10 March 2012

#96: Elvis Costello - (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes

Elvis Costello - (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
from My Aim is True, 1977

Elvis Costello's first record has a funny place in his discography . On the one hand, the whole record--from the masturbatory (literally) opening line of "Welcome to the Working Week" throught to (in the US version) the surprisingly sinister two-tone riffs of "Watching the Detectives"--sets up the archetypal Elvis Costello sound that would define his first three records and solidify his reputation as an "Angry Young Man," occupying the poppy sweet spot between the rage of punk and the hooky sensibilities of new wave and classic power pop.

On the other, the record is an anomaly--without the classic Attractions lineup (and in particular, without the keyboard of Steve Nieve, Costello's most important collaborator and the key contributor to the signature sound Elvis and the Attractions perfected on his second LP, 1978's This Year's Model), and featuring a much more straightforward, guitar-based sound than Elvis's later work. Produced by Nick Lowe, My Aim is True stands on its own as a beautiful, quirky pop record in Lowe's own vein, but simply isn't as rich and full of power tempered with sarcasm as his next two albums.

After almost 15 years of listens, I feel like I can hear the vaguely honky-tonk influences (brought out on the demo recordings included with subsequent American reissues) that Elvis shed with the Attractions, but that have always bubbled below the surface of his work. My Aim is True has always been a "what if?" record for me--what if Nieve's organ had been here, what if they'd played with a bit more power there?  Even Elvis seemed to realize the album's odd status in his own performances--when the Attractions played these songs, they changed in subtle but important ways, making them swing harder, bringing in odd tempos, jerky starts and stops. Elvis's most important acknowledgement of this sonic shift came at that famous SNL gig, when he decided (absolutely correctly, in hindsight), that the Attraction's new version of "Less Than Zero" just lacked the impact of his new, harder work.

The sole exception to the general air of incompleteness on My Aim is True is the song at #96, a funny little falling-out-of-love song cryptically entitled "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." "Red Shoes," which swings at its own, slightly less frantic pace from anything else in Elvis's early canon, sounds entirely finished and of a piece--a perfect pop moment (with jangly guitars and from an artist trying to bridge his pub rock roots to this "new wave," captured in amber. The song features a fairly conventional story about a girl who, in Gram Parson's words, "loved those bright lights more than she" loved Elvis, and is told from the perspective of an aloof narrator who seems to have acquired a certain ironic distance ("I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused") from the recent proceedings. I have no idea why the angels wanna wear his red shoes, or what the eponymous shoes have to do with "his side of the bargain," why anyone thinks he's "too old." What I do know is that this song has probably the greatest lyrical description in all of pop history of what it does to a relationship to watch your girl get flirty with all the other boys at the bar, with a clever phrase in the middle that was an early proposal for the name of this here blog:

I was watching while you're dancing away.
Our love got fractured in the echo and sway.
How come everybody wants to be your friend?
You know that it still hurts me just to say it.

Unlike nearly everything else on the record, "Red Shoes" actually suffered from its "Attractionification," as seen here in a 1977 Top of the Pops performance, with a sharper, angrier vocal from Elvis, a more propulsive backbeat, and Nieve's organ swirling a bit more than was usual. The wry detatchment of the original was perfect, and even a superior band could make no improvement.

This version, however, has its own wry appeal (and is sonically quite close to the original) and it's worth a quick listen.


05 March 2012

#96: Gorilaz - Clint Eastwood

Gorrilaz - Clint Eastowwd
from Gorillaz, 2001

I didn't like rap until the end of my freshman year. Up 'til then I thought it was completely fucking ridiculous -- but remember that this was the days of Back That Ass Up and Pony and that sort of thing, so I feel like I had a bit of justification even if I'm still totally to blame for not digging deeper. But then I was confronted with Deltron 3030. Right place, right time, right state of mind -- partly, but I think it clicked when I realized that it was more the song subjects than the genres that I didn't care for. To be trite and clich├ęd, there was more to it than bitches and hoes, and it took a futuristic space rap-opera to teach me that.

Deltron doesn't make this list; if we had 200 songs, there'd be three or four tracks from that album that would be in contention.

This song technically predates this epiphany, being released about two months prior. But I didn't hear it until I went back home for the summer. I retcon the start of my music geekdom to the prior November but, in reality, there was still a ways to go in the process. I was primarily listening to "good" music at this point -- well, primarily Tool and Weezer, but a lot of the other stuff I learned about the prior nine months -- except when I was driving. My car didn't have a CD player and all my music was on CDs. I think I had one of those 1/8" jack to cassette contraptions, but I listened mostly to the radio. And that's where I heard this song, usually at least once a day, for three months.

I loved it immediately. It was obvious: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, as the Deltron emcee, was my gateway into the world of rap music and here, what is this?! Del's rapping on on this track that's playing on the only radio station I liked! I had to get into rap music! There's only two songs I specifically prayed to hear on the radio, and this is one of them.

Start with the groove, with the riff. It has this waltz feel to it despite being in 4/4 which, in combination with the minor key, gives it an off-kilter ominous feel. The irony of the chorus ("...I got sunshine in a bag...") furthers this to the point that it doesn't actually matter what else is going on in the song; the piece works well purely on atmospherics, though Del's rap braggadocio provides a ghostly veneer.

And then there's the enigmatic title. Wikipedia provides two connections: 1) The "sunshine in a bag" being a reference to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and 2)

Jamie Hewlett claimed during the documentary-film Bananaz that "The song isn't really about the actor Clint Eastwood, but more to do with the Melodica solo in the song".

But I like to think of it as a reference to High Plains Drifter. This is probably the most enigmatic of the Man With No Name movies (and, consequently, the first to not be directed by Leone), in which it becomes clear that he's a...well, let's call him an "avenging angel." I'm not going to break it down -- I may be completely full of crap -- except to say that he literally paints the town read and renames it HELL. So I think it fits well if you imagine the song as being from Eastwood's character's point of view.

24 February 2012

#97: The Notorious B.I.G. - Juicy (Pete Rock Remix)

The Notorious B.I.G. - Juicy (Pete Rock Remix)
from the "Juicy" Single 12", 1994

There are rappers who had more technical acumen than Biggie Smalls, who put together more complex rhyme schemes and could speed up their raps into frantic tougne twisters. But no one ever rapped slow as well as Big did--giving us a chance to really hear every word, syllable and inflection, with a flow that sounded like water over the beat.

I didn't really listen to hip-hop in high school, and so I missed Ready to Die when it dropped, much to my detriment. While lots of rappers had spun stories of crime, coming up off the streets, and making it to the big time, no one had ever done it the way Big did--wrapping his life story in to his own experiences as a rap fan.* "Juicy" is remarkable not for the boasts or stories of excess (and the video, while brilliant on its own terms, does the glitz and glamour of a West Coast video somewhat clumsily), but because he grows up through hip-hop. For a guy's whose life was about as different from mine as possible, I feel like I knew exactly how he felt about his relationship with pop music the moment I first heard this song, because like me, he leaned on the experience of being a fan to get him through the worst of it.

And speaking of the worst of it, while I think that authenticity is a poor criteria for evaluating art, it's hard to deny that this line...

Born sinner, the opposite of a winner/
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner

...is the most poignantly bad-ass moment in hip-hop lyric history.

But if you really want to know what's so tremendous about this song, look no further than this video, where Pete Rock (who came up with the original beat) participates in a discussion panel about his work. Check out 37 seconds in, where Rock and all these other well-known producers start to groove on the beat. A line of hip-hop royalty, bobbing their heads uncontrollably, captured by the song. Anything so good that it makes the guy who made it lose his shit is worth your time.

Critics and the internet intelligencia are divided on the relative merits of the "original" mix versus the Pete Rock "remix" (although, as Pete tells it, the "remix" was actually his original demo for the track, while Puffy bit the sample--Mtume's "Juicy Friut" for the album version). I'm certainly not going to go to the mattresses for the remix, but I'm partial to the thump and snare of Pete's version. Puffy's is probably more true to the sample, but it also sounds vaguely dated to me--not in an especially bad way, but lush, in a very particular early 1990s way. Pete's drums are, as always, timeless, and mesh even more seamlessly with Big's delivery than original. And it just sounds more New York.

