Monthly Archives: November 2010

Great Songs By Bad Artists: “The Impression That I Get”

The late 90s were a weird time for music.  The ska-revival was one of the strangest things that happened to music.  If the early 90s were all about grunge and being angry, then the late 90s apparently seemed to be all about having fun and dancing.  Or so No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones would tell you.

Every time I hear “The Impression That I Get” I’m 16 years old again, driving in my first car blasting the radio as loud as I can.  It’s a song that makes me want to jump up and dance around like a lunatic even as I write this post.  (Man, I really want to play air-trumpet right about now.)

What really makes “The Impression That I Get” great is that is has achieved a rare feat in popular music: it is ageless.  (Not to be confused with timeless, I might be add.)  The song hasn’t aged well, it hasn’t aged terribly either.  It is forever stuck in the summer of 1997.  If you don’t believe me, trying tell me you don’t feel like you did in 1997 when you listen to it.

“My Mummy’s Dead”: The Connection Between John Lennon and Harry Potter

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The abandonment of a parent can leave a scar.  John Lennon was forced to live with aunt and uncle as child, abandoned by his parents after a heated argument. Lennon harbored deep emotions for years, even if on the outside he sang, “All You Need is Love” with The Beatles.   The fictional Harry Potter, received a scar as a baby when his parents were killed by the evil wizard, Voldemort.  Both would end up living with their respective aunt and uncle for years, and both would be famous for entirely different reasons. Yet neither could ever truly escape the events that happened to them when they were younger.

Lennon’s fame did nothing to soothe his pain.  In fact, it only got worse.  On the outside, he may have sung about love, but on songs like “Help!”, he was desperately crying out.  “Julia”, was an ode to his mother who had died in a car crash when he was 17.  By the time The Beatles broke up in 1970, Lennon had been a drug-addict, his love-affair with his second wife Yoko Ono was scorned by fans, the media, to a certain extent, other Beatles.  When he recorded his first “proper” solo album Plastic Ono Band in 1970, here was a man close to the edge.  The cries of “Mommy don’t go! Daddy come home!” at the end of “Mother” were real and cut to the bone.  Lennon didn’t scream his way through “Well Well Well”, because the song required it.  It was a form of bereavement from his childhood, finally catching up with him.

This confessional collection was a long way from The Beatles early songs such as “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”.  The Beatles may have started out as a “pop” band, with fans getting swept up in “Beatlemania”, but with each new release they took rock music further than any group before or since. And yet, their popularity never wavered.  Each new release was met with excitement and captured the imagination of entire generations.  At the end of “God” on Plastic Ono Band, Lennon declared that  “the dream is over”.  This statement must have come as a shock to fans, who had looked up to Lennon as something of a spokesman for peace and love.  If he was presenting this disillusionment, things must really be dark.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series also captured the imagination of the world.  “Pottermania” was not unlike the “Beatlemania” thirty years earlier. At first it was deemed “kids-fare”, but it quickly moved into darker territory with each new book eventually reaching adults who would not normally read a fantasy series as well.

As a baby, Harry Potter survived an attack by the evil wizard Voldemort that killed his parents.  Harry was only left with a scar, but Voldemort was left powerless.  As a result, Harry would be forced to live with his non-magical aunt and uncle, unaware of his true fate – that he would be destined to destroy the very same wizard who hunted down his parents.  By the time that Harry began attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry he was famous because of what happened that fateful night.

Throughout the 7 book series, Harry is forced into situations that would test even the strongest of wizards.  He narrowly escapes Voldemort’s wrath several times.  Yet the death of his parents is what truly haunts him even as Voldemort plays tricks with his mind.  When he looks into the Mirror of Erised, which reveals a person’s deepest desires, Harry sees himself reunited with his dead parents.  He later learns that it was his mother’s love and sacrifice that caused him to survive Voldemort’s attack as a baby.

Harry has his “Plastic Ono Band-moment” in the fifth book of the series, Harry Potter And The Order of Phoenix. No one in the wizarding world seems to believe him that Voldemort has in fact returned to full-power.  Fictional articles are written about him in the newspapers, and even his closest confidant, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, is ignoring him.  He is angry at everyone even his closest friends, and even throws tantrums for no reason.  After his godfather Sirius Black is killed in battle, he takes his anger out on the headmaster smashing some of Dumbledore’s possessions.  Everyone he knows has abandoned him in one form or another.

Lennon probably felt similarly while recording Plastic Ono Band. The media hung him out to dry with his relationship with Yoko Ono.  Many accused her of breaking up “the world’s biggest band”.  Paul McCartney, Lennon’s songwriting partner and closest friend announced he was leaving The Beatles in 1970 as a way to promote his first solo album, even though Lennon had in fact parted ways with the band the previous year.  Pain was the only thing he could turn to.

In the final book of the series, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Harry is forced into a final showdown with Voldemort.  In order for Voldemort to truly be destroyed, Harry must sacrifice himself.  It is this same selflessness that forced his mother to sacrifice herself for Harry when he was a baby.  As he is about to accept his death, Harry uses a magical object known as the Resurrection Stone to bring back the spirits of the dead – his parents, his godfather, and one of his former teachers – to comfort him on his final journey.  He asks his mother to stay close, before Voldemort makes the kill.

Some five years after the release of Plastic Ono Band, Lennon himself also makes a sacrifice – though not as drastic as Harry Potter. With the birth of his son Sean in 1975, Lennon took an extended break from music for five years. He left music – his lifeline for so many years – to become the father to his son that he never had. (It must be noted that Lennon did have a son from his earlier marriage.)  But he finally found out love, and was willing to give up his career to be with his family.  He became domesticated, and seemed to enjoy life at home – something for years he had strived to get away from.

Ultimately, Harry does not die at the hands of Voldemort.  Part of Voldemort’s soul had attached itself to Harry during the attack as a baby, and that was the part that was destroyed.  After being in limbo, and talking with the dead Dumbledore, Harry is given a choice to go back and finally take down Voldemort.  In the end, Harry wins the battle, because he has outsmarted Voldemort, who cannot understand love and sacrifice. This inability to understand human nature, becomes the evil wizard’s ultimate undoing.

Though the story is told in compelling and interesting ways, at the core of JK Rowling’s entire Harry Potter series is the concept that love will conquer all.  Harry’s mother let herself be killed in order to save baby Harry.  And Harry’s desperation for love from his dead parents, and his ability to love his friends and family and let himself be killed is the very thing that finally sets him free.  The relationship that Harry has towards his parents is at the center of everything he does in the series.

While Plastic Ono Band is a significant piece of work, it ultimately does not live up to the rest of Lennon’s or The Beatles’ work because of its pain.  While The Beatles changed rock and roll forever, their songs remain enduring in part of they sung about love and peace.  John Lennon’s death was a terrible tragedy in part because it was a violent death for a man who desperately wanted to be loved, but also spread the message of love.  In the end, both Harry and Lennon discovered that “love is all you need”.

Great Songs By Terrible Artists: “The Way” – Fastball

By all rights “The Way” shouldn’t work – there’s too many classic rock influences all jammed into one song.  But it’s so catchy, and so good. The theme of the song is pure Springsteen – traveling and driving to get away, without ever really knowing your destination.  Jesus, it even unfolds like a story just like “The River”.   The organ that plays in the beginning of the song is early 60’s garage rock, and the band clearly have that in mind with their nicely fitted suits, and well groomed side-burns as seen in the video.  And when the guitars finally kick in – it’s The Edge’s delay pedal they’ve found.  This song is destined for a higher calling, and the chorus haven’t even arrived yet!  The harmonies, well try as Fastball may, they’re certainly not the Beach Boys.  But does it matter at this point?

