Popless Week 20: To Jam Or Not To Jam
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.
"Get It Together" by James Brown
Towards the end of James Brown's 1967 funk workout "Get It Together," Brown starts passing out instructions to his band, letting them know when to hit him and how hard, until finally he instructs the men in the booth to fade the track out because he has somewhere to be. When I first heard "Get It Together" back in my college apartment with my three roommates, all of us just about collapsed on the floor in delighted laughter. "Get It Together" was the coolest thing we'd ever heard, and we were wowed by everything about it, from Brown's complete command of his crackerjack unit to his off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness approach to cutting a record. The song seemed to be utterly alive.
Musicians have long-strived to convey just how much pleasure they get from messing around and exploring. One of the things I like best about Dennis McNally's A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History Of The Grateful Dead is the way it covers the band's struggles to find audio equipment advanced enough to make their albums sound as intricate as a live show, and their live shows sound as clear as an album. As much as critics and fans like to use words like "overproduced" or "thin-sounding" to describe a recording, we sometimes forget that an album is just like a photograph, a film, or a journal entry, in that it preserves a time, a place, and a thought. And sometimes that time and place comes with its own not-so-perfect sound.
That's why for so many bands—and quite a few of their fans—the ideal for a record is for it to sound plausibly live, even if it means putting all the players into the same well-baffled studio at the same time and then rolling tape. Some go even further, preferring the spontaneity of improvisation and freeform jamming, because they want to capture a moment that can never be repeated. There are plenty of fans dedicated to collecting every Dead bootleg or Miles Davis session, because they know no two will be exactly the same, and they want to commune with artists by hearing exactly what was going through their heads—and instruments—at any given minute on any given day. Is this version angrier? Looser? More playful? Does it break down at some point, and feature someone barking orders at someone else? If you want to understand how musicians think, obsessively poring over alternate takes and live shows can help.
But there's an alternate school of thought that says all these ephemeral recordings are just rough drafts, never meant to be given the same attention that one should give the final work. I have some qualms about the Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, but I'm sympathetic to the scenes where Jeff Tweedy is going out of his head trying to figure out which of the multitude of potential approaches to the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the "right" one. I'm sympathetic because I appreciate that he wants there to be a "right" one. He wants to release a definitive version that delivers everything that the song has to deliver. (Or at least he felt that way then; Tweedy and Wilco have since loosened up to such an extent that their most recent album Sky Blue Sky is almost just a blueprint for the more expansive and freeform live shows that have followed.)
In the documentary Freestyle, The Coup rapper Boots Riley talks about how much he admires people who rap off the top of their heads in battles, but how he feels obliged to write his rhymes down and get them as tight as he can. There's a certain nobility to that. If you're leaving a song behind for posterity, why not make an effort to perfect it, right down to scripting the solos? Isn't that more respectful to the audience and to the art?
Yes, you sacrifice some of the spark of instantaneous creativity the more you "produce" a record. But a heavily produced, carefully planned out song can generate some effects that a live, loose approach can't. Veteran Nashville musician/producer/writer Jay Joyce introduced his short-lived, not-that-lamented band Iodine in the thick of the grunge era, pursuing a heavier, trippier rock sound than he'd gone after in bands like Bedlam and In Pursuit. The results didn't exactly set the world afire, but Iodine did record one really good song on their debt album Maximum Joy:
"Flyboy" by Iodine
"Flyboy" is all about its apocalyptic atmosphere, which can only be roughly approximated live—if only because it would be hard to get the vocals to sound so whispery in concert, over such loud guitars. As a composition, "Flyboy" is merely okay. If Joyce had recorded an acoustic version, it would've sounded slight, but basically fine. If he'd turned it into a funk/reggae vamp and asked his band to play on until he told them to stop, that might've been fine too (depending what kind of groove he laid down). But it wouldn't have been this "Flyboy," which in all its machine-tooled shimmer is exactly the song it needs to be.
