Popless Week 41: Après Rock, Le Désordre
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.
"The Taut And The Tame" by Tortoise
It's been said that if you truly want to measure a chef's skill, you should order up a plate of mashed potatoes. Not fancy, truffle-and-garlic potatoes either, but plain potatoes, cooked with water, salt, and a little dairy. Or ask the chef to roast a chicken. Or to make a cheese omelet. Whatever the example, the idea is the same: The best chefs master the simple skills, and then build from there.
I try to think about this whenever I'm inclined to complain that a piece of music—or a movie, or a TV show—is "too conventional." Popular culture thrives on novelty, which means we pop culture commentators are constantly looking for what's next, because there's more glory in discovery than there is in merely appreciating what's already been done. Seen from the perspective of the creator though, it can be just as difficult to write a simple, memorable pop song (or to tell a joke with a punchline, or to craft a page-turning mystery) as it is to break new ground. The true, genius-level adventurers in any artform often create work that's more staggering and influential than the everyday craftsmen—I'll grant that. But there's a lot of hit-and-miss to the avant-garde too, and often the explorers get a free pass because they're making discoveries that even they don't fully understand. It can take years before these artists and their patrons realize that the ground they're plowing really isn't all that fertile.
I don't say this to set myself up as some kind of champion of the plain and hater of the daring. I confess that I'm little more than a curious dabbler, but I like a lot of abstract art, experimental film and progressive music. I just don't happen to think that any of them are inherently superior to the more formulaic versions of their art. They're all just forms—not necessarily "higher" or "lower"—and they succeed and fail on their own merits.
Towards the end of the '90s, the term "post-rock" came into heavy critical usage, initially as a way of describing a spate of bands who had started forgoing traditional rock song structures in favor of disjointed, textured, mostly instrumental jams. As the label became more familiar, its definition expanded, reaching beyond the Tortoises and Mogwais of the world to include any band that mixed up rhythms or combined genres in a novel way. Personally, I never cared for the term, and not just because it was bandied about so loosely. I didn't like what "post-rock" implied: that rock was decrepit, and due to be superseded by a new paradigm. The bands that bore the post-rock stamp largely earned the tag by performing alchemical experiments with genres and instruments (e.g. merging cocktail with No Wave). What's more "rock" than that? What was Elvis, if not the shotgun marriage of Bill Monroe and Arthur Crudup?
The problem is that no one really knows what "rock" means anymore—least of all The Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame—and without an understanding of what rock is, it's hard to say when it's over. My feeling is that rock is merely an extension of the popular music that has been with us since we first learned to whistle. We've always gathered together to sing catchy tunes; only the presentation has changed to reflect the pace and timbre of the times. With jet engines and atomic-bomb blasts ringing in our ears, our music naturally got louder and faster.
In that sense, what we called "post-rock" was a reflection of its own time. Following our multiplexing culture, which has splintered into a hundred cable channels, 30 radio formats, and a magazine for every taste, popular music had no choice but to expand vertically. To attract increasingly disparate tastes, musicians drew not just from different genres but also from underexploited sounds. If that meant replacing a guitar solo with chanting Tibetan monks, so be it. The idea was to be open to what was in the air: in commercials, in film scores, and in the staticky noise from a boombox around the corner. The future of popular music seemed to be in fragmentation, and in the people who could translate those fragments into hummable melodies. (So rock would go on, after rock was gone.)
But while the post-rock movement started with promise, eventually it became tedious and (ironically enough) formulaic, as seemingly every college kid with a well-worn copy of Slint's Spiderland and a few music theory classes under their belts began disappearing into their basements to record murky 10-minute instrumentals. Their guiding principle? To maximize randomness and minimize melody, creating the sound of music destroying itself, with no backbeat for comfort.
On the flipside of post-rock is roots-rock, which relies on classically structured songwriting and simple instrumentation. Good roots-rockers typically get praised for coming up with a few catchy melodies, a handful of hearty guitar riffs, and consistently vivid lyrics: all traits which can take some time to penetrate. But freeform instrumental music can be equally tough to judge, since the human voice provides an element of expression that puts songs in context—even when that voice isn't saying anything comprehensible.
As I said, I don't have any automatic objection to one form or the other. I get dreadfully bored by one lone guy or gal with a guitar, singing a nondescript song; and I'm just as put out by music that rumbles and rambles and doesn't seem to have real reason to be. As to which I prefer? Well, it's hard to pick one without seeming to denigrate the other, but I do sometimes wonder whether the musicians who are the best at venturing into the abstract have the skill set necessary to record a song as simple and catchy as They Might Be Giants' "Don't Let's Start." I'm not saying they need to. I'm just saying that while I admire a person who can create an electric fan so unusual and original that it makes me see fans in a whole new way, there's also a lot to be said an electric fan that works when I switch it on, and generates a refreshing breeze.
