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.
Between the ages of 13 and 17, I found something like a dozen or so pornographic magazines just lying on the ground. Some were out in the woods behind our subdivision, some were sitting behind a nearby convenience store, and some were just haphazardly tossed along the side of the road. I'm pretty sure I know who left them there: kids like me, who either shoplifted the magazines or liberated them from their fathers' stashes, and then in a fit of guilt and paranoia tried to ditch them before their mothers could find out. Whatever the reason, for my pubescent self—living in a home without cable, and without a "stash" of any kind—these magazines were like an unexpected, unexplained gift. Whether you want to learn more about the intricacies of human reproduction or you just want to look at naked people, there's nothing like a discarded issue of Hustler to bring you up to speed.
Or you could just listen to Prince.
In the '80s, having ready access to Prince albums was as much of an education about sex as any dirty magazine—and about as accurate, from a clinical standpoint. But unless you belonged to one of those families where the parents sat you down and explained the facts of life (complete with illustrations from medical textbooks), sex education in my day and in my community was generally cobbled together from smutty jokes, late-night TV, R-rated movies, Judy Blume books and schoolyard chatter. In other words: you learned from whatever you could find lying on the side of the road.
Prince's sex songs were about at the level of dirty jokes, and some of his raunchier lyrics—like "You're such a hunk / So full of spunk," from Dirty Mind's "Head"—sounded like the porn-stoked fantasies of a teenage virgin. And yet, listening to Dirty Mind, or the more titillating tracks off 1999 and Purple Rain, made me feel like a gentleman of the world, sophisticated enough to appreciate the nuances and meaning of a line like, "I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth." Discovering Prince was like stumbling across a warp zone in a videogame, and jumping ahead from "adolescent" to "adult."
Sex and popular music have always been closely allied, as far back as the bawdy pub songs that world travelers made up to boast about their (likely fictional) sexual adventures. The term "rock 'n' roll" itself is a euphemism for sex, and a lot of the roadhouse blues and boogie songs that developed into rock are full of double-entrendres about "backdoors," "honeypots," "lemons" and "snakes." Even the sound of certain rock, R&B; and pop songs is sexy, between the repetitive rhythms and the climactic eruptions of guitar. Still, when Prince stopped singing coy pop ditties like "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and started singing songs like "Head," the change was refreshing. After a decade of "Afternoon Delight," a pop star was finally playing it blunt. It was like that moment in the old Saturday Night Live sketch "Tales Of Ribaldry" when the characters drop the innuendo and just say what they really mean.
Of course, some people like innuendo; some people find it sexier than directness. For one thing, there are many more creative ways to be suggestive than there are to say, "Let's do it." Also, entering the realm of sexually active adulthood can feel like becoming a member of a special club—not unlike that episode of Family Ties where Alex loses his virginity then spends the next morning lounging around his house in a smoking jacket. When people who aren't in the club get to share the lingo and learn the secret handshake, it makes the club a little less special. Plus, it's all too easy for frankness to shade into something more repellant. Though pornography is often unfairly demonized, the people who like to pretend that it is—or should be—mainstream entertainment are equally off-base. The world of sexually explicit material doesn't have that many boundaries; walk in looking for some pictures of nice-looking people getting it on, and soon people are trying to sell you pictures where they humiliate each other, or simulate illegal acts. It can get pretty depressing.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to discount the liberating effect that sexually explicit material can have on those who need it, whether because they were raised in a strict religious home, or they're gay, or they don't have any friends they feel comfortable sharing dirty jokes with. Knowing that other people are out there thinking about sex, talking about sex, having sex… it can be awfully reassuring. Finding a piece of music or a book or a movie that depicts sexual desire in a straightforward way is like finding money. So it's a tricky balance. It's difficult to write songs that evoke the natural processes of pleasure without stooping to pandering. But sex is such a significant part of what drives us that it can't be totally taboo as a topic for musicians. (Just maybe a little taboo—to preserve the illicit thrill.)
Perhaps inspired by the accidental porn discoveries and Prince-listening of my youth, I have a recurring dream I call "The Secret City Dream," where I find myself walking or driving through a familiar neighborhood, until I turn a corner and find a street or a building that I've never seen before. When I enter, sometimes I find books or albums that have never existed, full of amazing songs and stories that explain the world in a way that's more vivid and satisfying than anything I've ever heard or seen. And sometimes I find a brothel.
I'm not sure which version of the dream I prefer.
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1982-present (?)
