Thursday, March 31, 2005

Sweet home alabama.

Richard Roeper, Ebert's sidekick and general interest/three dot columnist for the Sun-Times, yesterday proclaimed Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" the greatest rock song in history. Since I spent much of yesterday in the Heart of Dixie (more about Birmingham and USA versus Guatemala at Legion Field later in this entry) and because I grew up a teen in North Florida in the mid to late 1970s (with a pre-recorded cassette copy of One More For From the Road), I feel I can comment on this contention as something of an expert.

Roeper is right about the fame of the opening guitar lick, perhaps only surpassed by The Stone's "Satisfaction." Not sure why that wasn't on his list and "Ohio" was, unless it's some Neil payback for Ronnie. And he's arguably right about the quality of the song. Although as a long-time Skynyrd fan and snob (who'd pick "A Simple Man" over "Tuesday's Gone" any day even if it is beer commercial fodder these days), I'd argue "Sweet Home Alabama" is only the fifth best song on Second Helping after "Don't Ask Me No Questions," "The Ballad of Curtis Loew" (which Roeper discusses), "Workin' for MCA", and "The Needle and the Spoon" (yet another Neil Young response) despite its inconic status. "Call Me the Breeze" as a J J Cale song is off the table. And neither "Swamp Music" nor "I Need You" has ever really inspired me.

I'm not sure he's right about the claim that "taken as a whole and in the context of the times, 'Sweet Home Alabama' is not in any way a racist song." First, I'd ask the context of which times. Next I'd tut tut about the danger of overgeneralizations like "is not in any way", as I did when teaching composition at Stanford and Mississippi State. In fact, I'm sure he's wrong about that particular claim. If I were in a waspish mood, I'd probably riff on the fact that his conscience should bother him.

Instead, more charitably, I'll argue that Southerners over 40's lived experience with respect to this song is different from folks raised elsewhere. Certainly if you grew up below the Mason-Dixon Line but had issues with certain regional icons like The Stars and Bars, CSA battle caps, or the phrase "The War of Northern Aggression" or even if you just didn't care for the one-to-one correspondence of Southerners with redneck rebels in so many non-Southerners eyes (what C. Vann Woodward denoted as The Burden of Southern History four decades ago), you probably have a much more complicated relationship to this particular song than Roeper is willing to allow. If you're not white, I suspect (but don't know) it's even worse.

In the October 2001 Fifth Annual Music Issue of The Oxford American, Diane Roberts, famed NPR commentator who grew up in my North Florida hometown and attended college there, considered "our love/hate relationship with 'Sweet Home Alabama,'" concluding that
the song—the indefensible but nonetheless infectious, febrile anthem—drags us into a Southern solidarity that we are all thoroughly ashamed of but exhilirated by. And you just can't ( go on, try) can't dance to "Southern Man."
In Dixie Lullaby, Mark Kemp writes unflichingly about the complex racial and class politics of Ronnie Van Zant and Skynyrd, properly pooh poohing Lee Ballinger's promulgation of the dubious "Boo Boo" defense cum apologia. Me, Myself & I think the context of the song is always already about drunk, dumb-ass Bubbas with rebel flags and Zippo lighters held aloft in bars shouting for lame overplayed covers ("What song is it you want to hear?" living forever in infamy), even if it does have a killer opening riff and you can dance to it.

Now to my time in the Yellowhammer State. I did spend much of yesterday in Alabama as I saw the USA blank Guatemala 2 nil in a World Cup 2006 Qualifying match

Headed for Birmingham around 10:30 and made a 1:30 lunch at Surin West, one of the first places I ever ate out at in Birmingham, during Ice Storm 2000 on Alec Eiffel's Bday and before GBV at the Nick.

Everyone was so much younger then.

I skipped the sushi and went straight for a Classic Extra Dry Martini featuring Bombay Sapphire Gin, though someone needs to explain to them that the classic should come with olives not a lemon twist.

Here's a tip; there's a reason the menu doesn't list prices for the Martinis! Well it was worth it for just the one. I veered from my normal Thai order (Pad Thai noodles) and started with their Spicy Coconut Soup with Shrimp, which was a passable version of Tom Kha Gai and also ordered the Chicken Masama with Avocado Slice. Mine looked like this:

Not like this as the on-line gallery of featured items suggested it would:

After some browsing at The Summit (I did pick up some Hot Cinnamon Spice Tea and American spoon Mango Butter at Williams-Sonoma and a magazine at Barnes and Noble), I headed off to Legion Field

Despite USA Soccer's best efforts there was a sea of Blue and White Guatemala supporters, although there was an impressive block of red USA fans in the one endzone with seating, where the second half goals were disallowed and scored and the hand ball penalty improbably missed by a mediocre match umpire.

Here the starters are arriving and posing for pre-match photos:

Then it was time for the kick off:

Thursday, March 24, 2005

My favorite things.

Other the years I have had various and sundry "collections." I don't have enough of an anal-retentive personality to have ever gone wholehog in these ventures. It's why I'm perfectly happy to own paperback editions of my books, and why I stay away from collecting rare expensive objects that one doesn't use in their normal fashion (say a Shakespeare Folio or a rare original Sun records 7" 45). In some ways my collections are populist, ephemeral, and quixotic, not unlike this collection in that way. What follows are some highlights of my collections of drinking vessels, matchbooks, badges/buttons, and beermats. Music related items might run in a later column.

