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.
Being the drummer in a rock 'n' roll band isn't always all that glamorous. You're stuck on the back of the stage, out of the line-of-sight of much of the crowd. For the most part, all your bandmates expect you to do is show up on time for practice and keep a steady beat—two things that you're not always that good at because, lets face it, you're a drummer, and your lifestyle is erratic by design. Your contribution to the band is necessary, but generally unexceptional. People usually only notice you when you screw up.
When I started paying attention to local bands in my late teens, I realized how rare it is to come across a truly great drummer. The three elements that keep most bands from achieving greatness are mediocre vocals, unmemorable melodies, and merely functional drums. And while there's no one thread that connects all the different kinds of music I like, I do tend to respond strongly to a good rhythm. I like music that's uptempo, danceable, textured and punchy, and if the drummer is just hitting his or her marks without engaging with the composition in any active way, I often tune out unconsciously.
A drummer doesn't have to be a virtuoso to be an asset. No matter how much Meg White gets slagged for being a crappy drummer, I've never listened to a White Stripes song and said, "This would be better if Meg White were more like Neal Peart." If anything, the way Jack White constructs his songs to take advantage of Meg's limitations makes them wilder, and more entertaining. What I'm looking for in a drummer isn't 20-minute solos—though I'm not opposed to them, necessarily—but some sort of spontaneity, or extra effort.
Consider the Sleater-Kinney song above, featuring the superb Janet Weiss. The percussion holds steady at the top of the mix, calling the session to order like a gavel. Weiss maintains a tight, fast beat throughout, but within that rigid framework, she finds ways to vary the texture without varying the tempo. Along with her bandmates, she shifts from a simple pound-pound-pound to something a little fuller, and when she sees an opening to add a fill, she does it without being flamboyant about it. You're not really supposed to take note of what Weiss is doing, but she puts an extra spring into the song that listeners feel without really realizing why.
To me, this kind of drumming in a song is the equivalent of realism in a movie. There's nothing fancy about it. It tells the story plain, with minimal adornment, but with just enough of a personality that you feel you've encountered an individual, not a stock player. Contrast that to what I'd call "expressionistic drumming," in this Smashing Pumpkins song:
Even though Billy Corgan's fussed-over guitar sound and angst-y whine have always been the main selling point for the Pumpkins, Jimmy Chamberlin is one key reason I've stuck with the band through all Corgan's pretensions and excesses. If you wanted to make a case for Chamberlin as the best rock drummer of his era, I'd gladly sign on as co-counsel (or at least file an amicus curae). Chamberlin practically plays lead on a lot of Pumpkins songs, flying freely off the beat with flourishes and changes that complement what Corgan's doing, but don't override it. Listening to him play is like listening to a racecar change gears, feeling the thrust and rumble.
When I dreamed of being a rock star as a kid, I typically imagined myself as a singer or a lead guitarist. But if I had to take up an instrument today, I'd probably take up the drums. I'm sure I'd suck at holding a tempo for three to four minutes at a time, but more and more as I get older I find myself tapping my hands against hard surfaces, or even just enjoying the sound of the fingers of one hand beating against the knuckles of another. There's just something satisfying about hitting something and letting the resonant thwack fill the air. On a basic level, it's music-making at its most primal. On a higher level, it's more profound. Even the term for what drummers do sounds spiritual: "Keeping time."
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1985-present (off and on)
Fits Between The Band and The Jayhawks
Personal Correspondence When The Silos' second album Cuba came out in 1987, it was widely hailed as one of the best albums of the year, and a welcome return to simple, rootsy rock about simple, rootsy pleasures. At the time there was a whole country-rock enclave operating out of New York, making music that lacked the '80s glitz that had weighed down other promising roots-rockers of the era, like Jason & The Scorchers and Lone Justice. The Silos didn't sound like hicks who'd been thrown into a studio with Jimmy Iovine; they sounded like hippie sophisticates playing in a barn on some upstate commune. In the context of the late Reagan era, a low-key bar band singing about preparing for a friend's wedding—or driving across the country, or listening to the radio, or eating breakfast with a toddler—came across as damn near revolutionary. At the least, it felt like a trend worth backing. Cuba hit me where I lived, because it came out just as I was heading off to college, when I was in the throes of a premature nostalgia and a premature "maturity." In the right mood, on a crisp fall day, feeling as deeply lonely as I ever have during my first months of college life, a song like The Silos' "Mary's Getting Married" could practically break me, because it sounded so welcoming and friendly and—at the time—alien.
Enduring presence? Sadly, Cuba was the high point of the The Silos' career. The band's self-titled major-label debut was hyped by some critics as the best album of its kind since The Band, but I think those critics were trying extra-hard to hear something that wasn't quite there. Bandleader Walter Salas-Hamara has always held to a certain simplicity in sound and content, and often that's led to Silos songs that seem rough and unfinished—nice, but hardly the kind of music you can pin the future of a whole genre on. (The band the critics wanted The Silos to be was the band that Uncle Tupelo became a couple of years later… though few of those critics noticed it at the time.) The Silos are still around, and putting out not-bad albums every couple of years. But when they had their moment of relevance, they weren't able to do much with it. Even Cuba now seems a little vague. (Unless the weather is just right… then it devastates.)
