After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking time off from all new music, and is revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider what he still needs.
Every time I tuck in my kids at night, I'm filled with love and envy—but mostly envy. I wish I could settle into a comfy bed at 8 p.m., surrounded by stuffed toys and pretty music. I also wish I ate as healthy and simply as my kids, who could happily subsist on grilled cheese sandwiches, apple slices, carrot sticks and cold ham, so long as they get a cookie at the end. Mostly though, I envy my children's ability to plop down in front of a new toy and—within seconds, and with no trace of self-consciousness—start making up characters and voices and rules for some elaborate game. Because if I had the willpower and the work ethic, I could eat better and get plenty of sleep, but that last gift—the ability to slip easily out of one's self, and disappear completely into the imagination—is one that most of us start to lose right around the time that puberty chases any non-sex-related fantasy out of our heads.
Rock critics like use the word "transcendent" to describe music we like—I used it twice last week, in fact—even though, in a critical sense, it's as vague a term as "beautiful" or "interesting." It really says more about the writer than the music. It says, "This moved me." And unless the reader happens to be the writer, that's not exactly helpful information.
But it is pertinent information. It's hard to think of any quality music has that's more important than its power to sway our moods, and let us get lost for minutes on end—like children playing make-believe. Some of my strongest musical memories are of walking around with headphones on, losing track of myself while listening to Patti Smith's "Gloria" or Pulp's "Common People" or any number of rock, pop, dance and soul songs that build and build until they reach a state of near-unbearable intensity. These are songs that understand the rhetorical power of repetition followed by inevitable change—the great lifting-up that comes from a structure that goes "this-this-this-this-this-THAT." When people ask what kind of music makes me cry, it's usually not sad music. It's music where the rhythms are transporting and I start to feel a surge of emotion that's all-but-impossible to control.
The problem with this kind of "transcendence" is that's hard to isolate and explain. My friend and fellow critic Bill Friskics-Warren wrote a whole book about it, called I'll Take You There: Pop Music & The Urge For Transcendence, in which he tried to focus specifically on the spiritual messages inherent in the music itself, while not getting hung up so much on the words sung out in front. But even Bill found himself getting distracted in the lyrics while writing about some of the artists he used as case studies, because it's hard for a critic—a writer—to ignore completely how words are put together. If I fumble for a way to explain why Fugazi's "Margin Walker" is so exciting, it's just too easy to latch on to phrases like "I'm going to set myself on fire," and break them down for their shock and metaphorical values.
Would I still get a charge out of "Margin Walker" if Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye were singing about the deliciousness of Coca-Cola? Hard to say. (I do kind of get worked up when David Byrne sings about Pizza Hut in Talking Heads' "(Nothing But) Flowers," for what that's worth.) Certainly there's enough spark in the music itself that the lyrics' stammering expression of painful, possibly all-consuming, possibly criminal desire may not be necessary. But just like the right title on an abstract painting can give a museumgoer something to focus on, so the right lyrics can seem to give a transcendent song a direct purpose. It completes the fantasy: I'm not just all-worked-up, I'm all-worked-up because there's something I want, and I might be willing to hurt people to get it.
Ultimately though, even offering a detailed explanation for why "Margin Walker" gets my blood pumping won't persuade anyone who doesn't hear it the same way. If my favorite comedy doesn't make you laugh, there's no way you're going to think it's a good comedy. If The Arcade Fire's The Neon Bible doesn't make you feel panicked and fragile and a little bit angry, you're not going to buy my arguments for why it's a great album. Talking about music with other people can be like talking about religion with the devout. I have a friend—a sharp-eyed film critic with excellent taste—who loved Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ, in large part because he's a committed Catholic who felt like he was seeing the reasons for his faith come to life in every frame of that film. He wrote about The Passion eloquently, but in the end his defense of it came down to, "This is who I am."
If you see arts criticism as one big debate, then those kinds of arguments are never going to count for much. But if you see criticism as a way to get to know other people—to see the world through different eyes for a while, then return to yourself with a better understanding—then those may be the most important arguments. If you put a Thomas The Tank Engine figurine in my hand, it'll take a lot of effort to imagine that I am Thomas, chugging down the track. But if you write—or even better, sing—about being Thomas, and lull me with a good rhythm, I might just follow you.
