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.
Is it possible to find terms like "chick flick," "chick lit" and "chick rock"—as well as more kindly phrased equivalents like "femme-friendly" and "gynocentric"—at once mildly offensive and somewhat useful? Yes, everyone's an individual, irreducible to their gender, et cetera et cetera. But it's hardly unenlightened to say that there are generalized differences between the way women feel, perceive and behave, and the way men feel, perceive and behave, even if only some of those differences are related to chemistry and biology, while others are merely social (and therefore vary from culture to culture). Whatever the reasons behind the gender gap, if an artist writes a song or tells a story that speaks to that gap, or merely presents a perspective from the distaff side, there shouldn't be anything wrong with slapping on a label that identifies their work accurately.
That said, the problem with the various "chick" classifications is that they're usually used pejoratively—and when used by women, even apologetically. Last week, when the Sex And The City movie was released, there were a number of male critics and commentators groaning about how wives and girlfriends were going to be dragging their guys to see this chick flick piece of crap, and most of then seemed more concerned about the "chick flick" part than the "piece of crap" part. It's true that movies like Sex And The City, 27 Dresses and P.S. I Love You can be annoying even to women for the way they pitch a version of feminine life that's simplistic and somewhat vulgar. But the same can be said about the version of manliness in action movies and gross-out comedies, yet many movie buffs will excuse a dopey adventure if it has a few good action sequences, or a slovenly comedy if it contains a few laugh-out-loud jokes. An effective tearjerker, though? Not as easily forgiven.
This elevation of the macho over the feminine extends to music fandom, where acts that are harder-edged or patience-testing are often considered superior to acts that are softer, more melodic, or more sentimental. And those acts don't have to be female, either. There's sometimes a knee-jerk reaction by male music fans against male musicians that women like. Those musicians may get their share of critical praise in the early going, but as the backlash starts building among fans, critics are all too eager to join the fray. Perhaps it's because so many male critics are basically nerds: doughy, bespectacled, balding guys who spend a lot of time indoors. If we can't prove ourselves in feats of physical strength, we can least tap out a few words about why Sufjan Stevens is for pussies.
I know a lot of women—my wife, for one—have a love-hate relationship with "chick" culture, and I feel the same about "guy" culture, frankly. I like sports, poker, beer, explosions and crude jokes. But when I hang out exclusively with my male friends I often find I say things I don't mean, or give tacit approval to ideas I don't share, in an almost unconscious attempt to fit in. I've never been big on cut-down wars, pranks, wrestling around, or any of the other ways that guys jockey for position when we're left to our own devices. Throughout most of my post-adolescent life, I've had as many close female friends as close male friends, and even now I find I'm often more comfortable talking with the women in my social circle than with the men. (Being a stay-at-home dad may be part of the reason for that.) And yet, I seem hard-wired to go along with the crowd when everyone in the room is a man.
One of my all-time favorite songs is Joni Mitchell's "Free Man In Paris," reportedly written about her friend David Geffen. It's mostly about getting away from the pressures of show business, but the references to the protagonist finding "that very good friend of mine" implies that part of the appeal of Paris to Geffen is that he can be openly gay there, and won't have to worry about being perceived as weak. I think that's a fantasy that appeals to a lot of us: this idea that there may be a place where we can be wholly ourselves, unrestrained by concerns that we'll be judged for our tastes, our preferences, our political views, or even the way we look, talk and act.
I'd imagine that idea also resonated with Mitchell, who spent much of her career in the '60s and '70s fighting against the perceptions of who she was and who she should be. Was she too aloof, too pretentious, too open, too careerist, too promiscuous? A lot of those perceptions were tied to her gender, because while hippie dudes loved that their old ladies felt free enough to get high and ball, a surprising number of them still expected to retain the old hierarchies when it came to cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids. Mitchell's label Reprise understood this, and marketed her with teases about her simultaneous sexual dynamism and wholesomeness. The rock press seized on this angle, and made casual mention of her sexual affairs during write-ups of her records and concerts. Mitchell found that kind of publicity distasteful and disheartening, but it didn't stop her from writing songs about her own conflicted feelings of desire, or about the men she'd argued with, laughed with, and bedded.
So, is Mitchell "chick rock?" Part of me thinks it would be an insult to Mitchell to tag her as such, and part of me thinks it would be an insult not to. (According to what I've read, Mitchell's pretty touchy…there's really no way you can't insult her.) Certainly, she's an inspiration to any woman who takes up an instrument and looks for a way to express what she's seen and understood—and likely an inspiration to a lot of men, too. But a song like Mitchell's "Song For Sharon," in which she tries to explain her restless romantic life to a girlhood friend who's settled down back in Canada, is so specific about wedding fantasies and feminine empathy that to ignore the song's gender origins would be disingenuous.
