Popless Week 42: The Changing-Back
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.
"A Sort Of Homecoming" by U2
Back in Week 18, I wrote about that crucial moment when an artist you were previously skeptical about records an album that changes your mind. (For me, it's happened most notably with Guided By Voices' Alien Lanes, Beck's Sea Change and Radiohead's Kid A.) But there's another signpost in a long-term relationship with certain musicians, and it's one I think most music fans will recognize more readily. It's the moment of giving up.
By 1988, I'd developed deep attachments to dozens of bands, to the extent that if you'd asked me to pick a favorite, I don't know that I'd have had a ready answer. R.E.M., maybe? Or Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians? Minutemen? Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band? Public Enemy?
Chances are I wouldn't have said U2, though in the years immediately previous they'd meant as much to me as any of the others. I was wearing a U2 button on my jacket as far back as 8th grade (shortly after War came out), and some of my most indelible musical moments in high school were tied to that band. The autumn after Live Aid, I watched the tape of their performance of "Bad" over and over, along with the VHS copy of Live At Red Rocks that my brother bought me for my birthday. On the day The Joshua Tree came out, I was touring North Carolina colleges (ones that I ultimately couldn't get into), and the moment our plane landed back in Nashville, I asked my stepfather to drive me to a record store and loan me 10 bucks so I could buy that record. For the next couple of months, I breathed The Joshua Tree.
Nearly a year later though, I was just about sick of U2. The band had become omnipresent, and while I never begrudge any musician's success—if anything, I tend to hope that the bands I like get big—I found that the incantatory power of songs like "Where The Streets Have No Name" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" slowly diminished over the course of four or five radio plays a day, for weeks on end. In fact, I might've given up on U2 entirely, if I hadn't seen them in Murfreesboro on the Joshua Tree tour, and become re-infatuated after hearing 20,000 people singing "40" in unison, long after the band had left the stage.
So when Rattle And Hum came out during the fall quarter of my freshman year, I was still pretty primed. These were the days before release date info was readily attainable, so I pestered the clerks at one of the downtown Athens record stores nearly every time I went in, asking if the record was out yet. (And this being Athens, they rolled their eyes and sighed every time I asked.) Finally, in mid-October, I bought Rattle And Hum, brought it back to my dorm, popped it on my turntable and yeesh, what a bummer. Outside of "Desire"—a great single, even now—the album had pretty much nothing to offer me. A few B-side-worthy new songs, some bombastic live performances, multiple instances of cringe-inducing stage banter from Bono and fade out, 70-plus minutes later.
I felt a little better when I saw the movie later that year, and discovered that some of Rattle And Hum's songs weren't so bad in context. I made myself a decent 40-minute version of the record on one side of a cassette tape—but I hardly ever played it. Then when Achtung Baby came out in 1991, I got excited all over again by the articles I'd read about U2's new direction, and again I bought the album on opening day, and again I felt crushed. U2 had gone from overly pompous to overly post-modern (with a side order of pompous), and I found I couldn't connect with anything they were trying to be. (Even now, the only Achtung Baby songs I have on my iPod are "Zoo Station" and "Even Better Than The Real Thing.") It sucked too, because U2 remained so widely beloved—the darlings of radio of MTV—and I so wanted to share in the zeitgeist, but I couldn't. I just didn't like the music anymore.
I actually did enjoy the tossed-off Zooropa two years later, because it struck me as more playful—and even beautiful—but I absolutely hated 1997's Pop, which sounded like a band trying to follow trends rather than heading down their own path. U2 seemed to be spending more time on their dripping-with-irony stage shows than on their music, and as I reflected on the past decade, I kept hearing the voice of that Athens record store proprietor, who cornered me a week after Rattle And Hum came out and asked me in a snippy, nasal voice, "Enjoying the new U2?" I had to shake my head, hushed and defeated. No, I was not enjoying the new U2.
I've never been into the idea of "jumping the shark." These days, it seems we're as eager to be the first to quit on an artist as we are to be the first to discover them. It's insidious, frankly. Given what I do for a living, it would be hypocritical for me to say there was something wrong with analyzing popular culture on a moment-to-moment basis. (If I felt that way, I'd spend a lot less time writing about TV.) But that scrutiny has to come from a place of respect and fundamental appreciation, or it can sound awfully ungracious. I remember reading an essay online back in the early '00s that gleefully ripped apart Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, saying (I'm paraphrasing), "When will their fans realize that these aren't the guys who made The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Nashville, they're the hacks who made Jack, Kundun and Ready To Wear?" And though I can't stand Jack or Ready To Wear either (I do like Kundun), all I could think was, "Here are three genuine artists, struggling to realize a personal vision in a commercial industry and not always succeeding. Who the hell are you?"