Program note: I'm taking a vacation this week, from Wednesday through Sunday, so Popless will probably post a little late next Monday, and be a little shorter. It's also going to follow a slightly different format, as I go back through 700-odd songs from the A-F artists that I've somehow missed so far. Wondering what happened to Eric B & Rakim and The English Beat last week? Well, I just found their CDs this week, so they'll be part of the "Backtrackin'" catch-up.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1986-94
Fits Between Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blue Öyster Cult
Personal Correspondence When I attended the University Of Georgia between '88 to '92, I could mark the passage of time by certain recurring events: The Georgia-Florida game in the fall, the Twilight Criterium bike race in the spring, and twice a year, a gig by fIREHOSE. I was a rabid Minutemen fan back in high school, so I never stopped being completely jazzed that I got to see Mike Watt and George Hurley (arguably the most underrated rhythm section in rock history) up close, even though a large part of Watt's appeal was the way he shrugged off that kind of hero worship. Watt's always been an accessible dude, sticking around after a show to talk to fans and sling merch. I once tagged along with a friend who was assigned to interview Watt for a fanzine, and when we walked backstage about two hours before showtime, we saw Watt walking down the hall, and when my friend shouted "Watt!" the man walked up, shook our hands firmly, and sat right down to chat with us for about half an hour, even though he probably had no idea why we were there. fIREHOSE will never get the kind of critical attention that Minutemen got, and for good reason—Minutemen were brilliant, eclectic, witty and wise, and when their frontman D. Boon died, the proletariat Watt and surfer boy Hurley lost their burly, charismatic counterbalance. So rather than trying to replace Boon with someone as strong, they gave a break to devoted Minutemen fan Ed "fROMOHIO" Crawford, a likable youngster with a sweet voice, a jangly college rock sensibility, and the kind of ambition that led him to write guitar parts for himself that he lacked the skill to play. fIREHOSE never broke any ground; they just gave Watt an excuse to hit the road when the weather got temperate, and to extend his run of songs stacked with quirky Watt-slang and sometimes embarrassingly open sentiment. I once made a list of the most awkward rock lyrics of all time, and the band that landed on there the second-most was fIREHOSE. In first? The Police.
Enduring presence? I can't think of too many bands where the gap between the live show and the record was as wide as fIREHOSE's. Watt even apologized for that on-stage once, telling his fans not to worry about the albums so much, because the band made their money from touring. And fIREHOSE's curt little funk-jazz-pop-punk concoctions really did come to life on stage, strung together in 90-minute sets that featured Watt puffing and bobbing like a cartoon steam engine, Hurley hitting a variety of percussion instruments in the proper succession, and Crawford struggling to keep up, in a way that was charmingly human.
Years Of Operation 1979-present
Fits Between Sly & The Family Stone and Red Hot Chili Peppers
Personal Correspondence Last week I mentioned my seemingly lost blog post "Seeing God In Concert." Well, this week our tech guru Paul found it for me, and just in time, since that post fits the theme of transcendence I explored above—and besides, three of the bands I'm covering this week, I also wrote about then. For those who don't want to click on the link, here's the gist of what I wrote about a Fishbone gig I saw in Athens back in '89: "Fishbone took the stage like a New Orleans brass band conducting a jazz funeral, trudging on one at a time, blowing their horns and stomping. Then, when everyone was in place, they sounded the opening notes of 'Question Of Life' and they were off. My head almost exploded. My pulse raced. I've still never seen a more exciting opening to a show. It felt like what watching Sly & The Family Stone in 1968 must have felt like, or Prince & The Revolution in 1983, or Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band in 1975, or The Clash in 1980. Here was a band fusing rock, R&B;, reggae and punk, distilling the joy of each genre, but keeping an element of anger and sagacity that gave the performance an edge. The tragedy of Fishbone for me is that they were never as amazing again as they were on that night: not on the records I ran out and bought, nor in the times I saw them live afterward. Theirs is a story of potential energy, perpetually dissipating."
Enduring presence? I'll never forget watching Fishbone on Saturday Night Live shortly before The Reality Of My Surroundings came out, and just after raving to my roommates about the band's awesomeness. They were extra-awesome on SNL, where they played "Sunless Saturday" and "Everyday Sunshine," both of which seemed like surefire hits to everyone in our apartment that night. And I'll never forget our collective disappointment when the album came out a few weeks later, and we gradually realized that between the slick production and the sloppy material, something hadn't translated. Fishbone was one of the best bands of my lifetime, and one of the biggest flops.
