Saturday, October 13, 2012

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.

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