Popless Week Two: The Originality Trap
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 whether he still needs it all.
"Tears Dry On Their Own" by Amy Winehouse
It's a happy coincidence that I'm up to Amy Winehouse in the alphabetical tour of my collection, because Back To Black is one of the few discs I still have handy for playing my car, which means I've listened to it a lot over the past month. It's a damn-near perfect model of the modern pop album: compact, diverse, catchy, performed with skill, and smartly aided by a clever producer. But is it a major strike against Winehouse that she's essentially repeating what other musicians have done–right down to the crippling addictions–instead of blazing her own trail?
Consider "Tears Dry On Their Own." Very little about the song qualifies as "original." From Winehouse's brassy voice–shades of Shirley Bassey–to producer Mark Ronson's blatant musical swipe from "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," the song presents itself as part of a tradition and maybe even a misplaced Motown artifact. More than anything though, it sounds good–like a old 45 that's been beamed across the galaxy and bounced back, picking up a little extra crackle along the way.
A few years ago, a friend of mine who prefers electronic experimentation and prog to foursquare rock songwriting was enticed to pick up Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after reading all the raves about how daring and unusual the record is. But my friend wasn't impressed. "Scrape away all the extra noise," he said, "And it's just a guy with a guitar, singing a song." He meant that comment to be damning, but to me he pinpointed exactly what I liked about the record. If anything, I've enjoyed Wilco more and more as Jeff Tweedy has stopped burying his songs beneath layers of production frippery. Tweedy and his guitar are enough for me.
I've got nothing against the experimenters: those formalists who wrap themselves in complicated patterns, or the jammers only interested in the vibrations of a moment, or the music theory majors (and medieval lit minors) who think rock and roll can be as thematically ambitious and musically sophisticated as a classical symphony. And it's not like I don't groan a little every time I open a package from a publicist and see some homemade CD with a grinning guitarist on the cover. But I've read too many "rock is dead" articles in my lifetime–written by people who two years later are done with The Chemical Brothers and touting The Strokes–to think that novelty is the supreme virtue in popular music.
For me it's always going to be about performance, first and foremost. It's about a person in a room–virtual or actual–sharing a talent, an idea, or both. "It's been done" is a criticism that rarely dissuades. How it's done that's what keeps me turning the radio on.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 2003-present
Fits Between Kings Of Leon and The Dead Boys
Personal Correspondence About 10 years ago, my friend Jim Ridley–Nashville-based film critic and all-around Good Man–was relaxing in a coffee shop when his server recognized him and asked if he'd mind taking home a CD that the server had just recorded. The server's name? Josh Rouse; and the album was Rouse's debut LP Dressed Up Like Nebraska, a far more accomplished singer-songwriter collection than Jim was expecting. My closest similar experience has to do with American Princes, a Little Rock-based band whose guitarist attended a lecture I gave at a small private university in the town where I live. Afterward, he asked if he could send me some of his band's music, and what he sent was American Princes' self-released debut WE Are The People. (A cool Taxi Driver reference, by the way.) Unlike a lot of other discs pressed on me by eager young students, WE Are The People had dynamics, melodies, and real vision, blending southern rock with '70s gutter-punk. I was even more impressed with the band's first "proper" album Little Spaces, which later got released on Yep Roc; and then I loved loved loved Less & Less, a great 2006 rock album that I'm betting very few of you heard. (Check out the opening song below.) American Princes are one of a number of southern bands–Kings Of Leon and Glossary also come to mind–integrating roots music into songs with more of a sonic kick and modernist outlook. They aren't some Bloodshot band of phony shit-kickers, in other words. (More on that bias of mine in some future column.)
Enduring presence? Have I mentioned what a great record Less & Less is? The follow-up is due out this year, and if it matches or exceeds Less & Less, maybe the band will win some more converts. One downside to not reviewing new records this year is that I've lose a bully pulpit to evangelicize from. But then maybe the personal touch of the blog is better for some causes I'm not sure I convinced too many to check out The Zincs last year based on my review.
