Friday, December 17, 2010

RIP: Captain Beefheart

Captain Beefheart is dead. I'm feeling very sad about this. I'll post more later.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Yesterday in the car my four-year-old daughter said to me "Daddy, I've been talking to the Easter Bunny, and he thinks you and Mommy are Santa." All I could think to say in reply was "Why on earth would the Easter Bunny tell you a thing like that?"

Anyway, thinking back on it, I can't remember a time when I actually believed in Santa Claus. Maybe I did at some point, but the earliest thing I can remember thinking about Santa was that it was a cute story that I should play along with because it made my parents happy. Actually, that's going too far. I certainly enjoyed playing along too. And maybe there was a part of me that wanted to believe. Maybe there was even the tiniest part of me that did believe. Maybe.

I remember one year my Dad climbed up on the roof of the our house on Christmas Eve and stomped around and shook some sleigh bells while my brother and I were in bed. I didn't for a second believe Santa and a bunch of flying reindeer had landed on our roof. On the other hand, the fact that I knew it was my Dad didn't make it any less exciting for me. I was practically peeing in my pajamas in anticipation of the next morning. And I only loved my Dad more for going to such extraordinary lengths to preserve such a fantastic fiction. And even though I knew the "truth," I never felt like I was being "lied" to either.

Despite my premature skepticism, or perhaps because of it, I insisted that I really did believe in Santa until a much older age than most kids. I remember coming home from school and saying things like "some of the kids say they're no such thing as Santa, but I know they're wrong." To this day I don't think I've once told my parents I don't believe in Santa Claus, and if they asked me tomorrow, I'd probably still tell them I did. Maybe that's because I still want to believe. Or maybe it's because there is some tiny little part of me that still does. Maybe.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Ghosts Of Christmas Past, plus Snuky Tate!

I re-uploaded my Holiday compilations from 2008 and 2007 for a limited period of time. [Limited period of time now expired, sorry.] Download links can be found in the original posts. There's lots of Holiday fun from the likes of The Sonics, Detroit Junior, Bud Logan, The Louvin Brothers, Beck, Milton DeLugg and his Little Eskimos, Sonic Youth, Redd Kross, Shonen Knife, George Jones and others.

As an added bonus, here's a rather strange Christmas track from Snuky Tate. How do I describe Snuky Tate? Snuky started out as a punk rocker, but by the time he released his first album, BABYLON under PRESSURE, on Chris Stein's Animal Records in 1982, he was making music that was pretty hard to categorize. No Wave Reggae maybe? "Afreakmas" melds African style percussion and chanting with Christmas bells and a jubilant Yuletide message. "Merry Christmas? Merry Everything!"

Snuky has a Facebook page, despite having passed on in 1998. Lots of people stop by his page and say things like "Hey Snuky, remember me from that gig in Toronto in 1978?" even though the page is quite clear about Snuky's current whereabouts. I guess it is too much to expect Facebook to have an I.Q. requirement, since you apparently don't even have to be a living person to have an account.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

a different kind of christmas

I skipped out on doing a Holiday compilation last year, but I wanted to do one again this year. You can download (or just listen to) some of the songs from the compilation below, or you can grab the whole thing from one of the two links below: [Songs and links deleted, sorry.]

1. "Merry Christmas Baby" - Southern Culture On The Skids

First up is Southern Culture On the Skids version of "Merry Christmas Baby." I think Ike & Tina Turner's version of this song is still my favorite. Southern Culture On The Skids can't match Tina's vocal prowess, but they do establish a nice, greasy, groove that is sure to put you in the Yuletide spirit.

2. "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" - Woody Herman & His Orchestra
One of the most beloved Christmas songs, "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" raises some troubling questions about Santa Claus that are rarely addressed in our consumerism crazed society. Namely, are the presents that we get from Santa on Christmas worth the price of having our privacy invaded all year long? I thought about this a lot when I was a kid, I mean the dude sees everything. That was something that was always very difficult for me to come to terms with. But as we get older we become more sophisticated and find other things to worry about. Like for example, even if we trust Santa Claus, how can we be sure that the data that he collects on us is secure and won't fall into the wrong hands? I mean, it's one thing to end up on Santa's naughty list and get nothing but a lump of coal on Christmas morning, but what if one of Santa's elves leaks the naughty list to Julian Assange? Do I really want the whole world to find out I've been naughty via Wikileaks?

3. "Jingle Bells" - Benny Carter & Swing Quintet
Another swinging visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past.

4. "Run Rudolph Run" - Chuck Berry

5. "I Want To Spend Christmas With Elvis (Heartbreak Noel)" - Debbie Dabney
Debbie Dabney says if she doesn't get to spend Christmas with Elvis it will be a Heartbreak Noel, but in a pinch she might settle for Gene Vincent.

6. "All I Want For Christmas Is You" - Foghat
What would Christmas be without Foghat? For most of us it would pretty much be a normal Christmas, but I've always enjoyed "All I Want For Christmas Is You," which is one of the five or ten best "you're all I want for Christmas" themed songs.

7. "There's Trouble Brewin'" - Jack Scott
I think I put Jack Scott's "There's Trouble Brewin'" on a previous Flowering Toilet holiday compilation. So what? Here it is again. This is one of the all-time great Santa Claus as sexual rival songs.

8. "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" - Lionel Hampton & His Orchestra
More Christmas swing.

9. "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" - Esquivel
I find the civil liberties issues raised by Santa's data mining techniques so troubling that I included a second version of this song on this year's compilation. Think about it people.

10. "Rocking Disco Santa Claus" - The Sisterhood
The American Song-Poem Christmas: Daddy Is Santa Really Six Foot Four? is one of my favorite Christmas albums, and I give it my highest Yuletide recommendation. Drawn from "song-poems" written by regular folks and performed by bored studio musicians, I find many of these songs both fascinating and strangely touching.

11. "Jingle Jangle" - The Penguins

12. "Jingle Bells" - Duke Ellington

13. "Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer" - Pony Poindexter

14. "Winter Wonderland [78 Take]" - Chet Baker

What can I say? I guess I'm in a jazzy mood this Christmas.

15. "Rockin' Santa Claus" - The Martels

16. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" - The Three Suns

A Ding-Dong Dandy Christmas by The Three Suns is one of my favorite Christmas albums.

17. "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" - The Fall
Did I ever tell you about the time I went on a beer run for Mark E. Smith? Someday I will.

18. "Reindeer Boogie" - Hank Snow
Another popular formula for Christmas songs is to do a seasonal take on one of your big non-seasonal hits. So if you're Carla Thomas you might turn "Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)" into "Gee Whiz, It's Christmas." If you're Hank Snow you might rework "Rhumba Boogie" as "Reindeer Boogie." How could you resist?

19. "Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas" - Commander Cody

Another beloved Christmas classic.

20. "Sleigh Bell Rock" - Three Aces And A Joker

21. "Santa Came On A Nuclear Missile" - Heather Noel
Another one from the American Song-Poem Christmas compilation. I don't even know what to say about this song. You just have to hear it.

22. "Monster's Holiday" - Bobby Boris Pickett & The Crypt Kickers

At first blush this might look like another attempt to transform a prior hit into a Christmas favorite. But what would you say if I told you that "Monster's Holiday" actually pre-dates "The Monster Mash"? If you said, "I think you're pulling my leg," you would be right.

23. "Happy New Year Baby" - Johnny Otis & His Orchestra

24. "Presents For Christmas" - Solomon Burke

Oh dear, rest in peace sweet soul man. Solomon Burke will be missed.

