Thursday, March 18, 2010

These Songs Don't Suck

R.I.P., Alex Chilton.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

This Entry Brought To You By The Letter "R"

25. Ramones - Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio? (1980)
(File under: When Good People Do Bad Things: The Worst Of The Best)

Writing great pop songs is harder than most people are willing to credit, probably 'cause the good ones sound so natural and effortless, like they already existed as some sort of Platonic Ideal and were just waiting to be plucked from the ether and converted into audio signals. Sustaining great pop songwriting past 4 albums is a different matter unless you happen to be The Beatles (Elvis Costello squeaks by, too, though he fucked up his streak by releasing an album of country covers for his sixth LP). The Ramones still managed to do better than most - no dreaded sophomore jinx, and the albums kept getting better and more complex (albeit in ways virtually undetectable to non-fans) as they went along - right up until album #5.

Sure, The Ramones were punk, but they were also pop, which is one reason they were great punk. All the Beach Boys/girl group/60s AM stuff was part of their songs from the beginning - "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend", from '76, wouldn't have sounded out of place on the radio 10 (well, 11) years earlier. And of course these guys should have had hit singles, but if you're just now figuring out the world's unjust, you should probably cancel that vacation to Africa. The problem here is that not only did the band themselves think they should have hit singles, they thought this was the way to make it happen. Perfectly understandable - lots of people into punk/new wave thought the Old Ways were about to be swept away by the new (sub)cultural tide, but just like the '60s radicals, they mistook the values of their little community as being representative of society as a whole, and even the most cursory listen to commercial radio today should be enough to clue you in to the fact that that's not how this shit works. There was no way the Ramones were going to go to the top of the charts during their existence, and if they were, it sure as hell wasn't going to be because of any calculation on their part.

The main problem, in my mind, is that where previously they incorporated elements of '60s pop into their own unique sound, here they were merely indulging in nostalgia, trying to force the song into a hit by using the elements they thought it would take (really guys - a horn section? Not to mention the horribly misguided notion of getting Phil Spector to produce). The result being that, though I have no doubt they (or at least Joey) did remember rock 'n' roll radio - and fondly, at that - the song comes across as completely inauthentic. Not horrible, just mediocre - which is worse, in a way. And which still wasn't quite mediocre enough to make a dent in the charts. Even so, 4 great albums in a row is some kinda feat, and history will always be kind to them accordingly (and justly), no matter the failure of their later efforts (and though I'll grant Too Tough To Die belongs in the canon, not even the staunchest fans are going to make the case for Brain Drain or Halfway To Sanity as worthy additions. Not unless they've sniffed way too much glue - or Carbona, as the case may be).

26. Rush - The Trees (1978)
(File under: Bach Don't Rock: Prog)

Say what you will about Rush - I'm not here to oppress you! - but damn near every music geek goes through a metal/prog phase in their formative years, and unhip as these acts may be, even the crustiest dicks among us are not immune to nostalgia in some form. And so it is that I have pretty much all of Rush's 400 billion albums in my iTunes playlist. Oh, I stopped being any kind of real fan decades ago, but I still check out the new stuff, much like an abused spouse stays with their tormentor, in the vain, childish hope I'll catch a spark of the old magic. Even so, I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury(and let's get real: mostly gentlemen - Rush has got to be the most male-centric [me make up word!] act in God's Green Hell; not that I'm saying they're misogynistic or macho or anything, just that their music seems to attract guys at about the same rate it baffles women), that it could be worse: I present into evidence Yes, Styx and Jethro Tull as exhibits A, B and C (through Z). I rest my case and court adjourned.

Even so, this is what annoying hipster Anglophiles would refer to as weak beer. Wince! as the opening bars remind you of the kind of faux-madrigal bullshit that littered their previous album, "A Farewell to Kings". Cringe! as you realize the whole song's an allegory involving sentient motherfucking trees. Sigh! as they finally crank up the distortion, at least giving the song some forward momentum. Leave the room to take a shit! as they shift the dynamic back to wimpy for the middle section, which includes - wait for it - woodblocks. Throw your stereo into the sea! as you realize Geddy Lee will continue singing like that in the face of all that is beautiful and decent.

