Popless Week Twelve: My Southern Rock Problem
After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.
"The Living Bubba" by Drive-By Truckers
Folks who grow up in Nashville can develop a curious relationship with country music. As kids, we tend to like it. The stars of the industry are readily accessible—especially to youngsters—and the songs we hear all over the radio are often catchy and cute. But as teenagers, we start to resent country. Rock and rap are much cooler, and besides, we get sick of going on vacation and hearing strangers say, "You're from Nashville? You must love country music!" Then as we get older, we start to reconcile with our hometown, and to take a certain amount of civic pride in Music City's most famous export. And for some, eventually, that pride can curdle into snobbery.
My own attempts to give country music a chance started with building a tolerance to southern rock. When I was 10, I was a fan of The Charlie Daniels Band, who hosted the annual half-rock/half-country Volunteer Jam near where I lived. I wore down my copy of Million Mile Reflections (the one with "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" on it), and for my 10th birthday I got to see the CDB play a concert with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. ("A night with Charlie Daniels and a hundred fiddles," the radio promotions blared.) I'd also always really liked Lynyrd Skynyrd, so when I started reading up on rock as a teenager and found out that the major critics of the '70s were pro-Skynyrd, they became my go-to southern rockers. And by the late '80s, both album-rock and college-rock radio were awash in the new-breed southern rockers: Jason & The Scorchers, The Georgia Satellites, Drivin 'N' Cryin', and so on.
The advent of alt-country in the '90s was, at first, pretty wonderful. In college I'd been getting into Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, along with the new northern country-rockers like The Silos and Cowboy Junkies. So I was in the right headspace when I heard Uncle Tupelo's No Depression for the first time, and I enjoyed the emergence of The Jayhawks, The Bottle Rockets, and all those New York bohos on the Diesel Only label. But a certain point, my pro-Nashville biases started to affect my willingness to hear yet another set of college dropouts in nudie suits and bolo ties, singing songs about mining disasters in affected accents, while giving interviews about how country music had strayed from its roots. I'm no great fan of "pop country" either, but it struck me as pretty presumptuous for these outsiders to complain about what the Nashville industry should be producing, just because they once found a couple of Flatt & Scruggs records at a thrift store.
I was already getting fed up with the carpetbaggers when I had a few reading/listening experiences that helped clarify my position:
First off, my friend and former editor Bill Friskics-Warren collaborated with David Cantwell on a book about the 500 greatest singles in country music history, titled Heartaches By The Number. Bill and David spread their interest between the critically respected "outlaw country" and the more charts-focused Nashville mill, and they helped me understand that "outsider" does not automatically equal "superior." On their book tour, Bill and David appeared on a radio show that shall remain nameless, and the hosts of that show seemed genuinely confused that Heartaches By The Number included songs by the likes of Garth Brooks and Faith Hill, but almost nothing from alt-country acts like Neko Case. Bill and David handled the hosts' misunderstanding of what their book was about with aplomb, but listening at home, I was seething. How could these radio dudes claim to be country music fans, when they clearly didn't have a tenth of the knowledge, analytical skills, or pure love that their guests did?
Around that same time, I read Chuck Klosterman's essay in Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs about how he has more respect for "Wal-Mart country" like Trisha Yearwood than for critic-approved alt-country like Lucinda Williams, because the former is more honest. Or to put it a different way: the kind of people who Lucinda Williams sings about are more likely to listen to Trisha Yearwood than to Lucinda Williams. I was thinking about that again a year or two later, when Will Oldham re-recorded a bunch of his old Palace songs in a throwback "countrypolitan" style for the lovely album Sings Palace Greatest Hits. Some writers—especially the ones who contribute to a site that rhymes with "bitchcork"—were convinced that the album had to be a joke, because why would someone who usually records in a stark, croaky, "authentic" style suddenly go all slick? But I interviewed Mark Nevers, the producer of Sings Palace Greatest Hits, while the project was in process, and he told me that Oldham wanted to make a record that sounded like the country music he originally fell in love with. Which raises a question: What's so "inauthentic" about the smooth country music style that's dominated the radio since the '60s?
When it comes to alt-country or southern rock, I automatically get suspicious when things start getting a little too "down home." Just as too much of modern hip-hop reduces African-American life to crime, sex, consumerism and hip-hop itself, too much of southern rock has become about poverty, cheatin', drinkin' and Hank Williams. Even one of the best of the new southern rock bands, Drive-By Truckers, sometimes wallows too much in tales of incest and NASCAR—though at least they do it with a fair amount of wit and skill, and balance those songs with songs about, say, a musician friend succumbing to AIDS ("The Living Bubba"), or, coming to grips with the intertwined legacies of George Wallace, Bear Bryant and Ronnie Van Zandt ("The Three Great Alabama Icons").
Yet when I think about what southern rock can be, I think about Kings Of Leon, singing about reconciling their evangelical upbringing with their love of Joy Division and groupies; or Lucero, delving into the feeling of being young and restless in a nowhere town; or Glossary, delving into the feeling of being middle-aged and restless in a nowhere town; or American Princes, bringing a gritty urban feel to frayed guitars and Dixie angst; or Lambchop, applying literary techniques and elements of musique concrète to sprawling country-soul symphonies. These southerners live in the place I live, where churches, strip clubs, strip malls and universities are just a few blocks away from each other.
Maybe my southern rock problem isn't with southerners making music about their experiences Maybe it's with my fellow critics having too narrow a conception of what those experiences should be.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1995-present
Fits Between Syd Barrett and Lou Reed
Personal Correspondence My knee-jerk reaction to Dan Bejar's body of work would be to call his tight, driving contributions to The New Pornographers superior to the verging-on-formless art-pop he attempts with his own band, Destroyer. But that really isn't meant to be a knock on Destroyer. When Bejar stumbles on a catchy turn-of-phrase—like, "Was it the movie or the making-of Fitzcarraldo?" or "I was just another west-coast maximalist"—and marries it to his rippling piano and idle guitar-strumming, the lack of a hard structure makes the songs all the more exciting. (It's sort of like listening to an improvised monologue by a skilled raconteur.) Still, there's something to be said for the compactness of Bejar's New Pornos songs, because at their worst, Destroyer's more sprawling numbers can sound pointlessly self-indulgent—though to my ears, those low points are rare, and outweighed by the times when Destroyer makes the ethereal momentarily concrete.
Enduring presence? Bejar's in an awkward position when it comes to The New Pornographers, because I get the feeling that while he'd rather save his best songs for Destroyer, The New Pornos have a bigger audience, and have inarguably helped raise Destroyer-awareness. For me, his split attention mainly raises a sticky organization question: Should I file Bejar's New Pornographer's songs alongside Destroyer on my iPod playlist?
"European Oils" by Destroyer
The Detroit Cobras
Years Of Operation 1995-present
Fits Between Reigning Sound and The Crystals
Personal Correspondence The best part about the emergence of The White Stripes into the wider rock culture in the early '00s—aside from the enduring appeal of the Stripes themselves—is that it alerted a lot of exhausted indie-rock nerds like me that garage-rock was alive and thriving in local scenes across the country. I spent a happy year scouring All Music Guide and Amazon for tips as to which bands and scenes to pursue, and when I traveled back to Nashville, I'd ask the staff at my favorite record store, Grimey's, for recommendations. The happiest discovery to swim out of this flood of new music was The Detroit Cobras, a band of Motor City-based garagers who get around the whole "How do we write instant classics?" problem by performing rocked-up covers of obscure R&B; singles. (Because hey, if you haven't heard it, it's new to you.) There's pretty much nothing I don't like about The Detroit Cobras, from their twangy guitars to their jumpy rhythms to the smoky croon of Rachel Nagy, whose former job as an exotic dancer only makes the band seem more appealingly seedy. Since hooking up with producer/guitarist Greg Cartwright—frontman for another garage band I love, Reigning Sound—the Cobras have gained more range and depth, but at the expense of some of the frenzied energy that made their early albums such crazy fun. So far the dip is only a slight one.
Enduring presence? Someday The Detroit Cobras will leave behind a best-of compilation so exciting that you'll only be able to handle it if you're encased in latex. For now I recommend that people buy the US edition of the 2005 LP Baby, which includes the killer 2004 EP Seven Easy Pieces. Then work backwards from there.
