Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Famous Johnny Cash Shackles Scholarship*

I have a new job where I can pretty much listen to music all day. Here’s what I’ve been up to this week:

[a] The Flaming Lips, Embryonic
[b] Frank Sinatra, Watertown
[c] St. Vincent, Actor
[d] The Black Watch, Tatterdemalion

[e] Imperial Teen, What Is Not To Love
[f] jj, no 2
[g] Deerhunter, Rainwater Cassette Exchange, Fluorescent Grey
[h] Black Tambourine, Black Tambourine [comp.]
[i] The Tough Alliance, The New School

[j] Sam Phillips, The Indescribable Wow
[k] Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw
[l] Moonshake, Eva Luna
[m] Th’ Faith Healers, Lido
[n] The Decemberists, Always the Bridesmaid, The Hazards of Love

[o] Modern English, After the Snow
[p] Boards of Canada, from The Campfire Headphase, In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country
[q] A.R. Kane, Sixty Nine
[r] Sloan, Never Hear the End of It, Pretty Together

[s] Sloan, Navy Blues, Between the Bridges
[t] The Hidden Cameras, Awoo, Origin: Orphan
[u] The Everly Brothers, Cadence Classics, “Cathy’s Clown”

[a] Embryonic is workplace poison, it turns out. “Enjoyment” was never the chief pleasure to be derived from this album, and on the job, when the time to enjoy is scarce and the time to contemplate even scarcer, Embryonic is a freaky death shudder that you worry might be leaking from your headphones and scaring your co-workers. But I still admire it.

[b] Ol’ Blue Eyes’ melancholy little gem from the Tricky Dick years is the rare LP that makes me care about love as it existed in the early 70s, and one of my all-time favorite works of fiction. Watertown has been a continual catalyst for my writing aspirations, and also a painful reminder that I’ll never write anything very good. And as for the vocals, just listen to the way Sinatra sings these phrases:

--hangin’ ‘round (“Watertown”): The History of Human Resignation to Cruel Fate could be written about this moment.

--but he’s so old (“Michael & Peter”): The History of Emotion could be written about this moment.

[c] I still love every moment of this album.

[d] Every time someone earns a Ph.D. and continues to make music like this, my hope grows a little stronger.

[e] I used to consider this one of my very favorite albums, not because it was, but because I recognized and aspired to a certain type of coolness that this album so coolly represented. Did Imperial Teen anticipate an entire generation when they wrote a song about a girl who's a "major in self-portraiture"?

[f] If jj wasn’t so intent on being so minimal, they could have titled this album with a paraphrase of their finest lyric: The Truth We Shared & The Lies That Drove Us Apart.

[g] Are these lyrics true? They are so wrenching! “Game of Diamonds” is another workplace danger, this time the danger of being overcome with feelings that can’t be dealt with in private. The lyrics throughout Rainwater Cassette Exchange seem more carefully thought out than in the rest of the band’s catalog, or maybe Brad C. is becoming an effortless master of his greatest themes: watch your skin erupting … all sickness and sorrow … two weeks of misery … then the opening couplet of “Game” will make you shed one tear, made a deluge when you hear the rest of what might be the band’s closest thing to a Stipe-ean ballad. Indeed, I haven’t often thought of Deerhunter as a Southern band, but I’ve started to realize that many of the colors and textures in their music produce in me feelings that only the most tangled and pungent of R.E.M. does.

Deerhunter’s music has likewise been a creativity catalyst in my recent life, mostly inspiring me to think of ways I might infiltrate the band. You know those books of published letters between famous literary types? I’ve been imagining striking up an electronic correspondence with Bradford Cox, and the ensuing book of our communications. I don’t know whether this book would exist on paper, but either way it would have a cover:

[h] Not the greatest early 90s band with a pop song sentimentality swaddled in lots of distortion and charming lack of chops (a quality that always strikes me as an addition to rather than a subtraction from a band’s sound). But the point isn’t how good they are, but whether you like them enough to wear their button on your sweater. Mine’s already full up on buttons—Heavenly, Confetti, Vaselines, Young Marble Giants, 14 Iced Bears—but I’m sure I can find Black Tambourine a bit of space somewhere.

[i] Maybe the ultimate Swedish album of the last decade, not because it’s the best, but because it has perhaps the greatest global crossover potential, comes closest to embodying the way Swedish music straddles the line between Anglophilic pop and world music (from our perspective), the way these new Swedish groups identify with and borrow from a surprising array of movements and cultures. Released in 2005, the year before the arrival of most of the new crew, The New School couldn’t have a more perfect title, and contains some of the hookiest songs of recent years.

[j] Marshall Crenshaw with boobs.

[k] Sam Phillips with balls, which I don’t really mean figuratively, as Sam Phillips has plenty of figurative balls.

[l] One of many albums from the WMCN library that hasn’t really been earning its keep on my hard drive these past years. Now I remember why I never want to listen to this: I don’t like it very much. The album cover suggests the best twee pop band you’ve never heard, but in fact, as their name implies, Moonshake are Can acolytes. I’m sure this was well and good in 1993, when Moonshake’s weird fusion was a sign o’ the times, but good as I usually am at entering a frame of mind that can make anything antiquated sound sleek and sexy, or regressing to my childhood ears that would have loved this band, some coolness is just impossible to reclaim. Sorry, Moonshake, I bet the ’94 grads love you still.

[m] Ditto these Faith Healers, one of the best songs here is a cover of Can’s “Mother Sky.” Th’ Healers have been retroactively lumped in with the early 90s shoegazing scene, and while they lay it on thick and create some great trancelike passages, they’re a more artful offshoot of the million-selling grunge scene. They were never one of “my” bands, so I have some trouble journeying back and carrying them with me to the present day.