Surely I'm making it sound far, far more stupid than it could possibly be, no? Behold the introductory stanza: "There is unrest in the forest/There is trouble with the trees/For the maples want more sunlight/and the oaks ignore their pleas". How, oh how, will it all turn out for the poor goddamn little maples? Glad you asked. This being, ostensibly, rock and roll, the scrappy fuckers will overcome the authoritarian oaks with the Rightness of Their Cause and the Power of Rebellion, just like that kid in Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" video, no doubt. Let us become enlightened:

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
"The oaks are just too greedy;
We will make them give us light!"
Now there's no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe and saw

Hot damn, there's a twist, wot? Yep, the band that gave the world exactly what it had never been waiting for, a 20-minute anthem based on the work of Ayn Rand, the shittiest, most tedious writer ever to be taken to heart by confused 16-year-olds everywhere, now did themselves one better (worse?) when they made their idiotic tree song all the more idiotic by turning it into a Libertarian rallying cry. I'm sure many (including lyricist Neil Peart himself) would claim the song was meant as a cautionary tale about the methods those in power use to suppress populist uprisings, but having been involved in many arguments with Libertarians over the years, I can't help but notice the hateful concept of equal rights somehow being confused with taking away the rights of those at the top. Not to mention the implicit idea that those at the top are there because of some sort of genetic (intellectual/moral/whatever) superiority - the oaks' only crime was their natural height! Why must society's lowliest dregs always make life so hard for the rich and powerful? And of course, once you start handing out the same rights to everyone, it's just going to drag the possessors of greatness down to the level of the losers, and mediocrity will reign. Might be a passable explanation for the state of network TV, but as a political philosophy it's pretty ill-conceived and anti-human. And while it's actually physically painful to have to read 1200 pages of this shit, it's no less ridiculous boiled down to a 5-minute song. Especially when it's being wailed at you by somebody who sounds like they got their nuts caught on the tank they were using to suck helium from.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

24. R.E.M. - Everybody Hurts (1992)
(File Under: You Broke My Heart, Fredo: When Our Musical Heroes Betray Us)

If you didn't come of age in the '80s, it's nearly impossible to understand how important R.E.M. was to "alternative" (we called it "college") rock - believe it or not, there was a time their music was considered weird and uncommercial (I have many memories of putting their songs on mixtapes for friends and receiving "What is this shit?" reactions, with Michael Stipe's voice singled out for special abuse). But they, along with Husker Du and The Replacements, carried the torch for the American indie movement that Nirvana (as well as R.E.M. themselves) would take to the top of the charts. They were certainly part of the holy trinity for me, personally, so it is not with joy but with sadness that I proclaim this song to be on a par, entertainment-wise, with slipping in the shower and shattering your pelvis.

It starts off pleasantly enough, with an Otis Redding/non-bluesified "Love In Vain" riff - and then the lyrics start, which is generally when the nausea sets in (there are no coincidences, kemosabe), and you wonder if this is Stipe's revenge on all of those fans who'd been wishing for years that he'd enunciate. John Paul Jones's string arrangement only adds to the overall gloppy sentimentality of the track; I swear, if I'd had any way of knowing there'd be a massive earthquake in Haiti nearly 20 years later, I'd have been able to predict this song would be used on the benefit album. It's that sappy - in fact, it sounds like it was written expressly to appeal to emo 13-year-olds (redundant, I know) who agonize for weeks over whether the schoolmates they heard laughing when they passed them in the hall that day were laughing at them. Sure, the band had made missteps before, but they always managed to shroud even their most earnest heart-tuggers in some kind of mystery, a quality painfully lacking on this effort. Hell, even "Shiny Happy People" held out the possibility that it was ironic.

Which is to say: The ballad form isn't the problem - the album it was featured on, Automatic For The People, was, with very few exceptions (the paint-by-numbers rock of "Ignoreland"; the goof "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite"; the chorus to "Man On The Moon"), an album of ballads. But they were ballads that worked for the very reasons this one failed: they expressed adult (as opposed to adolescent) concerns (lotsa references to death - and not in any romanticized way), conveyed real emotions rather than settling for schmaltzy melodrama, and made statements without beating you over the head with their obviousness ( "Drive" may be about rock music's failure as a force of rebellion in the modern world, but it took me about 10 years to get it). There's nothing to "get" about "Everybody Hurts" - or, rather, nothing not to get. With this band, that equals unequivocal failure. But then, this song would have been a failure coming from Celine Dion. And if she's the yardstick by which your work is to be judged, you know it's time to seriously re-evaluate your priorities. Which usually doesn't mean putting out two more worthwhile albums, losing your drummer, and continuing on with a string of mostly forgettable easy-listening bland-outs. This is the kind of thing I dreaded the first time I saw "Adult Alternative" listed as a genre.