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.
As explained in Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, sometimes a product, a concept, or even a perceived threat can go from being the province of a few to being an international phenomenon, just by virtue of it reaching a certain saturation level in the public awareness. That's sort of what happens with critics too, whenever a band, rapper or a singer comes out of nowhere and becomes the only thing anyone wants to talk about for weeks and months on end. And the reasons why are sometimes hard to discern. Clever marketing, a few well-placed rave reviews, genuine quality… whatever gets the chatter started, it all leads to critics and fans scrambling to get their hands on a record and then, inevitably, responding with an, "I don't know, it's fine I guess, but kind of overrated." Which raises the question: What would they have said if the record hadn't been "rated" before they heard it?
There can be a kind of "tipping point" on an individual level too, related to the one I just described. When I was young and flippant, I took some pretty obnoxious potshots in print at the alt-rock heroes of the day. Show me an act that was getting a lot of hype in the mid-'90s—Beck, Green Day, Weezer, Guided By Voices, Pearl Jam, Hole, Radiohead—and I can probably dig through my clip files and find pans and semi-pans under my byline. But at the same time, I've also always been in thrall to the idea of the Big Shared Pop Moment. I like blockbusters on opening weekend, hit TV shows when they're in full stride, and new albums by musicians with sizable followings. So I'll keep on buying albums by acts I don't much like, provided that some combination of sales and critical acclaim makes those albums "a must-hear." And sometimes, if I'm persistent enough, an album comes along that flips a switch in my head, and makes it so that I not only start to like an artist, but begin to reevaluate all the albums I hated before.
I wouldn't say I hated Guided By Voices prior to 1995's Alien Lanes, but when I dutifully bought Bee Thousand and the combo CD of Vampire On Titus and Propeller when they were all the rage, I failed to see why critics and friends of mine had fallen in love so easily. I tended to agree with Robert Christgau, who wrote of Bee Thousand, "On most of these 20-tracks-in-36-minutes, the tunes emerge if you stick around, but they're undercut by multiple irritants. The lyrics are deliberately obscure, the structures deliberately foreshortened, the vocals a record collector's Anglophilia-in-the-shower; the rec-room production is so inconsistent you keep losing your bearings, as befits resident art-rock fan Robert Pollard's boast (which echoes Lou Barlow's, what a coincidence) that some recordings aren't just first takes but first plays, of songs he'd dreamed up since the last time the band came over. In short, this is pop for perverts—pomo smarty-pants too prudish and/or alienated to take their pleasure without a touch of pain to remind them that they're still alive."
But for some reason. Alien Lanes clicked with me, even though it's more a collection of snippets, fragments and first takes than anything Pollard had thrown together before. It's like an album-long suite of the best parts of old power-pop and garage-rock chestnuts, and it achieves a cumulative majesty that, to me, Bee Thousand still doesn't. That said, I do like Bee Thousand more now than I once did, because I've come to trust Robert Pollard. Now that I know he can deliver in the clutch, I see his early work as the tentative steps of a hero-in-training. (And I gave him the benefit of the doubt from then on—at least for a while.)
Maybe it's just that I respect people with sizable bodies of work more than one-hit-wonders. If artists stick around long enough, I take them more seriously. Or maybe there's a maturing process necessary before artists are worth taking seriously. (I'll add that this isn't just a musical phenomenon either. It took P.T. Anderson's weird and wondrous Punch-Drunk Love before I started to see Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia as more than just hammy and fitful, and I've had similar mind-changing experiences with Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg and others.)
An odd byproduct of this phenomenon though is that I seem to get into a lot of artists right when their die-hard fans start to lose interest. I'm not sure why this is, because I'm not a contrarian by nature, but from Alien Lanes to The Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, it seems I'm perpetually declaring my devotion to an album only to hear in return, "Eh, they aren't as good as they used to be." The early adopter types seem as quick to jump off as I'm hesitant to jump on. It's enough to make you wonder how much of music fandom—and music criticism—is in reaction to everything but the actual music.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1971-present (solo)
Fits Between Colin Blunstone and Peter Noone
Personal Correspondence As I've mentioned before, my Crobsy, Stills and Nash iPod playlists are organized by songwriter, and as you might imagine, Graham Nash's is the shortest, at around 50 minutes. But that doesn't mean I play Nash any less than the others. The key to any good Graham Nash collection is to include the songs he's largely responsible for as a member of The Hollies, including Britpop classics like "Carrie-Anne" and "King Midas In Reverse." Nash's more overtly poppy (and occasionally trippy) Hollies work fits cleanly between his hyper-mellow solo stuff and the chirpy songs he contributed to CSNY, and while he's never been the most prolific songwriter, he's got good quality control, recording and releasing a proportionately significant number of memorable tunes. There's a unique feel to the best Graham Nash songs: something wide-eyed in its philosophy, craftsmanlike in its construction, and elegant in its brevity.