Simon & Garfunkel
Years Of Operation 1963-70
Fits Between The Everly Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash
Personal Correspondence Though I attend church sporadically—for reasons too complicated to get into here—the social institution I support above all others is the public library. (If I had my druthers, that's where I'd spend my Sunday mornings… that or a big-box chain store.) My lower-middle-class family didn't have a lot of money for books when I was growing up, so we made a weekly trip to the library, and at some point in my early teenage years, I migrated from borrowing old comics anthologies and juvenile fiction to bringing home LPs. Shortly after I watched The Graduate for the first time, I noticed that my local branch had a copy of the Graduate soundtrack, and since I'd always liked the Simon & Garfunkel songs I'd heard on the radio (and in the movie), I checked it out. Then I used one of my initial Columbia Record & Tape Club purchases on Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits. Then I raided the record collection of my best friend's dad and heard the early, folkier Simon & Garfunkel records; then Bookends via my high school English teacher; then, improbably, Bridge Over Troubled Water via the theretofore unknown stash of old records that my stepfather kept at his parents' house. Through all these sources I pieced together a 90-minute Simon & Garfunkel tape that was one of my most cherished possessions from high school to young adulthood. I have no idea where that tape is now. I can't even remember the running order, though I've tried to recreate it using all the Simon & Garfunkel that I've picked up on CD over the years. I know it started with the first three songs from side one of Bookends and ended with the last three. I know side one of the tape ended with "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright," from my stepfather's Bridge, and that side two opened with the extended "Scarborough Fair" from the library's Graduate soundtrack. The precise placement of everything else is lost to me now, but I remember the mood that tape put me in. It left me alternately wistful and playful, and more than a little dumbstruck by the beauty of the harmonies and the deceptive density of Simon's metaphors—which were always more direct than he put on. This music felt earnest in the best sense, and traditional in the best sense, and resonant on a spiritual level. It felt like a church. It felt like a library.† It felt like something I had a right to.
Enduring presence? As I've gotten older, I've often found a lot about Simon & Garfunkel embarrassing—including "the deceptive density of Simon's metaphors"—but I've never fallen out of love. To me, a song like "America" is pretentious in a good way, striving to explain an aspect of the human condition with words and music that first dazzle then pierce. The juxtaposition of the lines "I'm empty and aching and I don't know why" and "Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They've all come to look for America" has always seemed to me to sum up so much: We're alone, but we're alone together.
Years Of Operation 1978-present
Fits Between Roxy Music and U2
Personal Correspondence I wrote at length in Permanent Records last year about Sparkle In The Rain, which is still my favorite Simple Minds album, because I remember how well its ecstatic, desperately manic mood matched my own at age 15. Some Simple Minds devotees chastised me for not picking one of the band's earlier records, like Sparkle's predecessor New Gold Dream. I actually had considered it. At the outset of the punk era, the UK scene was fairly split between angry amateurs and art-school dabblers, and early in their career, Simple Minds took the arty path, recording albums informed by Brian Eno's experiments with drone and rhythm, albeit with less of Eno's compositional genius. Around 1980, the band became craftier, and started making a pop push with New Gold Dream. I like the earlier records, but don't love them; and I find that everything after Sparkle takes that record's epic wallop a step too far. But New Gold Dream and Sparkle In The Rain are like two sides of the same coin to me, and stand up to the best art-pop of the decade. Sparkle In The Rain is the aggressive record, while New Gold Dream is more reflective. I've always been especially spellbound by New Gold Dream's opening song "Someone Somewhere In Summertime," which sounds like it's just passing by in the middle of a long journey. I picture a man driving from beach to beach, looking for a shard of clear crystal in an endless expanse of sand, and knowing that maybe he picked such an impossible task for himself because he really doesn't want to complete it.
Enduring presence? What I wrote about Sparkle In The Rain really applies to all of Simple Minds' best songs: "The sound is dense and bustling, but on closer listen, the arrangements are less fussy than they initially appear. When Jim Kerr sings, the music often clears away, leaving him plenty of room to unfurl his billowy, romantic croon. The result is an album that surrounds listeners with pounding percussion and resonant chime, while Kerr sings about the intersection of surface glitz and raw human need."
