Step On My Old Size Nines

For some reason the above Stereophonics track popped into my head the other day. It’s one of their older tracks from Just Enough Education to Perform (such a wonderfully acid way to describe a hack writer, I think). They’re an excellent Welsh band that sort of fell into my lap during the HMV years and I’ve been following them ever since. They just came out with a new album a few weeks ago (Scream Above the Sounds) which is definitely worth a listen.

Here’s a few tracks I think you might like from them as well. Go and check them out!

The kids would all sing, he would take the wrong key

Last Friday saw the release of a major compilation from the Who entitled Maximum As & Bs, featuring nearly all their singles from their first release as the High Numbers to their most recent.

I’ve been a somewhat passive Who fan in the past, knowing most of their more famous songs from listening to classic rock radio as a youth, but I never really followed them too closely until years later.  I found them very similar to the Kinks; they were an acquired taste and you kind of had to understand their very British influences in order to really appreciate them.

So of course during the course of Friday afternoon I streamed the collection from Amazon, and found it quite fascinating.  Like most bands from the 60s (yes, even the Beatles), the band flailed around for a few years trying to find their footing.  There’s a lot of mod posturing and moon-June lyricism going on in the early tracks.  They managed to get past this most of the time, thanks to Pete Townshend’s wit and amazing riffs, John Entwistle’s thundering bass lines, and of course Keith Moon’s manic drumming.  Roger Daltrey’s of course a great singer, but those first couple of years are a bit shaky for him; it felt like he was trying too hard to fit his powerful voice into quiet songs.  By the time they came to Tommy, though, they were a powerhouse and a rock radio staple.

[Granted, their concept album era of Tommy and Quadrophenia isn’t for everyone.  I myself find both projects a little too ridiculous, but they both contain some stellar songs that stand on their own amazingly well.]

This compilation is quite long, covering multiple decades (and is essentially a cd/digital repackaging of the singles box sets they released recently), so you may want to take it in a cd at a time, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

A dreaded sunny day…

smths tqidr

Last Friday saw the reissue of the fantastic 1986 album by the Smiths, The Queen Is Dead.  The expanded package includes a lovely remaster of the album itself, with the addition of numerous demos from that era, single b-sides, and a live performance at Great Woods in Mansfield MA (of course mislabeled as “Boston”, as is normal for that venue).  The cd package also includes a dvd of the Derek Jarman mini-film, as well as a hi-fidelity remaster of the album.

The Queen Is Dead became my favorite Smiths album soon after I picked it up, which, if I recall, was not that long after I ordered their final album from Columbia House.  It’s their most solid and consistent album that’s not a singles compilation, in my opinion.  While some love the brutalism of Meat Is Murder or the doom of the debut (or the poppiness of Strangeways, Here We Come, for that matter), the consensus is usually that TQID is their best moment.  The songs are tight, exciting, and playful.  Johnny Marr’s guitar work here is top notch, and Morrissey is clearly having fun being the smartass intellectual lyricist.

I almost always gravitate to this album over their others.  While I love nearly all their work, this one is the most positive and uplifting, the most fun to listen to, even with the one-two punch downers of “I Know It’s Over” (mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head…) and “Never Had No One Ever” (I had a really bad dream / It lasted twenty years, seven months, and twenty seven days…).  They’re balanced by the silliness of “Frankly Mr Shankly” and “Vicar in a Tutu”.  The lead title track is an amazing kick-ass jam and is one of their hardest, loudest tracks they ever committed to tape.  [The reissue offers a ‘full version’ that goes on for nearly a minute longer.]

If you’re a passing fan of the band, I do suggest picking up this reissue; its remaster provides the album with a much fuller, warmer sound (the original mix suffered from too much treble and loudness, at least in how I’ve heard it).  I’m also happy that they provided us with the original twelve-inch crossfade of the two b-sides “Rubber Ring” and “Asleep”, which makes the two songs connect in a very Abbey Road medley sort of way.

RIP Gord Downie

I remember hearing The Tragically Hip back in my senior year of college, when Fully Completely came out, just a few days before my 22nd birthday. I was the music director for our AM station, WECB, and I always tried to keep the selection eclectic and interesting. I’d heard of the band, having seen their previous three releases in the music bins (1987’s self-titled EP, 1989’s Up to Here and 1991’s Road Apples), but their third album was definitely their breakthrough, at least in Beantown. I loved that they were a mixture that defied description, other than they sounded really cool. I immediately put “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” in rotation and “Fifty Mission Cap” as an extra play.

A year later, I’m living quite skint in the burbs of Allston and for a brief time my roommate and I have cable, and my then-girlfriend and I start watching Canada’s MuchMusic channel in earnest. It’s where I first hear great Canadian musicians like Moist, Barenaked Ladies, and Sloan in regular rotation instead of just occasionally. I stumble upon The Hip’s classic single “Grace, Too” (from 1995’s Day for Night) when I watch their video, greatly amused and fascinated by its lo-fi genius, using only video feedback, reflection, and a shirtless Gord to play off the boasting lyrics.  It becomes my favorite song of theirs.

