Wednesday, December 21, 2011

rock candy

,
For several weeks now I’ve been contemplating buying a Telecaster. I learned a little bit of guitar when I was a kid, but didn’t have the patience to stick with it. Over the years, I’ve picked it up on and off again, just for kicks, but now I’ve become obsessed with at least cultivating some competence. It’s not because I dream of ever performing in front of anybody (though my sister tells me that it can be a total chick magnet), but rat
her that it’s just so satisfying to be able to play for myself and my cat in the solitude of my bedroom. So anyway, I have my eyes on a Telecaster, which in my mind is the perfect guitar in its design, versatility, and, most importantly, tone. I’ve been making several trips a week to the guitar shop in Pasadena, waiting for the prices to come down after x-mas, but ogling the guitars in the meantime, anticipating the moment of ecstasy when I pull the trigger, take the thing home, and can wake up every morning and feel so blessed to finally own a Telecaster…a fucking Telecaster!



…Last night at the guitar shop, I plugged in and played all the riffs I’ve learned or re-learned over the past few months – Day Tripper, Cinnamon Girl, Substitute, Rebel, Rebel…and No One Knows, the Queens of the Stone Age song that has one of the greatest riffs of all time. A guy working at the shop gave me the thumbs up and said “Queens!” (dudes who work in guitar shops always seem to be hard rock lads). It made me feel good because I can never tell whether I’m playing the riffs in recognizable form. We got to talking about QOTSA, and about Josh Homme, and Kyuss, Homme’s first band. One of the biggest disappointments of my life is that I had a chance to see Kyuss live in the mid 90s and passed it up. I just didn’t like their stuff at the time, and I still think their last album, And the Circus Leaves Town, is the only one that’s any good. It’s certainly their most accessible. But even when they’re accessible Kyuss remain extremely heavy, both in their sound and their overall vibe. The reason Queens of the Stone Age are so damn good is that Homme dispenses with some (though certainly not all) of that heaviness, maintains the hard edge, but also adds incredible melody lines and hooks. He has a poppy sensibility that he never really had a chance to hone during his time in Kyuss, and he pays a lot of attention to crafting great, self-contained songs. Homme does admittedly go over to the dark side with some regularity, but QOTSA resonate most with me when he keeps things tight and tuneful. And needless to say, the guy is a master of the catchy riff. And he’s also very intelligent from what I can tell… When I mentioned to the guitar shop guy that Homme’s guitar often seems like it’s tuned down a full step to get that low vacuum cleanerish sound of his, a la Blue Cheer, he laughed and said, “dude, he has that thing down at least a step, sometimes close to two.” Tonight’s song is a case in point. It starts out innocently enough with with some hash brownie sounding meanderings on a guitar and a weird repetitive bicycle bell. But what at first sounds like sloppy farting around quickly crystallizes into a lead pipe of a riff, replete a discombobulating tempo change. There’s a lot going on here, yet somehow, improbably, the melody remains just barely intact, and I mean just barely. And listen to how low to the ground those guitars are! It almost sounds like a tractor pull… Kyuss’ is generally way heavier than anything I wanna spend a lot of time with these days, but I’ve been thinking about music that’s hard and tuneful. QOTSA are one of the great hard and tuneful bands, and it’s interesting to trace Homme’s approach to making this type of music back to its roots…



Tuesday, December 20, 2011

occasional dream, two

This occasional dream thing is turning out to be more occasional than I had planned… Janine is another example of how the Bowie Sound was at work from a relatively early point in the man’s career. Many of his signature tricks of the trade are already in use, albeit without their subsequent assuredness, and they all serve to intensify the emotional impact of the music: The distinct expressiveness of the singing; the manic self harmonizing; the acoustic guitar used as a rhythm guitar; the shimmering tambourine running through the chorus… I never used to care much for any of Bowie’s stuff prior to Hunky Dory. The folky space hippie persona of Space Oddity, which turns sharper and heavier for The Man Who Sold the World, just didn’t do it for me. Hunky Dory always seemed like a huge leap forward to me, one that rendered his previous efforts irrelevant. I still think it’s an enormous advance from his first three full-length albums, but starting with several great songs on Space Oddity, Janine being my personal favorite, you can hear his sound developing right there in the grooves of the record. A number of the chord progressions he uses would be right at home on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. This is what makes Space Oddity such a fascinating album to listen to. It’s kind of a test run. It certainly wouldn’t be my Desert Island Bowie Record, but neither is it one that the obsessive fan can easily ignore…



Wednesday, December 14, 2011

on the (middle of the) road to new wave


One final Scott Walker post is in order, this one from the 1975 Walker Brothers reunion. By then, Scott Walker had abandoned much of the Euro Romantic ethos, at least for the time being, in favor of a more conventional Middle of the Road approach. But No Regrets nevertheless has a very interesting melody line, no less pleasing for being so subtle, and Walker’s distinct croon always draws me in and gets me to pay attention. The song brings me almost full circle back to where I began reflecting here on Walker’s music. A few years after No Regrets was recorded, Walker rediscovered the Euro thing with Nite Flights, offering it now in a compelling New Wave idiom that suggested he’d been paying close attention to Krautrock, Eno, David Bowie, and Roxy Music, just as each of them seem to have paid close attention to him. But No Regrets still seems light years away from New Wave romanticism, or perhaps not so far away at all…

Monday, December 12, 2011

the dawn falls hard on my face


I’m still thinking a lot about Scott Walker. Thanks for Chicago Mr. James might be his poppiest song. The melody gets inside your head and stays there. His echo-heavy Euro romanticism remains present, along with the blue wistfulness he does so well, but now there’s the added dimension of an irresistibly catchy hook. Listen also for his harmonizing with himself, and for the way the chorus rises up a tone or so towards the end. I especially like the strange chord change he throws in for the line, And you needed more / than the smile I wore... Even as Walker evolved and embraced the pop life with increasing enthusiasm, he remained entirely unique. A handful of artists have been inspired by Scott Walker, but nobody has ever really replicated his amazing approach to making music…



Tuesday, December 6, 2011

warmth and compassion

Rhymes of Goodbye is arguably Scott Walker’s finest moment as a performer. By the time he got around to recording the songs for Scott 4, he was at the peak of his creative power. The songs on the album are quite a bit more accessible than what you get on Scott 1, 2, and 3, combining his distinctive Euro-Romantic crooning with lovely, melodic melancholia, and the songs take a step towards folk pop and away from what up until then was Walker's occasionally dicey penchant for maudlin show tunesy-type fare. It’s a welcome artistic evolution and makes for some of the warmest music you’ll ever hear. I’ve been fascinated by Scott Walker on and off again for almost 20 years, and for a lot of his music my obsession comes more from the head than the heart, but with Scott 4, and especially Rhymes of Goodbye (which, fittingly enough, closes the album), the music has an added emotional depth that cries out for repeated listening. My favorite part of the song is the verse that goes…

The Bells of our senses can cost us our pride
Can toll out the boundaries that level our lives
Can slash like the sunlight through shadows and cracks
Our nakedness calling, our nakedness back


I'm not quite sure what he’s saying with this, but I know it’s something good, and the glockenspiel that punctuates it is a perfect little flourish that adds to the song’s soothing magic…

Monday, December 5, 2011

what if...


Scott Walker’s music puts me in a European frame of mind, whatever that means. I guess for me it means “romantic”, “philosophical”, “weighty”, “deep”, “sophisticated”, “contemplative”, and all the rest. John Paul Sartre. The Welfare State. Krautrock. Films as opposed to movies. Good coffee. Skinny people… Europe is not just not America but also un-America, if that makes sense. It doesn’t surprise me at all, for this reason, that the European Union is crumbling. It’s the logical result of Europe trying to be more like the U.S. I knew integration would fail. Europe can’t be like the U.S. because it’s so eminently…European, meaning that it’s everything America rejects. And this is why Scott Walker had to embrace Europe. He’s an American – an Angeleno to be precise – who turned himself into a Euro. The music has an undeniable ex-pat feel about it, though it doesn’t eschew Americana in a self-righteous way. There was simply no way Walker could have realized his vision in an American context, but a lot of his stuff would be right at home with the music Jonathan Schwartz used to play on WNEW-AM. It’s music I could very easily play for my parents and I bet they’d dig it if they don’t already know who he is. …Tonight’s selection really gets to me, especially the line, are you sorry that you met me? When you love and lose, the answer to this question is so often ‘yes’, but it raises all kinds of interesting counterfactual questions. They’re European-type questions. They inspire deep reflection and ultimately make you recognize the potential fatefulness of every move you make…

P.S. - Oops, I did it again. I wrote about a song without checking first for its availability on youtube. The one I wanted to play for you is Best of Both Worlds, from Scott 2, but instead we’ll jump to Scott 4 and do Angels of Ashes. Enjoy!



Saturday, December 3, 2011

the lonely romantic

I generally like my music to pack an immediate pleasurable punch and tend to resist stuff that's overly arty, but I make exceptions for the likes of Scott Walker, David Bowie, Peter Hammill, and a few others. ...If you're not in the right mood, Scott Walker can sound like Stephen Sondheim on crack. But if you're feeling lonely, reflective, and wistful, you might very well identify with Walker's melancholy romanticism, and you may find the heroic aspect of his music uplifting. There's a tragic component to what he does as well. When I hear Scott Walker, the epic grandiosity of his approach to making music puts me in the frame of mind of a solitary seeker, one who craves a deeper connectedness to people, fears it may not be possible, but makes the quest for it a central part of his life's journey all the same. Check out the soaring orchestral arrangement in tonight's song and the deep echo effect of the production. It's dreamy and expansive, and it still gives me goose bumps every time I hear it...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

only one promise, only one way to fall

David Bowie is a singular, entirely unique talent. I say this while also recognizing that he’s a textbook example of the postmodern bricoleur, assimilating a diversity of styles, making each one of them his own, without ever settling for too long into a fixed way of doing things. I mentioned yesterday that, in spite of his incessant stylistic slippages, Bowie’s body of work is held together by a series of recurrent melodic structures that together constitute something like a signature David Bowie sound. It’s difficult to pin down where these structures come from. In part, they’re the product of sheer genius. I don’t use the ‘g’ word lightly, mind you. I’ve read as much Foucault and Barthes as the next dilettantish jack of all trades, master of none, but I do believe there’s such a thing as genius, and I’m convinced that Bowie is one of them. He’s a paradox: A genius assimilator. And as such, his melodic tendencies come not only from genius but also from what the pop music cognoscenti like to call ‘influences’, a word I don’t happen to like in this context, hence the derisive quotes. But there's no doubt that Scott Walker is one of Bowie’s biggest…influences. There’s an interesting dialectic at work between the two men. Scott Walker had a profound impact on David Bowie – not just the melodies but also the theatricality of the music, the decadent romanticism of his worldview, the idealization of Europe, etc, etc – and then Bowie, in turn, had a deep impact on Scott Walker. It’s somewhat akin to the reciprocal relationship between Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Byrds. …The Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights is virtually impossible to find these days for less than a few hundred bucks, unless someone “shares” it with you from a file sharing website. It’s too bad because the album features some of the greatest New Wave songs of all time. The album has four fantastic tracks, the standout being the majestic title track. Have a listen to it and see if you can hear the dialectic at work. To my ears, the song would fit perfectly on any album Bowie recorded during the second half of the 70s. …Over the next few days, I have a feeling I’ll be thinking a lot about Scott Walker, without whom David Bowie would likely have had a very different career arc, one that would not have subsequently fed the stunning second (or perhaps third) wind to Walker’s own career…

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

occasional dream, one


On my just completed trip back to New York City for the Thanksgiving holiday, I had occasion, once again, to contemplate the magnificence of David Bowie, from his early days as Davy Jones, a maker of somewhat canned sounding Mod pop, up through songs and albums released within the past ten years. I wrote somewhat extensively (and turgidly, truth be told) about Bowie on my previous blog, which I discontinued in the midst of my 19th nervous breakdown. I was focused back then on albums, but in the time since then I’ve become much more interested in thinking about specific songs apart from the albums on which they appear, so I think I might occasionally post a few thoughts on Bowie songs that continue to capture my imagination, even after all these years of hearing them again and again and again. …Bowie is one of the few artists for whom I will make exceptions to my growing intolerance for explicitly conceptual music, progressive rock, and songs that are hard, heavy, and/or stretched out and windy. …Nowadays when people meet me and ask me what kind of music I like, I tell them that I like guitar-driven pop, and David Bowie. And in a strange twist of taste, it’s precisely when Bowie is at his poppiest that his music is least compelling to me. I’m thinking here of what I regard to be his roughly decade-long ‘lost period,’ spanning from Let’s Dance up to but not including Black Tie, White Noise. I would also include his Tin Machine albums with the lost period. I don’t know why he ever thought it would be a good idea to go grunge. …I had an opportunity to speak with my sister at some length about Bowie while I was staying with her in the Big Apple, and one of the things we both marveled at is that, in spite of the dizzying diversity of musical styles that Bowie has either adopted and made his own or, in some cases, pioneered, there’s an overarching unity to the body of work as a whole. I’m talking here about a David Bowie sound, as it were, a distinct musical thrust that glues together everything from his earliest Swinging London recordings onward. I gave a lot of thought on the flight home Monday to how to articulate the nature of this sound more precisely. More than anything else, I think it comes down to common melodic structures. I looked up a bunch of Bowie guitar tabs on the internet the other night and, sure enough, there are certain things he’s done repeatedly from the very beginning to his most recent recordings. I’m not a musician, so I can’t really describe what he’s doing technically except to say that he’s quite fond of Major 7th chords, and he often likes to substitute a minor chord for a major chord even though the latter would be more conventionally appropriate. I think these compositional tendencies are what give the music its distinct feel, one that’s at once forlorn and ethereal. His songs generally have very unusual progressions with plenty of weird chords or little surprises that take things off the beaten path, much in the same way that you tend to get with the Beatles. And it’s the strangeness of the music, it’s flair for the unexpected, that makes it so enduring. It occurred to me yesterday that the David Bowie sound is generally dissonant, but perhaps part of his genius lies in his capacity to make dissonance sound catchy and infectiously tuneful. …Much of this is, of course, merely mental masturbation on my part, but what else would you expect? I am and always will be Bowie’s biggest fan, not least because his music is so rich and meaningful and thought provoking both in form and content. I just wanna know everything there is to know about how the songs are conceived and executed, what the approach is, who the players are, what the vibe is like in the studio, and how it all reflects some larger social, cultural and/or historical context. I’ll see if I can get at some of this in a weekly feature, an occasional dream, at least for as long as I have the energy.



