Popless Week Nine: Dilettantin'
After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking the year off from all new music, and instead revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.
To become a professional critic, all you really need are some basic writing skills, a mania for meeting deadlines, a general disinterest in making money, and the ability to project the illusion of expertise. There are two ways to approach the latter. Use Your Illusion I: Find a genre or an artist you like, and dedicate yourself to becoming an authority, to the exclusion of context; or Use Your Illusion II: Study everything, and never have more than a superficial understanding of anything.
That's an exaggeration, of course. In music criticism, a lot of writers dedicate themselves to rap, metal, or Lithuanian folk music, but still manage to keep up with the Top 40; and there are plenty of omnivorous music buffs who possess an impressive amount of knowledge about, say, the life and discography of Johnny Cash. And then there are those who cross mediums freely, taking an active and scholarly interest in music, movies, television, books, and so on.
Myself, I'm a dabbler. Throughout my career, I've split my time between movies and music, and over the past 10 years I've added book reviews and TV reviews, plus the occasional piece about sports, comics and food. I've written about punk and country, action movies and avant-garde shorts, popular science and pulp mysteries, sitcoms and reality shows, football and the Olympics, fine French dining and Sausage McGriddles, post-modern poster art and The Flash. I don't specialize—or, apparently, discriminate.
To be honest, I didn't really make a conscious choice to go broad. Various accidents of history—like my dad being in radio, plus my mom dropping my brother and I off at the movies or the library on the weekend, plus superheroes being all over the TV when I was an impressionable kid—combined with my particular brain chemistry to shape me. Because I suck at abstract thought, I've never pursued higher mathematics, theoretical science, poetry, or the kind of groundbreaking leaps of logic required to write lengthy essays about a single subject. But I rock at memorizing, organizing and synthesizing, which are exactly the kind of traits vital to becoming a breezy pop-media type.
There are some advantages to dabbling. For one, it's more in tune with how most people consume media. Non-critics tend to spread their interests around, and pay equal attention to movies, music and TV—and they don't always have the rarified taste in one artform that they might have another. (At the university where my wife teaches, I know a lot of professors whose reading habits are almost exclusively highbrow, yet they rarely go to art films.) The other advantage to skimming across a wide surface is that the awareness of one form can improve the understanding of another. I remember being annoyed at one brainy film critic several years ago because he bragged about never watching TV, then praised a movie for a quality common to any given sitcom. I also remember interviewing a young musician who credited Smashing Pumpkins for pioneering an approach to the recording process that even Billy Corgan has admitted was inspired by My Bloody Valentine. The less you know, the more skewed your perspective you can be.
But trying to take it all in does require some abdication of expertise. You guys can do the math. You've seen how much music is in my collection. It's going to take me a year to listen to it all, and that's with no repeats and a lot of dedication. Ergo: a lot of these very fine musicians have clearly never gotten a proper hearing in my house. So keep those grains of salt handy, chums.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1951-87
Fits Between Cole Porter and Charlie Parker
Personal CorrespondenceMy first real exposure to Chet Baker came via Bruce Weber's documentary Let's Get Lost, which, coupled with Elvis Costello's cover of "My Funny Valentine," was enough to convince me that Baker was a musician worth getting to know. I'm sure a lot of you know how that goes. When you're still in learning mode—as I think I still am—you take cues from what you already know. At age 18, I'd squeezed a lot of information about rock music from Rolling Stone and Spin and Trouser Press, but that left plenty of unexplored avenues. At the same time, I was also reading up on new and classic movies, and since this was an era when only one or two independent/foreign/documentary films were in theaters on any given weekend, it was fairly easy to keep up with the critics were raving about. So watching Let's Get Lost led me to Baker, just as Straight No Chaser led me to Thelonious Monk. And since both those gentlemen had CDs in a big discount bin at my local record store, alongside a whole series of budget jazz discs, Baker and Monk led me to Coltrane and Davis, and to a too-brief flirtation with becoming a jazz aficionado. (I bought a lot of jazz that first year of fandom, and then tapered off to almost nothing.) If someone accused me of getting into Chet Baker in order to be cool, the charge would be hard to deny. But without that initial connection, I don't know that I'd found such an easy way into his often-aloof, monotone music.
