Listen to “Long and Muddy Road”
You’d think with a name like The Strange Magic, there might be a bit of homage to ELO, who of course had a great song called “Strange Magic.” What I hear on Spring Reverb is more of a 60s psychedelic sound and these guys definitely have fun with their take on it. Their song titles tell the story–e.g. “Dr. Theremin,” “Planet of the Humans,” “Cheese Tastes Good,” “Long and Muddy Road” and lyrically there’s a bit of a science fiction theme going on in several songs. A Summer of Love-ish cover of Daniel Johnston’s “The Sun Shines Down on Me” fits in well and they even throw in a bit of Japanese pop into the mix on “Luv Flower.” The wacky, trippy goodness of this album reminds of another recent album, Congratulations by MGMT. Overall, an engaging listen with some fine ensemble playing by this Vancouver band.
(Northern Electric, 2011)
Listen to “Here to Fall”
I can probably be called a rock music geek and Yo La Tengo is perhaps the ultimate music geek band, with a sound that can be experimental, raucous and loud on the one hand and quiet, ambient and static on the other – sometimes in the same song and not unlike one of their key inspirations, the Velvet Underground. As well they have a large, catholic repertoire of cover songs. In fact, guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan, used to be a rock critic.
Well I saw Yo La Tengo live for the first time the other night and there seemed to be a lot of us music geek types there. Drop a bomb on the theatre and there wouldn’t be any more record store clerks and assorted hangers-on left in Vancouver. YLT certainly didn’t disappoint, playing one set of sometimes loud, sometimes ambient instrumentals from their soundtrack The Sounds of the Sounds of Science. Then they did a short three song burst as their covers incarnation Condo Fucks, playing tunes by the Rascals, the Troggs and the Flamin’ Groovies. In their second set, they cruised through their catalog, freely mixing up originals with more covers. What’s great about YLT is that if you didn’t know any better, you’d think all the songs were original – they are quite consistent in their aesthetic.
Anyways, I listened through several of their albums in preparation for the show. In doing so, I found myself more often than not returning to their most recent release, Popular Songs, from 2009. This is a fine album, one of their best in my opinion, though 1990’s Fakebook still holds a special place in my heart. Popular Songs (sarcastic title perhaps?) really shows all sides and more of what YLT does, though it’s devoid of covers. It certainly features a few of their most dense creations: album opener “Here to Fall” is a rockin’ starter with wah-wah guitar, Fender Rhodes and an aggressive string arrangement reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg’s Melody Nelson; the song evokes an early 70s psychedelic funk style and I can see it soundtracking a detective movie from that era. “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven” is one of their trippy ones, weaving guitar parts, layering instruments, different vocal lines and overlapping harmonies.
We also get some sweet pop tunes on this album: the upbeat and jangly Georgia Hubley song “Avalon or Someone Very Similar” features nice harmonies from the band while “Nothing to Hide” amps up the volume a bit and adds Farfisa organ and a rockin’ guitar solo; “Periodically Triple or Double” evokes 60s garage rock with a bass-driven groove, Taxman-like rhythm guitar and a cool space age bachelor pad instrumental interlude. “If It’s True” is a sweet Georgia and Ira duet, set to an “I Can’t Help Myself” bassline and a Philly soul string arrangement; possibly a song about their long musical and personal relationship?
The rest is pretty standard YLT fare: there’s the atmospheric, quiet contemplative side such as “By Two’s,” “I’m On My Way,” the “Sloop John B”-like “When It’s Dark ” and “The Fireside,” an 11 minute+ Bill Frisell-ish guitar instrumental. And finally there’s the 16-minute long album closer, “And the Glitter is Gone,” a typical YLT stürm and dräng instrumental which dares you to like it or lump it. Put me in the “like” group and raise a glass to music geeks everywhere!
Listen to “Wigs“
I’ve been really enjoying the debut CD from Vancouver’s Shane Turner Overdrive. This is well-played Big Star via Teenage Fanclub/Velvet Crush, guitar-driven power pop. The reverby production sets off the well-crafted songs nicely and several numbers feature sweet harmonies from Olivia Fetherstonhaugh (Fanshaw) and Johnny Payne (Shilohs). And I applaud Turner for accomplishing all this with brevity–the album’s only 25 minutes long and he manages to squeeze in 13 songs!
Listen to “Kick Your Door Down”
Listen to “If Only You Were Only”
Let’s get something straight–if you persist with me on this blog journey, you’ll find that I’m a huge Replacements and Paul Westerberg fan. So you’ll have to forgive me for my bias — almost anything Westerberg’s done is worth listening to and that dates back to the very first thing he ever did, the Replacements’ Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash.
This seems to me like an almost forgotten album in the ‘Mats’ canon, due to the praise [deservedly] heaped on mid-period Replacements albums like Let It Be, Tim and Pleased to Meet Me. Listening to Sorry Ma again, those albums aren’t really that far away from this initial salvo; they just got higher recording budgets and became slicker musicians as each year passed. At the time of this album, Westerberg was already on his way to being a well-developed songwriter and the band behind him plays the songs with youthful abandon and enthusiasm.
Though the recording quality fails them a bit (Sorry Ma sounds like it was recorded live in someone’s basement!) the great songs shine through. The 18-song barrage is all quality stuff, not to mention the amazing acoustic B-side “If Only You Were Lonely,” one of the all time great songs about getting and being drunk (added as a bonus track on Rhino’s 2008 re-issue). Westerberg drops so many classic bon mots throughout the album—to wit:
- “The radio’s blasting, turn that shit off!” from “Takin’ a Ride”
- “Irresponsibility’s my closest friend” from “Careless”
- “I’m in love with the girl who works at the store but I’m nothing but a customer… yeah, can I get change? Where are the Twinkies?” from “Customer”
- “I hate music / it’s got too many notes” from “I Hate Music”
- “Twenty push-ups this morning, that was half my goal / Tonight I’ll be doin’ pull-ups on the toilet bowl” from “If Only You Were Lonely”
The theme of teenage ennui runs through many of the songs, including “Careless,” “Hanging Downtown,” “Shiftless When Idle,” “More Cigarettes” and the paean to arena rock “I Bought A Headache;” not to mention tributes to fellow Minneapolis punk rockers Hüsker Dü (“Something to Dü”) and Johnny Thunders (the relatively tender and sadly prophetic “Johnny’s Gonna Die”). The playing is punk rock goodness, with the machine gun fills of drummer Chris Mars and a pre-adolescent looking Tommy Stinson pumping the bass. However, it’s lead guitarist Bob Stinson who really cuts loose here; with his unstable, feedbacky sound, Sorry Ma features perhaps his most unhinged playing out of all the albums he’s on. He manages to dazzle with both speed and subtlety — “hotter than a urinary infection,” indeed.
Someone please form a band and perform this entire album!
(Twin/Tone, 1981; re-issued by Rhino, 2008)
Listen to “Without You”
Watch “No Matter What”
Badfinger is certainly one of the saddest stories ever in rock. They seemed to have it all – got signed to the Beatles’ Apple record label, had their first single, “Come and Get It,” gifted to them by Paul McCartney, had four talented songwriters, excellent musicianship and the ability to come up with perfect, power pop singles. But they had corrupt management who ultimately let them down, forcing them out on long, thankless tours, mismanaging their money and then signed them to a record deal with Warner Bros. that would have been impossible to deliver on—a new album every six months. The situation was so dire that Pete Ham, the de facto leader of the band, hanged himself in 1975. The band broke up and then reformed in 1979, put out a couple more albums until the suicide of bassist Tom Evans in 1982. A summary of what happened is described well in this Wikipedia article on the band, if you want to get even more depressed.
Despite the tragic back story, Badfinger made some fine albums. I find No Dice a bit inconsistent, but they really hit their stride with their next album, Straight Up, and were very consistent all the way up to Pete Ham’s death. No Dice does contain two of their all time greats: Ham’s “No Matter What” is the prototypical power pop song, while the oft-covered “Without You” (half-finished songs by Ham and Evans scotch-taped together) is the template for all power ballads to follow; Badfinger’s original version on No Dice sounds like a demo for Harry Nilsson’s near-contemporary hit version of the song (which begat all the later, more melodramatic versions).
Outside of the two biggies, there are other gems to be found on No Dice. The band could rock out with the best of them such as on “I Can’t Take It” (which harkens back to an early 60s beat style) and “Better Days” a more Revolver-era type rocker – indeed the band were always saddled with the Beatles-sound alike tag and were keen to prove they had their own sound. Incredibly, there’s a song on the album called “Love Me Do,” which is not the Beatles song—unfortunately it’s an unexciting boogie rock tune. There are also some beautiful ballads on No Dice, such as “It Had to Be,” (there’s a quality in Ham’s voice that can be so heartbreaking) and “I Don’t Mind,” co-written by Evans and guitarist Joey Molland.
The less successful material happens when the band attempts to be whimsical such as on “Blodwyn” and “Watford John,” which both sound like they were written after a singalong night at the pub. But the album ends on a strong and positive note with “We’re For the Dark,” a romantic ballad by Ham which contains this line: “Show me the clouds and I’ll give you sky if you want me to.” Oh, if only you were still here, Pete.
(Apple/Capitol, 1970, re-issued 2010)
Listen to “Gravity’s Angel”
Watch “Sharkey’s Day”
Laurie Anderson’s success with Big Science and the “O Superman” single obviously motivated her to make an actual, fleshed out music album outside of her sprawling United States I-IV conceptual art project. She also seemed to start listening to Peter Gabriel (!) a lot. And that’s what we got with her 1984 album Mister Heartbreak.
Gabriel’s influence appears to permeate this album as there’s a tropical, world music undercurrent throughout and he is indeed present on several Mister Heartbreak songs. This change in direction showcases Anderson’s musical talents in a good light. The opening track “Sharkey’s Day” establishes the new sound – African-ish beat with full band instrumentation! Adrian Belew’s fuzzy guitar tones! Anton Fier on drums! Bill Laswell on bass! Backup vocals! She’s even singing a hook! “Gravity’s Angel,” with lyrics inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, is another Gabriel-esque song with full-blooded instrumentation and his backup vocals. And “Excellent Birds” features Chic-ster Nile Rodgers! This is the closest thing to a single on this album and is pretty much a duet with Gabriel; he later recorded an alternate version of this song on his mega-selling album So.
“Kokoku” brings an Asian/Japanese feel to the album, complete with Japanese lyrics and halting English in its examination of white stereotypes of Asians; plus it features Phoebe “Poetry Man” Snow on vocals! Meanwhile, “Langue d’Amour” and “Blue Lagoon” harken back to Big Science, with their minimal instrumentation and vocodered voices. The album closes with the inimitable voice of poet William S. Burroughs (!) on “Sharkey’s Night,” an atmospheric spoken word piece. Overall, Anderson’s semi-foray into “pop,” or at least her own spin on it, is a success.
Speaking of my CFUV campus radio days, I was brought back there again in hearing this album as both “Excellent Birds” and “Blue Lagoon” were used as promos and incidental music.
(Warner Bros., 1984)