"Don't Let's Start" by They Might Be Giants
Pieces Of The Puzzle
They Might Be Giants
Years Of Operation 1982-present
Fits Between Brave Combo and The Jazz Butcher
"Meet James Ensor" by They Might Be Giants
"The Bells Are Ringing" by They Might Be Giants
Personal Correspondence I first read about They Might Be Giants in Spin magazine, in an article that made the duo sound stranger than they turned out to be. (This happened often with Spin and me in the mid-'80s.) I later heard "Put Your Hands Inside The Puppet Head" and "Don't Let's Start" a few times on college radio, and then a friend loaned me a tape with They Might Be Giants on one side and The Pogues' Rum, Sodomy & The Lash on the other. (A strange combination, but a sublime one.) Because of my Spin-stoked expectations, I was initially put off by TMBG's eccentric songs about rabid children and a "boat of car," but I ultimately couldn't resist the bouncy melodies and clever wordplay. I became a fan, and bought Lincoln the day it came out—during my first few weeks at college—and though it was initially a letdown, I came to appreciate the darker places John Linnell and John Flansburgh were willing to explore in between all the quasi-novelty tunes. I saw the band live at UGA the following year, and started to understand them better in the context of their physical presence: at once confident and geeky. Afterward, Flansburgh hung around outside the performance space (a ball/banquet/conference room in the basement of the UGA student center), selling and signing merch. A female friend of mine was too nervous to ask for an autograph, so when I told Flansburgh the name I wanted him to sign the album to, he gave me a funny look, and then related an anecdote about a male parking garage attendant named Connie that he once worked for. (I can still hear Flansburgh's voice barking, "My name's Connie like a girl!") I've seen the band live a few times since, and have continued to buy their records—even the kids' ones, which my own children love. They Might Be Giants aren't as sharp as they once were, and they sometimes fall back on cutesiness where they used to strive for something a little wrigglier, but I still think they're more profound than they get credit for. For all the sing-song educational tunes and deadpan absurdity, They Might Be Giants have also spiked their music with sharp comments on the dangers of conformity, the silly continuity of pop-culture history, and the hard-to-articulate feelings of unease that make human interaction difficult.
Enduring presence? Though They Might Be Giants' most devoted fans can be a little overbearing, the two Johns themselves are genial, unpretentious guys. Nevertheless, they were clever enough to curry favor with the mid-'80s Village art-crowd, and thereby gain access to the entertainment press and to career-boosting appearances on MTV and Late Night With David Letterman. And they've remained committed enough to keep pumping out songs, continuing to balance Linnell's bright-but-quiet personality and Flansburgh's hardworking stuntman vibe. There's a lot of fear and anxiety underlying the Johns' lyrics, but I don't think their happy melodies and jaunty tempos are solely intended to add irony. More than anything, they just make people feel good.
Years Of Operation 1981-present (sort of)
Fits Between Howard Jones and Robyn Hitchcock
"Europa And The Pirate Twins" by Thomas Dolby
"The Flat Earth" by Thomas Dolby
Personal Correspondence I appended The Golden Age Of Wireless to my first Columbia Record & Tape Club order pretty much as an afterthought, and it unexpectedly became my favorite album in that first dozen. It's such a rich, witty record, full of pretty melodies, strange stories, and a mix of electronics that sounds warmer and more varied than the era's cold, minimalist dance music. I liked the 1984 follow-up The Flat Earth even more—at the time anyway—appreciating the way it moved beyond technopop, using more acoustic instruments to stretch songs into sprawling, impressionistic epics that touch on jazz and funk. I can't say as much for Dolby's output since '84, though I think it's too limiting to think of him solely in terms of his solo work. As a session musician, Dolby added synthesizers to Def Leppard's Pyromania and Foreigner's 4, two megahit albums that crossed hard-rock and pop, using keyboards to provide shade and color. As a producer, Dolby created the wiggy sonic environment of Whodini's seminal rap hit "Magic's Wand" (which he also wrote) and the subtle soundscapes of Prefab Sprout's soft-pop masterpieces Steve McQueen and Jordan: The Comeback. He also produced Joni Mitchell and George Clinton, and has backed Robyn Hitchcock, Roger Waters, Joan Armatrading, and Malcolm McLaren, among others. He's a visionary, really, dedicated to the tactile qualities of sound and the elastic concept of "pop." And he's an underrated lyricist, whose catalog is peppered with songs about locating the human qualities within the technology we create. If I had to pick one '80s one-hit wonder who deserves to be remembered for more than just a fluke novelty single, Dolby would be my guy.
Enduring presence? I pitched an interview with Dolby to my A.V. Club overlords for a special technology issue, mainly because I was looking for any excuse to chat with a personal hero. And Dolby did not disappoint. We talked about his varied musical career, and where it ultimately led him. Most of Dolby's time since the mid-'90s has been taken up with his successful tech businesses. Dolby founded Headspace—later renamed Beatnik—and developed sound engines for websites and video games, as well as better-sounding ringtones for cellular phones. As I wrote in my intro to the interview—some of which I've cribbed for this Popless entry—Dolby's current occupation is an extension of his lifelong interest in making the artificial sound natural.
Years Of Operation 1981-present (off and on)
Fits Between Blake Babies and Sleater-Kinney
"Fish" by Throwing Muses
"Red Shoes" by Throwing Muses
Personal Correspondence Outside of local bands, Springsteen, and the SST/Twin-Tone axis, the contemporary bands that meant the most to me in high school were all British. That started to change when a friend loaned me the 4AD compilation Lonely Is An Eyesore, which contained all the label's best-known "pretty, sad" acts, like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil, as well as a band I'd never heard of before: Throwing Muses, performing a song called "Fish." Set against the gothic chime and wan resign of the 4AD regulars, "Fish" sounded like someone swearing in church. On a superficial level, Throwing Muses were a lot like their labelmates—relying on trilling female vocals, abstract melodies, and a sonic palette of glinting metallic gray—but the martial beat, grinding guitars, and untrained yelp of Kristin Hersh all struck me as much brasher than a lot of the similar music I'd been listening to. When I picked up House Tornado and Throwing Muses' self-titled debut album, it confirmed my initial impression. The band's early work mostly consisted of Hersh delivering near-tuneless harangues cribbed from her journals, but there was something appealingly reckless about it all; at the least, Hersh sounded like someone you shouldn't mess with. By the end of the '80s, Throwing Muses started working towards a smoother, hookier, but no less expressive sound—a process that culminated in 1991's marvelous The Real Ramona, which had Hersh and her step-sister Tanya Donnelly stringing together fetching fragments of hummable pop with confidence and color. I saw the band live on the Ramona tour, but since Hersh was about seven months pregnant at the time, they played a very short set. It was a strong set though, and there was something sweet and even appropriate about Hersh's physical condition that night. The Throwing Muses that first shook me out of my Brit-addicted torpor were young, angry, untrained and very American. The one that recorded one of my favorite albums of the '90s was maturing, mellowing, and becoming more cosmopolitan. Some might call that shift a shame, but I've always liked a band you can hear grow up before your ears.
Enduring presence? Unfortunately, after Tanya Donelly left to form the even more radio-friendly Belly, Throwing Muses entered a dark decade, releasing the occasional strident LP between Hersh's introspective, space-folk solo records. Hersh has spent much of the last decade exploring distant variations on the sound she once defined, abandoning loud, skittering guitar-pop for folk and slicked-up MOR. Some of the music that Hersh has been involved with post-Ramona has been quite good, but too much of it has felt self-conscious, as though she were trying to convince her fans (or herself) of something we all once understood implicitly.
Years Of Operation 1970-present (solo)
Fits Between The Nazz and Utopia
"Sometimes I Don't Know What To Feel" by Todd Rundgren
"Influenza" by Todd Rundgren
Personal Correspondence About a year before we started dating, my future wife invited me and a small handful of our mutual friends over to her apartment for her famous homemade fajitas (which she never makes anymore, by the way), and in the time-honored pop-culture-snob tradition, I found a moment to peruse her CD collection. What I didn't know at the time was that a large portion of Donna's music was on cassette and vinyl, so I was befuddled by what I found in her CD rack: a Robert Johnson box set, Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, Robert Palmer's Clues, and every Todd Rundgren album ever made. And that was it. (Who was this woman?) Back then, all I knew about Rundgren was his novelty hit "Bang The Drum All Day," and that Something/Anything? was often listed towards the bottom of lists of the greatest rock albums of all time. (Which is probably why I hadn't gotten around to hearing it yet I hadn't worked my way that far down the list.) In the years to come, I had a lot more music to share with my wife than she had with me, but early in our dating phase, she brought me up to speed on Rundgren, first by dropping a song or two on mix tapes, and then by making me a 90-minute compilation of her favorite songs. It took a while for me to get into Rundgren, frankly. He may have made his a reputation as a studio wizard, but as a songwriter Rundgren has always leaned toward ham-fisted social commentary and self-examination, often delivered in the form of dreamy ballads. He's recorded a lot of adventurous, even groundbreaking albums, and he's established a public persona as a longhaired mad genius, and yet Rundgren's actual music is often aggressively uncool. He's like one of those sci-fi/RPG geeks who's cultivated a sense of personal style and has become the alpha geek of his tribe, yet is still out of place among regular folk. Then again, a lot of my closest friends are exactly those kinds of geeks, so over time I've developed a sense of affection and even protectiveness towards Rundgren. It helped that I began to hear in albums like Hermit Of Mink Hollow and The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect the sound of the true '80s pop—simple, buzzy, open—from those few glorious years before Trevor Horn, Arthur Baker and Mutt Lange screwed everything up.
Enduring presence? I wonder how many people today watch That '70s Show in syndication and are confounded by the gang's extraordinary efforts to make it to a Todd Rundgren concert in the pilot. Outside of getting mocked by Stephen Colbert for participating in The Cars' reunion, and being name-checked in one of my favorite 30 Rock jokes of all time, Rundgren hasn't really remained part of the big rock history picture. (Well, maybe the big picture; but not the wallet-size.) And yet one of the reasons I was really taken with That '70s Show when it first aired was the specificity of that pilot plot. Anyone could've gone to see KISS or Peter Frampton, but finding out Eric Forman was a Rundgren fan told me a lot more about him.
