Sunday, February 28, 2010

To Her Cheshire Smile

To skate away on... to some alien, distant shore.

I don't know what it is about dreams. They sneak up on you, torpedo you with anxiety and hopes, then drag you across the cluttered floor of your subconscious.

And why are the scariest dreams the ones that sound the most benign and mundane when you describe them?

The other night, I dreamed I was in a meeting about a project. I don't remember what the project was, but in the dream I was very excited about it.

And I came out of the meeting, which was in an old duplex house with curved doorways and dark grey adobe stones.

And I looked into the other unit of the duplex -- which was a mirror image of the one I'd come from -- only the walls were painted a deep, rich ocean blue. Then I saw her.

And she said she was surprised to see me. So I mumbled something about the meeting. Then she said "I didn't think I was allowed to talk to you." Which is weird because I thought I wasn't allowed to talk to her.

And it's been many, many years since I've seen her. But she got into my blood like a virus and I'm still not sure I have all the antibodies I need.

So we talked and the party she was at swirled around us. She was selfish and sad and her life was one long emergency. But I loved her then more than either of us could understand. And being back in her presence, even if just for a moment, even if just in a dream, was intoxicating. And very, very, very sad.

And as we talked, I realized she was in danger. If she went to Hungary she would die. And the thought froze me, terrified me. And I let myself think for a moment about what that would mean if she died... and whether that would make her finally vacate that chunk of real estate in my brain she's occupied (without signing a lease or even paying her share of the utilities) for so long.

I must have gotten quiet, because she suddenly grabbed my arm and looked me in the eyes. "Why did you come here?" she asked.

I wanted to say this.

But I'm not Bruce Springsteen. Hell, on my best days I'm barely Manfred Mann.

So I didn't tell her. But I did say "don't go to Hungary." Her smile turned confused, gradually fading. (Even when I'm wide awake, it lingers behind her, leaving the hint of her essence.)

And then, though it took every ounce of effort I had, I got up and I left.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Another Sign of the Impending Apocalypse?

If I hadn't actually seen this in a store, I'd assume it was a joke.

Okay, I get it that Americans have taken lazy to a whole new level with the Snuggie. Not only do you not have to get off the couch, you don't even have to expend the effort needed to take your hands out from under the blanket.

What I don't understand is this (sadly) real product:

I guess some people won't be happy until their dogs are as lazy as they are...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Inside the Phantom Zone of Fun

Climbing high up the mountain of love -- or any other place I must go...

Holly Hughes has a damn fine blog called The Song in My Head Today. In the past, she's rhapsodized about Paul McCartney, Marshall Crenshaw, the Kinks (including an entire month where she reviewed their catalog in chronological order), and Nick Lowe. But mostly what she does is talk about a song that's stuck in her head and dissect the music and what it means to her. Great stuff.

Lately, Holly's been counting down her list of Top 100 Singles of All Time (5 per post) and she's about halfway through. That's great for reading about those Top 100 Singles, but makes me miss that "Song in My Head Today" feel.

So today, (since she's not using it right now) I'm stealing um hijacking um borrowing the entire underlying concept of her blog.

Somewhere in the universe, there's a party that goes on forever. And the Fleshtones are the house band.

Like General Zod trapped in the Phantom Zone (reference too obscure? watch a few seconds of this), this Phantom Zone of Fun slices through our three-dimensional reality, suddenly blinking into existence from out of nowhere.

"Hexbreaker" fades up like it's always been playing but we just couldn't hear it before. The song seems simultaneously fresh and dated. And yeah, "Hexbreaker" came out in 1983, when handclaps and drumbeats were sampled and played from keyboards -- and even Springsteen was dipping his Jersey Toe into the murky synth waters. But these are real hands clapping (not quite in unison) and a real drummer playing (not always exactly on the beat). It sounds human -- sometimes sloppy, always delightful. These guys seem like they're stuck in 1957 or 1965, not like they're contemporaries of the Human League or Talking Heads.

And it builds slowly. The call-and-response vocals have that frat-party everyone-shout-along quality. The sax sizzles, promising something dirty and sexy and vaguely forbidden. It's a perfect match for the raspy vocal style of Pete Zaremba. And the words channel bad hoodoo, love gone horribly wrong, and the promises of the magical talisman that has always been rock 'n' roll.

