Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Crossing (1984) – Big Country

Although relegated to one-hit wonder status in the States (“In A Big Country”), Big Country transcended the confines of Billboard chart position and America’s short attention span. While the band’s bagpipe guitar hooks may have come across as gimmicky, they were actually part of a panoply of innovative expression Big Country effectuated through accomplished musicianship. “The Crossing” (which, incidentally, does not appear on their debut The Crossing) bears this out in seven minutes of mini-epic splendor.

The dew of springtime finds a guitar bursting forth, bounding briskly across the hinterland, soon joined by skipping drums and loping bass in kindred sprightliness. Although Stuart Adamson sings with buoyancy, his words betray a burden—a yearning to free a damsel of her crippling constrictions, the bastille of her withdrawal. He dares her to live audaciously, that they might one day reach a confluence, “a beach where we can cross our hearts.” Throughout, drummer Mark Brzezicki imparts vivid tinctures: the metallic pings of a ride cymbal; a hi-hat’s sharp sibilance; liberal doses of china cymbal clang; the agile bustle of a kick drum, somersaulting octobans and tumbling toms; a snare’s pattering ghost notes and percussive slaps. Tony Butler impels his bass on a winged gallop of skimming strides and nimble triplets. The guitars of Adamson and Bruce Watson peal and skirl, bob and flutter, prance and whirl in distorted overtones that reflect off palisades in a canyon of copious delay and reverb. In periodic interludes, the band honors the stylistic signature of Scottish folk dances through variations in meter, rhythm and tempo, before resuming the spree.

Adamson envisions a day when he will traverse the emotional distance to join the reclusive lass as she basks in grandeur, lingers with insouciance. Until that time, however, he likens the quest to converge to a worldly wayfare.

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  • Tuesday, May 23, 2006

    Hey, Little Star (1964) – Ann-Margret

    Following her breakthrough role as star-struck Kim MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, and her turn as Elvis’ feisty love interest in Viva Las Vegas, Ann-Margret Olsson whipped up this confection of aural ambrosia, her vocals closer in timbre to the balmy lilt of Shelley Fabares, as opposed to the sultry piquancy she would later share with Nancy Sinatra. “Hey, Little Star” gallivants on a cloud of meringue, a dreamy arrangement that recalls Frankie Avalon’s “Venus,” with the same supplication for fulfillment of romantic longing. A percussive bassline and brushed drums tap out a tango, embellished by an ensemble of bell tree, glockenspiel and flute; swooning strings flourish and effloresce with episodic flair redolent of a ‘70s Japanese variety show, while sirenic falsetto cooing pipes in through elevator speakers. Ann-Margret revels radiantly in her fairytale ending and marvels at the efficacy with which Little Star rewarded her patience and faith by answering her wish for a boy with whom to share the starry night sky.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.
  • Sunday, May 21, 2006

    Sorry (1990) – Galaxie 500

    “Sorry” is the reluctant sound of a joyless relationship deteriorating, epitomized by Dean Wareham strums his guitar in plaintive pensiveness, while the deliberate pace at which Damon ’s nasalized wails which wearily bemoan the routine bickering that finds him apologizing more often than not, even for matters over which he has no control. Krukowski’s drums trudge forward in drips and drags fosters an impatience that hastens the d├ęgringolade. Naomi Yang’s bassline assumes the role of lyrical counterpoint as it climbs and cascades with the condolence of a sympathetic confidant, evincing her proclivity for the upper half of the bass neck. Although Wareham assumes that reconciliation is assured upon returning home, he knows that home is a placebo, not a panacea—just another place where they are lonely together; a place where the weather may suit them, but the climate is frigid: “Home is home / Where we love the weather.” Krukowski and producer/Shimmy-Disc proprietor Kramer furnish background vocals that melt in melancholic moans. A wah-filtered guitar offers to intercede, but to no avail. Wareham propounds unpalatable leading questions, the answers to which reverberate in grim futility: “Are you sorry that you love me? / Am I sorry I love you too? / Seems it doesn’t make a difference / That we’re sorry all the time.” At least they enjoyed the clement weather.