It would also be stupid for men to presume that because "Song For Sharon" was written by a woman and is about being a woman, that there's nothing they can glean from it. Yes, Mitchell's take on relationships, politics and music is at once fully human, fully feminine, and fully her own, and just because a man connects with Mitchell's music, that doesn't necessarily make him any more "enlightened." But like the man said about chicken soup and common cold, it sure couldn't hurt either.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1967-present
Fits Between Joan Baez and Tim Buckley
Personal Correspondence The first time I heard Court & Spark, I had a new benchmark for a number of different genres: singer-songwriter confessionals, jazz-informed pop, and '70s AM, among others. Mitchell's earlier albums each have their considerable merits—especially Blue, which helped move folk music away from the stridently political and trippy and towards the personal—but Court & Spark is a real level-jumper. Mitchell's lyrics are so pared-down and precise—and Mitchell's growing interest in jazz and pop so well-integrated into the mix—that the whole record feels preordained, like this set of songs and this sound had been hanging in the air forever, waiting for someone to pluck them down when they were ripe. In the years that followed, Mitchell headed further into jazzy abstraction, and the stark character sketches—more like slivers, really—gave way to songs packed tight with allusion. But she made two more great records along the way: 1975's The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, and the one true rival to Court & Spark in her catalog, 1976's Hejira. I wrote up Hejira for The A.V. Club's now-defunct "Permanent Records column, saying, "Opening with the sprightly, catchy 'Coyote'—with its haunting lines about the 'prisoner of the white lines on the freeway'—Hejira announces itself as an album about how being rootless can be its own kind of trap. Throughout the record, Jaco Pastorius' fretless bass chases Mitchell's lilting voice around open arrangements, as she sings rambling sketches of the tired old friends and dying musicians that she sees in her own tour-bus mirror. 'I'm traveling in some vehicle,' Mitchell sings in the moody title track, a paean to the pleasurable anonymity of driving through the night and letting thoughts wander. At once tuneless and arrestingly beautiful, 'Hejira' proves Mitchell's lyrical contention that 'there's comfort in melancholy.'"
Enduring presence? I'm so enamored of Mitchell's run from 1974-76—and of scattered tracks from her first five albums—that I've tried at times to make sense of her odd '80s records. There's a lot to like about 1982's Wild Things Run Fast, but the rest, I hate to say, are a mishmash of incompatible recording techniques and relatively graceless lyrics. Still, while Mitchell has developed a reputation for being cranky and unwilling to entertain, over the past decade she's been making a stealthy comeback. I thought her 2002 collection Travelogue—orchestral covers of her old songs, sung in a deeper, smokier voice—was astonishingly beautiful, and last year's Shine should've been a bigger event than the media treated it as, given that it was Mitchell's first collection of new songs in nine years, and her first top-to-bottom good record in over 30. Mitchell's legacy is fully secure, since nearly every chanteuse who sits in front of a piano is compared to her. But I hope people recognize that she's not a museum piece. She's a going concern.
Years Of Operation 1998-present
Fits Between Bread and Ryan Adams
Personal Correspondence My friend Jim Ridley first met Josh Rouse when Rouse was still working at a Nashville coffeehouse, and a few months after their encounter, Jim called me up to tell me about it, because it was one of the few times that a person he'd encountered out of the blue had handed him a homemade CD, and the CD turned out to be good. That disc was Dressed Up Like Nebraska, a catchy, unassuming collection of songs that mixed Neil Young-styled roots-rock with heavy dollops of The Smiths and The Cure. I picked it up on Jim's recommendation, and because it was exactly the kind of music I liked, I too became one of Rouse's first and most devoted fans. I interviewed him a few times in those early years, and found we had a lot in common: roughly the same age, roughly the same taste, both latchkey kids who moved around a lot, both newly married and starting our careers in earnest, both amateur cooks, and so on. As Rouse's star rose, our occasional encounters became more businesslike, as was appropriate. But he remained a favorite, and as he kept cranking out albums, I kept covering them. About Rouse's masterpiece, Under Cold Blue Stars, I wrote: "He plays with his heartland rasp in the manner of his idols, who write precise lyrics and then sing them as though each syllable were only loosely related to the one before. Though Rouse's lyrics mimic a to-the-point conversation, he obscures much of what his characters are saying by breaking words in two or slurring them together until they lose their directness. He crafts a tonal portrait of people talking around each other. The highlights of Under Cold Blue Stars are the lyrical phrases that Rouse chews up and blows out. The emotional apex of the record comes on the penultimate track 'Women And Men,' which concludes a five-minute, despairing sketch of loneliness and isolation with a man returning to his wife. 'Grass needs cut, cuddle up,' Rouse suddenly enunciates, and the rationale behind the persistence of troubled relationships becomes touchingly, devastatingly clear." Then, about his mellow, soulful 1972: "The album isn't about throwback shtick or note-for-note copying. Rouse is shadowing the sophistication and perfection of classic pop, trying to replicate its power to make people feel more at peace with their uniformly awkward relationships. He invests the reliability of waking up next to the same person every day with a spiritual, ascendant hope." Shortly after 1972, Rouse apparently no longer felt connected to that domestic reliability, so he got divorced and left Nashville for Spain, and as the differences in our lives widened, I started to feel less enthusiastic about the records he was putting out, apart from a song here or there. Nashville featured some strong material, but the two that followed—Subtitulo and Country Mouse City House—have been slim pickings.
Enduring presence? So what happened? Rouse was widely considered an up-and-comer—not just by me—only six years ago, and while I'm not willing to say that he's tapped out, his recent push toward online-marketed-and-sold fan-only EPs and live sessions is the kind of move made by someone ready to rest on his laurels and cultivate his cult, not an artist with something new and vital to say. And truth be told, since the stylistic breakthrough of 1972—which finally transported Rouse back to the musical space he'd been trying to reach from the start—his CD player seems to have gotten stuck on "repeat." I'd hoped that moving to Europe would inspire Rouse to try new things, but instead it seems to have made him complacent, and more willing to put out half-finished work. Still, I can't believe the man who wrote "Late Night Conversation," "Michigan," "Feeling No Pain," "Rise" and "Middle School Frown" is done with arresting, keenly observed and realized songs for good. I hope that when Rouse's next album comes out, I'll be as pleasantly surprised as my friend Jim once was.
Years Of Operation 1973-87 (essentially)
Fits Between Foreigner and Loverboy
Personal Correspondence This is going to make no damn sense I'm sure, but for a significant stretch of my youth, I didn't feel worthy of Journey. I arrived in junior high a year younger then most of my classmates, and while there wasn't much of a gap between 10 and 11 when I was in sixth grade, the gap between 12 and 13 in seventh grade was wide and seemingly unbridgeable. I was physically smaller, weaker, more immature and socially awkward, and not old enough to do a lot of the things my peers were doing over the next three years—from shaving to going to rock concerts. By eighth grade, the kids in my class started showing up wearing Van Halen and Journey T-shirts that they'd picked up at the arena shows they were allowed to attend, and just as I've always found some feats of physical skill an impossibility—like doing cartwheels, or diving headfirst into a pool—it seemed unlikely that I'd ever be cool enough to go to a Journey concert and buy merch. Of course by then I was already getting into new wave and college rock, and by the end of high school I'd embrace my musical likes and dislikes as a sign of moral superiority. If I couldn't be popular, I could secretly scorn what they valued. And yet, over the years I'd catch the occasional Journey song on the radio and feel a little pang. Partly it's because songs like "Lights" and "Any Way You Want It" and "Don't Stop Believin'" are well-constructed corporate rock, with grabby melodies, simple sentiment and just a touch of the gimmicky. And partly it's because I can't stop imagining Journey as the soundtrack to a lifestyle I never got to enjoy: the R-rated movie version of my family-hour sitcom youth. (If my classmates were Caddyshack and Fast Times At Ridgemont High, I was Family Ties.) I've argued before on this site that Journey is unfairly maligned for a lot of reasons, many of them related to the fact that they're essentially a singles act, pumping out cookie-cutter albums with more filler than keepers. But the part of being a rock critic that I've always found the hardest is trying to toe the line on the on the notion that a song like Journey's "Only The Young" is dreck while, say, Joy Division's "Digital" (to pick a song I'm going to get to in a minute) is brilliant. I know that it makes my taste automatically suspect to admit I like both—because if I like something you like, and something you don't like, for some reason you're more likely to fixate on the latter—but in the end both songs are about feeling pressured, stressed, and perpetually adolescent. Yes they sound different, but in the end, isn't that just a matter of the audience they're pitching to? And if we're reduced to reviewing the audience rather than the music, doesn't that make us snobs, not critics?
Enduring presence? Sopranos-approved or not, Journey isn't likely ever to become acceptable to the rock cognoscenti. And they don't do their legacy any favors with Steve Perry-less reunion tours, or that contentious-yet-entertaining Behind The Music episode in which Neil Schon and his cronies grumble about the power-ballad-heavy direction that Perry led them in. (Not that any of them had any trouble banking the money he made them.) The existing members of Journey seem to openly acknowledge that they're lame, as a kind of defense mechanism. I'm sure they're comeuppance is satisfying to some, but not to me.