Fits Between Aztec Camera and Todd Rundgren
Personal Correspondence I tackled Prefab Sprout at reasonable length in a blog post I wrote in honor of the Steve McQueen reissue last year, so I'll refer you all back to that for an explanation on why I so love the Sprout. But a few addenda: Prefab Sprout have recorded seven LPs thus far—none since 2001—and not all of them have gotten their due. There's not a clunker in the bunch, though 2001's The Gunman And Other Stories is relatively weak, and the 1988 mainstream push From Langley Park To Memphis is problematic, despite containing some of the Paddy McAloon's best songs. (I should also confess that I've always found the acclaimed Protest Songs to be a little dull.) The band's two clear masterpieces—and acknowledged as such—are Steve McQueen and Jordan: The Comeback, but the two Prefab Sprout albums I maintain the most personal affection for are Swoon and Andromeda Heights. The former I found in a bargain bin a few months after falling for Steve McQueen (or Two Wheels Good, as it was known here in the states). Swoon sounds a lot like the later Prefab Sprout albums from a compositional perspective, but the sound is much earthier—more like '70s FM than '80s adult contemporary. And because Swoon was relatively unheralded, I felt like I had that record all to myself, left alone to parse its soft white-boy funk and oddball songs about chess grandmasters. (Not that I shared the other Prefab Sprout records with many folks either; aside from my wife, I've never been able to convince any of my friends of McAloon's majesty.) As for Andromeda Heights, it's never been released in the U.S., so I bought an import copy in the early days of Internet commerce, and again felt like I had my hands on an album that was my little secret. Andromeda Heights is broader than the other Prefab Sprout records, and more directly beholden to Broadway and adult-pop sentimentality, but its loosely connected set of songs about "stars"—both celestial and showbiz—partly excuses the grand, sparkly gestures. It also helps that those songs are drop-dead gorgeous.
Enduring presence? McAloon is an eccentric dude who's reportedly started and scrapped dozens of Prefab Sprout records, and he's had some health issues in recent years too, so no one really knows if we'll ever hear him or Prefab Sprout again. But honestly, I feel like the old records are so ripe for rediscovery that they're practically new. They're just sitting there, waiting for music buffs who've recently come to grips with the fact that that soft rock isn't inherently lame. Open up. Prefab Sprout will guide you into the light.
Years Of Operation 1978-present
Fits Between The Kinks and Patti Smith
Personal Correspondence Speaking of frank sexuality in pop music… A lot of what was bracing about Chrissie Hynde when The Pretenders' first album came out was how predatory she seemed, with her sassily seductive lyrics like, "I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for." But unlike some other artists who've turned sex-talk into shtick, Hynde moved on to sing about motherhood, fear, regret, insecurity—hell, she even wrote a song about doing her laundry. She's never been what you'd call a Boy Toy. A night of passion with Hynde would probably leave you with scratches on your back and a sink full of dishes that she'd expect you to wash before you leave. (If she likes you, she might dry.) That complicated, fully rendered personality comes through in The Pretenders' miraculous run of singles and albums between 1979 and 1984. The punky aggression of songs like "Precious," "Message Of Love" and "Middle Of The Road" is balanced by the sweet pop of "Brass In Pocket" and "2000 Miles." And in between lie off-kilter midtempo rockers like "Up The Neck," "Talk Of The Town," "Back On The Chain Gang" and "Show Me," none of which sound like anything else that was on the charts at the time, though they're definitely catchy and affecting. The best Pretenders songs are almost impossible to deconstruct; they work because of the way Hynde alternately wails and spits, and because of that coursing guitar and limber percussion. They all sound like they were born with bangs, baggy clothes and bad attitudes.
Enduring presence? It was almost a running joke for a while how each new Pretenders album was hailed as a return to form by the same critics who claimed that the album before it was a return to form. In actuality, after Learning To Crawl, Hynde became more of a singles artist, always capable of adding one or two more timeless songs to her repertoire every couple of years, but not capable of cobbling together enough for a satisfying LP. "My Baby," "Don't Get Me Wrong," "Night In My Veins," "Human"…these are all terrific. The albums they come from? Eh. It's been a few years since the last Pretenders album though, and Hynde seems to have settled into a position as Rocker Emeritus, feted by VH1 specials and the like. Good for her; she's earned it. But I'd still like to see her pull off one of those late-career comebacks that so many grizzled pop stars have managed over the past 10 years. Perhaps she should see if Rick Rubin is free.
Years Of Operation1978-present
Fits Between Little Richard and Stevie Wonder
Personal Correspondence Which incarnation of Prince do you like best? Lately I've been enamored of anything from 1980 or earlier. Those songs are firmly of their time, equally informed by disco and The Commodores, and there's no doubt they lack the forward-thinking approach that Prince would begin to pursue in earnest from Controversy onward. But there's something so lean about them, and so innocent. I also find that Prince's '80s singles hold up better than most—especially post-Purple Rain toss-offs like "Alphabet Street," "Kiss" and "Raspberry Beret"—and in Prince's heyday he produced more listenable filler than any other pop star of his caliber or level of output. He could jump from songs as stripped-down, odd, and rhythm-driven as Parade's "New Position" to an endearing stream-of-consciousness exercise like Sign O' The Times' "The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker." At his most prolific, Prince generated a repertoire so rich and varied that even the non-singles are more impressive in their vision and ease than nearly anything on the radio today.
