Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Certain Songs Part XIII: Left of the Dial

The countdown of my top 152 albums of all time. Continues. The story so far:

Part I (150–152) here.
Part II (147–149) here.
Part III (144–146) here.
Part IV (141–143) here.
Part V (138–140) here.
Part VI (135–137) here.
Part VII (132–134) here.
Part VIII (129–131) here.
Part IX (126–128) here.
Part X (123–125) here.
Part XI (120–122) here.
Part XII (117–119) here.

The Mothers of Invention
We’re Only In It for the Money

Although I had heard of Frank Zappa for as long as I can remember, I am sad to say that, aside from a few tracks that were played on Dr. Demento in the early 80s, I didn’t get into Zappa in earnest until he died in 1993. Sad, really. Anyway, one of the first records I had bought by him was We’re Only In It for the Money, his third album (credited to The Mothers of Invention, his original band that mutated with each record). (This was Zappa’s fourth overall album, as the orchestral Lumpy Gravy, which was recorded at the same time, was released beforehand, although it includes orchestral instrumental versions of some of the songs on WOIIFTM).

It’s a wicked satire of the 60s counterculture—Zappa had little patience for either normal society or the hippies, and he never did drugs—via subversive pseudo-pop songs, musique concrète, and a concluding orchestral piece (“The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” inspired by a Kafka story). “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” remains a pretty funny poke at the hippies (“I’m really just a phoney but forgive me ’cause I’m stoned...I will love everyone, I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street...”). Zappa makes equal fun of parents and kids: “Ever tell your kids/You’re glad that they can think?/Ever say you loved them, ever let them watch you drink?” The record is also famous for the repeated quotes from drummer Jimmy Carl Black (who was Cherokee Indian), “Hi, boys and girls, my name is Jimmy Carl Black and I’m the Indian of the group.” Side two (or the second half) shows that Zappa’s sympathies lay with the freaks, via songs like “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” and “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance.” As for the immortal question, “What’s the ugliest part of your body?” Well, “I think it’s your mind.”

My first exposure to the album was the "revisionist" 1987 Ryko version in which Zappa restored some censored lines from the original album, and completely re-recorded the bass and drums. It wasn’t until a subsequent remaster that the original rhythm tracks were restored, after an outcry from fans. (The censored lines remained, though.) Graphically, the album is known for its back-cover takeoff off Sgt. Pepper.

Jane Siberry
No Borders Here

I was introduced to Canadian singer/songwriter Jane Siberry in 1988 via a pal I had in college. He had just reviewed The Walking and recommended her records as being reminiscent of a more whimsical Kate Bush, who was a favorite of mine at the time.

In 1988, Siberry only had three albums out, so acquiring her back discography was not hard, and her first album (actually, her second, I discovered much later) No Borders Here quickly became a favorite of mine. It’s much poppier than her albums became (especially The Walking, which was quite out there), but is full of great character studies, which alas became less and less an element in her songwriting. Case in point: opening track “The Waitress” who “would probably be famous now if I wasn’t such a good waitress” (Siberry actually was a waitress and financed the recording of her first album via tips). “Extra Executives” pokes fun at those sales types (“His card reads ‘executive’ but it mumbles ‘just a salesman’”). Some of the characters are sadly amusing in their obliviousness: the singer of “I Muse Aloud” attributes her beau’s sleeping around to the fact that “I make him feel so good.” “Dancing Class” is an experiment in early multiculturalism. “Symmetry” anticipates the TV show Monk by about 18 years. The breakthrough single for Siberry was “Mimi on the Beach.”

Siberry certainly became more musically and lyrically experimental, but the humor and directness of No Borders Here made a very strong impression on me back in the day.

The Replacements

I got into The Replacements—sometimes considered the American Rolling Stones, although they were never particularly popular—in an oblique way: I really liked their 1986 garage-band-like cover of “Cruella de Ville” from a record called Stay Awake, a collection of 80s alternative artists doing covers of songs from Disney films. (Tom Waits doing “Heigh Ho (The Dwarfs Marching Song)” has to be heard to be believed.)

Live, The Replacements were a mixed bag; not drunk enough, they were stiff and uncompelling. Too drunk, they were sloppy and inept and all played different songs simultaneously (I had an English professor sophomore year in college who saw them in Syracuse and they were the latter). Recordwise, their early indie albums were a bit too messy and sloppy for my taste, and their last two albums a bit too slick and uninspiring. But Tim was the perfect ’Mats album, being the first major-label album, and before they got too slick. It does have a never-ending series of classic tracks, and demonstrated the breadth of Paul Westerberg’s songwriting abilities. That the same guy can write “Bastards of Young” and “Here Comes a Regular” is nothing short of amazing. “Kiss Me On the Bus” and “Waitress in the Sky” (which I still often sing to myself on airplanes, even though it’s a little mean—“Sanitation expert and a maintenance engineer/Garbage man, a janitor and you my dear/A real union flight attendant, my oh my/You ain’t nothin’ but a waitress in the sky”) were the two radio songs, but there is barely a bad song here, and “Left of the Dial” an 80s alternative music call to arms. The rough edges were just softened enough, but not to the extent that they were drained of energy and life.
Well a person can work up a mean thirst
After a hard day of nothin’ much at all
Summer’s passed, it’s too late to cut the grass
There ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall And sometimes I just ain’t in the mood
To take my place in back with the loudmouths
You’re like a picture on the fridge that’s never stocked with food
I used to live at home, now I stay at the house

And everybody wants to be special here
They call your name out loud and clear
Here comes a regular
Call out your name
Here comes a regular
Am I the only one here today?
Subsequent albums yielded alternative radio hits “Alex Chilton,” “I’ll Be You,” and “Merry Go Round,” and the last Replacements album—All Shook Down—was supposed to be a Paul Westerberg solo record. They disbanded shortly thereafter.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Certain Songs Part XII: My Nation Underground

So far, the Frankenstorm has yet to do much of anything up here, if it even will. Best comment ever, from Albany’s Palace Theatre’s Facebook page: “We regret to inform everyone that tonight’s showing of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is ironically cancelled due to the threat of the incoming storm.”

The countdown continues.

Julian Cope
My Nation Underground

As is often the case with the records on this list, My Nation Underground was not the best-reviewed of Cope’s albums, and I think even he disliked it. And it does represent that 80s-esque overproduced sound at odds with his other, less fussily produced records. But, again, the titles on this list are often about context, and this was the first I had heard of Cope; “Charlotte Anne” was played occasionally on WFNX (Boston) when I was home for Christmas break in 1988. I liked the song and the pun (“Charlotte Anne”/“charlatan”—get it?) and Spectrum (the SU campus record store) was having a get-rid-of-all-our-vinyl sale, so I picked this up for $1, and played it endlessly for a while.

