Popless Week 40: A Little Race-y
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.
"Do I Do" by Stevie Wonder
If you're looking for a single song that encompasses nearly everything Stevie Wonder is about, I'd suggest "Do I Do," a bouncy number that's light in spirit and infectiously catchy, delivering the strong shot of unfettered joy that's always been an essential part of The Wonder Method. Not only that, but the song's impromptu rap and Dizzy Gillespie guest appearance extend Wonder's career-long effort to articulate a coherent vision of black culture, encompassing the history of jazz, blues and soul along with his community's roots in Africa, Latin America and the islands. In his heyday, Wonder sang about ghetto hardship and racism, but he also sang about romantic bliss, having children, and the pure pleasure of making music. Along with The Cosby Show, Roots, the early films of Spike Lee, and the '80s records by Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions, the '70s output of Stevie Wonder sought to broaden White America's understanding of Black America, emphasizing history, philosophy, political engagement, and a formidable artistic legacy.
As I entered college, armed with my copy of Innervisions and my Lee/P.E. fandom, I made the embrace of African-American culture an essential part of who I intended to become. My college roommates and I listened to jazz and hip-hop and Fishbone as much as we listened to New Order and Nirvana. We watched Richard Pryor movies and Boyz N The Hood. We even put up a big Malcolm X poster in our apartment about two years before Lee's movie came out. But were we as fully engaged with all these cultural artifacts as we thought we were, or were we just associating ourselves with them in a feeble attempt at cool? And if it was the latter, were we inadvertently insulting the ideals of the artists we thought we loved?
I started contemplating this in earnest one day shortly after I graduated from college, when I had dinner at my grandparents' house. I was wearing my usual early '90s outfit of a flannel shirt over a music-themed T, and at some point my grandmother—hardly the most politically correct woman in the world—asked, "Who's the black man on your shirt?" It was Thelonious Monk. And as I tried to explain to her who Monk was and why I was wearing a big picture of his face on my chest, I flashed back to a time back in high school when my AP history teacher gently chastised me for wearing a Buckwheat button on my jacket. I only bought the Buckwheat button because of Eddie Murphy's SNL sketches, and my teacher understood that, so she was very nice about the whole affair. But she still let me know in no uncertain terms that the Buckwheat image was racist. The Thelonious Monk picture on my T-shirt was hardly racist, but nevertheless, I started to feel silly about wearing it, because I began to wonder if I was promoting Monk, promoting my fandom of Monk, or promoting something else entirely.
Throughout this project, I've had moments where I started to write something about the racial politics of rock criticism, but aside from a few offhand comments here and there, I've backed away from having the big discussion, for a couple of reasons. First off, it's hard to write about race without coming off as some combination of condescending, defensive and self-congratulatory. I already do plenty in these pieces to make myself sound like an asshole; how much worse would it be if I took pains to point out that the oft-mentioned high school friend who loaned me Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols records was black? (But hey, isn't in clever how I snuck that fact in the backdoor?) And there's an even trickier problem: If I do talk about "one of my black friends" or about my relationship with certain black artists, the language I use can become unintentionally exclusionary all too easily. There's a presumption built into a lot of conversations about race in the media, and that presumption is this: I'm white, so I assume you're white too. Now let's talk about "them."*
It's because of this persistent quandary of how a white guy writes about black musicians without sounding like a total tool that I get irritated at some of my fellow critics' self-righteousness over matters of race. Indie-rock bands like The Arcade Fire have been slammed for being essentially funkless, while Robert Christgau used to make it his mission in life to spend a portion of each year's Village Voice "Pazz 'n' Jop" opening essay complaining about young whippersnapper critics and their Afrobeat-free ballots. And the blogosphere went nuts a couple of years ago when a few critics blasted The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt for rarely having anything positive to say about rap or contemporary R&B.;
Generally speaking, I think it's a fine thing when people point out the under-representation of minorities in the public sphere. There's such a tradition of collegiality to the way business gets done in this country that until someone comes along and points out that, for example, a vast majority of NFL players are black but only a tiny percentage of coaches are, then the situation is unlikely to correct itself. I don't even have a problem with readers or peers noting that a critic doesn't seem to write about a broad enough range of music—though in the latter case, when you're talking about an individual as opposed to an institution, I'm not sure that shame is the answer. Institutions might be motivated to change based on the will of the people, but individuals tend to get kind of pissy.
Worse, if you skewer a person for matters of personal taste, you often do the artists you're championing a disservice. Unless you're speaking as an enthusiast, wanting to share something you love with fellow music fans, then you can easily come off as an ideological bully, and thereby inadvertently imply that rappers and R&B; artists don't have any intrinsic value beyond the credibility they bestow. Before long, it all turns into an insidious game of fine distinctions, where critics pick through each others' Top 10 lists and bicker over whether the black artists on them are black enough. Since there's no way to win that game, some critics—me, for example—quickly give up trying.
One of the most astute contemporary commentators on race and popular culture over the past decade has been musician Mark Stewart, known professionally as Stew. On his records, Stew rides the same waves as Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee, Mark Oliver Everett and Elliot Smith, in that he likes subtle melodies, colorful lyrics, and inventive arrangements, both in his adventurous full-band recordings and in his mellower solo work. His music ranges from the airy and angelic to the jaunty and theatrical, and throughout he returns repeatedly to the question of what it means to be an individual in a society that wants to typify him or exoticize him. Sometimes Stew makes this theme the centerpiece of his work, as in the Tony-winning musical Passing Strange, and sometimes it's just embedded and inextricable, as in the romantic character sketch "North Bronx French Marie."
"North Bronx French Marie" by Stew
From his initial entry into the music scene—with the provocatively titled band The Negro Problem—Stew has acknowledged that liking his music is bound to create some difficulties. Does embracing Stew make white rock fans better-rounded, able to appreciate the infinite varieties of the African-American experience, or does it say something negative about those fans that they're drawn to a black musician whose music sounds so white-friendly? More to the point, is everybody as fed up with these kind of quibbles as I am, or are they still a vital part of our ongoing healing process in this country?
Put yet another way: Will I ever be able to wear a Stew T-shirt and not feel self-conscious?
(*For an especially egregious example of what I mean, check out this video, in particular the comments around the 35-second mark.)
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1961-present
Fits Between Bobby Womack and Prince
"Too High" by Stevie Wonder
Personal Correspondence I thought I knew Stevie Wonder, just from hearing his hits on the radio—and on TV, and movies, and in commercials—practically since birth. But when I made Innervisions my first Wonder LP purchase prior to my freshman year of college, and heard the springy synths and stairstep melody of "Too High" bouncing out of my Walkman headphones, I realized I knew nothing. Suddenly, so much made sense: from the upbeat ghetto vibe of Fat Albert cartoons to Prince's entire career. I may have the details wrong, but I recall reading that back in 1973 Wonder gave a preview party for Innervisions that required music critics to be blindfolded and bused up to his offices, where they listened to the record with their blindfolds still on. He wanted to give the writers a feeling for what it was like to live in his world, and I can only imagine what it was like was to undergo that kind of sensory deprivation and then be exposed to the beating heart and universal scope of Innervisions. (Or Fullfillingness' First Finale, or Songs In The Key Of Life, or whatever record this anecdote actually applies to.) Wonder's been known to overestimate how long his songs need to run, and he's got an unfortunate addiction to sap, but the explosion of creativity he experienced from 1970 to 1982 is one of those miraculous runs that you shouldn't scrutinize too much; you should just enjoy. If you treat those records like the immersive experience Wonder intended them to be, you may start to understand what "in the key of life" means. This is music that describes the intermingled pain and celebration of daily existence.
Enduring presence? Wonder's unassailable '70s catalog has become a staple of American Idol contestants, who tend to miss the relaxed tunefulness of his songs in their rush to show off their scales. And it's because of AI that some of my former favorite Wonder tunes have fallen off my iPod playlist. (Sorry, "Overjoyed." Later, "I Wish.") Wonder also hasn't done his reputation any favors with his last couple of albums, which stagger saccharine ballads, inane up-with-people social commentary, and straining-to-sound-contemporary funk. Ultimately though, I'm not too worried about Wonder's long-term legacy, in the culture at large or in my record collection. I know I can always spin Innervisions, and be transported back to the vivid, playful, informative, multi-cultural '70s I grew up in—or that I least saw every afternoon on Sesame Street. Wonder didn't just win Grammys, sell records and inspire legions of one-man-band musicians; he offered a take on life and music that was downright utopian.
Years Of Operation 1998-present
Fits Between The Cars and Television
"I Can't Win" by The Strokes
Personal Correspondence If The Strokes hadn't already existed, would it have been necessary for rock critics to invent them? Or is that what actually happened? Scoffing at The Strokes has become as much of a cliché as digging The Strokes, but there was a time, not so long ago, when Julian Casablancas' sleazy rasp, Albert Hammond's snaky guitar leads, and the pingy rhythms of the rest of the quintet stood for something fairly significant. It's not that there hadn't been a steady stream of pre-Strokes bands beholden to the same post-Velvet Underground gutter-guitar influences, but at a time when rock radio was mired in nü-metal and "number band" malaise—when even rock critics were willing to pack it in and declare that the genre had been permanently superseded by hip-hop and electronica—to see a personality-rich New York post-punk act get signed to a major label and placed in heavy rotation on MTV was almost as inspiring as it was when Nirvana's Nevermind broke. In retrospect, The Strokes' moment in the spotlight may have been alt-rock's last gasp—not because the genre isn't still popular or creatively viable, but because the world where major labels and MTV and radio play matter has become increasingly distant. And of course now The Strokes' early success—dictated from above more than rising from below—works against them in some quarters. But the band has continued to pump out good records, redolent of sweat-on-leather and with the tactile quality of stubble-scratch.
Enduring presence? It probably didn't behoove The Strokes to be anointed the saviors of rock on the basis of Is This It?, an entertaining but pointedly non-innovative LP. When the band hit the studio to record Room On Fire, they froze a little, and spit out a rehash instead of a radical advance. It was an enjoyable rehash, but if The Strokes had collapsed after two records, the second would've been more of a footnote in rock history, like the sophomore Stone Roses record, or everything Marshall Crenshaw has done since 1982.
Nevertheless, The Strokes pressed on to album number three, First Impressions Of Earth, a 14-track, 52-minute affair that's so long—too long, really—because Casablancas seemed determined not to shortchange any ideas that don't sound Strokes-y enough. He played it safe plenty, with songs where the stair-stepping bass and trebly jangle resembled yet more Is This It? leftovers. But even the album's big single, "Juicebox," stretched the limits of what fans expect from a Strokes song, adding sonic nods to The Damned, The Hives, early U2 and the Peter Gunn theme. I hope Casablancas and company continue to sound that loose, and regain the coolest-dudes-in-New-York swagger that made them so initially exciting. But I fear they're living out the title of one of their best late night anthems: "I Can't Win."
Years Of Operation 1989-present (sort of)
Fits Between Hüsker Dü and The Get Up Kids
"Slack Motherfucker" by Superchunk
"Iron On" by Superchunk
Personal Correspondence If you're going to help spearhead the indie-rock revolution, it helps if you've got a song in your arsenal as immediate and crowd-pleasing as "Slack Motherfucker." Superchunk got a lot of attention in even the mainstream rock press for that song, which seemed to capture the mood of the slacker/Gen-x era. Except that it didn't, really. Early write-ups of Superchunk seized on the word "slack" in the song's title and made some presumptions about what it was trying to say, but there's no mistaking what "Slack Motherfucker" is actually about. It's about not being a slack motherfucker, and about being driven to distraction by those who are. Which makes sense, given bandleader (and hardcore music nerd) Mac McCaughan's worth ethic. As the co-founder of Merge Records with Superchunk bassist (and ex-girlfriend) Laura Ballance, McCaughan endeavored to release records that looked and sounded homemade, drawing on influences beyond what the few alternative-rock radio stations and MTV late-night shows acknowledged at the time. Superchunk's brand of DIY combined the easy melodicism of New Zealand pop with the roaring energy of hardcore punk, and thanks to a blistering live show and well-built LPs like 1991's No Pocky For Kitty, by the middle of the decade, Superchunk was one the most respected bands in Amerindie. Unlike the sludgy, quasi-mystical soul-baring of bands like Soundgarden, Superchunk offered direct, down-to-Earth ruminations on life, love and loss. They hit their peak with their fourth album Foolish, a reaction to the McCaughan/Ballance breakup that set specific memories of romantic turmoil to gloriously loud guitars and sweet hooks. Foolish is rarely cited as an influence on the emo movement, but had more young bands copied Superchunk's honest emotion, smart wordplay, and taut, energetic performance, the last decade of indie-punk might not have been so insufferable. And if more indie bands had aped Superchunk's industriousness, the movement might've flourished more, instead of withering due to insularity and lack of care. Bunch of slack motherfuckers.