Here are photos of some of my favorite things

Drinking Vessels

The technical name for this object is a Toby Jug. Although in this case, Royal Doulton really made this likeness of Long John Silver as milk or cream server. I have a full sized Doulton St. George and the Dragon Toby Mug as well. Logically, you might think Toby Jugs were named after that famous Shakespearean sot, Sir Toby Belch. But you'd be wrong, sort of. Not unlike Delft Jugs, Toby Pots date to their 1762 creation by Staffordshire potter Ralph Wood. he based his original design on a popular 1761 song "Dear Tom, This Brown Jug" about one Toby Philpot, a character who obviously is inspired by Belch.

This "shot glass" is actually a 0.1 liter glass used at annual and semi-annual events in the Freiburg region known as Weintage or Weinstube, where vineyards come and set up stands and you buy a glass and then for a small fee can sample their various wines. This one depicts the historic Kornhalle of Endingen am Kaiserstuhl.

The Kaiserstuhl, or Emperor's Chair, in Baden-Württemberg is the remains of an extinct volcano that is dotted by small villages and mainly covered with vineyards.

The region is the sunniest in Germany and even a number of Mediterranenan varietals prosper here. It is most famous for its deep amber reds and specializes in Burguny varietals: notably Pinot Noir (Blauer Spättburgunder) and Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder)


Yup. That's a Bohemian Club matchbook. Nope, I've never been in the club building or to the redwood grove. My connection also was an SF local not a world changing powerbroker. Easily the rarest matchbook I "own."

Another pretty famous club: the St. James in London, which backs onto Green Park and not St. James' as you might expect. I ate lunch with my father here not too long ago, as he had visiting privileges from the University Club at FSU.

Even good restuarants come and go fast in SF. I loved Geordy's, tucked in a dead end alley just off Grant Avenue, near Union Square, and behind the Compton Place Hotel; they did make a fine martini. Ivy's was long a pre-symphony or post-opera staple, famed for their venison dishes. But the neighborhood hit tough times post-'89 Loma Prieta earthquake, as it lay in the shadow of the condemned Oak and Fell St. on- and off-ramps to the downtown 101 spur. Now it's a trendy French bistro Absinthe, with bad food and crappy service. C'est la vie.

Three favorite seaside or near restaurants. Nepenthe is atop a crest in the highway in Big Sur; long a favorite of the beatnik writers and artists who frequent the area.

This is the view from the edge of Nepenthe's big redwood deck looking south over the Pacific. The Moss Beach Distillery is a fabulous and fabled old haunted restuarant (and former prohibition-ear speakeasy/brothel). Get there early enough to sit downstairs on the headlands, have a drink, and watch the sunset over the ocean. if it's cold, they provide Hudson Bay blankets gratis. Just off Highway 1 (28 miles from Palo Alto/Stanford, 25 miles south of San Francisco, 6 miles north of Half Moon Bay, where they filmed the American Pie 3 wedding scenes). The Lark Creek Inn was made famous by Chef/Owner Bradley Ogden and features fabulous holiday and weekend brunches.

The historic inn is nestled in a redwood grove at the foot of Mount Tamalpais in southern Marin County.

Sri Siam might not be the best Thai restaurant in London, but their Soho location is one of my favorite places for lunch near Theatreland.

Dave's Dark Horse Tavern is the first bar I ever visited when I moved to Starkville in August '96. That night I met Señor Nashville StandupBasso and saw his band the David C. Trio, which was, of course, a quartet at the time. Dave's has great burgers and pizza and has become my regular, nice because it's also the closest bar to my house. Until last December, Dave had a second larger club downtown, the International Bistro, where I've seen such live acts as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, celebrated New Year's, Halloweens, and weddings and even watched one year's Egg Bowl 2nd half there out of the rain. The building was one of Starkville's original movie theaters (Jaws ran there back in the day). Before becoming the Bistro, it also served temporarily as the local Catholic Church, while they were rebuilding their place of worship after a fire.


Former Florida Governor Reubin Askew ran for President in 1984, but dropped out after a weak showing in Iowa and a 9th place finish in New Hampshire. There's no truth to the rumor that he was depicted in Joe Klein's Primary Colors as Governor Fred Picker. Even moreso than Jimmy Carter, he was the first and best New South governor. A 1981 Kennedy School of Government study named him one of the Top 10 American Governors of the 20th Century. He and LeRoy Collins were my two earliest political heroes.

"We try harder" in Welsh. The local Avis dealer used to give out these badges as a promo. I've also got Norwegian, Japanese, and Spanish.

"Creative Playthings" are actually purveyors of fine wood playsets. I visited their newly opened store in San Francisco in 1973, when I also got Willie Mays' autopgraph at Candlestick park. Who knew this badge would come to have such different connotations?