Enduring presence? Is it proper to classify Baker as jazz, or is he purely pop? The solos in Baker's cover of the Gershwins' "But Not For Me" are squarely in the jazz tradition, as is the way the piano counterpoints Baker's vocal at the end (which has always been my favorite part of the song). But the whole performance is over and done in three minutes, which doesn't leave a lot of room for exploration. In some ways it's less of a hassle just to classify Baker alongside Frank Sinatra. A very jazzy Frank Sinatra.
"But Not For Me" by Chet Baker
Years Of Operation 1967-present
Fits Between The Beach Boys and Blood, Sweat & TearsPersonal Correspondence When I was growing up, Chicago was a band with two faces. There was the Chicago that turned up on classic rock radio with brassy feel-good numbers like "Saturday In The Park," and the insufferably saccharine '80s version of Chicago that spread Peter Cetera's palate-blocked vocals across AC radio like a fungus. One day around 2003, I had cause to research Chicago on All Music Guide, and once I read about their early predilection for double albums and side-long suites, I decided to buy the Rhino reissues of six of the first eight Chicago albums, all at once, and immerse myself for a month or two in elaborate horn charts and awkwardly dippy lyrics What I found was that early Chicago can be leaden at times, pretentious at others, and always less complicated in their sentiment than they are in their arrangements, but there's an exuberance about them that's awfully hard to hate. Pretty much everything the band did after 1974 is a waste of time and talent, but Chicago was definitely respectable once, and deserves a little rehabilitation among rock fans. Enduring presence? I'm not going to pretend like those early Chicago albums are flat-out masterpieces, but those willing to shelve their long-held aversion might find them pretty enjoyable for their strange tangents and catchy pop. I haven't had much cause to revisit those records since I distilled them down to a tight 80-minute iPod playlist five years ago, but they're all still waiting for another round of rediscovery—just as they always were.
"Goodbye" by Chicago
Years Of Operation 1998-present
Fits Between American Music Club and Isaac Hayes
Personal Correspondence In the spirit of the Avenue Q song "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," I'll confess that my own particular pathology is that I get overexcited when a black musician—or filmmaker, or cartoonist, or television writer, or comedian, or guy I meet at a party—likes the same kind of entertainment that I do. When I find out that Kanye West is into Daft Punk, or that Spike Lee idolizes Martin Scorsese, it warms the part of my heart that wants us all to be brothers—but that has never bothered to make any special effort to bridge the cultural gap myself. All of that said, mopey singer-songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson would be interesting to me even without the novelty of his racial identity—which he plays up by calling himself "Chocolate Genius." Thompson's solo debut Black Music is an often-harrowing tour of his sorrowful moods, bloodily grafting Isaac Hayes' lover-man soul onto stark Mark Eitzel confessionals. The second Chocolate Genius record, Godmusic, is looser and funkier, with instrumentation as mellow as midnight and arrangements so relaxed that they fog out. What saves Chocolate Genius from unlistenable pretension is an entertainer's instinct for wit and redemption, as well as his moments of real beauty. My favorite Chocolate Genius song is Black Music's "My Mom," a dour ballad about Alzheimer's and scary childhood memories, peppered with lines like, "See that wood-paneled room / That's where I learned to drink / See that hole in the wall / That was Seagram's I think." Thompson may play up his skin color to add a layer of confrontation and drama to his music, but that's only because his songs are strong enough to withstand the bait-and-switch.
Enduring presence? Thompson toured with Bruce Springsteen on the We Shall Overcome tour, but there's no sign of a new Chocolate Genius album on the horizon. He's generally taken his time with those records, so something will surely come; in the meantime, I'm really happy I got to spend time with him again this week.
"My Mom" by Chocolate Genius
Years Of Operation 1955-present
Fits Between Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters Personal Correspondence I've been listening to Chuck Berry off-and-on since I was a teenager, but it's taken me until my 30s to actually enjoy him. "These songs all sound the same," I thought when I was a kid; and yeah, to some extent they do. But as I've heard more and more of the music from Berry's era, and more and more of the music he later inspired, it becomes clearer that structural and melodic innovation isn't what gives Berry his reputation. It's all about the guitar solos, and the performances. A good live collection from Berry in his prime shows his versatility and fire. Just listen to the version of "Rock 'N' Roll Music" from 1996's The Best Of Chuck Berry. The fuzziness of the guitar, and the way Berry changes up the rhythm to make it more subtly Caribbean, shows how the simplicity of the song allows him to keep tinkering with it, and to light it up again every time he plays it.
Enduring presence? Berry's the godfather, yes? If there's any knock against him, it's that the flurry of amazing singles he cut in the '50s didn't propel him to greater things in the '60s and beyond. He wasn't one of those venerable old dues who cut a comeback album in the '80s with the help a young disciple, and outside of a flirtation with sprawling songs and concept albums at the end of the '60s, he didn't attempt much exploration into the new. Still, if you're learning about popular music, and you're tracing rock's lineage, a lot of those lines converge on Chuck Berry. So you'd better learn to love him.
"Rock 'N' Roll Music (live)" by Chuck Berry
Years Of Operation 1976-86
Fits Between Brinsley Schwarz and The Who
Personal Correspondence My first exposure to The Clash was via London Calling's "Train In Vain," which I heard on American Top 40 when I was 9 years old. For all The Clash's reputation as the quintessential punkers, to my preteen ears they were just another British pop band, on a par with The Human League, Adam Ant or Culture Club, because all I heard on the radio then was "Train In Vain," "Rock The Casbah," and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" (Though The Clash did cause a moment of anxiety in my family when my brother received London Calling from a relative for Christmas, and my mom noticed an "explicit lyrics" sticker on the cover. I was sent out of the room while she read the lyrics sheet aloud, so I never did find out how she reacted when she got to "Death Or Glory" and the line "he who fucks nuns will later join the church," but my brother did get to keep the record, so I'm guessing she quit reading early, once she realized the album wasn't pure filth.) The first Clash album I owned was the much-maligned Combat Rock, which I still dearly love, because it doesn't just genre-hop it genre-melds, and is in some ways the purest example of how Joe Strummer and Mick Jones both wanted to create a new kind of rock music, devoid of easy labels. Once I shifted from fan to student, I went back and scooped up The Clash and London Calling, and pored over them like holy writ; then in college I tackled Give 'Em Enough Rope and Sandanista! and Black Market Clash. I know it's bad form for a critic to do this, but I tend to hold The Clash apart from other bands, putting them on their own shelf, way above the others. I'm still stunned by the stylistic and lyrical progression over the five albums they released between 1977 and 1982. It's an achievement so profound and significant that it almost defies analysis.
Enduring presence? I don't listen to The Clash non-stop—heck, I don't listen to any act non-stop, given the sheer volume of what I have to choose from—but I revisit the complete Clash discography at least once a year, like I'd re-read a favorite book. There's so much going on in Sandanista! and London Calling especially that reward repeated listening. The more music I hear, the better those two albums sound.
"Gates Of The West" by The Clash
Years Of Operation 1978-2001
Fits Between Galaxie 500 and The Shins
Personal Correspondence I don't necessarily want to revive the debate over Jason Heller's punk vs. indie-rock blog post last week, except to say that I thought it was keenly argued and fundamentally misguided. Jason was overstating his case on purpose, but nevertheless, he makes some value judgments that anyone who's been reading Popless these past nine weeks will understand I just can't back. When Jason laments that "as we get older, our tolerance for crazier, noisier, dumber, meaner music drops as precipitously as our hormone levels," and that "there's a recklessness, an oddness, a desperation—in short, a punkness—missing from Band Of goddamn Horses or whatever" and that "the Rogue Waves and M. Wards of the world helped make weird, quirky, semi-ironic rock safe enough for frat parties and Hummer ads," then he's essentially asserting that abrasiveness and outsiderdom are inherently good, and polish and assimilation are inherently bad. Or, reduced even further: Youth good, maturity bad. And I just can't sign on to that, in part because I'm a middle-aged lame-o myself, and in part because I've never consumed music that way. Even when I was listening to The Dead Milkmen as a teenager, I was also spinning Steely Dan. (And actually, there's not too much difference between those bands, if you think about it.) I tend to use music to jump to different stages of my life, Lost-style—and even to stages I never actually experienced. When I was listening to The Band in high school, I imagined myself as a middle-aged hippie, reconnecting to my past. When I listen to Journey now, I imagine myself as the high school jock I never was. When I listen to Band Of goddamn Horses, I can be the kind of guy who listens to Band Of goddamn Horses, and judge the music from within the framework of where that band is coming from and what they're aiming for. What does all this have to do with The Clean? Even though I'm sure Jason would count the brief flurry of singles and EPs that these NZ proto-indie-rockers put out from 1980 to '82 as more on the "reckless," "odd" punk side his false dichotomy, to me I hear The Clean as the indie-rock ideal: musicians who love to play with sound, making the most of their low budget. Those early Clean songs are jangly and spacious and raw—flowering like boyhood. Then the band knocked off for ten years and came back in the '90s with songs that were more controlled and nuanced. Both versions of The Clean are strong in their own way—and equally humane—because they catch who the band is at a given point in time. Or to address Jason directly: People like to listen to music that suits their lifestyles, and sometimes that lifestyle includes raising children, which leads to reflecting on mortality, which leads to searching for meaning, which leads to wanting to consume art that yearns and aspires in a different way than just restless aggression. But you're a smart dude, so I know you know all that already.
Enduring presence? I don't mean the above to distract from the awesomness of The Clean, a seminal band in indie-rock and in the New Zealand scene. So do this: Listen to "Thumbs Off," one of their best early singles, and if you like it, then go buy the double-disc, career-spanning Anthology. Make it a permanent part of your life as it's become a permanent part of mine. You'll be a happier person for it.
"Thumbs Off" by The Clean
Years Of Operation 1998-2007
Fits Between Camper Van Beethoven and John Prine
Personal Correspondence Our esteemed ex-editor Stephen Thompson tried to convert me to Clem Snide soon after we first met, but I resisted for a good long time, because I'd had some bad early experiences. Eef Barzelay's affected nasal whine and snotty character sketches struck me as everything I distrusted about alt-country. They seemed to be coming from an impure place—toungue in cheek, nose in the air. And I'm not so sure those criticisms were invalid, at least when it comes to the initial Clem Snide albums, with their stolid rhythms and mordant tone. But the band took a turn towards the hopeful on 2003's Soft Spot, which Barzelay fashioned as a series of statements on why the world is good, addressed to his wife and newborn baby. Then 2005's End Of Love surpassed Soft Spot, by reflecting on death instead of birth, while taking an upbeat, uptempo approach to the music. Growing up and losing some of the flippant attitude gave Barzelay's songwriting a new depth, and the confidence to approach big subjects through small passageways. Consider End Of Love's halting, rambling toss-off "Collapse," which stumbles toward its arresting centerpiece—a guitar solo that's little more than one long, distorted note—before closing with a few lines of sympathy for the broken. It breaks human existence down to "water and air," while acknowledging that there's something residing within the chemicals that makes us memorable.Enduring presence The last two Clem Snide records, Soft Spot and End of Love—the latter especially—are among my favorite rock records of the decade. The band's defunct now, but reportedly have two full LPs and a live record in the can, awaiting release at some unspecified time. And although Barzelay's recent solo album was quite good, I look forward to one day hearing the last hurrah of a band I once disliked intensely.
"Collapse" by Clem Snide
Years Of Operation 1991-present
Fits Between Felt and The Left Banke
Personal Correspondence How important is it for a band to vary their shtick? The first time I heard The Clientele I was dumbstruck; and writing about their first singles collection and subsequent LP, I raved about the band's "commitment to pop music as artifact" and noted that the songs were "drenched in an echo so deep that notes already played hang around and harmonize with those to come," and that lead singer and guitarist Alasdair Maclean's "double-tracked vocals sometimes match closely to create a choral effect, and sometimes drift out of sync for harmony's sake, or to give the sense of a man retracing steps and losing his way" and that his songs "invoke the feeling of a twilight daydream, as kids play outside and parents nod off on the porch." Something about The Clientele brought out the sap in me. The "problem" is that The Clientele haven't really expanded their vocabulary much since those early recordings. They've just gained greater command, to the extent that ideas that once seemed nebulous now sound concrete and irrepressible. At first, they were more like talented fans; now they're making music that can stand alongside the songs that inspired them. As I wrote about the band's 2005 LP Strange Geometry, "there's something to be said for stasis." Sometimes, musicians play the same songs over and over because they're trying to get them right.Enduring presence? I know every knew Clientele album is supposed to be their best yet, which seems plainly impossible, especially since every one of their records sounds more or less the same. But listening to last year's God Save The Clientele again this past week, it seems to me that it's really their crowning achievement, running through 14 shimmery songs without losing momentum or inspiration. Credit Nashville-based producer Mark Nevers, whose work with the likes of Lambchop, Bonnie "Prince" Billy and The Clean's David Kilgour has trained him on how to give muted, pretty music a proper sense of scope.
