Archive for April, 2013


For the week of 4/29/2013…

“Warning” by the Notorious B.I.G.

Since finals week is upon me, I’m obviously spending an unhealthy amount of time awake very late at night (or early in the morning, depending on your perspective).  And one of the things I’m realizing as I toil away at my research papers is that a good amount of the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 debut album, Ready to Die, is quite well-suited to be listened to at this hour of the night.  Put on your headphones and the stereo production on tracks like “Things Done Changed,” “Ready to Die,” and “Me & My Bitch” makes you feel just a little bit glum; blissed-out guitar samples on “Machine Gun Funk,” “Warning,” and “The What” relax you; and samples of several types of keys on “Juicy,” “Everyday Struggle,” “Big Poppa,” “Unbelievable,” and “Suicidal Thoughts” inspire a variety of emotions.  Cut out louder tracks like “Gimme the Loot,” “One More Chance,” “Respect,” and “Friend of Mine” — oh, and those damn skits — and you’ve got a pretty damn good late-night hip-hop playlist for a night when you want to swing back and forth between feeling cocky and depressed, all the while keeping things chill and subdued.

“Warning” is probably my favorite Biggie Smalls track.  It’s just so perfectly crafted.  The production is stellar.  Biggie delivers two of his tightest verses, in the process rapping both sides of a telephone conversation.  I don’t know if “damn, niggaz wanna stick me for my paper” really counts as a chorus — it only appears in the song once — but it’s a pretty damn great hook, regardless.  Oh, and the outro, in which Puff Daddy portrays a pair of hapless jealous criminals trespassing at Biggie’s crib, remains Sean Combs’ single best contribution to music.  (Talk about damning with faint praise…I do really like that mini-skit, though.)

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For the week of 4/22/2013…

“Sweet Marie” by Thin Lizzy

This might be my favorite of Thin Lizzy’s ballads, which for me puts it up there as one of the best ballads of the ’70s.  “Sweet Marie” is a simply gorgeous love song, slotted towards the end of Johnny the Fox.  That album was their second of 1976, rushed to release in order to capitalize on the commercial breakthrough earlier that year of Jailbreak.  Some things about the album suggest a rush job, to be sure, like the inclusion of “Boogie Woogie Dance,” a rare complete dud.  But there are a lot of great songs on the LP, and, on those, Phil Lynott’s pure poetry and the rest of the band’s exceptional musicianship belie the idea that Johnny the Fox was a rush job created just to sell as many units as possible in 1976.  Indeed, everything about “Sweet Marie,” for example, suggests careful attention to craft:  Lynott’s lyrics, an achingly beautiful solo from Scott Gorham, and the enrapturing textures resulting from the whispered background vocals, the languid guitar parts, the subtle Eastern touches, and the perfect orchestral arrangements.  It’s an underrated song on an underrated album.

For the week of 4/15/2013…

“Moves” by the New Pornographers

So earlier this week a friend and I paid a late-night visit to our campus’s student-run coffee house.  The folks behind the counter were playing a mix which featured a lot of music from around the time of our senior year in high school, including songs from Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca,* Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, as well as stuff Hillary was into at the time (e.g. Beirut).  Hearing such things made me a bit nostalgic and inspired me to revisit one of my own touchstones from that time, the New Pornographers’ underrated 2010 album, Together.  My first encounter with this celebrated Canadian band’s excellent power-pop came in 2005, when I heard the then-new Twin Cinema for the first time.  I was impressed with the distinctive sound of the New Pornographers’ harmonies and the instant accessibility of their songs.

(To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I got into my first indie bands, as a middle-school kid whose music taste largely skewed towards the ’50s and ’60s, with early rebelliousness translating into adoration of Audioslave, Green Day, the Killers, Velvet Revolver, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium.**  I have some idea of how I got into grunge music for the first time:  After first rocking out to Audioslave’s Out of Exile, Foo Fighters’ In Your Honor, and Pearl Jam’s 2006 self-titled album, I followed the obvious threads deep into the catalogues of Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and a host of other grunge bands.  But indie music?  I bought Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous and Arcade Fire’s Funeral in 2004, and heard Twin Cinema in 2005.  I genuinely cannot remember how that came about.  I do recall reading some dumb magazine article around that time which tried to conflate a whole bunch of bands from all over Canada into some kind of a scene, the New Pornographers and Arcade Fire included.  Then again, Hot Hot Heat was also featured in that article, and I don’t think I’ve ever listened to anything by them, so….)