"Stolen Blues" by American Princes
And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
Years Of Operation 1993-present
Fits Between Sonic Youth and Chavez
Personal Correspondence The first time I heard Trail Of Dead's second album Madonna, I wanted to be 10 years younger. In college and immediately afterward, I liked my rock 'n' roll ear-splitting–like Sonic Youth/My Bloody Valentine/Dinosaur Jr./Mission Of Burma loud. I probably listened to and loved at least two dozen bands nowhere near as good as AYKWUBTTOD, which is just how it goes when you're shopping for sounds, not songcraft. You settle. By the time Trail Of Dead were ascendant, I wasn't really in a place where I could listen to roaring rock on a consistent basis, due to my more pop-oriented wife and our then-new baby crawling around. If I'd been a college sophomore when Source Tags & Codes came out? Man, I would've played that record to smithereens. I gave it a good effort back in '92, but only while my kid was napping and my wife was at work.
Enduring presence? Was Trail Of Dead's move to a major label the beginning of the end? Madonna was so good, and then the major label debut Source Tags & Codes was such a cohesive piece of pretty noise; but Worlds Apart and So Divided were muddled and weird, and eclectic beyond reason. Is this label interference, or just a band trying (and failing) to grow? Either way, I know I'll be keeping albums two and three pretty much intact on my iPod, and taking only a song or two each from album four and five.
Years Of Operation 1996-present (solo)
Fits Between Marshall Crenshaw and Sufjan Stevens
Personal Correspondence Some singer-songwriters I've felt pressured to like more than I do, but Andrew Bird's not really one of those, even though I don't listen to his music as much as I should. This week, revisiting last year's Armchair Apocrypha for the first time since well, probably since it came out, I found myself wondering why I didn't put this album on my best of '07 list, and why I didn't spend the whole year playing it over and over. I think with Bird, the problem has been a time crunch; I've never been assigned to review any of his albums, and so I never give them the intensive listening they deserve. And yet, whenever one of Bird's songs pops up on my iPod–with their whistles, swirling strings, plucked guitar, and rich croon–I think to myself, "This is exactly the kind of music I like." So consider this a public apology to Mr. Bird and his hard-working publicists, who have been filling my e-mail box with a regular Andrew Bird newsletter since before I'd even heard of him.
Enduring presence? Armchair Apocrypha is Bird's peak effort to date, realizing the steady-developing mood first demonstrated on 2003's Weather Systems and 2005's The Mysterious Production Of Eggs. I have hope that Armchair Apocrypha will get its due as people gradually discover it. I'm keeping it intact, adding the three or four best songs from Weather and Eggs, and making plans to dig back into the Bowl Of Fire records, most of which I listened to once and discarded when I was a younger man.
"Plasticities" by Andrew Bird
Years Of Operation 1998-present
Fits Between Kenny Loggins and Mötörhead
Personal Correspondence If part of the purpose of this series is to re-examine the once-hyped–and hey, it is–then there's no better case study than Andrew W.K., who became a superstar in the proto-blogosphere, touted by on-line music writers of all stripes (including my old boss and forever friend, Stephen Thompson). Then, after becoming so omnipresent with his debut album I Get Wet that even his supporters got a little tired of seeing his hair thrashing about, Andrew W.K. released a middling follow-up album, The Wolf, and promptly faded into a cloud of dry ice. So, in retrospect, was I Get Wet pumped up more than it deserved? Maybe a little, but I think the problem was that a lot of critics were being a little slippery with their AWK appreciation. Some, like Steven, loved I Get Wet as an over-the-top homage to '80s "soundtrack rock," and that love came from a genuine place, informed by a fair amount of love for the source material. Other critics though–the kind who scoff at the notion that Michael Sembello might actually have been a pretty good tunesmith–convinced themselves that Andrew W.K. was taking the piss out of the genre. The more serious-toned The Wolf didn't make them laugh, so they cut their darling loose. Critics suck sometimes.
Enduring presence? Records that trade on kitsch and nostalgia are always going to have a limited shelf-life, but I Get Wet deserves a better fate, even if I don't play it much. As for The Wolf, well there's a grand tradition of shitty follow-up albums, so Andrew W.K. shouldn't feel too bad.