Years Of Operation 1971-present
Fits Between Roger McGuinn and Bob Seger
"Listen To Her Heart" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
"Insider" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Personal Correspondence One of the things I love about writing for The A.V. Club is that when I pitch an idea like an inventory of Tom Petty's best opening lines, my editor doesn't balk, he says, "Go for it." I've been a diehard Petty fan since the spring of '85, when Southern Accents came out. Impressed by "Don't Come Around Here No More," and intrigued by the articles I'd been reading about Petty's long struggle to finish that record—which was originally intended as a double-album that would grapple with southern music and the southern legacy—I jumped when I found a used cassette about a week or two after Southern Accents' street date. I was spending the afternoon at my stepfather's office, around the corner from the used record store, so I listened to Southern Accents right away, and was so disappointed by the glossy sound and curtailed ambition that I brought it back to the store within the hour, demanding my money back. Lucky for me, they laughed me off, and I was forced to live with the record a little longer. Southern Accents isn't as great as it could've been—and it's probably only my fifth-favorite Tom Petty album—but returning over and over to that album over the summer taught me to be patient with Petty, and to realize that he was never going to be cutting-edge. Petty's doggedly anti-innovative style is only as good as his songs, and a lot of his albums are ridden with tepidly performed, underwritten filler—obvious and hoary. (Petty's working method seems to be to pick a key and some chords, then call up the band.) But he keeps on plugging, and when Petty dreams up a good melody and heartfelt lyric, he can make rock 'n' roll sound like the only music worth making—and worth hearing.
Enduring presence? When I reviewed Highway Companion recently, I wrote, "Tom Petty's recording career has been a persistent curiosity, because while he's imminently capable of putting together a classic album, he's rarely actually done it. Petty's stayed more in the 'singles and filler' album-making mode, only occasionally popping out a Damn The Torpedoes, Full Moon Fever, or Wildflowers." I later added that, "Highway Companion is bathed in a headlight glow, and has the loping pace and casual melodicism of a man humming to himself. It's an extended salute to killing time, telling stories, swapping jokes and singing along to the radio." That about sums up Petty's appeal to me.
Years Of Operation 1971-present
Fits Between Hoagy Carmichael and Captain Beefheart
"Johnsburg, Illinois" by Tom Waits
"16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six" by Tom Waits
Personal Correspondence As a dedicated watcher of Late Night With David Letterman in the '80s, I had ample exposure to Tom Waits, one of Dave's frequent guests in an era where he was building up a regular, rotating cast of weirdoes and bon vivants. I believe the first time I saw Waits on the show he performed the spoken-word piece "Frank's Wild Years," which I thought was so hilarious that I tracked down a used copy of Swordfishtrombones and well, it wasn't what I expected, I'll tell you that. I was about 15 at the time, and had no frame of reference for the guttural clank of "Underground" or the cabaret balladry of "Town With No Cheer." But I found something about the record compelling—it was offbeat, but hardly unlistenable—so I kept returning to it, fascinated by Waits' two dominant modes. He'd be the bluesy junkyard dog of "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six" one moment, and then the sappy sketch artist of "Johnsburg, Illinois" the next. Later I'd learn about Waits' ascendancy through the L.A. neo-boho movement, and how Swordfishtrombones represented a new phase in his career, away from the at-times cartoonish beatnik persona he cultivated in the '70s and towards something more like primitivist art. I became something of a Waits obsessive in the '80s, watching Big Time and Down By Law and Fernwood 2 Night, and listening to Rain Dogs on a loop during my freshman year of college. But I don't think I'll ever recapture the feeling of exploring Swordfishtrombones without a map at age 15, and finding dark alleys and exotic aromas at every turn
Enduring presence? To be honest though, I haven't always kept up with Waits as diligently as I should. My friend Jim once said that Waits has the irritating habit of coming up with achingly beautiful melodies and tender lyrics and then bellowing them through a megaphone in a Tasmanian Devil voice, as though he didn't trust his listeners to be left alone with mere sentiment. Because of that impulse, I often find Waits frustrating, even though each time he puts a new album out he leaves us with a half-dozen or so new classics to consider. Having pioneered The Tom Waits Sound, I'd like to see him try something else occasionally, like recording an album of songs without all the filters. Maybe his creative process would suffer if he went in that direction; I don't know. But it would be a worthy challenge for one of the best American songwriters who ever lived.
A Tribe Called Quest
Years Of Operation 1988-98 (essentially)
Fits Between Jungle Brothers and Gang Starr
"Check The Rhime" by A Tribe Called Quest
Personal Correspondence Given my roommates' and my flowering jazz appreciation towards the end of our college years, we fell hard for A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory, which worked jazz into hip-hop without turning the sound into a mere gimmick. The Low End Theory's songs don't just sample jazz; they come from a jazzy place, exploring improvisation and collaboration in the context of flexible rhythmic structures. I think the albums that followed Low End are underrated—especially Beats, Rhymes And Life, which has an angry urgency that still impresses—but it's awfully hard for anyone to top a stone cold classic, and A Tribe Called Quest's career ironically suffered because early on, they got it exactly right.
