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Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Do You Really Want to Hurt Me"

Culture Club - "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" (1982)

Apparently Boy George started on stage as Lieutenant Lush, an occasional guest vocalist for Bow Wow Wow, who was booed off stage until he was dropped and started his own band.



So I am really just listening to this song for the first time. Of course I was aware of it culturally, and have heard it thousands of times at school dances, in The Wedding Singer, and played every time someone on VH-1 says 80s. But I've never bothered listening to it before. It's a very quiet song, a very sad song, a touching mournful song; sitting on the back of a Reggae dance beat to make it all go down easier.

There is very little solo keyboard in the song, but it's there, floating along in the background, holding down the chords. The bass is too busy showing off to hold the song together, and I really like the kinda flashy bass work. There is a sound of a Glockenspiel throughout the song, but I'm pretty sure that's a synth sound. The strings sounds at the beginning for sure are artificially created. I really like the church choir sound of the beginning. The subtle soaring sound of the backing vocalists really hits at the right moments during the song, but in particular make the opening a memorable almost confessional moment. As much as I like the vocals and the bass, it's the beat that makes this song danceable, and stand out from any number of New Wave love songs. The Brits really love their reggae, which I did not really know before reading 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die. It really influenced British New Wave and the British Punk Scene. This songs rhythm is pure laid back reggae and that beat made it possible to move your butt while listening to an androgynous man sing about love in a manner that made people confused. It was really the beat that made Americans OK with such an odd and different band I'm sure.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"Tomorrow Is a Long Time"

Elvis Presley - "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" (1966)

From the soundtrack album Spinout, where Elvis plays a part time rock band leader and part time race car driver. Three different women want to marry him. It couldn't be more of a Marty Stu movie if it tried.



This song's got a convoluted recording history. Let's break it down. Originally written and recorded by Bob Dylan in 1962 as a demo, that version was only available on bootleg and didn't get released until 2010. A bootlegged live version, recorded in April 1963 in New York was the most commonly heard version of the song for years, by Dylan at least. This version that played over the Walking Dead season one finale is now the only version by Dylan easily available on line. I think it's the 1963 live version, but I can't promise. Anyway, back to the brief story of the Elvis version. In August of 1963 Bob Dylan played at the Civil Rights march in Washington DC along with many others. One of those was Black folk singer Odetta. in January of 1965 Odetta released an album called Odetta sings Dylan that included her take on the song. Now Elvis didn't need Odetta's version to record Dylan, he was a fan, and covered at least a couple more Dylan tunes during his later career, mostly informal never released stuff, but still; he knew the guy. So why is the Odetta version an important step? It's clearly the version Elvis, his producer Felton Jarvis, and his musicians based their version on.

I'm hearing two acoustic guitars, one playing an almost slide-like wailing occasional lead. The other playing chords. The only real percussion is a tambourine doing just about the most laid back tambourine I've ever heard. I really like the walking bass on this track. It's a great sound and not overly loud or brash. Actually that bass is just about all that keeps the instruments on this song from being an old folk recording, it's too clear and was obviously done in a studio. Elvis gets forgotten a lot in today's fast paced musical world, but his voice here is not to be denied.

Monday, June 25, 2012

"Cokane in My Brain"

Dillinger - "Cokane in My Brain" (1976)

I don't know who Jim is. The producer's name was Joseph, but he apparently went by Jo Jo. I can only hope that somewhere, Jim has learned how to spell New York.



I gotta be honest, I think this might be one of those songs that became popular because it mentioned drugs a lot, and so in the time, it sounded cool. Much like Afroman's "Because I Got High" it doesn't really hold up years later. The music is The People's Choice's "Do It Any Way You Wanna" but played by in house Jamaican studio musicians. The don't play it the same, but it's the same tune nevertheless. They've got some good funk going on, but the original is funkier.

There's really only two lyrics worth talking about. The first is the answer to the question that Dillinger asks over and over again. "/A knife, a fork, a bottle, and a cork/ That's the way we spell New York" (Bullock). The line is a sort of Cockney rhyming slang that dates back until at least the 1910s. A article in the Syracuse Herald from 1915 mentions the phrase in relation to an address on a letter. Other artists, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Information Society have used the phrase in songs. The other lyric is the common complaint of people who throw house parties. "/No matter where I treat my guest/ They always like my kitchen best/" of course Dillinger follows it up with a reason. "/ Because I've got a whole lot of Cocaine.../".


Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Chicago"

Sufjan Stevens "Chicago" (2005)

The album cover originally contained a drawing of Superman, which in later versions was covered by a sticker of balloons.



So much music has been tied up with The Second City. It's got a classic song from the 20s that has been recorded hundreds of times, most notably by Frank Sinatra. It's also got a song from the early 60s that Sinatra sang that virtually drove the early song out of people's heads. It's got its own musical, which opened in 1975. It's got a Progressive, Jazz Fusion Rock/Adult Contemporary band that named itself after the transit authority, then changed to just be named after the whole city. Graham Nash wrote a song in 1970 as a plea to the rest of his band mates to come and protest on behalf of the Chicago 8. There are also lesser known songs in the electronica, pop folk confessional, metalcore, and Tom Waits genres. So how does an indie singer-songwriter from Detroit come to write one of the most critically regarded songs about the city?

In 2004 Sufjan Stevens expressed an interest in writing an album for each of the fifty states of the US. The first he wrote back in 2003 about his home state of Michigan. When he eventually released Illinois, often called by the name on the cover: Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise in 2005 it was a lo-fi complexly orchestrated extraveganza. The titles of the songs were sometimes longer than the title of the album, he used over a dozen musicians, not including the choir, and played close to two dozen instruments himself. In more recent years, as he has released other non state related albums, there have been hints about others, but also statements that it was all a promotional gimmick.

The song is about growing up in general, and having one defining moment that encapsulates that growth in maturity. The vibraphone that starts the song is such an unheard song in music anymore that I love hearing it. the layers of sound just sit on top off each other perfectly, the strings in particular I really enjoy. There is a anoying little sound in the chorus that reminds me a little too much of a clock alarm, but overall I can't dislike the song over it. I like the trumpet, particularly because it is in the moment that the trumpet comes in that you realize that it's not a super hi-fi slick production with auto tune correction everywhere. It's musicians playing a song they love and with people they respect and appreciate. The layers of sound, and in particular the backing choir remind me of a band that does not have a place in the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die book: The Polyphonic Spree.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Let's Dance"

David Bowie - "Let's Dance" (1983)

One of the few albums that did not feature long time Bowie collaborator Carlos Alomar on guitar. He says he was busy, rumor has it the pay was too low; regardless he returned for five more albums after this break.



The song is one of Bowie's most popular, and is seen by purists as the beginning of his commercial stage. Bowie became a household name, stopped dressing up funny, and recorded duets with Queen, Mick Jagger, and Bing Crosby. Older fans cried sellout but the new fans embraced him and made his post disco dance music an international success.

There is a big collection of early 80s talent here on this cut. Niles Rodgers and Tony Thompson from Chic played guitar and drums on the track respectively. You've most likely never heard of keyboardist Robert Sabino, or saxophone player Stan Harrison,but I promise you, they've both played with dozens of popular 80s bands. Niles Rodgers also produced not only this song, but with Bowie, produced the entire album. His Dance and R&B influence can be heard all over the record. The guitar solo at the end of the song is played by Stevie Ray Vaughn, recorded right before he broke huge into the American mainstream.

The song's video is anti-capitalist, and considered by Bowie to be anti racist, but to the modern eye seems to lean a little hard on the 'Noble Savage' archetype. The lyrics are mostly just a hopeless romantic asking his partner to dance, but there lies just underneath the hint of something darker, as if the love affair might be ending. The music is funked along by the bass, while the echo-y guitar and saxophones give it a dreamy cushion on either side of the bouncing/walking/grooving protagonist of the bass. I can't forget to mention two things vocally. The first is the rising do-wop backing singers heard at the beginning and elsewhere, giving the song an odd homage/throwback feel that has enthused listeners since then. The second is Bowie's shaking vocals as the song grows and he honestly makes us sound like it's not just the love affair we have to worry about ending; maybe we're dancing at the end of the world!

