Sunday, September 16, 2012

Certain Songs Part V: Never Loved Elvis

It is now conspicuous to me that nowhere on this list is anything by Elvis Presley (Costello, well, that’s another matter). It is true, I have never been much of an Elvis fan. Although I liked his music, I was never really a fan, if you know what I mean, and don’t actually have any Elvis in my collection, vinyl, CD, or otherwise.

That may change. Last week, a business trip to Memphis gave me the opportunity to visit Graceland, monument to American kitsch. People had warned me about how atrociously gawdy and tacky the place would be, but it turned out that it was not that bad. (And I’m one to talk about taste and décor?) It really just struck me as very 1970s—only taken to the nth degree. Folks had specifically mentioned the carpeting on the ceiling in one particualr room—but as the audio tour pointed out, that was for acoustic purposes, as Elvis and other musicians used to jam and record in that room.

Anyway, the audio tour and every other location was replete with Elvis music in the background (or foreground), and I started to get into it. I think I shall hunt down a good compilation.

Anyway, here is your blogger in front of the main entrance to Graceland.

Anyway, while I investigate Elvis recordings for a future update to this list, perhaps, we forge ahead with a brief start in the last decade before time-tripping back to—appropriately—that shameful decade known as the 1970s.

Andrew Bird
Armchair Apocrypha

I could be wrong, but this may be the most recent album on this list. Though it’s not my favorite Bird record (see later in this list), I finally decided it had to be on here.

Andrew Bird is a multi-instrumentalist (primarily violin, but also guitar and whistling) who began in the 1990s with The Squirrel Nut Zippers (who had a hit with “Hell” in 1998 during that brief big band revival period), and later founded his own band called Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, which specialized in exploring American roots music (hmm...and I never loved Elvis?), set to Bird’s pensive, often surreal lyrics. (Rereading the books of Don DeLillo, it strikes me that Bird’s lyrics are almost DeLillo-esque in that they are less about telling a particular narative and mroe about the language itself, the sounds of words and the juxtaposition of words. And Bird is often just plain funny.)

After three Bowl of Fire albums, he went in an entirely different direction in 2003 with Weather Systems, an album that began his string of utterly unclassifiable records. (The 2005 follow up The Mysterious Production of Eggs is the one that comes later in this list.) 2007's Armchair Apocrypha falls slightly short of the previous masterpiece, but still frequently gets CD and iPod play. Of course, it opens with the track I always play before taking a flight: “Fiery Crash.” “To save our lives you got to envision the fiery crash/It’s just a formality/Must I explain?/Just a nod to mortality/Before you get on a plane.”

One of my favorite Bird tracks is “Imitosis,” which repurposes bits of “Eugene” from the first Bowl of Fire album.
Turning to a playground in a Petri dish
Where single cells would swing their fists
At anything at looks like easy prey
Why do some show no mercy while others are painfully shy?
“Plasticities” points how “they’ll fight for your neural walls and plasticities” while “we’ll fight for your music halls and dying cities.” Also, “You’re gonna grow old/You’re gonna grow cold/Bearing signs on the avenue/For your own personal Waterloo.” I love that phrase, “your own personal Waterloo,” a symbol of defeat, which I use to describe a CrossFit workout that does me in. In “Dark Matter,” Bird points out that, when he was a boy, “I threw away all of my action toys/While I became obsessed with Operation.” You know, the goofy game for dopey doctors. “Scythian Empires” is a true classic, and the penultimate “Spare-Ohs” brings things to a climax—“When you tell me that I’m too obstruce [sic]/I just thought it was a kind of bird.”

Musically, Armchair Apocrypha has a bit of a harder edge and drum sound than his previous records, and it introduces the looping technique (he, and/or his drummer Martin Dosh, plays a few bars on one instrument, it gets sampled, then repeats, while they then play over it on other instruments) he has been using on record and especially live ever since.

Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel (Car)

As you will see much further down this list, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis produced some of my favorite albums. 1977’s Peter Gabriel (aka “Car,” from the cover photograph, to distinguish it from the other three albums also called Peter Gabriel—he apparently had the idea that each album would be like different issues of the same magazine, until Geffen Records put the kibosh on that in 1982) was his first album after leaving Genesis in 1975, and anyone expecting it to sound like Foxtrot or even The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was in for a big surprise. (It will also come as a surprise to many to learn that Gabriel was not Genesis’ primary lyricist, save for some conspicuous classics like “Supper’s Ready” and just about all of The Lamb.) Perhaps the best way to describe Peter Gabriel—musically and lyrically—is “eclectic.”

It opens with the gothic and just downright strange “Moribund the Burgermeister,” a very odd choice to open his first solo record. Elsewhere, “Excuse Me” begins in the style of a barbershop quartet, before the tuba accompaniment comes in. “Down the Dolce Vita” comes perilously close to disco, “Waiting for the Big One” to cocktail jazz. “Modern Love” is a fairly straightforward hard rocker. Lyrically, Gabriel veers off into new territories, but a few clunky lines crop up (“Bundershaft, are you going daft?” “Hey, Valentina, you want me to beg/You got me cookin’ I’m a hard-boiled egg,” and, of course, “I trusted my Venus was untouched in her shell/But the pearls in her oyster were tacky as hell”— has he been to Graceland?). The real standout track, however, is “Solsbury Hill,” his Genesis resignation letter.

He is joined by a number of progressive rock luminaries, such as Robert Fripp (King Crimson), a pre-Stick Tony Levin, and producer Bob Ezrin (having recovered from Lou Reed’s Berlin and later to co-produce Pink Floyd’s The Wall).

It’s an album that careens from place to place, from idea to idea, without any real cohesion, something he’d improve upon on later albums. Side 2 (aka the latter half of the album) is less compelling than the first, but album closer “Here Comes the Flood” was a live staple for years. Annoyingly, when I saw Gabriel live in 1986, he did not play “Solsbury Hill.” However, when I saw him in 2011, he did, and it was the showstopper.

Led Zeppelin
Houses of the Holy

I was never much of a Led Zeppelin fan (although, to my embarrassment, liked them more than Elvis, apparently). I had a couple of their records on vinyl back in the day (II, Untitled [aka IV], and In Through the Out Door, the latter largely because I was curious as to what was beneath the plain brown wrapper—nothing thrilling or salacious, it turned out, they just didn't want to put any text on the cover, to which the record company objected), but never gave them much of a listen until the late 90s and began to appreciate them a bit more. I thought at least one Zeppelin record should be on here, and my favorite of theirs is Houses of the Holy. It’s an evolution from the bluesy rock of their first two albums, not as overtly folky as III, and doesn’t have “Stairway to Heaven” on it like the fourth one. Physical Graffiti is too sprawling with much filler, Presence ironically has no presence, and In Through the Out Door is good, but more for what it hints at than what it actually is (what Zeppelin would have evolved into had they continued). Ergo, Houses of the Holy.

They toy with reggae in “D’yer Mak’r” (inevitably mispronounced “Dyer Maker”—as The Hold Steady pointed out, the title is a reference to a joke about Jamaica. “Two guys are in a pub. One guy says, ‘My wife went away on holiday.’ ‘Oh, Jamaica?’ ‘No, she went of her own accord.’” (The “joke” is the pun Jamaica/d’yer mak’r, as in “did you make her?” You know what happens when you have to explain a joke...) Anyway, it was one of the few instances where Zeppelin displayed a sense of humor, which appealed to me. “Over the Hills and Far Away” is favorite, even if I can’t help but envision Jerry Lewis singing “Hey, Laaaaaady, you got the love I need.” And where’s that confounded bridge?

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