Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits

Standard

I was watching Scooby Doo this afternoon, which is what inspired tonight’s entry.  I know all the Scooby Doo cartoons are, frankly, bad.  The animation is sub-par, at best and the stories are predictable (no thanks to those meddling kids).  But Scooby and I are the same age; I have literally been a devoted fan my entire life.  Back in 1995, Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits was released.  It was an alternative rock tribute to the themes from the kids shows that Gen X kids grew up watching, and it made songs of questionable quality from cartoons of questionable quality seem brand new.  And pretty good.

Okay, no one is ever going to say that the theme from Josie and the Pussycats ought to be enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  But the songs had pretty good hooks to begin with, they automatically come along with positive associations, and the producers got some high-quality musicians to play.  Matthew Sweet, Liz Phair, The Ramones for crying out loud.  That line-up had to produce something worth listening to.

There were a lot of surprises on this disc.  The biggest one was probably the emotional depth and flirtatiousness these musicians brought out of the music.  Sponge’s rendition of “Go Speed Racer Go” creates far more drama than the original Japanimation show ever could have dreamed of.  “Sugar Sugar” by Mary Lou Lord and Semisonic absolutely drips with sex, primarily because of Lord’s fantastic singing.  Most of the songs had to be extended somehow, what with the originals being about a minute long.  But this just gives the musicians a chance to show off their skills with (reasonably short) solos.  I even developed an affection for the themes to shows I barely remember, like “Goolie Get-Together”; Groovie Goolies was never on my must-see TV list, but The Toadies make it sound like a great party (I’ll have to track down a couple of episodes and see if they don’t make my brain hurt too much).

I don’t think this is in print anymore; it was trendy, but not exactly a blockbuster.  Tribute albums were really hot in the 90s, and I know Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits was riding both that wave and the wave of nostalgia people my age were feeling for their childhoods (and had the disposable income to spend renewing their memories).  I’m glad they did.  Whenever I listen to these songs, I feel like a kid again.  And growing up is overrated, anyway.

A Reconsideration of The Allman Brothers

Standard

I hate jam bands.  Instrumental breaks and solos longer than about a minute grate on me like nails on a chalkboard.  I’ve never been stoned (except for a couple of contact highs), so I don’t appreciate it from that perspective.  I find long jams kind of aimless and oddly pompous (but that might be Ray Manzarek’s fault).  I occasionally make an exception for a live Grateful Dead song here and there, but for the most part I want my songs to get to the point.  They don’t have to be short and sweet, but I don’t like a lot of filler.

I’ve always considered The Allman Brothers Band to be a jam band that played southern blues & rock.  The out-of-context tracks from Live at the Fillmore East on the radio always seemed to come on at exactly the wrong moment, like when I needed to hear some boppy sing-along to cheer me up.  I knew instinctively that Duane Allman was an out of this world guitarist (he was probably from Mars, just like Jimi Hendrix); he was, after all, responsible for the opening riff from “Layla.”  And there were always a couple of songs I liked (“Melissa” is a particular favorite).  But for the most part, I dismissed The Allman Brothers Band to that place in my brain for groups I know are probably good, but I simply don’t have the time for.

My newest Rolling Stone comes complete with an excerpt from Gregg Allman’s autobiography, which I read the other day because Gregg has had one hell of a life.  I expected to be entertained, but I didn’t expect to rediscover The Allman’s.  What I’d forgotten in my dismissal was how revolutionary they were for the time.  Sure, songs were lasting a half an hour at concerts, but it was all psychedelia.  This was hardcore blues and rock, led by the twin guitar assault of Duane and Dickey Betts.  There were two drummers (no one does that. . . one crazy guy at the back of the stage is usually enough).  And Gregg, with his ragged voice and swirling organ.  They weren’t building elaborate characters or writing rock operas.  They just came out and played, which was the one thing they loved more than anything else (even the drugs and booze they were all so strung out on).

So as I write this, I’m downloading the deluxe version of Live at the Fillmore East.  I think it’s time I gave it the listening it probably deserves since it’s considered one of the best live albums of all time.  We’ll see.  I know at the very least I’ll get to listen to a great guitar player at his peak.

“Copperline”

Standard

James Taylor is misunderstood by a lot of rock fans.  He’s thought of as middle-aged Muzak, and at his worst, that is exactly what he’s guilty of.  But at his best, he writes and performs gently beautiful and sublime slices of life.  Even though he’s East Coast genteel, he’s most often associated with the sound of California soft rock.  There’s nothing groundbreaking about anything he does–except maybe for the fact that he’s kind of the guy who invented the sound.  He’s been playing this stuff since the late 60s, when he was signed to Apple Records, and he still does it better than anyone else.

I saw him in concert once, before I was really familiar with his work.  I knew “Sweet Baby James,” “Her Town, Too,” and the album he was supporting, Never Die Young.  What I didn’t know was how funny he was; his stage banter is as charming and self-deprecating as much of his best music.  Many years later, I know more about his music and his role in the creation of a whole musical style.  I’ve never needed more than a couple of greatest hits albums, but those songs really are great hits.

