Saturday, March 31, 2007

Chasing Down Sin

I had pretty much written off Jay Farrar and Son Volt after his most recent solo record and then the reformed band’s last release. Farrar overstuffs his lyrical lines (he needs someone to tell him to put the cork in); he resorts too often to unwieldy college-boy diction (I think it’s cool to know the word "caryatid," but I’m certain you’re not supposed to use it in a song); his screeching about consumerism and the war, and whatever else, sounds pretty shrill to me; and, worst of all, he frequently makes quasi-rootsy goodtime buttrock party music for frat boys with backwards baseball hats sipping shitty keg beer from Solo cups. Better than Dave Matthews, perhaps, but not as enjoyable as the Gin Blossoms, or even Third Eye Blind – yeah, I said it. So, I was prepared to hate the new Son Volt record, The Search. And I hate parts of it. But there are a few songs that, I don’t know .... do me right. A song called "Methamphetamine" is one. The name-dropping of North Carolina, Arkansas, and Branson, are all good things. And the general pedal-steel achiness of the whole affair fits the sour-mash caramel-candy tones of Farrar’s swoopy pulled-taffy Possum-esque singing. It too may suffer from all of Farrar’s tendencies, but it overcomes itself nicely.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Old Division/New Unity

(Photo: Greg Ginn of Black Flag)

Here's a great write-up in the London Review of Books of what sounds like a worthy book about the Velvet Underground. The review is excellent for a number of reasons. One, these sentences about the song "Heroin": "It’s a masterpiece, but a stupid masterpiece, like some of rock’s other great achievements. It certainly didn’t make sense on the radio. It made a little more sense on my tape player, when I was alone in my room."

And, two: for these observations about the Grateful Dead: "In the musical-historical imagination – with its New York v. California, but especially its punk v. hippie oppositions – the Dead ought to be the exact antithesis of the Velvet Underground. I can testify to the vehemence of this, again, from my own juvenile experience. By my teen years I had somehow wound up in a punk rock milieu, on one side of one of those yawning divides of style by which teenagers define themselves. We wore T-shirts of the White Light/White Heat album cover, which could not have existed when the album was originally released. Mere mention of liking the Grateful Dead was grounds for ostracism. In the punk rock schema, the Velvets were Papa (and Mama) punks, while the Dead were Papa hippies – and punks hate hippies. Yet when you look at the state of both bands at their contemporaneous founding moments in 1965-66, you find that the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead started out, in an odd way, as basically the same band. In fact, both bands started with the same name in 1965: the Warlocks. And both were quickly taken up by other cultural movements and artists from other genres to furnish ‘house bands’ for collective projects."

(Ed. Note: Here's the version of "Heroin" from the infamous Norman Dolph acetate -- hat tip Moistworks.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

I Have Six Things to Tell You About

Folks, I don't want to impose a Sharia Law of pop music on you, but I can't help it! Because I dream of a world in which a few objective pop truths bind us all in a conscription service of love, just like those eyeliner-wearing Taliban mullahs in Afghanistan do, only with better drum beats and less clothes. Perhaps, maybe, someday, we'll all travel the spaceways together aboard this proposed SS Brotherhood, a futuristic spacecraft that pipes only the most objectively and provably beautiful music through its sound system of pure joy. What will we hear there? Hard to say. But let me make some reasonable suggestions.

1. Percy Sledge! The name alone evokes something right. I got this record out of my dad's basement last week. I direct your attention to the fabulous guitar work, which is straight outa Muscle Shoals. Can anyone identify who played on these? Whoever it is, he (she?) gets an extra gold bar on his SS Brotherhood space uniform.

Out of Left Field - Percy Sledge ("She was a lover and a free-end")

Cover Me - Percy Sledge

Dark End of the Street - Percy Sledge

2. I'm being coy by putting the most beautiful thing I've ever seen ever SECOND in my list of beautiful things you're likely hear on a spacecraft headed for cosmic bliss. Later you're going to write me an email and thank me profusely for showing you this. It's what's on public access TV in heaven. (Hat tip to Tim in Cleveland, O.)