The Frito Bandito: The famous Warner Brothers cartoonist Tex Avery developed this corporate icon who lasted into the mid-1970s. Cultural sensitivities then placed him in the dustbin of history along with all those Speedy Gonzales cartoons. Maybe this theme song had something to do with it. The Green Hornet first brought fame to Bruce Lee as the karate kicking chauffeur and sidekick for Van Williams' Britt Reid/The Green Hornet. Speaking of Green Hornet collectibles I have a near mint Black Beauty Corgi #268 with its original yellow box (if I can just find the flying plastic red thing in my office); I've had it since I was a kid. I also have 267 (The Batmobile in its original packaging) and 270 (The James Bond Aston Martin DB5 in original packaging) plus a fully working Yellow Submarine without box. Kevin Smith is supposedly currently drafting a screenplay for a Green Hornet movie, but whether or not he'll direct remains a mystery.


Timothy Taylor Landlord is a famous Yorkshire Real Ale that often wins beer competitions, twice being named Supreme Beer in Great Britain at London's annual Great British Beer Festival.

The Dirty Duck is a landmark gastropub housed in a 15th century riverside building in Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. Situated between the RSC's three theaters and the local actor's digs, The Duck, also confusingly signed as The Black Swan, is a frequent haunt of actors. Often after a performance, actors will show up in the bar for a drink and some gossip. Keep your ears and eyes open. The Avon River chain ferry is just across from the pub.

Hausbrauerei Feierling was celebratings its centennial anniversary when I lived in Frieburg-im-Briesgau during the summer of 1977.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


Josh Schwartz is currently the smartest guy writing for commercial, non-cable TV, supplanting Joss Whedon (who has gone underground) and J.J. Abrams (whose 2 shows Lost and Alias never quite live up to the brilliant promise of their respective pilots). Whatever you think of The O.C.'s forthy blend of Knots Landing melded with 90210, the show definitely has moments of pure inspiration. Take for example tonight's episode "The Blaze of Glory", featuring Bill Cambell as Carter Buckley, besotted magazine editor and potential rival love interest for Kelly Rowan's Kirsten Cohen. The show loves to highlight new and/or cool indie music (including 5 basically hidden Beck tracks from Guero last week). So we discover Carter Buckely drunk on tequila lounging in front of loudspeakers blaring The Pixies' "Debaser" and mooning over his wedding anniversary to an ex. This is a perfect Zeitgeist touch. The Pixies are suddenly hip again with the kids, but this song dates to 1989 and is quite plausibly somehow significant re: a past relationship for a 40 something. To drive this point home, he's lounging in an extremely faded Hüsker Dü t-shirt, a band even older and hipper than The Pixies in its way (props to MC for pointing this out). It always infuriates me when shows or movies get the music wrong, like having a song from 1973 in a soundtrack for a movie set in 1969 just because it "sounds good". So the opposite is also true; I love it when people get it right. Schwartz gets it right mostly.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Basketball jones.

My absolute favorite sports week of the year has arrived: Selection Sunday followed by two days to ponder and fill out tourney brackets and then the first weekend of March Madness, when it's wall-to-wall games for the round of 64 and the round of 32.

Friday, March 11, 2005

San francisco (be sure to wear flowers in your hair).

Returning from my year abroad as a Rotary Post-Graduate Fellow, I flew off to the San Francisco Bay Area and a 10 year run at Stanford as graduate student in Englishand instructor/lecturer in the TCP. For much of that time I was actively involved with the local campus radio station, KZSU, 90.1. fm Stanford. For much of that time I also was an RA and lived in Rains Houses.

Later I lived at 95 Tallwood Court in Atherton (where Joe Montana, Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds among others live).

Finally I lived at 51 Adam Way (also another pool house/studio in Atherton, but nearer the El Camino).

In 1996, I was offered a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor of English at Mississippi State University and moved to Starkville, MS, where I still live.

Public Enemy, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

I always said this was the best Hip Hop album ever! Much better than Fear of a Black Planet, which was more highly rated back in the day, maybe because of its Spike Lee connections. Still recently some revisionism seems to be going on. To me ITANOMTHUB WAS AND ALWAYS WILL BE the sound of urban New York, and mean that literally. This one of the greatest Noise records ever made, with samples so sophisticated and complexly layered nobody ahs ever touched them. major props to Harry Shocklee & the Bomb Squad for their production "in full effect". I can listen to "Night of the Living Baseheads" and "bring the Noise" on almost continual loops. As much as I loved Run D.M.C., this is the BOMB!

The Mekons, Original Sin/The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll

This Leeds-based punk collective has now successfully melded three of my favorite musical styles: pure English punk, American roots/, and straight ahead indie guitar rock. I heard these both in early 1989. The former is really a reissue of the Mekon's epochal 1985 Sin records release Fear and Whiskey plus extra contemporaneous B-sides and ep tracks. One of the greatest records ever made and a testament to how good can be, although they wouldn't call it that. I wrote about both these records in an essay that can be found here along with the essay that lays out my thoughts about MBV's Loveless (see below). Rock 'N' Roll was the Mekons' big major label debut on A&M, then a label known for more MOR fare like Billy Joel. It should have been their Nevermidn moment but alas it wasn't. Still The Mekons are one of those few bands that when they choose to play out immediately vie for the label best rock band on the planet (with The Ex, Fugazi, and the final version of GBV). You won't go wrong buying either of these discs as the reissues they now are.

