most pertinent pieces of them, and then fitting them together to complete a portrait of the artist. Post-Fantasma, Cornelius has gone more minimal, creating album-length explorations of arrhythmia and pastoral bliss that draw heavily from Steve Reich, Kraftwerk, and Tortoise. About the terrific 2002 album Point, I wrote, "The intricacy and elegance of Point's structure becomes clearer as the pieces come together, working much the way that the CD cover art does: pulling back from a single, blurred blue spot to reveal a different picture when the booklet is unfurled. This is music to take in from all sides, as a magnificent piece of pop architecture." I didn't get a chance to review the follow-up Sensuous when it was released in the States last year, but while it's not quite as good as Point, it's an interesting record, taking the pleasant breaks and bridges of soft-rock and extending and repeating them, creating a kind of avant-garde version of easy listening.

Enduring presence? The problem with Cornelius in the '00s—and it's not much of a problem, really—is that he's making albums, not collections of songs, and they can be hard to pull apart in the iPod era. That may be why he so readily turns him music over to other artists for remixing. Cornelius needs little Corneliuses of his own, to express their love for his music by chopping it up.

Years Of Operation 1992-present
Fits Between Beck and Yatsura Personal Correspondence This seems to be the week for genre-bending, culture-bending bands here at Popless. I was fascinated by Cornershop from the moment I heard the Merge edition of Hold On It Hurts, which appends the band's doggedly indie-rock Lock, Stock And Double Barrel EP. The song "Summer Fun In A Beat-Up Datsun" in particular starts out as sloppy DIY, adds sitar, and then breaks into semi-raga before coming back to punk—all in 90 seconds. Everything I like about Cornershop is in that song: the breeziness, the percussive drive, and the casual addition of Indian instrumentation to slop-rock. The song also represents what keeps driving me away from Cornershop: it really only contains one lyrical idea, repeated unto exhaustion. Sometimes the repetition works—as on the band's best-known song, "Brimful Of Asha," which is one of the best singles of the '90s—but over the course of a whole record, and on repeated listens, the Cornershop method wears thin.

Enduring presence? I had my suspicions that Cornershop wouldn't hold up so well this week, and I'm sad to report that those suspicions were correct. I've decided to hold onto their albums while keeping a very pared-down iPod playlist—like 45 minutes long—because I still like the concept of Cornershop, and I have hopes that I'll come back around on them again.

Cowboy Junkies
Years Of Operation 1986-present
Fits Between Patsy Cline and Low Personal Correspondence A whole lot of narrow-minded rock fans decided that country music wasn't so bad thanks to Cowboy Junkies' The Trinity Session, and specifically the band's beguilingly sleepy cover of "Sweet Jane." There were bands before Cowboy Junkies that carried the country cause to rockers—including my hometown favorites Jason & The Scorchers—but The Trinity Session had an elegance and dreaminess that appealed a generation immersed in Cocteau Twins and Sinead O'Connor. The band's post Trinity Session records weren't as widely popular, though by then there was a nascent alt-country movement to keep the Cowboy Junkies cult alive. I check in on them every now and then, and find that they're still capable of whipping up originals as winning as "Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning" (from 1990's The Caution Horses), a breathless ramble that in form is almost like hip-hop, but without the rhyming.

Enduring presence? The last Cowboy Junkies album I bought was One Soul Now, from four years ago, and it was quite good, but I confess I spend the most time with Studio, the well-chosen hits collection the band put out a few years back.

