Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Down: Burning Down, by REM


Purchase Burning Down, by REM

REM’s “Burning Down” is an interesting song with a patchwork history, and it stands out for two reasons. One, it’s classic early REM: arpeggiated chords, an all-over the neck bass line melody and, most indicative of REM’s uniquely nascent sonic fabric, Michael Stipe’s unintelligible, mumbled, yet beautifully imagistic lyrics. Stipe’s vocal delivery was a turn-off for some back then—“I can’t understand what he’s saying!”—but was a badge of uniqueness and cause for devotion to REM’s earliest fans. Especially when the occasional intelligible phrase would break through the gauzy swirl of harmonies, and sit there, like some strange prophecy: “Running water on a sinking boat/Going under but they’ve got your goat…” A lot of it didn’t make sense, but it sounded amazing, so comprehension was secondary. 

As a front man, Stipe set the band apart, with his mop of grecian sculpture curls, and he set a tone for fashion, and a model for navel-gazers who wanted to shuffle and mumble and bury ourselves in our poetry and hide behind our notebooks, in our thrift store chic uniform of flannel cords and wingtips. I’ve written about this before, but when I was coming of age, music and the bands I listened to were a tribal signifier part of an intricate rite of passage. To identify by a band or a genre of music isn’t unique in itself, but the music—the sound, the actual bands, the labels and social mores and style of the actual artistic movement—helped more to create identity than any other source of influence. 

For me, REM was the antithesis and antidote to the goofy, spandex-laden, hair-sprayed excess of 80s metal. There was something indefinably cool and mysterious about REM and the “progressive” music of that era, and as I got older and finally accepted that I couldn’t grow my hair long, REM provided the kind of musical medicine I needed to help me find that ever-elusive teenage identity. I’m still looking, I know, but like any true devotee of music, I formed my coherence of self and identified as a fan, with a a capital F. In this case, REM was my first true badge, and I felt like some kind of indie legend walking the halls of my high school in my Document tour t-shirt. If you have your timelines in order, you might say: Hey, Document rang in the end of REM’s indie cult-status. And you’re right—sadly, I came to them slightly late, but I will say I was the first—the first!—to have Document and I had a personal mission to turn everyone on to a little song called “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” 

Going further back,Burning Down” was actually born as another classic REM track, “Ages of You”, and both songs can be found on REM’s B-sides collection Dead Letter Office. “Ages of You”, though meant to originally be released on the EP Chronic Town, was left off. Later, continuing its life-cycle as an unwanted stepchild, it was left off the full length Reckoning, as well.  As quoted in the liner notes of Dead Letter Office, Peter Buck describes the strange duality of the song’s history: “When we got tired of ['Burning Down'], we kept the two pieces that we liked and rewrote the rest to come up with 'Ages of You'. We got tired of that one, also.” 

Burning Down finally saw life as a European only B-side on 7” and 12” for “Wendell Gee”, off of the Fables of the Reconstruction. A decidedly different musical contrast exists here, juxtaposing “Wendell Gee’s” maudlin, piano and banjo balladry to “Burning’s” earnest, chiming, sing-along rock and roll. 

Give both tracks a listen. Peter Buck refers to “Burning Down” as a “companion piece” to “Ages of You.” And for that distinction alone it deserves a critical listen. And if you haven’t listened to REM (original REM) in a while, the track will remind you immediately of what was so great about the band, when you were still a kid, with goofy hair, cool shoes, and a whole world of disappointing disillusions yet to come. 

That t-shirt...

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Down: All That You Dream

purchase [The Last Record Album]

I hadn't intentionally pre-planned continuity from my last post to this one, but - as the "responsible" for this theme, I do wonder if my eventual theme choice wasn't at least subliminal (I think that applies). I mean, going from Little Feat's Can't Stand the Rain >> Little Feat's All That You Dream. <Entre paranthese> I have to give a tip of the hat to the comment from Dead_Elvis, Inc for the correction in the comments [right side]. But beyond, the theme offers up the possibility of pursuing Little Feat's <Down on the Farm>, notable for little except being the final album to which Lowell George contributed [a little because he was giving his time to <Thanks, I'll Eat It Here> as referenced by Dead_Elvis, Inc.]

There's something similar about the way that Little Feat's (and Steely Dan's- [RIP Walter Becker]) music affects me. Technically, I think I've got it right if I say they both incorporate somewhat complex structures that combine "California pop" with jazz. I'm talking catchy/pop-ish tunes with a twist away from the standard R&B I-IV-V chord structure. Add in lyrics that generally go a little beyond "She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah.." and you've got me on board. (Spyro Gyra and even into a lot of the ECM music from the mid 70s)

Yes, I confess, I am stuck back in the past. There isn't a lot from the present that I listen to. Most everything that comes to mind for a <Down> theme goes back to before the 90s. Heck, most everything I have ever posted here goes back to before the 90s. Not all. Most.

