On the Way by Eric Johnson and the Superficial Costumes of the Tribe

I really enjoy the above piece, On the Way, by Eric Johnson.  I’ve always loved, among a million other styles, fast, melodic, and clean guitar playing in the vein of early Johnny Marr.  Johnson shows on this piece, being a master guitar player, how easily he goes between that kind of British jingle jangle style and American country picking.  As well as being a bass player, I have always played guitar, so just the pure musicality of the piece interests me.  However, I think even as a non-musician there are things that one can find pleasurable and interesting about the piece.  One thing you realize playing music is how many various forms of music are really similar once you get right down to it.  It’s easy to turn a country song into a reggae song or to turn a reggae groove into a calypso by just slightly altering the accents of a rhythm.  I think in this piece it is really obvious how different forms of music are more interchangeable than they let on.  When the song starts out it is pretty traditional country in the chord progression and the note choice.  As it progresses the chord progression and melody get more complex and melodic, and it starts to sound more like something Johnny Marr would have played in The Smiths.  Music is often associated with different tribes within society, although this is less prevalent than in the past.  Country music is sometimes associated with rednecks, reggae with Rastafarians, soul music and hip-hop with black culture.  But really at its core music is just music, in the same way that we all share a common humanity when you look past the superficial costumes of the tribe.

Meat is Murder Turns 30

On the day that your mentality
Decides to try to catch up with your biology

Come ’round ’cause I want the one I can’t have
And it’s driving me mad
It’s all over, all over, all over my face

On the day that your mentality
Catches up with your biology

I want the one I can’t have
And it’s driving me mad
It’s all over, all over, all over my face

A double bed and a stalwart lover for sure
These are the riches of the poor
A double bed and a stalwart lover for sure
These are the riches of the poor

And I want the one I can’t have
And it’s driving me mad
It’s all over, all over my face

A tough kid who sometimes swallows nails
Raised on prisoner’s aid
He killed a policeman when he was thirteen
And somehow that really impressed me
But it’s written all over my face

Oh, these are the riches of the poor
These are the riches of the poor

I want the one I can’t have
And it’s driving me mad
It’s written all over my face

On the day that your mentality
Catches up with your biology

And if you ever need self-validation
Just meet me in the alley by the railway station
It’s all over my face

The Smith’s album Meat is Murder came out 30 years ago this year.  It is a front to back classic record, that still sounds unique both in pop music and in The Smith’s discography.  It is more muscular than their debut, but not as varied as their following albums.  I don’t know if I could say that Mean is Murder is my favorite Smith’s album, but it has been at times.  Morrissey’s wit, intelligence, and humor are in full effect on this record.  There are so many quotes on this album that are fantastic in and of themselves, that you can take out of context and still sound brilliant:

A double bed and a stalwart lover for sure
These are the riches of the poor

I chose I Want the One I Can’t Have, but I could have chosen any song off the record really.  Their take on the brutality Manchester education system on The Headmaster Ritual, or the darkly hilarious carnival portrait of Rusholme Ruffians, were both close to being posted.

If you are a guitar player or a musician in general this album is a must.  Johnny Marr’s guitar playing during this period sounds like nothing else in recorded history.  Sure, there are bits and pieces from all over the place, but the way he puts everything thing together is truly unique.  Even he has trouble playing anything this original now.  (My brother and I have tried to figure out things Johnny Marr has played and they are just bizarre.  Not only can they be at complicated at times, but they just aren’t things someone would normally play.  As well as being naturally talented, I think some of this comes from being young and not knowing exactly what he was doing.  Even when his parts are less complex, he often layers them in a way that is totally unique. I think also the fact that he wrote the music and that Morrissey wrote lyrics and melodies over top of his lyrics helped create The Smiths sound.  One would not come up with these parts if they were trying to think of a vocal melody at the same time.  I have also read countless times about the fact that even when someone writes something musically traditional, Morrissey will sing in places over music that a more trained songwriter would not do.  He’ll write a chorus over what would be perceived as a verse and vice versa.)

