And Now For Something Completely Different…

 

I like to mix it up on this blog.  I just got done writing about the death penalty.  A heavy subject, especially if you are at work and your boss is giving you the hairy eyeball.  One of the songs that fills me with pure joy is Mama Cass Ellliot’s Make Your Own Kind of Music.  I know that I have posted the lyrics before, but one should see this fantastic video from 1969, with a great Sammy Davis Jr. introduction at the beginning!  It’s campy, but it is camp of the most wonderful kind.  You may be flying around your office soon enough!  Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Alvvays Album Review

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Recently I was checking out album reviews at Rolling Stone.  There is a band called Alvvays that got a four star review and thought I’d investigate further.  I liked what I heard in the samples, as I am a fan of finely crafted girl pop melodies and fast picked jangle guitar playing, and I though I would investigate further.  The record is even produced as if it came from that interesting period of early 80’s post punk, when real alternative music to the mainstream was quite interesting.  The production is muddy in the right way that adds a bit of mystery to the proceedings, although it continues the terrible trend of mixing the vocals low, so that most of the words are lost on you without a lyric booklet.

They band has a keyboard player as well as featuring two guitars, and the keyboards add just enough of an extra dimension at times so the music doesn’t seem completely formulaic.  The melodies are effervescent in the way that Kirsty MacColl’s were, although the singer, Molly Revkin, does not possess the unique personality or wit of the undeniably great Kirsty MacColl.

But the more I listen to the band the more the music dissipates.  The lyrics are clever in that cute kind of way, but nothing more.  The music sounds great, in that kind of way that would make it perfect listening to an afternoon of reading or talking to a friend, but again the more I pay attention the less I seem to care.  I can’t help but feel that this is an almost great record.  But at the end of the day it feels like style over substance.

There is some nifty guitar playing going on, and again the melodies are quite good.  However, I wish there were lyrics that lived up to the rest of the proceedings.  I wish there were words that were either simple and universal poetry the way old 60’s pop songs used to be, or even better conveyed some kind of subversive intelligence that made you feel as if something was on the line.

Recently I have been listening to Louder than Bombs by the Smiths.  The music on the Alvvays record seems quite influenced by Johnny Marr’s jingle jangle guitar, but without any of the weirder eccentricities that he would often introduce into the music.  And again the lyrics fall far short of a Morrissey or even a Kirsty MacColl.  (Johnny Marr was in the Smiths with Morrissey and also wrote with Kirsty MacColl.)  I feel like I can neither relate to the lyrics on any day to day basis, nor are any secrets of the universe being unlocked.

As far as first albums go, there is enough in the way of style to think that there might be a promising future ahead.  However, to do something great they are going to need to push themselves further and, especially lyrically, to think more outside the box.  The lyrics are just clever enough to make you realize that they are not dumb.  I hope that Miss Rankin, or whoever writes the lyrics, will keep reading and pushing herself.  If you are looking for some good summer background music this album does have its charms.  However, if you are looking for something more substantial look elsewhere.

World Peace is None of Your Business Album Review

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Songs about suicide that you can dance to, songs that are devastating critiques of the male ego, songs where we root for a bull fighter’s death so that the bull can survive, songs where we are told to kick the bride down the aisle, songs of poetry that vividly attack the justice system and bring an old prison alive in our imagination, and songs unafraid to look into the abyss;  These are all songs on one album and that is the new Morrissey album, World Peace is None of Your Business.  This album is subversive, intelligent, heartbreaking, and funny as hell.  This album is not just the work off one man however; This album is also the work of a band at the height of their powers and of a producer that brings the best out of everyone involved.

This is a record that is extremely musical.  The album begins with a didgeridoo and goes on to include trumpets, clarinets, flamenco solos, gorgeous keyboards, savage electric guitars, pure noise, and delicately played acoustics.  It is all anchored with the best rhythm section of the man’s career.  The record not only expands the language of pop music, but also the language of music itself.  Sure, in this place and time almost everything has been done, but this record does stake out it’s own small piece of earth.  Have you ever heard a didgeridoo go into a beautifully gorgeous glam rock ballad that also features moments of take the paint off the wall guitar?  All while lines like, “The police will disable you with tasters,” are delivered in a gentle croon.  That’s just song number one.  Anyone that claims that this album isn’t at least trying to push the envelope is either offended by what it has to say, or is so caught up in the baggage of Morrissey’s long career that they’re not listening with anything resembling human ears.

The album swings between transcendent pop and epic show stopping masterpieces.  Take a song like Staircase at the University.  The song resembles in theme the 1960’s “death discs” where tragedy was masked in effervescent melodies.  In this song a female student under pressure from her family and loved ones throws herself down the title stairs until her head, “splits three ways.”  However, when the song ends in a triumphant flamenco guitar solo and eventually handclaps, you find yourself smiling against all odds.

On the other ends of the spectrum there are songs like I’m Not a Man and Mountjoy.  These are two of the best songs Morrissey has ever recorded.  I’m Not a Man takes all of the ways in which traditional manhood is defined and discards them.  From Cassanova and Don Juan, to the warring caveman and the soldier, he dreams up something kinder and better than man as we know it.  “And I would never destroy this planet that I’m on / Well, what do you think I am, a man?”

Mountjoy, minus a line about a judge, described as a, “three foot half wit in a wig”, is deadly serious.  The song is about the famous prison in Ireland that among regular prisoners also housed famous ones such as Brendan Behan, who is also mentioned in the song.  He uses poetic language to not only create the horrible conditions of the prison itself and the justice system that put it in place, but also to ask big questions about the human condition.

Musically this album’s closest resemblance to Morrissey’s catalog is as an updated version of Viva Hate or Bona Drag.  There are times when Jesse Tobias’s overly distorted electric guitar brings to mind Vini Reilly’s guitar on Alastian Cousin.  There are also the extremely colorful arrangements and strange twists and turns in the production from that period.  However, producer Joe Chiccarelli has updated the sound and brought new colors to it as well.  He is somehow able to bring out both the delicate details of the arrangements without them losing any muscle.  Also new multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Manzur brings in all kinds of wold influences from the aforementioned flamenco guitar to the French sounding accordion breakdown of Earth is the Loneliest Planet.

This is Morrissey’s most outwardly looking album of all time, both musically and lyrically.  A song like Istanbul not only is sung in character as someone from the title city, but features musical nods and sound effects to that city as well till we feel that we are caught down in the human muck with the song’s narrator.  The once most British of pop stars is now casting a wide eye across the globe with equal bits empathy and disgust.

The only song that sounds as it is definitely written in Morrissey’s own voice is the final song Oboe Concerto.  “The older generation has tried, sighed,and died / which pushes me to their place in the queue.”

I can’t recommend this album enough.  It is a record of both despair and defiance that features more wit than most singers could muster in a lifetime.  As much as this album looks at the world at large, as Morrissey is thematically not only expanding what he has attempted before, but again also the language of pop music, he still ends the album with a British stiff upper lip as he accepts the reality of life and repeats over and over:

Round, rhythm goes round
Round, rhythm of life goes round

*Some of you that subscribe to this blog may have originally gotten a different review of this album.  I apologize about sending out two different reviews, but I wrote the first one when I was exhausted and simply wasn’t happy with it.  I make a point of never going back and changing anything I wrote, other than for errors, but every rule needs to be broken sometimes.  

The Molly Maguires

Make way for the Molly Maguires 
They’re drinkers, they’re liars but they’re men 
Make way for the Molly Maguires 
You’ll never see the likes of them again 

Down the mines no sunlight shines 
Those pits they’re black as hell 
In modest style they do their time 
It’s Paddy’s prison cell 
And they curse the day they’ve travelled far 
Then drown their tears with a jar 

So make way for the Molly Maguires 
They’re drinkers, they’re liars but they’re men 
Make way for the Molly Maguires 
You’ll never see the likes of them again 

Backs will break and muscles ache 
Down there there’s no time to dream 
Of fields and farms, of womans arms 
Just dig that bloody seam 
Though they drain their bodies underground 
Who’ll dare to push them around 

So make way for the Molly Maguires 
They’re drinkers, they’re liars but they’re men 
Make way for the Molly Maguires 
You’ll never see the likes of them again 

So make way for the Molly Maguires 
They’re drinkers, they’re liars but they’re men 
Make way for the Molly Maguires 
You’ll never see the likes of them again

I absolutely love Luke Kelly and the Dubliners.  My family, on my Dad’s side, also comes from the coal mining region of Pennsylvania.  This song is obviously romanticized, but it is great nonetheless. I’ve printed the lyrics in part a long time ago, but thought that I would post them in full.