25. "The Christmas Song" - Jack Teagarden
Somehow everything Jack Teagarden sings sounds old. Of course "The Christmas Song" is kind of old, but when Big T sings it, it sounds a couple centuries older than it actually is.

Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Comcast Attempts To Block Netflix

It's pretty rare for me to ask my readers to sign a petition, but I encourage you to sign on to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's petition to the FCC to stop Comcast from blocking Netflix's streaming movie service.

Net Neutrality sometimes seems like a pretty abstract concept. But here is a concrete example of why we want to maintain Net Neutrality. For $7.99 a month Netflix will allow you to stream unlimited movies into your home. We're not yet to the point where streaming offers the kind of selection or image quality I would want to abandon DVD and Blu-Ray, and Netflix service is not perfect (particularly if you are deaf or hard of hearing). But it's a good service that is still evolving, and offers good value, especially when compared to what cable companies like Comcast, Time/Warner and Cox offer.

Meanwhile, the cable monopolies are working under an outdated paradigm where you pay a lot of money ($50-$100 per month, or more!) to get a huge selection of stuff you will mostly never watch. And if you want to pick a movie to watch via cable, you get hit with an additional per-movie fee. So it's no surprise that cable companies like Comcast (who also have a stranglehold on broadband internet delivery) would not be pleased with the new model that Netflix has developed and would do anything in their power to stop it.

In essence, Comcast is attempting to block Netflix's streaming service by charging Netflix a new fee in order to maintain a commercial advantage over them for their own service. It's exactly the kind of predatory corporate behavior we need the FCC to protect consumers from, and hopefully with your urging they will. It's a question of who the internet belongs to. Does it belong to you and me, and should we be able to decide what content we want to access over it? Or does it belong to Comcast, Time/Warner and other big corporations, and should they get to decide how we use it?

For more details read Brian Stelter's report at the New York Times. Then sign the petition.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Wishniaks (Again)

I rarely re-post material, but I'm making an exception in this case. A few years back I posted a little story about my attempt to book the Philadelphia indie-rock band The Wishniaks at my college, and some of the, um, snags, I hit. I also posted one side of the band's 1988 double A-sided single "Wicked Pygmy Summer"/"Wishful Thinking." Since then I've noticed comments from people about how much they loved the band, gotten a few emails about them, and noticed a consistent number of google searches for the band leading to this site. So here it is again, back by popular demand and freshly re-ripped from 7" vinyl.

A track from the band's album Catch 33 was featured on the Little Hits blog, and you can find more information about the band there. I don't have a whole lot more to say about them than I did last time, other than that I wish they reached a wider audience than they did and I hope you enjoy these tracks. Oh, and I never did get to see them live.

Amazing New Product!

What would you say if I told you there was an amazing new way to organize your CD library with the help of a PC (Personal Computer)? Probably something along the lines of, "No shit, it's called iTunes and it's been around since 2001, welcome to the 21st Century moron."

Okay fine, I probably deserved that, but you didn't have to be so rude about it. But believe it or not, I wasn't referring to iTunes, Winamp, MediaMonkey, fobar2000, or any other digital media player. No, I'm talking about's DC101 and DC300 (dig those jet age names!) CD Library - Automatic CD storage/retrieval system. I was amazed to read about these products in this Sunday's Providence Journal (though I cannot find a trace of the article on, I swear I'm not making this up, you can find the same story at The DC101 and DC300 are state of the art solutions to an age-old problem that no longer exists: how do you organize and catalog all your Compact Discs?

For me, the DC101 CD Organizer's name brings back not only unpleasant memories of the classic rock station I was forced to listen to on the school bus, but also a horrific plane crash in 1982. Visually, the DC101's subtly contoured edges recall the elegant slide projector carousels of yore, or perhaps a yogurt maker. BesTradeUSA describes the DC101 thusly:

"The CD Manager/Organizer/Finder allows you to categorize and manage (storage/retrieval) your CD/DVD/VCD/CD-R/DVD-RW titles (e.g. electronic books, financial data, images, photos, video, audio, ..etc). It's only limited by your imagination."
That's right, no more fumbling for your Barry White's All Time Greatest Hits CD to set the proper mood. The DC101 hooks up to your Personal Computer via a USB input, so just type in the name of the CD you want, and let the DC101 do the rest! Your new special lady (or gentleman) friend will not only be impressed by how organized your are, and your unimpeachable sense of style, but also your easy command of the latest technology. I'm not saying the DC101 will get you laid but....well, actually, yeah that is exactly what I'm saying.

If, like me, you own more than 150 CDs, you needn't worry, the DC101 has still got you covered because you can stack and daisy chain up to 127 of them, allowing you to store and organize over 19,049 discs! I imagine you'd need pretty high ceilings to stack 127 of these units one on top of the other, and for stability's sake I would recommend separating them into five stacks of 21 and one stack of 22, or better yet six stacks of 18 and one stack of 19 (better safe than sorry).

If you step up to the deluxe DC300 model, you gain direct keypad entry, a built in USB hub, and CDDB update. But that's not all you get! The DC300 conveniently pushes your Compact Disc out entirely for easy, fingerprint-proof retrieval. Now all you need is a robot to put the CD in your Compact Disc Player, and your life will be as easy as George Jetson's ("Boy Rosie, these nine hour work weeks are killing me!").

The DC300 is available in either elegant almond, or stunning gray, and like the DC101 it can be stacked and daisy chained up to 127 times. The DC300 looks like the actual slide projector to the DC101's carousel, and its simple solidity will let the world know that you are a person of substance.

I have seen the future and it is called the DC101/DC300 CD Library - Automatic CD storage/retrieval system.

When you purchase your DC101 or DC300 organizers, you might also want to check out BesTradeUSA's amazing SNAP SHOT 2110 Digital Camera with 2.1 Mega Pixels (!) and 1.5" LCD display while it is on sale for the low, low price of $199 (MSRP $399). As BesTradeUSA says, "Digital Your Memory."

Friday, November 19, 2010

This heaven gives me migraine

How many times must irony be murdered before it is well and truly dead?

The problem of leisure
What to do for pleasure
The body is good business
Sell out, maintain the interest
Ideal love a new purchase
A market of the senses
Dream of the perfect life
Economic circumstances
Ideal love a new purchase
A market of the senses
Remember Lot's wife
Renounce all sin and vice
Dream of the bourgeois life
This heaven gives me migraine

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


So Apple's big news is you can now download the Beatles albums (stereo versions only) from the iTunes store. Finally, the world will get to hear these legendary albums in all their lossy compressed glory.

The only thing I can see that is remarkable about this is that the Beatles waited until the CD was an almost dead format to remaster their catalog. Now they've waited until downloads are almost irrelevant to make their catalog available that way.

And it's pretty lame that Apple hyped it by referencing a McCartney solo tune that John Lennon famously hated. I mean, I'm not one of these "John is God" and the "real" Paul died in 1967 guys, but come on.