Years Of Operation 2000-present
Fits Between The Incredible String Band and Arthur Russell
Personal Correspondence An aversion to the dissonant wankery of the largely NYC-based noise rock movement may have led me to overrate Animal Collective in the past, since they represent the relatively lyrical and tuneful end of that scene. Sung Tongs was so joyous and catchy, with all its handclaps and chanting, that I carried my good feeling from that record over to Feels, an album that, upon revisiting this week, I discover that I really can't stand. Or maybe Feels has been retroactively spoiled by the shrill bombast of Strawberry Jam, along with fruitless efforts to harvest the best of the band's willfully obscure early records. Let me be clear: I'm not knocking the band, who are clearly following their own eccentric muse and not worrying about pleasing the average rock fan; and I'm not knocking their fans, who I believe sincerely enjoy free-form explorations of sound and rhythm. But just like it takes a lot of peripheral pleasures for me to overcome the static slowness of some foreign films, it takes a certain sonic buzz or melodic overlay to lead me into pop music's avant-garde. I prefer my aimless noodling to be in the prog or jam genres, where at least there's some virtuosity to enjoy.
Enduring presence? In the contemporary music scene? Probably. Strong solo efforts by Panda Bear and the still-strong example of Sung Tongs prove that the Animal Collective masterminds have what it takes to make music people like. But for now, I'll stick with the best of Sung Tongs plus a smattering of songs from Feels, Strawberry Jam and Spirit They're Gone.
Years Of Operation 1996-present
Fits Between Kasey Chambers and Lucinda Williams
Personal Correspondence McCue has yet to break out in any significant way except among a subset of hardcore roots-rock fans, but her 2004 album Roll provided me one of my rare happy promo-pile discoveries. At first listen, it sounded like fairly generic twangy midtempo fare, fronted by an unusually strong vocalist/guitarist. It was the latter aspect that led me to keep Roll around for a second listen, at which point the depth of songs like the folkie ramble "The Milkman's Daughter" and the fiery blues-rocker "Roll" started to sink in. McCue's follow-up album, 2006's Koala Motel, is slightly less energetic, but her songwriting has continued to sharpen, along with her singing. She's a good one, and not as well-known as she should be.
Enduring presence? Each of her two albums so far contains four or five formidable songs that are more melodic and spirited than similar artists. Watch out for McCue she could break through one day.
"Roll" by Anne McCue
Antony & The Johnsons
Years Of Operation 2004-present
Fits Between Leonard Cohen and Rufus Wainwright
Personal Correspondence Based on his voice and music alone, I liked Antony & The Johnsons pretty much immediately, though I distrusted the "reticent dandy" persona in articles I read about Antony around the time his second album came out. Then I saw started seeing Antony perform–on late night TV shows, and the Leonard Cohen concert film I'm Your Man, and Lou Reed's Berlin–and found him so genuinely humble and mesmerizing on-stage that all my preconceptions about who he is melted away. I'd call myself a fan.
Enduring presence? I have hopes that Antony will follow up the magnificent I Am A Bird Now with something every bit as remarkable, thus cementing his reputation. And I hope he waits until 2009 to do it.
The Apples In Stereo
Years Of Operation 1992 to present
Fits Between The Kinks and Electric Light Orchestra
Personal Correspondence The flagship band of The Elephant 6 Recording Company has often sounded better on paper than in actuality, though they're always good for a few memorable songs per record, and The Discovery Of A World Inside The Moone is a classic of the lo-fi homemade garage-rock genre, probably because it doesn't sound the least bit rinky-dink.
Enduring presence? The Apples' big 2007 comeback record was kind of a disappointment–to me at least–but Robert Schneider's Lars Von Trier-like orchestration of a whole movement out of nothing more than self-hype and some scattered singles will always be a part of the story of '90s rock, if the right people are telling it.
The Arcade Fire
Years Of Operation 2003-present
Fits Between Neutral Milk Hotel and Bruce Springsteen
Personal Correspondence I hesitate to even type "Arcade Fire" in this blog because those two words in combination seem to angry up the blood of a lot of our readers. In fact, sometimes I think we could run a site with no actual content, just pictures of Conor Oberst, Quentin Tarantino and other divisive pop culture figures, and as long as we left space for comments, we'd still draw a million readers a month. To be fair though, I can see where the Arcade Fire-doubters are coming from, because I was a skeptic myself once. I thought Funeral was pretty good, but cluttered and affected overall: a degraded second-generation version of what the Elephant 6 bands and The Decemberists had done much better. Re-listening this week, I'm not sure I was entirely wrong. I finally gave a second listen to the original Arcade Fire EP, which I'm sure I played once and filed after Funeral came out, and it still sounds pretty thin, and strained. As for Funeral, maybe my perceptions are clouded by my memory of the stirring set the band did on a recent Austin City Limits, but the live versions of the debut album's songs seem so much more fully realized now than they were a couple of years ago. On record, the potential is there, but the performance is still a little unnecessarily clattering. But the clarity and emotional impact of Neon Bible? Well, that's why I listen to music. The difference between the original EP's unfocused version of "No Cars Go" and the transcendent take on Neon Bible is like the difference between a postcard of a Monet painting and the actual canvas.
