Today I was reading Aidan Levy’s excellent Lou Reed biography, Dirty Blvd. I’ve been listening to The Velvet Underground since I was 13 or 14. I always felt the first song on their debut, Sunday Morning, to be a pleasant, but slight, addition to their catalog. But it is easy to overlook things if you aren’t paying attention. In the book Levy talks about how the song is actually dealing with the issue of paranoia. The song features the lyrics, “Watch out, the world’s behind you.” I noticed, as I’m sure many others have, that the song adds reverb to the vocal part of the way through the song, an effect that makes a sound seem farther away, mirroring the sense of uncanny by the narrator. Levy states that this song was chosen as the first song as a way of warning listeners at the time about the sonic insanity that was to come.
There is probably no artist that brings me near tears more easily than the late great Kirsty MacColl. She has filled my life with a great amount of joy. I’ll sometimes listen to her records while walking around Lady Bird Lake in Austin. It might be months without a spin, but there I am again: With an ear to ear smile, or trying to hold back tears, depending on what emotion is pouring out of her in any particular song.
I’ve written about her before, but whenever I listen to her I can’t help but think, “God, how do more people not know?”
One of my favorite songs of hers is the last song on her album Electric Landlady, called The One and Only. The last few lines of the song destroy me every time:
Some lives read like a postcard
And some lives read like a book
I’ll be happy if mine
Doesn’t read like a joke on an old Christmas cracker
(Here is what a Christmas cracker is if you are unaware.)
Like Moonriver or Somewhere Over the Rainbow, this is one of those happy/sad songs, that can be mined for more or less of either emotion, without ever completely shaking off the other feeling. Even if that place over the rainbow doesn’t exist, even if it is a dream that never comes true, the dream still allows us to temporarily transcend our circumstances. You can sing a song like that and communicate the sadness of the reality, or the beauty of the dream, you can choose one emotion over the other, but that other emotion is still there, giving the song a complexity.
The One and Only can be viewed as being defiant in the face of heartbreak, of one refusing to give in, of transcending. Or it can be listened to as being sung by someone that is trying to put the best face on the sadly realized reality of lowered expectations. The song can be one or the other at different times, or it can even be both at the same time. The song ends on a hope, that just as easily could be posed as a question.
I once read author Nick Hornby say something along the lines of how pop songs are puzzle, that they hold are interest until we can solve them. The thing that is so beautiful about a song like The One and Only is that there is an interpretive element to it. It can’t ever be solved. Therefore, it will always be out there if needed, like Kirsty, ready to move us again.
I only play music now because of the Ramones. When I grew up the dominant form of rock was hair metal. I was too young to know about all of the exciting things going on in the American indie scene, of which I would later discover. There were a couple East Coast punk bands that I knew about through friends’ older brothers. I had records by bands like Minor Threat and The Misfits. I always read a lot of rock magazines as my childish dreams of being a WWF wrestler(!) gave way to at least the semi more realistic world of rock music. But as cheesy as a lot of the hair metal seems now, there was no doubt that the guitar players involved could play on a technical level. When I got my first guitar, learning to play it was a daunting task. I never thought I’d be able to play at a professional level.
I first learned about the Ramones in a rock magazine and I got their collection All the Hits and More Vol 1. I remember going on vacation with my family and taking the cassette with me. I listened to it day and night. I also discovered rather quickly that I could play simple power chord versions of Ramones songs. (Playing down stroke bar chords like Johnny Ramone for an entire set is still not something I am sure I could do. There are probably virtuosos that couldn’t do it. It’s not a technical challenge, but a physical one. I also watched a video where Blondie’s great drummer, Clem Burke, said he couldn’t hack it in the Ramones as he couldn’t play drums that fast for that long. Again, it’s not a musical challenge, but a physical one. It’s more akin to being a marathon runner.) I also learned that I too could could write songs now, as many Ramones songs only featured three or four chords. (Though writing songs as clever and as consistently catchy as the Ramones is not something many people can do. They have probably written as many catchy pop songs as anyone, often disguised in the guise of punk.)
