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.


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