Friday, April 26, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Crowing

Back in the 90s (wow, did I just say that?) one of my favorite bands was Toad the Wet Sprocket.

Not as edgy or groundbreaking as Nirvana, not as genre-bending as Rage Against the Machine or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they nonetheless existed confidently on their own plain for a while. They were an extremely literate, mid-tempo band that paid particular attention to creating some absolutely gorgeous and unforgettable hooks. Lead singer Glen Phillips evoked easy comparisons to Jackson Browne’s bell-clear pitch and earnest delivery. And they could change it up, too—when they rocked they positively burned through the speakers (“Woodburning,” “Is It For Me,” “Fall Down”). When they went softer they had a breezy, almost angelic quality to them (“All I Want,” “Something’s Always Wrong.”) Why they didn’t last another 10 years or so is a mystery to me—they had integrity, talent and a highly accessible sound.

They take centerstage nicely today for Favorite Song Friday.

Favorite Song Friday: Toad the Wet Sprocket – “Crowing”

What makes a love song work? Honesty, for one thing. Sincerity, yeah—we kinda have to believe Paul McCartney when he sings “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you, remember I’ll always be true.” If we don’t, well, it won’t be nearly as effective. 

A love song doesn’t need to be slow—witness “Layla” and “Foxey Lady” and even “I Want You.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be happy either. Natalie Imbruglio recorded a Jim Dandy of a love song with “Torn” and no one would ever accuse her of sounding happy. The aforementioned Jackson Browne became an veritable institution by exploring the darker sides of love. Bruce Springsteen devoted an entire album to the idea of love and marriage (Tunnel of Love) and no one will ever accuse that of being particularly gleeful. And if happiness were required in writing and singing songs of love, Elvis Costello may be standing by the road with a sign that reads “Will Express Bitterness and Resentment in Song for Food.”

It is in this universe where Toad’s  “Crowing” so easily exists. It isn’t happy, though it isn’t entirely sad. It indeed has a melancholy feel, sure, but is wrapped in such a lovely and rich melody it’s easy to get sucked in and rope-a-doped into thinking it may, in fact, have some optimism attached to it. Even though I’m not sure it does.

The song is given its soul by a simply stunning chord progression that effortlessly bounces between major and minor, creating a lush, dreamlike sound that in some ways reminds me of the breathtaking chords that open up “Ziggy Stardust.” The way those minors hit, though, lend a jarring depth to the song, as well as adding an element of foreboding tension that hangs over every note as a result.

And the words. The words are downright poetic, in the truest sense of the word, in that they focus more on feel and imagery than any particular plot or story point. The very fact that the chorus comes back to the line, “He was crowing for repair” speaks to this. What does that even mean? In the literal sense it’s hard to put your finger exactly on it. In the more ethereal sense, though, Phillips’ mournful, almost abashed reading of these lines speaks to regret and loss.

Been waiting to find
You could have been happier, given the time
If he’d make up his mind
You’d give yourself to anybody who would cross that line
And it was never a question
He was crowing for repair
You’d give him love and affection
You couldn’t keep him there

Get over regrets
You were sleeping with the angels, he was under the bed
And the more skin that you shed
The more that the air in your throat will linger when you call him your friend
And it was never a question
He was crowing for repair
You’d give him love and affection
You couldn’t keep him there

What exactly is going on here? Betrayal, certainly on an emotional level, is palpable. So is empathy…to a point. Because at the start of the second verse the narrator tells the subject to get over it. But look inside those images. Sleeping with angels. Air lingering in your throat as you search for words that may or may not be right. Shedding skin as an idea of openness, revelation. 

“Crowing” gives the listeners credit for paying attention and connecting the dots for  themselves, using image and tone rather than, really, any level of exposition to make the point. This is a staple in poetry, yet not always so in rock music.  Toad makes it work by simply sticking to the script and allowing it to unfold on its own time. Witness the bridge as a perfect example.