A few years later and I’m back home in midwestern Massachusetts, trying to get my life and accounts back in order, and I’m listening to WRSI and WHMP, two Pioneer Valley stations that weren’t afraid to play the same eclectic music that I loved hearing back in my college days. I hear occasional plays of “Ahead by a Century” (from 1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse) but alas, never get around to taping it off the radio.

By 1998 I’ve got a steady job at the record store and expanding my musical tastes with every new and intriguing release that comes in. So much the better if I can get a promo copy for it! The BMG rep hands me a copy of their 1998 album Phantom Power and I immediately fall in love with it, especially the lovely “Bobcaygeon”.

By the end of 2000 I’d be leaving that job, but not before getting another dose of the Hip with that year’s Music@Work album. I find myself amused once more, this time by the fitting title song:

…as well as one if the deeper cuts, “Freak Turbulence.”

In 2002, I’m writing my trilogy down in the basement on a nightly basis, and hitting up Newbury Comics on a weekly basis, and In Violet Light comes out, another excellent Hip album. Oddly enough it’s years before I actually see the hilarious video for my favorite song off it, “The Darkest One”.

I kind of lose track of the band in the mid-2000s due to multiple moves and personal events, but eventually I catch up and pick up the rest of their catalog. I sadly admit that I don’t listen to them nearly as much as I should, and I never got to see them live.

But The Tragically Hip has never really been a band that I wanted to overindulge in. I like the fact that I’ll throw on Live Between Us or Now for Plan A or even Yer Favourites and think…damn, this is one hell of a great band. I like being pleasantly surprised by just how fucking good a band like that can be.

 

Thanks Gord. You were one hell of a great songwriter and humanitarian.

When I left your house this morning,
It was a little after nine
It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
Reveal themselves, one star at time

One Epic Release Day, 30 Years Ago

It’s not often that we put importance on an album release date.  When it is, it’s usually for a single album that’s considered a historical artifact, like 2 June 1967 with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, or 9 March 1987 with U2’s The Joshua Tree.

But on 28/29 September 1987, we were treated with not one but four excellent albums that many consider a vital part of the 80s alternative rock movement.

First, we had a newbie:  Pixies’ debut EP on 4AD, Come On Pilgrim.

We all know the story behind the band by now…two UMass Amherst students (Frank Black and Joey Santiago) start up a noisy band and move to Boston; a smartass ad in the local paper pulls in exactly one audition, one Kim Deal; a friend of a friend, David Lovering, is chosen as drummer. Their off-kilter mix of punk, surf, folk and who knows what else is both frightening and intriguing. Ivo Watts-Russell is convinced signing them to his label is a bizarre move, and yet…

I remember hearing “Vamos” on WAMH probably around the same time their “Gigantic” single had come out (about six months after this EP) and thinking, what the hell is this…? By that time I was more into moody college rock, but this was something so leftfield yet so fascinating that I had to follow up. Of course, they were a local band by my standards, so I definitely had to check them out.

Next, we had a band on its way up, not quite there yet but already given a huge following: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, with their third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.

They’d been around since 1984 with the delightfully weird but funky first album, but their follow-up, 1985’s Freaky Styley, was a bit too weird for a lot of people. This third album was a return to their rock-funk sound and became a favorite. Tragically, their guitarist Hillel Slovak would die of a heroin overdose after this album’s tour. His death would deeply affect the rest of the band, especially singer Anthony Keidis, and their next album, Mothers Milk, would reflect that darker edge. Still…that album would clear their way even more (especially with their fantastic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”), and a few years after that their popularity would peak with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

 

Next, we had a band that had already reached significant heights with their distinctive sampling and synth-heavy sound, combined with curious lyrics (often about sex, emotional pain, and the darker side of love) and fascinating melodies. Depeche Mode had no way to go but up. Their album Music for the Masses would take their sound even further than before: louder, brasher, stronger.

“Never Let Me Down”, was the second single, released a month before the album (the first single, “Strangelove”, dropped a full five months previous, the usual habit for DM releases), and its in-your-face volume intrigued many fans. The rest of the album delivered just as much punch, to the delight of many, even as its lyrics seemed to be darker and more personal than ever. A little over two years later they’d return with their absolute best album, Violator.

 

And lastly, a band on its way out. It’s the story of too many bands; two front men with strong egos and opinions, writing absolutely stunning, gorgeously played music and proudly singing heart-on-sleeve lyrics that say exactly how you feel, splitting up in the most acrimonious way possible. The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come was their last gasp, their Abbey Road, containing some of the strongest songs they’d written…and by the time it hit the shops, the band was already in the past tense.

The Smiths was the band for the wallflower, the weirdo, the proud outcast.  Morrissey’s poetic missives perfectly balanced Johnny Marr’s amazing guitar work, and in the short four-plus years they’d been together, they’d given teenagers a hell of a strong and massive soundtrack to their lives.  Though their work on Strangeways had been enjoyable, just like always, the clashing of egos caused the band to fall apart.  Both Morrissey and Marr have moved on from it all, now playing Smiths songs in their live sets, have even talked with one another over the years, but life has gone on.

