Archive for February, 2013

“Generational Synthetic” by Beach Fossils

This post puts me in the interesting position of praising so-called “hipster music” that’s just recently been disavowed by Pitchfork.  Beach Fossils’ self-titled debut, back in 2010, was part of a broader trend within the Pitchfork-beloved realm of DIY indie dream-pop.  Now comes Clash the Truth, the second Beach Fossils album and their first since expanding into a full band (like the debuts by Dylan Baldi’s Cloud Nothings and Jack Tatum’s Wild Nothing, among others, the first Beach Fossils record consisted of bedroom recordings created entirely by frontman Dustin Payseur).  Opening his review of Clash the Truth, Pitchfork contributing editor Ian Cohen fondly reminisces about the album’s predecessor, describing it as a touchstone of indie music in the early 2010s, “when the attitudinal tenets of chillwave were leeching into fuzzy, soft-focus indie pop.”  He then proceeds to pan the new record thoroughly and compare present-day Beach Fossils unfavorably with Diiv, whose frontman, Zachary Cole Smith, was a live member of Beach Fossils before he started his own project.  Cohen assigns Clash the Truth a 5.8, a pretty low score for Pitchfork and especially for a band they’d previously given high marks.

I disagree strongly with Pitchfork on this one.  I like Clash the Truth a lot better than its predecessor.  It represents a significant shift in style for Payseur, moving away from reverb-drenched dream-pop towards relatively jittery post-punk with live drums.  Obviously, I’m not a fan of the former, whereas I’ve always thought pretty highly of the latter.  But in addition, I think that Payseur’s songs on this album are a top-notch mix of mesmerizing guitars, post-punk bass, and memorable melodies.  My favorite tracks at the moment are “Caustic Cross,” “Burn You Down,” “Careless,” and the title track.  I highly recommend that you check out the whole album, but for now here’s the single, “Generational Synthetic.”


For the week of 2/18/2013…

“Maxwell Street Medley” by Robert Nighthawk & His Flames of Rhythm

Robert Nighthawk (real name Robert McCullum) was a legendary bluesman who rambled from his hometown of Helena, Arkansas (a blues hotspot near the Mississippi Delta) to Memphis, St. Louis, and the greatest blues hub of them all, Chicago — and then back — over the course of his life, recording sporadically from the 1930s until his death in 1967.  Variously described by other bluesmen as “just a real smooth operator” and a slide guitarist “so good he almost made me cry,” Nighthawk was a peer of Muddy Waters’ (who he’d known before ever learning the guitar) who played with nearly the gamut of the day’s blues icons, from Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Joe Williams to John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon.  But unlike Muddy, for example, Nighthawk never dug in and focused on his recording career long enough to achieve the kind of national fame he might have been capable of; he seemed happy instead to settle for regional fame in Arkansas and the Delta.  His nomadic lifestyle — skipping about from city to city, playing clubs and radio stations all over, occasionally recording a bunch of sides under a variety of pseudonyms — might also be attributable to his fear that his involvement in a fatal shooting in Louisiana in the ’30s would land him in jail.  (He also had a bad habit of “forgetting” to pay his band, which for a time in the ’40s backed him on a radio program in Helena sponsored by Bright Star Flour, and included such rising stars as Earl Hooker, Pinetop Perkins, and Ike Turner…yes, that Ike Turner.)  In any case, he never did make it big, although he was certainly influential and figured prominently in the history of the Chicago blues.

One of the places where Nighthawk liked to play was the open-air Maxwell Street Market in Chicago, a renowned blues hotspot, and in 1964, during one of the last times the Arkansan drifted back up to Chicago, a producer named Norman Dayron recorded one of his performances at the market.  The result was Live on Maxwell Street, 1964, which is not only the only recording of Nighthawk’s live performances, but also apparently the only LP released under his name during his lifetime.  While the music comes through just fine on the recording, the atmosphere of the street performance is also captured, from cars driving by to the shouts of the audience.  Backed by rhythm guitarist Johnny Young and drummer Robert Whitehead — billed as the “Flames of Rhythm,” although their sturdy rhythm section is more of a slow burn than anything — Nighthawk turns in a sharp performance on what is regarded as one of the finest live blues albums ever.  The centerpiece of the record is probably the so-called “Maxwell Street Medley,” which, in addition to featuring some masterful slide guitar work, seamlessly combines Nighthawk’s two big hit songs from about 15 years earlier, “Anna Lee” and “Sweet Black Angel.”  The latter, a blues standard which in the late ’50s had been popularized even further by B.B. King, ends in one of those great blues punchlines:  “Asked my angel for a nickel, and she give me a ten-dollar bill/Told her I want a small drink of liquor, and she poured me a whole whiskey still.”