Enduring presence? Ah, but what has he done for us lately? I'd say that Prince has definitely entered The Pretenders Phase, where each new album is hailed by some as "the best in years," even though it isn't anywhere close to his career best. (In my opinion, the last Prince record that fully balanced ambition with quality material was the one with the symbol on the cover.) The Prince that recorded all that amazing music in the '80s no longer exists, and the guy singing his songs now is like an amnesiac who's been told by friends about his former life, and goes through the motions without fully understanding the reason. Sometimes I even wonder if the new guy is much of a Prince fan.
The Psychedelic Furs
Years Of Operation 1977-91
Fits Between Sex Pistols and Roxy Music
Personal Correspondence One of the more exciting listening experiences of my youth occurred the first time I listened to The Psychedelic Furs' Talk Talk Talk. I'd heard "Pretty In Pink" on the soundtrack to the film of the same name, but the version of the song that kicks off Talk Talk Talk has a lot more scrape and rattle to it, and buts immediately into "Mr. Jones," the kind of blistering, driving noise-rock song that John Hughes never would've let within 10 feet of any Molly Ringwald vehicle. "Mr. Jones" is followed by the prettier "No Tears," which still plays a little rough, and then that leads into the purely skronky "Dumb Waiters" before side one ends with the relatively poppy "She Is Mine." The whole album goes this way, jumping from catchy melodies to full-bore mayhem, all linked up by bleating sax and the raspy post-Rotten vocals of Richard Butler (with his predilection for simple words like "yeah" and "cars" and "stupid"). The Furs had already made one strong post-punk album pre-Talk—their moody, punchy self-titled debut—and they made two good pop albums post-Talk. The Todd Rundgren-produced Forever Now balances the old Furs sound with the full-on radio-ready version of the glittering Mirror Moves, and Forever Now is both a favorite of mine and generally regarded as their best overall record. It's moony and romantic, yet still a little weird. But I prefer the visceral qualities of Talk Talk Talk, which I think contains some of the best work of '80s Big Music producer extraordinaire Steve Lillywhite. That album muscles its way across the dance floor, pushing some patrons to the floor and giving others a quick cuddle. Then it disappears out the back entrance, leaving everyone wondering.
Enduring presence? I get the sense that the Furs are less revered than most of their post-punk peers, probably because they went the wimpy route more fully than The Cure or Echo & The Bunnymen. And yes, Midnight To Midnight is pretty much an embarrassment, aside from "Heartbreak Beat," a hunk of pop cheese that's functional in its plasticity. But Mirror Moves is as lovely as it is light, and the band's post-Midnight recordings restore some of the gruffness, albeit without the charmingly single-minded approach. And those first two albums are amazing: the first for being all hissy and snarly and fun, and the second for adding a pumping, bleeding heart.
Years Of Operation 1982-present
Fits Between Grandmaster Flash and Gil Scott-Heron
Personal Correspondence One of the other most exciting listening experiences of my youth occurred the first time I listened to It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. A friend of mine had taped Yo! Bum Rush The Show for me the summer before my senior year of high school, and it became a Walkman staple for me throughout the fall of '87. That Christmas, the awful movie version of Less Than Zero—a book I'd pored over at 16—came out, featuring "Bring The Noise" on the soundtrack. "Bring The Noise" was far more frenetic than anything on Yo!, and it had me primed to hear Nation when it came out in the summer of '88. In those days, new hip-hop albums weren't as hyped as they are now—at least not in Nastyville, Tennis Shoe—so when I saw Nation in the record store, I had no idea whether it was a new album or a singles collection, or even if it had been out for a while. When I put it on and heard the first track—which features the sound of a live audience—I wondered if I'd just bought a live album. And then: "Bring The Noise." Then "Don't Believe The Hype." And onward through "Louder Than A Bomb," "Night Of The Living Baseheads," "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos," "Prophets Of Rage"… has there ever been an album that started so unassumingly and ended so strong? The music on Nation was so relentless and busy that I initially assumed that it was just my non-hip-hop-trained ears that were having a hard time keeping up. Soon I learned that pretty much everyone was unprepared for what Public Enemy had created. The next five years of hip-hop were incredibly exciting—though, as I've mentioned before, it was the five years where I paid the most attention to the genre, so I'm undeniably biased—and Public Enemy remained my hip-hop ideal throughout. I thrilled to "Fight The Power" over the opening credits of Do The Right Thing, picked carefully through the complicated Fear Of A Black Planet, and thoroughly enjoyed the back-to-basics Apocalypse '91. Then my passion for Public Enemy waned, and in the 17 years since Apocalypse—man, that's a long time—I've mostly checked back in for a song here or there, but haven't been anything like the devoted fan I used to be. Still, in 1990, I probably would've called Public Enemy my favorite working band. Period.