Enduring presence? One of the things I like best about ATCQ is that their brand of hip-hop self-mythology isn't about making themselves sound dangerous or heroic, but about connecting the men they are now to the boys they were growing up. In a song like Low End Theory's "Check The Rhime," they rap about their boyhood neighborhood like it's some famous spot. And of course it is: famous to Q-Tip and Phife, and now to all the people who love their music.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .
Thin Lizzy, "Southbound"
"Southbound" by Thin Lizzy
The Thrills, "One Horse Town"
"One Horse Town" by The Thrills
I'm a latecomer to Thin Lizzy, since they weren't really part of the classic rock canon back when I was studying it closely. (Aside from "The Boys Are Back In Town," of course but even that was looked on by the guides as a dopey Springsteen/Seeger rip-off.) Like a lot of '70s rockers who were ignored by the major critics of their day, Thin Lizzy had their rep restored by pockets of influential fans, who built on Phil Lynott's Irish take on American guitar boogie in unexpected ways. I'm still working my way through the thick midsection of the Thin Lizzy catalog, and struggling at times to distinguish one sprawling tale of misspent youth from another, but while I can't listen to a lot of Thin Lizzy in a single sitting, they're one of the best "shuffle" bands I know. They make any mix better. I feel much the same about another Americana-infatuated Irish act, The Thrills, who write the kinds of songs that freeze casual listeners, then send them scrambling for the CD case to note the title. The problem with The Thrills is that their music rewards those casual listeners more than those who pay close attention. Their records are overstuffed with sonic dazzle, with plucking banjo, background vocal "ooh"s and instantly memorable lines goosing every track. They try so hard to impress that they come off as pushy. (I call it "The Marah Effect.") But for any given four minutes, you can't beat the little surges of emotion The Thrills generate.
Thompson Twins, "Lies"
"Lies" by Thompson Twins
As entertaining and well-constructed a pop album as Thompson Twin's breakthrough album Into The Gap is, it can't hold a candle to its predecessor Quick Step And Side Kick, which is about as wonderfully shiny and disposable an LP as the early '80s UK technopop movement produced. I know that for people who followed Thompson Twins from the beginning—when they were artsier and more politically engaged—the giggly fun of everything from Quick Step onward is a waste. But I still marvel at the gall of it all, expressed in such whimsical moments as the little Asian and Egyptian synth cues that come up in this song whenever bandleader Tom Bailey mentions a foreign clime. It's so goofy; it's terrific.
Three Dog Night, "Liar"
"Liar" by Three Dog Night
"Memoirs Of An Opening Act (Part One)" by Albert Brooks
The ubiquity of Three Dog Night's radio presence in the '70s wasn't really driven home to me until I heard Albert Brooks' stand-up routine "Memoirs Of An Opening Act," where he riffs on how huge some bands had gotten in the '70s, and mentions Three Dog Night as being so big that they no longer play arenas, they only play states. ("Appearing in Kentucky! Three Dog Night!") It's kind of absurd that a band as plain as Three Dog Night became such a phenomenon, but it got me thinking: Who's the Three Dog Night of today? Who's the act that keeps cranking out decent, no-big-deal hits year after year, and sells out stadiums even though almost nobody would claim themselves to be a rabid fan? Anyone? Or are those days gone?
Thunderclap Newman, "Something In The Air"
"Something In The Air" by Thunderclap Newman
This song has become a lot more omnipresent over the past few years, following its use in Almost Famous, but for a long time it was a song I'd read about more than I'd heard. (It often popped up as a footnote in articles about Pete Townshend, who put Thunderclap Newman together and served as their producer and occasional bassist.) Lately, "Something In The Air" has started to become a shorthand music cue for "those wild old hippie days," joining "For What It's Worth," "Get Together," "White Rabbit" and "Bad Moon Rising." And just like all those songs, "Something In The Air" is more interesting musically than the 30 seconds or so that end up in commercials and on movie soundtracks. Dig that Beatlesque rhythm section, for example; and that weird barrelhouse break. It's not exactly a revolution, but it does feel right.
Tim Buckley, "Happy Time"
"Happy Time" by Tim Buckley
Tim Hardin, "Black Sheep Boy"
"Black Sheep Boy" by Tim Hardin
Tom Rush, "No Regrets"
"No Regrets" by Tom Rush
Towards the end of the '60s, the west coast and east coast folk scenes both moved beyond their roots in storytelling and protest and began following Bob Dylan into the realm of self-examination and songs about strained romance, set to arrangements open enough to allow the fine shading of percussion, brass and woodwinds. Thanks to his poor, doomed son Jeff, Tim Buckley is probably the best known of this trio now, but all three float around in the same atmosphere. In fact, three of the four—all but Hardin—recorded for Elektra, which for a time became the home of this kind of dreamy acoustic music, carried as much by strong vocals as by lyrics. I wasn't aware of Rush until I got Elektra's Forever Changing box set, and Hardin I've known more by reputation than his music. But this is a sound and an era I want to explore more next year.
Tim Easton, "John Gilmartin"
"John Gilmartin" by Tim Easton
Todd Snider, "The Ballad Of The Kingsmen"
"The Ballad Of The Kingsmen" by Todd Snider
Moving from the folk-rock of the late '60s to the early '00s version, here are two country-inflected troubadours who work in an earthier vein than the spiritual travelers of the Elektra era. Todd Snider's fairly well-known, having scored a few minor radio hits and having won favor with the college crowd for plainspoken story-songs like this brief history of "Louie Louie" (and the garage-rock subversion it spawned). Easton's a little more obscure, though he's a west coast staple entrenched enough to coerce star studio rats like Jim Keltner and Mike Campbell to appear on his records. Easton's gruff disposition lends credibility to a sweetly tear-jerking character sketch like "John Gilmartin," about an injured workingman who drinks away his workman's comp. Easton's voice alone generates the appropriate spooked, honesty-at-the-end-of-a-long-dark-night mood.
Timebox, "Gone Is The Sad Man"
"Gone Is The Sad Man" by Timebox
The Times, "I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape"
"I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape" by The Times
Here's one song from Nuggets (the UK edition) followed by one from Children Of Nuggets, the latter of which demonstrates the persistence of lightly psychedelic pop-rock with regional accents. Of course the Timebox song is of the era that The Times are paying homage too, which necessarily diminishes the latter. But The Times song has a delightfully goofy air, with its references to The Prisoner and its pleasurable retro kick.
Tindersticks, "Can We Start Again?"
"Can We Start Again" by Tindersticks
Finding a comfortable spot between Nick Cave, Belle & Sebastian, Lambchop and Leonard Cohen, Tindersticks help make the case for somberness as its own sub-genre, nested within the larger kingdom of smart dudes with guitars. This song manages the weird trick of being uptempo and yet terribly, terribly sad.
Tobias Fröberg, "God's Highway"
Gods Highway by Tobias Fröberg
Tom Brosseau, "Plaid Lined Jacket"
"Plaid Lined Jacket" by Tom Brosseau
Fröberg's a wispy Swede-popper beholden to Simon & Garfunkel, while Brosseau's an American neo-folkie whose high, fragile voice and casual acoustic picking recalls the hushed drama of Tim and Jeff Buckley. As a songwriter and vocalist, Brosseau has matured greatly over his last few records, and years of touring have taught him to hold a room spellbound. He's still one brilliant arranger away from recording a masterpiece, but his work's collective mood of winsomeness and sorrow brings new meaning to the word "homesick." Meanwhile, Fröberg floats out songs that, in a slightly different context, could pass for "beautiful music," given the way their melodies and lyrics follow models of classicism and romanticism. But with just enough lo-fi scuff, they sound more beguilingly elusive, like half-remembered dreams of times past. Fröberg's great gift is the way he can marry his breathy voice to his delicate guitar, add a little unexpected sonic texture, and come with something that holds together, as a song and as an environment. His best song (so far) is "God's Highway," which nods to Simon & Garfunkel's "April Come She Will," then heads toward the oddly spiritual, fully musical place where Fröberg likes to live
Tom Tom Club, "Genius Of Love"
"Genius Of Love" by Tom Tom Club
I know everyone's heard this song—either in its original form or sampled—so often that it's practically imprinted on our collective DNA, but it's a track I haven't tired of since I first heard it in sixth grade, when me and my classmates all called it "James Brown." It took about another 10 years for me to pick up on all the references that Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz drop here (Bootsy Collins, Sly & Robbie, Kurtis Blow, etc.), but even once I put it all together, I still appreciated that the song is more than mere homage. Franz and Weymouth internalized dub, George Clinton and Grandmaster Flash and reinterpreted all of it in the language of Talking Heads.
Tommy James & The Shondells, "Mirage"
"Mirage" by Tommy James & The Shondells
Tommy Roe, "The Folk Singer"
"The Folk Singer" by Tommy Roe
Reading off the tracklist for a Tommy James anthology is one "Wow, he did that song?" moment after another. From "I Think We're Alone Now" to "Crystal Blue Persuasion" to "Mony Mony" to "Crimson And Clover," James pumped out hit after hit in the '60s, connected primarily by their sing-along melodies and a production style that emphasized shimmer and fragmentation. James performed pop songs that chugged along steadily, even though they occasionally slipped a gear. Tommy Roe too was a bubblegum pop star (best known for "Dizzy" and "Jam Up And Jelly Tight") whose ambitions ran a little higher than just a few trips a year to American Bandstand. Roe worked with sunshine-pop auteur Curt Boettcher on the superb LP It's Now Winter's Day, and he recorded memorable singles like this Gene Pitney-esque paean to hill folk with guitars and strong sex-drives.
