Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Popless Week Four: Meet The Unknowables

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After 17 years of professional music-reviewing, Noel Murray is taking the year off from all new music, and instead revisiting his record collection in alphabetical order, to take stock of what he's amassed, and consider whether he still needs it all.

Part of me was glad that I didn't make it as far as The Beatles last week, because they're almost too daunting a topic to knock off in a longish paragraph. In fact, they're maybe too daunting. I've noticed a trend in recent years for music geeks to run down The Beatles, in that kind of knee-jerk reactionary way that makes people hate music geeks. Personally, I can understand not thinking that The Beatles were the greatest band of all time, or thinking they're overrated (whatever that word means), or even not being "a fan" per se. But if you like pop music and/or rock 'n' roll at all, and you claim that you don't like The Beatles, then 90% of the time, I'm going to assume you're just being contrary for contrariness' sake. The Beatles made so many different kinds of music, and wrote so many great songs, that it would be all but impossible not to find something in their repertoire to like.

Still, I understand the impulse–among young turks especially–to reject a band that's been rammed down our collective throats for 45 years now. There's something so damned monolithic about The Beatles. How can anyone be expected to hear "Yesterday" or "Strawberry Fields Forever" with anything like fresh ears at this point in pop history? Beatles songs have become so omnipresent that having an informed opinion about them is like trying to determine which brand of bottled water is superior. Because the band was so prolific, so eclectic, and so effortlessly accomplished, they almost defy human understanding. To just sit down one day and knock out an "In My Life"…well, I just can't imagine it.

But at the same time, so many of The Beatles–John Lennon in particular–were so loquacious throughout their career that even though I can't imagine myself writing "In My Life," I can sure picture them doing it. Between all the interviews The Beatles granted, all the books written about them, and all the alternate takes collected on bootlegs and official releases, The Beatles' process is pretty well laid bare. The creativity may be a mystery, but how they used it is not.

The same can't be said with some other bands. For example, pretty much everything Led Zeppelin did after picking their name–reportedly a cheeky response to Keith Moon's assessment of their chance at success–is completely beyond me. Can you picture Led Zeppelin getting together for band practice, and Jimmy Page picking out the intro for "Stairway To Heaven" for the first time, and Robert Plant nodding along, saying, "I think I've got some lyrics that might go with that." I can picture Yes doing it, because they're wonky dudes, and probably never cared how they must've looked while cooking up a song as lovably pretentious as, say, "Starship Troopers." But the Zeppelin guys are so cool, and don't seem like the sort who would lay out an agenda for the day's rehearsal. Nothing along the lines of, "Now Bonzo, you lay down a beat that sounds like an African 'talking drum' while Robert, you quote Tolkien."

(There are some bands where I can't even picture them going through the painstaking process of picking out a name. Like, at what point did the Gallagher brothers settle on "Oasis?" It's a fine moniker, but they both seem like the kind of guys who'd never stop making fun of whichever one of them came up with it first.)

This week was a big one for rock icons: I cycled through The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Beastie Boys, Beck and Belle & Sebastian–each heavies in their own way. Some of them pass the "Can you picture them in rehearsal?" test. The Beasties' records are practically pulled straight from rehearsal tapes anyway, while The Beach Boys and Belle & Sebastian are guided by strong-willed individuals not shy about explaining their intentions. (Though I admit that five or six years ago, the ways of B&S; seemed oblique to me, until Stuart Murdoch starting talking to the press more and the band put out a DVD that made them look more like regular blokes.) The wild card in this week's deck is Beck, an artist who appears so dazed most of the time that I can't imagine him coming up with a good idea and then smiling puckishly to himself. I figure that whenever he finishes a good song, he nods confidently, gives thanks to The 8th Dynamic, then lights up another fattie, which he keeps all to himself.

Honestly, I don't think it would be that much fun to hang out with Beck.


Pieces Of The Puzzle

The Beach Boys

Years Of Operation 1961-present (sort of)

Fits Between The Four Freshmen and Esquivel

Personal Correspondence I came to The Beach Boys in stages, in a process I deconstructed once in an article I wrote for The Nashville Scene about SMiLE. In brief, it goes kind of like this: As a kid, I liked the early surf songs, in no small measure because of John Travolta on Welcome Back, Kotter, singing "Ba-ba-ba, Ba-Barbarino." When I got deeper into music as a teenager, I decided The Beach Boys were a dismissable novelty act, but I was always wowed by "Good Vibrations" whenever the local rock station did one of their "Top 500 Rock Songs Of All Time" marathons over Memorial Day weekend. Then the 20th anniversary of Pet Sounds rolled around, and all the rock pubs I respected started touting it as an all-time great, so as a dutiful scholar I picked up the reissue (on cassette!) and really liked it, especially "Wouldn't It Be Nice," which had breezed past me before on the radio, and the instrumental "Let's Go Away For A While," which sounded like my grandparents' easy listening music converted into art. Then I pretty much put The Beach Boys away until shortly after I got married and got a well-paying job, and discovered the internet, at which point I became obsessed with trying to reconstruct the long-lost SMiLE from bootlegs and the songs that made it onto later albums. I fell hard for those late '60s Beach Boys records, with their dopey naiveté and rich orchestrations; and on the heels of getting into arguably The Beach Boys's most fruitful era, I read an essay by cartoonist Peter Bagge about how underrated the band's '70s albums were, so I bought those too. I'm not willing to go as far as Bagge–who counts himself as a Brian Wilson skeptic, and claims to be more interested in what the rest of the band brought to the table–but songs like "Trader" and "Love Surrounds Me" are among my favorite music of all time. I mean, dear Lord, just listen to "Make It Good," from 1972's Carl & The Passions. There's practically no melody at all, just a sustained hum with a few subtle chord and tone changes, and yet the song deepens by the second. What a weird, wonderful band.

Enduring presence? Thanks to the "finished" version of SMiLE, and documentaries like I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, I think most serious rock fans know that The Beach Boys are more than just Pet Sounds and "Surfin' Safari." At some point I need to work backwards from Pet Sounds. I have Endless Summer with all the early hits, but I know there are some album tracks I'm missing out on. (Also, if you're looking for an example of the occasional pain this project can cause, the news this past week that Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue is being reissued next month definitely gave me a pang of regret.)

Beachwood Sparks

Years Of Operation 1997-2002

Fits BetweenThe Flying Burrito Brothers and The Pernice Brothers

Personal Correspondence I feel like a lot of this project so far has been about comparing expectation to actuality, but that's just a function of the way I've consumed music for much of the past two decades. Aside from the discs sent to me cold, most of the music I've acquired in my 20s and 30s has been bought based on what I've read, not heard, and often those discs don't jibe with what I imagined. Case in point: Beachwood Sparks, part of the recent "cosmic Americana" revival on the west coast. They came around just as I was getting interested in Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds and Gram Parsons, so I was naturally intrigued by what I was reading about them, but Beachwood Sparks' two albums are more mannered–with their Topanga Canyon echo and Sunset Strip buzz–and not as inspired as I'd hoped. That said, even though Beachwood Sparks' sound is basically a rip-off, it's a rip-off of something wonderful and underutilized: a vast natural resource that a wave of rockers left behind four decades ago. Plus the band's cover of Sade's "By Your Side" is spooky and transporting–gospel-like, without directly quoting the genre. It sets the tone for Once We Were Trees, and echoes through originals like "Close Your Eyes."

Enduring presence? These guys were just starting to grow when they split in '02. It ain't too late for them to reunite.

