Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Brown Eyed Girl

As of a couple years ago, fewer than a dozen songs had been played at least 10,000,000 times on the radio. This, not entirely surprisingly, is one of them. And yet Van the Man says he's not crazy about it:
"It's not one of my best. I mean I've got about 300 songs that I think are better."
Which, you know, isn't entirely surprising. He was barely an adult when he wrote it, and compared to what he would record just the next year, never mind the next 45, it is awfully lightweight. But it also goes to show how often the artist misunderstands his own work.

As a composition, it's got a breezy insouciance that's been equalled by only a tiny handful of songs since. As a recording, it's pitch perfect in every way, from the instantly recognizable guitar opening to Morrison's unsurpassed scatting at the end and everything in between, including the breakdown which substitutes for a proper bridge. And all in just a hair over three minutes. Says its piece, says it perfectly, and takes its leave. Sublime.

Morrison also claims he's never received a penny in royalties from the song which, if true, would be more than enough explanation as to why he's not crazy about it. That'd be a hard pill to swallow, indeed.

And yet he's played it live not infrequently over the years, including this performance at Austin City Limits in 2008.

In his hat and serious demeanor—he doesn't open his eyes until the very last few measures and he never smiles once, in stark contrast to his band, who seem delighted, and the audience, who border on rapturous—it'd be easy to peg Morrison as one of the proto-hipsters. But the thing is, he does take this stuff serious, this music stuff. For all he can come across as dour and self-important, there's never been a popular (read: rock) musician who's gone deeper into the mystic than Morrison—in fact, the first one who comes to mind as a fellow traveler was John Coltrane. So when he plays "Brown Eyed Girl" here it feels at first like a gentle nod to his loyal audience. But when he begins to toy with the melody like a lion with a mouse, playing with the phrasing like Frank Sinatra and deploying melisma like Aretha Franklin if she were an ancient Gaelic bard, you get the feeling that, despite himself, he's still able to find new places to investigate in even this most well-worn of pop ditties. How's that possible? And yet. You could practically become overcome just thinking about it.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Songs?

Such an interesting list of The Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Songs from the indefatigable Classic Rock site. Seriously flawed, but then, any list—including one made by us—is going to be. I think they pay alternately too much and too little attention to context. I mean, "Prove It All Night" is a wonderful song, but good Lord a-goshen, it's not even Top 50, much less Top 10, and their rationale for including it seems to be, at least in part, that it provides a moment of relative lightness on the Darkness on the Edge of Town LP—which it does...but that's not a good reason to include it on this list.

The same goes for "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." Great, great, great song...but not that great. And nearly half of the entire Top 10 list is culled from just one of Springsteen's 17 studio albums? That would seem to indicate that the list's author was of a certain age when Born to Run came out and is consequently being weighted a bit more heavily than even such a masterpiece deserves.

Listen, none of this is meant to be a knock on either song, of course, both of which are amongst our all-time favorites from any artist ever, but rather a sign of just how incredible Springsteen's oeuvre is, that even songs as fantastic as those don't come close to cracking the Top 10. Not to mention how difficult making a list like this can be, if you take it seriously.

Which brings us to the perennial question of song v recording, and here I think they're conflating the two, to the mistaken inclusion of (the wonderful, spine-tinglingly gorgeous) "Jungleland."

But then they've got "Land of Hope and Dreams" and "Point Blank" on the list, proving that they know what they're talking about and aren't just going for the easy and obvious, even if they're, well, wrong about certain things. (He said completely objectively.) Such as the inclusion of "Point Blank," for instance.

Of course, when all's said and done, all this is subjective. Having said that, any list of Springsteen songs that doesn't including "Racking in the Street" is inherently invalid.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

New Year's Resolution

Camera Obscura was barely even a name I recognized until a few months ago—I think whenever I heard/read the name I mentally transposed it to Aztec Camera and that was that. And then a pal mentioned that he often forgot just how much he loved Camera Obscura and I made a note to check them out.

And then I did. And wondered how I'd lived as long as I had without a voice this gorgeous singing a melody this perfect and lyrics this evocative.

What does this sound like? It's exactly like something I've heard hundreds of times and yet I cannot come close to placing it. It's as though they've taken all the pop from the 70s I love, mixed it in a blender and poured it over ice. Delicious and oh so smooth.

The thing is, as far as I can tell, the lyrics, as a whole, don't make any sense. And who cares? Did you hear the purity of that voice? Listen, the sooner you admit it, I will too.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: I Still Believe

I can't quite do it. No matter how many times I listen, no how much I know that the first note isn't on the one, I can't quite hear it any other way. And then the rest of the band kicks in and for just half a beat I'm totally discombobulated before it all slides into place and all is right.

I first heard this song when I was working at a record store in the 1980s. Peter Gabriel, Bono and Jim Kerr were huge fans, all the promo material at the time said, so I gave it a try. And there was absolutley nothing on the album that did anything for me. Except this song. But boy howdy did it ever.

And yet. There's so much to dislike about this song, for me, anyway. The incredibly dated 1980s synths. The bombastic delivery. The biblical lyrics, something which (unless the singer is African-American, and yes, I'm aware of the double standard and am quite okay with it, thanks ever so) has always really grated on my nerves.

And none of that matters. Because just like I'm okay with U2's Bo Diddley impersonation, since it was good enough, I'm okay with the U2 impersonation going on here. Because the melody's righteous, the guitars, if mixed too low, are crunchy and, the drummer does a wonderful Mel Gaynor impression, and most of all, there's that bass, that bass, that bass.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Favorite Song Friday - Radiation Vibe

Sometimes, a fun song can just be a fun song. Right?

Sometimes good rock-n-roll is just something to be hummed along to, something to bop along with in the car when you think no one else is watching. No deep meanings to absorb, no unrequited love to break your heart, no plea for an S.O.S. (no, I still haven’t quite gotten over this). Sometimes a song is just a song. Something to be thoroughly enjoyed for the three minutes or so that it’s on before you move onto the next one.

And hey, I’m all for meaningful songs. We need “Blowin’ in the Wind” as much as we need “Good Vibrations.” We need Van the Man to make a genuine plea for hope like “Brand New Day” on the same record where he allows us to appreciate the simple joys of swimming and fishing with “And It Stoned Me.”

We need “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Sun City” and “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Peace Love and Understanding.” You can dance to all of ‘em, even as there’s plenty going on behind the groovy beats. I get that.

But for this Favorite Song Friday I’m writing about a song that I love just because it’s a fun and giddy and a relentlessly upbeat romp of a song. Try as I may, I can’t for the life of me find an ounce of hidden meaning. And as the immortal Sammy Johns once so prophetically crooned, “that’s all right with me.”

Favorite Song Friday – Fountains of Wayne – “Radiation Vibe”

This is another one of those “less is more” approaches, and boy howdy does it ever work. The very first single from the very first album from Fountains of Wayne, back when the band was really just a delightful duo of Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger. The band—or at this time just Adam and Chris—leaned heavily on simpler, clean pop sounds of the mid-to-late 80s. While plenty of American bands in the 90s took their cues from the darker side offered by the likes of The Pixies or Sonic Youth, Fountains of Wayne played kind of like an American version of Squeeze, with Collingwood/Schlesinger doing a more than capable Difford/Tillbrook impression (of sorts).

“Radiation Vibe” is pretty much 3 ½ minutes of bouncy, melodic fun. Guest bassist Danny Weinkauf lays down a nifty little waka waka bassline, and Chris and Adam drape some easy and sun-drenched crunchy guitar chords over them. The chord pattern is simple – there are no solos, just a little bit of reverb fuzz that pops up now and again. The lyrics in the two verses are a little silly and a little clever all at once.

Are you alone now?
Did you lose the monkey?
He gave you backaches,
And now you slouch.

He didn't mean it.
He's just a dumb ape.
Reading Playboy
On your couch.

I went to Pittsburgh
To join a pro team.
Talk about a bad dream.
I broke a knee.

But I can still croon,
And make the girls swoon.
Isn't that the way life's
Supposed to be?

Collingwood hangs back on the verses and sings in a largely subdued fashion, eschewing his estimable range and choosing to soft-peddle it, almost blending into the rhythm line. But it works gangbusters, and it tees things up perfectly for the glowing explosion of feedback and power-chords that comes at the chorus.

And now it's time to say
What I forgot to say:
Baby baby baby,
Come on, what's wrong?
It's a radiation vibe I'm groovin’ on.
Don't it make you want to get some sun
Shine on, shine on, shine on

Collingwood sings these gibberishly cool lines in full voice, and the songs careens and pogos through an irresistible chorus that represents the very best in bright, brilliant power-pop. His flip and seductive “Come on, what’s wrong?” The way he extends the vocal line out to the edges of the melody on the “groovin’ on” line. And the sheer joy in his voice, even as it starts to fray, as he sells the “Shine on, Shine on!” concluding lines for real. It all adds up to an exuberant and delicious piece of rock-n-roll that rattles through your skull, merrily, long after the final fuzzy chord plays out.

