There are bands that are really good but that are destined either by bad luck or the fickle tastes of the music-buying public to never quite make it to the top. Professionally accomplished, critically acclaimed, yes, but big sellers, never. Teenage Fanclub is one of those bands. The Scottish group started full of promise way back in 1990 and has released just under a dozen albums. They’ve seen critical success based on an enchanting reworking of the power pop of the past from their key influence, Big Star, mixed with folk rock textures and angelic harmonies inspired by the Byrds. They’ve seen big label contracts and heavy cross Atlantic buzz. But they’ve never seen big sales, as their sort of classic soft rock was just completely out of step with the prevailing trends in pop during their peak years.
Which is a shame because a song like “It’s All In My Mind” from 2005’s Man-Madeis simply a stunner with insanely catchy hooks that make you want to hear it over and over. Unashamedly pretty but leavened somewhat by a sardonic, mature, bittersweet feel to the lyrics, “It’s All In My Mind” is an excellent jumping off point to get to know Teenage Fanclub. And after hearing this near-perfect single you’ll likely want to explore more of their back catalog, as I did. What you’ll find is many more beautiful tracks, once again proving that mass market success in music is not at all correlative to quality or excellence. But then sometimes it’s nice to be one of the select few in on a secret like Teenage Fanclub that’s hiding in plain sight.
If you’re into sad songs I’ve got your fix right here. From 2011’s Ashes & Fire comes Ryan Adams‘ masterpiece of the morose, “Do I Wait”. Beginning in quiet with Adams’ lone guitar and pleading voice, “Do I Wait?” crescendoes by the end of its 4 minutes into a veritable zenith of sadness thanks to guest keyboardist Benmont Tench of The Heartbreakers and his hauntingly beautiful, slowly building wave of sound. Its heartbroke hooks will sink deep into your earhole and keep pulling at you until you play it again.
Adams has become something of a master of melancholy in recent years after starting out as a country rock sensation, essentially following the path that Jeff Tweedy and Wilco blazed circa their A.M. period. But much like Wilco, Adams stubbornly resisted being boxed in stylistically and so wound up giving voice to his inner sorrow as well as his outer rowdy in the grand tradition of rock and country singer-songwriters since the dawn of those genres. First with 2004’s EP compilation Love is Hell and its remarkably stark and downbeat reworking of Oasis’ “Wonderwall”, and then on Ashes & Fire, Adams proved himself an artist who can really let his guts spill on the floor. “Do I Wait?” proved to be the shimmering standout track from a very good if slightly monochromatic album overflowing with what ifs and recriminations.
This isn’t the first Black Keys song I’ve posted and it won’t be the last. “These Days” off of 2010’s Brothers is one of their most haunting and downbeat numbers. Maybe that’s why it sticks with you. Triggered by the forlorn lyrics and beautifully morose arrangement, it evokes an instinctual sense of the one-way nature of time and that no, you really can’t go home again.
Suffused with longing and nostalgia for bygone days, as well as a rumination on human frailty (“Watch what you say/The Devil is listening/He’s got ears you wouldn’t believe/And brother once you go to him/It’s your soul you can never retrieve”), “These Days” is more like “Wheels On Fire”-era Dylan in its majestic, chill-inducing sense of foreboding than the Keys usual down and dirty rave-ups. But that’s what makes them one of today’s best bands — just when you think you’ve got them figured out Auerbach and Carney hit you in the gut with something so heartfelt and melancholy that it reminds you that there are many facets to the Blues and that the Black Keys, with their sweeping ambition and technical command, are among its greatest modern practitioners.
Kiss Each Other Clean featured a much more heavily produced sound than the stripped down acoustic vibe of their previous albums. I really liked that more pop-y feel and “Tree By The River” has all sorts of 70s singer-songwriter influences and hooks while being saved from being maudlin or trite by the penetrating honesty of the lyrics.
But for those purists who insist that their I&W be consistently bare bones here’s a take with bearded mastermind Samuel Beam solo on guitar that could have come off of any of the early 2000s albums.
A bittersweet beauty anyway you play it. And best of all the entire album is a free stream with an Amazon Prime membership. Life is good.
OK, so I’m sort of obsessing through Arctic Monkey’s AM track by track. Got a lot of intense noctural listenings down in Mexico on headphones amidst the susurrations of the palms and the moonlight so the album’s kind of burrowed in there. But suck on “Fireside” for a bit and see if its propulsive groove and longing lyrics don’t work their way into your brain pan too.
Nothing profound to say and no big write up but this 2008 tune from The Helio Sequence has been buzzing around inside my head and cropping up a lot on Pandora… Lately. Maybe it’s all that Portlandia I’ve been watching? Or maybe it’s just because these two guys are such talented and stalwart survivors of Indie rock — and the ever-mutating Portland scene in particular — that they deserve to be heard and heard often. This is an ideal gateway song for a band that rewards further exploration. Listen to it once and you’ll want to hear what else they’ve got.