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  • Something Cool (1953) – June Christy (Billy Barnes)

    June Christy has a few hours to kill during a flight layover in Chicago. At the airport lounge, a gentleman offers to buy her a drink. She accepts, and decides to let her hair down a little, lighting up a cigarette. Having loosened up, she proceeds to spill the details of her past glory in a stream of consciousness: her capacious mansion, her queue of suitors, her Parisian fling. Delivering her divagation on the rocks, equal parts smoky and sultry with a shot of soul, Christy rambles through her escapades as a former debutante (okay, so perhaps it’s the liquor embellishing the details), completely ignoring her drinking companion. By the time she snaps out of her reverie and realizes her faux pas, he is putting on his coat, paying the tab, and shaking her hand goodbye. Had he known she was so babblative and self-indulgent, he would have slipped away like the wisps of smoke wafting from the ashtray the moment she sat down next to him.

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  • Saturday, May 20, 2006

    No Love Lost (1978) – Joy Division

    Peter Hook’s strummed bass chords peal like a clock striking four a.m. in a World War II concentration camp. A murky fog envelopes The House of Dolls—barracks described in a 1955 novel by Ka-tzentink 135633 in which young Jewish women were kept as sexual slaves in a “Joy Division” by Nazi soldiers. Bernard Albrecht (later Sumner)’s single note guitar riff brays like a donkey in alternation with Pete Townsendesque power chords heralding the break of dawn. The band that would one day become New Order in the wake of its lead singer’s suicide launches into lurching garage rock that exudes the same raw brazenness as The Kinks’ “All Day and All Of The Night,” with preamps pumping more overdrive into the aggression. It’s not until nearly two minutes have elapsed that Ian Curtis finally sneers with a mixture of contempt and pathos, his brash voice instilled with a youthful bite, as opposed to the atonal drone with which he would later lament.

    As he awaits his duty on the battlefront, a soldier recognizes the objectification of the joy division captives, yet will not be denied his gratification: “I need it! I need it! I need it!” In a spoken passage, Curtis stoically describes a routine abortion in the infirmary, where a girl has been stripped of her humanity, divested of the fetus to which she has no emotional attachment. Stephen Morris’s tom-toms take a drunken tumble down a flight of stairs, culminating in a brief fusillade of snare like a splayed soldier’s rifle discharging. Perhaps the stray bullets mercifully end someone’s suffering.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.
  • I Believe I Can Fly (2004) – William Hung

    99.9% of the world thinks William Hung is a horrible singer. Well, yes—but that kind of misses the point. The other 0.1% knows that he is a horrible singer, but tries to find some redeeming qualities. One such quality often cited is that he is sincere and tries his best—such folderol is in fact regurgitated by the Hungster himself on spoken interludes interspersed throughout his debut album Inspiration. Utter misguided nonsense. The true redemptive trait is that he is a modern day jester. And—let’s face it—as far as singing ability goes, Pavement’s Steven Malkmus is a Chinese accent away from being William Hung. For that matter, William Hung is an indie rock band away from being an indie rock icon. Is his voice really any less grating than Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth’s? Wouldn’t he complement the quirkiness of Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki? Is his tortured wailing any less earnest than Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart?

    Throughout “I Believe I Can Fly,” Hung’s voice usually wavers within a semitone of the correct note; he attempts to impart undulations unto sustained notes, which end up sounding like his testicles are slowly being stretched in a mini torture rack. Subtle delay and double-tracking bestow an air of mock seriousness that belies this endeavor’s jocular motives. Okay, so it’s obvious the producers are making him the butt of a cruel joke, as is evidenced by the fact that a false start 2:52 into the song was not edited out. This is Mrs. Miller for the 00’s, even down to the probability that Hung was unaware of the irony in singing, “and life was nothing but an awful song.”