A good track is the opening cover of The Vogues’ 1965 hit “5 O’Clock World,” slipping in a bit of a sci-fi rewrite of “I Know a Place.” A relative epic ends the first side (in the old days of vinyl), the title track, which is an apocalyptic call to arms of sorts (“Says Nostradamus, it’s coming soon”). (Side two ends with the slightly shorter “Great White Hoax”—Cope loves puns.) “China Doll” opens side two on a quiet, tender note, before launching into a cover of Shadows of Knight’s “Someone Like Me.” “Easter Everywhere” is another apocalyptic song: “We’re on an earthquake island on an alien planet/Gotta find someone who can help me out/Don’t care about the others/Just care about me....” Sums up the Reagan years pretty succinctly.

Cope followed up My Nation Underground with two bare bones indie-released records (which I have never been able to find) called Droolian and Skellington, before returning on his major label with the epic statements Peggy Suicide and Jehovahkill, both of which received heavy play upon their original release. I lost track of him throughout the 90s, and he apparently releases stuff through his Web site, although I have not investigated any of it. Sorry.

Syd Barrett
The Madcap Laughs

Barrett, of course, was the founder and original songwriter of Pink Floyd (see Piper at the Gates of Dawn waaaaay down this list), but mental instability thanks in very large part to drug use curtailed his tenure with the band, and cut short his brief attempt at a solo career. 1970 saw the release of a brace of Barrett albums—the extent of his solo output, aside from a collection of outtakes released in the 1980s—and this entry could stand for either (or both) of them, as between the two is one terrific album.

One listen to the first of them—The Madcap Laughs—indicates why his solo career was going to be a dodgy proposition: Barrett was incredibly erratic, in and out of the studio. For every genius song like “Octopus” or “Terrapin,” there is an equivalent “If It’s In You,” aptly titled, as it is preceded by false starts, studio banter, cracking voices—I don’t know, but I think including it on the album just seemed kind of mean. (Ironically, the worst of the stuff was produced by David Gilmour and Roger Waters, who surely had no ill-intent.) But when The Madcap Laughs is good—which is almost all of side one and most of side two—it’s quite good. “Late Night,” the concluding track, is quite beautiful.

The second album, Barrett, may lag in places, but at least they kept the bloopers off. As a Pink Floyd completist, I picked up the Barrett records early on (circa 1983) and while they likely appalled casual Floyd fans used to The Wall or Dark Side of the Moon, I liked them—and still do—for the unusual genius they represent. There is literally nothing like these albums out there, although they did inspire most of Robyn Hitchcock’s career. Syd died in 2006.

Simon & Garfunkel
Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme

In the 1970s, when I was growing up, S&G were all over the radio, and my mother had and often played their greatest hits album, so I was intimately familiar with their hits. In 1986, I bought Paul Simon's Graceland, and took the opportunity to acquire S&G’s five studio albums which throughout my sophomore year in college received heavy rotation. (I was so hip.) They’re all good, in their own ways of course, but two made an especial impact on me. This was the first (Bookends appears later in this list), and it reflects perhaps the best mix of Paul Simon’s poetic aspirations, Garfunkel’s angelic vocal contributions, and the emergence of folk-rock post-Dylan. It bears mentioning that Simon did not like Dylan (Dylan snubbed him at one point), as evidenced in the humorous “Simple Desultory Phillippic” which mocks Dylan (and other 60s figures) at one point.

Opener “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” perhaps sums up the M.O. at the outset—Garfunkel’s soaring voice singing a traditional English folk song, with Simon’s lower, less angelic pipes chiming in with more relevant, socially relevant lyrics. The two blend beautifully. PSR&T has been called pretentious, and it’s true that many of the lyrics do seem very “English major-y” (I was an English major when I discovered the record, so no criticism here!). But when a record contains “Homeward Bound,” “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” and “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” (a Garfunkel showcase), you can forgive the literary name dropping of “The Dangling Conversation.” Which, being a pretentious English major myself, I have no problem with. The final track, “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” is really quite the chilling—and depressing—juxtaposition. The actual news report may be a tad dated (i.e., 1966), but I doubt any contemporary news report would be any more uplifting. Just a wonderful record.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Running Dead

This morning, I participated in the first ever RunDead race benefitting Special Olympics. The way it worked was this: It was a 5K run through Saratoga State Park, and it was a fairly tough trail run; up and down hills, through woods, alongside streams, over slippery rocks, up stairs and, though some muddy bits (my favorite). Each runner was given a little belt with three Velcro-detachable “flags.” As you ran the course, people dressed as zombies (and some folks were very creative in their costuming) leapt out and you and attempted to tear off the flags. If you lost all three flags, you were “dead.” I was doing well, but lost two flags in rapid succession the second mile, and then a short time later when my guard was down a five-year-old “zombie” snuck up behind me and got the third. They’re small, but they’ll crawl you. It was a lot of fun, although I noticed a few people taking it a bit too seriously, and some people were cheating by holding the flags in their hands, etc. (how bad does your self-esteem have to be to cheat in a zombie run?). I did it in a lethargic 31:30, but I wasn’t going for time or speed, and stopped every now and then to take pictures or not fall into a stream.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sweat On the Road

One of the problems with frequent traveling (of which there are myriad) is staying healthy and fit. Eating healthily while on the road is always a challenge, but even that can be offset with a decent exercise regimen. Many years ago, I got into the habit of avoiding “labor saving” things like elevators and escalators (I always take the stairs when possible, even when carrying luggage), walking instead of cabbing or driving when practical, etc. Travel to major cities is always good because they are usually somewhat pedestrian-friendly.

Most hotels have some kind of fitness center (which can range from a single dilapidated treadmill shoved in a closet in a damp, ill-lit basement next to a sign that reads “beware of the leopard”) to a full-scale gym/spa like the one at the LVH Hotel in Las Vegas—although they charged $20 day, so that wasn’t gonna happen. One advantage to Las Vegas is that, the town being what it is, you rarely find fitness centers crowded (or even occupied) at 6 a.m.

As a result, I have been compiling “travel workouts of the day (WODs)” from various CrossFit sites (and some that I just make up based on what’s available and what I’m in the mood to do). Most can be done in a hotel room (at one Graph Expo hotel last year, the only room available was the handicapped-accessible room which had a great wide-open space for burpees), and many hotel fitness rooms have a set of dumbbells, so some strength exercises can be included as well. This will of course depend on the size of the fitness room; doing one-armed dumbbell snatches in a smallish exercise room in the Chicago Marriott Courtyard earlier this month, I nearly clonked some guy who blundered into my workout radius.

A great travel WOD I recently found online and did—appropriately—in Las Vegas last week is called “Blackjack,” as each set comprises 21 total reps. It goes like this:
For time:
Pushups: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13-14-15-16-17-18-19-20
alternating with
Situps: 20-19-18-17-16-15-14-13-12-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1
What this means is that in Set 1, you do one pushup, followed by 20 situps. In Set 2, you do 2 pushups, then 19 situps. And so forth, concluding with Set 20 which comprises 20 pushups and 1 situp. I did it, appropriately, in about 21 minutes. The pushups get you toward the end...

Another good one is:
12 minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible);
10 pushups
15 situps
20 walking lunges (each leg = 1/2 rep)
I did this one for the first time in Memphis last month and completed 3 rounds + 10 pushups + 15 situps. Reprising it in Vegas last week, I completed 4 rounds + 10 pushups + 10 situps. It's always good to repeat workouts and note progress.

