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.
I first realized it was okay to criticize a movie during the Christmas of 1979, back in the days when my Dad would pony up the dough to take the whole family out the movies roughly twice a year: once over the summer, and once over the holidays. After a lucky string of post-Jaws blockbusters—Star Wars, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Superman—we made our semi-annual cinema outing to see the Disney sci-fi extravaganza The Black Hole. And we were all bored out of our skulls. As we walked back to the car, no one said much, because we didn't have a lot of money in those days, and we'd been taught to be appreciative of whatever we were given. But then Dad broke the silence by muttering, "Well, that was a bomb," and we all proceeded to rip The Black Hole a… well, a new black hole.
Shortly after seeing The Black Hole, I started watching Sneak Previews on PBS, and began to grapple with the idea that two experts could disagree on whether a given movie was any good. It's a notion I had trouble with for years. When I was 13, I borrowed a copy of the first Rolling Stone Record Guide—the one co-edited by the cranky Dave Marsh—and I took the opinions within it as something akin to gospel. The book seemed so definitive, with its star ratings and authoritative tone, and since I was just starting to read up on rock history, I assumed the Rolling Stone reviews were correct, and that anyone who disagreed was wrong.
But there was one problem: Marsh hated Steely Dan.
At the time, I didn't have any especially strong opinions on Steely Dan, though I thought I liked them. I knew "Hey Nineteen," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Do It Again," "Time Out Of Mind" and "Reelin' In The Years" from the radio, and my parents had recently begun playing Aja on long car trips—and we took a lot of long car trips—so I had that album pretty well memorized. But after reading the Rolling Stone guide's fairly pissy dismantling of Steely Dan's studio-bound slickness and aloof evocation of cocaine culture, I had a hard time defending any pleasure that Steely Dan had previously brought me. I figured that my tastes just hadn't matured yet. So I stopped actively listening to Steely Dan for about the next eight years
I returned to Steely Dan as I approached my college graduation, because I always tend to get nostalgic as I near personal milestones, and I wanted to be that boy in the backseat of my parents' car again. The more I listened, the more I heard something a little deeper than merely catchy soft-rock. Steely Dan's slick production supported arrangements of almost unfathomable depth, and the aloofness of Donald Fagen's lyrics seemed as much a commentary on the self-absorbed and spiritually lost as a sop to them. (I later had a similar revelation about Woody Allen's Manhattan, a movie I initially found annoying until I realized it was about people who were annoying.)
By the time I started delving into Steely Dan, I'd become a regularly published rock critic, though I was still in thrall to the notion of consensus, and not yet inclined to trust my own taste enough to swim against the tide. I was still reading the rock critics who were in some ways the founders of the rock canon: Dave Marsh, with his precise, passionate prose and at-times-frustrating moral rigor; Greil Marcus, with his ambitious, unexpected analysis; and Lester Bangs, who showed that the deeply faithful make the best cynics. Then, shortly after I turned 20, I was browsing the "arts and entertainment" section of a used bookstore, and came across collections by two critics who changed the way I view matters of personal taste: Pauline Kael and Robert Christgau.
Kael was notorious among cineastes for steering the critical conversation about movies to wherever she felt it should be, whether that meant debunking the auteur theory, snorting at Bergman and Fellini, or explaining why critics who didn't get Bonnie & Clyde or Brian De Palma should get the hell out of the business. And Christgau, in the pared-down capsule reviews of his Village Voice "Consumer Guides," clearly bore some of Kael's influence in the way he'd so casually shove aside sacred cows and in the way he'd stand up for music he loved even when his colleagues didn't. (And whaddaya know? Christgau loved Steely Dan, praising the band's jazz chops and complicated grasp of irony.) Between Kael and Christgau, I began to grasp the idea that while art had objective qualities—readily able to be evaluated—reasonable people could disagree about the extent to which those objective qualities mattered. Is rawness always better than smoothness? Realism better than abstraction? Pragmatism better than idealism? Or is it counter-productive to obsess over those kind of distinctions?
I also learned that there's another aspect to the critical conversation that goes beyond what's good and what's bad. There's also the matter of what gets rated in the first place. I stumbled across The Trouser Press Record Guide in the public library when I was in high school, and in its various incarnations it became a valuable resource whenever I wanted to learn more about music that the big-name critics weren't covering. Dave Marsh, as fine a critic as he is, has long held that if pop musicians are any good at their jobs, then they should be popular—meaning they should be trying to make hit records. And while his peers tended to be less didactic on the subject, Rolling Stone and even Spin in its early years tended to look at musicians on indie labels as amateurs, only worth writing about once they landed on a major label.