Enduring presence? When it comes to The Arcade Fire, I've done a well, not quite a 180, because I always respected the band call it a 70. Previously, I thought they were merely good. Now I think they're going to be one of the defining rock bands of this era. Sorry, haters.
Archers Of Loaf
Years Of Operation 1991-1998
Fits Between Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement
Personal Correspondence I've learned to appreciate Eric Bachmann's recent music with Crooked Fingers, but I'll never stop missing Archers Of Loaf, the indie-rock band that in some ways represented the fullest–and possibly final–flower of a musical wave I caught the first time I heard Dinosaur Jr.'s You're Living All Over Me. A lot of what I have to say about that wave will have to wait for a future week, because it's just too big a subject, but I do want to take a moment to advocate on behalf of Vee Vee, the Archers' second album, and a superior example of a band overcoming the infinite regress of self-reference–because in the end, Vee Vee's really an album about the frustrations inherent in being part of the slacker generation–to present something at once personal and ferocious. It was my favorite album of '95, and hasn't budged from my list of the '90s best albums in 12 years.
Enduring presence? I worry sometimes that Loaf fandom is slipping away. Allow me to give it a goose by presenting my favorite AoL song below, from the EP Vs. The Greatest Of All Time. Play this fucker loud.
"The Lowest Part Is Free!" by Archers Of Loaf
Years Of Operation 2002-present
Fits Between The Libertines and Nirvana
Personal Correspondence I felt like I've said most of what I want to say about this band in the reviews I wrote of their first two albums for The A.V. Club, but since one of the readers last week brought them up, I felt obliged to give both albums–and EPs, singles, etc.–a good listen this week. As always, I'm torn between feeling that I've underrated this very good, basically well-meaning band in the past, and feeling that, no, their music is squarely in the B/B+ range. They've got a handful of killer songs and a great overall sound, but also a lot of filler, and maybe too much reliance on muscle. I like Arctic Monkeys, but don't love them. If past patterns pertain, I'll learn to love them right about the time their fans start to lose interest. (See also: Beck, Guided By Voices, The Decemberists I'll get to them all later.)
Enduring presence? That first album may suffer some from being prematurely anointed a classic, but it really is quite good, and significant as much for the time and place it documents as for the quality of the music.
Years Of Operation 1956-present
Fits Between Mahalia Jackson and Ray Charles
Personal Correspondence I felt bad for not writing anything about Al Green last week, so I was determined not to consign Aretha to the "also listened to" pile, lest I come off as one of those clueless white dudes who thinks that poor-selling indie-rock acts are more "important" than The Queen Of Soul. The fact is that I've spent as much of my adult life listening to the legends of R&B;–both popular and obscure–as I have listening to any of the output of the Elephant 6-ers. But in some ways I lack the vocabulary to talk about this music with any eloquence. Aretha sings like a woman who knows emotions I'll never feel, and I could listen to "Day Dreaming" every day of my life and not get tired of it. Particularly if it comes up about mid-afternoon, before the kids can home, when I'm pushing to get some work done. In fact let's all take a "Day Dreaming" break right now.
Enduring presence? Come on.
"Day Dreaming" by Aretha Franklin
Years Of Operation 1979-1992 (solo)
Fits Between Chic and Steve Reich
Personal Correspondence I believe I've picked up nearly every one of the generous number of Russell reissues that've come out in the past half-decade, but honestly, I haven't really liked very many of them. More intriguing is the idea of an avant-garde disco adventurer, laying down beats and textures in his NYC apartment, exploring the pure pleasures of rhythm without caring if anyone else heard it. The problem with most of the Russell collections is that they're mostly filled with doodles and marginalia, engaging for fans of his more polished "official" dance-club tracks and for students of electronic music, but not especially satisfying to genre dabblers. Still, some of Russell's sketches are stunning in their potential, bearing out the sentiment in the title of one of those posthumous collections: First Thought Best Thought.