Originally, I wanted to start out with a few Davy Jones recordings, but I couldn’t find any on Youtube, nor could I find any from Bowie’s 1967 debut as Bowie, so the first one comes from Space Oddity, which is actually a very interesting collection of songs. The music is undeniably based in folk, and there are quite strong hints of the direction he’ll go in for The Man Who Sold the World. The recurrent melodic tendencies I alluded to just now are already in place. The song is the work of an exceedingly English, somewhat posh space hippy, searching for a stable identity and perhaps coming to the realization that stability is far too ordinary for someone with his talent and predisposition…



Thursday, November 17, 2011

c'est moi

Phil Seymour’s reinterpretation of Looking for the Magic is the complete power pop package. It’s punchy, perky, androgynous, tart ‘n fruity, and has a deceptively driving beat that makes the whole thing feel coked up, 80s style, but which also gives the song a teenybopper vibe that conjures up images of young girls having a squealing pillow fight. I love the original version of the song, but I think I love Seymour’s rendering more, even though there’s something a bit chipmunkish about it, no doubt an effect created through varispeeding the tape up a few tones. I think what keeps the song from sounding wimpy is that, along with having a great voice – one that manages to sound simultaneously from the Heartland and from the heart of Hollywood Boulevard – Seymour is also a fantastic drummer, not in the ostentatious sense of Neil Peart or Phil Collins, but more along the lines of Charlie Watts or Phil Rudd, guys who just get a full, resonant sound that makes it ok to place the drums very prominently in the mix… As always, there’s also the song’s sentiment, which when combined with its sound makes it just about as irresistible as music can get. The opening line sucks me in right away. All my life I been lookin’ for the magic. Yes. That’s me. It’s my fatal flaw, perhaps, but that’s me! And I have to believe that I’ll ultimately find the magic, because the alternative is simply too dreary. You can’t look for something your whole life and never find it, can you? Or maybe looking for it – for meaning, for redemption, for love, for completion – is enough. Maybe the magic lies simply in the faith that it exists and can be found…

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

remembering

I know it probably seems sometimes like my blog is little more than a Dwight Twilley fan site, but I just uncovered some footage I’d never seen before of the band (featuring Tom Petty on bass) pretending to play one of my favorite songs. …I think it’s Twilley’s innate grasp of the relationship between pop and heartbreak – the former tending to have the latter built into it – that explains why his music moves me on such a deep level. The theme of tonight’s song is memory. We spend so much of our lives reflecting on the life we’ve already lived. Or at least I do, especially of late as I try to make sense of a short but particularly intense and strange chapter in my life’s journey. When Twilley and Phil Seymour hit the song’s climactic high note, I remember you, it puts me in touch with the way loss can turn what were life’s tender moments into painful memories. The thing that made you so happy is gone, so remembering it leaves you with a chilly emptiness. You get over it eventually. Time heals and gives the clarity that comes with perspective. You come to understand that maybe you weren’t so happy after all. But tonight’s song is sung from the point of view of someone who’s not yet healed. The memories haunt him. If only he could step into a time machine and get a do-over. He’d do a few pivotal things differently, say things he didn’t say the first time around, and not say things he did say but shouldn’t have. But there’s no time machine, no do-over. There’s only memories, which with some distance lose their jagged edges. The events and the people you experienced them with fade away, much in the way the song fades, the main difference being that you can play the song over again. And you will…




Tuesday, November 15, 2011

elevator going up...

I’m not among those who dismiss the Association as muzak. It’s not that they’re not muzak but rather that muzak needn’t be rejected out of hand. The stuff serves a useful purpose. It calms you down as you anticipate the pain and then dulls the pain when it finally arrives. What’s wrong with that? I think of stuff like the Association and Burt Bacharach as music for folks who were in their 40s and 50s during the 60s, guys like my dad, hip enough to have his finger on the pulse of the now, somewhat, and who might even take a puff off a reefer if it was passed to him at an au courant party, but who would be totally out of place at a love-in. …When the Association are waved off, it’s usually on account of this, but also this, as well as this, and even this. I think all those songs are terrific. Each of them are quasi-muzak tunes, but they’re distinguished by their intricate production and arrangements, their sweet ‘n sticky melodies, and harmonies that are among the most perfect I’ve ever heard. And a lot of their music does indeed put you into a numb trance, awake yet asleep, a state that can be quite soothing under the right conditions. You might just find that you want the elevator to keep going up, up, up, past the second floor (ladies accessories and apparel); past the third floor (menswear); past the fourth floor (linens and cookware); then through the roof and into outer space. Keep the elevator door shut and the compartment ascending higher and higher, up up and away in my beautiful balloon… What’s interesting about the Association is that they eventually assimilated psychedelic motifs. And when psychedelia meets elevator music, the result is sunshine pop. Tonight’s song attests to the excellence of this fusion. It’s certainly one of the more psychedelic songs the Association ever performed, yet it maintains the morphine-like affect that so much of their music offers. It’s the dreamy harmonies that’ll stay with you more than anything, like the first brilliant rays of the early morning sun slowly burning off the overnight fog…





Monday, November 14, 2011

open wide

I found Nick Decaro’s cover of I’m Gonna Make You Love Me on a sunshine pop compilation I bought a few years back. I thought it was so completely wrong the first time I heard it, but now I’ve come around to thinking that it’s actually on par with the original. The two versions are very different in tone and execution. Decaro gives the song a lounge/muzak interpretation. It's strange for sure, but somehow it works, though I could swear I hear the high-pitch whir of a dentist’s drill squealing ever so slightly in the background. The affect is casual and blurry, almost narcotic, and it makes you feel the way you do after the first gin and tonic kicks in. And then there’s the song’s sentiment, the force of will one tries to impose when in the throes of total infatuation. In Diana Ross' hands, you truly believe that she’s gonna make him love her, yes she will, yes she will. But when Decaro sings it, you’re not so sure. You wonder if it’s the liquor talking, expressing the brazen self-assuredness on the way up that, on the way down, will inevitably turn back on itself and become little more than the empty wish it really is...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"sunshine" pop

I'm fascinated by guys who continued to craft great pop music after the tide had turned decisively to rock. That they did this, though, doesn't always mean that elements of rock were eschewed altogether. Pet Sounds and Rubber Soul both have thematic strands that unify the songs, which to me is a sign of the onset of the self-important rock mindset, but they're both also great pop records... My taste is such that the music's meaning gets lost if it's dragged out for too long. Can you think of any song that conveys its meaning more effectively and directly than I Want to Hold Your Hand? I sure can't. ...Curt Boettcher is one of those 60s figures who stayed true to pop. There's not a great deal of information available on him, but he's another guy I would credit with inventing sunshine pop. Along with producing some of the Association's greatest singles, he released two amazing albums of his own, one called Begin under the heading of the Millennium, and the other called Present Tense, released under the name Sagittarius. The latter album, produced by Gary Usher, is tragically under appreciated. I would characterize it as archetypal sunshine pop, yet it has some of the conceptual unity I was talking about just now. I suppose that in the wake of Sgt. Pepper's it would have been almost impossible to make a record where the focus was on the parts instead of the whole. But if you break Present Tense down into its parts, it has four or five bona fide classic pop songs, all replete with lush orchestral textures and lovely multi-layered vocals. The session players are not credited on the album sleeve, which is frustrating because the playing is outstanding. ...What I've started to realize about sunshine pop is that the name can be quite deceptive. Often times the stuff's actually pretty sad. Maybe it's just because of where I'm at right now, but today's song really got to me this morning, especially when Boettcher sings but you'll understand another time, so I guess I'll save my breath. It's the kind of line that seeps into your chest and moves up into your temples, and then you have to struggle to hold back the tears. It's such sweet pain, and I can't make up my mind right now whether to embrace it carefully or run from it as fast as I can...