That mindset started to change in the late '80s and early '90s, with the emergence of grunge and a whole alterna-culture that had grown up on trash TV, album-rock radio and Xeroxed fanzines. The new breed had a different set of heroes. Take Sonic Youth, for example. Even more than their efforts to combine elements of New York's art scene and punk scene, Sonic Youth was radical for what else they embraced, whether they were recording a whole album as a tribute to Madonna, or exploring a fascination with serial killer kitsch. In their video for "Teenage Riot," Sonic Youth declared allegiance to Patti Smith, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Harvey Pekar, Paris, Texas, The Fall, Kiss, Sun Ra, Neil Young, Daniel Johnston, The Beastie Boys, Mike Watt, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits, among others. They were rewriting the canon for people serious about popular culture.
As I've mentioned before, much of what we think of as our own personal critical discernment is often influenced by external factors, such as who and where we were in our lives when we saw a certain movie or heard a certain song. Were we in love? Had we recently lost a job? Had we even heard or seen enough to judge the piece properly? And another factor, less easily acknowledged: Had someone told us it was okay to like it?
It's odd how defensive people get when they mention certain bands or movies, like, "I know people will jump on me for this, but I really like Groundhog Day," or "I hate to admit it, but The Bee Gees have some good songs." There's an assumption being made, that the world at large has agreed that some things are meant to be taken seriously, while others are "guilty pleasures" (or just plain "suck"). But in fact it all depends on what audience you're talking to. Groundhog Day may be a gimmicky comedy, but it's actually beloved by audiences and many critics. The Bee Gees are maligned in some critical quarters, but hailed in others. As someone who's spent a large chunk of my life gauging the critical temperature on movies and music, I understand the impulse to assume something is widely hated or widely loved, and to not know whether you can contradict the prevailing opinion without getting your head ripped off. But if the Internet has proven anything, it's that there will always be people out there who share your views, so you shouldn't be so quick to assume you're alone.
Also, of course, tastes change. A lot of my music-loving friends have rolled their eyes at me over the years when they've noticed all the Steely Dan in my collection, and I've seen that even among some of my colleagues, Steely Dan represents all that's loathsome about the California soft-rock scene of the mid-'70s, with its assortment of studio rats and smug poseurs. But one of the most satisfying moments of my life came a few years back, when a friend of mine who'd always listed Steely Dan among his most-despised bands, had an epiphany after hearing "My Old School" on the radio and briefly thinking it was a song by Bruce Springsteen—one of his heroes. He took a chance and bought an anthology. Now in his 30s, no longer writing about music on a daily basis, and with less of a need to satisfy any punk or root-hog's idea of what was cool, he felt free to hear beneath the surfaces. And so he called me up, a few weeks later, eager to talk with someone he knew would understand what he was going through.
"Uh, Noel," he said. "You were right about Steely Dan."
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1981-present
Fits Between Glenn Branca and Pussy Galore
Personal Correspondence Before the advent of MTV's 120 Minutes, SoundScan, on-line shopping, and the other key contributors to the alternative-ication of American popular music, Sonic Youth existed mostly as rumor, written about in music magazines available in places where the band's records were hard to find. Though I'd never heard a note of Sonic Youth, I rolled the dice and bought EVOL and Sister when I stumbled across them at one of Nashville's first indie record stores, and was promptly inaugurated into their unwavering sound: snatches of amp-on-fire distortion, tuneless speak-singing, and an emphasis on guitar texture that includes amplifying each individually plucked string in a strum. Even back in the days of EVOL, what set Sonic Youth apart from their hardcore and post-hardcore peers was an innate sense of sophistication that had them surrounding aggressive noise with lyrical washes of sound. The technique reached its peak on 1988's Daydream Nation, a double-album that encapsulated Sonic Youth's fascination with the grubby side streets that connect the affluent avenues of modern metropolises. But while I loved Daydream Nation (and pieces of Sister and EVOL), I had qualms about Sonic Youth in the '80s and '90s. Maybe I was just bearing a grudge because on the Daydream Nation tour they put on one of the worst shows I've ever seen (with long breaks between songs so they could de-tune their guitars just so, and an encore that consisted of them hiding behind the amps while "Providence" played over the loudspeaker), but to me, the output of Sonic Youth's first two decades was fun to read about, but not as entertaining to hear. Conceptually, the New York art-punks' concoction of bratty pop culture references and avant-garde noisemaking has always been brilliantly colorful, but in practice it often comes out a featureless metallic gray. Still, the key Sonic Youth songs do carry the resonance of an intimate practice space, the pent-up frustrations of the day, and the beautiful fragility of a fleeting moment. At their best, Sonic Youth generated instant art: personal and transitory.
