Monthly archives: February 2008
Tin Ear Top Ten
1) "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)" - Wilco (1999)
From Wilco's third album, Summerteeth, which found the band in a power-pop transition phase between their alt-country beginnings and the more experimental studio compositions of the acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)" is one of the album's catchiest and best tunes thanks in large part to a chorus that brings in tambourine, hand claps, and an organ played to sound like a theremin. A school bell signals the beginning of the bridge, which shifts to a march-step beat, all of which is highly reminiscent of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, which was clearly a strong influence on the album. The bulk of the song is driven by Jeff Tweedy's accoustic guitar and vocals, but buoyed by the rhythm section of John Stirrat and Ken Koomer, and the backup vocals of Stirrat and Jay Bennett. Tweedy sings about love being enough to help a relationship past it's rough spots, changing the final chorus to "nothing's ever gonna stand in our way again."
2) "The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)" - Black Sheep (1991)
Somewhat forgotten members of the Native Tongues crew, Black Sheep were all over MTV with this cut from their debut A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, which sounds like a lost track from A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory given it's fretless upright bass line and Dres and Mista Lawnge's smooth, smokey deliveries. In fact, the track is strongly (and likely intentionally) reminiscent of Tribe's megahit posse cut "Scenario" from the same year which used a similar baseline and vocal rhythm (this track even ends with low-key female backup vocals repeating "here we go, yo, here we go"). "The Choice Is Yours" is not as good at that Tribe track, but this remix from the original album is still something of a lost classic in its own right.
3) "Everyon's Gone To The Movies" - Steely Dan (1975)
This vibraphone-driven sleeze from Steely Dan is a lecherous come-on to underage kids to come see the films "Mr. LaPage" is showing in his den (or to get one particular kid alone while the others are away). Steely Dan were disturbingly good at this sort of thing, as the song is simultaneously catchy and creepy, maintaining a superficial cheerfulness that is the aural equivalent of the candy offered by dangerous strangers. My favorite moment in the song, however, is when a saxophone trill is quickly faded in and out during a gap in the first verse; it's like a dirty thought buzzing through the head of the singer that is quickly pushed out of his mind as he tries to maintain his innocent facade.
4) "Rainy Day Blues" - Willie Nelson (1959)
Recorded in the same self-financed session as his classic "Nite Life" and the B-side of that single which, for legal reasons, was credited to Paul Buskirk & His Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson (Buskirk was Willie's guitarist on the session, and Hugh is Willie's middle name), this is the product of one of Nelson's earliest recording sessions and appears here via the essential collection Nite Life: Greatest hits & Rare Tracks (1959-1971). "Rainy Day Blues" is a smooth, jazzy blues that Willie sings in full voice over brushed drums, upright bass, electric rhythm guitar, tinkling ivories, pedal steel, and tenor sax. The Nelson-penned song modulates upward for each subsequent verse, which is an odd move for a gloomy, slow-tempo blues that ends with a the line "guess I'll never see the sun again."
5) "When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going" - Billy Ocean (1985)
This mid-'80s fluff was the big hit (#2 pop) from the soundtrack to Jewel of the Nile, the sequel to Romancing the Stone. Indeed, the three stars of the film--Michael Douglass, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito (the last presaging Joe Pesci's edition to the Lethal Weapon franchise)--appear as backup singers in the video (I seem to remember DeVito appearing with a baritone sax was was taller than he was, but that must have been from another video). The song itself is inoffensive, a fairly catchy and extremely slick soul tune sitting on top of electric drums and an excessively rubbery baseline that's in-line with Ocean's other big '80s hits. The requisite sax solo is a keeper. What makes the song embarrassing are the chopped up vocal samples that start the track and reoccur in the fadeout. They come off like a lame attempt to pander to the emerging hip hop audience. In retrospect, they were also a dry run for the effects that one of the song's co-writers, Mutt Lange, would use to better effect as the producer of Def Leppard's hit "Rocket" from 1987's Hysteria.
6) "The Pretender" - Foo Fighters (2007)
The Foo Fighters never really put their hooks in me. They're consistently good, but never really great. Part of it is that they're not really doing anything new: big rock guitars, some defiant lyrics, catchy tunes, but nothing earth shattering or particularly distinctive. Every now and then, however, they churn out an undeniable single, like this one from last year. Loud, catchy, defiant, it's a very difficult song to dislike, but even with the Foos at their best here, it's still merely very good. In my opinion, Dave Grohl only achieves greatness when he's behind a drum kit.