The Beastie Boys

Years Of Operation 1979-present

Fits Between Run-DMC and War

Personal Correspondence A couple of years ago, I had the idea to write a blog post about The Beastie Boys called "The Real Sonic Youth," but I never got around to it. My argument would've been that while Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon have paid lip service throughout their career to the idea of fusing the avant-garde sensibility they picked up from Glen Branca with low-culture movements like punk, rap and Top 40, The Beastie Boys were out there doing it, far less self-consciously, and with the kind of enthusiast's approach to pop that I personally prefer. Just listen to "Pass The Mic," from 1992's Check Your Head, the band's unexpected–and welcome–re-emergence into the realm of the hitmakers. It mixes up hip-hop with grunge–abrasive grunge, too–and sounds rooted both in its own time and in the primordial loam of rock and rap. Plus it's a kick and a hoot, and a sly reply to acts like 3rd Bass, who'd been running down the Beasties in print and on wax. (The B-Boys' answer: We're above this shit.) I confess to some discomfort with the fact that the rap act I've had the longest, most fruitful relationship with consists of a trio of upper-class white dudes, but to quote another of their tribe, "The heart wants what it wants." Aside from "Fight For Your Right," which did nothing for me initially, my first real exposure to The Beastie Boys came at a high school pep rally, where the team and the cheerleaders exited the field to the beat of "The New Style." I asked someone sitting near me what that music was, and after looking at me like I was even nerdier than I actually was, he filled me in. And then he made me a tape. But the real revelation came a couple of years later when I bought Paul's Boutique cold on opening day, and it became the soundtrack to my summer. (If it buys me back some cred, the soundtrack to my previous summer was It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.) The success of Check Your Head towards the end of my college years was like a validation for sticking with a band that many wrote off as one-hit wonders, and then the subsequent releases of Ill Communication and Hello Nasty were pure celebrations of all that's entertaining and inspiring about popular music. The Beasties kicked out four great albums in just under a decade–an epic run.

Enduring presence? A couple of mediocre albums–one of which, the instrumental The Mix-Up, is downright bad–shouldn't diminish the band's legacy much, though I'd like to see them make their next record progressive, instead of regressive. The "old school" is getting a little old.

The Beatles

Years Of Operation 1960-70

Fits Between Buddy Holly and The London Philharmonic

Personal Correspondence It speaks to our collective exhaustion with "The Beatles" as a concept that over the past ten years we've only seemed to get really juiced about the songs we've all heard a hundred times when they're presented in a new way: in alternate forms on Anthology, remixed on Love, et cetera. Certainly there are Beatles songs I'd be fine with never hearing again ("Yellow Submarine," "All You Need Is Love," "Come Together," "Lady Madonna," about three dozen others), even though I know my problems with them are a combination of fatigue and relativity. (Compared to "Two Of Us," for example, "All You Need Is Love" is way too heavy-handed, but compared to pop music in general, "All You Need Is Love" is at the zenith.) Still, in the right context, The Beatles still slay me. The repurposing of "Hey Jude" for the pre-credits sequence of The Royal Tenenbaums never fails to take my breath away, and I cherish the memory of attending a church service a few days after 9/11 in which one of the parishioners led an inspirational round of "Let It Be." Moments like that are so powerful that they're worth the more strained moments of Across The Universe, or the avant-circus antics of Cirque Du Soleil. They make believers out of skeptics.

Enduring presence? The next step is for the stewards of The Beatles' catalog to stop being so stingy and greedy, and let the music flow where it flows. Forget the repackaging–just make the songs accessible across media platforms and let people find their own way through the discography without the overbearing proclamations of boomer rock critics.

The Beau Brummels

Years Of Operation 1964-68

Fits Between The Association and The Byrds

Personal Correspondence The Beau Brummels are a fairly recent subject-for-further-study for me, though growing up I'd often heard "Laugh, Laugh" on the odd "Hey man, remember the '60s?" compilation. I can't recall what prompted me to roam through iTunes, looking to hand-pick my own Beau Brummels anthology–probably something I read about them on AMG while researching another band, given my usual M.O.–but I think I was hoping to experience a revelation on the order of unearthing The Association's Birthday or The Young Rascals' Groovin'. Instead, I found The Beau Brummels' music less immediately likeable, probably because it's neither as pretty or peppy as I'd expected. It's darker and rootsier, more in line with the "shady side of hippie life" vibe soon to be explored by The Jefferson Airplane and The Doors. Once I readjusted my mindset, I found a lot to like about The Beau Brummels–particularly the 1967 album Triangle, which drifts towards the "new rootsiness" without losing a bit of the major-label-mandated sonic clarity.