The Cramps
Years Of Operation 1976-present
Fits Between The Misfits and Eddie Cochrane

Personal Correspondence I had a hard time making sense of The Cramps when I first encountered them, because their name and their fashion sense marked them as punks—or possibly Goths—while their music was essentially just slightly more echo-y rockabilly. Contextually, you could put The Cramps on the same shelf as the Ramones, as NY-based bands dedicated to restoring a feeling of danger and menace to the original rock 'n' roll sound. (The B-52's would be there too, although they were more about restoring the fun.) There are maybe only a dozen or so Cramps songs that I think are truly essential, and half of those are covers, but they did help me connect the dots between a few disparate musical trends. And I always smile when I hear the how-to portion of The Cramps' anthem "Drug Train:" "I'm going to tell you how / To get on board / You put one foot up / You put another foot up / Put another foot up / And you're on board / The Drug Train."

Enduring presence? The Cramps graduated out of the punk scene and became godfathers of the neo-garage movement, which thrived on a small scale before blowing up big for about a year in the early '00s. They're another band that needs a comprehensive reissue series and a two-disc anthology.

Years Of Operation 1977-84
Fits Between Blood Brothers and The Exploited

Personal Correspondence The mini-essay up top deals with my first encounters with Crass, but one aspect of my Crass experience that I don't want to discount is how much they spoke to my budding Anglophila. Crass songs drop references to British politicians and media figures and institutions, and express a tolerance for the idea of a welfare state in ways that struck me as very foreign. "Do They Owe Us A Living?" was the name of one of the band's earliest and most incendiary singles. And the answer? "Of course they fucking do."

Enduring presence? These days, Crass are still mainly mentioned by the punk rock cognoscenti, though my perception is that they remain a part of a lot of young punks' formative experiences. As I wrote above, I pretty much never listen to Crass. But they helped shape me nonetheless.

Credence Clearwater Revival
Years Of Operation 1967-72
Fits Between Hank Williams and Screamin' Jay Hawkins

Personal Correspondence At this point, maybe the best way to really hear Credence Clearwater Revival is to go back to the original albums and skip all the cherished hits, in favor of the ones that rarely get played on the radio. I found my way back in via Richard Hell & The Voidoids' cover of "Walk On The Water," a song from CCR's 1968 debut album, and one that's more rooted in the jammy, arty side of the Bay Area scene. John Fogerty belonged to the '60s tradition of urbane folks playing earthy music—a la Bob Dylan and The Band—but Credence was so unpretentious about it and so good at getting to that spontaneous-sounding country-pop place by they're rarely lumped in with the high-minded rock artists of their day. (In fact, they had kind of a spotty critical reputation until Dave Marsh took up their cause in several reviews and essays, including the one that gave him the name of his terrific book Fortunate Son.) They were remarkably fleet too, putting a new album about every six months—three in 1969—although the records lacked the stylistic growth that acts like The Beatles, Elvis Costello and The Clash showed in similarly small windows of time. Fogerty just knocked out the kind of catchy singles that sounded like they'd been part of Americana for decades before they were actually written, then surrounded them with some not-always-as-successful exercises and experiments (Just imagine if they'd saved all their best 1969 songs for one album…it would be the GOAT.) The timeless CCR songs are timeless for a reason, but they're so perfect in their way that it's hard to get closer to Fogerty as an artist by listening to them alone. It's his mistakes and his follies that make him more relatable.

Enduring presence? Given how ubiquitous CCR is on oldies radio, I don't think many would argue that they don't get their due as a great American rock band. But that ubiquity may mean that people don't give Credence much thought at all. They're just there, like gas stations and "hey the '60s were a wild time" montages in period movies. We only notice them when they're not around.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Years Of Operation 1969-present
Fits Between The Jefferson Airplane and America