Enduring presence? After a brief flirtation with the mainstream in the early '90s, Sonic Youth were mired in irrelevancy and fans-only specialty releases until a few years back, when the band put out the relatively focused, Jim O'Rourke-aided Murray Street, and reminded scenesters how they became legendary in the first place. The most significant change in Sonic Youth's recent work is a move away from abrasion for its own sake. Over the last few albums they've been getting into that old folks' habit of finding a comfortable groove in which to do what they already know how to do. Drummer Steve Shelley clicks and rattles while guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo—who in the past had been known to indulge some tuneless scraping between verses—weave a tight, tuneful pattern around Kim Gordon's rumbling bass. Then they drift smoothly into intricate guitar breaks that build instead of destroy, and are almost hippie-friendly in their mellowness. Though they're no longer as innovative or revelatory, the Sonic Youth of the '00s is much more open than the provocateurs who stormed out of the New York art scene 20 years ago—and in some ways, that openness is actually more daring than the layered damage of the Youth's youth.
Years Of Operation 1972-84/1974-present (off and on)
Fits Between The Beatles and The Beatles
Personal Correspondence The first MTV video I ever saw was for Split Enz's "One Step Ahead," a song I'd never heard before, by a band I never heard of. Ours was a cable-free household, so I only saw MTV when we visited my stepfather's parents, two Nashville bluebloods who were hardly rock 'n' roll fans. My earliest memories of MTV are of watching with the sound turned way low, while waiting for my turn at the bridge table. Between the scarcity of music videos in my everyday life and the fact that I couldn't even hear them on the rare occasions I saw them, I tended to think of "MTV bands" (at least the ones that didn't show up on our local commercial radio stations) as a cut above the pop throng. In the case of Split Enz, it helped that my whole family embraced the Time & Tide album. It was the oddest thing; my brother bought the cassette and then loaned it around to me, my mom, my stepfather… it was like a mini-groundswell, and it made the band seem like a fine, small neighborhood restaurant that we all enjoyed, and where it was never that hard to get a table.
My experience with Squeeze was much the same. In addition to being as poppy and smart as Split Enz, Squeeze were also touted in rock magazines as superior to the average pop fare. Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook were frequently compared to Lennon and McCartney, and the band's album East Side Story was being hailed as one of the decade's best as early as 1981, with eight more years of '80s left to go. East Side Story was definitely one of my favorites as a teen—perhaps because co-producer Elvis Costello encouraged Difford and Tillbrook to indulge their eclectic side—and it generated the band's biggest hit in "Tempted," to boot. But listening to East Side Story now, the album often sounds like it's trying too hard—a common problem for Squeeze. Both Squeeze and Split Enz had something a little rarified about them, and though I have a lot of affection for both bands, I also feel about them a lot like I used to feel at my step-grandparents' house: The place smelled great, looked neat, and had a lot of personality, but I never felt comfortable enough there to turn the TV up.
Enduring presence? There was an awful lot of hand-wringing in the '80s about why bands as bright and clever and gifted as Squeeze and Split Enz couldn't break through on pop radio in the states, outside of a few fluke hits and regional favorites. But it's no great mystery to me. Americans tend to resist enforced snobbery. Tell us something is the finest of its kind, and a lot of us will immediately start scanning down the menu for something cheaper.
Years Of Operation 1994-present
Fits Between Can and Joe Jackson
Personal Correspondence Spoon's "The Fitted Shirt" is squarely on the list of my 20 favorite songs of all time. Over three minutes of sparking guitar and a driving, irregular beat, Spoon-leader Britt Daniel growls about the craftsmanship of his dad's old clothes, establishing a metaphor for a bygone, much-missed era. Everything about the song—from the arrhythmia to the way Daniel attaches such meaning to something that was a casual part of his father's life—matches my musical and personal sensibilities so much that the first time I heard "The Fitted Shirt," it was like finding something I'd forgotten I'd lost. Daniel and his drummer/collaborator Jim Eno have a knack for using lead instruments to create a percussive effect, which they then lay end-to-end (rather than layering them one over another) to produce songs that have their own winding, ever evolving path. The best Spoon songs have a narrative that you can follow in the instrumentation alone. Spoon's first album aped the Pixies and Pavement, their second borrowed liberally from Gang Of Four and Wire, and their third—the one with "The Fitted Shirt"—brought in elements of Elvis Costello and The Rascals. Their fourth and arguably best album, Kill The Moonlight, synthesized all those influences into something like an aesthetic. But even at their outset, on Pixies-ish numbers like "Plastic Mylar," Spoon was pulling apart the rhythms and textures of danceable rock music and leaving only the snappiest beats and notes. And over that, Daniel was penning a catalog of character sketches, self-analysis, pet peeves and candid pleas, all serving the dual purpose of revealing some of the singer's psyche while providing him with syllables to accentuate the composition. (Daniel's lyrics have the dual virtue of specificity and of sounding cool and sharp when sung.) What's awes me consistently about Spoon is the way they seem to feel that good hooks and witty lyrics should be standard in rock and roll—like tailored eveningwear—and that what makes a great band are the peripherals.
