Baseball Toaster Tin Ear
Tin Ear Top Ten
2008-02-07 19:55
by Cliff Corcoran

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.

Run-D.M.C.'s "My Adidas" was a tribute to the seminal hip hop athletic shoe at the height of its appeal. Russell Simmons and his Rush Management team were determined to turn that record's message into money. Athletes regularly scored endorsement deals from athletic wear companies and Michael Jordan was already on his way to revolutionizing the marketing of sports gear with his landmark Nike deal. Russell wanted a piece of the pie for Run-D.M.C.

Run-D.M.C.'s 1986 headlining appearance at Madison Square Garden provided the right venue for Russell to prove his point. With several Adidas executives from Germany standing in the wings, Run-D.M.C. was rocking 20,000 New York b-boys and girls at the legendary arena. Before performing "My Adidas," Run told the crowd to hold up their Adidas sneakers. A sea of three-stripped athletic sneakers emerged like white leather clouds over the heads of most of the fans. When Run walked off-stage that night "the Adidas representatives told me that I would have my own line of Adidas clothing," he told the Source in 1993. "That was the most memorable event in my life" (at least until he became born again). Within a year, Adidas and Rush Management had negotiated a $1.5 million deal withthe rappers to market Run-D.M.C. sneakers and various accessories, including a Run-D.M.C. jersey I still treasure.

With this deal a line had been crossed. Instead of just adapting existing styles and working with "found" materials, the hip hop community was no having things made expressly for them by major manufacturers. As a result, other deals were. (Whodini made a small deal with Lacost Sportif and L.L. Cool J a large one with Troop.)

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.

2008-03-05 17:45:06
1.   Suffering Bruin
This blog will be another in a long line of Toaster must-reads for me.

Not enough time in the day. Keep it going, Cliff.

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