To Be or Not to Be/ The Bee Gees
Jazz Hands/ Thea Gilmore
Shakespeare’s Sister/ The Smiths
Killer Queen/ Queen
(Just Like) Romeo And Juliet/ Scott Kempner
Wet Blanket/ Metric
Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide/ Marvin Gaye
Sleep to Dream/ Bettye LaVette
Paperback Writer/ The Beatles
The Modern World/ Jam
Where Is My Mind?/ Pixies
Rolling in the Deep/ Adele
The Motorcycle Song/ Arlo Guthrie
I Heard It Through The Grapevine/ Marvin Gaye
Seeing Hands/ Dengue Fever
30 Century Man/ Scott Walker
Evil Librarian/ Melvil Dewey
Head Rolls Off/ Frightened Rabbit
Dignified & Old/ The Modern Lovers
Pearle/ Trip Shakespeare
Omaha/ Moby Grape
Peel Me A Grape/ Anita O’Day
Brush Up Your Shakespeare/ Cole Porter (Kiss Me Kate)
Trap Door/ T Bone Burnett
Cafe Tacuba, “Rarotonga”
The Marketts, “Out of Limits”
The Who, “Boris the Spider”
Screamin Jay Hawkins, “Little Demon”
The Cramps, “Human Fly”
Napoleon XIV”, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Ha”
Kraftwerk, “The Robots”
Strangeloves, “I Want Candy”
Boogalox, “Chez les Ye Ye”
Weird Sisters, “Do the Hippogriff”
Roky Erickson, “Night of the Vampire”
Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, “Frankenstein Ska”
The Sonics, “The Witch”
Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”
Whodini, “Haunted House of Rock”
Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man”
Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)”
B52’s, “Planet Claire”
Bob Mould, “See a Little Light”
As a native Chicagoan who grew up listening to men in black walking the line and grizzled bluesmen wearing their hearts on their throats, I have a pretty high tolerance for moving music that some might consider unpleasant. But even I have my limits. Following up on my Joy Division post, I’ll descend even further into the abyss by listing a few of the most depressing songs that have kidnapped my imagination. The title pays homage to a Lester Bangs essay, A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise, and to Warren Zevon’s boo-hoo ode to boo-hoo singer-songwriters, which improbably got Linda Ronstadt to record a Top 40 hit about tying her head to the railroad tracks. Woe is me!
â€¢ Samuel Barber, “Adagio for Strings” (According to Alex Ross, “whenever the American dream suffers a catastrophic setback, Barber’s Adagio plays on the radio.”)
â€¢ The Who, “Pictures of Lily” (Boy sees girl of his dreams and discovers she’s been dead for four decades.)
â€¢ Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Tears of a Clown” (When clowns aren’t creepy, they’re liars, or worse, opera fans.)
â€¢ Richard Thompson, “End of the Rainbow” (The author of ditties like “The Wall of Death” sings to a baby, claiming there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow. Thanks, Dad.)
â€¢ Nina Simone, “Little Girl Blue” (Bored, sad girl counts the raindrops and discovers evaporation.)
â€¢ Marty Robbins, “Streets of Laredo” (The singing gunslinger gets shot to death in “El Paso,” but that’s mild compared to this cowboy variation on the ancient “Unfortunate Rake” story.)
â€¢ Billie Holiday, “Gloomy Sunday” (The darkest version I’ve heard of the Hungarian Suicide Song. The composer later committed suicide.)
â€¢ Louvin Brothers, “Knoxville Girl” (The most violent song on the cherub-voiced death-gospel duo’s aptly named Tragic Songs of Life, reworking the English “Wexford Girl” murder ballad.)
â€¢ Big Star, “Holocaust” (Power pop drained of any power, words drained of any meaning, Beach Boys melodies sinking into quicksand.)
â€¢ HÃ¼sker DÃ¼, “Too Far Down”/ “Hardly Getting Over It” (The titans of melodic noise at their greyest, not seeing even a little light.)
â€¢ The Antlers, “Bear” (Heartbreaking ode to premature senility and the animal inside.)
â€¢ Etta James, “I’d Rather Go Blind” (Passive-agressive romantic obsession turns the lights out and entertains us.)
â€¢ Carter Family, “Engine 143” (Lots of songs are metaphorical train wrecks. This one’s the real deal.)
â€¢ Graham Parker, “You Can’t Be Too Strong” (“The doctor gets nervous completing the service, he’s all rubber gloves and no head.”)
â€¢ Pernice Brothers, “Chicken Wire” (Garage clutter, exhaust fumes, and no redeeming sentiments.)
â€¢ George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (Why? Because he’s dead, that’s why.)
That playlist could keep you in therapy for years. But none of them outdo the real King of Pain, Skip James. Blues was never bluer. On “Devil Got My Woman,” Skip out-depresses the whole field by declaring that he’d rather be the devil.
For those actually interested in the outcome of the 1862 Battle of Puebla, many of the United States’ Cinco de Mayo celebrations must seem about as Mexican as chop suey. In the ranks of cultural misappropriations for inebriates, it’s right up there with St. Patrick’s Day, except that instead of offering you dyed-green Bud Lite, someone will show you a picture of Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav wearing a sombrero. And you thought 911 was a joke.
But let’s not get too smug about this. 911 was not a joke. Celebration seems in order this week, even if many of us are too tired and numb to find the right words. I’ll dedicate the selections below to the unsung heroes who patiently get their jobs done without bluster and self-promotion. In tribute to Mexico, where millions struggle for basic dignity while caught in a crossfire few of us understand, I’ll throw in some blustery promotion for my favorite Mexican painter and band. Rufino Tamayo, a former wrestler from a Oaxacan Zapotec family, was sometimes derided as too “historical” for resurrecting pre-Hispanic art. Yet his art was both traditional and subversive, finding a riotously colorful new context for centuries of forgotten folklore. Never claiming the only “right” path, he insisted that the fundamental thing in art is freedom.
Much the same could be said for Mexico City’s Cafe Tacuba, a band whose two decades of subersively traditional, traditionally subversive music are captured in a 2010 documentary, Seguir Siendo. Josh Kun’s essay on the band captures the dizzying number of moving parts involved:
Tacuba has always made music that strives to participate in international conversations while being identifiably Mexican. They referenced Mexican cultural history, wore huaraches in their videos, played acoustic contrabajo and acoustic jarana guitar, spliced son jarocho, boleros, and banda into punk, disco, and classical, and sang songs about the metro and falling in love with a chica banda. Their belief that they could be avant-garde without ever having to leave homeâ€”which they spelled out on Re (1994)â€”has made them a favorite of like-minded music boundary-pushers throughout the Americas.
“Seguir Siendo: Cafe Tacuba” (Lado B, Track 1)
Cafe Tacuba, “El Aparato”
Finally, to betray my own Midwestern nerd-rock roots, I’ll close out today’s cross-cultural rambling with a couple of extremely non-Mexican provocateurs who also delight in muddling the traditional and the subversive. The first is by Liz Phair, the almost-famous New York Times journalist and Bollywood rapper. As an Oberlin graduate, she’s highly qualified to rhyme “Cinco de Mayo” with “Burnout Ohio.” The second is by Bob Dylan, who eventually disbanded his Woody Guthrie tribute band to become an ace storyteller and the country’s finest deejay. His chronicles of Yankee power are highly recommended for long walks in the drizzling rain:
SeÃ±or, seÃ±or, do you know where weâ€™re headinâ€™?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, seÃ±or?
2011 will be remembered as a perilous and fascinating time. Thousands of protesters filled city streets, unwilling to tolerate assaults on their basic rights. Their out-of-touch head of state was even caught joking about clubbing dissenters. Is this Cairo or Tripoli? No, it’s mild-mannered Madison, Wisconsin.
Comparisons between Mideast and Midwest have obvious limits. Jon Stewart was only partly kidding when he claimed the real danger for Madison protesters was that they risked getting caught in a drum circle. Still, Wisconsin has had its own bumpy ride. For years, Wisconsin remained under the autocratic rule of strongman Brett Favre. The triumphs that followed his departure soon crossed paths with reactionary forces. But those days may be numbered. When Governor Scott Walker recently insisted upon removing public employees’ collective bargaining rights, he enraged leaders of the one institution in Wisconsin more revered than even the Lutheran Church: the world champion Green Bay Packers.
What does this have to do with music? Plenty. Even as Wisconsin returns to the forefront of progressive protest, pundits on both coasts tend to push it to the cultural margins. Ask about the “Wisconsin sound,” and some will think of aging brewers and dairy farmers singing to the cows between Chicago and Minneapolis, and the bored kids trying hard to avoid them. I could walk through the stereotypes, but Cheeseheads With Attitude have already done the job. And don’t call them losers.
In these troubled times, Wisconsin needs and deserves a more compelling soundtrack. To fill this void, I’ve prepared my own Wisconsin-centered playlist.
Violent Femmes, Kiss Off
Robin and the Three Hoods, Thatâ€™s Tuff
Clyde Stubblefield, Funky Drummer
Hubert Sumlin, Down the Dusty Road
Goose Island Ramblers, No Norwegians in Dickeyville
Spanic Boys, Keep on Walking
Woody Herman, Goosey Gander
Chi Coltrane, Thunder and Lightning
Mustard Men, I Lost My Baby Now
Die Kreuzen, Man in the Trees
Oil Tasters, Get Out of the Bathroom
Les Paul, Vaya Con Dios
Bunky Green, Step High
Richard Davis, Oh My God
Cedarwell, Weirdest Places
Bon Iver, For Emma
For those expecting seas of cheese, the talent of those associated with the Badger State might surprise you. The old-school hall of fame includes the Wizard of Waukesha, guitar innovator Les Paul, as well as longtime Milwaukee resident Hubert Sumlin, who earned his reputation as Howlin’ Wolf‘s guitarist. The incomparable bass work of Madison’s coolest professor, Richard Davis, graces two of my all-time favorite albums, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch.