It seems to me that this is a song that sings about a better future, or at least the hope for better. Certainly regret and acknowledgement that things aren't what we wished they would be, but also a desire to improve:

All of the good times were ours ...
Rainy days turn to sunny ones ...
Can't be 'round this kind of show no more

Worth considering that the song isn't credited to Lowell George, but it is among the last that he was here for. Possible premonition because he wasn't around for too many more shows? Online sources say it is he doing the vocals (sounds right).

Also worth considering -from my perspective- is that the song doesn't bring me down. There are songs that do, but the tempo and harmony here aren't sad despite the lyric word choices (clouds, rain, wash away ...)

While you are here, also see Darius' long ago related

Friday, September 15, 2017

Incompetent/Can't : Can't Stand the Rain

purchase [I Cant Stand the Rain]

Maybe we have had enough of the rain. Maybe some of the news pundits are right about how the main stream media tried to make the most of the Carib weather - to the extent that it has surpassed overload and caused unnecessary fears. And maybe J David is right that we have exceeded the "Can't" threshold when we could have been looking at other aspects of the Incompetence/Can't theme.

If you are a regular here, you likely know I have an enduring affinity for the slide guitar, as embodied in such impresarios as Mr Ry Cooder, Ms Bonnie Raitt, Mr Duane Allman and Mr Lowell George. (There are others, but these are among my main staples)

As JDavid pointed out, there are various avenues one can pursue from a theme of Can't - primarily personal incompetence.  I don't think that <I Cant Stand the Rain> falls into this category - the weather is beyond our control, and most likely the lyrics transcend the weather, rather, here, a metaphor for other aspects of the singer's life. You know ... rain is wet and sad and brings you down, especially if you get caught out in it unprepared like...

In my ignorance, I had assumed that this was a Little Feat original. No small amount of their output was original. However, not this.

The song is credited to someone I had never heard of before: a certain Ann Peebles. And while I was only aware of the Little Feat version, there are all sorts of others who have done theirs and you can find many of them at YouTube.

A few of them:

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Incompetent/Can’t: You’re No Good

Linda Ronstadt: You’re No Good

So far, it seems like all of our posts on this topic are self-critical—I can’t dance, I can’t stand up, I’m a simpleton, etc. But in reality, isn’t it usually someone else that raises the issue of someone’s incompetence? Most of us, I think, have enough of an ego to think that we are at least competent, if not even better than average, but there is someone—a boss, a (former) significant other, a stranger—who tells you, in no uncertain terms, that you suck. [WARNING--link is NSFW]

Over at one of my other blogging homes, Cover Me, there is a relatively new feature, “That’s a Cover?” in which we write about songs that are so well-known that many people might not know that it is a cover. For example, I wrote one a few months ago about The Youngbloods’ iconic 60s tune “Get Together,” which was at least the fourth version of the song. Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “You’re No Good,” also falls into that category.

Not to mention, the song makes it pretty clear that the singer believes the subject to be incompetent:

You're no good, you're no good, you're no good 
Baby, you're no good (you hear what I say)[original lyrics—later versions used “I’m gonna say it again"] 
You're no good, you're no good, you're no good 
Baby, you're no good.

Although admittedly, later on, the singer inevitably (at least for this theme) criticizes herself.

Written by Clint Ballard, Jr., the song was first recorded in 1963 by Dee Dee Warwick (Dionne’s little sister), and produced by Lieber & Stoller.

This version stalled on the singles chart at #117. Warwick had a moderately successful career, although not as much as big sister Dionne, and she struggled with addiction and health issues before passing away in 2008.

The first “hit” version of “You’re No Good” was by Betty Everett, also in 1963, A bit more soulful (and featuring Maurice White, later of Earth, Wind & Fire, on drums), this version topped out at #51 on the singles chart, and was more successful on R&B charts.

Everett’s next song, "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)" made it to #6 on the singles chart, and although she did have a few more hits, her later career was not as successful, and she passed away in 2001.

The Swinging Blue Jeans, a now pretty much forgotten Merseybeat band, did a gender-reversed version of the song in 1964. It was quite successful in England and France, and even hit #97 on the US charts. It sounds like a version from a now pretty much forgotten Merseybeat band:

The SBJ’s had a few more cover hits, but eventually, as their Wikipedia entry sadly notes, “The band eventually retired to the cabaret circuit.”

There have been many other covers of the song, some in other languages (and even by Van Fucking Halen), but none have had the durability or success of Linda Ronstadt’s version.