Still, disenchantment occurs. It's a part of the process of being a fan. The key is not to think of growing apart from an artist as a case of betrayal, or you suddenly "wising up." If you've loved someone's work in the past, I think you should give them the benefit of the doubt, and while that doesn't mean forcing yourself to swallow something you find unpalatable—or refraining from complaining about it—you should at least respect the memory of the good times you had together.
In the online culture especially, people seem too demanding of raves or pans. We constantly get complaints here at The A.V. Club when we only give a bad movie a "D+" or a good one a "B." But criticism isn't a pass/fail proposition. There ought to be room for mitigation. The same can be said of fandom. By 2000, I had no real interest in buying another U2 album, any more than I had plans to ever watch ER again. I'd put them both on the shelf of "things I used to like." But then I heard "Beautiful Day" on the radio, and I couldn't deny how it made me feel. It was so soaring, so hopeful, so honest. The band's filters had been removed. The song sounded like the U2 I used to love—almost as though they'd spent the previous year listening to The Best Of U2: 1980-1990.
So I bought All That You Can't Leave Behind, and heard a band more humble, earnest and exploratory than the one that had been letting me down all through the '90s. They were writing songs I could sing along with again—songs meant to stir. Not that the album was a masterpiece by any means. In the years that followed, I've found that a lot of the record doesn't hold up so well. All That You Can't Leave Behind is too spotty, with songs that try to connect too broadly and others that slide into indistinction. And aside from "Vertigo," I thought that How To Dismantle An Atom Bomb was a dud (no pun intended). So I'm not ready to call myself a full-on, unapologetic U2 fan again. But they're still in my circle. They live their lives, and I live my life, and occasionally, we reconnect.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1990-98/1985-95
Fits Between Throwing Muses and Scrawl/Beat Happening and The Vaselines
"Kidding On The Square" by Tsunami
"June" by Unrest
Personal Correspondence I recently wrote about the wonderment I felt upon finding a 45 of Roy Orbison's "Crying" in my mom's record collection, and how it was like discovering some great work of art reduced to the size of a baseball card and shuffled in among my Claudell Washingtons and Ralph Garrs. I wouldn't say that the 7"s put out by D.C.-area indie-rock stalwarts Tsunami and Unrest in the early '90s were on a par with "Crying," but amid the glut of homemade art that emerged around that time, Tsunami's and Unrest's records were always worth the trouble it took to remove them from their sleeves, slap them on the turntable and drop the tone-arm. It was hard not to feel a little protective of them too, especially given the way their music was either ignored by the mainstream critics or given slap-downs like this Robert Christgau pan of Unrest's Imperial f.f.r.r.: "Cool people whose hobby is inept bands seem to think these whatchamacallems apotheosize self-consciously amateurish charm. If you're among them, call me when you get a life." It's not that Christgau was wrong per se; certainly when I play Tsunami alongside, say, Van Halen, the weaknesses of the former become ridiculously plain. But Christgau undervalues the power of that "charm" (amateurish or no). When Unrest's Mark Robinson went on his Factory Records kick, trying to make albums that evoked New Order on one-tenth the budget, it wasn't just cute and sweet (though it was that too), but also touching. What made these indie bands so meaningful to so many was that they shared a different set of musical values than what we heard on the radio at the time. Some of those values were the values their fans shared too; but to some extent the bands were also tour guides, pointing out musicians and movements that we might've missed. What had been dubbed "alternative" at the dawn of the '90s quickly become anything but, and while there's no inherent value to the notion of "alternative rock," it was still nice to have a little musical clubhouse to retreat to, where grown-up concerns took a backseat to post-grad navel-gazing and adolescent faddishness.
Enduring presence? Collectors aside, vinyl has pretty much had its last gasp, so I doubt we'll ever again see a movement quite like the one that Tsunami and Unrest were a part of. And musically, the indie-rock of today doesn't sound much like that of either Tsunami or Unrest, except in fragments. When I listen to both those bands now—on MP3s ripped from CDs, and shuffled among the rest of my collection—they usually sound clumsy and underbaked, and with the exception of a few key Unrest songs, way outclassed by everything else on my iPod. But when I dust off my collection of early '90s 7"s, Tsunami and Unrest still sound like the champs they once were. As is often the case with art, it's the frame that sells the picture.
Years Of Operation 1978-present
Fits Between John Lennon and Television
"I Fall Down" by U2
"11 O'Clock Tick Tock" by U2
Personal Correspondence My brother asked for and received October for Christmas in 1982, and while I have no idea how he heard U2 in the first place or why he asked for this particular record, the sound of "Gloria" and "Rejoice" and "Stranger In A Strange Land" became a steady fixture in our home over the next six months or so—until October was superseded by War. Though it's the most ignored of the early U2 albums, October has always defined what I like most about the band. I've never been as big on the U2 anthems as I am on songs like October's "I Fall Down" or Under A Blood Red Sky's "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" and the bulk of The Unforgettable Fire. I like the songs with no real choruses or riffs, where The Edge spins out long, textured threads while Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. keep the hook to themselves. I prefer Bono the wanderer to Bono the pitchman, and it's on albums like October where that personality really holds sway, and where U2 sounds like no other band before or since.
Enduring presence? In large part because of Bono's big cultural presence—and because the band's music has been spotty at best for the past 20 years—I've noticed a lot of anti-U2 sentiment among music fans of late. I sort of understand it, but to me saying "U2 sucks" or "U2 is terrible" is kind of a baby-with-the-bathwater scenario. U2 is a very good band, and one of the few consistently popular rock acts over the past three decades. They mean a lot to a lot of people, all over the world. Heck, at the right time of day on the right time of year, if I hear "A Sort Of Homecoming" drifting out of my headphones, they mean a lot to me.
Years Of Operation 1988-94
Fits Between The Byrds and Crazy Horse
"Discarded" by Uncle Tupelo
"Wait Up" by Uncle Tupelo
Personal Correspondence I told a version of this story a couple of years ago, when I wrote a blog post about interviewing Jeff Tweedy, but I can't think about Uncle Tupelo without remembering my first encounter with the band, which came about because they were due to play a show in Athens and I was assigned to write a preview for UGA's student newspaper. I dutifully, somewhat begrudgingly started to listen to No Depression, and was so excited by the first song, "Graveyard Shift," that I had to stop the record and compose myself. As I wrote in that blog post, "I played the hell out of No Depression for a solid year, right up to the day that I unexpectedly stumbled across Still Feel Gone at the local record shop. In those days, it was hard to get updates about the activities of any indie band, but Uncle Tupelo in particular was notoriously below the radar, so Still Feel Gone sort of came out nowhere, both in terms of its physical presence and the louder, rowdier, more adventurous music the album contained. (It's still my favorite Uncle Tupelo album.) I was more prepared for the arrival of March 16-20, 1992 because it was recorded in Athens, and released just before I graduated and moved away. I wasn't prepared for it to be an acoustic record, especially coming on the heels of Still Feel Gone's punky rumble. But I loved all three of those early albums, and I also really liked—if not quite loved—Anodyne, Uncle Tupelo's major-label debut and overall swan song." So that's a snapshot of what Uncle Tupelo meant to me during their too-brief run. They were the under-the-radar country-rock band that never failed to surprise me, and that earned their working-man laments by surrounding them with songs that spoke to variety of life experiences beyond just drinkin' and sweatin'. Before they packed it in, they were on their way to charting all the byways of American life, from hopeful birth to rebellious adolescence to painful maturity and even death. And one addendum on the latter point: I was listening to March 16-20 on February 13th, 1994, while driving up to Virginia to surprise Donna with a Valentine's Day visit. I wasn't aware of the ice on the roads, so when I took a curve too fast, I crashed through a guardrail and flipped my brand new car (just purchased a month earlier) and skidded down a snowbank. When the car stopped, still upside-down, I could still hear "Wait Up" playing. I can't hear that song now without thinking of what might've been, had the hill been steeper or the snow not quite so soft. Wait up for me, indeed.
Enduring presence? Was Uncle Tupelo's run too brief? They never recorded a bum album, and had they continued, Tweedy might not have been given the creative space to do the kind of work he ended up doing with Wilco. It's been rewarding to see how those four albums have been embraced, too. Not to keep harping on my mid-'90s frustration with the rock press (of which I was a junior member at the time), but I still recall how irritating it was when Spin published their first "modern rock" record guide, and didn't include Uncle Tupelo, and when Christgau's '90s record guide came out with just a Bomb symbol for No Depression and a Neutral Face for Anodyne, with no further commentary. There was a reason an entire magazine was founded, named for Uncle Tupelo's first album. The coverage of this kind of music back then was woeful.
