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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Opening Lines, Part II: Electric boogaloo.

Last year around this time, I challenged my pop-geek readership to identify 20 pop and rock albums based on their opening lines — a task that enthralled a couple of people for a few minutes, at least.

I’ve decided to do it again.

There’s a different wrinkle this time. I think I went a little too obscure on my first quiz — Captain Beefheart, John Cale, stuff like that.

So this time, I’ve chosen 20 albums that hit the U.S. Top Ten. Some of them went all the way to Number One.

That ought to make it easier. If an album attained that level of success, it can’t be too obscure. Lots of people ought to know it. Right?

Well, we’ll soon find out. Same rules as last year: See if you can name not just the album and performer, but also the song title, based on the album’s first line (or, in some cases, the first full phrase or couplet).

No prizes except bragging rights. And no fair Googling.

1. “Hey, pretty baby / Let’s go for a ride.”

2. “Who’s that coming ’round that corner / Who’s that coming ’round that bend?”

3. “It’s coming from so far away / It’s hard to say for sure.”

4. “I just received your letter / You’re down and out, you say.”

5. “Over and over / Just as plain as can be.”

6. “Get the idea cross around the track / Underneath the flank of a thoroughbred racing chaser.”

7. “I remember the day that we met / I needed someone, you needed someone too.”

8. “Spendin’ my day / Thinkin’ ’bout you, girl.”

9. “Wake up, my love, beneath the midday sun.”

10. “Sit yourself down / Bang out a tune on that grand piano.”

11. “Got to get down / Down on my knees.”

12. “Hello Western Union / Won’t you listen to me, man?”

13. “We’re so young and pretty, we’re so young and clean.”

14. “Dry your eyes, my little friend / Let me take you by the hand.”

15. “I’ll take you down to that bright city mile.”

16. “Hear my baby coming down the track / Betcha my baby’s coming back.”

17. “Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst / The air smells sweet, the air smells sick.”

18. “Here I lie, in a lost and lonely part of town.”

19. “I’ve been all over the world / and I’ve seen all kinds of girls.”

20. “Desolation / Creation / Communication.”

Answers to come in a couple of days.

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Here come the waves.

News item: Legendary singer-songwriter Lou Reed is dead at 71.

Lou Reed is the only performer who’s ever enticed me to listen to four straight sides of pure, tuneless guitar feedback — a trip I’ve taken more than once, actually.

He’s also responsible for a song that bends my mind as much as any other I’ve ever heard.

“Waves of Fear” (from 1982’s excellent The Blue Mask) is, I think, about the DTs; but it speaks to me as the voice of the curled snake we all have somewhere in our intestines that poisons us with its venom, and sticks its head up when we’re vulnerable to tell us we’re worthless and bound for failure.

Three or four listens in a row, and I’m either intensely depressed or having arguments with imaginary strangers. It’s astonishing; the song’s impact on me is predictable, even drug-like.

I’ve gone there more than once, too.

But I don’t want to go either of those places now … nor do I want to remember Lou Reed as the epitome of unrelieved pain and bleakness.

So instead, the song I’ll link to is a Velvet Underground outtake that, remarkably, wasn’t officially released until a vault-clearing expedition in the mid-1980s.

“Ocean” features an alternately self-castigating (“I am a lazy son / I never *get* things done”) and gentle Reed vocal, set over a lulling arrangement that proves to anyone still needing proof that the Velvets weren’t just primitive feedback-merchant bashers.

It’s not a laugh-out-loud happy song, but it doesn’t strike me as a particularly sad one either — which may, indeed, make it a fitting summary for the bipolar career of Lou Reed.

I think this has been playing somewhere in my brain since I first bought the record in the very late ’80s.

It’s playing there now.

Here come the waves …

Faded glory.

I don’t spend much time in high schools nowadays. The little time I do spend in my local school is generally limited to the auditorium, where the quarterly band concerts are.

