Sunday, June 30, 2013

Poor Poor Pitiful Me/Cadillac Ranch

Do I like the way he segues from one great song to another? I do. That one's an original and one's a cover? Yes. Do I love how he tweaks the melody ever so slightly to accomodate his own range? You betcha.

But most of all what I love is how damn happy he seems to be, how energetic, how much he seems to love just bashing this out.

One of the more interesting and talented writers ever? Sure. But for me that may pale in comparison to the joy he's showing right now.

(Also, if "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" really is about Jackson Browne, that just makes this pairing all the more delicious. As does the fact that he's doing this in Passaic.)

Thursday, June 27, 2013


The recent news of The Replacements upcoming reunion—or at least a version of them, with Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson (half of the original lineup)—delighted me to the gills. As has been well-documented on this blog, this is a band Scott and I have placed on a very high, very rarified pedestal.

It won’t be the full band—Slim Dunlap is sadly in no condition to do much of anything these days, and unfortunately drummer Chris Mars won’t be a part of it, though it’s very clear to see he has moved on to other things and he is experiencing impressive success. But having Paul and Tommy (and two others) play together is nothing to sneeze at. It’d be kind of akin to watching Michael Stipe and Mike Mills perform together again. Or maybe even Bono and The Edge, if U2 (perish the thought) ever decides to go away.

But all this ‘Mats news and the thought of maybe seeing them again (though so far dates are only scheduled for Toronto, Chicago and Denver, the cads) got me once more thinking about and listening to one of my favorite bands at their best. The shattering emotional release of Let It Be. The wrenching anthems and power-chord glory of Tim. The whirligig mayhem ride that was Pleased to Meet Me. The overproduced yet soaring pop glow of Don’t Tell a Soul. God, what a collection they have.

But what of All Shook Down, their final album (from 1990) and by all accounts the Replacements album that never was supposed to be? It was going to be Westerberg’s first solo effort, only while recording he had called the band members in for enough support (mostly Tommy—Chris was by all account the least used, and was officially out of the band by the time their final tour started in late 1990) that it just became a Replacements project, apparently at the record label's insistence. Though the bond was fleeting at best—there is no mention on the album (which Paul icily refers to in the liner notes as “this recorded thing”) of any kind of band assemblage, rather there is a simple listing of everyone (Replacements and non-Replacements alike) who kicked in. There’s a ghostly double-exposed image of Paul on the inner sleeve, but no other band likenesses appear. For a final album of one of the most important bands in rock-n-roll history, it offers as little fanfare as one can imagine.

But the music, man, it just works. There are at least three bona fide gems that belong in the Replacements pantheon—“Nobody,” “Sadly Beautiful” and “When It Began.” And nearly everything else on the record lives up to what they did best. There is rousing pop with “Merry Go Round,” there is Paul’s stilted poetry with “One Wink At a Time,” there are nihilistic burners in “Someone Take the Wheel” and “Bent Out of Shape,” there’s even a Stones-y shuffle in “Torture” and a startling piano-laden closer in “The Last,” a song where Paul bids farewell to both days of debauchery and, very possibly, the band itself. This is one hell of a Replacements record and stands as a remarkably underrated recording, even today. Their hearts may have no longer been in it as a band, but they sure were there with the music.

And then there’s the song "Attitude," which has to be considered one of the most important songs the Replacements ever did. If for no other reason it’s the last time—and the only time on this album—that Paul, Tommy, Slim and Chris would ever play together. And in that light it’s a stunning farewell. With lyrics—as had come to be expected from Paul at this point—that were indeed revealing.

