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.
When I got my new iPod last month, I made Martin Scorsese's* documentary Bob Dylan: No Direction Home my first video purchase recently, because at 10 bucks for three-and-a-half hours, it seemed like a good value. And I found it came in handy over the past couple of weeks, when I was flying on airplanes, standing in lines at Sundance, and driving back and forth to Nashville. No Direction Home is a good film, and even if it never quite gets underneath the rationale and the creative leaps behind Dylan's extraordinary transformations between 1960 and 1966, it does suggest one way that Dylan finessed those changes. Apparently, he ripped off his friends.
Not that such chicanery count against Dylan. The history of art is the history of appropriation, and if anyone wants to argue that Dave Van Ronk would've become as popular and significant an artist as Bob Dylan if Dylan hadn't lifted large portions of Van Ronk's act, well…good luck with that. I mention Dylan's thievery only to make two points: 1. Crime definitely pays; and 2. It's possible to know every sleazy thing a musician did in his or her life, and still admire what came out of it.
In my experience, there are two types of Dylan buffs. There's the Todd Haynes type, who love all the career minutiae and character flaws, and can find connections between the lyrics to "Positively 4th Street" and Dylan's friendship with Richard Farina, his 1964 Christmas visit home to Minnesota, and the music of Buell Kazee. These people are interested in Dylan The Man, and direct all their appreciation toward what the songs say about the person who wrote them. The other type of Dylan buff is more like your weird uncle, or that bearded 50ish guy in the corner cubicle during that one summer when you temped in an office. These are the people who love Dylan The Icon, and hold up his songs as proof that Things Were Different Once, in a time when A God Walked Among Us. These people love Dylan uncritically, and probably will never see Haynes' I'm Not There because to them it seems weird and disrespectful. They're like devout Christians who don't want to know anything about their religion except what's written in The Bible.
My only beef with the iconographers is that a lot of them have worked their way into positions in the media: some as music critics, but more as editorial writers and sports writers. Every now and then they'll use their platform to talk about how our culture has gone to seed because there are "no more Bob Dylans." Even worse (they insist), if a Bob Dylan were to come around now, he probably couldn't get a record deal or get on the radio.
To these people, I'd suggest that if a new Bob Dylan emerged in 2008, there's a good chance they wouldn't know about it, because they're not really paying attention anymore. Even though I'm in the process of stepping away from the frontlines of music criticism, I'm not doing it because popular music is terrible now, but (in part) because I don't want to become one of those out-of-touch windbags who grumbles about how bad everything has gotten. The fact is that even a year ago, I didn't listen to a wide enough variety of music to render that kind of judgment–and I probably listened to 10 times as much as any cranky Op-Ed page yahoo. But there's no upside for folks who take the time to listen to enough music or watch enough movies to say with authority, "No one's making music as good as Joni Mitchell" (even though there a dozen new Joni-clones debuting every year) or "You couldn't make a movie like Five Easy Pieces today" (even though the independent and foreign film industries crank out quiet character studies by the fest-load). No one's grabbing readers' attention with a headline that reads: Things As Ever Were.
I believe it was superhero cartoonist John Byrne who once said that the Golden Age of everything is when you were 12. In other words, in whatever era you happened to be a kid–around the age when you first start noticing that all this stuff you see on TV and hear on the radio comes from somewhere, and around the age when you start having opinions about it–is naturally going to be the one that produces the most pop culture that still interests you decades later. If a critic 10 years older than me or 10 years younger than me where to take on a project like Popless, I doubt he or she would devote as much space as I did last week to Big Country. That's not a knock on them or on Big Country; it's just that older and younger critics probably never had cause to care about that band as much as I did (and do). Similarly, there's a whole world of hip-hop and pop-punk and emo and Top 40 acts that hit well after I was of an age to care deeply about them, and a lot of them I either haven't heard or don't going to have much to say about.
It doesn't mean I think those acts are bad, though; I'll just plead indifference. And I hope if the next Bob Dylan does emerge–or the next Paul Westerberg, which would excite me much more–that I'll be receptive. I also hope that as I get older that I won't turn my musical heroes into abstractions, and that I'll be able to accept them for who they are, loving their flaws as much as their virtues.
(*By the way, I say "Martin Scorsese" because his name's all over No Direction Home, but it's worth noting that the film makes liberal use of archival footage by talented filmmakers like Murray Lerner, D.A. Pennebaker and Ken Jacobs, and it's definitely worth noting that almost none of the interviews in the film were conducted or shot by Scorsese. He had a major hand in putting all the footage together, but when it comes to his authorship of the film, well…No Direction Home ain't exactly The Last Waltz.)
Pieces Of The Puzzle
Years Of Operation 1992-present
Fits Between De La Soul and Gil Scott-Heron
Personal Correspondence My big "don't make 'em like they used to" genre is hip-hop, as I explained to my pal Nathan Rabin in our controversial Crosstalk last year. (I think I broke Nathan's heart a little with that conversation; and I still feel bad about it.) The last hip-hop act that's really clicked with me is Blackalicious, probably because they share some of the musical and political values that I used to look for in groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy: namely a broad embrace of black culture and a density of composition. There's so much going on in a song like "Chemical Calisthenics," even as it approximates the high-wire immediacy of freestyle. I'd like to say that the diversity of subject matter and style on the first two Blackalicious albums is sorely lacking from modern hip-hop as a whole…but if I did, I'd be talking out of my ass, because as I said, I haven't kept up.
Enduring presence? Blackalicious have never become Giants Of The Genre, but they're reasonably well-respected. I'd love to see them collaborate with their old college pal DJ Shadow again, especially after Shadow's last record, which had a lot of ideas but no focus (unlike Blackalicious' last album The Craft, which had intense focus but a paucity of ideas).
Years Of Operation 1979-86 (effectively)
Fits Between Eddie Cochran and X
Personal Correspondence It took me a long time to connect with The Blasters, because on the rare occasion when their songs would pop up on college radio in the '80s, they struck me as too timid and muted given the band's reputation as L.A. punkabilly progenitors. I wanted The Blasters to sound more like X: wilder, and more decadent. But after spending time with some old rockabilly singles in the early '00s–mostly via Rhino's Loud, Fast & Out Of Control box set–I made my first serious foray into The Blasters' discography via The Complete Slash Recordings, and by then I was much more attuned to what the Alvin brothers were up to back in the punk era. The Blasters in particular is a marvel in the way it uses the well-groomed, radio-ready idiom of old-time rock 'n' roll to put over a set of songs about strongly etched characters who balance hard work with booze, tunes and recreational fornication. The Alvins gave the rootsy style they loved a touch of the literary, without making a big show of it.
Enduring presence? I fully acknowledge that those Slash recordings are a cultural treasure…and, for me now, a personal one.
Years Of Operation 1975-82
Fits Between Pat Benatar and Talking Heads
Personal Correspondence Not to take nothing away from The Clash–one of my Top 10 favorite bands of all time, and arguably one of the 10 greatest in rock history–but I believe Blondie did even more to integrate R&B;, disco, reggae and rap into punk and New Wave, and didn't get near enough credit for it. Maybe that's because The Clash looked like musical adventurers when they dabbled in other genres, while Blondie looked like exploiters. (Because their hybrids were hits.) I know that I personally loved all the Blondie chart-toppers when I was a boy, but I identified Blondie so strongly with the Top 40 that when I was starting to learn about the history of rock, it never really made sense that Blondie were filed alongside the New York art-punkers. When I finally got to hear those early albums–and raw songs like "Rip Her To Shreds"–I was surprised to find how much of a link Blondie provided between the primitivism of The Modern Lovers and the arty pop of Talking Heads. From '75 to '80, Blondie was as mercurial and innovative a platinum-level rock act as has ever existed.
Enduring presence? Blondie is one of the preeminent singles bands of their era, though they have a couple of worthy albums too: Parallel Lines foremost, with Eat To The Beat right behind it. My favorite Blondie song is on the latter: "Dreaming," a propulsive pop anthem that sounds at once triumphant and wistful, reminding me of all those R-rated high school sex comedies that my parents wouldn't let me see. It's mature and youthful all at once…a tough combination to hit.