Years Of Operation 1986-present
Fits Between The Cranberries and Alanis Morrissette
Personal Correspondence In my junior year of high school, I made a futile effort to be more "punk," and I started hanging out with a group of kids far more hardcore than I. They'd all gone through the "running away from home" and "being sent to Christian reeducation camp" phases of punkdom; me, I was just hoping they could turn me on to some bands as awesome as Hüsker Dü. (What a disappointment then when I discovered they all thought Hüsker Dü were sellouts.) Most mornings we rode to school blasting C.O.C. or D.R.I., but for some reason Sinead O'Connor's debut album was also in heavy rotation, perhaps to appease the two punk girls in our carpool, who used to like to wail along to "Troy." (If that song was still playing when we got to the school's parking lot, we sat in the car and waited until it was done, even if the opening bell had rung.) In the years that followed, I discovered that The Lion And The Cobra was a common reference point among most of the cool girls I either befriended or dated. My girlfriend in college was deeply into that record, and subsequently into I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, and looking back I probably should've recognized the undertones of foreboding in the fact that so many of our idle, romantic weekends were scored to "You Cause As Much Sorrow" and "The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance." I still think O'Connor's first two records are marvels, though their eclecticism and unfiltered emotion tends to make them uneven at best, unseemly at worst. And obviously O'Connor felt the pressure of being so beloved for her vulnerability. I think she was embarrassed by the attention she got for her sensuality, and the level of personal exposure in her songs. She became a global sensation for a music video in which she wept openly, and then became a scandalous figure for ripping up a picture of the Pope on live TV. When you're constantly being scrutinized to see if you'll cry or freak out, that has to take a toll.
Enduring presence? There are few talents as unique and formidable as O'Connor who have wasted their careers as spectacularly. I know some of her recent albums have their defenders, but what I've heard of them doesn't match the unflinching nakedness—or innate pop sense—of O'Connor's early work. I get the feeling that she's going to be one of those artists who comes back in a big way in about 10 years or so. When she does, it'll be great to have her back.
Years Of Operation 1991-present
Fits Between Cheap Trick and Fountains Of Wayne
Personal Correspondence When I first heard Sloan—via a copy of Smeared that a college friend taped and mailed to me shortly after we both graduated—they were still in their noisy mode, generating witty, literate grunge-pop far more indebted to Sonic Youth than anything they'd record subsequently. I followed the band to the mellower-but-still-mainstream Twice Removed, which I remember reviewing for the alt-weekly I was writing for at the time in the same column that I reviewed Weezer's debut album. Compared to Sloan, Weezer struck me as amateurish and silly—but apparently I was in the minority, since Weezer went on to sell a shitload of records while Sloan were quickly dropped by their label, DGC. I promptly forgot all about them until I bought The Trouser Press Guide To '90s Rock and read a review of the only-available-in-Canada One Chord To Another, which claimed the band had abandoned their half-hearted stabs at grunge for shaggy-haired '70s pop, swaddling their arch, self-aware lyrics in the glorious sounds of Badfinger, Kiss, Chicago and whatever other adolescent favorite they could reconfigure. Sloan had reportedly recast themselves in a warm new light, as goofily charming nostalgists, chasing arena rock dreams on a bar band budget. I picked up an import copy of Chord—right before the album was released domestically on the short-lived label The Enclave, as it happened—and Sloan quickly rose into my list of Top 10 favorite working rock bands. And they've more-or-less remained there, even after they went heavier and deeper on 1998's Navy Blues, fooled around with suite-like arrangements and autobiography on 1999's masterful Between The Bridges, made a semi-stab at modernizing with synthesizers and atmospherics on 2001's Pretty Together and went back to basics on 2004's pounding Action Pact. Through it all—even in the Smeared days, really—Sloan's core sound has remained the same. They're partial to pounding, whooping rock anthems designed to make dingy clubs sound like circa-1978 Kiss concerts.
Enduring presence? I haven't heard the latest Sloan album obviously, but 2006's magnum opus Never Hear The End Of It holds up exceptionally well, especially when heard immediately after re-listening to all that came before it (as I did this week). What I wrote about Never Hear the End Of It back in '06 pretty well sums up my feelings for Sloan right now: "The band's eighth studio LP crams 30 songs into 76 minutes, and threatens to send even Sloan fans into power-pop overload. It'll take a strong constitution to weather power chord after power chord and soaring harmony after soaring harmony, but for those who can hack it, Never Hear The End Of It is a rare thrill: an album brimming with inspiration and energy. There's not a lot of fat on these songs, and between the big glam choruses, handclap-aided bridges, zigzag melodies and fuzzy guitar interplay, the record plays like a customized accessory for shag-carpeted vans and wood-paneled rec rooms. It's music for the amiably dissatisfied."
