Monday, January 28, 2013

We're #6! We're #6!

You were probably wondering, "hey, which blog is the sixth hit on Google in the Netherlands for 'bruce springsteen songs on infidelity'?"Well, wonder no longer: it's us. We are.

True story.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: The Rake's Song

In rock-n-roll, the subject matter is not always clean and lovely. Of course it isn’t.

Because for all of the lovey-dovey splendor of, say, “Love Me Tender” or “Peggy Sue” or “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “God Only Knows,” there is always the grittier, less pleasant underside that is so prevalent and so powerful on rock’s landscape it’s impossible to fully tell the story without it.

Hence “Gimme Shelter” and “For What It’s Worth” and “Revolution” and “Freddie’s Dead.” And “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Living For the City” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And so on.

And there’s love and the darkness it brings with it. Jealousy. Obsession. Sickness. Rage. Maybe even…MURDER???? (cue scary music)

But seriously. In even the prettiest rock-n-roll people get stalked (“Every Breath You Take.”) In rock-n-roll people are beset with blind fits of jealousy that leads them to madness (“Alison” comes to mind, to name just one). And in rock-n-roll, people sometimes even die. And not cleanly and wussily like “Seasons in the Sun.” No, I’m talking rage-filled death like in “Hey Joe.” Or cold, detached murder like “Nebraska.”

Rock-n-roll. An American Killer! (cue music again…no, Scott, not the Benny Hill theme…fine, forget it!)

This happy topic leads us to this week’s installment of Favorite Song Friday.

The Decembrists – “The Rake’s Song”

If you don’t know the song, I implore you to listen to it and to admire its power and the sheer virtuosity of one of the most talented American bands to come along in years.

And I apologize for making you listen to a song about infanticide.

(Oh, and the video, I just noticed, is also the stuff of nightmares. Win-win!)

Not unlike (coincidentally, I swear) the choice of “Cannonball”  in the first installement of Favorite Song Friday, “The Rake’s Song” is propelled along by a thunderous bassline that dominates the entire song, this time courtesy of Nate Query. Colin Meloy’s acoustic guitar sits neatly on top of it as it pulsates three notes at a time, again not at all unlike the way Kim Deal does in "Cannonball."

The similarities end there.

Where “Cannonball” was, as discussed, an exercise in restraint, “The Rake’s Song” is a gorgefest of sinful malevolence. Everything about the song is violent.

Colin Maloy's nasal sneer has never sounded more sinister and downright sadistic as he does in spitting out the story of the evil and unrepentant rake, who feels burdened by his three kids after his wife dies so he decides to dispatch all three with brutal haste. Jenny Conlee’s Hammond Organ roars in at each chorus and cloaks the bass and guitar chords in evil grandiosity, the kind of sound you expect to hear when entering a haunted house. And John Moen, while remarkably restrained on drums at first, eventually hits them so hard I think you actually hear the snare say “ow” at the 2:02 mark.

The lyrics, of course, are all Colin, and represent the Decembrists at their high-English, hyper-literate best, telling the tale of a man who simply wants to live “easy and free” and is never bothered by his decision to snuff out his entire family. A sampling:

One can one do when one is a widower?
Shamefully saddled with three little pests?
All I wanted was the freedom of a new life
So my burden I began to divest.

Charlotte I buried after feeding her foxglove,
Dawn was easy, she was drowned in the bath
Isaiah fought but was easily bested
Burned his body for incurring my wrath.

Yikes. Someone has anger issues. And commitment issues. Despite his lovely taste in flowers.

None of this would work, of course, if “The Rake’s Song” weren’t so meticulously and exquisitely crafted as a standalone rock-n-roll song. It’s downright catchy, from the thumpity bass to the “All right, all right, all right!” chorus to the power chord-driven mania of it all. If it weren’t for the high-test rock opera that surrounded it on their wondrous 2009 The Hazards of Love album (something about a forest and a queen and bad people doing bad things…trust me, it works) you could easily see something like this falling into one of the Ramones' sets. Or Lou Reed’s.

It’s brutal and it’s ugly and its subject matter caused the band to be lambasted and vilified by the self-righteous faux moralist crowd who denounce the evils of rock-n-roll and Hollywood while doing things like cheering on American wartime violence in their next hypocritic breath. Fine. Good for them. Yawn.

But it works, truly. It works in the sanguine, subversive spirit in which rock-n-roll was founded—getting into those bad, nasty areas we don’t really like to talk about, but damned if we can’t sing about them. “The Rake’s Song” not only embraces bad behavior, it practically throws it a graduation party.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Shiny Happy Losing My Religion

I'm...having trouble processing this. This song is so ingrained in my DNA from hundreds upon hundreds of times listening to the studio recording, as well as dozens of live recordings, even scores of times playing it (poorly) myself. And then...this.

I...I...I don't know if I can do it... 

