Being a fan of 80’s guitar jangle that I am, it’d come as no real surprise that I’d consider Alex Chilton to be one the forms exemplary talents. Once anyone gets into the litany of bands from that era that regularly spoke of his expansive influence—REM, the Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream, the Posies, Soul Asylum, X, and on and on you could go—you would get to the point that you’d be almost tired of the namecheck and do the homework for yourself. What you’d find, first in the Box Tops records of the mid to late 60s (where his blue eyes soul vocal stylings were second to none) and then specifically the Big Star records of the mid-70s, is some of the most bristling guitar pop of that or any era. Big Star evoked a touching individualistic honesty that immediately marked the songs to his unique perspective (but, lets also not discount Chris Bell’s work with the band too; a fact his genius posthumous I Am the Cosmos LP more than bore), but the three records, as critically heralded as they were, sold poorly and the band remained mere cult darlings. These poor commercial showings strained the bands relationship with the label, and no doubt affected the psyches of Chilton and Bell. Thus, after three records (all of masterpiece quality), the band called it quits. Continue reading
In the fall of 1966, The Miracles, not yet Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (at least on their US singles, as two albums had appeared with this moniker), released ‘(Come ‘Round Here) I’m the One You Need’, a springy piece of guitar driven dance pop. It’s a slight deviation from the normal Smokey track, mainly in that the lyric, though a heartfelt message meant to comfort a girl who may be losing her lover, is boasting and assertive. Robinson was always an assured singer, to me second to none in the form, but his songs are usually forlorn excursions, he the victim of loves often sad outcomes. Since the A-side did appear as such, you’d almost assume that the flip side would tread his usual waters. Little did anyone know that when flipped just how beautiful the B would be, perhaps saying in the plainest language possible that if the A is going to be this strong in confident emotional temperament, the B would have to be at least that lamenting comparatively in reverse. Continue reading
Often you’ll read critics review new artists with a degree of difficulty that no band, save a select dozen or so since rock n’ rolls inception sometime in the mid 1950s, could have ever hoped to achieve. In the reviews, often exciting new artists are compared unfavorably to other bands, as if to say that to bare an influence of another is to be derivative and therefor unoriginal. These critics fail to realize that even the bands they use for comparison most certainly had reference points as well, plus, the very genius of rock n’ roll as a form is just how much subtle (and vast) variation we’ve heard within a relatively tight sonic template. With most acts featuring the simple drum, bass and guitar line-up we’ve nevertheless gotten millions of different songs and lyrical passages. But, and the point can’t be overstated, many great songs are great because they bare striking resemble to other songs. Their brilliance is either as counter-point echo (as I said last post, ‘Just Like Honey’ is wonderful, in part because it’s showing how different a spin on ‘Be My Baby’ can be had using roughly the same parts) or shoulders-in-arms (the Jam copied the Who* and the Small Faces because they were part of the same Mod subculture, albeit more than a decade later), or as in today’s example, giving a nice contemporary reworking to old classics to give the kids something to bop around too. Not an altogether bad thing as the classics can’t be preformed live anymore and a vital underground scene is essential in any city, even if all the clubs are filled with retreads and copycats (not that today’s topic is remotely that though). Continue reading
If pressed on what it is about the rock n’ roll/pop boom that makes me so obsessive, it might just be the timeless nature of it all. Consider todays dual track post, two songs separated by almost 50 years, but being perfectly joined in space by song construction, melody, and mood. You could say this is a quaint way of saying one ripped off another, but they also couldn’t be more different from one another. One an exhilarating rush to the head, the other a laconic dream. And if you like both, as I do, you don’t say which is which within these descriptions, because the beauty here is that both are all of these things at once. We needn’t be worried which one came first (and the technology advances in guitar amplification/feedback make it pretty obvious as to which one came later) in questions of thievery, because both these works create echoes to the past and the future*. Continue reading