Years Of Operation 1974-85 (as far as I'm concerned)
Fits Between Boston and Cream
"Panama" by Van Halen
Personal Correspondence Because they presented themselves as a heavy metal band (and had a similar fan base), I shied away from Van Halen in my pre-teen years, only enjoying songs like the ominous-sounding "Runnin' With The Devil" surreptitiously, late at night, when album rock radio also trotted out the likes of "Hell's Bells" and "Iron Man" and "Godzilla." (The demonic has its place in The Bible Belt, so long as it was safely contained.) Of course, Van Halen weren't really a metal band. They were a garage-rock band with a virtuoso guitarist and a sound reminiscent of the factory floor of a Detroit auto plant. When 1984 became a phenomenon, I was in the throes of adolescence and more susceptible to the band's big beat and raunchy videos, and yet I didn't own any Van Halen albums until around 1993, when I picked up all the Roth records on vinyl for about three bucks each. Heard a decade past their original context (and after 10 odious years of Van Hagar), those first six Van Halen albums sounded all the more extraordinary. They're all pretty hit-and-miss, but because they're so short, the misses are quickly forgotten. And the hits? My lands. Take away the jet-fueled performances and songs like "Jamie's Cryin'" and "Dance The Night Away" could pass for power-pop. But it's the Sunset Strip shine that makes them extra-special. If Van Halen were some superior bar band from Milwaukee, they'd have had more critical love, but likely would've been forgotten by all but the cultists. It was the Hollywood glitz and libertine joy—the superstar fantasy, in other words—that made Van Halen in the Roth years so appealing. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe they were heavy metal, Only without the "heavy."
Enduring presence? West Coast hard rock doesn't get much more perfect than "Panama," a shout-along anthem that hits all its marks, from the sexual innuendo to the automotive imagery to the guitar that practically defines "shred." And yet, I think what I like most about "Panama" is its downshifting interlude, in which Eddie Van Halen almost sounds like he's channeling The Edge. Listen to "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" and "Panama" back-to-back. They're not that dissimilar.
Years Of Operation 1967-present
Fits Between Jackie Wilson and The Chieftains
"Fair Play" by Van Morrison
Personal Correspondence Morrison has recorded songs that explore the bleaker aspects of everyday living, but for the most part I've returned to his music over the years for their serenity and clarity. When I heard Moondance for the first time in 9th grade, it was like my own little oasis to escape to, completely unlike any of the other music I was listening to at the time—and certainly unlike the day-to-day hassles of early teenager-hood. A few years later, I had a tape with John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band on one side and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks on the other, and it was recorded in such a way that the song "Astral Weeks" immediately followed "My Mummy's Dead," effectively soothing the pain of the Lennon record with a spiritual balm. And then, tacked on at the end of Astral Weeks, following the wringer of "Madame George" and the starkness of "Slim Slow Slider," I had "Fair Play" from Veedon Fleece, proving that even the soother could be soothed. I have all of Morrison's '70s catalog on CD and vinyl, but I listen to them more on vinyl, because the warm crackle suits the mood, and because I don't want to be tempted to skip ahead. I need the clunker songs and the harrowing songs to give the joy of a "Jackie Wilson Said" or the yearning of a "Wavelength" its proper perspective.
Enduring presence? Morrison's still making pretty good albums, though there's a lot less immediacy to his work over the past couple of decades. He doesn't seem to venture too far into the mystic anymore; he sounds content to sit in his garden, nursing a whiskey. Or maybe the problem is that his voice has always been a little aloof—to the extent that I know people who flat out can't stand Morrison, and can't understand why anyone would call him a great singer. He does often sound like somebody rolled him out of bed and into the studio. At the least, he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who sits down and watches TV, or enjoy a dirty joke. Morrison's not quite of this Earth.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .
Tripmaster Monkey, "Pecola"
"Pecola" by Tripmaster Monkey
Major label-hood didn't do much to raise the profile of this early '90s alt-rock act, which had an undistinguished run on Sire and Elekra before fading into oblivion. But in one of those all-too-common cases of a CD nobody bought falling into the right hands, I became a champion of Tripmaster Monkey's debut album Goodbye Race, thanks to songs like this one, with its fat bass and clever tempo-shifts. I marked them as a "band to watch," and yet even I didn't watch them closely enough to buy their second album. Sorry about that, members of Tripmaster Monkey. (Note: I didn't realize until years later that "Pecola" is the name of the title character in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, which this song is ostensibly about. I also didn't know that the band took their name from a Maxine Hong Kingston novel. They were a literary lot, that Tripmaster Monkey.)
The Troggs, "Cousin Jane"
"Cousin Jane" by The Troggs
Was The Troggs' ability to move from songs like the romping "Wild Thing" to the gently poppy "Love Is All Around" to this piece of curt, baroque psychedelia an indicator that they were as versatile as they were talented, or just an indicator that they were a band that existed in the mid-to-late '60s?