Sly & The Family Stone
Years Of Operation 1966-75
Fits Between War and Funkadelic
Personal Correspondence Since classic rock radio and ex-hippie uncles had brainwashed me to believe that the late '60s were rock's One True Golden Age, I made it a habit to watch Woodstock once a year when our local PBS station aired it—which was typically during pledge season, and late at night so that they could show it mostly uncut. Every time I watched the movie, the band that impressed me most was one that classic rock radio rarely played: Sly & The Family Stone, whose performance of "I Want To Take You Higher" in that film is so spunky and transcendent that it made a lot of the other acts on the Woodstock stage seem frivolous by comparison. I didn't know much about Sly Stone until I read Greil Marcus' Mystery Train, which contains a lengthy essay—one that I found fascinating albeit impenetrable when I read it at age 14—comparing Stone's career to the age-old story of Stagger Lee. Marcus was working a complicated metaphor, talking about Stone's darker racial politics in the context of '60s positivism, and—I think—indicating that much like the much-feared Stagger Lee, Stone had a murderous side, aimed at his own success. Like I said, I had a hard time making sense of that essay. But I kept it in mind when I finally got around to buying some Sly & The Family Stone records, and in particular the revolutionary There's A Riot Goin' On, as perversely enervated a call to revolution as the Black Power era produced. Riot is like an unintentional document of activism's end, as all the social problems that the Family Stone sang about overcoming on their earlier records now seemed to have overwhelmed their frontman. Stone sounds like he's disappearing into a fog on that record—call it drugs, call it indifference—but he still recalls the kind of band the Family Stone used to be, just a year earlier, when they stormed Woodstock. That's what's so goddamn sad about the record. Stone seems to know exactly what he's letting go, even if he can't quite articulate why.
Enduring presence? And what is he letting go? Just listen to the vibrant, vivacious "M'Lady," which does the trading-off-vocalists-and-instruments thing that the band had perfected with the hit single "Dance To The Music," but this time minimizes the lyrics and maximizes the ecstatic release. This is the sound of a band having fun, enjoying their own ability to make a joyful noise, and playing off each other, free and unfettered. It's a two-and-a-half minute utopian vision, straight from the Bay. And it's all about to come crashing down.
The Smashing Pumpkins
Years Of Operation 1988-present (off and on)
Fits Between Boston and The Cure
Personal Correspondence According to the rumors floating around in the early '90s, The Smashing Pumpkins signed to Virgin Records prior to the release of their debut album Gish, but released Gish on the lower-profile indie Caroline strictly to build cred. Which isn't exactly a punk move. But I didn't know anything about that the first time I heard the Pumpkins. I borrowed Gish from a guy I worked with, who'd bought it because he thought the band's name was cool. I wasn't really over the moon for Gish, but I kept playing it, and looking back now, I hear in that record a lot of what the Pumpkins' grungier peers were trying to achieve in terms of melding '70s arena-rock bluster to punk aggression—though Gish is cut with moments of stillness and prettiness, since Billy Corgan's influences were more post-punk than punk. I was excited to hear Siamese Dream two years later, having read about Corgan's attempts to follow My Bloody Valentine's lead and make an album in which every guitar sound was perfect and distinctive, but again, much like Gish, Siamese Dream was an album that I never really loved, even though I listened to it over and over. I think I was drawn to the Pumpkins' heightened sense of melodrama, which was so refreshing after a couple of years of Nirvana ranting "Corporate Rock Sucks" while ripping off Boston riffs. Even now, I get a little defensive about Smashing Pumpkins—and Zwan for that matter—though I don't much like Corgan when I read interviews with him, and I've gone through periods where I actively disdained the Pumpkins' music. Maybe it's that I feel like people hate Corgan for the wrong reasons—because they think he's too blustery, or too calculating. For me, it's the bluster and the calculation that makes The Smashing Pumpkins interesting. It's the faux-nihilism and inability to self-edit that drives me nuts. I still think that Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness—despite the awful, awful title—would be one of the best albums of the '90s as a single-disc set. As a double, it became where I drew the line on The Smashing Pumpkins. Before, I could at least listen to the albums from start to finish. After Mellon Collie, I had to fast-forward way too much. In the pre-iPod era, that was a deal-breaker
Enduring presence? In a particularly bitter "state of the rock" piece back in 1996, I wrote, "My finger is aimed squarely at the shallowness of the modern rock audience, which seems to gravitate toward the message with the most immediate impact, regardless of its meaning. Most often, this means bands who howl about some vague injustice, like The Smashing Pumpkins with their 'Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.' Unlike such classic mope-rockers as Pink Floyd, The Smiths or American Music Club, each of whom have specific images and sources for their pain, The Smashing Pumpkins and their ilk scream into a void—which is less threatening for their audience. Even worse, the bands' blank rage (coupled with the sneering cleverness of bands like Weezer and The Presidents of the United States) encourages a sort of us-vs.-them feeling in the modern rock listener. Frankly, all this aimless derisiveness leaves a bad taste in my mouth." I was 26 then, and I'm 38 now. In the intervening 12 years, I've learned to embrace vague pessimism in rock as a form of cathartic theater, so I'm not down as on Corgan the way I once was. But I don't think my 26-year-old self was exactly wrong, either. He was just a guy with different values.
Years Of Operation 1982-87
Fits Between The Wedding Present and The Housemartins
Personal Correspondence It's still somewhat surprising to me that a band as idiosyncratic as The Smiths—with a frontman as singularly queer as Stephen Morrissey, in every sense of the word—became so popular in the '80s and remains so beloved today. They may never have cracked the pop charts here in the States they way they did in the UK, but unlike some of the British bands I liked, The Smiths were staple listening among nearly all of my alt-rock-minded friends in high school and college, and from what I can tell they're as evergreen as The Cure. Whenever mopey teens are looking for music that speaks directly to them, they find their way to The Smiths. One of the great record store discoveries of my life came circa 1986, when I was flipping through the 12" singles bin at Camelot Records and came across Hatful Of Hollow, mistakenly priced at $4.99. I had no idea what the record was, but I liked the Smiths songs I'd heard on my brother's mixtapes—including "How Soon Is Now," which is on Hatful—so I ponied up the five bucks and entered another realm. It was easy to understand when Morrissey sang lines like "I am human and I need to be loved," but the gay eroticism of songs like "This Charming Man" threw me for a loop, especially because I didn't yet have the savvy to fully decode them. (My friend Rob borrowed one of my mixtapes a year later that featured "William It Was Really Nothing," and when his sister heard that song, she said, "Did that man just ask William to marry him?" Neither of us had noticed before the way the song changes from "a fat girl" proposing to the singer proposing. We weren't predisposed to hear it that way, I guess.) After my grandfather died, I acquired his old, non-working hearing aid, and tried to approximate Morrisey's look from the inside of Hatful Of Hollow: striped dress shirt, sports coat, jeans, hearing aid. I also took to wearing sunglasses with one lens removed, colorful dress socks with sneakers, and a chain to which I'd attach a different random object every day—from a Paddington Bear figurine to a VW hood ornament. I was trying too hard, quite frankly. But Morrissey made dressing and acting like an outsider seem so noble. To be long-suffering, a martyr to art and self-expression… it was heroic to me.
Enduring presence? Of course the real reason The Smiths are still so beloved is that the rest of the band provided such a solid foundation for Morrisey to reel around on. I wrote earlier this year about how I often find The Beatles' songs astonishing and even inexplicable in their perfection and sophistication. I feel much the same about The Smiths, if only for the way Johnny Marr was able to pop out impeccably chiming riff after impeccably chiming riff for five straight years. The Decemberists later reworked The Smiths' "The Headmaster Ritual" into the equally awesome "The Sporting Life," but Colin Meloy had it easy, since Marr and Morrissey (and Joyce and Rourke, let's not forget) had plowed the playing field so neatly.
The Soft Boys
Years Of Operation 1976-80 (essentially)
Fits Between Brinsley Schwarz and XTC
Personal Correspondence I was already a Robyn Hitchcock fan when I first read about The Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight in Rolling Stone's list of the Top 100 albums of the '80s, but Underwater Moonlight was out of print in the U.S., and I didn't have access to any record stores that stocked it as an import (since, despite Hitchcock's college radio success, The Soft Boys weren't much of a known quantity in the States in the mid-'80s). When I moved to Athens to go to college, I decided that if I ever ran into R.E.M. guitarist and frequent Hitchcock associate Peter Buck around town, I'd ask him where I could find a copy of Underwater Moonlight, imagining that this simple conversational gambit would lead to Buck and I having a long chat about music, and him inviting me back to his house to rifle through his record collection. I made the mistake of confiding this plan to my college girlfriend, who mentioned it to her half-sister, a part-time stripper with minimal inhibitions. One day, the three of us were in Wuxtry Records in Athens when Buck walked in and started chatting with the store's owner. My girlfriend's sister nudged me to go talk to Buck, but I froze, partly because I didn't want to interrupt him, and partly because the plan suddenly seemed incredibly stupid. Finally, as we were walking out the door, the sister grabbed my arm, shoved me at Buck, and said, "He has something to ask you." Mortified and knock-kneed, I muttered my question, and Buck rather chillily suggested that I try one of the record stores in Atlanta's hip Little Five Points neighborhood. I thanked him for his time, and shuffled out, feeling absolutely awful, But you know what? Buck was right. I did find Underwater Moonlight at that store in Little Five Points (the name of which escapes me, though I'm sure one of my Atlanta readers will know it). And I found A Can Of Bees and Invisible Hits too—all for a relatively low price. Would I have found them without Buck? Sure, eventually. But now I have a story to tell. Thanks, crazy half-sister of my ex-girlfriend.
Enduring presence? I've already written an entry on Hitchcock, who's the driving creating force in The Soft Boys—not to discount the contributions of future Katrina And The Waves' guitarist Kimberley Rew, but c'mon—so I don't have much more to say, except to note how the first major bands of artists as enduring as Hitchcock often encapsulate so much more of who they are. The Soft Boys jump from influence to influence—from Captain Beefheart to The Byrds—with a wonderful openness that Hitchcock would gradually narrow. Aside from the magnificent Underwater Moonlight, which is far-reaching but cohesive, The Soft Boys' output is so inconsistent that it can't hold a candle to Hitchcock's long, steady solo career, but it was fun for me in college to siphon through all those early records to finds the gems, and the effort it took to unearth something like "Leppo And The Jooves" made me appreciate it all the more.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
Silver Jews, "People"
Smog, "Keep Some Steady Friends Around"
Silver Jews are another one of those indie-rock acts that are beloved by many of my peers but fall just outside my range of interest. (At some point I should try to figure out what connects these acts I'm not on board with: Okkervill River, Cat Power, and so forth.) I enjoy Silver Jews reasonably well when I hear them, but David Berman's slacker voice and his persistent pissiness in interviews (especially when his project gets compared to Pavement) all kind of rub me the wrong way. And yet for some reason I'm a pretty big fan of the similar-sounding Smog, Bill Callahan's long-term exercise in wrapping mellow, Velvet Underground-y drones in swirling strings, dyspeptic guitar noise and fractured poetry. Callahan intones flatly and nasally as he and his occasional bandmates shoot repetitive chords into an echo chamber, but the virtual impenetrability of the music is tempered by the wit and insight of his lyrics. Callahan's music is idiosyncratic and personal: the rock 'n' roll equivalent of a self-published pamphlet. And at their best, Smog reminds me of Willie Nelson's Red-Headed Stranger, an album so spare and intimate that every strum registers. Much the same could be said of Silver Jews, I suppose. I honestly have no idea why I like one act so much and am indifferent to the other.