"The Real Thing" by The Detroit Cobras
Years Of Operation 1984-present
Fits Between Neil Young and Mountain
Personal Correspondence I had an intense five-year love affair with Dinosaur Jr. and J. Mascis, even though neither the band nor the man ever really loved me back. I even once pitched a (sadly rejected) Dinosaur Jr.-themed idea to the good people over at the "33 1/3" book series. My volume was going to take You're Living All Over Me as the starting point for a pair of intertwined stories: one about how the evolution of alt-rock in the '80s and '90s mirrored the emergence of Generation X from the long shadow of the Baby Boomers, and the other about my personal evolution from honors student to slacker and scofflaw. (If I recall correctly, I either shoplifted nearly every Dinosaur Jr. album or stole the money to buy them.) I even had what I thought was a pretty cool analysis of You're Living's cover image, talking about how my generation went from being the hunched over figure in the corner of the picture to being the guy crowding that dude out. So when I say I could fill a whole Popless column with thoughts about Dinosaur Jr., I'm really selling myself short; I've actually got an 80-page essay in mind. Since I'm trying to conserve space these days though, I'll spare you the long ramble, except to say that it would've started with hearing side one of You're Living All Over Me played in full on Vanderbilt's college radio station when I was a senior in high school, then gone to include two mediocre live shows (one with bassist Lou Barlow in '89, and one without in '92), before coming to an end the night that I sat in a record store parking lot and listened to Where You Been three times straight, trying to convince myself that I liked it. I eventually succeeded, but I also came to a realization: When true love turns into hard work, it's time to reassess.
Enduring presence? When I was a freshman in college, right after Bug came out, I figured Dinosaur Jr. might be one of those bands like The Velvet Underground or Big Star, that never sell many records but become hugely influential. I was half-right on both counts. In the wake of the grunge wave—which Dinosaur Jr. arguably started—the band cleaned up just enough to get some airplay, even though Mascis himself kept his nigh-unlistenable whine and roaring guitar more or less intact. (For the record, it's that squalling, barely controlled guitar that made me fall in love with Dinosaur Jr. in the first place.) Mascis kept the band name around long enough to drain it of some of its cachet, although I found the band's last post-Barlow album Without A Sound to be one of their best, and their recent comeback record and tour with Barlow also quite strong. My hope is that the reunion of Mascis and Barlow has helped bring Dinosaur Jr. back into the awareness of young alt-rock fans. Then maybe someone will take an interest in my book proposal.
"Kracked" by Dinosaur Jr.
Years Of Operation 1977-1995
Fits Between Blind Faith and Stealer's Wheel
Personal Correspondence While we're on the subject of guitar heroes, here's another band whose main appeal to me has always been the sound of the guitar more than the songs they're in. I do like a lot of Dire Straits songs—well, the ones on Dire Straits and Making Movies anyway—but because of Mark Knopfler's competing maudlin and puckish streaks, I have a hard time digesting all his sap and corn. Still, there's an allure to songs like "Water Of Love" that I just can't resist, and it's almost exclusively due to the soft flick of Knopfler's guitar, which can't possibly be being played by human hands.
Enduring presence? I've all but given up on any Dire Straits LP that's not the first one or the third one (though once upon a time I was a Brothers In Arms fan). I'm mainly fascinated with how Dire Straits fit into their era. In the midst of punk and New Wave, they came out of England making smoky FM-ready music, tailor-made for a yuppie generation still in the process of becoming. I've always thought of the sound of Dire Straits as the sound of sophistication and affluence, early '80s-style. Luxury cars and loft apartments, but not so much cocaine.
"Water Of Love" by Dire Straits
Years Of Operation 1991-present
Fits Between Double Dee & Steinski and Kid Loco
Personal Correspondence I may be more captivated with the idea of DJ Shadow than with his actual music—which, to be honest, I rarely listen to. I like Shadow; I'm just rarely in the mood for dense, 13-minute, sample-heavy soundscapes. Still, I'm a believer in the concept of digging up forgotten old records, extracting their essence, and stirring them all together into songs that reflect the associative leaps of one artist's imagination. There's an urgency and ominousness to a DJ Shadow record that can almost be too much to take at times. In the right context though—like on the soundtrack to the superb documentary Dark Days—his sound adroitly captures the loneliness and relentlessness of the multitasking age.
Enduring presence? I have more tolerance for 2006's all-over-the-map The Outsider than some, perhaps because I interviewed DJ Shadow shortly before the album came out, and came to appreciate what he was trying to do with that decidedly sloppy, imbalanced record. But there's no doubt that The Outsider dinged Shadow's reputation a little. It won't stay dinged long… the dude's a genius.