Trouble Funk, "Super Grit"
"Super Grit" by Trouble Funk
Unlike world history, pop culture history isn't written by the winners, which means we can go back and explore the bands and genres that didn't make it, and to some extent appreciate them more than the ones that became so omnipresent we got a little sick of them. Throughout the early '80s, pop critics were touting the largely D.C.-bound "go-go" sound of bands like Trouble Funk as the next big thing in R&B;, and likely to supersede hip-hop as the musical fad of the decade. But outside of the E.U. hit "Da Butt" (and Prince's subtle rip-offs), go-go never saw any significant chart action, probably because the best go-go tracks ran upwards of 10 minutes, and couldn't be easily excerpted for radio play. Go-go was a live phenomenon more than a recorded one, and as such, it failed to inspire the rising generation of soul musicians the way rap did. (Also, credible hip-hop tracks could be produced by people without a lot of money, while the same couldn't be said for go-go.) Still, it's fun to cue up "Super Grit" and imagine an alternate '80s when horn sections, wiggle-synths and conga drums were the coin of the realm.
TV On The Radio, "Dreams"
"Dreams" by TV On The Radio
I'm eager to hear the latest TV On The Radio (and will be able to in just a couple of weeks!), but for now, I think my review of the band's debut album still pertains: "New York art-punkers TV On The Radio were ridiculously touted prior to the release of the EP Young Liars, largely on the strength of the band's live performances and because guitarist David Sitek and singer Tunde Adebimpe run in the same circles as bands du jour The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars. The EP only raised the band's stature, since its loose, fuzzy fusion of Peter Gabriel, Pere Ubu and Brian Eno offered three influences rarely referenced in 2003. The band's debut LP Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is even better. TV On The Radio's ace is Adebimpe, whose urgent vocal performances are slyly bluesy and in synch with his and Sitek's dense urban soundscapes. On Desperate Youth, the singer coos and growls along with himself (and with alternate guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone), guiding the band's songs through open-ended structures that build vertically, adding and subtracting layers rather than moving through conventional melodic changes. TV On The Radio makes music that's rhythmic but not really danceable, and harmonic without being hooky. The band maps out a whole environment of primal 'community music,' updated for the age of the terror alert. But though Desperate Youth is dotted with lyrics about death sentences, accident scenes, self-destruction and corporeal decay, the album's strength is its faintly hopeful tone. Adebimpe sings about shared anxieties and human need, and his powerful voice packs sweet sorrow into a line like 'You were my favorite moment / Of our dead century.' If bands like The Notwist, The Constantines, The Walkmen and TV On The Radio keep exploring these new realms of texture, mood and songcraft, the century won't die so easily."
The Tweeds, "I Need That Record"
"I Need That Record" by The Tweeds
Switching gears dramatically, we move from the "clinging to hope as the light dies" mood-spinning of TV On The Radio to another kind of primal desire, courtesy of a long-forgotten Boston power-pop band featured on the Yellow Pills: Prefill anthology. They say that all the best power-pop songs are about driving or girls, but I think you have to clear space on that list for songs about songs. A track like this is why I like to look backwards as much as I look forward. It's amazing what's still lurking in the back room, waiting to get dusted off. We need these records.
The Twilight Sad, "Walking For Two Hours"
"Walking For Two Hours" by The Twilight Sad
Since I've touted The Twilight Sad's "That Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy" (a.k.a. One Of The Best Rock Songs Of The Past Five Years) plenty of times on this site, I thought I'd dig a little further into the band's majestic debut album Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters, to try and show that they're not just a one-track pony. About that LP, I wrote, "It's an album about adolescence, written and recorded by people not trying to relive the past, but to reflect on it, with a sense of perspective and hard-won wisdom. The songs on Fourteen Autumns are loud, and graced with long-line melodies that are easy to hum, but there's nothing quick or disposable about them. Lead singer James Graham gives The Twilight Sad a lot of personality, with his gentlemanly burr and passionate croon, which can make lines like 'Where have the colors gone?' sound sincere instead of sappy. But the band's biggest strength is its willingness to start a song in mid-sprawl—frequently with an opening lyric that continues a previously interrupted train of thought—and then to radiate out, untethered." Man, I hope The Twilight Sad's next album is as good, since they may be the contemporary rock act I feel has the greatest potential to wow.
The Twilight Singers, "Please Stay (Once You Go Away)"
"Please Stay (Once You Go Away) by The Twilight Singers
When Greg Dulli disbanded his sputtering alt-rock combo The Afghan Whigs at the turn of the millennium to concentrate on the lower-key electro-folk collective The Twilight Singers, the change played into a lot of his worst artistic instincts. At their best, The Afghan Whigs were both raging and sultry, giving Dulli a chance to work out his loutish obsession with hedonism in big-sounding rock songs full of nail-biting drama. At their worst, the Whigs were overbearing and self-indulgent, both qualities that Dulli carried into the Twilight Singers' first couple of albums, which tested listener patience with somnambulant pacing, synthetic soundscapes, and painful soul-bearing. As was the case with the Whigs toward the end of their run, there's a distressing structural uniformity to a lot of The Twilight Singers' material. The songs tend to follow the same straight-ahead beat and escalating melody, whether ballad or rocker. Still, Dulli definitely has a lot to say here about the insatiable needs of thieves and liars, even if the dark-toned tough-guy act seems as wearying to him as it can be to his listeners.