Blood, Sweat & Tears
Years Of Operation 1967-72 (essentially)
Fits Between Quicksilver Messenger Service and Chicago
Personal Correspondence Blood, Sweat & Tears had plenty of success on their own, but they also kicked off a short-lived, briefly lucrative movement towards "big band rock," which saw sprawling outfits performing horn-pumped pop songs amid elaborate orchestral suites. The act that carried the baton the furthest was Chicago–whose early albums I'll defend vigorously in a few weeks–but the idea was freshest at the beginning, when the courting of a spacious, "classic" sound seemed like a natural progression from the symphonic experiments of The Beatles, and not some attempt to make rock as safe and schmaltzy as a Vegas lounge act. The first two BS&T; albums teem with ideas and possibilities; and frankly, I think the ground they forged was abandoned too soon. If a new band emerged right now that was compared to Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, I'd be very interested to hear what they were up to.
Enduring presence? The long-held critical opinion on BS&T; is that their first album, the Al Kooper-led Child Is Father To The Man, is a hippie-era classic, and that the more successful David Clayton-Thomas-led albums that followed are pure kitsch, not worth taking seriously. I'd argue that 1969's Blood, Sweat & Tears–the one with all the songs that still get played on adult contemporary radio–is just as good as Child, though I can only handle a couple of songs each on the two Clayton-Thomas albums that followed. I haven't ventured any further beyond that.
Blue Öyster Cult
Years Of Operation 1967-present
Fits Between Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Black Sabbath
Personal Correspondence Funny what a little research will yield. Blue Öyster Cult was all over album rock radio when I was a lad, with songs like "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" and "Burnin' For You," which sounded moodier and poppier than the band's name suggested. (Their other major radio hit, "Godzilla," sounded more like how I imagined a band called Blue Öyster Cult would sound.) Later, when I was in college, I used to go see fIREHOSE every time they'd play Athens, and the highlight of their set was a ripping cover of BÖC's "The Red & The Black," which was so ferocious and groovy that again I couldn't figure out where Blue Öyster Cult was supposed to fit into the rock continuum. Then one day I looked them up in Robert Christgau's guide to '70s albums and was surprised to find that Christgau–a champion of simplicity and subtlety in rock–considered himself a fan. Then I did some more reading and discovered that BÖC had been a kind of cause célèbre in the rockcrit community in the early '70s, because their early albums rocked hard and had a sense of humor. So I did some listening of my own, and while BÖC's wit may be a "you had to be there" thing–to me they sound more like they're embracing prog's sci-fi trappings, not mocking them–I can appreciate their ability to hold onto a hard groove rather than noodling for noodlings' sake. But what finally locked Blue Öyster Cult into place in my head was a DVD of their late '70s live act that came out last year. Eschewing elaborate costumes and light shows, the guys in BÖC took the stage back then like regular guys who just happened to be able to play like gods. Now I know who they are. They're music theory nerds. God bless 'em.
Enduring presence? I'm pretty sure that to a whole generation, the words "Blue Öyster Cult" bring to mind Will Ferrell playing the cowbell. I'd say that's a shame, but you know…that sketch still makes me laugh. As for me, my longtime hesitation towards BÖC probably has to do with their name, and my lingering fear of the dark and pseudo-demonic in rock. More on that some future week.
Years Of Operation 1960-present
Fits Between Woody Guthrie and The Band
Personal Correspondence I came to Dylan kind of piecemeal, because despite his status as a rock icon, Dylan's actual music didn't get played much on rock radio when I was growing up. (Maybe "Like A Rolling Stone," but only on special occasions.) Plus, my dad wasn't a fan. He couldn't stand the voice, and though I never asked him, I'm betting that he couldn't stand the wiseass attitude either. My dad considered himself a "Dixiecrat," with leftist sympathies and conservative values, and artists like Dylan and Neil Young–the latter of whom my dad once referred to in my presence as "a whining faggot"–were too freewheelin'. I think he perceived their approach to music and to the world at large as a rebuke to his own. But I was approaching rock as an enthusiast and a student, and I knew that Dylan was important, so I stepped in gently, first with a used copy of Slow Train Coming (an underrated record…or maybe I'm just projecting because it was my first), and then I went in deeper by borrowing Biograph from my favorite high school English teacher a couple of years later. Maybe because of lingering family loyalty, I still can't say I love Dylan, but I've come close on some of the recent live recordings from the "bootleg" series, and I do treasure Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, The Basement Tapes and Blood On The Tracks. The older I get, the more fascinated I am by Dylan's limitations as a musician. Amazing lyrics, amazing performances, and yet nearly 50 years after he picked up a guitar professionally, he still falls back into the same blues and folk patterns, seemingly disinterested in expanding his musical repertoire.