If the hotel fitness center has a set of dumbbells, this is a good one I did in Chicago (with the caveat I mentioned earlier):
3 rounds for time:
20 one-armed dumbbell snatches (10 each arm), 30# dumbbell
15 pushups
20 situps

Various tabata-style exercises are also good for hotel rooms. Tabata is a style of high-intensity interval training that, in the incarnation I usually do, comprises 8 cycles of 20 seconds of high-intensity exercise (like burpees, situps, or anything, really) where you are moving as fast as you can, followed by 10 seconds of rest. I have a good Tabata Timer app for the iPhone that time the cycles and tell you when to stop and go. The great MyWOD iPhone/iPad app also has a tabata timer that lets you enter the total number of reps for each cycle of activity.

The advantage to these types of workouts is that thety do not require a great deal of time, a big advantage when you are on the road and have morning meetings.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

More Yak

Somehow, and despite all my best efforts, following my unexpected and oblique triumph at the Area Contest, I appear to have won the Division G Humorous Speech contest, held October 15. Now I am off to compete at the District 53 Fall Conference, Saturday, November 17, at the Marriott in Albany. At least I don't have to drive to Connecticut this time!

Certain Songs Part XI: Queen Elvis

Last month, business travel took me to Memphis, where I got to tour Graceland. This month, the SGIA Expo takes me to Las Vegas, my absolute least favorite place in the known universe—at least Miami Beach, my second least favorite place, has a nice boardwalk that is great for early morning runs. Las Vegas is like being trapped in a 3D model of a schizophrenic’s brain. And it’s chock full of really skeezy people or, even worse, people who aspire to skeeziness. It’s also kind of a menopausal Disneyland. And walking through hotel casinos watching elderly people with forlorn expressions on their faces shoving coin after coin into slot machines is just kind of sad. Plus smoking is allowed everywhere, which is just vile.

By somewhat happy accident, though, I ended up staying at the LVH Hotel (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton), primarily because it is right next to the Convention Center, but as it turns out this was Elvis’ hangout, where he forged his legacy as an entertainer—for better or worse—between 1969 and 1976. It was called The International at the time (it became the Las Vegas Hilton in 1971 and the LVH this year), and we are told:
In 1969 Elvis performed his first show at the International to a sold-out crowd and he went on to perform regular engagements at the property for seven years -- a total of 837 consecutive sold-out performances in front of 2.5 million people.
This is commemorated on a plaque attached to a statue outside the front doors.

Naturally, there is an Elvis impersonator who performs here every night. Elvises everywhere, indeed. Or would the plural be Elvi?

Anyway, Elvis has little to do with the next three records on my list of 152 favorite albums, except in that Robyn Hitchcock’s 1989 album (and 1990 song) was called Queen Elvis.

The Back Room
I came to Editors’ critically acclaimed first album a few years after the fact, but The Back Room was a pretty stunning debut, and a hard act to follow, perhaps explaining why, seven years later, they still only have three albums out. Called a British Interpol, I think they’re far better (the lyrics are far less cheesier than Interpol’s).

Inspired by late 70s/early 80s bands like Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen (among others), Editors write dark, elliptical songs whose meanings aren’t readily apparent. Still, they often play “Munich” in my gym (“People are fragile things you should know by now/Be careful what you put them through”)—indeed. And I think we have all known folks like the antagonist in “Blood”: “Blood runs through your veins, that’s where our similarity ends.” And in “All Sparks”: “You burn like a bouncing cigarette on the road/all sparks will burn out in the end.” (Okay, they’re a little cheesy.) Still, it’s my favorite track on the album.

The album title comes from “Camera”: “If we run they’ll look in the back room/where we hide all of our feelings.” Make of that what you will. In “Fingers in the Factories,” they seem to channel Morrissey:
As the sun goes down on a broken town
And the fingers bleed in the factories
Come on out tonight, come and see the sight
Of the ones you love and the ones in love.
This record and its follow up An End Has a Start were very guitar-oriented, but Editors abandoned the guitar sound for a more heavily synthesized approach on their third album In This Light and On This Evening. It’s okay....


Belle & Sebastian
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Steven H. first recommended this to me back in 2003, so I picked it up and loved it, never having heard Belle & Sebastian before. Named for a French children’s novel about a dog (Belle) and a boy (Sebastian), the band started as a project for Glaswegian Stuart Murdoch’s music business class at university—his thesis was actually the band’s first album, Tigermilk. Although only 500 copies were pressed, it became a highly sought-after cult hit, and the band quickly recorded a proper album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, easily one of the best albums of the 1990s (see later in this list).

By the beginning of the 2000s, they had started to lose their way a bit and, despite a series of terrific non-album singles and EPs (finally collected on the superb two-disc collection Push Barman to Open Old Wounds), albums like Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant had more than a few dry patches (the title is the best thing about the album). So the band regrouped and with the unlikely assistance of producer Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Yes’ 90125, ABC), came up with an album that didn’t necessarily change their basic sound, but expanded upon it. Horn did what a good producer does: he found the essence of the band and made it come to the fore.

The songs are more lush than had been the case in the past; Murdoch has been apparently overdosing on 1970s AM radio hits. It’s a much fuller sound, but at the end of the day, the songs are there, and they’re some of the strongest he’s penned. The opener, the funny “Step Into My Office, Baby,” is probably a sexual harassment suit waiting to happen, but the hapless protagonist doesn’t seem to mind (“Step into my office, baby/I want to give you the job/A chance of better pay/Say my place at nine.”) Some songs hearken back to the “old” more “twee” Belle & Sebastian (“Piazza, New York Catcher,” which is a bit of an anachronism; I barely even remember the brouhaha that led to the line “Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?” and “Lord Anthony” with its return to schooldays).

But it’s songs like “I’m a Cuckoo” and “Wrapped Up in Books” that really make the album, and are probably two of my favorite B&S songs. The follow-up album, 2006’s The Life Pursuit, is just as good, as Murdoch seems to have rediscovered 1970s glam rock. 2010’s Write About Love is also pretty good.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3
Olé Tarantula
After about 30 years (his first recordings with The Soft Boys date from 1977, although he had been performing in various guises—Dennis and the Experts, Maureen and the Meatpackers) since the mid 1970s), Robyn Hitchcock has become something of an elder statesman, and is often name-checked by alternative bands old and new (The Decemberists are fans and Robyn guested on their 2010 album The Hazards of Love). The three Soft Boys albums released between 1978 and 1980—especially the classic Underwater Moonlight (see later in this list)—were important touchstones for 1980s alternative rock (they influenced the likes of R.E.M. and The Replacements, the latter of whom wanted Hitchcock to produce Tim in 1985—see later in this list).