Enduring presence? Someone needs to put out one properly eclectic, well-chosen and short Russell compilation for the neophyte. If they do, I'll probably buy that too.
Years Of Operation 1966-1972 (in essence)
Fits Between The Beach Boys and Wayne Newton
Personal Correspondence Aside from the big hits–"Along Comes Mary," "Cherish"–I had little interest in The Association until I got interested in Curt Boettcher, and since that's a topic best explored when we get to the "Cu"s, I won't dwell on how a closer study of Boettcher's orchestrations on The Association's first album helped me see that album as more than just reactionary hippie-era treacle. Anyway, the band's best work happened post-Boettcher. I refer specifically to the 1968 pop classic Birthday, the shiny, happy, groovy record that found The Association dancing around the edges of psychedelia without ever losing the beat. I think a lot of rock fans have a tendency to pull up short on the poppier wing of the '60s West Coast rock scene, accepting The Beach Boys into their lives, but stopping short of The Mamas & The Papas and The Association–or East Coast fellow travelers The Lovin' Spoonful and The Rascals–even though all of those bands were frequently as innovative and sublime as anything Brian Wilson whipped up. (And I say this as an avowed Wilsonite.) Just listen to "The Time It Is Today," with its delicate harmonies and supple hum. It's a gorgeous song, with an unusual structure and moments–like that murmuring "I know"–where a little trapdoor opens, revealing unexpected depths. The genre doesn't get much better than this.
Enduring presence? Budding sunshine-pop fans need to buy Birthday, like, right now, man.
"The Time It Is Today" by The Association
At The Drive-In
Years Of Operation 1993-2001
Fits Between Polvo and Santana
Personal Correspondence By the time I got interested in At The Drive-In, they were less than a year away from closing up shop, and–in my opinion–about an album away from real greatness. I've no doubt that hardcore fans of the ATDI will say they reached Valhalla on In/Casino/Out and were compromising themselves for airplay's sake with Relationship Of Command, the album that introduced them to the masses in a major way. For me though, even the machine-tooled, explosives-rigged Relationship Of Command contains a few too many moments where the band seems to back away from the mighty weapon they wield on frenzied art-punk classics like "Arcarsenal," "One-Armed Scissor" and "Invalid Litter Dept." and instead retreat to the tentative or the shrill, as though trying to prove to their base that they're human after all. After a year of being treated like saviors on the touring circuit, At The Drive-In's next album might've been as devastating as RoC almost was. But who knows? If they'd pressed on and signed with a major, they might've become like fellow Texans And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, and lost the plot completely.
Enduring presence? The Mars Volta is too wonky for my taste, and Sparta too dull. Is this one of those bands that will re-form in a decade and make some of the best music of their career, a la Mission Of Burma?
From the fringes of my collection, a few songs (some great, some not-so) to share .
Andrew Gold, "Lonely Boy" When I was a high school punk, I used to argue that the '70s was the worst decade for pop music, but every now and then, my anthology-farming turns up lesser-known '70s hits like this slick, somewhat overproduced mini-epic: a song that pretty much sums up Carter-era malaise. "Lonely Boy" went Top 10 in 1977, and turns up on the occasional soundtrack (like Boogie Nights) and "Sensational '70s"-style compilation, though Gold is best known for two TV theme songs: The Golden Girls' "Thank You For Being A Friend" and Mad About You's "Final Frontier." Fun fact for movie buffs: Gold's mom is Marnie Nixon, the go-to vocal stand-in for '50s and '60s Hollywood musicals.
"Lonely Boy" by Andrew Gold
The Anita Kerr Singers, "Happiness" Another one from the Come To The Sunshine compilation. I've got so many songs like this in my collection that I probably shouldn't stop and comment on every one, since the reasons I like them don't change much from song to song. (Bright, peppy, evocative of a fantasy world that has never existed outside the movies, etc.) But I'm fascinated by Kerr, a one-time Tennessean who masterminded a hundred or so easy listening records from the '50s until she died–very few of which are still in print. Those albums were made to be disposable, and what do you know? They were disposed of. Still, someone should give Kerr the kind of treatment afforded the likes of Esquivel and Martin Denny, and at least put together a well-chosen anthology with scholarly liner notes. There's a history there that's barely been explored.