I think of “Copperline” as one of his more recent tunes, but it’s twenty years old now.  Sober, married to someone besides Carly Simon (a terrific songwriter in her own right), middle-aged, Taylor had turned a new leaf in his songs.  The style was pretty much the same–his acoustic guitar supported by whatever backing group he felt like, gentle voice with the sound of a smile in it–but the subject matter was turning more toward nostalgia.  The restlessness and passion of youth had given way to introspection.  “Copperline” is about a man remembering the place he grew up, a town “down on Copperline.”  It is idyllic in the song, full of multigenerational families where the kids “slip away past suppertime, wood smoke and moonshine down on Copperline.”  His memories are dream-like, the “one time I saw my daddy dance, watched him moving like a man in a trance” and “the first kiss ever I took, like a page from a romance book.  The sky opened and the earth shook down on Copperline.”  He knows his memories are idealized, but it doesn’t matter.  He knows that time has moved on and changed his hometown, but that doesn’t matter either: “I tried to go back as if I could, all spec house and plywood.  Tore up and tore up good, down on Copperline.  It doesn’t come as a surprise to me, it doesn’t touch my memory.  Man, I’m lifting up and rising free, down over Copperline.”  The only thing that matters is Copperline and the picture of it he hold in his heart.  Memories might not be accurate, reality almost always pales in comparison, and nothing ever stays the same.  But there is joy in remembering, enough to shelter your soul when the world wears you thin.  Everyone has a place in their hearts like Copperline.

They Might Be Giants

Standard

Maybe I’ve still got football on the brain, but it’s been a little difficult to settle tonight.  So when They Might Be Giants popped up, I latched on.  Because if you’re going to latch onto something when your brain is feeling kind of off-kilter, TMBG is the perfect place to be.

TMBG are odd.  There’s really no other way to put it.  The duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell have created some of the most kooky, funny, and surreal music ever.  They have a bit of a penchant for sound effects, but that’s not what makes them so odd.  (So does Wilco, but they’re not weird either.  Well, not too weird.)  Their songs have strange stream-of-consciousness, dada-like lyrics, but that’s not really what makes them weird, either; it certainly helps, but it’s not the strangest thing about these guys.  No, what makes them really strange is the fact that they make perfect sense.

Come to think of it, that might have a lot more to say about me than it does TMBG.

In all seriousness, the lyrics are. . . different (but very intelligent), and the sound effects have a tendency to throw songs off-balance (but in a good way).  This is another case of using humor to expose some universal truths.  Thematically, they cover everything from common heartbreak to adolescent angst to bigotry and political corruption.  Their songs tend to be very short, but not much is needed to get the amusing point across.

I first discovered TMBG while watching MTV.  The video for “Don’t Let’s Start” came on, and I was hooked.  They were so unlike anything else at the time that me and my suburban, just post-adolescent angst never really stood a chance.

It was wonderful.  When I got a hold of their first album, it was more of the same.  So were the second and third albums (Lincoln and Flood, respectively).  When they first started out, they had a service called Dial-a-Song, which featured a New York number you could call and reach an answering machine with a new song on it every day.  I never had the wherewithal to risk my parents’ questioning me about making long-distance calls, or I would’ve been dialing up as often as possible.  One of my favorites by them is “Shoehorn with Teeth.”  The title alone should tell you what kind of crazy you’re dealing with.  It’s too short to have any sort of narrative, but the chorus sets the mood: “He wants a shoehorn, the kind with teeth.  People should get beat up for stating their beliefs.  He wants a shoehorn, the kind with teeth, cause he knows there’s no such thing.”  And for fans of Flood, ThinkGeek is selling a “Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch” http://www.thinkgeek.com/gadgets/lights/e791/?pfm=Search&t=blue%20canary%20night%20light for only $12.99 (plus shipping & handling).

I’m afraid that TMBG kind of dropped off my radar after Flood.  I know they’ve made a lot more music; in the last few years they’ve made what is by all accounts charming and witty children’s music.  I need to rediscover them, but they set the bar so high with their first three albums, I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed.

Then again, how disappointing could it be to smile?

“Down Under”

Standard

I apologize for the paucity of tonight’s post, but my brain is a little fried from watching the 1st round of the NFL draft (yeah, I’m a liberal, feminist, pacifist who likes football; you got a problem with that?).

Lost in the news over Dick Clark and Levon Helm’s deaths was the fact that Greg Ham from Men at Work died from unknown causes at 58 (geez, at least Clark and Helm got to get old).  You say you don’t know who Greg Ham was?  Well, if you’ve listened to either of Men at Work’s biggest US hits, then you’ve heard him.  He played the sax solo on “Who Can It Be Now?” and the flute solo on “Down Under.”

Yeah, flute solo.  Now I was never a huge Men at Work fan, but I figure any group with enough chutzpah to have a flutist in the group must be okay.  And I always really liked “Down Under.”  I looked up the video because I don’t think I’ve seen it since I was a teenager, and it’s even sillier than I imagined.  So silly that I half expected Graham Chapman to step out and stop the proceedings for being too silly.  It’s great fun, and bless their hearts for making such wonderful fools of themselves.

“Devotion”

Standard

I’ve written about the tricky emotions involved with love songs before, and how love is rarely the focus in a love song (I’d link back to it, but I can’t remember which post it was).  Maybe that’s because love can be so encompassing that it colors and represents everything else in your life.  While I am not currently in (or looking for) a romantic relationship, I understand how your world can revolve around that connection.  When I was much younger, I thought being in a relationship meant giving up part of your identity to someone else, or that you even defined yourself by your relationship.  As I’ve matured, I know that it’s more about adding to who you are and finding ways to mold the parts of your lives together.  The best love is love that allows both partners to be individuals with their own lives while creating a family unit and a life together.  You don’t give up your identity, but you join that identity with another, yin-yang style.  It’s a beautiful thing.

One of the most beautiful expressions of this is the Indigo Girls’ song “Devotion.”  It’s such a sad sounding song, but it seems sort of jubilant.  It’s a quiet declaration–acoustic guitar, brushed drums, an accordion–of devotion to another person, a promise to love even through doubt and difficulty.  The woman is traveling through troubling times, “I spend my time being broken-hearted and grieving bound, I haven’t much need to look forward.”  The heart of her strife seems to be family (perhaps they’re unhappy with her choice of partner).  But she “just let one day move into two, and I’m losing everything except for you.  I would sing you a song of devotion” because her partner is the only thing left that matters.  She’s had “enough temporary acquisition, building fences for no gain.”  She’s tired of compromising herself without any benefit.  She’s going to love her girlfriend in spite of everyone else.  Because when you dig just a little, this song is as much about coming out as it is about love and devotion between two people.  “I gave it up all for a love that won’t be defined.”  It’s the freedom of refusing a label, of being yourself, and being able to be yourself out loud with the person you love.

It’s an exquisite song.  It seems so delicate and shows its strength through devotion to someone else.  The smile in Amy Ray’s voice during the fade out is the most telling moment, the moment of letting go of everything that’s ever held her back for the one thing that pushes her forward.  “I gave it up, all for your love, yeah, that’s what I should do.”

That’s what love should always do.

“Building a Mystery”

Standard

If you listen to music on a computer, or iPod, or really just about any listening device made in the last decade or so, then you know the seductive wonder of the shuffle or random setting.  Apple even made it more interesting a few years ago with the introduction of Genius, a setting that chooses songs according to what you’ve been listening to or according to genre or mood or just about any other criteria (something I’m pretty sure my iPod did long before Genius ever came along).  It’s so much fun to see what the machine comes up with.  If you aren’t in the mood for the song, you just skip to the next one.

Of course, you’ve also probably figured out that there are a few songs you never, ever skip when they come on, for whatever reason.  I’ve started keeping track of these with a playlist on the computer; it’s surprisingly long.  Although I know that these songs really don’t come up all that often–most of them are in single digits for listens.  But there’s a couple of double digits, and this is one of them.  According to my computer, I’ve listened to “Building a Mystery” nineteen times (and about to be twenty).  That might not seem like too many, except that I’ve got nearly 5,000 tracks to choose from.  Why would I listen to one Sarah McLachlan song that much?

I don’t really have an answer.  I mean, obviously I think it’s a really good song.  The whole album, Surfacing, is pretty terrific.  But it was, frankly, overplayed on the radio when it was popular.  Not Chris Isaak “Wicked Game” overplayed, but it got pretty ubiquitous for a while there.  The lyrics, while pleasingly cryptic, aren’t really special (although she does drop the f-bomb, which works in the context).  The production and playing are okay, but, again, nothing special.  I do really love the minor chord it starts out on (minor chords rock).  And I found out one afternoon at a friend’s house that it’s a great song to swing along to (a child’s swing, get your mind out of the gutter).  But there’s nothing that makes it stand out.

Except for maybe the mood.  The opening sets it beautifully, descending into the dreaminess of the rest of the music nicely.  “You come out at night” adds to the, well, mysterious mood.  It’s hard to tell what emotions are being conveyed.  McLachlan’s lilting voice drifts from smirking to angry to sad to loving and back again, over and over.  Like a swing.  There’s no telling what’s going on between the characters in this song, whether it’s something supernatural happening or just a relationship cycling through ups and downs.  Whatever it is, it seems chaotic, disturbed: “You woke up screaming aloud, a prayer from your secret god.  You feed off our fears, and hold back your tears.  Give us a tantrum and a know-it-all grin, just when we need one when the evening’s thin.”  This is not a very stable person, “a beautiful, fucked up man.”  What’s happening?  I’m not sure it matters.  It’s about the mystery, not the solution.

That might be what I like most about this song, that I can’t quite pin it down, and, more importantly, that I don’t really want to.  I keep coming back because of the mystery that Sarah McLachlan builds so perfectly.