Popless Week 17: Mixing Pop And Politics
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.
"We Live As We Dream, Alone" by Gang Of Four
One of the biggest problems with the introduction of "red state" and "blue state" to the American political lexicon is that those kind of either-or terms measure regional political differences with the polling equivalent of a pregnancy test. A woman can't be 55% pregnant, and according to cable news pundits, a state can't be 55% Republican. For rhetorical purposes, it's all or nothing. But then what do you do with a state like—oh, just to pick one at random—Arkansas? The Natural State went for Bush in the past two presidential elections, and has provided the home base from which Mike Huckabee has become a significant player in conservative circles. But Arkansas can also claim prominent Democrats Wesley Clark and Bill Clinton, and the state currently has a Democrat in the governor's mansion, two Democratic senators, and three Democrats in the House out of a possible four. Then again, the political positions of the average elected Arkansas Democrat would likely fall to the right of the average elected Massachusetts Republican. So, Arkansas: red or blue?
Since fourth grade, I've been friends—best friends, really—with a guy whose political inclinations stand about 180 degrees apart from my own. And that's been a rare gift. Over the decades my friend Rob and I have bickered with each other over religion, economics, foreign policy, and the culture wars, and we've come to the point recently where we know each other's positions so well that we don't really argue much at all. Instead, we anticipate what each other might say, and concede points before we even get to the real meat of our disagreement. It saves time, and—for me at least—it's helped me strengthen what I believe in. Rob's skepticism helps remind me what I'm really arguing for, and keeps me from getting hung up on the usual right-wing and left-wing talking points.
Because of that, I've found that I've lost patience with editorials, movies, TV shows, and documentaries that argue "my" positions in petty, one-sided ways. I don't have much use for writers, directors, and actors who smugly spout liberal pieties as though they were common-sense truth, without bothering to "show their work," as it were, and break down how they reached a conclusive, no-room-for-doubt position on, say, abortion, or the war in Iraq. I keep hearing what they say through the ears of my right-leaning friends and family members, who've lived most of their lives with an entertainment industry that paints them as villains or morons (or both).
So I'd probably bristle at a movie that said, flatly, "Corporate America sucks and Dick Cheney is an evil asshole." And yet if I heard that sentiment in a song, I just might whoop. Music is the one form of entertainment where shallow, ill-considered polemics are okay with me. It's definitely possible to write nuanced political songs—last week's Primer subject Elvis Costello has done a fine job with it, especially in the anti-war masterpiece "Shipbuilding"—but by and large, a verse-chorus-verse format is hardly the place to look for careful reasoning. I'm perfectly fine with getting an immediate quick-hit of rage and dissent, because music can deliver a rush of feeling better than almost any other medium, and sometimes I'd rather that feeling be blunt and shallow.
Is that inconsistent? Or hypocritical? Probably. But just as I try not to be one of those movie critics who vets every film to make sure that it fits a set of pre-ordained moral criteria, I also try not to be the kind of music critic who demands all songs fall within certain guidelines of taste. (And please note the word "try" in that sentence; I frequently fail to live up to my own ideals.) I definitely get irritated by bombast, both sonic and lyrical, but if it suits the song and the song moves me, tacky can be beautiful.
More to the point though, the communal aspect of music fandom—which these days includes chatting on the Internet with like-minded strangers as well as singing along in the car with your friends and going to shows with fellow scenesters—yields naturally to sloganeering. Billy Bragg once sang that "wearing badges is not enough in days like these," by which he meant that constraining political convictions to T-shirts isn't much help when the world's in crisis. And he's absolutely right. But a good rabble-rousing song—or a good T-shirt—can make a difference, for the way it raises awareness and even galvanizes.
The truth is that individualism can be hard for some. Coming out in favor of one point of view when all the loudest voices in your community are saying the opposite can seem like more trouble than it's worth. But when the national media pigeonholes an entire region, a "blue" kid stuck in a "red" state can still go to a concert by Bragg or Ted Leo or Michael Franti and learn something inspiring: You are not alone.