“Wisconsin” and “funk” aren’t words often heard together. But the mastermind behind the most influential breakbeat has also lived in Madison for decades. That man,Clyde Stubblefield, is the funky drummer behind James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” whose heavily sampled signature riff is a cornerstone of hip-hop and funk. Tap the rhythm and enjoy the nonstop dancing in your head.
I’d better stop this regional rant before it starts sounding like Sufjan Stevens’ next concept album. But in this age of bearded bards in alternative rock, Wisconsin has two of the best. The best known is Bon Iver, whose heralded For Emma, Forever Ago emerged from singer Justin Vernon’s blustery retreat in a Wisconsin cabin. Thankfully, rather than turning into the Unabomber, Vernon produced an album that slowly smolders with surprising strength. More recently, I’ve been listening to Cedarwell, whose excellent 2010 album A Stone, A Leaf, A Door draws its title from one of my favorite novels, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. Both the music and leader Eric Neave’s facial hair make me think of Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam. And as an added bonus, Neave has spent some quality time with Lars from Balcony TV.
The musical heritage of Wisconsin’s European immigrants is also far from the single vanilla flavor some might expect. James Leary’s book Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music provides a fascinating look at this largely unheard music of the upper Midwest. Leary provides a great account of how a Goose Island Ramblers performance baffled a panel of experts on traditional regional music:
Here were three men from South Central Wisconsin, togged out variously in Cowboy hats and Viking horns, playing a shifting array of instruments (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, eight string fiddle, one string electric toilet plunger, harmonica, Jew’s harp, jug, piano, accordion, and bandionion), singing in Norwegian, German, Polish, English, and “broken English,” while playing a repertoire that shuffled, bent and fused British and Irish fiddle tunes, ballads, and sentimental songs with Hawaiian marches, Swiss yodels, and the polkas, waltzes, schottisches, and mazurkas of Central and Northern Europe.
This may sound like a fictitious band that someone like Tom Waits might invent to annoy an interviewer. But the Ramblers were real, and really American as well. Music like this isn’t for everyone. I just happen to think that if you really want God to bless the USA, you should stop listening to Lee Greenwood and start learning how to play the electric toilet plunger.
Saxophonist and composer John Zorn was found dead last night in his Manhattan apartment, a victim of his own success. Zorn rode into town on a white horse, his yarmulke flapping in the breeze. He didn’t know why he came back. He didn’t know how he’d gotten roped into another war with desperadoes. The day was hot. A gun was in his hand.
Yes, he’s alive. Is John Zorn the hardest avant-squawker in the ruggedly bookish tradition of revolutionary downtown geek-skronk, or just last night’s reason for a three-alarm headache? There’s no easy answer. Last weekend, most of us enjoyed Zorn’s live collaboration at Yoshi’s San Francisco with the Bay Area’s Rova Saxophone Quartet, whose fellow travelers (especially Larry Ochs) seemed Zorny as hell the whole evening. Zorn isn’t for everyone, and others wished for earplugs. I could rave about the saxophonist’s marriage of hermeneutics and harmolodics, his duck-like squawk while dipping his reed in a water glass, or his contribution to the sales figures for camouflage pants. But since that would probably put even me to sleep, I’ll simply count down my favorite John Zorn moments. And I bet he just hates lists. Continue reading Zorn in the USA: My Top Three John Zorn Moments→
When long-suffering Spain defeated Germany yesterday to qualify for its first-ever World Cup final, you could point to the usual sports pundit’s list of factors to explain the 2008 European Cup champion’s victory, from Spain’s superbly choreographed short-passing game to the offensive wizardry of the brilliant midfielder Xavi. But since none of these reasons would allow me to go off on a musical tangent, I’ll focus instead on two acts of divine intervention.
First, let’s talk hair. Xavi’s BarÃ§a teammate Carles Puyol scored the winning goal, and as the late Warren Zevon might have noted, his hair was perfect. Puyol has a huge head of rock star hair that could have seen him waking up with Peter Frampton’s wine glass in his hand in 1976, sparking the dubious hair-metal craze in 1986, skateboarding with Pearl Jam in 1996, or opening for My Morning Jacket in 2006. More locally, Puyol’s hair would have easily qualified him to substitute for the lead singer in Barcelona band Sopa de Cabra (see the video below). To be sure, Puyol can’t match the legendary locks of Colombian soccer star Carlos Valderrama. But at the decisive moment in yesterday’s match, Puyol’s flowing tresses gave him an unusually wide target to receive the ball on Xavi’s corner kick and connect for the winning header. By contrast, close-cropped German striker Miroslav Klose, who might as well have been a member of Kraftwerk, stood nearby in disbelief.