Friday, June 22, 2012

"End of a Century"

Blur - "End of a Century" (1994)

It's a pretty little slice of Britpop right in the middle of the grunge years.



Damon Albarn's early 90s accent could never be described as easy on the ears, but even with the addition of monotonous power chords played on the electric guitar during the verses and the bridge the song manages to feel light and airy. The backing vocals being in the upper register as well as the ringing guitar help that quite a bit. The organ is also a light element to the song. There's a flute at the beginning, as well as during the bridge, and the flugelhorn that dominates the bridge and outro give the song the peppy upbeat poppy feeling. the lyrics on the other hand includes one of the saddest lines hidden amongst the wealth of depressing ones. The song as a whole is about how we, as the century drew to a close, had become complacent  and willing to just say "meh, whatever". Their flat is infested with insects, they watch TV instead of have conversation, etc. But the line that gets me is "/and kiss with dry lips/when we say goodnight/" (Albarn). In a relationship full of boredom and monotony, the fact that they kiss each other goodnight with dry lips is the saddest thing I've heard all week.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Season of the Witch"

Donovan - "Season of the Witch" (1966)

I have no memory of the Nicolas Cage movie of the same name that came out last year.



That hack down on the electric guitar sounds scratchy and scary doesn't it? And the electric organ sitting on that quiet drone just makes it creepier. Donovan's voice gets more insistent and angry as the chorus grows near until he is very nearly begging us for help, the time has drawn neigh and the Season is upon us all.

Donovan was a Scottish folk singer/songwriter who had a lot of success both at home and in America. His "Catch the Wind" from 1965 is a perfect encapsulation of love unrevealed and unrequited. For his third album, he and producer Mickie Most grabbed local musicians to play a more electric version of folk. Instead of continuing to sound like 'Britain's Bob Dylan' (as he often was called) what emerged was early psychedelic rock, including many of the things that would come to be associated with the genre. Namely, impenetrable lyrics and long drawn out instrumental jam style solos. The song, also like Dylan before, was longer than a normal pop song.But Donovan deserves to be remembered as more than just a Dylan follower.

The song is a great example of early psychedelia, and it has been used in media to denote mystic happenings as well as a song of the times. It's been covered many times, to great effect, but my favorites include Dr. John, Lou Rawls, The Strangelings, Joan Jett, and of course Vanilla Fudge.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"It's a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl"

Faust - "It's a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl" (1972)

Faust was one of the earliest bands signed to Richard Branson's fledgling Virgin Records.



OK, so clearly we've started with some drums, it's a raw sound, you can hear that on some beats the drummer is hitting harder than others, and you can hear the actual "tone" of the drum and not just the percussive hit. The piano part that comes in is only marginally more complex than the drums, in that they play the same note 15 times then one different note, at the same time the drummer hits the drum a little harder. The vocalists that come in sound like they are being recorded on one mike, a little too far away and then the guitar comes in. The second acoustic guitar adds the most complexity so far, and it's about two minutes in when you realize that this song is over seven minutes long, and you just might be listening to some experimental college rock that no one expected anyone else to ever listen to.

Krautrock is the genre name given to a German based highly experimental sound that has no real other binding definition. Some of it is more like jazz, other stuff is more like progressive classical, and then this is sort of an ambient, layers of sound thing. After building a basic sound of drums, keyboard, and vocals, we get several different layers. The guitar starts as something different, giving us hints of complexity, but eventually just becomes another layer. The vocals too go in and out, but for the most part are just another bass layer. About halfway through the song, faint electronic keyboard sounds and the wind start, eventually getting louder until they push everything else into a drone in the back of your mind. It's the kind of sound a Hollywood executive would want a scene of a Native American or Hippie meditation/psychedelic scene to have going on over it. A totally unexpected harmonica solo breaks the drone and suddenly the vocals that you hadn't noticed had disappeared are back in. Then a saxophone reminds you that you are listening to experimental music as the whole thing ends rather abruptly after a short fade out. You are left sitting and wondering "what did I just listen to?"

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Camarón"

Pata Negra - "Camarón" (1987)

Pata Negra is Spanish for Black hoof, a very expensive type of Iberian ham. Sort of like naming your band Cristal, or Beluga.