Update: I just browsed through some of the reviews posted on iTunes. It seems some people are actually very excited about this. Here's are a couple sample reviews of the Yellow Submarine album:
"Holy Firetruck this is awesome!: Wow. It's been so long. I've waited for this moment feels like forever. My English teacher will be really happy when he finds out it's here!"
FINALLY!!!!!!: YES!!! YES!!! YES!!! They are finally selling the beatles on itunes!!!!!now this is sweet!!!!!
What am I missing here? Am I underwhelmed simply because I'm an old fart, and I've owned this music on 45 rpm singles, cassettes, LPs, CDs, etc. and loaded all the albums onto my iPod long ago? (That's a rhetorical question, I know the answer). It's never been hard to get the Beatles into iTunes or onto an iPod, you just couldn't buy it from the iTunes store until today. Why does this matter? Is it because you can now purchase "Hey Bulldog" without also having to buy "Pepperland Laid Waste"? I'm not just trying to be snarky here, I really don't understand the fuss.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Major iTunes Hype

If you go to Apple's homepage today you will be greeted by the message above about an "exciting announcement from iTunes" tomorrow at 10:00 AM Eastern. Despite my recent complaints about Apple and iTunes, I must tip my hat to them for their mastery of the art of hype. No one has any idea what what the big announcement will be, but that doesn't stop everyone from guessing. Apple does an amazing job of keeping things secret and only letting the public know about new products and features on their own terms. Also, no matter how many times these announcements fail to live up the advance hype, people always get worked up over the "next big thing" from Apple anyway.
Bonus SAT answer:

Lucy with football is to Charlie Brown as:
A) Steve Jobs with 'big announcement' is to Apple fans.
There's really only one thing that, in my opinion, could live up to this level of hype: the announcement of an "iTunes Cloud" service where people pay a monthly subscription fee that allows them to access the entire iTunes catalog. As downloads continue to fall well short of making up for the revenue that labels have lost over the past 10 years, it's become increasingly clear to me that the industry will eventually move toward some kind of subscription-based model. iTunes and Apple, with the world's largest digital catalog and the most popular hardware devices that could access a music cloud (iPhones, iPads, etc.), are ideally positioned to be the market leader when this shift occurs.

So if that is the announcement, it would legitimately constitute big news, and a day worth remembering. It would signal a seismic shift in the way pre-recorded music is distributed, and forever change our relationship to it. A music "cloud" would represent a far bigger shift, in my opinion, than the move toward downloads did, because with downloads you still "owned" something. Sure it wasn't something physical anymore, but--in theory at least--it still belonged to you. Once we move to a "cloud" access model, the idea of owning pre-recorded music will rapidly become an anachronism. It won't wipe record collector geeks like myself off the face of the planet in an instant, but it will make the hobby appear even more quaint and inconsequential than it currently does.

Of course given the "just another day" reference, Apple may just be planning to announce that you can download the Beatles catalog from iTunes, which would be quite lame and forgettable. (But would they really reference a Macca solo song to announce acquiring the rights to the Beatles catalog? If so, that sound you just heard was John Lennon rolling over in his grave.)

So will tomorrow be just another day when Steve Jobs pulls the football out from under us and leaves us lying on our backs cursing our gullibility, or will something really big happen? Either way, I once again tip my hat to Apple's spectacular ability to generate hype.

Update: All Things Digital says a "cloud" announcement is not likely given that contracts with music industry companies would have to be in place, and as far as anyone knows that hasn't happened yet. It's also not likely to be a more limited "cloud" that you can upload content you already own to, as the music industry has been arguing that such a service would also require a new contract. In short, given the number of players that would have to be involved, a cloud announcement just isn't something Apple could surprise us all with.

One last thought: Paul McCartney recently moved his solo catalog from EMI to Concord Music Group, so the announcement might have something to do with that. As a result, HD Tracks recently made Band On The Run available as a hi-rez (96 kHz/24 bit) FLAC download (allowing you to choose dynamically compressed and un-compressed versions). But audiophile Macca releases seem like something that would be of interest to too small a percentage of the population to qualify as a big announcement.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Soft Boys/Robyn Hitchcock Reissue News

IMPORTANT UPDATE (09/16/11): Please see my update on the reissue of Underwater Moonlight before considering purchase.

I have a couple items of news to report on The Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock reissues front.

As many of you probably know, The Soft Boys' two proper albums A Can Of Bees and Underwater Moonlight have been reissued by Yep Roc. The CD versions of both are currently available for sale.

I was a little disappointed to learn that all the bonus tracks for the two CDs are being made available only as lossy compressed (192 kps MP3) downloads. I understand making the bonus tracks download only, The Feelies did this with their recent reissues in order to retain the artistic integrity of the original albums, and I approved of the idea. So while I'm fine with download only bonus tracks in concept, I do wish Yep Roc had also made lossless audio versions available as an option (as was the case with the Feelies albums). Also, none of the bonus tracks would have been new to me, which is probably a good thing since I would have wanted to hear them in better than 192 kps quality.

None of this should prevent anyone who doesn't already own both albums from buying them in this configuration, but it does make them less attractive to long time fans and obsessive collectors of all things Hitchcock, Robyn such as myself.

But that doesn't quite close the door on The Soft Boys reissue front. Originally the vinyl reissues of the two albums were to have been sourced from 1993 DAT copies of the masters that had been prepared when the albums were reissued on CD by Rykodisc. But it appears that the resulting DAT sourced test pressings were judged sonically lacking by the golden-eared former Soft Boy and current vinyl enthusiast Morris Windsor. As Hitchcock relays in an email:

Hello dear vinyl-hunters,

Many apologies for the delay in getting the latest A Can Of Bees and Underwater Moonlight out to you. The LP test-pressings were sent over for Morris Windsor to check (as he has both a record-deck and ears that work well) and he felt that the cut was inferior to the originals (which he also has). We had been mastering from the 1993 DAT tapes, as the best reference source for these old recordings.

However, in the course of our conversations, Morris discovered an original production master (copy of the original mixes) of UM deep in his attic. This transpired to have the long-missing version of Old Pervert that graced the 1980 release of UM, amongst this uniquely surviving set of 1/4" mixes. This was like finding an ashtray in a pub these days: enchanted and wicked. So Morris FedExed (yes, it's a verb) the tape to the management office in LA where Richard Bishop (who had released the original UM 30 years ago on Armageddon Records) had the tapes baked. They go into a kind of pizza oven to prevent the ferric oxide falling off like liquorice.

At this point we decided to re-cut A Can Of Bees from a pristine vinyl copy. This was supplied by Geoffrey Weiss, a long-term music supporter in the quagmire of showbusiness; Geoffrey also kindly supervised the cut, along with Richard. The re-cuts were FedExed back to Morris who pronounced them very good. Morris is not given to hyperbole, and I have always favoured his judgement, when he gives it, over my own.

YepRoc have patiently waited for the improved LPs, and done their best to reassure anxious purchasers of these items who paid for them a while back and have seen nothing yet for their money. If you are amongst them, please again accept my apologies on behalf of the former Soft Boys, and I hope that the quality compensates in some way for the delay.

Best wishes from the old country,

Robyn Hitchcock

So, in short, the LP reissues of Underwater Moonlight and A Can Of Bees will be sourced from an original production master and a pristine vinyl copy respectively. For those not familiar with the terminology, a "production master" is a (typically first generation) copy of the original master tape that would have been used to cut the original LPs. I believe the original master tapes for both albums were lost long ago, so the discovery of a production master for Underwater Moonlight is very good news, especially in light of the fact the original LP version of "Old Pervert" has not to my knowledge graced any previous Underwater Moonlight reissue.

Some might be disappointed to learn that A Can Of Bees will be sourced from LP, but I do not find it hard to believe that a pristine copy of the LP would be the best sounding surviving source, easily surpassing the quality of a DAT copy made 17 years ago. If transferred using good quality equipment, the new LP should sound excellent (within the limitations of the original recordings, obviously). There is a certain stigma attached to sourcing reissues from LP, but I applaud Yep Roc and The Soft Boys for choosing the best sounding available source rather than relying on dogma to produce these LP reissues.

I also wanted to note that Wounded Bird Records is reissuing Robyn's 1996 solo album Moss Elixir as a two CD set with its companion album Mossy Liquor. This will mark the first time Mossy Liquor has been made available on the CD format, having been originally released only as a vinyl LP, and subsequently made available for digital download. I'm glad to hear that Mossy Liquor will be made available on CD in advance of the format's complete extinction. Personally, I will be holding onto my vinyl copy of the album until my own complete extinction.