Friday, November 11, 2011

go and beat your crazy head against the sky


If you pressed me on my favorite 60s pop bands, the Lovin’ Spoonful would be right up there with the Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, and Left Banke. I think it’d be fair to say that the Spoonful laid down the initial prototype for what became known as Sunshine Pop, which is self- explanatory, I think. Even the most cynical, miserable, beaten-down person in the world can’t help but smile when Do You Believe in Magic comes on the radio. It's magic if the music is groovy, it makes you feel happy like an old-time movie... The great thing about the Spoonful, though, is that they evolved, adopting a slightly more serious vibe as the 60s progressed with songs like Summer in the City and Younger Generation, but they never crossed over into rock, insisting instead on keeping the music and the arrangements pleasingly nimble. John Sebastian later became a little more pretentious and ‘heavy’ as a solo artist, but that’s what people were doing at the time, so it’s hard to fault the guy too much. I give him the benefit of the doubt if only because he was such a gifted songwriter and performer. …Tonight’s song is my favorite Spoonful song. I love the way the horns and strings build, but the climax owes more to Burt Bacharach than it does to Sgt. Pepper’s. Like I said, the Spoonful never got overly serious or self-important. But this doesn’t mean the song can be dismissed as disposable, middle-of-the-road trash. Not at all. Its tone is at once, wistful, wise, and compassionate, expressing a degree of human understanding and connectedness that’s rare in music of any kind. It’s lovely in at least a dozen different ways, and it’s just the kind of thing I need right now…



Thursday, November 10, 2011

chasing the dragon

Undiscovered pop gems are a double-edged sword for me. Few things in life give me more pleasure and satisfaction than turning someone I care about on to something they’ve never heard before, especially if they really dig it. But it’s also frustrating when it’s so clear that an artist deserves so much more than cult status amongst a small handful of maladjusted pop geeks who live for nothing so much as familiarity with things that are otherwise hopelessly esoteric and obscure. This is precisely how I feel about the late Tommy Hoehn. I love it when his great LP, Losing You to Sleep, is playing in the background and a friend says, ‘wow, who is this?’ It’s happened on more than one occasion. But then I feel sad for poor Tommy. If only things had played out a little differently, he might have received the love and respect and adulation he so richly deserved. He’s another one of those artists with whom I have to tread very carefully at the moment. He has a beautiful if also quite unusual voice, high and magnificently expressive. His songs are tuneful and hooky as can be, but the hooks convey an undeniable pathos, and when you combine them with his voice in that upper, yearning register, it leaves you with a sense of unrealized dreams and deep, painful sadness. His work is another example of beautifully tragic music, and putting this type of thing within my grasp right now – and perhaps at any time – is akin to giving a junkie a roll of tin foil, a lighter, and a two-pound bag of Persian White. Chasing after that elusive moment of transcendence is a risky proposition, one that’s bound to lead you down some dark corridors and potentially into the abyss. And yet on some level Hoehn’s music is reassuring. It’s likely to make you sad, but in doing so it confirms that you’re alive, that you’re not sleepwalking through life, and that you’re not a member of the living dead. Its music for those who are blessed with the capacity to feel, to love, to put it all on the line and maybe get hurt, yet who also know that at some point they'll draw the Ace that makes all the bets that didn’t pay off completely worthwhile. OK, with all this talk of Persian White and pulling Aces, this is starting to sound like some Garcia-Hunter dreamscape, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, just not quite the vibe I’m going for here….The Tommy Hoehn selections on Youtube are quite limited. It gets to that negative aspect of undiscovered pop gems I was just talking about. So I hope you’ll forgive me for re-posting a tune I already talked about a few months back. On the plus side, it’s a fantastic song, with its big, dramatic sound and intense emotionality. When the tambourine kicks in and Hoehn sings ‘say goodbye’, you might feel a little overwhelmed if you’re at all like me. But be brave. Collect yourself and let yourself feel. It’s life. It’s worth it…






Wednesday, November 9, 2011

pop rock

Pop will get you through the bad stuff life throws at you. For me it’s pop, and friends, and writing, and playing the guitar, and my beloved cat, Vito, who’s put up with a lot from me lately but remains just as loyal to me as he ever was. …The other day I pointed out that Substitute is a nearly flawless song, and it got me to thinking about my favorite pop songs of all time, not in a Top 100 kind of way, mind you, but more free form. That’s where my mood is taking me to now, with my net cast widely so as to catch anything that makes me feel good, and whole, and connected… A few months back, when I was in an entirely different frame of mind, I wrote a few words about Blue Ash, one of the great, unheralded bands of the 70s, but I was so wrapped up in other stuff at the time that I gave them short shrift. Like Vito, they deserve so much better. They’re a remarkable band. The sheer volume of delightfully tuneful songs they recorded - songs with incredible melodies, great guitars, soaring harmonies, and generally groovy vibes - will make your head spin. When Blue Ash are at their best, it’s obvious that they love what they do, almost as much as I love hearing it, and you just wanna make ‘em a part of your life because their songs leave you feeling so young and free and energized, even when they’re about heartbreak. And believe me when I tell you that they have a few songs, like the one I’ve posted tonight, that you need to be careful about playing if you’re not in an entirely good way. I was listening to tonight’s song on my way to work this morning, and when Jim Kendzor sings, ‘And I don’t know why, but you really sent me a-reelin’… I mean, jeez, I dunno. Lines like that may not be the best thing for me at the moment, but I can’t help myself because hearing it feels so fucking good somehow. But it hurts, too. A friend asked me last weekend if I’m in love with the pain. I’d hate to think this about myself, but maybe. Maybe there’s a masochistic side to living the pop life. Pop is intrinsically tragic, after all, though it also offers redemption and rebirth. Around Again has an unmistakably tragic vibe. There’s something about the way the piano carries the melody that really gets to me. It’s pretty subtle but, man, it has me teetering on the razor-thin line separating ecstasy and abject sorrow. It’s not an emotional space I care to dwell in for too long. It’s ok for short visits. But the song is also sung from the point of view of a guy who loves again after having been convinced he’d never be able to. I find that comforting and hopeful, even if the song’s overall ethos leaves you with the impression that, in the end, things will turn out the same way this time as they have all those times before. At least he’s capable of going around (and around) again. The accumulated disappointments never completely snuff out his capacity to love, his willingness to take a chance and to dream. That’s the part of the song I really clutch onto and savor. It brings a smile to my face at a time when the smiles aren’t coming so easily. …Blue Ash are a bit of an anomaly in that they’re a pop band, but there’s a smidge of Southern Boggie that creeps in here and there. It’s weird because they’re from Youngstown, Ohio, which I don’t think is even considered to be in the region of the state that most resembles the South. (The last few elections have imbued me with an appreciation for the ‘two Ohios’, one part of the state where the cool people live, like the guys in Blue Ash, and one part where the redneck Bible thumpers live). I mention this because I like Blue Ash least when they ‘lapse’ – for lack of a better word – into the R&B boogie thing, and I like them most when they sound like Ohio’s answer to the Beatles. Had I produced their records I would have advised them to be less Stonesy, less bloozey. Dispense with the meatheaded shit. Accentuate the pop, even if you can’t help straddling the divide between pop and rock. I guess that’s the thing. Blue Ash make pop rock, and when they lean heavily towards the former, there’s very little else that’s as lovely, affecting, and inspirational…

PS - Wouldn't you know it. The song I just rhapsodized about so passionately is not available on Youtube, and I don't possess the technical skills to figure out how to upload the song from my computer. So instead I've posted Bad Actor, another great Blue Ash gem that basically traverses the same emotional terrain as Around Again. If you're curious about Around Again, it's available on the iTunes store for less than a buck. A dollar might change your life. Do it!

Monday, November 7, 2011

the simple things you see are all complicated...

After a long period of dormancy, I've started playing the guitar again. I find it very soothing, something to help mend my broken heart. I only wish I'd develop emotional calluses as hard as those that have re-emerged on my finger tips. I mention this only because I’m currently teaching myself the main riff from Substitute, and my efforts have reawakened me to what a great song it is. I think it might be the best thing the Who ever did, next to Eminence Front... But all kidding aside, Substitute is about as close as the Who ever came to recording a flawless pop song. If the received wisdom is true and Pete Townshend was the first to coin the term power pop, then I think it's fair to say that Substitute is the prototype. The song's riff is so perfect in its simple, direct immediacy. And I like the way the main guitar in the song is acoustic, which gives things a lovely mid-60s folk rock vibe. ...I’m not usually a fan of Keith Moon’s drumming – it’s generally too frantic and wild for my taste - but the layers of percussion in Substitute, and especially the prominence of the tambourine, are wonderfully satisfying. I know it’s a song everybody’s heard like a gazillion times. But if you really listen closely, unpack the song's component parts, and then reassemble them in your mind with newfound appreciation, you can almost get back to the amazing feeling that overtook your body the very first time you heard it…

Sunday, November 6, 2011

the world's greatest rock 'n roll band...


It's a cold and wet Sunday evening here in the Southland, but I'm keeping warm with some luscious music directly from the heart of the pop life: Mark Johnson... Orange Humble Band... Utopia....Tommy Hoehn...the Rubinoos... Those who say that the Rolling Stones are the world's greatest Rock 'n Roll band have obviously never spent any quality time with the Rubinoos. I've never been able to figure out why they weren't huge. It's an injustice. If Pop Life Unlimited were in charge, the Rubinoos would be living in a mansion at the top of Mulholland, Platinum Records lining every wall, and a view out over the expansive electricity of the greatest city in the world. It's weird that they're from Berkeley. Their sound has a light finesse I don't associate with the Bay Area at all. The harmonies are so tragically pretty and affect me in the same way as the Mamas and the Papas and the Beach Boys, except that the songs have the tiniest bit more of an edge. Maybe it's that edge that kept them out of the charts, but it's what draws me in and makes me wanna hear their songs over and over again... I can't recall whether I posted The Girl earlier, but it's from Party of Two, a five-song EP produced by Todd Rundgren and with the guys from Utopia serving as session players. I especially dig the bottom end of the harmony in the chorus and the House of Mirrors-esque synth, but the best part is the pleading in Jon Rubin's voice when he sings, 'but if you knew her you'd understand...' It's great stuff, and it's a great way to get back into the swing of things. Enjoy...






Tuesday, September 13, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 139 (211)

Marshall Crenshaw was one of a handful of artists in the late 70s and early 80s who threw a monkey wrench into heavily focus grouped FM radio playlists. My station of choice at the time was WNEW FM in New York, and it was not unusual to hear a track from Steely Dan, followed by a track from Pink Floyd, followed by a track from Marshall Crenshaw, followed by a track from Led Zeppelin. It was similar to that Sesame Street song, one of these things just doesn’t belong here. …Crenshaw’s best songs have a lovely melodic feel, one part Buddy Holly, one part Beatles, and his hooks tend to stay with you for awhile. Today’s song is a perfect example of this. After playing it once this morning, I’ve been singing the refrain to myself all day long. Crenshaw never became a huge star, but he injected some freshness into an increasingly stale environment when he arrived on the scene. It’s also gratifying to see that his stature seems to have grown over the years. His talents as a songwriter and performer deserve a lot of recognition.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 138 (210)

Today's song comes from Rockpile's exquisite (and exquisitely titled) album, Seconds of Pleasure. For a long time now, the record's become one of my default options, something I reach for when I can't think of anything else I wanna hear. I'm not a big fan of Rockpile's pub rock stuff, and there's maybe one or three too many of those types of songs on Seconds of Pleasure, but the good pop songs are fantastic and always put me in a great frame of mind. Teacher Teacher, which opens the album, is one of my favorite Rockpile songs. The audio quality from the video of the clip I've posted is suboptimal, but it's not so bad that you won't be marveling at how so much warmth and pop life goodness could possibly be crammed into three minutes...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 137 (209)

I have it in mind sometime in the near future to write a series of posts on the roots of power pop, perhaps looking at 10 or 15 songs from the 60s that provided the basic blueprint. Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds are interesting to consider in that conversation because of the way they used their formative experiences in the 60s to craft a distinctly revivalist sound a decade later. They became pioneering simulators, which is something of a paradox, and because they were a bit older than a lot of their contemporaries, they were also ideally suited to resuscitate the three-minute pop song in the wake of the era of rock. I found some great 1978 footage of Rockpile for tonight's song. Lowe and Edmunds are in peak form and you really get a flavor for how refreshing and exciting their stuff felt and sounded at the time. Enjoy it, and enjoy your Saturday...



Friday, September 9, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 136 (208)

Clovis Roblaine is yet another pop lifer from Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plane. Roblaine's stuff is a bit quirky for my taste, but his love for pop definitely comes across with his tuneful, catchy songs and the attention he pays to succinct songcraft. The Clovis Roblaine Story is definitely worth adding to you collection. It's not a record I'll ever fall in love with, but I marvel at the guy's talent and wonder why he's remained such a marginal figure. Seems to me there should be a huge market for this stuff, but then again I've never been a good evaluator of what is and isn't salable in music. Suffice it to say that if the world conformed to my marketing instincts, Clovis Roblaine would be an international pop icon...


Thursday, September 8, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 135 (207)

I need a little break today from Deep Thoughts, so I thought I’d post a fun song from Holly and the Italians. Power pop is dominated by men, though the frequent appearance of guys with androgynous singing voices complicates the picture a bit. But as is the case with Glam, androgyny in power pop tends to have the paradoxical effect of bolstering the masculinity of the music as opposed to weakening it. The best example I can think of off the top of my head is Nick Gilder, who sounds like a girl in every respect except that the words he sings in that high register of his are frequently drenched in lascivious male sexuality…And here I was thinking I could avoid Deep Thoughts for a day. Back to Holly and the Italians. It’s a nice change of pace when the singer is female and the song addresses boy-girl dynamics from the girl’s perspective. Holly Beth Vincent sounds like a tough cookie in tonight’s song with a style that’s in the same vein as the Runaways and Debbie Harry. I dig her rough and ready spirit, and the song is nice ‘n catchy…


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 134 (206)

The Wondermints are utterly derivative, but they’re so good at what they do that it doesn’t matter. They take their deep love and knowledge of every little Beach Boys nuance – from the primitively recorded early surf tunes to that last gasp of greatness during the mid 70s – and add a bit of contemporary sheen in an effort to make the music more accessible to a younger generation of listeners while also appealing to guys like me who worship at the altar of Brian Wilson. It’s a neat trick, and it works. I’ve said this on numerous occasions already but the thing with copy cat music of this sort is that, as long as it’s really good, and as long as it feeds my insatiable pop jones, even if only for one day, then the fact that I’ve heard it all before doesn’t bother me one bit. Some listeners yearn for originality, for uniqueness, and for continual dosages of the new. And it’s admirable to want this. I don’t wanna be dismissive of it because it’s indicative of an open mind and of adventurousness. But it’s also not particularly realistic any longer, at least not where pop is concerned. There’s nothing left to do that hasn’t been done. The best we can hope for now is short bursts of all-too-familiar pleasure. This will only change when pop as we know it is finally abandoned as an artistic category people care about, and though it may sound a little conservative to say this, I kinda hope we never get to that point…