The Tymes, "Somewhere"
"Somewhere" by The Tymes
I don't listen to a lot of doo-wop—probably because the genre has too many associations with The White Shadow, a dopey '70s TV drama I was obsessed with when I was 8 years old—but I like the way the best doo-wop celebrates the sound of the human voice. A song like this one comes off a lot like a group of guys just entertaining themselves, killing time by making noise, a lot like my kids do. (Addenda: The Tymes' Wikipedia entry features one of those great pieces of unnecessary editorializing that makes our wiki age so delightful and annoying: "(The Tymes) share the perhaps useless distinction of being one of the few acts to have one and only chart-topper in the U.S. and UK with different titles.")
Ugly Duckling, "Rio De Janeiro"
"Rio De Janeiro" by Ugly Duckling
Long Beach underground rappers Ugly Duckling's Andycat and Dizzy trot out laid-back, self-deprecating rhymes about being the white-faced clowns of west coast rap while their DJ, Young Einstein, spins upbeat, poppy tracks that draw from the same alterna-funk well as the first underground wave a decade ago: A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets and, most obviously, De La Soul. When they get away from jokey nonsense like the stomach-turning fast food sketches on their LP Taste The Secret, Ugly Duckling lack a distinct personality. But they at least have an ethos. Even the rote-est UD tracks are hooky, witty and danceable: a mass-produced product, served with a smile.
Ultravox, "Saturday Night In The City Of The Dead"/"Vienna"
"Saturday Night In The City Of The Dead" by Ultravox
"Vienna" by Ultravox
Even more than '60s acts like The Troggs, the British pop bands of the late '70s and early '80s changed styles (and their level of accessibility) almost from day to day, moving from punk to post-punk to New Romantic to techno-pop to arena rock without giving much thought to how those transitions might look years later. Ultravox underwent one of the most jarring changes, moving from Undertones-style pop-punk to the synthesized futurism of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. I first became aware of Ultravox (as more than just a name on a poster in movies and TV shows about L.A. cool kids, anyway) when they sang the majestically ballooning "Vienna" at Live Aid, and briefly stopped the show. It's only in recent years that I've heard Ultravox in their earlier, guitar-driven phase, which to my ears sounds a little generic. (Although frankly, the technopop Ultravox is pretty spotty too.) But I think it would be fun someday to put together a series of mixes featuring the same handful of bands drawn from their different eras. I'm sure The Stranglers of 1984 and the Ultravox of 1984 have more in common with each other than they do with The Stranglers and Ultravox of 1978.
The Undertones, "Get Over You"
"Get Over You" by The Undertones
Unlike their rabble-rousing punk countrymen Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones largely skirted politics in favor of what they aptly dubbed "teenage kicks" (on one of the greatest rock singles of all time). This song is in some ways fairly off-the-shelf as far as uptempo, guitar-stoked songs about girls go, but the nimble percussion and Feargal Sharkey's post-adolescent whine make it top-shelf. This is like the kind of love song fellow Irishmen Thin Lizzy would've recorded if they'd ditched hard drugs for pills and pop.
"Twist" by Underworld
I've made no secret of the fact that I'm an ignoramus at best and a philistine at worst when it comes to electronica (and some would say every other kind of music as well), so I imagine it won't be an especially impactful statement when I say that Underworld makes the kind of electronica I like best, at once propulsive and ecstatic, and not overly busy. (Underworld songs are usually clean enough that I can appreciate each repetitive element for what it adds to the pattern.) When I hear albums like Beaucoup Fish or A Hundred Days Off, I tend to say to myself, "Well, there you go. That's what I has hoping for."
The United States Of America, "Coming Down"
"Coming Down" by The United States Of America
Speaking of electronica, here's one of the first American bands to make heavy use of electronic instruments in their music, to the extent that they eschewed guitars altogether. The songs on their lone, self-titled album still sound in step with the acid-rock avant-garde of 1968, and though this is one of the few tracks on The United States Of America that could qualify as "pop," even here the band's off-kilter approach to music-making pays off in melodies that taper, and a momentum that carries the song into previously unexplored territory, before veering back on course. It's pretty damned exciting.