Years Of Operation 1976-80
Fits Between David Bowie and The Birthday Party
Personal Correspondence I've been thinking and writing so much about Joy Division over the past year—including a review of the new Joy Division documentary DVD, running on this site next week—that in a way I feel I've exhausted the subject. But I can't just ignore them either. Even after all the recent attempts to humanize Ian Curtis and document his every dalliance, doubt and epileptic fit, I still find Joy Division beguilingly elusive. The band had such a small output—by fate, not design—and yet their percentage of timeless songs is remarkably high, which is even more impressive considering that they were essentially just four average lads who came together in the aftermath of the punk revolution. Some credit is clearly due to producer Martin Hannett, who molded Joy Division's sound by prolonging the arid, empty spaces they liked to explore and then filling them with industrial clank and menace. But then Joy Division's songs were good—and every bit as moody—when the band was just another set of DIY bashers, rattling the walls of Manchester's clubs. Where did this gift come from? What allowed these four men to connect so cleanly as collaborators? What would they have accomplished had Curtis not taken his own life? These are the questions that make being a fan so confounding.
Enduring presence? All of that said, my Joy Division fandom tends to come in waves. I've never stopped loving them, but they're not one of those bands I can listen to just anytime. I sometimes go years without listening to anything by Joy Division, and then go through a week or two where I don't want to hear anything but. And every time I revisit the catalog—and it's always a thorough revisitation, not just a few songs or a single album—I'm knocked out all over again at its wealth, and near-miraculous existence.
June Carter Cash
Years Of Operation 1939-2003
Fits Between Minnie Pearl and Mother Maybelle Carter
Personal Correspondence One of my happier discoveries in recent years has been the music of June Carter Cash, a country music legend whom I'd always thought of as an adjunct to Johnny Cash rather than a creative force in her own rite. Then June's posthumous album Wildwood Flower was released, and I was intrigued by the depth of feeling and homey-ness about it. Reviewing it, I wrote: "The late June Carter Cash's career shadowed 20th Century pop music, beginning in the '30s when she toured with her famous folksinging family, continuing through the '50s when she married country singer Carl Smith and became an Opry fixture, and culminating with her 1968 marriage to Johnny Cash, who frequently included his wife in his intuitive fusion of folk, country, rock and gospel. June Carter Cash's final album Wildwood Flower is more a scrapbook of her final days than a proper collection of recorded music, but it's poignant and crafty in its casual portrait of a matriarch in repose. Most of the songs come from the Carter Family songbook, and are strung together by outtakes from old radio broadcasts and spoken word introductions that sometimes ramble into impromptu reminiscences (like the one about the Cashes hanging out with Jack Palance and Lee Marvin). Cash's voice is thin and frail, as is her husband's when he sings backup, but they take clear pleasure in singing old favorites with warm, spare, mostly acoustic backing. A lot of the tracks on Wildwood Flower have the quality of stories told in the parlor at a family reunion, with the guitars, fiddles and loose percussion nodding along like cousins. June hums her way through standards like 'Church In The Wildwood' and 'Cannonball Blues, letting the visions of vanishing pasts and uncertain futures hover pointedly. And the quaver in her voice as she sings 'Will You Miss Me?' is moving, not just because Cash is dead now, but because she sounds a little scorned, as though she's unsure whether she's ever been properly appreciated."
A year later, the double-disc June Carter Cash anthology Keep On The Sunny Side was released, containing almost the entirety of her 1975 debut solo album Appalachian Pride and a fairly full accounting of her scattered novelty singles of the '50s and '60s, many of which were either country music spoofs like "No Swallerin' Place" or lovers' spat songs like "He Went Slippin' Around" and "Well I Guess I Told You Off." Pairing that collection with Wildwood Flower, I realized what I'd missed about her along: raised an entertainer, June never lost her instincts for putting on a show, and yet she found ways to invest shtick with her own down-home, matriarchal personality.
Enduring presence? I imagine a lot of people have gleaned their June Carter Cash knowledge from the movie Walk The Line, a flawed film with a terrific performance by Reese Witherspoon as June. When the movie came out, I wrote: "Maybe the best way to understand June Carter Cash is to catch Reese Witherspoon's impersonation of her in James Mangold's Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. Her performance ends during the fledgling stages of June The Nurturer, but it starts with June The Cornpone Clown, cutting up onstage while winking at the silliness of it all offstage (and living pragmatically with persistent heartbreak). Witherspoon captures June in all her clear-headed, bright-eyed glory, without losing the Witherspoon within. When she grabs her autoharp and starts whooping it up, it's like witnessing a spiritual visitation. Early in the film, the young Cash is shown listening to The Carter Family on the radio, and even after he grows up and joins the military, he keeps pictures of the teenage June Carter in his footlocker. The arc of their romance shadows Cash's career path, as he falls in love with the idea of celebrity, then has to learn how to live with its reality. In that, Witherspoon-as-June makes an ideal instructor: simultaneously charming, deep, and broken inside." It's easy to catch up to June Carter Cash. Buy Keep On The Sunny Side and Wildwood Flower and you're done. Quite happily done.
