Popless Week Thirteen: The Publicity Blitz
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.
In a simpler world, music critics would hit the record store once a week just like everybody else, plunk their money down for what they think looks good, then write about it. But that's never been how it works. Every day critics open their mailboxes and find them full of CDs sent by publicists, and those publicists also send e-mails, and make phone calls, and do everything they can to convince critics to give their clients a little ink. Good critics still make an effort to get their hands on what they feel they need to hear—either by buying it or finding out who's repping it. (Although there's an old saying: If you have to ask who a band's publicist is, you're not supposed to know.) Nevertheless, I can't count the number of times someone's asked my opinion of a record and I've sheepishly said, "I haven't heard it. It wasn't sent to me."
These days, if something arrives in the mail from a publicist who hasn't heard about my hiatus, I place the CD into the box of discs I'm saving for the end of this project. But I trash the press kits; whereas before, I had stacks of bios and Xeroxed clippings cluttering up the house. Perhaps in some future week I'll write something about some of the particular annoyances related to the discs publicists send: the unwieldy packaging, the lack of a tracklist, the copy-protection, the unwanted "enhanced" features, and so on. I could also write a whole column about how bands and publicists fail to use the web effectively: by designing "arty" websites that deliver no useful information, by putting all their resources into the clunky MySpace, et cetera.
Today though, I want to talk about press kits, and the various none-too-effective gambits that publicists use to try and make their clients stand out from the pack:
1. The Defiant "We Can't Be Classified."
I know every young band likes to think that they're special little snowflakes, but as somebody who's heard a lot of those young bands, let me tell you: almost no one makes music in a vacuum. Everyone's got influences, even if it's something as basic as genre. Better to acknowledge those roots than to declare something like—and this is an actual quote from a press kit—"At a time when milkshake blenders, disguised as record labels, are diluting the musical landscape with homogenized vanilla waste, a bright light and cool sound has emerged to inspire our souls. One should not try to categorize The ______s for they are something that all art attempts to achieve: completely unique." Or, to translate: "Yes, this band doesn't know how to write a hook. That's because they're different."
2. The Uselessly Broad Description.
Almost worse than the band with no declared allegiance is the one with so many influences that there's no way to suss out how they might sound. Here's another actual quote: "_____ has many musical influences, from early favorites such as Peter Gabriel, Graham Parker, U2, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, John Lennon and Petula Clark to the more recent brilliance of Alanis Morissette, Pearl Jam, Live, Soundgarden, Goo Goo Dolls and Fastball." Or sometimes the bio skips the influence-listing and just describes the music in equally vague terms: "All three songs on this EP are based on acoustic guitar as the template which deep soft vocals, harmonies, percussion, drums, bass and tasty lead tracks are built upon. The lyrical content of these songs contain rather deep (but not cryptic) subject matter provoking emotions derived from experience and personal growth." In other words: "This band plays music."
A lot of bios try to combine the "uselessly broad" and the "defiant." For example: "The melodies wear themselves down until they're subtle enough to reach in deep and stay for longer (yet lower) that some radio hit's hook. The lyrics do their best to keep up and re-define themselves as their own language. Call it rock, pop, folk, alternative or some hyphenated mix of them all—I couldn't correct you if I wanted to."
3. The Tenuous Industry Connection.
Lines like these are all-too-common in bios: "Inspired by brainstorming with Foreigner and Bad Company keyboardist Larry Oakes, ______ went to London to explore the musical dynamics of the rock scene. After generating interest from a CBS-affiliated record label, he began writing with a former session guitarist." The idea here is for the artist to make himself look like a player by mentioning that he's hung out with players. Instead, most often, the name-droppers end up sounding desperate, and a little deceptive. (A "CBS-affiliated" label? "Generating interest?" C'mon.) But at least that anonymous rocker can (probably) claim the unbidden endorsement of a veteran. The bios that bemuse me most are the ones that point out that the new record was produced by the former bassist for The Little River Band, or that the singer trained with Aerosmith's vocal coach. Which only means that those dudes had a fee, and these other dudes met it.
4. The Misleading Stat.
Once upon a time it was garageband.com (and whatever the hell its chief rival was called I've been going crazy trying to remember its name), and nowadays it's MySpace. Whatever the DIY online music/networking service, some band's publicist will cite its figures as proof of their client's popularity. "Most downloaded song for the week of May 8th in the 'pop-punk' category!" Or, equally lame, "Three music videos which aired in heavy rotation on several rock video television programs on Manhattan Cable!"
5. The Big Joke.
Some smartasses think they're doing the weary reviewer a favor by making light of the whole press kit process. They write fake bios. Or they act ridiculously self-deprecating. Or they make fun of other bands. They do everything except the one thing that actually would endear them to weary reviewers: give us useful information.
6. The Book.
To some extent, you can measure the importance of artists by the size of their press kit. On the rare occasions when I receive an advance copy of a major label CD, typically it comes with a single sheet of paper, on which is included the release date, a list of the personnel involved with recording the album, and a few tightly written, professional-sounding paragraphs about the thought process behind some of the new songs. Indie artists tend to go longer, stapling together 20-odd pages of press clippings with reviews from every local rag that ever gave the band any ink. Unsigned artists go even bigger, putting together over 30 annoyingly un-stapled pages (usually in color) into a glossy folder, along with bumper stickers and a hand-written note.
For a brief time early in my no-more-day-job/full-time-freelancing career, I took an assignment that had me sorting through a box of 60 or so self-released CDs every two months, looking for the best 12 to write up for a magazine column. I looked through a lot of those overstuffed press kits, and a lot of glossy photos of some too-serious-looking guy with a guitar. None of them ever made me feel more inclined to take the artist in question more seriously. Mostly they made me wonder if there mightn't be some better use for their money. Like maybe a high-yield mutual fund.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1978-present
Fits Between Roxy Music and Bay City Rollers
Personal Correspondence Blame it on Nagel. Almost more than the music, my 12-year-old self was captivated by Duran Duran's peripherals. My family didn't have MTV or a VCR back in the early '80s, so between my friends' descriptions of the "Girls On Film" video and my surreptitious perusal of a Patrick Nagel art book at the mall—oh, so many fashionable nudes—I tended to equate Duran Duran with sex, a subject I was very much interested in at 12. (The fact that nearly every teenage girl in my junior high was in love with Duran Duran only solidified the association.) Rio, with its Nagel-girl on the cover, was part of my initial "10 albums for a penny" order from the Columbia Record & Tape Club, and though a lot about the album struck me as cheesy even then—like the bathetic lyrics, and Simon Le Bon's drippy voice—I understood that the band was basically selling a fantasy world of yacht clubs and exaggerated romantic distress, and as a Miami Vice fan, I was willing to buy in. Nevertheless, one of my first-ever musical disappointments was Duran Duran-related. I used some of my Christmas money to buy Seven And The Ragged Tiger from the neighborhood Wal-Mart, and aside from "The Reflex," that record suuuuuucked. Not only that, but the sound of Ragged Tiger—all electronic bombast and random remix effects—signaled a turning point for '80s radio. The mainstream had one really good year left—the wondrous 1984—before everyone followed Duran Duran into the "Union Of The Snake."
Enduring presence? Even though they haven't put out a listenable album since Rio, Duran Duran perseveres, reuniting for new records and tours every few years. How nice for my generation: we have our own Steve Miller Band.
"My Own Way (Night Version)" by Duran Duran
Years Of Operation 1963-95
Fits Between Dionne Warwick and Carole King
Personal Correspondence As an actual son of a preacher man, I've always had a soft spot for Springfield's recording of "Son Of A Preacher Man," even though I first heard the song performed by one of my all-time favorite bands: the Atlanta-based roots-pop combo The Jody Grind (who also covered Springfield's "Wishin' And Hopin'.") It's hard to pinpoint the appeal of Dusty Springfield. She has a technically great voice, imbued with emotion, yet there's something a little clinical about her too. That quaver never strains too far; that breathy whisper never breaks. If I had a choice between seeing Dusty Springfield or Janis Joplin live, I wouldn't hesitate to buy a ticket for Joplin. But as a recording artist, Springfield's my gal.
Enduring presence? You've all got Dusty In Memphis already, right? If not, buy it now. "Windmills Of My Mind" aside, that's one of the most perfect pop albums ever recorded.
"What Do You Do When Love Dies" by Dusty Springfield
Years Of Operation 1971-80; 1994-present
Fits Between The Grateful Dead and Poco
Personal Correspondence When I was 10, I asked for a copy of Eagles Live for Christmas, because I was under the mistaken impression that live albums both contained a band's best songs and were more "exciting." I later learned that pretty much all of Eagles Live was "sweetened" with overdubs, which means it's basically a re-recorded greatest hits album with the distant roar of a crowd overlaid. I could kind of tell, too. Even though at the time I had less than a dozen LPs in my collection, I hardly ever played Eagles Live. It didn't help that I still had some lingering bad Eagles associations. "New Kid In Town" was all over the radio during a particularly miserable year of my childhood (along with Abba's "Dancing Queen," Foreigner's "Cold As Ice," and The Carpenters' "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft.") Over the years though I've reached a kind of détente with The Eagles. I roll my eyes at the overblown let's-sum-up-our-era "Hotel California" side of the band, but easygoing country-rockers like "Peaceful Easy Feeling," "The Long Run" and, yes, "New Kid In Town" are, in and of themselves, perfectly fine.
I know that the anti-Eagles crowd is opposed to more than just their music. They're against that too, don't get me wrong, but they're just as irritated by what The Eagles stand for: the rise of cynical, lackadaisical, studio-crafted Southern California FM rock in the wake of the hippie-era dream. And you know what? That's a values-clash that just doesn't have any relevance to me anymore. Divorced from the cultural context, The Eagles are no more or less offensive than any other '70s band that had a bunch of hit records. I'm not a huge fan, but they recorded a dozen or so songs that I like quite a bit.
Enduring presence? On the other hand, if "The Dude" hates The Eagles, there's not much hope they're going to become hip again (if they ever were). Oh well. I'm sure the feelings of rejection are tempered by their piles and piles of money.
"New Kid In Town" by The Eagles
Earth, Wind & Fire
Years Of Operation 1970-present
Fits Between Parliament and The Jacksons
Personal Correspondence It's only in recent years that I've been able to distinguish between Earth, Wind & Fire, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Kool & The Gang and The Commodores. Now I know: Earth, Wind & Fire were a more sophisticated prog-funk band, mixing horns and elaborate percussion arrangements into jubilant hit singles. When I couldn't find an EWF anthology that represented them well enough, I used iTunes and augmented their best-known songs with some of the more experimental album tracks, for an 80-minute set that, burned to disc, may be my favorite R&B; record of the '70s. But I held onto some of those albums in full too: That's The Way Of The World is particular is more concise than the band's more jazz-inflected early records, while retaining some of the exploratory feel. Head To The Sky is good too. Really, the whole Earth, Wind & Fire discography is pretty rich
Enduring presence? About three or four years ago, my wife decided that "September" is her favorite song of all time. I'm not sure she can explain why exactly, but I know she has happy memories of the pop R&B; she'd hear on the radio as an adolescent, so I'm sure that's part of it. There's also a fundamental joyousness to "September," and a spirit of collaboration that probably speaks to my wife's faith that people working in unison can do amazing things. (She likes big dance numbers in movies for much the same reason.) So even though I'd probably pick "Can't Hide Love" as my ideal Earth, Wind & Fire song—with its slow simmer and elegant orchestrations—I know the value of making my wife happy. This one's for you, honey.
"September" by Earth, Wind & Fire
Echo & The Bunnymen
Years Of Operation 1979-88, 1997-present
Fits Between The Doors and The Cure
Personal Correspondence As I've mentioned before, in the mid-'80s it was hard to find much hard information on the punk, post-punk, new wave and college rock bands that I was becoming increasingly interested in. The biggies made the textbooks—The Clash, the Pistols, Costello, the Ramones, etc.—but there wasn't much canonized critical writing on The Smiths, The Cure, Cocteau Twins, and the like. I eventually had to hit the microfiche at my local library to learn that the establishment rock critics had actually written very favorably about the early work of some of my favorites, like The Psychedelic Furs and Echo & The Bunnymen. When it came to The Bunnymen, this revelation wasn't just a pleasant surprise, it was a useful one. I'd been perfectly content to wear out my copy of Songs To Learn & Sing—still a remarkably well-chosen greatest hits collection in its original form—but after reading about how great their debut album Crocodiles reportedly was, I asked a friend who owned it to tape it for me. He did, on an extra-length cassette that gave him the space to throw on all the songs from Porcupine (his favorite) and Ocean Rain that weren't on Songs To Learn. And then, jackpot of jackpots, I found a used vinyl copy of Heaven Up Here, the band's most hard-edged and consistently mind-bending record (if not their most tuneful). I found out later that a lot of people consider Heaven Up Here to be Echo & The Bunnymen's best work, but at the time I could only trust my own 16-year-old judgment. I felt like I'd discovered something that only I knew about, and I clung to it.
Enduring presence? After a pretty remarkable first five albums (ending with their biggest commercial success, the self-titled fifth album), the band split apart and experimented with some different configurations before reforming at the end of the '90s. Against all odds, the reunited Echo & The Bunnymen have continued to put out pretty decent music—nothing on the order of Crocodiles or Heaven Up Here, but really, not bad. (2005's Siberia in particular features some very good songs.) And yet I still feel like Echo & The Bunnymen doesn't get the respect they deserve. They should be an unassailable part of the post-punk canon, as beloved as Joy Division and The Cure. And I'm not sure they are. (The same is true of The Psychedelic Furs, but I'll take up their case later this year.)
"With A Hip" by Echo & The Bunnymen
Years Of Operation 1995-present
Fits Between Randy Newman and Beck
Personal Correspondence In the library of feel-bad pop, its hard to find a record more beautifully sour than Eels' Electro-Shock Blues, the musical equivalent of a P.T. Anderson movie. It's not a record that's ever been in heavy rotation in my CD player, but I admire it from a distance, much the way I'd view a canyon or a jungle cat. I'm not sure I'm willing to call Eels mastermind Mark Oliver Everett a genius, because his career has been so damnably inconsistent, with great albums trailed by more half-assed ones. But his sound—all sleepy rasp and broken beauty—is in some ways the most mature of the '90s neo-troubadour scene.
Enduring presence? The main problem with Eels—as even Eels fans will admit—is that Everett doesn't have a lot of facets to his voice or to his songwriting. All his songs tend to be gruff and discursive, light in melody but rich in orchestration. Eels albums are often brilliantly conceived but hard to take in at one sitting—especially the most recent one, the double-album Blinking Lights & Other Revelations. Everett's a formidable artist; he's just not a very accessible one. And given that he writes pop songs, that's a handicap.
"Climbing To The Moon" by Eels
Years Of Operation 1990-present
Fits Between Talk Talk and Peter Gabriel
Personal Correspondence A lot of critics have one or two "pet bands" that they adore despite the general disinterest of their colleagues. (Heck, some of us have whole menageries.) Elbow's 2001 debut album Asleep In The Back drew some good notices stateside for its moody drone and spare orchestration, all given shape by the softly expressive voice of Guy Garvey. But while they've remained relatively beloved at home, I seem to be one of the few US critics who's treated each new Elbow album as a real event. About 2003's Cast Of Thousands, I wrote, "Some songs mate Pink Floyd-like drama with Beatles-y airiness, discovering new ways to get into floating, mind-vacation mode, but the album also has room for a noise-scarred martial experiment like 'Whisper Grass' and a perfect little pop concoction like 'Not A Job,' which holds its hook in the soft bassline, just like U2 used to do." And then about 2005's Leaders Of The Free World, I wrote, "Musically, the album is all about sound rubbing against sound, as heard in the light plucking and languid strumming of 'Picky Bugger,' the ringing bells and choral hum of 'The Stops,' and the pounding rhythms and escalating melody of 'Mexican Standoff.' Lyrically, the songs are about responsibility and regret, simultaneously criticizing a world of 'little boys throwing stones' and pledging a renewed sense of humility. Leaders Of The Free World contains songs as heavy and epic as the neo-prog of Elbow's first two albums, but it's strongest at its quietest, as on 'An Imagined Affair,' a ballad with the shape of an afterthought, and 'Great Expectations,' an open-hearted love song as winsome and atmospheric as anything Coldplay has done lately. This is an album that doubles as a guide to life, starting with the insight that before people can be leaders, they need to spend some time on their knees, washing feet."
Enduring presence? The British press has reportedly been raving about Elbow's soon-to-be-released-in-the-U.S. LP The Seldom Seen Kid. How about it, A.V. Club colleagues? Can I count on one of you to fill in for me as this publication's resident Elbow-lover?
"An Imagined Affair" by Elbow
Electric Light Orchestra
Years Of Operation 1970-88, 2000-01
Fits Between The Moody Blues and Shazam
Personal Correspondence By and large, my musical relationship with my wife has been pretty one-sided. When we first met, her CD collection consisted of whatever was on album rock radio in 1984, some blues/R&B; box sets, and every album Todd Rundgren has ever been involved with. And on vinyl? All the Rundgren records again, plus the complete works of Electric Light Orchestra. It's fair to say that until I met Donna, I hadn't given ELO a second thought since I was 8, when I used to look forward to hearing "Don't Bring Me Down" on the radio. Due to the prevailing critical disdain for disco and prog during the era when I was first learning about rock, a prog-disco act like ELO didn't stand a chance with me, and so I saw no reason to investigate ELO any further. And then Donna and I started exchanging mixtapes, and she stuck an ELO song on each one. The song that finally wore down any lingering resistance in me was "So Fine," with its swirling strings, shifting tempos and driving guitars. After we got married, I went on an ELO binge, tracing bandleader Jeff Lynne's evolution from thick symphonic rock to glittery dance music to the nimble rootsy fare that he came to exemplify in the mid-'80s via his work with George Harrison and Tom Petty. And then a few years later I got to hear Lynne work his way back to the classic late '70s ELO sound on Zoom, a 2000 ELO comeback album that almost no one heard. Which just goes to show: with an artist as talented as Lynne, it's a mistake to write them off for good.
Enduring presence? Thanks to some high-profile fans and the surprise revival of "Mr. Blue Sky," ELO came back into favor a few years back.. Aside from the few holdouts who still blame Jeff Lynne for making all oldster-rock sound the same from 1986 to '88, the critical and fan community is now pretty much pro-ELO. My wife feels vindicated.
"So Fine" by Electric Light Orchestra
Years Of Operation 1994-2003 (solo)
Fits Between Harry Nilsson and Nick Drake
Personal Correspondence I was a latecomer to Elliott Smith, having missed all his early whispery acoustic records the first time around, and having missed Heatmiser as well. My first Smith album was XO, his major-label debut, which was in some ways the apotheosis of a lot of the West Coast folk and pop trends that had been bubbling up through the underground scenes of the late '90s. It's still my favorite Smith record, even though I tend to think of it as just as much of a triumph for Jon Brion, Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock. There's a whole world within XO, a place composed of abandoned carnivals, chilly boardwalks on overcast days, dimly lit dive bars and musty thrift stores with basements full of forgotten 45s. I'm not a complete Smith-head. I think too many of his songs fall into fairly predictable patterns, blending the fragile mutter of The Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son" with the airy psychedelia of The Beatles' "Because." Still, I would've liked to hear what a cleaned-up, non-suicidal Smith could've come up with. Maybe pain was his primary inspiration, but it's hard to believe that a song as artfully composed and casually lovely as "Bled White" could only come from someone deeply bruised.
Enduring presence? It wouldn't be fair to say that Smith's current cult cachet is due entirely to his dying young, because he did leave behind a pretty impressive catalog of music. But there's a lot of murk in that catalog too, and a lot of monotony. In some ways it's surprising to me that I've encountered so many Smith imitators in recent years, because his sound was so singular, but obviously he was a pivotal artist in a lot of young musicians' lives.
"Bled White" by Elliott Smith
Years Of Operation 1969-present
Fits Between Paul McCartney and Paul Williams
Personal Correspondence In one of those weird quirks of "right time, right place" that affects all of our tastes more than we like to admit, my favorite Elton John album has always been 1981's The Fox, a record so forgotten that none of its songs ever show up on any Elton anthologies. Why The Fox? I promise I'm not trying to be willfully obscure. What happened is that some mother of some friend—can't remember which one—used to play this tape in her car while shuttling us back and forth to soccer practice or some such, and later, when I noticed that the Columbia Record & Tape Club was offering it on the $1.99 page in the back of their monthly catalog, I tacked it onto an order. The Fox is a solid record, coming just a few years past the "well-made album" era, but still striving to mix radio hits with offbeat (but not too offbeat) genre experiments. Lack of hit singles aside, The Fox is a pretty typical Elton John album. John and his primary lyricist Bernie Taupin had moments of real ambition and insight in the '70s—and even on The Fox, the homoerotic ballad "Elton's Song," co-written with gay icon Tom Robinson, is incredibly daring and moving—but from 1970 through the mid-'80s, John was also kind of a grinder, filling up discs and releasing them into the wild roughly every nine months, not seeming to care much whether they found loving homes. Well, The Fox found its way to me, and while there's nothing as generation-defining as "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" or "Rocket Man" or "Tiny Dancer" or "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" on it, it's my Elton John album. Hey, at least it's not Ice On Fire.
Enduring presence? You know what else I like about Elton John? He's such a spirited little son of a bitch. He shoots his mouth off, and throws semi-embarrassing public fits sometimes, but he's also a big Atlanta Braves fan, and an advocate for next-generation singer-songwriters like Ryan Adams. More than nearly any other pop star of his generation, I have a good sense of who Elton John is as a person—the good and the bad.
"Elton's Song" by Elton John
Years Of Operation 1976-present
Fits Between The Clash and Van Morrison
Personal Correspondence I'm pretty sure I've mentioned the high school English teacher who used to make tapes for me of various rock classics, either by request or of his own volition. Well, he also wrote up a list of essential rock albums that my best friend Rob and I spent a few years chasing down at flea markets and bargain bins. By sheer coincidence, on the same day at two different record stores, we each bought our first Elvis Costello albums, both off of Mr. Stackhouse's List. Rob got Armed Forces; I got This Year's Model. I've always thought of that moment as a key point in our soon-to-diverge tastes. From then on, Rob tended to gravitate more to florid pop-rock, and I started leaning more toward the spunky and punky. Not that we didn't both cross back over now and then. When it comes to Elvis Costello, I too came to love Armed Forces, and My Aim Is True, and especially the generous, effortlessly amazing Get Happy!! (which is probably my favorite Costello record). One of my best concert-going memories is seeing Costello with Nick Lowe at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym (with Rob, and our friend Curt), shortly after the powerful one-two punch of King Of America and Blood & Chocolate. Costello played with an excellent band (not The Attractions), and tried out some material from the yet-to-be-released Spike. Then he did an acoustic set, blending his own songs with other music he liked. "New Amsterdam" segued into The Beatles' "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away." For "Pump It Up" Costello turned on a beatbox and added snatches of Prince's "Sign O' The Times" and Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," as well as his own "Tokyo Storm Warning." David Lee Roth once snarkily commented that rock critics loved Elvis Costello because he looked just like them. Well on that night in Nashville, Costello didn't just look like me, he thought like me. He made a fan for life.
Enduring presence? In recent years I've heard some younger rock fans say that Elvis Costello is largely irrelevant and dull, and pretty much a waste of time as a recording artist after 1978. This makes me tear at what little hair I have left. I have a hard time thinking of many rock acts as eclectic and enduring as Elvis Costello. He has his fallow periods, and bum LPs, but over the last decade-plus he's been involved with three albums—All This Useless Beauty, Painted From Memory and The Delivery Man—that I've listened to as much as This Year's Model or Imperial Bedroom. And I'm constantly re-discovering records of his that I think are really underrated, like Trust, and Brutal Youth. Even his weakest records yield terrific songs like "The Other Side Of Summer," "When I Was Cruel" and "The Comedians." I place Costello with Springsteen, Bowie and The Clash (and others I'll get to later this year). His is a discography that, for me at least, never stops yielding rewards.
"King Horse" by Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Years Of Operation 1954-77
Fits Between Bill Monroe and Dean Martin
Personal Correspondence As (mostly) awful as the Elvis movies are, in some ways I relate to Presley better in the Hollywood milieu than I do as a recording artist. I acknowledge his influence and I'm in awe of his unstudied charisma, but there's just so much chaff to cut through to get to the wheat—and even that wheat feels pretty well picked clean by this point. So I guess what I like about Actor Elvis is that he's not so unassailable. He's so out of his element—uncomfortably so at times—that he ends up coming off more natural than the seasoned actors he's up against. That Elvis seems more human to me than the one who crooned "Love Me Tender" so cleanly. But I'm also sure that a lot of what keeps Elvis at arm's length from me is extra-textual, related to his pervasiveness, not his music.
Enduring presence? In the culture at large, Elvis is still king, yes? But for me personally? I dig him as an icon and I like a good 30 or so of his songs, but he's never been a go-to rocker for me. I'm not trying to be a contrarian here; just stating where my head is at, Elvis-wise.
"Roustabout" by Elvis Presley
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share .
Duke Ellington, "Caravan"
I don't have any particular infatuation with Ellington as a musician. I have a couple anthologies that I play occasionally and enjoy, and he was one of the first artists I sampled when I made my first tentative steps into jazz during my college years. But I'm more interested in Ellington as a songwriter. One of my favorite bands, The Jody Grind, used to cover Ellington's "Caravan" and "Mood Indigo," and those songs—along with other versions of Ellington's songs I've heard over the years—have driven home how flexible and timeless his work is. Like Gershwin or Porter or Brubeck, Ellington could set himself an assignment to write in a certain style, or about a certain subject, and deliver a song that felt inspired, not studied. Plus he had the good sense to collaborate with composer Billy Strayhorn, who helped frame Ellington's free-ranging genius with elegance. His songs can be played in concert halls or dingy clubs. They swing both ways.
"Caravan" by Duke Ellington
Dwight Yoakam, "I Sang Dixie"
When Dwight Yoakam's Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. came out in 1986, it got almost as much play on college rock radio than it did on contemporary country radio. The latter was still about a year away from the "hat act" wave (partially led by Yoakam), while the former still played The Blasters, The Long Ryders, and countless roots-informed post-R.E.M. jangle-pop acts. So Yoakam has always had a certain cachet among my alt-rock-minded friends, although I've generally contented myself to listen to their Yoakam tapes rather than buying any of my own. It's still on my to-do list to explore his discography more fully. Currently, all I have on my hard drive is a live record and some scattered songs—including my favorite Yoakam song, "I Sang Dixie," an evocative ballad about booze and lost legacies.
"I Sang Dixie" by Dwight Yoakam
The Eames Era, "All Of Seventeen"
This is old-school indie-rock: hooky, guitar-driven, just a little sloppy, and beholden to an off-canon pop music tradition. The Eames Era isn't studying The Anthology Of American Folk Music, or John Lee Hooker, or Nuggets. "All Of Seventeen" is all Breeders, Belly, Go-Gos, Waitresses, Motels, Altered Images, Missing Persons and pieces of John Hughes movie soundtracks, given a personal spin. This song is from The Second Eames Era EP, which consists of four flawless examples of femme-friendly guitar-pop. The LP that followed, Heroes And Sheroes is pretty amazing too. If you're not already aware of The Eames Era, consider this a helpful alert.
"All Of Seventeen" by The Eames Era
Earth Mama, "Grass Roots!"
I haven't shared any songs from the dregs of my collection in a while, but since this week I wrote about the flood of crap that used to come my way, I thought I'd give you a sample. This song is just under four minutes long. How much of it can you take?
"Grass Roots!" by Earth Mama
Edan, "Funky Voltron"
I am now going to warm Nathan Rabin's heart. Even though I'm not a huge fan of the genre, I do buy a few hip-hop records each year, and usually Nathan's recommendations are what move me to spring into action. When I bough Edan's Beauty And The Beat back in 2005, I remember being kind of disappointed by it, as I have been with most of the hip-hop albums I've gotten in the '00s. (I'm not sure why. Too silly maybe? Too slight?) But this week, I had an experience similar to I've had in previous weeks with The Coup and Dangerdoom and Dr. Octagon and some of the other hip-hop acts I've been revisiting. Something is clicking now that never clicked before. I'm really, really enjoying these records. Maybe it's because I'm getting the opportunity to listen with more concentration—often under headphones—instead of having to keep the volume low so I won't bother my kids. I've got our next regular feature, Nathan. "2009: My Year Of Hip-Hop." You recommend it, I listen to it, we talk about it. Together, we'll own the Internet.
"Funky Voltron" by Edan
Eddie Money, "Two Tickets To Paradise"
I include this song not only because it's a classic of its kind—a superior example of FM-ready post-boogie—but because I can't think of Eddie Money without remembering an old Grammy broadcast in which Simply Red performed "Money's Too Tight To Mention" and at the end of the song, some too-clever TV director cut to a shot of Eddie Money, sitting in his seat, looking a little disgruntled. It makes me snicker every time I think of it. I've got it on an old VHS tape too someday I'll figure out how to upload it to YouTube.
"Two Tickets To Paradise" by Eddie Money
Eddy Arnold, "Gentle On My Mind"
First off, this is one of the most lovely songs ever written. And it's rendered well here by Arnold, an artist who straddled the line between country music and brassy pop so masterfully that he's arguably responsible for making "country" into a form, like jazz, as opposed to strictly a genre. Just as you can do "jazz dancing" or play in "jazz band" in high school, you can now sing "country" without being a "country singer."
"Gentle On My Mind" by Eddy Arnold
The Edgar Winter Group, "Free Ride"
Here's another FM classic, well-utilized by Richard Linklater in Dazed & Confused (which is in my top 10 favorite movies of all time, by the way largely because, drug use aside, it pretty much describes by life from junior high through graduation).
"Free Ride" by The Edgar Winter Group
Editors, "All Sparks"
As much as I like Interpol's first two records, I gotta say, Editors' The Back Room out-Interpols Interpol in its pastiche of Joy Division, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Chameleons and Bauhaus. It's an incredibly well-balanced LP, paying homage to its influences while also integrating them a taut, modern presentation that, remarkably, never sags or meanders. Even the bands that inspired Editors often can't make that claim.
"All Sparks" by Editors
Eef Barzelay, "Ballad Of Bitter Honey"
I know I've already written up Clem Snide, but though Barzelay's sole solo album to date doesn't vary much from Clem Snide's sound—despite the acoustic presentation—I can't pass by this track, which is one of my favorites of the past five years. From a funny opening line ("That was my ass you saw bouncing next to Ludacris"), Barzelay gradually opens up this first-person character sketch, making a woman who initially seemed like a vacuous rap video hoochie into someone whose vanity and insecurity comes from someplace real.
"Ballad Of Bitter Honey" by Eef Barzelay
El-P, "Stepfather Factory"
I can't say that revisiting El-P has been as, um, delightful as my trip back though some other hip-hop acts, because I still find his music too dark and dense, even as I note its frequent brilliance. But this song—brutal as it is—never fails to amuse and appall me in equal measure. The wordplay, the dystopian vision, the rapid-fire delivery—it all works. And even though my wife would probably rather divorce me than ever listen to this song again, we both frequently adopt a robotic voice and say, "Why are you making me hurt you I love you," to each other, usually after we've had to give one of the kids a time out.