"From Brighton Beach To Santa Monica" by The Clientele
Years Of Operation 1997-present
Fits Between Gang Of Four and Suicide
Personal Correspondence Now here's a band that makes everything I just wrote about The Clientele into rank hypocrisy. Again: I was very excited by Clinic's early singles, which had the air of mystery and tactility that I listen for in great art-punk. (Listen to the song below for confirmation of how the band's "Velvet Underground meets The Ventures meets Wire" minimalism can work, by crazy-gluing all the different fragments together into a wild mosaic.) But as the albums have kept coming, Clinic has failed to develop in any significant way. Superficially, they've gotten more skilled at combining distorted organ, jittery vocals and metronomic rhythms, but I'd honestly have a hard time recommending one Clinic album over any other Clinic album. I can't even say that the early records are their best. I think they are, but I could be influenced by the order in which I heard them, and the gradual loss of novelty. I'm not even sure how I'd put together a good Clinic anthology, although the little 17-song iPod playlist I assembled from my Clinic CDs is serving well enough that I've decided to ditch the discs they came from.Enduring presence? A good friend of mine is a skilled close-up magician, and he had this amazing card trick that I used to beg him to pull out at parties. He'd reluctantly oblige, and by about the sixth time he'd done the trick, I began to understand his reluctance. Not only was it starting to get dull for me the sixth time around, but I started to see how the trick was done. I'm sure you get where I'm coming from here.
"I.P.C. Subeditors Dictate Our Youth" by Clinic
Years Of Operation 1982-97
Fits Between The Sundays and My Bloody Valentine
Personal Correspondence In my high school, Cocteau Twins were common ground for a lot of different cliques: the honors students liked them because they alluded to classical and chamber music; the drama students liked them because they were expressive and baroque; the punks liked them because they were capable of edging into the shrill; and I even knew some kids from the popular crowd who had a copy of The Pink Opaque rattling around the floorboards of their jeeps. (Cocteau Twins were like Stereolab in that way; in my adult life I've had several friends who have minimal interest in alternative rock, but still have a couple of Stereolab albums in their collection.) Myself, I was fascinated by the Cocteau Twins for the way they turned their LPs, EPs and singles into objets d'art, complete with oblique cover imagery and unified themes. One of my local record stores had a huge Cocteau Twins selection, and a lot of the records were surprisingly cheap, perhaps because the manager couldn't distinguish between the EPs and the long-players. I remember buying Victorialand for like five bucks, and feeling like I'd made a real discovery, because in the days before the internet, and before record guides included "college rock" acts, it was all but impossible to find out the history of and general reaction to these albums that suddenly showed up in the racks. I got to see Cocteau Twins in concert in Atlanta, on the Blue Bell Knoll tour, and it was very strange to me that there were real people on a stage making these unearthly sounds. It was particularly neat to watch Elizabeth Fraser sing, because although she didn't move much, just seeing the way she had to contort her mouth to get the notes out was dramatic in and of itself. (Maybe that's why I like American Idol so much I'm watching the mouths, not listening to the music.)
Enduring presence? There was a time when Cocteau Twins were a point of reference for scores of alternative rock bands and fans. Now, out of context, I worry that they'll sound too much like New Age to those unfamiliar with them. The compilation Stars And Topsoil does a decent job of skimming the band's surface, but it's missing some key songs, and it'd be great if Rhino or somebody would work toward putting together an anthology that runs a little deeper, and tries harder to connect up the Cocteaus clangorous side and their celestial side.