Enduring presence? I'm still kicking myself for writing a middling review—well, if "B+" counts as middling—of Spoon's most recent album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, a record that I enjoy more every time I hear it. I think I was thrown off by "The Ghost Of You Lingers," a stunning piece of spooky indie-rock minimalism that layers jarring piano lines over and under Daniel's lonesome staccato whispering. The rest of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga alternates between similarly bold stylistic advances and thoroughgoing retreats, and to me the album felt scattershot, as though Daniel weren't sure if he wanted to make his big pop push, or to keep pursuing rhythmic deconstruction to its logical end. (Or just to give up entirely and make A Series Of Sneaks again). In retrospect, it's that tension between holding onto ground already won and lighting out to new territory that makes the record interesting. The perennial struggle of a great young rock band is built into the music.
Years Of Operation 1974-80
Fits Between Atlanta Rhythm Section and The Steve Miller Band
Personal Correspondence Okay, I'll be honest: I can't really defend this justly forgotten southern disco-rock act, with their gimmicky marimbas and slinky lounge rhythms. (Though I do think their lone hit single, "Moonlight Feels Right," is a fine piece of throwaway mid-'70s pop.) The reason Starbuck lands in this section instead of being consigned to Stray Tracks is because they were my first rock concert, and the first band I really, consciously, fell for. The concert was at Worlds Of Fun in Kansas City, and looking back, I'm sure the only reason our family could afford to go (both to the amusement park and to the concert) was because the radio station my dad worked for at the time was a sponsor. Not that I cared much why we were there. I just thought it was amazing to see a rock band in person—especially one that used synthesizers and vocoders in their act. My brother and I wore out my dad's radio station promo copy of Starbuck's second album Rock 'N' Roll Rocket, listening to it as often as we listened to The Beatles or the Star Wars soundtrack. I mean, the title of the record had the words "rock 'n' roll" and "rocket" in it. I don't know how a band could do more to impress a seven-year-old.
Enduring presence? Starbuck's enduring presence in pop history—and in my life—is practically nil, though a few years ago, when Moonlight Feels Right was reissued (with a few Rock 'N' Roll Rocket tracks appended as a bonus), and some publicist or another sent me a copy in the mail out of the blue, I damn near passed out upon hearing songs like "Call Me" for the first time in over 20 years. Imagine if someone unearthed video of you playing with your best friend in your backyard from when you were both seven. That's what it was like to hear Starbuck again.
Years Of Operation 1971-81; 1993-present
Fits Between Ray Charles and The Doobie Brothers
Personal Correspondence A tale of three tapes: 1.) Aja, which was purchased by my mother and stepfather when they bought their first car with a cassette player, and was therefore bound up in my mind with my family making our long journey from the lower-middle to the middle-class. 2.) Gold, a greatest hits collection (supplemented by the more exhaustive Greatest Hits) that I used to listen to on a loop while drifting off to sleep during my senior year of college, while simultaneously trying not to think about the fact that I was thousands of dollars in debt and had no romantic or career prospects. 3.) A 120-minute Steely Dan mixtape, made by me shortly after college, after I realized I could buy some artists' entire discographies used on vinyl for the price of one greatest hits CD. I snapped up the complete Steely Dan at about three bucks a record, and carefully pieced together the ultimate Steely Dan tape, which became a permanent fixture in my first car, a beat-up Oldsmobile I bought from a friend for 300 bucks. It was my own miniature version of the American Dream my mom and stepfather had been living, only with a rusty Olds and a cheap Maxell taking the place of a fitted-out new car and Aja. And yes, there's some irony in both cases that a band known for songs about the decadence of opulence became a symbol of upward mobility. (Just goes to show that when Americans follow the stories of celebrities in crisis, we often don't see them as cautionary tales, but fantasies.) But here's the real happy ending: The first time I took the woman who'd become my wife for a long road trip in that Olds, I popped in my Steely Dan tape and was delightfully surprised to learn that she knew the words to all the songs. And not just "Peg" and "Dirty Work," but "Razor Boy" and "Kid Charlemagne." Even now, if I ask her if there's gas in the car, she'll sing back, "Yes, there's gas in the caaaaar….," and I feel rich beyond anything I would've imagined as a boy.