Enduring presence? I still quote P.E. fairly regularly, usually by reciting the opening verse of "Bring The Noise" verbatim. I learned a lot from Public Enemy too. If Chuck D. dropped a name like Adam Clayon Powell or Marcus Garvey, I'd look it up. If I seem unduly down on—or indifferent to—modern hip-hop, it's because nobody now excites me and educates me the way P.E. did then. Though I'll freely admit that I'm more to blame than the genre.
Years Of Operation 1982-2000
Fits Between Scott Walker and The Divine Comedy
Personal Correspondence Think about this: The first Pulp record came out the same year that Duran Duran released Seven And The Ragged Tiger. Ten years later, Pulp finally began to hit their stride—oddly enough by leaving behind wan, Aztec Camera-y social ballads in favor of broadly theatrical dance music that sounds not unlike Duran Duran reimagined into something bluntly, dazzlingly adult. I didn't catch up with Pulp until after they'd entered the pantheon with Different Class, then I quickly jumped back and got His 'N' Hers. With His 'N' Hers, Pulp frontman illustrated the sex lives of the partying class with a voyeuristic glee, then on Different Class he took the time-honored British rock subject of class consciousness and again filtered it through the prism of sex. For my money though, Pulp's best album is This Is Hardcore, wherein all the illicit affairs, mind-altering substances and late nights begin to take their toll. As Cocker describes how it feels to walk into a pub with a smile on your face and self-loathing in your heart, This Is Hardcore moves through a dozen tableaux of desperate people who meet, share a few drinks, and let slip a little truth. In the title track, the singer realizes to his horror that the sexual encounter he's engaged in is every bit as empty as the on-camera cavorting of porn stars. In "A Little Soul," an absentee father confronts his grown son with the violent, friendless creature the younger man could easily become. On the furious dance track "Party Hard," Cocker sings in exhausted tones of a man ready to abandon the nightlife for something more meaningful. In what could serve as the album's mantra, the song ends with the line, "Now the party's over, will you come home to me?" (It's hard to tell whether Cocker's singing to a person or an idea.) To me, what elevates This Is Hardcore is a feeling of sympathy that was largely absent from Pulp's earlier work. Different Class was an especially nasty album, taking the piss out of the rich in the grand tradition of The Kinks, The Jam, and The Housemartins. Although the record produced one masterpiece—the single "Common People"—songs like "Mis-Shapes" and "I Spy" are so mean-spirited as to sap my enjoyment. The songs on This Is Hardcore are more in the vein of previous Pulp classics like "Babies," "Disco 2000," and "Sorted for Es and Whizz." Although these peek-a-boo games are a little bleaker, Cocker can't bring himself to be totally nihilistic about the characters he's describing… maybe because he knows he's one of them.
Enduring presence? For a couple of years now, I've been kicking around an essay I'll probably never write, called "The 'Common People' Fallacy." It was inspired in part by watching Aaron Sorkin's deeply annoying NBC flop Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, and in particular by the excruciating two-parter that had the Studio 60 gang stranded in Pahrump, Nevada and being grilled by a redneck cop played by John Goodman. With classic Sorkin tone-deafness, Goodman rambles on about the good people of the heartland who don't like the way Studio 60 makes fun of Christianity, and while I'm sure Sorkin intended Goodman's dialogue to be a fair, respectful portrait of middle American virtue, two things bothered me about it. First off, Pahrump's biggest claim to fame is the array of legal brothels within city limits; second off, it's awfully self-aggrandizing to assume that most middle Americans are the least bit concerned (or even aware) of what's being mocked on some two-bit late-night sketch comedy show. That's what's always bothered me about "Common People" too—as arrogant as the slumming Greek tourist may be in the song, I feel like Cocker is just as arrogant in speaking for the "common people" and their lives of "no meaning or control." And yet, there's never been a time that I've listened to "Common People" that I haven't come away trembling. That's the brilliance of the song: its feeling and meaning prevail, even if I nitpick afterwards.
