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.
Here's a big question that most writers (myself included) really don't want to know the answer to: Do people read us because they're interested in what we have to say, or because they're interested in the subjects we're writing about? Speaking as someone who's every bit as much of a consumer of the media soup as I am a contributor to it, I find that I lean both ways on the matter. If I opened up a magazine and discovered that one of my favorite contemporary critics or essayists had devoted a couple of thousands words to a subject I'd ordinarily find dull or even repellent—tax law say, or the love life of Denise Richards—I'd assume they'd found a way to make it interesting, and I'd dig in eagerly. But when faced with an entire collection by that writer, well, I might be tempted to skim a chapter that didn't immediately grab me. I've got multiple volumes of Pauline Kael's criticism, for example, but I don't think I've ever read her review of the 1976 Sarah Bernhardt biopic The Incredible Sarah.
I've been thinking about this lately because I've noticed a tendency in readers to react with hostility when one of their favorite publications interviews someone or reviews something that they think is unworthy. I mentioned this last week in my "Stray Tracks" entry on Linkin Park (an entry which, somewhat ironically, a few readers took issue with my writing at all, given that I ignored or under-covered some acts last week that probably deserved a little more space). There was also some grumbling in The TV Club last week when Donna reviewed—and panned—the latest Disney Channel movie Camp Rock. The argument against the review seemed to be, "We already knew this thing was going to suck, so why waste our time and yours writing something that says it sucks?" My response? There was always a chance that Camp Rock might not have sucked—after all, Donna is a fan of High School Musical—and anyway, we're talking about a TV movie that scored high ratings, and is on its way to becoming another pre-teen cultural phenomenon, a la HSM. If critics completely ignore such things, then we're in danger of becoming just what some of the critics-of-critics accuse us of being: out-of-touch hipster snobs who've spent so long in our little bubbles that we think the world at large really cares what Joanna Newsom is up to.
The trick for any publication is to find a good balance between what we're interested in and what our core readership expects. But that's tough when it comes to music. There are always going to be readers—regardless of the publication—who feel like their music review needs aren't being met. It's reasonable to expect a weekly paper to keep up with all the movies that come out, but it's almost impossible to keep pace with all the records, which means that some genres that appeal to a more select base—like country, jazz, metal or classical—typically only get ink in general interest pop culture pubs when an undeniable buzz builds around a given record.
Thus you end up with are a hundred different media outlets all weighing in on the same piece of music in the same week, and to some extent being afraid not to cover it. And when a publication zags where everyone else zigs, their peers can get antsy. I recall a mild outcry when Nick Hornby dedicated a lengthy New Yorker column to praising Philly roots-rockers Marah, with some rival columnists noting how out of touch Hornby's Marah fandom made him look. After all, who cares about Marah? (Well, I do, for one—but that's a subject for later.)
Yet if criticism and coverage were all a matter of totaling up who has the "right" opinions and the "right" people on their front pages, then there wouldn't be much need to read more than one publication, since they'd all be pretty much the same. There has to be space for writers with a distinct take to review something obscure or disreputable, or to interview someone they think has something to say, no matter how un-hip they may be.
(And I think it's up to readers to understand that while publications can have tendencies and leanings, they're made up of individual writers with individual opinions. I've noticed that when it comes to reviews, readers tend not to notice bylines, so they don't understand how a website can give a "B" to My Morning Jacket and a "B+" to Coldplay—ignoring that the reviews were written by two different people, who might have entirely different takes on those respective bands.)
But at the same time, I think it would be a mistake for any general interest pop culture publication to cockily avoid the subjects that everyone else is writing about, in the name of being different. There's almost nothing in popular culture that I don't think is worthy fodder for a writer with something to say, and that includes the subjects that everybody else is writing about that week. I had an editor once who tried so hard to think outside the box that he'd demand his writers justify their request to cover whatever the hot album of the week happened to be. "What's your angle?" he'd ask, before we'd even had a chance to hear the record in question. "What more is there to say about The Flaming Lips?" I never said what I wanted to say—what nearly every writer thinks when an editor asks a question like that. "My angle?" I'd think. "My angle is that I'll be writing about it."