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 133 (205)

Although Brad Jones is known mostly as a producer and engineer, his Gilt Flake is not to be missed. The album, recommended to me by a friend here in LA, is a stylistically varied, under-the-radar pop feast from the mid 90s, and I’m very impressed with its sound and vibe. The unpredictable melodies are very much in the spirit of the British Invasion, with great guitars, plenty of tambourine, and lovely harmonies, yet the song structures are also unpredictable and keep you on your toes. The uniqueness of Jones’ high singing voice also adds a welcome element of surprise. The thing I’ve come to realize with this power pop addiction of mine is that after you’ve peeled away the more obvious outside layers – the Cars, the Knack, the Raspberries, Dwight Twilley, Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, etc. – and once you start to go deep, you discover that there’s a seemingly inexhaustible supply of music available to you. Gilt Flake is yet another brilliant vista point along the path of infinite pop, and Brad Jones is another pop lifer whose songs leave you with nothing so much as the desire to hear more…


Monday, September 5, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 132 (204)

The Posies have their moments even if they occasionally absorb the grungy tenor of their hometown. Today's song is a perfect example. I love the fulsome guitars, the harmonies, and the underlying melody, but its sound also has a weighted-down and resigned quality that I find a little off putting. It's definitely not a song I need to hear more than once every six months or so at most. A lot of music from the 90s has that same feel of resignation. Maybe it comes from a growing and generalized recognition of the exhaustion of the possibility of innovation. The era of simulation had already been in full swing for several decades, but for a time simulation itself could paradoxically be packaged and presented as something unique and different. Trying to sound like the Beatles - call it Beatles Revivalism or British Invasion Revivalism - was something new in the early 70s. But trying to sound like the Beatles 25 years later is another thing altogether, a rehashing of a rehashing of Beatles revivalism. So maybe the feel of resignation in some of the music is really an expression of artistic frustration with not being able to do something that hasn't already been heard over and over again. All of this is a long winded way of saying that I like today's song even though it seems to express a certain exhaustion and unfulfillment...


Sunday, September 4, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 131 (203)

I've never been a huge Plimsouls fan. Peter Case's tortured rock star voice sounds a little too 'authentic' for my taste. But the band had a few nice moments, and their guitars have always been front and center, so I don't wanna completely overlook them, especially in light of yesterday's post on the Nerves. Today's song is about the break up of the Nerves, from Case's perspective, and the Jack in question here is Jack Lee, whom I guess had some emotional problems in the aftermath of the band dissolving. "Since the Nerves broke up all he does is brood." OK, well for some people that first band, like that first love, holds a deeply primal and formative place in the psyche. Jack Lee actually has a very difficult-to-find 1985 solo album I'd like to get my hands on at some point, though obtaining it for less than a small fortune seems only a remote possibility. In any case (no pun intended), here's one from the Plimsouls that I like to hear every now and then...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 130 (202)

The Nerves are another band that emerged out of the fertile LA pop scene as it began to take shape in the mid 70s as a reaction against the FM radio rock monolith. They're significant not only for their seminal influence but also for the way all three members went on to do good things after the band dissolved (the Breakaways, the Beat, the Plimsouls). The songs on their one and only eponymous EP, released on Greg Shaw's Bomp Records in 1976, are somewhat poorly recorded, but charmingly so, with a satisfying anti-corporate DIY spirit. I don't mind lo-fi recordings when the lo-fi-ness comes out of necessity as opposed to being a pretentious affect or the result of laziness... The Nerves will always be best known for having written and recorded the first version of Hangin' on the Telephone, which later became a hit for Blondie, but I'd have to say that tonight's selection is my favorite song they did. I dig the way it effortlessly throws one hook on top of another. For some reason, whenever I hear it I think it sounds like something on Van Morrison's Moondance or Tupelo Honey. But that's just me. Mostly, though, I just groove on its bouncy, stripped-down tunefulness. It's the sound of a band trying to change the rules of the game...

Friday, September 2, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 129 (201)

Dwight Twilley is my muse. There’s a documentary about him coming out soon and I can’t wait to see it. To the extent that he’s known at all outside his relatively small but feverishly devoted following, it’s for his first three albums, Sincerely, Twilley Don’t Mind, and Twilley. But his later records, including 47 Moons, should not be overlooked. Tonight’s song, the title track from 47 Moons, is somewhat atypical in that Twilley is a consummate master of pop, yet here he does the ultimate anti-pop thing and lets the song stretch out for almost seven minutes. There’s almost no pop song that needs to go on for that long. Under three minutes is ideal, and I might tolerate four minutes or so if the song really knocks me out. But when you start getting into five, six and seven-minute songs, then we’re no longer really talking about pop, at least not in the sense that I think of it. But I make an exception for 47 Moons. The song feels like Twilley’s attempt to do something akin to Strawberry Fields Forever, and the added length might be a function of the helplessness he expresses in the face of the passage of time, almost as if he’s trying with his music to slow life down. ‘Jupiter has 47 moons, we only have one.’ This is just my interpretation and I might be way off. But the song is pretty damn emotional either way. You have to be in the right mood to really appreciate it. Then again, I’m pretty much always in the right mood for Dwight Twilley, even when his songs go on for longer than they probably should…


Thursday, September 1, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 128 (200)

You may remember the Rembrandts as a throwaway band that scored a low-level hit when their song Rollin’ Down the Hill was featured in the highly cerebral Jim Carrey vehicle, Dumb and Dumber. But I associate them with exceedingly strange harmonies. If you listen to tonight’s song with a headset and pay close attention, you’ll ask yourself how the hell they came up with such a whacky blend of voices. It’s not weird all the way through, but at certain points those harmonies really take you by surprise. I’ve always thought the Everly Brothers had the most unusual harmonies I’ve ever heard, but the Rembrandts give them a run for their money, at least in Rollin’ Down the Hill. The song is otherwise very pleasing, breezy, and easygoing, perfect for a leisurely Sunday drive with the top down, the ocean to one side, and the mountains to the other. The music’s warm and gentle vibes are enough to put you in a lovely meditative trance...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 127 (199)

If I'm given a choice between punk and New Wave, I'll take New Wave every time. But how about bands like the Buzzcocks, and the Only Ones, and the Undertones, who straddle the divide and then throw in a bunch of addictive poppy hooks to rein in the alienation just a bit? Canada's Diodes were one of the best of these hybrid outfits. You can find their songs on both punk and power pop compilations. It might be that their split personality, which defied easy categorization, was the reason they remained so obscure. They remind me of another very good and somewhat obscure Canadian band, the Barracudas, who were one part punk, one part pop, at home in neither camp, and so a stranger in both. Music that’s difficult to label might be more interesting than easily identifiable product, but it also makes the stuff much more difficult to mass market. Too bad for the Diodes. I like their sound a lot, even if it's punky 'tude takes things a bit outside my normal crotchety comfort zone. Tired of Waking Up Tired has enough ennui to keep your mohawk as sharp as nails, but it's also tight, melodic, and devilishly catchy. And the thing is, who isn't tired of waking up tired? The song's sentiment gets at a universal problem in the modern world...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 126 (198)






First off, I want to thank my amazingly talented sister for the new look and feel of this blog. I gave her a couple of loosely formulated ideas, an she just grasped my vision intuitively. Thanks, Molly. You're the best...