Enduring presence? I enjoy this band the more time I spend with them, and they definitely have their devotees, who hope against hope that one day The Beau Brummels' story will be more tightly entwined with the flowering of rock in the Bay area in the mid-'60s.

The Beautiful South

Years Of Operation1989-2007

Fits Between The Jam and Lulu

Personal Correspondence I'm more of a Housemartins fan than a Beautiful South fan, so I'll save a full appreciation for the art of Paul Heaton for when I get to the "Ho"s. Still, I've always respected his wildly successful follow-up act, if only for continuing the grand UK pop tradition of writing and recording songs that are clean on the surface and acid underneath.

Enduring presence? It would've been sweet in a way if The Beautiful South had packed it in after Carry On Up The Charts, which is one of those rare hits collections that makes a better case for a band than any of their proper albums. Instead, they stayed around long enough to have produced a sequel–though as far as I can tell, they never have. Surely some of those post-Charts songs are worth compiling on their own?


Years Of Operation 1988-present

Fits Between Gary Wilson and Prince

Personal Correspondence Beck and I got off to a rocky start. Mellow Gold came out during my first year as a regular record-reviewer for my local alt-weekly, and I trashed it at the time as sloppy and smug, citing the murky, unintelligible Bob Dylan pastiche of songs like "Pay No Mind" as evidence of a bankrupt creative intellect. (For what it's worth, that first year I also tore up Green Day, Hole, Weezer, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Guided By Voices, among others. Some of them I turned around on later; others continue to languish.) After Mellow Gold became a left-field hit, I wrote a longer piece picking apart One Foot In The Grave, and explaining why I couldn't get on the Beck train. And then I stubbornly resisted Odelay and Mutations out of spite–I didn't even buy them until years later, actually–although I did like the songs I heard from them on the radio. My Beck ban ended with Midnite Vultures, which I was assigned to review, and which wore down a lot of my defenses (while reinforcing others). And then came Sea Change, which knocked me out, and Guero, which I liked fairly well, and The Information, which is also quite good. My qualms with Beck haven't really changed much. Many of his lyrics seem like afterthoughts, his cultural appropriations are frequently cheap and obvious, and his spacey persona makes him hard to warm up to. But the longer he sticks it out, the less those qualms keep me from enjoying his brand of chirpy, groovy postmodernism.

Enduring presence? Aside from the religious beliefs he hesitates to discuss, Beck hasn't really stepped wrong yet in his career. I confess that I've really only come to appreciate his music, not adore it, but he's one of the few "name" artists of his era who hasn't really begun to wear out his welcome, commercially or critically.

The Bee Gees

Years Of Operation 1965-2003

Fits Between The Hollies and Giorgio Moroder

Personal Correspondence It's okay to like The Bee Gees again, right? Are we far enough past the uncomfortably snobby era where anything disco "sucked" that we're allowed to appreciate the Gibb brothers' inerrant pop sense, tight arrangements and rich harmonies? Not like in a cheesy eye-rolling way, but with genuine affection?

Enduring presence? It is okay, right?

Belle & Sebastian

Years Of Operation 1996-present

Fits Between The Velvet Underground and The Zombies

Personal Correspondence I wish I was hip enough to say that I've been listening to Belle & Sebastian since Tigermilk, but actually I can't even claim fandom since If You're Feeling Sinister, or the trio of EPs that followed. About all I knew about Belle & Sebastian in their early years was that I kept seeing posters for them up at the Charlottesville, VA college radio station where my wife hosted a movie review show every Sunday. Then I heard a segment about The Boy With The Arab Strap on NPR, in which the correspondent wondered why the band wasn't all over pop radio in the U.S., which made me scoff, because even at that first brief exposure, I could tell neither Stuart Murdoch's voice nor his twee orchestrations were exactly "commercial." Still, I was captivated by the snippet I heard of the album's title track, a kind of rockabilly lullaby that reminded me of The Smiths at their height, only warmer and more expansive. "The Boy With The Arab Strap" is still my favorite Belle & Sebastian song, though I've been happy to hear the way Murdoch has worked his way past the trademark B&S; sound that the song represents–the sound that dominated the band's first half-decade or so–and has explored glam-rock and disco and Motown and prog on the past couple of albums. Too many bandleaders prefer to reboot with a new name when they play with new styles, so it's nice to think that the "Belle & Sebastian" concept has now been made flexible enough to contain whatever Murdoch wants to do with it for the rest of his career.

Enduring presence? I become a bigger fan of this band with each album and each passing year. They're no longer "hot" I guess, but they're still basically beloved, if by a diminishing cult. Which is more or less as Murdoch always wanted things to be.

Ben Folds

Years Of Operation 1994-present (solo and with "the Five")

Fits Between Joe Jackson and Billy Joel

Personal Correspondence Something about being bound to an unwieldy instrument seems to make piano-playing rockers extra pissy. Throughout Folds' career, he's battled the same demons as the likes of Joe Jackson and Billy Joel, struggling (and usually failing) to keep his sourness in check as he bangs some beautiful melodies out on his keyboard. I once described Folds' songs in a review as "the sing-alongs you don't want to sing along with," and indeed, I find I like his music a lot more when I get rid of the "Song For The Dumped"s and "Battle Of Who Could Care Less"s and focus on less objectionable fare like "Alice Childress." How much more popular could he have been if he'd lightened up a little?

Enduring presence? Folds' career has been on a pretty steady downslope since the turn of the millennium, though anyone with his kind of performing and songwriting skills shouldn't be counted out for good. I'd be unsurprised (and pleased) to see a Folds comeback sometime in the next couple of years.

The Beta Band

Years Of Operation 1996-2004

Fits Between Pink Floyd and Robert Wyatt

Personal Correspondence About ten years ago, my wife and I went to see Neutral Milk Hotel at a dinky club under a sushi bar in Charlottesville, and the opening act was another Athens-based, Elephant 6-associated act, The Music Tapes. About fifteen minutes into The Music Tapes' highly conceptual, not especially musical set, Donna–a veteran of the Athens rock scene herself–whispered into my ear, "Sounds like their ratio of 'getting high time' to 'practice time' is out of whack." That line always echoes in my head when I listen to The Beta Band. (Well, that, and John Cusack in High Fidelity saying, "I'm now going to sell five copies of The Beta Band's Three EPs.") During their brief, semi-glorious journey across the pop music firmament, The Beta Band always seemed like they had a bunch of good ideas, and nowhere to put them. But by the time they tightened up, on the lamely titled Heroes To Zeroes, they'd lost a lot of the ragged homemade charm of those early records. A no-win situation.

Enduring presence? Since they're now defunct, The Beta Band can't really redeem themselves, but like last week's disappointing DIY Britpopper Badly Drawn Boy, The Beta Band may wind up being more noteworthy for whom they ultimately inspire than for anything they accomplished on their own.

Stray Tracks

From the fringes of my collection, a few songs (some great, some not-so) to share….

Be Your Own Pet, "Adventure" These frenzied art-punkers came storming out of Nashville a couple of years ago, propelled by a blast of hype whipped up in large part by their take-no-prisoners live show. Be Your Own Pet's self-titled debut album didn't quite measure up, perhaps because once they get off the stage and into the studio, BYOP sounds too derivative of bands like Bow Wow Wow, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fugazi and early Siouxie And The Banshees. But since I like those bands–and because I'm kind of a homer–I'll give Be Your Own Pet some leeway, so long as their next album contains more buoyant winners like the should've-been-a-hit "Adventure."