In other, completely unrelated, Robyn Hitchcock news, my eight year old son Will spent the better part of the day yesterday in his bedroom listening to "The Man Who Invented Himself" over an over. He now has all the lyrics memorized, as do the other other occupants of our house, including our two cats. He also took a break from Scooby Doo and Gamera videos to watch the I Often Dream of Trains in New York DVD with me. He declared "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus" his favorite (or perhaps favourite) song on the album. I'm thinking if he memorizes the lyrics of that one, he can perform them for his grandparents this Christmas.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Boy Who Invented Himself

I walked into my eight-year-old son Will's room tonight to tell him it was time to go trick-or-treating and I found him singing along while Robyn Hitchcock's "The Man Who Invented Himself" played on his stereo. I've never been the kind of parent to push my idea of "cool" music on my kids--whatever they want to listen to is fine by me. Still, I have to admit it's kind of nice to see Will take an interest in one of my favorite artists.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Feelies to Release First New Album Since 1991

I never pass on press releases in their entirety, but I'll make an exception for this one:
The Feelies, the legendary and influential rock band, have completed recording basic tracks for a new album at Water Music in Hoboken. Sean Kelly engineered and Bill Million and Glenn Mercer are producing. The album will be released on Bar/None in Spring 2011. This will be the first new Feelies' album release since 1991's "Time For A Witness."

The classic Feelies lineup of Glenn Mercer, Bill Million, Dave Weckerman, Brenda Sauter, and Stanley Demeski reunited at Battery Park in NYC on July 4th, 2008 opening for Sonic Youth, performing their first show since 1991.

Formed in Haledon NJ in 1976, The Feelies released 4 albums- including their critically acclaimed and influential debut "Crazy Rhythms," which was voted 49 in the top 100 albums of the 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine and chosen by Spin Magazine as 49 of the best alternative records of all time.

The twin-guitar attack of songwriters and founders Glenn Mercer and Bill Million is the infectious sound of the group. Paired with driving drums and percussion, it has left an indelible mark on the landscape of rock and roll.

According to legend, the band played infrequently (usually on national holidays); however The Feelies performed several American and European tours in support of their records The Good Earth, Only Life, and Time For A Witness, which created a large cult following. The band also appeared on the The Late Show With David Letterman and in concerts with Lou Reed, The Patti Smith Group, REM, and Bob Dylan. Their music has been featured in the films Married to the Mob, Something Wild, Prelude to a Kiss, The Truth About Charlie, and The Squid & the Whale.

After the band’s breakup, Mercer and Weckerman formed Wake Ooloo, who released 3 CDs. Demeski played with Luna, and Sauter formed Wild Carnation. Mercer’s first solo CD Wheels In Motion (2007), which included performances by five former Feelies, and Wild Carnation’s recent Superbus (2006) topped several critics' "years best" polls.

This highly anticipated reunion brought The Feelies' distinctive sound back to live performance for long-time fans and a generation of fans who have only savored the long out-of-print records and CDs. In March 2009, The Feelies performed by invitation at the “Tribute to R.E.M.” concert at Carnegie Hall.

To celebrate the 30 anniversary of the release of "Crazy Rhythms," The Feelies performed their debut album at the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival in Monticello NY in 2009. Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth were re-released by Bar/None Records that same month.

Usually I don't care a bit about these kinds of reunions, even with bands I like. But for some reason this really excites me. Maybe it because we're talking about The Feelies?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Dylan Says Stick With Mono

Wow, there are so many levels of irony in this youtube promo video for Bob Dylan's Mono Box Set, it's hard to know where to start peeling back the layers.

First, there is the obvious level on which it's supposed to be ironic, with its winking references to 60s era classroom scare films and other industrial filmmaking of the period. Little needs be said about this. It's well done and it's cute, but of course it's been done before.

Then there is a second level of (possibly unintentional) irony. The film warns "young" music consumers about "unscrupulous profiteers out the push the latest dubious gimmick in the name of progress" (here referring to stereo sound). But of course pushing dubious gimmicks is the only thing the music industry does today. Whether it's deluxe reissues of classic albums that cost hundreds of dollars, or "newly discovered" archival releases that have been circulating among collectors for decades, the music industry's current modus-operandi seems to be to repackage and re-sell consumers the same music over and over again. And of course they're doing this precisely because "young" people no longer buy music at all (and old people tend not to buy music by new artists).

Personally, I do think Dylan's early albums sound best in mono, and the video (in it's tongue-in-cheek way) actually points to part of the reason why. During the period these albums were released, mono was the primary format for pop and rock music, and much more attention was given to the mono mixes, while the stereo mixes were typically an afterthought. As a rule of thumb, I prefer to hear the mono versions of pop and rock albums released before 1967, which was around the time mixing for stereo started to be taken seriously in the pop music field. (With classical and jazz the equation is different). But I've already recently purchased mono reissues of these albums from Sundazed, who reissued Dylan's entire mono catalog on LP over the last several years, so this set is of somewhat "dubious" value to me.

But what am I supposed to make of the the fact that an advertisement for BP's "making things right in the Gulf" youtube channel pops up while I'm watching the video? I realize we've long since past the point where anyone expects any level of ideological purity from Bob Dylan. We're talking about an artist who marketed a promo compilation through Victoria's Secret and has released Starbucks' exclusives. (Neither of which is no big deal to me). And I realize Google decides what ads pop up, not Sony/Columbia, and certainly not Bob Dylan. But still, BP? It's rather an unpleasant jolt to see a propaganda advert for the company responsible for the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history during a video promoting the albums that contain "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A Changing" (not to mention "Visions of Johanna"). Although honestly, the more I think about it, the more I suspect there probably isn't any irony in this considering the extent to which any subversive energy from the 60's counterculture was completely co-opted by corporate interests long ago. But how does one continue to find truth, beauty and inspiration in songs that have become cogs in the same big, oily misery machine as BP? Is it even possible?

And then there is irony itself, co-opted and neutered of its once substantial subversive force.

At least we still have mono.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Photoshop Follies - The Who Sell Out

The Who Sell Out is one of my favorite albums, and definitely my favorite by The Who. Unfortunately, all of the CD reissues I've seen change the artwork in a variety of ways. So my latest Photoshop project was to create an exact replica of the original U.S. Decca stereo LP cover. It looks a little wonky in some ways, and I can understand why the artwork was changed for the reissues. But I really wanted something like looks like my LP, only not quite so beat up and yellowed with age.

You can still see a couple spots on Roger's hair where my LP cover has some wear, but there is only so much I could clean up the image without it starting to look fake. Roger came down with a case of pneumonia as a result of sitting in a tub of cold baked beans for hours for the cover shoot, so I figure it wasn't such a big deal to sacrifice a couple hours of my time to get the artwork to look right.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Getting Obsessive About Album Art

Sometimes things don't work quite the way they are supposed to. The "Get Album Artwork" feature in iTunes typically delivers good results, especially for newer releases. But for someone with a lot of older albums in their library, it is not always as useful. Sometimes the image quality of older album artwork from iTunes is quite bad. I've seen times where someone failed to crop out the staples on the side of the CD cover, crooked artwork, and other obvious problems. Worse, sometimes iTunes just gives you the wrong album cover.

Take Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours for example. When I used the "Get Album Artwork" feature in iTunes, here is the image iTunes delivered:

Obviously that's not the right album cover. So I tried a Google image search, and this is the highest resolution result I found:

With no offense to whoever scanned this album cover, it looks pretty awful. I'd almost rather have the wrong artwork. The colors look washed-out, the image is grainy, and it's been poorly cropped.