His perhaps most fertile period was 1986–1990, when he had formed The Egyptians from several former Soft Boys, and recorded a string of college album chart toppers—Fegmania! (1986), Element of Light (1987), Globe of Frogs (1988)—for all, see later in this list—and Queen Elvis (1989). A switch to a major record label resulted in having a slick commercial producer foisted on him, ensuring that anything that made his records distinctive was removed, resulting in the bland Perspex Island (1991). The Egyptians’ swan song Respect (1993) had some high points, but felt more contractual obligation than artistic statement. Hitchcock went into hiding, much as he had in the early 1980s. Back then, he reappeared in 1984 with the all-acoustic I Often Dream of Trains, and this time, he reappeared in 1996 with the mostly acoustic and excellent Moss Elixir. A Jonathan Demme-directed concert film (Storefront Hitchcock) was filmed, but scuttled by Miramax, and languished, although it is an excellent document of a typical Hitchcock concert, with the songs introduced by funny, often very surreal stories and commentary.

Since then, Hitchcock has pretty much followed his muse wherever it may lead. A brace of fin de siècle albums (Jewels for Sophia and A Star for Bram, 1999 and 2000, respectively) had high points (“Mexican God,” “The Cheese Alarm,” “I Saw Nick Drake,” an electric version of “1974”) but suffered from its random writing and recording wherever he happened to be and with whomever he happened to be. The all-acoustic I Often Dream of Trains/Eye-like Luxor was self-released in 2003 as a 50th birthday present to himself. A year later he signed to YepRoc Records and released a roots-like but still excellent collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Spooked. During this same period he was constantly touring, doing guest appearances at others’ shows, and generally, it seems, enjoying himself.

He finally returned to a full-piece rock band in 2006 by forming the Venus 3, an alternative “supergroup” comprising old friends Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5), and Bill Rieflin (Ministry). Their first album was Olé Tarantula, probably the most satisfying Hitchcock album since Moss Elixir, and his best rock record since Queen Elvis. It has all the trademarks: chiming rent-a-Byrds guitars, Beatles-esque melodies, and his lyrics that mix the surreal with the poignant and affecting. (All reviews tend to label Hitchcock as “eccentric” but I disagree; I think he’s remarkably grounded and sane, and just has a very vivid imagination and expresses himself using creative and unusual imagery, usually involving insects, fish, marine invertebrates, vegetables, etc. If, for example, his wife’s heart is sweet as sugar, why shouldn’t he avoid the usual cliché and instead sing about an “ant corridor to your heart”?)

Olé Tarantula kicks off with what could very well be The Soft Boys covering “If You Were a Priest”: “Adventure Rocketship,” where he explains, “I’m coming for you someday/As faithful as a mummy/Discovered in a crater.” “Underground Sun” is a eulogy of sorts for a friend of Hitchcock’s who passed away. “You lie so lonely/Listening to the silence of the graves/You don’t belong there/You belong down south among the waves/Underground sun/I miss you.” Celebratory in style, it features beautiful harmonies from Chris Ballew (Presidents of the United States of America), Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger), and Morris Windsor (Soft Boys, Egyptians). Soft Boys guitarist Kimberley Rew also makes a cameo (here, and on “Museum of Sex” and “The Authority Box”). Speaking of “Museum of Sex,” don’t expect it to be too literal:
On this roof I play this riff
Play it till my hands are hollow
You can play to the tomatoes
You can play to the Apollo.
But then:
In the end I’ll be a skull
Through my eyes the eels will wallow
In the end I’ll be a warning
Time is not for us to follow.
Still: “Music is the antidote/To the world of pain and sorrow.” He’s got a point. It is a good riff, with some appropriately grunting saxophones.
“Belltown Ramble” is a bit of a lengthy, well, ramble.
And you wanna know what is
And also what is not
Don’t you, girl?
It’s an independent life
And you want to see your eyes
Reflected in the world.
Well, don’t we all? Shortly, though, “Then you find the Uzbek warlord/You collide with Tamerlane/His teeth are brown.” Then things get faintly apocalyptic:
Seven men are on their way
Seven sets of appetites
have got to be appeased today 
Ignorance comes first
then comes Opportunism
Greed is third
Fundamental Faith
Rides in backwards with his eyes shut
listening for the Word 
In bowls number five
He needs a bit of elbow room
His name is Haste
He fires off a slew of e-mails
And says, Put your hands together, boys
for six aka Waste 
The boys all look around
They looked at number seven
Reclining in his chair
He’s got his headphones on
His head is full of paradise
He isn’t there
The title track is an ode to reproduction told, not surprisingly, in the context of spiders. As Hitchcock explained, “It’s all to do with how people feel about what brings them into existence—how some people kind of recoil from it and some people are delighted by it, and some people are just shocked that they exist at all.”
Out in the trees
Old tarantula has got me humming
Out in the desert the cacti are home
Tarantulas cluster in their underground dome
Olé tarantula
It sounds like everyone had a bit of a good time in studio while recording that one. And how can one resist singing along with “I feel like a three-legged chinchilla/Standing on a table so wide/I can’t see over the side.”

“(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs” is a long-time live favorite that finally turns up here. “A man’s gotta know his limitations, Briggs/Or he will just explode.” It kinds of makes you want to watch the Dirty Harry movie Magnum Force. The chiming guitars are probably the most evocative of The Egyptians era. The tender love song on Olé Tarantula is of course titled “Red Locust Frenzy,” and, well, why not? “’Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram)” was written in collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge, of which more is supposedly to be coming out (six years later, we still wait).

The album closes with another eulogy of sorts, “N.Y. Doll,” about Arthur Kane, member of the seminal punk band The New York Dolls, and inspired by the movie New York Doll about “Killer” Kane, who after the demise of the band had a religious epiphany, gave up the archetypal rock’n’roll lifestyle, and became a Mormon librarian. He died shortly after the movie came out.

Olé Tarantula is a wonderful record. Like an actual tarantula, it’s frightening and startling at first glance but is actually quite harmless and even quite charming in its own surreal way. I saw Robyn and The Venus 3 in NYC on this tour and it was a great show.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Certain Songs Part X: Tourniquet of Roses

The countdown of my top 152 albums of all time soldiers on. The story so far:

Part I (150–152) here.
Part II (147–149) here.
Part III (144–146) here.
Part IV (141–143) here.
Part V (138–140) here.
Part VI (135–137) here.
Part VII (132–134) here.
Part VIII (129–131) here.
Part IX (126–128) here.

Guadalcanal Diary
Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man

Although Guadalcanal Diary was a modest college rock favorite in the late 80s, I did not get into “Guad” until singer/guitarist/songwriter Murray Attaway opened for Robyn Hitchcock in concert in 1993. Murray was touring behind his first (and, alas, only) solo album In Thrall, but I really liked his set, and, a few days later, the record. I then spent many years trying to track down the four Guadalcanal Diary albums, first available on vinyl in used record stores (I spent a lot of time in Bleecker Bob’s on West 3rd St. in NYC), before they turned up on CD. Classified as “jangle pop,” they did seem to owe no small debt to R.E.M., and being from Georgia the comparisons were easy to make. But Attaway’s vocals were far more distinct than Stipe’s, and early on reflected Attaway’s lyrical preoccupations with Southern history (especially the Civil War) and religion. “Trail of Tears” is a fantastic album opener, but the real classic track here us “Watusi Rodeo,” a funny tale of cowboys in the Congo.
Monkeys in the trees just thumbing their nose
At the bull-riders riding on rhinos
Warriors standing with spears in the hands
Wondering what's next from a crazy white man

Natives are restless under these Stetsons
What are these cowboys doing in the Congo
Look like cows but they're water buffaloes
It’s a short album, and boasts two instrumentals (and a strange live version of “Kumbayah”), but is a great debut. 1987’s 2X4 (with the alternative hit “Litany”) is perhaps their most famous record, justly, and Flip Flop (1989) was the hit that should have been, but of the four, WITSOTBM is the one that gets the most play. I was so happy a few years ago to find a new CD version that combines this record with 1986’s Jamboree, even if the latter isn’t nearly as good.