"Happiness" by The Anita Kerr Singers
Ann Peebles, "I Can't Stand The Rain" Here's another great R&B; song that makes the case against originality. Musically, there's very little about this track that isn't standard-issue, but Peebles' vocal performance and the specificity of the lyrics drape off the A-frame spectacularly.
"I Can't Stand The Rain" by Ann Peebles
Annuals, "The Bull And The Goat" In October of '06, I wrote of Annuals, "Those interested in hearing the next generation of Sunny Day Real Estate-style yearners should try Annuals' debut album, which blends calming, hypnotic indie-rock with all-in basement-pop, creating something simultaneously uplifting and harsh. Bandleader Adam Baker is a little scattered but Be He Me teems with ideas and possibilities. Annuals could have disciples of their own soon." Okay, so listening to Be He Me again this week, I'm hearing a smart, well-played, but essentially dull indie-rock record. This is one of the hazards of regular reviewing: the ebb and flow of the promo pile means that sometimes I'd come across records too good not to review, but that I really had no passion for. Out of the context of having to listen by necessity, Annuals don't really impress as much. No wonder our readers hate us sometimes. (That said, this is still a pretty good song.)
"The Bull And The Goat" by Annuals
Anti Pop Consortium, "Mega" In my ongoing campaign not to be an out-of-touch "rockist," I've made an effort throughout my reviewing career to check out the hip-hop acts that my fellow critics have pegged as the most innovative and interesting. Frankly, APC is a bit too out there for me, but I really dig this track, from 2002's aptly named Arrhythmia.
"Mega" by Anti Pop Consortium
Antigone Rising, "Broken" Does anyone remember the hype surrounding this band a couple of years ago, when they became one of the first artists to release a CD through Starbucks? Or did that hype never get any bigger than the constant press releases touting their accomplishment? Antigone Rising is one of those acts with a rabid following of people convinced that no one makes music like this besides this band, which means that if you criticize them, you get angry e-mails that inevitably assume you must like the worst kind of Top 40 schlock instead of "good music." Question for myself: What makes Anne McCue's "Roll" a better song than this? Answer: I'm not sure I can explain it, which is why this job can be so frustrating.
"Broken" by Antigone Rising
Any Trouble, "Yesterday's Love" This is a recent discovery, thanks to eMusic's hearty collection of Stiff Records classics (both acknowledged and un). Any Trouble's debut album is a must for fans of Nick Lowe, early Joe Jackson, and Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True. The song below is a prime example of what Any Trouble could do: music at once backward-looking and modern or at least the 1980 version of both those concepts. Yes, the rest of the album is just as good. If I could go back in time and be a rock critic in 1980, Where Are All The Nice Girls would be in my Top 5 albums of the year. It contains a good cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Growin' Up" too, for you Bruce fans out there.
"Yesterday's Love" by Any Trouble
The Appleseed Cast, "Ice Heavy Branches" I think I started to drift away from music criticism when I realized I lacked context for bands like The Appleseed Cast, and songs like this one. I really like the way "Ice Heavy Branches" dresses up a rigid structure with echo and heart, relying on rhythmic texture to fill in the spaces where the melody doesn't go. But The Appleseed Cast is part of a scene that developed away from my watch. Are they emo? Indie-rock? Modern rock? I do so try to keep up, but no matter how much research I've done–including reading Andy Greenwald's book Nothing Feels Good–I wasn't nurtured by this stuff the way that the generation behind me was. It's hard to write about it without sounding like an idiot. It's easier just to say I like it.
"Ice Heavy Branches" by The Appleseed Cast
Aqueduct, "Dinner Mints" Now this I'm more comfortable writing about. A sterling example of DIY indie, thrown together in a basement by a dude too smart for his own good. Post-Beat Happening, post-Beck, post-Grandaddy, post-Flaming Lips. There's a regional twang, a touch of hip-hop sensibility, and some modernist impulses in the recording and instrumentation. It's also catchy and weird and personal. Aqueduct is still a band to watch, though I was let down by their third album, which came out last year.