Joni Mitchell - California (live, Quicktime Movie)

3. They say that "Please Let Me Wonder" is the first song Brian Wilson ever wrote under the influence of reefer. I say it's one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. If that's the reefer talkin', then, Yay, reefer! From 1965's Today!, which I also yanked from dad's LP collection. He loved it so much he bothered to stick his name on it using one of those old-fashioned label makers.

Please Let Me Wonder - The Beach Boys

This is also beautiful, a clear precursor to "Wouldn't It Be Nice," with falsetto-minded young people wishing they could screw but being denied by state law.

I'm So Young - The Beach Boys

4. We love us some Eddie Holman here at The Driftwood Singers. That's because we wholeheartedly approve of male falsetto in all its forms. Feelings! Most of the time you want to keep them way down deep inside. And that's probably a good idea. But sometimes you let'em rip and the result works for everyone. Especially if you're Eddie Holman or The Delfonics. There's a very special "Cry of the Valkyries" flugel horn in this tune that will become much more common in the year 2525 when we're cruising the spaceways looking for the best place to park in the unified field.

I Love You - Eddie Holman

5. In all of this love talk, let's not forget the joys of painting it black and saying fuck you to some asshole who wants you to work for a living. When I was a teenager, my first punk LP was Who's Got the 10 1/2? by Black Flag from 1986. I was 15 years old when I was flipping through the vinyl stacks next to the scariest punk rock ne'er-do-well at my school, who told me to buy this. Trust me, I did it more out of fear than desire. When I got home, I was genuinely frightened by what I heard. Terrified! This was bad music for bad people. They were ecnouraging me -- a B+ student with a future! -- to kill and screw. Now THIS was rock and roll. Thus began a love affair.

My War - Black Flag

6. Okay, back to love. Got to be there. Gotta! If for no other reason than some arsehole on eBay bid me up BIG TIME on this album and I need you to download it and make me feel like it was worth it. From 1976's In the Dark.

Got to Be There - Toots & The Maytals

(Editor's Note: The author was drunk when he wrote this, but after seeing it in the cold light of day he's decided he can live with it, mostly. Some minor editing has been performed.)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Father of Us All

Rock and roll traffics in idealized archetypal characters: the rebel, the cowboy, the poet, the shaman. But the essential rock and roll personality has got to be the caveman. All raw urge, unchecked id, complete lack of personal hygiene, life-preserving violence, stinky animal pelts, bones for weapons and drumsticks, coercive sexual habits, fire and smoke, crude paintings. Basically a Ted Nugent video. He’s the old-world cousin of the Druid, one step away from the monolith, the crop circle, Stonehenge and bog people, which funnels you nicely into horned helmets, meed, Viking burials, hammer of the gods, etc. Also the forefather of the punk, with his severely limited ability with tools and technology and a general knit-brow frustration with complexity. Three chords. Grunt. But the caveman is also the proto outsider artist. Noble savage, untutored genius. You can see the through-line all the way: the Nuge, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, Spinal Tap, the Sex Pistols, Daniel Johnston. But the MC5 captures all the cro-mag’s far-flung spectral offshoots like no other. Motor City revolutionaries, tapping into the angst of the machine age. High concept rock-and-rollers aiming to subvert the whole American Ruse with loud guitars, brute force and a tip of the hat to Little Richard and Black Power. How can anyone ever think to disrespect Detroit?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Wutsa Matta With the Clothes I'm Wearin'?

I re-acquired my childhood copy of Billy Joel's Glass Houses last week and upon pulling out the inner sleeve recalled that I was obsessed with the dude with the watch on his ankle. That is, the drummer, who went by the name Liberty Devitto. It reminded me how much my obsessive study of rock LP liner notes and early MTV videos by bands like Aztec Camera and Talking Heads managed to inculcate me with art school and European values. Nobody in any town I ever lived in (and I lived in quite a few growing up, all over the country) ever, EVER wore a watch on their ankle. Or even wore a shoe quite as gay-jazz-beatnik as this one. It shows how provincial and sheltered people used to be as recently as the early 1980s, when Barbara Mandrell delineated social mores and the interweb had not yet made available 1,000 varieties of German "Scheisse porn." With MTV as my virtual art school education, I ended up living in New York, the source of all that beautiful, beautiful Eurotrash, where just about everybody wears ankle watches and has hair like Flock of Seagulls. Of course they do. Move here and see for yourself.

