Tag Archives: blogs about music

Song of the Day: “Road to Rock N’ Roll” – Joe Strummer

In high school, I was obsessed with The Clash. To say that they were a major influence on my person and political outlook is a bit of an understatement. Like many people, I worshipped at the altar of Joe Strummer. His fiery and passionate lyrics resonated with me in a way that few artists have. As a teenager shifting into adulthood, figuring out the type of person I wanted to be, The Clash were the right band at the right time.

So, naturally I was intrigued by the idea of what a Joe Strummer solo album would sound like. I put off purchasing it for a long time, mostly out of fear that it would be a disappoint. More often that not, solo albums by lead singers of a legendary band, are pretty terrible. Solo albums allow artists to indulge in their worst tendencies. Even the great solo albums, have a tendency to drift into self-indulgence. As much as I like Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon’s solo debut is the work of a whiny prick. Pete Townshend’s solo albums bought his all of his pretentiousness to the forefront, losing much of the humor and unbridled energy of The Who.

Luckily, 1999’s Rock Art and the X-Ray Style was actually quite good. Strummer delivered a focused record that added new shades and colors to his already wide musical palette. It was experimental, without being “arty”. The word “organic” is used a lot, but the record did have a natural feeling that suggested Strummer was coming to terms with growing older.

The highlight of the album is “Road to Rock N’ Roll” which combines folk, hip-hop and country. Over looped drums and an acoustic guitar, Strummer seems at ease, letting the music over-take him as he muses about good and evil, snowing falling on the city and the meaning of music in people’s lives. Supposedly written with Johnny Cash in mind, “Road to Rock N’ Roll” is the kind of song that could be written by a man who truly believed that rock and roll could change the world.

New Music: “Sky” – Sweet Cambodia

853d1247-b58f-4341-9b77-837511e5207a

Florida’s Sweet Cambodia brings the warm vibe of The Sunshine State to their newest single, “Sky”.  The funky track is full of a collage of musical sounds: slap-bass, guitars that alternate between psychedelic pop and reggae and rock beats. The musical interplay between the band members is a thing of beauty: its the sound of a group who not only plays well together but also listens to each other.

“Sky” can be found on the band’s Tasty EP. Check out their Facebook page for additional info and shows and listen to “Sky” below.

 

Is “Shiny Happy People” As Bad As You Remember It? Not Quite

 

“Shiny Happy People” is one of those songs that almost everyone seems to hate.  It’s constantly viewed as not only the worst song in R.E.M.’s career, but one of the worst songs ever recorded.  (A pretty lofty claim.)  I blame much of this hatred on the song’s video.  It took an already cheesy and campy song, and double-dipped it in a sugary glaze that would make Krispy Kreme donuts weep with its bright colors, and awkward dancing courtesy of Michael Stipe.  Viewers who had grown up with the R.E.M. of the mid-80s (when they could do no wrong and recorded a string of near-perfect albums) cried foul.  That band was nowhere to be seen in the video for “Shiny Happy People”. 

But let’s think about this for a second.  Yes, the video is pretty bad.  The song itself, not so much.  It’s incredibly poppy and silly, but it’s not like R.E.M hadn’t recorded goofy songs before.   “Stand” is pretty much a pre-cursor to “Shiny Happy People” and “Pop Song 89” is pretty goofy too, especially when Michael Stipe did his patented should dance when the band performed the song live.  And as for embarrassing, has anyone recently listened to “Radio Song” off of Out of Time (the same album which “Shiny Happy People” appears on) recently?  Even the mention of that trash makes me cringe?  KRS-One and the band must have been good friends (and possibly stoned?) for that to be recorded and actually see the light of day.  And to make matters worse, the fucking thing opened the record!  In case you were wondering, I also count Reveal and Around the Sun as being embarrassing too, but I usually just become sad when I think about those records.)

As a kid, I loved “Shiny Happy People”.  I was about 9 when Out of Time came out, and it was one of the few songs on the album I could actually relate to.  It made me incredibly happy, even though I loved the rest of the album too.   But it was a nice contrast to the acoustic and folk influences that permeated the rest of the record.  I loved the carnival-like intro and its reprise during the bridge.  Mike Mills count-off and exclamation of “Here we go!”  when the band kicked back into the main riff made me giddy. 

When I became a teenager, I grew to loathe the song and had a hard time defending it to kids in my high-school class.  Whenever I’d profess my love for R.E.M. (which was pretty often) almost inevitably, someone would bring up, that song.  “Yeah, yeah…it’s pretty bad…but you should check out…Murmur or Reckoning,” was usually my response. 