Staring at a cold little hand
Reading fault lines of a shell of a man
You were waiting for a word from above
Wouldn’t you know it, no answer ever did come

Glen Phillips seems to want to give us a reveal at the end – "You hoped for something that never showed up, and for that I am sorry." OK, we get that. But what? What did you hope for? We know love and affection wasn’t enough based on the words in the chorus, so what was? Or—and this very well may be the main point—is it something the narrator simply doesn’t know? Something he wishes he knew, but he just can’t seem to figure out.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the album that “Crowing” appears on is called Dulcinea, named for Don Quixote's super-idealized love of his life, the girl of his dreams who clearly doesn't exist. Or, more to the point, she does exist, just not at all as he sees her.  But he pursues her anyway, believing the beauty of even an idea this good is worth it. Like the narrator in “Crowing,” he’s chasing a specter and nothing more. 

In Toad’s version we know there are troubled waters in front of him—words and phrases like “cold little hand” and “shell of a man” (one magnificent rhyming couplet, BTW)—clearly steer us in that  direction. But whatever else is out there the singer needs to figure out for himself. And we, the listener, need to figure out for ourselves.

“Crowing” works beyond its rich chords and oblique, evocative words, because it challenges the listener to go along on the journey with it without ever showing us what's truly behind the curtain. That’s why I love the song—there is nothing at all obvious or deliberate about it. Like the fabled Dulcinea of Quixote’s dreams, we have to find it on our own.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Art of the Fugue

I don't get it.

I mean, I understand—roughly— what a fugue is. But I don't get how someone can compose something this beautiful and intricate...and then go on to compose a dozen variations on it, not to mention hundreds and hundreds of other pieces of roughly equal complexity and brilliance.

Some people, man...they just don't seem quite like...people.

Monday, April 22, 2013

RIP Richie Havens

Woodstock is iconic enough that you didn't have to be there...hell, you barely have to have been recognize and appreciate its most signature moments. Or, for that matter, to simply appreciate that August 1969 weekend of music as the one big, sprawling, glorious mess it was.

Moments like Joe Cocker practically leaving his lungs on the stage while wringing every ounce of soul any one man could ever get out of "With a Little Help From My Friends."

Or the only days-old Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young introducing their magic to the world in the wee wee hours of the night.

Or a pregnant Joan Baez singing a defiant "Joe Hill" for her husband, who at that moment was in prison for draft evasion. (Yes, it was a different time, wasn't it?)

Or, yes, Jimi Hendrix, at the height of his powers and with barely a year left before he'd be dead, almost bringing the sun out all by himself with his Monday morning rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."

These are all seminal rock-n-roll moments, and Woodstock, while of course suffering from decades of mythology and overhype, has regardless earned its place on the very, very short list of the most important events in rock-n-roll history.

Plenty of bands and artists that I have come to love played up there at Yasgur's Farm that weekend, like The Who and The Band and Jimi and Janis and Sly and the Family Stone, playing epochal sets that have rightly stood the very demanding tests of time. I know practically every frame of Michael Wadleigh's brilliant and provocative documentary, which came out a year later. I wasn't at Woodstock...I was 10 months old, after all...but what that August 1969 weekend left behind meant plenty to me, and helped to shape my love of music in a weird way all its own.

Funny, though. Whenever I think of Woodstock, I don't think of any of those moments mentioned above, great though they all are.

Instead I think of this.

Ah, Richie Havens. Straight out of Greenwich Village, robes flowing and a voice filled with gravel, all thumbs and gums as he strums his guitar faster, faster, faster, eyes shut tight, practically pleading his one word incantation over and over as he not only opened but awakened the whole festival. "Freedom!! Freedom! Freedom!"

What makes it all the more amazing, of course, is he never planned on doing it and basically made the whole thing up as he went along. Richie had opened everything up impressively and his set was done. The problem was there was no one to go on next. Bands scheduled to play early-on were stuck in traffic, many on the jammed and soon-to-be-closed New York State Thruway. The already cash-strapped promoters were starting to panic as fans kept coming and coming and the gates (as they were) were literally flung open for free and most of the talent was yet to arrive. They needed something, someone to fill the empty spaces.

That someone was Richie Havens, who delivered his now-legendary improvised and impassioned plea, over and over. While the festival waited for acts to arrive who would make history, history was in fact made with raw eloquence by a man who simply did what he knew how to do. He just played. They needed him to play, and play he did. Richie played and played, his fingers devouring his guitar strings, his voice growing rougher and more ragged with each word he sang. They needed him to play, and Richie Havens played.

He plays today still.

Rest in peace, Richie.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Silly Love Songs

So you were probably wondering—as most people do on a Thursday afternoon—"say, what would it sound like if Neil Young and Crazy Horse had covered Wings on their Live Rust Tour?"

Well. Wonder no more.

What's wrong with that? Not a thing. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Wishing Well (or the sound of a baseball hitting you in the spine)

Last night at my son’s baseball practice—a somewhat chilly, overcast night—batting practice was nearing an end. Given that my right arm now contains all the power of the police chief in a lawless 1870s Deadwood, I no longer pitch batting practice. (Doc, it hurts when I do this.) So I was playing the highly visible yet trained-monkey-capable role of “feeding the pitcher.”

Meaning after the pitcher threw a pitch to the batter, I reached into the ball bucket and fed him another. And again. And again. And again. Yep. Where I once dreamed of playing in the major leagues, I have now settled into my role of handing the ball to the guy who’s acually going to throw it.

(Cue Karate Kid "You're The Best" montage)

Anyway it was the last batter, and I had just taken a throw from the outfield and turned back to face the pitcher’s mound from my position directly behind it. As I did I noted our head coach (I am the assistant coach…my job often entails handing the ball to the guy who’s pitching…but then again we’ve covered that), standing at the mound, had a look on his face that I’d seen before. His eyes were a bit wider than usual. His mouth seemed to want to form words, yet no words came. His face moved in slow motion as he attempted to convey… me. Something that seemed imminent.

It dawned on me—there was a ball heading at my head. I was about to be hit. That was it, wasn't it.

Yes it was.

“DAN LOOK…” was all he got out before impact. I praise the effort, though.

In that final fragment of a second I braced myself in the way that must have seemed like the best idea at the time: I stood there and did absolutely nothing.


The ball didn’t hit my head. It hit me instead perfectly in the center of my back, right on the spine between the shoulder blades.



As everyone winced and I kind of let out a loud groan, my inner Lou Gossett (more Sgt. Foley than the whale guy from Jaws 3-D) came out, as I conveyed about 9 seconds of rather refreshing blind rage.

“You OK?” the coach asked.



I turned to face the perpetrator who had spined me, yelling as I turned, “MAKES SENSE, DOESN’T IT? DON’T THROW THE BALL UNLESS SOMEONE IS LOOKING?! HAVEN'T WE BEEN TEACHING YOU THAT SINCE YOU WERE 5 YEARS OLD?!”

I finally came face to face with the 13-year-old fiend who nailed me. And... was the quietest kid on our team. And he was wincing like a frightened beagle.

Suddenly I felt like kind of a jerk.

I mean, he didn’t mean it. And I apologized for my outburst and just reminded him to never throw the ball when someone wasn’t looking, and he nodded and apologized, and I gave him a pat on the back. And then fired a fastball into his shoulder blade.


(No, of course I didn’t. I told you my throwing arm is shot, didn’t I?)

So anyway, today my back is sore where the ball hit me. End of that part of the story.

But driving into work today I put on a song that I’ve loved for 20+ years. One of the angriest, most visceral songs I have ever heard, yet also one that is strangely melodic. It's sorta punk but sorta not. Sorta metal but sorta not. It's just...power. Angry power. Complete with a guitar solo that has to be heard to be believed—I am fairly certain the guitar filed abuse charges after it was over.