"The Numbers Song" by DJ Shadow
Years Of Operation 1964-present
Fits Between Kitty Wells and Faith Hill
Personal Correspondence Even people who aren't that deeply into country music usually have a few country artists they like and respect. Johnny Cash is a perennial, and Willie Nelson, and for me, Dolly Parton too has always been one of those artists that transcended genre-bias. Maybe it's because when I was growing up Parton was as much of a TV and movie personality as a recording artist. Plus, a lot of her hits in those days were pop crossovers. I later got better acquainted with Parton's early albums, which are about as old-school country as it gets: full of acoustic picking, steel guitar, rural settings and twangy vocals. Once she became a reliable hitmaker, Parton's label pretty much built albums of filler around her single-of-the-month, but even the filler has a brightness and sincerity that's fundamentally enjoyable.
Enduring presence? How is that someone can simultaneously play up her impressive physical attributes and yet avoid becoming a sex object? Facelifts and Dollywood aside, Parton has maintained her relatability over the years, and though a good Parton anthology should serve anyone well enough—I recommend the double-disc The Essential Dolly Parton—I find that the more I listen to her early records, the more I appreciate them. Parton's arguably produced one of the richest discographies of any country artist ever, male or female.
"The Bargain Store" by Dolly Parton
Years Of Operation 1965-72
Fits Between Love and The Cult
Personal Correspondence I checked a copy of No One Here Gets Out Alive from our local public library back in the summer of 1984, when I was 13 years old. Needless to say, its tales of drug-fueled orgies and breaking down "the doors of perception" were pretty impressive to my precocious adolescent self, and I spent a good portion of that summer trying to find my inner Jim Morrison. I still have a Polaroid my aunt took of me on a state park picnic table, doing my best "young lion" pose; and an even more embarrassing photo of me sprawled out seductively on that same table while three septuagenarian relatives stand behind me. (Let's just say that it's hard to be a Rider On The Storm at a family reunion.) The inherent ridiculousness of trying to be a Doors disciple in a loving middle-class suburban home is probably what killed my Doors fandom early. I was a huge fan… but only for about three months. After that, revisiting The Doors periodically has mainly been an exercise in self-flagellation in the name of nostalgia. I still like a lot of Doors songs, and if I focus hard enough, I can almost ignore the aroma of "gone-to-seed ex-hippie shop teacher" that lingers around The Doors' more faux-badass numbers. But mainly I keep thinking about the fall of '84, riding on a bus to school with my best friend and playing him "Light My Fire" on my Walkman, telling him, virgin-to-virgin, that, "Janis Joplin once said this song was the closest thing to sex on record." After my friend listened expressionless for seven minutes, he handed me back my tape player and said, with unearned authority, "Janis Joplin was wrong."
Enduring presence? "You gotta buy this: Waiting For The Sun. It's the departure point. Listen to it around dusk every night for about a month. Take this. It's an 8-track tape. It's one of the last in existence. I want you to steal a car. I want you to get in it and drive west. Play the tape full blast. When the tape ends, get out and get into a fight, then get back into the car, come to town and meet me at the Carcass Club."
"Five To One" by The Doors
Years Of Operation 1996-present
Fits Between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Drivin' N' Cryin'
Personal Correspondence It's weird to write about a band without all the data, especially when the band is Drive-By Truckers, whose new album (which, obviously, I haven't heard) comes on the heels of them losing a major member, as well as coming after an album, A Blessing & A Curse, that was a slight dip from the two that preceded it. (Granted, those two records, Decoration Day and The Dirty South, are two of the best of the '00s.) Still, I admit to being curious to see where DBT is headed. After a couple of pretty good early albums, they made their big move with Southern Rock Opera, which foregrounded bandleader Patterson Hood's simultaneous embrace of and ambivalence about his heritage—and thus, rather predictably, impressed all the northern critics. (All except me; I liked the live album Alabama Ass Whuppin' better, because it had actual songs, not just essays set to tuneless two-steppers.) The Dirty South and Decoration Day improved vastly on SRO, restoring the songcraft the band had shown earlier by spreading the load around between two other strong singer-songwriters. Those albums explore multiple aspects of southern life, from the lurid to the transcendent. But A Blessing & A Curse found the band trying to shed some of the twang and the gothic sensibility, with mixed success. So where does DBT stand right now? I wish I could tell you. I'm dying to find out.