The rhythm section is also fantastic.  Andy Rourke, like Marr, has a totally unique melodic sense.  Mike Joyce plays rather traditionally and simply compared to both of them, but his solid foundation allows the other two musicians to branch out.  He is the offensive line to their quarterback and receiver.

Because of the intelligence of The Smiths, and Morrissey’s knack for paying tribute to films, books, and poetry, The Smiths are sometimes perceived as a university band.  However, in reality they were working class through and through.  If Morrissey’s portraits of working class life seem detailed, as on the aforementioned Rusholme Ruffians, it is because that is the culture they grew up in.

30 years on this recording still holds all of its mysterious power.  There has been nothing quite like it since it came out.  Truly original stuff.

The Smiths – 10 of the Best

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The Smiths – 10 of the Best

Here is an interesting article on the Smiths if you are aware of them, but not really familiar with their stuff.  I am a super fan and I even found it an interesting read.  I by no means agree with everything the author says (I think the author’s constant use of the word teenager around Morrissey’s lyrics, however complimentary at times, is ill-informed), but he at least seem as if he has decent knowledge of the material and an idea of what made them so special.  The writer is also able to grab the musical side of the Smith’s better than most music journalists do.

We Tried, and We Failed – Jeane Lyrics

Jeane
The low-life has lost its appeal
And I’m tired of walking these streets
To a room with a cupboard bare

Jeane
I’m not sure what happiness means
But I look in your eyes
And I know that it isn’t there

We tried, we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried

Jeane
There’s ice on the sink where we bathe
So how can you call this a home
When you know it’s a grave?

But you still hold a greedy grace
As you tidy the place
But it’ll never be clean
Jeane

We tried, we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried

Oh, cash on the nail
It’s just a fairytale
Oh, and I don’t believe in magic anymore
Jeane

But I think you know
I really think you know
Oh, I think you know the truth
Jeane, oh

No heavenly choir
Not for me and not for you
Because I think that you know
I really think you know
I think you know the truth
Oh, Jeane

That we tried, and we failed
That we tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
We tried, and we failed
Oh, oh, Jeane

These are the lyrics to the song Jeane, an early Smiths composition.  Even though I’m a huge Smiths fan, I actually discovered this song through Billy Bragg.  I also really love the version by Sandie Shaw, which the Smiths played on.  (Featured above)

Morrissey, the lyricist of the song, was a fan of British kitchen-sink dramas and the work of writer Shelagh Delaney.  (Especially the must read play A Taste of Honey.)  These works were some of the first time that realistic 50’s and 60’s British working class life were displayed in drama.

These lyrics have never been far from my mind since the first time I heard this song.  I’ve never been great at writing the story song.  However, this song shows how lyrics, at least in my mind, can be so much more effective politically through the empathy that a story conveys.  The idea that life should be better for the working poor does not need to be conveyed in any obvious way.  In painting the picture that the lyrics do, one where you can’t help but notice the sad and demoralized state of its protagonists.  One can therefor empathize with the characters and be able to draw the political conclusion for themselves, which is always the more powerful way to come to an idea.

I also like how the small details of this life are interspersed with lines that could work as quotes unto themselves.  “I’m tired of walking these streets to a room with a cupboard bare”, does so much to paint a mental picture of the life the song is describing.    Yet the chorus line is so simple and Zen like that it almost seems carved from granite:  “We tried, and we failed.”  That is a line that if heard a few times, will pop up in your head again and again as life presents itself with an excuse to utter it.  It always brings one back to that song, whether consciously or subconsciously, and those characters.

Another thing to notice is that the lyrics are genderless.  Jeane could be both a boy or a girl and therefor anyone can relate to it.    This song is able to be sung by both male and female with equal conviction, without changing a line of it.