"Aikea-Guinea" by Cocteau Twins
Years Of Operation 1998-present
Fits Between Travis and Keane
Personal Correspondence You know how you know I'm gay? Because I like Coldplay. Well maybe "like" is too strong a word. (See, I'm backtracking already; the Coldplay-haters have weakened my confidence.) Here's the thing: I heard Parachutes way early, like a good six months before it came out in the States, and of all the Radiohead-lite bands rushing in from overseas at the time, Coldplay seemed to have the real goods. They had a strong vocalist, simple songs to showcase him, and a throwback "big music" sound that favored reverberations over production fuss. I pegged them for cult success, and wrote, "Here's hoping that Coldplay will borrow more from Radiohead than their love of room-filling vibrations; and here's hoping Martin takes his God-given pipes and his affinity for the gorgeous and goes deeper and deeper until he reemerges with something really new" As it happens, he didn't. Coldplay's next album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, made the band international superstars; but while I still think it's a very good record, it's really just an amped-up version of Parachutes, losing the low-key charm but gaining some muscle. I had high hopes for X&Y;, because I believe the world needs mega-rock-stars to record blockbuster albums that strive to unite us. But X&Y; was yet another retread, weighed down by even more bombast. The naysayers got plenty of new ammo, and I began to shrink away from being a Coldplay-defender. Still, I listened to Parachutes again this week, and it sounded great all over again. So I'll still call myself a Coldplay fan. In a whisper. When no one's around.
Enduring presence? For some time, I've been kicking around an idea for a blog post called "the new guilty pleasures," about the pop items—bands, movies, TV shows—that sell well, win awards, and generally get good critical notice, and yet lack a certain hip cachet, and thus can get you roundly mocked if you profess your appreciation for them in the wrong circles. I understand why a lot of people don't like Coldplay. The band is overbearing and over-earnest, and they're crazy popular—and that last part alone is enough to set some people off. But I believe Coldplay is a fundamentally well-meaning, and despite the setback of X&Y;, I believe in their potential.
"Trouble" by Coldplay
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .
The Chills, "Pink Frost" When it comes to "The Dunedin Sound," I tend to prefer The Clean rather than The Chills, probably because The Clean are, ironically, less clean, and their songs take some more striking turns. But The Chills are pretty great too. This 1984 single typifies the band and their scene very well: all moody post-punk rhythms and incongruous jangle.
"Pink Frost" by The Chills
Chisel, "Your Star Is Killing Me" I came on board the Ted Leo express with Hearts Of Oak, which means I missed his lengthy stint heading up the catchy punk act Chisel, as well as his faltering experiments to leave the Chisel sound behind on his first solo records. I know a lot of Leo fans still think his best work was with Chisel, but working backwards as I did, all I can hear are dry runs for what Leo and The Pharmacists would perfect a decade later. I can understand why people would've found Chisel exciting, but even on a likeably snappy number like "Your Star Is Killing Me," the stylistic shifts and fitful rhythms seem overly studied. The thought process behind every note is too obvious.
"Your Star Is Killing Me" by Chisel
Chris Bell, "You And Your Sister" Alex Chilton was undoubtedly the main creative force behind Big Star, but the band's first album, #1 Record, was profoundly influenced by Chris Bell—as this song from Bell's lone solo album I Am The Cosmos clarifies. The overgrown adolescent yearning of songs like "The Ballad Of El Goodo," "Give Me Another Chance" and "Watch The Sunrise" are as much Bell's sentiments as Chilton's, and when Chilton's voice rises up in the background of "You And Your Sister," it's hard to distinguish which singer is which. When people wonder why Big Star's frontmen were never, you know, big stars, I think of this song, with its almost painful naïveté and cracking voices. Both Bell and Chilton were profoundly fucked-up, and they compensated for that by trying—for a time—to make simple, shiny music. But the imperfections still ran through, like cracks in hot vinyl.
"You And Your Sister" by Chris Bell
Chris Knight, "A Pretty Good Guy" Some critic friends of mine back in Nashville were really high on this gruff country-rock troubadour when he rumbled onto the scene a few years back, but by and large he's never seemed to me to be doing anything all that radical. The major exception is this clever anti-anthem, which turns the "hail to the good ol' boy" country staple on its ear. Over a syrupy, martial instrumental track, Knight sings about a nondescript fellow who suddenly takes umbrage at his dismissal by an ex-lover. There's no action in the lyric, just a little taking stock, which makes the song all the more dramatic. But what I like most about "A Pretty Good Guy" is that rather than the usual redneck sloganeering—like "I've got a Skoal ring in my pocket" or "my truck liner's muddy" or "I got Hank on my 8-track"—the descriptions of what makes the dude in this song okay are more mundane. "I'm certified in CPR," he growls. "And if you ask me to, I'll fix your car."
"A Pretty Good Guy" by Chris KnightChris Stamey, "In Spanish Harlem" When I was in the heat of my record-reviewing days—you know, a couple of months ago—several times a year I'd come across a truly great song from a just-okay album by an artist I'm largely indifferent to. I mean no disrespect to Chris Stamey, a former member of Sneakers and The dBs, and one of the figureheads of the North Carolina rock scene. But I've always been more a distant admirer of The Stamey Sound than an avid one, so I was pretty stunned when I spun Stamey's solo record Travels In The South back in '04 and heard this tightly constructed, sweetly realized paean to Stamey's favorite jazz artists. A lot of this job is about finding the fine distinctions in a heaping pile of slush, but when I happen on a song like this, I wish I could kick the whole pile down, so that only the true standouts would remain, and all my fellow critics would pay proper attention. (Connectedness alert: Stamey's short-lived independent label Car Records released Chris Bell's single "I Am The Cosmos"/"You And Your Sister" in 1978; also, the backing vocals on this song are by last week's "piece of the puzzle" Caitlin Cary.)
"In Spanish Harlem" by Chris Stamey
Christopher Cross, "Sailing" For about a year, from age 9 to age 10, I used to urge my mom to hurry home from church on Sunday so I could listen to American Top 40 and take notes. I'd keep track of each week's Top 10, and pay close attention to Casey Kasem's anecdotes about the songs he spun. In AT40-land circa 1981, wispy singer-songwriter Christopher Cross was a legend, for landing four Top 40 hits from his debut album, and for winning Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Album Of The Year and Best New Artist at a single Grammy ceremony. (Something that Amy Winehouse could've repeated this year, had Herbie Hancock not intervened.) I know that Cross stands for everything that rock critics hated in the '70s; but I also know that the way the guitar fades up from the string-hanging at the opening of "Sailing," right before Cross sings "well it's not far down to paradise" well, it never fails to remind me of the cluttered, low-rent, post-divorce suburban apartment we lived in when I heard that song for the first time, and how music could make me feel, for a few minutes at least, like I was somewhere far away.
"Sailing" by Christopher CrossChubby Checker, "The Class" A year before "The Twist," Checker recorded this wild novelty record in which he sings "Mary Had A Little Lamb" in the style of several popular recording artists circa 1959. In a twist ending, he recasts Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalaon and Fabian as The Chipmunks. Mean, but kind of funny.
"The Class" by Chubby Checker
The Church, "Metropolis (Live)" Here's a live version of my favorite Church song, the ill-fated first single off the ill-fated Gold Afternoon Fix, the band's big-budget follow-up to the hit album Starfish and its smash single "Under The Milky Way." I like the Gold Afternoon Fix version of this song too, but here, stripped down, the timeless melody and luxe imagery stand out more. Drench this one in echo and deepen the vocals and it could pass for The Jesus & Mary Chain, or Leonard Cohen. Let's see Chubby Checker try that.
"Metropolis (Live)" by The ChurchCitizen Bird, "Magnetic City" Exactly how long has the Swedish rock revolution been raging now? The recent wave of sunny Swede-poppers comes just a few years after the influx of grimy garage-rockers like The Hives, Sahara Hotnights, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, and Citizen Bird (a.k.a. Silverbuilt in their homeland). Citizen Bird's self-titled 2001 LP is one of the best the mini-movement has produced—full of propulsive, resonant rockers like "Magnetic City," which thread a needle back through the sounds of Seattle, Detroit, and mid-'70s New York.
"Magnetic City" by Citizen BirdClap Your Hands Say Yeah, "In This Home On Ice" The "next big thing" label has yet to pay off for these Amerindie standard-bearers, probably because they have yet to record a whole album as strong as their singles. And as catchy and warm as "In This Home On Ice" sounds to me, it's not like I couldn't live without it, or couldn't get a similar buzz from a dozen other bands just as good. Still, it's a good song and should be filed this away for the big indie-rock version of Nuggets, a decade or so from now.
"In This Home On Ice" by Clap Your Hands Say YeahThe Coasters, "That Is Rock 'N' Roll" A genre origin story, circa 1959. Anyone want to argue that rock is all about "a guitar twang / dingy dingy dingy dang?" How about the piano? And the sax? What about spoken-word intros?