"Wait a minute," he says. "Are you ready for a SuperRock time?" And in this alternate universe, in the Phantom Zone of Fun, we're all ready. But he makes us wait, letting Keith Streng's guitar chug-chug-chug us forward, building and churning.

The cars whizz past (bottles will break)
People shout (how much can we take?)
Just keep calm (what more can we say?)
Because we always stay cool -- we like it that way.

And as the song builds, we wonder who (or what) is the Hexbreaker? And what hex needs to be broken anyway? Then we realize -- it's everything. And the song, drenched in echo, drips with the sweat of 100 revelers crowding the dance floor.

In all matters of money and love, the band promises, the Hexbreaker's power is strong. This is primal stuff -- and if you've ever believed that rock 'n' roll can save your life or redeem your soul, you'll want to tap into this kegger and drink deep from the heady brew they serve in the Phantom Zone of Fun.

But just as we're getting somewhere, the song starts to drift away. The band is floating off to another galaxy and we can't go with them. Clearly this song goes on forever, but just intersects our sonic plane of existence for 4 short minutes.

And maybe that's why this song sounds as fresh, vital, and elusive now as it did a quarter century ago. Whatever the reason, it makes me want to dance (and that almost never happens) and get up and join the party, traveling the universe to spread the joyous gospel of the SuperRock sound of the Fleshtones.

And that, with apologies to Holly Hughes, is why "Hexbreaker" is the song in my head today.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Go Here, Read These, Listen to That

Not the Smokey Robinson Kind

I could conjure a miracle or three for you because it's that time. Or I could link to the Andy Partridge-produced "Miracle of the Age" by Dr. & the Medics (famed as much for the lead singer's hair as for their 80s remake of "Spirit in the Sky") -- but I can't find it anywhere online.

So I'll let others be miraculous today:

Whiteray over at Echoes in the Wind believes in miracles. So does Barely Awake in Frog Pajamas.

Meanwhile, the streets may be clear in Vancouver, but over at Matador Records, it's snowing. Which somehow indicates that there's a new New Pornographers album out in a couple months... and with song titles like "Valkyrie in the Roller Disco" you know it'll be amazing. You can listen to or download the song "Your Hands (Together)" which has a very slow build, but explodes out of the gate about a minute in.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

NBC Screws Up Olympics Slightly Better Than Last Time

Some things are just hard to understand.

NBC has a broadcast television network (or at least what's left of it after the Jay Leno debacle), a Spanish-language broadcasting network, and dozens of cable properties.

But somehow they can't manage to broadcast any Olympic events live on the West Coast? And they can't have any live internet streams?

I gotta check my calendar because I'm pretty sure it's not 1976 anymore.

In a world of 500 cable channels and potentially limited bandwidth, this is the best they can do? And even though the coverage is slightly better than the 2006 Winter Olympics (where pretty much only medalists and American competitors got on the air), it's still pretty pathetic.

Hell, I'd even be willing to pony up $20 or $30 to watch things live on cable or on the web.

And now NBC is mad that other news outlets won't join them in pretending coverage of news is still stuck in the 20th century. (Do you think NBC is trying to get a Gold Medal in Stupidity?)

But while large media corporations are busy digging their own graves, savvy musicians are finding interesting ways to adapt to changing times. Camper Van Beethoven, another band that used to be on a major label and now are independent, are financing their trip to South by Southwest by selling sponsorship of songs in their set. For only $102, you can pick a song the band plays, then have a "Roller Derby Girl" walk across the stage with a placard announcing your sponsorship of the song.

I wonder if they'd charge extra if you chose this:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Long Tails and Ears for Hats

When is a guilty pleasure not a guilty pleasure?

Let's put the bad news and sad stories on hold for a bit and concentrate on pure, sunny pop music.

I love Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont's 2001 movie Josie and the Pussycats. It's a real guilty pleasure -- with Rachel Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson as the Pussycats, Seth Green as a member of a boy band, and Alan Cumming and Parker Posey as evil music industry tastemakers. The plot mixes a sappy love story with an over-the-top satire about putting subliminal messages (voiced by Mr. Moviephone himself) in pop songs to help sell products (and convince teen girls that orange is the new black).

It's a mixed bag, but has some wonderful moments (like Tara Reid's then boyfriend Carson Daily trying to kill the Pussycats on a TRL appearance gone very, very wrong).

Still, the music is a real pleasure -- no guilt necessary.

Kay Hanley (ex of Letters to Cleo) sings Josie's parts and the music comes from writers like Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, Babyface, Jason Falkner, Matthew Sweet, Jane Wiedlin (of the Go-Go's), Adam Duritz (of the Counting Crows), and others. The sound is mostly power-pop, sweet but with an edge.

And it's hard to argue with the equation Rachel Leigh Cook + Kay Hanley = punk rock prom queen (not to mention a late-night head rush and no one's little red corvette).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

International Pop Overthrow

A band out of time, too perfect to continue?

We drove into the packed parking garage behind the building, pulled into a space, and looked out at concrete columns and support beams. As another car drove up behind us, I could feel the building sway.

I asked her if she thought it was safe. She said it was a miracle that any building could hold thousands of cars, supporting millions of pounds of weight.

"But the support beam looks bent," I noted. She looked, nodded, then said we should go.

Yes, the building would probably collapse, but it had been there for years, so it probably wouldn't collapse that day. And, she reasoned, if it did we really wouldn't want to be there in the garage.

Then she walked away, leaving me to watch in wonder. A few steps later, she turned back, smiled, and asked if I was coming with her. Her world made little sense to me and the weight of her insanity crushed and bent logic like it was that support beam in the garage. And I knew then and there that she'd snap someday, but she'd been functional for years, so she probably wouldn't snap that day. So I nodded. And I followed.(Link for Gmail subscribers.)

If Material Issue had come along 20 years earlier, they'd have been superstars. 10 years later, they'd have been stars.

But the band, formed in 1985 in Chicago, burst onto the national scene in the early 90s, when grunge ruled and there was little interest in power-pop trios singing songs of love and yearning (most of them with girls' names in the titles).

But there was always something edgy about this band -- they didn't play the sweet power pop of the Raspberries. No, this was a Power Trio, merging their pop with anger and irony and then filtering it all through a fuzzbox.

Too much? Probably. Jim Ellison, Material Issue's lead singer and songwriter, took his life 15 years ago at the age of 32.

And after that, what's left? A handful of albums and a legacy so strong that an annual power-pop festival was proudly named after the band's first album.

And then there's this song:

The verses meander as the singer desperately tries to convince anyone who'll listen that he's the only one he really understands this girl of his dreams. Each verse ends with words and lines crammed together, desperate to declare undying love and fighting the realization that he's not fooling anyone.

Then what passes for a chorus: revved-up guitar and the plaintive wail "Valerie Loves Me." And the anguish always makes me wonder who the singer's trying to convince: us or himself. And that's it (at least for the chorus). Because what more can you say?

The answer's in the other verses -- Valerie's dreaming of other guys, hanging around with other guys, not giving the singer the time of day. But that won't stop his echo-drenched cry in the chorus: "Valerie Loves Me!"

And that should be enough, but it's not. So the singer projects his dream girl decades into the future when she's old and gray and has nothing. And then, he rejects her retroactively from the future (even though careful listeners may long since have concluded that she might not even be know he exists) before one last primal scream of a semi-chorus: "Valerie Loves Me." Which leads into a tentative instrumental break that ends uncertainly, resolving nothing (and therefore perhaps underscoring that the singer is the ultimate in unreliable narrators).


Years later, I drive by the parking garage alone.

The entrance is taped off and a cop directs traffic around it.

I slow down to ask what happened. "A support beam buckled," he tells me. "They're gonna have to knock the whole garage down."

I nod, wondering if I should find the girl (whose own support beam buckled long ago) and tell her... or just keep driving.

Monday, February 15, 2010

RIP Doug Fieger

Is it so wrong to bring back the rainbow swirl?

Let's say it's 1979 and you've got a great band whose power-pop sound is the polar opposite of both the disco that's all over the radio and the underground punk rock radio is afraid to play.

Maybe, in the era where bands like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles are spending years in the studio and millions of dollars to make bloated albums, you record your first record for $18,000 in under two weeks.

Perhaps, by some miracle, you get signed to Capitol records -- and you agree to dress up in suits (like the early Beatles) and the photos on the front and back of your first record are reminiscent of iconic Beatle poses. Then Capitol agrees to bring back its discontinued "rainbow" swirl in the center of your records (to further remind people of their old Beatles records).