Enduring presence? I noticed that around the time of the I'm Not There buzz last year, a lot of "Dylan is overrated" types came out of the woodwork. I have a little more sympathy for the Dylan-averse than the Beatles-averse, because Dylan's work stays within a much narrower range, and if that range isn't one you care to spend time in, you're going to have a harder go of it with Dylan. Throw in the nasal voice, the florid lyrical imagery, the sometimes lazy-seeming public appearances, and our general exhaustion with all things boomer, and yeah…Dylan can be tough to take. But even though musical taste is fully subjective, I've never believed that quality wholly is. There are some artists–and some works of art–that you almost have to accept as "great" even if you don't personally like them. As it happens, I do like Dylan, genuinely. But even if I didn't, I'd hesitate to use words like "overrated." I think I'd just say, "Not for me," and move on to something else.
Years Of Operation 1962-1981
Fits Between Toots & The Maytals and Desmond Dekker
Personal Correspondence Although I'm not one of those dudes whose only reggae CD is Bob Marley's Legend, I'm not exactly buried in reggae either. I need to explore the genre more; mainly I have a handful of anthologies, and, I'm sorry to report, nothing by Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse or Peter Tosh, to name a few musts that I need to catch up on. And yes, I do have Legend. (Though it wasn't my first Marley record…that same cool English teacher I keep mentioning taped Catch A Fire and Live for me, a couple of years before Legend cam out.) But the ubiquity of Legend shouldn't be a knock against it, because that record is such a friendly way into the genre, full of familiar songs and a variety of approaches to a style that can sometimes seem too rigid to the novice. Marley had pop sense, soulfulness, charisma, and a hell of a band working variations on a theme behind him. As genre-defining icons go, Marley's pretty unbeatable.
Enduring presence? Check the CD collection in any random college dorm room. There's your enduring presence, at least in the real world. In my world, Marley is also a definite favorite, even though it's hard for me to shake some mild embarrassment at not having explored as far beyond Marley as I should.
Years Of Operation 1966-present (solo)
Fits Between Credence Clearwater Revival and Van Morrison
Personal Correspondence I had one brief fling with actually playing rock 'n' roll when I was 15, when a friend of mine who'd taken guitar lessons convinced me and another friend of ours (who'd also taken guitar lessons) to join him in a band he dubbed Novo Manus, which he claimed was Latin for "revolutionary band." (This turned out not to be the case.) We rehearsed exactly once, in his basement, where one friend played the main riff from Bob Seger's "Mainstreet," the other played the rhythm part, and I plunked away on my Casio keyboard…all for about half an hour. Our "revolution" never got any further than that. So that's the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Bob Seger. The second thing that comes to mind is the surprise I felt the first time I read rock critic Dave Marsh's essay collection Fortunate Son and learned that Marsh–a devout fan of Bruce Springsteen and The Who–considered Seger an artist in rock's top tier. I'd always enjoyed my battered used copies of Night Moves and Stranger In Town, but I didn't know anything about Seger's long, creatively vibrant career in the '60s and early '70s. Turns out, there was a reason for that gap….
Enduring presence? If ever a rock artist needed a career-defining box set, Bob Seger would be the one. But given Seger's unwillingness to release his early albums on CD–or any of his work via iTunes and the like–a comprehensive, comprehensible Seger anthology is unlikely to happen in the rocker's lifetime. I've only heard a few of his late '60 singles, thanks to the Cameo-Parkway anthology–one of them, the hard-charging "Heavy Music" appears below–but from what I've read, his early '70s albums show him reaching in exciting ways for a sound that fuses his working-class Detroit sensibility with the mystical wonder of Van Morrison. Everything finally clicked with Live Bullet–a masterful live album from the era when live albums were often more essential than studio efforts–and he became a nationwide success shortly afterward with his tenth album, Night Moves. This was during the time when rock critics like Marsh were enamored of artists like Seger and The J. Geils Band and NRBQ–hard-working bar bands with smarts and heart–but Seger was the one who benefited most from the drum-beating. Too bad that he only had a few more years of creative viability, before falling into hackdom in the mid-'80s. Seger's in The Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame, but he's not really in the pantheon, and he probably should be. I say "probably" because I don't know for sure. Seger won't let me hear the music that might make his case.