If you are interested in learning about the Molly Maguires here is the wikipedia page on them:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molly_Maguires

It is an interesting time in our history that is often overlooked.

How Complex Should Your Argument Be?

I have written songs, blog posts, and a chapter in a book.  Many political issues are complex shades of gray,  although many want to reduce them to black and white.  In order to sway people to your favor should your writing be closer to a well formed argument that takes in different ideas and acknowledges that complexity, or should aim for propaganda that elicits attention to your cause?  Of course some of that depends on your aims, but I also think the form matters. 

If you are writing a book or a long form magazine article, you have the space to measure and weigh all the nuances of an issue.  While proving your point you can take the time to acknowledge the complexity of the situation you are dealing with. 

In a blog, which you want people to be able to read at any point in their busy day to day lives, I used to read blogs between calls at work, I feel that you have less space.  I feel as though you may want to acknowledge the complexity of a certain issue, it is better to provoke people to become interested in a topic, and then get them to think and follow up on their own.

In a pop song, which is usually no more than a few minutes, with some of those precious minutes giving time for the music itself, you should write as close to propaganda as possible.  Say something bold and immediate that cannot be overlooked.  You want something that jumps out of the speakers and grabs people by the throat.  Music is meant to be emotional and you should aim to create strong emotions whatever they may be.  Although clearly modern radio would disagree, I still believe it is important to ask of an artist the question, “What do you have to say?”  If someone is interested enough in an artist’s possibly nuanced position, they can spend the time to find out.  In music I love those artists that piss lightning and crap thunder.  Did I just quote Mick from Rocky? 

Vesuvius at Myself

Trying to clip the creek to the bank with a clothes pin
Waterlogged system, rusty spring, faulty planning
Logic squeezed out like mustard at a corndog
Hypertension is not wisdom, chewing the leather straps
Trying to hold the sun still with a bobby pin
Burned fingers. excellent conductor of heat
Private fantasies are not public policy
Christian charity is a doily over my death boner
Busy work is not the Great Wall of China
Vanity bamboo hut out back behind the big house
Pretend is salve for whitey-boy guilt
Furiously slapping at the moon with a cane pole
Trying to prop up the heavens with a fresh flat pencil
Some folks are allergic to rubber
I am trying to stitch this one to all the rest of them
But the seams will split, collide and cleave
Neopolitan ice cream is never truly integrated until it’s too late
Trying to stop the bleeding with scotch tape
Platelets spoil adhesion, fire up the cauterizing iron
It’s a branding of necessity not scarification
Bliss was a pimple that I tried to pop
It erupted up and out on my countenance
Ugly eruption, Vesuvius, ugly eruption, Vesuvius
Ugly eruption, Vesuvius
Vesuvius at myself, Vesuvius at myself

I thought I would start out the Fourth of July by posting the lyrics to the great American songwriter Vic Chesnutt.   He is criminally overlooked.  One look at this or many of his lyrics and you can see why.  He was not one to wince from hard truths.  This is one of my favorite songs by him or anyone.  There are so many great lines in this song: Busy work is not the Great Wall of China.  Almost every line is a vivid image and thought in and of itself.  If not for the fact that his voice was an acquired taste, and possibly also the fact he was in a wheelchair,  he would be on the songwriters Mount Olympus with Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell, or any of the greats.  As far as I am concerned he is. 

Running Up That Hill Video

Although I am not a great fan of this video, this is an extraordinary pop song.  The Chromatics cover of this song is a great version as well.  I was reading about Kate Bush the other day and I read she was the first woman to have a number one hit with a self-penned song in England.  This was for her song Wuthering Heights.  And this was in 1978, the year I was born.  I tried to find that stat for the U.S., but I couldn’t find it.  Perhaps I was too lazy and gave up too easily.   A stat like that boggles the mind.  Perhaps this was just some weird amalgamation of different circumstances, but I highly doubt it.  A stat like that reminds you how far we have come in recent years as a species, and how far we have to go before there is true equality.  Sometimes I fear as George Carlin says, “We’re barely out of the jungle folks.”