I'm of two minds on the subject of jamming and naturalness, because I too like to romanticize the idea of a fleeting moment of inspiration, preserved forever. And I agree that sometimes overthinking a song or a solo can drain its vitality. But what if the musician is, by nature, an overthinker? In that case, if they put out a fussy record, they're being as true to themselves as any free-spirited noodler. And that's an important thing to preserve too.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1963-present
Fits Between Jim Morrison and Screamin' Jay Hawkins
"Sixteen" by Iggy Pop
Personal Correspondence When I first started getting into punk and New Wave in the mid-'80s, a lot of underground rock's old guard were still around, but struggling to adjust. Genre godfathers like Lou Reed, David Johansen and Iggy Pop regularly released records that had little of the oomph or edge of their proto-punk classics, and on the rare occasions that I heard them on the radio or saw them on Saturday Night Live, I had hard time connecting that version of them to what I'd read in the rock history books. Remember: these were the early years of the CD era, and a lot of labels had let some of their lower-selling catalog titles fall out of print while they focused on getting their bigger sellers ready for CD. So it wasn't always easy to find legendary cult albums in stores. My first exposure to Iggy Pop—aside from David Bowie's versions of "China Girl," "Tonight" and "Neighborhood Threat"—was the 1986 album Blah Blah Blah, which I won in a radio station giveaway and generally enjoyed, even though it so awash in mid-'80s synthetics that it sounded nowhere near as rabid and untamed as I imagined Pop to be. I finally worked my way back to the real Iggy Pop at the end of the decade, via a circuitous route that involved reading some persuasive Pop appreciation in separate collections of Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs articles, hearing The Blake Babies' cover of The Stooges' "Loose," and finally finding used vinyl copies of The Stooges, Fun House and Raw Power for about 15 bucks each (which was a lot for a used record in those days). Even now, post-grunge, those Stooges records sound rough and sludgy in the best way, offering the Midwestern primitive variation on West Coast heaviness, dosed strongly with urban nihilism. For anyone who doesn't understand why the gracious, grinning, skeletal freak who now appears in movies and on talk shows was once regarded as a potentially dangerous rock 'n' roll maniac, all it takes is one cranked-up spin through "T.V. Eye" or "Shake Appeal," and suddenly history comes to life.
Enduring presence? As mighty as The Stooges are—and trust me, I'll be revisiting them when I get to "S"—my favorite Pop album is his solo effort Lust For Life, which bears traces of David Bowie's late '70s Euro-decadence, while remaining every inch a rock 'n' roll record, propelled by the bounding rhythms of the Sales brothers and Pop's most poetic meditations on drugs, sex, violence and that hollow, lost feeling. If I were forced at gunpoint to name my personal Top 10 albums, I'm pretty sure Lust For Life would be on it. And if I had to distill what rock means to me in five words, they might well be "Sweet sixteen in leather boots."
Years Of Operation 1997-present
Fits Between Joy Division and The Chameleons
"Evil" by Interpol
Personal Correspondence I welcomed Interpol warmly when they rumbled out of New York's neo-underground scene at the start of the '00s, because the idea of aping 20-year-old post-punk records hadn't yet devolved into the glut, repetition and creative bankruptcy that would undo the movement in less than two years. About Interpol's debut album, I wrote:
The Walkmen, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Radio 4, French Kicks and The Strokes spend perhaps too much energy recreating old sounds, but they've also revivified the past, interpreting it through their own distinct personalities. Ditto for Interpol, the latest New York act to crank up the echo. The morose quartet's debut LP Turn On The Bright Lights earns the inevitable Joy Division comparison, though Interpol has a lighter lilt to their bass and percussion, and the two guitarists' chiming patterns set the band off on the kind of positivist exploration that the grimly minimalist Joy Division wouldn't have cared to attempt. Lead singer Paul Banks has a heavy, anguished vocal style, and sings cryptically bitter lines line like 'friends don't waste wine when there's words to sell,' but uptempos dominate Turn On The Bright Lights, and Interpol's virtue is the way their music unfurls from pinched openings to wide-open codas. The album's highlight of highlights, 'Say Hello To Angels,' kicks off with separate stabbing guitar riffs and a freight train drumroll before breaking into a spry, bass-driven bit of alt-pop, reminiscent of The Smiths and Brian Eno; by the time the song ends with an extended rolling drone, what had seemed initially chilly and obsessive reveals a surprising versatility.
The argument against Interpol with each of their two subsequent albums has been that they haven't really grown much. Which is true. But in a way they've been perfecting their shtick, and for me at least, Antics and Our Love To Admire have shown a steady improvement. With each new Interpol record, I find myself thinking that I overrated the previous one, and that now they've gotten it right.
Enduring presence? What do you do with a band that keeps making the same record over and over, only slightly better each time? Are they bereft of ideas, or just Glorious Crackpots?
Years Of Operation 1979-1997 (essentially)
Fits Between Duran Duran and The Rolling Stones
"Don't Change" by INXS
Personal Correspondence Haven't we all been haunted by songs we can't quite remember? For me, I was nagged for a half-decade by INXS' "Don't Change," and what made the situation doubly frustrating is that I knew INXS was the band I was looking for, even though I didn't know the song. I missed Live Aid when it originally aired because I was away on a family vacation—and besides we didn't have cable when I was growing up, so I wouldn't have been able to see most of the show anyway—but one of my brother's friends taped the whole concert, and after my brother used some of his summer internship money to buy our household our first VCR, I borrowed those Live Aid tapes and watched them repeatedly for a month until I had to give them back. At the beginning of the first tape, my brother's friend caught the tail-end of INXS' performance at Oz For Africa, so I saw roughly the last two minutes of "Don't Change," liked it, and then promptly forgot everything about the song when I returned the Live Aid tapes. Months later, Listen Like Thieves crossed over to the U.S. market, and I started thinking about that one INXS song I liked, though I couldn't remember the name, or how it went. A friend of mine loaned me The Swing but it wasn't on there, and I bought Kick when it came out, but it wasn't on there either. It got to the point where I'd half-convinced myself that I was remembering the wrong song, and that I'd actually dug "The One Thing" or "This Time." Then I got to college and met a friend who had Shabooh Shoobah, and while cursorily scanning through it to see if it had "that song," I finally stumbled across "Don't Change" at the end of the record. It's a good song, and that was a satisfying moment though I don't know if it was worth four years of mystery.
Enduring presence? Michael Hutchence's sordid death may have tainted INXS' memory some, but I hope people who lived through the INXS era can appreciate the Hutchence-led version of the band as a solid singles act, bringing a healthy amount of shake and shimmy to arena rock. I saw INXS live on the Kick tour and wasn't necessarily expecting much (except that they might play "Don't Change," which they didn't), but they put on a heck of a show, full of energy and momentum. For that show alone, they get a pass from me; and actually, I've found that when I can't decide what iPod playlist to dial up, INXS has always been reliable.
Iron & Wine
Years Of Operation 2002-present
Fits Between Nick Drake and The Mountain Goats
"Faded From The Winter" by Iron & Wine
"The Devil Never Sleeps" by Iron & Wine
Personal Correspondence I can't think about Iron & Wine without remembering the somewhat painful interview experience I had with I&W; main man Sam Beam. It's not that Beam wasn't a nice guy—he was actually pleasant and gracious throughout the half-hour we spent on the phone—but the purpose of our interview was to talk about the use of Iron & Wine songs in commercials and movies, and how well he thought various directors had understood and used his work. Beam agreed to the premise beforehand, but on the day of the interview he revealed that he didn't have much to say. Most of the time Beam admitted he hadn't seen the movies or TV shows in question, and even when he did, he didn't have any comment. Which shouldn't be that surprising, because sometimes musicians are reticent dudes, except that this particular dude used to be a freakin' professor of film studies! Beam admitted to being a film buff, but he wasn't the least bit articulate about the art or craft of filmmaking. I still like Iron & Wine, but as I've written here before, I'm partial to a certain amount of intentionality in my artists, and Beam is clearly more of a laid-back, take-what-comes-and-don't-question-it kind of guy. Or at least that's what he wanted me to believe.
Enduring presence? Our former A.V. Club editor Stephen Thompson spread the gospel of Beam from the moment he heard an advance copy of Iron & Wine's The Creek Drank The Cradle, and while I didn't become an eager disciple, I could definitely hear the call. That album—drawn from lo-fi home recordings—has an otherworldly quality, supplied in large part by Beam's unnaturally pretty voice and delicate guitar-picking. The Iron & Wine albums, singles and EPs that immediately followed led me to wonder whether Beam needed tape hiss and low stakes to spin a mood. Those records sounded basically fine, but the closer Beam gets to conventional, cleanly recorded folk and blues, the more, well, conventional Iron & Wine seems. But last year's The Shepherd's Dog struck me as a real breakthrough, adding a rhythmic texture that moves Beam beyond wan folk-pop into something more intuitive and spiritual.
