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 music world shelters its share of addicts, schizophrenics, and the suicidally depressed, who all venture into the darkness and return just far enough to file reports about life on the edge. And they provide a valuable service, don't get me wrong. But all things being equal, I prefer the merely strange to the deeply deranged. I like musicians who maintain a modicum of control over their output, yet still keep returning to the same sounds or lyrical ideas over and over, even when no one's paying attention. Their compulsions are mild but defining, and as these artists continue making idiosyncratic, personal music, after a while we can come to feel like we know them, to the extent that even their weaknesses become endearing.
Prior to 2004, my knowledge of Harry Nilsson was largely limited to his cover of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'," some anecdotes about the year he spent partying with John Lennon, and a vague awareness that he'd written the goofy novelty song "Coconut" and the Three Dog Night hit "One." I also knew that his best-known, most successful album was Nilsson Schmilsson (followed by a pair of ill-regarded sequels), so when that record was remastered and reissued in 2004, I picked it up, and was surprised by how many songs I already knew, including Nilsson's seven-minute raver "Jump Into The Fire" and his hyper-schmaltzy cover of Badfinger's "Without You." Nilsson Schmilsson is in many ways the prototype for the '70s "well-made album," employing state-of-the-art production on a set of originals and covers that show stylistic versatility and an impressive amount of care lavished even on the filler.
And yet, while Nilsson Schmilsson is more contemporary and more immediately accessible than anything else in the Nilsson discography, it still has its kinks. Consider "Driving Along:"
In just over two minutes, Nilsson delivers some blunt social commentary—too blunt, really—couched in a song structure that keeps opening up and getting more elaborate until it practically dissipates. Hit-making producer Richard Perry may have ordered up the song's factory-issue guitar solo, but Nilsson's heart is more in an arrangement that keeps changing, unlocking new possibilities. After hearing that song, I knew I had to track down as much Nilsson as I could, so over the next month I bought a slew of import CDs, most of which combined two albums on single discs. One of the first imports I picked up included in its bonus tracks the sublime non-LP single "Down To The Valley:"
Again, this song takes a simple idea and loads it up with as much orchestration and vocal pyrotechnics as Nilsson can muster, making the presentation far more important than the actual content. Nilsson was clearly someone who loved to play around, both with his songwriting and in the studio. I worked my way through his early solo albums: the wild, Beatlesque Pandemonium Shadow Show, the wispier Aerial Ballet, the somewhat grating soundtrack to Skidoo (featuring the closing credits in song form), and the doggedly retro Harry. On the latter album, Nilsson covered a Randy Newman song, "Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear," and then Nilsson worked with Newman on what, to my mind, is his masterpiece, Nilsson Sings Newman, for which he recorded each instrumental and vocal part over and over, before weaving the best snippets of each into cinematic tracks like "Cowboy:"
By this time, in 1970, Nilsson was still mainly a cult act, responsible for a couple of fluke hits of his own and a couple of big hits for other people. That all started to change at the dawn of the decade, first when Nilsson masterminded the trippy animated TV special The Point!, for which he wrote a set of spare, catchy songs about friendship and individuality:
And then came Nilsson Schmilsson, the big commercial breakthrough, released that same year. But more interesting—to me at least—is what Nilsson did with that sudden success. His early recordings had been eclectic and eccentric, taking his natural talent for melody and his strong, multi-octave voice and using them as elements in songs and albums that took a little work for fans to fully follow. Once Nilsson went mainstream on Nilsson Schmilsson, he could've easily continued down the path that so many other offbeat pop and rock stars did in the '70s, following the money. Instead, he reunited with Richard Perry and made Son Of Schmilsson, a wildly offbeat rock record that kicks off with the wonderfully perverse "Take 54:"
I can't even imagine what fans of "Without You" and "Coconut" made of this song about a star who needs his favorite groupie in the studio so that he can sing his "balls off." From the vampire picture on the LP cover to offbeat tracks like the country music parody "Joy" and the crude "You're Breakin' My Heart" (with its chorus "so fuck you"), Son Of Schmilsson is about as flippant a response to fame as any platinum-level artist has ever attempted. And it became the model for Nilsson's '70s albums, which frequently featured oddball cover art, twisted remakes of rock classics, and outright novelty songs like "Kojak Columbo," "The Flying Saucer Song" and "Jesus Christ You're Tall." But sprinkled amid the more out-there material was some of Nilsson's most heartfelt ballads, like the mournful cycle-of-life lament "Salmon Falls" from Duit On Mon Dei, and the quietly desperate "Don't Forget Me," from Nilsson's drunken collaboration with John Lennon, Pussy Cats:
And these albums also included some of Nilsson's most effortless pop songwriting, like "Pretty Soon There'll Be Nothing Left For Everybody," from Sandman—a jaunty song that maintains Nilsson's preoccupation with cheerful nihilism.