Enduring presence? When Steely Dan emerged in the early '70s as a jazz-influenced boogie band, the group was hailed for breaking apart the strictures of rock song structure without the pretension that fouled the similar attempts of British prog-rockers. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker artfully and archly dissected the perverse lives of desperate hipsters, using colorful lingo that only the songwriters seemed to fully understand. All of this precise music and hazy wordplay worked against Steely Dan as the '70s became the '80s, and punk and new wave made raw directness the new virtue. But by the time the '90s rolled around, some rock scholars began to concede that they missed the pretty sounds and ugly images that Becker and Fagen used to force together. Though there have been plenty of sophisticated soft rock bands, few have managed Steely Dan's exact recipe of long, discursive songs, skeletal funk beats, supple choruses, and plenty of tasteful touches of sax, flute, and virtuosic rock guitar. Steely Dan's willful aloofness still has the power to make listeners feel both relaxed and edgy—like the musical equivalent of Irish Coffee. And they're still the perfect soundtrack for driving through a rainy West Coast night, heading from one sour party to the next.
Years Of Operation 1970-present (solo)
Fits Between Neil Young and David Crosby
Personal Correspondence And so we come to the last of the CSN trifecta, and the one whose iPod playlist I probably listen to more than any of the others. I love Graham Nash's doe-eyed pop and David Crosby's shaggy spiritualism, but Stills has always seemed to me to be the most fully-formed musical personality in the group. He shares some of Crosby and Nash's gifts—as well as those of his old Buffalo Springfield compadre Neil Young—and to that he adds a distinctive vocal rasp, a fiery guitar style, and a strong Latin influence in his melodies and his rhythms. From everything I've read about Stills, he's rubbed a lot of people the wrong way over the years with his arrogance—as well as with his music, which can tend towards the excessively laid-back and emotionally remote. But I find something attractively impeccable in Stills' best songs. I haven't seen Autism: The Musical yet, but I understand that Stills' son is featured prominently in the film, and that Stills talks about how having a child with Asperger's has helped him to recognize aspects of autism in his own personality. I can certainly hear it in his recordings too, which sound so clean, yet follow a melodic logic unlike any other. They make their own, not-quite-typical sense.
Enduring presence? Stills has more solo hits to his name than his CSN-mates, and is arguably responsible for the bulk of the trio's best-known songs, from "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" to "Southern Cross." (Though an argument could be made that Graham Nash's songs are ultimately more popular and more widely heard.) I invite Stills-doubters to pick up Manassas, the 1972 double-album he recorded with a semi-supergroup he and The Byrds' Chris Hillman threw together. I've heard Manassas compared to Wilco's Being There, and there's definitely some similarities in the way both records take a big-picture view of America and Americana, including the cities and the suburbs alongside the small towns and rural outposts.
Years Of Operation 1990-present
Fits Between Neu! and Esquivel
Personal Correspondence When I was in high school, I was often surprised by the alt-rock bands who wound up in the tape players of my non-alt-rock friends—bands like The Cure, and R.E.M., who seemed to have worked their way outside of the cult band bubble. As an adult, I find that a lot of my friends have Stereolab CDs, even if they have very little else in their collection that qualifies as indie- or art-rock. When I ask, most of them tell me that they heard the band in college, at some party or another, and were impressed enough to hit the record store the next day. Which shouldn't be all that surprising really, because heard in the proper context, Stereolab can still stun. From the beginning, the band has combined the primitive rock of The Velvet Underground with the stereophonic excursions of late '50s lounge acts, effectively straddling the minimalist and the progressive. They make use of cocktail-ish xylophones, Brazilian-inflected guitars, Pink Floyd organ (R.I.P., by the way), brass hangings from '70s cop shows, and aloof harmonies, to swirl together a palette full of pleasing colors into a challenging but always engaging picture. Theirs is a retro kind of future. It's what we imagined the 21st century would be like in the middle of the 20th. Then again, here we are, and guess what? The music sounds exactly as predicted—or at least it is when it's being made by Stereolab. Thus the loop is closed.
Enduring presence? You can only fall in love once, which may explain why so many former fans have taken Stereolab for granted as the band has continued to refine the worldly electronic vamps that seemed so sensational 10 years ago. They're still sensational, just not as novel. Unless you're a die-hard like me, you really don't need every Stereolab album, or even a well-chosen greatest hits. You may just need that one album you heard at that party that time.