Which brings us to Billy Joel. Glass Houses is the album where BJ starts baldly ripping off a little-known British new wave punk named Elvis Costello. The Long Island boy is himself looking for some Euro-art-house cred and his answer is to immitate Costello's songs and singing style and to put a watch on the drummer's ankle. Do I resent him for it? NO! I kinda like this album. No, let me rephrase: I kinda used to LOVE this album as a kid and now I'm retroactively permanently connected to it by obscure personal emotions. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick... These two numbers don't get a lot of airtime, so why not.

Sleeping with the Television On - Billy Joel

Close to the Borderline - Billy Joel

(Note: It looks like the Billy Joel Glass Houses band photo shoot took place at about a five minutes to 1.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sound Pleasure

I guess there are lyrics people and there are sound people. Meaning there are folks who focus primarily on the meaning and poetry of song lyrics when assessing and responding to music, and then there are those who sort of ignore the lyrics altogether and find some other kind of resonance in the sounds, the volume, the break of the voice, the timbre of the things, the melody. I know this is shaping up to be some sort of cheap and bogus false dichotomy, but that’s how we like to rock it sometimes. Anyway, I guess I’m a sonics/music person. Or at least I’ve had this experience of getting all emotionally wrapped up in songs, listening to them hundreds of times, only to realize that I have no idea what the lyrics are about or what they’re even saying. Take R.E.M.’s "Sitting Still" off of Murmur, for instance. I can get plain teary-eyed choked up listening to that one, and, as far as I can tell from the few lines I can actually make sense of, Michael Stipe is singing about sitting in traffic, being up to par and some other stuff.

The new one from Paula Frazer and Tarnation reminds me of this same paradox. Only Frazer’s enunciation is super crisp and clear, there’s hardly ever a doubt about what she’s singing, but somehow it’s the sound of her voice, the little bleating yips and trills (she sang in a Bulgarian women’s choir and it sort of comes through in places), and the bare spare music behind her that make these songs so heart-breaking. It’s not the words she’s singing. In fact, if you listen closely, the lyrics actually sort of detract from the songs.

There was an interesting story in the NYT back at the end of last year. It focused on the research of this music/neuroscience guy, Daniel Levitin, who had concluded that pop music is pleasing to our brains for reasons that have to do more with texture than with traditional musical components.

''Pop musicians compose with timbre," Levitin said in the story. "Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.''

"Sleepy Dreams" - Paula Frazer and Tarnation

Friday, March 16, 2007

Win Butler is John Cafferty with a Liberal Arts Degree

Today I have to tap my Gen-X memory vault and school the youth of today about their favorite anti-hero of the moment, Win Butler. Let me preface this by saying I like Arcade Fire. But as Pee Wee said to Dottie: "Look, Dottie, I like you. Like! I like you!" Let me also say: I don't enjoy the pain this knowledge will most assuredly inspire, but the truth will set you free:

Win Butler & the Arcade Fire are Eddie & the Cruisers, who will always be John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band. It's the cycle of life. Just listen and judge for yourself:

Keep the Car Running - Win Butler & the Arcade Fire

On the Dark Side - John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band

Check out this excellent YouTube clip for the fabulous (and fabulously cheesy) Eddie & the Cruisers lip-synch scene from the 1983 film of the same name (a movie that was supposed to almalgamate the Bob Dylan/Bruce Springsteen creation myth in a sweaty, leathery 1950s rock and roll fantasy). I think I watched this movie on HBO about 500 times in the mid-80s, so when I heard this Arcade Fire tune I immediately began singing on top of it (as you soon will): Ain't nothin' gonna save you from a love that's blind / When you slip to the dark side you cross that line...