‘Waterloo’, the singles English version A-side was the track that fully burst ABBA into the mainstream. Based on all the ‘otherness’ of them, most probably believed their career was starting and ending at roughly the same time; their novelty seemed tailored to a specifically one-hit-wonder status. Listening to ABBA these impressions would probably prompt most to think they came and went as some sort of phenomenon unto themselves, as if because they weren’t the typical group, from the typical place pop bands emerge from (i.e. America and Britain), then they must have borrowed the template of so many artists only within a Swedish geographical origin. No doubt the accents and manners of the group attracted fans of the cheap; they saw pretty women and a few catchy, disposable tracks. But when they’re probed a little more, they’re seen more accurately as a highly talented and efficient group with a deep, rich catalog. Their linage isn’t that narrow either, as there was somewhat of a wave of Swedish pop around the time (and really, Eurovision, the song contest that broke ‘Waterloo’ and therefor ABBA, pumped several equally diverse acts into the consciousness), Harpo, for one, was crafting a decent career around this time (his ‘Horoscope’ single is tremendous) as well (plus, when you listen to ‘Waterloo’ and are familiar with the deliriousness that is Wizzard’s ‘See My Baby Jive’ you see where the dots connect). To me, the depth the ABBA is clear straight away, each album an amalgamation of styles and samples that often all come off remarkably well. Just run a quick jaunt through ‘em and you’d be amazed if you have a previous notion of what you’d expect; ‘Tiger’ is a noisy piece of production bombast (Spector meets, I don’t know, CAN?), ‘Ring Ring’ a bit of Beatles-esque pop, ’Sitting in the Palmtree’ has a go at reggae (as does ‘Tropical Loveland’) just as ‘Intermezzo No. 1’ attempts classical stylings. Plus, there is enough variation within pop (in their catalogue take your pick between at least 20 first rate efforts; ’SOS’ is the best, as Pete Townshend later called it the best pop track of the 1970s), folk (‘Hasta Mañana’), disco (‘Lay All Your Love on Me’) and hard rock (‘Hey, Hey Helen’, ‘King Kong Song’, plus a few wonderful others) to easily proclaim them on the shortlist of most well-rounded acts in the history of the pop form.
It’s this last category—blistering hard rock—that would probably be the most surprising vein of ABBA’s aesthetic to the casual observer. It’s not often highlighted in their work, a shame really, as my personal favorite ABBA number, 1974’s ‘Watch Out’, fits squarely in this category. Continue reading
‘Life on Mars’, David Bowie’s 1971 Honky Dory track and single is, on face value, a whimsical piece of futuristic baroque pop not alike several other works of his from this era. But, probing deeper one finds a treasure chest of hidden meanings, references and inferences. To me it’s a wonderful entry point to him as an artist for these very facts; here he’s both highly accessible in a hummable Pop way, while also proving himself to be a totally unique musician, stretching the boundaries of his form. Continue reading
Let me exploit the existence of Heat (1995) on screen a little further. As written and directed by Michael Mann, it is an absorbing picture, a suspenseful narrative for its full 171 minutes. I watch it a lot, and I can tell myself it is for the craft, the art or the performances (it is one of De Niro’s last good pictures). But I know I am drawn to it by the licensed fantasy of watching cops and robbers strutting their stuff—with guns, but with talk, too. It is a potent males dream. The women in the film are often intriguing, but they are not permitted to rival the male ideology. And Heat is a fire that doesn’t burn me. I can watch its immense street gun battles with excitement; I can be carried away by the notion that De Niro and Pacino are alike in their characters. But my wife once was mugged and I know that their suggestion of parity is insane. A brush with violent crime in lie can be searing and traumatic. Yet on screen it is indulged. Film only works in the dark, and because of safe distance from life.
The intrinsic deal in the movies was to say, Look, for a very modest sum—a nickel, say—we’ll give you an opportunity to see no just the wonders of the world, not just people who are beautiful beyond your dreams, but a set of conditions to which we know you aspire; sexual splendor, thrilling violence, clothes, decor, space, timing, and ultimate happiness; in short, the chance to bathe in the light. It’s the treat of the new age, and here’s the kicker: you can watch the sex and violence without ever being identified, or known. …
-David Thomson, How to Watch a Movie
Opening a piece on Quentin Tarantino’s new snow Western The Hateful Eight with this passage from David Thomson’s new film book seems serendipitously apt, the passage leapt to me as I read it days after receiving the small book for Christmas, the same day The Hateful Eight appeared in limited release. The passage cuts right into much of the random thoughts I’ve had bouncing around in the snow drenched atmospherics of Tarantino’s new film. As such, I’ve decided to write a piece entering Tarantino’s catalogue and specifically this new one in much the same way as I’ve done several Recent Cultural Happenings pieces. Continue reading