Utopia, "Swing To The Right"
"Swing To The Right" by Utopia
I wrote last week about Todd Rungren's propensity for blunt, clunky political messages in otherwise snappy pop songs, and here's an example from one of his albums with the prog-pop outfit Utopia. And yet I really like this song, in part because it's catchy as all get-out, and in part because it records a generational anxiety that seems to regain its relevance at least once a decade.
Van Duren, "Make A Scene"
"Make A Scene" by Van Duren
I'm sure a lot of you are familiar with Chris Bell's version of "Make A Scene," from his legendary "lost" solo album I Am The Cosmos, but I actually prefer this version from Bell's Memphis compadre Van Duren, who takes it in a more overtly power-pop direction, adding muscle where the former Big Star star went for uncertainty. Honestly though, the two versions aren't that different. It's a great song either way.
Van Dyke Parks, "Palm Desert"
"Palm Desert" by Van Dyke Parks
As an arranger and collaborator, Van Dyke Parks brought a touch of weirdo Americana to acts like The Byrds and The Beach Boys, but on his wondrous first two solo albums Song Cycle and Discover America, Parks indulged his fascinations with pop music history more fully, crafting songs that combined the sound of crackly old radio broadcasts and fading memories, diffused further by a lysergic haze. The records take some getting used to, since they're trying to capture Parks' experience of these artifacts, not to make them relevant to the modern age or to tout their enduring qualities. If you want songs as enduring as their inspiration, ring up Brian Wilson. If you want to roll freely between dream and nightmare with Mitch Miller in one ear and Carmen Miranda in the other, then Parks is your dude.
Vangelis, "Abraham's Theme"
"Abraham's Theme" by Vangelis
My mom became a big NPR listener in the early '80s, during the stretch between divorcing my dad and getting remarried, and whenever she heard about some cultural event or another of merit, she scraped her pennies together and dragged my brother and me to it. At the time I probably groaned; but today these are some of my favorite memories of childhood, going to touring Broadway shows or museum exhibits or nature preserves with my mom. When I was 10, she took my brother and I to see Chariots Of Fire at this neat-looking historic theater near downtown Nashville—the theater has since been turned into a bookstore—and though by all rights the movie should've bored me silly, for some reason it didn't. (I still like Chariots Of Fire actually, though it's frequently cited by my fellow critics as one of the dullest Best Picture winners of all time.) I think I responded most strongly to the slow-motion racing sequences, set to that dreamy Vangelis music. We were a big Olympics household, so just on a visceral level, the details of competition and the triumphant score—which didn't sound at all like it belonged in a prestige picture—fed whatever part of us returned every four years to sports we otherwise cared little about. We listened to the Chariots Of Fire soundtrack practically on a loop in our shoddy little suburban Nashville apartment, letting the memory of Cambridge lawns and Parisian pageantry take us away from the pasteboard and faulty wiring. Listening to "Abraham's Theme" this week, it suddenly occurred to me why I liked Air's Moon Safari so much the first time I heard it. The dreams of a 27-year-old and the dreams of a 10-year-old aren't always so different.
Varnaline, "Lights"/"Down The Street"
"Lights" by Varnaline
"Down The Street" by Varnaline
Anders Parker's Varnaline project has been incarnated as a lo-fi one-man-band, an assemblage of pounding Crazy Horse-style rockers, a sparse acoustic group, and a collective of experimental pop noisemakers. Parker plays a lot of the instruments himself, and produces eclectic records that cycles through moody twang, patchwork rattle, and waves-of-sound guitar-rock. What ties the pieces together—besides the way that the songs fade into each other—is a consistently disarming handmade quality. Parker's not an especially remarkable songwriter, at least in terms of stunning the listener with complicated melodic structures. He uses straightforward time signatures and simple chord progressions, and places the emphasis on delivering vividly mysterious lines. Like several of the meaningful modern rockers of his mid-to-late-90's class, Parker uses the studio to bring color and shape to his minimal compositions. Turning the production into the attraction places emphasis on the artistic process, more than what the finished product really amounts to. There's a quaintness to this effect, not unlike beholding the crude utensils that ancient men fashioned out of dried bones and strips of bark. Varnaline inspires a similar sense of wonder, more for the craftiness of Parker's mechanics than for their ultimate functionality.
Vashti Bunyan, "Winter Is Blue"
"Winter Is Blue" by Vashti Bunyan
Bunyan became a kind of distant godmother to the early '00s freak-folk movement (represented by Marissa Nadler, Devendra Banhart, Mia Doi Todd and the like), when her forgotten 1970 LP Just Another Diamond Day was reissued a few years back. It's easy to hear what that bunch heard in Bunyan: she's like early Joni Mitchell with half the vocal expression and three times the fragility. This song in particular sounds like something Alan Lomax would've recorded if he could've time-traveled back to the Renaissance to do field recordings in village pubs.