As the drummer bops his head just like Ringo as he plays, you’re smiling too.  And as if you think Fastball has gone too far cramming the entire history of rock into one singular song – they release not one, but TWO rockabilly style solos so perfect that they made Brian Setzer all but disappear!

For all of these reasons, “The Way” earns a spot for one for one of the best single of the 90s.

Shane Gamble Bio & Video

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hang out with musician Shane Gamble at his home-studio.   His third album Shane Gamble will be coming out in March 2011, so be sure to check it out.  You can also check out my interview with Gamble at on his web-site and click on “biography”.

I also managed to get an exclusive performance from him of a brand new song. (You can hear my voice in the background.)

Life, Darkness & Bruce Springsteen

For years, I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen.  I couldn’t stand “Born to Run”.  Every time the song came on the classic rock station I listened to in high school, I turned to another station.  His songs were everywhere, and his “every man” persona annoyed me.  In college, I was getting into Bob Dylan.  As an English major, his literary allusions appealed to me.  I wanted songs rich in metaphor, songs like puzzles.  One Christmas my older brother gave his wife Tracks, the boxed set of Springsteen’s unreleased tracks.  On the cover, Springsteen was sprawled across the floor with a glum look on his face  An expression that seemed to not only ask for sympathy, but demand it.  God, he even looked like he’d be annoying in person.

I finally came around to Springsteen a few years later when I bought a copy of The Wild The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle for about 5 dollars.  I’m not sure what possessed me to buy it, but it certainly wasn’t anything like I was expecting.  Compared to Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A., it sounded fun and lively.  Taking a risk and just driving away, a theme present through much of Springsteen’s work  never sounded as glorious and ridiculous as it did on “Rosalita”.

A little while later, I bought Darkness On The Edge Of Town for another 5 dollars.  I knew little about the album (though the title alone should have been a clue) and decided to give in a chance.  I didn’t particularly like it at first – it was too depressing.  At a party, I told a friend who was as a huge as Springsteen fan as you can get, which albums I had.  “Those are two random albums to have,” He told me in shock.  “You don’t have Born to Run or Born in the U.S.A.?”  A couple of Springsteen fans chimed in, and it was concluded that I randomly picked up his best album without even knowing it.

Flash forward about 7 years later, and Darkness is not only one of my favorite albums, but Springsteen is one of my favorite artists.  But what is it about Darkness that appeals to so many people?  Why do fans constantly rank this album above critically acclaimed masterpieces(Born to Run) or his blockbuster smashes (Born in the U.S.A.)?

Darkness represents the disappointment and disillusionment of the American Dream in a way no other album has. Born To Run showed the possibilities – the open road, the fantasy girls, the myth-making.  It was even there in the music – the songs were big and full of production.  Springsteen famously labored over the song “Born to Run” for months, and added dozens of over-dubs to make it great and bring his vision to the world.  Rock and roll as salvation.  That album was musical proof that if you worked hard enough you could achieve fame and fortune.  You could achieve the American Dream.  All you need is a guitar, honesty and a work ethic and you’d be set.

Darkness, on the other shows what happens when that dream is taken from you in front on your eyes.  There are no grand gestures on Darkness. It’s a lean, tightly constructed album without excess.  Even the cover was a stark contrast to the iconic sleeve of Born to Run -which had Springsteen leaning on the back of Clarence Clemons.  Here were two friends sticking together and yearning for their piece of musical glory.  On Darkness, Springsteen’s eyes are icy cold – filled with sadness.  He’s done with the rock star thing – he wears a hoodie, and is hiding behind the closed blind.

The story behind the making of Darkness has reached legendary proportions – the legal disputes, the 3 year gap between about albums.  This coming week, the audience finally gets to close a chapter on Darkness with the release of the The Darkness On The Edge Of Town boxed set.  The remastered album and the live DVDs will surely be excited, but it is the inclusion of The Promise, a set out-takes that Springsteen wrote and recorded as he was making what would become Darkness that really has fans excited.

No doubt it will be good.  But I’m not sure if it will be the great lost Springsteen album, like Dylan’s Basement Tapes.  I say that because Springsteen specifically put songs on Darkness that spoke to the human condition.  It’s very likely that The Promise won’t be there.  Perhaps if we didn’t know the back-story, these songs might mean something more.  But sandwiched between two great albums that speak different facets of life it might be hard to judge these songs any other way.

1994 Nostalgic Songs: Hold My Hand

I can’t possibly write about the music from 1994 without mentioning Hootie and the Blowfish.  This going to be a short post because words can’t describe…well you get the point.  But who would have thought Darius Rucker would become a respectable country star?  Or who could forget contribution when he was trying to sell Chicken Bacon Ranch sandwiches from Burger King?

1994 Nostalgic Songs: Longview

Like Weezer, Green Day was big in 1994 and they’re still around.  While Weezer never made a single as good as “Undone” again, Green Day grew up ten years later and took on the state of the nation with American Idiot.  But their singles from Dookie, are still damn good pop-punk singles – ones that an entire generations of  bands have been trying to copy for years without succeeding.

For me, “Longview” is the best of these songs from Dookie-era Green Day.  Like “Undone”, “Longview” plays with the standard soft verse/loud chorus: the verses have no guitar, just drums and the now famous bass line.  “Longview” is perhaps  rock greatest ode to boredom – a feeling many teenagers could easily relate to.  Billie Joe (who would later turn into the greatest frontman of his generation) sounds convincing in his boredom.  He turns on the TV, “but nothing’s on”, yet still watches it for “an hour or two.”  So what’s he to do to cure his boredom?  Masturbate, of course.  As his sexual urges take over, the song literally takes off and explodes.  The song hasn’t been totally quiet until this point, but the production here is great – the band literally rushes out of the speakers as Billie Joe is taken “away to paradise”.

Lack of motivation never sounded as glorious as it does in the bridge.  Where has all the motivation gone? “Smoking my inspiration!” He declares.  Notice that he doesn’t suggest that he’s smoking his inspiration away. This lack of inspiration and motivation doesn’t seem to bother him.  In fact he’s going to let you know that he doesn’t give a shit what you think – “Call me pathetic call me what you will”.

“Longview” was one of the first songs I remember hearing on the radio where not just one, but several words were edited out.  At the age of 12 or 13 that made it more appealing.  As a teenager, you’re often bored and you’re don’t know why.  Other acts at the time may have viewed boredom as a sign of depression and loneliness.  “Longview” is a funny, yet true view of being bored when you have no idea what to do.  It doesn’t pretend to be about anything less or more.

The Absurd Review – Kid Cudi -Man on the Moon II – The Legend of Mr. Rager

Kid Cudi’s sophomore effort, Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager plays like a hip-hop version of In Utero – an artist gets big and decides that he doesn’t like what he’s seen.  Since the release of Man on the Moon last year, Cudi developed a coke habit, eventually getting arrested this past summer.

There is no boasting about how great Cudi’s life was a coke-head (even though much of the album sounds like a hip-hop version of Dark Side of the Moon, especially Marijuana which has a Gilmour-like solo throughout).  Cudi not only loves the darkness, he “wants to marry it.”  “It is my cloak.  It is my shield.  It is my cape,” He declares in “Maniac”  a haunting track featuring indie singer Saint Vincent.  Elsewhere, “Wild’n Cuz I’m Young” sounds like it was recorded in a dark basement or underground.  If this is what Cudi meant by marrying the darkness, he found it in this song.  Unfortunately, what would have other-wise been an album highlight is marred by the use of Autotune.  “Marijuana”

“Erase Me” finds Cudi taking on arena rock – it’s even got a softer verse and loud chorus which proves that Cudi seems to have a a better understanding of a rock song than Lil Wayne.  Interestingly on the song where he actually does sing, he ditches the Autotune.  The only problem with the song, is the inclusion of the usually reliable Kanye West, who seems sapped of his energy and his muse on his verse.