So what's an obsessive compulsive to do? Naturally, I pulled my LP off the shelf, photographed it with my digital SLR, and cleaned the image up in Photoshop. This looks more like what I think Frankie's album cover should look like, complete with the white borders with paste on cover that Capitol used in the 50s and 60s:

Unfortunately, I have not been able to limit myself to only fixing up the really egregious cases. Here is the album artwork iTunes delivered for Soul Asylum's Hang Time:

For most normal people this image would look more than good enough. Unfortunately, when I look at it, all I can see is flaws. The colors aren't quite balanced right, it's too dark resulting in loss of detail, and there are some compression artifacts along with a few minor, but visible flaws.

Google image search didn't really help me out this time either. This was the best result I found. It's balanced brighter than the iTunes generated image, but that just makes some of the flaws more visible. Also at 400X397 pixels, it's on the small side, and the aspect ratio is slightly off:

So I scanned my own CD cover at 600 dpi, then edited it in Photoshop. I used Photoshop's "Gaussian Blur" function to at least partly eliminate the grainy, pixelated look, balanced the colors and contrast to my liking, then used Photoshop's "Clone Stamp Tool" to edit out that stupid "Includes Special Bone-Us Track" line at the bottom. Finally, I downsampled the image to 72 dpi and 900X900 so it wouldn't be too ridiculously huge for iTunes to handle. The result is, I think, a real improvement over the other two images, although nowhere near as dramatically as was the case with In The Wee Small Hours:

Apparently, I am far from the only person who gets overly-obsessive about getting their album artwork in iTunes "just so" because I found a site called Album Art Exchange, where people upload carefully scanned and edited CD cover art, along with the occasional image generated from an LP cover. I'm amazed at the high quality of the images that some people have posted there, and it's become my go-to site for album artwork.

One thing I like about sites like Album Art Exchange is that they help remind me that I am far from the cutting edge in O.C.D., and in fact probably fall into the "normal/hobbyist" category. I notice one person at the Exchange has posted over 20,000 images, almost all of them of insanely high quality. Unfortunately, not nearly all the albums I want high quality images for are available there, so I've started posting some of my stuff at 600X 600, 72 dpi under the screen name "zbop" in hopes of saving those of you with similar music collections the time and trouble of scanning and editing your entire music collection.

There is probably some small irony to the fact that the digitization of everything, which was supposed to make all our lives the last word in convenience, has resulted--at least for some of us--in a series of time consuming and elaborate rituals that are about as far removed from "convenient" as I can imagine.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Happy Birthday Remain In Light

The Talking Head's fourth album, Remain in Light, was released on October 8, 1980, making it exactly 30 years old today. I was 11, and I have to confess I was not quite a hip enough eleven-year-old to have picked up the album on the day of release. I became a fan of the band in 1983 after hearing "Burning Down the House" and quickly started exploring their band's back catalog (probably by taking advantage of my Columbia House membership).

Remain In Light, along with the Eno-Byrne collaboration My Life In the Bush of Ghosts and the first Tom Tom Club album, all had a major impact on my evolving taste in music at that time. The sense of adventure, and the combination of playfulness and high-art seriousness of these projects all went a long way toward convincing me that music could be more than whatever happened to be on the radio in the background, but something to be listened to seriously and followed passionately. In that respect, the Talking Heads were probably the first band that I actually became a fan of as opposed to merely making music I happened to like.

Totally by coincidence, I listened to the first Tom Tom Club album on my way to work this morning after having needledropped my LP last night (I had already ripped Remain in Light and My Life In the Bush of Ghosts to my iPod). I have to say, 30 years on, while this music does sound a bit like a time capsule from the early eighties, I believe it holds up as music, art and entertainment remarkably well. In many ways it still sounds more forward-looking, open and even futuristic, than any of the new music I am hearing these days (mainstream or otherwise).

Friday, September 10, 2010

Furutech GT40 USB DAC with Phono Stage

The Furutech GT40 USB DAC with Phono Stage is a very intriguing looking new product. I'm wondering if anybody has heard one of these? The GT40 combines several essential functions for those of us who still listen to LPs, but also like to digitize (or "needledrop") vinyl, as well as use a computer or other music server as a source for high quality music. It combines a phono pre-amp, DAC (digital-to-analog converter) with USB input, ADC (analog-to-digital converter), plus a headphone amplifier into one package. I have no experience with Furutech products, but I know they are a highly respected audio manufacturer.

Currently, the top shelf of my stereo system is a tangle of cords and equipment. I have a Grado PH-1 phono stage, an Edirol UA-1EX USB ADC, and a Valab NOS DAC, along with all the cords necessary to power and connect them. I am always switching connections back and forth because my integrated amp has a limited number of inputs. While this arrangement is kind of cumbersome, each component does its job well, and I am happy with the way everything sounds (and that matters to me more than convenience). That said, if I could combine all these functions into a single box without taking a step back in sound quality, it would be nice. Really nice.

People often ask me for advice about digitizing vinyl and unfortunately I have no recommendations for them beyond assembling a hodge-podge of components as I have done. All-in-one USB turntables almost universally stink (with the possible exception of a Pro-Ject table I wrote about a while back). But even the Pro-Ject unit is limited to 44.1 kHz/16 bit digital audio output, and in my experience you need to capture the signal from the vinyl at a higher resolution than that before doing any processing to get really good results.

The Furutech GT40 is the first product I am aware of the combines all these functions, and also allows up to 96 kHz/24 bit analog-to-digital conversion. If you've heard or used one of these, I'd be very interested to hear your feedback. I am especially curious about in the sound quality of the phono preamp itself and digital to analog conversion. Kudos to Furutech for introducing such a forward-looking product. This is exactly the kind of component audio manufacturers should be creating if they wish to survive in our constantly evolving media environment.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Metal Box

Finally got it. This thing even looks cool in iTunes.

Cardinal Reunion On Again?

Eric Matthews was recently interviewed by Stereogum, and it appears his on again, off again collaboration with songwriter Richard Davies is on again for the moment:

"With Richard and I, there are always ups and downs. But, where we are currently is pretty much in a up," Matthews says. "And things are friendly. Often with us things can be tense. So this is a nice buffer, the space between us."

Plans for a new Cardinal album (their first since the 1994 debut) appear to be back on track. Matthews had previously posted a few demos online at a point when it looked like the collaboration would fizzle out, but those are now gone. You can download one new in-progress track, "Carbolic Smoke Ball," over at Stereogum.

Without any insult intended to anything either Matthews or Davies has done since Cardinal's demise, I think their individual talents complement each other very well, and it is good to see them working together again.

Kinks Kovers

I know this post will probably come off the wrong way to many Kinks fans, but I am struck by how many covers of Kinks songs I prefer to the original versions. Below is a list of some of the covers that I prefer to the Kinks' original versions:

"Lola" - The Raincoats
"David Watts" - The Jam
"Oklahoma U.S.A." - Yo La Tengo
"Big Sky" - Yo La Tengo
"Stop Your Sobbing" - The Pretenders
"I Go To Sleep" - The Pretenders
"Days" - Elvis Costello
"Fancy" - Redd Kross
"I Need You" - The Rezillos
"I'm Not Like Everybody Else" - The Chocolate Watchband
"I'm Not Like Everybody Else" - Camper Van Beethoven
"Love Me Till The Sun Shines" - Lyres
"Tired Of Waiting" - Lyres
"Victoria" - The Fall
"Where Have All The Good Times Gone" - David Bowie
"Waterloo Sunset" - Def Leppard

Okay, just kidding about that last one, I don't think anyone can touch the Kinks' version of "Waterloo Sunset" and they probably shouldn't try. Obviously, "You Really Got Me" has been covered at some point by every band to ever practice in a garage. There have been many worthy covers of the song, but for me none top the original.