I picked the Sandie Shaw version above, as I could only find the Billy Bragg version with the faster tempo.  I’m used to the Billy Bragg version on the Reaching to the Converted album.  This song is one of the few times that I actually prefer the cover version  of a song rather than the original.  I also should note that the Sandie Shaw lyrics differentiate very very slightly from the printed lyrics above.  Again, there are at least four versions of this song recorded that I know of and I’m not sure which one the printed lyrics come from.  

I also found this version of Sandie Shaw and Johnny Marr performing the song for children on TV.  It is not the full version, so I didn’t want to put it at the top.  I like the idea of this song being sung for kids.  Teach ’em real young what’s going on out there!

Morrissey as Existential Hero

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Morrissey as Existential Hero

Anyone that has read this blog over any amount of time will know that Morrissey is one of my musical heroes.  Here is a really interesting article by Kevin Michael Klipfel about Morrissey and existentialism.  Although anyone that is a fan of Morrissey will like this article, I think music fans in general and those that are also interested in existentialism will find something to take away here.

Johnny Marr Playland Review

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Johnny Marr is one of my favorite guitar players.  With The Smiths and later with such acts as The The, Electronic, and The Cribs, he has played an endless supply of catchy intricate riffs and melodic hooks.  But there is no doubt in my mind that at this point, as a songwriter during his time in The Smiths, that Morrissey was the true genius.  Johnny Marr is simply at his best when he has another strong presence to inspire him. His three albums as a solo artist prove this.  (I know the first album was technically credited to Johnny Marr and the Healers, but really that band was under his control.)

The Johnny Marr and the Healers album Boomslang is pretty much unlistenable as it features songs that sound like subpar Oasis.  His first true solo album The Messenger is the best of the lot.  It features the best riffs and at certain times almost, from a musical standpoint only, reminds me of the final Smiths album Strangeways, Here We Come, mixed with some of his work in Electronic and other bands.

His new album Playland is nowhere near as bad as Boomslang, but is not as good as The Messenger.  Johnny Marr acquits himself lyrically.  There is nothing embarrassing.  It is simply that his lyrics don’t really add anything to the songs.  They simply become part of the music.  He can write catchy melodies, but nothing earth shattering.

When you buy a Johnny Marr solo record what you are really coming to it for his guitar playing.  He has time and time again throughout his career provided riveting moments on the instrument.  Somehow his guitar playing on his solo work, especially on his first album, and somewhat on this new album, seems the most pedestrian.  The riff to Easy Money is quite catchy and reminds me of his work with Modest Mouse.  There are a couple other moments on the record that are interesting from a guitar standpoint, but nothing that really wows me, and Johnny Marr has the capacity to do things through his playing alone that are really exciting.  On his record with The Cribs, his playing front to back on that album is excellent, and he sounds invigorated and revitalized.

There are two big problems with this new album.  Most people don’t realize how much Andy Rourke’s bass playing added to The Smiths.  He bobbed and weaved with Johnny Marr in much the same way that Keith Richards and Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones do, or any excellent two guitar band does.  That’s not a perfect analogy, but I want to get across the idea of two musicians playing off each other and inspiring each to new heights.  The rhythm section on this album is really straightforward and brings nothing to the table.  Almost every song features a straight ahead 4/4 plodding rhythm.  Mike Joyce often played pretty straight in The Smiths, but again Andy Rourke gave Johnny Marr something to work off of. (Every band but maybe The Who need someone to lay it down and block, and that was Mike Joyce’s role in The Smiths) He really needs a better rhythm section if he is going to make a great solo album.

The other problem is the overabundance of synths. I love when artists try new things and stretch themselves.  Johnny Marr has done so with The The and on the best Electronic stuff, both of which had keyboard heavy arrangements at times.  The Smiths A Rush, A Push, and the Land is Ours show that Johnny Marr can also play really interesting stuff on keyboards when he wants to.  But the keyboard playing on this new album is merely functionary and takes up space that could be used for more interesting guitar parts.