Anyway, at this point please allow me to end my digression, and to apologize for spending this post about the New Pornographers by primarily writing about irrelevant quasi-nostalgia.  The point is that the New Pornographers’ Together is a great indie-rock album which makes terrific use of the band’s harmonies, hooks, and musical talent.  The rich-sounding “Moves,” which leads off the album, is driven by a slicing cello and remains one of my favorite songs that came out while we were in high school.  Until this week, however, I hadn’t seen the amusing and fairly star-studded music video, which doubles as a faux trailer for a fake movie called Moves:  The Rise and Rise of the New Pornographers.  Check it out.

*Regarding Bitte Orca, somehow I was exposed to that album in high school, but never followed up on it.  I basically forgot that the Dirty Projectors existed until Chris showed me Swing Lo Magellan last fall, and I’ve subsequently revisited “Stillness Is the Move” et al. to find them more familiar than anticipated.

**I don’t mean to imply that those music choices are, you know, total garbage.  I still like Stadium Arcadium better than any other RHCP album; I still listen to Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town without a trace of irony; and while I no longer adore Audioslave, I still think that they get a bad rap and ultimately have a superior body of work compared to Rage Against the Machine.  As for Green Day, well, American Idiot was one of the biggest albums of the 2000s, whether you like it or not; and, through their earlier work, they served as a gateway band for me as I proceeded to dive into a world of better punk rock and better alternative rock.  However, stepping out of the apologist role, I am mildly embarrassed to own both Velvet Revolver albums but only one by G’n’R, that the first concert film I bought was Audioslave Live in Cuba, and that I followed up my purchase of Dookie with Warning instead of Insomniac.  What was I thinking?!

Covers: “Hate the Police”

Before there was “Fuck tha Police,” there was “Hate the Police.”

Like so many other grunge fans, I was introduced to this song by Mudhoney, who recorded a great cover of it in the late ’80s.  Mudhoney’s version was featured on their Boiled Beef & Rotting Teeth EP along with classics like “You Got It” and their iconic “Touch Me I’m Sick”; like those songs, it was then included on the Superfuzz Bigmuff Plus Early Singles CD, which compiled all of the material from the EPs and singles they released before their 1989 debut studio album.  Listening to that compilation during high school, I found a lot of memorable rockers, but, even so, “Hate the Police” stood out from the rest.  Although Mudhoney has always been on the punkier side of the grunge spectrum, in “Hate the Police” I found a song which was just straightforward, unadulterated three-chord punk.  It had an exciting rawness and energy to it that seemed irresistible.  These appealing elements were compounded by Mark Arm’s attention-commanding vocal performance.  Sometimes, when I try to convey why I like a vocalist, I have to point to specific songs that demonstrate why I think they’re great.  For Chris Cornell, I’d point to his performance on Badmotorfinger‘s “Slaves and Bulldozers.”  For Layne Staley, I’d point to “Angry Chair” or “Would?” from Dirt.  For Kurt Cobain, I’d point to a selection in which he screams the last part of the song, like “Sliver” or “Lounge Act” or “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”  And so on — you get the picture.  Anyway, for Mark Arm, I’d point to “Hate the Police.”  His dynamic snarl, and his screamed last verse, elevate this from a good cover to a great cover.

The original version, I learned more recently, was recorded in 1980 by the Dicks, an intensely political punk band from Texas who became quite important in the hardcore genre.  Floyd recorded plenty of rants against racist police and similar targets (in 1983, the Dicks issued songs entitled simply “Anti-Klan, Pt. 1” and “Anti-Klan, Pt. 2”), but “Hate the Police” was the first and most significant of these.  It was their debut single, self-recorded and self-released, and frankly it sounds terrible.  It’s a lo-fi track, presumably not by choice, and the muffled, muddy sound diminishes the effect of the song.  To my ears, it lacks the vibrant rawness of the Mudhoney cover, which features the better vocal performance anyway.  This, therefore, is an instance where I prefer the cover over the original.