Years Of Operation 1978-present
Fits Between Mark Knopfler and Southside Johnny
Personal Correspondence I came to Forbert from the wrong direction, hearing him for the first time when a publicist sent along the superb 2000 LP Evergreen Boy—from the era when Forbert was starting to reach a pleasing maturity. (When I dug deeper into the back catalog and found Forbert's sole hit, "Romeo's Tune," I realized that I knew that one too, though it's never been a radio staple.) Forbert's had an odd career. He started out as another in a string of "new Dylans," rasping out folkie rambles, but he gradually added elements of Memphis soul, heartland rock, and even a little swamp jazz to his whispery vocals and insistent melodies. Like a lot of other young men with guitars and a repertoire drawn from folk music and classic Top 40 (which is kind of the folk music of the '50s and '60s), Forbert landed record contracts and struggled to hold onto them as he worked to break beyond regional success. I still haven't made my way through the complete Forbert discography, but my impression is that a lot of the reason he had so much trouble was because he kept trying to make records that fit squarely with the times: tastefully arranged, simmering folk-rock numbers laced with guitar-and-piano background duels that recall Dire Straits. His was not the kind of voice or songwriting style destined to burn up the charts. Still, for me, coming to Forbert so late was like being in high school and college again and catching up to acts like Elvis Costello or Robyn Hitchcock. So much to unearth, and not all of it easy to find.
Enduring presence? I tend to be skeptical of musicians like Forbert, because they strike me as unadventurous and dismissively stubborn in their allegiances to certain kind of old-fashioned music. But Forbert himself strikes me as a man in tune with the ways that traditional styles can evoke a sense of timelessness, and therefore be used to express something universal about the anxieties of contemporary life. His music has the excitement of someone discovering something, not the desperation of someone trying to recapture it.
From the fringes of the collection, a few songs to share….
The Sonics, "Psycho"
If you're looking for a prototype garage-rock song, take a good long listen to this nugget from the Pacific Northwest's first grunge/punk act, circa 1965. From the primitive drums—which sound like they were slapped together out of an oatmeal box and a cookie sheet—to the juvenile joke of making "Girl, you're driving me crazy!" literal, "Psycho" has that homemade feel and playfully (?) unhinged vibe that gives regional rock its wild streak.
Sonny Rollins, "Decision"
Here's another jazzman I got into thanks in part to my mall record store's bin of cheap Blue Note CDs and in part due to the Gang Starr track "Jazz Thing." (Relevant lyrics: "Sonny Rollins / Tenor saxophone / With a big ol' tone / Recitin' poems / With notes as words.") Rollins worked with a lot of the greats, including Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Max Roach, and like many of his contemporaries he strived to expand the possibilities of jazz, and use it as a mode of personal expression (as well as social commentary). I haven't spent as much time with Rollins as I have with John Coltrane, but I like the way his solos tend come from a more relaxed, conversational place. He's not trying to dazzle with technique or deliver long-winded sermons. It's more like he's sitting at his kitchen table, leaned back in his chair, telling us about his day.
Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, "The Fever"
It's all-but-impossible to talk about Southside Johnny without invoking the name of his friend and patron Bruce Springsteen, especially since Southside Johnny's best-known songs were penned for him by The Boss. In a way, The Asbury Dukes were a test kitchen for Springsteen, enabling to see how some of his strategies for writing simpler, R&B-inflected; songs would play in a live setting and on record. I also think Springsteen always saw in Southside Johnny a version of the rocker life that he would've been happy to lead: playing long engagements at mid-sized clubs for a packed house of regulars, and having a ground-level relationship that would run on for a good 30-plus years.
Spent, "Open Wide"
Spinanes, "Den Trawler"
Sportsguitar, "Never Waste"
Here's a block of four indie-rock acts that emerged in the mid- to late-'90s, in the wake of the semi-success of bands like Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Versus and Superchunk. Writing about the Swedish band Sportsguitar over 10 years ago, I referred to them as "endearing but minor," and praised the "pop possibilities of six strings and a sunny disposition;" I could've used similar words to sum up Spent, one of the first of the Merge Records acts, though I confess though that when I hear a song as jaunty and catchy as Spent's "Open Wide," I think they might've had a shot to be more than just minor, if they'd stuck it out. Of this foursome, perhaps the best-known and best-loved is Sparklehorse, led by mad genius Mark Linkous (a man with an impressive enough pedigree to run with the likes of PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, Daniel Johnston, Dave Fridmann, David Lowery and DJ Danger Mouse). But while I like Sparklehorse's shattered, dystopian alt-country a great deal, my favorite among these four would have to be Spinanes, who flared up and out quickly in the '90s, leaving behind three LPs and an EP. The band's first two albums—recorded by the duo of Rebecca Gates and future Built To Spill drummer Scott Plouf—were surprisingly melodic and complex, but the songs were more like blueprints than finished works. Spinanes' third LP Arches And Aisles, by contrast, is pretty darn lush, recorded by Gates with a host of her musician pals. The record is well-stocked with mellow, moaning ballads, shattered by dissonant bursts of electric guitar—almost as if Sonic Youth stumbled into an Alanis Morrisette recording session—and Gates' odd constructions and raw jangle are sweetened considerably by her vignette-ish lyrics. (Sample, from "Den Trawler": "Shaking toward shelter/And vodka on ice/Looking forward to Auld Lang Syne.") All of these bands fulfill the promise of indie-rock to some degree, offering alternative, down-to-earth takes on life and music. But Spinanes carried that promise a little further.