Years Of Operation 1988-2007
Fits Between The Jim Carroll Band and The Replacements
Personal Correspondence I wrote about Five-Eight in that "Seeing God" post too, saying: "Five-Eight must've played some Athens venue or another nearly once a month during the years I was at UGA, and I don't think I missed too many of those shows. Of the local bands I was devoted to back then, Five-Eight is probably the second-biggest 'what might've been,' after The Jody Grind (which is a whole other story). As I understand it, after I graduated in '92, Five-Eight took a shot at the bigs, fell short, went through some tough times, and then had a comeback in recent years as elder statesmen of the Georgia rock scene. (I really liked their most recent, self-titled album, which came out in '04.) But they were so gloriously erratic back in the early '90s, playing two-hour-plus shows that sometimes peaked in the first 10 minutes, and sometimes didn't get rolling until an hour in. Bandleader Mike Mantione would usually start each set with just himself and his electric guitar—frequently singing his self-loathing anthem 'Weirdo'—and then the band would join in, sometimes struggling to keep up with whatever frenetic pace Mantione had set for himself that night. Strings would break, tempers would flare, and statement-of-purpose covers of The Velvet Underground's 'Cant Stand It' (or Led Zeppelin's 'Communication Breakdown,' or Hüsker Dü's 'Celebrated Summer') would stretch on and on, getting faster and louder than a power trio could sustain. I could dissect why Five-Eight never caught on during that magic window when alt-rock bands across the country were getting a fair hearing—too basic in sound? too unpredictable in concert? too naïve in business?—but their failures had nothing to do with me. They were great when I needed them to be great." To that I'll add that a few years back, I pitched an A.V. Club feature on great local bands that never made it big, but the idea never took off. I pitched it mainly because I wanted to get back in touch with the Five-Eight guys—with whom I'd been friendly enough to have them crash on my floor when they toured through Nashville, though I always tried to retain some critical distance—and talk with them frankly about why they never found the sweet spot. But I think you can probably get the whole story from the song below, "The Ape," a Five-Eight staple from their earliest shows, and one that captures Mantione's flair for melody, his sweaty passion, his grappling with male anxiety, and his difficulty sustaining and recording a fully realized rock composition. Live, "The Ape" always killed. On record? Well, you may just have to trust me that this sloppily played, overlong song is actually pretty amazing.
Enduring presence? It was strange after I moved away to buy new Five-Eight albums and hear songs I hadn't already heard two dozen times. Without that original context of hearing them live, I found it harder to connect. According to Wikipedia, the band is currently on an indefinite hiatus, after nearly 20 years of line-up changes and second chances. If this is really the end, I hope Mantione gets a chance to mount one final show, which someone will record for posterity. I'd love to buy back my memories.
The Flaming Lips
Years Of Operation 1983-present
Fits Between Pink Floyd and Butthole Surfers
Personal Correspondence And here we complete the triumvirate of "F" bands from the "Seeing God" post. (Last week's heroes The Feelies were in there too, by the way.) I won't repeat what I wrote on the blog this time, because it had more to do with recovering from my dad's funeral than it did about my relationship with The Flaming Lips—which has been just as rocky in its way. I first heard The Flaming Lips on Vandy's college radio station in 1987, when "Everything's Exploding" off Oh My Gawd! was in fairly steady rotation. I bought that album, which at the time sounded like a typical late '80s college-rock hodgepodge of sloppy noise and fitful guitar-pop, to be filed alongside my Phantom Tollbooth, Butthole Surfers and Squirrel Bait records. When the band got it together for a fluke hit in '93, I chalked it up to the general weirdness of the post-Nirvana era, and though I bought the 45 for "She Don't Use Jelly," I didn't bother buying Transmissions From The Satellite Heart. Six years later, when my editor sent me an advance copy of The Soft Bulletin to check out, I stuck it in my CD slush pile, planning to skim through it quickly and then set it aside. But then "Race For The Prize" left me dumbstruck, and I tentatively pulled my finger off the "skip" button. A couple of songs later, my wife said, "Wow. What is this?" And I had to pull the CD sleeve back out, muttering, "It's supposed to be The Flaming Lips, but I don't know." After turning The Soft Bulletin into a fetish object—seriously, I must've listened to that record at least once a day for about three solid months—I finally went back and filled in the gaps in my Flaming Lips collection, and realized that The Soft Bulletin didn't exactly come out of nowhere. (I wish now that I'd bought Transmissions at the time… that's a hell of a record too.) My live Flaming Lips experience was in some ways the culmination of that intense period of catching up, and the beginning of a long downturn in my Lips fandom. I played the hell out of Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots too, but the returns had started to diminish, and watching the band do the same stunts over and over again in live footage on TV and DVD (and on countless movie soundtracks) became like hearing a comedian tell the same joke. After a while? Not so funny.