And if you don't know, now you know.

*Yes, I know "Juicy" isn't the first song tell this sort of story. KRS-One's 1993 banger "Outta Here" does something similar (and KRS's personal story is even more deeply connected with hip-hop than Biggie's because KRS helped to create the core sound and vocabulary of gangsta rap), and Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R." came out around the same time. But while both are great songs, neither really captures the joy of "Juicy"--the pure happiness of Big's story of turning hip-hop into a new life ("Birthdays was the worst days/now we drink champagne 'cause we thirsty").


22 February 2012

#97: The Stooges - Down On The Street

The Stooges - Down On The Street
from Fun House, 1970

I don't have much to say about this one, actually, so I'll keep it short; it's not tied to any specific memory or time and place. All I know is that it makes me so very happy when I put it on. Why? That riff, at home with the best of the dirty blues, and Iggy's vocals. He always sounded like a madman in those early days. Sure, there are other places where he sounds more insane, but I'd argue that he never sounds as dangerous as he does here.

If you ever get the chance, pick up The Complete Fun House Sessions, which gives you 19 different takes of this song (and the others on the album as well). It's fascinating to listen to the minute progression and realize how much skill and practice it takes to come off as this unhinged. I probably wouldn't have included this track in the top 100 if I hadn't gone through The Complete and realized just how much I loved it.

21 February 2012

#98: Broken Social Scene - Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl

Broken Social Scene - Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl
from You Forgot It in People, 2002

During my first year in graduate school, I lived alone in a 500 square foot basement apartment down at the end of Pinckney Street in Madison. It had, among other features, a mostly obstructed view of Lake Mendota and the narrowest galley kitchen ever built. I had just moved away (about 165 miles up on Highway 151) from the first girl I'd ever really loved, exchanging her company for a ever-ending reading list of books and a set of classes that made almost no sense and in which I felt constantly inadequate. It was the first time in my life I'd ever really lived along (because, let's face it--Kim moved in to my apartment at Coe in early October the year before and never really left), and even though Madison wan't a big city in any real sense, it was all fairly overwhelming for me.

Aside from the school work and the long separation from Kim (punctuated by her semester in Madagascar), there are two memories from that year that really stick out in mind, 9 years later. The first is the slow transformation of Madison in my mind's eye, from of the scene the half-remembered and frantic visits I made as a high schooler during trips for various academic events into the place I ACTUALLY LIVED. That record store on State Street that I remembered in a glassy haze, like a fuzzy photo print, and the Jane's Addiction record Jed Dawson bought there right before we had to get back on the bus in 1996? I walked past that place on my way to school now. Everyday, my walk to work brought me past places I had dreamed about visiting for months at a time while I was in high school. The record stores were a constant distraction, and I let my guard down an awful lot that first year.

B-Side Records, Madison, Wisconsin

The other is less concrete, but no less important to me. I remember the way that the sun would come in off the lake on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in my apartment, catching me pacing the living room with a book in my hand, or sitting cross-legged on the scuffed wood floors next to my old mini stereo, shuffling CDs I bought down at the B-Side or the (late, lamented) Sugar Shack. This was the last year of my life when I had regular, easy access to both a dual cassette deck and a steady supply of cassettes, and I made the last real, honest-to-god mixtapes of my life on that floor in that apartment, taking all the new songs and albums from my time in the (not so big) city, shuffling them up, and sending them back on to Kim, 15 or 16 at a time.

The best mixtape I made that fall featured a fuzzy, druggy, and incredibly precious song from Broken Social Scene's second record called (somewhat awkwardly, like almost everything related to the band's early iteration) "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl." In her distorted, pitchy singsong, Emily Haines came through loud and clear, telling the boy exactly what she wanted from him:
Park that car, drop that phone,
Sleep on the floor, dream about me

Emily Haines

Along with the song's slow, sunny, banjo-laden crescendo, it was Haines' repetition of those simple phrases--over and over, like a mantra for warding off distracted lovers--that attracted me so strongly. Getting used to Madison, and school, and the rest of my life while keeping up the first real long-distance relationship I'd ever been in, my nightly talks with Kim were full of distraction. Work, and long walks, and more work, and the bars all beckoned for me (as did friends and college life for her), and as the months went by, we became short with each other over the phone, trying and mostly failing to keep up the easy intimacy we'd forged at Coe.