Still, I'm struck by what a long list this is, as I'd be hard pressed to think of a single cover of a Beatles or Rolling Stones song that I prefer to the original. (Actually, I like Devo's version of "Satisfaction" better than the Stones', but that's the exception that proves the rule).

I'm at a bit of a loss to explain this, as generally I do like the Kinks' versions of these songs a lot, it's just that I prefer the covers for a variety of reasons that differ from song to song.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Velvet Monkeys - "Everything is Right" Arlington, VA Public Access TV, 1981

I'm trying to put together a new post on The Velvet Monkeys, a band I have written about before. While doing some research (and beyond the basics, actual information on the internet is relatively scarce) I came across this clip on the YouTube channel of Malcolm Riviera. It's The Velvet Monkeys "playing" on an Arlington, VA public access cable channel back in 1981. Unless my eyes deceive me, I believe this clip pre-dates Riviera's own tenure in the band, as it appears to be Elaine Barnes pretending to play keyboards. It's certainly Don Fleming on guitar and vocals and Jay "The Rummager" Spiegel on drums. Based on the date, I assume the bass player is Steven Soles (although to be honest, I wouldn't know him from Adam). (I just noticed Riveria's notes confirm this is the line-up.)

Anyway, I thought this clip was just too cool not to share right now, while I work on a proper post. Riviera has lots of other cool videos up, including live recordings made at the old 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.

Deluxe Shoot Out The Lights Coming From Rhino Handmade

Rhino Handmade has announced plans to release a Deluxe Edition of Richard And Linda Thompson’s legendary swan song, Shoot Out The Lights, with previously unreleased live performances from their "emotionally charged" final U.S. tour. "Emotionally charged" is actually quite the understatement here. The tour coincided with the ugly breakup of the Thompsons' romantic and artistic partnership. The set includes a 40 page book that details such fun anecdotes as the time Linda kicked Richard in the shins during a solo at a show in Providence.

The live tracks were mostly recorded in San Francisco and Santa Cruz and include the following eleven tracks: "Dargai," "Back Street Slide," "Pavanne," "I’ll Keep It With Mine," "Borrowed Time, "Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?," "I’m A Dreamer," "Honky Tonk Blues," "Shoot Out The Lights," "For Shame Of Doing Wrong," "Dimming Of The Day."

It would have been nice if this edition included an official release of the much bootlegged version of the album recorded by Gerry Rafferty and the B-side "Living In Luxury" that was included on early CD pressings, but alas that is not the case.

I already own Shoot Out The Lights on LP, CD (with "Living In Luxury") and SACD. Do I need another version? No. Will I buy it again? Yes. I really do want to hear those live tracks. By all accounts the personal turmoil resulted in some of the most intense and committed performances of either artists' career.

Friday, August 27, 2010


The only thing I find surprising about today's news that Blockbuster is preparing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is that they still have 3,425 retail locations, and that they are planning to close only around 500 of those stores during their restructuring. In my part of the country, Blockbuster went from being omnipresent to virtually invisible, seemingly overnight.

This video from The Onion feels all too right. It's strange to me how huge Blockbuster was just a short time ago, and yet now it feels like they never existed at all, or are at most a relic from a dimly remembered past. Paradigms shift quickly.

It is a reminder of the impermanence of all things in life.

Historic ‘Blockbuster’ Store Offers Glimpse Of How Movies Were Rented In The Past

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Different Drum

I remember hearing "Different Drum" by The Stone Poneys (featuring a young singer named Linda Ronstadt) on AM radio a lot when I was a kid. Released in 1967, the Stone Poneys' version of the song would not have been new at the time, but it would not have been old enough to be an "oldie" either. As far as I can remember our local AM station (WNAV in Annapolis) did not change their heavy rotation very often. When they found a song they liked, they stuck with it for ten to fifteen knots years.

I have a specific memory of hearing the song in my Mom's old Rambler station wagon (the Rambler only had AM radio) and being intrigued enough by it to ask what the lyrics were about. My Mom explained the meaning of the saying "marching to the beat of a different drummer," and told me the song was about two people who had different outlooks on life so their relationship couldn't work. The concept made an impression on me, and although I think I understood the metaphor, somewhere in my childhood mind I still had a vision of two people marching in different directions followed by two different drummers playing a different beat.

"Different Drum" was penned by Michael Nesmith of the Monkees, but never recorded by his band (although I have the feeling some knowledgeable Monkeeologist will chime in to tell me that in fact the Monkees recorded an unreleased demo of the song during the Pool It sessions). The first recording of the song to be released was by folk revivalists the Greenbriar Boys for their 1966 album Better Late than Never! on the Vanguard label.

Written and sung from the male perspective, the song is a gentle kiss off with an age old theme; boy meets girl, girl wants to settle down, boy wants to sow his wild oats, relationship ends. This is not to say that in this form it's not a good song; the lyrics are well constructed and the melody is highly memorable. But in this first version it's not a zeitgeist capturing song as it would be when Ronstadt interpreted it, and it wasn't a hit. Nevertheless, "Different Drum" in its original version (or as sung by Ronstadt or later Nesmith himself in a country-rock style) is as good a riposte as any to the critics who claimed the Monkees had no "real" talent of their own. "Different Drum" is as good as, or better than, the tunes the hired Tin Pan Alley guns were writing for the Monkees at the time.

There are some songs where the gender of the singer doesn't make much difference. You can change a "she" to a "he" or a "boy" to a "girl" and the meaning of the song doesn't change dramatically. "Different Drum" is not one of those songs. The gender of the singer (and the gender pronouns they chose) is central to the song's meaning.

As such, an interesting dynamic has evolved as the song has been interpreted and re-interpreted by different artists over the years. As previously noted, in the versions by the Greenbriar Boys and later Nesmith, the song has what you might call a traditional gender dynamic; it's sung from the perspective of a male who doesn't want to commit to a female who is looking for stability.

But it's a totally different song when a woman sings it. Ronstadt turns the tables on the boy, and now it's the girl who wants to sow her wild oats while the boy just wants to settle down. Further, the object of Ronstadt's lack of affection ends up being feminized by the gender shift; he's "pretty," and he "cries" and "moans" over the end of the relationship. But at the same time, there is a slightly more sinister connotation to the lines about trying to "pull the reins in" then when it was sung by a male lead. As sung by Ronstadt, "Different Drum" implicitly becomes a song about casting off the shackles of traditional gender roles.

This sexually liberated female perspective was not often heard in popular music up to that point, and the song makes Ronstadt something of an archetype shattering figure. Neither virgin nor whore, she's simply not ready to settle down and sees no reason why she shouldn't enjoy herself until she is.

It should be noted that this shift in popular culture was made possible to a large degree by the introduction of oral contraceptives to the U.S. market in 1960, which for the first time in human history made it possible for choices about reproduction to be easily and reliably made solely by the woman. Female contraception (despite repeated attacks on it by reactionary forces) is so taken for granted today that it is easy to forget the extent to which "the pill" helped revolutionize gender relationships in the later half of the twentieth century. It is within that context that in Ronstadt's hands "Different Drum" becomes more than just a break up song, but also a celebration of liberated female sexuality.