    Actually, Willy handles the song’s key change with aplomb and there’s something absurdly artful about his attempts to randomly stumble upon the correct note. In fact, he sings the chorus in tune, so one has to believe he was instructed to sound clueless during the verses. The fact that he complied is evidence that he is willing to be a stooge for the sake of entertaining people. Unfortunately for Hung, I’ve personally observed patrons in Tower Records become so annoyed that they’ve demanded that the clerk turn off this song. Bravo, clerk. A song with this potent an impact is a song worth having in one’s arsenal to notify guests who have overstayed their welcome that it’s time to leave.

    With reckless abandon, Hung reaches for the high notes without regard for the likelihood of actually hitting them. The true reward is revealed at 3:55 into the song where he unleashes his falsetto in shades of Peter Brady singing “Time To Change”: one pictures him with eyes closed, fists clenched with arms rigidly at his side, body in stiff paroxysms as he takes his voice on a rollercoaster ride—“I can flyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy uhhhhhyyyyyyyyyy.” Rather than soar on wings of eagles, however, Hung hangs stagnant in the air like a stale fart, a sitting duck for critics and detractors waiting to take potshots. She bang, indeed.

  • Listen to "I Believe I Can Fly" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Wednesday, May 17, 2006

    Black Korea (1991) – Ice Cube

    As depicted in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do The Right Thing, Korean-owned liquor stores in African-American neighborhoods set the stage for confrontations born of racial tension and resentment. In March 1991, this strife culminated in the publicized Latasha Harlins slaying in Los Angeles by a Korean liquor store owner over the perceived shoplifting of a bottle of orange juice, in a climate of gang member death threats previously made against the owner’s son. For killing Harlins, Soon Ja Du received a voluntary manslaughter conviction, 5 years probation, 400 hours community service and a $500 fine, despite the jury’s recommendation of a 16-year jail sentence. The black community took this as justice’s measure of the worth of an African-American’s life: one could shoot a 15-year old girl in the back of the head and get off scot-free.

    Seven months later, Ice Cube released Death Certificate—universally recognized as a manifesto of misogynistic, racist, hedonistic obloquy, invective and bravado. Fed up with being prejudged as a thief who draws the scrutiny of store owners, Cube counters racist treatment with racist statements in “Black Korea.” Well—upon closer inspection, they’re not so much racist statements, as they are indignant conniptions. In fact, all things considered, Cube refrains from outright slurs, opting instead for a flippant food stereotype peppered in with retaliatory economic threats.

    In a mere 46 seconds, Cube voices a community’s grievances, epitomizes its ire, and demands respect as a condition precedent to a tolerable co-existence of cultures colliding for the sake of forty ounces.

  • Listen to "Black Korea" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Monday, May 15, 2006

    It’s One Of Those Nights (Yes Love) (1971) – David Cassidy/The Partridge Family (Tony Romeo)

    Saccharine, sappy, schmaltzy—“It’s One Of Those Nights” is thus fairly described. Yet, to deny its callow charm is to deny that the pangs of adolescent longing ever meant anything. Fresh off the cover of Tiger Beat magazine, ‘70s teen idol David Cassidy languishes away another lonely evening in the solitude of his room, pining. A glee club coos background vocals as he flounders in reveries that pack an emotional wallop, cause him to nod in wishful thinking and embolden his stalker tendencies. Entertaining silly soliloquies, Cassidy vacillates in droll and wacky self-deliberation. In tender sighs, Cassidy typifies the obsessive yearnings of a sympathetic hobbledehoy—pathetic enough to deserve pity, yet painfully familiar so as to elicit a wince of recognition.