I appreciate the Ramones now as much as I ever had. Their music is timeless and subversively clever. Bonzo Goes to Bitburg is a funny and scathing satire of Reagan, that feels all too timely with his supposed heirs now running for President. Their songs were often D-U-M-B, but never dumb. They would write songs about cretins, the insane, and all manner of outsiders, with lyrics that appeared simple, yet were actually breaking new ground at the time they were written. You have to be smart or extremely lucky to do something new, and the Ramones were calculated in their musical attack and stage presence. There was no luck involved here. There was often a sly wit involved that still interests me now. They are the Johnny Cash of rock music, only increasing in stature with every passing year. They have influenced countless musicians while also creating a distinctly new type of music.
Anyway, at one point I owned almost every Ramones album. There were only a few I never collected. One of those was Pleasant Dreams. Aside from their first few groundbreaking records it might be their most consistent and their best. It might even be their best collection of pop melodies overall. The Ramones went big with their Phil Spector produced End of the Century. Their first four records were critical and cult hits. End of the Century was their chance to get mainstream radio success. They certainly had the songs and image to do so. However, that record failed to break into the mainstream. Johnny Ramone said that at that point he knew they would never be a mainstream band.
Their record company had different ideas. They paired them with 10cc member Graham Gouldman in hopes of finally producing a hit record. The Ramones weren’t happy with the choice, especially once the record was complete, feeling that it lacked the proper punk attack that a Ramones record should have. The record also received mix reviews for the first time in the Ramones career.
However, after finally discovering the record, I think critics and its creators missed the mark on their assessment. There are more important Ramones records, there are better Ramones records, but this one is as enjoyably consistent as any of them, if you like the 60’s pop side of the Ramones writing. Every song features great pop hooks. Although there are some extra instruments added, along with some vocal harmonies, most of these are background detail, with the Ramones sound to the front of the mix. Johnny’s guitar isn’t quite as biting as it is in other places, but it is still the prominent sound of the record. There are very few people that could write a collection of melodies that were this instantly accessible. And despite the new additions to the Ramones sound, it is done in a way that never detracts from the power of the band, as would sometimes later be the case.
Aside from the first four always agreed upon classic Ramones records, this is the one to get. In fact I think this holds its own with Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin, though I know there are some that will disagree. (Ramones and Leave Home will always remain in a class above the rest of their discography, and the discography of most others. Personally I think Leave Home is their best and it is definitely my favorite. Just for Commando alone!) By Road to Ruin especially, an album I love, they were already incorporating new sounds into their production. They also did even more of this on End of the Century. This album isn’t really a departure from what they had already had done. Sometimes critics get on a bandwagon and just go with it.
Most even casual Ramones fans know The KKK Took My Baby Away. Although their might not be anything as lyrically great as that track, anyone that likes that should like most, if not all, of the record. Up above I put This Business is Killing Me, a song that I had never heard until recently, but that I’m sure most musicians could relate to at one time or another.
I’ve always loved this song. It came on almost by accident last night, as I searched my iPod without being conscious of what I was doing. It is on the Morrissey album Kill Uncle. (This is the definitive version. While the band version on the remastered Kill Uncle brings out the comic side of the song, it can’t compare to the deeply emotional resonance heard here.)
This is a song that is devastatingly sad, yet extremely witty, with a good dose of humor. (The best songs, from a writing standpoint, are almost always complex. Also notice that Morrissey uses a unique meter and rhyme scheme, when there is a rhyme scheme. Morrissey is also extremely great with song titles. When you read the title of this song, one almost can’t help but wonder at the lyrics contained.) That wit and humor is extremely important as the wrong lyrics could make this beautiful melody and arrangement maudlin. It makes the song subversive and defiant. It makes the song one for those that are outside the norms of the dominant tradition of society. If something could break your heart and bring a sly smile to your face at the same time, this is it.
There is a place reserved for me and my friends
And when we go, we all will go
So you see, I’m never alone
Oh, there is a place with a bit more time
And a few more gentler words
And looking back we will forgive (We had no choice, we always did)
All that we hope is when we go
Our skin and our blood and our bones
Don’t get in your way
Making you ill
The way they did when we lived
Oh, there is a place, a place in Hell
Reserved for me and my friends
And if ever I just wanted to cry
Then I will because I can
I always thought Yoko Ono got a raw deal. I think she actually helped John Lennon get into an intellectual space to make some of his most fearless music. Of course one will never know what would have happened without her, but I definitely think the case can be made that she gave Lennon the stability and strength to go out on a limb and create some of his best work. Her artistic capabilities, deserving of attention in their own right, were no doubt inspiring to him. Although I love Lennon’s work with the Beatles, especially A Day in the Life, I actually think his best songs appear on his solo albums, even if they are not across the board as consistent with his work in the Beatles.
But lately I have begun to realize that Ono also got a raw deal when it comes to her musical work. She has proven fearless in her own career. Take a listen to her new solo album Yes, I’m a Witch Too. Most artists never create anything this brave, let alone at 83. The album is a collection of remixes, but that doesn’t really explain the record. She allowed musical artists, often greatly younger than herself, to reimagine her past recordings from the ground up. Her vocals are intact, but each artist has been allowed to completely rework the music surrounding that voice. Other than the lyrics and melodies, it plays like a new set of recordings.
The music is quite diverse. There are somber meditations, synthesizer laden dance songs, and rock songs with heavily distorted guitars. Yet is all sounds correct next to each other. However the mixing and mastering were done excellently, so that it plays like an album, where the songs belong next to each other, despite the diverse nature of their arrangements. There is also no doubt that Ono has a distinct enough voice and personality to help tie the songs together.
In comparing this album to other records I started thinking about how some records would sound great in a modern art museum and some would sound great surrounded by cave paintings. This is one of those rare records that would fit well in either setting. No matter how futuristic the music gets, her voice is a primal instrument that easily delves into raw emotion. And for those of you that just think of Ono as someone that screams atonally as a singer, you are dead wrong. Her voice is unique, there is no doubt of that, but she is capable of a great range of emotions with her voice. No matter what style of music is surrounding her, she rises to the challenge to do something original and unique, yet never seems disconnected from what is going on around her.
Although her lyrics can be interpretive at times, bringing to mind abstract visual art, she can also be incredibly direct, in an almost unnerving way. Here are the lyrics to the above song Mrs. Lennon:
Mrs. lennon, o’ mrs. lennon,
Checking the sky to see if there’s no clouds.
There’s no clouds,
Mrs. lennon, o’ mrs. lennon,
Making the tea and watching the sea.
There’s no waves,
O’ then, i guess it must be alright.
Silver spoon, o’ silver spoon,
I lost my silver spoon.
And our children, o’ our children,
Did they have to go to war?
Yes, my love, it’s okay,
Half the world is always killed you know.
Husband john extended his hand,
Extended his hand to his wife.
And he finds, and suddenly he finds
That he has no hands.
They’ve lost their bodies!
They’ve lost their bodies!
Yes, they lost their bodies.
Neither of them, o’ neither of them
Never left each other.
Yes, my love, it’s okay,
Half the world is always dying you know.
The new Rihanna album, ANTI, is astoundingly good, and possibly even great. I really want to like more mainstream records, but so many just pander to their audience. This album is challenging, even unnerving in places, but with enough great pop moments that it is diverse and rewarding listen. The production also sounds like a million bucks, which is what the album probably cost to make.
There are many reasons why the percentage of older records is higher in quality than what’s being pumped out now. There are many reasons for this, but one is that the record industry used to be more decadent, with artists given bigger budgets to live out their fantasies in sound. When a modern artist has a lot of capital due to having hit records, and they invest it back into their music, like Daft Punk with R.A.M., it is still possible to push the boundaries of what records can sound like.