Enduring presence? In a lot of ways, Nash is the odd man out in CSNY, because songs like "Our House," "Teach Your Children" and "Marrakesh Express" are so different from Crosby, Stills and Young's more freeform hippie jams. But then that's always been one the group's core missions, to integrate the remnants of the British Invasion sound with Greenwich Village folk and Sunset Strip rock, and thus present the maturing face of the '60s pop scene.
Years Of Operation 1974-present
Fits Between Van Morrison and Joe Jackson
Personal Correspondence You could write a very compelling alternate history of '70s rock if you ignored the usual critical sniping about corporate rock, prog and disco—and how the industry was redeemed through the saving grace of punk and new wave—and instead just followed the singer-songwriters and bandleaders, from Marvin Gaye to Jackson Browne to Willie Nelson to Van Morrison to Stevie Wonder to Nick Lowe to Bruce Springsteen to Mark Knopfler to Prince to Elvis Costello and beyond. In that new framing, Graham Parker stands out more. I've always liked Parker quite a bit, having spent many happy hours in high school spinning Squeezing Out Sparks (Parker's acknowledged masterpiece) as well as The Real Macaw and The Mona Lisa's Sister (less celebrated, but hey, I picked them up cheap). But at the same time, I've always had difficulty making sense of his sound, which shares some of the bite of punk—or at least its forerunner, pub-rock—and some of the swing of blue-eyed soul, and yet is never exactly hard enough or fluid enough to supplant the music with which it has an affinity. The selling point for Parker isn't his music so much as his lyrics, with their peculiar bite and acidic aftertaste. And if you stack Parker's words and persona up against folks like Browne and Springsteen and Gaye, he sidles up easily.
Enduring presence? On the other hand, the quality of Parker's output has declined more severely over the past decade or so than that of his contemporaries, though he generally manages to come up with something listenable (if a little dull). He certainly hasn't damaged his rep too much, anyway—especially since he's always been one for the connoisseurs. (Side note: For some reason I can't think about Graham Parker without remembering this Hulk comic, which was named for a song off Squeezing Out Sparks. The brain connects things up in odd ways sometimes.)
Years Of Operation 1963-73
Fits Between Buck Owens and The Jayhawks
Personal Correspondence It took Ryan Adams to finally get me to break down and buy a bunch of albums I should've bought years ago. In my mania to track down Adams bootlegs and stray tracks back in the early '00s, I found his cover of "A Song For You" from the Gram Parsons tribute album that came out several years ago, and I listened to it a couple of times before I knew the source material. Around that same time, I re-bought The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo—an album I'd gotten on cassette back in college and hadn't liked much at the time—and I finally began to piece together Parsons' philosophy of "Cosmic Americana," and to hear it not just for its influence on artists I liked better, but for its inherent quality. I think I'd been resistant to Parsons for so long because it takes a lot for respected country-inflected singer-songwriters to slip around the defenses I'd erected against them back in high school. (I've never had a huge problem with country music, or with singer-songwriters in the pop-folk mold, but guys and gals with acoustic guitars who limit themselves to a certain rootsy framework tend to irritate me for no rational reason. It's a rejecting-your-father sort of thing, I'm sure.) As much as I've subsequently grown to love The Flying Burrito Brothers and Parsons' two solo albums, I still wish they had a little more of the "Cosmic" and a little less of the "Americana." But I understand that Parsons was still in back-to-basics mode there in the early '70s, and that he likely would've expanded his vision had he lived long enough to do so. In a way, that's part of the wonder of his recording legacy: we can imagine where Parsons might've traveled, and we don't have to suffer the letdowns of lousy reality.
Enduring presence? For better or worse, Parsons is the godfather of alt-country, both in terms of its emphasis on retro-twang and its once-removed tales of despair and poverty. I both love him and curse him for that. But mainly I'm pissed at Parsons for dying so young, and I'm glad that Ryan Adams hasn't gone out the same way. (Yet.)