One of my kids had his first youth basketball practice today, so I got to infiltrate the athletic wing.

I couldn’t recall having been there before. It was shinier and nicer-smelling than the high-school athletic wing of my youth.

(Most things I run into are shinier and nicer-smelling than they were in 1990. Curious, that.)

But one thing about the athletic area made it instantly familiar.

trophies

It occurred to me that every high school in the country could have the exact same trophies in its display cases, and no one would ever be the wiser.

Perhaps they all do, and these display cases are a quiet, chuckling in-joke among the athletic directors of the world.

(I bet you never thought of your local high school athletic director as puckish, playful or humorous. Maybe he’s playing a fabulous prank on the entire community, out there in plain sight.)

I also had the thought that, at some athletically challenged high school, the senior class might take the money for its senior gift and buy 10 “historic” awards to beef up the school trophy case.

C’mon. If you walked past a display case with plaques reading Runner-Up Hurricane Invitational 1982 and Regional Tournament Champions 1988 and Gus Kekula All-State Third Baseman 1973, would you have any idea they were fake and had been newly minted a month before?

Seems to me that a creatively minded senior class gift could jump-start an athletic tradition at their high school. It would be a better investment than a new sign or new granite bench in front of the school.

I kinda hope I’m not the first person who ever thought of this, and that someone’s actually done it. I’ll never know, though.

(Which is as it should be.)

I was on a couple of cross-country teams in high school that came away from meets with hardware. I wonder if those plaques and trophies are still on display.

My guess is probably not. My old school’s sports teams have gotten markedly better since I graduated. (Coincidence? No.)

I imagine the trophies of 1990 have long since been shouldered aside by garlands of more recent vintage.

That’s fine with me. High schools are no place for immortality, and I have no problem accepting that there is no trace of me left at my old school.

If I’d been All-State, like old Gus Kekula, maybe I’d feel differently.

The gift.

Nothing new to say tonight, really.

Been listening to the Velvet Underground a fair amount lately, and was heartened to find that someone on YouTube had produced an all-instrumental version of “The Gift.”

For those not familiar with it, the song — from the Velvets’ White Light/White Heat album — features a chugging instrumental jam in one speaker and John Cale reciting a story in the other.

The story I can take or leave — once you’ve heard it, you know how it ends — but I always liked the instrumental, which is built on a snarling, repeated fuzz-bass lick.

I’m hard put to explain why this is so great when the Velvets do it, and why an eight-minute, one-chord jam performed by a high-school band wouldn’t be as good.

(Maybe it would be.)

Five For The Record: The Left Banke, “Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina.”

A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: First album by New York City-based baroque-pop quintet.  Released February 1967. Spawned — or, perhaps, collected — two Top 20 singles (both of them mentioned in the album title, but more on that anon.) Peaked at No. 67 on the Billboard album charts.

And here’s why I like it:

1. Long, long, long. Of all the rock bands in all the gin joints in all the world, few have ever captured the sound and feel of longing quite as well as the Left Banke.

Both of their big hits (did I mention they’re both in the album title?) deal with a young man trying none too successfully to clear his mind of a departed but still revered young woman.

“Walk Away Renee” was the bigger hit. I acknowledge a certain genius at work there, but I’ve always found the song a little too weepy, too delicate and perhaps too string-sodden to become a real favorite.

“Pretty Ballerina,” on the other hand, is gentle and heartwrenching and mesmeric.

Unlike the narrator of “Renee,” who seems to be coming to terms with Renee’s departure, the narrator here still seems under a spell. He hasn’t gotten over the pretty ballerina, and he doesn’t seem to know a way out; we can’t be sure how long she’s been gone, but at the end of the song, he’s still closing his eyes and seeing her.

“I called her yesterday / It should have been tomorrow” captures romantic desire about as well as anybody ever has in nine words, too.

2. The non-hit. After leading off with “Pretty Ballerina,” the album shifts gears, going uptempo — though no less emotionally complicated — with “She May Call You Up Tonight.”