Enduring presence? After Foolish, McCaughan and Superchunk either coasted or refined, depending on your point of view. The group retained the explosive, punk-derived charge that made its reputation, but often turned the volume down as well, supplementing the guitar assault with horns, strings, and organ. Lately McCaughan has put Superchunk aside (though not permanently, he's insisted), so he can focus on the more low-key and eclectic Portastatic. But I miss the rushing tempos, live-wire guitar, and high, shouted choruses in which Superchunk used to traffic. Though the group eventually stopped recording songs that burned with the feverish intensity of their first four albums, they developed an agility that few punks ever achieve, enabling them to produce stung-lover ballads with the proper balance of ache and anger.
Years Of Operation 1974-91
Fits Between Pere Ubu and James Brown
"I Wish You Wouldn't Say That" by Talking Heads
"The Great Curve" by Talking Heads
"This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)" by Talking Heads
Personal Correspondence Some artists buy into a movement because they adhere to its precepts and want to spread the gospel; others hitch a ride because the bandwagon is headed in their general direction. Talking Heads—and David Byrne in particular—were firmly in the latter camp. The band was originally lumped in with the punk movement, even though little about their arty pop music and affectless poses had much to do with the aggression and attitude out of punk, outside of a preference for simplicity (which the Heads promptly jettisoned as Byrne and Jerry Harrison began to explore worldbeat and Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz got deeper into funk). I was seven years old when the first Talking Heads album was released, so it never registered how different Talking Heads sounded from their peers, any more that I noted the relative oddity of The Cars or The Pretenders or Prince until I got older and started connecting the dots. These acts were all on the radio, so to me, they were mainstream. And in that sense, it was remarkable how much Talking Heads grew from album to album, as Byrne used his time on the stage to push an agenda—not political, but cultural. Unlike Sonic Youth, who a few years later followed Talking Heads' lead in linking the New York art scene to popular culture, Byrne never made conscious distinctions between high and low. He appropriated The Archies and supermarket tabloids and the language of instruction manuals the way Warhol painted soup cans. And then he added a global scope, by drawing on gospel and hip-hop and Brasilia and Afrobeat, adopting a polyglot approach made it all the more effective when he banged out a quickie guitar-pop song like "And She Was" and "Wild Wild Life." I've never given a whole lot of thought to it before now, but Byrne was an enormous influence on how I approach my job. Byrne's way strikes me as the best way: take it all in, then figure out where to put it.
Enduring presence? It's still amazing to me that Talking Heads were rock stars for a time. Granted, they weren't selling a ton of records, but each new album was greeted as an event, and the band had singles that charted fairly high. Talking Heads are starting to pop up as influence on the latest wave of indie-rockers too, though they're a hard band to emulate properly, if only because it's tough to complete step one: Find a David Byrne. (Last comment on the Talking Heads: I know I'm probably overdoing it on the "I love my wife" stories, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I proposed on New Years' Eve, 1995, after playing "This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)" for Donna, and telling her that the song said everything I'd been feeling. It's arguably Byrne's least affected, most straightforward love song, and pointed towards a direction he'd explore more on Little Creatures and True Stories, as well as some of his solo records. It was a good start for a lot of things.)
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
Years Of Operation 1998-present
Fits Between The Jam and Thin Lizzy
"The Sons Of Cain" by Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
Personal Correspondence I've been to five live concerts in the last eight years, and two of them were Ted Leo. That's a statistical anomaly I can attribute to my friend Dave, whom I turned onto Leo a few years ago, and who has subsequently urged me to come along with him every time The Pharmacists play in central Arkansas. (I had to miss one show because I was too busy, but one of the shows we went to was actually here in my dinky college town, so there was no way I was going to miss that.) I haven't minded being coerced to see Leo, because I can't imagine a current touring act I'd enjoy seeing much more than The Pharmacists, who are low-profile enough to recall the great local bands I used to see in my clubgoing days, yet formidable enough to make staying up late and dealing with the smell of smoke and spilled beer worthwhile. When I told Dave I was writing about Ted Leo this week, he offered to write my copy for me: "Ted Leo is my sun, god of all gods, a rock-and-roll monster whose sole purpose is to make ears bleed and make us like it. I am fully confident that, should he so desire, he could alter the orbit of the earth with the power of his mind. His band is so awesome that it changed out a bass drum in the middle of 'Little Dawn'—without missing a beat. Oh, and 'Bomb, Repeat, Bomb' makes me feel as if I have the strength of ten Grinches."
Enduring presence? Charisma didn't play too big a role in the rock of the late '90s, but somehow Leo forged his mod evangelist persona when no one was really paying attention, while serving as the leader of the '90s D.C. cult band Chisel. In his time as a solo artist, Leo has learned how to work political comment and sonic mayhem around melodic punk anthems. He found his stroke most convincingly on Hearts Of Oak, where he gave the jumped-up sound of The Jam and Joe Jackson a prophetic vehemence. Leo exploits rock dynamics with the timing of a veteran stand-up comic. He bounces his voice across half-riffs, drops the drums in and out, and always holds back a little for the big finish. And judging by the excellence of his most recent record Living With The Living, Leo may be the best hope of his rock generation to entertain, inform and uplift.
Years Of Operation 1973-78, 92-93, 01-present
Fits Between The Velvet Underground and Wire
"Days" by Television
"Marquee Moon" by Television
Personal Correspondence One of the most surprising things I discovered when I dug into the New York "pre-punk" era was how well those cats could play. I'd been taught to think of punk as the province of spirited amateurs, using the few chords they knew to bash out something cheap, sloppy and fun, but Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine and a lot of their crowd were virtuosos of a kind, who articulated a barroom-poet mentality with a much larger musical and lyrical vocabulary. (Perhaps this made them poseurs; that's an argument I'd certainly entertain, though it wouldn't make me like them any less.) I found it a lot easier to get into Television than I'd expected, in part because they wrote exquisite pop songs like "Days" (which sounds like a direct precursor to R.E.M.) and in part because Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were honest-to-God guitar heroes, allowing themselves room to jam. I once voted for "Marquee Moon" in a poll of the greatest 10-minute-plus rock songs of all time, and frankly I can't think of too many guitar epics I'm as eager to hear at any given moment (outside of maybe Pink Floyd's "Dogs"). "Marquee Moon" is good enough song for its first six minutes, but then—bam!—lightning strikes itself, the darkness doubles, and there I stand, hesitating.
Enduring presence? Don't take this the wrong way, but I can't help but think how much better Television would be if Verlaine could sing as expressively as he can play guitar. I don't need my rock vocalists to have pretty pipes, but at times Verlaine seems to be trying to sound aggressively out-of-tune. If only Richard Hell had stuck around
Years Of Operation 1979-present (reportedly)
Fits Between Morrissey and Midnight Oil
"Uncertain Smile" by The The
"Out Of The Blue (Into The Fire)" by The The
Personal Correspondence Shortly after discovering Rolling Stone magazine in 1984, I began combing Nashville's premiere comics/baseball card/used record shop The Great Escape for back issues of RS, and in one of them I found a year-end Critics List that listed The The's "Uncertain Smile" as one the best singles of 1983. I didn't know the song at all, but the next time my brother came home from college for the summer, I noticed that he had Soul Mining in his record collection, and so I rushed to play "Uncertain Smile," which sounded every bit as amazing as I'd hoped: a swaying early '80s UK alt-pop tune that expanded as it went along to become something like a symphony. And so romantic, too! What a shock then, just a couple of years later, to hear Infected, an album about as bitter and bombastic as Soul Mining was fleet and sweet. And then, a few years after that, Mind Bomb, a sustained howl of despair about the state of the world. I actually saw The The on the Mind Bomb tour—with Johnny Marr on guitar!—and they put on a good show, with tiny bandleader Matt Johnson storming around the stage during the songs, bellowing his lyrics like he meant every one of them, and then making incongruously chipper chat during the downtime. He was a mercurial dude, that Johnson. Or to put it in his own words, he was "trying so hard to be myself, I was turning into somebody else."
Enduring presence? For being so bleak, pretentious and heavily produced, Infected and Mind Bomb held up much better than I might've expected this week. They're just such dense records, and catchy in their own weird way, that Johnson's gruffness becomes another element in the mix, and not necessarily an overbearing one. Still, it's somewhat ironic that a man who dedicated the bulk of his musical career to singing about war, destruction and emotional desolation has made a pile of dough off commercials using the Soul Mining ditty "This Is The Day." Talk about your uncertain smiles.
Years Of Operation 1941-82
Fits Between Duke Ellington and McCoy Tyner
"Monk's Mood" by Thelonious Monk
Personal Correspondence Unlike the other Blue Note jazzmen I got into thanks to rap songs and record store budget bins, I found Thelonious Monk a year or two before I started getting into jazz, thanks to the acclaimed documentary Straight, No Chaser. I wasn't sure about the music back then, which sounded a little too unstructured for my taste, but I was fascinated by the world of patronage that Monk was heavily involved in, having seen a little of it in the fiction feature 'Round Midnight. In Straight, No Chaser, Monk comes off as a mumbling, not-entirely-cogent eccentric, inclined to talk more about how he likes his sidemen's pants as to discuss the music they're going to make together. He'd frequently stand up in the middle of a performance to dance around a little, like an autist getting lost in the repetitive motions often called "stimming." And yet he was beloved the world over, and flown in for concerts at great expense by wealthy jazz fans who supported his art, and even made sure he was supplied with whatever drugs or sexual satisfaction he might've desired. Thanks to that film, I can't hear Monk without recalling the network of people who kept him afloat so that he could bang on the piano in that inimitable way—somehow developing melodies and keeping an unsteady beat while seemingly pounding away at random.
Enduring presence? My favorite Thelonious Monk CD is a Best Of The Blue Note Years collection, which brings together a lot of the singles he released on the label. Almost as much as the idea of jazz patronage, I'm fascinated by the idea that jazz was once a singles medium, with artists keeping their songs down to three tight minutes, ready for radio and ballrooms. Within that format, jazz musicians could still play around with improvisation and discord and all those gambits they'd bring more into play in the LP era, but they had to keep bringing back the hook or they'd lose the audience. It was a trade-off that produced some remarkable music, unusually enlivened by compromise.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .
Stiff Little Fingers, "Suspect Device"
"Suspect Device" by Stiff Little Fingers
The Stooges, "Raw Power"
"Raw Power" by The Stooges
Most punk—both now and in the genre's early days—comes from a place of discomfort, but rarely real danger. What makes Stiff Little Fingers' early work sound jarring even now is that the band didn't shy away from "the troubles" in Northern Ireland, either in their lyrics or in music that sounded like the perfect soundtrack for people fleeing an explosion. Similarly, The Stooges started brutal and improbably got darker and scarier by the time reached the end of their first run. A lot of my advance perception of The Stooges was shaped by reading Lester Bangs' essay about clearing rooms at parties with Fun House, and though their records have never seemed that off-putting to me—too many strong hooks, and too much Iggy charisma—I certainly think that The Stooges' primitivism isn't just about good times and dancing. Like they say, "Raw power can destroy a man."
The Storey Sisters, "Bad Motorcycle"
"Bad Motorcycle" by The Storey Sisters
The Swans, "The Boy With The Beatle Hair"
"The Boy With The Beatle Hair" by The Swans
And now, moving out of the darkness and into the light, here are two Cameo-Parkway chestnuts about the sexual attractiveness of bad-boy rockers. Neither of these songs sound especially "bad" themselves, although the motor-revving sounds the Storey Sisters make are awfully cool.
The Stranglers, "No More Heroes" / "Golden Brown" / "Skin Deep"
"No More Heroes" by The Stranglers
"Golden Brown" by The Stranglers
"Skin Deep" by The Stranglers
My first exposure to The Stranglers came via the neo-baroque exercise "Golden Brown," which I heard on one of my brothers' mix tapes. Not long after, the college radio station at Vanderbilt (Go Vandy! Top 15!) started playing the light dance number "Skin Deep," which didn't sound the least bit like "Golden Brown," but wasn't unimaginably different either. In my head, I'd classified The Stranglers as a fey, frivolous band, so I was thrown for a loop when I finally heard who The Stranglers used to be—something that didn't happen until a few years ago, when I saw Sexy Beast and heard "Peaches." I started digging into the early Stranglers records, and was knocked out by the gruff, pubby sound that made them cult favorites at home, before they started hitting the college radio charts abroad. If you listen to a lot of UK pop from the early '80s, you get used the sudden shifts from art to commercialism and back again, but has there ever been a long-running band from that era who went through so many different guises? Are these three songs really all the work of the same group of musicians?
The Style Council, "Shout To The Top"
"Shout To The Top" by The Style Council
Some Jam fans have reconciled themselves to Paul Weller's solo career, which occasionally reverts to the fiery, soulful rock style of one of the New Wave era's greatest bands. But those same fans often find it hard to forgive Weller for The Style Council. Yes, The Jam were recording some orchestrated dance songs towards the end of their run, but nothing so full-on as what The Style Council attempted, and many were rightfully angry that The Jam had to die to give birth to something so run-of-the-mill. That said, The Style Council recorded a handful of truly great singles—and arguably none better than this relentless pounder, which turns a bevy of for-hire horns and strings into sources for sweet rhythm.
The Stylistics, "People Make The World Go Round"
"People Make The World Go Round" by The Stylistics
The Temptations, "I Wish It Would Rain"
"I Wish It Would Rain" by The Temptations
The socially conscious R&B; of the late '60s and early '70s rarely made overt calls for rioting in the streets—or anger of any kind—but instead usually split between two modes: the look-what-this-world-has-come-to song (a la "What's Goin' On") and the something's-got-to-break-our-way-soon song (a la "A Change Gonna Come"). The Stylistics song here—in a version remixed by Zero 7—is an example of the former, and though The Temptations song is actually about a heartbroken man praying for rain to hide his tears, it doubled as an anthem for anyone desperate for relief.
"Lorelei" by Styx
In the first summer I spent with my Dad after my parents' divorce, I found I had a lot of time during the day (while he was off news-jockeying at the radio station where he worked) to dig through his record collection, and since there wasn't much in there by bands I knew, I was drawn to anything even remotely recognizable. Dad often brought home odd promotional records, including label-produced radio shows that were meant to serve as cheap filler. He had one promoting John Denver, and another promoting Styx, which leaned heavy on tracks from Equinox and The Grand Illusion (but not so much from Crystal Ball for some reason). Noting how much I liked to play that promo disc, Dad bought me Equinox and The Grand Illusion for Christmas, and oddly enough, the songs didn't sound as good without an announcer or a bandmember constantly interrupting to talk about what they were all about. Frankly, I thought Styx sounded a little silly even then, and I was 9 years old at the time. But I also couldn't shake off—and still can't really—the grandiose, arena-filling pop-prog sound of something like "Lorelei," which has been designed by experts to make listeners feel buoyed. Who am I to resist the experts? (By the way, my wife does a good Dennis DeYoung impression by the way; ask her to sing "Desert Moon" for you sometime.)
Sufjan Stevens, "Adlai Stevenson"
"Adlai Stevenson" by Sufjan Stevens
I think Stevens is a smart, likable guy, both as a musician and an interview subject, and there's something about his pretty, trilling songs—which sound like the kind of music Ebenezer Scrooge would hear just before deciding to take a turn for the good—that I've always found appealing. But I'm a little hesitant to go whole-hog for Stevens, for a number of reasons. For one, I find his records exhaustingly long, and his songs a little interchangeable. Stevens' layered pattern-making sounds less fresh with every 70-minute album he puts out. For another, after talking with Stevens about his creative process, I've started to get the feeling that after he comes up with a set of lyrics that explore whatever theme he's taking on, he then pulls some pre-recorded music more or less at random off his hard drive. This is the inevitable result of absurdly talented musicians like Stevens playing around with the latest home studio software tools. Stevens can build pieces of songs up without really knowing where they're going, and then shuffle the pieces around even after they're "done." That doesn't make it any less arresting to hear the trilling flutes of the positivist bio-tune "Adlai Stevenson" for the first time—or even the fifth—but it does make all the similar-sounding Stevens songs increasingly less special.
Sugar, "Gee Angel"
"Gee Angel" by Sugar
I missed a lot of legendary shows while I was in Athens—Nirvana at The 40 Watt, Pearl Jam at Legion Field—but I was in attendance on the night that Bob Mould debuted his new band Sugar, featuring local hero David Barbe on bass. Sugar's debut album was still about six months away from being released, but regardless, they played only songs from that record and the subsequent EP Beaster, and I remember being surprised by how well I remembered a lot of those songs when they got their official release: "A Good Idea," "Changes" and "JC Auto" especially. Generally speaking, I found Sugar's commitment to high volume and thick hooks a little forced at times, coming so soon after two relatively adventurous Mould solo records, but I'm glad Mould had the chance to cash in on the renewed interest in his kind of music in the early '90s. And between two LPs, one EP and a collection of B-sides and rarities, Sugar produced about an hour's worth of stellar modern rock (most of it on Beaster and File Under: Easy Listening). "Gee Angel" is an example of Sugar when they were really cooking—keeping the riffs tight, the melodies smooth, the rhythm driving, and the volume ear-splitting.
Sugarcubes, "Fucking In Rhythm & Sorrow"
"Fucking In Rhythm & Sorrow" by The Sugarcubes
When Life's Too Good came out in 1988, it started what seemed like a yearly tradition of European bands seducing me and my friends with drop-dead-amazing debut albums and then leaving us flat on the records to come. Granted, that's not an entirely fair assessment of Sugarcubes, since their lead singer—what's her name again?—went on to greater things. But even on Life's Too Good—and definitely on what came later—there was a B-52s-like imbalance between the songs where Björk took lead and the ones where her male foil did. Still, I like to return occasionally to the oddball bar-rock of songs like "Fucking In Rhythm & Sorrow," which create a fuller picture of one of modern music's most essential artists.
Suicidal Tendencies, "I Shot The Devil"
"I Shot The Devil" by Suicidal Tendencies
I got bored with hardcore pretty quickly, but I never tired of Suicidal Tendencies' self-titled debut, which holds up even now as one of hardcore's finest half-hours (even though I have some qualms as an adult about the band's suicide fetish that I didn't have as a teenager). Suicidal Tendencies' had a much beefier, slicker sound than a lot of their peers, and they could be funny too, though I don't know that I'd look to them for a lot of keen insight about politics or adolescence. They were all about angst and rage, loosely channeled and lightly cushioned.
Suicide, "Rocket U.S.A."
"Rocket U.S.A." by Suicide
Even Bruce Springsteen was a fan of this seminal electronica act, because for all Martin Rev and Alan Vega's overt artiness and despairing imagery, Suicide was for all intents and purposes Americana. They sang about cars and wars and traveling numbly through a flat landscape, getting more anxious with each passing mile marker. The number of acts directly inspired by Suicide is itself hard to calculate, but it would be even tougher to list the number that were inspired by proxy or association.
Sun Kil Moon, "Lily & Parrots"
"Lily And Parrots" by Sun Kil Moon
The fact that Sun Kil Moon has been making the most accessible music of Mark Kozelek's career is either indicative of where the former Red House Painter's musical development is at right now, or a sign that Sun Kil Moon is indeed markedly different from his best-known incarnation. Kozelek's basic sound hasn't changed much: Sun Kil Moon's debut album Ghosts Of The Great Highway still featured Kozelek's high, whiny voice, and his slow-flowing interplay of folky acoustic guitars and thick, scorching electric guitars. But starting with Ghosts and continuing with the odd (but enjoyable) Modest Mouse covers album Tiny Cities, Kozelek has dropped the abrasion level to near-zero. Kozelek's voice isn't as whiny as usual—he even stays in tune more than 90% of the time—and he doesn't go in for as many 10-minute-plus distortion-padded drones. (Though I haven't heard April yet, which I understand is more sprawling.) Sun Kil Moon offers intricately woven, semi-mystical midtempo folk rock, packed with dream imagery and snippets of personal and pop history. It's as if Neil Young had wondered into a Fleetwood Mac recording session, circa 1976. The locomotive, cascading "Lily And Parrots," may be the closest Kozelek has ever come to old-time rock-and-roll, and the clearest sign that Sun Kil Moon is the result of his plunging his hands into the earth to feel around for the roots.
The Sundays, "Can't Be Sure"
"Can't Be Sure" by The Sundays
Here's another European act whose debut album I was charmed by in college, though in the case of The Sundays, I stuck with them through the two lesser follow-up records, and still listen to all three discs on a fairly regular basis. While the British pop scene of the late '80s and early '90s was dominated by noisy shoegazers and neo-disco acts, The Sundays took a subtler approach, calling back to the early '80s sound of Aztec Camera and The Smiths on the delicate, tuneful Reading, Writing And Arithmetic. The only problem with The Sundays: I have a hard time hearing "Here's Where The Story Ends" without remembering how that song was playing on my college girlfriend's car stereo on the night she dumped me. (Fuckin' pop music—all describing emotions accurately and shit.) So I'll go with "Can't Be Sure" instead this week. It's beautifully melancholy too, but with fewer painful associations.
Sunny Day Real Estate, "Every Shining Time You Arrive"
"Every Shining Time You Arrive" by Sunny Day Real Estate
I think I heard Diary and dismissed it quickly back in 1994, when all things Seattle were on my shit list, so I had no idea what a phenomenon that record had become—or how lead singer Jeremy Enigk had became an idol to legions of kids who were "emo" before "emo" really had a name—when I happened to be in a record store that was spinning How It Feels To Be Something On. I was instantly smitten with that record, which seemed so much more spiritual and melodic than the run-of-the-mill modern rock of the late '90s (all of which seemed to be offering punk's snotty attitude without the attendant sweaty pleasure). On How It Feels, SDRE recaptured the original concept of grunge by marrying soaring, spirit-raising volume with the mind-expanding pyrotechnics and drama of latter-day Led Zeppelin.
"Alright" by Supergrass
As previously noted—over and over this week—Britpop acts have a habit of releasing stellar debut albums then fading into oblivion after a bombastic follow-up, so any band that lasts long enough to get a singles collection deserves applause for their relative longevity. For over a decade now, the UK power trio Supergrass has documented their evolution from bratty post-adolescents howling exaggerated pop-punk power fantasies to middle-aged daydreamers enraptured merely by the concept of "Moving." The band's best work makes the case for youthful verve and musical maturation, and for musicians sticking together long enough to go through changes. Supergrass were more precursors to the '00s scene of The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys than beholden to the '90s scene of Oasis and Blur, but in any scene, songs like the propulsive and glammy "Alright" are always welcome.
Supertramp, "Goodbye Stranger"
"Goodbye Stranger" by Supertramp
Like a lot of the pop-prog bands that emerged in the mid-to-late-'70s, Supertramp had a string of hits that were largely inane and repetitive, if spectacularly well-produced. But they're dear to me for two reasons: For the non-hit concept LP Brother Where You Bound?, which my friend Rob and I found terribly profound when we were 15, and for the song "Goodbye Stranger," which I used to listen to with my fellow latch-key kid Rodney while we hung out at his apartment before catching the bus to 5th grade. We used to rock out so hard to the big guitar coda to this song that we'd be pounding on the floor by the time it was over which really irritated the guy who lived in the apartment below Rodney's.
The Supremes, "Bad Weather"
"Bad Weather" by The Supremes
Tammi Terrell, "All I Do Is Think About You"
"All I Do Is Think About You" by Tammi Terrell
Stevie Wonder penned The Supremes' post-Diana Ross hit "Bad Weather" during his crazily prolific early '70s period, but he also went back to his own vaults in that era to reclaim a song he wrote for Tammi Terrell to sing when he was just 16 years old. As we zip by Wonder in our Popless journey, lets take a moment to celebrate his skill as a songwriter, not just a performer.
Suzanne Vega, "Marlene On The Wall"
"Marlene On The Wall" by Suzanne Vega
Though she never intended to be any kind of pioneer, Vega helped spur the "gal with guitar" mini-movement of the late '80s, paving the way for the likes of Michelle Shocked, Tracy Chapman and Indigo Girls. Vega's own music was more in the vein of Joni Mitchell and Joan Armitrading than what would come after—because she was always more of a pop-singer than a folkie—but for teenage sensitivos like me, it was a kind of awakening to hear a song as smooth, catchy and singer-songwriter-y as "Marlene On The Wall." Have I ever been able to justify the fact that I was loving Suzanne Vega's debut album at roughly the same time I was loving Suicidal Tendencies? No, I have not. But that's how I was living.
Suzi Quatro, "Born To Run"
"Born To Run" by Suzi Quatro
Bruce Springsteen has written a large number of songs that are ripe to be covered—and many have, to great effect—but "Born To Run" is one that really defies any interpretation that's not Springsteen's. Frankie Goes To Hollywood took a swing at covering "Born To Run" and missed pretty badly, and Suzi Quatro did even worse with her attempt to make such an idiosyncratic song into a Pat Benatar/Bonnie Tyler anthem.
Swan Dive, "Western Sky"
"Western Sky" by Swan Dive
Bearing in mind I'm collegial with Swan Dive's chief songwriter Bill DeMain (a hell of a music journalist, by the way), you may want to take it with a grin of salt when I say that Swan Dive is one of the most unjustly neglected American pop bands working today. DeMain and singer Molly Felder met and bonded over a mutual love for Burt Bacharach and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and throughout their 10-plus year career, they've aimed for a sound that synthesizes the swinging sophistication of classic pop and the comfortable spaces of soft rock. What's especially fascinating about Swan Dive is that DeMain is primarily a songwriting guy, not some kind of obsessive sonic sculptor. In his capacity as a journalist, DeMain has compiled an impressive set of songwriter interviews (most available in the book Behind The Muse, which contains a conversation with, tellingly, easy listening guru Paul Weston), and in each of those pieces, DeMain pushes his subjects to discuss the gruntwork that goes into melody-making. Similarly, Swan Dive's music often describes a world of hotel lounges—not where musical dreams go to die, but where worldly travelers share stories, flirtation and regrets in a safe way, without letting go of themselves. It's a fully realized fantasy, sweet but also a little sad, and nowhere is it presented more poignantly than on the lightly swinging soft-rock memory play "Western Sky," where DeMain and Felder take a trip full of promise and pain, and decide to dwell on the promise.
Swell, "Kinda Stoned"
"Kinda Stoned" by Swell
If you followed big-name bands in the pre-internet era, you probably didn't have much trouble finding out what they were up to. A cursory glance at most entertainment periodicals would've been enough to learn plans for new albums, future tours, and any other project that may have been in the works. But if the groups you followed were less popular—or downright obscure—then you tended to be out of the loop. Unless a band happened to release a new record, they could, for all you knew, be broken up and back working at Denny's while you waited around like the last man at the bus stop. Swell actually were down for the count several times in the '90s, sine their sound—marked by rat-a-tat drumrolls, tightly picked acoustic guitar rhythms, fuzzed-out lead guitar, and spacy vocals—just couldn't wedge its way into a modern-rock radio format dominated by bombast, rage, and sloppiness. So whenever a new Swell album came out, I took it as an encouraging sign that the band was still out there, their feet firmly planted and their heads off having adventures they could only half-relate.
"Pile-Up" by Swervedriver
Even before I had a car, I fantasized about blazing down the intestate listening to Swervedriver's 1991 debut album Raise, which is full of songs about cars—and crashes—performed at a pace that practically demands that drivers listening to it press down hard on their own accelerators. Swervedriver never topped Raise, but they never started sucking either, and I'd like to hear some young bands return to this sound of revving guitars, hammering rhythms and tuneful mumble. There's still plenty of gas in the tank.
Talk Talk, "I Believe In You"
"I Believe In You" by Talk Talk
Here's another UK band that went on a strange musical journey, from the big-sounding pop of "It's My Life" (the first song I heard by Talk Talk) to the groovier "Life's What You Make It" (the first song I loved by Talk Talk) to the proto-post-rock Spirit Of Eden and beyond. The Colour Of Spring may be my favorite Talk Talk album, because I'm partial to song-structure and memorable melodies, but I've submerged in the warm bath of Spirit Of Eden quite often. I have qualms about the post-rock movement that I'll get into next week, but I have no qualms about a song as pretty and calming as "I Believe In You."
Tears For Fears, "Pale Shelter"
"Pale Shelter" by Tears For Fears
I bought Songs From The Big Chair (or taped it from a friend, to be honest) like everyone else did back when "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" and "Head Over Heels" were big hits. (Never liked "Shout," frankly.) But when I went back and picked up The Hurting about a year after Big Chair's success, I instantly pined for the band Tears For Fears used to be. Maybe it's because The Hurting is so tailor-made for mopey teenagers—witness Donnie Darko's use of "Mad World"—yet it's also so subtly textured and catchy that even happy dudes pushing 40 can appreciate the record's lovely wallow.
Ted Hawkins, "Sorry You're Sick"
""Sorry You're Sick" by Ted Hawkins
My friend Jim turned me onto veteran folk-bluesman Hawkins' final LP The Last Tour when he told me that he used to play this song for his wife whenever she was feeling poorly. "Sorry You're Sick" has become part of our household's vocabulary too, even when we're not sick. If one of us is heading out to the grocery store—or the liquor store, which requires a special trip around these parts—we often ask each other if we want "something sour, or something sweet?"Teenage Fanclub, "Everything Flows"
"Everything Flows" by Teenage Fanclub
Teenage Fanclub's brush with alt-rock greatness shadowed Nirvana's, with both bands refining the melodic grunge of their indie-label debuts for DGC-released second albums. Only Nirvana really broke through, perhaps because the Seattle group stuck to youth-friendly rock aggression, while Teenage Fanclub courted the limited fan base for gooey Big Star power-pop. Even early Fanclub fans turned their backs on the band when the sparkly sound of 1991's Bandwagonesque turned out to be a trend rather than an aberration. The quitters missed hearing Teenage Fanclub master its adopted form with increasingly complex, polished records, ever-committed to walls of guitars, massive hooks, and a potent strain of adolescent pining. Now, with that out of the way, I have an embarrassing confession: I so dearly loved Teenage Fanclub's debut album A Catholic Education (and sludgy guitar-pop like "Everything Flows") that I put Bandwagonesque on my year-end Top 10 list before I'd even heard the record. It was number one on Spin's list that year (ahead of Nevermind), but I hadn't been able to find a copy before I had to turn in my list to the UGA newspaper, so I made an assumption that Bandwagonesque would be as awesome as A Catholic Education, and I penciled it in as my Number One. When I finally heard the record a week later, my heart sank. Bandwagonesque is a decent album, but as hard as I tried to love it as much as I'd claimed to, it just didn't move me the way A Catholic Education had. So now you know the truth. I'm glad I finally came clean.Tegan & Sara, "I Bet It Stung"
"I Bet It Stung" by Tegan & Sara
The moment I fell hard for Tegan & Sara came in the middle of their third album So Jealous, a record that reconceives the cooing cool of Missing Persons for the post-Breeders era. Throughout their career, the twin sisters have treated cutesy girl-pop like modeling clay, converting songs into aggressive demands for attention, affection, and respect. But they hit an early peak with the crashing "I Bet It Stung," where Tegan & Sara tell off would-be lovers by letting them know where their priorities lie, singing "I love the rock and roll" in a halting moan. The best Tegan And Sara songs stumble along recklessly, then fall together, but I stick with them because I know the ladies love what I love.Tenement Halls, "Up & Over Thee Turnstiles"
"Up And Over Thee Turnstiles" by Tenement Halls
After a decade as The Rock*A*Teens' frontman, Chris Lopez struck out on his own—with a few guest musicians—under the moniker Tenement Halls. Because Lopez can't fight his propensity to make a big noise in a big space, Tenement Halls' debut album Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells sounds a lot like a stately, plump version of The Rock*A*Teens; but the illusion of elegance matters with a musician so typically tuned to the raw. Lopez is one of the last men standing from an early '90s Atlanta music scene that boasted bands like The Jody Grind, The Opal Foxx Quartet and Redneck Greece Delux—all acts distinguished by outsized personalities, thrift store duds, hick pride and a shout-to-the-balcony earnestness. For a long time, Lopez was more a fellow-traveler than a full-blown participant in the style of his times, in part because he liked to hide behind echo and fuzz. Tenement Halls revives the high drama and glorious hopelessness of Lopez's lost generation, with dewy-eyed pleas like "Up And Over Thee Turnstiles," which toss high, curving melodies into heaps of junky instrumental clutter.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Steve Winwood, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sting, The Stone Roses, The Stray Cats, The Streets, Sublime, The Sunshine Fix, Superdrag, Super Furry Animals, Supersuckers, Sweet, Swell Maps, Syd Barrett, Syd Straw, System Of A Down, T. Rex, Tad, Take 6, Talvin Singh, Television Personalities, Tenacious D, Terry Allen and Th' Legendary Shack Shakers
Also listened to: Steve Reynolds, Steve Wynn,
Swag, Stewart Francke, Sticks
The Stills, Stillwater,
Stoley P.T., Stone Daisy, The
Stones Throw Singers, The Stories, Stormy, Strange
Tongues, The Strangeloves, Strato-Chief,
Stratus, The Street Corner Society, Street
Dogs, The Street People, Street To Nowhere,
Stretch Armstrong, Strike Anywhere, The String
Cheese Incident, Strung Out, The Stylettes,
Styrofoam, The Subdudes, The Submarines,
The Subteens, Subtitle, The Subways,
Sugar & Gold, Sugar Minott, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Sugarboom,
The Suggestions, Sukilove, Summer Set, Summer's Children,
The Sun, Sun Domingo, The Sunburst Band, The Sunday
Drivers, The Sundowners, Sunny Sweeney, The
Sunnyboys, Sunset Rubdown, Sunstorm, Supagroup, Super Eagles, Supercreep,
Superfamily, The Superficials, Superiority Complex, The Superlatives, Susana
Baca, Susanna Hoffs, Susanna McCorkle, Sushi
Robo, Swag, Swan, The Swan Silvertones,
Sweet Robots Against The Machine,
Sweetback, Swiss Beats, Swivel
Chairs, The Sword, Swords, Sy Hightower, Syd Dale, Sylvia Striplin,
The Syndicate Of Sound, Syreeta, T-Model Ford, T.I., T.S. Monk, Tag Team, The
Tages, Tahiti 80, Tak Shindo, Takako Minekawa, Taken By Trees, Taking Back
Sunday, Tall Paul, Tallulah Gosh, Tampa Red & His Georgia Boys, Tan Dun,
The Tango Saloon, Tania Maria, Tapes 'N Tapes,
Tarantula A.D., Tarwater, A Taste Of Honey, Tasty Licks,
Tata Vega, Tate Moore, Tavares, Taylor Hollingsworth, Team Dresch, Ted Atking
& His Orchestra, Ted Lundy & The Southern Mountain Boys, Teena
Gardner, The Teeth, Teitur, Telefon Tel Aviv, Télépopmusik,
The Televangelist & The Architect, Telex, Temper Temper,
The Temprees, Teri DeSario, The Termites, Terrene,
Terrestrial Tones, Terry Hunter, Terry Knight & The Pack, Terry Manning,
Terry Reid, Tevin Campbell, Texas Slim, Thad Cockrell, [The] Caseworker,
Thea Gilmore, The Emergency and Thee More Shallows
Next week: From They Might Be Giants to A Tribe Called Quest, plus a few words on post-rock