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operations 1966-73
Fits Between The Strawberry Alarm Clock and Syd Barrett
Personal Correspondence Because Arthur Lee and Love were considered a footnote to the '60s rock canon when I was growing up—sort of "for aficionados only"—I didn't catch up to them until I was well into my 30s, at which point Lee and Bryan MacLean's peculiar, existential take on being young and idle in Los Angeles struck me as more poignant than it might've when I was young and idle myself. Even after listening to Forever Changes a few dozen times, I still find that record almost shocking in its modernity, from strange little lines like "the snot is caked against my pants" to the little flourishes of brass and strings that sound like a little kid's idea of what the grown-ups are listening to. It's just an astonishingly lively and lovely album—and it hardly stands alone in the Love catalog. The band was aspiring to a certain twilight atmosphere as early as its more garage-oriented debut album, on songs like tense, yearning, MacLean-penned semi-ballad "Softly To Me." Then Da Capo set the stage for Forever Changes, which flopped so resoundingly that Love retreated into a more popular style of acid rock—and not without some artistic success. But it's that progression to Forever Changes—and the way that album hovers above the fray of late '60s psychedelia—that's the important Love story, and the one that should be told even to novice rock historians.
Enduring presence? The Love legacy—like that if their east coast contemporaries The Velvet Underground—continues to spread wide. You can hear the Love in scores of L.A. cult acts, from The Gun Club to Eels, and in countless indie-rockers who play with ornate orchestration in the purple shadows of early evening.
Years Of Operation 1993-present
Fits Between Red House Painters and Galaxie 500
Personal Correspondence Windham Hill titled its 20th anniversary box set A Quiet Revolution, but that slogan could just as easily be applied to Low, a band who emerged in the midst of the grunge era and thus garnered a lot of attention for doing not much. The first time I heard Low's debut album I Could Live In Hope, I froze when I got to "Fear," a syrup-slow song that uses whispery voices, deep echo and empty spaces to express a starkness of feeling that I found both beautiful and painful—like a multi-colored bruise. Back then, a Low show drew crowds that would sit cross-legged and transfixed on some barroom or record store floor, afraid to cough lest they break the spell. The band's on-again/off-again career—which has survived label switches and personnel shuffling and embarrassing public confessions of personal failure—has taken some cues from those early Low fans. More than most bands, Low understands how even a slight disruption can be a major hassle, so they do what they can to prolong and sustain.
Enduring presence? Like Stereolab, Belle & Sebastian, and other bands that have built a fan base by exploring minute variations of a singular sound, Low has persistently had to contemplate what it means to progress. When the band stays the course, it gets knocked for making albums that are essentially indistinguishable. When it attempts significant change, the old guard complains that something vital has been sapped. Low started making some interesting forward strides with 2005's The Great Destroyer, with producer David Fridmann helping to unleash the rock 'n' roll aggression that had always rumbled beneath the surface of the band's hushed, spare presentation. But it's not like Low hasn't thrown a few curves before—most notably with 2001's Things We Lost In The Fire, which also offered up a lusher and more forceful Low. And it's not like they haven't reserved the right to retreat into drone; last year's Drums And Guns (also recorded with Fridmann) relies more on exotic rhythms, but the sound is still essentially slow and soft. Ultimately, Low is all about contrast. In the band's early days, it stood apart from what alt-rock was promoting at the time. Later, on a song like "On The Edge Of," Low would create its own storm of reverb, then scurry back to extreme minimalism, illustrating the value of the still.
Years Of Operation 1998-present
Fits Between The Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers
Personal Correspondence My wife and I moved to Arkansas in 1999, beginning my second stint in the state following a miserable stretch my family served in 1976-'77. This second go-round has been a lot better, as I've gotten a feel for the character of this state: a place of rich culture and deep poverty, with an odd mix of conservative and progressive politics. (We're dubbed a "red state," even though our governor, an overwhelming majority of our state legislature and most of our congressional delegation are Democrats.) Arkansas borders Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi, and seems to draw pieces of identity from each: from the dust and the delta, the west and the east, the heartland and the hinterlands. Lucero comes from Memphis, which straddles the border between Tennessee and Arkansas, and bandleader Ben Nichols has built much of Lucero's personality around the emotional climate of East Arkansas and West Tennessee—the towns that are little more than exits off I-40, and the people who are implanted there, watching the cars go by. I distrusted Nichols' intentions the first time I heard Lucero, because I'd read that he was a Memphis punker who turned to country-rock because he thought it would be easier to play, and because he tends to work in the increasingly fallow, dirge-y side of the genre, where self-absorbed mopes impose unearned misery on overprivileged record buyers. But Nichols' opportunism—if it can be called that, since the band's hardly getting rich—mainly demonstrates an implicit understanding of how roots-rock can express a nuance that hardcore punk has trouble with. Lucero's arrangements are fairly organic, almost as though the band decides to play loud or soft or fast or slow on the spot, cueing off Nichols' Darkness On The Edge Of Town-era Springsteen moods. They're like the roads that crisscross the south: bumpy one moment, smooth the next, and always under construction.