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
Years Of Operation 1976-present
Fits Between The Sugarhill Gang and Whodini
Personal Correspondence When my older brother went off to college in upstate New York in the early '80s, he'd come home every break with cassette tapes full of Britpop and dance music, including the Grandmaster Flash classic "White Lines." At the time, hip-hop's presence in popular music—at least in suburban Nashville—was more at the novelty level, and until Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys helped make rap the first option for a lot of teenagers, almost everyone I knew treated the genre as something light and goofy. I confess that was my initial reaction to "White Lines," too. I liked it, but mainly because I thought it was kind of silly. But then I listened to it again. And again and again. And eventually I started to hear the complexity of the mix, and how the preachy rhymes contained a miniature document of New York cocaine culture at the onset of the '80s: the terminology, the social strata, et cetera. The only problem with my coming to appreciate Grandmaster Flash was that it made me more resistant to the stripped-down beat-and-boast hip-hop that dominated the middle of the decade. I expected more of a groove, and more sonic density, and too much of rap at the time sounded comparatively remedial to me. That is, until Public Enemy. But that's a subject for another day.
Enduring presence? There are some people who are bothered that Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five are in The Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame, because they're not "rock." These are the same kind of people who nitpick my pal Scott's "New Cult Canon" entries every week, not because of what he writes, but because the movies he writes about don't strike them as "cult-y" or "canon-y" enough. Look, terms of art aren't legal judgments. They're just ways of grouping, and sometimes they have personal meaning, and sometimes they have institutional meaning. "Rock 'n' roll" doesn't have any more of a hard-and-fast definition than movie genres like "comedy" or "drama" do. Ultimately, hip-hop shares the same roots as rock, and the Grandmaster Flash crew didn't just emerge from those influences, they extended them, and have proven influential themselves. That's what halls of fame are meant to honor.
The Grateful Dead
Years Of Operation 1965-95
Fits Between The Band and The Allman Brothers Band
Personal Correspondence There was a combination of factors that turned me into a Grateful Dead fan after years of willful resistance. In high school, when I was exploring '60s rock, I stopped short of the Dead, because their critical rep was low, and the few songs I'd heard on the radio sounded like a soggier version of The Band, whom I revered. In my college years, the Dead were beloved by the kind of mush-heads (and mush-head bands) whose company I couldn't abide… though to be fair, I probably wasn't such great company myself. Then I got one of my first real jobs—one that didn't involve tips or uniforms—working as a formatter for a legal publishing house, and one of my co-workers was a major Deadhead, who sang cool-sounding Robert Hunter lyrics at odd moments throughout the day. A few years later, I was impressed enough by the series finale of Freaks And Geeks—in which one character has her life changed by American Beauty—that I bought my first Grateful Dead album, and came to at least hear what was good about it, even if I didn't yet love it. But the real transformative moment happened six years ago, when I reviewed Dennis McNally's book A Long Strange Trip for The A.V. Club, and I started to understand better that what seems formless and lackadaisical in The Grateful Dead's music is actually built on solid foundations and thoughtful ideals, with far more complex explorations of rhythm than I had expected. (And as I hope I've made clear over the past 18 weeks, I'm a sucker for complex explorations of rhythm.) I bought some of live albums—including a few of the licensed bootlegs—and started to hear those hazy, sub-Band songs in the context of three hours of non-stop playing and subtle mood shifts. I'm still not a full-on Deadhead; I'm more an interested observer. But from their communal vibe to their DIY ethos to their constant grappling with how to amplify and record a mood, I've found they have far more in common with the art-punk and indie-rock I like than the anti-hippie crowd had led me to believe. I mean, I was already a Meat Puppets fan. Jumping to the Dead wasn't all that hard.
Enduring presence? I believe the knee-jerk Dead-disgust has died down some now that Jerry Garcia is dead—and thus no longer inching the band across the country for increasingly inert shows—and now that the jam band mania of the late '90s have subsided. I've even discovered that some respected rock critics—most notably Robert Christgau—have been Dead defenders for decades now. Tides do turn.