Siouxie & The Banshees, "Cities In Dust"
In adhering to the artier side of post-punk, Siouxie & The Banshees have always struck me as more admirable than enjoyable. I love about a half-dozen of their singles—and none more than this fluid piece of danceable apocalyptica—but I find the bulk of the band's music too off-putting. One note about "Cities In Dust:" For years I had this song on a tape I made from one of my brothers' vinyl LPs, which had a skip. I can't remember exactly what point it occurred, but even now I find myself on edge when listening to "Cities In Dust," waiting for the skip to come. In a way, that makes the song even better.
Sister Sledge, "Lost In Music"
I don't really want to hear "We Are Family" again, despite the happy associations with the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates (a team my household cheered on to a World Series victory, even though we were devout Braves fans), and despite recent memories of my four-year-old daughter hearing the song on the radio and dancing around the house, singing the chorus over and over. For me, "We Are Family" is just too played-out. Also, for reasons I can't recall, I'm always inclined to sing "I'll have the burrito supreme" during the part where the ladies sing, "I've got all my sisters with me." All of that said, I still think Sister Sledge is one of the primo acts of the disco era, and I that "Lost In Music" is one of the genre's greatest singles—a paean to dancing that takes the escapist aspect of disco and gives it real urgency.
Sixteen Deluxe, "No Shock (In Bubble)"
I have no idea what happened to this Texas outfit, though I did find a review I wrote of their major label debut Emits Showers Of Sparks back in the mid-'90s: "For those among us who have been pining for the heady days when Lush, Ride, Pale Saints, and My Bloody Valentine all dominated 120 Minutes, here comes Austin's Sixteen Deluxe to revive the stoner guitar symphonics of yore. The band has built a bed of feedback-rich dream-pop, adorning it with catchy girl-group melodies and the occasional loping, Mazzy Star-ish rhythm. Recall any groove that was popular in the Bush administration, and Sixteen Deluxe is probably working it. Bandleaders Carrie Clark and Chris Smith do a pretty good Cervenka/Doe impression at times, though neither has as distinctive a voice. What they have instead are their guitars, and vocals that sound as winningly ethereal as the tonal interplay of those twin axes. The key to the Sixteen Deluxe's success is drummer Stephen Hall, who provides just enough of a syncopated backbeat to keep the rest of the band on its toes. Otherwise, Clark and Smith might get too absorbed in the pretty sounds their guitars make. But with Hall's agile support, they keep changing tempos and blending their sonic palette. They've got a guitar in one speaker, cascading like a waterfall, while a guitar in the other speaker buzzes like an electric current. When the two sounds meet in the middle over Hall's pounding, all sorts of wicked patterns erupt."
The Skatalites, "Coconut Rock"
Som Três, "Homenagem A Mongo"
And now a little beat-crazy interlude, featuring arguably the most important ska act of all time and a lesser-known psychedelic samba group. It constantly amazes me how some skillfully applied polyrhythms can elevate what some might think of as easy-listening into something exotic, funky and oddly satisfying.
The Skids, "Of One Skin"
Stuart Adamson's pre-Big Country band had a lot more in common with the inventive art-punk a lot of his fellow Scots were purveying in the late '70s, though Adamson's astonishing, city-swallowing guitar was also starting to find its leve;. This song in particular has always struck me as an interesting hybrid: a hint of Big Country, recontextualized for an era of Undertones and Orange Juice.
Slayer, "Die By The Sword"
I was tempted to write "SLAYER BITCH!" and leave it at that, but I actually do have a Slayer story, of sorts. I saw River's Edge in high school while I was in the thick of my punk phase, and despite the murder (and the covering up of murder), I recognized in that movie's milieu a lot of my friends and the kind of places my family had lived when I was younger. I identified with the characters so much that I imagined myself riding around in beat-up cars with my buds, blasting Slayer. So I bought the River's Edge soundtrack, and discovered that outside the context of the movie, I had a hard time getting into the music. I've got a mini-essay planned for later this year about music that goes "max"—the fastest, the loudest, the most extreme—and why it often eludes me, but before I expose my inner wimp yet again, I want to throw the comments open to you reader who dig speed-metal (yes, even you-know-who) to ask what exactly you're looking for in the genre, and how you discern the good bands from the hacks. I mean, whenever Slayer pops up on my iPod—which isn't that often, since all I have by them is the River's Edge soundtrack and 2006's Christ Illusion—I enjoy the bolt of aggression and the change of pace, but I don't know that it would be as effective if my iPod were fully loaded with Slayer and Slayer-esque acts. I just don't have much of a knack for sorting out this kind of stuff, so I'm begging your assistance. Enlighten me, metalheads. Why does this own?