For this whole B. Springsteen/D. Bowie/D. Byrne gestalt that Arcade Fire seem to be mining, I'm gravitating to another Canadian product, Frog Eyes, who do it in a more raw and weird and wirey way. I like Arcade Fire, I do. But this song is epic and wonderful.

Bushels - Frog Eyes

Monday, March 05, 2007

Data Afterburn

It may be more of a glimpse behind the curtain than anyone really cares to take, but one of the things I enjoy about blogging is the variety of ways one (the blogger) can chop and dice the data about who's reading your blog. The site meter is an amazing, pathologically narcissistic tool. While it's sometimes sobering, after poring over the hard data, to learn that most guests to the Driftwood Singers site are in fact accidental visitors, wayward travellers, stumblers in the digital ether, there is a powerful sense of pride that comes with the realization that if someone Googles the phrase "gay semiotics," for instance, the potent logarithmic mysteries will bring you (almost) directly to our little blog.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

More Spoilage

I know it’s wrong to lift stuff from other blogs, but I can’t resist. I downloaded the entire Spoils of War record from The Magic of Juju site, which I’m still being blown away by. This track, "Now Is Made in America," is a wonderful mix of trippy psychedelia and spooky early electronic music burblings. It fits in nicely with the Silver Apples and The United States of America.
Could any band name and song title be more fitting? The sad truth is: now IS made in America.

"Now is Made in America" - The Spoils of War

Note: This track sounds as if it's cut off abruptly, but that's because there's too much extended synthy oscillation transition to make for discreet breaks.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Four Easy Pieces

[1] You forget, you really do. How great he is. And maybe you want to forget! But I come here not to accuse MJ but to praise him. Since Mr. Poncho brought up The Power of The Glove, it's worth returning to the ur glove: Get a pair of these Grado SR-60 headphones for $69 (rare product plug: they're amazing) and put your vinyl copy of "Billie Jean" on the turntable. Here's my two-word review: HOLY! SHIT! You can actually hear MJ standing in front of the mic, a possessed livewire hissing and snapping and preening and just flat-out injured with funk, that weird, private electro-frankenfunk that moves his shoes. The rhythm section is Louis Johnson from The Brothers Johnson and Ndugu Chancler, who played with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. They're locked so crazy tight it's stupid. No wonder he's in pain! The guy who made the soundtrack for The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai, Michael Boddicker, plays something on here called the "Emulator." That's key.

Billie Jean - Michael Jackson

[2] If some part of your body doesn't start moving when you hear this then you're lying in a hospital bed with a feeding tube in your mouth (get well soon). As they say in the Catskills, this tune's tighter than Joan River's face. MJ arranged all the percussion and apparently plays some rhythm instrument on here, too, according to the liner notes. From 1979's Off the Wall.

Working Day and Night - Michael Jackson

And while we're at it, why not:

Off the Wall - Michael Jackson

Music Video for "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" (YouTube)

[3] What stanks in here? Oh! It's Cameo. From the 1980 LP Cameosis, some haunted Dr. Funkenstein shit that will put your ass in funk traction. Dig this couplet:

Sassoon, Jordache, even Gloria Vanderbilt
When I shake my pants you know I'm dressed to kill

Shake Your Pants - Cameo

[4] Since some jackass eBayer bid me up to near twenty bucks on this LP I'm obligated to give it some airtime today. I love the accidental zen fumbly-fingers piano style of T. Monk better than just about anything in jazz. I love how he plods and plunks along almost haphazardly and somehow arrives to every moment with an odd telekenetic grace that defies the time signature. He plays piano like Willie Nelson sings (well, vice versa I guess), dancing around the melody like a drunken Gene Kelly. The whole group on Monk's Dream from '63 - especially Frank Dunlop on drums - is tapped into Monk mind.

Sweet & Lovely - Thelonious Monk

Bye-Ya - Thelonious Monk