Monday, March 21, 2005

Perfect Pop

9. "Every Day I Have to Cry," Dusty Springfield (1964)
Part of my continuing search to round up ridiculously chipper tunes that mope about like no one's business. This version of an Arthur Alexander song opens with what could be a marching band rally, for crying out loud.

10. "Ramon Finds Waterfalls," Cotton Mather (2001)
The blighted world of power pop got just a little more pathetic when this Austin, TX band utterly vanished. (Here is a woefully out-of-date fan site.) This song is, basically, the White Album meets power-ballad meets total, colossal mindfuck. On their 2001 The Big Picture, it's followed by "Waterfalls" (time warped tape loops) and "Running Coyote Advances," an improbably titled, short shot of piano calm. To be frank, all three deserves to be heard as one piece; I mention this because I hope tonight to start making a tape of all the Perfect Pop entries. (Why a tape? 'Cause some of this stuff have on vinyl and cassette, and I expect I'll have to technology to burn them... never.)

Friday, March 18, 2005

Regarding the query posed in the previous post, someone suggested "Hey Ya!" to me, which is, overall, an excellent choice and a big oversight on my part. That song is, of course, insanely catchy and was The Big Hit of 2003-into-04, while cannily sneeking in some pained verses about a failed relationship. Halfway through, however, Andre 3000 exhorts that the audience doesn't really care about his heartbreak and just wants to dance. A great meta move, but I can't help but think the song would better qualify for the category I was talking about had he stuck with the love-lost theme for the whole song. But then, he wouldn't have said the stuff about Poloroid pictures, and it just wouldn't have been the same song.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Perfect Pop

8. “Too Many Teardrops,” Nick Lowe (1982)

(There’s no use in pretending any longer that I’m through with this concept.)

This is from the album Nick the Knife, which is about where the non-nerd population promptly lost interest in Mr. Lowe. He wrote it with his then-wife Carlene Carter (daughter of June Carter Cash from her first marriage), and she also sings fantastic harmonies for the entire song. It’s a great country-soul thumper with a solid drum part. It got me thinking: not that this song was a hit to begin with, but do these kinds of songs have any chance to be hits anymore? What we’ve got here is a relentlessly sad lyric and a grooving melody that has just enough twist and turns to make you want to listen multiple times. This song wallows, but in a fun way. In contrast, and I’ve done absolutely no scientific research on this, it seems like a lot of hit songs these days, particularly of the lost-love variety, always have some sort of self-empowerment subtext.

I’d like to draw a line from “Too Many Teardrops” to the current pop song du jour, Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” but I think the latter, fine as it is, comes from the ‘90s quiet-verse, loud-chorus thing, and is thus a different animal entirely. Maybe Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” is a good comparison point, but am I alone in thinking that song’s melody utterly betrays the desperation outlined in the lyric? You need something with a chipper sound that is totally at odds with the lyrics. Perhaps you have to go back to “Tears of a Clown,” one of the greatest songs ever written, to find a similar mix of upbeat tune and desolate sentiment. Not that “Too Many Teardrops” as much as I love it, is on par with that formidable tune. Any other suggestions are greatly encouraged.

Apparently, Carlene Carter has her own version of this song released around the same time. I’d like to hear it someday.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

My contribution to the CP's music issue is here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Influential Albums from My Misspent Youth
1. Paul Simon, The Rhythm of the Saints (1990)

If I had to pick one album that had the most profound impact on me in my formative years, this may very well be the one. Many of the things about music that have made me want to collect it and write about it, I first found in this record.

I cracked open The Rhythm of the Saints at the height of my unfortunate classic-rock days (Floyd, Yes, even Genesis, although, in my defense, also Beatles, Stones, Who and, of course, Kinks). In fact, since I wasn’t much of a disposable income kind of guy, being 13 and all, I have classic-rock radio to thank for my ownership of this album. Hard to believe now, but not only would 94.1 WYSP play six whole albums in their entirety on late Sunday nights back then, but Paul Simon was the kind of artist whose new album could be included among the six. Fortunately, I had a blank tape all ready that night

I didn’t like this album much at first -- apart from the great first track and hit single “The Obvious Child” -- and barely listened to it. It didn’t have the immediately catchy melodies that Simon and Garfunkel and even Graceland had. Being Simon’s foray into Brazillian music, it just seemed to have a lot of marimbas.