My mixtapes, and this song in particular, were like my own promises to her that at some point, no matter what else happened, I'd be able to give her my full attention--with occasional visits ("park that car, sleep on the floor"), but also with a real life together without those phone calls and distraction and distance, some day.  Despite almost 5 years of marriage, we're still working on the proximity thing.  But when I hear this song, I still think of that apartment, Madison, those phone calls, and those mixtapes.  And I still dream about her.


#98: Neil Young - Tonight's The Night

Neil Young - Tonight's The Night
from Tonight's The Night, 1975

Tonight's The Night was my introduction to Neil Young -- I'm not sure what that says, but I feel like it should mean something. See, I was a budding music geek when I got to college with a fairly sizable collection for a pre-napster teenager, but it was full of classical music and nu-metal. (Sometimes I still pull out the Rammstein (who do not make this list) to remember that things do in fact get better.) Then I met Lee and Brandon and suddenly had access to all this new music, their tastes as 'refined' as anyone I met, and I quickly expanded my palette.

I'll wait until the top 5 to get to the full conversion story. I'm not sure where this album fits in the story except that it's one of the first albums Brandon introduced me to, and I spent so many hours listening to it.

I feel that this album is great in spite of itself; it surprises me that it's so critically acclaimed (it's one of Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums and one of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and Christgau giving it an extremely rare A). What I mean is, the 10 middle tracks -- excluding the two parts of the title track -- are so understated it feels like none of them can stand on their own, that they all need to be there for any sort of vision to take hold.

Except the magnificent title track. I can honestly say that I would not have given the album more than a passing listen if it didn't lead off with one of the best songs I've ever heard. And in the pre-digital file age, when we still listened to CDs, this meant that to listen to the title track, I was pretty much going to have to listen to the rest of the album.

Tonight's The Night is as bleak as pretty much anything else on this list, and would make the short list for any depressing mixtape. It doesn't sound that way: the riff -- sounds like it's comprised of bass playing single notes -- is fairly upbeat, accented by guitar lines from Nils Lofgren that wouldn't be out of place on any other mid-70s rocker. There's even a piano solo sounding like a slowed down Jerry Lee Lewis piece. I'm surprised it hasn't been sampled multiple times. It's good music, But it's everything else that makes it great.

So, Neil Young releases Harvest in 1972. It eventually goes multi-platinum, becoming the best-selling album of that year, making Young into a bona-fide superstar. It's a fine album, I don't particularly care for it outside of a couple of tracks, but I'm not going to hate on anyone who loves it (unless it's the only Neil Young they like, because c'mon man). Then two friends die of heroin overdoses: Crazy Horse's guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry and, apparently, this kind of mass fame didn't suit Young all that well. So, in 1973, he records Tonight's The Night the album, opening with the title track, which explicitly outs the theme:

Bruce Berry was a working man
He used to load that Econoline van
A sparkle was in his eye
But his life was in his hands.

The record label refused to release it, shelving the album for two years, hoping Young would record something commercially viable, something that would capitalize on the success of Harvest. He didn't. (Young would later be sued by his label for making music that didn't sound like "Neil Young"... which is one of the most badass anecdotes I know of in popular music.)

It's obvious why the label was apprehensive. Just listen. There might be a single or two here, something that could get the masses fired up. But not the lead track.

And that's one of the things that makes it great. I was deliberate when I called the track bleak: this is grief, alright, the darkest before it gets better, where depression gives way to, well... This is one great "fuck it" to everything from one of the great "fuck it" songwriters. This is fatalism as it should be; not quite acceptance because that assumes too much impotence, but the fight against ...whatever, winnable or not, since the fight is all that matters.

The album ends with "Tonight's The Night -- Part II". It's good, more ramshackle and off-key than Part I, but for the most part pretty much the same song. It provides a good counterpoint to the original, inverting just enough to keep the listener unbalanced.


19 February 2012

#99 : Hans Zimmer - You're So Cool

Hans Zimmer - You're So Cool
from True Romance OST, 1993

More than any song on my list, this one takes me back to a a singe moment--a very particular night of my life. When I went to Cameroon in 2000 (Jesus Christ, 12 years ago), I had a fairly good idea that my life would be changed by the experience, but I'd be a fool to tell you that I was certain that I'd come out the other side as a professor of African politics. For that reason and others, my semester in Cameroon was one of the most important short chunks of time in my life--a period that influences my life every single day.

While there are a lot of people and a lot of memories that mean a lot to me from that time, the days and nights I spent with my two best friends --Dahveed Benson and Gustave River--were probably the most important. Dahveed was (is) my old camp counselor and sometimes boss at the Concordia Language Villages, as well as the former director of the study abroad program in Cameroon that I attended. Gustave was (at the time) his best friend--a rastafarian, reggee musician, and tailor with exceptional talent as a songwriter and clothing designer.

Despite being on sabbatical during my semester abroad, Dahveed was around for most of it, and it was with his help that I had most of my great adventures--his introductions to hundreds of Cameroonians across the country who knew before the rest of my group arrived in our sweaty blue minibus to ask for "Hubert," his urging that I take chances with food, travel, and crazy situations, and his beer. Oh, the beer. I ow my career as an Africanist to Dahveed more than anyone else.

So what of the song? My best, most memorable night in Cameroon was a simple one, about a month into the program. I'd been in country just long enough to have a twinge of homesickness, and Dahveed was getting ready to go on his own sabbatical adventures. So we decided to have a night in, with no pressure--no French, no planning or studying, no being "on" as very visible foreigners--just a case of Cameroonian beer and Dahveed's movie collection, sent to him film by film from the US by family and friends.

That night we watched his favorite move at the time--True Romance, a 1993 dark comedy and romance starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, and written (mostly) by a then-barely known Quentin Tarrantino. The movie is about one of the most beautifully beknighted and inconvenient love affairs in the history of cinema--the nerdy comic book store clerk played by Slater and his hooker with a heart of gold-turned wife Arquette, on the run from the mob with a bag of stolen cocaine. It's not a perfect move, by any means--although with star appearances by Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, and Val Kilmer, it ain't bad. But what's so great, so memborable about the film is its wonderful use of a mix of score and pop music--songs by Chris Isaac and Soudgarden mixed with Hans Zimmer's glockenspiel masterpiece, "you're So Cool." The song, which is a simple and clean, minimal, even, bit of echo-y percussion that builds to a slow climax over about 3 and a half minutes, plays ofer the opening and closing monologues given by Arquette's character, Alabama, a perfect match to her coquettish voice.

Despite the violence and gore predicated on Slater and Arquette's mad courtship and drug deal gone bad, the song ties their love into the narrative, giving it an emotional center in their relationship that many Tarantion films, with their hipper soundtracks full of jarring pop, lack. Over the next four hours, we watched it twice, Dahveed stopping on key scences to recite the dialoge, and me memorizing the scenes bit my bit. The night ended with a crazy drunken walk down to Gustave's tailor shop (where he was still working away at 2 AM on an old black Singer machine), more beers, and an even more drunkenly prepared can of potted French Cassoulet that Dahveed had brought over in his luggage several years before. It tasted of Heinz baked beans and duck fat, and it was brilliant.

Since that night, I've probably watched "True Romance" 30 times, each evoking memories of that night and a life I can't ever go back to. Dahveed and I are both married (he has two lovely young boys). I've never been back to Cameroon, and Dahveed left in the mid-2000s, burnt out on illness, ornaizational hassles, and a little witchcraft. Gustave, who meant so much to me that a picture of him and I still hangs in my living room (over my liquor cabinet, fittingly) disappeared in Amsterdam in 2004 (I think), jumping his travel visa and eventually making it to the US as an undocumented immigrant and asylum seekeer (asylum from what, we were never sure). My buddy Andre tracked him down in New York years later, but he wasn't the same--drugs, or hard living, or something else had made him into a person we didn't know any more.

There's no going back to the simplicity and (for me, at least) innocense of that first month in Africa, learning about what I loved and thinking about where it might lead. But that night, drunk as I was, that movie, this song (and even that cassoulet) were all perfect.