Years Of Operation 2000-present
Fits Between Jay-Z and Nas
Personal Correspondence As I wrote about Jay-Z a few weeks ago, a lot of the appeal of Kanye West to me is his presence as the most written-about and in some ways most dominant rap artist of recent years. We need idols in pop like we need hot-shot athletes in sports. We need those aces who get all the favorable calls whether they actually hit the strike zone or not, because they give us someone to root for and to root against—something to react to, in other words. And when an artist looms as large as West, that reaction happens on a larger scale than just a small handful of music critics and fans. It's impressive that West, given that kind of attention, has been willing to record songs like "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," or to speak out against homophobia in the black community, or institutional racism in the media. The first time I heard The College Dropout, the song that won me over was "Spaceship," which reminded me of the kind of catchy, personal, socially conscious hip-hop I responded to in the early '90s. I know West isn't alone in writing and recording songs like "Spaceship," but hearing it on that year's must-own hip-hop album was heartening, to say the least.
Enduring presence? One of the other things I like about West is how he tempers his "I'm the most important person in the industry" arrogance with a genuine appreciation for other musicians and styles. He may think he's better than every other artist out there, but that doesn't stop him from getting enthusiastic about a Peter, Bjorn & John song, or collaborating with other hip-hop and pop artists he likes. He's got a mighty big tent, given that he's one of the few artists left who can go from zero to platinum in under two weeks.
Years Of Operation 1975-present
Fits Between Genesis and Tori Amos
Personal Correspondence There was a time when I thought Kate Bush had the best voice in popular music, and I liked her almost as much for her guest appearances on Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" and Big Country's "The Seer" as I did for her own music, which—to be honest—took me a little time to warm up to. Bush was sort of the Björk of her day, experimenting madly with rhythmic texture in a pop context, and floating off to fairyland without stressing overmuch about how silly she might look or sound. I dabbled in Bush at first, sticking with the well-chosen compilation The Whole Story, but I eventually found all the albums The Whole Story draws from on vinyl, and got into each of them one at a time, enjoying her evolution from trilling art-pop towards willful obscurity, then back out the other side with the sublime Hounds Of Love. The albums that have followed The Whole Story have been decidedly spotty, but each still offers a chance to slip behind the eyes of Kate Bush, and see how every raindrop can contain universes within universes.
Enduring presence? Bush has followed her own quirky muse since her 1978 debut, and aside from cosmetic and thematic differences, each of her records has offered a similar blend of prog, folk, and new wave. By the time Bush released 1993's unfocused The Red Shoes, her routine had grown stale, yet while her 2005 comeback record Aerial didn't change that routine significantly, the record was still a welcome return, if only because she'd been incommunicado for so long. Now I don't know whether to root for another Kate Bush album to come around soon, or to hope she waits 12 more years, so that she'll sound fresh again.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
Jorge Ben, "Ponta De Lança Africana (Umbabarauma)"
This song was my first real exposure to Brazilian pop, and not just because it's the first song on David Byrne's influential Beleza Tropical compilation. I heard "Umbabarauma" for the first time in the context of an animation festival, where the song accompanied a stunning short that set paintings in motion. It was a snug fit, since the song is about an athlete in full stride, getting into position to score, and the music replicates that sense of kinetic purpose. When I bought Beleza Tropical and heard "Umbabarauma"—a song I recognized, and already loved—I knew I'd come to the right place.
José Feliciano, "Golden Lady"
Here I'm trying to backdoor some Stevie Wonder, by sneaking in one of my favorite songs from my favorite Wonder album, as interpreted by somebody else. I'll write more about Wonder and Innervisions when their appointed time comes around, and will attempt to explain why songs like this one get at the essence of pop, and all its potential for transcendence and beauty. Wonder's best songs work even when someone else is singing them. And, y'know, José Feliciano, you got no complaints.
José González, "Crosses"
González's music keeps popping up on TV shows and in movies, so I guess he's becoming something of a cult figure, which is probably the ideal fate for an Argentinean Swede who plucks out pretty folk songs indebted to The Beatles, Nick Drake and Joao Gilberto. I liked his first album Veneer the instant I heard it, and wrote about it that, "It's an intimate expression of all that's beautiful and terrifying in the world, recorded by one man in the dark of night in a quiet room." After initially finding the follow up In Our Nature to be a bit of a retread, I eventually recognized it as a stronger album than Veneer, writing, "González seems preoccupied with human impulses—particularly violent ones—and nearly all of the songs on the record have an urgent, in medias res feel, as though someone switched on the tape after González had been playing for a while, and worked himself up to a high level of intensity." But nothing he's yet written and recorded tops Veneer's "Crosses," two-and-half-minutes of crystalline acoustic guitar, evocative imagery, and overpowering want.