Two or three years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I pulled the tape out on a whim during a day home sick. By then I think I owned the live album that had some of the Rhythm songs, and was piqued about the studio counterparts. Or maybe I was just inspired having watched The Graduate for the first time.

This moment was a seminal one all on its own: I learned that I could not dismiss an album after the first few listens, that it might be worth waiting a few months -- or a few years in this case -- to figure out the record.

What had once seemed formless suddenly became beguiling, full of vulnerable melodies. Most of all though, I discovered the words. Conversational yet artful, they scanned effortlessly as most pop lyrics rarely do, and they were articulate in a fresh way: “And in remembering a road sign, I am remembering a girl when I was young.” “I know the reason I feel so blessed, my heart still splashes inside my chest.” “I had a dream about us in the bottles and the bones of the night.” “Me and my buddies, we are traveling people. We like to go to restaurant row.”

With these lyrics, I understood just how much literary form -- shifting perspectives, poetic imagery, metaphor -- could be applied to pop music, and how much richness could result. They made what sounded like a mid-life crisis for Paul Simon something I could comprehend as a 13-year-old. Maybe that wasn’t such a good thing. But while a lot of what we’re supposed to appreciate about rock ’n’ roll is its supposed immediacy, there’s a real value in music like this, one that crafted to capture an emotion as precisely as possible. There’s a conciseness, an economy here that’s admirable.

The album became my favorite to listen to while waiting for sleep at night. Sometimes, once the album ended, I’d rewind to the beginning and play it again.

Now, listening to this album frequently for the first spell in many years, it has lost some luster for me, perhaps inevitably. Much of this is neither my fault nor that of the music. What we have here is something I think will come into play pretty often in this series of essays. I have termed it The Maxell Conundrum.

Basically, this is it: If you become deeply familiar with an album via cassette tape, the inherent limits of that medium will meld more and more with your understanding of the album. So much so that when the cassette tape medium is removed from the equation, something is lost. In the time since my initial love affair with this album and now, I acquired it on CD, and it just doesn’t sound the same as I remembered it. The state-of-the-art synthesizers and new-age touches are more apparent now. I heard them the first time, but thanks to cassette tape, there was a rough barrier placed in front of them that turned out to be part of the album’s charm for me.

Nevertheless, The Rhythm of the Saints still yields numerous pleasures: the yearning tone of Simon’s voice, not at all the sound of a complacent millionaire; unexpected textures like the presence of blues guitarist J.J. Cale on two tracks; the gently galloping percussion, endlessly pushing a life on the move further.

That the album no longer holds the importance it once did for me in no way diminishes that initial importance. And whenever someone tells me that Paul Simon is a jerk (probably) or an imperialist (uhhh...), I just think to myself, yeah, but you don’t understand...

Next in this series: Tom Waits’ Bone Machine.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Perfect Pop

(Okay, so I lied. One more.)

7. "Wait Till Next Year," Rick Nelson
I love the album cover. That's partially why I bought it at a flea market a year or so ago. Well, that and it contains four songs written by UTR favorite Randy Newman. This song is the only one of four I've never heard before, the only one Newman hasn't recorded, to my knowledge (not yet, anyway). A forgotten gem. A very '30s-style piano. Already Newman is able to very briskly sketch a uniquely flawed character -- here, a n'er-do-well not only well aware of it but, as is apparent by the end, all too willing to cultivate the appearance.
An interesting album, overall. Also has songs by Paul Simon, Harry Nilsson and Richie Havens. An odd space for Rick Nelson's career, after "Travelin' Man," before "Garden Party."

The lyrics.