Personal Correspondence I got my first iPod right around the time that I started digging deeper into the late '60s Laurel Canyon/Cosmic Americana/Sunset Strip scenes, and one of the first things I did was make separate iPod playlists for David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, combining their best CSNY contributions with some choice tracks from solo albums and songs by The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies. When I mentioned this project to some of my friends, they cracked some jokes about what a stupid idea it was, and how I should just stick to Neil Young. But I'll tell you: I've listened to those three playlists as much as I've listened to any single other playlist or mix CD I've made in the past decade. I've even burned them onto CDs, and I play them in my car a few times a year. (Yes, even Nash.) I've been thinking about those three men as distinct entities for so long now that I almost can't put them back together and talk about them as a group, even though I have many happy memories of listening to the first CSN album late at night when I was a teenager, failing to study as I drifted off to the bewitching strains of Crosby's "Guinevere." I've picked "Wooden Ships" as my sample CSN track—no Y here, sorry to say—because even though I've assigned it to Crosby on my playlists, it's one of the few really collaborative songs the band recorded together, drawing equally on Crosby's ripping acid mysticism and Stills' weary, somewhat huffy guitar-rock. (Plus some contributions from The Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner.) There's a darkness to "Wooden Ships"—it is about a post-apocalyptic future, after all—that belies its beauty.

Enduring presence? I worry that people want to cherry-pick Neil Young's songs out of CSNY and pretend that the other three are just embarrassing relics of the mellow era. But you know, there's a reason why a musician as hip as Young has kept reuniting with these guys over the years, and it ain't just for the money. (Or the companionship, since they all reportedly resent each other.) It's because of what they represent: a sort of "Best Of The '60s," subdivided into the distinct qualities of pop music, political commitment, spiritual awakening and cross-cultural acceptance.

Crooked Fingers
Years Of Operation 2000-present
Fits Between Tom Waits and Human League

Personal Correspondence It took me a while to warm to Eric Bachmann's first major post-Archers Of Loaf endeavor, probably because it took a while for Crooked Fingers to actually get good.† On the band's first couple of records, Bachmann relied on monotone balladry, dressed up by his beer-gargle vocals and swoony romanticism. But starting with 2003's Red Devil Dawn and then continuing with 2005's Dignity & Shame, Crooked Fingers started to lighten up and expand, adding Latin and pop touches to the thick, stricken love songs. Back in '05, I wrote, "Dignity & Shame's signature track is 'Twilight Creeps, which may be the catchiest pop song ever to combine the principles of classical minimalism with the motor-mouthed street patter of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and John Mellencamp." I still wish Bachmann would add punk back to his palette, and revive some of the Archers' raw kick. But given what Crooked Fingers has become, I'm now willing to accept that he knows what he's doing.

Enduring presence? In the spirit of perversity that seems to define rock fandom, it seems there are many Crooked Fingers fans who preferred the band on their first two albums, when they were basically recording the same song over and over, and those fans don't much care for the more eclectic albums. You know, the good ones. I'll never understand my tribe.

The Cure
Years Of Operation 1977-present
Fits Between Echo & The Bunnymen and New Order

Personal Correspondence Like Cocteau Twins last week, The Cure were one of those cross-clique bands at my school, liked by goths, brains, and even some jocks and punks. (The same friend who loaned me Crass turned me on to Pornography, the ferociously bleak Cure album that doesn't get brought up much when The Cure is discussed.) For me, what's always attracted me to The Cure is the cleanness of songs like "Jumping Somebody Else's Train" and "In Between Days," which—like New Order and early R.E.M.—make guitar-based music as viably danceable as techno-pop. Similarly, The Cure have managed to make mopey music relatively accessible—and even upbeat in its way. Early on, Robert Smith figured out how to extract that element of post-punk that was radio-ready, and to keep it stable while surrounding it with the meandering songs of loss that continue to assure his credibility among the young and sad.

Enduring presence? Unlike a lot of the bands I grew up with, The Cure are still being listened to by the rising generations—either because they've been name-checked by bands like blink-182, or because their songs show up in commercials and movie soundtracks, or because they've just become one of those bands, like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, that gets passed down without anyone saying much about it.