For my money the most interesting of the later covers of the song is the 1990 version by the Lemonheads off their Favorite Spanish Dishes EP. Evan Dando sings the lyrics exactly the way Ronstadt did in her 1967 hit version, declining to shift back to the traditional male gender role as most male singers do when covering it. It's an interesting decision, and it creates layers of gender ambiguity in the song. By addressing the song to a "boy" is Dando singing the lyrics from the female perspective? Is he singing it one gay man to another? Or is it sung from the perspective of a straight man declining the advances of a gay man (maybe that's what he means by traveling to the beat of a different drum)? All these things are left ambiguous by Dando's choice of gender pronouns. These qualities are amplified by the the image Dando projected during the early 90s: Young. Pretty. Self-destructive. Sexually ambiguous. All of these elements collide in the song to create a fabulous artistic tension that is missing from other later-day covers such as the very nice versions by The Pastels and Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs (who stick pretty closely to Nesmith's and Ronstadt's interpretations respectively).

I'm sure all of these thoughts were far from my mind as I enjoyed listening to the song in the back seat of my Mom's Rambler sometime during the early 70s. But there is little doubt in my mind that it was AM radio staples like "Different Drum" that sparked my life-long love of popular music.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Forever In Blue Jeans

Michael Tomasky at The Guardian asks his readers to "Name us a song or two that all "right-thinking people" would dismiss as sentimental but that you love. And be bold and unapologetic!"

I'll start off with Neil Diamond's "Forever In Blue Jeans" a top 20 hit from 1979, seen here performed in concert for a CBS special in 2009. I could list you hundreds of reasons why all "right thinking people" should not only dismiss this bit of sentimental drivel, but should actively hate it. Instead, I'll limit myself to eight very compelling reasons:

1) This is not a track by the (relatively) cool, early, "Jewish Elvis" Neil Diamond. Nor is it by the Rick Rubin rehabilitated Neil Diamond either. No, this is the by the full-on, rhinestone-jumpsuit-wearing, 70s schlockmeister, Neil Diamond.

2) The fact that the track appears on the You Don't Bring Me Flowers LP should be enough for anyone with even a modicum of "taste" in music to write the song off without even hearing it.

3) The song was used to advertise actual blue jeans. By the Gap.

4) It's been performed on American Idol (by a white guy with dreadlocks no less).

5) It was produced by Bob Gaudio (of The Four Seasons, who is largely to blame for foisting the reactionary Jersey Boys on an unsuspecting world).

6) It features one of those awful disco-synth string arrangements that were already passe by 1979.

7) Oh my God. Look at those middle-aged white people in Diamond's audience try to dance. They probably paid over $500 a head and got all dressed up to sing along to a song about...

8) Most damning of all, this song belongs to the hideous musical sub-genre that features fabulously wealthy people singing about how great it is to be poor. Like John Lennon asking us to "imagine no possessions," Diamond's own life is so far from the simple, happy existence he celebrates in the song, it's laughable.
"Money talks,
But it don't sing and dance and it don't walk,
And long as I can have you here with me,
I'd much rather be,
Forever in blue jeans"
Look Neil, if money is so bad (or at the very least inessential to happiness) I'd be happy to take some of your many millions off your hands for you. Seriously.

I could probably make a relatively compelling argument that songs like this are foisted on us by the entertainment industry to keep the resentment of society's "have-nots" from boiling over into something like a revolution (or at the very least a less regressive tax code). After all, if Hollywood movies, hit pop songs and tabloids teach us nothing else, it's that the rich are never as happy as us simple folk. So maybe I shouldn't even bother to notice that the top 5% in the United States own something like 60% of the country's wealth, while the other 95% of us fight it out over what's left over. After all, all that money hasn't made those fancy rich folks happy, so why should I care? I'd much rather be forever in blue jeans. Yeah, right.

And yet, I love this song.
"Honey's sweet,
But it ain't nothing next to baby's treat,"
First of all, it's hard not to love a song that slips lyrics so casually obscene and vulgar into a tune that gets airplay on easy listening stations and CBS television specials. There's just something about that I respect.

I'm not stupid. I know Neil Diamond doesn't remotely live the lyrics to this song. He's an artist. A performer. An entertainer. A showbiz personality. But the fact is, I really can relate to the song's sentiment. I've made certain decisions in my life that have likely minimized the amount of money I earn, but maximized the amount of time I get to spend with my wife and kids. I wouldn't have it any other way. I was listening to this song on my iPod earlier today waiting for my wife and kids, thinking about the role of sentimentality in music. Just as the song ended I spotted my kids running towards me, just genuinely and totally happy to see me. I feel like I've done okay for myself. I really would much rather be forever in blue jeans.

Other sentimental songs I love:

"Giddy Up Go" and "Teddy Bear" by Red Sovine
I don't think music gets much more sentimental than Red Sovine's signature trucking songs. Both songs feature spoken-word vocals and it sounds like 'ole Red might choke up at any moment. "Giddy Up Go" tells the story of a trucker who discovers that his long-lost son is also a trucker now. "Teddy Bear" is about how a young paraplegic boy whose truck drivin' father has perished in an accident finally gets his wish to ride in a truck thanks to CB radio and some big hearted truckers. You would be hard pressed to find more blatantly emotionally manipulative music than these two songs, and yet I find them strangely sublime.

"Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro
This makes "worst song ever" lists about as often as any other song I can think of. It's a totally maudlin song about a guy who loses his girl to suicide. It even features a Christmas puppy. And yet it is so totally over-the-top and excessive in its sentimentality that I can't help but love it.

"Little Green Apples" by Roger Miller
Written by Bobby Russell (the same guy who wrote "Honey"). This song actually chokes me up. It's about a guy whose wife is tolerant of his flaws, and if that ain't lovin' him, "God didn't make little green apples and it don't rain in Indianapolis in the summertime." It would be easy to dismiss the song as sexist, except that it is so clear that the protagonist really appreciates everything his wife does for him. It's about feeling like you don't really deserve the love your significant other gives, but being grateful for receiving it anyway. It's another sentiment I can relate to. Also, Roger Miller was a genius.

"The Most Beautiful Girl" by Charlie Rich
Everybody's supposed to hate the sappy "Countrypolitan" sound of the 70s, but I've always loved this song. And as you can see I have a soft spot for sappy country music.

"Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney and Wings
I understand why a lot of people hate McCartney, I really do. Still, I find this answer to his critics pretty convincing. That throbbing Macca bassline helps.

"A Tiny Broken Heart" by The Louvin Brothers
It's about a little boy who gets his heart broken because his his playmate's parents are too poor to stay in town. Frankly, The Louvin Brothers could have harmonized to the phone book and I would find it incredibly moving.

"Now Is Better Than Before" by Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers
Jonathan Richman has created his own unique musical and artistic aesthetic by refusing to be afraid of being corny and sentimental, and by rejecting even the slightest hint of "coolness" or cynicism. He is one of the bravest artists I can think of. I find this to be one of his most moving songs.


"Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" by Willie Nelson

"Just An Old Fashioned Love Song" by Three Dog Night

"What A Wonderful World" by Sam Cooke

"A Good Year For The Roses" by George Jones

"Then Came You" by The Spinners with Dionne Warwick

"A Place In The Sun" by Stevie Wonder

"You Are Everything" by The Stylistics

"Beeswing" by Richard Thompson

"All The Right Reasons" by The Jayhawks

I could go on...these are just some of the first ones to pop into my head. What sappy, sentimental songs do you love?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Phil Ochs - Kansas City Bomber

You might expect a song called "Kansas City Bomber" by leftist troubadour Phil Ochs to be a sympathetic take on the plight of a wrongly accused Union Activist, or a scathing rebuke of a right-wing terrorist, or at least topical in some way. Instead it's a portrait of a Roller Derby Queen who finds success in love more difficult than victory in the ring. Ochs wrote the song for the 1972 Raquel Welch film of the same name, but the film's producers ended up not using it.