Enduring presence? Thus far, Lucero has yet to top its second album. Tennessee, though every record since has been good. The band's biggest stumbling block is also one of its assets: Nichols' voice, which holds to an exaggerated grunt that's like Bob Seger with a throat full of phlegm. Lucero doesn't range too far beyond the narrow parameters that Nichols' voice has almost forced them to dwell in, but what they've done with that space is often impressive.
Years Of Operation 1992-2000
Fits Between The Beastie Boys and ESG
Personal Correspondence Even if Luscious Jackson hadn't been as good a band as they turned out to be, they'd still be noteworthy for the way they blended hip-hop and indie-rock so unselfconsciously, with an innate understanding that in the '90s, those kind of genre distinctions were becoming increasingly irrelevant. Luscious Jackson's seminal debut EP In Search Of Manny is lo-fi but assertive, offering catchy, funky songs like "Keep On Rockin' It" that also present a blunt take on femininity. Over the course of three albums—all good-to-great—Luscious Jackson's sound gained a surface polish but remained, at its core, expansive and earthy and personal. I actually had a hard time settling on a sample track to include with this entry. I think the one I chose will let down my wife—a huge Luscious Jackson fan who prefers the later albums—but it's one that speaks to the band's whims and whimsy. It's the seed from which a too-short career bloomed.
Enduring presence? I saw LJ live at Nashville's legendary Exit/In on the Natural Ingredients tour, and they put on a surprisingly tight and fun show for four women who started out as home recording enthusiasts. I once read a quote from one of the Jacksons who said she wanted to make the band's music sound like the War concert her parents took her to in Central Park one summer Sunday afternoon when she was 10. I think she came close fairly often—whenever the band whipped up something simultaneously joyous and moody.
Years Of Operation 1985-present
Fits Between Guy Clark and Loudon Wainwright III
Personal Correspondence Like Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and a handful of fellow travelers in the mid-'80s, Lyle Lovett briefly made country radio safe again for people who lamented the end of the songwriter-oriented outlaw country era, and he eventually became one of those rare country acts more beloved by rock and pop fans than country radio listeners. I heard "If I Had A Boat" in a friend's car when I was in high school, and was immediately enamored of Lovett's quirky point-of-view, which reminded me a little of a Texas version of Robyn Hitchcock. And like Hitchcock, what's impressed me about Lovett over the years is how his catchy little novelty numbers cumulatively become less funny-ha-ha than funny-strange—then ultimately a little unsettling. Again and again in his songs, the mild-mannered Lovett adopts the voice of the disgruntled, diagramming the geometry of envy and acting out revenge scenarios in his mind. Lovett's music can be lilting, moving, even uplifting, but there's a ball of bile tugging at even his most buoyant numbers. To put on one of his records is to enter Lovett World, which can be a very forbidding place to be. I once spent about three months trapped inside Joshua Judges Ruth after my college girlfriend dumped me. I don't recommend it.
Enduring presence? Lovett's pace has slowed in the '00s as he's dabbled in movies (and movie stars), but that's probably for the best. His is the kind of sound and style that can be spoiled by flooding the market. Let him be like his mentor Guy Clark, and not release an album until he has enough good songs. His fans aren't likely to switch brands.
Years Of Operation 1970-77 (essentially)
Fits Between Cream and The Allman Brothers
Personal Correspondence Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers grapples sensitively and meaningfully with the Skynyrd legacy in the song "The Three Great Alabama Icons," in which he describes feeling conflicted about the band as a kid because so many Skynyrd fans were so obnoxious and redneckish. Then he listened to the music more closely and heard a complexity in the playing and the subject matter that belied the band's rebels-to-the-end image. For me, the quintessential Lynyrd Skynyrd song is the anti-drug anthem "That Smell," which is the kind of cautionary tale that also revels in the images of destruction and decay—not unlike an old EC horror comic. In so many of the best Skynyrd songs, the band seems to take pleasure in contradiction. Consider "Sweet Home Alabama," with its line "in Birmingham they love the governor" followed by the background singers cooing "boo boo boo." In a single five-second stretch, Lynyrd Skynyrd at once embraces regional pride and notes its drawbacks. To some extent, being a southern man means having to embrace racists and race-baiters. It's a heavy price to pay for good sweet tea.
Enduring presence? In the CD era, popular bands have seen their catalogs get repackaged so many times that at this point it's hard to find a disc by them at the record store that's not a greatest hits collection. And yet the Lynyrd Skynyrd anthology that I grew up with, Gold & Platinum, is out of print on CD, and to my mind hasn't been replaced by anything better, no matter how many "Millennium Collection"s or "Playlist Plus"es or "Essential"s the Universal media group releases each year. My only complaints about Gold & Platinum (which I still have on vinyl): It's missing "Working For MCA," and I'm now at a point in my life where I prefer the studio "Free Bird" to the live version. (Some credit for that is due to the climactic scene of The Devil's Rejects.) Still, in two discs and 80 minutes, Gold & Platinum neatly and exactly summed up one of the smartest, snappiest, hardest-rocking southern rock bands of the '70s. Can't greatest hits collections be considered classics too?