Years Of Operation 1995-present
Fits Between The Cure and Bright Eyes

Personal Correspondence As I've written before, I missed out on the whole "emo" revolution as it was happening, so I mainly caught up with the flagship bands and fellow travelers after they'd released their much-beloved early singles and fumbling first LPs. I have no special attachment to path Tim Kasher and his Cursive-mates took to get where they are now, though when I listen to the early songs collected on The Differences Between Houses And Homes, I can imagine how they might've been a revelation to the young punk fans who heard them at the time. Me, I started with The Ugly Organ, Kasher's best-realized album to date—and one of the top 100 rock albums of the '00s, in my opinion—so the music that proceeds that record seems more like steps on a journey, with The Ugly Organ being the destination. While balancing dreamy, textured confessionals and edgy, abrasive spazz-rockers, Kashner rips himself open, beginning by chastising himself for turning his romantic pain into music, and then noting how his sensitivity has proven to be an effective tool for getting women into bed (even if those women worry that they're going to be turned back into songs).† What's most impressive about Kasher's songwriting is how thorough his lyrics are. He comes up with an idea—like imagining himself as a single father, or becoming the sex slave of one of his one-night stands—and he carries it through from start to finish. People mock "emo"—and even Kasher has qualms about the term I'm sure—but Cursive a their best give the genre a good name.

Enduring presence? Cursive's last album, Happy Hollow, was a real letdown, and though Help Wanted Nights—the most recent album by Kasher's other band, The Good Life—was a little better, it lacked memorable songs. Sometimes Kasher's thoroughness gets the better of him, and he tries to carry a single idea over the course of a whole album, and has to stretch to come up with songs that fit the theme. But he's a talented guy, and young. I suspect he'll turn it around before too long, probably by finding another musical direction to go in besides moony laments and raging art-punk.

Curt Boettcher
Years Of Operation 1964-83
Fits Between Brian Wilson and Bobby Sherman

Personal Correspondence Remember what I wrote above about how Credence Clearwater Revival is so overexposed that the best way to understand them is to listen to the songs that don't get played on the radio? That's a theory of music appreciation I call "shadowing," where you learn to re-appreciate a musical act or trend by spending time in the long shadow of its influence. The trick is to understand that the shadows are the shadows, not the object. That's what a lot of music geeks miss, as they rediscover forgotten R&B; artists or regional power-pop bands, and try to argue that these acts are better than the ones that had all the hits. Most often, it's not that they're better, but that they're refreshingly unfamiliar. I'd never argue that '60s producer/songwriter/non-star Curt Boettcher was better than Brian Wilson, or that the albums he masterminded with makeshift bands like The Ballroom, Millennium, Sagittarius and The Goldebriars was better than The Mamas & The Papas. But Boettcher was working some of the same veins, creating an audio fantasy world of pristine beauty and forced innocence. As a solo artist, sunshine-pop icon Boettcher doesn't hold much fascination, except for dogged fanboys like me. He completed and released one album, There's An Innocent Face, in 1973, working in a light country-rock style that doesn't really reflect the trippy proto-bubblegum he recorded in the '60s; and he recorded a slew of demos and barely released singles, trying to convince the major label mavens of the '70s that he still had the hitmaking touch he'd shown back when he produced artists like The Association and Tommy Roe. Boettcher considered himself a commercial artist first and foremost, which is why his lyrics are essentially fluff. His art is bound up in the way he tried to stay one step ahead of the styles of his times, and create a sound in the studio that would take the pop world by storm. The fun of following Boettcher—which, by the way, is an endeavor that requires hunting far and wide for the records he worked on or masterminded, many of which remain unreleased—is in hearing how he tried to cash in, while retaining his preoccupation with gentility and wide-eyed wonder.

Enduring presence? With each passing year it seems like I see Curt Boettcher's name dropped more often in music reviews, so maybe he's securing his place alongside Wilson, Phil Spector and Jack Nitzsche as one of the '60s studio wizards who helped define the sound of the era. If some book publisher would like to give me some money so that I can take a year off and write a book about Boettcher, I'd do my best to make him better-known. Are you listening, book publishers?