Years Of Operation 1987-present
Fits Between The Buzzcocks and Cheap Trick
Personal Correspondence The mind-changing process for me with Green Day has been slow, and remains incomplete. The first time I heard Dookie, I didn't just dislike it, I feared it, for the way it seemed to undermine two decades worth of aggression, rebellion and pop songcraft by giving it all a coat of arena-rock gloss. In the years since, a whole generation of pop-punk bands has made the Green Day formula even more sugary and fizzy, such that Green Day now sounds a lot more like ragged old-school traditionalists than they did in 1994. (Although truth be told, those distinctions have lost much of their meaning for me.) My problems with Green Day now are more basic: I think their songs tend to sound pretty samey, and most of their albums are about a half-dozen tracks to long. (It's the curse of the CD era.) And I think American Idiot was fussed over a bit too much by the press, though that's hardly the band's fault. Anyway, I give the boys credit for ambition, and I do take them seriously now.
Enduring presence? Much like Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam, Green Day have become rock elder statesmen simply by virtue of surviving.
They're among the most likely candidates of their era to one day make it into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, even though they were rarely the most acclaimed band of their generation. In about 10 or 15 years, rock's Hall Of Fame might well end up looking like baseball's Hall Of Fame, but only if the baseball's Hall Of Fame started inducting the likes of Bernie Williams over Ken Griffey Jr.
Green Rode Shotgun
Years Of Operation 2002-06
Fits Between The Raspberries and The Strokes
Personal Correspondence Towards the end of my time on the local music beat, I had the bright idea to write a feature story that delved into some of the questions I've always had about success and failure in the music business. I had to perfect subject, too: Green Rode Shotgun, a very good Middle Tennessee rock band that at the time had released a promising EP and were shopping around their debut album, trying to get the attention of a label—indie or major. The band's manager, appreciative of some of raves I'd thrown GRS' way, agreed to let me come hang out with the band for a day, conduct an extended interview, and check out one of their shows. He also gave me contact info for some of the people they'd worked with (not always fruitfully) in the past, and gave me permission to play some new songs for various people I knew in the music business. The point of the article: Does this band stand a chance? And if not, why not? Ultimately, I think I sensed that Green Rode Shotgun were never going to break wide, and since they were one of my favorite new bands at the time, I was planning to use this feature to examine why my own tastes were so out of synch not just with the mainstream, but with the alternative crowd as well. My editor was gung-ho when I pitched the idea, but though I turned in a piece that I felt good about and that he mostly liked, in the editing process it got sliced nearly in half, and turned into a fairly conventional band profile, with only traces of the critical perspective I'd planned. As for Green Rode Shotgun, well, they didn't make it. A brief flirtation with a major label didn't pan out, and since the guys in the band were all approaching middle age—and most of them had decent day jobs—they called it quits, likely figuring that if they couldn't draw flies with music as good as what they were making, what was the point? On my end, the whole experience added to my growing disillusionment.
Enduring presence? Listening to Green Rode Shotgun again this week, I still think they were a great band, who with the right breaks (and maybe a better name) could've won some people over. From the moment I first heard it, I've been putting "Lost Song"—one of my favorite rock songs of all time, actually—in front of everyone I can. Not everyone digs it. I don't understand why.
Years Of Operation 1981-89
Fits Between Matthew Sweet and Commander Cody
Personal Correspondence I've got an essay about Christian Rock in mind for some far-off future Popless, and when I finally get around to it, I'll likely return to Guadalcanal Diary, a sort of stealth CCR act that has dealt with faith and spirituality the way I prefer to see it dealt with in music—with healthy doses of doubt and humility, and with the maturity to make religion only one subject among many. On their stirring first few albums, Guadalcanal Diary sang songs about The Civil War, alcoholism, African safaris, The Three Stooges and genocide, all with a kicky sound that combined the Byrds-y jangle then-common to college rock with a heavy shot of roadhouse twang. The band's debut album, Walking In The Shadow Of The Big Man, was one of those mid-'80s cult favorites that didn't sell a lot, but was beloved by nearly everyone who bought it. (Although one of my mom's Civil War re-enactor pals bought that album because he liked the book the band was named for, and I'm sure he didn't get quite what he was expecting.) Guadalcanal Diary's follow up Jamboree didn't sound quite as fresh or tight, though it did contain some great songs, and when the band muscled up some for the next two records, they gradually lost a lot of their individuality. During the transition though, they knocked out 2x4, which contains arguably their most enduring anthem, "Litany (Life Goes On)." There were dozens of bands that sounded like Guadalcanal Diary on college radio and cluttering up local rock scenes in the '80s, but few had GD's scope or sense of purpose. They were something special.