More Money for You and Me!

When I happened to think of the Four Preps’ “More Money for You and Me” the other day, I hadn’t listened to it quite a few years.  Recorded in 1960, it’s a medley of parodies which stands as one of the best novelty songs produced by a generation that produced an awful lot of them.  I remember discovering it on a compilation of the era’s novelty tracks back when I was in fifth grade and, since I was familiar with the oldies being parodied, finding it very clever and funny.  If anything, now that I’ve rediscovered it, I like it even more.

(To appreciate this selection, you should probably have at least a glancing familiarity with the songs being parodied.  While these were all famous songs at the time – four of them were #1 hits – every one of them dates to 1960 or earlier, so it’s understandable if you’re unfamiliar with some or all of them.  They’re included at the bottom of this post.)

The basic premise of the song is that the Four Preps want a bigger share of the pop music market, so they’re seizing the spotlight to take potshots at other vocal groups who had scored big hits in the past couple of years.  They fantasize about sending the Fleetwoods to freeze in Alaska, the Hollywood Argyles and the Platters to burn in hell (!), and the Kingston Trio on a permanent vacation to communist Cuba.  Elsewhere, they rib Dion & the Belmonts for their “New York street toughs with a sensitive side” image, and the Four Freshmen for recording under that name in their thirties.

One key to creating a successful song parody is successfully imitating the style of the artist being parodied.  In this regard, the Four Preps absolutely nail it; their impersonations of every one of the six artists parodied here are astonishingly good.  But, like the best parodists, they use their altered lyrics to twist the knife a bit.  Particularly noteworthy examples of their sly sense of humor:

  • In the section parodying “Alley Oop,” they declare the Hollywood Argyles an “awful hip” group, skewering the song’s ridiculous overuse of beatnik slang (“Look at that caveman go… He sure is hip ain’t he?  Like, what’s happening… he’s too much.  Ride, daddy, ride.  Get him, man.  Like, hipsville.”).  Amusingly, their pronunciation of “hip” foreshadows Dana Carvey’s in his George H.W. Bush impressions on SNL decades later.
  • In the section parodying the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” they pull off a disarmingly clever switch by swapping out the line “They asked me how I knew/my true love was true” for “They asked me how I knew/our career was through” – a nasty but wickedly funny dig at the rapid disintegration of the Platters’ career with the 1960 departure of their lead singer, Tony Williams.  They also poke fun at Williams’ penchant for dramatic buildups to a big finish by having their Williams-imitator’s microphone cut out just as he hits the final note of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
  • And, saving the best for last, they illustrate their animosity towards Dion & the Belmonts by providing us with an absolutely hysterical image:  the “juvenile delinquent” Belmonts sneaking out of their own concert to steal hubcaps in the parking lot.  Without giving us a chance to recover from our laughter, they quickly segue into a soundtrack for that image:  a version of “A Teenager in Love” wherein Dion, rather than moping, “Each time we have a quarrel/it almost breaks my heart/Because I’m so afraid/that we will have to part,” instead sings, “Each time I steal a hubcap/it almost breaks my heart/Why do I steal those hubcaps/why did I have to start?”  It’s an utterly brilliant take-down of Dion’s “New York street tough with a sensitive side” image.

The Four Preps – “More Money for You and Me”


The Fleetwoods – “Mr. Blue” (1959)*

The Hollywood Argyles – “Alley Oop” (1960)*

The Platters – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (1958)*

The Four Freshmen – “In This Whole Wide World” (1955)

The Kingston Trio – “A Worried Man” (1959)

The Kingston Trio – “Tom Dooley” (1958)*

Dion & the Belmonts – “A Teenager in Love” (1959)

*denotes #1 hit

For the week of 2/14/2013…

“Lazy Day” by Santo & Johnny

Santo and Johnny Farina were a couple of Italian kids from Brooklyn who managed to create some of the most spellbinding night music of all time in the late ’50s and early ’60s with their guitar instrumentals.  Santo, the older brother, was encouraged by his father to take steel guitar lessons as a teenager, and began composing on the instrument at the age of 14.  Johnny began accompanying his brother on rhythm guitar, and in 1959, when Santo was 22 and Johnny was 18, they were signed by a newly established record label called Canadian-American Records.  They quickly became the label’s flagship artists when their first single, “Sleep Walk,” became a major pop hit late that summer, topping the charts in September of that year.  “Sleep Walk” set the template for the duo’s signature style:  Santo’s achingly beautiful, very lyrical steel guitar providing the melody, Johnny’s gentle rhythm guitar filling out the sound.  After follow-up single “Tear Drop,” the brothers’ popularity receded somewhat, although they continued to write and record beautiful music (and in 1964 their instrumental cover of the old doo-wop song “In the Still of the Night” was a hit).