Daft Punk
Years Of Operation 1993-present
Fits Between Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder

Personal Correspondence If I have a bias against contemporary dance music, it may be because I want every album to sound like Daft Punk's Discovery, one of those rare records that sounded timeless from the moment it was released. I know some DP fans prefer the more hardcore house music of the French duo's debut album Homework, but that record always seemed to me to be too tied to the clubs, with its repetition tooled for dancing and intoxication. Discovery is more varied and fun. It's unapologetically disco, yet modernized—even futurized. It takes sounds we're all familiar with recombines them into some kind of pop ideal.

Enduring presence? Daft Punk's third album Human After All was a minor misfire, but thanks to last year's highly conceptual live act—and the support of fans like Kanye West and LCD Soundsystem—the band seems to be more popular than ever. Even if they never top Discovery, they could still pull a Kraftwerk and just put on exciting shows based on their old stuff for as long as they care to. Heck, I'll go see them anytime.

The Dambuilders
Years Of Operation 1989-97
Fits Between Camper Van Beethoven and Pixies

Personal Correspondence There are probably a dozen or more bands I've loved who had a fair shot to make the big time then botched the play, but few of them were as surprising to me as The Dambuilders. They seemed to be handling everything so well, starting with a few buzzed-over, impossible-to-find indie LPs and EPs, then making their major label debut with Encendedor, a compilation of their best early work, highlighted by the single "Shrine" (a Cure-informed anthem about how rock can unite people from different cultures). They had a fairly distinctive sound, with thick bass carrying the hook and shrill violin serving the function of a new wave synthesizer; and they even had a good marketing gimmick, having promised to write a song for every state in the union. But The Dambuilders' two post-Encendedor albums dropped the state motif, and the latter of those albums, Against The Stars, went for a polished sound that only proved that some bands sound better a little ramshackle. I've no doubt The Dambuilders' ex-members have their share of label horror stories, to help explain why they didn't succeed. But as I recall, Ruby Red and Against The Stars didn't get the same kind of glowing reviews that Encendedor did either. Mistakes were made.

Enduring presence? The Dambuilders probably weren't big enough to merit an anthology, but boy they'd be well-served by one, because they had some really good songs. We'll probably have to wait 10 years or so before some kid who grew up loving "Shrine" gets to sit behind the desk of some fly-by-night indie and put together the Dambuilders best-of he or she has always dreamed of. But by then will probably all be living underwater. Or in caves. Or in underwater caves.

Stray Tracks

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

The Compulsive Gamblers, "I Don't Want To Laugh At You"

As rock auteurs go, Greg Cartwright is more a Chet Atkins than a Jack White. He works as much behind the scenes as in front, and in the half-dozen bands he's been a part of, his contributions have frequently been collaborative. So Cartwright's going to be popping up a lot in this series, and as with Curt Boettcher, I'll try to piece together Cartwright's appeal through a song here and an act there. For example: this loose semi-ballad from Cartwright's defunct roots-rock band The Compulsive Gamblers. To some extent, "I Don't Want To Laugh At You" is a little bit of nothing: a tossed-off take that borrows a melodic line from The Beatles' "Here Comes The Sun" and doesn't sweat such niceties as structure and a chorus. But really, it doesn't much matter what Cartwright plays. This song isn't about musical expression, it's about human expression. It has the quality of a hand-written note, quickly jotted down to refer to later. The sentiment behind the song is completely of the moment.

The Cookies, "Wounded"

The reliable Rhino Handmade compilation Come To The Sunshine yields another treasure with this disjointed piece of sunshine-pop theatrics, relating one young woman's absolute terror at the prospect of losing her virginity to the wrong man. Settle back for three minutes. This is a song that goes places.