I think sonically the new Rihanna album is as compelling, if not more so, than many artists that are critical darlings. It’s definitely an album, instead of a collection of singles. Every track has a different musical character, yet they flow into each other quite well. Musically it sounds like a late night record, and while a few tracks sound like something you would hear in a club, most of it sounds like something you would listen to alone. Her cover of Tame Impala’s New Person, Same Old Mistakes, sounds almost like it could be a Chromatics song. Love on the Brain has a modern update on soul music, while Woo has synthetic squeals that have some relation to Kanye’s Yeezus.
Lyrically the album is often completely decadent, but also often sad and disturbing. It sounds like someone that has everything they need in this world, materially, but nothing that they want, finding material reward and sexual conquest extremely hollow. There is little joy in this record. Only near the end does love enter the picture and provide the record with some degree of hope.
This is one of those albums that has enough different styles on it to appeal to a wide range of people, but at the same time be weird enough to alienate many as well. I love it. I’m glad to see someone with as many fans as she has take a left turn to an unexpected destination.
There’s nothing better than a great vocal melody, except maybe one with the perfect harmonies. Here two legends, Dion DiMucci and Paul Simon, sing an ode to their city. It’s a beautiful song that makes you remember that there is no instrument as moving as the human voice. I am looking forward to Dion’s album, which comes out this month. This song, New York is My Home, is also the title song for the album.
Add on: Notice the phrasing of the singing, where it is slightly behind the beat. The singing is also understated. There is no showing off, though there are harmonies that are quite impressive in and of themselves. The singers are not making a “meal” out of every note, which often happens in todays pop music. The best singing almost always comes back to delivering the song. It’s about letting go of the ego and giving over to the important thing at hand, which is the song.
I’m still gathering my thoughts on the whole album, but there is no doubt the last song, Hands Together, on the I Don’t Cares (Paul Westerberg, Juliana Hatfield) new album, Wild Stab, will undoubtedly be one of the best of the year. I’ve read that Westerberg suffers from dyslexia, though who knows what is true these days, especially with someone like Westerberg, who is often far more direct in song than interview. (His recent interview with Peter Wolf was a revelation, due to the length and directness of Westerberg’s answers.) There are certain lyrics of his that have an almost dyslexic quality to them, and I’m not talking about his solo single Dyslexic Heart. His words can have a jumbled feeling, although one that creates insight, rather than hinders it. I thought about posting the lyrics to the song, but the way the words unravel in song on first listen, the sheer revelation of it, is one of the most powerful things about the song. There is a beautiful rambling confusion to the words, which don’t seem correct at first, but upon repeated spins creates a deeply personal and poetic reflection of an internal emotional state. The song is highly intelligent, but not because it creates clarity of the world at large. In fact it is a complex, highly detailed painting of not what the world is, but how it can feel to face the world, a world such as our own, one that is often filled with confusion and meaninglessness. It’s a beautiful, sad, yet occasionally hopeful song, of one seemingly trying to make sense of a world that often makes no sense at all.
Down off the interstate
In the middle of the fall
We killed off the Indians
And we put up a mall
And we claimed we did it
In the name of St. Paul
That’s how the west was lost
We paint the faces and names
Of those we kill
In theme restaurants
In bars and grills
And we get indignant
When it makes their ancestors ill
That’s how the West was lost
Or “living space”
Is the same thing
By any other name
That’s how the West was lost
Lyrics from That’s How the West Was Lost.
These are the lyrics to a song on an album I recorded recently, that will be appearing later this year. More on this to come.
Living space, or Lebensraum, is what Hitler wanted for his Third Reich. You can read more about this topic and Manifest Destiny at this post I wrote last year:
Above is an hour long video interview of Paul Westerberg by fellow musician Peter Wolf. Westerberg, along with Juliana Hatfield, released the new album Wild Stab under the band name The I Don’t Cares. Anyone interested in music should check this interview out. It’s not often that you see such a long interview in the music world that is also substantive. Westerberg is one of our country’s greatest living songwriters and this interview takes him into his recording process, among other things.