Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Si, Si, You're A Rock Star... Now Shut Up

Back in the day, dinosaurs walked the earth with humans, made crappy solo albums, and lived in mansions.

It's hard to remember now, more than 35 years past their last great album (and more than 40 years past their prime), that the Rolling Stones once were important -- even if that importance has been eclipsed by Altamont, the death of Brian Jones, Keith's drug arrest and blood transfusions, and Mick's sexual escapades.

Long before the drunken excesses of the Studio 54 period (captured in a rare moment of honesty that resulted in a lesser-hits anthology called Sucking in the 70s), the Stones made gritty, visceral music. They were punks long before the Ramones and the Sex Pistols recast them as the lumbering dinosaurs that needed to be vanquished before rock could rise again.

When they were young and hungry, the Stones were lean and mean. Years of success and sub-par shows made them heavier, slower, and a lot less interesting. Years of living in wild excess in France and pasting records together with individual players in studios on different continents snuffed out the spark in their music. And the need to trot out bigger and more bloated tours every few years just made things worse. When Bill Wyman walked away from the Stones in the early 90s, he said the music had become stale and boring; perhaps it just took him 15 years to notice.

Meanwhile, for more than 20 years, I'd read and heard about a 1981 Bill Wyman single (that became a fluke hit in a bunch of European countries) called "Si, Si, Je Suis Un Rock Star." But I never saw the record and never heard it on the radio. Based on what I'd read (and the fact that Bill Wyman was in the Rolling Fucking Stones and played bass on a handful of the greatest songs in history not to mention being namechecked on a great song by the Smithereens), my expectations were pretty high (although clearly not high enough to actively seek out the record).

So now today I read a column by Paul Resnikoff of the Digital Music News about the Death of the Rock Star, which notes that a fragmented media landscape make it impossible to create any more of the "mega-bands of old, on the order of Guns N' Roses, Kiss, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, or Black Sabbath." Maybe it's just me, but I assume this post has a typo and mentally substitute "the Rolling Stones" for "Guns N' Roses."

Which got me wondering about Bill Wyman again. So I went and found his song on YouTube and -- literally 10 minutes ago -- listened to it for the first time.

Holy shit.

No one's faulting Bill Wyman for not being a great singer, but you'd think that he at least would have access to better songs, arrangements, and players. At the very least, you'd expect it to be better than any random song you could hear from an amateur band on MySpace. But it's so much worse than that. To call this song bad is an insult to the very idea of badness (and not in a good way). (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

If this is what it means to be a rock star, maybe we're better off without them. Maybe the world doesn't need anymore mediocre songs and crappy videos that brag in bad French accents about scoring with Brazilian models.

So, even if his tongue was firmly in cheek: Yeah, Bill, you're a rock star. Now please shut up.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Todd, Tums, and TV

It's important to meeeeeee.... that you know it gives you quick-acting, long-lasting relief.

I'm not opposed to pop songs in commercials. Sometimes they work well. The Fiest song from the iPod nano commercials a few years back was great. Using "Revolution" in that Nike ad was surprising (but at least the ad was for Nikes and not Odor Eaters). And the Volkswagon ad with Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" was moody and atmospheric -- like the song.

On one level, those ads all represent a certain selling out of the Baby Boomer ideals and memories of music. But at least, it's a selling out to something that's cool.

And then there's Todd Rundgren, whose "Todd is Godd" days are clearly way behind him. Because every time I see the new ad for Tums, I wonder what the hell happened. Having him sub for Ric Ocasek in the New Cars (reportedly for the money) was harmless enough, but does he really need to sell his best-known song as comic relief for an over-the-counter heartburn medicine? And couldn't he have gotten more money if he'd held out for the Herpes drugs (which at least reflect rock-'n'-roll behavior as opposed to a guy staring longingly at a plate of meatballs)?

Sure, Pete Townsend's probably given up on hoping he dies before he gets old, but at least when he sells out, the ads are cool.

Or is this just the first shot in the war on aging baby boomers that won't stop until Grateful Dead songs advertise Viagra and Jimi Hendrix songs shill for Depends?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Every Poster in the Window Means No

For years, it was right by the freeway exit.

Next to a travel supply store. And a pharmacy that looked like it still had stock on hand from the late 50s.

And every time I passed it, I was struck by a small poster in the corner of the front window for a mid-80s album by Let's Active. I went into the store once, expecting a treasure trove of jangle pop, but finding a random and unexceptional random selection of vinyl records and CDs arranged with little rhyme or reason. The clerk had no idea why they had a 20-year-old Let's Active poster in the window (and also had no idea who Let's Active or Mitch Easter was). "I guess it's there because it's always been there."

Let's Active was a real band at first, then an every-changing cast of backing musicians hired on to realize the infectious pop music of Mitch Easter. Easter played in Sneakers with future dB Chris Stamey, then opened Drive-In Studios in 1981, where nearly every seminal jangle-pop record was recorded. Easter co-produced (with Don Dixon) the first two REM albums (which, for any music fan, would be enough to guarantee his place in the pantheon). Soon after, Easter's band Let's Active was signed by IRS Records. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

The band -- Easter, Faye Hunter, and Sara Romweber -- released the Afoot EP in 1983 and the Cyprus album in 1984 (released together on a single CD in 1989). After Cyprus, the band imploded and 1986's Big Plans for Everybody was largely an Easter solo record. A real band was recruited in time for 1988's Every Dog Has His Day, which sounded more coherent and also sounded a lot edgier and less poppy (although it's hard to imagine any Mitch Easter song not being poppier than 90% of the music out there). When Let's Active failed to break out from college-radio cult status, it faded away in the 1990s. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

In 2007, Mitch Easter released Dynamico, which simultaneously seemed classic and innovative (in the same way the Let's Active albums did in the 80s). In an alternate universe, this album would have sold a million copies the first week (and then usher in the resurgence of the music industry). At the very least, a poster from the album should have appeared in the window of that little record store near the freeway off-ramp.

Instead, the record store put up signs last year that it was closing soon. Part of me wondered if it was because the clerks had no idea who Let's Active was. Another part of me thought the store would always be there just because it had always been there. I meant to make it in for their going-out-of-business sale, but never made it (again, maybe if the clerks had known...). When I finally made it back to the store, the doors were closed and locked. Peeking inside, I saw that the record racks were gone -- but the Let's Active poster (now more than 20 years old) was still in the window. A month later the poster was gone -- replaced by a "This Space for Lease" sign.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Yo Yo Ma, Yo

Growing up, I knew a girl who played cello.

Her parents were both college professors and their family would spend the evenings sitting in their living room reading the classics of literature and listening to scratchy old records of the greatest performances from the classical music universe.

She was supposed to grow up to be Yo Yo Ma.

They didn't have a television set until she was 12 (and even then they were only allowed to watch Great Performances on PBS).

One day she told me that she didn't want to play the cello anymore. She said the entire instrument was too sad and she felt like she was "milking a fountain of misery" every time she played. Instead, she to play an instrument that made people happy. She told her father and he expressly forbade her from playing any woodwind instruments. He agreed to think about brass, but warned her that most brass instruments were "unsuitably frivolous."

She smuggled a scratchy copy of Carole King's Tapestry into her house and was teaching herself some of the songs on the piano when her father caught her, broke the record by slamming it against a tiny marble statue in their vestibule, and grounded her for a month. She went back to the cello, but with no real enthusiasm.

And then, on a whim, she went with some friends to see the Who. After that night, she never picked up her cello again. She told her father she was done with music, but she bought herself a cheap guitar which she kept at a friend's house.

After High School, she went to college, put pink and green streaks in her hair, and joined a punk band. The other band members kicked her out after two months, saying she played her guitar like it was a cello. She moved to New Mexico a couple years later, and owns a small shop that sells jade jewelry and crystals.

This all could have been avoided (including the jade jewelry and crystals) with a hardy dose of Matson Jones. They play classic two-guitar-bass-and-drums rock songs with guts and intensity, only instead of the two guitars, they have two cellos... which Anna Mascorella and Martina Grbac play like rock stars (if anyone can do windmills on the cello, it's these two). Their latest release is an EP with the amazing title The Albatross Mates for Life But Only After a Lengthy Courtship That Can Take Up to Four Years. What's not to like? (NSFW link for Gmail subscribers.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Stairway to 11:51 pm

Radio used to be different.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, every single station in the U.S. (with the possible exception of the airport information stations) was required to play "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin immediately before midnight. So any teenagers fooling around in cars with the ratio on would always have warning -- even if they were listening to 24-hour news stations, opera stations, or NPR -- that they needed to stop what they were doing in order to get home in time for curfew. And teenagers without dates would know that they were one day closer to being able to go off to college and escape the small-minded hypocrisy of their hometowns.

And, by the way, do we really want the radio suggesting just before midnight that there might be a bustle in our hedgerows (whatever that might mean)?

As a result, anyone who grew up listening to radio in the 1970s or 1980s never needs to hear this song ever again.

Unless it's performed like this.

Or maybe like this.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Jane Siberry Visits from The Past and Future

Jane Siberry Always Seemed Like She Came Unstuck in Time.

The best music usually does. And the music of Jane Siberry always sounded like it had one foot rooted firmly in the past and one foot in the distant future.

So, starting at the end and working backwards:

In 2006, Jane Siberry gave away all her house and all her possessions (except for a single guitar) and changed her name to Issa. She's still writing songs, recording, and touring (including giving university lectures on creativity).