And let's say Capitol isn't shy about pushing the "new Beatles" story and the press isn't shy about pumping up those comparisons. And then maybe your first single goes to number 1 and both the single and album sell millions of copies.

And your second single is incredibly catchy, but the record company convinces you to record a "clean" version with sanitized lyrics in place of "getting in her pants" and "she's sitting on your face."

If all that happens, is it inevitable that you endure a critical and popular backlash (and a "Knuke the Knack" campaign) and people slam you for smirking? And do you help or hurt your cause by naming your second record But the Little Girls Understand?

30 years later, it's hard to believe both the hype and the backlash were as strong as they were. Sure, the Knack weren't the second coming of the Beatles, but they also weren't the next Bay City Rollers.

They created some wonderful power-pop records filled with songs that sound as fresh today as they did back then.

And one more:

Doug Fieger, lead singer (and chief songwriter) of the Knack, died yesterday at age 57 after battling brain and lung cancer for several years.

RIP, Doug. And thanks for the music.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Angioplasty on that Rock 'n' Roll Heart

We get it, Clapton, you're cooler than we are.

Yes, yes, you've got a million cool guitars.

And even when you stole the wife of a Beatle, he still remained your best friend (and was best man when you married the woman you stole from him).

And you've got a better phone than I do.

And you can even play guitar over the phone.

And Buddy Guy calls you when you're just hanging out (watching video of yourself on your cool phone).

But I gotta ask you two things: Does this damn commercial have to be on TV every five minutes?

And, more importantly, weren't you the guy who quit the Yardbirds because you thought this song was too commercial and you didn't want anyone to think you'd sold out?

Just sayin'.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Don't Be Evil -- Fail

Not Cool.

Recently a number of music blogs (written and run by great, amazing people) have been shut down.

Now I'm not talking about the guy who posted all 27 volumes of the Have a Nice Day series for anyone to download. Or the guy who posted the new U2 album the week before it was released.

I'm talking about music fans and enthusiasts who post one or two tracks they love by bands they love. These bloggers do more to generate interest in music than almost anything else (short of having songs placed in a teen drama on the CW). And recent studies have shown that people who download music from those blogs turn around and buy music by the artists they like in numbers far greater than the general public at large.

(Also, I should add, almost all these bloggers post MP3s for a limited amount of time or have prominent notices offering to take down any music on request of any artist or record company.)

So what do blog-hosting companies like Wordpress and Google (parent company of Blogger) do? They take down blogs without warning, without telling bloggers which post (or which piece of music) they object to (sometimes wiping out years of archives in the process), then tell bloggers they can have their blogs reinstated if they can prove they did nothing wrong -- which is basically impossible since they neglect to mention which posts or pieces of music prompted their actions.

Plus, in some cases, bloggers are posting music that was sent to them to be posted by the record labels or their representatives. Then, the legal team of those same labels complains to Google or Wordpress (which kills the blogs without bothering to investigate the complaints or determine whether the bloggers had permission to post the tracks in question).

In the past several months, this has happened twice to bloggers on my blogroll (to your left) and numerous times to other music bloggers.

The only possible response is this.

Seriously, Google -- is Franz Kafka running your company now?

What ever happened to "Don't Be Evil"?

Read more about it here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sometimes I Hate to be Right

Behind the Scenes at Clicks and Pops

I was in a drug store in the middle of the night, looking for baking soda and electrical tape.

And a song came on the store's sound system. A song I recognized, knew, loved.

A long time ago, a girl loved that song and hearing it again reminded me of the girl.

And there's a story that goes with the girl (and by extension, with the song).

So I came home, sat down at the computer, and started writing that story to post on this blog. The girl part was still fresh in my mind (even many years later). I knew the basics about the song and the band, but I wanted to get the details right, so I did some quick online research.

What I remembered was true -- first album a college radio hit with a new wave sound and a trippy title. Band member who later joined a much more famous band. Second album much more power poppy -- and it must have come out in 1981 because one of the songs had a reference to John Lennon and the circus surrounding his death. And then nothing. No third album, no indication of what had happened.

That's okay, that's enough for a blog post with the story of the girl and another band that should've been superstars in an alternate universe where good music is more appreciated. So I went on YouTube to see if I could find any of their videos. And, sure enough, there were their two minor hits.

I'd never seen these videos before. My only visual image of the band came from the photos on their two album covers. But watching them on YouTube, I suddenly realized something and my heart sank.

The lead singer had a mustache. More than that -- a porn mustache. But even more than that -- a Freddy Mercury porn mustache. And I knew then and there what had happened to the band.

Five more minutes of internet research confirmed what I somehow knew in my gut -- the lead singer died of AIDS about ten years after the band's heyday.

Sometimes I hate to be right.

And I thought about posting the blog entry anyway. The songs are still great, the story about the girl is still interesting (in the way that all stories about girls and songs are interesting). But I didn't want people to take away from this that the singer died of AIDS.

So... instead I'll put that post away for another time. And no, I won't say who the band was. Instead, I'll pull out my vinyl copies of their two albums and play them all the way through.

And I'll say a silent prayer of thanks to the band for the music. And let the singer know that he is remembered -- not for how he died, but for how he lived and the music he made.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Nilsson and the Hot Mess

Before it got alarming...

She was gorgeous and careless, a dangerous combination.

And six of us, all guys, all awake at 3:45 am on the first Tuesday morning of college, decided that her picture should go in the dictionary next to the phrase Hot Mess.

I'd like to tell you that she was evil incarnate. But she wasn't. She was smart and funny and had a sweet side that made you want to follow her into the depths of hell.

She told me at lunch one day that she was planning on breaking the hearts of exactly 13 guys that semester, then she'd ignore guys and devote all her attention to her classes. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

She loved Harry Nilsson and had all his records -- the great ones filled with songs marked by amazing music, dazzling wordplay, and sophomoric jokes as well as the later albums (with one or two decent songs and a bunch of drunken ideas whose flashes of brilliance were buried beneath long-stale humor that never quite worked). She'd frequently argue that his years of drunken partying with various Beatles were not wasted even if many of his songs from that period sound like he's wasted.

One by one, she broke exactly 13 hearts. Then, as promised, she turned her attention back to her classes and paid no attention to guys until the next semester. Her goals were different in our second semester. This time, she told me, she was going to break exactly 17 hearts. And so she did.

Sophomore year, she lived down the hall from me. And told me the number had risen to 19. She was drinking more and often was more mess than hot. But the guys still wanted to follow her into hell. (Amazingly, I wasn't one of them... but that's another story for another time.)

Her last semester, she told me she was going to break 41 hearts. But then a funny thing happened. She fell in love. With a guy who was a total jerk. He saw the hot and navigated away from the mess, but somehow overlooked the sweet and smart and funny. And he crushed her when he walked away without looking back or giving her a second thought.

And suddenly, she realized what she'd done to all the guys whose hearts she'd broken over the past four years. She locked herself in her room and played this song over and over for an entire weekend.

When she emerged, she said she wasn't interested in numbers or in breaking hearts anymore. She wrote personal notes to all the guys whose hearts she'd broken. More than one of them told her that apologizing wasn't enough, that she'd have to do something else. She listened to each of them, didn't argue, and didn't make excuses. Then she aced her finals. And applied to med school.

She married the next guy she went out with. And became a surgeon.

A heart surgeon.

[For more things Nilsson, check out For the Love of Harry.]

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Another Perfect Pop Song

First in an occasional series.

I was just in an upscale crunchy-granola type supermarket (I swear -- I only go there for the artisanal cheeses) and I heard a familiar guitar riff -- the same guitar riff that's my cell phone ringtone -- over the store's sound system. And it occurred to me, then and there, "No Matter What" by Badfinger is a perfect pop song.

And here's a few reasons why:
  • The opening guitar riff has a lilting headiness to it, but also a crunchiness that smashes through your ears like a wrecking ball.

  • The lyrical pledges of eternal love are vague enough that everyone can identify with them, but never so vague or goony that they're embarrassing.

  • The sheer joy of the singing is so infectious that it's bound to put you in a good mood. (And the way chorus blasts through from the verses and bridge is a triumph of pure wonder.)

  • Badfinger might not be the Beatles, but for a while in the early 70s they were the next best thing.

  • The harmonies alone can make the most cynical among us believe in true love again.

  • Real (not synthesized) handclaps.

  • I like to think Bruce Springsteen was talking about this album when he wrote "we learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school" (I'm pretty sure Bruce wasn't thinking of Badfinger, but the song's just under three minutes, so I'd like to think it's possible).

  • My friend Holly (whose love of classic American composers like the Gershwins is only now starting to rub off on me decades later) says it's one of the best pop records ever. (And she actually met the Beatles, so she would know.)