Years Of Operation 1999-present
Fits Between Bright Eyes and Bonne "Prince" Billy
Personal Correspondence The first M. Ward album I heard was 2003's Transfiguration Of Vincent, and I resisted his music initially, dismissing him as just another "guy with guitar." But there were so many songs on that record that I kept coming back to—"Vincent O'Brien," "Helicopter," "Out Of My Head," the cover of "Let's Dance," and especially the mellow, mournful "Undertaker"—that I eventually had to admit to myself that Ward wasn't in any way typical, and that I was becoming a fan of his dusty, vintage style, cracked vocals, and that fluttery guitar (which sounds like it blew in on an island breeze). I know Ward has plenty of detractors, who think he relies too much on pastiche, and that he's making dull, pleasant music for dull, pleasant people. Even if that were true, I'm not sure why it would be any great aesthetic crime. (We dull, pleasant people have to listen to something, after all.) But I actually think that Ward's music is deceptively accessible. On his last solo album Post-War, the songs were charged with a bouncy spirit, but they also contained an underlying weirdness. Even as Ward's being positive and reassuring, he's winking a little, and the jauntiness can feel a little sucked-dry. The songs may be warmly familiar, but they only provide cold comfort.
Enduring presence? Given his origins as a minimalist folkie, I've also been impressed with how Ward has expanded his style from record to record, trying out sea chanties, campfire songs, carny barks and varsity rags—whatever sounds charmingly out-of-date.
Years Of Operation 1982-present
Fits Between Donna Summer and Britney Spears
Personal Correspondence Outside of an adolescent fascination with Madonna's "Material Girl" video—especially the part where she arches her back, touches her upper chest with her gloved hands, and sings, "Now they're after me-ee"—I'd never given much thought to the biggest pop star of the last 25 years until I made a friend in college who wanted so badly to be a hitmaking musician that he conducted an academic study of the careers of George Michael and Madonna. I remember a group gathering in his dorm room the night the "Like A Prayer" video premiered, all of us treating this moment like it really mattered. And you know, for that moment—and that moment alone—it kinda did. I got caught up in the hype, and the idea of sharing something with millions of other people around the world at the same time, and for about five minutes I liked the song and the video. Then I heard "Like A Prayer" on the radio the next day and went, "Oh." That's the thing about Madonna: so many of her songs are more like soundtracks to her videos, and without the images, even something as catchy as "Material Girl" or "Vogue" comes off more synthetic and theoretical. (And the images don't work without the music either; I found a used French edition of her Sex book about a month after its big release, and found an inanimate, songless Madonna to be thoroughly unerotic.) To me, the most consistently listenable Madonna songs are her earliest hits like "Holiday," "Borderline" and "Lucky Star," which were crafted for the dance floor and the radio, and have an insouciance almost thoroughly unrelated to the generic voice that's singing them.
Enduring presence? There are multiple stumbling blocks to my becoming a Madonna fan, the most significant one being that she really can't sing worth a damn. Add to that to her unappealing attention-whoredom and her persistent co-option of existing musical trends (mistakenly labeled "innovation" by her supporters) and I'd say I find Madonna annoying more often than not. But she's clearly a genius when it comes to self-promotion and media manipulation, and I think popular culture needs people like her to serve as our signposts, guiding us from era to era and trend to trend. Also, I dig "Ray Of Light."