After years of not hearing it, I heard it on the radio a few years ago and was shocked by how much I didn’t hate it.  Hey, it’s not that bad!  It’s certainly better than I remember.  The guitar riff was pretty good and in its own way, classic Peter Buck.  But as soon as Kate’s Pierson’s voice came in syncing with Michael Stipe’s it occurred to me that “Shiny Happy People” wasn’t really a R.E.M. song after all.  It makes much more sense if you think of it as a B-52s song. 

 “Love Shack”, “Rock Lobster” and “Roam” (among many others) are all overly campy, silly and sweet and those songs have become staples.  You’re likely to hear “Love Shack” at almost any wedding or reception that has dancing involved.  The audience knows what they’re getting from a B-52s song, and many people love them for it. 

But R.E.M. isn’t known for that – even though both bands came out of the Athens music scene in the late 70s and early 80s – they’re a serious band.  Imagine if the B-52s had recorded “Shiny Happy People”.   It might not be universally loved, but I’d be willing to bet that it would be more popular than it is now and people wouldn’t hate it the way they do. 

The Genius and Contradiction of Pete Townshend

 

(Today is Pete Townshend’s 69th birthday.)

As a teenager, The Who was my favorite band. Their explosive combination with introspective lyrics fit the bill for a confused teenager trying to make his way through the world. At their best, they were an intellectual band that played with fury. They could expand your mind and capture your all frustrations with an un-matched aggression.

As the leader of The Who, Pete Townshend quickly became one of my heroes. But to be a fan of Pete Townshend you have to accept certain things about him. For every brilliant move he’s made, there’s always been a frustrating one around the corner.  His failed rock-opera Lifehouse was designed in part to bring The Who’s audience and the band together in some sort of rock and roll nirvana.  But at the same time, he could just easily curse out the same audience for not living up to his own expectations.  (One such tirade is captured on The Who’s 4-disc boxed set 30 Years of Maximum R&B.)  He’s also an extremely spiritual guy, who succumbed to both alcohol and drug addiction.

Unlike Bob Dylan (who is very guarded in his brilliant memoir Chronicles Vol. 1) and Keith Richards (who is very nonchalant about his addictions in Life), Townshend lays out his contradictions in Who I Am.  He’s very candid about the abuse that happened while he stayed with his grandmother as a kid and the addictions that nearly took his life in the early 80s.  But then he’ll come off as completely arrogant when talking about Lifehouse (even though it’s a failure) because he’s convinced that the audience was too stupid to understand it.

It would be easy to think of Townshend as a class-A jerk. He can certainly be that. When I first started to like The Who and discovered more about him, I became disappointed that he wasn’t quite who I thought he was. Sometimes I was pissed at him for dismissing his audience’s intelligence in interviews. Other times I hated him for being too ambitious. At first, I despised Quadrophenia because it wasn’t as simple as some of The Who’s early singles. I wanted the angst without the pretentiousness that filled most of Quadrophenia.  

What I didn’t realize at the time was that Townshend was exposing my own contradictions through the music of The Who. I wanted The Who (and him) to exist within a certain context that existed within my own mind.  I began to see many of the contradictions in my own life as result. I could be smart and intelligent, but also had a huge lazy streak that kept me from achieving certain things that I wanted.

When I read Who I Am, I gained a new appreciation for Townshend. He’s never been some guy who has rested on his laurels. But unlike some other rock and roll artists where it can be hard to sympathize with them, I did with Townshend.  But not because he’s had tremendous lows.  Being completely open, his memoir made him all the more human and relatable. Even after all that he’s achieved; he’s just trying to figure it out just like the rest of us.

Song of the Week: “Sweet Jane” – The Velvet Underground

 

The Velvet Underground were known for many things, but sounding positively gleeful isn’t one of them. Yet, at the 3:30 mark of “Sweet Jane” when Lou Reed and the rest of the band erupt into an ecstatic non-verbal melody, they sound like…well, that they’re having fun. “That’s my favorite part of the song,” I told a friend recently as we listened to the song during a long road-trip.

“That’s everyone’s favorite part of the song,” He replied with a hint in his voice that suggested that I was crazy for having to declare my own love it.  Oddly enough, that particular section of the song was cut out of the original pressing of Loaded was also familiar to most listeners.  Luckily, the “full-length” version was restored on re-issues and included on the band’s boxed set Peel Slowly and See.

For a band whose lyrics pioneered the dark underbelly of City life with music to match, “Sweet Jane” is perhaps the most accessible song the Velvet Underground ever recorded with its memorable riff and sing-along chorus. As such, it’s no wonder that it’s perhaps the one song by the band that is perennial favorite on classic rock radio (even if a minute was cut off).

The best version(s) of the song can be found on Live at Max’s Kansas City, where they tear through the song twice. Fans might disagree whether Live at Max’s Kansas City represents what the group truly sounded like live, since John Cale had already left and drummer Maureen Tucker was out on maternity leave.  For me however, replacement drummer Billy Yule (Doug’s younger brother) gave the songs an added punch especially “Sweet Jane”.  The band flies through the song with reckless abandon.  Allmusic has described Reed as being bored during the gig, which leaves me wondering if they’ve listened to the same album I have.

Reed later gave the song a glam-rock update with an extended intro, which can be found on his live album Rock and Roll Animal. While that version has its merits, it lacks the force and toughness of the original arrangement.

Album of the Week: “Document” – R.E.M.

 

At the time of its release, Document was R.E.M.’s most mainstream album. Michael Stipe’s infamous mumbling was given some added clarity, and the rest of the band turned up their instruments. Peter Buck’s trademark arpeggi chords were replaced by a thicker and louder riffs. Bill Berry’s drums never sounded so menacing and urgent. Mike Mills’ (one rock’s most under-rated bass players) comes up with of his best playing particularly on the opener “Finest Worksong” where his slaps open up each verse. Scott Litt’s production gives the band some weight and power, but he never washes over the band with a slick gloss.  With all of those factors in place, it’s not surprising that Document would be the album would put R.E.M. on the map and take them out of the college circuit.

Underneath the band’s bid for a wider audience, Document is unlike any other in the band’s catalogue. Several of the songs (“Welcome to the Occupation”, “Exhuming McCartney”, “Disturbance at the Heron House”, “Lightnin’ Hopkins”) contain no real chorus. Unusually for R.E.M., there are no ballads – though “King of Birds” comes the closest – instead the album is full of tight rockers. There’s a lengthy instrumental in “Fireplace” which contains a slightly cheesy saxophone solo. Meanwhile the main hook of “Lightnin Hopkins” is Mills’ chant of the “crow”.  Then of course, there’s the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” homage “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.  Since it’s been overplayed (and perhaps misunderstood) it’s easy to forget how weird of a song it really is.

Document is also the band’s most political and world weary album. Previously, R.E.M. never shied away from politics, but here Stipe ‘s targets are direct, even if his lyrics are cloaked in bizarre wordplay like “you’re sharpening stones, walking on coals, to improve your business acumen.” Elsewhere “Welcome to the Occupation” criticizes the US’s involvement in Central America with a call “to hang your freedom higher.”  That lyric was originally intended to be “hang your freedom fighters”, but changed due to Berry’s objection. (A wise choice.)

As serious as many of the songs are, R.E.M. still manages to have some fun throughout.  The Wire cover of “Strange” is stomping fun. Even though Stipe may have been attracted to its lyrics “there’s something going on that’s not quite right” and its fits with the overall theme of the album, he’s sounds like he’s having a blast singing it On “Lightnin’ Hopkins”, Buck fires off some distorted bluesy riffs while Stipe manages to let loose a few enthusiastic whoops. At the tail end of “Oddfellows Local 151”, the band seems to play without regard to anything except playing.  Buck strums away violently for over a minute, and the rest of the band seem to follow suit.

Document is and remains of R.E.M.’s best albums. Due to the nature of the music and Stipe’s lyrics it contains a focus that lacks in some of their other albums. There are no fillers, and every song is played with an attack that the band never matched. (Though on the un-even Monster, they certainly tried to replicate Document’s harder edge.)

The 25th Anniversary Edition released last week, contains a bonus disc with a show from the band’s legendary Work Tour recorded in Holland. It’s a good portrait of R.E.M. as a live band, but like The Who, this addition would have meant more to me about 15 years ago.

 

Song of the Week: “Sweet Soul Music” – Arthur Conley

 

 

“Do you like good music? That sweet soul music?” That’s the question posed at the beginning of Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music”.  With a quick trumpet blast, the song quickly flies into a fast-paced soul-rave up. If you like “sweet soul music”, Arthur Conley is there to remind you of the greats that deserve your undivided attention: Otis Redding Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and James Brown.

Sweet Soul Music acts as a musical education through of soul music. Each artist is given a description of why they are deserving of praise. Lou Rawls looks tall, Wilson Picket is mentioned by his nickname “the wicked Pickett”, and James Brown is dubbed “the king of them all.” By putting a “spotlight” on these artists, Conley is suggesting that he is nowhere near these Titans of Soul.  But after each verse when Conley sings “oh yeah, oh yeah”, his voice proves that he’s not as far away from his heroes as he thinks.

Whenever I’m asked if lyrics are more important than the music itself or the delivery, I always bring up this song. Conley’s lyrics by themselves don’t really mean much, but when he delivers each artists’ “spotlights” the listener is reminded why these artists are great. It’s the way he sings these lines against the music in the behind that truly makes the song and gives his lyrics their impact.