Enduring presence? In retrospect, Yoshimi was more a rehash than a refinement of The Soft Bulletin, no matter what I may have argued in print at the time. And even The Soft Bulletin mainly built on the inspirational dream-pop of Clouds Taste Metallic, an album I didn't hear until after I'd fallen in love with Bulletin. (Even so, I think Bulletin is the better record.) And then At War With The Mystics was a dispiriting mess, sporting only a few flashes of brilliance. It may be time for bandleader Wayne Coyne to stop swinging for the fences and prove again that he can lay down an effective bunt. An acoustic album might be a good start.
Years Of Operation 1967-present
Fits Between Traffic and The Mamas & The Papas
Personal Correspondence Part of the reason I'm so taken with the idea of "shadowing" popular music is because when I try to trace the lines that connect Cole Porter to Fats Domino to Buddy Holly and onward, I always come across a few outliers. In a general way, I get where Fleetwood Mac came from: They were one of many British blues-rock bands, and had already begun developing a clear pop sensibility by the time they moved to L.A. and invited the obscure folk-rock duo of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to join the act. And I can generally understand where Buckingham-Nicks came from, too: He was a Brian Wilson disciple with lightning-fast fingers, and she was a mellower descendent of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. But none of the above adequately explains where "Rhiannon" came from. Yes, I can hear traces of Eric Clapton's poppier singles, crossed with Jefferson Starship's "Miracles," crossed with The Beach Boys' "Surf's Up," crossed with Bob Dylan's up-country folk excursions, crossed with Steely Dan's it's-just-past-midnight-in-Paranoiaville mood-spinning. And I can hear the bands who later made hay with aspects of this sound, from Dire Straits to Tom Petty. But there's an uncanny power to "Rhiannon" (and "Over My Head," and "Gypsy," and "Silver Springs," and "Walk A Thin Line," and so many others) that seems to stand beyond creation myth and questions of influence. Nevertheless, part of me thinks that if I listen to enough of what came before, and what came after, I'll finally decode "Rhiannon"—even if I'll never be able to demystify it.
Enduring presence? Unlike most of the other '70s soft-rockers, Fleetwood Mac has always been fairly well-respected by critics (at least post-'75). A lot of that probably has to do with Tusk, one of the rare let's-follow-up-our-smash-hit-LP-with-something-personal-and-pretentious efforts that sounds genuinely interesting and entertaining, not just dickish. And a lot probably has to do with the balance of songwriting personalities in the band, from the post-CSN mystic Nicks to the mad scientist Buckingham to the sweetly tuneful Christine McVie. Left unchecked, any one of them could (and often does) prove insufferable, but together, they give what pitching coaches and modeling agencies call "a lot of different looks." The only comparable trio of entertainers I can think of is—I kid you not—Louis Prima with Keely Smith and Sam Butera. But they'll have to wait a few months.
Fountains Of Wayne
Years Of Operation 1996-present
Fits Between Cheap Trick and The dBs
Personal Correspondence After Fountains Of Wayne's overly snarky, almost excessively poppy '96 debut, I had no expectation that they'd become one of my favorite bands of the modern era, but damned if '99's Utopia Parkway didn't knock me sideways. (Between that and The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin, it was a hell of a year.) At the time I wrote, "The group's immensely pleasurable second album is a series of songs about suburban New Jersey, where the kids aren't exactly born to run, but they are born to drive around listening to 'Born to Run.' The album's opening lines rival Tom Petty's best: 'Well, I've been saving for a custom van/And I've been playing in a cover band.' For the next 45 minutes, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood sing about Coney Island, tattoos, strip malls, laser shows, proms, and other teenage kicks. The music is blessedly effortless and sounds how '80s Top 40 might've sounded if '70s power-pop had been more commercially successful—if Pat Benatar and Loverboy had drawn their inspiration from The Shoes and Big Star rather than following in the footsteps of Aerosmith and Boston. With their big beats, buzzing guitars, spacey organ fills, handclaps, and lyrics about .38 Special, FoW evoke the joy of great rock songs while simultaneously performing great rock songs. They're singing about the pleasures of recreation while having a great time themselves." The only real problems with the two albums that have followed is that they no longer carried that charge of the unexpected, though I've found that both have aged just as well as Utopia Parkway. I've especially underrated Traffic And Weather, which (aside from a couple of duds) is as big-hearted, observant and catchy as anything else in the FoW discography.