Bebel Gilberto, "Bananeira" After blowing past the lone Astrud Gilberto track in my collection without comment, I didn't dare dismiss her ex-husband's daughter, whose career to date has been less formidable, I'm sure. (I know, I know…I'll buy some Astrud discs in '09, I promise.) I have a hard time pinpointing the appeal of Brazilian pop without falling back on all the old adjectives: "breezy," "seductive," "like carrying a strong rum-buzz into twilight," and so on. I've rarely heard any Brazilian music that didn't bewitch, dating back to the David Byrne-compiled Beleza Tropical way back in the '80s. I like the way this song nods to modern production techniques, but still sounds like it could've been sung beneath a string of hastily-tacked-up Christmas lights at a beachside Tiki lounge. In 1978.

Beirut, "In The Mausoleum" Bands like Beirut, with such a thick shtick, can often become so bound by their own style that there's no reason to proceed beyond a single album (or a single song). But this absolutely gorgeous song off The Flying Club Cub shows Beirut mastermind Zach Condon expanding beyond the gothic oom-pah of the band's early records, incorporating elements of jazz and samba. Very exciting stuff from a band that, by my estimate, are about an album away from becoming brilliant.

Ben Kweller, "I Gotta Move" I'm should like Kweller a lot more than I do, but even though I've dutifully listened to every one of his records and found a song or two on each that I thought was good, he falls into a category of power-pop-minded indie-rockers whose melodies are too clean and performances too shaggy for me. He seems to be trying to hard to sound like he's not trying.

Beneath The Massacre, "Sleepless" Too loud? Too fast?

The Benny Goodman Sextet, "Flying Home" Let's cleanse our palates from that last song with a little jazz number that borders on western swing. Or at least it does in this recording–drawn from the famous Carnegie Hall concert "From Spirituals to Swing"–where the clarinet and xylophone play second fiddle to that jaunty guitar, which pulls the beat along like a flapping duck toy.

Benzos, "Phase 2" I've been having trouble figuring out where to file some of the "stray tracks" on my iPod. (I don't know why it matters so much to me, but it does…enough that I'm going to explore the question of classification further some future week.) For example, is this song indie-rock or modern rock? To me it's the latter, because it sounds radio-ready, not clumsily, endearingly handmade. The spacious tone and the synthesizer sheen edge it out of the "indie" territory, even though I'm pretty sure this band actually does record for an indie label. It's a good song too, even though its radio-readiness doesn't exactly translate into "obvious hit" status.

Bernard Herrmann, "Taxi Driver" I'm not a big one for soundtrack music generally–I prefer to have a movie playing in front of it–but this track brings back so much about Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, from the Hitchcock homages to the "man out of time" nostalgia to the creeping urban menace. The song makes me kind of nervous, quite frankly, even though there's nothing on the surface of it to suggest that it should.

Listened to, unremarked upon: The Bastard Sons Of Johnny Cash, Bathtub Heroes, Baumer, The Bay City Rollers, Be, The Be Good Tanyas, Bea Arthur, Beach House, BeauSoleil, The Beautiful Mistake, The Beautiful New Born Children, Bedroom Walls, The Beefeaters, Beep Beep, The Bel Airs, Bell Orchestre, Bellafea, Belly, Belong, Ben + Vesper, Ben Arnold, Ben Davis & The Jetts, Ben E. King, Ben Gibbard, Ben Lee, Ben Vaughn, Ben Weaver, Benjamin Zephaniah, The Benjy Davis Project, Benjy Ferree, Benni Hemm Hemm, The Bently Boys, Berlie Lowe Orchestra, Berlin, Bert Susanka, Beth Gibbons & Rustin' Man and Beth Thornley

Next week: From Bettie Serveert to Blackalicious, plus a few words on the mundanity of the music business.


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