The Flower Kings
Space Revolver
In 2003, I rediscovered progressive rock music—not just the old stuff (Genesis, Yes, ELP, King Crimson) that I was into in high school and later abandoned for a time—but also so-called “neo-progressive” bands. Two of the most prominent of these bands formed about the same time (1994) and began to hit their peak around 2000–2002. The first was California’s Spock’s Beard (see later in this list) and the second was Sweden’s The Flower Kings. Yes, this is how I like my progressive rock—sweeping, symphonic, and Swedish. Roine Stolt is a brilliant guitarist who cut his 17-year-old teeth in the early 1970s with the Swedish band Kaipa. He left toward the end of the 1970s and kind of vanished, since after 1977 anyone who played—or even liked—progressive rock became pretty much a pariah. By the early 1990s, fans were rediscovering (or starting to admit that they liked) the music of Yes, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and all that lot, and new progressive bands were starting to form which took the music of their forebears and expanded upon it—often exceeding it. Stolt released an album in 1994 called The Flower King, which was his return to symphonic progressive rock, and was the pilot project for the band The Flower Kings, which released its first album a year later.

Stolt is a great guitar player, with sort of a Zappa-meets-Jeff Beck style with a little David Gilmour thrown in. He’s also the band’s chief singer (sounding like an amalgam of Roger Waters, John Wetton, and the Swedish Chef) and primary songwriter. Sweeping epics are grounded by a very strong melodic base, but they are not loath to go off on sprawling instrumental flights of fancy. And majestic guitar solos. Lyrics tend to be very positive and life-affirming, and vaguely spiritual, but not oppressively so. I think the band is utterly brilliant. If they have a flaw, it’s that some of their albums tend to be a bit much—that is, they are not shy about releasing double-CD sets, and each disc is stuffed to the limit with music. It can be rather a lot to absorb.

2000’s Space Revolver was the first single-disc set after two back-to-back double albums, and it benefits from its focus and editing. The album is bookended by “I Am the Sun” parts one and two, which is the sort of sweeping epic that is the Flower Kings’ stock in trade. Jazz elements occasionally enter the mix, courtesy of Ulf Wallander’s saxophone. Tomas Bodin’s keyboards complement Stolt’s guitar and the interplay between the two is one of the highlights of any Flower Kings record. Second singer Hans Fröberg (he has the technically better voice but it’s less distinctive) gets a song credit with the lovely acoustic “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got.” “Rumble Fish Twist” is a wild instrumental with some exceptional bass work from newcomer Jonas Reingold. Stolt also loves big power riffs, and this album has them in “I Am the Sun” and “Monster Within.” The strangely-chorused “Chicken Farmer Song” (“I’d rather be where the chicken farmers run”) is a breezy pop song with a great guitar solo from Stolt. The five-minute instrumental climax to “I Am the Sun part two” is a thing of beauty, and ends the record on a perfect note. Their music started to get a lot more diverse as the decade wore on, but Space Revolver stands as the perfect essence of this extraordinary band.

The Residents

And now for something completely different. I had heard of The Residents ever since reading about them back in the 1980s—I knew they were famous for being completely anonymous, known only as four figures wearing giant eyeball masks. As the legend has it (and make of it what you will), the four (apparently) people who make up The Residents hailed from Shreveport, Louisiana, and migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s. Sending out demo tapes of their, um, bizarre music, they took their band name from the envelope of a rejection letter from a record company: it was addressed simply to “Residents.”

Undaunted, The Residents were one of the first “indie” bands, setting up their own record company (Ralph Records, which would eventually become fairly famous for signing non-mainstream acts with names like Renaldo & the Loaf) to release their material. They credited all writing and production to The Cryptic Corporation, and band names never appeared anywhere. And still don’t. (They are still recording, although whether it’s the same four guys, who knows, although the singer sounds the same.) Sometime in the 1980s, one of the eyeball masks was stolen, so the Resident opted for a black skull mask instead. Go figure.

The Residents were always about more than music (they weren’t really musicians, and a lot of their early records were more about deconstructing popular music, with The Third Reich’n’Roll being two side-long “mutant medleys” of top 40 hits of the late 1960s; the advent of synthesizers in the late 1970s gave them a bigger palette than the analog instruments they were pounding on throughout the 70s). They also experimented with the “theory of obscurity” (which they credited to a figure called N. Senada, who may or may not have actually existed), which held that “an artist can only produce pure art when the expectations and influences of the outside world are not taken into consideration.” As the legend also goes, they recorded their album Not Available with no intention of ever releasing it, and several years later it was supposedly plucked from the shelves by their record company when they were running late on what would become their much-heralded Eskimo album. (Not Available has got to be quite possibly the strangest album ever recorded, with Eskimo a close second.) They were also early pioneers of merging music and video, long before MTV, and they were early devotees of the nascent interactive CD-ROM movement of the early 1990s (Freak Show was the first of several combination music albums and interactive games they did before the Internet killed the CD-ROM market.)

Anyway, I had never heard a single note from them until a Rhino compilation came out in 1998 and I was curious. It to get into initially, but bizarre enough to warrant further investigation, and I eventually amassed most of their major releases (they’re one of those bands that have tons of EPs and other assorted collections, making completism a bit of a pipe dream). The 1977 release Fingerprince I think strikes the best balance between being experimental and being accessible. It was also toward the end of their analog period, when they still used conventional instruments. They often supplemented their records with actual musicians, such as the late guitarist Phil Lithman (aka Snakefinger).