Bobby Bare Jr.
Years Of Operation 1996-present
Fits Between Jason & The Scorchers and Pulp
Personal Correspondence If I had to pick one working musician whose reputation and popularity is the lowest relative to the quality of his output, I might well give the nod to Bobby Bare Jr. There's no reason why Bare Jr.'s decade-plus of entertaining, heartfelt roots-rock albums–each sprinkled liberally with his off-kilter sense of humor and love of '80s Britpop–shouldn't be as obsessed-over as the discographies of Ryan Adams or My Morning Jacket. (Two acts I revere by the way, so don't think I'm building Bare Jr. up by knocking them.) Bare Jr.'s distinctively lazy drawl and shambling music–sometimes dreamy, sometimes fiery–is undoubtedly informed by his growing up as the son of a country music star. I'm sure he's never wanted for money, and since he was nominated for a Grammy at age 5 (for guesting on his dad's hit single "Daddy What If"), he probably resigned himself long ago that his music career was going to be one long downhill slide. So his albums tend to be weird and self-indulgent in the best way: a honky-tonk workout here, a Smiths cover there, a frank explication of his romantic hang-ups everywhere. His music probably isn't for everybody, but there are few artists whose new albums I await with as much eagerness; and his most recent, 2006's The Longest Meow, was a career peak. (The song below is from the spottier 2004 disc From The End Of Your Leash, but it's a fairly good introduction to the Bare Jr. sensibility.)
Enduring presence? My fingers are still crossed that Bare Jr. will break through wider someday. If not, I'll still cling tight to whatever he puts out there.
Years Of Operation 1956-73
Fits Between Wayne Newton and Arlo Guthrie
Personal Correspondence I took an interest in Darin well before Kevin Spacey's Beyond The Sea came out, and actually knew enough about his life and career that I could tell what Spacey got right and what he got wrong. (Believe it or not, Spacey's film was reasonably spot-on, despite its overall goofiness.) It all started about five or six years ago, when I began picking up cheap greatest hits collections in the bargain bins of big box stores, looking particularly for sets by artists who'd only had a small handful of actual hits, but still had long careers. I became fascinated by the idea of "pop star" as a mere job description, and how just as a successful businessman keeps up with the latest technology and techniques, so a good pop star stays current with the radio trends. Some of those hits collections almost serve as a shadow history of popular music itself, because what The Doobie Brothers sounded like in 1988, when no one was paying attention, says more about the music of 1988 than it says about The Doobie Brothers. At any rate, someday I plan to turn all that anthology-farming into a blog series–working title: "The Hits Collection"–but today I want to hold up Bobby Darin as the ultimate example of the smart, careerist pop star. Take a spin through a thorough Darin anthology and you'll journey from late '50s novelty rock ("Splish Splash") to early '60s Vegas smarm ("Mack The Knife") to mid-'60s countrypolitan ballads ("18 Yellow Roses") to late '60s folk-rock troubadour fare ("If I Were A Carpenter"). And all that time, Darin was also starring in movies and protesting the war and popping up on TV, before ultimately ending his career performing a stage act that was constructed like an early '70s variety show. Through it all, he was a consummate pro, using his business acumen and his not insubstantial vocal talent and charisma like a resource, ready to be exploited. Honestly, I admire Darin a lot as an entertainer…
Enduring presence? …but I have a hard time listening to much of his actual music. Songs like "Splish Splash" and "Beyond The Sea" are superior examples of their eras' pop fare, but their familiarity makes them a little impenetrable. I get more out of Darin's troubadour period (best represented on the collection Songs From Big Sur) and those slick '70s revues, which give all his guises a TV-friendly zip.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Years Of Operation 1999-present
Fits Between Nick Drake and The Marshall Tucker Band
Personal Correspondence I feel like I should save the full Will Oldham discussion until I get to Palace Brothers, though for what it's worth, the Bonnie "Prince" Billy era probably means more to me than the Palace era, because I was slow to come around on the Palace records, and by the time I started to really love them, Bonnie "Prince" Billy had taken Palace's place. So I've approached each of Oldham's albums over the past 10 years as a fan, not a skeptic, and though I can understand the argument that his music has fallen into something of a rut lately, it's a rut I don't mind settling into myself. Plus I love Oldham's recent paeans to earthy romance, which ring so sweet and true.