Years Of Operation 1978-83, 1989-91
Fits Between Gang Of Four and The B-52's
Personal Correspondence Before I moved to Athens to go to college, most of what I knew about the city and its music scene I'd gleaned from reading articles about R.E.M. And before I saw the documentary Athens GA Inside/Out (and why isn't that on DVD, by the way?), all I knew about Pylon was that R.E.M. had covered their song "Crazy" on the odd-and-sods collection Dead Letter Office. Yet after watching the film and learning about the band's impact on the Athens scene, I made Pylon's classic debut album Gyrate one of my first purchases in an Athens record store. (In retrospect, the city fathers should just issue that album to all new residents, the way Hawaiians hand you a lei and the Philadelphians hand you a cheesesteak.) What makes Pylon so quintessentially Athenian is their not-always-seamless blend of art, pop and dance. They'd come up with a simple groove—so simple that it seemed like a first draft, as though they worried that if they worked too hard on it, they might lose some spontaneity. And then they'd top it with some lyrics that sounded superficially meaningful but were actually just there to add an extra layer of texture, for aesthetic effect. I can't count the number of parties I went to in Athens that were just like listening to a Pylon song.
Enduring presence? Gyrate was reissued earlier this year, and I'm looking forward to picking it up again, since I'm sure it'll have better sound than my crappy old CD copy of Hits. Now rock 'n' roll! Now!
Years Of Operation 1970-2003
Fits Between Led Zeppelin and Electric Light Orchestra
Personal Correspondence When I was growing up, Queen were the quintessence of cool, equally respected for their hard-rock baddassery and for the fact that they cracked the pop charts with the kind of kicky novelty songs that appealed especially to kids between the ages of 11 and 14. We'd giggle over "Fat Bottomed Girls," try to decipher "Bohemian Rhapsody," dig the laser-beam effects in "Another One Bites The Dust" and pump our fists to "Radio Ga Ga." I had a friend with the Flash Gordon soundtrack, and even though I didn't see the movie until years later, I'd rock out to that record nearly every day before school. (My friend and I were both latchkey kids, and our parents went to work early, so we had about an hour to kill before the bus came every day—an hour we spent listening to rock albums, eating chocolate chips, watching Captain Kangaroo and sneaking nips of his mom's tequila.) I wore out my vinyl copy of Queen's Greatest Hits—the U.S. edition of which I still think trumps any of its CD-era replacements—and the older I get, the more I realize how phenomenal it was that the a band as arena-bound as Queen was stayed so versatile throughout their career, jumping easily from anthems to pop. I'm afraid I can't rate them very highly as an album act; I've ventured beyond the anthologies in recent years, and though I like a lot of the non-singles, I don't think any one of their LPs is remotely close to perfect. But those singles? To me, they're still the quintessence of cool.
Enduring presence? There's also something kind of neat about the way Freddie Mercury's camp sensibility sold so well worldwide, leading macho rockers everywhere to pump their fist along with a man who was about as openly gay as a performer can get (while rarely actually saying the words, "I'm gay."). But when it comes to the awesomeness of Queen, an equal amount of credit—or maybe even more credit—is due to Brian May, a guitarist with an identifiable sound and the bravura to let it blare when he had to. One of my favorite Brian May moments happened on American Idol, during Queen week, when lame crooner Ace Young tried to work with May on altering the arrangement of a song, and May gave him a look that said, "We may be doing this stupid show to promote our tour, but I'm not changing one of my songs for your sorry ass." End of discussion. You don't dick around with Brian May.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
The Polyphonic Spree, "Days Like This Keep Me Warm"
This overstuffed, at times overbearing Dallas pop orchestra may hold the record for shortest amount of time between being a beloved cult act to being widely hated. Blame bandleader Tim DeLaughter's concept, which fills stages and TV screens with robe-clad true believers and oppressive twee-itude. As performance art, a little of The Polyphonic Spree goes a long way. But as music, the Spree have gotten a bit of bad rap. For all their broadly imagined instrumentation, the group is really just a power tool for driving home the darkly sunny ditties of DeLaughter, by alternating a big sound—accented by kettle drum, horns and a free-tweeting flute—with placid minor-key psych-folk. At times, the band even recalls the quieter passages of Pink Floyd. The dazed, dreamy "Days Like This Keep Me Warm" for example marries the Spree's typical swept-up, gleefully anonymous "lost in a crowd" feeling with a strong wave of the forlorn. Though he could stand to loosen the reins and let his sidemen push his songs into unexplored territory, DeLaughter has at least figured out how to create dramatic effects. When Polyphonic Spree songs burst into the open, the swell of music is not just exciting, it's encouraging.
The Ponys, "I'm With You"
The Ponys have some commonalities with the early '00s crop of new wave and post-punk revivalists—particularly in the deep, wounded voice of bandleader Jered Gummere—but their influences stretch back further, to the New York rock primitives of the mid-'70s, and the garage-rockers of the late '60s. Their best songs are beholden to the "lovesick teenager" pose that runs through so much rock 'n' roll. Witness the nearly perfect modern love song "I'm With You," a zippy two-and-a-half minute burst of trash-pop about two bratty lovers kissing off the rest of the world.
Portastatic, "Hurricane Warning (Ignored)"
There was a time when Portastatic wasn't really a band, but more a place for Mac McCaughan to hide out when he wasn't forging the tenets of indie-rock with Superchunk. McCaughan worked through his interests in electronica, old film scores, country music and Latin pop on Portastatic albums that were essentially collections of not-suitable-for-Superchunk demos. But with Superchunk taking longer between records, McCaughan has been slapping the Portastatic name on work that sounds more like the music he's best known for: loud, catchy guitar pop. I like the recent Portastatic records, but they sound a little too much like Superchunk-lite to me, and frankly I'd rather have a new Superchunk album (if those guys can ever get it together). Barring that, I'd love to see Portastatic get back to the low-key, mildly experimental indie-pop of the kind heard here.
Porter Wagoner, "The First Mrs. Jones"
Wagoner was ubiquitous throughout my Nashville youth, but I'd always thought of him as one of those bland ol' Opry hands until last year's sublime comeback album Wagonmaster set me straight. I got the chance to interview Wagoner as part of the Wagonmaster push, and in preparation, I bought the well-chosen Australian compilation The Rubber Room, which emphasizes Wagoner's facility with Southern Gothic ballads, spiked with heartbreak, booze and premeditated murder (often enunciated in spoken-word interludes delivered in deep echo). In our interview, Wagoner indicated that he sang those kinds of songs because they were what sold, but while his genteel, warm TV persona didn't seem to synch up with songs like this dark shocker, surely there was something within Wagoner that made him so good at singing about the bad. Certainly there were few country musicians as good at knocking out deceptively sweet songs that culminated in last lines that made listeners go, "Wait…what?"
Portishead, "It Could Be Sweet"
It's to Portishead's credit—and probably has a lot to do with why they're so beloved by their fans—that they're so damned difficult to categorize. I wrote a few weeks about my filing mania, and when it comes to Portishead, I never know whether to slot them in "dance" or "indie" or "modern" or "r&b;" or "lite." However you label it, there's something marvelously insinuating about songs like this lithe, almost fragile ballad, which lets Beth Gibbons moan and coo over a spare, supple electronic track. It sounds like a perfume commercial, cast with aging mistresses instead of supermodels.
The Postal Service, "Suddenly Everything Has Changed"
This Flaming Lips cover helps explain The Postal Service a little, and show just why the marriage of indie-rocker Ben Gibbard and electronica artiste Jimmy Tamborello works so much better than it has a right to. In a way, the Lips helped pave the way for this kind of fusion, though Gibbard and Tamborello make it their own, by focusing on the tenuous relationship moments that Gibbard's Death Cab For Cutie has made their stock-in-trade. ("Suddenly Everything Has Changed" is one of The Flaming Lips' most "tenuous relationship moments" kind of songs, too.) I'll cop to some mild hipster guilt for enjoying The Postal Service so much, since I'm not an electronica devotee, and I feel like digging The Postal Service may be symptomatic of the worst kind of dilettantism. So I won't make any claims for the project's innovation or skill—I'll just say it moves me.
Poster Children, "Modern Art"
Here's another one of my "pet bands" from my college years. I saw Poster Children live at a club, opening for some bigger-named band whose name now escapes me—and their explosive, bottom-heavy, semi-scarred power-pop was right in my happy zone. I know that they're something like local legends in their native Champaign, though despite some fruitless time served in Majorlabelville, the band has never broken wide. And in truth, I kind of lost interest in them after their first three albums. But those early records are so snappy that it's easy to hear the potential. With the right tweaks and a smidgen more songwriting talent, these guys could've been the next Pixies or the next Wedding Present.
The Power Station, "Some Like It Hot"
I've noticed lately that the word "overproduced" has started to creep back into the vocabulary of music fans, as a way of explaining their disdain for certain kinds of mainstream music. To me, "overproduced" is one of those terms like "overrated" that should be used sparingly in criticism (if at all), because of its backward-and-forward ramifications. If something is dubbed over-anything, that implies that there's an objectively agreed upon ideal level for whatever that anything is…and I have a hard time buying into that, since there are too many personal factors governing all of our individual tastes. I've used the word "overproduced" myself, and I do think there are times when I don't like some recording or another because the studio process has converted the song into something that doesn't just sound unnatural but domineering. Still, to see "overproduced" applied to some music that is merely heavily orchestrated—like a lot of soft rock and pop—is frustrating. If a sound can be reproduced live, it's not overproduced. Anyway, there's nothing wrong with using technology to create sounds that can't be reproduced live. (Some would argue that's the whole point of going into a studio.) This Power Station cut—produced by Chic's Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers—gets its energy from the cut-and-paste approach, and from the way every instrument sounds bigger and more vivid than mere amplification could accomplish.
Preacher & The Saints, "Jesus Rhapsody Part 1"
Here's some gospel music for our post-Isaac Hayes world, making The King Of Kings sound badder than Shaft and tougher than Truck Turner. This is a Christ who kicks men's asses, and gets the girl in the end (if he wants her).
Pretty Girls Make Graves, "Parade"
For the most part, Seattle's Pretty Girls Make Graves have worked in the jagged, minimalist medium of postpunk revivalism, at the juncture of emo-punk aggression and arty garage rock. It's a sound with some inherent limitations—primarily a tendency toward the brittle and amelodic—but the band's rhythmically chiming guitar licks, martial drumbeats, and vocalist Andrea Zollo's stunted croon work together to craft exciting, well-layered, tempo-shifting tracks where jolts replace hooks. Zollo plays ringmaster, whispering and bellowing and enacting the stressed-out characters that populate her stark stage. PGMG has a catchy, beat-happy center, and transcends genre on a song like "Parade," which makes worker unrest sound like a jaunty stroll in the park.
The Pretty Things, "Havana Bound"
Though never one of the heavy hitters of the first British Invasion, this London group had a good long run, marked by a couple of essential LPs drawn from the deep well of UK psychedelia, flanked by a fair amount of garage-rock and blooze. This song comes from the latter era—from the 1972 hard-boogie album Freeway Madness, to be exact—and it's a scorcher, making a trip to Cuba sound more like a nail-biting near-death experience than a delightful lark. I actually don't have Freeway Madness; I got this song from an anthology, and it's convinced me that I need to explore The Pretty Things further beyond their early Nuggets singles and S.F. Sorrow.
Professor Longhair, "Tipitina"
One of our commenters last week complained about inane lyrics in pop songs, but I think this classic side by New Orleans stalwart Professor Longhair shows that words can be overrated. Most of what Longhair sings here is utter nonsense, but his strangled voice and rhythmic piano express more than what's actually being said. The song conveys recklessness, abandon and intoxication—whether it's meant to or not.
The Promise Ring, "The Deep South"
When I reviewed The Promise Ring's Wood/Water, their much-maligned final album, I defended the record by saying, "Anytime connoisseurs start grumbling that their favorite band has 'sold out,' chances are good that the band has just made their best album." I no longer think that's true; Wood/Water hasn't worn as well as I expected it to, and I find I generally prefer the anthemic punk melodicism that this Milwaukee quartet rode to cult stardom, via songs like this track from the highly likable Very Emergency. But here's what I don't get: I know some fans of Promise Ring frontman Davey von Bohlen who think that he'll never top his work with the ramshackle emo outfit Cap'n Jazz. I've heard Cap'n Jazz; they sound fine, and I can imagine that if you first encounter von Bohlen's music via that band, the songs' fumbling DIY qualities would seem relatable and endearing. But after hearing something as accomplished as "The Deep South," it's hard for me to go back and check out the baby steps. It's that kind of fannish originalism that I think I was responding to when I wrote that line about Wood/Water. Though the reactionary aspect of my criticism was pretty out of line too, in retrospect.
Public Image Ltd., "Flowers Of Romance"
In high school I had a friend make me a tape that had The Cure's Pornography on one side and PiL's Flowers Of Romance on the other. It was like 80 minutes' worth of post-punk bad trips, and listening to both those records repeatedly served multiple purposes: they gave a depressed teen a chance to wallow, and they put the brighter dance and pop songs by these bands into perspective. It was a lot easier to appreciate ditties like PiL's "This Is Not A Love Song," "Seattle" and "Rise" after hearing how raw John Lydon could get. I'll have more to say about the former Johnny Rotten in a couple of weeks, but I hope Public Image Ltd. isn't remembered solely as a footnote to the Sex Pistols story. That band—in its many incarnations—made some great music, and the album alternately known as Metal Box and Second Edition is a post-punk classic. Lydon was also smart enough in the '80s to recognize the value of a good single, to subvert the mainstream from the inside. Hook 'em with "Rise," destroy 'em with "Flowers Of Romance."
The Pulsars, "Tunnel Song"
Leaving aside the populist, DIY possibilities of electronic music-making, one of the main hooks of the synthesizer over the years has been just that: its hookiness. The instrument has repeatedly been used as a tool to grab the ear during the times when popular music is in a rut. At their core, the short-lived Chicago band The Pulsars sounded a lot like countless other indie-rock combos when they emerged in the mid-'90s, except that their music was awash in the bleeps and bloops that only banks of keyboards can provide. On "Tunnel Song," the first full song on The Pulsars' sole LP, brothers David and Harry Trumfio pound out a minimalist ditty that breaks into an expansive, echoing chorus straight out of an O.M.D. song (right down to the distant, filtered voice whispering, "talk radio…phasing out"). Damned if it doesn't work like gangbusters, partly because of the nostalgic appeal, and partly because of the thematic edge in David Trumfio's lyrics. What's more appropriate than using modern technology to record a throwback technopop song about how classical feats of engineering affect outmoded media?