Small Factory, "Versus Tape"
I'm sure there are a lot of people who find the doggedly minor indie-rock represented by the long-forgotten Small Factory to be every bit as indistinguishable as I find speed-metal. I can't blame them, really. Who need another batch of funkless aesthetes with electric guitars, whiny voices, derivative melodies and lyrics ripped from their journals? And yet it works for me… especially this song, which pays homage to yet another doggedly minor indie-rock act. As pathetic as this may sound, this is a song about me.
The Smithereens, "Strangers When We Meet"
It's something of a minor miracle that The Smithereens were as successful as they were at a time when so many other power-pop/retro-rock bands couldn't get a tumble. I think the key to The Smithereens' strong run—besides Pat DiNizio's ability to marry pretty melodies to rocking arrangements—was that the band made better use of the sonic overkill of '80s production than any others of their ilk. They blew their sound up, making it bigger and louder, and creating a sense of excitement that enhanced the songs' hookiness rather than distracting from it. In baseball terms, they had a sweet swing and home-run power.
I'm happy that more people got to know the music of Smoke thanks to Jem Cohen's documentary Benjamin Smoke, about the slacker life and early death of the band's lead singer, Robert Dickerson, a.k.a. Opal Foxx, a.k.a. Benjamin. The movie gives a good sense of Dickerson's personality—sort of a fragile alcoholic southern belle type—but doesn't completely capture what it was like to see a Smoke show. In his Opal Foxx Quartet days, Dickerson often sounded too much like Tom Waits, and his performances—in full, ratty drag—were more about ironic contrast and camp theater than music. With Smoke, Dickerson had former Jody Grind guitarist/trumpeter Bill Taft on his side, and he worked a vein closer to Nick Cave, Smog and The Tindersticks. Dickerson knew he was dying when he was working with Smoke, and so the songs are stripped clean of the distancing effects and shock value that he previously preferred. Seizing his last chance to tell the truth, Dickerson sang with minimal affectation about pain, desire, childhood memories and regrets. Smoke's songs serve as a deathbed diary of sorts.
Smokey Robinson, "Being With You"
The Motown sound that Robinson helped define was so distinct and identifiable in the '60s, but from the mid-'70s on, the label more often seemed to be scrambling to keep up with the contemporary styles that non-Motown artists were pioneering. When this song came up this week, my wife recognized it, but couldn't remember who sang it. "Being With You" is a lovely, light-soul number, but can it be readily pegged as the work of the guy who led The Miracles?
Smoosh, "Find A Way"
Most kiddie-rock acts are an amusing novelty at best, but Seattle duo Smoosh—two sisters who recorded and released their first album before they reached puberty—created something more substantial with their second LP Free To Stay. While 12-year-old drummer Chloe keeps a complex beat with shifting tempos, 14-year-old Asya accompanies her on a variety of keyboards, layering distorted organ, wiggly synthesizer and electric piano. Songs like "Find A Way" follow see-sawing melodic lines, and display a combination of openness and hookiness reminiscent of indie-minded chanteuses from Juliana Hatfield to Quasi. If Smoosh can maintain their interest in making music after adolescence, it'll be interesting to hear them grow up.
The Sneakers, "Condition Red"
The "college rock" sound and the North Carolina music scene of the '80s can both be traced back to The Sneakers, a little band from Winston-Salem that featured contributions from Chris Stamey, Will Rigby, Mitch Easter and Don Dixon during their brief run at underground success in the late '70s. Much of the band's recorded legacy is merely okay, showing an inexperienced group of singer-songwriters trying too hard to smooth out their rough edges. But the 1976 EP The Sneakers is a real wonder, combining hooky Big Star power-pop with clunky Captain Beefheart abstraction (the latter probably unintentionally, though that doesn't make it any less effective).
Snoop Dogg, "Eastside"
Though there's nothing cornier than a dopey white guy cranking up Snoop Dogg while cruising around in a sub-compact, but Snoop makes it so easy for outsiders to indulge the gangsta fantasy. Quite simple, he has one of the best flows in hip-hop, and throughout his career has stuck with collaborators skilled at making music that bumps along amiably, even when the lyrics are sexist and violent. Someone once said that what makes the movie Goodfellas so great is that if you're flipping though channels and see that Goodfellas is on, it's hard to stop watching it. Snoop Dogg has a similar effect: come across one of his singles on the radio, and it's hard to avoid cranking it up and letting it roll.
