Thursday, July 28, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 99 (171)

It’s true that the Lemonheads were, in essence, a Husker Du/Soul Asylum/Squirrel Bait cover band, and it’s true that they were annoying pretty boys from Beantown, one of my least favorite places on the planet, but they had something goin’ on for a few years in the late 80s. Their sound – the sound shared by all those bands I mentioned – was a power pop variant that’s hard to categorize. It’s not hard pop because it’s too punky, and it’s not hard rock because it’s too poppy, and it’s not straight hardcore because they’re too pretty and the music is too tuneful, and it’s not power pop in the usual sense of the term because it’s a bit too dissonant. So what do you call tuneful, melodic, romantic, poppy hardcore punk? …How about popcore? I like it. One of the unfortunate things about popcore is that so much of it was recorded so badly. I can’t listen to Husker Du much anymore because I feel like I’m listening to a transistor radio that’s been smothered under a pillow. It seemed cool at the time, that muffled DIY lo-fi thing that gave the music an underground, non-corporate feel, but 25 years later I’d have to say that a lot of records recorded in the 60s and 70s have stood the test of time better. I don’t like feeling like I have to trudge through poor recording techniques in order to get to the tunes and melodies. But if the popcore sound hasn’t aged as well as some of the other stuff I’ve posted here, it still takes me back to the subjective experience of being 20 years old, and that’s an ok head space to get into for short bursts of time here and there…

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 97 (169)

A little while back, I observed that Todd Rundgren might be the closest thing America has to David Bowie. Now it’s time for an equally inexact and pointless comparison: Julian Cope is the closest thing England has to Todd Rundgren. Both cut their teeth in semi-psychedelic pop bands that became cult favorites if not chart toppers, and then both went on to pursue solo careers marked by creative restlessness as an end in itself, lurching from pop to progressive rock to the utterly undefinable, and then back again. And yet, in both cases – and perhaps with Bowie as well, though less so – a small semblance of a core identity has remained intact through all the shape shifting. …Being a fan of Julian Cope takes work. His avowed love of psychedelia and progressive rock, particularly Krautrock, has imbued him with a taste for wild experimentation and a degree of artistic indulgence that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But if you wade through Cope’s entire body of work from the Teardrop Explodes onward, I reckon you can put together 90 minutes of highly engrossing music. You can’t say this about too many artists, and while I’m less interested in being engrossed these days than I am in experiencing immediate pleasure, Cope is, at his best, both heady and pleasing. …Tonight’s song isn’t power pop, but it is pop with a melody line that’s no less satisfying for being so simple, with a few curves thrown in to keep the listener from slipping into total passivity – check out the oboe, the psychedelic flanging effects, and Cope’s trademark nonsensical/acidic lyrics. I’ve always loved the Englishness of his singing voice as well. …In an era of simulation, Cope's work is at once heavily referential and completely unique sounding. It’s a strange and contradictory balance that comes out of his daring approach to making music. He’s not afraid to fall on his face, but when he stays at least somewhat focused and uses his great instincts and massive storehouse of musical knowledge coherently, what results is an elegant chaos that more than makes up for those times when he misses the mark…

PS - Add J.C. to the list pantheon of those who harmonize with themselves!

Monday, July 25, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 96 (168)

Like Kiss, the Sweet are hard but not heavy, crunchy but also tuneful and poppy. Their music is too big and loud, and their image and stage presence are too much of a spectacle, for them to be a power pop band. I guess the category should be something like hard pop, though there’s obviously a very fine and line separating hard pop from power pop, and there’s another fine one separating hard pop from hard rock, yet somehow the distinction between hard rock and power pop is pretty easy to make. When I was a kid, hard pop – everything from Alice Cooper to BTO to Foreigner - would get played on AM radio, whereas hard rock, with some exceptions, like Queen, was strictly the stuff of FM. It’s tempting to conclude that it’s not power pop if it received AM radio play, but then there’s songs like Todd Rundgren’s I Saw the Light and Badfinger’s Come and Get It, both of which are at least nominally power pop but also practically qualify as AM Gold. Maybe they’re the rare exceptions that prove the rule. Does anybody really care? …At the peak of my radio listening days, when I crossed over and back again easily between AM and FM, I loved Fox on the Run, and I seem to remember hearing it on both dials. I was developing an ear for music that was both hard and tuneful. In fact, listening to the Fox on the Run now I realize that the basic building blocks for my adult taste were already in place when I was seven years old, and although there have been some diversions and explorations along the way, including a good chunk of time in hescher land, my basic preferences haven’t really changed in 35 years. Now as then, I still close my eyes, tilt my face to the sky, and smile ecstatically when Brian Connolly sings the line, fox is on the run at the end of the chorus. But what puts the song over the top for me is the intricacy of the high harmonies. Intricate might not even be the right word for what’s going on. The harmonies are just plain weird, sounding like something you’d hear in an old horror flick. Campy is the word I’m looking for, I think. The Sweet actually made fairly common use of those campy harmonies in songs like Little Willy, Wig Wam Bam, Ballroom Blitz and Teenage Rampage. And, along with the melodies and compactness of the songs, it’s the peculiar harmonies that give the music a playfully childlike quality and keep the Sweet from slipping downward into hard rock...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 94 (166)

The genius of Kiss is to have gotten eight-year-olds to hum songs about blow jobs as if they were as benign as London Bridges Falling Down. By my count there are at least five songs from the band’s Golden Age that use some form of the phrase ‘get on your knees’ (e.g. gets on her knees, got on her knees, goin’ down on her knees…). I also only realized much later on the real meaning of Gene’s tongue wagging. For a not insignificant stretch of time in my life, probably from about age 8 to 15, it was virtually impossible to snap a photo of me without me rockin’ a Gene Simmons pussy lickin’ tongue. I recently looked at photos taken of me 30 years ago at my Bar Mitzvah and my tongue is a-waggin’ on every last one of ‘em, almost as if it was some kind of nervous tic. My father looked at the pictures with me and said that he blames "all of that on the Kiss.” He’s cute that way, and he’s absolutely right. Gene Simmons introduced oral sex to America's very young and packaged it, along with Paul Stanley, in songs that seem now like they were specifically designed to stick in our minds with the power of Gorilla Glue. I can still sing every note of every song. Tonight’s song offers perhaps the strongest instance of the recurrent on-your-knees theme: So if you please, get on your knees / There are no bills, there are no fees / Baby I know what your problem is / The first step of the cure is…a KISS! Can there be any doubt but that the Gene's dick is shaped like a dollar sign? And it’s great pop, too, big and hard. Gene wouldn’t dream of giving it to you any other way…

Friday, July 22, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 93 (165)

Robert Christgau gets things just right, as is so often the case, when he points out that Kiss are hard but not heavy. Most of the time - and I'm only talking about the classic period here, nothing after Kiss Alive II - Kiss are a hard rock group playing pop songs. So they should be the ultimate power pop band, yet somehow they don't fit in with the milieu no matter how broadly it's defined. I can't really put my finger on why. Maybe it's that their sound is so big, all the better to fill arenas with, and/or that their guiding ethos is unambiguously the profit motive. Or maybe it's the clown makeup and the spectacle of it all. I don't know. But whatever this amorphous concept of the pop life may refer to, it's clear that Gene and Paul are the opposite of it. This doesn't mean, though, that they haven't written their share of ridiculously catchy, if also shrewdly manipulative songs. I don't mind being taken for a ride with Kiss because a big part of their appeal is the way they revel in their own slime. But they're also capable of transcendent moments, tonight's song being Exhibit A. Everything about it is fantastic. I'd venture to say that it's a perfect pop song, except that it's hard rock, but not really, so somewhere in between maybe, but then again... Check out Ace's guitar playing throughout, both acoustic, which is used as a second rhythm guitar, and his lead, which jumps right out of the speakers and grabs you by the nads, or the cloest equivalent if you haven't got any. But the best part is saved for the 25-second fade out, an orgy of guitars, high harmonies and hard rockin' fever. It's inspired stuff and makes me think these guys might have a bit of the pop life in 'em after all...