Years Of Operation 1962-present
Fits Between Barry White and Burt Bacharach
"Wonderful" by Isaac Hayes
Personal Correspondence Speaking of memorable interviews, I had a much better experience talking with Hayes a few years back, even though he called me about 45 minutes late (after I'd told his publicist that I was going to have to reschedule), and even though I caught him shortly before he'd decided to quit South Park, when he was still shrugging off Parker and Stone's anti-Scientology jokes as no big deal. (After the story broke about him leaving the show, some articles cited my interview, which was kind of weird.) Still, while we were on the phone, Hayes couldn't have been more agreeable. More importantly, researching Hayes helped me realize how awesome he is. Reviewing the anthology Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It? around that time, I wrote:
With his bald head, stylish duds, and basso profundo voice, Isaac Hayes cuts such an iconic figure that people sometimes forget he contributed more to modern pop than just 'Theme From Shaft.' Hayes was arguably R&B;'s first 'album artist,' starting with his landmark 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul, which consisted of only four songs, all stretched out well beyond single-length. On successive albums through the early '70s, Hayes infused slow-jam soul with elements of acid rock and orchestrated pop, forging a unique sound that was quickly copied by contemporaneous R&B; singers and TV cop-show-theme composers. In their extended form, the semi-improvised 'raps' that open his covers of 'I Stand Accused' and 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' take almost as long as the original songs; they feature Hayes grappling humorously but sincerely with his romantic troubles. His cover of 'Walk On By' takes a similarly dramatic turn. Hayes keeps Burt Bacharach's melody and Hal David's words, but between the lilting verses and choruses, he lays in sinister fuzz-tone guitar and a symphonic maelstrom, making simple heartbreak more apocalyptic. Throughout Can You Dig It?, Hayes expresses his love of pop in all its forms by remaking it as he hears it, as the soundtrack to life's most significant and only seemingly significant moments.
Enduring presence? As I wrote in that review, Hayes' larger-than-life public persona may distract from his innovations as a songwriter and star. Which is a shame, because Hayes' behind-the-scenes work with Stax at the start of the '60s and his out-in-front work at the end of the '60s (and into the '70s) is as formidable as any pop artist of the era, and significant in its willful eradication of genre boundaries.
Years Of Operation 1994-present
Fits Between Everything But The Girl and Sixpence None The Richer
"Edge Of The Ocean" by Ivy
Personal Correspondence Have you ever had a craving for a particular kind of food—like, say, a rolled chicken breast stuffed with spicy cheese, or a fresh-cut fruit salad—but because locations and circumstances are working against you, you settle for whatever rough approximation you can find at the nearest fast-food joint? That's more or less been my relationship with Ivy, a breezy sophisti-pop band that at the end of the '90s sounded almost like the kind of music I wanted to hear, such that I raved maybe too much about them. About Ivy's In The Clear I wrote:
The pop music charts of the early '60s often doubled as diagrams of the widening generation gap, as the untamed sound of early rock clashed with Vegas-slick entertainers scrambling to stay hip. Then The Beatles started peppering their albums with light ballads like 'Yesterday' and 'Michelle,' and The Beach Boys started working mind vacations like 'Let's Get Away for Awhile' into their repertoire. Suddenly adult sophistication and pining for the leisure pastimes of the middle-aged became viable to a group of kids who were used to pursuing wilder kicks. Since then, rock musicians from Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman to Air and Ladybug Transistor have dabbled in romanticizing generational displacement. New York lounge-pop act Ivy is so into the easy-going lifestyle that it actually licensed one of its songs ('Edge Of The Ocean') for a cruise ship ad. Ivy has a definite rock edge—guitarist/songwriter Adam Schlesinger, who splits time between Ivy and Fountains Of Wayne, makes sure of that. But while Schlesinger's guitar grinds away in the background, lead singer Dominique Durand whispers smoothly and sadly, and utility man Andy Chase fills the spaces around her voice with a thick rope of instruments that all describe the same cool breeze. On Ivy's fourth original album In The Clear, the band sticks with up tempos and busy arrangements, approximating the feeling of anxious young urban professionals trying to catch a breath. The record's at once exciting and relaxing: songs like 'Tess Don't Tell' surge forward like a trans-oceanic jet, while 'Keep Moving' weaves disco and soft rock into a mix that goes down as smooth as ice-cold gin, even as Durand sings about how hard it is to get over the loss of a loved one. The two sides come together on In The Clear's apotheosis, 'Corners Of Your Mind,' a rush of rapidly-strummed guitars and pounding piano that blows up like a gust of wind, leaving the listener refreshed and surprisingly un-mussed.