Here's a taste of what I have to say about the Mekons:
From the album’s opening quartet, “I was out late the other night / Fear and whiskey kept me going / I swore somebody held me tight / But now there's just no way of knowing,” in a song ironically titled “Chivalry,” we have entered a world of fear and whiskey, of darkness and doubt, a place where it is hard to be human. A central thematic of much of the Mekon’s oeuvre is darkness/ doubt,/desperation, and they do seem to have a quarrel with a pop culture history that does not garner them a larger audience in the US; however, I think Greil Marcus overstates the case for bitter sentimentality (1993, 300–1). I’d position their desire in the same way Walter Benjamin was “to brush history against the grain” (257), as a response to the apparent barbarity of civilization where a man dies “While the witless upper classes attended the boat race” (“Hey! Susan,” Original Sin).

Another reason the sentimentality argument does not wash is the very rootedness of this disc in all kinds of collectivity: the original T J Clarke/Guy Debord Situationist International-inspired Leeds Art School collective as punk rock; the contemporary connection with the great Dutch kollektiv and punk band, The Ex; the multi-various collective instrumentation, which resembles nothing so much as a cross between a shambolic Celtic folk band and a traditional jug band. On one famous occasion, a one-off gig at the late, lamented Kennel Club in San Francisco during the F.U.N. 90/Curse of the Mekons era (January 7, 1991), the band gained and shed members almost every song and seemed like they were going to play all night long. I stopped counting the number of “encores.” There is, of course, a less artistic, more political angle to collectivity as well. It is the way of the miners and other unionized British labor; it is the way of hardscrabble miners in Appalachia, too. It’s also the only real way for noncommercial combine farming to survive. And it is at the intersection of those two related but distinct cultures (farming and mining) that the truest marriage of punk and exists.

My Bloody Valentine, Loveless

I've written at length about this album elsewhere as well as a shortish piece on its first track. Here's some of what I had to say about it:
My Bloody Valentine’s (MBV) aural adventure Loveless cannot be fully comprehended without a nod towards other noisy arts/construction movements of the 1970s and ‘80s (like NY’s no-wave scene and SF’s Survival Research Labs built objects, industrial arts wargames spectacles). Furthermore, it is an extension of the band’s own earlier reworking/feedbacking of classic Spector production effects and Wilsonesque lyrics in such tracks as Isn’t Anything’s ‘Feed Me with Your Kiss,’ where a hint of a melody wafts behind a veritable wall of guitar effects. But Loveless also suggests links to older musical traditions appear as well. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press ‘trace a thread that runs through Indonesian gamelan, Aboriginal didgeridoo music, Indian raga, Tibetan devotional music … John Cage … My Bloody Valentine, right up to ambient techno artists like the Aphex Twin’ (p. 181). This tradition ‘shares a belief that minimal-is-maximal’ (182). Shields himself specifically notes the liberating influence of ‘techno and rap’ which allow for new versions of sound structures and production mixes (Story).

Loveless also presents its own postmodern takes on the work of art in the age of digital reproduction and on the indeterminacy of meaning, mining a musical vein of Benjamin adumbrated with reception theory. MBV works in dual threads of noise and minimalism. Singer/Guitarist Kevin Shields states, ‘A lot of what we are is about sound. We use volume as an instrument a lot live’ (Interview), and he further elaborates a desire to decenter the vocalist in the mix and focus on the instruments producing the trademark ‘muffled sound … like fluff on a needle’ as opposed to the typically ‘bright’ radio friendly sound of most pop, a music which ‘you have to look into as opposed to it comes out to you’ (Story). Iconically, the album is represented not unlike the previously mentioned video montage by a barely discernible and definitely disembodied shot of a guitar’s fretboard seemingly about to dissolve from the wild vibrations of the strings.

Ironically, what does come out to you from Loveless is the sheer power and volume of the music. Rachel Felder confirms this fact:
Ever since its Isn’t Anything LP was released, the band’s live shows have been as much about hyperbolically loud volume as about the music itself. That volume heightens their music’s intensity as well as adding to the painful disorientation of it …. The audience’s experience at a Valentine’s show recalls what Roland Barthes wrote in his essay “Musica Practica,” where he discusses the intensity of musical connection you get from playing an instrument yourself. (p. 29)
The noise is arrived at by some technical wizardry, as Simon Reynolds and Joy Press explain: ‘On Loveless, they go beyond the ethereality of “glide guitar” into full-blown alchemy (sampling their own feedback and playing it on a keyboard, so that there’s even less sense that what you hear was generated by physical acts and fleshly creatures)’ (pp. 220–1). The soundcheck for the February 2, 1992, San Francisco Loveless tour debut at Slim’s was a testament to the independence of electronics, as the sequencer kept going off at the wrong time and with the wrong item. Frontman/producer Kevin Shields noted that the sequencer is ‘less reliable than a human being; it’s a stupid thing that doesn’t have any sense. Quite often it decides not to work.’ The band continued with the sequencer because they ‘didn’t want to use tape; when we play live, we want to be able to change things.’

Guided by Voices, Alien Lanes

I've never been one to be a band groupie, but I have seen GBV live more often than any other band except for Mission of Burma, Marcus Roberts, and some local Starkville stalwarts. I was first introduced to the band through their mainstream breakout album, 1995's Alien Lanes. Here was a sound I could wrap my ears around and a seemingly endless stream of breaathtaking pop gems, plus lots of little "recorder grot" entre song action to borrow a Stephen Malkmus phrase. I don't think they ever bettered the lo-fi aesthetic and its sequencing as evidenced here, but I do think they made better records, notbaly the next one, Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. Still, here's where my "obsession" started.

The Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day

No longer my pick for their best album, that honor goes to 2004's The Dirty South, but this weas the album that really clicked for me in a way the high concept Southern Rock Opera didn't. It's probably better to say this is the first DBT album I was willing to just let run in the CD player, whereas with SRO several tunes would get shaved off either disc. Patterson Hood and his mates are both raised in the souther tradition and painfully aware of its shortcomings and blindspots. This album also sees the development of a third vocalist and songwriter, Jason Isbold—who pens the title track amongst others, joining Hood and Mike Cooley in sharing those honors.

My favorite song on the album is probably "Your Daddy Hates Me." here's a bit of a forthcoming Perfect Moments in Pop essay:
Patterson Hood notes that this song is "about divorce and the emotional fallout that follows." It's also about the odd Freudian psychic arrangements that tie fathers to daughters and intermarried families to each other while often tearing them apart. And it's about the bifurcated nature of Southern manhood: Father's sons but Mama's boys: "And I always loved your Daddy, I loved your Mama even more." But mostly, at least to me, it's about the variety of beautiful rackets the electrical guitar can be manipulated into making.

To get this Perfect Moment in Pop, you gotta let the song flow for a while as the three guitarists trade leisurely and self-restrained licks. And then it happens for the first time at about the 3:53 mark. Egged on by former Sugar bassist and current studio guru David Barbe, they let loose one of what Jason Isbell calls Barbe's encyclopedic "cool old sounds." Specifically Mike Cooley smears a high-pitched riff which ducks in and out of the mix over and under the other two guitars and ratchets up the song's underlying tension. Barbe himself enters the fray around the 5:58 mark with what Patterson Hood calls a "moaning sound," a more eloquent phrase than the liner notes' bland "additional guitar." What "Your Daddy Hates Me" is is the definitive southern take on three guitars (not so) gently weeping.


My original review of the entire album can be found here. Additional highlight tracks include "Hell No, I Ain't Happy," "Marry Me," "(Something's Got To) Give Pretty Soon" and "Outfit" with the classic lyric: "Don't worry about losing your accent / a Southern man tells better jokes."

That's all for now folks re: The Records That Changed My Life. Maybe we'll do it again in a decade.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

A new england.

In September of 1981, I drove with my parents from Tallahassee, FL to Cambridge, MA and arrived at Matthews South in Harvard Yard for my

[My shared bedroom , in this triple, was on the second floor just to the right of the pointy entryway and our living room behind the two jutting out windows]

freshman year. I moved to North House and the Radcliffe quad for sophomore through

[I lived in a single on the back T wing of Moors as a sophomore].

senior year. While at Harvard, my main musical activity involved writing the odd album review for The Harvard Independent. As a senior, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Rotary Post-Graduate Fellowship for MA study at the University of York. There I began my radio career at Britain's oldest legally independent radio station, URY.

Mission of Burma, "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate"

This essay in a slightly longer form will appear eventually on Stylus's Perfect Moments in Pop column.

While exploring Boston and environs my freshman year, I noticed some maniac had tagged anything tied down and even some MBTA rolling stock with "Mission of Burma." I assumed this was some kind of protest against General Ne Win and the BSPP. Then on WFNX, I heard Mission of Burma's "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" and everything changed. For the next two years, when time and money allowed I caught the all ages shows of Burm,a including the glorious "final" afternoon gig at the Bradford Hotel. My favorite song by this band was the one I always referred to as the other "That's" song. And on many a day I deemed it the better "That's" song.

Here's what Roger Miller says about "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate" on the Burma website:
Pure Punk Power Pop. For Vs., the tape ran out before the end was over. We decided we liked that. In the mix, we opted for overdriving the living hell out of the vocals and guitar track in the board. Some thought this was a bit extreme at the time.
That snap, crackle, pop ending is indeed one of the song's highlights. The new iTunes-only Snapshot ep, easily one of the two or three best items of the year, is, as Douglas Wolk wrote in The Seattle Weekly, the sound of "the sky being torn open. . . . that amazing noise." Its version of "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate" has Miller again invoking the title twice, interrupted only by a knowledgeable in-studio fan excitedly gasping "Yeh" and a guitar flourish, and then it's off to the races for 2:13 of Clint Conley's hollered lyrics and walking bass lines, Peter Prescott's brutally metronomicdrumming, Martin Swope's tape loops, and Roger Millers smeary guitar brilliance. It is "the sound that American indie bands have been tinkering with ever since" as Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield once noted.