Snow Patrol, "The Last Shot Ringing In My Ears"
On my master-list of Popless mini-essay topics, I have this note scrawled: "Snow Patrol's Mysterious Longevity." In the end, the timing wasn't right to make that the lead topic this week, and I'm not sure what I would've written anyway, except to marvel that a band so generally nondescript in sound and stage presence—despite having a handful of pretty good singles to their name—has stayed viable for so long. While digging around to see if I'd written anything about them before, I found this review of their 1998 debut Songs For Polar Bears: "This band from Northern Ireland throws out Swervedriver-esque guitar drone and Beta Band-like random sampling with intermittent distinction. Their debut album opens with two consecutive amelodic, stilted anthems, and then, just when a less patient listener would be packing up the disc for resale, the cacophony breaks on 'The Last Shot Ringing in My Ears,' a haunting, mumbled song that sounds like the typical quiet/loud Nirvana arrangement, but without the loud. This minor variation in form heralds a string of slightly unusual, marginally intriguing rock experiments, in which Snow Patrol attacks grungy and distorted guitar-pop from fleetingly fresh angles. Again though, singer Gary Lightbody (despite the colorful name) doesn't have the charisma, the vision, or the voice to make Snow Patrol any more than an entertaining-today/irrelevant-tomorrow diversion." Quite a prediction, huh? And yet, I still think I was right.
Soft Complex, "Barcelona"
Speaking of predictions, here's what I wrote about the debut single by the where-are-they-now? Soft Complex: "For a preview of what may be awaiting retro-pop fans in 2007, try Barcelona, a three-song EP (plus five generally solid remixes) by D.C. alt-dance band Soft Complex. The title track sounds like a lovely lost song from the Aztec Camera/Simple Minds era, mixing jangly, Smiths-style guitars and vocals with low cello and ebullient rhythms. It sounds like the whole of '80s college radio recombined into a fluidly sentimental symphony." I'm still waiting to be proved right, Soft Complex.
Son Volt, "Chaos Streams"
I gave Jay Farrar a full "Piece Of The Puzzle" write-up back in Week 21, and said much of what I had to say about his virtues and limitations. I do think Farrar deserves credit for doing what he can to modify his often rigid sound—whether it be by dismissing his Son Volt sidemen and going solo for a couple of adventurous but only intermittently successful records, or reviving the Son Volt name with all new bandmates and some subtle stylistic advances. Farrar's always been inclined to shake up his twangy roots-rock with odd time signatures and song structures; since bringing back Son Volt, he's been starting with a basic framework of riff-verse-chorus-solo-repeat, then diddling a little. Writing about the superb "comeback" album Okemah And The Melody Of Riot three years ago, I said, "The packed-in lyrics spill over the measure and off the beat. There's a feeling of urgency to the music and words that's been missing from Farrar's work over the past couple of years: a sense that these songs mean so much that he had to get them out quick, without a lot of fuss. A voice as distinctive as Farrar's deep whine can (and has) become dreary and exhausting over an entire album, especially given the singer's essential humorlessness. But it's mainly the riffs that had been increasingly lacking in Farrar's music over the last decade. Here, even when his over-intellectualized lyrics smear into a palette of industrial gray, the guitars provide a strong human heartbeat."
Regrettably unremarked upon: Sir Douglas Quintet, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Six Parts Seven, The Slits, The Small Faces, Social Distortion and Soft Cell
Also listened to: The Silent League, The Silhouettes,
Silk, Silkworm, Silo The Huskie, Silver Sun, Silverchair, Silversun Pickups, Simon & Milo, Simon Carpenter, Simon Dawes, Simon Park Orchestra, Simon Stokes & The Nighthawks, Simone White, Sing-Sing, Sir Salvatore, Six Organs Of Admittance, Sixpence None The Richer, Sixwire, Size 14, Skates, Skeletons & The Kings Of All Cities, Skeletonwitch, Skerik's Syncopated Taint Serpent, Skid Marks, Skip Heller's Liberal Dose, Skiploader, Skull Valley, Skye Sweetnam, The Skyliners, Skymonters, Slaid Cleaves, Sleep Station, Sleeping States, The Sleepwalkers, The Sleepy Jackson, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, The Slickers, Slightly Stoopid, The Slip, Sloth, Slow Dazzle, Slow Runner, The Slow Signal Fades, Slum Village, Slumber Party, S*M*A*S*H*, Smash Mouth, Smith, Snake Hips, Snakes Say Hisss!, Snap!, Sneaker Pimps, Snmnmnm, Spooky Pryor, Snooze, Snow, Snow & Voices, Snowden, Snowglobe, So Percussion, So They Say, Soda Jerk, Soft, Soft Touch, Sole & The Skyriders, Soledad Brothers, Solex, Solly, Some Awful Bridge, Some Girls, The Some Loves, Somehow Hollow, Something Corporate, Something For Rockets and Son Of Dave
Next week: From Sonic Youth to Steve Reich, plus a few words on shifting critical tides