Enduring presence? There's a new Bonnie "Prince" Billy album due out soon, and not only am I frustrated that I have to wait to hear it, I'm even more frustrated that this dopey project of mine has cost me the opportunity to interview Oldham, which is something I've been trying to set up with regularity over the past five years, with no success. Late last year, his publicist contacted me about doing an interview, but since I couldn't listen to the album, it didn't work out. Damn it all.
The Boomtown Rats
Years Of Operation 1975-86
Fits Between Bruce Springsteen and Thin Lizzy
Personal Correspondence My first real exposure to The Boomtown Rats was at Live Aid, which was occurred shortly before I turned 15–the perfect age to hear "I Don't Like Mondays." I later found the Ratrospective EP in the bargain bin–it was a measure of how ill-treated the Rats were by their US label that their hits collection was a six-song budget-priced EP–and quickly migrated away from the morose bombast of "I Don't Like Mondays" to the more exuberant bombast of "Joey's On The Street Again" and "Rat Trap." When I got older I picked up a more proper Boomtown Rats hits collection and heard early wonders like "Looking After No. 1" and "Mary Of The Fourth Form." Bob Geldof and company really had something going there in the late '70s, bridging pub-rock and punk to tell immersive stories of Irish street life. But like a lot of bands of that era, they evolved fast, trying out new styles that didn't suit Geldof's gifts so well. Ultimately, they left behind a string of great singles and a cloud of what-might've-beens.
Enduring presence? Geldof is better-known presently for his philanthropic efforts than his music, which is unfortunate. I mean, I want economic relief for the world's poor as much as anybody, but even more than that, I want the generations to come to enjoy "Rat Trap."
From the fringes of my collection, a few songs (some great, some not-so) to share….
The Blood Brothers, "Fucking's Greatest Hits" Now may be the time to revisit the question of whether there's a limit to the usefulness of noise, speed and abstraction. I actually like this song because it has some rubbery snap to it, but the bulk of The Blood Brothers' output sounds like formless mayhem to me, and while a little of that can be exciting, it's not the kind of thing I want to return to over and over, or for extended stretches. Then again, maybe I'm being just like those tired old Dylan fans, unable to hear how The Blood Brothers are harnessing the spirit of several acts I've loved in the past, like Butthole Surfers, Captain Beefheart and Phantom Tollbooth. Hey, I never claimed I wasn't a hypocrite.
Bloodstone, "Natural High" I believe on the commentary track for Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino refers to this as one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded, and I can't find much reason to disagree. Bloodstone unselfconsciously cobbles together sounds from three traditions: doo-wop (in the vocals), countrypolitan (in the strings), and cocktail jazz (in the guitar and electric piano), so that in its sentiment and construction, "Natural High" becomes downright utopian.
Bluerunners, "Coulee Rodair" A lot of deeply discipline-bound roots music–particularly the kind performed by modern musicians–tends to elude me, because it's literally formulaic, and often lacks the essential passion that comes with ownership. But this neo-zydeco band really got to me when their album Honey Slides came out three years ago, and this song is a keen example of why. To quote what I wrote in a post-Katrina mixlist that Keith and I put together: "(Bluerunners achieve) an offhanded, blissed-out grace, as the accordion and slide guitar half-dance, half-stumble around each other." The performance matches the mood perfectly.
Boards Of Canada, "Gyroscope" Because I'm not as immersed in electronica as many, I can't wax rhapsodic about what Boards Of Canada's emergence in the '90s means, either to the genre to me. But it's a measure of their impact that even someone as electronica-indifferent as myself has been entranced by the duo's records, and the way they turn pieces of old recordings into futuristic soundscapes, while simultaneously taking a childlike glee in creating something that sounds so neat (even when the results come out dark and compressed). They're one of those bands where the story behind the music–like the way their albums are culled from hundreds of compelling song-fragments–is as much part of the pleasure as the music itself.
Bo Diddley, "Pretty Thing" My first exposure to Bo Diddley was probably The Doors' cover of "Who Do You Love," which really doesn't sound that much different from the original, aside from Jim Morrison's druggy yowling. On Diddley's own records, I've always been amazed how much he can squeeze out of one basic beat and one basic sound. How does he do it? I think being a total badass probably helps.
Bob James, "Angela (Theme From Taxi)" It may sound pathetic to admit, but I don't care: The theme from Taxi gives me a pang of longing that practically wrecks me. I've been a TV junkie since boyhood, and some of my fondest memories are of those years when I was too young to work during the summer, but old enough to stay up late, which meant that large chunks of my vacation days were spent watching game shows in the morning and syndicated sitcoms at night. When I hear the music or see the footage of those shows now, it reminds me of feeling unstressed and semi-independent. Yes, I was eating my parents' food and sleeping under their roof, but my time was mine, and I had nothing to do with it but read, listen to music, and watch TV. Part of me can't wait until my kids grow up and move out of the house and I make enough money to retire, so I can pick up where I left off. (As for the musical quality of James' theme, its of a particular light jazz-fusion style that my mom listened to a lot, so there's some nostalgia there too; and as for Taxi, I summed up my love of that show in a review a couple of years ago.)
Bob Luman, "Red Hot" I went to a kids' birthday party last weekend, and the play-facility that was hosting the party piped in a CD of "silly" songs, including a cover version of this rockabilly classic. I've been meaning for years to go through my collection and burn some high-quality, kid-friendly rock onto CD for my brood, but I've been too preoccupied to get it done. My son and daughter are both old enough to operate their own CD players now, and they've played their classical and Signing Time and They Might Be Giants CDs until they're practically all skip. I should really be taking better care of my kids.
Bob Mould, "See A Little Light" So there's a new Bob Mould album I'm missing this week, huh? From the headlines I've seen, it's apparently pretty good, too. I didn't keep up with Mould after Sugar broke up, so most of my writing about him will wait for the "Hu" and "Su" portion of this series, though I wanted to take a moment to praise this unusually poppy and listener-friendly number from Workbook, Mould's very good post-Hüsker Dü solo debut. Because I was an angry young man at the time, I got more out of Black Sheets Of Rain, the fiery solo album that followed, but Workbook's acoustic ditties–and especially "See A Little Light"–really suited the shiny pop style that Mould was experimenting with towards the end of the Hüsker era. This is just a really likeable song, not as jarringly cloying as some of the material on Flip Your Wig or Warehouse. But more on that in a couple of months….
Bobby Bare, "The Winner" I came to Bare Sr. via his son, who I've already raved about. The first Bobby Bare album I heard was his 2005 comeback album, which I found a little flat, but last year Columbia reissued Sings Lullabys, Legends And Lies, Bare's 1973 album-length collaboration with Shel Silverstein, and I spent many happy hours in my car listening to it. "The Winner" is a wry story-song about a thwarted bar fight, and it makes me wish I were a long-haul trucker with an 8-track deck. Who needs books on tapes when you've got classic country to tell you tall tales?
Bobby Hebb, "Sunny" Have you ever put on a CD cold and heard a song you've known most of your life, even if you've never given it much thought? That's what happened when I listened to the Music City Rhythm & Blues anthology for the first time a couple of years ago and this yearning R&B; number came up.
Boney M., "Mega Mix" Here's a quickie introduction to the strange, often wonderful German/West Indian dance-pop act Boney M., who performed disco covers of classic R&B; songs (including "Sunny") as well as wiggy original ballads that paid tribute to bad, bad people.
Boston, "Hitch A Ride" When I was 9 years old, before I had a turntable to call my own, I bought two dinged-up records for 50 cents each at a neighborhood garage sale: Alice Cooper's Welcome To My Nightmare and Boston's debut album. Just as I transitioned from juvenile novels to grown-up books by reading Stephen King, I put Sesame Street records aside and moved towards rock via acts that aspired to awesomeness. I was reading Fantastic Four and Justice League Of America, and listening to album rock radio, which at the time was filled with amped-up, grandly theatrical music with sci-fi, horror and fantasy themes. Boston's subject matter wasn't so far-out, but their sound was state-of-the-art, and that album cover, with the guitar-shaped spaceships…well, come on. Neither my Boston nor Alice Cooper fandom lasted long–though I did hang on to some of my other late '70s album-rock faves for a while–but I still love to put on my headphones and listen to a song like "Hitch A Ride," which invites the listener into a world where each instrumental element is shined-up and cleanly separated.