Miles Davis, A Tribute To Jack Johnson

I have been into jazz for quite a while, but it really helped to have a jazz-rock crossover record to get me listening more seriously. I owe this record to Robert Christgau, as I bought it after reading his review of it in the old white with blue and green highlights 1970s Consumer Record Guide I leafed through regularly on my visits to the Harvard Coop's record department back in 1981-5, when it was the best record store in New England not called Newbury Comics. It also puts me in mind of a phenomenon gone with the CD and the art of programming cuts away. I used to measure the greatness of records in terms of the basic unit, a complete side. Could I listen to one side of a vinyl platter without getting up and wanting to skip a song? If so, they became candidates for the higher honor, a "typing" and post-10/84 "word processing" record. I'd stack favorites including side 1 of Jack Johnson, side 2 of Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey, and (rarest of all) either side of Purple Rain or any of the four sides of London Calling whenever I had a paper to type from my longhand written pages. The first year I had my IBM PC 512K monster I still composed off-line. To this day, I still prefer this album to the more famous double, Bitches Brew, primarily because it rocks harder and steadier.

The Clash, The Clash (US)

Sure the UK original has a more interesting and rawer sound, but I heard this version first, and it includes my second favorite single of all time "White Man in the Hammersmith Palais." I lived in Freiburg, West Germany during the summer of 1977, which was a lot closer to London and the center of he punk universe than Tallahassee but still a world away from gobbing, pogoing, and safety pins as fashion statement. I retained an interest in studying and listening to punk rock until spring semester of my senior year, when I took a course on Post-World War II Britain and wrote a paper about the politics of punk rock, looking at The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Jam. I spent spring break that year in London, including several days at the National Sound Archives on Exhibition Road sandwiched between Imperial College London and the Science Museum. A feature element of the paper was this analysis of "White Man at the Hammersmith Palais":
In their best single, "White Man at the Hammersmith Palais," the Clash turn a critical eye on modern British society from a youth's perspective. The inequality is noted, as "White youth, black youth, better find another solution / Better phone up Robin Hood and ask him for some wealth distribution." Similalrly their own movement per se gets its: "Punk rockers in the U.K., they won't notice anyway / They're too busy fighting for a good place under the lighting." Finally the tawdry sham of consumerism becomes a symbol of English society: "All over people changing votes along with their overcoats." It is important to add that this phrase coincides witht he musical climax of the piece.
And you thought I never paid attention to lyrics!

That paper concluded by noting the importance of "Style" to all three bands under consideration. It drew the following generalizing conclusion:
They were young, without history, seeking to replace a stale orthodoxy of lumbering guitars and rockers as artistes. Yet among themselves there was great diversity of musical style and even political beliefs. The sole common denominator was an attempt to question the validity of the establishment. In their quest, these bands became the icons of the age, indelibly stamped in the consciousness of Britain's youth, whether or not they accepted their musical challenge.

The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow

In Cambridge, MA, my introduction to music videos was by way of the independet VHF station V 66 "Solid in Sommervile," which competed with MTV's commercial dominance by running all the obscure indie videos they could find to fill screen time, including basically every early Black and White arty, NHS glass sportin', fake hearing aid wearing video by this British band called The Smiths. Needless to say they caught my attention. On most days, this not Queen is my favorite Smiths' "album"; yes I realize it's a compilation more than a true album, but so what. I still get chills everytime I hear the opening tremolo effect of "How Soon is Now?"

Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club

As the first post in this series ("In my room.") made clear, I have a passion for classic soul music of the late 60s and early 1970s, something which for much of my life I've kept to myself. The first time I let my interest out publicly was perhaps the first really good record review I ever wrote: about the 25-year delayed release of this disc for the 1985 summer version of the Harvard Independent. I had done a nice hatchet job on Bob Dylan's Infidels as my first music review for them in late 1983.

This record is a revelation because we hear Cooke performing on the chitlin' circuit in Miami before an all-black audience and none of the Nat "King" Cole "white" crooning is present in his voice, which instead emanates a feral sexuality (you can hear women swooning in the front row throughout the concert). Along with James Brown's two Live at the Apollo records and Solomon Burke's Soul Alive, Live at the Harlem Square Club is a testament to just how strong soul music can be.

The Wedding Present, George Best
The Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychocandy
The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash
The Redskins, Neither Washington Nor Moscow

The 1985-1986 academic year was in many ways a musical annus mirabilis. I first heard The Queen is Dead, the Housemartins, Hüsker Dü on a major label, the Shop Assistants, the Woodentops, and Scritti Politti to name but a few bands and records. However, the four records listed above were the cream of this crop as I began my radio career. I really first heard the Wedding Present on their second Reception 7" "Once More," but waited for the debut album to arrive as my first purchase. David Gedge's angst-ridden lyrics of unrequited or lost love coupled with the blitzoid guitars spoke immeditaely to my own personal aesthetic as did the Jesus and Mary Chain's marriage of Brian Wilsonesque-melodies masked by a Phil Spector-like "wall of feedback." To this day, I maintain Psychocandy is one of the two or thee greatest debut albums of all time. What can I say about the Pogues and the bent genius of Shane MacGowan's songwriting and singing. Plus this is their first record produced by Elvis Costello and features one of their few songs with a female vocalist, Cait O'Riordan, on "A Pair of Brown Eyes" and "I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day." MacGowan's take on Eric Bogle's anti-war classic "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" is heartrending. Plus there's the Vuarnet's on The Raft of the Medusa. The Redskins "walked like the Clash and sang like the Supremes," but because they were skinheads they also got unfairly tarred with the National Front racist label. It got so bad, you couldn't even find their debut album in their hometown of York at their record label's very own Goodramgate store (Red Rhino records). They did a show on campus where I worked "security"; I doubt there was a racist skinhead within ten miles of the show, but that's how reputations run away from reality sometimes.