The Magnetic Fields
Years Of Operation 1990-present
Fits Between Scott Walker and Gary Numan
Personal Correspondence I missed all the early albums (save one), took about a year to pick up 69 Love Songs after it was released (in my defense, it was hard to find for a while), and because of Popless, I have yet to hear a single note of Distortion. For some reason, when it comes to The Magnetic Fields, I keep arriving late to the party, after everyone else has moved on. Probably because of that, I've never been more than a casual fan of any of Stephin Merritt's projects, even though I acknowledge that he's an incredible songwriter, and that if I put together a compilation of my favorites among his songs, it would probably run about two hours. The one time I had a chance to engage with a Magnetic Fields album and write about it when it came out was with 2004's i, about which I wrote: "The five-year layoff between The Magnetic Fields' celebrated three-CD set 69 Love Songs and its new record probably has any number of sensible explanations, but it's hard not to imagine Stephin Merritt freezing a bit under the pressure. 69 Love Songs was like Minutmen's Double Nickels On The Dime or Prince's 1999: one of those minor miracles that occur when fringe musicians test their capabilities in a flurry of creativity. Moreover, it was so diverse, proving Merritt's facility with just about any genre. The question wasn't only how Merritt could follow it up, but what style he'd settle on. Musically, i mostly adheres to the modified, indie-friendly, new romantic technopop that Merritt pioneered back in the early '90s, though there's been less 'techno' in The Magnetic Fields' pop of late, as Merritt's been replacing his synthesizers with real instruments. Still, the slightly removed attitude remains, pitching a layer of drone over catchy songs—like a cabaret act filtered through krautrock. Conceptually, i has a simple, undemanding gimmick: every song begins with the letter 'i,' and often the word 'I.' Merritt turns his usual first-person lyrical style into a theme, making his snappy compositions into meta-statements about self-absorption. In the end, i's relaxed, quality-for-quality's-sake approach suits The Magnetic Fields as a baseline for the future. Merritt has shown himself to be a pop songsmith on a par with his personal heroes The Smiths, Elvis Costello, the Gershwin brothers and Gilbert & Sullivan, which means he doesn't need attention-grabbing grand gestures anymore." (Apparently, judging by what I've read about Distortion, Merritt disagrees.)
Enduring presence? That one Magnetic Fields album I owned back in the band's early days was The Charm Of The Highway Strip, which my editor at the time passed onto to me—not to review, but to enjoy or sell, whichever I chose. I didn't know a thing about the band (though I later did pick up all those other early records) and couldn't quite get a handle on the album's weird techno-country, but I found it striking and stirring, like a computer's interpretation of a Buck Owens album. It's still my favorite Magnetic Fields record. My pal Nathan agrees. (But then The Charm Of The Highway Strip has always the go-to synthesized C&W; album for hip-hop heads.)
Years Of Operation 1995-present
Fits Between Bruce Springsteen and The Jayhawks
Personal Correspondence Because of Kids In Philly, Marah's got something like a free pass for life from me. It's still one of my favorite albums of the '00s, and the review I wrote of it back in 2000 is one of the first ones—after a decade of reviewing—where I felt like I knew what I was doing. Here's an excerpt: "Marah's debut album Let's Cut The Crap & Hook Up Later On Tonight is spiced with banjo, accordion, and harmonica, sketching a version of city life that includes not just the suburbs but the farms and dairies just outside of town. The album sounds like the front porch jamming of traveling troubadours: a reminder that there's hardly a metropolitan area in this country that's more than an hour's drive from the country. If Marah's first album had them on a road trip to the sticks, Kids In Philly has them on a tour of the Philadelphia neighborhoods, taking the bus that we hear rumbling in the album's closing moments. Kids In Philly is in the great rock and roll tradition of 'city albums,' and like its predecessors, it's equally influenced by old-school rock, Latin rhythms, and sweet soul. The backing 'doo-doo-doo's, the pumping horns, and lyrics that reference Van Morrison and Little Richard speak to Marah's newfound need to connect the dots of rock-and-roll history, and acknowledge their home city's place in the big picture. Dave Bielanko and his brother Serge wrote some some sharp songs for the first record, but nothing compared to the brash and colorful stories that make album number two so exciting. The two Bielankos start macro and work micro, letting their candid snapshots set the scene for tales of lovers torn apart, junkies who gather under bridges, and crimes of convenience. Short, jaunty pop songs like 'Point Breeze' and 'My Heart Is The Bums on the Street' represent the musical spirit of Kids In Philly but the album's masterpiece is 'Round Eye Blues,' a Vietnam flashback that hooks the passion of Motown and Phil Spector to the inner-city youths who died in the jungle. The band's clearest influence, Bruce Springsteen, was once described as 'the future of rock and roll,' and Marah's promotional material claims they're 'The Last Rock 'N Roll Band.' If that's true, then the tightly packed, intensely focused, almost impossibly thrilling Kids In Philly must be the last rock 'n' roll album. What a way to go."
