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Archive for April, 2012

Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits

Posted by purplemary54 on April 30, 2012

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.

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A Reconsideration of The Allman Brothers

Posted by purplemary54 on April 29, 2012

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.

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“Copperline”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 28, 2012

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.

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They Might Be Giants

Posted by purplemary54 on April 27, 2012

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?

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“Down Under”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 26, 2012

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.

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“Devotion”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 25, 2012

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.

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“Building a Mystery”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 24, 2012

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.

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“Can You Picture That?”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 23, 2012

Today, I am nine again.

That’s how old I was when The Muppet Movie came out, and it is still one of my favorites.  For a kids’ movie, the jokes a pretty sophisticated, but then again, the Muppets weren’t really just for kids.  Sesame Street is for children, and The Muppet Show was designed as wholesome family entertainment.  But like all the best programs for kids, there was an adult sensibility built into it so that their parents would have something to laugh at, too.  The Muppet Movie was the same way, which is why the Muppets still hold up well today.

I also still love the soundtrack.  There are some truly excellent songs,”Rainbow Connection” being the most obvious.  The songs were catchy, clever, and carried  universal meaning.  Of course, they were also co-written by Paul Williams, one of the better songwriters of all time.  “Can You Picture That?” is performed in the movie by the Muppets’ resident rock band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, and it’s about as rocking as anything on the radio in that period.  The message?  Be yourself, believe in yourself; if you can imagine it, you can do it.  It’s pretty simple stuff.  But the presentation is palatable to all audiences, although kids might not get a lot of the references (I know I didn’t).  Listening closely, I realize that the lyrics are pretty disjointed; they seem to be put together largely for the rhymes.  “I never think of money, I think of milk and honey, grinning like a Cheshire cat. . .Can you picture that?”  The mental pictures the song creates are pretty wild.  There’s a bit of spoofing in the song, too.  A lot of rock-pop bands in the 70s sounded a lot like this, and although their lyrics were slightly more coherent, they were no less ridiculous.  There’s a (family friendly) appearance of hedonism, of “jelly belly giggling, dancing and a-wiggling, honey that’s the way I am.”  The message doesn’t even really show up until the bridge:  “Fact is there’s nothing out there you can’t do.  Yeah, even Santa Claus believes in you.”  The Muppets remind us that anyone can follow their dreams, even if their dreams are about an “aurora borealis, shining down in Dallas.”  Just remember to “use it if you need it, don’t forget to feed it.”  All you gotta do is see it.

Or as Animal succinctly put it, “Cas yah bag e yaht?”

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“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 22, 2012

Life goes on. . .

Moving on from any kind of grief is never easy, but it’s always easier with some happy music, a sort of sonic spoonful of sugar.

I love this song because it’s both a logical story and complete nonsense.  The logical part is the love story of Desmond and Molly.  The rest is rather nonsensical, or rather, it slips into nonsense (and a little genderbending) at the end.  Maybe nonsense is too strong.  Maybe whimsy is a better term.  Regardless, there’s nothing but happiness and sunshine in this song.  There’s a longstanding rumor that “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” refers to heroin, but I don’t buy it.  Heroin is not a happy drug, even if it temporarily makes users feel pretty darn good.  And beyond that, what’s with the obsession people have of associating Beatles songs with drugs.  Yeah, the Fab Four were recreational users in the 60s, and two of them ended up being recovering addicts.  But that doesn’t mean every single song any of them wrote contained some covert reference to drug use.  That’s just silly.

So is this song.  The story of the romance is pretty conventional, but the descriptions veer toward the aforementioned whimsy.  What really makes the silly, whimsical, nonsensical, sunshine-y happiness is the music.  It’s pretty much just piano, guitar, bass, and percussion.  But the piano is both jaunty and jarring, played with energy by John Lennon.  The various percussion instruments (I couldn’t even begin to name which ones) are overlaid to create a chaotically cheerful counterpoint to the bass.  It builds a nice atmosphere to the song, busy but friendly like Desmond’s marketplace.  The backing vocals sound to me like children, which just adds to the atmosphere.  It all meshes together and takes the otherwise normal narrative and turns it into a joyous life.  Never mind that a shopkeeper could never afford a “twenty carat golden ring” or that by the end Molly and Desmond have switched roles, as “Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face.”

Of course, there’s the mysterious line at the end, “Well if you want some fun, take Ob-La-Di-La-Da,” which fuels the drug rumors.  But I choose not to read it that way (and since it’s a Paul song, it probably doesn’t read that way).  The title to me is just nonsense words that mean “relax” or “take it easy.”  Life goes on, and it isn’t always good.  But sing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and you’ll feel better, too.

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“A Train Robbery”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 21, 2012

When Levon Helm got his voice back, he sounded pretty much the same except for one thing: he sounded old.  Okay, it makes perfect sense, seeing as how he was old, but it was a little startling, too.  Partly because of The Last Waltz, Levon has always fallen into that category of rockers who are sort of eternally young, forever frozen at the age they were at their peak.  At his peak, Levon was sly and sexy and funny, just old enough to know what he was doing and still young enough to do it (get your minds out of the gutter, I’m talking about his music).

He released his comeback, Dirt Farmer, in 2007.  His voice was still clear but had turned a little craggy with age.  Which made it perfect for a song like “A Train Robbery,” a tale of Jesse James and his gang.  Like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which Robbie wrote specifically for Levon, “A Train Robbery” highlights his southern heritage.  There’s sympathy for the James brothers, but no excuses for their crimes.  It’s a wonderful summation of the troubled and troubling history of the American South.  People during that period understood the James’, Youngers, and Coles (the various sets of brothers and cousins that made up this criminal gang; see The Long Riders for a good representation of them).  They were Civil War vets who were poor and angry, and turned to robbery to make a living.  I don’t know a lot of the history, but I know enough to know that people often helped them escape from law enforcement, because “we all know he was nothin’ but a Missouri farm boy just fightin’ to stay alive.”

It’s a story that is as old as the hills, and Levon’s voice, with the hint of Arkansas shining through, is made for singing it.  I can picture him sitting in a rocking chair on a ramshackle farmhouse porch, surrounded by locals, with a dog at his feet, telling all about the time Jesse James tipped his hat at Levon while he was just a boy (no, that didn’t happen, but it makes a great picture).  The music is simple, the kind of instruments you’d expect people to have sitting around, with harmonies thrown in from all directions.  But it’s like they all make room for Levon’s voice to cry out “We will burn your train to cinders, so throw the money on down.  Open up your damned express car, and jump down to the ground” like he witnessed it happen.

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