When you open that bottle of wine
You open a can of worms every time
Now you don't stop, that ain't true
Never said a word I never had to
It was my attitude that you thought was rude

Old habits are hard to break
And I don't know how much I can take
What I think is on the tip of my tongue
Do I…let it slip?
It was my attitude that you thought was rude

Remember sitting back in school?
I held my tongue until it turned blue
They said I had an attitude

You just failed my test
'Cause I know you be the best
So wipe me off as you conclude
A P.O.V. is what I can't use
I got an attitude

This is a delicious little song and such a fitting way of closing the shop down once and for all. There’s a raucous giddiness here in the way the band plays off one another, something we probably hadn’t heard on a Replacements album since Pleased to Meet Me, but once had been so commonplace on Let It Be (with Bob Stinson, not Slim, on lead guitar back then). The song has an acoustic country shuffle and some terrifically playful drumming by Chris. Tommy’s jaunty bassline gives a bouncing punch to it, and Slim and Paul offer some lovely little cascading fills over the rhythm line.

The lyrics are rife with wordplay, contradictions and open-ended queries, the kind of head-fakes, winks and nods that Paul was so fond of using and so damn adept at. “It’s your fault! Nah, it’s not.” “You failed, and I know you’ll be awesome.” Things which never let you in on exactly what Paul and his mates are working through, but the one thing we know is it’s never, ever simple.

The contradictions are never more apparent than the last few lines, where it’s fascinating how Paul finishes with what seems to be a major kissoff to the band, making it clear he’s not interested in their point of view, yet then maybe takes ownership of the problems in the last thing he says (“I got an attitude”).

This is a man who once famously sang, “Everything I’ve ever wanted—tell me what’s wrong,” and a band plagued by a destructive, near-cripping fear throughout their existance that likely kept them from the commercial success they so deserved. That old friend seems back one last time to haunt both Paul and the band on "Attitude." They play with such fervor and with the ease of guys who have been doing this for so long that they know each other’s every move. Even as they perform a song replete with regret and frustration.

We’ve discussed before how startling it can be when a band on its last legs can offer up something so good. Think of The Band's performance in The Last Waltz. Or for the perfect studio example, The Beatles—barely able to be in the same room together anymore—yet still able to put together the perfection that was Side 2 of Abbey Road. Feelings grow hard, but talent and personal connection usually win out.

That’s the Replacements with “Attitude,” the real parting shot they offered their longtime fans. It’s pretty much the only way the ‘Mats could have ever said goodbye—having the time of their lives while singing about how unhappy they all are together.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Young and Innocent Days

Last night was class night for my son's 8th grade class. Kids got all dolled up and gathered on the town green for the traditional taking of pictures with family and friends, and then trekked down the road to the middle school (sans parents) for a dinner dance that invariably signaled the end of their middle school years and the beginning of high school. There's one final day today, sure, but middle school really ended for these kids last night, wrapped up in a bright and pretty bow that gives this latest final chapter a happy ending indeed.

I'm elated to see my kid grow up and grow up well. So the fact that I am practically in the fetal position right now wondering where these past 14 years went...well...that has nothing to do with anything. Why would you even say that?! Stop it! Shut up, OK? Just shut up!!!


And we're back.

So. We all miss the past. At least some of the times. Don't we?

That summer at the beach? That girl in high school, the one we now know how we could said the right things to make it work? That college pal who made us feel so alive but who we sadly lost touch with? A few more moments with a Dad or a Mom, or grandfather or grandmother, or a husband or a wife who's no longer here?

Sometimes it's easy to miss the things we once had, the person we once were, the people we once knew. Even as we appreciate everything we now have, all these years later.

Lest this get too maudlin, let's get down to the music. After all, it's Friday! First day of summer! Time to rev up the wayback machine and take a journey on this newest installment of Favorite Song Friday!

Favorite Song Friday - The Kinks - "Young and Innocent Days"

Ray Davies got nostalgia, and all the good and bad it connotes, as well as any rocker ever did, I think. He got the fact that when you put on the rose-colored glasses, lovely as it makes things appear, the picture changes. And when the picture changes, you're not exactly looking at the thing you thought you were looking at.