Josef K, "Radio Drill Time"
This song is from the waning days of the original post-punk era, and sports edgy Joy Division/Echo & The Bunnymen-style moroseness alongside the kind of bright jangle common to Josef K's fellow Scots Orange Juice and Aztec Camera. It's no accident that this sound was so immediately popular among young bands in the various UK scenes: there's a kind of unearned gravity about it, making relatively trouble-free post-adolescents sound more mature and significant than they actually were. It's instant stature.
Josh Ritter, "Lillian Egypt"
I'm still waiting to be wowed by Ritter, an obviously accomplished singer-songwriter that many people—including many of my friends—think is possibly the best of the neo-folk-rockers. At the moment, I'm still in the "song here, song there" stage with Ritter, although I liked pretty much all of The Animal Years (an album I described as "a record so rich, rootsy, and timeless that it's like it's been buried underground for 30 years"), and a good portion of last year's The Historical Conquests Of. If I hesitate to go completely ga-ga for Ritter, it's because I'm not hearing a lot of songs in his catalog as immediately likable as this one off The Animal Years. I think his music sounds better the more he fleshes it out in the studio—so long as he doesn't go overboard with it, making the orchestration more important the composition. Then again, The Animal Years gets the balance right remarkably often, so I'm sure Ritter's got a Court & Spark waiting for him, just around the corner.
Josie & The Pussycats, "Every Beat Of My Heart"
I spent a fair chunk of this past Saturday morning at a family-friendly community event which featured an appearance by the Radio Disney van, and a set of games, dances and songs organized by a team of well-rehearsed, wholesome teenage girls, likely drafted out of high school theater classes and cheerleading squads. My kids found the Radio Disney girls transfixing, for different reasons: my son because they behaved like game show hosts, which may be his favorite occupation outside of meteorologist; and my daughter because I think they reminded her of a combination of preschool teachers and TV kids' show entertainers. My daughter's only three (about to be four), so she's not at the Disney Channel/Hannah Montana stage yet, and I don't know how I'll feel about it when she gets there. I've joked since she was born that I'd like her to be a dumpy, bookish child who blossoms when she goes to college, so I won't have to worry about her fighting off the advances of teenage boys. But at the same time, since neither my wife and I were ever fashionable or cool in our adolescence, it might be an appealing novelty to raise a girly-girl social butterfly, obsessed with whatever version of High School Musical or Josie & The Pussycats is fighting for the tween dollar in the late 2010s. Though given her genetic makeup, it's more likely that she'll be listening to the next generation Josie with her best friend—someone equally gawky and nerdy—and it'll be the one time of day where they feel in communion to the popular crowd.
Judy Collins, "I'll Keep It With Mine"
Judy Henske, "High Flyin' Bird"
One surprising thing about the box set Forever Changing: Golden Age Of Elektra is how Judy Collins-heavy it is. Today, Collins is more of a footnote to the '60s and '70s folk-pop era, remembered as much for her TV appearances and her hit covers of Joni Mitchell and Stephen Sondheim songs than for her longevity, or the fact that she was one of Elektra's flagship artists. Collins is more of an interpreter than an originator, though she has an amazing voice, and can make even a song as tricky as this Dylan classic sound mainstream. By contrast, fellow Elektra signee Judy Henske took an approach to traditional folk that had her submerging into a song and roughing it up, striving to create a one-of-a-kind moment that requires the listener to reach out some. If you had to assign gender stereotypes to each of these songs, you could say that Collins is more giving and therefore more feminine, while Henske leans masculine. But both recordings are amazing.
Judy Garland, "If Love Were All"
As a singer, Garland's always been a little too broad and theatrical for my taste, but she's made such an impression as an actor and performer that if I just hear her voice, I can picture her face and her gestures. The appealing thing about Garland on film is that in a studio system era that prized bland beauty, Garland often looked ragged and disheveled, even as she was hitting her marks like a pro. When I talk about Liza Minnelli in a couple of weeks, I'll get into the idea that some singers can be fake and sincere at the same time, but with Garland, the fakeness was never as transparent as it is with her daughter. Garland gave her all, even when she didn't feel like it, and that's what wrung her out. Well, that and lots and lots of pills.
Juicy Bananas, "Bad Man"
I've written before about "acquiring" the Repo Man soundtrack, but I didn't say much about what that record meant to me. Aside from being an early sampler of the early '80s LA punk scene, the Repo Man OST was also a souvenir of a movie and sensibility that only a handful of people in my high school were aware of, which meant a song like "Bad Man"—with its dialogue recitations and offbeat badass posturing—was something we could share, like a secret language. Thanks to video stores, the '80s were a great time for cult films, and at times it seemed like my friends and I were carrying on whole conversations that were little more than quotes from Repo Man, Raising Arizona, Blue Velvet, John Hughes movies, and whatever we'd rented on our last movie night. And when I was stuck at home—carless and friendless—I could always break out the soundtracks, and still feel connected.