One of their lesser-known tunes which this week has really captured my imagination is an original composition called “Lazy Day.”  Based around a gorgeous call-and-response between the lower and higher registers of the steel guitar, this track for me evokes an idyllic, moonlit 1950s romance strongly enough to bring a tear to my eye.

Although current country music has little to no appeal for me, I actually very much like listening to really old ’50s country musicians, like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash — the kind of stuff my grandfather listens to.  A 1952 single, “You Win Again,” in which Williams sadly laments his dysfunctional, doomed romance, has been a particular favorite of mine this week.  Williams’ heartbroken singing on this recording is excellent, but better still are his almost poetic, strikingly unrepetitive lyrics.  I especially love this verse:  “I’m sorry for your victim now/For soon his head like mine will bow/He’ll give his heart but all in vain/And someday say, ‘You win again.'”

Plagued by drinking and drug problems, Williams died prematurely at the age of 29 in 1953.  “You Win Again” stands as one of the greatest of his many downbeat ballads, and has been widely covered.  In 1957, Jerry Lee Lewis recorded it as the B-side to “Great Balls of Fire,” which of course became a massive hit.  Lewis, showing off his piano chops, nudged the tune towards rockabilly in this somewhat livelier version of the song.

Johnny Cash recorded a dour, more faithful cover of “You Win Again” in 1958 for what ultimately became a 1960 Hank Williams tribute album, Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams.  It’s respectable but unremarkable, and Williams’ original version is significantly better, in my opinion.

In 1962, on his album Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, Ray Charles performed a more inspired, soulful cover version, with a backing choir and orchestra.

For the week of 2/4/2013…

“When You Sleep” by My Bloody Valentine

So over the weekend, a reconvened My Bloody Valentine self-released their long-awaited followup to their 1991 masterpiece, Loveless, which was their last album before they broke up.  It’s been reviewed quite favorably so far, but strangely enough the arrival of the new album has prompted me to listen to a whole lot of Loveless this week instead of looking up the new record.  I’m not a big fan of shoegazing music, and certainly not of the “neo-shoegaze”/dream-pop so adored by Pitchfork in the last few yearsbut I’ve always thought that My Bloody Valentine and some of their early-’90s contemporaries (particularly a band called Catherine Wheel) made some terrific music.  Loveless is such a great album, so clearly the best album to come out of the shoegaze-rock sound that My Bloody Valentine pioneered, that I think almost anyone with an appreciation for melody and gorgeous walls of sounds can fall in love with it.

“When You Sleep” is, as AllMusic’s Tom Maginnis put it, “one of the more constructed songs” on Loveless.  For me it demonstrates especially well just how good My Bloody Valentine were at creating songs that sound like the musical manifestation of an emotion, even if the vocals are lower in the mix and you can’t quite make them all out.

For the week of 1/28/2013…

“Mr. Soul” by Buffalo Springfield

25 years before Kurt Cobain was depressed, angry, and bitter about being a famous rock star, Neil Young was depressed, angry, and bitter about being a famous rock star.  He expressed these sentiments in two of the songs he wrote for Buffalo Springfield’s second album, Buffalo Springfield Again, released in late 1967.  One of these, an album-closing psychedelic suite called “Broken Arrow,” is a sprawling, more experimental track which features little to no playing by the other members of the band; Young’s third contribution, “Expecting to Fly,” also matches this description.  In contrast, album opener “Mr. Soul” is just a traditional guitar-band rock ‘n’ roll song — but still, it’s a damn good one.  It’s built upon a gnarlier variation on the guitar riff from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and features a stinging guitar solo.  While Young’s singing voice seems to be evolving a bit still, the inflection of his vocals oozes bitterness and weariness with being in the music business.

Amusingly, Young hadn’t seen anything yet when he wrote this song:  It was recorded on the same day “For What It’s Worth” was released for the first time, and therefore must have been written prior to the greater stardom achieved by the band in 1967 due to the massive popularity of that song.  Anyway, I guess his first encounters with the downsides of stardom weren’t too disillusioning; after all, he’s still recording and touring after literally 50 years in the music business with and without Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, and Crazy Horse.