Wednesday, July 22, 2009
John Mellencamp can't get no respect. He's seriously like the Rodney Dangerfield of rock and roll. Part of it his own fault: a lot of his stuff is pretty terrible. And nobody will ever forget his decision to spend much of the 80s wearing either a vest with no shirt or his grandmother's eyeglasses. And yes, who the hell wants to live in a pink houses? But he's released a number of really pretty excellent albums that are considered, thoughtful and soulful (Big Daddy, Human Wheels, Mr. Happy Go Lucky).
I'm not going to talk about any of those albums today. I'm going to talk about Dance Naked.
"Dance Naked"- I don't think rock lyric writing gets more zen then the opening couplet of this song. "I want you to dance naked/so I can see you." It's really a simple request, really. I know that it sounds pretty misogynistic, or sexist, or really just kind of creepy, but John does tell you near the end that you can dance naked "but only if you want to." There are a great many pick-up lines that I have heard that I cannot imagine ever working, but having a rock singer from Indiana who not only has cauliflower ears but a cauliflower face say to you "I want you to dance naked, but only if you want to"? I can actually see that working.
"Brothers"-I've never had a brother, and I don't think I would like to have one. John Mellencamp's tale of two brothers who wreck each other cars, get each other beat up, and don't approve of anything the other one does, well, it isn't doing too much to make me rethink my position. Especially, because with my luck, my brother would become a high-selling but critical ignored or underestimated singer-songwriter who would write songs about how much he can't stand me. Luckily I have sisters who are far more attractive and successful than me, with doctorates in biomedical engineering. I dodged a bullet there.
"When Margaret Comes to Town"- I love songs with girls' names in them. Especially when the name in the title is part of a statement, or a question, or just a dependent clause. "When Margaret Comes to Town." "Meet Virginia." "Amy Hit the Atmosphere." "Debbie Does Dallas." I can't remember who that last one is by. This song has a pretty cool little breakdown section right before the guitar solo. T
This album's history, from what I can remember from an issue of Entertainment Weekly I read 15 years ago, was that after the commercially disappointing "Human Wheels" album, Mellencamp decided to record an album really quickly (like two weeks-quickly, although that seems like a long time to me) and a side effect of this is that only three of the songs have a bass guitar on them! So it's two guitars and drums and that's it. Where was his bass player? On vacation? How badly did John Mellencamp want this album done? Bass player: 'I'll be fishing until the 12th, but I'm available after that.' Mellencamp: 'Screw you. I'm getting this album done in 3 hours or I'm not doing it.'
"Wild Night"-This is the one you know, the cover of the Van Morrison song that you probably don't know. It's also the first one to feature a bass guitar, played by the then unknown Me'Shell Ndegeocello, who sings duet. This is the only song that songs really fleshed out and produced, which might have something to do with the fact that somebody else wrote it in 1971. That would be like dressing a 24-year old up as a baby and talking about how well behaved it is. Clearly cheating.
"L.U.V."- I started writing songs by myself the summer this album came out, and I used this song as the template for most of them. To whit: verses filled with nonsense rhymes semi-rapped like Dylan in Subterranean Homesick Blues, with a rather catchy chorus. There's a great moment, however, right after the solo section where Mellencamp sings a capella "Wait a minute, let me check my tan/ Am I the same color as Superman?" My guess is probably, since Superman grew up in Kansas, which is right near Indiana. You guys were practically neighbors. Also, because of his Kryptonian ability to absorb the yellow sun, I'm going to guess he can't tan.
"Another Sunny Day"- This is the ballad on the record. I think it's about the environment. Actually, the more I listen to it, it seems like John's complaining about people complaining about the state of the environment. I always thought he was a bit more progressive, because, frankly Mr. Cougar Mellencamp, even back in 1994 the planet was going to hell. I wonder if he still sings this song after watching "An Inconvenient Truth"? Probably not, as it's kind of sucky no matter what the lyrics say. Listen, Mr. Mellencamp, I know that you're going to die soon, but I'm hopefully not going to, so I might have to worry about where I live being underwater when I'm older. I'm sorry if that's bumming you out. But it wasn't like "Rain on the Scarecrow" was exactly a real upbeat number.