I  think I thought it's fascinating, the way altering the pitch of a just a few notes completely and totally changes our perceptions of the whole structure. Honestly, listening to this really does make me feel slightly woozy.

The results are even more dramatic, I think, if less intestinally-jarring, when it comes to Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" and "Riders on the Storm" by the Doors

but since I don't have anything like the same emotional attachement to those bands, it doesn't affect me nearly as much. Still worth a listen or three, of course.

Favorite Song Friday: Sick of Myself

When DT first suggest Favorite Song Friday, I immediately thought, "you're an idiot." But, to be fair, that's only because that's always my first thought every time he suggests something and, again, to be fair, only because he is. (The fact that he's less of an idiot than I is immaterial.)

My second thought: wow, great idea. Love it.

My third: what'll my first favorite song be?

My fourth and last ever thought: duh.

When it comes to things I really love, it's not unusual for me to not know how I feel about it for a while. I rarely go from disliking something to loving it, or even from liking it okay to loving it, but I very often go from "I don't know how I feel about this" to "oh my God, I love this."

"Sick of Myself" is not one of those. It's one of those fairly rare instances where I fall deeply, madly, head over heels in love within seconds.

I loved the opening, the chicken scratch guitar count off, instantly. By the time the chord progression had been played through once, I was all in. When the entire band kicks a few seconds later, I was ready for marriage. By the time we got to the first line of the chorus I'd amended my will. By the end of the second chorus, with its cool extra line in the minor, I'd transfered all my earthly possessions. And after the entire thing was over—including not one but two false endings! two of them, for pete's sake!—I had my tantō in hand, ready to disembowel myself, if that's what the song demanded. Fortunately (for me, at least), it didn't.

I'm not exaggerating. (Okay, well, maybe slightly.) The first time I put it on the stereo, as the count off started, I remember nodding my head. When the guitar started, I actually said out loud, "oh my GOD." We were made for each, this song and I.

Everything about this song is amazing. The melody is irresistible without being cloying, the lyrics are clever yet insightful (an interesting and rare look at the way early infatuation can actually make one question one's own self-image) without ever veering close to the pretentious, and the playing is simply spectacular—including the incendiary Richard Lloyd playing a bitingly angular solo that would seem completely out of place in such a poppy tune, yet which instead manages to elevate the entire thing emotionally and conceptually.

I've listened to this song hundreds of times and I don't think I've ever been in any mood where I wouldn't be delighted to hear it. A song like this—or pretty much his entire Girlfriend album, an utter masterpiece—makes you think Matthew Sweet would and could have been heir to the Brian Wilson/Paul McCartney pop-rock crown, something which clearly didn't happen. At times that seems like it's a shame. But when you've got even one gem this flawless, well, that's more than enough.

Monday, January 14, 2013


So my six-year-old comes up to me as I'm watching the new David Bowie video.

"Why can't girls be in bands?" she asks.

I'm not thrown by this. A few of her three older sisters have asked this when they were about her age, so I'm feeling fairly confident I know how to answer.

"Of course girls can be in bands," I say. "You want to see some examples?"

"Yes, please," she replies eagerly, the unprompted politeness indicating she really means it.

So we pull up the YouTube and start taking a tour. We view some Kim Gordon fronting Sonic Youth, then watch Tina Weymouth driving Talking Heads, which leads to my viewing this utterly charming video for the first time ever and how have I never seen it before and doesn't it just make it all the sadder that Byrne left a band this great?

We check out Chrissie Hynde leading the Pretenders and then I go back and we watch some Janis and some Joni and the Wilson sisters from Heart and then first Stevie followed by Christine with Fleetwood Mac. By now YouTube seems to have caught on to what we're doing because the recommended videos in the sidebar are tending to be conveniently on point.

She enjoys seeing artists she's heard many times but never actually seen, such as Cyndi Lauper, Aretha Franklin and Kathleen Edwards.

Perhaps showing she's really her father's daughter—and, just as crucially, her mother's—she loves Shirley Manson with Garbage.

We've spent a very pleasant hour this way and it's about time to set the table for dinner, so I agree to click on one more video. She points to the one she wants. Barely thinking—clearly—just remembering that I always loved the song and haven't heard it in years, I click on it. Her eyes light up. Naturally, it's her favorite of them all. Long blonde hair, glamorous dresses and a pink guitar: what's not to like, right?

I am in so much trouble in a few years.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Favorite Song Friday

A new weekly feature here at Reason to Believe, at least for this week (no, I haven’t cleared this with the site’s co-founder, though I sense he’s watching me and quietly smoldering right…about…now…) will be “Favorite Song Friday,” where I (or we…or I) pick a favorite song every week and write about it. Simple, right?