*****************Pieces Of The Puzzle Game Theory
Years Of Operation 1981-89
Fits Between Big Star and The Strawberry Alarm Clock
"The Real Sheila" by Game Theory
Personal Correspondence The short-lived, oft-glorious indie label Enigma Records put out a couple of anthologies titled The Enigma Variations in the mid-'80s, and they were essential listening during my high school years. The Enigma Variations parts one and two brought together disparate threads of the college rock scene—mainstream guitar-pop like The Smithereens, frizzy Americana like Green On Red, paisley underground heroes like The Rain Parade, novelty satirists like Mojo Nixon, and so on—and made it seem like there was a legitimate underground rock movement going on in the U.S., and that it was on the verge of taking over. One of the bands that I discovered via The Enigma Variations was Game Theory, who in my senior year of high school and freshman year of college meant as much to me as the Pixies or Dinosaur Jr. or any of the other under-the-radar acts I'd pledged my love to. Only Game Theory never crossed over to the extent that Pixies or Dinosaur Jr. did, most likely because of what bandleader Scott Miller so aptly described in the liner notes of the band's records as his "miserable whine." It didn't help either that Miller had such a will to weirdness, manifested in subtle and overt nods to James Joyce and the "automatic writing" exercises of the beatniks. He dressed up jangly guitar-pop with buzzy synthesizers (a sound that's always reminded me of the soundtrack to the early-'70s Tarzan cartoons) and diced-up bits of noise. On Game Theory's superb double-album Lolita Nation, Miller dedicated much of side three to a series of song-snippets that lasted less than 10 seconds. Miller continued some of that experimentation with his next band, The Loud Family, but some trends that began with Game Theory's final album 2 Steps From The Middle Ages—most notably Miller's weakening songcraft—continued, and even when The Loud Family straightened up, they never captured my imagination the way that Game Theory's witty, tuneful, puckishly odd music did. For a while, Game Theory were the champions of the minor leagues.
Enduring presence? I have to confess that I cheated a bit this week. All of my Game Theory is on vinyl or on cassette, and I've never gotten around to transferring any of it into MP3 form (even though I bought a tool to do that last Christmas). Nor can I—or you—readily buy any Game Theory on CD, because all the band's albums are out-of-print and fetching a minimum of 100 bucks each on eBay right now. But I didn't want to exclude Game Theory the way I've excluded major acts like Captain Beefheart, Brian Eno and Funkadelic, so I found a streaming Game Theory song on a music blog, and I procured the necessary software to record it and upload it myself. When this project is over and I have the time for such frivolity, I look forward to fiddling with my vinyl-ripper and making myself a Game Theory anthology. For now though, this one song will have to do.Gang Of Four
Years Of Operation 1977-84, 1990-present
Fits Between Shriekback and Clinic
"Natural's Not In It" by Gang Of Four
Personal Correspondence Here's another band—like The Feelies a few weeks back—who were properly introduced to me via Rolling Stone magazine's late-'80s attempts at rock canon-building. All I really knew by Gang Of Four at the time was the college radio hit "I Love A Man In A Uniform," but then I improbably found a cassette copy of Entertainment! in a record store in rural Kansas when I was visiting my dad the summer before college, and there was something strangely powerful about receiving ironically stentorian messages promoting consumerism and exploitation while sitting in the attic room of a tiny house near a wheat field. That album—and Go4's third album Songs Of The Free, to a lesser extent—really transport the listener to a different place, at once vaguely futuristic yet familiar from regressive-leaning propaganda films. The band also stacked beats better than almost any of their dancefloor-minded post-punk brethren. The resulting music can seem a little rigid and chilly, but that was part of the point: to create something equally alluring and off-putting, to help the listener see through fascism at its grossest and pettiest.
Enduring presence? Some Gang Of Four fans were appalled by the band's recent album Return The Gift, for which the band re-recorded a handful of their best-known songs with the arrangements they now use when they play them live. I thought it was great, like a live album without the sonic compromises. What that record mainly proved is that as a performing unit, Gang Of Four are still aces. If they'd applied those chops to an inferior set of new material, I'm not sure it would've been so impressive. As for Gang Of Four's ongoing influence, it's definitely been more pervasive since the dawn of the '00s than it was in the wake of their initial run. I used to wonder why more people didn't rip off Gang Of Four; by 2006, I would've been happy never to hear another Go4 imitator ever again.Genesis
Years Of Operation 1967-99; 2006-present
Fits Between King Crimson and TV On The Radio
"Man Of Our Times" by Genesis
Personal Correspondence So which Genesis suits you best? Do you like Peter Gabriel wearing crazy masks and singing complicated multi-part suites based on folklore and urban alienation? Or do you like Phil Collins singing goofy, overly synthesized songs about immigration and televangelism (in between spooky anthems and tender sap)? Myself, I split the difference. I like the Genesis of Duke and Abacab, still readily able to fall into that familiar proggy cadence, yet able to condense and brighten their sound for radio play.
Enduring presence? Phil Collins' post-1985 solo career hasn't made it easy to be a Genesis fan, and certainly the Collins-led Genesis has had its share of howlingly awful songs too. But at their best and most ambitious, the latter-period Genesis isn't as far removed from the Gabriel era as some purists insist. There's still something grand and fully conceived about the Genesis sound, even as their subject matter remains human-scaled. And Collins has saved some of his best sappy AC ballads for Genesis—"Hold On My Heart," for example—and even though they don't sound particularly "Genesis-y," they're fine on their own. It's hard to craft a fluid, comprehensible Genesis anthology, but it's not so hard to come up with an hour or two of really amazing Genesis songs, drawing from all the eras. (Of course it helps that some of the best early songs are over 10 minutes long.)The Geraldine Fibbers
Years Of Operation 1994-97
Fits Between Helium and Wilco
"Dragon Lady" by The Geraldine Fibbers
Personal Correspondence I'd hesitate to call The Geraldine Fibbers "alt-country," even though twang and lope was a major part of the band's shtick during their brief existence in the mid-'90s, and even though bandleader Carla Bozulich was known to trot out C&W; covers practically on-demand. But The Geraldine Fibbers were so much rawer and so much more explosive than the rest of the No Depression crowd; they were far more a punk band than a roots-rock outfit. They could be hard to take at times too, although on the whole, the albums Lost Somewhere Between The Earth And My Home and Butch are both riveting listening, geared to those willing to hold on tight and follow Bozulich into some pretty nerve-wracking places.
Enduring presence? Because they broke up so early and because Bozulich's solo career has been so erratic, I think The Geraldine Fibbers have kind fallen out of the '90s alt-rock canon. Which is a shame. (If nothing else, fans of late-period Wilco should pick up Butch in order to enjoy Nels Cline's unearthly guitar playing.) Personally, I revisit the band a few times a year—usually exclusively over headphones, since Bozulich makes noises that frighten the other members of my household—and whenever an Atlanta Braves hitter smacks a long fly ball, I frequently holler, "Get thee gone!" in honor of a Fibbers EP. Now that's a legacy!The Glands
Years Of Operation 1997-present (?)
Fits Between Tom Petty and Grifters
"Straight Down" by The Glands
Personal Correspondence I failed to cite The Glands when I wrote about the best of the new Southern rockers a few weeks ago—an oversight I can chalk up to the band's extended absence from the critical spotlight. (Are they even around anymore? I could find nothing conclusive online.) In a way, The Glands have always suffered from bad timing. The band's 1998 debut album Double Thriller was a typically sloppy indie-rock record with a handful of solid songs buried in the murk, and their second—the near-masterpiece The Glands—bounced them from an indie-label to a semi-major and didn't receive any real promotional push until late in 2000, well after most writers' deadlines for their best of the year lists. The Glands started developing a following throughout '01, as The Glands was passed from true believer to true believer, and as the band toured the country with the likes of Modest Mouse and Beachwood Sparks. Critics everywhere were poised to make them darlings whenever they released another album. But then nothing. I dug around to see if I could find anything I'd written about them, and the best I could do was a pick I wrote for a then-upcoming Nashville show: "The immediate reference points for the quartet's sound are Pavement and Guided By Voices; the former because of the laid-back, elastic approach to rhythm and guitar-based hooks, and the latter because bandleader Ross Shapiro is in his late thirties and he scrapes up a basement-moistened pop sensibility that's as coated in 70s AM radio as 80s college rock. At times, The Glands comes on like a lost classic from 1978, to be filed between Tom Petty's first album and The Rolling Stones' Some Girls. Brightened up with piano, strings or harmonica when necessary, Shapiro's songs mostly have the relaxed feel of a late afternoon in a Georgia summer, when the humidity drives everyone indoors for the first of many cold beers. It's the sound of a band rehearsal after everyone's warmed up but about an hour or so before they get messy."
Enduring presence? When I first heard The Glands, I had one of those moments of clarity that reminds me why I love rock 'n' roll. It's an album that sounds both familiar and new, full of rough edges, soaring choruses, and livewire guitar solos. It's informed by the classics, but totally timely—in that whenever I hear it, it's exactly the album I want to be listening to at that time.Glen Campbell
Years Of Operation 1962-present
Fits Between Charlie Rich and Kenny Rogers
"Wichita Lineman" by Glen Campbell
Personal Correspondence We watched a lot of variety shows in our house in the '70s, particularly those hosted by country-leaning musicians. I don't have any specific memory of watching The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, because I would've been not-quite 2 when it went off the air, but when I see old footage of Campbell from that show and elsewhere, the memories of a thousand nights spent watching blow-dried, brightly attired, smooth-voiced entertainers on barely dressed soundstages come rushing back. Campbell's really an interesting figure in the '60s and '70s pop scene, because while his public persona was built on polished TV performances and "Rhinestone Cowboy," he'd been an accomplished L.A. session musician by age 22, and had performed on record and on stage with artists as diverse and essential as Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers, and The Champs. (That's Campbell's guitar on "Tequila.") He found his groove as a solo artist in the late '60s as an interpreter of some of the best songwriters of his era—in particular Jimmy Webb, who provided Campbell with his first massive hit, "Wichita Lineman," a song that nearly always makes my wife cry. Though Campbell's largely associated with country music, "Wichita Lineman" transcends genre. It's pure pop poetry, evoking the feeling of need and profound loneliness that fills anyone who's more than a day's drive from where they'd really like to be.
Enduring presence? Campbell's Webb-penned hits (which also include "Galveston," "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Where's The Playground, Susie?") are his best, but he's also responsible for one of the best versions of John Hartford's timeless "Gentle On My Mind," as well as superb pop-country like "Southern Nights" and, yes, "Rhinestone Cowboy." He fascinates me as one of the consummate examples of a recording industry professional who seems bland on the surface, yet is so gifted and so drawn to prickly material that he draws people to wonder what's going on underneath.Glossary
Years Of Operation 1997-present
Fits Between Silos and Eleventh Dream Day
"Days Go By" by Glossary
Personal Correspondence I first heard Glossary as part of my regular beat covering local bands for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene in the '90s, and I remember thinking that from the start—on the smartly titled Southern By The Grace Of Location—that bandleader Joey Kneiser had an uncanny ability to grasp the complexities of contemporary Southern life, and to express them in rollicking roots-rock songs that didn't sound pre-digested. Glossary has only gotten better since, recording three consecutive albums that—if there were any justice to the music business—would be staples of rock radio and critics' lists. About 2003's How We Handle Our Midnights, I wrote, "For six years, singer-songwriter-guitarist Joey Kneiser and the rest of his small-town Tennessee sextet have employed a bash-it-out, kitchen sink approach reminiscent of mid-'90s indie-rockers like Butterglory and Small Factory, but with a flair for expansiveness and guitar heroism that rivals proto-grunge acts Eleventh Dream Day and Cell. The band tends to take their shambling tunefulness and stretch out, playing closely together and following their own natural momentum. On How We Handle Our Midnights, Kneiser and company nod to their country and classic rock influences, generating a warm, rootsy sound while still raising a racket and heading off in unexpected directions. The album stays strong by returning to the idea of youthful dreams tempered by gradual acceptance of the go-nowhere pace of Middle America. There's echoes of strip-mall practice spaces and undeveloped grassy lots in Glossary's wall-rattling stomps, and an understanding of the restlessness that comes from being stuck." Then about 2006's For What I Don't Become: "There are local bands that build a buzz and a following until they get a crack at going national, and then there are local bands like Murfreesboro, TN's Glossary, that keep at it year after year because there's something that needs to be expressed, even if no more than a few thousand people ever hear it. Those bands are the rock equivalent of regional filmmakers, turning out low-budget, heartfelt stories that zero in on lifestyles and locations that the mainstream media overlooks. For What I Don't Become is yet another Glossary album about people who work hard and don't seem to get anywhere. The centerpiece song is 'Days Go By,' a sprawling, scorching twang-rocker that makes the title phrase more haunting by adding the words, 'even when we don't want 'em to.' For What I Don't Become weighs its rootsy kick against a strong note of loneliness, but the dominant tone of the album is set by the opening song 'Shaking Like A Flame,' which rumbles like a locomotive even as Kneiser sings about how it feels to rust. This may be one of the most exultant albums ever made about failure." Glossary's fifth LP The Better Angels Of Our Nature was self-released late last year, and is currently available as a free download on the band's website. If you like it, buy a hard copy. Either way, I'm sure the band will happy enough to know that someone out there is listening.
Enduring presence? Whenever I doubt the purpose of rock criticism, I think about bands like Glossary, that need strong advocates, and don't always get them. Glossary has been around for 10 years, and have remained largely ignored by the critical establishment, not because they're been dismissed, but because almost no one has heard them. There are people out there right now who are Glossary fans and don't even know it yet. Could you be one of them?The Go-Go's
Years Of Operation 1978-85 (essentially)
Fits Between The B-52's and The Bangles
"Turn To You" by The Go-Go's
Personal Correspondence Even before I saw the infamous "groupie video," The Go-Go's were shaping my ideal of female sexuality. The band's Talk Show came out during that golden year of 1984, when I was 13 years old and expanding my ideas about music, literature, movies, politics, and women. As I mentioned when I wrote about The Cars a few weeks back, in '84 and '85 I didn't yet have to get a summer job, so I spent hours on end reading, listening to the radio, watching late night television, and thinking, and it was because I had time to do the latter that everything I saw and read and heard seemed more intense and important. And then here came The Go-Go's, wearing eye-catching outfits and bopping around to songs that alternated between "I can have a good time without you" and "No, wait, I love you, come back." There was something alluring about the idea of strong-willed, pretty, fashionable women who didn't mind being alone but hated being lonely.
Enduring presence? Because of Belinda Carlisle's post-Go-Go's career as a fairly bland pop chanteuse, the band could be dismissed as pre-fab sell-outs, exploiting elements of the West Coast punk scene while staying fully in the pocket of the industry. And let's face it: Beauty And The Beat aside, none of the band's three hit albums are unassailable. But take the best of all three (as their hits album Greatest mostly does, and Return To The Valley Of The Go-Go's does even better) and you've got some of the catchiest, most happy-making music of the early '80s.Gomez
Years Of Operation 1996-present
Fits Between Pearl Jam and Free
"Whippin' Picadilly (Live)" by Gomez
Personal Correspondence The early success of British roots-rockers Gomez stemmed largely from curiosity, because while most late-'90s Brit-poppers were trying to revive The Kinks, Gomez were shooting for Joe Cocker. Gomez's debut album Bring It On came out in 1998 in the waning days of Britpop, and at the time, the record stirred interest by offering an earthy alternative to the glammed-up, arena-ready post-mod of Oasis, Blur, and their ilk. From the beginning, Gomez has drawn on the same blues/folk tradition that's informed rockers from The Band and The Allman Brothers to Phish and Blues Traveler, but the youthful British quintet is about as "rootsy" as Beck—which is to say that, like Beck, Gomez maintains a certain intellectual remove from their slide-guitar-washed, groove-heavy music. The band's art-rock leanings ran them aground on 1999's Liquid Skin, and 2000's stopgap B-sides and rarities compilation Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline did little to contravene their reputation as talented dullards. But then the album In Our Gun largely fulfilled the band's early promise, integrating touches of Radiohead-style avant-garde atmospherics into a set of songs that were on the whole shorter, looser and punchier than anything in the prior Gomez catalog. Since then they've gone back to being hit-and-miss, but I've stuck with them anyway, because I like their multiple-vocalist approach and general well-meaning vibe.
Enduring presence? Gomez is a prime example of the good-not-great band that maintains enough momentum to record a slew of albums without ever building an enormous fan base. I like them, but I could easily live without them. I include them in this section largely because they're one of many bands that I've kept on my "watch" list long after I've gathered plenty of evidence that they're not going to reward my attention.Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
Years Of Operation 1991-2006
Fits Between Soft Machine and Paul McCartney
"The Wizard And The Lizard" by Gorky's Zygotic Mynci
Personal Correspondence I have to give it up for any band as unabashedly geeky as GZM often were, and for any band able to hold onto their hometown roots—they sometime sang in Welsh, for heaven's sake—while roaming fairly freely, exploring prog, Euro-folk, glam, and whatever else caught their fleeting fancy. Prog-rock acts like Genesis, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer are sometimes derided for the often unbearable pretension with which they attempted to mold rock onto classical music frames. But they had another, worthier mission: to move British pop music away from the crusty, city-bound, dance-hall tradition and to find instead a link between American blues music and the folk songs of the European hills. At their best, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci recalled the highland mist and mysticism of '70s prog while indulging rowdier pub music. They could test fans' patience, but there was no one else like them.
Enduring presence? When it comes to GZM, I like the side they showed on Barafundle, which sounds a little like Wings in a pastoral mode. It's so eccentric, and so beautiful.Stray Tracks
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .Galaxie 500, "Flowers"
"Flowers" by Galaxie 500
Galaxie 500's reputation in the college/alternative/indie rock sphere has always been—in my opinion—somewhat out of proportion to their actual influence and output, though it's hard to deny that there was something bracing about them when they first drifted down from Boston at the end of the '80s, toting a sound that connected The Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers, and all the pretty wallpaper music coming out of the UK on 4AD. My main problem with Galaxie 500 has always been that their songs run on too long given how little movement there is within them (and how little variation between them). What they mainly presented was a simple sonic idea, never quite developed into a complete thought.Gary Numan, "Me! I Disconnect From You"
"Me! I Disconnect From You (Live)" by Gary Numan
When I was in college, I had a small clique of music-loving friends, and each of us had one UK-based act that we obsessed over, collecting everything we could find that had their name on it. For me, it was The Wedding Present; for my friend Eric, The Fall; and for my friend Daryn, it was Gary Numan. It took me a while to come around on Numan, who was too associated in my mind with his biggest hit, "Cars" (a song I thought was awesome when I was 9, and silly when I was 18) as well as with all the images I remember seeing of him on TV riding around stages in a giant neon pyramid. He seemed vaguely like a joke to me. But Daryn wore me down with his frequent touting of the Tubeway Army albums and early Numan solo stuff, and after hearing the sonic depth and computer-age paranoia of "Are Friends Electric?" and "Me! I Disconnect From You," Numan started to click in my head. (I even started to like "Cars" again.) It may be a cliché for an electronic musician to sing about the alienation of technology, but given Numan's spacey voice, I'm not sure he ever had much choice in the matter. Anyway, when it all comes together, his sound is suitably clean and spooky.
Gary Wilson, "Rhythm In Your Eyes"
"Rhythm In Your Eyes" by Gary Wilson
Gary Wilson's self-released 1977 curio You Think You Really Know Me was reissued in 2002, and sounded so distinctively post-modern that some wondered if it was a Beck record masquerading as a 25-year-old, 500-copy vanity release. Wilson's quivery helium voice, over cheap drum machines and minimalist keyboards, make him sound like the most charming stalker in town. His jazz-spiked new wave is so smooth and his girl-crazy yelp is so not. Wilson's no musical genius, but even in his recent comeback, he's maintained an almost obsessive focus on forging a singular, unified sound from influences that encompass the obviously catchy as well as the freeform. Wilson then filters everything through his nerdy loverman persona. Only a handful of musicians had heard of Wilson prior to Beck's mention of him in the song "Where It's At," but his work has been an inspiration nonetheless—proof that home recording doesn't have to be limited to lo-fi punk and basement-pop symphonies, and proof that artists doesn't always need to worry about finding an audience.
Gay Dad, "To Earth With Love"
"To Earth With Love" by Gay Dad
Nobody turns out "next big thing"s with the fervor and high turnover rate of the British, and Gay Dad were a particularly spectacular flame-out, memorable because of the band's unforgettable name and because of bandleader Cliff Jones' side career as a member of the very UK press often responsible for pumping up the NBTs before tearing them down. Yet even though Gay Dad's much-anticipated debut album was no masterpiece, the band did throw together a few grand singles—and none better than their first, "To Earth With Love," which recalls Hothouse Flowers and New Radicals in the way it evokes a party in the midst of reaching its peak.
Gene Loves Jezebel, "Desire"
"Desire" by Gene Loves Jezebel
This kind of semi-goth post-punk—with an L.A.-style studio kick—sounded at the time like a corruption of the movement towards making rock music for dance clubs, and reminiscent of the way that the disco movement of the mid-to-late-'70s became degraded by scores of cookie-cutter singles with insipid lyrics and interchangeable instrumental parts. And yet, just like a lot of that disco pap now sounds better in retrospect, so "Desire" seems much less offensive now than it might've in 1986. Now it's a worthy example of the John Hughes-ification of the pop charts in the mid-'80s, and it makes some of us nostalgic for the days when scrappy radio stations like Los Angeles' KROQ could make a real difference in the business.
Gene Marshall, "All You Need Is A Fertile Mind"
"All You Need Is A Fertile Mind" by Gene Marshall
I have no idea where I got this—probably from a music blog—and I don't think I'd ever listened to it before this week. And, uh yeah. You gotta hear it. Especially if you're a heavy consumer of pornography. This song will make you think twice.
Gene Vincent, "Dance To The Bop"
"Dance To The Bop" by Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps
What I've always liked best about Vincent is his mastery of the ol' rockabilly creep-up, where the bandleader sings with slow mounting intensity and his boys hold slightly longer spaces between the notes, until finally they go all-in and start rockin' your ass. These dudes understood that "rock 'n' roll" used to mean "sex," and they were determined to keep that association up front.
George Clinton, "Do Fries Go With That Shake?"
"Do Fries Go With That Shake?" by George Clinton
I've mentioned before that all my Funkadelic and Parliament is on cassette, so this may be my only chance to write about Clinton, an artist about whom, frankly, I have some reservations. I enjoy many Clinton songs, from across his many manifestations, but I've always had a hard time reconciling the disconnect between his visionary music and stagecraft and the often puerile content of his lyrics. I know the scatology is necessarily intertwined with Clinton's sociopolitical ideals, in that he's all about freeing you from your inhibitions but I kind of like my inhibitions. That said, Clinton undeniably pioneered several still vital and useful sounds, including the bottom-heavy electro-funk of the early '80s. He's earned my respect, and sometimes even my affection. But I've never gotten all that close to him.
The Germs, "Lexicon Devil"
"Lexicon Devil" by The Germs
This one goes out to one of our valued regular commenters You know who you are. (Obligatory music-related content: I'd never really noticed until this week how on record, The Germs resembled the UK variety of punk more than the kind coming out of their native L.A. This song in particular is snappier and less assaultive than Fear or Black Flag. Sort of makes you wonder what they might've become, had Darby Crash not been such a fuck-up.)
Gerry & The Pacemakers, "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey"
"Ferry 'Cross The Mersey" by Gerry & The Pacemakers
I don't suppose it's too much of an embarrassment to say that my first exposure to this song was via Frankie Goes To Hollywood's cover, since it's not like "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey" is some kind of canonical rock classic. It's not really "rock" at all in fact, despite The Pacemakers' former reputation as The Beatles' biggest rival in the Liverpool rock scene. This is pure cinematic pop, tailor-made for the opening credits of some early-'60s romantic comedy.
Gerry Rafferty, "Right Down The Line"
"Right Down The Line" by Gerry Rafferty
There are limits to studying pop music via shadowing, as I've discovered more than once after buying albums or anthologies by artists who really don't have much to offer beyond their best-known hits. Last year, I picked up a "two albums on one CD" collection of Gerry Rafferty's City To City and Night Owl, perhaps swayed by the memory of the time back in college when one of my roommates bought a used Rafferty hits collection in order to have a copy of "Baker Street," and was thrilled to find "Right Down The Line," another soft-rock classic that we'd both forgotten. But aside from "Baker Street" and "Right Down The Line," City To City is pretty dire, and Night Owl's not much better. Even the merits of City To City's two good songs may be due as much to the sound of the times—that slinky, moody atmosphere that Dire Straits also did so well—than to Rafferty's songwriting skills. That said, I do still plan to dig back at some point into Stealers Wheel, Rafferty's pre-City To City band, whom I heard at length years ago and recall having more to offer than just "Stuck In The Middle With You." I've also heard some good stuff by The Humblebums, the band Rafferty was in with Scottish comedian Billy Connolly back in the late '60s. So Rafferty's got a fairly decent CV. He just tails off dramatically after 1978.
