Songs I Love: ‘Life on Mars?’

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‘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

ONE DAY OF BASS

Anyone who has shared space within my vicinity since I was around 14 years of age could tell you where a discussion on bass guitar players was going to land. I’ve been an avowed Who fanatic since then, seeing the best parts of my last two decades as a loyal disciple in the cult of Pete Townshend. John Entwistle would then have been my first idea of what a player on the instrument should be, and even if he isn’t my ideal now (my tastes have changed in what I expect and appreciate from the bass in recent years), he’d never be that far from whatever new track or player had emerged in my mind. I can’t see him any differently—he might just be the reason why the Who were the Who and why there wasn’t (and hasn’t been) a band totally like them; his singular talent infused with an ability to play lead and rhythm simultaneously (or quickly switch back and forth with an instinctive flare coupled with a taste not often known to players of his ability [anytime you hear a flash, showy solo on any instrument with endless unnecessary notes you’ll understand what I mean) letting Pete roam and create fury, or play measly rhythm leads as he danced around onstage. Keith Moon also relied on Entwistle’s rock solid time keeping, as he too couldn’t be bothered with anything but the ultra showmanship of the fastest drummer alive. Yes, without Entwistle, the great charms that made the Who totally unique and wonderful—they were brash, combustible, and erratic—would have completely fallen apart at the seems. If Entwistle wasn’t there to keep everything buttoned down, playing the traditional role of the drums (time keeping), guitar (leads and flourishes) and bass (additional rhythm support), the Who would have been a wild, incoherent cacophony, rather than a tightly orchestrated cacophony that worked against all odds. Continue reading

Four Days of Bass

Since we’re in the last four selections I figured why not start selecting the songs I most readily think about when I think about bass guitar. I’ll drop the slight continued steam of consciousness that the previous posts where sort of linking themselves to one another, and just offer a few random picks where the bass work will speak for itself.

The first one I want to talk about is from The Boo Radleys’ widely far reaching 12” Lazarus EP coming from the same sessions that resulted in their August 1993 masterpiece release, Giant Steps. The extended ‘Lazarus’ on the EP preceded the slightly shorter version that appears on Giant Steps’ side two by a few weeks and showed the band moving in titanically new avenues. In the extended version the song is a varied kaleidoscope of genre, moving as adept at dub reggae bass as it is to shimmering shoe-gaze infected BritPop. It was the sound of the band at that exact moment; willing to try anything and miraculously pull it all off, for in a brief time period in 1993 the Boo Radley’s were perhaps the greatest band in the world. Continue reading

Five Days of Bass

Since my last two picks were examples of the British bass boom of the late 70’s and early 80’s (with the last entry specifically articulating a few theories as to why this boom came into being) I thought that today’s pick should be something showing more the exact influence that Motown had on the bass sound of the era.

The Jackson 5’s ‘Darling Dear’, featuring the superlative work on bass by James Jamerson, was my prototype bass sound of Motown pick, and when put before the Au Pairs and Jah Wobble you see that though influenced, the British kids interpreted bass in a much more antsy, angular way (I’d think it’d be explained in an obvious evolution; in American one slides when they danced to pop music, while in Britain in the late 70’s everyone was doing the pogo. Bass should pop and burst if pogo is what everyone is doing, while it should meander and slide if everyone is going to slink around). This isn’t to say that it was all this way, and today’s pick is meant to show a British track from the era with fluid Motown-like bass.  Continue reading

Six Days of Bass

The late 1970’s and into the early 1980’s Britain saw a remarkable rise in the range of fluid, innovative bass players inhabiting their music scene. Several ideas exist to explain the phenomenon; some say the rise of Northern Soul in the early 70s influenced an entire generation in their formative years to see the instrument as a vital shaper to song construction, while also providing a view of how another culture (black America) saw the instrument (funky and soulful and as much a lead instrument as the guitar). For others it was a similar idea, with Jamaican dub and rasta culture being supplanted for Northern Soul. Inner cities of Britain had large Jamaican communities where dub and rasta emanated daily, filling anyone within earshot with deep, shaking grooves. Then, there is the homegrown influence: everyone’s lovable Beatle, Paul McCartney, had made the instrument seem as cool and worthwhile as any other (here the Who’s John Entwistle probably deserves a nod as well). Whatever the reason you believe (and in reality it’s probably a combination of all of these), the punk movement and the post-movement was packed with deep sounds, from Medium Medium to Gang of Four, the Au Pairs to Joy Division and the Slits, to Delta 5, the Jam and the Clash, (and on and on) the bass guitar stamped the era as much as any singular sound, perhaps in retrospect changing the preconceived notion that the time was embedded with throbbing bass as much as yelping, howling anger.  Continue reading

My Favorite Record of the Year

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Over the next coming days, I’m set to finally roll out my favorite records of last year, 2014. Today’s sole entry is my favorite record. Remaining posts will be a collection of brief reviews in capsule form.