The Specials, "It's Up To You"
Even if The Specials' self-titled debut album hadn't been introduced to me via Rolling Stone's list of the best albums of the '80s—an article I treated like a to-do list—I probably would've tracked it down anyway, because I was making an effort to buy every album produced by Elvis Costello. Prior to buying The Specials, all I knew by the band was "Free Nelson Mandela," so I was initially taken back by the sound of their first record, which didn't have that jetset glossiness that had become standard in British pop by the middle of the decade. The Specials aspires to sound like an import from the islands, all smoky and earthy, even though its trad-ska exercises are cut with vocals and subject matter that's often overtly English. (Fun fact: This song is so lodged in my head that I'll often answer yes or no questions by yelping, "It's up to yooooou!" No one ever gets the reference.)
The Spinners, "Sadie"
Classic R&B; vocal groups tend to run together after a while, so it's always welcome when I come across one like The Spinners, who have such a distinctive sound: country-inflected and keyboard-driven, not unlike the feeling of a group of friends gathered around a piano in the church choir dressing room, practicing that week's anthem.
Spokinn Movement, "Apes"
I know absolutely nothing about this band, and don't know how this song ended up in my collection, but stumbling across it this week, I was impressed how Spokinn Movement overcomes the frequent problem of rapping over live instruments—namely the tendency towards a certain leaden thump—by keeping the mix light and loose, so that the vocals can skip easily from beat to beat. Can anyone with more hip-hop savvy than I vouch for whether Spokinn Movement is generally good, or is this song an aberration?
The Spongetones, "She Goes Out With Everybody"
Discussion question: Is it better to just cover an old Merseybeat song, or to write a new song in a Merseybeat style and strive to get the guitar, vocal and drum sounds as close to 1964 as possible?
Squirrel Bait, "Kid Dynamite"
I missed Slint last week because I apparently never got around to moving Spiderland over from cassette to CD or MP3. And to be honest, I've never been a big Slint fan anyway, though I loved one of the band's earlier incarnations: Squirrel Bait, a teenage post-hardcore act from the age of Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü, Volcano Suns and Phantom Tollbooth. I saw a lot of bands that sounded like Squirrel Bait when I went to all-ages punk shows in Nashville, but few were as roaring, as nimble or had a vocalist as strong as Peter Searcy, who later took his big voice and tried to make a go of it with more mainstream modern rock, without as much creative success. One great thing about hardcore: speed and volume tends to iron out a lot of kinks.
The Stalk-Forrest Group, "Arthur Comics"
Trivia question Can you figure out what well-known '70s/'80s hard rock group this band would become, barely a year later? (No fair Googling.)
Stan Ridgway & Stewart Copeland, "Don't Box Me In"
I have no idea what possessed Francis Ford Coppola to have Stewart Copeland compose the score to the odd duck period picture Rumble Fish, but I can't complain about this particular song, a collaboration between The Police drummer and the soon-to-be-ex-frontman for Wall Of Voodoo. Ridgway has had an interesting solo career, marked by songs that play more like dark-toned short stories, but this has always been my favorite of his songs, for its strange elasticity, and Ridgway's mix of braggadocio and frustration.
The Stanley Brothers, "My Long Skinny Lanky Sarah Jane"
The Statler Brothers, "Bed Of Rose's"
No one likes puns and absurdity more than country musicians, and here's two prime examples: the first a love song for a woman whose "armpits smell like spice," and the second about losing your virginity to a prostitute. Country music can be awesome sometimes.
Stars On 45, "In Tribute To Stevie Wonder"
In preparation for one of next week's big stars, here's a medley from the biggest disco rip-off artists this side of Meco. You could call these quickie dance hits an early form of "mash up," and you could even hail Stars On 45 for reintroducing some classic songs to a new generation. Or you could call them butchers, reducing pop songs to just their hooks, and exploiting them for personal gain. It's up to yoooooou…
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, "Water And A Seat"
Since disbanding Pavement, Malkmus has tended toward jammy folk-rock, not unlike Jerry Garcia's solo work, but what I've liked most about the Jicks records is that Malkmus is singing with expression again, after letting his vocals go so slack in the latter days of Pavement. He'd still rather go for the clever remark than the emotional effect, but by and large Malkmus has ditched lugubrious sparkle and is giving both his voice and his guitar some electricity (in every sense of the word). Unlike most cult rock stars, Stephen Malkmus seems to enjoy his status as the arch, oblique spokesman for a generation of sarcastic DIY noisemakers, and with The Jicks he's developed a sound that mixes quirky tunefulness, impressive musicianship, and freeform exploration, while playing guitar with a level of invention and passion that he'd only hinted at before, openly echoing CCR, Big Star and New York-era Lou Reed.