The opening track “You yesyesyes” starts off sounding like a mutant version of something off Pink Floyd's Obscured by Clouds before the weird horns come in. The first half of the now-typical configuration of Fingerprince (the CD has combined the original LP and a complementary EP called Babyfingers) contains shorter, mutant pop songs—“Godsong” and “Tourniquet of Roses” are highlights—while the second half includes longer pieces like the narrative “Walter Westinghouse” and the epic “ballet” instrumental “Six Things to a Cycle.” “Death in Barstow,” actually far less abrasive (actually quite “easy listening”) on the record compared to the live version from 2010 embedded below, pays tribute to one of their inspirations, avant garde composer Harry Partsch, who died in 1974.
True, Fingerprince may not be as groundbreaking as things like Eskimo or their later work (and 1998’s Wormwood was a contender for this list—I saw them live in L.A. on their “Roadworms” tour and they were great...very theatrical), but it’s the one of their records that I am most likely to put on when the (bizarre) mood strikes me. Currently, they are going through a “narrative” phase, with albums telling entire stories with musical backdrop, kind of like radio drama. It remains difficult keeping up with them!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

King for a Day--Or, Actually, A Lot Longer: Eight Isn't Close to Enough

Syracuse is losing to Rutgers, which is dispiriting, so time to update the blog!
The Rereading Stephen King project has begun! Time and energy will force me to forgo any detailed reviews, but just wanted to add some of my overall impressions of his first eight books. (These have also been interspersed with the first five Don DeLillo books—about which in a separate post at some point—and, following a trip to Graceland, Peter Guralnick’s excellent two-volume biography of Elvis. 
Carrie (1974)
Perhaps his shortest book (at least not under the Bachman name), it is his first and has the distinction of being the book that started it all off, getting him signed to a publisher and on the bestseller lists, the latter thanks in no small part to the De Palma film adaptation, which remains one of the best King adaptations. As first novels go, it's a good one, and taps into the horrors of adolescence quite effectively—we're all with Carrie when the one final humiliation pushes her over the edge. 
If there is a weakness to the book, it's that a lot if it is told through made-up newspaper articles, investigation transcripts, and teenage diaries—all of which sound like, well, Stephen King. 
Grade: B 
Salem's Lot (1975)
This was the first King book I read, way back in 1980, and obviously I liked it, as I continue to enjoy King 32 years later. Reading it, it was actually better than I recall. The town of 'Salem's Lot is very well drawn, and its denizens colorfully and effectively portrayed. The epic length allows us to get familiar with the town (through the eyes of relative outsider Ben Mears) and let the tension build  before the vampires show up. The miniseries they made (that got me to investigate the book way back when) was well-done, but some changes from the book were glaring, such as making Barlow the vampire basically Nosferatu, rather than the urbane sophisticate he is in the book. The ending is also very effective—which isn't always the case with King. 
Grade: A
The Shining (1977) 
It's hard to separate the novel from the classic Kubrick film, but I had actually read the book just before the film came out and recall being very disappointed by how unfaithful the film was to the book. I have since come to appreciate the film on its own terms, and the book on its own terms, as separate entities. (It's also hard not to separate either from the old Simpsons parody of the movie—"That's odd...usually the blood gets off on the second floor.") The main point of departure is the doomed character of Jack Torrance, who in the book is a decent guy battling some demons (alcoholism, a hairtrigger temper) which the evil spirits of the hotel tap into. In the movie, when you cast Jack Nicholson, you're already bringing the crazy. 
The creepy elements (like the feral topiary animals) work much better in the book than on film; in fact, they had remade it as a miniseries in the 90s starring a very miscast Steven Weber—and the topiary animals were rendered in very cheesy CGI. Some things are best left to the imagination. 
Grade: A
Night Shift (1978) 
His first short story collection, Night Shift has some great hits and some very terrible misses, which range all over the stylistic map and span genres. Hands down the scariest story is "The Ledge," about a guy forced to walk a narrow ledge around the top of a skyscraper. Not for the agoraphobic. "Children of the Corn" is also a good one. "I Am the Doorway" is a science-fiction tale that would not have been out of place as an episode of the original Outer Limits. But then you have things like "The Mangler," about a possessed laundry folding machine, which is just as laugh-out-loud goofy today as it was when I first read it back in the early 1980s. "Trucks"—about, well, possessed trucks—is also kind of silly. "The Lawnmower Man" also is not without it's silliness. But when Night Shift is good, it's really good. "The Surf," about a deadly virus, almost acts as a short dry run for the next novel. 
Grade: B-
The Stand (1978)
An attempt at an American Lord of the Rings, it mostly succeeds. It's his first epic, and it sprawls effectively (I did not read the "uncut" version he released in the 1990s). It quickly gets into things, as the disease shows up within the first 100 pages. There is one chapter where he describes how one person can create a chain reaction of infection that is eerily realistic. The Holland Tunnel scene always creeped me out. If there is a weakness to the book, it's the climax, which seems rushed and unsatisfying, as there is no real "stand," per se. The good guys are captured by Randall Flagg in Las Vegas (appropriately, the locus of the evil people), they're tied up, and there isn't even any banter between them before (spoiler alert) a lunatic explodes a nuclear bomb. Then we get another 100 pages of two characters trying to walk back to Boulder. Heck, he spent far more time describing the minutiae of committee meetings. Still, it's a really great epic. 
Grade: A
The Long Walk (1979) (as Richard Bachman)
The first book King published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman was 1977's Rage, about a teenager who takes one of his high school classes hostage. The book was implicated in "inspiring" a real-life school shooting, and King was so mortified that he insisted the book go out of print, the only one of his books to be so. So I did not read it. The second Bachman book was The Long Walk, sort of Speed meets The Hunger Games. In some alternate America (which is never overtly described, but partially revealed in small bits of dialogue), the big annual sporting event is the titular Long Walk, where 100 teenagers must walk nonstop. If they slow to below 6 mph, they are warned; three warnings, and they are shot dead. Whoever outlasts all the others, wins. It really is quite compelling, and though it's not a thick book, I read it in two sittings. Very dark, but good. Suzanne Collins almost certainly read it. 
Grade: A
The Dead Zone (1979)
Back in the day, I read The Dead Zone when it first came out in paperback, and remember not liking it all, that much, for some reason I can't recall. I think I had some recollection that it was told almost entirely through letters (I once tried to write an epistolary novel but I could never afford the postage), but it turns out that only a few letters appear here and there. Weird. 
However, upon rereading it, it is one if my favorite of the early Kings—and I think it's best for a while (we get into a bit down downhill slide, but maybe Christine will turn out to be not as bad as I remember). It's also hard to disassociate it from the excellent David Cronenberg adaptation starring Christopher Walken, although they took some liberties (as usual). Funnily enough, the one chilliung (as it were scene from the movie—where Johnny Smith has a vision that the kid he is tutoring will, with his hockey team, fall through some ice—does not appear in the book; instead, it's a fire at a restaurant hosting high school graduation dinner. Both are effective. The book also delves more into the background of the decidedly unpleasant politician Greg Stillson. 
Grade: A
Firestarter (1980)
Kind of a "Carrie Jr.," Firestarter is good, but a bit of a comedown from the roll King had been on. It's not bad, but not a lot happens. I do like the fact that the narrative starts in medias res, and the back story is gradually revealed. The device of having Charlie McGee's pyrokinetic abilities be the result of CIA-like experiments, and not anything supernatural, is a unique twist for King, and kind of works. The "bad guy"—John Rainbird"—is not your typical villain. King also adds some interesting twists to both Charlie's and her father Andy's mental powers.

Still, you wait for the ultimate climax when Charlie unleashes the full brunt of her power. It does not disappoint.