But here's the thing: I listened to In The Clear again this week, and it left me almost completely unmoved. As did Realistic and Apartment Life. (Ivy's Long Distance still holds up well though, as does their covers album.) I'm not saying that my review of In The Clear was "wrong" per se, because the descriptions I think remain pretty accurate. But that same set of data, today, would probably lead me to a different conclusion—like that Ivy shows a shade too much emotional remove to be fully involving.
Enduring presence? You know what breezy sophisti-pop band gives me more of what I'm actually looking for? Swan Dive. But I'll get to them later. As for Ivy, I spent some time this week trimming their four albums of originals down to a tight 12-song collection, heavy on Long Distance. In a pinch, that'll do.
Years Of Operation 1970-present
Fits Between James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen
"The Only Child" by Jackson Browne
Personal Correspondence I don't mean this as a knock on All Music Guide—an incredibly useful website staffed by dedicated, knowledgeable writers—but I was taken aback a couple of years ago when I looked up Jackson Browne on AMG and discovered a set of reviews by William Ruhlmann that are easily the most incisive, provocative criticism I've ever read on the site. Starting with a write-up of Browne's debut album and continuing forward, Ruhlmann mounts a case for Browne's early albums that positions the laid-back singer-songwriter as an unlikely generational spokesman, summing up an era's disappointments. Then Ruhlmann takes Browne to task for what he sees as the commercial compromises of the hit albums The Pretender and Running On Empty, which he believes substitute cynicism and easy answers for the probing social critique of the first three LPs. In the reviews that follow, Ruhlmann alternately dismisses Browne as a hack and goes looking for signs of the artist he once loved. Without ever going first-person, Ruhlmann pens an analysis that's clearly personal, and though I disagree with a lot of it—I'm more impressed with Browne's rare moments of pop craftsmanship than his wandering spirit—I still think Ruhlmann's generated some superior short-form criticism, in a place where I wouldn't have expected to find it.
Enduring presence? My dad had a copy of Running On Empty when I was a kid—what '70s dad didn't?—but I hadn't given Jackson Browne a whole lot of thought until a series of events made Browne fandom seem inevitable. On the special edition DVD of Almost Famous (one of my favorite movies of the past decade), director Cameron Crowe talked up Late For The Sky. Then Wes Anderson used Nico's version of Browne's "These Days" in The Royal Tenenbaums (another of my favorites). Then Browne was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with a rambling, funny, jive-y speech by one of my heroes, Bruce Springsteen. Finally I took the plunge, bought pretty much the whole Browne discography (minus some of the recent records) and have been getting lost in his winding tales of lovers and liars ever since. Hooks are hard to come by in Browne songs, but I love how so many of his best songs are like miniature journeys with no apparent destination—until, unexpectedly, you arrive.
Years Of Operation 1972-82
Fits Between The Who and The Miracles
"Ghosts" by The Jam
Personal Correspondence I fell in love with The Jam because of The Gift, and didn't discover until years later that most Jam fans consider The Gift to be the weak conclusion to the band's strong run. Oh, well. When I heard the earlier Jam records I admired their muscle, and the way Paul Weller and company—who'd developed their chops before punk hit—had the technical skill to make every brutish note count. But man The Gift. I still prefer it. In just 30 minutes, Weller leads his two mates (plus copious guest musicians) through pummeling, echoing takes on R&B;, worldbeat, pub rock and protest folk—all catchy, all snappy, and all brimming with imagination. To some, The Gift sounds more like a warmup for The Style Council than a proper Jam album, and I can understand that. But to me, it's the model of what a good, concise pop-rock album can be: energized, tuneful, and willing to explore. (See also: Spoon, Girls Can Tell; Iggy Pop, Lust For Life; etc.)
Enduring presence? The Jam are still more revered in the UK than they are here in the US, though there have been a few domestic bands with Jam influences (Ted Leo, the aforementioned Spoon, others), and I'm pretty sure they're still a staple part of the diet of most dedicated rock fans. The same can't be said of The Style Council or Weller's solo work, though I count myself a fan of both, and I look forward to stumping for them later this year.
