Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bittersweet Symphony/Waterloo Sunset

This freakin' guy.

There are some who think the secret to Brad Mehldau's greatness is that he went to high school about half a mile from where DT and I went to school, and at the same time, no less. These people are (mainly) wrong.

What they're not wrong about is that he's great. 'cuz he is great.

Monday, November 16, 2015

With or Without You

One of U2's best known songs redone as a gothic dirge? Sure, why not.

I like this a lot but I'm not actually sure it works. But what is undeniably impressive is how thoroughly Lee has put her own stamp on this iconic tune, keeping virtually nothing of the original arrangement. For a song as entrenched in pop culture as this one, that's no mean feat.

(I especially dig the "On a Plain" vocals at the end.)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

I'll Be Back

Somehow I have never heard this, one of my favorite songs by my favorite ever artist covered wonderfully by another artist I adore. Do not make my same mistake. Listen. Listen now. And then several more times.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

RIP Allen Toussaint

Like a lot of rock fans, I first became aware of Allen Toussaint thanks to his incredible work on the Band's Rock of Ages LP. But it doesn't take much further investigation to realize—in fact, if you're a serious music fan, it's hard not to be aware—just what a monster musician he was, or what a loss his passing is.

Friday, November 6, 2015

People Get Ready

Just how great is Aretha Franklin? Words cannot adequately describe. But here's one indication—this amazing cover of the great Impressions song:

The thing isn't so much how great her cover is, although of course it is. Even by Lady Soul's incredibly lofty standards, it's great. But what struck me recently is that it barely even gets mentioned when the song is discussed. Not because her version isn't fantastic, but because fantastic is what we expected from The Divine Miss F, every single time. Fantastic is her baseline standard.

That's how great.

Thursday, November 5, 2015


Many many years ago, surely just following the dawn of all time, Scott and I were driving one night and heading...somewhere. Who knows? We were both in college at the time and home on some break or another.

Scott popped in a cassette tape (I told you this was before the dawn of time) and on came Buddy Holly, singing and playing (I think I remember) "Everyday."

Anyway, Scott nearly yelled this to me, with the utmost of urgency:

"Do you have any idea how great he was? Any idea?"

I did. I still do.

Anyway. Greatness. It's a funny thing (or so I hear). Because even though you know it's there, sometimes we still have to be reminded. I music, we're reminded by a friend practically screaming to us to sit up and take notice of how great something is. Or maybe we get reminded by reading a review, or by reading about the artist in question.

Of course, usually, we just need to listen to be reminded of greatness.

Like here.

Emmylou Harris is not one of the greatest female singers/musicians to ever live; she is one of the greatest singer/musicians to ever live, period.

And I don't think she's ever been better than this (relatively) late career track (it comes from her spectacular Red Dirt Girl album in 2000). Listen to what is at work here. To Emmylou's voice, sad and breathy and distant, aided by some subtle orchestration and a couple of simple chords and not much else, Listen to the way she so lovingly sings his name, "Michelangelo," at the conclusion of every verse, extending it out just a nanosecond longer for emphasis. Listen to those haunted, mournful wails she offers following each bridge. As if what she is seeing and what she is feeling is simply too beautiful to be described in words.

Borrowing melodically somewhat from Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne, " "Michelangelo" sweeps us into a series of Emmylou's dreams, where the grand master visits her in a variety of different shapes and forms, all of which lead to questions from her about what they both have seen, heard and touched. This is a love letter from one great artist to another, delivered in hushed, melancholy tones that never once ceases to be stunning.

Did you suffer at the end, would there be no on to remember?
Did you banish all the old ghosts with the terms of your surrender?
And could you hear me calling out your name?
Well I guess that I will never know...

Last night I dreamed about you,
I dreamed that you were weeping.
And the dreams poured down like diamonds
For a love beyond all keeping.
And you caught them one by one,
In a million silk bandannas I gave you long ago...

Greatness abounds with Emmylous Harris, and all we need to be reminded of this is to simply listen to her at her best. With a truckful of musical talent, a voice that descended from heaven and a gift for tasteful, tactful understatement that few artists have ever had, Emmylou has it all. "Michelangelo" shows why.

Long may she reign.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


A very knowledgable music fan with usually outstanding taste once casually said to me that the Beatles weren't really rock, that they were pop. I just stared at him for several minutes until he went away.

I mean, really.

I don't believe the whole "world's greatest rock 'n roll band™" nonsense started until after the Beatles had broken up. And with good reason. Compare and contrast and only one band comes out looking like a serious contender for the title, and it ain't the Stones.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

I Feel Good

I have often said that the first woman I ever truly loved was Batgirl. Sure, I was only 4.5 years old at the time, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and I think time has proven my ardent passion was not misdirected.