Ronstadt began performing the song during 1973, and recorded it with producer Peter Asher (whose sister Jane dated a member of a well-remembered Merseybeat band that Peter also worked with) for her breakthrough album, Heart Like a Wheel. Her version, which became a #1 hit in the US, showcases Ronstadt’s powerful, soulful vocals, and has a great arrangement. Interestingly, Ronstadt has said:

I thought the production on "You're No Good" (her 1974 breakthrough No. 1 single) was very good, but I didn't sing it very well. As a song, it was just an afterthought. It's not the kind of song I got a lot of satisfaction out of singing. 

You could have fooled me. Because she’s so good.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Incompetent/Can't: Can't Let Go

Purchase: Lucinda Williams' "Can't Let Go", from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Print: "Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road", from Church of Type, by artist Kevin Bradley, " of America's most prolific letterpress printmakers." According to his amazing website, "The Church of Type is a full-custom art and design studio working exclusively in the sweet science of authentic handset letterpress."  

I've got my credit card in hand as I write this--really amazing stuff.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has a strange distinction of being the book that all English majors can talk about while not having actually read it. The book is a titan of American Literature, one of the springs from which all that followed it had to flow. Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is a bit like Moby Dick—everyone’s heard of it, but few have actually read (or in this case, listened to) it. In the world of Alternative-Country music, Car Wheels is cited as a seminal influence by more singer/songwriters than I can name here and cracked the top 300 of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s bonafides are bonafide; it’s accolades too many to count. Yet, for the casual listener, I wonder how many have given it more than a casual listen?

I’ve listened to the album many times, and chose to write about it for this post not because I am one of it’s true believing praise singers, but because I’ve never quite gotten my head around it.

It’s good, do get me wrong. What am I saying? It’s great. Amazing. 

I’ve just never been able to figure it out: in plain terms, I’m not sure what it is supposed to be. Every track is different, and while it won a Grammy in 1998 for Best Folk Album, it is far from just a folk album. As a collection of songs, it defies definition—it has traces of folk, to be sure, but it dives into country, rock, blues—a sonic landscape as varied and wide-ranging as the subject matter of Williams’ poignant and elegiac prose-poem lyrics. Like many great albums, it marries genres. And like a great marriage, the music comes across as effortless, even when painful and challenging. 

And that’s a good word to describe Car Wheels: a challenge. What to make of such a vast and wide-ranging collection? The songs range from cracking, bar room boogie, to traditional, gospel-tinged Nashville of country music’s heritage days. The moods are myriad, as are the producers (Rick Rubin, Roy Bittan of the E Street Band), and the players are a hall of fame guest list (Steve Earle, Charlie Sexton, Emmylou Harris). The album took six years to record, and Williams re-recorded it twice from scratch—like any piece of literature worth the paper it’s printed on, good work takes time, and not editing, but whole sale revision.  And the reviews are stellar, on a historical level. Back at its 1998 release, and up until today, as it is such touchstone of an album, that Car Wheels still gets press. Much like how we started with a comparison to literature, Car Wheels garners the same sort of praise and asks for the same kind of critical analysis as a great piece of literature. Any collection of songs that covers as much ground musically, can delve as deeply into imagistic setting and character, deserves the copy. 

The original review in Rolling Stone sang the praises of the album in verbiage befitting a literary masterpiece. Writer Robert Christgau waxes poetic about Car Wheels, but he sums up the thematic substance, the heart of the album, best near the end of the review, when he writes: “Whether it's the interrupted childhood memories of the title track, the imagistic shifts …Williams' cris de coeur and evocations of rural rootlessness — about juke joints, macho guitarists, alcoholic poets, loved ones locked away in prison, loved ones locked away even more irreparably in the past — are always engaging…And they mean even more as a whole, demonstrating not that old ways are best — although that meaningless idea may well appeal to her — but that they're very much with us.”

I suppose in the end, I’ve not been very clear about what ‘troubles’ me about Car Wheels. It’s not if I’m dubious on whether the album is good or not—I used the very lackluster adjective ‘great’ earlier to describe my feelings. That’s a poor, pale word for such an eclectic collection of aural story-telling. This is a collection of songs that, again like a great book, keeps me wondering and guessing at meaning and theme. What was Williams trying to accomplish with Car Wheels, aside from collecting memories, stories, emotions. And, as Christgau writes, Williams was working at capturing a mood of the past, an elusive zeitgeist of old times, grey ghosts on country roads, the voices of the greats rising up from the fog to stake a claim in the present tense that they so clearly can lay ownership upon. She captures moods here, many of them, yet none are so prevalent as to direct the record toward one central feeling. The motifs, the tangible, palpable imagery—all of it combines to tell a novel’s worth of story that never really ends. And that is where the album finally differentiates from the novel: there is no end, not to a song. It might fade out, but a collection as strong as Car Wheels never, ever stops telling its story.