Grade: B

In the next batch, more Bachman, a rabid dog, and I give the first volume of The Dark Tower a shot...which I had never read before. It's a long flight to Las Vegas, and hopefully I won't run into Randall Flagg or the Trashcan Man. Speaking of which, it took me almost 30 years to figure this out, but back in 1983, a band called The Alarm had a bit of a hit with a song called "The Stand," which was all over the radio, and on MTV. I liked it (sort of—they were in that early 80s U2/Big Country group of guitar bands) but only realized while reading the Wikipedia page about The Stand (the novel) that the song was actually about the book. Go figure.

Certain Songs Part IX: Must I Be a Man In a Suitcase?

This being trade show season, that is not an idle question.

The Police
Zenyattà Mondatta
The five Police records form a kind of sine wave of quality: 1978’s Outlandos D’Amour was okay (“Roxanne” was one highlight), 1979’s Regatta de Blanc was much better, Zenyattà Mondatta really really good, 1981’s Ghost in the Machine not quite as good, and Synchronicity was okay. (The latter was the one with all the hits, but it really is a very spotty record.) And then they broke up.

Zenyattà’s opener “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” is probably the quintessential Police song, about a love struck schoolgirl who’s hot for teacher (to coin a phrase), complete with Lolita reference. The first Police song I ever heard was “De Doo Doo Doo, De Da Da Da”—make fun of the title if you will, but the point of the song is that the narrator is at a loss for words. “When the World is Running Down You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” is another highlight. Gotta love the Monk-like “Canary in a Coalmine”:
You say you want to spend the winter in Firenze
You're so afraid to catch a dose of influenza
You live your life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line
My favorite song on here—for personal reasons (see above)—is “Man in a Suitcase”:
Another key for my collection
For security I race for my connection
Bird in a flying cage you’ll never get to know me well
The world’s my oyster a hotel room’s a prison cell
Must I be the man in a suitcase
And the title? Wikipedia tells us: “[Drummer Stewart] Copeland has claimed that the group arrived at the album's title after deciding it should roll off the tongue. Zenyattà Mondatta are invented portmanteau words, hinting at Zen, at Jomo Kenyatta, at the French word for the world (‘le monde’) and at Reggatta, from the previous album’s name, Reggatta de Blanc.” Well, that clears that up!

Talking Heads
Little Creatures
I know what you’re thinking: “With all the great Talking Heads albums—Remain in Light, Fear of Music, Speaking in Tongues, heck, even Talking Heads 77—you pick this one? Really?” Well, er, yes. As I have said before, context is everything. True, I had seen the video for “Once in a Lifetime” in 1980, and “Burning Down the House” was all over the place in 1983. Oh, and let’s not forget the film Stop Making Sense in 1984. But Little Creatures was the first album I bought by the Talking Heads, as I really liked “Road to Nowhere.” More importantly, I bought this two weeks before I left for freshman year of college, and it always reminds me of the fall of 1985. Indeed, I recall hearing “And She Was” playing a lot while walking around the SU campus (but not levitating).

What I particularly like about Little Creatures is that it was a much simpler record than the three that had preceded it, which were all very good, but very dense, challenging records. (And it took me a very long time to like Fear of Music, which always rubbed me the wrong way like a lot of “Enossified” stuff does at first.) The music is much more accessible, which usually means “dumbed down” or “poppy” and there is some of that, but Talking Heads 77 was also very accessible without sacrificing quality. This was also the first album of theirs in a while that had songs that meant something; on the last two albums, the lyrics were just random fragments strung together. (As an example, read the lyrics for “Burning Down the House” and see if you can discern any kind of meaning.) Here, “And She Was” was about a levitating girlfriend, “Stay Up Late” is about harassing a newborn (not really mean, but kind of funny), and in “Television Man”:
When the world crashes in into my living room
Television man made me what I am
People like to put the television down
But we are just good friends
And at the end of the album:
There’s a city in my mind
Come along and take that ride
And it’s all right, baby, it's all right

And it’s very far away
But it’s growing day by day
And it’s all right, baby, it's all right

They can tell you what to do
But they'll make a fool of you
And it's all right, baby, it’s all right

We’re on a road to nowhere
The cover, by Reverend Howard Finster, is a good example of what we lost when we shrunk album art down to CD size, and then did away with it entirely in the iTunes age. (Finster did the cover for REM’s Reckoning a year earlier.) An unprepossessing album from the Heads that would actually be their last really cohesive album. True Stories, the soundtrack to David Byrne’s first movie (he’d later be called a “Renaissance Man” by Time magazine), would really only be distinguished by containing the song “Radiohead” which gave a certain other band an idea for their name. The band’s 1988 swan song Naked was pretty bad.

Hüsker Dü
Zen Arcade
I came to Hüsker Dü via singer/guitarist Bob Mould’s solo albums, of which there were two at the time I delved into the Hüsker discography, although I only have a couple of their records. But Zen Arcade could very well be their masterpiece, as messy as it is. A double album when released on vinyl, it is sprawling, and is ostensibly a concept album, albeit a very loose one. It ranges from hard pop (“Never Talking to You Again,” “Pink Turns to Blue”) to experimental jams (“Reoccurring Dreams,” “Dreams Reoccurring”) to weird sound collages (“Hare Krsna”), to lo-fi shriekfests (“Beyond the Threshold,” “I'll Never Forget You”).

Despite all the experimentation, it is a loud, hard, relentless record that does take a lot of effort to get all the way through, at least in one sitting. Here, Grant Hart—the drummer, and other singer/songwriter—demonstrates the quieter pop side of the band (such as it is). The tinny, inconsistent production actually suits the material. I recall playing this a lot on my Walkman in the very early 90s; it made a very strong impression on me, and I still put it on occasionally. The teen angstyness doesn’t quite hold up once one has aged beyond a certain point—then it’s time to put on the Sugar records (see later in this list).

Hüsker Dü were from Minneapolis, and perhaps it is for this reason that on the CD single for “Makes No Sense At All” they did a cover of “Love Is All Around” (yes, the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show) that has to be heard to be believed.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Certain Songs Part VIII: I Don’t Care for Sand

Well, this makes for some interesting juxtapositions.