So we've already had a flamenco hybrid style, that was flamenco and hip hop, this is flamenco and blues based rock and roll. It kind of has a movie vibe to it, like it's the kind of song that would be playing in an 80s movie when the main characters got off the boat and walked up to find the beach of their dreams, sun, surf, hot bodies and cool beer.

The acoustic flamenco style guitar and the hand claps keep the song rooted in the traditional Spanish dance style. but the electric bass and electric guitar really pull the song into blues rock territory. The solos are great, with a lot of echo and reverb that give the tune a laid back feel even with the driving 12/8 rhythm driving us along. I think that's why it reminds me of a beach, you're excited and happy and there is a lot going on, but you're really their to relax. The principal members of the band are two brothers. One mostly sings and plays guitar, the other mostly plays guitar and sings. You should really check out just a bit of this live video of them playing in 1992. The big hair and spandex is just a bonus, you're really checking out how much fun they are having.

Friday, June 15, 2012

"One More Time"

Daft Punk - "One More Time" (2000)

An absolute classic of the genre, and responsible for thousands and thousands of imitators.



I think it goes without saying that I think this song is terrible. It is almost everything I found bad about music in one long repetitive track. That being said, I will attempt to find some nice things to say about it. The middle section, starting around 2:22 is not as annoying as the rest of the track, because the drum machine has been turned off. They use a great bass sample even if they claim that it wasn't sample. If they played it themselves, great. The song ends so surprisingly abruptly I thought YouTube had choked. The lyrics are very upbeat.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Voices Carry"

'Til Tuesday - "Voices Carry" (1985)

OK, I'm going to admit it, turns out the cute redhead in the band that I always thought was better looking than Aimee Mann is actually guitarist Robert Holmes.



It's a track that leans heavily on the synthesizers and driving high hat but the vocals and bass really make it a memorable track. Aimee Mann provides both of those things. Her shouted lines like "He wants me/ but only part of the time./ He wants me/ if he can keep me in line!/" (Mann) are powerful and compelling, and her sung/whispered take on the chorus is so breathy it would be sexy if she wasn't talking about an abusive relationship. Mann is also the bass player and the bass line is the only instrumental part that sticks with me. The backing vocals are also really lush , with male and female vocalists blending together to sound really big and deep and important. It really helps the song build at the end so that the backing vocalists can keep going while Mann on lead can start going into her "He said shut up!" lines.

The song was famously written as a woman singing to another woman, but the record company wanted the song to be the lead single off the album so they asked for a change. The band agreed and 'Til Tuesday got their biggest hit. Aimee Mann went on to a solo career, including an Oscar nomination for her work on the soundtrack to Magnolia. In 2005 she recorded an acoustic version as an iTunes exclusive. It's not completely acoustic mind you, just features an acoustic guitar, but it's very worth a listen. Her voice is still great.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"Subterranean Homesick Blues"

Bob Dylan - "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (1965)

Producer Tom Wilson was an African American who cut his teeth producing Sun Ra in the 50s but really came into his own in the 60s, producing Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, The Mothers of Invention, The Animals, and The Velvet Underground. His influence on Rock and Roll can not be denied. He died of a heart attack in 1978.



The title is a reference to a Kerouac novel The Subterraneans, the lyrics reference Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger's song "Taking it Easy", the guitar lick and lyric rhythm is a take on a Chuck Berry tune called "Too Much Monkey Business". Add to that the fact that this was Dylan's first "electric" single, his first single to hit the top 40, and one of the earliest examples of a "music video" and you can see why this song made the list of 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die.

The song is a very repetitive acoustic folk guitar and basic drum set chugging away. On top of that, we get an electric guitar and an almost dirty fuzzy bass. There is also a cleaner bass playing the same walking line. Or something like that, I swear you can hear a clean bass and a fuzz bass on some parts. There's also a harmonica playing a lot of the time that Bob isn't singing. What's he singing about you ask? It's very stream of conscious, doesn't really man anything, and therefore everybody has an opinion. Jet took the name of their first album Get Born from one of the lines, and radical leftist group The Weathermen took their name from another.

There have been numerous covers, way to many to list, but some noteworthy ones include pop singer songwriter Harry Nilsson, known for "Everybody's Talkin'" "Coconut" and "Me and My Arrow" doing a surprisingly heavy rock version produced by John Lennon. The Red Hot Chili Peppers put a seriously new spin on it. There a a few Reggae covers to be found, this one is by Sizzla. The funniest take on it is Weird Al's classic spoof "Bob". He even gets friends to play Allen Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth in the back of the video. About the video, sorry about the copy up above, it sounds fine, but it's the only one on the Internet that hasn't been taken down, so you only get a small version. If you are looking for something really different as far as "covers" go, check out Julez Santana Featuring Yelawolf. Their "Mixin' Up The Medicine" uses the song as a starting point. It's rap, and full of cursing and crude language, so consider yourselves warned away.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Willin'"

Little Feat - "Willin'" (1972)

Producer Ted Templeman worked with the Doobie Brothers, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Aerosmith, but is most known for helping to discover and produce Van Halen.



This is a great folk song. It's a travel song, a blue collar worker song, and a drug song all rolled up together. It's no wonder that it is a country and roots rock favorite. Originally covered by Linda Ronstadt, it has been covered by the Black Crows, Dwight Yoakam and Bob Dylan. This version is kind of a cover in and of itself. This is off of Salin' Shoes, the second Little Feat album, and it appeared on the eponymous debut album in a really stripped down version first. Almost all of the versions are tremendously faithful, there's not a lot of change you want to do to a trucker song that so perfectly encapsulates the feeling of being on the inside of a rig. Singer, guitar player, and songwriter Lowell George really lets his voice lead you into the story. He's world weary, beat down, misses his woman, subsisting on nothing by uppers and downers, and yet if there's a load that needs to get somewhere, he's still your man.

It's a short song, under three minutes, and yet it includes a beautiful duet between a slide guitar and a piano. He sings the chorus twice, backed by the other three members of the band, and only two verses. It's a song that could easily have been stretched out by any other artist, a five or six minute version with more verses about different parts of the country, different women, and more solos, but instead he ties it up in such a neat bow.

Monday, June 11, 2012

"Iris"

Goo Goo Dolls - "Iris" (1998)

The alternative/punk rock band that became a soft rock/adult contemporary staple.



This is not the song that first took them from relative obscurity to WASH FM success, that would be "Name" from the previous LP A Boy Named Goo, but Dizzy Up The Girl was full of orchestrated power ballads and this was the first single off that album. It was actually written for, and included on the soundtrack album for the film City of Angels a remake of the German film Der Himmel über Berlin or Wings of Desire in English. The movie is about a guardian angel that falls in love with a human, and the lyrics fit that far away searching and desire.

Musically the song is deep and rich, with multiple layers of strings, guitars, mandolins, and percussion. The band is credited as producers on every song on the album, as is the now current chairman of Warner Brothers Records, Rob Cavallo; who cut his teeth producing Green Day, and produced for a number of different 90s and 00s bands, including every Goo Goo Dolls studio album since this one.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"The Art Teacher"

Rufus Wainwright - "The Art Teacher" (2004)

Originally released as part of a four song EP Between Wainwright's Want One and Want Two entitled  Waiting for a Want.



Really interesting song. It's a man singing as a woman telling a story about her days as a high school girl. It doesn't have a chorus, or even verses really, just a stream of conscious story. The vamping on the piano before he starts a line actually makes it sound like he is sitting in a parlor, telling you this story, deciding if he wants to tell you the next part. He breathes in a long drag of a cigarette connected to a long elegant cigarette holder; then takes a sip of the pinot grigio, before finally finishing the thought. I found very few liner notes about the album, but I did find a uncited source claiming that the song was recorded live for the album. Every version I found online that says it was the album version had the people cheering at the end, but that doesn't prove it, just makes it more likely. The book agrees, but there's no documentation I found.

The song is one of the simplest forms of music: a story told by one person, with one backing instrument. The only break to this is the horn that comes in at the middle of the piece. Performed by Isobel Griffiths, the same source that claims it was recorded live (in Montreal) also claims that the horn was added later in the studio. It's a tragic sad story, told beautifully.