Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Certain Songs Part IV: Scratched Into Our Soul

I guess you're old enough to know
Kids out on the east coast
Roughly twenty years old
They got coaxed out by a certain perfect ratio
Of warm beer to the summer smoke
And the Meat Loaf to the Billy Joel
Certain songs they get so scratched into our souls  
 —The Hold Steady
I said in my initial post in this series way back when that I’ve probably already heard all my favorite albums, but one entry in today’s trilogy proves that perhaps I’m wrong.

Billy Joel
Glass Houses

Yeah, okay, Billy Joel. The Stranger is probably the emblematic Billy Joel record, but Glass Houses always struck more of a chord with me. From the opening track, “You May Be Right,” I was hooked. “You may be right/I may be crazy/But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.” Side one (in the days of vinyl) is one of those “every song’s a gem” sides, with side two being very a much a “B side.”

This is Joel’s hard rock album, even if it does mellow out here and there, and was a response to punk and new wave that were in full swing by 1980. “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me” sums up the popular trends at the time, and was a number one single, too, and resonates all these years later when I think of how much I like songs from all sorts of eras—the 60s, classic hard rock, punk, so-called new wave, alternative 80s, a few 90s grunge songs here and there, and whatever the 2000s are considered, if anything. It’s all still variations on a theme.

Side two may have been devoid of hits, but “Close to the Borderline” and “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” are highlights.

Around this time (1980), we went on a family vacation to Québec, and I became obsessed with learning French, so “C’Etait Toi” occupied me for rather a long period of time.

The Hold Steady
Almost Killed Me

And now for something completely different.

I got into The Hold Steady in 2006 when their third album came out (see later in this list) and since then they have become one of my favorite contemporary bands. Almost Killed Me was the band’s debut and what a debut it is. Lyricist Craig Finn is a great storyteller, and here he leads us through the seamy underworld of Minneapolis and the shady characters who dwell there. Many of these characters recur on later albums, and there are many callbacks and callforwards. This album would be higher on this list...but its relative newness (in my consciousness) keeps it down here. For now.

“Positive Jam” is the best album opener I’ve heard in a while, briefly sketching American history starting in the 1920s. Over a slowly strummed electric guitar, Finn leads us through the 20th century ending in the 90s, where “We were wired and well-connected/Went down on technology and lost everything we invested.” And then the band kicks in for the titular positive jam, and it’s a transcendent moment (in 2012, I saw them live and they opened with this song and this moment was even more transcendent). “The Swish” introduces a wide array of characters that are habitués of where the band played. “I did a couple of jobs for these guys who looked like Tuscan raiders.” At first I thought this was a Star Wars reference—which it kind of is—but (geek time) check the spelling of “Tuscan” in the lyric sheet. The Star Wars creatures are spelled “Tusken.” Here, the spelling indicates some kind of mob activity. Utterly brilliant. “Barfruit Blues” continues and “Holly” (née Hallelujah, the central character in the band’s second album, Separation Sunday) makes her debut: “Mary’s got a bloody nose from sniffing margarita mix/She licked her lower lip and then she kissed that Hallelujah chick.” But then: “She came off kind of spicy but she tasted like those pickle chips.” And then there are “certain songs that get scratched into our souls.”

The album—like most Hold Steady albums—is a collection of old pop culture references (Craig Finn is only four years younger than me). This one namechecks (and I had to Google one or two of these) Beverly Sills, Steve Perry, Rocco Sefredi, Phil Lynott, Ellen Foley, Robbie Robertson, and many others. “She went out deep for guys who looked like Johnny Fever.” Ah, WKRP....

Musically, this and other Hold Steady albums sound as if punk never happened—big guitars, big drums, and a classic rock sound which is incredibly refreshing. Man, I love this album, and this band, suggesting to me that my favorites are not already written.... It needs to move further up this list.

Roger Waters
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking

A challenging album, to be sure, but one of my favorites at the time, even if I don’t still give it a regular spin. Even so, it makes more sense as I get older.

Roger Waters’ first proper solo album (if you don’t count the Music from the Body soundtrack he did with Ron Geesin in 1970—and I don’t) was released a year after what was thought to be the very last Pink Floyd album, The Final Cut, which itself is not a million miles removed from being a Waters solo album.

Pros and Cons features some of the same session musicians and the same gimmicky “Holophonic” sound that, when listened through headphones, made the stereo image seem like surround sound. Um, not so much. The album is basically a series of dreams, which, like dreams, reflect and refract reality. (Each song title indicates at what time of the night the dream takes place—the album starts at 4:30 a.m. and ends at 5:11...so it’s about the length of the album.) The dreams start off as middle age neuroses and fantasies (funny how this wasn’t a more popular rock album among kids—well, except me, which could explain so much...)—the main character (called “Reg” when the record was performed in concert) picks up a sexy blonde hitchhiker (see cover illustration) and proceeds to try to seduce her, which—it being his dream—he succeeds. However, guilt (he is married) overcomes him and he;’s attacked in his bedroom by “Arabs with knives at the foot of his bed.” (“Careful with that axe, Adbul!”) At the start of side two, he dreams that he, his wife, and kids move to Wyoming and live like hippies—until it’s his wife’s turn to cheat. “Reg” himself hitchhikes and finally has a moment of clarity, waking and realizing that his life is actually pretty good.

Ultimately, the album is really a love letter to Waters’ wife, for Waters, is quite the achievement. (But then the two acoustic “Pigs on the Wing” songs thast bookend Pink Floyd’s Animals were as well.) Admittedly, “songs” per se are in short supply, but that hardly seems to matter. Curiously, the single version of the album’s title track had a better, more Claptonesque guitar solo than appears on the album—weird, since Eric Clapton actually does play on the album, a good ploy to try to make you forget David what’s-his-name.

One has to love lyrics like “Fixed on the front of her Fassbinder face/Was the kind of a smile/That only a rather dull child could have drawn/While attempting a graveyard in the moonlight.” Man, he went a long way for that metaphor, but I like it! I saw Roger Waters on this tour and he was awesome.

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