The Get Up Kids, "How Long Is Too Long"
"How Long Is Too Long" by The Get Up Kids
Outside of Guilt Show, I've had a hard time getting into Kansas City pop-punkers The Get Up Kids, because both their songwriting and their subject matter have always seemed so minor to me, and somewhat choked off by the band's earnestness. On Guilt Show they found a sweet spot, putting Matthew Pryor's cooing, boyish voice in front of classic pop arrangements—complete with piano accents, acoustic bridges, moody electronic/orchestral interludes and climactic crescendos—that bring a touch of class to what might otherwise be standard half-hook emo, faintly catchy but fundamentally unmemorable. Consequently, a song like "How Long Is Too Long" zooms and swoops, but ultimately follows a constantly changing flow, like the frank conversation that it's meant to recall. Of course, because it is The Get Up Kids, the conversation is a one-sided post-adolescent lament—the line that follows "how long is too long" is, naturally, "when you're waiting by the phone"—but for a fleeting moment, The Get Up Kids make self-absorption almost heroic.
Ghosty, "Add/Drop City"
"Add/Drop City" by Ghosty
I haven't heard the most recent Ghosty album, but I'm curious to learn whether they've built on the promise of their debut, a slight collection of indie-rock songs shaped primarily by bandleader Andrew Connor's distinctive songwriting personality. Connor's words and melodies sound almost improvised, like he's speaking off the cuff while spontaneously remembering some tunes from an old K-Tel AM Gold collection. The shambling style falls apart at times, but Connor keeps his happy-thoughts-and-sharp-hooks dream aloft for an impressively long time. Is that the best Ghosty can do? Does it matter? These are the questions that nag at a critic.
Gil Scott-Heron, "Winter In America"
"Winter In America" by Gil Scott-Heron
Scott-Heron worked with keyboardist/flautist Brian Jackson on this 1974 lament, which like most of Scott-Heron's work has echoes of beat poetry, Afrobeat, and jazz-fusion. This would be an example of a political song that falls in the middle between eloquently persuasive and intentionally unsubtle and didactic. But as much as any of Scott-Heron's often haunting turns of phrase, what makes this song so powerful is the martial beat and mournful instrumentation, which convey a sense of giving up. It's not a song to inspire; it's one to ease the pain of losing something dear.
Gilbert O'Sullivan, "A Woman's Place"
"A Woman's Place" by Gilbert O'Sullivan
Here's another political song of a kind, and equally depressing in its way. Or is its old-fashioned chauvinism cute? Can we learn to love it and accept it the way we love and accept our sweetly crotchety grandparents and their painfully insensitive comments about the immigrants who prune their trees? It helps some that O'Sullivan always was a fairly quirky (and talented) artist, almost like an Irish Harry Nilsson. Still ick.
Gilberto Gil, "Andar Com Fé"
"Andar Com Fé" by Gilberto Gil
Like a lot of music-lovers of my generation, I was first turned onto Brazilian pop by the David Byrne-curated Beleza Tropical anthology, a really remarkable set that contained an eclectic batch of catchy songs by the honest-to-goodness cream of the crop, like Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, and Gilberto Gil (the latter of whom used a light, everybody-sing-along style to convey substantive content). Beleza Tropical was the perfect record for world-music dabblers, because it gave those who wanted to dig further a good group of artists to start with, and those who were happy to skim the surface a few relevant names to drop in conversation.
Gillian Welch, "Paper Wings"
"Paper Wings" by Gillian Welch
I'm not completely sold on Welch, who's always seemed to be trying too hard to turn Patsy Cline into performance art, by stripping down retro-country to as few elements as possible. She has an amazing voice—and on songs like this beguilingly moody nothing, that's plenty—but I tend to feel that she and her frequent collaborators are holding something back, just to be difficult. And I don't always see the point of it.
Gin Blossoms, "Hey Jealousy"
"Hey Jealousy" by Gin Blossoms
A friend of mine picked up New Miserable Experience shortly after it came out in 1992, in part because he liked the name "Gin Blossoms" and in part because he was getting into the spreading alt-country scene that Gin Blossoms were almost a part of. Shortly after he got the record, he started proselytizing about "Hey Jealousy," a fluid, tuneful rock song that—in the context of the indie-rock he and I were immersed in at the time—sounded pretty amazing. A year later, I started hearing "Hey Jealousy" on the radio, and soon after that, Gin Blossoms weren't some upstart roots-rock band. They'd become, like Goo Goo Dolls and Soul Asylum before them, the major-label arena-rock heroes they were never quite cut out to be. Now when I hear the song, I'm not sure whether to associate it with what I thought Gin Blossoms were when I first heard them, or what they turned into.