Fantastic Failure

This is the video for Fantastic Failure from Kristeen Young ‘ s V the Volcanic.  Her new album The Knife Shift is out now.  It is an extraordinary album that is not for the faint of heart.  The  Knife Shift  was produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T-Rex,  Thin Lizzy, and Morrissey among many others) and features Dave Grohl on drums. She is a true original and I am very excited to announce that I will be posting an interview with Kristeen next month.  Stay tuned…

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence Revisited

I have set several rules for myself for this blog.  One of the things that I have promised to do on this blog is to let my writings stand as they are, whether good or bad.  Sometimes I reread things I have written and cringe and sometimes I am quite proud.  I can always change my mind in writing something new, but I will not reedit anything I have written other than to correct spelling and grammar errors.  This way I can be as true as possible in the moment. 

One of the recent blogs that makes me cringe is my recent review of the Lana Del Rey album.  In order to point out the small faults that I found in it I feel that I was too harsh and did not explain in full what I actually like about it.  It is actually writing music reviews that I often feel the least adequate, despite music being a subject that I know a great deal about.  This is because often first impressions of a record are incorrect.  The best albums are often growers and ones that are great initially often wear out quickly. 

I feel and have always felt that the most essential part of any kind of music with a vocal is the vocal.  I could listen to a brilliant singer singing over a Casio keyboard.  Conversely I can’t stand even the most brilliant musical offerings if the singer is singing in a voice that doesn’t register emotionally with me and whose words are full of clichés.  The human voice in song is the best window into someone’s soul.  And whatever criticism one throws at Lana Del Rey, I believe that in her singing she has found her own unique voice.  It is instantly recognizable and it is filled with beauty and pain.  Singing is not something that can be faked.  Although I feel slightly that she could have been done a better service by her collaborators on her new record, this by no means gets in the way of me enjoying the record overall or feeling that it has value as a piece of art.  In fact it is quite possible that as I continue to listen to it I will grow to like the very things that at first threw me off.  I know that this is a record that I will continue to spin for years to come.  It has a damaged late night feeling that sounds fantastic once the sun has gone down. 

How do you articulate that something is lacking, while at the same time making it clear that even with its faults it far surpasses many of the other things on the airwaves?  This is tricky business.  Are the arrangements as well done as a Dusty Springfield record?  The answer would be no.  Are they better than many other things happening in mainstream pop at the moment?  The answer to that would be yes.  Both questions are both fair and unfair.  You want to judge something in and of itself, but it is hard to not compare it to what has come before it and what is going on around it.  When you talk about a piece of art you must try to find that balance between taking it for what it is and also trying to look at it in it’s place in the greater spectrum of things. 

From making records myself I know how many things are out of one’s hands.  A bad mix can take the air out of a good arrangement.   Even for someone like Lana Del Rey who probably has a large budget, there are still budgetary concerns and time restraints.  You are also in the hands of other musicians, producers, and engineers.  You start with an idea in your imagination and slowly reality chips away at it.  Sometimes this can be to the benefit of something and sometimes not.  That is just part of life and part of the process of creating something that involves other people.  One has to fight for things that one believes in and also learn to let certain things go. 

So when I criticize something that I like all of this is weighing upon me.  I write quickly, another one of my rules, to try to get as close to the emotion that I am feeling as best possible.  Sometimes emotions can lead you astray. 

In trying to point out this particular record’s faults I feel that I did not do its strengths justice.  Whatever the perceived media image of her it is clear that she is not playing by any rules other than her own.  The record is dark and murky and displays uncomfortable emotions at times.  This is not the kind of music that is going to get played on morning radio as people try to forget the day ahead of them, unless somewhere there is someone in power that is a fan that slips it in.  It sounds timeless, but could not have been made at any time other than now.  This is the sound of a real human voice that feels the struggle of being alive.  She sounds older than her years and beaten down by the world, but somehow beautiful and fearless despite this.  Even though I feel there are some things in the production that could be better, she was brave enough to make a record that didn’t kowtow to modern recording trends.  Yes, there are some faults with this record, but maybe it is all the more human because of it.  I am sure that I will keep listening to it and as I change so will my opinion of it.  Whatever it is though, it is not disposable.