Throughout the 1990s, Siberry continued recording, releasing a series of albums (on Reprise and then on her own label) that never did much for me -- including an album consisting entirely of songs she'd written in her teens (which I bought but only listened to once or twice). I saw her live in the mid-1990s in a very disappointing show that concentrated on new material. Much as I admired her for following her own muse, it wasn't taking me anywhere I really wanted to go. Somewhere along the way, she started a website and pioneered the idea of "self-determined pricing" for her music.

Her 1989 album Bound by the Beauty dispensed with synths and returned to simpler song structures and more direct songs. I saw her tour behind this album at a show recorded for possible release as a live album (that never came out). The show was a late show that was supposed to start at 10, but the early show didn't get out until 10:45. We all assumed that meant that the late show would be shorter (and would probably suck), but she put on an amazing show and played until well past 1:00 am. I'd still love to hear the recording from that show.(Link for email subscribers).

Reprise signed her on the strength of her third album and she released The Walking in 1987. The album was complex, bizarre, surreal, and wondrous, filled with long songs (2 clocking in at more than 9 minutes) that turn around on each other like Mobius strips. I bought this on vinyl and it took years and years to grow on me (probably because I literally had no clue what most of the songs were about. (Link for Gmail subscribers).

Her third album The Speckless Sky came out in 1985, consolidating and building upon that went before. Her concerts became a synthesis of performance art, insanely captivating improvised poetry, and pure pop music. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

By the time of No Borders Here in 1984, Siberry had largely abandoned her folk roots and was playing strange and wonderful music based around synths (and dozens of tracks of her vocals). "The Waitress" seemed like a classic the first time you heard it, fusing past and future in a goofy synth-pop confection that included the line "And I'd probably be famous now if I wasn't such a good waitress." But the album's tour-de-force is "Mimi on the Beach," a 7 and 1/2 minute evocation of life, death, teen angst, and Jesus that seems more like a great movie than a great song.

Her first album Jane Siberry came out in 1981 and channeled late-60s folk, then twisted it through the prism of an alien from a distant future with off-kilter songwriting that put Laurie Anderson, Joni Mitchell, and Kate Bush through a sausage grinder, then added some bizarre spice that you can never quite identify. Her songs were weird and vibrant, geeky, and wondrous, then sugarcoated by her vocals, usually multitracked to sound like an amazing choir of angels -- just what you'd expect from an overachieving Canadian with a degree in microbiology.

Friday, March 6, 2009

It's the End of REM as We Know It...

Some People Say When You Get Older, You Become More Mature.

I'm still waiting.

Meanwhile, I'm exactly immature enough to get a huge kick out of Stuckey & Murray eviscerating REM (with footage from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival). This is extremely NSFW... and may offend those with a low tolerance for profanity. You've been warned.

Monday, March 2, 2009

... Other Times It's Raining Out!

I'm a sucker for punk remakes of sappy songs.

I used to go to this record store on the second floor of a mini-mall above a Chinese restaurant. Everything I bought there smelled vaguely of that sticky red sweet and sour sauce.

So when I heard the Pop O Pies punk retread of the Grateful Dead's "Truckin'," I flipped went over there and plunked down 4 bucks for the The White EP. On the back cover, it explained that most bands use the same members to play different songs, but Pop O Pies used different band members to play the same song -- "Truckin'."

Early in their career, the band was infamous for gigs where they would play "Truckin'" over and over again -- in different styles, with extended jams and altered lyrics ("Sometimes the light's all shining on me... other times it's raining out!" or "I'm tired of traveling, I wanna stop at McDonald's!"). And, if by some miracle they weren't booed off the stage and got called back for an encore, they'd just play "Truckin'" again. Eventually they expanded their repertoire (and even developed a more or less stable lineup) and went into the studio. The White EP contains two versions of "Truckin'" (punk and rap) as well as originals like "The Catholics are Attacking" and "Timothy Leary Lives." It may not be something you'd want to hear over and over again, but it's definitely worth a listen. The Chinese food smell may have faded away after a few years, but this record always brings me back to that cramped record store on the second floor. The EP is sadly out of print now, but you can check it out here.

Speaking of punk retreads of sappy songs, where would the Twin Cities be without Mary Tyler Moore and Husker Du? (And what better way to celebrate the Twin Cities than combining these two pop-cultural touchstones?) Husker Du's version of "Love is All Around" (the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore Show) was originally the B-side of the "Makes No Sense at All" single (from Flip Your Wig. I tried to buy this, too, but by then the record store above the Chinese restaurant had gone out of business, replaced by a Hallmark Store; I never bought anything at the Hallmark store -- all their cards smelled like dumplings! (Link for Gmail subscribers.)