Enduring presence? For some reason, I'd always assumed Fountains Of Wayne were universally beloved by our readership, until we tapped Adam Schlesinger to write a tour diary for us, and the anti-FoW vibe of the comments caught me off-guard. Maybe the success of "Stacy's Mom" gave some people the wrong impression of who Fountains Of Wayne are. To me there's always been a strong conceptual element to the band: The music is bright and fun, and the lyrics are about people who need bright, fun music to get through another annoying day.
Years Of Operation 1935-95
Fits Between Bing Crosby and Eddie Cantor
Personal Correspondence It's only right that Frank Sinatra would come up a few days before I take my first-ever trip to Las Vegas, though to be honest, I'm no longer all that interested in Sinatra's Rat Pack persona—maybe because it became such an overused touchstone for hipness when I was young man in the '90s. I was as captivated as anyone by the swaggering, mobbed-up Sinatra when I was first introduced to that character, but I've seen enough Rat Pack movies and heard enough live recordings to know that some kinds of fun don't stay fresh for long. Anyway, I'm more fascinated by the Sinatra who overcame his hardscrabble background to become a capital-A "Artist," trying to record songs and albums that said something about his state of mind and the enduring value of pop. One of my favorite Sinatra albums—albeit not really one of his best—is 1968's Watertown, written and recorded in collaboration with The Four Seasons' songwriter Bob Gaudio. (I wrote a little about it in this Inventory, from back in the days before every Inventory drew 500 comments.) Like a lot of pop artists, Sinatra always tried to stay current, and Watertown was his attempt to keep up with The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Moody Blues, and every other rock band making pretty-sounding records that also told stories. But in typical Sinatra fashion, Watertown comes off more maudlin and abstract than what everyone else was doing. To Sinatra, an album wasn't artful if it didn't bum people out a little.
Enduring presence? Sinatra's place in the culture—and in my record collection—is secure, but I wish people gave him more credit for helping to define "the album." Sinatra was far from the first to unify a group of songs under a single theme, but throughout the '50s, he helped popularize the concept of "the concept," and he was admirable in his willingness to group songs together that listeners might find depressing or off-putting. The Vegas Sinatra, who delivered almost comically lackadaisical performances of pop standards, stands apart from The Studio Sinatra, who nearly always strove to take his fans on little adventures.
Years Of Operation 1987-2002
Fits Between Gang Of Four and Bad Brains
Personal Correspondence One of the great regrets of my peak show-going years is that I never saw Fugazi—a lapse for which I don't really have a decent excuse. For some reason, Fugazi were never really on my radar screen when I was in college, probably because the people I knew who were Fugazi fans generally had fairly regressive taste. (They were mainly ex-skaters still listening to the same anti-authoritarian punk they liked in high school.) I didn't pick up my first Fugazi CDs until after I graduated, and by that point I'd already begun making the transition from the kind of guy who rocked-out in public to the kind of guy who rocked-out in my car (and then exclusively in my head). But as with Fishbone, fIREHOSE and Five-Eight above, I feel like I probably missed a crucial element to Fugazi fandom by not seeing them play.
Enduring presence? I hope that Fugazi is still an essential part of every young punk's musical diet. From the band's rigorous DIY ethos to their belief that punk rock can contain subtlety and complexity, they're an inspiration. I just wish their albums were more consistently great.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
Fine Young Cannibals, "Johnny Come Home"
As '80s music grew increasingly synthetic, audiences and critics started gravitating to acts that, at the time, seemed to have a kind of retro-authenticity: Fine Young Cannibals, The Honeydrippers, Sade, Anita Baker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, etc. Now though, looking back, most of these acts sound thoroughly of their time, with only an element here and there—a guitar, a vocal—that really calls back to the classics. It would've been interesting to hear the kind of music FYC would've made if they'd recorded their first album five years earlier, or ten years later. Aside from the awful, awful "She Drives Me Crazy," they had a flair for pop/soul songwriting, but man, Roland Gift's voice was sure swallowed up by the oppressively modern production.
The Fixx, "Sunshine In The Shade"
Here's another no-rep/no-cult '80s band that, unaccountably, racked up nearly a decade's worth of pretty good pop singles. I don't know that I can pin down The Fixx's personality or genre, beyond noting that they extracted the poppier elements of the post-punk and new romantic movements while shedding the more arty and/or conceptual elements. Still, reading down the tracklist for The Fixx's One Thing Leads To Another: Greatest Hits always surprises me, because it contains one song after another that I honestly like—though none I love. (I even had a hard time picking one song to spotlight here.) The Fixx are like a sitcom that you watch because it's in a good timeslot and it makes you laugh reliably—even though you'd never think about buying the DVDs.