Enduring presence? The post-Kids In Philly road has been a rocky one for Marah as the Bielankos have alternated between trying to score commercially and cultivating their cult. The band's overwhelming, often confounding third album Float Away With The Friday Night Gods was practically a career killer, taking the Marah core—sing-along choruses, emotionally charged lyrical vignettes, and David Bielanko's scruffy-but-swinging vocals—and putting it in the hands of Britpop architect Owen Morris, who made the songs sound so big and busy that the record was like some weird cover project. (Aerosmith Plays Marah!) The albums since have retreated to the Kids In Philly sound, and some of the band's early supporters have been disappointed that the Bielankos haven't progressed appreciably from their initial E Street Shuffle/Saint Dominic's Preview sound. Heck, Marah hasn't even traveled as far as Born To Run and Veedon Fleece. Still, in my opinion the band has yet to make a bad album, and I always enjoy reconnecting with them every couple of years, for 40 fresh minutes of catchy tunes and commiseration.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
Louis XIV, "Paper Doll"
I can't really justify how much I like this tawdry little sleaze-rock song, which extends neo-garage into the glam era. These San Diego smutsters keep their guitars fuzzy, their beats walloping and their vocals taunting, and judging by the rest of their sophomore LP The Best Little Secrets Are Kept, they apparently also keep a bevy of willing hand-clappers and cooing female backup singers on retainer. Lead singer Jason Hill's foppish chants—in the vein of Mark. E. Smith and Ray Davies—are hilariously ribald, though his boasts of sexual prowess are undermined by the fey, faux-British accent. The most valuable Louis XIV-er is drummer Mark Maigaard, who keeps a syncopated beat while leaving room for magnificently sloppy rolls and fills. While Hill leers coolly, Maigaard gets sweaty, fulfilling the band's lurid promises.
Loverboy, "When It's Over"
I sometimes wonder if Loverboy and their ilk were conscious of the sound they created with booming power ballads like this one, or if they were just trying to keep up with the times. I know that nostalgia is a major part of why I respond to songs like "When It's Over"—with its synth fills, stunted riffs, wailing vocals and unhurried five-minute length—and why I can't stand similar songs recorded in the even more synthesized style of the late '80s. I was younger and more impressionable when "When It's Over" was a hit, so today it reminds me of poorly lit action-comedies and shopping mall parking lots.
The Lovin' Spoonful, "Darling Be Home Soon"
It's remarkable how many wunderkinds emerged the '60s—almost as though they'd been curled up in cocoons in New York and California, waiting for the climate to become favorable to their idea of pop. John Sebastian and his band The Lovin' Spoonful were instant hitmakers, and if he'd been born a decade earlier and had been given a crack at writing songs for the stars of the '50s, Sebastian probably still would've been a success. There's a quality to songs like "Darling Be Home Soon"—written for Francis Ford Coppola's movie You're A Big Boy Now—that's not beholden to any one era. But the song still sounds better when sung by Sebastian, with his smaller, needier voice. If Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin sang "Darling Be Home Soon," it would sound like a command; with Sebastian, it's an earnest request.
Lucinda Williams, "2 Cool 2 Be 4-Gotten"
Let me preface this by saying that I like Lucinda Williams, and think that she's a superior songwriter, admirable in her commitment to following her own muse—even when it leads her away from cranking out the kind of country-rock hits she could probably write with little effort. That said, whenever I read one of my critical peers rave about Williams, I feel like one those people who don't get why so many critics love The Arcade Fire or The Hold Steady. It's not Williams fault—well, not entirely—that the critics who are most devoted to her tend to use her albums as a way of railing against all they hate about modern country and rock music, but I still get a little defensive when I'm told that Williams is on some higher plane than everyone else. Again, I think she's very good. I like Car Wheel On A Gravel Road a lot, and songs like this casually incisive twanger. But I can't go to the limit and call Williams the greatest, or the last good rocker standing, or anything like that. She's always struck me as a smidgen too calculating, even in her efforts to avoid entertaining and engaging her audience.
Luke Temple, "Saturday People"
I think this is now the third time I've posted this song on The A.V. Club. I included it with my original review of Snowbeast, about which I wrote, "Luke Temple raises impossible expectations for his second LP by opening with one of the best songs of 2007, 'Saturday People,' a trilling, rolling, delightfully disjointed indie-folk anthem, packed with nonsense words delivered by Temple in a rangy, angelic voice. That voice—along with Temple's supple banjo-picking—will remind a lot of listeners of Sufjan Stevens, though Snowbeast also recalls Jeff Buckley's drama, M. Ward's atmospherics, and Feist's sense of play. Temple dabbles in timeless idioms like chamber-music and gospel, and though sometimes his free-form arrangements feel forced, Snowbeast approaches the majesty of its first song more often than not, even when Temple just builds a skeletal frame of sound and lets his voice clamber around it." And then I posted the song again with my Best Of '07 list, at the end of last year. Here it is, the middle of 2008, and I'm still not sick of "Saturday People." So if you missed it the first two times, here it is again.