[n] Colin Meloy is having a great career, isn’t he? Always the Bridesmaid was a songbook expander in 2008, as routine as a dental checkup but also quite good, while The Hazards of Love was the most underrated album of 2009. It took me a while to come around to it, as I’ve always resisted the theatrical ambitions of The Decemberists, and a “rock opera” seemed to promise that they’d be indulging in everything I like least about them. But the huge hour-long momentum that the album generates has nothing to do with its storyline and everything to do with its monster riffs, well-considered motifs and incomparable female voices.

[o] Still amazed how exquisitely rhythmic and twinkling this album is, considering that its hit single “I Melt With You” is a lot more lumbering than my early memories of it.

[p] “’84 Pontiac Dream” is the song that comes closest to describing what the world seemed like to me when I was 18, living in a weird new city. 18’s the age when everyone ought to have a life soundtrack.

[q] For much of this album I can hang my head in total surrender to the glorious wash of proto-shoe weirdness (though at work I can only imagine myself doing this), but when the music fails to pull me inside its enchanted womb, through no fault of its own, it can be a bit boring.

[r] Maybe it’s cruel to choose just one, but Never Hear the End of It has a clear standout, and that’s “Fading Into Obscurity,” the only song I can think of (maybe because it gets it so right and “obscures” all other attempts) about the titular subject, told from the point-of-view of a former rock star. Sloan can seem a bit straight-laced at times, in their notions of rock music and proper lyrical matter, but they do a story song like no other, and are always ready to surprise with sly genius: This cake is baked but I much prefer the batter / Perhaps in part because it had so much potential / To be delicious and still be influential. Zippo! Pretty Together has some moments, but had I heard it in 2001 I would not have guessed the band’s finest music was still in front of them. How they went from album #6 obsolescence to album #8 magnificence I don’t quite know.

[s] But maybe their fourth and fifth albums provide a clue. It seems there’s always been an ebb and flow to Sloan’s career: Navy Blues is another hit-or-miss affair, while Between the Bridges, though also not perfect, is a great synthesis of four very different songwriting perspectives and an early attempt at the concept-album-without-a-concept that found perfection on Never Hear the End of It.

[t] The notion that Joel Gibb shouldn’t be allowed to grow up, but should stay young and horny (and faggy and polyamorous) forever, was the thesis of some of the most infuriating music “criticism” I read last year. The great thing about Gibb’s rapturous adoration of the human body has never been the “fun” of it, but rather the opportunity it affords to glimpse a sensibility so loving that everything hateful and ugly seems banished from the world. Origin: Orphan is not an album about “growing up,” but one that is tweaked ever so slightly toward seriousness, because Gibb has realized that his love’s abundance is inherently political, and because he’s taking less for granted. But the playfulness persists: his declaration that he will “marry one day” is just about the most tentative promise a person can make, and he says it in a song called “In The Na,” whose nonsense title becomes a giddy refrain that puts a glaze of fantasy over everything. He won’t marry outside the Na, it’s clear, and the only place on Earth where the Na exists must be in Gibb’s bed.

[u] I’d hesitate to call these brothers Everly total iconoclasts, but there are moments in even their tamest songs that signal to me how far from safe they are:

--looks like we’re duped again (“Wake Up, Little Susie”): sung with the sort of excessive human energy, like a boy playing with a dead snake, that makes mothers worry about their sons.

--mmmmmmmm (“’Til I Kissed You”): as lustful as the best of Elvis.

--don’t you even care? (“Cathy’s Clown”): sung like the definition of sullenness.

--“Since You Broke My Heart”: with the right decoration, would be the essence of psychedelic rock.

It’s fun to try to find narrative arcs on greatest hits albums, especially ones that are arranged chronologically. Cadence Classics oscillates between songs about girls who unfairly break the brothers’ hearts and songs about bad boys whose rebel ways cause them to lose their loves, so I imagine that there’s an element of wish fulfillment in these latter songs, that the Everlys wish they could be active participants, not passive, in their failings at love.

Announcement: Of late I barely have time to write down ideas for posts I want to write, but expect more substantial posts soon, including my lengthy (and mostly impartial) Gaga review.

*The title of the post comes from a dream I had in which I was reading about a new movie starring Jim Carrey and George Clooney that was getting considerable Oscar buzz. The unlikely premise of this movie (based on a true story) was that two guys determined to create a college scholarship for underprivileged students, and short on funds to do so, had laid claim to Johnny Cash’s prison chains before the singer’s famous stint in jail, knowing that the shackles could be auctioned upon his release to great advantage. In this version of the universe, Johnny Cash had done time.


diamond meadows said...

Geoff where can I get you say...'alboms?'

Geoff said...

Perhaps on, or at any of Alaska's fine record shops.

diamond meadows said...

...wait, people still buy music? sounds like a swindle

Geoff said...

On the contrary, it's the only thing that's not a swindle.

aaron said...

diamond meadows said...

are u admitting to having bought teh fame monster deluxe edition, jay ;O?

Geoff said...

God no, I stole that from Zac.

I was almost going to mention the Great R'n'R Swindle. As for not publishing your comment in a prompt manner, you may be interested to know I've been sick for two days and unable to come down to the library to indulge your techno-age expectations of instant communication.

aaron said...

diamond meadows said...

Also---Bradford is still a virgin, right?

Geoff said...

I wouldn't know, but maybe it will be revealed in The Collected Texts. It would explain why all his songs are still so heartsick.