Next up: a decade in Northern California and a strange trip into the Deep South.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

In my room.

The Records that Changed My Life

Apologies to Spin and Kicker of Elves over at, but imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery.

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band

The more musical memoirs I read the more I realize I was a wierd early adopter. Yes, much of my taste didn't set in until teenagedom (Note with one exception below I didn't have an older sibling/friend who introduced me to cool stuff), but there were certain records I got and got young: namely The Beatles and the Philly sound of Gamble and Huff (see below). At age 4, I asked my Mom to take me to see Yellow Submarine and on the way home I discoursed on its philosophy. The first Beatles record I owned was this most famous one which I wore out. I have now owned three vinyl and one CD copy of this album which I have come to agree with Jim DeRogatis now as being overrated. Still much of this disc spoke to me as a child and in strange ways. I particularly loved "She's Leaving Home," though I would have never considered myself an unhappy child nor one who contemplated running away. Perhaps its inherent melancholia predicted my undergraduate interest in Robert Burton and the Early Modern era and my eventual employment as a Shakespeare scholar. "Picture yourself on a boat in a river . . ." "And now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall" and on and on . . .

Freda Payne, "Band of Gold"
The O'Jays, "Backstabbers"
The Three Degrees, 'When Will I See You Again?"
Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, "If You Don't Know Me By Now"

Ah yes, the 7" single; the first musical format of my dreams. For much of the 1970s, these were primarly what I bought. The first I ever owned wasn't a bad one, The Jackson 5's "ABC" received in one of those exchange gifts things in grade school. However, I will also admit to still having the following in my "little" vinyl collection: Starland Vocal Band, "Afternoon Delight"; Orleans, "Still the One"; Cate Bros., "Union Man"; Player, "Baby Come Back"; England Dan and John Ford Coley, "Nights are Forever Without You"; Abba, "Mama Mia" and "Dancing Queen"; Madonna, "Into the Groove"; Hall and Oates, "Sara Smile"; Silver Convention, "Fly Robing Fly"; Andrea True Conenction, "More, More, More"; Maxine Nightingale, "Right Back Where We Started From"; Walter Murphy & the Big Apple Band, "A Fifth of Beethoven": and Wild Cherry, "Play That Funky Music White Boy"! You just need to remember how dominant, even as a radio phenomenon, disco was.

I have written about my love of the Payne single elsehwere, but I want to generalize it to the early 1970s Philly Sound of Gamble & Huff. "Backstabbers" is the third single which always figures in my list of top songs/records along with Freda Payne and the Clash (see forthcoming entry "A new england."). The above list features my three favorite Gamble and Huff records, but there are so many more to choose from. Remember the best singing Teddy Pendergrass ever did was as soloist in Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes! These records were famed for their use of strings, the backing band MFSB and its horns, and the proto-disco drumbeats. It was also some of the first black music to have an obvious political slant leading to records like What's Goin' on and "Ball of Confusion."

The Beach Boys, Endless Summer

I'm an only child and never had that older sibling or friend who hipped me to new music, as I have alread mentioned. Closest I got was a babysitter who was really into Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic. I can stand Can't Buy a Thrill, especially "Midnight Cruiser" and "Do It Again," but generally Becker and Fagen leave me ice cold. A few years later I rode to swim team practice with Hugh, who was really into the Beach Boys and played them on his 8-Track constantly. I really dug those tight harmonies and the irresistible melodic hooks of Brian Wilson. Forget Smile; this double album compilation is where it's at with respect to that California sound. In seventh grade, I got to see The Beach Boys at Florida Field with opening band, The Outlaws. That's a story for another day.

Coming soon two additional entries

9/81-8/85: The Cambridge, MA college years and 1985-6 dateline: York, UK, and

Bay Area and Starkvegas life changers.

Friday, March 04, 2005


I took my "Spring Break" early and left it short this year. Anyway. I drove down to Fairhope, AL on Monday and stayed through Thursday AM. For more on Fairhope, see 11/29/2004 entry "Down on the bayou" on this blog. Mainly I was in the Mobile Bay area to see The Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition. I also caught an IMAX film about the Mystery of the Maya and a lecture. The first two events took place at the Gulf Coast Exploreum, part of the museum complex in Mobile at the Old City Hall, not far from historica Fort Condé, the site of the firs capital of French Louisiana. The lecture sounded nice on paper bu Sanders is retired and spoke without notes, so he never really got to the issue of canon formation or the concept of the First Testament, instead taking us through a chatty anecdotal version of his life as a scholar and how he managed to unroll his scroll, etc. Plus the one moment he did talk about canon stuff it was clear he's 30+ years out-of-date on current thinking re: ms editing, as he spoke of making "reponsible" choices about the "correct" variant. Jerome McGann is seething about now!

As a kid I visited Mobile annually for swim meets every March at the Chandler Branch YMCA and fell in love with its Coastal French charm; think New Orleans without the stench. Plus a nicer array of Live Oak-lined boulevards, although obviously less in the way of nightlife; however, Mobile does have the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. Back then we took I-10 to the edge of the Bay headed north to Spanish Fort and US 90 and crossed the bay on Battleship causeway. No trip to Mobile was complete without a visit to the original Wintzell's Oyster House, famed for its "oysters—fried, stewed, or nude" and the colorful signs on its walls.

On this trip, I was able to meet up with my friend and colleague David Sauer, who teaches at Spring Hill College, the oldest Catholic college in the Southeast, perched atop Spring Hill, an imposing ridge on the western edge of Mobile. We taught together in CCSA's London summer program in 2002.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

I heard it through the grapevine.

I won't say anything about LCD Soundsystem's debut since my review is forthcoming on other than that I side with those who don't think James Murphy is all that and some . . .

Bonnie Prince Billie and Matt Sweeney, Superwolf (Drag City)

Generally I'm a big fan of Will Oldham's various works as Palace Music, Palace Brothers, himself, and Bonnie "Prince" Billy. But this two person collaboration doesn’t have the alchemical magic of say Robert Pollard and Doug Gillard's Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, an apt comparison because for me Matt Sweeney is not a member of Chavez or Zwan first but rather the cigarette puffing bassist on Guided By Voices' epochal Live at the Whiskey a Go Go VHS tape. The problem with this CD is too much Oldham and not enough Sweeney, even if he supposedly wrote the music. Also it's far too soft throughout, and there's not nearly enough variation of tempos, styles, or volumes. A couple tracks work O.K.: notably "Bed is for Sleeping" and "My Home is the Sea."

The Wedding Present, Take Fountain (Manifesto)

Cinerama is Dead, long live Cinerama. But for those of us in the know, David Gedge always will be about The Wedding Present ca. 1985-1993. So I can happily report that Take Fountain, while not reaching the heights of 1992's career zenith Seamonsters is a real Wedding Present record like nothing since the Hit Parade year. Gedge does here what he does best write churning, yearning plaintive melodies about unrequited and lost love(s). The fact that he has broken up with long time love and collaborator Sally Murrell and moved to Seattle (a place even rainier than West Yorkshire) only makes the record that much more poignant. For the plaintive melodies start with "Interstate 5" extended into Ennio Morricone territory with bongos and a a loopy spaghetti western guitar sounds to close and "It's For You." While in Cinerama, Gedge worked on his ballads and he deliver s a killer here: "Mars Sparkles Down on Me," a kind of anti-love song. We need to remember that we're talking about Mars (God of War) not Venus (God of Love) here in this song about supposedly being cool with the breakup with Murrell. It's good we both have new lovers he declaims, but then green-eyed jealousy enters the picture. How can he be sleeping in "our" bed? And, of course, what's noticeably missing from this ballad is the harmonizing Miss Murell offered on many a Cinerama disc. Listen closely and it'll bring you to tears. The only thing keeping this record from instant classic status are the penultimate two tracks, "Larry's" and "Queen Anne", which are the kind of bland material that marred the Cinerama era. They'd fit right in on that Superwolf record.

Various Artists, The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 1: 1959-1961 (Hip-O)

The battle for 2005's best reissue CD is over before it even began. A perfect box set with beautiful packaging including a replica version fo Motown's first hit 45 7", Barrett Strong's "Money." These six CDs include A- and B-sides for every single during Motown's formative first three years. Sets for each subsequent year are forthcoming! Hip-o Select Records should also be acknowledged for their scouring of the Motown vault, especially with regard to issuing the heretofore unreleased David Ruffin solo album.

Love, The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop)

I've never really liked anything famed slowcore band Low did, primarily because they were all slow and very little (hard)core. For this Sub Pop debut they turn up the guitars, the reverb, and the feedback. The record is an absolute keeper. Almost everything works here in a way that Sweeney and Oldham should pay attention to, especially given the similarly titled tracks about the Sea. This seventh album from the Duluth, MN-based trio is sped up and rocks out. Key tracks include "Silver Rider" and "Walk into the Sea" both of which reference the titular Great Destroyer as well as the acoustic ditty "Death of A Salesman." But the masterpiece is "Broadway (So Many People)." E.F. Hutton sez: Buy and Buy Again!

Mr. Airplane Man, C'mon DJ (Sympathy for the Record Industry)

Only One CD can be the absolute find of the bunch and this is it! A female two-piece (guitar and drums) from Boston signed by Jeffery Evans to Sympathy 4 the R.I. just like the White Stripes. Think of this as garage blues psychedelia; it's no surprise that they cover Howlin' Wolf, The Wailers, and the Outsiders. This record was made in Memphis at the famous Easley Studios. Margaret Garrett on guitar and vocals and Tara McManus on drums kick ass! If you like Mazzy Star, check out "How Long." Also check out the title track, the Outsider's cover "Sun's Going Down" and "Make You Mine." Buy this CD early and buy it often!

If you want to see more of this type of music criticism on TNA, please comment below or email me directly at