7) "Dopeman (Remix)" - N.W.A. (1989)
Over a bare-bones drum machine track with a snare hit that sounds like a trash can lid, Ice Cube introduces you to the neighborhood crack dealer. In verse one, the dopeman gets rich off of crackheads and threatens them and their women with violence if they don't pay up. In verse two, we meet the women who flock to the dopeman because of his money and his access to crack. Verse three contains the moral: "If ya smoke 'caine, you're a stupid motherfucker." Easy E's fourth verse reinforces the point that the dopeman is empowered by the crackheads who will do anything for another rock. A sing-songy outro bit turns the tables on the dopeman, as Easy, using a Mexican accent, threatens to shoot the dopeman if his sister dies from the crack she was sold. The message is clear that the dopeman is a scourge on society. Unfortunately, the dopeman's money, power, bravado, and sex life, ill-gotten though they may be, remain seductive.
8) "My Adidas" - Run-D.M.C. (1986)
Run-D.M.C.'s Adidas (or "Adida" as they drop the "s" in the chorus) were white leather, shell-toed low-tops worn either without laces ("with no shoe string in 'em" per the lyrics) or decked with fat laces strung to result in the look D.M.C. is sporting here. One of several old-school classics from the landmark Raising Hell album, "My Adidas" is fashion statement, product placement, and forever tied hip hop and sneaker culture together (the first Air Jordans hit shelves just a year earlier). Here's Nelson George on the phenomenon from Hip Hop America:
It was in 1985 that the athletic wear manufacturers begane to see how the link between hip hop and their products could pay off big time--and unsurprisingly it was Russell Simmons who made the connection real.
The message behind the song, however, is not about what brand of shoes to wear, but about the fact that these three black kids from Hollis, Queens were making a global impact ("My Adidas cuts the sand of a foreign land, with mic in hand I cold took command . . . I stepped on stage, at Live Aid, all the people gave, and the poor got paid") and doing so while staying true to themselves. In that sense, by rapping about their shoes, they're literally rapping about their roots. Run-D.M.C. were, as Ed McMahon used to say on Star Search (borrowing, as it turns out, from Teddy Roosevelt), keeping their feet on the ground and reaching for the stars.
9) "Gimme All Your Lovin'" - ZZ Top (1983)
Following their 1976 album Tejas, southern blooze-rock trio ZZ Top took a hiatus during which guitarist and singer Billy Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill both grew chest-long beards, unbeknownst to the other. After reconvening they had a minor radio hit with "Cheap Sunglasses." With that, a look was born. Gibbons and Hill would ever after front the band as a pair of indistinguishable twins hidden behind their beards, sunglasses, hats, and matching outfits and custom instruments (fun fact: their mustachioed drummer, the only member with out a beard, is named Frank Beard).
For their 1983 album Eliminator, the band added a synth pulse to their boogie rock and hit the jackpot thanks to their MTV-friendly image and a series of tongue-in-cheek videos that filled a customized 1933 Ford Coupe hot rod (the titular Eliminator) with leggy models in sexy stockings and cast them as a trio of mute guardian angels who, at the beck and call of the robotic boogie wizards in the band, went about making dreams come true for downtrodden slackers.
"Gimme All Your Lovin'" was the first of the trilogy of deathless hits from that record (along with "Sharp-Dressed Man," which uses a nearly identical riff, and "Legs," which had the most prominent synth pulse and the most entertaining video), and the best of the three. Propelled by the unrelenting pulse of Hill's base and Beard's clockwork drumming, the song is lean and tight. Though the three-minute, 58-second track concludes with a one-minute outro solo, it contains no extravagances, as Gibbons' solo work is reserved, relying on double notes and repeated melodic phrases, all of which sound like they come from about the same spot on the neck of his guitar, yet never become repetitive or boring. The band's sound at this time was all about economy of notes and movement and forming a seamless whole, something literalized by the synchronized, nearly animatronic movements of the three members in the accompanying videos. The result is a simple, but effective song that sounds better coming out of your speakers than being replayed in your head.
10) "Rebels" - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (1985)
A fairly typical example of mid-80s Americana rock that starts off sounding like an outtake from Born in the U.S.A. and veers toward the sound John Mellencamp conjured up on his Scarecrow from the same year, this was the leadoff track from Petty's Southern Accents. It's an odd choice for an album opener given it's middling tempo and rather tuneless verses. The chorus ("hey hey hey, I was born a rebel") is strong, but hardly catchy. The lyrics fall into the "I know I ain't no good, but I can't quit you, baby" department for the most part, though the chorus and the bridge curiously suggest Petty, who is originally from Gainesville, Florida, addressing his Confederate roots, though it's likely he's doing so in character (bridge: "Even before my father's fathers/They called us all rebels/Burned our cornfields/And left our cities leveled/I can still see the eyes/Of those blue bellied devils/When I'm walking round tonight/Through the concrete and metal"). Supposedly Southern Accents deals with these sort of Southern identity issues throughout (giving it's one true hit, "Don't Come Around Here No More," a very different context than its trippy, Alice In Wonderland video). However, I have this here from the two-disc Through the Years anthology. Though some of his biggest hits were still to come, Petty's best songs had already been written by the time he got to this point in his career. In fact, the gap in quality between the first and second discs in that anthology (echoing its placement on the original album, "Rebels" leads off the second disc) is striking.