But if there's any human in the entire world I could understand, even respect and approve of being passed over for, it's the Godfather of Soul.

Frankly, I think the world is worse off for the fact that (as far as we know) they didn't have a bunch of kids. Can you imagine the offspring of these two? Surely, sartorially, at least—to say nothing of their talent, vision and appearance—they would have been unmatched.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Gimme Shelter

Charlie looks like he cares, in an arthritic robotic kind of way. Ronnie looks like he cares, but no one cares what Ronnie thinks. Mick looks like Mick, except during the final verse and chrous, where perhaps spurred on by Lisa Fischer (doing an amazing job taking the place originated by Merry Clayton), he seems to care.

But Keith, ah usual he has the mistaken impression that being a multi-millionaire not giving a fuck that he's fleecing people out of of their hard earneed money (freely given) to trade on his long since pissed away if once upon a time deserved reputation is cool. It's not. What's cool is having more money than the GDP of Maldives, being able to afford not caring...and caring anyway.

Just dig that amazing ending. My goodness. Spine-chilling. I mean, really, guys, you couldn't have been arsed to run through how to end that song beforehand? Better to just have it sputter to a a halt pathetically?

And the thing is, maybe you should know it's all coming from the very beginning, when the music starts and it sounds good—and none of the Stones themselves are actually playing yet, instead indulging in an oh so convincing group hug, sans instruments. Maybe they were tabulating how much they were grossing per measure.

"World's greatest rock and roll band™." Please.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Surrender/Bastards of Young

Apparently Green Day refers to this as "the midwestern medley." I refer to it as "so very good."

(Yeah, it might be a little weird to pair up perhaps the most heartfelt, soul-bearing song of the first 2/3rds of the Replacements' output with an absolutely pristine power-pop ditty with confused and confusing takes on sexuality, but since these are two of the top Big Star acolytes ever, and the tempos match up, we'll go with it.)

Friday, October 2, 2015

Nothing Compares 2 U

I love the cello but am often skeptical of its appearance in a pop context. While it can be beyond sublime it often feels like it's used when an artist is striving for respectability and depth, which can be extra jarring when the artist in question has no need to strive for what was already within their easy reach.

That's not what this feels like. Here's it's simply gorgeous and an integral part of this largely understated and entirely effective cover, with Chris Cornell making the most of his amazing voice by almost totally reserving its power, utilizing his lower register and letting its bluesiness do most of the work.

[h/t Cover Me]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Our periodic public service reminder: the Rolling Stones suck live. They suck. Suck suck suckety suck. The most overrated live band ever, by a factor of roughly one trillion. They suck.

See? This was an ideal setting for them, and they still blew. If you caught them in your local bar on a Thursday night, you'd be annoyed and assume they were the bar owner's cousins or he owed them money or something.

Suck suck suckety suck.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Favorite Song Friday: Press

Look. Let's this get this right out of the way up front: I'm not saying this is a great song. I am, however, saying that it's far better than its reputation. And, moreover, I'm saying I love it so very hard.

Sure, its production is ridonkulous, and I say that as someone who has loved unabashedly and unreservedly many of Hugh Padgham's records. And yet it's hard to deny that the production is so 1980s it should be wearing parachute pants.

But it's not all the production's fault. Macca's style is in full bloom here, for good and bad. The good is that, of course, it's an insanely catchy song, with a bridge that most good artists would kill a dozen homeless people for in order to use it as a chorus. And the verse is even catchier. And neither comes close to how catchy the chorus itself actually is. And his voice sounds great, even for him—once you get past the silly pseudo-accent he adopts for the count-in. And, frankly, the overt sexuality of the lyric is somewhere between bracing and kind of embarrassing, and good for him. (I think.)

But then he throws in bits like the "Oklahoma" part and what the hell is with that? First of all, structurally, it's weird—the kind of weird he seems to revel in, as though he'd mastered the perfect pop form long ago and so has to deliberately try to sabotage songs in order to keep things interesting. (To be fair, he's probably not wrong.)

Anyhoo, the most famous musician in the world can do many things, but convince someone he's a boy from Oklahoma ain't one of 'em. I mean...look at the expression on the woman's face at 2:14. She tries to be cool and pretend she's not utterly stoked to be in the presence of a damn Beatle...but she can't. No one can. And no one's not fully aware that Sir Paul McCartney was born and bred 4475 miles from the Sooner State. And then, to make things worse, he has the silly drum break, apparently determined to outdo (or perhaps indo) John Fogerty on "Zanz Kant Dance."

Wow. That's a lot of negativity from a guy who claims to like the song. And I don't really have all that many arguments to counterbalance the criticisms. Except this: it's Paul. And all that stuff is true, this is kind of a lousy record, well below "Silly Love Song" standards (and I'm not kidding about that). But it's still got Paul damn McCartney unleashing that impossibly great voice on a fantastic melody, the kind which inspired the brilliant Douglas Adams to write:
Arthur could almost imagine Paul McCartney sitting with his feet up by the fire on evening, humming it to Linda and wondering what to buy with the proceeds, and thinking probably Essex.
Also the video's a hoot.

Supposedly this is literally the first time McCartney had ridden the underground since 1962. That's pretty believable, but would also make a dandy urban legend. Either way, watching the reaction of people realizing they're near a Beatle just doesn't really get old, and he's so damn charming that his deep-seated need to please and be liked somehow doesn't grate (too much). Also, his hair looked better back before he started dyeing it.

So. Yeah. Not a great song. But at least every few years I'm hit with the urge to listen to it and whenever I do I find myself playing it a half dozen times because really some people just wanna fill the world with silly love songs, and what's wrong with that?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wendell Gee

Rarely has a stone classic been so divisive.

Even normally astute critics such as one Peter Buck think (or at least thought) it weak at best. Which is astonishing, since "Wendell Gee" is where Michael Stipe, always an interesting, often a fascinating, lyricist became a truly great one.

Just as hundreds could have played Miles Davis's solos on Kind of Blue but not one other person could have written them, so too with Stipe's lyrics here.

Stipe may get too much credit for REM's success, as is so often the way with a band's frontman. But not here. No, here's it's entirely justified. Stipe's lyrics, which in their early days could be nothing more than a pleasing or perplexing combination of sounds and syllables, as he has admitted, here rises to the level of a great author. Which is the key to the song.

I said "the key" to the song, but that wasn't correct, because this is R.E.M. and rare indeed is the R.E.M. song that has only one key ingredient. So too here, as Mike Mills' chord changes are delightfully if not radically unconventional, starting with a fifth in the bass, before settling briefly on the tonic and then moving immediately to the supertonic. The following change, from the dominant to the dominant seventh, is the kind of small yet vital bit of coloration that most bands wouldn't even think of—the Beatles being, as they so often are, an exception—yet which makes a huge difference emotionally, lowering and lending ambiguity to the mood ever so slightly yet undeniably. The chorus, meanwhile, is largely a IV-I-V construction, with the tonic sandwich simultaneously imbuing the section with a feeling of resolution that's almost entirely unresolved.

As far as the rhythm section goes, Bill Berry plays the role of metronome beautifully, like Tony Williams on "In a Silent Way," while vocally adding some lovely yet subtle and nearly buried if serenely soaring harmonies (in stark contrast to Mills' far more obvious and busier vocal parts). Meanwhile, Mike Mills's bass dances around Peter Buck's guitar like Fred Astaire dancing with a sentient hatrack.

Instrumentally the real star,  however, as he himself will be pleased to tell you, is Buck's banjo, providing a sonic contrast and fulfilling the function of guitar solo, as well as underpinning the song's southern roots.

As though that were really necessary. As if there were really any doubt.

It has often needed to be pointed out that rock lyrics are not poetry. They do not, generally speaking, work on the page the way poetry does, and only truly come to life when sung. That's often very much the case with Stipe's lyrics, especially (but not only) his early ones. It's not at all the case with "Wendell Gee," although even here, Stipe's lyrics are less poetry and more southern gothic magic realism flash fiction prose. To that end, Stipe's lyrics start in media res, like a good southern storyteller. "So I was down at the holler the other day..."

That's when Wendell Gee takes a tug upon the string that held the line of trees behind the house he lived in

That's the opening. What other rock song has ever started that way? (A: none more.)

He was reared to give respect but somewhere down the line he chose to whistle as the wind blows, whistle as the wind blows through the leaves

Okay. So far we've got a pleasant song about an odd but harmless outsider, a guy who was raised right but chose to live on the outskirts and go his own way—in other words, another Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables song. Which is a good thing.

And then.

He had a dream one night that the tree had lost its middle so he built a trunk of chicken wire to try and hold it up
But the wire, the wire turned to lizard skin and when he climbed inside

Before we have time to process this bizarre, dreamlike scenario, it's immediately followed by a return of the chorus, with additional lyrics:

There wasn't even time to say goodbye to Wendell Gee
So whistle as the wind blows
Whistle as the wind blows through the leaves

Peter Buck's banjo then takes over, giving the listener time to absorb what just happened, if that's possible. Then another run through another chorus, albeit one with again some additional/different lyrics:

If the wind were colors and if the air could speak
Then whistle as the wind blows
Whistle as the wind blows through the leaves

And just like that, Michael Stipe shifted from intriguing rock lyricist and inside sidled into the pantheon of southern gothic writers such as Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Fred Chappell and William Faulkner. With gorgeously evocative phrases such as "if the wind were colors and if the air could speak," Stipe sketches a character study of a mythical yet somehow relatable figure such as Wendell Gee, who disappears into a dying a tree wrapped in lizard skin. And somehow, as with a novel having a corpse for a narrator or the best magic realism, it works.

Despite appearing to hew more closely to literature than gutbucket rock and roll, "Wendell Gee" is in fact very much part of the classic rock and roll lineage. Just as there as some things which words cannot truly capture, for which only something such as "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom" or "da-doo-ron-ron-ron" or "sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-tee-da" or "de-do-do-do-de-da-da-da" or "hello, hello, hello, how low" can properly convey the full emotion, so too a phrase as emotionally evocative and overwhelming yet mysterious and indefinable as "if the wind were colors and if the air could speak."

It is one measure of just how weird Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables is that a song about a guy disappearing into a lizard skin tree is the absolute perfect ending. Even more, it's one measure of its greatness. But far from its only one.

And that's R.E.M. and Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables. As cerebral and defiant a band as ever existed, and yet securely in the great rock tradition while simultaneously standing outside it—which is itself part of the great rock tradition. How appropriate.

So whistle as the wind blows 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Good Advices

Way back at the start of Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables, "Feeling Gravitys Pull" set the tone with the twice repeated line, "Time and distance are out of place here." And from that moment on the album is filled, pretty much wall to wall, with stories and thoughts and phrases which reinforce that theme.

From the directionless guidebook of "Maps and Legends" to the weary conductor of "Driver 8" to the definition of being lost in "Cant Get There From Here," there is no sense of place on this entire record which seems permanent. This extends to the Kensey clan on "Old Man Kensey," to the man who split his house in two on "Life and How to Live It," to the unsafe, inaccessible highways of "Green Grow the Rushes" and to the fading nighttime lights of "Kohoutek." So much of Fables seeks to find something there, only to reveal there's no there there.

So comes "Good Advices," the penultimate track, with what amounts to an instruction booklet for those who don't feel they have a place to belong:

When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes
Keep your money in your shoes, put your trouble behind
When you greet a stranger, look at her hands
Keep your money in your hands, keep your travel behind

Who are you going to call for?
What do you have to say?
Keep your hat on your head
Home is a long way away

At the end of the day I'll forget your name
I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away

When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes
Keep your memories in your shoes, keep your travel behind
Who are you going to call for?
What do you have to say?
Keep your hat on your head
Home is a long way away

At the end of the day, when there are no friends
When there are no lovers
Who are you going to call for?
What do you have to change?

A familiar face, a foreign place
I'll forget your name
I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away

Who are you going to call for?
What do you have to say?
Keep your hat on your head
Home is a long way away

"Good Advices," one of the most sublime and evocative tracks R.E.M. ever recorded, closes the loop on "time and distance" with delicate perfection. There is no stopping, no destination, just the travel. The journey is where the contentment comes, not the arrival. A line as sweet and intricate as, "I'd like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away" (which very closely leans on Robert Frost at his best) drives this point home once and for all. It's strangers everywhere, the faces and places are familiar but the names remain a mystery. Don't bother stopping or even taking your hat off (a decidedly "inside" gesture), because the journey must continue. Be polite, be cordial, but be cautious. And keep moving.

Intentional or not, the band is prescient enough to add to this theme by providing "Good Advices" with a rarely used fade-in from Mike Mills and Bill Berry, with Peter Buck's first chord serving as the starting gun. Michael Stipe's voice possesses a slight echo to it, as if sung by someone "a long way away," and the tenderness with which he croons adds to the idea that comfort may indeed come, but not in a way that most people expect.

Like "Carnival of Sorts" and "Pilgrimage" and "Little America" (there's that song again) before it, "Good Advices" is the child of a band that up to this point had spent so much of its existence on the road, moving from one tiny gig to the next and always moving towards...something. Most bands lead these transient existences in the early years, some lead them forevermore. R.E.M. is no different in that sense; the difference is they spent so much time cataloging it and writing about it.

In a culture built on grand storytelling and the generational narrative, R.E.M. uses Fables of the Reconstruction to fit their own story into the south's long, long road home. "Good Advices" is their navigational primer. The difference this time is at the end of the day, we won't forget their name.