Enduring presence? I've read that the new album is pretty good, and I look forward to checking it out, because whatever my qualms about how the Truckers play up the shitkicker clichés, they're a powerhouse band. I might not be so alert to the their borderline rednecksploitation if they didn't do it so goddamned well.
"Outfit" by Drive-By Truckers
Drivin' N' Cryin'
Years Of Operation 1985-present
Fits Between Molly Hatchet and R.E.M.
Personal Correspondence In the first week of my freshman year at the University Of Georgia, I went to see Drivin N' Cryin' on three consecutive nights at The Uptown Lounge, beginning a music-focused spending spree that, by the end of fall quarter, left me so broke that I couldn't afford to buy books for the winter quarter. But I couldn't help it. I'd never had such immediate access to such well-stocked record stores and well-booked rock clubs, and I was flush with the scholarship money that was supposed to last me all year. Plus it was Drivin' N' Cryin', who at the time had put out the scrappy alt-rock record Scarred But Smarter and their big AOR push The Whisper Tames The Lion, and were already legendary for their sweaty, smoky, hairy shows. During those three nights they played pretty much all the songs that would be coming out the following year on Mystery Road—including "Honeysuckle Blue," which became an instant favorite the moment I first heard it, and was the main reason I was happy I had tickets the next two shows. This song was going to be my generation's "Free Bird." What happened?
Enduring presence? The biggest knock against DnC is that they never became Drive-By Truckers. Kevn Kinney was content to fulfill his arena-rock fantasies with the band and use his solo records and shows to let his more nuanced singer-songwriter side out. But Drivin' N' Cryin' suffered as they muscled up more and more, and they lost the diversity that made their first three albums so entertaining and deeply felt. Like a lot of the country-rock bands of their era—especially Jason & The Scorchers, from my corner of the south—their label urged them to be more like the crushing rock bands out on the west coast, and less like themselves. It's a damn shame.
"Honeysuckle Blue" by Drivin 'N' Cryin'
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
Desaparaceidos, "Hole In One"
The first time I heard this song, I didn't know jack about Bright Eyes, and wasn't aware Desaparaceidos had anything to do with Conor Oberst. I just figured them for an another aspiring post-hardcore band—a relative rarity in the early '00s—and I was impressed by their loquacity. In the context of Bright Eyes, it's the noise that's incongruous, not the lyrics. Still, this is another precocious Oberst song about the crossroads between activism and disillusionment. ("Never mind the shit I sing about, because I'd sell myself to buy a fuckin' house," he yelps.) And the noise really does help sell the soup, so to speak.
"Hole In One" by Desaparaceidos
Devo, "That's Good"
My strongest early memories of Devo were seeing footage of them on some late-night TV music show in my pre-new wave days and thinking they looked ridiculous, and then seeing them a year later on Square Pegs and feeling a little more sympathetic. Somewhere in the midst of all that, "Whip It" became an unlikely hit, and I consigned Devo in my head to novelty status, not revisiting them until much later. In general I find Devo's music too conceptual and robotic, which I know is the basic idea, but there are times—like on this semi-hit—that I can imagine myself as part of a big machine and feel the surge of pride in productivity.
"That's Good" by Devo
Dexy's Midnight Runners, "Old"
I'm a relative latecomer to Dexy's Midnight Runners, having bought their first three albums late last year, listening to each only twice before I got sidetracked by this project. I'd known from reading appreciations here and there that there was more to Dexy's than "Come On Eileen," and after a cursory introduction, I can hear what those fans are on about. Kevin Rowland appears to be another of those upstart '80s bandleaders, like The Waterboys' Mike Scott and Prefab Sprout's Paddy McAloon, who applies an ambitious vision and a quirky sensibility to traditional pop styles. At the same time though, his actual music comes off a little overly studied to me—especially on the third album, Don't Stand Me Down, which mixes mumbly monologues and Van Morrison swipes to oft-stultifying effect. Compared to an act like The Detroit Cobras, who revive classic R&B; just to get off on it, Rowland's retro exercises feel kind of punchless. (Or maybe that's just the fault of the'80s production.) Still, I need to spend more time with the band, because what I've heard intrigues me. Especially a song like "Old," which doesn't seem bound by any of the conventions of the music that inspired it.