The Tin Ear Ten
This is not a new idea. The iPod dates back to late 2001, and a cursory Google search turns up examples of the "first ten songs on your iPod shuffle" meme dating back to early 2004. Still, as per the previous post, I've been looking for a re-entry to writing about music, and sometimes things catch on because they're just plain good ideas.
I thus give you the first installment of what I hope will be a weekly feature here at Tin Ear, inspired by that classic meme and Greil Marcus's Real Life Rock Top Ten, it's a journey through my record collection, ten songs at a time: "The Tin Ear Ten."
1) "Doin' It" - LL Cool J (1995)
Some post-peak bedroom rap from James Todd Smith. "Doin' It" makes it into my collection not from 1995's Mr. Smith, but from the absolutely essential greatest hits collection All World from the following year, on which it is one of the least essential tracks despite being a #9 pop hit in early 1996. "Doin' It" opens with 30 seconds of foreplay, establishing the moody, echo-laden, reggae-derived keyboard hook (from Grace Jones' "My Jamaican Guy") while LL whispers sweet nothings about dropping the track evoking erotic moans from an unknown female companion. That companion turns out to be never-was Tommy Boy recording artist LeShaun, with whom this is something of a coital duet (per the chorus, he represents Queens, she was raised out in Brooklyn). LL's first line is "It's our first time together and I'm feeling kinda horny," and it just gets dirtier from there as we're essentially eavesdropping on a lovemaking session, complete with orgasmic moans from LeShaun at the end as LL chuckles to himself. Safe sex bonus points for the exchange, "You use a rubber?" "Damn right."
2) "Miami Vice Theme" - Jan Hammer (1985)
Remember when TV theme songs used to become hit songs? Hell, remember when TV shows used to have theme songs? This instrumental is all keyboards and drum machines, but was a #1 pop hit for the Prague-born Hammer, his only top-40 hit and evidence of just how much Miami Vice dominated the culture of the mid-80s. (Side note: years ago I was trying to explain the genre of prog rock to my now wife, then girlfriend, and when I was done she said, "yeah, I get it, but why to they call it Prague rock?") Although he's remembered as a one-hit wonder, Hammer had a long career as a session man and fusion artist after coming to the US in the wake of the communist invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Since his association with Miami Vice, however, he's made most of his money through other soundtrack work for TV, film, and video games.
3) "Neil Jung" - Teenage Fanclub (1995)
Pleasant strummy power pop about a dysfunctional relationship sung in the second person by a third-person observer. There's certainly a Neil Young influence, particularly in the slightly scronky outro solo, but the title exists as much for the pun as anything else. Rich, warm, mid-tempo, and generally unexceptional.
4) "Who Are You" - The Who (1978)
The Who are one of my favorite bands, but that's largely because of their work up through Who's Next. After that, they became a bit too bombastic. "Who Are You" is one of the best examples of that. Despite clocking in at 6:21, there's not much song here, and most of the middle of the track is wasted on noodling and ineffective atmospherics. Lead singer Roger Daltrey, who had been oversinging since 1974's Quadrophenia, isn't so much singing as growling here, something the song, a prog-rocky mess of synthesizers, doesn't warrant. This was the title track of the band's last album with drummer Keith Moon, who would be dead by the time the song cracked the American top-40. Moon, who had famously eschewed the use of a hi-hat for most of his career, leans heavily on the hi-hat here, while bassist John Entwistle fails to make his presence felt, robbing the band of its dynamic of four virtuoso performers. Guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend seems largely concerned with his layers of synths save for some lightning-quick picking in the noodle-y middle section. Townshend made early and tasteful use of synthesizers on Who's Next, but he's lost his way here.
5) "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock 'N' Roll)" - Elton John (1973)
This is one of the lesser tracks from John's double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. An up-beat 12-bar-blues pastiche that sounds about how you'd expect glam-rock-era Elton doing an early-rock tribute song to sound, though it's not nearly as annoying as "Crocodile Rock" from Don't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player, released earlier the same year. "Your Sister Can't Twist" rocks harder than that hit, but lacks a strong hook and, in making direct allusions to such oldies as "Twist and Shout" and "Palisades Park," some of which come via what seems to be intentionally choppy editing, sounds more like concept-album filler than a song able to stand on it's own merits. On the album, it gives way to "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," making it all the more forgettable.