Man, the way it builds on some simple acoustic guitar chords, and then keeps building and building? And that detached, bloodless way Bob Mould sings the words? And that solo! (It starts at 2:28 when Bob tears his hand down the neck as brutally as the villain in a slasher film.) The way it reverberates and lingers through the end of the song? Damn! I’m not sure what Bob is so angry about, but I hope it’s not because of something I said.

But I realized…to close this little circle I’ve opened up and to wind this silly story around to actually fit in with this here music blog of ours…that when I first heard this song in 1989 or so it hit me at totally unexpected level. Raw. Painful. Totally by surprise. If blind rage has a sound, this might be it.

This song hit me like a fastball to the spinal column. Now that I know what that feels like, I can confirm this.

Not a good thing to have a baseball do that. But a song? Pretty damn good.

(Now I need someone to get me some ice. Please?)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sherry Darling

Bruce Springsteen's 1980 album, The River, is a collection which was very deliberately designed to mix light and dark, heavy and light. As Springsteen himself has said:
"Originally [The River] was a single record. I handed it in with just one record and I took it back because I didn't feel it was big enough. I wanted to capture the themes I had been writing about on Darkness [on the Edge of Town]. I wanted to keep those characters with me and at the same time added music that made our live shows so much fun and joy for our audience." 
He also said, 
"Rock and roll has always been this joy, this certain happiness that is in its way the most beautiful thing in life. But rock is also about hardness and coldness and being alone. I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you've got to live with them."
"Sherry Darling" is the second song on the first side and embodies perfectly what Springsteen was going for. A callback to Springsteen's beloved frat rock of the 1960s, it even has fake crowd noises mixed in and is not only one of The River's lighter songs, but one of the most lightweight he'd recorded since his debut. 

And yet, a few years ago I came to realize that even most of Springstee's lighter songs can surprise you in some way, and usually have unexpected depth and weight to them. For instance: 
Your Mamma's yappin' in the back seat
Tell her to push over and move them big feet
Okay. Take that opening. That's funny, and in a way he'd never been before, not on record. It's direct, it's real and dagummit, it's just plain funny. Sure, it's got a car and it's got parent-child tension, both standards for Springsteen, but that kind of humor is new for him.
Every Monday morning I gotta drive her down to the unemployment agency
And there we go. Right there we're suddenly in different territory, both for him and for most rock music. For all he would later draw attention for his first subtle and then overt political stands, the class consciousness which had been there from his first record—and really exploded on Darkness—is right smack dab in the third line of this seemingly lightweight, throwaway summer beach bar song. You know who doesn't get driven to the unemployment agency in the backseat of their daughter's boyfriend's car on a regular basis? Anyone who's middle-class or wealthier. That's strictly a working class or working (or trying to work) poor phenomena.
Well this morning I ain't fighting tell her I give up
Tell her she wins if she'll just shut up
But it's the last time that she's gonna be ridin' with me 
Now there's girls melting on the beach
And they're so fine but so far out of reach
Cause I'm stuck in traffic down here on 53rd street
Again, the sense of longing Springsteen can't help but slip into this seemingly lightweight, throwaway summer beach bar song is striking. He was going for fun. But he's Bruce Springsteen, so the real world can't help but make its presence felt, the knowledge of what's out there, what he wants, and what he cannot have. It's there, he knows it's there, and it's unobtainable--it's not for the likes of him.
Now Sherry my love for you is real
But I didn't count on this package deal
And baby this car just ain't big enough for her and me 
So you can tell her there's a hot sun beatin' on the black top
She keeps talkin' she'll be walkin' that last block
She can take a subway back to the ghetto tonight
Another indication that the people in this song are not exactly upper-class.
Well I got some beer and the highway's free
And I got you, and baby you've got me.
Hey, hey, hey what you say Sherry Darlin'
And then comes something a bit strange structurally, where after the solo, part of the chorus is reworked a bit so it functions more as a bridge, right before one last quick chorus proper. And what a bridge, as a lovely vista suddenly opens up:
Well let there be sunlight, let there be rain
Let the brokenhearted love again
And a brief move into a minor chord for this wonderfully romantic image:
Sherry we can run with our arms open before the tide