If I’m making this album sound horrible it is not.  It is just that it is just above average when Johnny Marr is really capable of so much more.  I try to review things in and of themselves and not compare things to the past too much.  This is one time though when an artists many past triumphs get you excited and you feel slightly letdown.  I can only say that this album is decent, when really greatness could have been achieved.  I am a huge fan of his and I want to love this record, but every time I put it on I feel no strong emotions while listening.

If you haven’t bought anything by Johnny Marr in awhile and you are looking for something that he has done recently that is interesting, I would recommend The Cribs Ignore the Ignorant.  His guitar is featured in the left hand speaker and a lot of it sounds live in the studio.  It sounds like something was really on the line during the making of that record, and unfortunately here it does not.

Many records don’t fully reveal themselves till many listens down the road.  I hope I am wrong here, but I get the feeling that I’m not.

I spent more time with the record today, after writing the review.  One of the things that is challenging about a piece of music, and I am not under any of the restraints that someone that writes professionally for a magazine is, is that in criticizing it, you without a doubt make it sound worse than it is.  I actually like this record, but feel that it is lacking in the above categories.  If I didn’t point them out I’d be lying.  The rhythm section is functionary, but they do get the job done and can sound quite propulsive at times.  They are just not adding anything to the proceedings other than performing the basic functions of a decent rhythm section.  Is the record better than a great deal of the shit on the radio?  Yes.  Is it a decent record?  Yes.  Knowing what Johnny Marr is truly capable of, from a guitar standpoint, does it live up to his legacy?  No.  Would I recommend it over a great deal of things people are listening to?  Yes.  If you could only spend money on one or two records would I recommend it over some other great records that have come out recently?  No.  All these different thoughts come into play when you are trying to recommend a piece of music:  Where does it fits in quality wise in the current state of music?  Does it break any new ground or at least do something original given the limitations of an established genre?  When people have a limited amount of music that they can acquire how do you try to direct them to the art that you feel is the most worthy of attention?  

Also, your perception of a record can change with added listens, in fact good art should be able to evolve with you.  Are you potentially stopping people from listening to something that may grow more valid over time?  Many of the great records were critically derided upon release.  Most of them find their way, but would the culture be better off if critics weren’t so narrow minded sometimes?  In mainstream culture we are often swimming in a sea of bullshit.  

I can’t read a lot of modern criticism, well I shouldn’t read it anyway, because so much of it seems as if it is not asking itself these questions.   So much of it seems to either champion the wrong values or to be in some kind of competition with itself to be as trendy as possible. (Pitchfork I’m looking at you.)  

When I criticize an artist that I know has brought so much to the conversation, I feel conflicted.  Johnny Marr has earned his right to make whatever music he wishes.  Meanwhile, someone like Beyonce, who is constantly at the top of the charts, is so fucking vapid.  I don’t write reviews on people like her, because it’s not worth my time or money.  If I’m taking the time to write a review of something, it’s usually because I have liked them enough to buy their record.  I’m not getting any free albums in the mail.  

Anyway, there is so much more I could say, but I must disconnect…

The Destroyer of Dreams

The arctic

So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people, all those lives
Where are they now?
With loves and hates and passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived and then they died
Seems so unfair
I want to cry

Cemetry Gates – The Smiths

I was reading the Hampton Sides book In the Kingdom of Ice this morning.  I came upon the following paragraph (They are talking about exploring the Arctic at a time when it had not been fully explored yet):

In 1869, in fact, a French expedition, to be commanded by a scientist named Gustave Lambert, had planned to try for the pole via the Bering Strait, but that expedition had been called off because of the Franco-Prussian War.  Two years later, during the siege of Paris, Lambert was killed in battle, and the expedition was never undertaken.  

At this time preparing for an expedition like that was an absolutely tremendous undertaking.  Lambert must have been dreaming of this expedition for some time.  

We must stand up for peace and against war whenever possible.  It is not only the destroyer of men and nature, but the destroyer of dreams.