6) "No Remorse" - Metallica (1983)
You can count me among those who believe that Metallica were at their leanest, meanest, and best on their debut, Kill 'Em All. "No Remorse," isn't among the album's best tracks, however, in part because the song's structure is somewhat haphazard. There are a handful of solid riffs in here, but the better ones come and go too quickly or arrive too late in the track, almost as if the song was a storehouse for leftovers from the rest of the album. The song's fairly generic anti-war lyrics surely owe a debt to Black Sabbath's Vietnam-era "War Pigs." Generic as they may be, however, they're sadly more relevant now than when they were written.
7) "Shakin' All Over" - The Who (1970)
From Live At Leeds, one of the few absolutely essential live albums, comes this riff-heavy blues that the Who make their own. Written by Johnny Kidd (born Frederick Heath) of Johnny Kid and the Pirates and originally released by that British beat band on the B-side of a single in 1960, "Shakin' All Over" has become a standard thanks largely to this electric Who performance. As with the rest of Live At Leeds, Daltrey is in prime voice, properly menacing but never excessively growling, Moon is in syncopated perpetual motion, Entwistle holds things down out of the left speaker with a fuzzy bass tone that nearly doubles as a rhythm guitar (Entwistle takes the first solo on this song), while Pete Townshend turns in some of the best guitar work of his life out of the right speaker. It's hard to believe that you're listening to a simple four-piece, essentially a power trio plus vocals. The album also boast tremendous sound, as the presence and tone of each instrument cuts right through to the bone (do yourself a favor and track this one down on vinyl). There are a few missed notes along the way, but this track is an absolute classic.
8) "TV Party" - Black Flag (1981)
Henry Rollins-era Black Flag was pretty bleak, but this track from Damaged is downright goofy. Playing the part of a group of beer-swilling couch potatoes (or, using a phrase from the day, "televidiots"), Rollins and company hide from the outside world and watch their "favorite" shows ("That's Incredible!," "Hill Street Blues," "Dallas," "Saturday Night Live," "Monday Night Football," "Jeffersons," and something that sounds like either "Vegas" or the short-lived SNL knockoff "Fridays," both of which were on the air at the time--the version used for the classic low-budget video substitutes "Dynasty" for "The Jeffersons"), until their TV breaks, which really bums them out. It's a sing-songy gang vocal and a hardcore classic.
9) "Too Young To Fall In Love" - Mötley Crüe (1983)
A pop metal classic from the Crüe's best album, Shout At The Devil (see my retrospective of the band on the sidebar), this track was inexplicably left off both Decade of Decadence and their 1998 Greatest Hits. Despite that repeated oversite, it's one of their best. Driven by Tommy Lee's half-time beat and a great Nikki Sixx-penned riff, the lyrics, also by Sixx, pull the old trick of having metal verses ("Run for the hills/Were both sinners and saints/Not a woman, but a whore/I can just taste the hate/Well, now I'm killing you/Watch your face turning blue . . .") with pop choruses that simply repeat the title three times. The video, an early MTV staple, appears to have been inspired by Samurai movies (it's supposedly set in Shanghai, though its actual New York location gives it more of a Chinatown feel) and features a brief cameo by a 21-year-old Michelle Yeoh as a sword-wielding woman who is "punched" by Sixx as the band apparently "win" a conflict that is never established. Evidence of their victory is given when the characters at the end of the video all sport two black stripes of makeup on their cheek to match Tommy Lee's look at the time (this "one of us" trope was quite popular in early hair metal videos). The Asian theme of the video is curiously foreshadowed by Mick Mars' guitar solo, which opens with a flury of tightly bunched notes that have something of an Asian pentatonic scale feel to them. Easily my favorite Mötley Crüe song.
10) "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" - Tomoyasu Hotei (2000)
Like many of the pieces Quentin Tarantino and RZA dug up for the Kill Bill, Vol. 1 soundtrack, which is how this song made its way into my collection, this instrumental has since become overexposed in commericials and at sporting events (see the Wikipedia entry for examples). Originally used in the Japanese film Another Battle (Shin jingi naki tatakai) starring Hotei, a famous singer and guitarist in his native Japan, the song is a brief instrumental based around a group of chugging, reverb-laden single-note guitars under which appear a pulsing base and hip-hop beat and over which a series of horn blasts and riffs develop something not far removed from the James Bond theme, which is its obvious inspiration.
A Music Blog by Cliff Corcoran
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Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.