"Too Much to Think About"- We're back to rocking out, without the bass again, and I think this is the album that made me really appreciate what a good bass player could bring to a song. Or even a really terrible bass player. Namely: bass.
This title of this song may refer to any number of different things. One thing it certainly does not refer to? This album.
"The Big Jack"- I've been ragging on this album and it certainly deserves a lot of it, but frankly, I own it and know it well because when I was 15, I kind of liked it. Hell, I still kind of like it, in the same way that I like Count Chocula--I like it but at least now I'm aware that it's not any good. And I like it anyway. One thing that makes the album really likable? It is about 30 minutes long. I think kids today would feel ripped off, especially since CDs can hold more than twice that, but for me, there's something comforting about putting this CD on and knowing that it will be over faster than an episode of "Herman's Head."
"The Break-Out"- This album is what used to be called an EP, which was like a single but longer. EP stood for Extended Play, and full-length albums used by called long players, as though long and extended were different measurements on the same scale. Like there's hot and cold? This is like hot and warmer. Warmer than what? Hot? Cold? Isn't extended relative to what it's been extended from?
In case you haven't figured it out, "The Break-Out" has nothing discernible interesting going on in it. It's a pretty standard plate rock song, the kind you'd throw on the end of the EP you were recording in two weeks while your bass player is on vacation as a stop-gap measure between two excellent critically acclaimed but commercially disappointing albums. This disc probably sold more than all of his really great albums combined, which is too bad, because if this were my first exposure to John Mellencamp, I'd spend the whole album messing with the EQ on my stereo trying to figure out why every song was so trebly and then Me'Shell Ndegeocello would start playing the bass line to "Wild Night" and blow out my speakers and I'd throw this album in the trash.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Thursday, July 9, 2009
I'm doomed, doomed I say, to associate certain albums with certain periods of my life, to the point that I listen to albums that I know instinctively that I should no longer enjoy. Each summer for the past six years, I've been working/teaching at the summer program I attended when I was 14, and when I bought the Rolling Stones "Voodoo Lounge" album. And so every summer, when the program rolls around, I find myself digging out this album and listening to it, instead of say, "Exile on Main Street" or "Sticky Fingers" or even something by Mozart. I can't help it, you see. It's out of my control.
Maybe surprisingly to people, I've always been a bigger Stones fan than a Beatles fan. A large part of this has to do with my father's influence: I don't even think he ever owned a Beatles record, which seems to be some kind of mean feat for someone who was a teenager when "Revolver" came out. I think a part of it that there has always been more of a cohesion to the Stones as a group, in that they all seem to be part of a band, instead of four (well, let's be honest, three) talented musicians and songwriters who played together. I think if you played a space alien "Here Comes the Sun" and "Rocky Raccoon" and then followed it up with "I Am the Walrus" they would have any idea that they were by the same band. Play a space alien "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and then follow it with "Sweet NeoCon" from the Stones' most recent album, that alien will most likely be able to tell that they are by the same group of people. That alien will then kill you and declare war on the entire human race. Because that's how bad "Sweet Little NeoCon" is.
"Love is Strong"-My father bought me a remaindered copy of Bill Wyman's autobiography the spring of 1994, and so I was hyper-aware that the Stones were going to be playing with a new bass-player. So I paid extra-close attention to the bass playing on this opening track, which turned out to be a blessing, because it made me not notice Mick Jagger's awful harmonica playing. Let me take that back. His harmonica playing isn't awful in that he is playing the harmonica poorly. Even if you play the harmonica perfectly, like a virtuoso, it will be awful. Because the harmonica is one of the worst instruments in the history of the world. I guess the fact that it's small made it a popular instrument, as opposed to the contra-bassoon, but I think I'd rather listen to a contra-bassoon solo on a song.
"You Got Me Rocking" I wonder, sometimes, how bands like the Stones keep writing new songs. Their lyric conceits tend not to be the most clever in the world, and most of their songs tend to focus on "I'm a man, you're a woman, and either a) I'm really into you in a sexual way or b) you broke my heart and now I'm going sing about it" and I wonder how they keep coming up with different ways to say that same thing over and over again. "You Got Me Rocking"? I bet all the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets that sometime in the late 70s early 80s there was a bunch of high school/college kids who formed a really terrible band, and one of the guys in the band wrote a song called "You Got Me Rocking" and they might have even played it in a bar a few times. That guy is now an orthodontist.
"Sparks Will Fly"- I remember in the pre-release to this album there was a lot of press about Mick Jagger was using the f word on several songs. I remember a pretty irate letter to Entertainment Weekly complaining about this, before the album came out, that it showed that Jagger was leaving behind his true fans to court a younger, hipper audiences. Because if there is one thing that the kids really love it's listening to 64 year old men sing about how they want to "f*** your sweet ass." Especially if that 64 year old man looks like their grandmother and is wearing a red silk shirt unbuttoned to his navel.
"The Worst"- Johnny Depp made it cool to be Keith Richards, but even before that, Keith Richards made it cool to be Keith Richards. In many respects, I like his voice more than I like Jagger's, maybe because Jagger always sounds like he is the consummate actor, taking on a role, a role of being a 64-year old man who wants to f*** your sweet ass, and Keith Richards just sounds like he's being honest and singing from his heart. This song he tells you that he is the worst kind of guy to be around, and as cool and inscrutable as he seems in interviews, I'm going to guess based on the sheer amount of heroin and whiskey he has consumed that yes, he is the worst kind of guy to be around. This is a really nice song, though.
"New Faces"-I don't really know the division of labor as far as songwriting goes in the Jagger/Richards partnership, but I think that some songs are mostly written by Keith and finished up by Jagger, some are mostly written by Jagger and finished up by Richards and then they each write songs entirely separate from each other. And every couple of albums I think Mick comes up with the idea to write a song that has a harpsichord in it. Because even though Jagger has more money than he knows what to do with, he didn't get that way by wasting his money. And you know that some night back in the early 70s, he got juiced out of his mind and bought himself a grand harpsichord. And to justify its purchase he hauls it into the studio every five years and makes the other guys play on his harpsichord song. He's not going to let his money go to waste.
"Moon is Up"- This song is awesome. I think I read that they recorded the drums at the bottom of stairwell, far away from the band. I think this might be because nobody in the band really likes Charlie Watts, because he shows up to play the drums dressed like he's actually come to do their taxes. (And we know how the Stones feel about paying taxes.) So they stuck him in the basement and told the engineers to find a way to record his drums from down there. It makes for a really cool drum sound, and the song is really pretty fun, and there's a moment where you can hear Keith laugh as they're starting it, and I love moments like that, where you hear someone count off, or somebody snicker or cough or laugh. Because then I know it wasn't made by robots. Well, except Charlie Watts. He's kind of a robot. But remember, we stuck him down in the basement.
"Out of Tears"-You know that orthodontist who wrote a song called "You Got Me Rocking" for his lame garage band? Well, his cousin was in a band, and one of those guys wrote a song called "Out of Tears" Jesus, how did we make it through thousands of years of popular music without having a major song called "Out of Tears"? Truth be told, this song isn't so bad. But it is sounds exactly like you think a song called "Out of Tears" would sound. There's a great slide solo by Ron Wood in the song, and damned if I don't always forget that he's actually in the band. When I was a kid, I used to see him and think he was Rod Stewart back when Rod Stewart had darker hair. And, yeah, I know they were in the Small Faces together, and I saw that Unplugged they did together, but I'm still not totally convinced.
"I Go Wild"- This song was actually really fun when I saw them play it live. Jesse and I got snuck into Foxborough Stadium (and were then thrown out, and then were snuck back in) to see the Stones that same summer, and I remember thinking then that this song didn't sound so terrible when played beside their classic tunes. I still marvel at how Mick Jagger can basically write the same song over and over again and never sound that sick of it. How did he spice this one up? He threw the C-word into it. I know that that isn't such a huge crime in England, but man, could you imagine that guy who wrote the letter to EW about him using the F-word? He probably had a heart attack when he heard this song. But you know what? That's what the kids are into these days. The C-word. They totally dig it.
"Brand New Car"- That orthodontist is kicking himself that he never sent those demo tapes into the US Copyright office.
"Sweethearts Together"- This is one of those songs that was written about a man and a woman, but is really about Mick and Keith. You can even picture them singing together on the same microphone together, working out the harmonies together. Well, really, probably their lawyers each worked out what the harmonies were going to be. Edward G. Perlman, Esq: "We will stipulate that Mr. Richards will sing a perfect fourth above Mr. Jaggers." Hugh L. Pressman, Esq: "So stipulated. Conditioned on Mr. Richards being allowed to sing in unison with Mr. Jagger when the melody returns to the tonic in the chorus." (Pause) Perlman:"I'll take it to my client."
"Suck on the Jugular"- I'm going to just skip over this one. The Stones literally have a closet filled with tapes of Keith Richards guitar-licks with generic titles on them, like "Start Me Up" "Satisfaction" "Suck on the Jugular" and when they record an album, they go to this cubbard and pull a tape out, and Jagger just free associates over the riff. I mean, how else can you account for the guy who wrote "Gimme Shelter" singing "Been keeping cool, been lying low,been dancing smooth, been dancing slow" ? He spent less than seven seconds on that.
"Blinded by Rainbows"-Remember how like, five seconds ago, I was asking how Jagger could keep writing the same song about "I'm a man and you're a woman" over and over again. Well, I take it all back. Because when he tries to branch out, all hell breaks loose. What the crap is this song about? It talks about explosions and limbs being blown off, and talks a lot about Jesus, but man alive, what does it mean to be blinded by rainbows? Has Jagger ever seen a rainbow? They're fainter than hell. I mean, seriously, I've been out places after it's been raining, and I'll see a rainbow, and I'll point it out to someone, and you should watch them squint their eyes to try and see it. Can you get blinded that way, by trying to look at something too hard? I have to admit I'm not really sure. I remember really liking this song when I was 14, and musically, it's pretty good. And the vocal melody is really nice, too. So nowadays when I listen to it, I just pretend that Mick is singing in Italian or Portuguese, or something. Then I can enjoy it fully.
"Baby Break it Down"- There are some songs I listen to I'm convinced the singer is getting paid for each time he sings the title. If this song were one of those deals, and Mick Jagger wasn't already a millionaire, he would be by the time four minutes and seven seconds it takes him to sing this song was over. Dear god. He sings it an average of once every 7.27 seconds. If this were a drinking game you'd have killed yourself by the time the song was over.
"Thru and Thru"- The second Keith song, and I think that it got some play a few years ago on the Sopranos. It's a great song, and it has a great vocal performance. I also like how it takes several minutes of just Keith and guitar before it really gets going, which surprises the hell out of you when the song really starts to get moving. I'm just going to listen to it, if you don't mind.
Oh, wait, I forgot, Keith drops the f-bomb into this song as well. Because he says that he has the f-in blues, and then that he has the awesome blues, and I'm not really sure what that means. But if Keith Richards says it, it must be kind of awesome. Or kind of f***ed. Or both.
"Mean Disposition"- I wonder how groups sequence their albums, because Thru and Thru is as close to a tour de force as latter-era Stones gets, and the decision to not only follow it up with a song as mediocre as "Mean Disposition" but also end the album with it? I have no words. This song has been on every single Stones album in one form or another since Goat's Head Soup. It was even on their weird psychedelic album with the lenticular cover. Mick says 'yeah' at the beginning of the song, and despite what I said earlier about those kind of exclamations, I HATE this one. It's like Mick is making fun of us for still listening to this crap. It sounds so fake and forced, like when you see some lame band at a bar late at night and the singer says yeah when the guitar player does a blues lick but screws it up, and the singer is standing stockstill just nodding his head to the music. 'Yeah.' We know you're not excited, dude. We know you're up past your bed time. Go back to your orthodontics practice. Leave the rocking to the professionals.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Let's say there is some aspect of your physical appearance that you don't like, but that can't be changed (you feel you're too short, you don't like the color of your eyes) and someone offers to change it for you. You can be five inches taller. You can always have those blue eyes you wanted, or have longer,silkier hair. The only catch is that from that moment on, no one will call you by your name anymore. They will still know you, your relationship with them will in no way change, except that for the rest of your life, no one will ever say your name again. They may call you "honey" or "buddy" or "slim" but you will never again be addressed by your Christian name. What do you do?
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Take that, Heath Ledger!
1989 was an important year for me. I of course can remember specific incidents from before then: a day here, an moment or two there. But 1989 was the first time I had a visceral sense of the passing of time. Where I was aware my life existed on a continuum with each day leading from the day before and leading into the next. Some might say this is because I was approaching my tenth birthday and was becoming more aware of time worked. Other might claim that I was beginning to mature and develop my sense of self. But the truth is this: I became cognizant of the passing of time in 1989 solely because I was counting down to the release of the Batman movie.
Nowadays I don't think you can walk six feet without tripping over a superhero/comic based movie, but in 1989 the release of Tim Burton's Batman was unprecedented, especially to a 9 and 5/6 year old boy like myself. I couldn't wait, and in anticipation of the film, I gathered every piece of movie related merchandise I could get my hands on (mainly, since I was so young, other people got it for me, but I was such a willing recipient.)
So I had the Batman action figures, the Batman movie novelization, the Batman poster and sticker book, the Batman cereal. I even had the Batman shaped piggy-bank. But the strangest Batman-related item I owned was Prince's Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. I begged for this, even though BOTH my mother and father asked me several times if I was sure I wanted it, because they were certain I wouldn't enjoy it. How wrong they were!
"The Future"-The album opens with dialogue from Michael Keaton's amazing "Tell all your friends about me" line from the film. And just as the crook he's dangling over the edge of the building whimpers, "What are you?" Prince's funky drum machine kicks in to answer: I'm the funky Batman, retard. This song's only relation to the film is that it quotes Jack Nicholson's "Think about the future" line. So much of the 1989 Batman film boils down to a collection of little catchphrases that I'd heard well before I went to opening night with my dad on June 23, 1989. I marvel that anybody at Warner Brothers thought that Prince, who looks like a Batman villain, should do the soundtrack, but it's one of those decisions that seems so brilliant in its stupidity that whoever came up with it must've been an idiot savant like Rain Man. Which also came out in 1989. It comes full circle.
"Electric Chair"-If I knew anything about electric guitars back in 1989 I'd have been pretty impressed by Prince's playing on this track. But at the time I was probably just waiting for him to drop a Riddler reference into the lyrics. As it stands, this song has nothing to do with Batman at all, except that its chorus says that if a man can be considered guilty for what goes on in his mind then give him the electric chair for all the dirty things he's going to think. This just shows how little Prince understood Batman. The Caped Crusader is against capital punishment, which is why the Joker is able to kill dozens of people every time he escapes. Because Batman won't even put someone in the electric chair for the crimes they actually commit, nevermind those that go on in their minds. My best guess is that Prince wrote this song before he ever heard of the Batman movie, probably as part of his deal with the devil to write two songs every hour in exchange for girls not laughing at how short he is. Seriously, Prince is really, really short,but still gets lots of beautiful women. And he writes a lot of songs. I think the connection is obvious.
"The Arms of Orion"-Sheena Easton? Whatever happened to Vicki Vale? And this song, again to the disappointment of 9 and 5/6 year old Ryan, has nothing to do with Batman whatsoever. And what are the arms of Orion? I'm seriously not up on my astronomy, so I wouldn't even know where to look. Also, how much stargazing do you think they get to do in Gotham City, with that Bat-signal shining all the time? I suppose you have bigger concerns than star-gazing when at any moment you could get impaled on a giant umbrella by the Penguin. This song sounds like it was written for Barbara Streisand instead of for the Dark Knight. Very disappointing. I mean the song is decent, it just doesn't inspire me to go out and strike fear into the hearts of criminals. It does make me want to invest in a Fairlight synthesizer and tympani drums.
Partyman by Prince from the film Batman
"Partyman"- I just heard the Joker! He said something before this song started! That's what I'm talking about. Prince deliberated speeds up his voice in this song, similar to how he did it in the song Kiss, which in 1989 I hadn't heard yet. In 1989 I wasn't so concerned with how Prince was kind of doing lamer versions of better songs he'd already written so much as I was with how he was insisting on calling Joker "Partyman" They do play this song in the movie, when Joker is destroying all the artwork in the museum, which seems like kind of a crazy party, if you ask me. However, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that this is the kind of party Prince has for his birthday.
"Vicki Waiting"- This song has it all. Jack Nicholson voice sample, ringing phone sound effects, name of Batman character in the title. It also has a dirty joke in the first verse about the size of Batman's organ. This is probably the only time in the thousands of Batman stories that someone has accused the Dark Detective of stuffing his codpiece. I think Prince=sex for most people (which a week after the passing of Michael Jackson reminded us that for most people Michael Jackson = sexless freak. Complete opposites) so he adds an inappropriate sexual edge to what is probably the least sexual character to dress up in an all rubber suit ever.
"Trust" This song is also from the movie, where the Joker lures the denizens of Gotham City to his parade so he can give them free money then gas them to death. I'm surprised more politicians haven't attempted this tack. I think even when I was 9 and 5/6 years old I could tell that Prince played all the instruments himself, and I think this track is the most obvious about it. Oh, sweet, a Robert Wuhl vocal sample. I remember feeling like I should watch his show Arliss when it premiered out of some kind of outdated loyalty to this movie. That's how important Batman was to me back then. If you were in the movie, I treated you like royalty. The actor Pat Hingle played Commissioner Gordon and for years afterwards, I would watch any shitty movie that was on UHF Saturday afternoons if I saw his little hangdog face in it.
"Orange Crush"- I love this drink. Oh, wait, the title is "Lemon Crush" which sounds even tastier. This song is one of my favorites on the record, even though it is even further away from the movie than all the other tracks. The liner notes tell you who is "singing" each song, and this one is credited to Vicki Vale for some reason, even though one of the verses actually uses the word "jobba" which, as all my fellow nerds will recognize as the name of the slug gangster from Return of the Jedi. I think my 9 and 5/6 year old self would have killed to have Batman team up with Han Solo to battle Two-Face and Boba Fett. It was never meant to be. And if it happened now, I would probably kill someone to PREVENT it from happening.
"Scandalous"- This song is "sung" by Batman. Not even Bruce Wayne. I think I would really like to see a Batman musical. I know that Jim Steinman, the guy who wrote all of Meatloaf's songs, wrote one ten years ago, and his sturm und drung approach to rock music with bad punning titles is maybe even more inappropriate to Batman than Prince's slow-groove sex music. Example: In this song, Batman tells...someone...that he can't wait to wrap his legs around them. Usually if Batman wraps his legs around you, it is because he is trying to break your spine while his hands are bound behind his back. People he might be saying this to: Killer Croc, Mad Hatter, Bane. I don't think Prince means it the same way, though. Also, and this might be my lack of sexual knowledge here, but isn't it more common for the lady to wrap her legs around the man? But then again, Prince is in to some pretty freaky shit. I mean, Batman is, too, but in a different way. I mean Batman might dress up like a bat and terrorize the criminal element, but he isn't the kind of guy who would wrap his legs around a girl in a romantic gesture. I mean, c'mon.
"Bat Dance" What.the.hell.is.this. When I was a kid, I begged my mom to let me watch MTV when this premiered, as I wasn't typically allowed to watch it. And sweet lord. Check out this link if you thought your life was complete without a bunch of dancing Batmen in it. I know mine wasn't. This song isn't so much a song as a sound collage of random snippets of dialogue from the film against so bad they should be outlawed drum machines and an actually pretty rad guitar solo. And in this way, Prince is just like Batman: both see a world that is falling apart at the seams, and each has found his own way to try and make that world right. Batman strikes out into the night to avenge the death of his parents to try and prevent anyone from suffering like he has. Prince dresses up like the Joker (and he started doing this at least 5 years before the movie came out) and records an average of one album every six hours to avenge the fact that he is only 4 feet 11 inches tall. Which was exactly how tall I was in 1989, when I popped this cassette into my boombox, stared at the giant bat emblem on the tape cover, and got superfreaked in the ear for forty-two minutes. Luckily, I got taller.
This was probably the best day of my life to this point.