Tony Bennett, "A Foggy Day"
"A Foggy Day" by Tony Bennett
No longer the also-ran crooner of the '50s, Bennett had a welcome revival and the late '90s and has stayed popular ever since, which has prompted a reassessment of what Bennett brought to the table that set him apart from his peers. In a way, he was a more refined version of Sinatra, steering clear of a lot of Sinatra's cornball antics and instead focusing on music that fused jazz and pop and theater. And then of course there's that voice, less flashy and much more controlled than a lot of his peers. Bennett sounded like a wizened veteran at 26, and he's only grown wiser over the decades.
Toots & The Maytals, "Time Tough (w/Ryan Adams)"
Time Tough (w/Ryan Adams) by Toots & The Maytals
Adams does a surprisingly creditable job here matching his nasal rasp to the still-potent sound of one of the original ska acts. Toots & The Maytals always were among the best in the early reggae scene and blending voices and genres, allowing elements of gospel, country and rock suffuse their sound, like a thick smoke.
Tori Amos, "Time"
"Time" by Tori Amos
I don't have a whole lot to say about Amos, whose posturing and personality have always rubbed me wrong (but whom I don't dislike enough to rip on either). So instead I'll just talk about Tom Waits some more. Isn't it remarkable that Waits, a performer whose own sound is so unlike anyone else's, has written so many songs that have become standards of a kind, covered by a diverse slate of artists? Why yes. Yes it is.
Tortoise, "Six Pack"
"Six Pack" by Tortoise
Trans Am, "Love Commander"
"Love Commander" by Trans Am
Tortoise tends to withhold hooks and splashy solos in favor of patterns of sound that overlap at unusual points and occasionally spill into small, lyrical pools of instrumentation. Their method is such that whenever they break free of obscurity for a brief melodic explosion of vibes or synthesizer, the effect is uplifting. But is the joy of that brief passage intensified by the persistent restraint, or would more frequent concessions to melody make for even greater pleasure? That's an open question. Tortoise is constantly poised between capturing a momentary, malleable inspiration and shaping that moment into some timeless anthem, and typically they choose to dither and delay, settling for something that's sometimes pleasant, sometimes maddening. As for Trans Am, they were part of the wave of instrumental bands swimming in Tortoise's wake, joining them in the game of drawing evocative sonic designs that roll and curve and serve the same function as abstract art. The purpose is to get the listener to come to appreciate form for its own sake, and to shade the gaps between the straight lines. "Love Commander" comes from Surrender To The Night, an LP that draws on the spirit of Kraftwerk, and looks to find a clear, American path through the noisy flood of modern European electronica. Like Tortoise, Trans Am's music tends to play better in the background, where the subtle shifts in sound can seep into the subconscious and spark the imagination. In the right mode, they can send listeners deep into their own heads, imagining driving through empty space to an uncertain future.
"Africa" by Toto
Just for fun, listen to the Trans Am song above, and just as it ends, start up this more inviting, less forbidding, yet rhythmically similar track by non-supergroup Toto. Assembled by in-demand L.A. session musicians, Toto struggled throughout their career to figure out whether they wanted to just get together and jam or if they wanted to show the singer-songwriters who usually hired them out that it wasn't so hard to whip up generic radio hits. Some of those hits were quite good though. I'm especially enamored of "Africa," which sounds like a celebration of bounty in a time of deep want.
Townes Van Zandt, "Talking Thunderbird Blues"
"Talking Thunderbird Blues" by Townes Van Zandt
Van Zandt had a reputation for being erratic on stage—and off it, quite frankly—but when he was collected enough, he was arguably the best of his formidable generation of country singer-songwriters at connecting with an audience without doing much. His music was simple; his words pared-down. And yet he achieved that golden mean that so many singer-songwriters still strive for, sounding funny and aware and likable and more than a little sad.
Traffic, "The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys"
"The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys" by Traffic
My Steve Winwood threshold is fairly low, due in large part to the Winwood-overload of the late '80s (a tragedy that affected so many, while the radio programmers sat on their hands and did nothing). If I were to chart my favorite Winwood songs, taking into account Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith, Traffic and the solo records, the majority of the data points would be gathered in the Traffic era, because I'm a sucker for that smoothed-out, jazzy version of acid rock. (And I'm also a fan of Dave Mason, an early contributor.) When I was a heavy user of classic rock radio, I got excited when I heard the tell-tale fade-in of "The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys," because I knew I was in for 11-plus minutes of low buzz, plunking piano and bongos. Most classic rock stations wouldn't play "Low Spark" until late at night, and I don't know that I ever made it to the end of the song when I was a teenager without falling asleep. That's not intended as a criticism; music that relaxes you enough that you can nod off is music worth respecting.
"Everywhere" by Translator
The same friend who turned me onto They Might Be Giants and The Pogues was also the only person I've ever known who was a fan of Translator, an early '80s San Francisco new wave band best known for the minor hit "Everywhere That I'm Not." Perhaps they were too drippy—or too hippie—to connect with the burgeoning alt-rock scene, but Translators' debut album Heartbeats And Triggers deserves re-evaluation for its textured guitar-pop and moody atmosphere. Translator were a catchy lot, but they could also be quite dark.