And how different is all that, really, than:
Someday girl, I don't know when,
we're gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go
and we'll walk in the sun
Thematically, it's not. It's only the music of this seemingly lightweight, throwaway summer beach bar song that makes it different--that and the fact that he was always open about wanting to put more light songs on this particular album, and its placement right as the second song, an admission that I think has unfairly colored our opinions of this particular song.
To all the girls down at Sacred Heart
And all you operators back in the Park
Say hey, hey, hey what you say Sherry Darlin'
Hey, hey, hey, what you say Sherry Darlin'
Well, I ain't Sherry, but here's what I say: I say this is a magnifcent piece of rock and roll songwriting, combining an upbeat melody over (mainly) three chords with authentically funny lyrics...but which has more than a shadow of seriousness, of bone-deep longing, and the limitations brought on my class divisions, as well as the conviction that love can (maybe at least partially) overcome all that.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what constitutes a seemingly lightweight, throwaway summer beach bar song for one Bruce Springsteen. 

But also too, let's simply give it up for the fun song, dammit. So much of the greatest rock and roll is about pain in its various forms, and the few truly great upbeat songs—U2's "Beautiful Day," say, or "Sherry Darling"—get downgraded for lack of seriousness and angst. But it's like comedy. When listing the all-time greatest films, why are so many of them dramas and so few comedies? Part of it is the bias we have or have inherited for thinking drama is more inherently worthy. But part of is that there are fewer truly great comedies. But not because there are fewer comedies made. It's because comedy is so damn hard. 

"Sherry Darling" shows that Bruce Springsteen is, once again, a master of more than one genre.

Oh, and it's got a good beat and you can dance to it. (And the Big Man!)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: St. Elmo's Fire
I don’t know what possessed me to pick up an expensive import copy of Brian Eno’s Music for Films when I ran across it in a small independent record store in Washington D.C. when I was about seventeen. I’d never heard a single second Eno’s work, although I knew him from his collaborations with David Bowie and, to a much lesser extent, Talking Heads.

But buy it I did. And when I got home a few days later, I cranked up the stereo, having not the slightest idea what to expect. I listened. And a bit less than an hour later when I was able to move again, I shut my mouth, picked up my eyeballs from where they’d fallen on the floor and popped them back in. And my life has never been the same since. I’d bought my first ambient record.

Ambient, to me, often sounds like what I’d imagine a long space voyage would sound like if the spaceship were built in the late seventies and the designers were inspired by the sterile beauty of Stanley Kubrick’s films. It’s usually fairly or very slow, although sometimes the beat is so ambiguous as to be almost missing altogether. On most of Eno’s ambient recordings there are rarely any percussion instruments used in the normal way. Things shift in and out of focus, appear and disappear, come and go, as though you’re traveling through a musical fog. Here, listen to this—it's the very first Eno I ever heard:

Right? See what I'm sayin'? Didn't that just totally fill your very soul with a heady and untenable combination of quiet peace and desperate longing? It sounds, to me, like lying back, all alone, staring up at the sky on a beautiful spring day in a verdant, pastoral (is there any other kind?) field which happens to be located on a spaceship bound for a distant galaxy on a decades-long voyage.