In a way, these '70s albums—often knocked out during long benders, with Nilsson's voice ravaged by misuse—are "well-made albums" too. After all, they do show off a variety of styles, and an expansive sound. But there's something a little off about them. Maybe it's that the creative force behind the music is a guy who gleefully sabotaged himself through self-destructive behavior and a love of bad jokes.
Nilsson had his admirers back then, but record sales and chart action tapered off, and most rock critics , if they covered Nilsson at all, tended to sum up his post-1971 career as a pathetic waste of a once-promising talent. Writing about Son Of Schmillson in 1972, Rolling Stone critic Stephen Holden referred to the lovely "Turn On Your Radio" as a "trifling ballad" and about the raunchy "You're Breakin' My Heart," Holden said, "as obscenity it's insipid and as satire prepubescent." He downgraded Nilsson's "Spaceman" in comparison to Elton John's similarly sci-fi-themed "Rocket Man" ("a record with real passion"), and he dismissed the record as a whole for having "a humor so deadpan, so essentially sarcastic, that it is difficult to relate to it on more than a superficial level," adding, "Life is just a silly, meaningless jumble of dreams and memories, OK—but where is the hurt and disappointment that infuses such a vision?"
I would argue that context is everything, and that if Holden or his critical ilk had considered Nilsson's career as a whole, they would've realized that the hurt and disappointment was always there, but leavened with a certain amount of "ah, what the hell." This was a man who began his career singing the autobiographical song "1941," about how his dad left him as a boy, and how he planned to leave his own son, and that he expected that son to take off one day too. That may be a sentiment that's "difficult to relate to," but it's one that's wholly Nilsson's. And while I wouldn't call Nilsson's outlook on life "harmless," it does have a rakish, seductive charm, luring listeners along with a trail of sugary crumbs.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
The High Llamas
Years Of Operation 1990-present
Fits Between The Beach Boys and Steely Dan
Personal Correspondence Speaking of Glorious Crackpots, The High Llamas' frontman Sean O'Hagan may not be as eccentric as Harry Nilsson, but he's certainly followed his own muse, even when it's undercut his commercial prospects. I first discovered The High Llamas thanks to a happy weekend spent flipping through The Trouser Press Guide To '90s Rock. The entry on Stereolab featured a handy "see also" tag at the end, and I was intrigued by the description of The High Llamas' Gideon Gaye, which promised a Stereolab-affiliated sound cut with The Beach Boys and Steely Dan. Despite its abundance of failed sonic experiments, I liked Gideon Gaye enough I picked up Hawaii when it was released domestically, and again found some truly terrific material, undercut by repetition, an exhausting album length, and O'Hagan's predilection for putting the same damn banjo and gurgling synthesizer on nearly every song. It was as though O'Hagan were stubbornly refusing to simply entertain, even though he clearly had the ability. In the decade since, O'Hagan has stuck to his guns, returning every couple of years with another set of similar-sounding songs derivative of Bacharach, Tropicalia, Brian Wilson and Donald Fagen. But over time, The High Llamas' rip-jobs have become identifiably O'Hagan's own, and fans of the band—of which I am one—have come to enjoy spending time in his world whenever he opens the door. All of O'Hagan's experiments have led him to a placid place, and musically speaking, he seems to have learned what he can do without, while still delivering heart-stoppingly lovely songs about idyllic locales and seasonal memories.
Enduring presence? Unlike a lot of acts with a spotty output, I'm not sure it's possible to put together a High Llamas compilation that would represent them any better than their albums do. Even stripped down to their peak 40 minutes, The High Llamas would probably exhaust most people. The band's past two albums—Can Cladders and Beet, Maize & Corn—are arguably their best, but I don't know that I can unequivocally recommend them over Gideon Gaye or Hawaii. Either you're willing to meet O'Hagan on his own plane, or you're not. I can't decide that for you.
Years Of Operation 1993-present
Fits Between The Stooges and Trio
Personal Correspondence In theory, The Hives might be the best rock 'n' roll band on the planet right now. (All together now: "In theory, communism works. In theory.") Everything about The Hives' presentation, from their snazzy suits to Howlin' Pelle Almqvist's charged-up pitchman persona, is pure rock—the old stuff, calculated to get fans moving. But the band has yet to close the deal with me. The Hives' best songs—"Hate To Say I Told You So," "Tick Tick Boom," "Two-Timing Touch And Broken Bones," "A Little More For Little You"—are duly ass-kicking, and yet the rest of their albums can't quite reach the heights of their singles. They often sound like raw frenzy, unchanneled and therefore—oddly enough—uninteresting. Almost as much as The White Stripes, The Hives seemed like they were going to be the flagship band of neo-garage, pushing the genre beyond retro by distilling its essence and carrying it into the modern day. The White Stripes have done marvelously with that mission, and The Hives have tried, by nodding to technopop and R&B.; But so far, they keep coming a cropper.
Enduring presence? Last year's The Black And White Album was a particular disappointment, coming after the focused and forward-looking Tyrannosaurus Hives. I'm really pulling for The Hives, because when they're on, they really do leave every other band of this era eating their dust. On the whole, though, they've been locked from the start into a speed-to-the-finish bash, with each instrument in each song holding to a single melodic pattern for the two minute average playing time. Though a guitar or two may drop out momentarily for the sake of dynamism, the compositions contain too few surprises.
The Hold Steady
Years Of Operation 2004-present
Fits Between Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy
Personal Correspondence You know how sometimes you read a book and get an idea in your head about a character's physical appearance, and then the movie version comes out and it looks all wrong? Yeah, that was my original experience with The Hold Steady. I was totally unaware of Lifter Puller before I heard The Hold Steady's 2004 debut album Almost Killed Me, so listening to Craig Finn growl out rant-y, repetitive lines like, "We got wars going down in the middle west / We got wars going down in the middle western states" had me picturing him as a wild-eyed, long-haired dude, slightly unhinged but wickedly witty. It wasn't until Separation Sunday came out a year later that I finally saw a picture of the band, and found out that Finn was yet another doughy, bespectacled, balding indie-rock type, largely indistinguishable from a Ben Gibbard or a Colin Meloy. (I suddenly understood why Gerard Cosloy had dismissed The Hold Steady as "late-period Soul Asylum fronted by Charles Nelson Reilly.") But it didn't rattle me much. About Separation Sunday I wrote, "Finn bellows like an overcranked art student, reading lyrics from some barroom poet's police statement. On the first Hold Steady record, Finn worked the room at a rowdy Saturday night kegger, overhearing improbable stories and telling a few lies of his own. Separation Sunday could be taking the place the next day, as the partygoers with nowhere to go hang out in a skate park and talk about God." Then about 2006's Boys And Girls In America, I wrote, "Finn may be a smart-ass and a poseur, but he genuinely understands how it feels to want to get wasted, both as a way of fitting in with the crowd, and a way of forgetting that he can't. Always muscular, The Hold Steady is now wiry to boot, capable of cabaret ballads like 'First Night' as well as Thin-Lizzy-meets-Black-Flag anthems like 'Massive Nights.' Both those songs are about moments that linger, 'when every song was right,' and the triumph of Boys And Girls is that it's full of the kind of songs that Finn's protagonists would crank up, relishing every power chord." My one lingering hang-up with The Hold Steady is that I feel like Finn repeats himself too much with all his lyrics about party-addled teenagers. I'd like to see him widen his focus a little. At the same time though, I think he writes some of the most vivid—and funniest—story-songs in modern rock, and guitarist Tad Kubler and pianist Franz Nicolay steal from classic rock as well as anyone. Boys And Girls In America capped a three-year run that showed a clear progression in songcraft and understanding of rock dynamics. Every year, one or two albums come along that make me look forward to waking up to a new day, because I know I'll get to listen to them again. Boys And Girls In America was one of those albums.
Enduring presence? When I interviewed Finn two years ago, I asked him why so many critics and rock fans hate him so much, and he was refreshingly honest about it, saying, "I think my vocals are hard for some people to take. I also think that people of a certain age in the indie-rock scene experience music as a part of their identity. If you're into, like, I don't know, Saddle Creek or whatever, and you're younger, you want people to know that's what you're into. I think us being kind of classic-rock-based might be threatening to those people's sense of identity. I can understand that. I love The Grateful Dead and I also love hardcore, but when I was 20, I couldn't see how I could love both. At 35, it makes tons of sense to me." It makes sense to me too, though I still get a little hurt by how much some music buffs—including friends of mine—actively hate The Hold Steady. It's like they resent the whole idea of midwestern schlubs moving to the hipster neighborhoods of New York to sing faux-badass songs about where they used to live, set to crushing riffs borrowed mostly unironically from corporate rock. Whereas me, I sometimes feel like The Hold Steady have taken all my favorite threads of rock history and woven them together, making the kind of music I might make if I were in a rock band (only with different lyrics). I understand there's a new Hold Steady album due in July. You guys wouldn't mind if I ended this project early, would you?
Years Of Operation 1983-88
Fits Between The Jam and Cliff Richard
Personal Correspondence There aren't too many bands in pop history that said hello and goodbye—with only two albums no less—as gracefully and entertainingly as The Housemartins. Even though bandleader Paul Heaton went on to offer a similar—albeit more slow and soulful—version of The Housemartins' sound with The Beautiful South, the snappy, concise approach of London 0 Hull 4 and The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death is tough to top. Approximating both "Up With People" and early Motown, The Housemartins sang happy-sounding songs about how we're all slaves to consumerism, religion and authoritarian fear-mongering, and how our best option is to leave our churches and maybe pick up a gun. (And that just covers one song, "Get Up Off Our Knees.") People feels maybe a hair more strained than Hull, as the band started to take their status as social commentators a smidgen too seriously, but on the whole it's every bit as bright, jumpy and hooky a record as the first one. The band's posthumous singles collection Now That's What I Call Quite Good captures some essential non-LP tracks and Peel sessions (similar to The Smiths' Hatful Of Hollow), and holds together well as an album all on its own, but it doesn't have the same upstart sting of the first two albums, both of which are jaunty pop records that even my punk friends found acceptable.
Enduring presence? I don't know of any modern bands who cite The Housemartins as a direct influence, but their bustling and overtly poppy sound definitely echoes through Belle & Sebastian—as well as all the current Swede-pop bands that worship Belle & Sebastian. I just wish some of the new breed were as engaged politically as they are musically.
Years Of Operation 1979-87
Fits Between Volcano Suns and Naked Raygun
Personal Correspondence In the spring of '85, a little less than a year after I became a regular reader of Rolling Stone, the magazine published an article that would be one of the two most important Rolling Stone articles I'd ever read*. It was a Michael Goldberg report on the state of American punk rock—what's now referred to by some as "post-hardcore"—using The Replacements, Meat Puppets, Black Flag, Minutemen and Hüsker Dü as the anchor bands. I cut out the pictures from that article and taped them to my 3-ring binder, and I referred back to the text of that article often as I went exploring in used record stores. It took a while before I could track down Zen Arcade, the key Hüsker Dü album in the piece—which even the author admitted was hard to find—but I came across Flip Your Wig for $4.99 and made it my first Hüsker Dü album. Then, out of the blue, my brother—never a punk guy in any way—brought home New Day Rising from college, and I fell in love with "Celebrated Summer," Bob Mould's half-nostalgic, half-desperate pro-vacation anthem. (I even started working on a novel called Celebrated Summer, heavily influenced by Stephen King's novella The Body, but I never got past the first chapter.) That summer I went to The Governor's School For The Humanities in Martin, TN, and met a good group of alterna-kids with eclectic tastes. I remember we all went to the local record store together and each special-ordered one album that we really wanted. I got Echo & The Bunnymen's Songs To Learn And Sing, another friend got The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead, and an especially hip girl in our clique got Hüsker Dü's Candy Apple Grey—which is why for years I had a cassette tape with The Queen Is Dead on one side and Candy Apple Grey on the other. When I returned from Governor's School, I started my junior year at a new, bigger high school that had an actual punk crowd, something my smaller high school—which had been closed in accordance with Tennessee's desegregation laws—did not have. But I was disappointed to find out that the punks at the bigger school weren't as broad-minded as my friends from Governor's School. One day one of my new punk friends said, "Raise your hand if you think Hüsker Dü has sold out," and when everybody but me raised their hands, I realized that the gap between what I was looking for in music and what the scenesters expected was probably going to be unbridgeable. I still hung out with them anyway. I just didn't let them see what I was buying at the record store.
Enduring presence? Can I confess something? Although I loved loved loved Hüsker Dü back in the '80s, and I still think that they were a phenomenal band, they're probably the band that once meant the most to me that I almost never listen to now. (Close second: Sonic Youth.) Something about Hüsker Dü now strikes me as ungainly, even a little adolescent—and not in a "what a golden age that was" way, but in an acne/body-odor way. The unassailable Zen Arcade aside, I find I get a purer rush from Mould's first two solo albums and Sugar. Hüsker Dü is almost more impressive as an influence on post-hardcore than as a band in and of themselves.
*The other RS article that changed my life, by the way, was Mikal Gilmore's "Daredevil Authors: Today's Real Superheroes," which led me back into comic books after about a six-year layoff. But that's a subject for a different feature: "Capeless," coming 2009.
Years Of Operation 1992-present
Fits Between American Music Club and Red House Painters
Personal Correspondence Glorious Crackpot Week brings us inevitably to Idaho, and its lone persistent member, Jeff Martin. Stalwarts of the mid-'90s "slowcore"/"sadcore" scene, Idaho had a big enough following to score a short-lived deal with semi-major Caroline, but never broke big enough to develop a full-on "cult," per se. Since returning to independence, Martin and his revolving cast of Idahoans (most notably guitarists John K. Berry and Dan Seta) have released new records every couple of years, and toured Europe, where the band has always drawn fairly well. But those Idaho albums stopped getting much critical attention around 2000. Even I—who have purchased every single one of them—haven't written about the band since the '90s. Maybe that's because there's not a whole lot to say. Martin continues to write strikingly moody songs, and he's progressed in his concept for the band, although that vision has led him away from the scraping guitar and rattling percussion that made Idaho fairly formidable as rockers in the '90s. Today, Martin prefers to noodle on his piano and mutter evocatively. But like the best of the GCs, his music is reliably good, and it's been a pleasure to check in with him periodically to see what he's mumbling about now.
Enduring presence? I don't think the critical community's Idaho-neglect amounts to a major lapse; in the end, they are just another indie-rock band that's carved out a tiny niche. They're not a significant influence on anyone, and Martin hasn't been painting masterpieces in his dark corner of the room. But because we live in a satellite TV world, with hundreds of channels to choose from, I'm personally glad that I still subscribe to The Idaho Channel, which allows me to get away from the hubbub of who's buzzworthy and who's overrated, and instead just enjoy some pretty music that only a few people really care about.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
When I interviewed this hulking Nashville rapper back in 2000, I made the mistake of treating him like any other fledgling local musician, and thus fully expected him to talk openly, earnestly and humbly about his struggles with trying to break wider in a tricky business. Instead, I got the full show. Haystak answered nearly every one of my questions with a lengthy, self-promoting speech that had almost nothing to do with what I asked, and he generally acted like he was already a superstar, and that his only real problem now was how to deal with the haters who were jealous of his success. I would've taken this pitch more seriously if we hadn't been sitting in a run down Mt. Juliet office park, right behind a tractor supply store, but hey, as you all know, I am but a naïf when it comes to hip-hop. I do like this song though, which bumps along with a lot of nervous energy, and makes nice use of the orchestral stings and local color.
Head East, "Never Been Any Reason"
Heart, "Magic Man"
I don't want to be one of those guys who romanticizes the music of an earlier era at the expense of today, but whatever the lapses of mid-'70s album rock radio and the regressive "classic rock" era it spawned, I've got to give those coked-out corporate whores credit for nurturing sublime crypto-boogie like these two anthems—the first a hit in '75, and the second in '76. They're both heavy and groovy (but not too much so on either score), and both emphasize the power of the rock wail. Heart of course went on to be the bigger band (though did you know Head East lead singer John Schlitt later became the frontman for Petra?), and while there's probably a lot that could be said about Heart's gradual transformation from kick-ass lady-rockers to proto-Celine Dion balladeers, I'm not especially interested in what happened to them or why. I'd rather think of Heart as another band, like Head East, that lived and died in the mid-'70s, kicking out a few ever-present, weird-sounding radio hits, complete with incongruous synthesizer solos. Hey man, is that Freedom Rock? Turn it up!
The Heartbreakers, "Chinese Rocks"
And now here's the antidote to the Hearts and Head Easts of the swingin' '70s. While the mainstream radio darlings wrote and recorded songs designed to take listeners out of their own lives for five minutes or so, Johnny Thunders and his Heartbreakers tried to open a window on every unpleasant minute of the street punk's existence. Dee Dee Ramone and Richard Hell co-wrote this exposé of drug addiction and its repercussions, but Thunders made it his own. (Quite literally…for years, Thunders' was the only songwriting credit for "Chinese Rocks," even though he had nothing to do with it, besides helping make it a punk classic.) Some people hear The Heartbreakers and can't ever take Heart seriously again. Others still like a little escapism mixed in with their docu-dramas.
Herr Louis & Weaselis with The Hungry Five, "Down By The Pickle Works, Part 1"
Somebody asked last week why I didn't focus more on some of the oddities in my collection rather than the same old indie-rock and soft-pop acts, so here's an oddity for you, taken from last year's Folk Songs Of Illinois anthology. It's a little piece of ethnic humor, from the era when a good exaggerated accent was enough to get people chuckling. Enjoy.
The Hidden Cameras, "Death Of A Tune"
And now back to the indie-rock and soft-pop—or in this case, a cross between the two. I was a little thrown off some by The Hidden Cameras' early work, which extended frank sexuality into the realm of explicit smut, even while the band played twee music from the well-established "raging milquetoast" tradition. With bandleader Joel Gibbs' nasal, cabaret-ready vocals swimming smoothly through a warm instrumental bath, most listeners could hum along happily for three minutes at a time without ever realizing that they're enjoying a song that celebrates soiled underwear. The Hidden Cameras have gotten tamer over the years, and I'm especially fond of their 2006 record Awoo, which serves up one sweetly melodic retro-pop song after another—including "Death Of A Tune," a zippy little number about how a lover's silence sucks the music out of the room.
The Hombres, "Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)"
I first got to know this garage-rock nugget from The Nails' 1984 cover, which I'd naturally assumed was an original, because the resources for learning otherwise weren't available back then. When I got a copy of Nuggets a decade or so later, I had one of those weird double-take moments when The Hombres' version came on. (Imagine if you were listening to an old Patsy Cline album and suddenly she started singing "Jesus Take The Wheel"… that would be a comparable experience, I would think.) I haven't heard The Nails in a while but I'm going to go ahead and give the edge to The Hombres, if only because the original recording sounds like a semi-parody of Bob Dylan, and the 1984 is just a party record.
Homer & Jethro (w/June Carter Cash), "Baby It's Cold Outside"
I'll give June Carter Cash my full attention in a couple of weeks, but since Eddy Arnold passed this week, I'll pay him tribute by putting up this song, which uses Arnold's records as the hick chic version of seductive sophistication.
Hoodoo Gurus, "Bittersweet"
I got a copy of Hoodoo Gurus' Mars Needs Guitars in a radio station giveaway back in 1987, and brought it home thinking I wouldn't know any songs on it. But when I cued up side one, I heard "Bittersweet," a song I'd been looking for months, without ever knowing its name or who was responsible for it. I'd heard "Bittersweet" a few times on Vandy's college radio station, and it'd made enough of an impression that I'd scrawled some of the lyrics down in this little notebook I kept with me at all times in high school. (I hope I still have that notebook somewhere in my attic. I bought it when I realized that I probably shouldn't be doodling and jotting down song lyrics on my desk, and it became like a semi-journal, full of cartoons, band logos, and general impressions of my current mood. Sort of like Twitter, but on paper.) I later discovered that Hoodoo Gurus had a few other songs that I would come to like a lot, but this is the one that I feel should've been a bigger hit in the U.S. There's really nothing objectionable or off-putting about it; it's just a walloping, well-produced rock song. If only John Hughes had put it on a soundtrack…
Hooverphonic, "The Magnificent Tree"
Hooverphonic has always been my go-to '90s trip-hop/dream-pop act, probably because they had utilize fairly conventional song structures, providing surer footing in an ethereal genre. Hooverphonic also won my allegiance with the title track from their third album, which makes brilliant use of Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Guinnevere," a song that's always meant a lot to me.
Hot Hot Heat, "Pickin' It Up"
Now that we're a few years removed from the glut of neo-new-wave acts riffing on XTC and Gang Of Four, Hot Hot Heat's at-the-time-disappointing 2005 album Elevator sounds a lot better, and I wonder now, if critics had taken to it more readily—or if the Warner publicists hadn't been such pricks about sending review copies out early enough for critics to get acclimated to the record's shiny, hooky sound—would we all have been spared last year's weak follow-up Happiness Ltd.? Even in my own mixed review of Elevator, I did recognize the greatness of this song, writing that it "bucks and sparks and is just about the most perfect 'good to be alive' post-punk anthem of the past ten years…It's worth the whole lot of uninspired new wave revivalists just for 'Pickin' It Up.'"
House Of Freaks, "Yellow Dog"
I mentioned above that bands inspired by Hüsker Dü are in some ways preferable to the original model, and I could say much the same about House Of Freaks, one of the first of the guitar-and-drums-only roots-rock duos. The bands that followed House Of Freaks—including Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, Spinanes, The White Stripes, The Black Keys and Hillstomp, to name just a few—proved more capable of dredging up the swampy sound that HoF only alluded to. But House Of Freaks were still a formidable live act, especially when they trotted out "Yellow Dog," a raver that always left the audience happily exhausted.
Howard Jones, "Hide And Seek"
I went through a brief period after the release of Human's Lib where I thought Howard Jones was some kind of whiz kid, and I was happy when his follow-up album became a huge hit in the U.S., even though I didn't like it as well as the debut. Perhaps not coincidentally, around the time Jones became a big star, I learned that I'd been mishearing one of my favorite Jones lyrics. What I thought was "Who do you find it in / Everything that you see?" was actually "Hope you find it in," etc. My disillusionment started the fairly rapid process of well-poisoning when it came to Jones. But hey, we all do it. What are some lyrics that you all preferred in the version you heard, as opposed to what the singer was actually singing?
HP Riot, "I Have Changed"
I've been writing about Brazilian bands influenced by American funk and soul, but here's an R&B; obscurity—taken from the super-cool anthology Super Cool California Soul 2—that borrows the vibrant bustle of worldbeat, to thrilling effect.