Shine on, indeed.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

I'd love to hear the good reverend record an album of nothing but covers of the likes of One Direction, Justin Bieber, the Backstreet Boys, and other popsters of today and yesteryear. Sure, it'd be a gimmick, but I can't help feeling he'd still hit homer after homer, and there'd be a certain thrill in just the spectacle of him taking light, fluffy pop—which, I hasten to add, I adore—and turn it into gem after gem.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: SOS

Need more be said?

I think not.

"When you're gone, how can I even try to go on?" DT wonders but hasn't the courage to say aloud.

I hear you, pal. I hear you.


The management would like to apologize for the vulgar and intemperate outburst this post triggered from DT's vulgar, intemperate lips. Such crudeness and, frankly, shocking misanthropy is not tolerated by the Reason to Believe editorial staff, and please be assured that DT has been exiled to a far away place where such vile ruminations are commonplace and decent man never ever bothers to tread. Also known as Sanford, Florida.

And now, to show you how sorry we are, here is the greatest Beatles cover ever made.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Handle With Care

“This is the greatest album of its kind ever made,” Rolling Stone crowed in 1988 about the release of the first Traveling Wilburys album. And then added, “It’s also the only album of its kind ever made.”

As my partner here at RTB would say: Yes. And yes.

It was such a delicious experiment. Look at the names—George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, (and Jeff Lynne…de-emphasis added). Three of the, what, 15 most important figures in rock-n-roll history up to that point, plus someone (Petty) destined to not quite reach that level, but become a rock-n-roll legend in his own right? That is a Murderer’s Row to end all Murderer’s Rows. Oh, and Jeff Lynne. Who yeah, knew how to produce (and over-produce) and had some weird success with ELO back in the 70s and made all the right friends. But even though he doesn’t approach the stratospheric levels of his four Wilbury counterparts, this was a collection of talent too good even for the term supergroup.

And it was an experiment the likes of which we will almost certainly never see again. Not just because two of the Wilburys—George Harrison and Roy Orbison—are no longer with us. I’m talking about ever happening again with any other artists, period. Because it’s just so damn unlikely to get such upper-echelon Hall of Fame-level talent not only in one room together, but in a studio for a complete album. And to have it work so well.

I mean, sure. I suppose, say, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen and Bono and Chuck Berry (and Jeff Lynne) could get together and call themselves “The Wandering Rizzos” or something like that, and release an album as delightful and (miraculously) ego-free as the Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was. And when that happens, call me and I’ll offer my apology for the blanket “this will never happen again” statement. But until then, my assertion stands.

So there.

Favorite Song Friday – “Handle With Care” – Traveling Wilburys

So let’s get onto the music. 

This album came out in the Fall of 1988, by junior year of college and, as I have mentioned many times before, at the nadir of a period of rock-n-roll defined and dominated by neo-glam rock. Even though R.E.M. and U2 and The Cure and The Pixies were at their creative peaks, that kind of music wasn't dominating the charts and the airwaves the way Poison, Motley Crue, Warrant, Winger, Cinderella and The Swinging Genitals were (I may have made one of those up, I’m not sure). And that sucked. Because there was great music being made. It was just being overshadowed on much of commercial radio and MTV by a cloud of Aqua Net, peroxide and penicillin.

Along came the Wilburys. No, they didn’t change rock-n-roll. I mean yes, they did, but they’d already done that—at least George, Roy and Bobby had. But instead they came in to have a little fun. Five singer-songwriter guitarists came in to turn back the clock a little bit and show us that the old guard was still capable of getting the job done. They rode into town wearing the white hats and while they didn't demolish this awful glammed up legacy (Nirvana and friends would do that a couple years later), they simply reminded us that there was still joy to be found.

For me the album, while not perfect, had a little bit of everything that I loved so much about these guys. Roy turned the tear ducts up to 11 with his glorious “Not Alone Anymore.” Bob practically poked his tongue through his cheek with a giddy and sinister “Dirty World” and with his, um, “tribute” to Springsteen, “Tweeter and the Monkey Man.” And Tom Petty, somewhat surprisingly (consider the comedic talent in the room with him, namely George and Bob), turned in the funniest song on the album, the Latin/country rumblefest that was “Last Night,” the story of groupie love that ends about as badly as it possibly could. Just great, first rate stuff from a few rock-n-roll legends. Nothing more.