In contrast to Argentina’s celebrated Hand of God goal 24 years ago, this one was perfectly legal. Still, it’s clear that Spain won by the hair of God, which can’t bode well for the follicly challenged Netherlands team that will face Spain in the final. In Spain’s honor, here’s an impromptu list of songs about hair:
Ben Vaughn Combo, “Wrong Haircut”
Nina Simone, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”
Mongo Santamaria, “Afro Blue”
Calexico, “Hair Like Spanish Moss”
Danney Ball, “Let’s Give the Devil a Bad Hair Day”
Morrissey, “Hairdresser on Fire”
Pavement, “Cut Your Hair”
Beck, “Devil’s Haircut”
Blake Miller, “Long Hair”
Captain Beefheart, “Hair Pie, Bake 1 and 2”
Rogers and Hammerstein, “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair”
Good grief. As usual, the Great Pumpkin failed to show up in the most sincere pumpkin patch I could find. To keep the faith during my annual existential crisis, I compiled an impromptu playlist of Halloween favorites from the last six decades or so (clips and commentary follow). I did this while trying to decide from my short list of Halloween costumes for next year: hedge fund manager, claims adjuster, reorganization specialist, water baron, Feng Shui consultant, music critic.
Bauhaus, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”
Frightened Rabbit, “Head Rolls Off”
Cramps, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”
Austin TV, “Shiva”
Parliament, “Dr. Funkenstein”
Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”
Tom Waits, “Cemetery Polka”
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “I Put a Spell On You”
Sun Ra, “Space is the Place”
Dream Syndicate, “Halloween”
Philly Joe Jones, “Blues for Dracula”
Bauhaus: “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”
Please be advised that Bela Lugosi has now been dead for 53 years. Time to move on with your lives.
Stuck Between Stations.
Frightened Rabbit: “Head Rolls Off”
Like the proper Scotsmen they are, Frightened Rabbit charms schoolchildren everywhere with this cheeky ode to decapitation.
Cramps: “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”
RIP Lux Interior, who lost his exterior this year. This one’s from the aptly titled Songs the Lord Taught Us, although the teacher may have been the other guy, the one with the horns. That is, Alex Chilton.
I recently stumbled upon Neojaponisme‘s summary of the hundred greatest Japanese rock albums, as compiled by Kawasaki Daisuke two years ago. While I’m generally no fan of numerical rankings for music, I’m struck by his explanation of why such lists have often been uncommon in Japan: he claims that almost entire music industry there “is infected with the idea that they should not rank releases because it would ‘make the record companies angry’.”
If that’s the case, the companies must now be furious, since his list has now inspired a slough of counter-lists and rejoinders. A rival music publication, Snoozer, published its own list, largely to chide Kawasaki for assigning his number-one ranking to Happy End’s early seventies chamber-folk classic, Kazemachi Roman. Yet another site features contemporary Japanese bands, offering the latest on the likes of Parabellum Bullet, 54-71, and Avengers in Sci-Fi, not to mention band-name-of-the-year-nominee Wagdog Futuristic Unity.
Before I get completely lost in translation, I’ll take a short scavenger hunt through five decades of J-rock. Wander for yourself and find your own happy end.
Neil Sedaka, â€œLove Will Keep Us Togetherâ€
Joy Division, â€œLove Will Tear Us Apartâ€
Etta James, â€œIâ€™d Rather Go Blindâ€
Roy Orbison, â€œLove Hurtsâ€
Chet Baker, â€œMy Funny Valentineâ€
Van Morrison, â€œThe Way Young Lovers Do”
Otis Redding, â€œTry a Little Tendernessâ€
Fairport Convention, â€œWho Knows Where the Time Goesâ€
Leonard Cohen, â€œIâ€™m Your Manâ€
Magnetic Fields, â€œLove is Like a Bottle of Gin”
Lucinda Williams, â€œSide of the Roadâ€
Nina Simone, â€œLilac Wineâ€
Velvet Underground, â€œPale Blue Eyesâ€
Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”
Antony and the Johnsons, â€œFistful of Love”
George Jones, â€œHe Stopped Loving Her Todayâ€
Replacements, â€œAnswering Machine”
My Bloody Valentine, â€œSometimesâ€
Sleater-Kinney, â€œTurn it Onâ€
Roy Orbison, “Love Hurts”
Otis Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness”
Etta James, “I’d Rather Go Blind”
Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
Bon Iver, “Skinny Love”
George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
Fairport Convention, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”