Some of Ray and the Kinks' best songs examined the sweet and sour nature of looking back. Certainly "Waterloo Sunset" did. "Sunny Afternoon" and "Celluloid Heroes" too. Later in their career "Come Dancing" painted a lovely picture of a simpler time now tinged with sadness. And heck, the entire brilliant Muswell Hillbillies album examined the notion from every angle imaginable; looking back, longing for something simpler, afraid to  move too far ahead but just as afraid not to. The Kinks got it, no question.

1969's Arthur: Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire was arguably the high point in their string of brilliant records that began with Face to Face and ran through the aforementioned Muswell Hiillbillies. It employed a frequently light touch to deal with some very heavy issues; it was an anti-war record that took a very close look at the British Empire's legacy and wondered just what it was they were fighting for, striving for.

A songs like "Victoria" looked at it under the ironic guise of revved up celebration, whereas "Shangri-La" removed the veneer and faced the cold reality. "Yes Sir No Sir" and the wrenching "Some Mother's Son" are as strong a Vietnam-era statement of war fatigue as any of the time. The marvelous title track admited yep, you were right, we should have known better, but we didn't. And now, as John Lennon once remarked, it's all this.

Then there is today's choice. A lovely, lilting little harpsichord-driven ballad that is exactly what the title indicates: a lookback to those so-called young and innocent days. It's as deep a deep-track as it gets, maybe the least known song on this whole glorious album. But it's as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It's the simplest song on Arthur, but Lord does it pack a wallop.

I look back on the way I used to look at life
Soft white dreams and sugarcoated outside
It was great, so great
Young and innocent days

I wish my eyes could only see
Everything exactly as it used to be
It's too late, so late
Young and innocent days

I see the lines across your face
Time has done and nothing ever can replace
Those great, so great
Young and innocent days
Young and innocent days

That's it. That's all of it. A gentle little bit of guitar picking to open it up, some unceasingly delicate lead vocals from Ray Davies and (in my opinion) the finest harmonies his brother Dave ever offered. All put in motion by that regal harpsichord that lends an air of high royalty to it all.

And the words. At first it's sweet, as in literally. Ray uses images of candy coating to look back on those great days or yore. "So great" he sings with enough emotion to tell you really means it.

But then...a little bit of reality. By the second verse he realizes he can't go back, no matter how much he wants to. Employing the same rhyme scheme the way great songwriters can, "So great" becomes "Too late." The candy is gone. A hard, real present is all that's here.

And finally, we're old. The dreams have given way to lines across the face, time has stolen away and left us with nothing but memories of, once again, those great young and innocent days. They still look great, "So great," but now they are decidedly of a time that is long, long gone.

Yet despite the simplicity, something in the writing lets us know that yes, Ray gets it. No, they weren't all young and innocent days. But it's nice to think for a moment that maybe they were. Just because the past wasn't as perfect as we'd like to think it was, there was still plenty to recall fondly. And can't that fondness be at the forefront, rather than regret or loss? As Hemingway famously once wrote, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

It is indeed.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Papa Was a Rollin' Stone

The scene: a basement in northwestern Connecticut in the early-to-mid-1980s. A kid puts on a record his big brother's brought home from college.

Boomp boomp. 


Boomp boomp boomp boomp. 



Miles Davis? That's it? It sounds like him...

"It was third of the September...that day I'll always remember—yes, I will."

Sweet Jesu, what is this? This is Motown? This isn't Motown. The kid likes Motown, everyone likes Motown, who doesn't like Motown, Motown's great, but this...this, this doesn't sound like "Stop! In the Name of Love"!

The kid sits, transfixed, until the song's over. The spell's broken when the next track begins, at which point the kid gets up and lifts the needle as fast as he can. He puts the first track on again. And again. And again. He's later surprised to realize the entire afternoon has gone by while he's doing this.

The kid doesn't really know what it was about this that spoke so immediately—I mean, from the first damn seconds—to his lily-white suburban 13-year-old soul more accustomed at the time to Led Zeppelin and the Who, but it did. Twelve minutes, one chord, one breath held the entire damn time.

Boomp boomp.