Sunday, October 21, 2012

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.

No comments: