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.

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