Fizzbombs, "Sign On The Line"
Here's a wondrous artifact from Britpop's late-'80s, post-Jesus & Mary Chain, DIY era. I know jack-all about this band, or how well-known this song is, but it buzzes along pleasurably—too poppy and jittery to be a shoegazer track, and too noisy to fit alongside the pretty jangle that dominated the scene at the time.
The Flamin' Groovies, "You Tore Me Down"
As much as I dig this song—and Yo La Tengo's sweet cover of it on their album Fakebook—The Flamin' Groovies are a critics' darling that I've never been able to get into. Their early boogie records sound too one-note to me, and their later power-pop records sound too derivative. Even their best-loved single, "Shake Some Action," strikes me as too long and too tinny. I get why people like them, but for me, they're a "not quite."
The Flamingos, "I Only Have Eyes For You"
I spent two summers as a teenager working as a costumed character at Opryland USA, dressing up as Lucky Charms and entertaining children in the General Mills kids' area of the park. (I wasn't always Lucky; sometimes I was Trix, or Count Chocula, or the Honey Nut Cheerios' Bee.) The kids' area was tucked right off Opryland's "New Orleans" section, so most of my meet-and-greets were scored to Dixieland, but first thing in the morning, the costumed characters always did "a show" (which didn't involve any actual antics beyond standing and waving and posing for photos) at the front gate, and then we'd walk back through the park's "'50s" section. I tried to linger there long enough to hear this song over the PA, which in that section played the American Graffiti soundtrack on a continuous loop. In my little leprechaun suit, I'd do elegant little twirls around the lampposts—or as elegant as a teenager can get while wearing fuzzy gloves and oversized foam shoes.
A Flock Of Seagulls, "Space Age Love Song"
Two things come to mind when I think of A Flock Of Seagulls. (Well, three if you count the hairstyle.) First, while I was at UGA, a fraternity got busted for serving alcohol to minors and violating fire codes at a party where the featured band was, yep, AFAS. (Lo, how the mighty, etc.) Second, I used to get annoyed when A Flock Of Seagulls were lumped in with other one-hit wonder synthpop bands of the '80s, because they actually had several hits—including this one, which I always liked better than "I Ran"—and anyway, they relied on guitar as much as synthesizer. Maybe I was just defensive because AFAS were one of the first of the "new British invasion" acts to woo me. Hey, I was 12, and their music was perfect for 12-year-olds: guileless and easy to sing along with.
The Flying Burrito Brothers, "Hot Burrito #2"
There'll be more about Gram Parsons in a future week, but first, a little taste of the band that launched Parsons to minor fame, and (in my opinion) encompassed a broader, more exciting vision of Americana than Parsons carried with him when he went solo. (Though I'm not knocking those solo albums, which I'm going to be lauding duly soon.) Reducing this song to "country rock" doesn't really do justice to the inventive ways the FBBs integrate gospel, R&B; and psychedelia here. This is a song—and a band—with a lot to give.
The Folk Implosion, "Free To Go"
There'll also be more about Lou Barlow later on, most likely via Sebadoh, a band that resonates with me more than The Folk Implosion. I like The Folk Implosion, but the beauty of Sebadoh is the way they combine dreamy balladry with dissonant pop-punk, so The Folk Implosion's near-total emphasis on the former (backed by light electronica) sounds incomplete to my ears. That said, Barlow's recorded some fine songs as The Folk Implosion, including this catchy number from One Part Lullaby, an album I would've told you nine years ago was Barlow's finest hour. Listening to it again this week, I'm not sure why I ever felt that way. But I do know why I liked this song: it's got a well-fleshed-out arrangement, behind poignant lyrics about surviving a broken home.† In other words, it's a song, not an exercise.
Foo Fighters, "All My Life"
I ain't braggin', but I saw Foo Fighters on their first tour, before the debut album came out, when they were opening for Mike Watt's guest-star-laden Ball-Hog Or Tugboat? shows. My first impressions: Stupid name, decent band. In the years since, Grohl and company have become sort of become mainstream rock's de-facto "good" band, beloved by many and loathed by few. But I tend to be a distant admirer myself. When each album comes out, I rip the two or three songs that interest me, and file them away for later, but I rarely play them. (There's no need, since I'll hear them anyway, all over the TV.) The major exception is this lead track from the otherwise fairly weak One By One. "All My Life" is all I look for in machine-tooled modern rock, from the cleanly metallic sound to the spectacular series of miniature explosions. (Aside: At the moment, Foo Fighters are also a source of mutual amusement for my wife and myself, because we were both taken aback when we went to a birthday party with our three-year-old daughter a month ago, and noticed that her preschool teacher was wearing a Foo Fighters T-shirt. A week later, I went to another birthday party with my six-year-old son, and his 1st Grade teacher—who's best friends with that preschool teacher—told me that they'd both gone to the Foo Fighters concert in Memphis, and that their husbands were on their way to Fayetteville to see them again. All at once, my wife and I realized how strange it is to live in a world where your kids' teachers are your peers.)
Foreigner, "Cold As Ice"
Throughout the second half of these '70s, the FM dial was choked with bands like Foreigner that became instant superstars, almost as though they were created in collaboration between record executives and radio programmers. As a kid, I knew nothing about corporate rock, payola or any of that. I just knew that "Cold As Ice" was easy to sing along with and sounded bad-ass. As a grownup, what interests me most about the song is that it almost sounds like a reprise of "Feels Like The First Time," the song that precedes it on Foreigner's 1977 debut LP. I wonder if at the time rock critics thought that was emblematic of a bankrupt imagination, or a neat bit of thematic extension. Knowing the rock critics of the '70s, they were likely too disgusted by the whole endeavor to care either way.
People say we're living in the information age, but the internet was no help in trying to track down what happened to this here-and-gone major-label modern rock act, who released a very good EP and LP in 1995, following an echoing Britpop vibe even though they were apparently from Jersey. I'm not sure I would've pegged them for greatness, but those records were much more fully realized and tuneful than a lot of the murky rock that dominated the grunge era. And somehow they ended up on Sire, where they were quickly forgotten.
Four Mints, "Row My Boat"
The Numero Group's good-reason-to-keep-on-living "Eccentric Soul" series made a stunning debut three years with a volume dedicated to the mid-Ohio-based Capsoul label, whose signature act was this mellow post-doo-wop band. Digging up treasures like this lovely ballad—as good a song as anything else in the R&B; arena at the time—is why I think The Numero Group is doing the Lord's work.
The Four Seasons, "Beggars Parade"
In 1968, The Four Seasons would throw in with their contemporaries and record their very own hippie-dippy concept album: the semi-wacky Genuine Imitation Life Gazette. But two years earlier, Frankie Valli and company were still relishing being part of the pop establishment, so they recorded this hilariously reactionary anti-protest song. I might be going to see Jersey Boys when I'm vacationing in Vegas this week. Somehow I doubt this song is part of the show, but I'd love to be proved wrong.
Frank Black, "Los Angeles"
The burning question: If the Pixies hadn't broken up, would their albums have become as increasingly irrelevant as Frank Black's? I like Pixies' swan-song Trompe Le Monde quite a bit, but even that's more a conventional alt-rock record than anything the band recorded in their first few years. Since going solo, Charles Thompson has been ridiculously prolific, and yet while I'd rate most of his albums as "good," they don't hold up to close scrutiny. Black Francis had his shtick: Weird surf-rock suffused with exotic psycho-sexual and sci-fi imagery… like the subtext of every '50s B-movie come to giddy, terrifying life. As Frank Black, Thompson started out even nuttier, on freewheeling songs like "Los Angeles" (an actual rock radio staple in the early '90s, believe it or not). In the 15 years since, he's tried to normalize way too much, by leaning more towards folk ballads and other roots-music exercises, in between blatant Pixies rehashes. Thompson's talented enough to make all his records listenable, but when it comes down to it, why would I want to listen to pale imitations over the real thing? Out of loyalty?
Frankie Goes To Hollywood, "Relax"
Speaking of transcendence and childhood, I still have a bad memory of my mom walking in on me while I had my headphones on, dancing around my bedroom to this song, completely blissed-out and oblivious. I was so into "Relax" that I bought (and loved) FGTH's very weird double-album debut Welcome To The Pleasuredome, with its pornographic Picasso gatefold cover and string of in-jokes. I also bought the cassingle of "The Power Of Love," which contained three different mixes of the song and "a Christmas message from Frankie" in which the boys camped it up while talking about what toys they wanted for Christmas. I didn't really understand any of what I was looking at our listening to: Not the openly gay imagery, or the British-ness of phrases like "dead festive" on the Christmas record. And while I was old enough to know what "come" meant when "Relax" was a hit, it was because it was a hit that I was certain that the band didn't mean what they seemed to mean. Mainly, I just liked the way their bass guitar thumped.
There's something about two (or even three) female voices singing folk ballads together that always strikes me as devastatingly beautiful. Even if the subject matter of this song—which is all about extreme poverty—weren't so sad, I think I'd still be heartsick listening to it.