The Bottle Rockets, "Radar Gun" Though they never reached the crossover success of their fellow mid-'90s alt-country travelers Wilco and Son Volt, The Bottle Rockets' hold the distinction of having recorded one of the best albums the genre has ever produced: The Brooklyn Side, a record so tuneful, rocking, and packed with small town Midwestern detail that the rest of the Rockets' not-bad output over the past 10 years has suffered mightily by comparison. But hey…one great album is nothing to feel bad about, especially when it contains anthems as cheerfully nasty as "Radar Gun," all about how law-enforcement technology can make some enterprising cops rich. (Note: Stray Track-wise, it was tough to choose between this song or the more loping "1000 Dollar Car," which is one of the truest songs ever written about the Sisyphean grind of being poor.)
Bow Wow Wow, "Louis Quatorze" Let me state for the record that I know this song is very, very wrong. The character narrating the filthy, sexy action is apparently okay with being raped at gunpoint. The music rips off the rhythm–and possibly the melody, if you believe the band's detractors–of some uncompensated African musicians. And yet the end result is so damned exciting that it raises all kinds of unintended questions about what's appropriate in popular music. "Louis Quatorze" leaves me confused, exhilarated and emotionally spent…a reaction which I think is intended.
Boz Scaggs, "It's Over" I don't have much to add to this blog post I wrote about Scaggs last year, but I hate to just pass him by without taking a moment to enjoy one of his phenomenally accomplished pieces of pop music strip-mining. This song could pass for disco, soul, southern rock or soft West Coast pop, depending on how the listener approaches it. The songs on Silk Degrees are the musical equivalent of a lenticular poster.
Brad Mehldau, "Amsterdam" I've always had a hard time getting a handle on Mehldau, one of the few contemporary jazz artists with a significant following among alt-rock fans–largely due to his covers of Nirvana and Radiohead songs. I haven't written much about jazz in this series so far, largely because we haven't gotten to any of my real favorites yet. I'm definitely not an aficionado; I mainly listen to the heavyweights. So I'll cop to the fact that I may not have the training necessary to appreciate Mehldau. But to my ears, based on the two albums and scattered tracks by him I've heard, his music sounds like vague cocktail jazz, not especially interesting melodically or improvisationally. And I stress that "cocktail" isn't the pejorative word in that sentence, because I like a lot of music that's merely pretty and inoffensive. The problem is "vague."
Listened to, unremarked upon:
Blake Shelton, The Blakes, Blanche, Blestenation, Bleu, Blind Arvella Gray, Blind Faith, Blindside, blink 182, Blitzen Trapper, Blonde Redhead, The Bloodthirsy Lovers, The Blow, Blue Boy, Blue Dogs, Blue Grass Roy, Blue Highway, Blue Man Group, The Blue Nile, Blue October, Blue States, Blue Swede, Blue-Eyed Son, Blueberry Very Blue, The Blues Magoos, Blur, Bo Ramsey, Bob & Fred, Bob Cunningham, Bob Schneider, Bobbie Gentry, Bobby & Terry Carraway, Bobby Cole, Bobby Conn, Bobby Marchan, Bobby McFerrin, Bobby Previte, Bobby Sherman, Bobby Short, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Womack, Bockman, Bodies Of Water, The Boggs, Bombay Bicycle Club, Bombay The Hard Way, Bon Savants, Bonepony, Bonk Against Nothing, Boogie Boarder, Booker T. & The M.G.s, Boone Creek, Boots, Boris, Bosque Brown, Bossacucanova, Bottom Line, Bottomless Pit, The Bouncing Souls, Bound Stems, Bowerbirds, Box Car Racer, Boy Eats Drum Machine, Boy Kill Boy, Boy Least Likely To, Boys Don't Cry, Br. Danielson, BR5-49, Bracken, Brad Laner and Brad Postlethwaite.
Next week: From The Brady Kids to The Byrds, plus a few words on the state of the project thus far.
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.