This is not music for everybody, I realize. During my college years I played Music for Films several times a week, I’d guess, when I wasn’t playing The Replacements or R.E.M. or Springsteen. It was a sort of aural palate cleanser. The only other Eno I bought back then was Another Green World which is, for my money, his masterpiece. Another Green World is a bridge between Eno’s ambient work and his more traditional pop-related material. In fact, most of the album is actually ambient, something which is easy to overlook, so striking are the numbers with lyrics. Chief among them is the odd piece of pop perfection which is "St. Elmo’s Fire."

I’ve never been entirely sure why this song smacked me over the head as it did the very first time I heard it, but writing the piece just now, I played it a half-dozen times in a row and the thing still does a number on me. It’s superficially a straight-forward pop song, three minutes long, three verses, three choruses, guitar solo, the whole regular schmeer. Yet it’s sort of a really catchy pop song done by an alien who’s really, really familiar with our culture and gets it completely…almost.

It starts off with some knocking, perhaps wood blocks, perhaps not and the sound of something, perhaps a tape, starting up. Then a few notes are repeated over and over on the piano, a driving motion that’ll serve as the pulse of the song. Some clattering percussion, almost devoid of rhythm, enters. Insistent chords bang out on another keyboard instrument, first insistently syncopated but subtly shifting so it’s instead squarely on the first downbeat. And then Eno starts singing.

He’s got a somewhat talky sort of voice but if it’s not necessarily much better than other talkers like Lou Reed (when Reed cares to try) or J Mascis, it’s a bit more accessible and less grating. It may not knock Lennon or McCartney off their perches as amongst the greatest rock voices ever, but it fits the material.

The first verse lets us know what we’re in for:
Brown Eyes and I were tired
We had walked and we had scrambled
Through the moors and through the briars
Through the endless blue meanders
And without a pause we go into the chorus:
In the blue August moon
In the cool August moon
What does any of this mean? What could endless blue meanders be? After listening hundreds of times, I have no idea. Nor could I possibly care less. The words work. The sound of them, the images they convey, the tone they set, are all that matters. They sound good and somehow manage to mean nothing in a rather poetic way without being pretentious at all. They’re almost little more than another instrument, like the piano or the percussion or the guitar solo, yet weighted with some emotional resonance I don’t fully understand. Another verse and another trip through the chorus gives us more of the same:
Over the nights and through the fires
We went surging down the wires
Through the towns and on the highways
Through the storms in all their thundering

In the blue August moon In the cool August moon 
Then the final verse:
Then we rested in a desert
Where the bones were white as teeth, sir
And we saw St. Elmo’s Fire
Splitting ions in the ether
Again, the scene set is beautiful and haunting and if we get no more than stray images and a hint of story supplied mainly by ourselves, it’s no less powerful for that. And then comes what may be the most amazing part of the song: the guitar solo.

As Eno is not one to bow to tradition just for tradition’s sake, there aren’t a lot of solos in his work. Yet here he’s got a guitar solo right smack dab in the standard place. Except that it’s not. For one thing, rather than soloing over the verse chords or the chorus chords once, the guitarist, King Crimson leader and frequent Eno collaborator Robert Fripp, solos over the chorus chords, seems about to wrap things up, and then decides to go over another chorus. What’s more, when the lyrics kick back in for two more choruses, he keeps soloing, albeit more softly. Which means that very nearly one-third of the entire song is the guitar solo—and well over one-half if you include the sections where Eno is also singing over the solo—a ratio wildly out of balance for a pop song. Meanwhile, harmonically, the entire song is remarkably simple, with the verses consisting of nothing more than the I chord, and the chorus just vi-IV-V repeated over and over.