"Old" by Dexy's Midnight Runners
Diana Ross, "I'm Coming Out"
All the stories about Ross' diva behavior and her general mistreatment (with the help of Berry Gordy) of some of Motown's brightest talents had me looking for reasons to dislike her for the longest time. This is going to sound funny—or, okay, embarrassing—but I started to come around on Ross last year, after the American Idol contestants performed an evening of Ross-sung hits, I realized how many of her late '70s/early '80s disco classics I really liked. Ross definitely had a certain presence once, and when she hooked up with smart songwriters and producers, as on this joyous club classic, her well-groomed style fits like a jigsaw.
"I'm Coming Out" by Diana Ross
Dino, Desi & Billy, "Tell Someone You Love Them"
This ad-hoc trio—formed by the sons of Dean Martin and Desi Arnaz, along with one of their friends—didn't last long enough to make a good case study for my "shadowing" technique, but this song alone is a perfect "shadow" song. It doesn't have an amazing melody or lyrics, but it's smartly arranged, and meant to fit alongside the hits of the day, which means it's more orchestrated than the typical hunk of bubblegum. Some people think this song is one of the "sunshine pop" genre's finest moments. I wouldn't go that far, but it's a lively recording.
"Tell Someone You Love Them" by Dino, Desi & Billy
Dionne Warwick, "Walk On By"
Has any singer ever been better suited to the Bacharach/David treatment than Warwick? Has any other voice fit so seamlessly into arrangements full of start-stop instrumentation and sudden florid passages? Has there ever been a pop song that so perfectly melded form, content and presentation as "Walk On By?" I know what my answers would be. Yours may vary.
"Walk On By" by Dionne Warwick
The Dirtbombs, "Earthquake Heart" I know that to some it's probably sacrilege to give The Detroit Cobras more coverage than The Dirtbombs. Believe me, I understand the importance of Mick Collins to the neo-garage scene, first in The Gories and then in The Dirtbombs. But he's undercut some by his ambition. The Dirtbombs mix covers with originals—and the originals aren't so hot, by and large. If it weren't for Collins' soulful voice, energetic stage presence, fuzzy guitar and eclectic mix of gutter-punk and R&B;—his sound, in other words—The Dirtbombs probably wouldn't rate so highly. But sound does matter, as this delightful little nothing song from Dangerous Magical Noise demonstrates.
"Earthquake Heart" by The Dirtbombs
The Dismemberment Plan, "The City"
By the time I heard The Dismemberment Plan for the first time, they were a few months away from being defunct, so it's fair to say that I don't have as much invested in the band as fans who've followed (and often disapproved of) Travis Morrison's every move since his first public performance. I interviewed Morrison shortly after the release of Change, an album I liked a lot, and he was great to talk with. (Definitely a music nerd, not a delicate genius.) I worked my way back from Change through the earlier records, and I agree with the general sentiment that Emergency & I is Morrison' best work to date. But I don't think his best days are behind him either. His album last year was quite good, and even his much-loathed debut solo album was nowhere near as lousy as some said.
"The City" by The Dismemberment Plan
The Divine Comedy, "Come Home Billy Bird"
This has been a week for spending time with bands I've always wanted to get to know better. I've acquired a bunch of Divine Comedy records over the years, and have always enjoyed them, but I never seem to play them more than four or five times before filing them away. I'm realizing now that I should've listened to 2004's grandiose, heartfelt Absent Friends much more than I did at the time, rather than just returning over and over to one song—this song, which I put on my best of '04 compilation, and have listened to about four times as much as I ever listened to the album it came from. Maybe it has something to do with being a dad, but the last line of this song always overwhelms me, corny as it is.
"Come Home Billy Bird" by The Divine Comedy
Dixie Chicks, "Truth No. 2"
I respect Dixie Chicks' commitment to traditional country and bluegrass, which was the initial source of their good rep in the Nashville circles I ran in 15 years ago. And I respect what they went through after Natalie Maines shot her mouth off about Bush and the war. But honestly, I find most of their music so dull. Even redneck anthems like "Goodbye Earl" are produced so slickly and tastefully that it sucks much of the sting out. And though I don't usually like to question the motivations for why people like what they like, I'm pretty sure that the Grammy overload for the thudding 2006 album Taking The Long Way Home has nothing to do with the actual music on that overloaded, overbearing record. I do like some Dixie Chicks songs, though—this one, from Home, has an easygoing rootsiness, like early Dolly Parton or Emmylou Harris.
"Truth No. 2" by Dixie Chicks
Dogs Die In Hot Cars, "Lounger"
I know this song—like pretty much every DDIHC song—is a straight-up XTC rip-off. But guess what? Neither Andy Partridge nor Colin Moulding has written anything this fun since the '80s.
"Lounger" by Dogs Die In Hot Cars
Dolorean, "The Light Behind My Head"
Here's some alt-country I can get behind: dreamy, rippling, unforced. In a fairer world, Dolorean would have a following as devoted as that of any of those work-shirted hicksploitation troubadours.
"The Light Behind My Head" by Dolorean
Donald Fagen, "The Nightfly"
There's a lot to be said about Fagen that'll have to wait until Steely Dan rolls around, but his solo albums are quite good too—especially The Nightfly, an album about growing up amid the weirdness of the Cold War, beatnik chic, and rock 'n' roll radio. As always, Fagen works against the cushiony soft rock sound with lyrics almost obsessive in their specificity. "I've got plenty of java and Chesterfield Kings," Fagen sings, trying to create an image like something out of magazine ad, while also reminding the listeners that the past had a smell.
"The Nightfly" by Donald Fagen
Donna Summer, "I Love You"
Post-1978, I spent summers with my dad and the rest of the year with my mom, and the dad-time was the only portion of the year that I had steady access to cable television. One of those summers I watched Thank God It's Friday on HBO about a half-dozen times, and was thrilled every time by the moment where meek Donna Summer steps up to the mic and becomes a star by belting out "Last Dance." In recent years I've become interested in Summer as one of pop/R&B;'s great ciphers, like Diana Ross and Dionne Warwick. All three were able to be an effective cog in any visionary producer's machine. Summer's overlords included Giorgio Moroder, who worked with her on the double-disc disco opera Once Upon A Time, which produced this lush, soaring hit single—the disco equivalent of a Phil Spector production.
"I Love You" by Donna Summer
Donovan, "Hurdy Gurdy Man"
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Donovan is something I can't mention here, because it involves discussing the editorial policy of the publication you're reading right now, and I'm not authorized to reveal that kind of information. The second thing that comes to mind is the way Bob Dylan rather obnoxiously makes fun of Donovan in the documentary Don't Look Back, which was filmed at a time when Donovan really was pretty much a low-rent Dylan imitator. (To Donovan's credit, he's always shown a good sense of humor about how Dylan dissed him, which, given how readily Donovan's embraced his own hippie-dippiness, is probably the best plan.) The third thing that comes to mind is the terrifying opening scene of last year's Zodiac, and how its effectiveness is largely due to director David Fincher's brilliant use of "Hurdy Gurdy Man," a song that combines the silly and the psychedelic in a way that makes banality seem super-menacing.
"Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan
The Doobie Brothers, "It Keeps You Runnin'"
I find The Doobie Brothers pretty fascinating, mainly for the way they straddled the line between post-hippie jam band tactics (bordering on southern rock) and slick, pop-minded FM fodder. They've got an interesting personal story too, all about how the band's main songwriter and guiding personality, Tom Johnston, got sick, and saw his band taken over by L.A. session musicians Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Michael McDonald, who basically turned the Doobies into Steely Dan with more hooks and less lyrical bite. I like both incarnations of the band—by which I mean that my handmade Doobies compilation, culled from iTunes a couple of years ago, contains 22 songs divided fairly equally between the Johnston and McDonald eras—but I especially like the songs from Takin' In To The Streets, which has the professional sheen of the mid-'70s "well-made album," but with some of the traces of the early '70s boogie still seeping through. "It Keeps You Runnin'" is one of the most moving songs of the corporate rock era, riding an off-beat structure and the burble of synthesizers to a late-breaking chorus that speaks to the dissatisfaction that nags at everyone.
"It Keeps You Runnin'" by The Doobie Brothers
Double Dee & Steinski, "Lesson One—The Payoff Mix"
It's not every day you get to hear one of the most important records in the history of popular music, so take five minutes to enjoy the oft-bootlegged, no-longer-available-in-stores "Lesson One," the DIY single that inspired countless DJs to make sampling the primary element in constructing music. Even though "Lesson One"—ostensibly a remix of G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid's "Play That Beat, Mr. D.J."—has in many ways been surpassed in terms of flow and complexity, it's still a pretty lively compendium of break-beats and random whimsy. (All un-cleared, naturally.)
"Lesson One-The Payoff Mix" by Double Dee & Steinski
Doug Hoekstra, "Stolen Gun"
This Nashville singer-songwriter writes lyrics that are like compact short stories, and he arranges his music so that it has a cinematic sweep. The stumbling block for Hoekstra has always been his vocals, which are thin and flat, and can be hard to take over the course of an entire album. But on a song-to-song basis, he's pretty impressive.
"Stolen Gun" by Doug Hoekstra
The Dovells, "Bristol Stomp"
You never know what's going to make good kids' music. One night, while eating dinner, I put on the old rock 'n' roll movie Don't Knock The Twist, and for the next several weeks, my son and daughter would suddenly shout, "Bristol Stomp!" and fall over cackling with laughter. Hey, could be worse. Better The Dovells than The Doodlebops.
"Bristol Stomp" by The Doveels
The Dovers, "What Am I Going To Do"
Here's a nugget from Nuggets that demonstrates how to make monotone vocals expressive—by surrounding them with washed-out music that makes the whole song like the tail end of a long exhale.
"What Am I Going To Do" by The Dovers
Doves, "Sulphur Man"
In the post-Radiohead steeplechase, Doves started strong and then stumbled, outpaced by the likes of Coldplay and Keane, who lean more on the pop side of Britpop than the artsy and grandiloquent. Personally, I always thought Doves overdid the latter, but it's hard to argue with the outcome in songs like "Sulphur Man," which makes echo into an instrument.
"Sulphur Man" by Doves
Dr. Octagon, "Earth People"
There's a long tradition of surreal scatology in black culture, and music doesn't get much stranger or raunchier than what Kool Keith whipped out on the 1996 oddity Dr. Octagonecologyst. The lyrics to "Earth People" are practically stream-of-consciousness, and yet they make a crazy kind of sense… even if I really don't want to know what "space doo-doo pistols" are.
"Earth People" by Dr. Octagon
Regrettably unremarked upon Derek & The Dominoes, Desmond Dekker, Dick Dale, Dilated Peoples, Dinosaur L, Dion, Dirty Three, Dizzy Gillespie, DJ Danger Mouse, Doc Watson, Donny Hathaway, Dr. Dre and The Drifters
Also listened to: The Dependables, Derek Webb,
Deryl Dodd, Des Ark, Despistado, Destroyalldreamers, The Detachment Kit, Detroit, Detroit Sex Machines, The Devastations, Devics, Devin Davis, Devon Allman's Honeytribe, Devotchka, Diamond Jim, Diamonds In The Rough, Diana Darby, Diana Krall, Dianne & Michael Killern, Dick Van Dyke, Die Monitr Batss, Diffuser, Digby, Dignus, The Diminisher, Dinah Washington, Dios, Dirty Looks, Dirty On Purpose, Dirty Pretty Things, The Dirty Projectors, The Disco Biscuits, Discount, The Distillers, Division Day, The Divorce, Dizzee Rascal, DJ Me DJ You, DJ Sammy & Yanou, DJ Shortee, DNX, Dntel, Doc Cheatham, Dog Day, Dogme 95, Doleful Lions, Dollar Store, Domenico Scarlatti, The Domino Kings, Don Harper, Don Henley, Don Juan, Don Vappie & The Creole Jazz Serenaders, Don Walser, Donald Byrd & 124th Street, The Donnas, The Donner Party, Doo Rag, Dori Caymmi, Doris Day, Doris Henson, Dorothy Moskowitz, Dosh, The Double, Doug & Jack Wallin, Doug Martsch, The Doveels, Down By Law, The Downliners Sect, The Doxies, Doyle Bramhall, Doyle Dykes, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Dr. Isaiah Ross, Dr. John, Drag The River, Dragon Ash, Dragons, The Drams, The Dresden Dolls, Dressy Bessy, Drop The Lime, Drought, Drowsy, The Drugstore Cowboys, Drunk Horse, Drunk Stuntmen, Dryden Mitchell and Drywall
Next week: From Duke Ellington to Elvis Presley, plus a few words on publicity