Some reviews have stated that this album is over indulgent but the blend of spaced-out rock and hip-hop elevates Man on the Moon II above Cudi’s indulgences and self-loathing.  But the main flaw of the album isn’t Cudi using the album as catharsis, it’s that it doesn’t seem convincing. Cudi seems to like the darkness too much or is stoned too much to really break out and exorcise his demons.  If only his delivery matched the music and the lyrics, Man on the Moon II could be hip-hop’s version of In Utero or Plastic Ono Band. As it is though, it’s an impressive effort from an emerging artist.

Nostalgic 1994 Songs: What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

In 1994, I may have been branching out my musical tastes, but R.E.M. was still my favorite band. During the summer, radio stations claimed that the band would release a “rock album”, after two acoustic-based albums (Out of Time, and Automatic For the People).  Naturally, this excited me as I was a big fan of Document.

In the fall, the stations announced that the lead single of Monster, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” would soon be played.  I had to hear this song before the album came out.  This would be the song, that would make the kids in my class understand why R.E.M. was so important, so good.  It had to.  By the DJ’s descriptions of it being a big loud rock song, everybody would listening to it.  R.E.M. would be cool to 7th graders.  I wanted to be the kid that told everybody that I had been listening to them for years.  I was already talking about how great the song was before I even heard it.

As fate would have it, it seemed everybody else had heard “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” before me.  Listening to the radio in the car while my mother drove me home from school was the only way I could tune in, waiting excitedly for the song to be played.  Time, unfortunately was not on my side.  Just as we were about to ride home, DJs announced that the song would be played after the commercial break. In the morning, as we drove to school, they announced that it had just been played.

On a trip with my parents one Saturday afternoon, I listened intently in the back seat of my dad’s truck waiting for the moment when I could finally hear the song.  This would be it.  But as we drove further up into the mountains, the radio station began to fade.  Luckily, I could still hear some music through the static.  It wasn’t ideal, but I could deal with a radio cutting in and out.  Further we drove, and the DJ proclaimed that “the new R.E.M. single would be played in the next 15 minutes”.  My eyes widened, and I prepared my ears for rock heaven.

I forced myself to listen through songs I actually liked.  None of it mattered.  And we kept on driving through the mountains, and then the radio completely cut out.  This couldn’t be happening. Not to me. I could have cried.  Why did this have to happen to me?  For about 10 minutes or so, there was silence from the radio.  My mom who knew I had desperately wanted to hear the song, told me it would come back on in a minute.  A few minutes later, the radio finally did come back in.  The DJ declared that they had just played “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”.  I had missed it.  Again.  Would I ever hear the song?

I never did hear “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” before Monster came out.  The first time I heard it was when my older brother, home for the night, brought over his copy.  I closely stared at orange cover with the image of the black bear for several minutes before finally popping it in the CD player in my parents’ living room.  It was late, but my mom let me stay up late to listen to the album.  I couldn’t play it too loud so I put my ears to the speakers and closed my eyes.

In a second, Peter’s Buck distorted guitar-riff came through the speakers.  It was glorious. It was loud and thick.  Even the rock of Document hadn’t prepared for me for this.  Michael Stipe‘s vocals were pushed to the background.  I could barely understand a thing he sang, but it didn’t matter.  By the time, it slowed down for a second, I finally caught my breath.  And then came the solo – a backwards wah-wah break in the middle of the song. I didn’t know that Peter Buck could play like that, and at the time it seemed like the ultimate guitar-solo.  After the song finally ended, I replayed it twice before playing the rest of the album.

R.E.M. had done it. They had returned to rock after years of dabbling in a softer-style. For years, Monster was my favorite album of all time.  It’s probably one of the few albums that I know every single note by heart.  As the years went on, I stopped listening to it obsessively.  Now I don’t even count it among my favorite R.E.M. albums.  I think I wore it out too much, eventually becoming bored with it.  It’s still a pretty good album, but I’ll still list “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” as one of their best.

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”