Fred Neil, "The Dolphins"
Fred Neil is one of those cult artists that I didn't know I already knew until I started digging into his catalog last year. I knew he wrote "Everybody's Talkin'," but I didn't know what a profound influence he'd had on David Crosby, and I hadn't realized he originated "The Dolphins," one of my favorite late '60s crypto-folk ballads. I first heard the song via Billy Bragg's cover on Don't Try This At Home, though I didn't realize at the time that the song was a cover. Then two years ago I heard Tim Buckley's gorgeous version, and thought, "Huh… I guess Bragg was covering Buckley." Then last summer I caught up with the first half of The Sopranos' sixth season and was entranced by the sequence where Christopher shoots up at an amusement park—a psychedelic delight scored to Fred Neil's original "Dolphins." In my usual "nothing by halves" style, I bought the complete Neil discography the next day, and spent a happy couple of weeks working my way back and forth from his early days as a trad folkie to his later journeys into the mystic. But to be honest, I don't know that Neil ever topped this song: an eco-minded call to arms that almost says more about the natural order in its dreamy style than in its lyrics.
Free, "All Right Now"
This may be the most obvious Free song to pick—and in a way, it's fairly untypical of the kind of spare, booming blooze-boogie that dominates the band's albums—but I can't not nod to it. For one thing, I'd be willing to argue that this is the seminal rock song of the '70s, laying down a formula that aspiring arena rockers would follow for the next decade, from the clean riff to the contrast of wailing vocals and a primitive groove. For another thing, I've always imagined that if I could sing a lick, and I were picked for one of those TV talent shows, I'd sing this song and I'd sail through to the next round.
The Free Design, "2002: A Hit Song"
I'd never heard of these cult sunshine-poppers until the remix album The Now Sound Revisited came out in '05, and I was so taken with it that I tracked down a Free Design anthology, and then started digging further with the help of eMusic, which has the complete Free Design discography. This song was kind of an inside joke for the band, who were a little tired of trying to figure out why they recorded such radio-friendly songs yet couldn't get on the radio. So here they mock the hit-making process, while providing the weird little avant-garde touches that probably explain the real reason why they languished in obscurity.
The Fun And Games, "The Grooviest Girl In The World"
This song comes from an anthology called 25 All-Time Greatest Bubblegum Hits, a disc which kind of bookends all the sunshine-pop albums in my collection, showing the ultimate endpoint of all those happy, simplistic, semi-psychedelic acts I like. With the psychedelia sucked out and glib generational references inserted, you get bubblegum. Still, it's hard not to like this song, as silly as it is.
The Futureheads, "Fallout"
Though Field Music is my favorite band from the Sunderland scene, The Futureheads are a pretty close second, falling short mainly because they sound a little more derivative and a little less forward-thinking than some of their colleagues. Still, they turn their XTC/Big Country/Cure influences into the kind of chirpy guitar-pop that's never unwelcome in my house.
Regrettably unremarked upon: The Finn Brothers, The Flatlanders, Flatt & Scruggs, The Fleshtones, Flipper, The Frames, The Four Tops, Franz Ferdinand, Fred Eaglesmith, Freedy Johnston, Freelance Hellraiser, Frightened Rabbit and The Funk Brothers.
Also listened to: The Finger,
Finian McKean, The Finns,
Fionn Regan, Fire, Fire Engines, Firefall,
Firefly, First Baptist Bells, First Choice, First Nation, Fischerspooner, The Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi, The Five Echoes, The Five Stairsteps, Five Times, Fizzle Like A Flood, Flash Cadillac & The Continental Kids, The Flatmates, The Fleetwoods, Floatation Toy Warning, Floetry, Floraline, Floyd Jones, Flugente, Fluid Ounces, The Flying Machine, FM Static, Fog, Foghat, For Squirrels, Forever Changed, The Format, The Fortunes, The Forty-Fives, Forward Russia, The Foudry Field Recordings, Fourplay, Foxhole, Foxymorons, François Couperin & Reitzell, The Frank & Walters, Frank Howard, Frank Lenz, Frank Myers, Frank Wakefield, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, Fred Anderson, Fred Astaire, Fred Hughes, Fred Van Eps, Freddie & The Hitch-Hikers, Frederick Knight, Frederick McQueen, Free Sol, Freez, French Kicks, Frente!, Fridge, Frog Eyes, Frontier Index, Frou Frou, Fruit Bats, Fu Manchu, Fuck, Funky Nashville and Future Pigeon
Next week: A Popless-On-Vacation special, checking in on the state of the project so far, and picking up on songs and artists missed, from A-F.