But more than anything it’s the sound and style of the solo itself that’s so stunning. It’s not clear whether Fripp wasn’t sure what to play or whether he was just asking Eno what he was looking for, but Eno later said:
"...on ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ I had this idea and said to Fripp, ‘Do you know what a Wimshurst machine is?’ It’s a device for generating very high voltages which then leap between the two poles, and it has a certain erratic contour, and I said, ‘You have to imagine a guitar line that has that, very fast and unpredictable.’ And he played that part which to me was very Wimshurst indeed."
So if you can just picture those two poles in the background in all the Frankenstein films, with the electricity sparking back and forth between them, you can imagine this solo. It’s a really gorgeous and melodic version of that. And it’s the combination of the anarchic, blistering guitar solo, the odd instrumentation elsewhere in the song, the impressionistic lyrics and the sheer melodic appeal of the tune itself that makes this one of the great, albeit rather obscure, pop songs in history.
In the blue August moon
In the cool August moon
In the blue August moo
In the cool August moon
It was only recently, though, that I realized that Eno's lyrics are essentially a highly intellectualized version of "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, for that matter, "hello, hello, hello, how low." There are somethings which regular words are not capable of quite capturing, and sometimes words mean so much more than they seem.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Radio Hook Word Hit

So...Chris Mars has said the reason he's never joined either of the mini-reunions the Replacements have had is because he doesn't really do music anymore; he's been a serious and successful painter since a few years after the band broke up and, in fact, contributed the cover paintings to all the Slim Dunlap tribute albums.
I feel like this piece, entitled Dr. Glaxo, might just have a message. Aw, I'm probably reading into it. I do that sometimes. 

But he did record one of Slim's songs for the recent 'Mats LP Songs for Slim, playing all the instruments on his track.

How the hell is that the sound of a guy who hasn't played drums this century? Or guitar, for that matter?

Man, no one plays drums quite like Chris Mars. The secret ingredient to the impossibly delicious taste treat that was the Replacements.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Friday I'm In Love

I admit, back in the 80s, the Brits and their music just kinda eluded me.

No, not those Brits. Not the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Who and the Kinks and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd all the others who came over with the initial British Invasion. Hell, that made up at least 75% of my musical formation back then. Still does – maybe not that high a number. But my love for the music from the UK in that era will never die. How could it?

I mean the other Brits. The ones who came a generation later. The ones who arrived on the scene with their own version of post punk, of pop, of alt and of new wave. I’m talking The Cure, The Jam, The Smiths, XTC, English Beat and all the others who came and dominated so much of the 80s scene.

By the time I was old enough (read: late high school and especially college) to really start exploring the studio with my musical leanings and leave my Beatles/Bruce/Dylan comfort zone, I admit I turned to our shores instead. I immersed myself in every single sound R.E.M. every made, I learned to worship at the Replacements’ altar. I was much more interested in what Bob Mould or The Smithereens had to say than Robert Smith or Morrissey. Hell, I even avoided U2 until Rattle and Hum made it simply impossible. And I’m Irish! (Well, half).

Was it smart? Nope. It was, in fact, the opposite of smart, for someone who prided himself as such a music fan to shut out this whole block of  wondrous artists. Which is to say, it was stupid.

It changed with Robyn Hitchcock, oddly enough. When I heard how much R.E.M. worshipped him, when I learned he was basically the evolutionary Syd Barrett, when I heard what he did by blending Beatles pop with a punk sneer and 80s production splendor, it dawned on me I wasn’t too good for this stuff. And I needed to listen up. Now.

But this isn’t about Robyn, delightful maniac though he is. Nah, that’s for another post.

This is about where he led me back to, and how he got me to give The Cure a chance. And it led to this sheer piece of refined gold.

Favorite Song Friday – “Friday I’m In Love” – The Cure

That’s right. I came to the 80s Brit scene in…1992.

Oh well.

Scott mentioned a couple weeks ago, as he wrote in this space about XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead,” about that sound that starts it all, followed by that chord. And how much it means to the overall song.

Allow me to steal.

The way “Friday I’m In Love” starts, with an other-worldly arpeggio that sure, maybe we’ve heard a million times before, but it’s just so perfect in setting the scene for this straightforward love song. So much of rock-n-roll comes down to the beginning, the way a song kicks off. Think “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Purple Haze,” “Finest Worksong” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” “You Really Got Me” and “Pride.” Sometimes those first few seconds are the make or break moments.