And we’ll (or I’ll) try to make them less than obvious choices, just so we’re not always writing about, say, “Born to Run” or “A Day in the Life” or “Radio Free Europe” or “Fernando.” (Hee. I kid. Just making sure you’re paying attention).

This week, up first, one of my absolute lock-down rock-solid favorite songs of the 1990s.

The Breeders - “Cannonball”

In Almost Famous, in a deleted scene that ranks as one of the great cutting room floor scenes in movie history, lifelong friends and Stillwater bandmates Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and Jeff Beebe (Jason Lee) have a discussion that could have been a movie unto itself—they talk about the how the greatness of rock-n-roll, and all that we love about it, can be found in the subtleties. Or, as Russell puts it, “It’s not what you put into it. It’s what you leave out….That’s what you remember. That’s rock-n-roll. What you leave out.”

Hence "Cannonball" by The Breeders.

“Cannonball” is an unbearably catchy song, so utterly pop in form and sound. It propels along like a joyride on Josephine Wiggs' jaunty and unforgettable bassline and some awesome little fishhook guitar notes that the Deal sisters bend over the rhythm lines, with cryptically distorted vocals that would have made 1984 Michael Stipe proud.

But “Cannonball” is also brilliant example of what a song doesn’t need to succeed. What it leaves out.

Like guitar solos. There isn't one in sight. Just those great little hooks they occasionally drip in over the crunchy rhythm line, though even those are used sparingly, sometimes showing up and sometimes not.

And drums fills, which barely exist. (Only once, I think).

Or a bridge. Which doesn’t exist.

Or, really, much in the way of lyrics. As best I can tell there are four lines in the song, not including the megaphone-induced chorus so delightfully embeds itself into the listeners’ minds. Though even the sparse words contains a gem like "I'll be your whatever you want." And multiple references to someone being a "little libertine."

And there’s even more (less) in the form of some awesomely unique touches. Like the way Wiggs teases us with two five-note-intro basslines, only then stops and resumes and establishes the song's tempo in a different key. I don’t recall this happening that often in pop songs, if at all, and the result is so jarring and so irresistible that it adds one more delectable layer to the song.

There's also what happens after the 2nd “verse,” which ends with the line, “The bong in this reggae song.” At that moment the music drops out completely, leaving only Kim and Kelley to sweetly harmonize before a fuzzed up runaway guitar explosion snaps us full speed into the chorus again. Only this time, the chorus starts with its second section first (“Hey now – in the shade, in the shade”) before finally immersing itself in the full glow of the chorus (“Want you, coocoo, Cannonball”). It’s a subtle changeup, but it’s there, and it adds a level of anticipation that the best of pop-rock always has to offer.

A third verse repeats pieces of the first and second, followed one final time by the chorus, which only comes once before the bass takes back over and the song ends, abruptly, on the off-beat. And that’s “Cannonball.” Three and a half minutes of strange and slightly unconventional pop that works to an absolute tee.

The Breeders probably didn't have the prime they deserved. Initially an early 90s supergroup where Kim Deal from the Pixies and Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses joined forces (along with Kim’s twin sister Kelley, Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim MacPherson), but by the time Last Splash and “Cannonball” came out in 1993, Donnelly was gone, leaving the Deal sisters to do their thing. And after this song, which was huge on 90s alt-radio and huge on MTV, The Breeders never really landed a second punch quite like the first glorious blow of “Cannonball.”

But man. For at least one moment, they put out a song that was sheer perfection in pop structure, playfulness and, more than anything, restraint. And the result is just a great, great song.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Whole Lotta Helter Skelter

When DT and I did our Top 50 Beatles Songs, our most concise write-up was for "Helter Skelter." We wrote, in its entirety: "In which the Beatles invent grunge." It's a funny line, and a catchy one. And the fact that it's true doesn't hurt.

One of the interesting things about getting old is being able to actually witness trends. And one of the things I've noticed is fewer and fewer music fans seem to realize just what a rock and roller Paul McCartney is. He's well past the Wings period—and that, too, seems almost forgotten by rock fans these days, actually—and beloved, not just for his work with the Beatles, but as an elder statesman still bringing the goods live.

But—pace John Fogerty—Paul was the world's greatest Little Richard student and, with "Long Tally Sally," perhaps the only artist ever to cover one of Little Richard's greatest hits and actually top it. And when Paul decided he wasn't going to let any Who song claim the mantle of "heaviest rock song ever," he was a man on a mission. And damn if he and the lads didn't succeed.

But, as I say, even as music fans know the song "Helter Skelter" inside and out, it feels like the importance of it, and the sheer audacity, sometimes gets missed. Which is why pairing McCartney the vocalist (as well as, in places, Lennon the bassist and Harrison the guitarist) with the unquestioned all-time hard rock kings is a welcome corrective. Any vocalist replacing the ingrained-in-the-DNA vocals of Robert Plant has to be able to bring the goods.

He does.

Yes, she is.