  • You can argue (and some have) that this song (and not anything by the Raspberries) invented the genre of power pop.

  • The fake ending. (And the way I always count off the silence inside my head before the song starts up again.)

But here's the best reason why "No Matter What" is a perfect pop song:

As I turned away from the cheese in that upscale market, I looked down the gourmet cereal aisle. Six people were scattered there, scanning the shelves, each caught up in their own world, each looking for a certain cereal, each unaware of me (or the greater world around them). And, without realizing it, each of those people was unconsciously nodding their head in time with the song.

Elsewhere on the web: For the Love of Harry has an unreleased Nilsson song written to try to pump up LA baseball fans, Mister Pleasant tried to list his 100 Top Singles of all time (and then broke down and listed Sixty More), JB over at The Hits Just Keep On Coming talks Josie and the Pussycats (and the Jackson Five Saturday-morning cartoon series), and Any Major Dude With Half A Heart (after being bounced by both Blogger and Wordpress) set up his own domain.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Grace Under Water

It's a beautiful and desperate world...

I got an email a while back asking me to listen to a new album by Paul Dougherty. So I did what I always do when I get emails like that -- I sprung into action. And did nothing for a few months... until I was cleaning out my inbox yesterday.

I didn't really have high hopes -- but Dougherty's bio was interesting enough to make me give the music a listen. For the record, Paul Dougherty was born in Houston (where his dad sang soul music and played the Hammond organ) and grew up in Nashville (where his father became a session singer). Dougherty played in alternative and Americana bands, and now lives in Munich (where the album was recorded at his home studio).

That's all I really know.

But here's what I think:

Paul Dougherty wants you to think he's lost his faith.

His gorgeous Grace Under Water album is filled with songs about loss. There are opportunities missed, loves lost and lamented, morals tarnished, and faith tarnished. He sings about not wanting to let go, about wanting to believe (but not being able to), and about angels rising above while his own halo falls into the mud. The songs are unconcerned with boy-meets-girl, focusing instead on the bleak future of humanity.

But there's one catch -- Dougherty's voice drips with passion and optimism, even when his lyrics are tripping over themselves to paint a negative picture. He might want you to think things are grim, but Dougherty himself is overflowing with hope.

The album covers a bunch of different styles, ranging from almost-indie-pop to stark New Age to roots rock, but most of the songs fall under what used to be known as Americana or nu-country. Several songs here are directly addressed to his children (including the gorgeous opener "Zoe" and the gentle encouragement of "First Steps" -- which, come to think of it, might actually be aimed at listeners or even the singer himself). Other highlights include "The Craving" (which shows that teenage desire never really goes away, it just morphs into something more adult and harder to define), "The Line" (a song that sounds like it must have been written on a lonely late-night drive), and "Rusted Jesus" (a prayer to believe in something after rock 'n' roll has let you down).

Dougherty's voice is clear and sharp, but has just enough edge to remind you that this is a guy who's lived and suffered. He's come through the other side and wants to tell you the journey is hard, but ultimately worth the effort. (Because even if grace, look too many mortgages, is under water, things can always get better -- especially if we have great music to listen to.)

40 years ago, an album like this might have gotten a lot of radio play and Dougherty might have had a shot at singer-songwriter stardom (or at least the cult status of a Nick Drake). Dougherty likely would've been signed to a major label and (at the very least) played in clubs all over the U.S. to a passionate and growing fanbase.

But it's a different world, so Dougherty recorded and released the album himself (and if he's playing anywhere, it's likely to be in Germany).

Readers of this blog will recognize that I don't do a lot of reviews here -- this blog mostly focuses on music I know well and love (and the stories associated with that music). But Grace Under Water is a haunting and beautiful record that deserves your attention.

You can stream the entire album here and download it for free from his website. Better yet, if you like the album buy it from CD Baby (and therefore kick a few bucks over to the guy who wrote, sang, recorded, and released the album).

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

51 Years Ago

He Changed the World in Only 18 Months

Among other things, Buddy Holly popularized the rock lineup of two guitars, bass & drums.

He was the first rock star to write and produce his own songs.

He was the first rock star to wear glasses.

And the Beatles named themselves (in part) as a tribute to his band (the Crickets).

Who knows what he might have done if he'd lived.

for Gmail subscribers.