Quarterflash, "Take Me To Heart" / "Harden My Heart"
For years I've said that someone should release these two songs on a 45 and title it "The Best Of Quarterflash." Kidding aside, I honestly love both of these songs, from their chirpily generic early '80s vocals to the uncluttered production and carefully composed guitar solos. I especially like that noirish saxophone, giving both songs that rainy-street-at-midnight feel. Sorry, Josh.
Quasi, "I Never Want To See You Again"
"Bratty" is still applied from time to time to musicians who combine one or more of the following elements: a doggedly minimalist sound, nasal vocals, snide posturing and childlike lyrical obsessions. Brat-rockers combine precociousness with infantilism; they'll bake a pretty cake and then smash it into the carpet. Quasi—a duo consisting of former Heatmiser/Built to Spill utilityman Sam Coomes on guitar and "rocksichord" and Coomes's Sleater-Kinney-bound ex-wife Janet Weiss on drums—is all about high, sing-songy voices and the duo bashing away as noisily as they can on their tiny instruments. It's a good sound, immediately arresting, with accents of flying saucer beach pop and west coast country-rock (especially when Coomes lets his slide guitar gently weep). But there's only so much to be done with it, and the see-saw cadence that Coomes applies to nearly all of his spiky lyrics tends to gradually flatten out the band's records, making each song sound like the one before it, and therefore less and less special. What Quasi offers is, fundamentally, the acerbic wail of a know-it-all adolescent, but at their best, the wail is well-articulated. We feel their frustration, even if we don't quite share it.
Quasimoto, "Come On Feet"
I promised Nathan I'd spend more time with Madlib next year after confessing that Madvillainy left me a little cold and confused. In the meantime, I got to hang around with Madlib alter-ego Quasimoto some this week, and though I've probably listened to The Unseen about as much as I've listened to Madvillainy in the past, this week The Unseen struck me as the more entertaining record, perhaps because of the odd subject matter and off-beat vocals. One downside: Quasimoto doesn't vary the tempo much from track to track. But what he's doing within those tracks is endlessly surprising and fascinating. I can't figure out if it'll make a weird kind of sense with repeated exposure, or if it's confounding by design. I also can't decide if I'm liking Quasimoto more than Madlib because I was softened up by Madlib a few weeks ago. Maybe next time I play Madlib, I'll like that more.
Queens Of The Stone Age, "Sick, Sick, Sick"
To me, QotSA songs work best the more the band sticks with their original concept: tight, dark grinders that are geared toward transporting listeners with multiple rhythmic layers and a generally buzzing sound. Bandleader Josh Homme has been quoted as saying "we want sex to bleed into our music," and even this song about the allure of danger, there's an impressive amount of, um…thrust.
Quincy Jones, "Something's Cookin'"
For all his awards—and all his money—I'm not sure enough credit is given to Quincy Jones among the average music buff for the evocative quality of his instrumental music and soundtrack work. If I'd left Jones' name off this song, some of you might've thought I'd unexpectedly jumped back to Air. Instead, this excerpt from the score of the original The Italian Job is what Air was trying to pay homage to with Moon Safari. And as much as I like Air, I have to say—in this case, the source material may be better.
R. Kelly, "Sex Planet"
And so we end sex week with an artist bold enough not to let his sex scandals get in the way of him recording a song about how "I've got a giant rocket / Glidin' through / Just hittin' your pocket."
Regrettably unremarked upon: The Pooh Sticks, The Pop Group, Pop Will Eat Itself, Porno For Pyros, The Posies, Prefuse 73, Primal Scream, Primus, The Prodigy, Puffy Ami Yumi, Queen Latifah, and Queensrÿche
Also listened to:
Polyphemus, Popshow, Popular Genius, Porcupine Tree, Porter Block, Portugal. The Man, Positive Force, The Postmarks, Powerman 5000, The Prefects, The Premiers, Pretty Mighty Mighty, Primevil, Primitive Radio Gods, The Primitives, Prints, Priscilla Bowman, The Prisonaires, A Problem Of Alarming Dimensions, Prodigy, The Professionals, Professor Angel Dust, Project Soul, Propellerheads, PS, Psapp, Pseudosix, Puccio Roelens, Pucho & His Latin Boys, Pure Prairie League, The Purrs, The Push Stars, Push To Talk, Pyramid, The Pyramids, Q & Not U, The Quantic Soul Orchestra, The Quarter After, Questions In Dialect, Quiet Lovely, Quietdrive, Quinteto Violado and Quruli
Next week: From R.E.M. to Richard Thompson, plus a few words on the riddle of the '80s