Check out this bluesy snarl of a track, a little back porch stomp, called “Can’t Let Go”, which is about exactly like what it sounds. Williams might be tongue in cheek on the metaphors on this track, but this broken hearted blues lament on not being able to shake even the worst kind of love is raw and gets its hooks into you. Kind of like the man that the character of this song can’t let go of. A fitting track to introduce an album that, much like the song, gets a hook and won’t let go.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Incomptetent/Can't: Mayor of Simpleton

XTC: Mayor of Simpleton

In response to Darius' question about the theme, as the guy who suggested it back in February, it was originally "Incompetence," in "honor" of our then-new President. Who knew how bad it would get. Our current moderator, known in these pages as KKafa, although that’s not what his parents named him, felt that was too difficult, and added the related concept of “Can’t.” And so far, that’s where the posts in this theme have gone.

So, I’m going to try to steer it back to my original concept, although, as so often happens with XTC’s music, the lyrics are somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

Unlike our current President of Simpleton (or Dementia, or Narcissism, or Egoism, or Delusion, or whatever), who seems blissfully unaware of his shortcomings, the titular Mayor lists all of the things that he lacks competence in:
  • Learning
  • Weighing the Sun
  • Mathematics
  • Reading profound books
  • Writing a big hit song
  • Solving crossword puzzles
  • Unraveling riddles, problems and puns
  • Operating a home computer (note—this song came out in 1989, so having one was not common)
  • Converting pounds to tons
  • Winning Nobel Prizes (If this was an impediment to love, there’d be a lot of single people)
On the other side of the ledger, though:
  •  He loves her 
One would like to think that love should win out over mere brains (a concept which Cheers mined regularly, particularly in its early years), and I think that we are all rooting for the Mayor in this song, because of his self-awareness and clever and heartfelt professions of love. And, so, is he really incompetent?

Unfortunately, XTC never recorded a sequel, so we don’t know whether this plea led to “Sorry, Mayor of Simpleton, I’m Not Interested,” or “I Love You Too, Dummy.”

Tuesday, September 5, 2017


That much is true, and I have tried, Lord, I have tried. Indeed there have been times when I tried so hard, I thought I could, the joy and sweat both unbridled as the floor emptied about me. In fact, my dancing years can be contained within 3 succinct eras. But first the song:

This song, originally by Tom T. Hall, nails many of my feelings, even rationalisations, on the subject, and is written from the position of the lovelorn and forlorn dancehall wallflower, forever watching from the periphery, unable to get his girl on account his "affliction." Tom T. makes it matter of fact in his country boogie shuffle, but Gram imbues an extra poignancy and urgency into his cover, which, incidentally, is pegged up a pace or two, into a somewhat clumsy rhythm that is actually well nigh impossible to dance to. Even if you could.

So how did I deal with this, in phase 1, my youth? Luckily, it being the late 60s and early 70s, with the birth of the underground scene and prog, I could pin my flag to those genres. Sitting cross-legged, head bowed forward, shaking in, or slightly out of, time with the stop-start rhythms of Yes, King Crimson and E.L.P. warranted no knowledge of dancing. Dancing music: soul, r'n'b and disco, was for fools, whether they got the girl, and they usually did, or not.

Stage 2 was an awkward amalgam of conflicting pulls on my position. Punk arrived, and the demolition of all before it, including any orthodox styles of dance. And, yes, I could pogo, I discovered. And, with new wave, that slo-mo running beloved of, predominantly, Sting, came within my canon. But there was also the increased importance of Folk-Rock to me during these years, as I, simultaneously to the Clash and Costello, immersed myself deeper in all things trad.arr. I joined a Morris Dance side. There I had to discipline myself into the rigidity of 4/4 rhythmic movement. Like this:

It was hard, it was difficult, but I nailed it, albeit barely competently. It was bliss. Our side would convene once weekly for practice, and meet at weekends to give displays at school fairs and village fetes. Possibly as a result of this confidence, or probably the women I was taken with, I suddenly "got" the dance floor, hoovering up Motown and Stax into my record collection. I had the confidence of a dyspraxic Travolta and hurtled around equivalently. And for all the toes I trampled and ribs I barged, I apologise. Unreservedly.

For now, phase 3, I know I really can't dance. It is a pity, as my wife loves to and is an avid aficionado of electronica/dance. I love it too, but confine myself to listening in the car. As I drive. Occasionally thumping the windscreen repeatedly with my fist if particularly carried away. Just in case, at the age of 60 I have again joined a morris side, but I know I probably fool myself. And the moves are so much harder than they ever were.

A final reflection comes from proggers turned poppers, Genesis, originally just the sort of anti-dancing music I delighted in,  all those phase 1 years ago, latterly topping all sorts of charts with dance worthy tunes. Although I tell myself I shouldn't, I quite like this change in their style and fortunes, this song demonstrating that they too are not entirely unaware of the irony. So, like this song, maybe this dancing lark is my guilty pleasure.

But don't buy them, buy this