I don’t know much about Fotomaker, except that they came out of Long Island and featured two members of the Rascals as well as Wally Bryson, the guitarist for the Raspberries. Their sound, which is definitely in the same orbit with the Raspberries and Artful Dodger, is pleasing if not particularly earth shattering. Sometimes power pop affects me profoundly. Dwight Twilley, Dom Mariani, the Rubinoos, Todd Rundgren, 20/20…They’ve all had a deep impact on my consciousness. But other artists just provide momentary pleasure, and then you move on, and that’s ok. Fotomaker are one of those bands for me, along with the Raspberries, Pezband, Cheap Trick, and the Romantics, just to name a few. None of them offer anything too spectacular, in my opinion, but they pop up on my iPod every so often and bring a little added sunshine to my day. It’s not a bad thing at all.




Monday, August 29, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 125 (197)


The Rubinoos embody that pop life vibe I love so much. In their heyday during the late 70s and early 80s, they were a fresh faced, wholesome looking bunch who seemed like the kind of band that’d play your high school dance. I’m thinking of the one where I wanted nothing more than to dance with a cute girl from my English class, not because I liked dancing but rather because I liked her - a lot - and I spent the entire evening getting up the nerve to ask. When the moment of truth finally arrived, I tapped her on the shoulder. She knew my name, which took me by surprise and gave me some added confidence. I fumbled a little with my words and I was glad it was dark in the gymnasium, enough to camouflage the beet redness consuming my face. My body felt warm with nervous excitement and a bead of sweat dripped down my back. See what guys go through? But I gotta admit that I felt pretty damn good about myself when she nodded and I got to dance with her, and I felt even better about myself when she kissed me on the cheek afterwards. The smile she flashed at me lit my world up like a brilliant sunrise. It’s a shame that feeling can’t be bottled and sold. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. Someone needs to figure out a way to freeze those perfect moments in time. There’s so much anguish and insecurity during teendom, it’s easy to forget that there’s some moments of blissed-out ecstasy scattered in there as well. The Rubinoos remind me of the bliss. They inject a great punchy energy into their songs, youthful and upbeat, even when they’re singing songs like It Hurts Too Much. The music has a bit of an edge without ever getting too hard. The guitars are crunchy and the drums are prominent in the mix, but the overall thrust of things remains endlessly tuneful and poppy. And their yearning harmonies are just right. They strike a perfect balance, creating archetypal power pop that flirted with the charts a few times but sadly never really broke through in a big way. They eventually got around to recording a patchy album with Todd Rundgren and Utopia, scored a minor hit with the theme song to Revenge of the Nerds, and even have a collection of songs for kids that’s supposed to be a lot of fun. But it just seems to me that they should’ve been so much more than a cult favorite amongst obsessive pop geeks. If I could figure out a way to bottle that amazing feeling from the high school dance, I think the Rubinoos would become the Platinum selling band I know they could have been…

Sunday, August 28, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 124 (196)

The first few Undertones singles were so great. They never really got the credit they deserved, at least not in the U.S., for their excellent brand of punk infused power pop. If you're like me and bands like the Scruffs, the Only Ones, and the Buzzcocks are about as punky as you like your punk (not terribly punky in other words), then you'll love the Undertones. The first time I heard Teenage Kicks back in the day, I remember feeling like, 'yes, this is for me, this is what I need, this is how I want my music to sound.' It's one of those songs where the only thing you wanna do when it ends is hear it again. It's so simple, and it's tuneful as hell, yet it also packs enough of a punch without ever rocking harder than it needs to. I've come to appreciate how rare it is for a band to achieve that balance, where the music is just on the threshold but manages to resist the temptation to flex too much muscle. The Undertones' restraint, which is a kind of insistence on keeping things poppy, pays huge dividends. And what I hear more than anything over the two minutes or so of tonight's song is a group of guys who love what they're doing. I think it's the hand claps that give it away. Their joyfulness is infectious...










Saturday, August 27, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 123 (195)

With Cheap Trick you've gotta take the bad with the good. The bad, in my opinion, is that they've always been kind of a bar band with arena rock aspirations, which often results in music that's a bit too meat headed for my genteel sensibilities. They are widely viewed as one of the great American power pop bands, but even on their first few albums the material already crosses over from pop into rock with the subtlety of a jackhammer. Also, the lyrics to a handful of songs from their classic period - tunes like Elo Kiddies and Taxman Mr. Thief, for example - reveal a shallowness of spirit that I find to be a distasteful harbinger of the Reagan era's ethos of greed and narrowly defined self-interest. There's no question in my mind that Cheap Trick were mostly in it for the money, and while there's nothing wrong with that, why not just go work at a bank if your motivation is 90 percent mercenary? On the good side, even when the songs are more hard rocking than what I would prefer, there's no denying Cheap Trick's excellent feel for melodies and hooks. And while it's fairly obvious that they yearn above all else to be well heeled rock stars, there is a power pop band hidden beneath the bloat and unseemly ambition. Another thing is that drummer Bun E. Carlos strikes me as one of the most iconic figures in rock 'n roll. In fact, the juxtaposition between the two dream boats in the band and the two guys who look like they'd be more at home doing your taxes is pretty damn hilarious...


Friday, August 26, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 122 (194)

I don't know much about Chicago's Pezband at this point other than that they had a cool look, sounded like a cross between the Raspberries and the Pop, and don't have any albums available anymore unless you're willing to go the Japanese import route and shell out $100 or so. I've always heard good things about these guys, but limited access to their music has made it hard for me to get a sense of what they're all about. If I were the type of guy who steals music - and I'm not, just in case the FBI is monitoring my seditious musings on power pop - I would download their whole catalogue in a matter of minutes and be able to offer a more interesting post for today. For now, though, here's a groovy sounding Pezband track I found on youtube. It's the best I can do at the moment...


Thursday, August 25, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 121 (193)

This will sound like pop life sacrilege, but I think the Raspberries are kind of overrated. There’s a reason it’s taken me 121 posts to get to what is widely regarded as the ultimate power pop band. I appreciate the prototype they created, all the more so since they did it in the age of bloated arena rock, and they definitely have a handful of terrific songs - catchy, loaded with great sounding guitars, and radiating good time vibes - but I honestly don’t think they’re that great. They're good, sometimes quite good, but never great. And tonight’s clip of them 'performing' one of their best songs shows that they’re pretty bad at synching. There’s not even a fleeting attempt to make things look authentic. But still, if you’re gonna talk power pop, the Raspberries eventually need to be inserted into the conversation, so enjoy it and don’t let my occasional need to be contrary sway your opinion one way or the other…

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 120 (192)

Artists like Peter Hammill, David Bowie and Robert Fripp blazed a trail from progressive rock to New Wave starting in the mid 70s, but none of their efforts were ever as pop oriented as the fusion Todd Rundgren forged with Utopia. I have very little patience for progressive rock these days, but with Utopia I make an exception. Adventures in Utopia is a fascinating transitional album that’s intricate and technically sophisticated, but also tuneful and hooky at the same time. Parts of the album are a bit more crowded with effects than what I usually go for, and the sound is undeniably heavy and heady, but there’s about three or four songs I can’t resist. When Rundgren focuses on making music and concise songs, as opposed to making a fetish of twiddling nobs and creating sounds, there’s really nobody I’d rather hear. And his singing and guitar playing on Adventures in Utopia are in peak form. …Check out the excellent footage I found of the band playing one of their greatest songs on the Mike Douglas show. For all the moaning and whining I do about how everything was so much better before the digital age, I gotta admit that youtube is just the best. Utopia actually look like they’re totally prepared for the digital age in this one. The guitar and drum kit alone are worth the price of admission...