It's hard to listen to this song and not hear the pathos and desperation in Ochs' voice. As a committed protest singer, he had become a fish-out-of-water by the 1970s, and was struggling to remain relevant. He was battling an epic case of writers block. He was clinically depressed over the collapse of 60s idealism. His public behavior was becoming more and more erratic. So when producer Lee Housekeeper approached Ochs with the idea of writing the theme song for the upcoming Raquel Welch vehicle, he jumped at the opportunity, hoping it might re-ignite his diminished creative spark. After all, he enjoyed watching Roller Derby on TV, and a song about the sport probably seemed like as good an idea to him as anything else at the time.

Given the depressing (heartbreaking really) backdrop against which the song was composed, it is a wonder that it is listenable at all. But to my ears "Kansas City Bomber" is a catchy and--dare I say it--fun song. There's no deep meaning to be found in the song itself any more than there is in the movie. But like Ochs' best protest songs, it's about struggle and the will to persevere in the face of adversity. When Ochs sings "But now she is trapped on the track, on the track, And God help the lady in her way," I can't help but smile. Perhaps he's reaching for some grand metaphor here; if so, the fact that it doesn't really work only makes the song more appealing in its modest way.

Ochs' back up band on the track is the Australian retro-rock band Daddy Cool, who are apparently still active (you can become friends with them on Facebook). According to Wikipedia, Ochs also cut a demo of the song with The Monkees' Mickey Dolenz on backup vocals. I would love to hear that version someday.

The B-side to "Kansas City Bomber" is "Gas Station Women" a song featured on Ochs' light-selling final studio album, Greatest Hits (which was not a greatest hits compilation, but a collection of new album tracks). The fact that Ochs had to resort to using a song that had been released two years previous as a B-side suggests the depth of his writers' block at the time.

Nevertheless, "Gas Station Women" is another interesting songwriting experiment for Ochs. In form and content it is a straight ahead country number. Listening to it, I am reminded of just how closely Ochs' voice resembled that of one of his formative influences, the great honky-tonk singer Faron Young. Ochs crams as many honky-tonk clichés as he can into the lyrics. There's the mistake of leaving the farm for the city, then falling for the wrong kind of girl. There's the heartbreak that inevitably follows and turns the protagonist to drink. But then there's the chorus ("Fill 'er up with love, Please won't you, mister? Just the hi-test is what I used to say, But that was before I lost my baby, I'll have a dollar's worth of regular today") that takes the song well out of the range of generic country music and into the realm of the surreal. It is a very strange, but compelling song, and I always want to sing along to the chorus, even when I'm not drunk.

Speaking of Roller Derby, the sport seems to be making something of a comeback. Here in Rhode Island we have a highly active league that Providence Mayor David Cicilline has declared "the pulse of the city." The nice young lady who teaches my kids' sport classes at the YMCA is one of the Providence Roller Derby's biggest stars ("Crazy Dukes" of the Sakonnet River Roller Rats)... "And God help the lady in her way."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sky Rockets In Flight

On his blog at The Nation, Eric Alterman has listed the "World’s Worst Songs: The Top Twenty." (I have added artist names and the year performed in parentheses):

"Imagine" (John Lennon, 1971)
"Afternoon Delight" (Starland Vocal Band, 1976)
"The Night Chicago Died" (Paper Lace, 1974)
"Billy Don’t be a Hero" (Paper Lace, 1974)
"You Light Up My Life" (Debby Boone, 1977)
"Mary Queen of Arkansas" (Bruce Springsteen, 1973)
"The Angel" (Bruce Springsteen, 1973)
"Wildfire" (Michael Murphy, 1975)
"Playground In My Mind" (Clint Holmes, 1973)
"Seasons in the Sun" (Terry Jacks, 1973)
"Ebony And Ivory" (Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder, 1982)
"My Love" (Paul McCartney & Wings, 1973)
"Let ‘Em In" (Paul McCartney & Wings, 1976)
"Sometimes When We Touch" (Dan Hill, 1977)
"Baby I'm-A Want You" (Bread, 1972)
"'Arthur's Theme' (Best That You Can Do)" (Christopher Cross, 1981)
"One Tin Soldier" (Original Caste, 1970; Coven, 1971)
"You May Be Right" (Billy Joel, 1980)
"We Built This City" (Starship, 1985)
"Kumbaya" (Traditional African American spiritual, popular versions recorded by Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Joan Baez, The Seekers, and others)
"Who’s Ruling Who?" (I have to confess I'm not sure what song Alterman is referring to here, but he might mean Aretha Franklin's "Who's Zooming Who" from 1985)

Alterman's friend Michael Tomasky at The Guardian has taken Eric to task for his bias against sentimentality. By and large I agree with Tomasky, although it seems to me that what Alterman objects to is earnestness as much as sentimentality per se, but that's not really what I wanted to talk about.

Looking at the years these songs were written and recorded reminds me of what generated Richard Thompson's 1,000 Years of Popular Music project. When Thompson was asked to list the "Greatest Songs of the Millennium" by Playboy Magazine, he knew they were really asking for a list of his favorite songs from the past 50 years or so. Thompson, being the clever man that he is, instead prepared a list that began with "Sumer Is Icumen In" (written circa 1260) and ended with Britney Spears' Y2K smash, "Oops!… I Did It Again." This is just one of the many reasons Richard Thompson is far more brilliant than the rest of us. Of course Playboy didn't print his list.

I imagine Alterman doesn't want us to take his list too seriously (after all, he didn't even bother to tell you who did the songs), but what are the chances that all of the top 20 worst songs in human history (with one sort-of exception) were written between 1970 and 1985? Further, what are the chances that 18 of 20 would be written in the U.S. and U.K. ("One Tin Soldier" was written in Canada and "Seasons In The Sun" is an adaptation of a Jacques Brel song)? That just doesn't seem likely to me.

Looking at the list tells me more about its author than the history of music. Even if I knew nothing about Alterman (and I don't know much), I could tell from his list that he was likely born in the United States between 1958 and 1965, probably grew up on the East Coast in a politically liberal family, and likely resented the time he had to spend singing "Kumbaya" at sleep away camp.

All of which is to say that lists like this are inevitably subjective. I don't mean "subjective" in the clichéd "there's no such thing as good or bad music" sense, but rather in the sense that one's experience of the world (where and when you are born, cumulative life experiences, etc.) shapes our understanding of the world, as well as what we value and what we disregard.

Maybe that is just a fancy way of saying "there's no such thing as good or bad music." I'm not sure I'd go that far, but at the very least--even if you are committed to the idea that there is an objective set of criteria that allows us to distinguish between good and bad music--it is undeniable that we can only make these kinds of value judgments about music we have been exposed to.

Frankly, I have never seen an argument that there is some objective standard for making judgments about music (or any other art) that isn't hopelessly tortured. I lean more toward the position that it is only through the power wielded by particular institutions that matters of preference (say a bias against sentimentality) become legitimized as criteria for making aesthetic judgments, and these criteria are subject to change across time periods and cultures.

Personally, I am not at all committed to the idea that there is a set of objective criteria for "good" music, although Starship's "We Built This City" does badly make me want to believe that there are objective criteria for what constitutes bad music, even if its postulates and axioms are elusive to my feeble mind.

**Full disclosure: I actually like a lot of these songs, even if they are bad.

**UPDATE: Alterman responds (and calls me a "really smart guy"). Also, it appears "Who's Ruling Who" is not one of the worst songs of all time, but an editing error. (If I was actually a really smart guy, I might have noticed that Alterman's list of 20 worst songs included 21 titles.)