*

Of course, there were other album releases that day — Yes’ Big Generator, Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In Souled Out, The Art of Noise’s In No Sense? Nonsense!, and Boston locals O-Positive with their Cloud Factory EP, for starters — but those four albums had to be the most important.  They were by four bands either on their way up or their way down, all four bands that could be considered integral to the growing alternative rock scene of the time.

Legacy

I’ve been thinking lately about the legacy of some of my favorite bands.  I’ve recently started following Art of Noise on Instagram, who are currently at the planning and prepping stages of an upcoming tour.  The other week I downloaded the new album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

This year we’ve seen new releases by The Godfathers, Daniel Ash, The Feelies, Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding), Peter Murphy, Depeche Mode, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Wire, Clan of Xymox, Robyn Hitchcock, Slowdive, Blondie, Erasure, The Charlatans UK, Alison Moyet, Ride, Cheap Trick, Public Enemy, KMFDM, Sparks, The Waterboys and Living Colour.  And there’s still three-plus months to go in the year, with more new releases by classic bands coming up.

It occurred to me that many of these bands are from the first generation of 70s and 80s rock and its multitudes of subgenres, or their slightly younger siblings.  We still have some musicians from the original rock wave of the 50s and 60s — Ringo Starr has a new album coming soon, and Paul McCartney is still on tour, for instance, and recently-passed Chuck Berry had a new album out as well.  One has to remember that rock music as we know it really is a young genre compared to other popular and fringe music out there.  We’re still seeing it grow and evolve.  We’re also still seeing some of the old vanguard putting out albums.

My fascination here isn’t just that many of these bands were my favorites when I was in high school thirty years ago, and that I’m just reliving my youth in my own pathetic way.  I’m also fascinated that these bands are still going strong, still providing their signature sounds, still touring, still releasing.  Some of them may have taken an extended hiatus for various reasons (Ride’s last album was in 1996, for example, and they split almost at the same time it came out), but upon their return, fans both old and new rejoiced.

I’m fascinated by the legacies of these bands, because I’m living during their tenure.  I’m watching and listening to their history as it happens.  It’s that ‘I was there’ moment — it’s my own Woodstock remembrance, in a way — and I love that I’m a part of it in my own way, as a listener and as an owner of their recordings.

Finest Worksongs: REM

Thirty years ago this month, REM released their album Document.  It’s the one that contains their two hits that still get consistent plays on the radio to this day (one of them for somewhat trollish reasons, I’m guessing!), “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”.  It’s also the first REM album I actually bought, if you can believe that.

Of course, I’d known REM quite early on.  I remember MTV playing “Radio Free Europe” in its early days.  I remember “So. Central Rain” and “Pretty Persuasion” getting a lot of airplay on WAAF and WAQY.  Even “Driver 8” and “Can’t Get There from Here” got minor play.  And “Fall On Me” was a big college radio hit as well as a staple on the early days of 120 Minutes.

Document was, to date, their most commercial sounding album, and the last for the indie label IRS Records.  They’d release one final record, the singles/rarities album Eponymous, before signing to Warner Bros Records and releasing Green in late 1988.

Interestingly, Document is also the first place I’d heard a Wire song, “Strange”, which was from that band’s seminal Pink Flag album.  REM’s Michael Stipe was one of many musicians in the punk and college rock genre that sang the praises of Wire.  By the end of 1989, I’d have nearly all the Wire albums to date in my own collection, declaring them one of my top five favorite bands.  In early 1989 I and a few of my friends went to see REM at the Worcester Centrum, with a relatively new folk duo called Indigo Girls as the opener.  Suffice it to say, I also became a huge fan of that band.

For a short time in the late 80s, I was obsessed by REM.  I was definitely a fan of their early years, especially once I dubbed my the first four albums from my friends.  I was a mad fan of Green as well — still am, to be honest — even while others complained that they’d sold out and become ‘rockstars’.  They definitely epitomized that Athens GA sound that’s not quite country, not quite folk, not quite rock, but everything in between.  And not a day would go by where I wouldn’t hear one of their songs on a college radio station.

I was a passing fan of 1991’s Out of Time, but by then their sound had evolved to a point where the songs didn’t quite gel with me anymore.  I’d still follow them and pick up their albums, but after 1992’s Automatic for the People I was more of a song fan than an album fan of theirs.  It wasn’t until their last few albums, 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse into Now that I became an album fan again.

I do come back to them occasionally, especially if they’re played on the radio or if I see one of the band members surfacing here and there.  [Michael Stipe, now wearing a full-on white Jethro beard, pops up in the news now and again, and Mike Mills is frequently spotted on Twitter.]   They’re part of a fond memory of that era of late 80s college rock and close friendship for me, but they’re also amazing musicians as well.