Monday, July 18, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 89 (161)

The only real quibble I have with John M. Borack’s book on power pop is that it’s based on albums – the 200 greatest power pop albums of all time - as opposed to songs. The album as a stylistically and conceptually coherent musical document is an artifact of the era of rock. Power pop represents an attempt to shed the heaviness and artistic pretension that increasingly engulfed rock as the 60s started to go bad. One upshot of this is that songs reemerged as the main vehicle of artistic expression. All of which is to say that I think the top 200 power pop songs would have been more appropriate to the art form. …And yet, there's Chris Von Sneidern’s Big White Lies (1994), which I heard for the first time last week, another spectacular find courtesy of Borack, who places it as high as #6 on his all-time list. I’m still processing my feelings and responses after a weekend of listening to the album incessantly, but right now I think I can safely say that it’s one of the most amazing pop *albums* I’ve ever heard. And I want to underscore my feeling that it works as an album. Von Sneidern (whose real name I fear might be Chris Schneider) has a masterful grasp of songcraft, so much so that the dizzying wealth of material on Big White Lies is enough to constitute nothing short of an entire album of gems. If there’s any criticism I have of Big White Lies, it’s that the album doesn’t give you any time to catch your breath. It's too good, if that's possible. It reminds me of the way Vito, my beloved cat, bites me if he gets overstimulated, like if I rub his belly for a long time. He gets to the point where it's more pleasure than he can take. And so it is for me in hearing Big White Lies. Sometimes you want a little filler here and there so you can fully absorb the gems. Even Revolver and Pet Sounds provide a little downtime with some filler. ...My thinking with pop these days is that I’ve gotten my $10 worth if there’s one good song on any album/collection I download. A good song is worth $10 to me. Big White Lies is a collection of 11 great songs. Thankfully, there’s no conceptual connection between the songs, at least from what I can tell, because that would be taking this regression back to the album a little too far. One of my cardinal rules of pop: Just say no to concept albums unless, as is the case with Big White Lies, the unifying concept is simply the empyrean beauty of immaculate pop purity. The album overflows with the goodness of the pop life:

*McCartney-esque melodies - check;
*celestial West Coast harmonies - check;
*devastatingly addictive hooks - check;
*guitars, guitars, everywhere guitars - check;
*romance, heartbreak, and unrequited love as recurrent themes throughout, but always with just enough sweetness and hope to give you reason to believe - check.

...I don’t say this kind of thing very often, but Big White Lies will blow your fucking mind. My mind has been blown now and again in my life, but it hadn’t been for quite some time, until I listened to Chris Von Sneidern for the first time last week. And after all the pop I’ve heard over the last 35 years or so, it’s gratifying to find that there’s still stuff out there that can affect me so dramatically. Music of such effortless power and vitality doesn't come along every day and deserves to be revered as the rare and wondrous gift that it is...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 87 (159)

If you lived in LA and tuned into FM radio on any given day in the mid 70s, chances are you'd be treated to Steely Dan, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac... There's a lot to admire about this milieu, and I appreciate how deeply imprinted these artists are on the psyche of this city, but the truth is that they collectively constituted the rear guard of pop. The advanced guard was happening at KROQ-FM, an oasis in the hescher desert, and the Pop is one of the great if little known bands the station played while Hotel California and Aja chimed incessantly from the more mainstream stations. The Pop's music is fueled by a very different spirit and a different way of experiencing Los Angeles, one that's more youthful, more energetic, and not so drearily burned out. Don't get me wrong though. There's definitely room in my life for some good LA-style post-60s malaise. Nothing wrong with a little navel gazing and self-involvement. But a lot of those titans of the FM dial just sound so heavy to me these days, not in the sense of the music being hard and loud, but more in the sense of the music having a vibe I can only describe as dispirited, traumatized and fatigued. By comparison, Down on the Boulevard sounds as if it comes from a completely different world, one that's punchy and crackling with creative excitement. The band sounds like they're having fun, as trite as that may be to say. I'm a huge fan of Jackson Browne, but let's be honest, he rarely sounds like he's having a very good time. He's too haunted by the death of the hippie dream to think about injecting pleasure back into the process of making music. Sometimes I hear his stuff and I wish he'd just snap out of it already. Yeah, it's a bummer that it all didn't work out the way you and your cohorts might have hoped, but it's over now, it's not coming back, and you're filthy rich to boot, so quit whining and let's get back to the serious business of fresh faced music, tight and concise, endlessly melodic, and fully given over to the hooky goodness of the pop life...