"Stepfather Factory" by El-P
El Perro Del Mar, "God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)"
Here's another one of my favorite songs of recent years, from one-woman-band Sarah Assbring, who's responsible for another of my favorites, too: "Party." About El Perro Del Mar's 2007 US debut, I wrote, "El Perro Del Mar sports a stunning sound that combines the bewitching ethereality of Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins with the lipstick-and-spangle pop sense of Motown and the Brill Building, all draped in a deeply Scandinavian sorrow. For three minutes at a time, El Perro Del Mar's songs feel like the only thing happening in the world, but after two or three songs in a row, it's tempting to switch her off and start moving again. For purposes of some future iPod shuffle though, moody pop fans need a copy of El Perro Del Mar's 'God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get),' a charmingly airy tune with cooing background singers, lush strings, and a rumbling sax solo, arranged to create a feeling that's simultaneously positive and eerily distant. Or 'Party,' which employs the 'be-bop-a-lula' grammar of a happy song, but recasts it as something somber, led by Assbring's tear-streaked monotone. Almost every song on El Perro Del Mar hangs cheerful orchestration over a core of methodically strummed guitars and robotic rhythms, creating a sharply divided sonic space for the singer to occupy. Then she settles into it, arms around her knees, like a little girl singing The Ronettes softly to herself and trying not to weep."
"God Knows (You Gotta Give To Get)" by El Perro Del Mar
Elastica, "Vaseline" Here's a band that was ahead of its time, if only by being behind the times before everyone else. The rest of the alt-rock industry waited until around 2000 to start re-hashing the rigid beats and angular guitars of post-punk acts like Wire, Joy Division and Gang Of Four, but Elastica ripped them all off back in '95, often to splendid effect. Because of the massive success of their Wire-pilfering song "Connection," I got to hear the riff from "Three Girl Rhumba" on TV commercials for a while, which was nice? I've always thought of Elastica's debut album's closer "Vaseline" as another kind of homage to Wire, specifically Pink Flag's "12XU." The two song don't really sound alike, but both are start-stop punk numbers drenched in leakage, and they both rock like fuck.
"Vaseline" by Elastica
Electric Six, "I'm The Bomb"
Remember when Electric Six were going to do for cheesy funk-disco what The White Stripes did for garage-rock and the blues? Then people realized that a little bit of E6's crude grooves, bombastic production and dirty jokes goes a long way. Still, I've always liked this song's nods to Van Halen's "Panama" and countless proto-rap club singles. When I put "I'm The Bomb" on one of my year-end compilations, a friend referred to it as possibly the worst song ever recorded. I don't think he approached it in the right spirit.
"I'm The Bomb" by Electric Six
Electronic, "Getting Away With It"
The idea of a Britpop band featuring contributions from New Order's Bernard Sumner, Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and The Smiths' Johnny Marr is pretty exciting, but most of this makeshift supergroup's music has actually been fairly forgettable. The major exception: Electronic's first single, one of the most gorgeously yearning pop songs of the '80s—released just as the decade closed. It's a kind of transitional song, bidding farewell to the best of a generation's sound while paving the way for something much lighter than what the last half of the '80s stuck us with.
"Getting Away With It" by Electronic
Regrettably unremarked upon: East River Pipe, The Easybeats, Eddie Cochran, El Capitan, Elf Power, Elizabeth Cotton, Ella Fizgerald, Elmer Bernstein and Elmore James
listened to: Dub
Specialist, The Dudley Corporation,
The Duhks, The Duke
Spirit, Dumbwaiters, Dungen, Dustin
O'Halloran, The Dynamic Superiors, Dymaxion, The Dynamic Superiors,
The Dynamites, Earl Gaines, Earl Grant, Earl Scruggs Revue,
The Earlies, Earlimart, Early Evening, Early Man, The Early
Years, Eartha Kitt, Eastern Conference Champions, Echo, Echobelly, Ecstatic
Sunshine, Ed Askew, Eddie & The Hot Rods, Eddie Albert,
Eddie Holland, Eddie Holman, Eddie South & His Orchestra, Eddie Vedder, The
Edge, Edie Brickell, Edie Carey, Edison Shine, edIT, Edmunds
Crown, Edwin Starr, Edwyn Collins, Eglantine Gouzy, Eisley, El Goodo,
El Michels Affair, El Presidente, El
Riot, El Ten Eleven, Elan Atias, Elana
James, Elanors, The Elastic Band, Eldrige
Skell's The Rude Staircase, Electrelane, The Electric Flag,
Electric Guitars, Electric President, The
Electric Prunes, The Electric Soft Parade, Elekibass, Element
Eighty, Eleni Mandell, Elevado, Elijah & The
Ebonites, Eliza Gilkyson, Elizabeth Cook, Elks Skiffle
Group, Ellegarden, Ellen McIlwaine, Elliott, Elliott Brood,
Elliott Murphy & Iain Matthews, Ellis Hooks, Ellis Pail,
Ellul, Elope and Elvin Bishop
Next week: From Emerson, Lake & Palmer to fIREHOSE, plus a few words on "shadowing."