But the album, in my occasionally humble opinion, really belonged to George Harrison. It was George who was out front on three songs worthy of him at his very best. “Heading For the Light” was a callback to his early solo days with a bouncing lead guitar and some perfect Beatle-esque harmonies, not to mention a nifty Ringo impression by drumming savant Jim Keltner. “End of the Line,” written by George but giving everyone a chance to step forward to the microphone, reminded us just how much he had to do with the birth and refinement of “country rock.”

And then there is this week’s pick for Favorite Song Friday, the track that led off the album and a song that I can’t help but smile like an idiot whenever I hear it, “Handle With Care.”

It’s true that all five of the Wilburys had a hand in all of the album’s songs. And the other four (particularly Roy) are given their chance to shine on this track. But this was George’s show, really. His chance to look back, now at 45, at all those years behind him and a legacy he left that literally only three other people on earth could ever understand. Not even a titan like Bob Dylan could have gotten, I don’t think, what it was like to be in the Beatles. To create what they created, the way they created it, over and over again.

“Handle With Care” doesn’t delve too deep; it’s more of a fond recollection, not unlike John Lennon had 23 years earlier with “In My Life.” It’s not confessional and it’s not the least bit blue or maudlin. It’s more a way of saying, “Geez, what a ride this was,” as he strolls down a generalized Memory Lane with his loved one.
Been beat up and battered around
Been sent up and I’ve been shut down
You’re the best thing that I ever found
Handle me with care

Reputations’s changeable
Situation’s tolerable
But baby you’re adorable
Handle me with care

I’m so tired of being lonely
I still have some love to give
Won’t you show me that you really care?

Everybody’s got somebody to lean on
Put your body next to mine and dream on

I’ve been fobbed off, and I’ve been fooled
I’ve been robbed and ridiculed
In day care centers and night schools
Handle me with care

Been stuck in airports, terrorized
Sent to meetings, hypnotized
Overexposed, commercialized
Handle me with care

I’ve been uptight and made a mess
But I'll clean it up myself, I guess
Oh, the sweet smell of success
Handle me with care

Having been caught (albeit willingly) in the Lennon-McCartney shadow for so long, George didn’t always have the chance to showcase himself as a first-rate lyricist. But he was indeed—“If I Needed Someone” and “I Want To Tell You” and “Here Comes the Sun” and, of course, “Something” proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. And “Handle With Care” is nothing more than a top-level songwriter totally at ease with himself. Having the confidence to toss off a line like “Baby you’re adorable” (my favorite line in the song, BTW) proves that, as does the absolute unobstructed sunshine in George’s voice as he sings.

What the song really seems to be, with its gentle caution to please, go easy on him, he’s been through a lot, is a grown-up version of another song John Lennon wrote (and George had a hand in making immortal) two decades earlier, “Help!” But whereas a young John was agreeing to “open up the door’ at asking for some assistance in doing so, George was simply asking, through all the mess and success he's created, to “handle me with care.” Similar sentiments, just separated by a generation of growth.

The song propels along with a simple folk-rock chord progression that is an exercise in sweet simplicity, with some great twangy fills that George always did so well and even a neat harmonica that Dylan throws in towards the end. And again, everyone joins in the fun—Roy’s aching plea on the “I’m so tired…” bridge soars above everything like a panoramic John Ford establishing shot. And the harmonies from Dylan, Petty and Lynne—strange as that idea seems—give rich, emphatic layers to the chorus.

Roy died not long after the album, song and video were released. So the Wilburys existence was a fleeting as it was memorable. But the album and the project had a nice reach nonetheless. After this Petty set himself on another creative roll that produced some of his best work over the next 8-10 years. Bob Dylan re-invigorated his career after a somewhat ambivalent 1980s and put out some truly great records. And George kept kicking around, even getting back with Paul and Ringo (and Jeff Lynne…hee!) on the Beatles Anthology project a few years later. From this one fun little project, it seemed, plenty of good things blossomed.

“Handle With Care” started an awful lot of that, it seems. First single, first track on the album, first video, first rate all around.

Baby, it was adorable. In the truest sense of the word.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Carry the Zero

So my 12-year-old started talking about Doug Martsch's guitar tone yesterday and I suddenly realized that she knew more about Built to Spill than she does about One Direction and that I have become That Dad.