"That Is Rock 'N' Roll" by The CoastersColin Blunstone, "Say You Don't Mind" Will I make it as far as The Zombies by the end of the year? It's going to be a race to the finish! In the meantime, I can say a few words of appreciation for Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone's first two solo albums, One Year and Ennismore, which both feature a fair amount of his trademark winsome pop—a lot of it supported by his chief Zombies collaborator Rod Argent. "Say You Don't Mind" is especially fine: a chipper little tune coasting on nothing but strings. That is not rock 'n' roll. But I like it.
"Say You Don't Mind" by Colin BlunstoneThe Colors, "Growing Up American" Power-pop is like film noir for me; when it's gritty and clever, it's the best thing going, but when it's run-of-the-mill, it gets on my nerves. This song is not run-of-the-mill. It's 90 seconds of pounding, driving, hooky trash, probably written and recorded in an afternoon. Despite the title, "Growing Up American" is no grand statement, just something to hyperventilate to until its moment passes.
"Growing Up American" by The ColorsCommander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, "Everybody's Doin' It" I first heard this song in the silly Joe Dante/Allan Arkush sexploitation film Hollywood Boulevard, and it took me a minute to realize that, yes, this happy little western swing homage is about, to quote the song, "fuckin'." I'd like to explain why this is hilarious to me, but I'm mindful of that old saying about how dissecting comedy is like dissecting a frog. You might learn something, but the frog tends to die in the process.
"Everybody's Doin' It" by Commander Cody & His Lost Planet AirmanThe Commodores, "Sail On" I bought a Commodores compilation a couple of years ago, and realized for the first time that Lionel Richie isn't, at heart, an R&B; artist at all. He segued to adult contemporary naturally because he has the soul of a country music balladeer. Stealthy bongo fills aside, songs by funk bands don't get much more funkless than this 1979 hit single. But as soft cheese goes, this one has aged fairly well. (Then again, I like Coldplay and Christopher Cross too, so bear that in mind.)
"Sail On" by The CommodoresCommon, "They Say" Unlike his pal Kanye West, Common often sounds to me like he's trying too hard to move hip-hop into the future, by integrating unconventional sounds and styles into the best of the old school. Still, I appreciate the effort, which is why Common is one of the few contemporary hip-hop artists that I try to keep up with. (Though I didn't buy Finding Forever.) This track from Be may be my favorite Common song, because it's relatively effortless and tuneful. Credit may be due to Kanye, who produced the track and contributes a verse.
"They Say" by Common
to, unremarked upon:
Chico Da Silva, Chin Up Chin Up, Chingon,
Chingy, Chip Taylor, The Chocolate Watch Band,
Chris & Thomas, Chris Bartley, Chris Bathgate,
Chris Bernardo & The DesBernardos, Chris
Botti, Chris Garneau, Chris
Hickey, Chris Ligon, Chris Montez,
Chris Robley, Chris Thile, Chris Whitley, Christina Aguilera, Christine Cooper,
Christopher Blue, Christopher Denny, Christopher O'Riley,
Chromeo, The Chrysler, Chubby Parker, Chuck Mead, Chuck Prophet, Chuck Ragan,
Cicero Buck, The Cinema Eye, Cinematic Orchestra, Circus
Devils, Ciro Monteiro, Cities, Citified,
Citizen Cope, Cix, Claire Holley, Clancy,
Clara Nunes, Clarence 'Frogman' Henry, Clarence 'Tom'
Ashley, Clarence Bucaro, Clarence Carter, Clarence Reid, The Clarks, Classics
IV, Clearlake, Clemente, Cleoma Falcon, The Click
Five, Cliff Gober, Clifford Curry, Clifton Chenier, Climax, Clint
Eastwood, Clockcleaner, Clogs, The Close, Cloud
Cult, Cloudland Canyon, The Clovers, Club 8, Club D'Elf, The
Clumsy Lovers, Clutch, The Clutters, Clyde McPhatter, The Coach &
Four, Coach Fingers, The Coachwhips, The Coal Men, The
Coasters, The Coathangers, Cobra Starship, Coco Rosie, Cody
Chesnutt, Coheed & Cambria, Cole Slivka, Colin Hay, Colin Meloy,
Collider, Colossal Yes, The
Comas, Combustible Edison, Comet Gain and The
Next week: From The Compulsive Gamblers to The Dambuilders, plus a few words on music designed to punish.