It’s another dose of gorgeous, chiming, regretful pop, with ingenious one-note high harmony on the chorus.

The lyric, meanwhile, is half-sketched in the classic tradition. We learn neither the roots of the situation nor its resolution; we get only a snapshot, a snatch of conversation, to work from.

Wiki says the song peaked at No. 120 on the singles charts (do they even go that low?), which can only be interpreted as a stunning gap in taste among American pop listeners.

The invaluable ARSA database tells us that “She May Call You Up Tonight” bordered on hit status in Oxnard, California, for much of July 1967. A feather in Oxnard’s cap. Forsooth!

3. Uneasy bedfellows. When I learned about the Left Banke’s reputation as a “baroque-pop” band, I kind of put them on a pedestal of lofty velvet-parlor artiness.

But until I heard the record, it never occurred to me that they were twentysomethings in the Sixties writing songs for teens.

Which means all the harpsichord flourishes and oboe solos coexist with rockheaded lyrics about saying goodbye to that Sixties archetype, the No-Good Girl. (“I’ve got to make you see, you’re not the girl for me / And I will prove it to you / So that you will see.”)

The clash is most delicious on “Evening Gown,” in which a bouncy, jingling harpsichord riff meets a Nuggets-raw vocal about a young lady dressed for a night at the cotillion.

The third verse ends with an open-throated “WHAAAAAOOOOOOOWWWWW!” worthy of the Chocolate Watch Band, the Troggs or some other knuckle-dragging garage-punk outfit. It’s great.

(There’s a totally random YouTube video that sets the song to some sort of animated asylum fantasy; I suggest cueing up the video and then doing something in another browser while the song plays.)

4. Stylistic pioneers. Sure, the garage-pop elements of the record took me by surprise.

But I was even more slack-jawed to come across “What Do You Know,” a straight-ahead country-rock tune that anticipates most of what Buffalo Springfield ever did.

(For maximum stylistic dissonance, “What Do You Know” is placed directly after the epic baroque ballad “Walk Away Renee” at the start of Side Two.)

It’s an OK song but not tremendously memorable, truth be told. It’s not the absolute first in its field either — the Byrds did this sort of thing earlier, as did the Beatles when they cut “Act Naturally.”

And whether an antecedent of country-rock is something to celebrate or something to revile is up to you, the listener.

I was just surprised the Left Banke went down that particular avenue at all, especially given they were there before a lot of other bands.

5. Just the hits, ma’am. In 1966-67, bands like the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones were starting to expand the possibilities of the album title, coining wry puns (Revolver) and outright non sequiturs (Between the Buttons) that had little to do with anything on the record.

But less influential or popular bands were still stuck with whatever album title the record label coughed out. And often, the title of the big hit or hits was the obvious choice.

And so, we have an album title whose unimaginative, move-’em-out bluntness is just as much a remnant of its time as the swirling string arrangements on the vinyl.

I wonder what the guys in the band might have called the album, if they’d had a choice.

Rockin’.

The Great Rock and Rye Experiment has borne sweet and bitter fruit.

After two days of soaking, I have strained the solids out of my homemade rock and rye and put it back in the bottle it came in.

(If my photo download software was working I’d insert a picture here. Homemade rock and rye looks much like regular rye, except more turbid.)

How is it?

Well, the good news is, the sweetness from the rock candy is present but not overwhelming. I’ve seen some of the factory-made rock and ryes described as sweet and cordial-like; that was decidedly not what I was after.

(Also good news: Rye-soaked lemons make for wonderful sucking. That in and of itself will probably cure what ails you.)

The somewhat less good news is, the dominant flavor note is now a wild untamed citrus-peel bitterness.

(Was I supposed to peel the things? Hmmm.)

It’s not undrinkable; it’s just a little much. It does mellow a little bit given a few minutes over ice.

On the bright side, medicine ain’t supposed to taste good; so I am only further convinced that this long-awaited tonic will drive off my cold.