Velocity Girl, "Sorry Again"
"Sorry Again" by Velocity Girl
Here's another D.C-area indie-rock act, and though Velocity Girl sold a lot more records than Tsunami and Unrest (even combined, I'm sure), like their fellow scenesters they failed to ignite any kind of long-lasting musical revolution. "Sorry Again"—one of the best rock singles of the '90s, in my opinion—garnered a fair amount of radio play, but the charts weren't exactly buzzing with female-fronted pop-punk in the years that followed. More's the pity. I like Velocity Girl a hell of a lot more than Hole and Four Non Blondes.
The Velvelettes, "Long Gone Lover"
"Long Gone Lover" by The Velvelettes
As we approach the end of Popless, I have a tougher and tougher time figuring out whether I should write something about lower-tier R&B; acts like these Motown also-rans. I don't have any lifelong attachment to The Velvelettes, whom I've only heard on Motown anthologies, sandwiched between the bigger names and the more familiar tunes. But since the original purpose of Stray Tracks was to bring some lesser-known songs to light—before the section became a catch-all for good bands that I didn't have as much of a personal connection to—I'm going to use it to tout this rare track from the A Cellar Full Of Motown collection, which sounds more like a Phil Spector teen-beat production than the typical Motown sophisti-pop. It's obvious why the label buried the song, but it's still a treat to hear.
The Velvet Teen, "A Captive Audience"
"A Captive Audience" by The Velvet Teen
For the first phase of their career, the Santa Rosa trio The Velvet Teen courted Jeff Buckley-style grandeur, staggered with the cut-vein expressionism of simpatico indie rockers Death Cab For Cutie and Red House Painters, and the freeform exploration of Radiohead. Quaver-voiced Judah Nagler surrounded light, pretty melodies with blankets of strings, background vocals, sputtering drums and rippling piano, letting the music rise and fall like slow breathing. The band's excellent 2004 album Elysium—and songs like the fluid confessional "A Captive Audience"—represented this style at its peak. At once mature in sound and adolescent in theme, Elysium established The Velvet Teen's place in an alt-pop universe where every emotion is both deeply felt and faintly fatiguing. Then the band followed it with 2006's Cum Laude, which went in a different direction, lyrically and musically. Bandleader Judah Nagler still sang about sex and separation, but he'd lost his regretful tone, and instead came off as cocky, bearing pain like a merit badge. He was also singing through filters that distorted his otherwise lovely voice, matching an overall sound that subjected bouncy modern rock songs to scuff, scrape and batter. Cum Laude is sometimes aimless and rarely pleasurable, but it's frequently brilliant, and while I hope The Velvet Teen recaptures some of Elysium's beauty next time out, I'm impressed enough by what they've done thus far to follow Nagler's muse wherever it leads.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Tricky, The Trouble With Sweeney, The Turtles, U-Roy, UB40, Umphrey's McGee, Uncle Dave Macon, Uncut, The Unicorns, UNKLE, Urge Overkill, Van McCoy, The Vaselines, and Velvet Crush
listened to: Trick
Pony, The Triggers, Trilobite Café, Trinidad Steel Band, Trio Da Paz, Trio
Mocotó, Tristeza, The Triumphs,
Trophy Husbands, Trouble
Everyday, Troubled Hubble, TRS-80, True
Love, The Trumpeters, Trussel, Tuatara, Tuck &
Patti, Tullycraft, Tunji Oyelana &
The Benders, Tunng, Turn Off The Stars, Turzi,
Tusia Berizde, Tussle, Twinkle, Two Cow
Garage, Two Dollar Pistols, Two Gallants, Two If By
Sea, Two Loons For Tea, Two Weeks In
July, The Tyde, Tyla Gang, Tyrone Ashley, Ugly Casanova, The Ugly
Ducklings, UHF, Ulrich Schnauss, Ulver,
Umbrellas, Unbunny, Uncle Bunt Stephens,
Uncle Kracker, The Undisputed Truth, Uniao Black, Unique
Madoo, The Uniques, Until December, Unwed Sailor, The Upsetters, The Uptights
Band, The Urban Hillbilly Quartet, Uriah Heep, US 3,
US Maple, Utada, The Vacation, The Vagiants, The Vagrants,
Val Emmich, The Valentines, Valgeir Sigurosson, The Valley Arena, Van Duren,
Vanessa Williams, Vanilla Ice, Vanity Fare, The Vapors,
Vega4, The Veils and Velma Perkins
Next week: Next week: A one-week Halloween hiatus, but in two weeks Popless will be ranging from The Velvet Underground to Whiskeytown, plus a few words on rock 'n' roll as lifestyle choice.