Robert Smith and his mates do it with those few floating notes to open up “Friday I’m In Love.” It’s the gateway to the splendor ride the song takes us on. But all the promise, all the hope, every expectation we get out of the genre that is the love song can be found in those first few seconds.

What follows is pop perfection, something I’ve written about many times on these pages. But Smith literally walking us through his week of longing is the very picture of that very crystallized rock-n-roll virtue we first heard when Elvis checked into the Heartbreak Hotel: I want you, I need you, I love you. Now here are 1,000 reasons why.

“Friday I’m In Love” has it all, from the big stuff—such remarkably clever lyrics and storytelling, a melody line so perfectly resolved at every verse despite the lack of a chorus, and that ringing sound that the Cure made for their own, a sound that was always so sweet and so terrifying, so bleak and somehow so redeeming. It’s all there.

I don’t care if Monday’s blue
Tuesday’s grey and Wednesday too
Thursday I don’t care about you
It’s Friday I’m in love

Monday you can fall apart
Tuesday Wednesday break my heart
Thursday doesn’t even start
It’s Friday I’m in love

Saturday, wait
Sunday always comes to late
Friday never hesitates

I don’t care if Monday’s black
Tuesday Wednesday heart attack
Thursday never looking back
It’s Friday I’m in love

It doesn’t require complex geometric formulas to tell a story about being in love and staying in love. Sometimes it just has to be something as simple as a calendar. Robert Smith shows us how it’s done here. Does he ever.

And then there are the other touches. The way Boris Williams starts a tiny bit early at the outset on the drums, lending a sense of rush to it all. The delightful harmonies that come in on the “Friday I’m in love” line and nowhere else on the verses, and how they lends such a gorgeous luster to the full flourish on the “Saturday” mini-bridges.

But my favorite touch comes just after the 2 minute mark, where they add basically an entirely new movement to the song. A different tempo takes over for a brief while as the song goes to places totally off the initial rhythm line, places we never saw coming. Which in, say, a 9-minute song by Yes is not unusual. But in a 3 ½ minute pop song? Not easy to do.

Dressed up to the eyes
It's a wonderful surprise
To see your shoes and your spirits rise
Throwing out your frown
And just smiling at the sound
And as sleek as a sheik
Spinning round and round
Always take a big bite
It's such a gorgeous sight
To see you eat in the middle of the night
You can never get enough
Enough of this stuff
It's Friday, I'm in love

I’m not sure the Cure has ever been accused of being “quirky.” But there are such irresistible little offbeat images tucked into there, almost as if Smith just had to get these words out, even though they don’t really seem to fit. “As sleek a sheik?” “A gorgeous site to see you eat in the middle of the night?” That’s adorable! When he finally admits “You can never get enough of this stuff,” we can see exactly what he means.

The final trick is what happens at the end of this little head over heels dalliance, when the song pretty much crashes back into the first verse, seamlessly. Somehow they make it work.

So there you are. Everything I love about music—great lyrics, wonderful band interplay, toying with structure, delectable melodies and a hook that plays over and over in your head long after the song has ended. All found here, thanks to a band I should have found half a decade earlier. But either way, late to the party though I was, I love it.

Which is apropos. It’s Friday, after all.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

New Year's Day

So my imaginary friend Chris mentioned that he has several times been stuck in hotel courtesy vehicles with drivers who are enamoured of this series of God-awful albums.

Naturally, I was horrified, as would any right thinking mammal, upon hearing The Clash covered by—and this is really their real name—The Cooltrane Quartet. Because I mean really. Need I say more?

But then I made the mistake of playing this one.


...and I kinda love it.

I don't like cool jazz—in fact, I pretty much hate it the way DT hates hair metal. And I'm not at all fond of lounge singing or, indeed, almost any jazz vocals. But damn if this doesn't somehow work.