Of all the legendary, cautionary tales of shoulda’ been contenders in Rock history perhaps none went on to have as profound an influence on future artists as Big Star. After all, the losers, beautiful or otherwise, are supposed to remain in the cut-out bins with a small but dedicated fan base of maybe a couple of hundred stalwart fans proudly fanning whatever flickering flame remains. But the funny thing about Big Star was that the couple hundred stalwarts who kept their flame alive after they never caught on the first time around were mostly rock critics and aspiring rock performers. And what happened in the intervening decades is that the music of Big Star, a truly lost band during the 70s, wound up being disseminated through a thousand music reviews and a thousand demo reels going forward to become something like an archetype, a touchstone for the entire Indie and Alternative Rock scene. It somehow became instant street cred to name check Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, to seek out the original vinyl of the band’s seminal albums back in the days where you couldn’t just hit up iTunes and own it in an instant, to lay down a ragged cover of “Back of a Car” during a gig. But beyond the entrancing complexity and slowly dawning greatness of their ostensible pop music, Big Star was also shrouded in mystery, with a lot of vague tales about record deals gone bad, mental illness and creative self-destruction. Which, of course, only added to their mystique. At long last, 2012’s comprehensive documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, shines a light on the mysteries that beguiled and bedeviled their fans for so many years. It also proves yet again that all that retrospective adulation was well earned, however bittersweet their career trajectory.
Formed in 1971 by Memphis natives Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the original lineup also consisted of drummer Jody Stephens (the only surviving founding member) and bassist Andy Hummel. Chilton was already well established, having been a teen sensation as the blue-eyed soul frontman for The Box Tops, a well-produced outfit that clocked several hits including 1967’s classic Billboard #1, “The Letter” (later covered to even more dramatic effect by Joe Cocker). Chris Bell was a local kid dreaming of the Beatles and pop success, as well as an outlet for all the achingly beautiful and earnest compositions swimming around in his head. The result of their intersection was Big Star and their debut album, #1 Record, an unusally accomplished masterpiece with roots in the singer-songwriter ethos of the 60s but leavened with the angular hooks of British invasion power pop and more than a pinch of the Velvet Underground’s sonic subversiveness. Cuts such as “In The Street” (later famously covered by Cheap Trick as the title song for That 70s Show), “Thirteen” and “When my Baby’s Beside Me” spin gold from conventional romantic youth rebellion through the freshness of their composition and the unabashed belief in the power of the 3-minute pop single. As drummer Stephens wryly observes in the documentary, it could be said that by choosing such audaciously cocky names for their band and debut album they were tempting the Rock gods, as well as showing confidence (or hope) in their endeavor. But knowing Chilton’s later oeuvre, the implicit irony of such grandiosity seems entirely intentional.
Despite being universally praised by rock critics and industry mags, 1972’s #1 Record went nowhere fast due to the vagaries of bad timing and worse distribution. Continue reading →
It may be New Year’s Eve 2014 but this 2013 Arctic Monkey’s song has been rattling around my head since before Christmas.
The leadoff track from their mega-successful album AM, which featured a much more layered and lush R&B evolution of the Monkeys’ previously angular, singularly Anglo-Saxon sound, “Do I Wanna Know?” is a hook filled sugary delight while still retaining Alex Turner’s trademark verbal dexterity and straight-outta-Sheffield inflections. It’s also an unabashedly romantic paean, something else one might not expect from the usually acerbic band from South Yorkshire. And what better way to go into New Year’s Eve than by dropping the smart aleck pose and laying it all out there for the prize of a kiss?
Once in a while you are reminded of a great song. You put it on, and it blows you away, reminding you of how great music can actually be. It’s subjective, because we’ve all got our own lists of songs that light that fire in our hearts and bellies, but one at the top of my list is U-Mass, by The Pixies. The Pixies are still a great band, but in 1991, when they released their final studio album “Trompe le Monde” after a 5 year run together, they seemed somehow even better. The late 80’s and early 90’s were a weird and great time for music, a kind of last gasp before the “alternative” became the mainstream. Stalwarts of the dangerous and subversive fringe of rock & roll like Jane’s Addiction were calling it quits after beating their heads and hearts against the wall of society for half a decade, despite Lollapalooza having hit the amphitheaters and coming out a huge success, while Nirvana, Mudhoney, and seemingly everyone else in Seattle were taking the baton for a few more years of legitimate thrashing around before the whole thing blew up in a sad mess of sanitized, canned angst, a la Weezer and Bush. On MTV you were likely to see a Soundgarden video bracketed by C+C Music Factory on one end and Color Me Badd on the other. It was a confusing time. No wonder so many of us young guys wore nail polish.
I was surprised and delighted to find out the other day that 80s Indie stalwarts and coulda been contenders The Replacements had just played a sold out show out in Forest Hills, Queens apparently having lost none of their edge. It’s always somehow reassuring to see that the heroes of one’s youth are still kicking ass even if three members from their heyday have died, become too ill to perform or gone missing. But as long as the formidable Paul Westerberg still roams the earth I hope these guys will keep performing their hits with their characteristic ragged gusto and swagger.
And what hits they were. With a combination of pop sensibilities and punk ethos, The Replacements blew out of Minneapolis in the mid-80s like a bracing, whiskey-soaked wind of Rock on the rocks. Along with the harder-edged but excellent Hüsker Dü (who they aped unsuccessfully early on) and the almighty Prince, it seemed like 1985 was the year that put the Twin Cities on the map musically… if only for that fleeting moment that finds a city du jour that is not New York or LA ever so briefly anointed as the New Happening Place for Music™. It wasn’t to last, of course, and neither were The Replacements. But they made a hell of a heavenly racket while they did.
Starting out as drunk punk wannabes, Westerberg was joined by brothers Bob Stinson on guitar and Tommy Stinson on bass with drummer Chris Mars pounding the skins, and the group rapidly developed a winning brand of punk-infused pop that wasn’t afraid to take on the more sentimental side of adolescent angst. Continue reading →