My first real introduction the concepts of "shoegazer" or "dream-pop"—or whatever term you want to use for the wave of late-'80s/early-'90s bands that combined the atmospherics of Cocteau Twins with the punky fuzz of The Jesus & Mary Chain—came late one night while watching 120 Minutes, and a video from Lush's first EP Scar ran late in the second hour. I can't remember exactly which song it was, but it may well have been this one, because I remember the images as being grainy and blurry, with muted, smeary colors, and that pretty well describes "Thoughtforms" too. There's a pretty pop song beneath all the acid and rust.
Lynn Anderson, "How Can I Unlove You"
Anderson was a pop-country hitmaker extraordinaire in the early '70s, though she's not as well-remembered today, and for good reason: She didn't have much in the way of a recognizable personal style, and instead applied her blandly pretty voice and girl-next-door looks to whatever the top producers and songwriters of the day came up for her. (She was sort of the Carrie Underwood of her day.) Her biggest hit was the peppy and scornful "Rose Garden," but I like this single—penned by Joe South, for you Joe South fans!—even better, with its zooming strings and simple acknowledgment that emotional breaks ain't easy/
M83, "Don't Save Us From The Flames"
This French techno-pop act traffics in staggering waves of sound, working the giddy pomposity of '80s European movie scorers Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream and Goblin into cinematic soundscapes at one entertaining and affecting. I dearly love M83's second album Before The Dawn Heals Us and the song "Don't Save Us From The Flames," which has bandleader and primary instrumentalist Anthony Gonzalez cutting from near-silence to apocalyptic layers of drum rolls, organ, handclaps, choir and guitars. The band's debut album connected My Bloody Valentine and Brian Eno just for the hell of it, but the second one pushes distortion and drift into the realm of the sacred. Like MBV's Loveless, Before The Dawn Heals Us is meant to be digested whole, so that the listener can move through the stages of fear and hope along with Gonzales. M83 has written and recorded a kind of secular mass—dull at times and transcendent at times, but overall a stunning example of how to turn sound into ceremony.
Madness, "It Must Be Love"
I've always been a sucker for the follow-up semi-hits by bands best known for one big smash. (Yes, I know Madness had multiple smashes in the UK; but here in the States, they charted with "Our House" then more or less vanished from our pop consciousness, until sports arenas unaccountably started playing "One Step Beyond.") When I was a young pop radio listener, I assumed all these Second British Invasion bands were in it for the long haul, so I jumped on every new song, figuring that I was in the process of experiencing the kind of long-term relationship that my parents' generation had with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley. At the time, I liked this treacly midtempo ska ballad even better than "Our House," even though there's really not much to it. My 11-year-old self is still waiting for the third hit.
I find Madvillainy so freeform and off-the-wall that I can't stick with it from start to finish, but I like it in fragments, and almost prefer the interludes and intros to the actual songs. So much potential packed into a single minute.
The Mae Shi, "Crimes Of Infancy" and "Zoom Mix (excerpt)"
I think I enjoy The Mae Shi better than other, similar spazz-rockers because my first exposure to them came via a mix CD they compiled from discs their fans had made for them. In order to squeeze in as much in as possible, the band picked only the best few seconds from each song, creating an hour-long barrage of licks and one-liners. The results range from the unlistenable to the strangely enlightening, as fragments of XTC, Led Zeppelin, Television and Journey share the same space with Jay-Z, "Scratch" Perry, Andrew W.K. and various avant-garde noisemakers and forgotten indie-rockers. The experiment demolishes the idea of genre, reimagining music as an unbroken string of inspiring sound. After listening to the "Zoom Mix," I found it easier to hear The Mae Shi's own music as its own kind of ultimate mix, even though the band draws on a more limited set of influences, crashing brittle funk and abstract electronics with whimsical brat-punk. Still, The Mae Shi holds to the principle of brevity, and when an idea strikes the foursome as worth exploring, The Mae Shi hit it from every angle. (Here's a quiz for you: Can you name all the samples in this Zoom Mix sample?)
Maggie Thrett, "Soupy"
Here's another quiz: What recent (or semi-recent) song samples this oddball garage/R&B; hybrid? Whichever one it is, the artist in question has good taste, although I don't think it's possible to top the original, with its own cribs from "Shotgun" and Thrett's giddy vocals.
Malcolm McLaren, "Double Dutch"
For a brief stretch in the mid-'80s, rock critics started to razz David Byrne and Paul Simon for their appropriations of various African and South American musical styles, but has there ever been a more shameless appropriator than McLaren, who as the mastermind behind Bow Wow Wow and his own solo career has never encountered a beat he couldn't steal? Here's the question, though: Does the work of people like McLaren serve a useful purpose, drawing more attention to neglected musical styles, or does it wind up becoming a pale substitute for the original, and thus cost some talented musicians their due?
