Thoughtless Kind

A great song doesn’t have to be true all the time, or even true at all, but when it is playing it should feel as it came on a tablet down from the mountaintop.  John Cale has three recorded versions of this song on Music For a New Society/M:FANS.  I like the acoustic outtake the most out of the three versions, as it seems more desperate, more of the moment.  It seems like it is being written on the spot, the lyrics as true expression of the heart.  This song is truly lonesome, but completely unaffected.  It might cast a shadow across your day, but you’ll be glad you found it.  It’s real and true. How many things can you say that about?

The Pure Expression of the Cocteau Twins

There is nothing harder in pop songwriting than coming up with a great lyric.  It’s true, lyrics aren’t everything.  Great singers paired with the right melody can allow one to overlook an average lyric.  But nothing lasts longer in my stereo than a song with lyrics that are complex enough to allow the song to be reinterpreted over time.  I don’t necessarily mean complex like Dylan, although he obviously has written an unbelievable amount of great lyrics.  Something like Stand By Me is quite simple, but has a certain Biblical depth to it that seems bottomless.

But sometimes it is great to get away from lyrics and into pop songs that sound like pure expression.  No one does this better than the Cocteau Twins.  Not only is Robin Guthrie an exceptional guitar player, whose echoey sound can be seen as a precursor to many 90’s acts like My Bloody Valentine, but singer Elizabeth Fraser has one of the most expressive voices of all time.  The songs are drenched in reverb and delay, making it hard to tell at times if she is using words at all or singing in her own made up language.  (I think she does both, but which she is doing is often hard to tell.)  I’ve written about them before, but diving back into their music has made me think that they don’t get the amount of attention they deserve.  Although they share certain sonic characteristics with their peers, they are definitely unique.

There really isn’t better music to dream to, whether that is at night while falling asleep or on a long walk while daydreaming.  It’s like stepping into a strange sonic fairytale or a beautiful renaissance tapestry made out of sound.  Whether it is a clear and starry night or a rainy day trapped indoors, the music seems to fit.  Yet all of this is almost pointless.  It’s pure emotion captured in sound, and really defies easy description due to this.

All of their music is not the same.  They did start out very early on almost like a goth band before quickly finding their feet.  There were some later records that were less impressionistic.  But for the most part they were who they were.

Strangely enough singer Elizabeth Fraser has only released a couple songs since the demise of the band.  It’s almost like she was channeling the spirit and then woke up one day and realized her time had passed.  As a starting point I really love their collection Stars and Topsoil which covers their 1982-1990 period.  Many of their albums are worth owning, but fans debate as to which ones.  (Though Treasure seems to be loved by almost all.)  As far as getting your feet wet I think this not only demonstrates what made them unique, but is also highly accessible.

Lou Reed’s ‘New Sensations’

An album that never ceases to raise my spirits is Lou Reed’s New Sensations.  Reed faired much better than most 60’s artists in the 80’s. The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, Live in Italy, and New York are all extremely well regarded records.  Only Mistrial falls flat due to extremely dated production.  I personally think New Sensations belongs with his other gems from the decade, but it’s a different kind of work than the others.  While the other records are stripped down fairs, highlighting a four piece rock band with limited overdubs, New Sensations utilizes pop production, some of it of its time.  However, instead of marring the record, the more commercial production only seems to play a perfect foil for Lou’s literary and often darkly funny lyrics here.  Sometimes they heighten the absurdity that Reed is commenting on, and sometimes they simply help bring the melodies of Reed’s lyrics to life.  On the song Turn to Me, Reed sings:

When your teeth are ground down to the bone
and there’s nothing between your legs
And some friend died of something
that you can’t pronounce, ah
Remember, I’m the one who loves you
hey baby, you can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me
Turn to me

The over the top gospel backing vocals make that song seems as if it is being delivered by a late night TV preacher, preying on the desperation and insecurities of those all too alone at night.  Reed never lets the song lose its rock n roll power, but the extra element helps to create a theater of the mind.

………………………………….

One of my favorite songs on the album is the song Doin’ the Things That We Want To.  In it Reed pays tribute to other artists, specifically Martin Scorsese and Sam Shepard, that try to infuse their work with deep meaning.  Reed created music that had literary ambition, that was cinematic in scope.  He was aiming for the moon when so many other songwriters just aim for spring break.  If only more would try to follow in his footsteps, perhaps our culture wouldn’t feel so empty…

There’s not much you hear on the radio today
(Doin’ the things that we want to)
But you could still see a movie or a play
(Doin’ the things that we want to)
Here’s to Travis Bickle and here’s Johnny Boy
(Doin’ the things that we want to)
Growing up in the mean streets of New York
(Doin’ the things that we want to)
I wrote this song ’cause I’d like to shake your hand
(Doin’ the things that we want to)
In a way you guys are the best friends I ever had
(Doin’ the things that we want to)

Anohni “Drone Bomb Me”

The new album Helplessness by Anohni, formerly Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, has caught my attention.  It is an album of glistening, beautiful, disturbing protest songs.  I don’t know the album enough to give it a proper review.  However, I have heard the song Drone Bomb Me several times.  (The video starring Naomi Campbell is worth tracking down.)  The narrator of the song is a girl from Afghanistan whose family has been killed by a drone, and who now begs for a drone to grant her a similar fate.  I have a super high threshold for artistic things that a lot of people won’t go near.  This song even made me uncomfortable for a brief moment.  But that is exactly why it’s a brilliant piece of political music, even if I haven’t decided what to make of it in a larger sense.  In an era of repetition and cliche, there is something new and interesting going on here.

Drone Bomb Me

Drone Bomb Me by the singer Anohni.  I like the political by way of the club.  For some reason it is more uncomfortable dressed up in these clothes.  It’s more emotionally striking.

I like art that makes me feel uncomfortable.  It’s rare that it I find anything that does, but when I do, I run towards it.  If my first impulse is to turn it off or turn it down, I try to do the opposite.  I don’t do this because I am trying to prove some point.  I may end up disliking whatever it is.  But I realize that if I feel that strongly about something, it is hitting me on a very deep emotional level, and that is rare and worth investigating.

The Meaning Behind The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sunday Morning’

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.

‘The One and Only’ – Kirsty MacColl

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.

 

My Relationship With the Ramones and the Criminally Underrated ‘Pleasant Dreams’

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.

There is a Place In Hell For Me and My Friends

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