The Juliana Hatfield Trio, "My Sister"
Having failed to write about The Blake Babies back in the "B"s, I couldn't skip Hatfield, even though her solo career is pretty much nonexistent to me after 1993's Become What You Are. I'm not sure how Hatfield went from being one of the most promising artists of her generation to being something of a joke and a hack. Maybe it was her association with unreliable druggie Evan Dando, or maybe her unfortunate comments about still being a virgin in her mid-20s. (The rock press will always seize on anything sex-related that a female artist says, and make that part of the lead in every profile for years to come.) Or maybe it's just that she never developed her musical chops beyond the simplistic grunge-pop that sounded so appealing when she started out. It's too bad really, because when speaking about the history of rock written from a distinctly feminine experience, Hatfield's songs about alt-rock crushes, feeling ugly, and the slippery nature of sorority have to be part of the curriculum.
June Christy with The Stan Kenton Orchestra, ""Are You Livin' Old Man?"
I watch a lot of old movies on TCM, and one of my favorite recurring moments in films of the '40s are the scenes where the hero goes to a nightclub—or a varsity review, or a swank soiree—and some elegantly dressed lady steps up to a microphone and sings a song laced with jive-speak. I dig the "slumming" aspect of these scenes, as a room full of swells plays at being Harlem hepcats, secure in the knowledge that they can leave the lingo behind when it's time to retire to the library for brandy and cigars and murder plots.
Junior Boys, "Like A Child"
Junior Senior, "Rhythm Bandits"
One of the reasons why I liked Junior Boys' debut LP Last Exit so much was that it reminded me of the homemade electronic music that one of my high school friends used to make: simple, minimalist stuff that operated in that shadowy area between avant-garde and commercial. Junior Boys' follow-up So This Is Goodbye is more polished, but retains an interest in accessibility and exploration. There's a sweetness to the conciliatory "Like A Child," and a precision that reflects human aspiration—a striving to be better. As I once wrote about So This Is Goodbye, "It isn't really built for hot clubs, flashing lights and moments of uncontrollable passion; It's designed be heard on the way home at 2 AM, when the hard beats have faded to a dull echo in the ears, and the sweat begins to cool." Junior Senior, meanwhile, is all about getting people off their ass and on the floor, which they achieve by slamming together samples over jumpy rhythms, then adding cheerleader-ready chants. It's motivational music.
Junior Walker & The All-Stars, "Shake And Fingerpop"
My wife put this song on one of the first mixtapes she ever made for me, and it was one of the first indications that musically, our romance might not be one-sided. Generally speaking, I came into this relationship with a wider base of musical knowledge than Donna, but she has her fields of expertise, including early blues and R&B.; I knew "Shotgun" by Walker and company, but I hadn't previously heard this similar track, which is awesome in any number of ways, from its opening line "Put on your wig, woman!" to the way the guitar goes into double-time every time the title is sung. As soon as I heard "Shake And Fingerpop," I knew I had to stick close to any woman who had access to such wonders.
Jurassic 5, "Monkey Bars"
Easily one of the best hip-hop acts of the '00s, Jurassic 5 is also that rare group of musicians that seems to undermine themselves every time they strive for chart success. Generally speaking, there's nothing wrong with selling out—the world needs good radio-ready pop songs every bit as much as it needs self-indulgent experimentation—but J5's commercial instincts have been kind of crummy. The band's 1997 EP and the 2000 LP Quality Control had them rewinding hip-hop about 15 years and starting on a new path that resembled the old school but was more forward-thinking. On Power In Numbers and Feedback—two mostly good but fairly scattered records—they tried to forge that path back towards the middle of the road, and lost some of the assuredness that made those early records so exciting. (Losing Cut Chemist before Feedback didn't help either.) Thus far, hip-hop hasn't been a genre ripe with comebacks by acts who've declined, but I'm still hopeful that Jurassic 5 will be an exception, especially since they have yet to suck outright. Maybe now they'll take what they've learned about the mainstream and set off on their own, yet again.
K. McCarty, "Walking The Cow"
McCarty was one of Daniel Johnston's friends in his Austin days, and one of the first to realize the potential of his rough-hewn, idiosyncratic songs. "Walking The Cow" has been recorded multiple times—including a jangly take by fellow Austinites The Reivers—but McCarty's version is my favorite, mainly because of the way the strings and guitars mirror each other, giving a buzzsaw edge to something beautiful. That's Johnston's music in a nutshell.
k.d. lang, "Miss Chatelaine"
One of the most amazing things about lang's career is how she's made the transgressive wholly normal. It's my understanding—though I could be wrong—that this is a song about a transvestite cabaret performer, and just as lang made the idea of a butch-looking lesbian belting honky tonk tearjerkers seem as natural as tumbleweeds, here she reclaims sexiness and glamour for same-sex couples and the unrepentantly fabulous.