Friday, July 15, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 86 (158)

There's a woman I know who's learning that forever is such a long, long time. When you live the pop life, you know this implicitly. ...Artful Dodger was a Roman candle of power pop, lighting up the sky with bursts of brilliance for a few short years, and then fading into the darkness of night just as they released their best album, Rave On (1980). What a shame they never made the big time. If you dig husky vocals in the spirit of Rod Stewart, and if you're fully committed to living the pop life, then Artful Dodger is the just the thing for you. Unfortunately, Rave On is just about impossible to find. I don't know what's wrong with people. Don't they know that there's at least a half dozen of us out here that need this shit on a daily basis, and that we'll die in a pool of our own withdrawal vomit if we don't get it? Where's the compassion? ...I had a vinyl copy of Rave On back in the day, but I sold my record collection last year in a concession to the digital age, one of many. I should've had more appreciation for the precious jewels in my possession. They're gone forever, and they're never coming back. Forever is such a long, long time. ...Tonight's song is a ballad of the Bic lighter variety. Don't let the grainy, unsynchronized video get in the way of your listening pleasure. This stuff is pure magnificence. It'll make you feel sad and wistful, pensive and philosophical, but it'll do these things in a good way, in the way that only a great song can, and I feel pretty confident in saying that when it's over you'll be wanting to hear it again...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 85 (157)

When it comes to the Holy Trinity of British punk - The Buzzcocks, Wire and the Sex Pistols - the Buzzcocks are by far my favorite. The Sex Pistols are ‘important’ in a cultural and historical sense, but they have way too much contempt for their audience for my taste and their music is too hard and heavy for my fey listening habits these days. Wire have a handful of transcendent moments, especially on their spectacular debut album, Pink Flag, but thereafter they become progressively more arty with each record and the ‘songs’, such as they are, are often too atonal to really penetrate into the part of my brain that registers aural pleasure. This leaves the Buzzcocks, who straddle the fine line separating punk and New Wave. I think it'd be fair to say that they're pop life punks. I love their neurotic lyrics and the way the irreverence is tempered by moments of genuine frailty and even sensitivity. It's the kind of human touch that's completely alien to most punk rock of the period. Singles Going Steady was a big record for me when I was a teenager, each song so wonderfully guitar spangled and perfectly balanced between melody and alienation. Listening to those songs again now, I'm still so taken by the band's command of tight, hooky songcraft. I also admire their throwback neo-Mod style, which gives them some continuity with a broader tradition of English pop greatness. …For some reason, tonight’s song is rarely if ever mentioned as one of the all-time power pop greats, perhaps because punk is typically viewed as distinct from power pop. But we strive here at the Lonely One to expand categories instead of limiting them, and any song as catchy as Ever Fallen in Love, with its gloriously melodic chorus and spot-on rendering of raw romantic anguish, absolutely deserves to be in the conversation…