"Dinner Mints" by Aqueduct
Arthur Collins, "Oh! Didn't He Ramble" I can't really immerse myself in this kind of early 20th century pop, but it's ideal for iPod shuffling, putting the rest of the rock and soul that comes up in a historical context. This is a remarkable recording, too, blending a few different era-specific approaches: the folk music story song with a repeated chorus, the roughly bluesy voice, and the bandstand toot and squawk (the century-ago version of studio "polish").
"Oh! Didn't He Ramble" by Arthur Collins
Arthur Verocai, "Dedicada A Ela" Here's one of my happier impulse buys. I have a bad habit of reading about an old record I've never heard of and–without even checking out the music firsthand–buying the disc off Amazon. I can't remember where I read about Verocai's self-titled album–a not-especially-well-known piece of '70s Brazilian pop–but wherever it was, something in the description of Verocai's blend of folk music, worldbeat and lush soft rock suckered me in. And much like I wrote about Air's Moon Safari last week, Arthur Verocai was one of those rare cases of "exactly what I was looking for." It's at one exotic and familiar, heartfelt and adventurous.
"Dedicada A Ela" by Arthur Verocai
Asia, "Heat Of The Moment" My brother and I used to spend summers with our dad in Kansas, in a dinky small town whose best feature was a Godfather's Pizza with a jukebox. We'd go to that Godfather's about once a week, and almost always punched up the same two songs with our respective quarters: "Under Pressure," by Queen and David Bowie, and this debut single by the band that was supposed to be the '80s' premiere supergroup. Since my brother and I worshiped the likes of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer back then, we had high hopes for Asia, but by the time the band's first album had run its course, we'd both moved on to New Wave (and then me to punk, which my brother never got into). But even though Asia never became world-beaters, this is still one terrific rock anthem, with a massive opening riff and an innate sense of when to pour it on and when to lay off. Mainstream rock music was about two or three years away from going to all-bombast-all-the-time–a phenomenon for which the success of this song is partly responsible–but compared to the post-Trevor Horn clatter of the late '80s, "Heat Of The Moment" is direct and clean. It's always a pleasure to hear.
"Heat Of The Moment" by Asia
Ass Ponys, "Peanut '93" I have mixed feelings about rednexploitation–to be examined in a future column–but the detail of this trailer trash tableau is too precise and funny to dislike. It's a good way to go out this week.
"Peanut '93" by Ass Ponys
Listened to, unremarked upon*:
The American Plague, Amii Stewart, Amina, Amon Tobin, Amusement Parks On Fire, Amy Farris, Amy Millan, Amy Rigby, Amy Speace & The Tearjerks, Anders Parker, Andre 3000, Andre Previn, Andre Williams & 2 Star Tabernacle, The Andrea True Connection, Andrew Kenny, Andrew Shapiro, Andy Grooms Living Room, Andy Narell, Andy White, Andy Williams, The Angelic Gospel Singers, Angels Of Venice, Angie Stone, Ani DiFranco, The Animals, Anita O'Day, Anita Ward, Ann Beretta, Ann Sexton, Anna Ternheim, Annabella Lwin, Annie, Annie Hayden, Annie Lennox, Antena, Anthony David, Anthony Michael James, Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Anton Barbeau, Antonio Carlos Jobim, The Anubian Lights, Aphasia, Aphex Twin, Apollo 440, Apollo Sunshine, Apostle Of Hustle, Arbouretum, Archer Prewitt, Architecture In Helsinki, Argent, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Arizona Amp & Alternator, The Ark, Arling & Cameron, The Arrows, Art Adams, Art Brut, Art Lord & The Self Portraits, Arthur Alexander, Artmus Pyledriver, Artists United Against Apartheid, Arto Lindsay, As Tall As Lions, ASG, Ashley Stove, Asian Dub Foundation, Asleep At The Wheel, Asobi Seksu, Aspen It Is, Ass Ponys, Assembly Of Dust, Astaire, Astrid Swan, Astrud Gilberto, Asylum Street Spankers and At Dusk
*In response to readers who asked if I've been deleting anything, I'm now striking through the acts that have been completely removed from my hard drive. The other acts, even if I'm retaining only one or two tracks, are un-struck.
Next week: From Atari Teenage Riot to The Beatles, plus a few words on the pleasures of throwing things away. (Note: Because I'll be Sundance from Wednesday to the following Tuesday, the next Popless installment will be posting a couple of days late.)