Kaiser Chiefs, "Everything Is Average Nowadays"
I was impressed with Kaiser Chiefs' debut album Employment, which seemed like a mini-compendium of Britpop through the ages, as the band followed secret passages between the old and the new. I wasn't as impressed by the follow-up LP Yours Truly, Angry Mob, which seemed like an attempt to compete directly with the likes of Arctic Monkeys, The Kooks and Razorlight by serving up lazily hooky songs with overcranked arrangements.† In the context of an exceedingly slack record, "Everything Is Average Nowadays" sounds like self-condemnation, and as such may be the most charged, personal song Kaiser Chiefs have yet recorded.
Kajagoogoo, "Too Shy"
Only in the Culture Club/Duran Duran era could a song this slinky become a hit. Produced by Nick Rhodes, "Too Shy" casts the Duran Duran keyboardist's Chic fetish in a new light, by riding a disco groove that's been slowed down and pulled apart, so that the bass no longer pops but just punches, softly.
Kaki King, "Jessica"
As I wrote about …Until We Felt Red two years ago,† "Kaki King is a virtuoso guitarist by trade, though her particular gifts are more suited to textured indie-rock songs than New Age, and the songs on her new record—produced by alt-rock legend John McEntire—could pass for some of the softer passages of Lush or My Bloody Valentine, or any other of those early '90s dreampop bands that prized environment over melody. Even when King adds her voice to the mix, as she does on the album-opening 'Yellowcake' and the airily plodding 'Jessica,' her breathy tone works with the skittering acoustic guitar and distant slide to create an atmosphere not unlike a sun-dappled clearing in the woods. She evokes the feeling of sudden storms and their immediate wake."
Kaleidoscope, "Love Games"
The big gimmick for the late-'60s American psychedelic act—as opposed to the late-'60s British psychedelic act of the same name—was the addition of exotic folk instruments and sounds to the usual garage-rock fuzz and happy love vibes. Here, they come off like the unacknowledged forefathers of Camper Van Beethoven, dressing up a catchy pop song with a trippy vibe borrowed from the Far East.
Karen Dalton, "Something Is On Your Mind"
A staple of the '60s Greenwich Village folk scene, Dalton sang in a mewling voice that recalled Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, with a thick streak of Mother Maybelle Carter. Her recently reissued album In My Own Time puts that voice in the context of hippie Americana, in songs that follow loping rhythms and rely on loose fiddles and brassy horns. This song is like a miniature battle between Dalton's voice, the funereal rhythms, and the free-ranging violin. Dalton, as always, wins the day. Even as she trails off to a mutter at the end, we still strain to hear what she's going to say next.
Kasey Chambers, "The Captain"
Unlike a couple of other Australian country artists, Chambers hasn't really had major success in the states, though she did receive a boost when this title track from her debut album popped up in the closing credits of an episode of The Sopranos. It's well-used on the show, too, making reference to the ill-fated ascendancy of Ralph Cifaretto, as well as to the me-first impulses of Tony Soprano as he begins his affair with Gloria Trillo. Of course Chambers had none of that in mind when she wrote and recorded "The Captain," but once a song is out there in the world, it finds its own way, making associations that its creators couldn't have imagined.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Joseph Arthur, Joshua Redman, Judy Collins, Julie London, June & The Exit Wounds, Junior Kimbrough, Kansas, Kansas City Five/Six, Karl Hendricks Trio and Kate & Anna McGarrigle
listened to: Joolz,
Jordan Zevon, Joseph Spence, Josephine Taylor, Josh Joplin,
Turner, Joshua Rifkin, Joss Stone, Joy
Electric, Joy Zipper, Joyce Green, JR Ewing,
Jude, Judy Clay, Julie Doiron & The Wooden Stars, Julie
Miller, Julius Airwave, Jumbo, The June Brides, June
Christy, The June Spirit, Junius, Jupiter Coyote, Justin Bond & The Hungry
March Band, Justine Electra, k-Os,
K-Taro, K.C.& The Sunshine Band,
Kaada, Kacey Jones,
Kaddisfly, Kahimi Karie, Kaito, The
Kaldirons, Kamikaze Hearts, Karen O, Karl Blau, The Karminsky Experiment,
Karrin Allyson and Katamine
Program note: I'll be out of town next week, and won't be able to write or post, so the next column will be in two weeks, and will be labeled "Weeks 24 & 25."