Enduring presence? There's a two-fer CD that contains Walking In The Shadow and Jamboree, which I would almost call an essential purchase if it weren't for the fact that the disc's sound quality is too soft. Rhino Handmade released sterling limited editions of Walking In The Shadow and 2x4 a few years back too, but as with all the Handmade products, they're extra-expensive. Obviously, there's still some interest out there in Guadalcanal Diary, since their albums haven't exactly fallen out of print like some other bands' have, but they could certainly do with a good anthology, with decent sound.
Guided By Voices
Years Of Operation 1983-2004
Fits Between The Who and Half Japanese
Personal Correspondence As mentioned above, Guided By Voices were one of the acts that I was iffy about until I heard an album (Alien Lanes) that changed my mind for good. One of the ways that Robert Pollard eventually wore me down was with his lyrics. Tossed-off phrases like "senators sipping on Gentleman Jack," and "we'll put on some Kraftwerk and do it up right," and "post-punk X-men" rattled around in my head, and even today stray GBV titles and lines leap to mind, depending on the situation (almost like Simpsons quotes). For example, my wife and I sometimes refer to our methodical six-year-old son—a high-functioning autist who speaks in loud, flat tones and can already do math on a sixth-grade level—as "robot boy," after GBV's song "Gold Star For Robot Boy." And as it happens, there's nothing my robot boy likes better than getting gold stars, so the name fits.
Enduring presence? I had an alternate GBV-related essay idea for this week, related to musicians who are so prolific that they eventually start to damage their reputations by drowning their fans in dreck. (I'll probably return to this subject later on.) Surely if Robert Pollard had quit making music after Alien Lanes, his output up to 1995—much of it as shoddy as his output afterward, honestly—might be more revered than it already is. But critics and fans alike got to the point where they greeted yet another spotty Guided By Voices release—and now yet another spotty Robert Pollard solo release—with something more like dread than anticipation. Pollard likes value for money, so it's a hard slog through a lot of mediocre bashers to get to the three of four pure-pop gems he buries on each new record. And yet, put any one of those late-period Pollard "good" songs on a mix CD, and they nearly always stand out. Put them all together a Pollard-only mix CD and you'll really have something.
[pagebreak] The Gun Club
Years Of Operation 1980-96
Fits Between The Cramps and The White Stripes
Personal Correspondence I had a friend in 10th grade who loaned me punk albums when I was first getting interested in the genre's history and canon, but my friend was no punk scholar himself, so his recommendations were often fairly random. He just picked things up here and there, and then he'd pass them on to me, usually without comment, leaving me completely at sea as to where these records came from and whether anyone else in the world cared about them. One of those albums was The Gun Club's debut, Fire Of Love, which I recorded on the flipside of my tape of The Rolling Stones' Beggar's Banquet—a good match, as it turned out. In the years to come, I'd stumble across The Gun Club in strange places. I found a cassette copy of Miami in my brother's college roommate's collection, a live bootleg in a used record store, a budget-bin copy of The Las Vegas Story, a cheap import of Mother Juno at a thrift shop, a copy of bandleader Jeffrey Lee Pierce's solo album in the collection of my first girlfriend, and so on. But none of these pieces of music seemed to connect up, and I couldn't find much written about Pierce or The Gun Club that wasn't skimpy and often somewhat derisive. (I remember a quote from former Gun Club associate and spook-rock stalwart Kid Congo Powers, complaining that Pierce "was singing about hellhounds on his trail while he was living with his mom.") I found out later that The Gun Club's meager fortunes were largely maintained by the Euro-circuit, where people have generally been more forgiving of adulteration, and where Pierce's blend of faux-blues, gutter-punk, gauzy goth and heavy echo resonated more than at home. In the alt-country era, The Gun Club had a minor revival, and I've heard some of Pierce's songs covered here and there. But because he was yet another lousy addict who died young, Pierce never really got to manage his legend. Was he a poseur or a prophet? A colossal fuck-up, or merely human? The Gun Club story, properly told, deals with appropriation, maturation, expatriation, and validation. It's the story of rock 'n' roll.
Enduring presence? For all the band's ups and downs, The Gun Club discography is surprisingly strong, and mostly in print. Their best-known album is Fire Of Love—my high school friend started me off right there—but from the moment I heard it on the tape I boosted from my brother's roommate, my favorite has been Miami, a shoddily recorded, country-tinged death-rock record that reeks of pulp novels, tourist traps and graveyard shifts.
Hall & Oates
Years Of Operation 1969-present
Fits Between The Righteous Brothers and Boz Scaggs
Personal Correspondence My soft spot for Hall & Oates dates back to an HBO concert special I saw sometime in the early '80s, around the Private Eyes/H2O era. The duo was pretty ubiquitous by that point, seemingly popping out new hits every few months, with said hits ranging from the blandly innocuous to the genuinely catchy. In concert though—in cablecast concert anyway—the succession of familiar songs was impressive and infectious, and Daryl Hall's full voice and slick stage presence made sense of all the lip service he'd paid in interviews to his Philly soul roots. From a skeptic's perspective, Hall's a talented vocalist who's spent his whole career straining to sell out, by burying his influences behind whatever his expensive producers wanted to throw into the mix. But you could just as easily look at Hall—and Oates of course—as smarter-than-average pop stars who elevated chart-ready material via their more expansive tastes. After years of being content with my copy of the singles collection Rock And Soul, I went on an H&O; binge on iTunes one day a couple of years ago, and cherry-picked the best songs from all the albums I could find. I enjoyed hearing the duo transition from folk-pop to pillowy soul to punchy pop, all while maintaining an identifiable core sound. From "Sara Smile" to "Out Of Touch," they're basically the same dudes, wearing different clothes.
Enduring presence? In my experience, more people are willing to adopt Hall & Oates as a guilty pleasure than just about any other "guilty pleasure act" of their era (outside of maybe Billy Joel). Perhaps that's because there's not a whole lot to feel guilty about with Hall & Oates. Sure, there are some songs of theirs that are more enjoyable as kitsch than great pop—"Adult Education," for example, and "Method Of Modern Love"—but songs like "Everytime You Go Away" and "One On One" are pretty unassailable, and Hall & Oates has a wealth of lesser-known material that holds up as well as the hits.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
Grafton, "The Best Part Of La Grange"
This song belongs in the ranks of killer small-town kiss-offs. It reminds me of Hüsker Du crossed with neo-garage, then twanged-up a little, and it's another one of those songs that found me rather than vice-versa. I was sent the CD it came from, I played it dutifully, and my ears lit up when this song came on. That was a good day.
Grandaddy, "El Caminos In The West"
When Jason Lytle's California indie-rock collective showed up on the pop-culture radar in the late '90s, their attempts to integrate sputtering electronics into country-tinged loping resulted in an impressive match between music and message, as Lytle's lyrics about decaying technology and his shambling compositions evoked the bleed of the futuristic into the mundane and vice versa. Grandaddy subsequently smoothed out too much, but on songs like the steady-rolling "El Caminos In The West," Lytle crafts trinities of humanity, landscape, and machine, putting the three in opposition to each other to establish a feeling of inescapable loneliness. The quintessential Grandaddy character sits brokenhearted and lost on a stretch of hot pavement, next to a malfunctioning car. The quintessential Grandaddy sound melts pretty Todd Rundgren piano balladeering with melancholy Neil Young twang and a modernism-damaged sensibility equally derived from Pink Floyd, Pavement, and Radiohead—all musicians who like to celebrate the sad little triumph of being.
Grandpaboy, "Hot Un"
Here's an example of how badly critics want to hear something amazing in the past-their-prime output of musicians who used to be amazing. It's what I call it The Chrissie Hynde Effect, named in honor of the way that nearly every mediocre Pretenders album post-1985 (which is to say all of them) has been miraculously hailed as a return to form by critics who apparently forgot that they said much the same about the previous Pretenders album. When Paul Westerberg released an anonymous EP in 1997 under the moniker Grandpaboy, critics called it a welcome retreat to the rough-and-ready sound of The Replacements… which it's clearly not. Songs like "Hot Un" are enjoyable, certainly, but they're still tamer and slighter than Westerberg at his best. But people so badly want to hear him rock out again that they're willing to accept any uptick in tempo as a full-on resurrection.
Great Lake Swimmers, "Various Stages"
These whispery Canucks came out of nowhere a few years back with a self-titled debut that plunged into quietude with a reverence rarely heard since Cowboy Junkies turned a church into a recording studio for The Trinity Session. Great Lake Swimmers' sophomore effort, Bodies And Minds, traded the makeshift grain silo studio of its predecessor for the softer acoustics of a country church, and the songs were a little fuller too, with banjo, lap steel, and watery organ shading bandleader Tony Dekker's stark acoustic-guitar-and-percussion outlines. The cozily honest "Various Stages" is perfect make-out music for sensitive singles in off-campus housing, after a bottle of 10-dollar merlot and a gourmet dinner straight from Kroger's freezer section.
The Greenhornes, "It's Not Real"
I used to tell people that I was building up an eclectic library on my iPod so that I could set the device on "shuffle" and make some unexpected connections between different eras and styles of popular music. But there have been unintended consequences as well. I was gung-ho for neo-garage act The Greenhornes when the genre exploded at the dawn of the '00s, but one day one of their songs came up after an actual Nuggets track, and the contrast between genuine garage-rock and The Greeenhornes' overly rigid retread shook my faith. I still basically like the band, and they've taken some strong steps towards loosening up on their last couple of records, but I find I've gotten less and less interested in retro for its own sake, unless the musician has found a vein that's under-mined, or they have a unique take. Otherwise… contemporize, man.
Greg Ashley, "Fisher King"
As a solo artist and with his band The Gris-Gris, Greg Ashley provides a good example of how to give older styles a fresh spin. His music takes the basic atmosphere of garage-rock, Euro-sleaze and murky basement folk, but his particular combination of surrealism, literary flourish and unexpected lyricism feels wholly personal. Ashley's recorded output so far has been small but solid, and I get the feeling that he could be a very big deal before the decade is out.
Greg Kihn, "For You"
That alternate history of '70s rock that I spoke of in the Graham Parker entry would do wonders for Greg Kihn, an erstwhile barfly who scored two fairly big hits in his career ("The Breakup Song (They Don't Write 'Em)" and "Jeopardy") but mostly languished in the limbo that swallowed up countless gimmick-less rockers in a fast-changing era. This Kihn cover of an early Bruce Springsteen song—originally recorded at a time when Springsteen was on his way to being a non-starter—shows how Kihn fits in with his contemporaries. He was a clean-sounding post-boogie boy, who sounded best at 11:30 PM, well into his second encore and thinking about a third.
The Grifters, "Eureka I.V."
There was a time when I would've counted myself a fairly big Grifters fan, and expressed appreciation for the way the Memphis indie-rockers seemed to build sounds haphazardly, nailing good riffs to interesting lyrics whether they could support each other or not (and often savoring the collapse when they didn't). But I've been whittling my Grifters collection down further and further each year, until this week I was surprised to find before I'd even started listening that I only had 10 Grifters songs left. But at least I didn't cut any more. That 10 is a good 10.
The Guess Who, "Sour Suite"
Give me The Guess Who. They've got the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic.
Guns N' Roses, "Nightrain"
I'm not sure if rock history has properly registered the impact that Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction made when it was released in 1987. At the time, the hard rock scene was fairly splintered, with fans of the loud, fast and ugly dividing their attention between thrash, hardcore punk, art-metal, newly synth-heavy dinosaur acts, and power-ballad-wielding hair bands. Guns N' Roses roared off the Sunset Strip looking like just another hair band, but with a sound informed by The Rolling Stones, early '70s arena-rock and proto-punk. The band's subsequent elevation to Gods Among Men status—and the inevitable bloat in their sound and style—kind of obscures the fact that in the late '80s, it was rare to hear a song as smart and savage as "Welcome To The Jungle" on the radio. One could argue—and I definitely would—that there would've been no Nirvana breakout without the market first having been softened up by GNR. And ironically, in the wake of Nirvana, GNR sounded instantly out-of-date. No wonder we've been waiting so long for a new album.
Guy Clark, "Black Diamond Strings"
Clark's one of those old-guard singer-songwriters who's penned hits for big-time country artists and released thoughtful solo albums that sell mainly to other aspiring singer-songwriters. Songs like this paean to cheap goods are exactly what makes Clark a songwriter's songwriter. You could spend all day analyzing the simple structure and direct-but-profound message of "Black Diamond Strings," and only scratch the surface of what Clark does here that's so beautiful.
Haircut 100, "Love Plus One"
I could probably just cut-and-paste the entry I wrote on Aztec Camera back in January in order to describe the appeal of Haircut 100's breezy Britpop, with its luxe orchestrations and faintly tropical feel. I don't know whether a whole generation of young European men were actually jetting from ski resorts to Ibiza in between stints at university, but a bunch of UK musicians certainly tried to create that illusion in recording studios. It's like they were making music for Howard Hughes: arid and germ-free. There was a subset of indie-rock in the early '90s that tried like hell to recreate this sound, but it's hard to do on a budget, and without the original impulse. But I understand why people would want to call back to the crisp early '80s. It's like double-escapism, retreating to the nostalgia of an earlier era.
Half-Handed Cloud, "The Famine's Hard"
Here's another one to bring back up when I write about Christian Rock in a few weeks. Half-Handed Cloud is the Biblically informed, whimsically inclined outlet for charismatic singer-songwriter John Ringhofer, who on the recent album Thy Is A Word & Feet Need Lamps offered musical versions of Old Testament stories, delivered in a high, flat voice that's like a cross between Michael Stipe and Wayne Coyne. Ringhofer favors brevity, and shows a real gift for combining hummable melodies with avant-garde structure on songs like the explosive 90-second historical sketch "The Famine's Hard," a tight burst of experimentalism that proves it's possible to cram Syd Barrett and The Who into a single song.
The Halo Benders, "Your Asterisk"
I've been asked several times why I didn't write about Beat Happening back in the "B"s (or during my backtrack week), and the reason is both simple and shallow: I can't stand Calvin Johnson's voice. I abide it in The Halo Benders because it's tempered by the sweet whine of Doug Martsch, as well as his uncoiling guitar. But when Martsch and Built To Spill re-recorded The Halo Benders' best song, "Virginia Reel Around The Fountain," for their 2000 live album, I realized how much more I'd like my Halo Benders albums if one key element were removed. (Although actually I had that revelation a few years earlier, when I was enjoying The Halo Benders on the living room stereo and my wife wandered through, stopped, and said, "This may the worst thing I've ever heard.")
Harmonica Frank Floyd, "Swamp Root"
As Greil Marcus would eagerly point out, this rambling mid-20th-century roots musician had a much further-reaching influence than his scant recorded legacy would indicate. Harmonica Frank's short stint on Sun Records reportedly convinced Sam Philips that a white musician recording black music might be very successful, if said musician weren't an old coot. And it's not too hard to listen to "Swamp Root" and imagine a teenage Robert Zimmerman in rural Minnesota having his mind re-wired with each sputtering line.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Grace Jones, Grant Green, The Grass Roots, Greg Trooper, Grizzly Bear, Guster, The Hacienda Brothers, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Hank Williams, Hank Williams Jr., Hank III, Hanson, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, Harry Chapin and Harry Connick Jr.
Also listened to: The Gossip,
The GoStation, The Gourds, Gow Dow Experience, The Grabs, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Graham Coxon, Graham Smith, Grails, Gran Torino, Grand Champeen, Grand Funk Railroad, Grand Ole Party, Grand Prix's, Grand Serenade, Grand Theft Audio, Grandmaster Melle Mel, The Grandsons, Grant Lee Buffalo, Grant McLennan, Grant-Lee Phillips, The Grates, Gravel Pit, Gravioli, Grayson Capps, Great Lakes, Great Northern, Green Jelly, The Green Pajamas, Green Pitch, Green To Think, The Greenberry Woods, The Greencards, Greens Keepers, Greg Foresman, Greg Hawks & The Tremblers, Greg Lake, The Greg Lowery Band, Gregory Douglas, Greta Gaines, Greta Lee, The Grey, Grey Does Matter, The Grey Race, Greyboy, Griffin House, Grinderman, The Groop, Groove Addiction, Groove Armada, The Groove Farm, Ground Components, Growing, Guards Of Metropolis, Guff, Guppyboy, Gurf Morlix, Guru, Gus Black, Gustavo Santaolalla, Guv'ner, A Guy Called Gerald, Gwen Guthrie, Gwil Owen, Gym Class Heroes, H.I.M., Ha Ha Tonka, Hail Social, Hajime Tachibana, Half Man Half Biscuit, Hallelujah The Hills, Halou, Hammell On Trial, Hamilton Camp, Hanalei, The Handsome Family, Hang Ups, Hangar 18, Hangnail, Hank Cochran, Hanne Hukkelberg, The Hanslick Rebellion, Haram, Harmonizing Four, Harold Burrage, Harold Hill, Harper's Bizarre and Harold & The Majestic Kind
Next week: From Harry Nilsson to Idaho, plus a few words on glorious crackpots