Indeed, I have been building this stuff up in my mind for several days now to the point where it cannot possibly fail, just because I’ve mentally put the faith of generations behind it.

I’ve administered myself two doses tonight, which ought to be enough to cure a bison. I have full confidence that I will get out of bed tomorrow clicking my heels and whistling “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”

We’ll see how the wind blows.

From the Valley: Grab bag.

It’s been a while since I did one of my From the Valley reviews of local music, mainly because I haven’t seen a lot lately that inspired me.

But, just to keep the beast fed, here are a few words on a few recent local recordings:

The Happy Feiertogs, self-titled two-song EP: This is labeled “experimental,” but it’s not really all that experimental. The production is sorta swirly, and weird voices pop up from time to time; but they’re still playing in conventional key signatures, in 4/4 time, and all that.

It’s not bad — “Maneno Kwa Afrika” is the pick hit here, with its repeating bass figure and heavily echoed vocal interjections (“Botswana-wana-wana-wana! Chad-chad-chad-chad! Congo-congo-congo-congo!”) — but I think these guys need to find a little something extra to really be memorable.

The Happy Feiertogs’ EP is available as a name-your-own-price download here.

The Ghost Within Us, “Wipe Off The Hot”: Same deal as above. Two guys in the studio making music they label “experimental,” but doesn’t really go all that far out. (The Feiertogs are in Allentown and The Ghost Within Us is in Bethlehem, for what that’s worth.)

“Wipe Off The Hot” features some pretty good guitar playing. At its best, it could pass for a U2 backing track, as it’s one of those tunes that takes three chords and then uses synth drones and chunking rhythm guitar to vary the texture.

That style hasn’t been particularly “experimental” since about 1983, though … and here it just leads to a track that feels like it maybe isn’t all the way finished yet.

The Ghost Within Us’ “Wipe Off The Hot” is available for free download here.

D.V.O.I.M., “Rookie E.P.”: Easton-area mixmaster Ibn Malone cites maverick hip-hop producer J. Dilla as an influence. I imagine the brief, jagged set-pieces on “Rookie E.P.” are probably much like the ones Dilla turned out when he was developing, which is to say that Malone’s learning well.

If I have any beef with this, it might be the download price; $5 for scarcely three minutes of music seems a bit much. But, not everybody gives it away for free, and a dude’s gotta get paid.

D.V.O.I.M.’s “Rookie E.P.” is available for download here.

Vandora, “Prototype”: Phillipsburg, N.J.’s Vandora apparently has a full-length album planned for sometime this winter, but has put a couple of scratch mixes out as an EP.

Opener “White Noise” (no, it isn’t literally white noise) reminds me a little of King Crimson in places, smart and aggressive with growling bass, which is a high compliment around these parts.

“Silicon” is a six-minute song that moves intelligently between different speeds and sections; they don’t sound like they were written separately and scotch-taped together, as some long songs do.  The closer “Grand Designs,” brief and piano-driven, makes an effective change from the other two songs.

Yeah, I’d be interested to see what these guys do on a full-length.

Vandora’s “Prototype” is available as a $3 download here.

Seagulls Fucking Seagulls, “RADIOWAVES”: Allentown noisemonger Pory Nog is nothing if not prodigious: Since I last wrote about his one-man band Seagulls Fucking Seagulls, at least four new Bandcamp releases have come out bearing the SFS imprimatur.

I haven’t listened to ’em all — or even most of them — but I’m still anointing “RADIOWAVES” as the best of the batch. It’s more than an hour-and-a-half of radio static, punctuated by glitchy broadcast bursts and the occasional sonic molestation of what appears to be a Kidz Bop CD.

I periodically get into moods in which I could listen to stuff like this all the way through. If you’re wired on the same frequency, give it a spin.

Seagulls Fucking Seagulls’ “RADIOWAVES” is available as a name-your-own-price download here.