Cory Branan, "The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis"

Early in my freelance career, I wrote a sprawling, unfortunately gonzo-inspired story for a Nashville 'zine about the city's continuing allure to aspiring songwriters, and as research for the piece I spent a few nights haunting the back of the cafés and nightclubs that host showcases and open mic nights. A song like this funny, rollicking love story would've killed at one of those nights, which shouldn't be surprising, since young singer-songwriter Cory Branan is a product of that culture of "How can you hold a jaded audience's attention for three full minutes?" There's a limit to how much of this kind of thing I can stand, but this song is a lot of fun.

Count Basie & His Orchestra, "That Rhythm Man"

Though this performance was recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1939, it's thoroughly rock 'n' roll, in that it's about pure abandon. It's exciting to imagine how a song like this—so jumpy, so free—made the young people of the late '30s feel.

The Coup, "Everythang"

I was already a fan of The Coup before I saw Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme—a short-ish documentary about rap battles—but I was especially impressed with Boots Riley's comment in the film that while he admires freestylers, he feels he owes it to his fans to write his rhymes down, and work on them until he gets them right. The Coup take the same approach to their albums, which are so thought-out and full of surprises that they make the majority of hip-hop seem not just mundane, but pointless. Frankly, The Coup should be a "piece of the puzzle," except that I still haven't caught up with the band's full discography. Listening to Party Music and Steal This Album again this week, I realized that I haven't given them enough of my time. So I'll just give it up for Party Music's lead-off track, a perfect example of how Bootsy and his boys make subversive social protest sound like a real good time.

Cream, "Badge"

When it comes to Cream, I'm more into the fuzzy pop songs than the heavier-than-rock blues-based jams. (Give me more "I Feel Free," less "Sunshine Of Your Love.") I've always been a fan of "Badge" for the way it peels apart in the middle, and gives Eric Clapton a chance to solo in a more open space, away from the tight blues derivations that start the song. When the bluesy sound returns in the final 30 seconds, it's lost a lot of its rigidity. Clapton has cleared the air.

The Creation, "I Am The Walker"

These '60s mod favorites were kind of The Who II, following the same formula of one part R&B;, one part primitive proto-punk, and one part English music hall. The cycles of pound and relent on "I Am The Walker" are all about drawing attention to the recording itself, where all kinds of rumbling mini-explosions are creating the illusion of conflict and drama. This is not the kind of song other bands cover. They want its sound, not its hook.

Creeper Lagoon, "Dreaming Again"

San Francisco indie-rock act Creeper Lagoon recorded half of a great debut album and followed it up with a decent EP, and then—like The Dambuilders before them and Wheat later on—they got their crack at the majors, and recorded a big league album, Take Back The Universe And Give Me Yesterday, that tried waaaaay too hard. It's not a bad record, but if you listen close to "Dreaming Again"—one of the better songs off their debut album I Become Small And Go—you should be able to hear both how a label might imagine it would sound better pumped up, and also hear how too much studio fuss would ruin it. The truth is that this song—and Creeper Lagoon in general—too accomplished to stay indie and too anonymous to break wide. I'm pretty sure this is the kind of middling song/band that people hate when they hate on indie-rock as a movement and a sound. But my heart goes out to these kinds of acts, who are good at what they do, but never great.

Crippled Pilgrims, "Down Here"

Maybe it would better for bands like Creeper Lagoon if they never even got a glimpse at rock stardom, but instead stayed on the level of regional semi-legends, like the largely forgotten mid-'80s DC-area college-rock act Crippled Pilgrims—who recorded one EP and one LP, got some airplay on university campuses with their Feelies/Meat Puppets-style roots-drone, and then faded into the memories of the few thousand people who cared. I'm not even sure how I first encountered Crippled Pilgrims. I think a friend of mind loaned me their album and EP without me even asking, and I taped the best songs from each onto one side of a 90-minute cassette that I played quite a bit in high school. A few years ago, some indie label put the complete Crippled Pilgrims output on a single CD, and when I bought it out of nostalgia, I learned that they were most definitely not the great-lost band of the '80s. But they had a nice jangly sound, and some appealingly fluid songs. Like this one.