Transplants, "Tall Cans In The Air"
"Tall Cans In The Air" by Transplants
This pop-punk collective formed by Rancid singer-guitarist Tim Armstrong and Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker (with vocal assistance by freelance thug Rob Aston and a bevy of guest rappers) hashed together rap, ska, punk, neo-new wave, Latin soul and arena rock—punching a bunch of youth counterculture buttons all at once. The first Transplants album had a distinctly "side project" feel, and its wild genre-hopping was in part a function of well-paid musicians goofing off on their own dime. The follow-up, Haunted Cities, sounded more calculated. Because authentic punk for small town outsiders and faux-punk for upscale suburbanites both provide essentially the same "fuck the world I want to get off" charge, the motives behind them don't matter as much as purists want them to. Still, even an honest effort can be ungainly, and Transplants made a splattery mess of modern music as often as they stumbled over something new and exciting. The cock-rock muscle squeezed out a lot of the soul, a lot of the time. Just as The Clash's London Calling—still Armstrong's punk bible—tried to describe the musical burgoo that the band was ladling from in the late '70s, so Transplants wanted to make sense of what the kids of the '00s are listening to. And that included the schlock. The trick that Transplants never mastered—though maybe they will if the project is revived—os how to incorporate the best aspects of monolithic VH1 rock hits without accidentally getting tainted by the worst.
Travis, "The Fear"
"The Fear" by Travis
The Glaswegian-born, London-based Travis started out playing brassy arena rock and then switched to a more stately sound in synch with their post-Radiohead times. Much of their work is plodding and obvious, but there's something haunting around the edges of the Travis sound, as evidenced by the wistful "The Fear." Guitars chime here and echo there, and Fran Healy's vocals drop low in the mix precisely at the point when their sing-songy-ness might be most grating. And Healy's lyrics—so witty, direct, and full of the morose self-centeredness at which royal subjects seem to excel—matches well with guitarist Andy Dunlop's elegant, understated swoop. Travis were overshadowed by many of their contemporaries, and in truth they never were more than merely "good." But quite frequently that good was good enough.
Tres Chicas, "Drop Me Down"
"Drop Me Down" by Tres Chicas
Sweetwater, the first album credited to distaff alt-country supergroup Tres Chicas, was a fairly evenly split collaboration between Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary and Tonya Lamm; but the follow-up Bloom, Red & The Ordinary Girl was decidedly Cary-centric, with the ex-Whiskeytown-er either writing or co-writing fully half of the disc's twelve songs. Bloom, Red & The Ordinary Girl sports the soulful folk-rock tones of Cary's solo albums, and benefits significantly from the added range. Where Sweetwater was a striking-if-derivative exercise in twangy harmony, Bloom is a fully realized journey into the soft, fragrant Carolina night. And it's graced by songs like this exercise in rootsy harmonizing. In keeping with this week's theme, I have to note that "Drop Me Down" isn't post-anything. But it sure is purty.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Thelonious Monster, Them, The Thermals, Thomas Newman, The Thorns, Thursday, Tift Merritt, Tim O'Brien, The Time, Todd Snider, Tokyo Police Club, Tom Jones, Tom Verlaine, Tom Zé, Tone Loc, The Trash Can Sinatras, Travis Morrison and Trevor Rabin
Also listened to: Theo Eastwind, These Arms Are Snakes,
Shoot Horses Don't They, The Thieves Of Kailua, Third Eye Blind,
Third Rail, Third Sight, Thirty Ought Six, This Is Goodbye,
This Poison, This Providence, The Three O'Clock, Thrice,
Through The Eyes Of The Dead, Through The Sparks, Thunderbirds Are Now!,
Thunderlip, Thurston Harris, Tied & Tickled Trio, Tiga,
Tijuana Taxi, Tim Krekel, Tim McGraw, Tim Rutili, Tim Story, Timewellspent,
Timon, Tin Hat Trio, Tina Dico, Tiny Masters Of Today,
Tipsy, Titán, Titles, TM Juke, To Rococo Rot, Toby
Keith, Tokyo's Coolest Combo, The Tom Collins, Tom Freund, Tom
Greenhalgh, Tom Kafafian, Tom Laverack, Tom McRae, Tom
Paxton, Tom Robinson, Tom Tall, Tomàn, Tombstone Trailerpark, Tommy Boyce,
Tommy Edwards, Tommy Keene, Tommy Page, Tommy Stinson, Tomorrow, Tomorrow's
World, Tomoyasu Hotei, The Toms, Tony Burrows, Tony Furtado, Tony Gerber, Tony
Hatch Orchestra, Tony Lunn, Tony Rice, Tony Trischka,
Toquinho, The Torch Marauder, The Tornados, Tractor Kings,
Tracy Byrd, Tracy Silverman, Tracy Spuehler, Trailmix, Traindodge, Tralala,
Travis Abercrombie, The Treble Boys, Tremulous Monk, The
Trend, The Treniers, Trent Dabbs, Trespassers William,
Trevor Childs, Trevor Hall and Trey
Next week: From Tripmaster Monkey to The Velvet Teen, plus a few words on falling out of love