Years Of Operation 1956-2006
Fits Between Louis Jordan and Prince
"Super Bad" by James Brown
Personal Correspondence My pal Jason Heller already did a great job of writing up James Brown last week, and his experiences are similar to my own, right down to getting immersed in the box set Star Time in the early '90s. When I was growing up, Brown was more a tangential pop figure. Kids of my generation—at least where I grew up—mostly knew Brown from The Blues Brothers, "Living In America," Eddie Murphy's Saturday Night Live impression, and that weird voice saying "James Brown" over and over on Tom Tom Club's "Genius Of Love" (a fluke hit that several kids in my sixth grade class referred to as "that James Brown song"). Following the advice of pop historians, I picked up a cheap cassette copy of Live At The Apollo towards the end of my high school years, and was excited by the record's relentless groove and soul theatrics (especially in the offbeat ballad "I Don't Mind," as cited by Heller). I can't remember which one of my college roommates sprung for a copy of Star Time when I was in college, but it quickly became community property, passed around from car to car and duped onto cassette by each of us a few times over, in different configurations. In the beginning, I favored Brown's short, tight early R&B; hits. Later I decided I liked the longer funk/Afrobeat exercises, because of their one-take immediacy and complex musicianship. In the late '60s and early '70s, Brown would assemble all his sidemen (including, for a time, the incomparable Maceo Parker), walk them through a fairly forward-looking arrangement, and then just vamp until he felt satisfied. One of the turning points in my Brown appreciation came, oddly enough, when I saw White Men Can't Jump, in which director Ron Shelton choreographs one of the basketball sequences to "Super Bad." The connection between athletic movement and Brown's strutting funk struck me at my core. I love sports, and I love dense rhythmic interplay. With the physically dynamic James Bown, I get both.
Enduring presence? Like Eric Clapton's Crossroads and Bob Dylan's Biograph, James Brown's Star Time was a landmark in the early box set era, showing how artists' work and public persona could be recontextualized, to give them their proper due. It was especially essential for someone like Brown, who was more a singles artist than an album artist. If someone asks me what James Brown record to buy, I have to say Star Time (with Live At The Apollo running second). It's expensive, but worth it.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .
The Ides Of March, "Symphony Of Eleanor"
"Symphony Of Eleanor" by The Ides Of March
I wasn't really aware of The Ides Of March until American Idol contestant Bo Bice performed "Vehicle," a song that I'd always assumed was by Blood, Sweat & Tears. At the time I was developing an interest in the abbreviated "big band rock" era of BST and Chicago, so I picked up an Ides Of March two-fer CD with Vehicle and Common Man, and found much of it cheesy but nonetheless enjoyable, steeped in the late '60s/early '70s rock ideal of bombast and bullshit. Apparently the big showstopper at a 1970 Ides Of March concert was their epic-length cover of "Eleanor Rigby," which the band loaded up with acid-rock guitar solos, tribal drums, horn stings and tone far heavier than The Beatles' gentle melancholy. And you know what? It's silly, but once the jam really gets cooking around five or six minutes in, it's not too hard to imagine being at an Ides show and having the mind blown. (Fun fact: Ides Of March vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Jim Peterick went on to co-found Survivor, and to write some of the biggest hits of .38 Special.)
Idlewild, "I Understand It"
"I Understand It" by Idlewild
This Scottish quartet had the bad timing to start out as a neo-grunge act in 1999, right around the time that the Britpop scene had a run on atmospheric balladeers, and then shift to hooky modern rock just as music fans on both sides of the Atlantic started digging the new wave revival. It hasn't helped that the band has been low on timeless, take-it-to-the-bank songs—though they do have their moments. The anthemic "I Understand It" contains the kind of openhearted sentiment and shout-to-the-rafters choruses that should've sparked a fluke hit (but didn't, at least stateside), and the song makes good use of lead singer Roddy Woomble's Michael Stipe affectations and his fascination with dissecting unfixable relationships by describing their watershed moments.
Ike & Tina Turner, "It's Gonna Work Out Fine"
"It's Gonna Work Out Fine" by Ike & Tina Turner
Though the widespread stories of Ike and Tina's stormy relationship has made their music a little trickier to enjoy, this song's stripped-down instrumentation and echoing production—heavy on Ike's trademark guitar wobble—works almost as a kind of foreshadowing, undercutting the loving give-and-take between the duo. This, friends, is what the poets call "irony."
The Ike Reilly Assassination, "I Hear The Train"
"I Hear The Train" by The Ike Reilly Assassination
At some point toward the end of '07, about three months after Reilly's We Belong To The Staggering Evening had been released, someone on one of the bulletin boards or newsgroups I read (can't remember which one) cited it as one of the best albums of the year, and since I'd never heard of The Ike Reilly Assassination, I did some quick research and heard names like Bruce Springsteen, Marah and Ted Leo being tossed around. So I took a flyer. Because it was such a busy time of year, music-wise, and because I wasn't going to be reviewing it, I only played Staggering Evening a couple of times, and though I thought it was good, it struck me as exciting on the surface but maybe not all that deep. Revisiting the album this week, I think I hear more going on: a kind of youthful anger given credence by the sound of a bunch of simpatico musicians making a racket. I've got plans to dig back into the Reilly catalog some next year. (One knock against this particular song: The verses sound a bit too much like Billy Idol's "White Wedding." Otherwise, it rocks.)
Incredible Bongo Band, "Bongolia"
"Bongolia" by Incredible Bongo Band
Back in 1972, music-industry suit Michael Viner threw together Incredible Bongo Band to record a couple of songs for the soundtrack of The Thing With Two Heads, and when those went over well, he reconvened the band for two collections of instrumental covers. So let me ask you a question: How do you feel about bongos? Are you, like, rabidly pro-bongo? Do you like your bongos surrounded by twangy surf guitar and proto-disco horns? Do you want the kind of bongo breaks that can be easily appropriated by hip-hop a decade or so later? If so, have I got a band for you!The Incredible Moses Leroy, "1983"
"1983" by The Incredible Moses Leroy
San Diego studio rat Ron Foutenberry (a.k.a. The Incredible Moses Leroy) steals from so many sources so deftly that one would be forgiven for thinking that he is that rarely spotted bird, the "original." The Incredible Moses Leroy's second LP Electric Pocket Radio sounds like Beck at times, like Elliot Smith at others, like My Bloody Valentine every now and then, and most often like trash-pop excavators Stereo Total, Pizzicato Five, Cornershop, and Cornelius. What it doesn't sound like is a unique and thrilling combination of all the above. On a song-by-song basis, Foutenberry works cheerful and adroit variations on the music of his predecessors, but there's no meaningful attempt to synthesize those influences. It's well-done though. I defy anyone not to get a rush of good feeling when listening to "1983," a brisk guitar-and-synth number that's a lovely homage to New Order, with expressionistic lyrics about a good time gone by. I'll take it over Bowling For Soup anyway.
The Intruders, "Cowboys To Girls"
"Cowboys To Girls" by The Intruders
I first heard this song via a cover version by The Hacienda Brothers, and was so taken with the melody and lyrics that I bought an Intruders anthology. It was a good purchase as it turned out, even if no song quite tops "Cowboys To Girls," a sweet reflection on the onset of puberty. This track would fit nicely next to the above "1983" on any mix CD dedicated to songs about nostalgia.
The Isles, "Major Arcana"
"Major Arcana" by The Isles
I'd be curious to know what fans of The Smiths make of this stunning approximation of Manchester's finest, which gets the sound and vibe just right—all the way down to the deceptively poppy arrangement and the windswept, mystical air. (Not to mention whimsically Morrissey-esque lyrics like, "The breeze cannot decide / to be fresh / to be cold.") The rest of The Isles' debut album is more or less a bust, but this song is a keeper.
Jack Elliot & Allyn Ferguson, "Barney Miller"/"Charlie's Angels"
"Barney Miller" by Jack Elliot & Allyn Ferguson
"Charlie's Angels" by Jack Elliot & Allyn Ferguson
Who would've guessed that the same composing team would be responsible for two of the greatest TV theme songs of the '70s? These openers are so different, and yet they're alike in the way they set a precise mood. "Barney Miller" is all greasy urban hustle, while "Charlie's Angels" is pure fantasy, all luxe and swirly. Both of these themes warped my music appreciation in fundamental ways, making me more inclined to like songs that sound like the overture to watching television.
Jack S. Margolis, "Listening To Music"
"Listening To Music" by Jack S. Margolis
Elektra recording artist Margolis—author of the satirical A Child's Garden Of Grass—here explains what kind of music sounds good when you're stoned, and what doesn't. Too bad this came up alphabetically this week, rather than next week when I'm going to write about the influence of drug use on music creation and appreciation. Anyway, enjoy it as a teaser, and a bit of hippie humor.
The Jacksons, "Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)"
"Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)" by The Jacksons
As good as Michael Jackson's solo career has been at times—especially in the early going—I'm not sure any of it was worth Jackson's sad decline. Sometimes I like to imagine an alternate universe where Jackson stays with his brothers as just a cog in a funk-pop machine, cranking out invigorating dancefloor-ready cuts like this one, and never quite becoming a superstar.
James McMurtry, "Choctaw Bingo"
"Choctaw Bingo" by James McMurtry & The Heartless Bastards
I'm often put off by McMurtry's gruff social commentary, but this underclass epic is this one hell of a song, packed with so much detail—and so much of it accurate—that it seems pointless to complain about any condescending tone in McMurtry's vision of White Trash America. Why isn't this is a roots-rock standard already? Who can cover it and make it a blockbuster hit?
Jamie T, "Brand New Bass Guitar"
"Brand New Bass Guitar" by Jamie T.
I'd forgotten all about this UK NBT until he came around this week, and all the hype came rushing back. The fact that I'd only saved three songs off Panic Prevention indicates to me that I must not have been that wild about the album when I heard it last year. (I know I didn't review it, anyway.) But those three songs—and especially this one—sound every bit as puckish and catchy as Jamie T. had been hyped to be. Now I'm interested to hear what he does next, and I'm wondering if I was too dismissive to Panic Prevention.Jan Hammer, "Crockett's Theme"
"Crockett's Theme" by Jan Hammer
I wasn't the kind of teenager who hung out with older kids who had cars—at least not until my junior and senior years of high school—so most of my Friday nights in the mid-'80s were spent going to Hickory Hollow Mall with my parents, where we'd have dinner at the food court (Chik-Fil-A nuggets and waffle fries for me), I'd buy something cheap at Camelot Records with my allowance, and then we'd all head home, where my folks would go to bed and I'd stay up watching Miami Vice and Friday Night Videos on the local NBC affiliate. I was developing my understanding of cool—and of women—from a safe distance. Like The Intruders sing, it's all about that transition from cowboys to girls.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Imperial Teen, Incredible String Band, The Ink Spots, Inquisition, Iris Dement, The Isley Brothers, J Church, J.J. Cale, Jack Jones, Jack Nitzsche, Jackie Mittoo, Jad Fair, James Gang, James Kochalka Superstar and James Taylor
listened to: The
iLiKETRAiNS Ill Lit,
Illinois, Imagination, Imaginary
Baseball League, Immaculate Machine,
Imogen Heap, The Impossible Shapes, Inara George, Indeep,
India.Arie, Indian Ocean, The Indicators, Inell Young,
The Infamous Stringdusters, Information
Society, The Inklings, Innaway, Inner Life, The
Innocence Mission, The Intelligence, Ira Marlowe, Ira Stein,
Irma Thomas, Irving, Isao Tomita, Islands, IV Thieves, The Ivy League, J Dilla,
J-Live, J. Boogie, J. Mascis & The Fog, J.B. Lenoir, J.D. Crowe & The
New South, J.J. Barnes, J.P. Nestor, J.R. Bailey,
J*Davey, J'Nae, Jack & The
Mods, Jack Drag, Jack Ingram, Jack Johnson, Jack
Logan, Jack Stack A Track, Jack's Mannequin, Jackie Brenston
with His Delta Cats, Jackie Greene,
Jackmormons, Jackpot, Jackson United, Jacob Fred Jazz
Odyssey, Jake Brennan & The Confidence Men, Jake La
Botz, Jake Wade & The Soul Searchers, Jakob Dylan, Jakob
Olausson, James Apollo, James Combs, James Figurine, James Hunter, James P.
Johnson, James Talley, James Yorkston & The Athletes, Jamie Cullum,
Jamie Kindleyside and Jamiroquai
Next week: From Jane's Addiction to, John Coltrane plus a few words on drugs