Putting the Manic Street Preachers into a historical setting is perhaps the greatest way to begin to see just how special the band continues to be. As they entered their third decade recording music there wasn’t any reason to believe they would be any different from any other once great band reaching that point; the Who had seen their third decade together birth the post-Keith Moon unevenness of Face Dances and It’s Hard; the Rolling Stones produced as much dreck in the 80’s (Emotional Rescue, Tattoo You, Undercover, Dirty Work, and Steel Wheels are all so hit and miss that only Voodoo Lounge‘s general blandness makes them passable in comparison) as David Bowie did (Tonight is as middling as he’s ever been and the later work with Tin Machine only points to this conclusion even more: though to be fair to Bowie you’d admit that this is the Manics twelfth album, while Bowie was still that strong too—his twelfth was Heroes after all). The Kinks could even be thrown into the mix, and hell, if it wasn’t for the resurrection on Delta Machine, Depeche Mode would be pointing to the same ether after the retro-thud of Sounds of the Universe. Saying all this, especially in 2014, the Manic Street Preachers seem most closely comparable with U2, they both are attempting rejuvenation and relevance within the larger framework of politically charged arena-art rock, but where U2 released one of the blandest records by a major artist ever in 2014 (with Songs of Innocence) coupled with the complete missing of the mark that was the Apple iTunes giveaway/breach of privacy, the Manic Street Preachers miraculously continued to release some of their most forward looking music of their ever growing career. The fact that the music is as chart ready as it is politically astute only laments even stronger at the thrust of the music on display here.
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The Holy Bible turns 20

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This is a re-post of a piece from another blog, about the Manic Street Preachers masterful album from 1994, The Holy Bible. This week, August 29th, 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the album’s release in the UK via Epic Records.

In many ways BritPop could be looked at as a direct response to American’s grunge movement of the day, specifically the meteoritic rise of Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana. It wasn’t like Britain didn’t like grunge, a quick watching of the Nirvana dvd ‘Live at Reading’ more then shows this, as does the interpretation of Cobain’s career by several of the leading glitterati of the BritPop movement. Noel Gallagher for example, wrote Oasis’ breakout single ‘Live Forever’ as a direct counter to Nirvana’s ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’, expressing essentially that pop stars have some sort of obligation of message to millions of impressionable, adorning fans. It would almost be weird stance for him to take, as in a few short months Oasis would themselves be heavily under the influence of hardcore street drugs (his direct quote on ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’ was, “‘Well, I’m not fucking having that.’ As much as I fucking like him [Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain] and all that shit, I’m not having that. I can’t have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That’s fucking rubbish. Kids don’t need to be hearing that nonsense.”). But, as is almost always the case with British pop, it distinctions and chief breaking off point with grunge was a class distinction at heart. As Noel continued, “Seems to me that here was a guy (Kurt Cobain) who had everything, and was miserable about it. And we had fuck-all (the Gallagher’s grew up in a broken home that was incredibly poor), and I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest fuckin’ thing ever, ’cause you didn’t know where you’d end up at night. And we didn’t have a pot to piss in, but it was fucking great, man.”

What all this says is a critical distinction of the era’s music geographically (it could probably be extended to the entire post-Elvis pop landscape in the specific countries; American pop music deals in rebellion in a expressionistic, nihilistic way that is incredibly individual, while British pop celebrates the class ascension afforded it’s pop stars. In short, that’s the essential dream of becoming a pop star [but both are rooted in the under class]. It’s why the clothes are so important to the British pop star, and why fashion has been relatively consistent throughout its family tree; Pete Townshend wore Fred Perry in 1965, as did Steve Marriott in 1967. Then so did Desmond Dekker in 1971, then so do Paul Weller and Terry Hall in 1979, as did Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn in 1993, and why Alex Turner did in 2006. It’ll be why the next great artist will in 2015, or 2020). The point of all this is to point out that while BritPop on the surface looked like throwaway cheery pop compared to the doom and gloom of grunge this wasn’t actually the case, BritPop was as depressive as grunge (and in some ways more so) and most of the leading records of the movement clearly exhibit this. In fact several are about this depression, often articulated as either individual existential angst (Suede’s Dog Star Man and Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, or more acutely Oasis’ ‘Morning Glory’ and Blur’s ‘Badhead’ and/or ‘Tracy Jacks’) or the collective crumbling of English imperial class culture (Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish or The Auteurs New Wave, or more acutely Pulp’s brilliant ‘Common People’). Nirvana, and the music that came in their wake, was just music colored in slightly different tones.

This key distinction, that’s just a distinction of articulation of similar themes, is but one thing that makes the Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible from 1994 such an interesting record. Continue reading