Sunday, August 23, 2009

I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star

Name-checking basks you in the reflected glow of cool.

There's a certain thrill that goes with discovering that someone shares your musical passion. It's an immediate shortcut that establishes you as members of the same tribe.

And when songs name-check your musical obsessions, isn't that just a shortcut to cool?

They Might Be Giants may just be the kings of name-checking bands I love (the dBs, Young Fresh Fellows, XTC) in their songs. Which brings me to the Replacements.

I was late hearing the Replacements, although I'd been reading rave reviews of their records for years. But what drove me to finally seek out the Replacements was the song "We're the Replacements," by They Might Be Giants (the flip side of their "Don't Let's Start" single). The song celebrated the wretched sloppiness that characterized many live performances by the Replacements. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Early Replacements records were a bit too sloppy for my taste, but when they tightened things up a little, they were amazing. When their album Pleased to Meet Me came out, I thought the song "Alex Chilton" was amazing and I listened to it over and over again. The song -- an ode to Chilton, who sang "The Letter" for the Box Tops when he was only 16 and went on to form Big Star and release a series of idiosyncratic solo albums starting in the 1970s -- is a pure explosion of tribal joy set to a pounding beat (and an evocation of an alternate universe that loves good music enough that "children by the millions wait for Alex Chilton to come 'round"). (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Bonus: Yesterday, I was listening to the great Barenaked Ladies album Gordon, remembering how much I loved the song "Brian Wilson." In my mind, the song revels in Wilson's early genius and scratches its head over his long decline and involvement with Dr. Eugene Landy (the shrink who was accused of crossing ethical boundaries by moving in with Wilson and co-producing a Wilson solo album that included songs that credit Landy as co-writer).

(By the way, I have an astrophysicist friend who assures me that if Alex Chilton and Brian Wilson record a song together about They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies, that would bring about a musical singularity that could cause the entire universe to collapse. Luckily, that seems unlikely to happen.)


Anonymous said...

What about when bands namecheck themselves in songs (like the Who referring to Who's Next in "You Better You Bet")?

Alex said...

It's okay to name-check yourself only if you're a rapper. Otherwise, it seems a little too douchey.

Just my opinion...