Huey Lewis & The News, "Do You Believe In Love"
It was a strange era when rockers as square as Lewis and songs as straightforward as this one could become massive hits. I can't mount a defense of The News as heartfelt as I did for, say, Hall & Oates, except maybe to mention that Lewis has an expressive voice and an affable demeanor, and that as cheesy as The News' biggest hits often are, they're also admirably fleet and unpretentious. I'm not a raving fan by any means, but I've always had a soft spot for Lewis. Chalk it up to being a teenager in the '80s.
The Human Beinz, "Nobody But Me"
When you hear this song, do you think of Paul Shaffer & The CBS Orchestra singing the theme song to the game "Know Your Cuts Of Meat," or do you think of the big swordfight in Kill Bill: Volume One? (Or neither?) By the way, nothing against The Isley Brothers, but this take on "Nobody But Me" has always struck me as definitive, perhaps because it chugs along somewhat joylessly, making the singer's superiority almost sound like a burden.
I Am Kloot, "Over My Shoulder"
Ian Dury & The Blockheads, "There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards"
Here are two more for the Glorious Crackpot file (UK edition). The former is a current indie-pop act led by Johnny Bramwell, who over the course of a small handful of albums has shown allegiance to a spare, hooky sound and a slightly skewed sensibility, building songs on a few lines of imagistic poetry and some hushed-but-rhythmic instrumentation. As for the late Dury, he belonged to music hall and cabaret traditions both new and old, and he mastered the art of talk-singing better than anyone since the heyday of Rex Harrison.
Ice T, "O.G. Original Gangster"
It should surprise no one who's been reading this column that I'm not big on gangsta rap, but there are exceptions. I'm a fan of N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton (which I'll get to later), and I love Ice T's O.G. Original Gangster. I love its diversity of sound and its focused lyrics—the songs on O.G. tend to stay on topic, and thus deliver a cogent take on thug life that's part voyeurism, part social commentary.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Hasil Adkins, Hazel Dickens, Heatmiser, Helmet, Hem, Henry Mancini, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Herbie Hancock, Hillstomp, Ho-Hum, Hoagy Carmichael, The Hollies, The Holy Modal Rounders, Hope Sandoval, Hot Snakes, Howlin' Wolf, Hoyt Axton, Hugo Montenegro, The Human League and Ice Cube
Also listened to: Harvey Hindemeyer, Hauschka,
Havanna Exotica, Hawsley Workman, Hawnay Troof, Head Like A Kite, Head Of Femur, Headmess, Headmint, Health, Healthy White Baby, Heather Duby, Heatwave, Heavy Stereo, Heavy Trash, Hefner, Heidi Saperstein, Helen Foster, Helene Smith, Hell On Wheels, Hell Promise, Hello Stranger, Helvetia, Hendricks & Co., Hendrik Meurkens, Henrik Schwarz, Henry Spaulding. Henry Thomas, Herbert, The Here And Now Boys, Here Today, Herman Jolly, The Hero Cycle , hi-posi, High Inergy, The High Strung, The Higher, Highway QCs, Hiroshi Takano, His Name Is Alive, The Hiss, History At Our Disposal, The Hit Parade, The Hitch-Hikers, The Hitmen, Hobex, Hockey Night, The Hokum Boys, Holler Wild Rose, Holly Dolly, Holly Golightly, Holly Williams, Holy Fuck, Home, Homunculus, Honeybus, The Honeycombs, Hootie & The Blowfish, Hopewell, Hot Chip, Hot Club De Paris, Hot Club Of Cowtown, The Hot Dogs, The Hot Puppies, The Hotel Alexis, Hotel Lights, The Hourly Radio, House Of Pain. Howie B, Howie Beck, Howie Day, The Howling Hex, Hoyt Ming & His Pep-Steppers, HP Riot, The Hues Corporation, Hugh Maskela, The Human Society, Humphrey Ocean, Hurrah!, The Hurricane Lamps, The Huxtables, Hypatia Lake, The Hyperions, The Hytones, I Am The World Trade Center, Ian Hunter, Ian Moore and Iceage Cobra
Next week: From Idlewild to Jan Hammer, plus a few words on jamming