  • Listen to "It's One Of Those Nights (Yes Love)" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Friday, May 12, 2006

    Stigmata Martyr (1980) – Bauhaus

    David J’s writhing bass menacingly makes a chromatic descent into dark catacombs of unrest; Kevin Haskins’ hi-hat scurries alongside a metronomic kick drum to fortify his brother’s sepulchral incursion; Daniel Ash’s guitar grates and abrades in an attempt to extricate itself from the bowels of angst. Later to reconvene in psychedelia as Love and Rockets, on this night the trio haunt the corridors of a mausoleum as Bauhaus, ushered by the ululations of one Peter Murphy. In the grip of religious fanaticism and an onerous penitence, a zealot interprets the biblical phrase “take up the cross” a bit too literally. Aided by his minions, he undertakes to recreate the Crucifixion, incurring stigmata in a spasm of “ecstasy, lying cross-chequed in agony”—an undertaking that denotes the ritualistic penance of Catholicism that would drive a guilt-ridden megalomaniac to perform such an act in an attempt to atone for his sins and, at the same time, achieve immortality in heaven and on earth, as he rapturously anticipates rewards in the afterlife. Murphy ominously recites the holy rosary in Latin, which simultaneously slithers in reverse. The incantation culminates in screams of anguished delirium as his life expires, whilst a corpse scrapes the door of a crypt—a spirit attempting to reincarnate. Perhaps it means to convey that his abject suffering to achieve martyrdom was futile, failing to inspire men to speak of him in reverent tones.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.
  • Sunday, May 07, 2006

    Through The Fire (1984) – Chaka Khan

    “Through The Fire” epitomizes the nervous drama of Friday night community center dances; it is the centerpiece of junior high mixtapes echoing in headphones as one drifts off to dream of quixotic possibilities, a confession in a letter attempting to persuade a reluctant object of one’s pursuit into a stab at romance. Chaka Khan’s silvery vocals, a dynamic blend of expression and control, weave through marked key changes that grab the listener’s heart and pull it through the strata of infatuation—a lost art in modern day songwriting. Well, of course: David Foster, the master of 80’s pop balladry, co-wrote it, which accounts for the thrilling flair with which Khan avows her willingness to risk emotional devastation for a chance at a considerable payoff.

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  • Saturday, May 06, 2006

    Price of Gas (2005) – Bloc Party

    A delay-tinged guitar twitches like a freshly-squashed spider mired in a web of spectral reverb. STOMP, STOMP, STOMP march U.S. troops to invade and occupy an oil-rich country so the Bush administration can regulate the supply of its natural petroleum resources in order to appease America. Particularly apropos today, “Price Of Gas” criticizes a perceived policy of invoking patriotism as a pretext for serving economic interests through campaigns of aggression on foreign soil—a throwback to the “NO BLOOD FOR OIL” mantra circa the elder Bush’s Gulf War agenda. Suffused with political hyperbole and specious judgment, “Price of Gas” does little to support Bloc Party’s SUV conspiracy theories. However, its sonic attributes are its saving grace: guitars fire in piston-like downstrokes, fueled by compressed drums with post-punk edginess, tempered by a viscous bassline. Haunting synthesizers materialize in suspenseful limbo like a Hardy Boys mystery begging to be solved. Unafraid to reach back in time to pilfer, Bloc Party do not shy away from ‘80s sensibilities, from the heavily accented wails and grunts straight out of the Adam and The Ants repertoire (think “Stand and Deliver”), to the driving new-romanticism of early Duran Duran (think “Careless Memories”). Bloc Party wears its badge of social consciousness like a Toyota Prius driver in the carpool lane bypassing all the self-absorbed gas guzzlers stuck in traffic who necessitate the bloodshed: “I’ve been driving, a mid-sized car / I never hurt anyone / IS THAT A FACT?”

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  • Monday, May 01, 2006

    Beautiful (1972) – Gordon Lightfoot

    A wonderfully unusual palette of pastoral major 7th and minor 7th chords winds its way through the woods—hues fluctuating in aurora borealis-like undulation—and sweeps over the surface of a Canadian lake, eventually finding the cabin from which Gordon Lightfoot’s rustic baritone emanates in throaty quavers. With fawning adoration for his lady, Lightfoot basks in the permanence of their devotion and marvels in his good fortune. Displaying the artistry of a minstrel in midsummer night’s serenade, Lightfoot massages gradations from exotic chord progressions to imbue the fundamental sentiment of love with shades of mystique and undertones of fascination.

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