Magnolia Electric Co., "The Night Shift Lullaby"
Once Jason Molina retired the mumble and drone of Songs: Ohia for the plugged-in shack-rattling of Magnolia Electric Co., he really found his voice as a musician, discovering the power of a high slide-guitar moan, a skipping rhythm, and the gruff harmonies he shares with Jennie Benford. Benford takes the lead on the gently rocking lamentation "The Night Shift Lullaby," which sounds like it could've been bashed out from an outdoor festival stage in the late afternoon. In the past, Molina has preferred to let his songs sprawl out, but here, he keeps it fairly tight, responding to the urgency of a more rock-oriented sound. He leaves his dark room and steps out onto bumpy roads, to enjoy the sweet heat of a scorching sun.
The Mamas & The Papas, "Dedicated To The One I Love"
Here's the work of more of those lying-in-wait wunderkinds that the '60s gave the chance to blossom. What John Phillips and producer Lou Adler do with "Dedicated To The One I Love" is practically post-modern. They plug the song—and pop in general—back into the Broadway stage and the western saloon, while holding fast to the hippie melancholy that made the likes of "Monday Monday" and "California Dreamin'" into hits.
Mandy Moore, "Drop The Pilot"
There's absolutely no reason why Mandy Moore's album of '70s and '80s covers should be as entertaining as it is, but her producer John Fields picked some good material for her, contemporized the sound in that buzzy Radio Disney way, and let's face it: Moore can sing. If you can survive Moore's version of XTC's "Sense Working Overtime"—complete with synthetic record scratching, background singers, and a funky drum-'n'-bass rhythm track—you might be surprised by how nice it is to hear a modern radio-friendly pop song with more than one hook. And as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I discovered Joan Armatrading thanks to Moore's take on "Drop The Pilot"—with its combination of indelible melodies and vibrant modern sound proving so potent, and moving in its newness—and for that, I'll keep giving Coverage some coverage.
Manfred Mann, "Quinn The Eskimo"
I mentioned Manfred Mann last week in my Kinks entry as one of those bands with such an eclectic sound over their multi-decade run that it's hard to find much continuity between their different eras. I don't hear much "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy" in their cover of "Blinded By The Light," and I don't hear either song in their hit 1968 version of Bob Dylan's "The Mighty Quinn," with its stately folk-rock march.
Mannequin Men, "Pigpen"
Thirty-plus years after the proto-punk movement dissolved, young bands still dive into the sludge, bringing back the menacing bash of The Stooges and The Heartbreakers, and all the primal romanticism those bands represent. Mannequin Men's sophomore LP Fresh Rot strings together anthems of disaffection as thick as rope, and this one not-quite-a-dance-song is a prime example. It's loud, sloppy and soaring, but with an element of syrupy drag, as though the boys were playing through a heroin haze. Whether they actually are or not doesn't matter. For throwback punk, believing is everything.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Love & Rockets, Love Tractor, Ludacris, Lullaby For The Working Class, Luna, Luther Vandross, Lydia Lunch, Lyrics Born, M.I.A., Macy Gray, Mae, Magazine, The Magic Numbers, Mahalia Jackson, Manic Street Preachers and Manu Chao
listened to: Louise McCord, Love And Kisses, Love Arcade, Love Of Everything, The
Lovelies, Lovelight Shine, The Lovely Feathers, Lovers, The Lovetones, The Low
Millions, Lu Edmonds, Luca,
Lucky Guns, The Lucky
Stiffs, The Lucky Tomblin Band, Luis Bacalov, Luke Doucet,
Lull, Lume, Luna Halo, Lurkers,
Luther Russell, luvjOi, Luxury, Luxury
Stars, Luxuryliners, Lydia Pense & Cold Blood,
Lyme & Cybelle, The Lyndsay Diaries, M.I.S.T., The M's, Mabel Scott, Mable
John, Mac McAnally, Macha, Mack
Starks, Macka B, Macon Greyson, The Mad Lads,
Mad Scene, Mae Young, Maggie Estep, Magic Bullets, Magic Car, The Magic
Magicians, Magik Markers, Magnapop, Magnet,
Magneta Lane, The Magnificents, The Main Ingredient, The Majestic Arrows,
Major Lance, Make Believe, Maktub,
Malcolm Middleton, Mali Music, Man From Electone, Man In
Gray, Mando Diao, Mando Saenz, Mandy Barnett,
Manfredo Fest, Manhattens, Manitoba, Mann Friday, Manu
Dibango, Manual B. Holcolm, Maps, Maps And Atlases and The
Next week: From Maria McKee to Mercury Rev, plus the kickoff of Popless' second half