Tuesday, August 23, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 119 (191)

Todd Rundgren’s creative restlessness can be quite maddening. Maybe it’s narrow mindedness on my part, but I really wish he had spent his entire career honing his pop chops instead of spending so much time in tedious stretches of experimentation. I don’t care for experimentation as an end in itself, which in my book = self-indulgence, a sin Rundgren has certainly been guilty of periodically over the course of a career that’s spanned more than four decades at this point. On the other hand, maybe his flights of fancy have helped re-focus him in some way so that when he’s returned to what he does best, making tight and immediately impactful pop songs, he’s come back fresher and more into what he’s doing. But this is all pure speculation. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about the man and he still remains a mystery to me. The image that's formed in my imagination is of a mercurial enigma, though his opacity is admittedly part of his appeal. And in spite of the flaws that mark significant portions of his body of work, you have to admire his relentless commitment to his work and his apparent indifference to commercial success, especially since, as Something/Anything seems to show, he could, if he chose to, churn out commercial hits in his sleep. Yet, Something/Anything is far from a perfect album. It’s kind of too bad that it’s a double LP because the filler – or what I regard to be the filler anyway – diminishes the album’s half dozen or so gems. They get lost in traffic. I’ve alluded to this before, but double albums are almost never a good idea, particularly if they’re studio albums. I can’t really think of one double album that wouldn’t have been better if it’d been reduced down to two sides, including the White Album, Exile On Main Street, Freak Out, Zen Arcade, and Double Nickels on the Dime. Maybe if windy concept albums with lots of instrumental noodling are your thing – Progressive Rock, in other words – you can make a case for the double album as an art form. But if you’re like me with my short attention span, my need for instant gratification, and my spare personal aesthetic, then you start to get sleepy at the very thought of sitting through an hour or more of music where the good songs come only intermittently. Something/Anything should have been pared down to two sides. Imagine a record clocking in at 30 minutes, maybe even less, where every song is as good, or almost as good, as the one I’ve posted for you this evening…

Monday, August 22, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 118 (190)


The Nazz, Todd Rundgren's first proving ground, played an early variant of power pop over the course of three albums that, while patchy and uneven, each have moments of crackling electricity. Tonight’s song, from Nazz Nazz, is a hot mess of church bells, gun-fire drums, trippy psychedelic flourishes, and disorienting time signature chicanery. But there’s also a highly melodic pop song lurking beneath the the song's harsh atmosphere of white noise and weirdness. It’s a little more involved and produced than I tend to like my pop, but its deceptively tuneful, and its overall vibe, which is somehow tight as a drum and slovenly at the same time, keeps me coming back for second and third helpings. Even at the dawn of his career, Rundgren was already making records that get to your head as much as they do your heart, often times without even seeming to try very hard…

Thursday, August 18, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 117 (189)

We will be out of commish for the next few days, but not before leaving you with a serious slice of early 70s Midwestern power pop. Blue Ash are somewhat unique in that their British Invasion template is often tempered by a hint of boogie, which is not typically a style associated with pop's lighter touch. I think it’d be fair to say that they owe as much to the Rolling Stones as they do to the Beatles. I haven’t really thought about the Stones for a long time and haven’t had a hankering for anything Stonesy in I dunno how long, the one exception being Blue Ash, whose pleasing melodies stick inside your consciousness no matter where your mood’s at. Enjoy it, and enjoy the weekend!




Wednesday, August 17, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 116 (188)


Emitt Rhodes yesterday, Badfinger today. This must be the week of damaged lives and the first wave of Beatles simulacra. Badfinger were the first of the bands trying to sound like a band trying to sound like the Beatles, if that makes sense. The Byrds were obviously influenced by the Beatles on their first few albums, but they took the Beatles’ sound and made it their own by injecting folk into the mix, whereas with Badfinger (and with Emitt Rhodes as well, I suppose), the relationship to the Beatles was more purely mimetic. They took a lot of shit for this. My cursory survey of reviews archived on the internet revealed that critics tended to find the blatant imitation to be grating. Robert Christgau, for example, in his Consumer Guides review of Badfinger’s Straight Up, wrote that he was “forced to wonder whether [he] wouldn't like this record if it were by the Beatles. But without mentioning what the question says about the group, which is called Badfinger, the answer is that the Beatles couldn't have made this record. Except for ‘Day After Day’ and ‘Perfection,’ not one of these unabashedly tuneful tunes has any magic to it, which isn't simply a matter of cautious tempos and harmonies--it's a matter of magic.” My sense is that critics had yet to come to terms with the postmodern condition as the age of aesthetic simulation. And, to be fair, it would have been difficult to do so at that time as postmodernity was only beginning to assert itself unevenly in the culture at large. Things are very different today. It has long been the case now that it’s virtually impossible to talk about music, literature, fine art, cinema, etc. without reference to what/who it sounds, reads or looks like. So then the question becomes, if all art is now necessarily derivative and always already engaged in a chain of reference, is any of it any good? That’s a little heavier than what I feel capable of at the moment, so let’s bring it down a few notches: Are Badfinger any good? Do they fill you with inspiration and creative energy, or do they merely engender a kind of depressed fatigue in marking the start of a prolonged age of cultural exhaustion? In other words, how do you feel when you come to the realization that there’s no longer anything new under the sun?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 115 (187)

I must confess that I'm not a huge Emitt Rhodes acolyte, but there's a handful of his songs that put me in an intensely reflective mood, not necessarily in a bad way, though there's an undeniable undercurrent of tragedy in much of Rhodes' music. I think tonight's selection is the best song he ever did. It puts his gift for communicating sadness and loss on full display and is deceptively affecting at under three minutes long. The problem for me is that I really don't wish to be this sad any more than I have to, so that whenever the song pops up on my iPod I have to decide whether or not I'm really in the mood to go down its dark and lonely passage. In fact, the entire trajectory of the Emitt Rhodes story is quite frankly just too depressing for me. I recently viewed an Italian documentary about him and had trouble sitting through the whole thing, kind of in the same way I had trouble sitting through Mayor of the Sunset Strip, the documentary about Rodney Bingenheimer. There’s no question of Rhodes’ talent. His self-titled first solo album after his stint as the leader of the Merry-Go-Round was released more or less contemporaneously with, and compared favorably to Paul McCartney’s first solo album in 1970. But there's so many times when talent alone doesn’t cut it. Lots of other factors enter into the equation: Dumb luck, personal charisma, record company backing, and the emotional resilience the artist does or doesn't posseses in dealing with the ups and downs of the star making machine. What I took away from the documentary was that the lack of this resilience in the face of the machine destroyed Rhodes, turning him into a maladjusted man child. Think Brian Wilson only with no chart success to buoy him even just a little bit. Throw in an indifferent record company and you’ve got a perfect storm for a shattered pop life. There may be days now and again when I’m feeling ghoulish and the arc of the Rhodes narrative will hold some appeal for me. It speaks to that part of me that digs Sunset Boulevard, The Last Tycoon, and even Helter Skelter. But usually the thought of Rhodes makes me sad in a way I don’t want to be if I can avoid it. I hope that doesn’t make me sound callous. I recognize his magnificent talent, but the whole package – the feelings stirred up by his music, and knowing the way his life turned out – I find it all too difficult to enjoy in anything other than small and infrequent dosages…