Steve Earle, "Home To Houston"
Prior to the days of comments, Diggs and "most e-mailed" metrics, I had to gauge the success of pieces I wrote by how often they were linked to by other sites. By those standards, my 2004 interview with Steve Earle was practically off the charts. Months later, I was still getting Google Alerts that someone somewhere had linked to the piece. It was nothing I did; all credit is due to Earle, and to the fact that it was an election year, and a lot of people were eager to hear someone express some clear anger about what had gone down over the previous four years of the Bush administration. At the time, Earle was promoting The Revolution Starts Now, his most overtly angry album in a career noteworthy for its maverickdom. In general, I find that Earle's stormy roots-rock rebel side doesn't play as well as his simpler, folksier style, but on Revolution he came up with some effective hybrids, like "Home To Houston," written from the perspective from a truck driver serving out his contract in Iraq and daydreaming about quitting his job. In style and content, "Home To Houston" is so conventional that it could've been a C&W; hit in the '70s, and that's what makes the song so effective. The emotion is relatable, even though the situation being described is dire.
The Steve Miller Band, "Serenade"
The first time I heard Steve Miller's Greatest Hits 1974-78, it sounded like The Best Of Classic Rock Radio. Miller has practically no critical rep—though he coasted for a few years on his association with the late '60 San Francisco scene—but he's one of those dudes whose songs nearly always sound good when they pop on an oldies station. They're pitched perfectly between arena rock, FM head-trip, AM bubblegum and old-fashioned guitar heroics.
Steve Reich, "Music For 18 Musicians - Section I"
I bought the Reich box set Phases shortly before 2007 ended, and haven't really had the chance to dig into it as much as I'd like to. But I've owned Music For 18 Musicians for some time, ever since I read an article about what an influence that piece had been on legions of high-minded post-punkers, from David Byrne to Andy Partridge. I came to Reich after hearing Philip Glass, who obviously learned a lot from his predecessor—even though the two men have such different aims. Glass uses classical minimalism to create surging, transcendent washes of sound, while Reich has always seemed more content with the experiment itself. He offers the simpler pleasure of writing out a tough equation of a blackboard, then coming up with an elegant solution.
Regrettably unremarked upon: Sondre Lerche, Sonny Terry, Soul Asylum, Soul Coughing, Soul II Soul, Soundgarden, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Southern Culture On The Skids, Spain, Spandau Ballet, Spike Jones, Spiritualized, Stale Urine, Stan Getz, The Staple Singers, Stars, Stealers Wheel, Steinski, Stereo Total, Stereophonics and Stetasonic
Also listened to:
Son Ambulance, Songs Of Green Pheasant, Sonic Syndicate, Sonny Burgess, Sonny Landreth, Sonny Smith, Sonny Til & The Orioles, Sons & Daughters, Sons Of Freedom, Sons Of The San Joaquin, Sook-Yin Lee, Soporus, Sorry Bamba, The Soul Children, Soul Majestic, Soul President, Soul Summit, Soul-Junk, Soulkid #1, Souls Of Mischief, Soulsavers, Soulwax, The Sound Of Urchin, The Sounds, Sounds Orchestral, Sounds Under Radio, The Soup Dragons, The South Bank Orchestra, South Filthy, South San Gabriel, Southeast Engine, Southerly, SouthFM, Soweto Kinch, SP 1200 Productions, Space Mtn, Space Needle, Spaceheads, Spaceheater, Spacehog, The Spades, The Spaniels, Spanky Wilson, Sparkledrive, Sparrow, Sparta, Speck Mountain, Speedealer, The Speedies, Spencer Dickinson, Spidells, Spider John Koerner, Spider Virus, Spike Priggen, Spin Doctors, The Spirit Girls, Spoken, The Spongetones, The Sponsors, Spottiswoode, Squarepusher, Squint, ST, St. Vincent, Stacey Earle, Stacey Kostes, The Standard, The Standells, The Stands, The Stanley Brothers, Stanley Thompson, Starflyer 59, Starless & Bible Black, The Starlight Mints, Starlings TN, Starsailor, Stateside, Statistics, Steffen Basho-Jughans, The Stems, The Stepford Five, Stephen Bishop, Stephen Bruton, Stephen Clair, Stephen Delopoulos, Stephen Duffy, Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers, Stephen Simmons, Stephin Merritt, Stereo 360, Stereo MC's, Stereotyperider, Steriogram, Steve Almaas & Ali Smith, Steve Barton & The Oblivion Click, Steve Erquiaga, Steve Goodman, Steve Moore, Steve Noonan and Steve Parks
Next week: From Stevie Wonder to Thelonious Monk, plus a few words on race.