Girl Talk, "That's My DJ"
"That's My DJ" by Girl Talk
When we did a Random Rules with Greg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk) last year, we had a contentious discussion in the comments section from people who felt that Gillis' ignorance of some of the music on his iPod reflected badly on him, and that as a mere DJ, he was hardly one to sit in judgment on actual musicians. But I don't know Girl Talk's Night Ripper is a hell of a record, and one of the truest realizations of the early sampling experiments of Double Dee & Steinski. It's dizzying in its density, and a great deal of fun to boot. I know I wouldn't be able to make the pop connections that Gillis does, or to combine so many different sounds so seamlessly. He's a musician in my book.
Godrays, "Both Your Names"
"Both Your Names" by Godrays
Rising from the ashes of Small Factory, Godrays were one of the last of the first wave of indie-rock (as clearly distinguished from college rock, alternative rock, and modern rock). Unlike current indie-rock, the original brand had a more unified sound—sloppy, guitar-based, melodic and indifferently sung, and frequently dressed up with excessive basement orchestration—and was usually parceled out on singles and LPs that wore their no-big-dealness as a badge of honor. This was the alternative to alternative, meant to sound intimate and off-the-cuff, and not like just another arena-rock band that had been weaned on punk instead of Foreigner. Most of the indie-rock of that era is decidedly "you had to be there," but part of what made it so refreshing to those of us who haunted indie record shops is that every now and then a band like Godrays would bury a catchy, exciting rock song like this one deep on Side Two of an album nobody bought. And then, long after we'd forgotten all about Small Factory and Godrays, we'd find the song in our CD collection, and think, "Oh wow now I know why I used to think this stuff was so good."
The Good Life, "Album Of The Year"
"Album Of The Year" by The Good Life
As a bookend to the column I wrote about rock auteurists a few week's back, I'm going to write in some future week about rock-by-committee, and one of the things I want to explore is whether you have to eschew collaboration if you want to write lyrics as unselfconsciously corny (but effective) as Tim Kasher does with Cursive and The Good Life. I know Kasher works with others on his music, arrangements, and production, but I can't imagine him running lyrics like those on "Album Of The Year" by anyone else for final approval. "Album Of The Year" would be more impressive if Kasher didn't write so many songs that document the specific details of fractured relationships, but still, on its own merits—for those willing to go with Kasher's drift, and able to stomach lines like "we started laughing 'til it didn't hurt"—this song's references to John Fante and Elliott Smith and its sketch of a romance from start to finish are stunning in their fullness and believability. It's like a Gen-Y version of Harry Chapin's "Taxi."
Regrettably unremarked upon: Gang Starr, Garbage, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gemma Hayes, Gene Pitney, Generation X, George Winston, Giant Sand, Gil Evans, Girls Against Boys, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Gnarls Barkley, Go To Blazes, Godley & Crème, The Go-Betweens, The Go! Team, Gonzales, Gordon Lightfoot, The Gories and Gorillaz
G. Love & Special Sauce, Gal Costa,
Galaga, Gallery, Gamble Brothers
Band, Gamble Rogers, Ganger, The Gants, Gary
Bennett, Gary Glitter, Gary Lews & The Playboys, Gary Puckett & The
Union Gap, Gaspar Lawal, The Gates Of Eden, Gato Barbieri,
Gaunt, Gaylads, The Gena Rowlands Band,
Gene, Gene Allison, Gene Autry, Gene Chandler, Gene Harris,
General Johnson, Generation Gap, Gentleman Reg, Geoff Love & His Orchestra,
Geoff Muldaur, George Baker, George
Marinelli, George McGregor & The Bronzettes, George Pegram,
Georges Delerue, Georgia Crackers, Georgie James, Gerald
Collier, Gerald Price, Gershon Kingsley, Get Him Eat Him, The Get
Quick, Get Set Go, The Ghost Is Dancing, Ghostface Killah,
Ghostigital, Ghostland, Giant Drag,
Giddy Motors, Gift Of Gab, Gingersol, Girls In Hawaii,
Girls Of The Golden West, The Gits, The
Glass, Glasseater, Gleaners, Glen Hansard, Glenn Adams, Glenn Lewis, Gloria
Gaynor, Gloria Jones, Glory Fountain, The Go, The Go Find, Go West,
go[machine], The Goatdancers, GoGoGo Airheart, Gojira,
Goldcard, Golden, The Golden Dogs, Golden,
Golden Earring, The Golden Gate Jubilee, Golden Gate Quartet, The Golden Republic,
Goldenboy, Goldie Lookin' Chain, Goldrush, Gonga,
Gonzaguinha, The Goo Goo Dolls, The Good Mornings, Goodbye
Girl Friday, The Goodnight Loving, Goodthunder and The Goons Of Doom