What I cannot deny is that, with “Hate the Police,” Gary Floyd wrote a great punk song.  His lyrics take an interesting approach to the topic of bad cops.  Some anti-police songs, like “Fuck tha Police” and “Cop Killer,” are written from the perspective of angry young black men who have encountered brutality from racist and abusive police, and who are eager to take revenge violently.  “Hate the Police,” conversely, is actually written from the perspective of just such a violent, racist cop.  This isn’t immediately apparent; the first verse introduces our antihero not as an officer of the law but as an aggressive, dangerous lunatic:  “Mommy, mommy, mommy — look at your son/you might have loved me, but now I got a gun/you better stay out of my way.”  In the second verse, Floyd reveals that this rage has been channeled into a socially acceptable position on the police force:  “Daddy, daddy, daddy — proud of his son/he got him a good job, killin’ niggers and Mexicans.”  Our antihero sneers tauntingly at these victims, “You can’t find justice, it’ll find you.”  Minorities have no hope of finding justice under this system, but when the law finds them, they’re really in for it.  The third verse introduces the heroes who will combat this menacing cop and others like him:  the Dicks (or Mudhoney) themselves, discussed in the third person, who are “out in the desert sand” and about to “hatch.”  The line “You can’t find justice, it’ll find you” is repeated, and this time it takes on a different meaning:  The corrupt police can’t even grasp the concept of genuine justice, but they’re about to be brought to justice in the true sense of the word.  The fourth and final verse is a reprise of the first, but this time around, instead of introducing us to the protagonist’s naked aggression, it serves to expose the supposedly macho cop for what he really is — a petulant man-child throwing a tantrum.  On the cover version, Arm’s screamed vocal especially drives this home.  “I’ve had a bad day, I’ve had a bad day, mommy I’ve had a bad day, mommy I’ve had a bad day!  Mommy!!!” the emasculated officer cries.  So much for his power trip.

The Dicks – “The Dicks Hate the Police”

Mudhoney – “Hate the Police”

For the week of 4/8/2013…

“Venus” by Television

From their 1977 debut, Marquee Moon, one of the greatest guitar albums of all time as well one of the greatest in the history of rock music.  Tom Verlaine’s lyrical pedigree shines in songs like “Venus,” the meaning of which is not as clear as is immediately apparent:  Its (metaphorical) central image is the protagonist falling into the arms of the world’s most famous armless statue, the Venus de Milo.  In several respects, it’s a poetic song, but it packs an irreverent punch; fans of the Velvets, the New York Dolls, etc. will no doubt grin at the band’s recurring, exaggerated disbelief that Verlaine didn’t “feel low” (“huh???”).  And the guitar work on this track, as on the rest of the album, is simply gorgeous.  This should be in your collection if it isn’t already.

For the week of 4/1/2013…

“Question Mark” by Elliott Smith

Continuing with this theme of great indie-pop songwriting, here’s a gem from one of the all-time best such songwriters, the late, brilliant Elliott Smith, from his beautiful, nearly unimpeachable 1998 album, XO.  The bari saxophone is an uncharacteristic but welcome touch on this track.

“Power Lines” by Telekinesis

Michael Lerner, an indie pop-rocker from Seattle who records under the name “Telekinesis,” is modest and self-effacing when it comes to his musicianship.  When he goes on tour and Telekinesis expands into a full band, he sings while manning the drum kit; he’s quite cognizant of his inability to play guitar or bass while singing.  Even learning to sing and drum simultaneously was a bit of a struggle.  And in the studio, where he generally plays all of the instruments on his songs, he sometimes defers to an old pro, Spoon’s Jim Eno, and has him drum on some tracks.  Lerner is, one presumes, aware of his limitations as a singer as well; he is serviceable as a vocalist, but that’s all.

The real reason to listen to Telekinesis, then, is not extraordinary musicianship but rather extraordinary songwriting on Lerner’s part.  He has an uncommon talent for coming up with catchy hooks and spinning them into some of the most sugary but well-crafted pop songs you’ll hear this side of the mainstream.  Telekinesis released a new album, Dormarion, on Tuesday, and it’s full of these arresting, earwormy tunes.  “Power Lines” finds Lerner warbling over inviting acoustic guitar followed by a build-up to a pleasant plateau of electric guitar, driving drums, and out-in-front synth lines echoing parts of the sung melody; it’s the kind of song that could get stuck in your head for days.