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 83 (155)

god bless Kirsty MacColl for having written and performed the ultimate theme song for those of us who live the pop life. The song cleanses my soul, emptying every last drop of hurt and bitterness out of me. The melody caresses my face with its tingly perfection, and consumes my body with warmth, making me feel as if I’m back in the womb, or lying entwined with the love of my life… MacColl doesn’t have a great singing voice by any stretch, occasionally coming up just a semitone or so flat on some of the notes, but there’s an innocence and earnestness there that’s far more affecting than any pitch-perfect singing performance could ever be. The flaws in her voice actually add something, and I like appreciating people for their flaws, possibly because I have a deep-down fairy tale wish that there’s somebody someplace out there in the universe who will appreciate me for mine. They Don’t Know About Us gives me hope that this is still possible. Maybe it’s the part where she sings, we should just take our chances while we’ve got nothing to lose. Or maybe it’s the way the song’s tunefulness makes me sway and tilt my face up towards the sky. Or maybe it’s the song’s unabashed sentimentality, an expression of tenderness and love for some lucky guy, warts and all. Or maybe it’s that the song is sung from the point of view of someone who’s misunderstood by everybody except the person who matters most to her. It’s probably all of these things. The song, in short, is the pop life put to music, and I adore every splendorous moment of it…

Monday, July 11, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 82 (154)

I’ve always had reservations about Elvis Costello. My earliest memories of him are of seeing posters for his first album on the wall while I was browsing the LPs at Record Connection on 86th and Lex, drooling over Kiss Alive and Houses of the Holy. Record Connection was a place where you could not only buy records but also pipes, papers, Rush, incense, Creem, Circus, Rolling Stone, and stag films, which they made no attempt to hide from underage kids. It’s not like what happened later in video stores where all the porn would be kept behind saloon doors. ‘Howdy pardner, I’m here to buy something to jerk off to… Record Connection, along with Music Maze, a few blocks away, were basically hescher outlets that had to make grudging concessions to punk and New Wave as a matter of survival. They ended up not surviving anyway. I remember seeing a New York Dolls album at Record Connection, and David Bowie’s Young Americans, and thinking to myself, ‘man, those guys are scary and gross.’ Kiss somehow seemed less threatening, in spite of spitting up blood and breathing fire, probably because there wasn’t the same degree of gender bending. They wore makeup, and Paul Stanley flitted around like the King of Christopher Street, but Kiss was much more of a meat(head) and potatoes kind of thing in both its sound and signification. …Costello is somebody I should champion without ambivalence since he basically made being a nerd cool, but there’s a certain pompousness with him that I find unpleasant. He gives you the feeling that he knows he’s the smartest guy in the room, and a lot of the time he’s right, but that level of self-confidence means he’ll never be somebody who lives the pop life. The most apt observation I’ve ever heard about him comes from – who else? – David Lee Roth, who remarked that the reason rock critics love Elvis Costello so much is that he looks like they do…In spite of my reservations, though, Costello’s first few albums, and especially the second album, This Year’s Model, all have a number of outstanding songs on them. I could do a whole week on my favorite Costello songs, but I think I’m gonna just do This Year’s Girl, which is arguably the high water mark for New Wave. …I remember being in 4th grade and seeing high school kids walking around with Elvis Costello albums, and I congratulated myself for already being cooler than they were since I had Aerosmith’s Rocks and Steve Miller’s Fly Like An Eagle at home, and how could this angry nerd wearing glasses and a disheveled suit possibly compare to a bunch of drugged-out long hairs playing 10-minute guitar solos in front of gigantic Marshall stacks? As I got older and became a little more discerning, I came to appreciate that Costello, early on, rarely seemed to do a song that went over three minutes. Only as he became more insufferably self-important did he start to go longer with regularity. I think of him as an example of the dialectic of pop: In the beginning, the pop artist seeks to achieve an impact with quick, concise, uncomplicated songs. But once he succeeds in doing this and gains a measure of self-certitude, the songs get stretched out, which is indicative of the artist’s newfound sense of his own importance. Money and adulation will do that to you. Over time, the successful pop artist’s work becomes increasingly bloated, windy, and pretentious, until a full transmutation has taken place, turning the pop artist into a rock star. With Costello, the dialectic begins with Armed Forces, his third album, and doesn’t really come to full fruition until Imperial Bedroom, the last album of his I can stand. Each record over that four year period has its share of great music, but the deftness and urgency of the first two albums fades further with each offering until finally it vanishes entirely...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 77 (149)

A friend informs me that the correct spelling is hescher, not hesher, which means I’ve been misspelling it for about 25 years, unless she (my friend) is wrong, in which case… Perhaps I should hedge my bets and alternate. The problem with heschers, even us former heshers, is that we’re backwards looking and resistant to change. Nick Lowe, and really the whole stable of artists and bands recording on the Stiff Records label in the late 70s, symbolize change and pose a threat to heschers everywhere. But the dynamic is complicated because there’s an element of New Wave power pop that’s every bit as regressive as the hesher worldview. The distinction to be made is that power popsters primarily refer back to the mid 60s, say 1962-1966, while the heschers refer back to the late 60s and early 70s, something like 1967-1974. Nick Lowe is one of the key guys precipitating the identity crisis at FM rock stations. I was very sensitive to the way Lowe, and Graham Parker, and Elvis Costello, and Marshall Crenshaw, and Dave Edmunds, and Rockpile, and etc. all got mixed into FM playlists with the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Doors, Clapton… I wanted to live in a black and white world, but the mixing of old and new made for a shade of grey I found disorienting. And yet, there was something very compelling about the new stuff. It was familiar, yet really different from the dinosaur sounds, fresher, not as weighty, more nimble. Of all the new music to hit the airwaves, Cruel to be Kind is the song that has the biggest impact on me. The song has a certain benevolence about it that has me rooting for the upstarts. I bought the single and adored it. I mean, who can deny its relentless catchiness, the wistful words, and the plainspoken world weariness with which those words are delivered? It’s a down song that creates an up mood, taking a page right out of the Gene Clark book of happy/sad. Or is that sad/happy? …Cruel to be Kind crosses over into so many different worlds. Let’s call it something like revivalist New Wave pub pop. With the song’s lovely and distinct charms chiming from this hesher’s phonograph over and over and over again, something previously inconceivable happens: I begin to embrace change and to look to the future with hope and anticipation…

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 76 (148)

I’m hearing Squeeze again for the first time in years and years. I don’t know why I’ve stayed away for so long. All their albums are patchy, but each has at least three devastatingly great tracks. Pound for pound, the gems on East Side Story are perhaps less shimmering than those on Argybargy, but In Quintessence is a power pop classic for the ages, so compact and precise, a perfect album opener that sets the tone for a delightful listening experience. Sometimes a patchy album is actually preferable. With pop, as opposed to rock, the emphasis is on the artistry of the song, not the album, and great songs on an otherwise patchy album are often more impactful and dramatic. That’s the thing about albums. They’re a by-product of the transition from pop to rock and symptomatic of growing bombast and self-importance. The first few Beatles albums are really just warehouses for singles and filler. The filler is like sonic wallpaper while the singles are sublime paintings mounted atop the wallpaper. The single is the thing until about 1965. Rubber Soul is probably the first record designed to work as an album, and in this respect it marks the passage of the Beatles from a pop band to a rock band. This is true even though they continue to make pop songs, the difference now being that the music has pretensions to aesthetic seriousness. Drugs made people more self-conscious and more serious. With the appearance of double albums, from Freak Out and Blonde on Blonde, to Tommy, to Exile on Main Street, along with the occasional triple album, like the slog fest that is All Things Must Pass, the era of rock reaches its zenith, and therefore reaches its nadir as well. The great material on rock albums often gets muddled and lost in the crowd. Can you honestly differentiate much between the songs on Quadrophenia? ...Power pop returns the focus to the song, perhaps as a kind of nostalgia for when everything wasn’t so fucked up and complicated, but it’s a healthy corrective turn all the same, and no band I know of can match Squeeze’s feel for self-contained pop. Their breezy self-confidence is like the freshest breath of fresh air and gives the music a golden glow…

Monday, July 4, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 75 (147)

As a 12-yr-old, I'm a hesher. But I'm not a hesher of the meat headed variety. I'm more enlightened and self-aware. I'm loyal to my dinosaur bands, the Stones, Led Zep, Deep Purple, the Who, Jethro Tull, Cream, and what have you, but I can feel and see the transition happening right before me. It's happening on the radio, where Marshall Crenshaw and Elvis Costello are peppered in between Crosby Still and Nash and the Doors. It's happening in the record stores, posters of Hendrix and Clapton replaced with Graham Parker and the Rumour and the Pretenders. And it's happening at school. A handful of cool high school kids are wearing dark overcoats, sporting neatly cropped mod haircuts, and bringing their Stiff Records singles in with them to lend to their friends. I'm only 12, but I'm already an anachronism. The trouble with latching onto music so early in childhood is that I connect with what's available at the time, in the early/mid 70s, so that now I'm stuck in hesher land. It's not so easy to transform your identity when you're 12. So much of mine is wrapped up in hesher rock. I can't just abandon everything that makes me who I am. But I'm really curious. I make a clandestine trip to the record store and purchase a copy of Argybargy. And I can't believe what I hear. It's so fresh and new and different. It's hookier and more tuneful than anything I've ever heard in my life. And I feel like William Tell, as if my musical cherry is being taken all over again. I play Pulling Muscles (from the Shell) about 50 times. Same goes for Another Nail in my Heart. Same goes for If I Didn't Love You. What's with those weird harmonies that aren't really harmonies, where one guy sings the melody regularly in the high register while the guy singing in the low register does the same melody, only much lower, so that he sounds like a frog? It's not exactly David Crosby and Gene Clark, but it works. A whole new world is opening up before me. I'm hooked. I want more. But I'm also so frightened of change. I've already had some jarring changes in my life and I know I don't like the way it makes me feel. I'm wired for continuity. Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend will always be the best guitarists in the world, won't they? Is it possible to conceive an order of things that's any different? You might as well tell me that blue is green, air is water, dirt is chocolate... Music is about so much more than the tunes embedded in the grooves of the record. Who will I be and how will I act? I'm too young and inhibited at this point to get a haircut and sport one of those long coats. I've still got my army jacket, my long hair, and Highway to Hell. It's me, my essence. I'm a hesher. Some kids, mostly a few years older than me, are able to just show up one day and be completely changed from what they were. I recall this one girl, probably in 10th grade at the time. She goes home on Friday as a nerdy girl who loves horses, cats and difficult crossword puzzles. She's a wholesome girl, the teacher's pet. She comes back on Monday looking like the bastard child of Wendy O'Williams and Richard Hell. Me, I can't do that, or at least I can't do it so quickly and dramatically. It needs to be a process, one where I tell people what I'm doing as I'm doing it, making sure that every step of the transition is explicitly spelled out and acknowledged. I'm preternaturally conservative that way, and also anal retentive and neurotic. I tell my friends that 'hard rock' is still my favorite, but I also really like Bowie (who has crossover appeal), the Jam, Squeeze... Privately, Squeeze becomes my favorite. Their stuff is just too infectious. It's almost like children's music, only with cool, grown-up themes, the kind that are starting to make sense to me as my body changes, and so do the bodies of the girls around me, and so do my thoughts and dreams and desires. There's a brief window in my life where puberty is actually kind of fun. See? Sometimes change is ok. No need to feel guilty or scared. The new music guides me through it. I can't get enough of it. Yet there's also that part of me - still with me today - that wants to hold on to the past. It feels like a tug of war. I can't really reconstruct things in any great detail, but I muddle through all this with something like a split personality...

Saturday, July 2, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 73 (145)

A friend of mine complains that every song the Feelies play sounds the same. True, but who cares as long as it's a great sound? Their music brings me back to the summer of '89, living in the Westcott Nation, Syracuse, NY. I pretty much wake and bake every day that summer. Hazy days, blurry nights, watching Bergman films on VHS cassettes, reading The Magic Mountain, and falling in love with Sarah, a jewess from London finishing up her MA in critical cultural studies. The two of us have fun together for a few months. The relationship doesn't end so much as fade away, like an exhaled cloud of bong smoke. The Feelies and their strummy guitars are a constant through all this. The Good Earth, with Peter Buck manning the control booth, sounds like the Great Lost REM album. They have flashes where they're even better than REM - purer, cleaner, more in line with the concept of what all these types of bands should be. There is admittedly a certain monotony in what they do after awhile. It can put you into a sleepy trance. But it's hard to find music that's more pleasurable if you limit things to about 20 minutes here and there. ...Towards the end of that summer I go back to visit with my family in New York and see the Feelies play at Maxwell's in Hoboken, where they are more or less the house band. The place is packed to the rafters. Bob Mould is in attendance. He does not seem like a very affable guy, perhaps a little embittered by the experience of being a gay hardcore punk, once upon a time. The Feelies take the stage. After two or three songs, I come to the conclusion that they're a great live band. I also develop an instant crush on the bass player. The two guitars make the whole room sizzle with electricity. I dance with anybody who will dance with me because I'm young, and I'm free, and I don't quite know where I'm headed, only that I'll go anyplace where there's music that makes me feel this good...

Friday, July 1, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 72 (144)

So I participate in a fiction workshop a few years ago and there are a few young whippersnappers in the group, MFA students from Cal Arts, who write everything in the present tense. They all have a great facility for it, frequently accomplishing the difficult feat of using the syntax of the present to describe events that have taken place in the past. I become curious about how writing this way will make me feel, so I go home and try it. And I like it. I'm not nearly as good at it as the whippersnappers, but I find it freeing. It's a nice change to adopt the point of view of someone who doesn't have much time to think and reflect. I think too much about everything, so it feels good to at least pretend to be someone who *experiences* life in a more immediate way and isn't so trapped in his own head. Unmediated experience is something I rarely have, if ever. Like right now I'm listening to some more REM, trying to simply feel the music instead of intellectualizing it, and I must confess that it's quite difficult. I mean, I can describe how REM’s music makes me feel. But that's about the extent of it. Their music makes me feel romantic. It’s odd because Michael Stipe seems so asexual to me, yet the band’s best music radiates love and romance into the air. Murmur is a really evocative record for me in this respect. It always makes me think of the first girl I made out with in college. I go to this party and there’s this cute girl, by herself, wearing an REM pin on her black and white herringbone overcoat. I never approach strange women in bars or at parties because the thought of it embarrasses me so fucking much, but I approach the REM girl and we get to talking about music. I can’t remember the conversation, but I go get her a drink, and when I return Talk About the Passion is chiming out of the stereo speakers. It’s a great song for those of us who have a thing for guitars. Peter Buck even whips out a 12-stringer for the part that goes combien de temps? …I ask the REM girl if she knows what combien de temps means. You see, I know what it means because I grew up speaking French, and I’m kind of getting a little vibe from the REM girl like she’s gonna let me make out with her, and even though I’m nervous as hell because I’m not exactly Mr. Smooth with the girls, I think I might be able to impress her with my French. But she knows what the phrase means, says something like, ‘of course, it means how much time,’ and then she takes my hand and gets close enough to me that I can smell her shampoo and whatever other totally erotic scents she’s giving off. Now my heart is thumping like a Gene Krupa drum solo, my knees are knocking, and my teeth are chattering, but it doesn’t matter that I don’t know what the fuck to do next because she’s a take-charge type, leans in for a kiss, and holy shit does it feel amazing, especially when she sticks a little tongue in and nibbles on my lip. …For the rest of my years at the university, I never see the REM girl again. I can’t recall why. But every time Talk About the Passion comes up on my iPod, with it’s beautiful opening chords and folky post-punk melody, I think of her and wonder what she’s doing right now…