The Crystals, "Then He Kissed Me"

If you want to understand Phil Spector's "wall of sound," spin this single, which uses an orchestra's-worth of instruments to elevate routine teen romance to the level of earth-shattering drama—which, of course, is exactly how it feels to the teens in question. Note also lines like "He kissed me in a way I've never been kissed before," which would seem to indicate that Spector and his co-writers are sliding something smutty past the censors.

(Side note: For some, it may be hard to hear "Then He Kissed Me" without thinking of the way Martin Scorsese used it in the Goodfellas scene below. Here, the song represents a kind of innocence, and contrasts ironically to the scene of a killer and crook showing off for his best girl. Of course the real irony is that the song may not have been that innocent to begin with.)

Culture Club, "I'll Tumble 4 Ya"

In retrospect, it might've been better if Boy George had just been openly gay from the start. Playing the androgyny game made him look like a garden-variety weirdo, which made him a safe target for the jokes of late night comedians, which in turn reinforced the notion that young gay men are better off keeping their mouths shut, lest they be mocked. Of course it didn't help either that so much of Culture Club's music was insipid—and not in an intentional, campy way. They did have their moments, like this bouncy single, which runs with the glossy early '80s UK sound of bands like Aztec Camera and Haircut 100. Yet even here, there's evidence of the "Cornershop effect" that marred so many Culture Club songs. Put plainly, the chorus gets annoying after a while. And the song's not even three minutes long!

Curtis Mayfield, "Pusherman"

I usually try to shy away from the obvious choice when it comes to musicians who've had careers as long and varied as Curtis Mayfield's, but here I can't help it. I just love "Pusherman" so much: from the way Mayfield's friendly voice makes drug-dealing sound downright neighborly to the way the bongos gradually assert themselves as the song's lead instrument. If I could have a running soundtrack to my life, it would sound a lot like this song. (Only maybe with different lyrics.)

The D4, "Get Loose"

Here's a relic from the recent past, when record labels were scouring the globe looking for the next White Stripes/Strokes hitmaker to lead the largely media-created "Rock Is Back" movement. Ultimately, The D4 were no more exciting than The Datsuns or The Vines, but they did record one ripping single. It would make a great Jock Jam, if some arena manager wanted to revive it.

Dale Watson, "Justice For All"

This would be the opposite of the "fun" open-mic-night singer-songwriter crowd-grabber as described in the Cory Branan entry above. This is one of those songs that leaves the crowd stunned and a little confused. When I interviewed Dale Watson for Performing Songwriter magazine last year, he was more comfortable talking about "Justice For All"'s Johnny Cash-inspired sound than he was about its meaning, but I did get the sense that if he and Steve Earle ever met at a party, they'd probably avoid talking about capital punishment.

Listened to, unremarked upon: Communiqué, The Complete Strategist, The Concretes, Condor Moments, Connie Price & The Keystones, Console, The Contingencies, Controlling The Famous, Copeland, The Cops, The Coral Sea, Cordero, Cory Branan, Corey Hart, Corinna Repp, Cornelius Brothers, The Coronados, Couch, The Cougars, Cougars, The Count Five, Counting Crows, The Court & Spark, Cowboy Jack Clement, Cracker, The Craig, Craig G, Crash Vegas, Crazy Elephant, Creed, Crescent & Frost, The Crests, The Cribs, Criteria, Crooked Hook, Crowded House, The Crunchies, Crystal Skulls, The Cuff Links, Cul De Sac, Currituck County, Curumin, Cut Copy, Cynthia G. Mason, Cyril Stapleton, D12, Daedelus, Dag, The Daily Flash, Dale Vaughn and Dälek

Next week: From Damien Jurado to Dexy's Midnight Runners, plus a few words on Music Nerds and Delicate Geniuses