Arctic Monkeys
Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not
In 2006, I was wandering around the music department of my local Borders—back in the days when they actually used to have products for sale (actually, back when Borders existed at all)—and was investigating the albums they had on those listening stations. One of them was the debut album from England’s Arctic Monkeys, which I put on pretty much at random. I liked what I heard, picked it up, and the album stayed in heavy iPod rotation for, well, three years and more. It was only much later that I discovered that they were one of those overhyped “next great thing” bands of the sort I usually quite detest (The Strokes come to mind). But I had been blissfully unaware of the hype and came to them of my own accord, and pretty much at random. The Arctic Monkeys are an interesting case study in how the music industry could actually function successfully if someone in it had a clue. The band generated a tremendous amount of early buzz in the UK by circulating demos of their songs via MP3s before they ever even had a record out. They caught on and by the time Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was released in January 2006—by indie label Domino, and not any of the major labels they could have gone with—pent-up demand led the album to sell more than 225,000 copies in the first week alone, becoming the fastest-selling album in the UK ever. 
That’s all well and good, but is it any good? Obviously I think so. Like a number of albums I like, especially latter-day records, there is nothing startlingly original, just an effective synthesis of everything that has come before. They are a garage-y post-punk outfit, riffs galore played at almost breakneck pace. What distinguishes them, though, is singer Alex Turner’s first-person narrative-based songs that typically document Jack-the-lad British nightlife—carousing, drinking, pulling the birds (or trying to, usually unsuccessfully), which is not surprising given that the bandmembers were all of about 18 years old when the album came out.
 The album kicks off on a raucous note, as Turner declares in the opening lines of “The View from the Afternoon”: 
Anticipation has a habit to set you up
For disappointment in evening entertainment but
Tonight there'll be some love.
Or maybe not, although this could serve as a user manual for a mobile phone circa 2006:
And she won’t be surprised, no she won’t be shocked
When she’s pressed the star after she’s pressed unlock
And there’s verse and chapter sat in her inbox
And all that it says is that you’ve drank a lot.
And then:
And you can pour your heart out around three o’clock
When the 2-for-1’s undone the writers block.
That’ll happen. One of the hits from album was “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (“Your name isn’t Rio, but I don’t care for sand”—too bad these guys weren’t even alive when Duran Duran released “Rio”), where they “dance to electropop like a robot from 1984.” Is that what we all did in 1984? I must have missed that.
They are not averse to British colloquialisms that make one glad for Google; “And I’m so tense, never tenser/Could all go a bit Frank Spencer?” (in “You Probably Couldn’t See for the Lights but You Were Staring Straight at Me”), “Frank Spencer” referring to a particularly inept male. (There is also the famous Northern English slang term “Mardy Bum,” which apparently means “Someone who complains a lot, moans about their life, and so on.”) I also never really got the song title “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured” until a year later when I was in the back of a London cab. Indeed, the narrator is talking to his mate in the back of a cab while he occasionally interrupts to talk to the driver:
See her in the green dress? She talked to me at the bar
How come it’s already two pound fifty? We’ve only gone about a yard
Didn’t you see she were gorgeous, she was beyond belief
But this lad at the side drinking a Smirnoff Ice came and paid for her tropical reef
And I’m sitting going backwards, and I didn’t want to leave
It’s High Green, mate, via Hillsborough, please.
As for the titular red light, the guy really didn’t want to leave the party:
Drunken plots hatched to jump it, ask around are you sure?
Went for it but the red light was showing
And the red light indicates doors are secured.
They really do have red lights that show when the cab is moving.
The band slows down for “Riot Van,” a tale of underage drinkers and their run-in with the cops:
‘Have you been drinking son, you don’t look old enough to me’
‘I’m sorry, officer, is there a certain age you’re supposed to be?..nobody told me’
Up rolled the riot van
And these lads just wind the coppers up
Ask why they don’t catch proper crooks.
It’s a fair question. Still, for all the carousing, he draws the line at ladies of the evening: “And I’ve seen him with girls of the night/And he told Roxanne to put on her red light/They’re all infected but he’ll be alright/Cause he’s a scumbag, don’t you know.”
I question whether these guys’ parents were alive when The Police recorded “Roxanne”!
Lines like “And just cause he’s had a couple of cans/He thinks it’s alright to act like a dickhead” don’t exactly display a Noel Coward-esque wit, but still... Turner directly addresses the music industry in the song “Perhaps Vampires is a Bit Strong But...” (“All you people are vampires!” and “Though you pretend to stand by us/I know you’re certain we’ll fail”).
The Arctic Monkeys quickly released their follow-up Favourite Worst Nightmare in 2007, which didn’t alter the basic formula so much as solidify it. They took their time for their third album Humbug, which came out this year, and was a more (to use a dreaded word) mature album, with slower tempos, more diverse instrumentation, and a mellowing of Alex Turner’s voice (he’s starting to sound like a more butch Morrissey)—and that he’s finally of legal drinking age. 2011’s Suck It and See continued in that vein. It’s good to see that they are serious about their craft, but the first album had that certain je ne sais quoi.

Flaming Lips
Clouds Taste Metallic

I first heard of the Flaming Lips was when The Soft Bulletin came out in 1999, which was hailed by many to be one of the best albums of that year. I really liked it and, delving into their past discography found Clouds Taste Metallic, which I still think is their best record. The Flaming Lips are from Oklahoma, but sound like they are from Mars. They have a compilation CD called Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid, which sums everything up quite succinctly. Although they were never truly accomplished musicians (although there was a bit of a rotation in their early years), they were endlessly creative in the recording studio. They had a modest alternative hit in 1990 with their first consistently good album In a Priest Driven Ambulance, and were signed by Columbia Records. They had an alternative hit with the novelty song “She Don’t Use Jelly” in 1993, and recorded Clouds Taste Metallic in 1995, the culmination, methinks, of everything that went before it.
From the opening “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” with its weird chiming guitars, to “This Here Giraffe,” to...well, just about any track on the record. It’s such a weird album I can’t help but like it. The song titles sum up the odd bent to the lyrics: “Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saved the World” (literally—his psychic powers saved the world “The boy wonder, saves the planet, but destroys his ever-enlarging brain in the process”), “Kim’s Watermelon Gun” (she won’t give it up until everyone learns how to love—sort of a cross between Charles Bronson and Gallagher), “They Punctured My Yolk” (about space travel, believe it or not), “Lightning Strikes the Postman,” and so on. Wayne Coyne’s lyrics, while a bit surreal, have a naive innocence to them, and often quite hopeful (“All your bad days will end”). Musically, it was the last Lips album as a foursome, and the extra guitar helps give these songs a power they never really had since. I was pretty cool to the stuff that preceded it (especially the four-CD album Zaireeka, each disc of which had different parts of the same songs and the idea was to sync four CD players to play them all in unison...yeah).
The follow-up to The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, was pretty good, but I can take or leave what they have done since.

Al Stewart
Time Passages

I first heard Al Stewart, as most people did, on AM radio in the late 1970s, via the hits “Year of the Cat,” “Time Passages,” and “Song on the Radio.” My mother had the Time Passages album on LP and I really don’t know what drew me to it in high school—the interesting lyrics (episodes and themes from history; Stewart has subsequently been called the “King of Historical Folk Rock”), the Alan Parsons production...I really don’t know, but I loved this record, and in college subsequently foundYear of the Cat and the live album Indian Summer in a used record store in Syracuse, and they all got a lot of play. They vanished over the years, but in 2011, Stewart played Caffe Lena here in Saratoga and I took the opportunity to regain my—and his—missing discography (although some of it is out of print).

I still love Time Passages, especially the title track, but also the “trapped underwater” narrative of “Life in Dark Water” (about the mysterious disappearance of the crew of the Marie Celeste—the song actually plays narratively like a Twilight Zone episode), to the Thomas More bio (“A Man for All Seasons”), to the French Revolution and “The Palace of Versailles.” “Timeless Skies” was inspired by Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Lyrically brilliant throughout the album, the music rises to meet it perfectly.

This may have been Stewart’s pinnacle, and while his popularity ebbed through the 1980s, the handful of records he has done in recent years are still really good, even if they don't rise to the height of Time Passages. Oh, and his show at Caffe Lena was phenomenal.