And one more for good measure.

RIP Buddy Holly (Sept. 7, 1936 - Feb. 3, 1959).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My Heart is In Neutral

The wind is whipping at my shirt and nothing really hurts.

I was standing still. And everyone else was moving.

Not just moving. Spinning. Faster and faster.

It was summer. And they were scattered to the winds. While I was still there. Subletting a room in a four-bedroom apartment on the edge of campus on the third floor in a building that looked like it had towers.

I had an on-campus job at the library (an eleven-minute walk), where there was enough work to keep one person busy for five or six hours. So naturally, they'd hired four of us. I spent a lot of time writing letters to the girlfriend I stupidly convinced myself was the love of my life. I missed her like crazy and somehow knew that things were all about to change (and not for the better).

It was this summer and I was listening to Tom Petty a lot. But I also had a mesmerizing tape of an album my friend Eric had -- by a bizarre band from Boston called Private Lightning.

[At this point, I'd usually have a YouTube clip. And these songs were up on YouTube a month ago, but they've vanished. So please go listen to them for free here on Rhapsody. I'll wait.]

Private Lightning formed in the late 70s and never quite fit in. They combined new wave sensibilities, arena-rock vocals, AOR guitars, hippie-prog lyrics, and cheesy synths. And, as if that weren't enough, they prominently featured an electric violin. On paper, there's no way that should've worked. In fact, there's no way it should even be listenable.

But Private Lightning gradually built an audience in and around Boston. So before long, record company scouts were wooing them and a bidding war erupted. They signed a seven-figure deal with A&M, convinced it was the right move because of the way A&M had broken both Joe Jackson and the Police.

But the record company didn't like the band's choice of producers and brought in someone else. They band hated the mix of the album, but were excited to have the songs released. And in 1980, the record finally came out (and got quite a lot of airplay in New England).

A&M, which promised a huge promotional push and lots of tour support, found themselves instead concentrating on new records by the Police and Joe Jackson (both of which appeared at the same time as the Private Lightning album). Something had to fall through the cracks, and it wasn't about to be Joe Jackson or the Police. So the Private Lightning album died without much fanfare.

Demos were recorded for the second album, but A&M had lost interest and the band was dropped. The album went out of print (and stayed that way for more than 25 years) and the band broke up.

And I flew to see the girlfriend and got dropped as well.

I came back to my sublet room on the third floor. I walked the eleven minutes to and from the library. I wandered around after work and tried to interact with people, but everything looked like I was viewing it through some kind of opaque, viscous liquid. I wrote more letters to the (now ex-) girlfriend, but didn't send them. I took long walks in the middle of the night, then came home, showered, and walked the eleven minutes to work at the library. There were only a few weeks left to the summer, but it was like time had stopped. My last day of work, I made it to the library in only three minutes (maybe my watch was fast, maybe time really was broken -- I'm still not sure what to believe).

And I listened to my cassette copy of the Private Lightning album that summer until I wore the tape down to a ghostly whisper. The songs sounded like a desperate missive from another world:
My heart is in neutral, this motionless summer
I write all these letters to drop in the mail.
In the cool of the evening, I find myself restless...

The song loops back on itself in the second verse, moving forward while echoing the first verse inside every new line. "What can I do?" the band asks, "I'm so lonely for you."

When my friends returned to campus and I moved out of the sublet, they were eager to talk about what they'd done and where they'd been over the summer. I couldn't explain anything about my summer. I found myself looping back between their lines, searching for meaning and finding none. Weeks later, I still felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. They'd all moved forward and moved on... while I was standing still, watching my heart slowly break apart and spill out all over the floor.

Years later, I can't tell you who else lived in the apartment where I sublet that room. I can't even remember who I sublet it from. But every note from that electric violin is burned into my soul -- and each song brings me back to that summer.

Last summer, Renaissance Records finally released the Private Lightning album on CD, complete with 13 bonus tracks -- demos from what might have been their second album.

And Steve Keith, the band's bassist, has posted alternate mixes of many of their songs here.

Check out "Physical Speed" at the above link.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Best Grammy Moment?

Honey, honey, does this make me look cool?

Forget Lady Gaga being dumped in the trash (and plucked out by Elton John). Forget a nearly naked Pink hanging upside down. Forget Taylor Swift singing without autotune (or just repress the memory).

Here's your best 2010 Grammy moment: