Archive for the ‘music’ Category

This week’s “Letter of the Week” award goes to Loyal Reader Accused of Lurking, commenting on last week’s very exciting post, “The roads less traveled.”

(You did know there’s a “Letter of the Week” competition, didn’t you? It’s a fierce ideological food fight featuring plenty of that groupie-on-groupie violence you readers love. Past winners thought they were going to receive college scholarships, Ducati touring bikes, a fistful of dollars and a handful of God particles, but come on, it’s the thought that counts.)

Accused of Lurking writes:

Had I known that you can’t help but listen to CDs that enter your home, I would have sent you dozens of oddities over the years: one-hit wonders that peaked no higher than 35 in the Top 40, mournful ballads by heavy metal bands, Earth Wind & Fire plays Pachelbel’s Canon, the Deliverance soundtrack, the Grease soundtrack, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings Fiddler on the Roof, etc.

It will come as no great shock that I disagree with your assessment of Tunnel of Love. I return to that album on a regular basis. It’s dark. Relationships fail much more often than they succeed. There is plenty of infidelity, mourning, doubt, and just plain agony. But the music and the lyrics carry an incredible power. My favorite songs are “Tougher Than The Rest,” “Two Faces,” “Brilliant Disguise,” and “One Step Up.”

Out of curiosity, I googled “Bruce Springsteen’s best albums.” Tunnel of Love’s ranking within the Springsteen oeuvre is mostly in the #7 to #9 range with a couple of #5s and a #1. Based on my own listening patterns, I put it at #6.

I do, however, agree that The Joshua Tree is a better album than Tunnel of Love.

Thank you as always, Lurk, for jump-starting my brain and making me reexamine my assumptions. So first, here’s a handy flow chart explaining what happens to CDs after they enter my home:

CDs that enter my home always get a listen: True.
All CDs enter my home: False.

Second, here’s what I think of you trying to scare me with all the crud you mentioned: documentation from an estate sale I went to last July.

Arthur Ferrante and Louis Teicher, The Twin Piano Magic of Ferrante & Teicher (1964); Dominic Caruso, World’s Greatest Accordion Hits (1968); 101 Strings, Million Seller Hit Songs of the 50’s (1964). Not shown: Various artists, Percussion for Playboys (1959) and Ann Corio, Sonny Lester & His Orchestra, How to Strip for Your Husband (1963). This was the worst record collection in the Western Hemisphere. (NONE OF IT came home with me.)

Sending me the Grease soundtrack or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Fiddler on the Roof would not make me feel all sunny and wild inside, but at least I know it’s not the worst musical thing that could happen to me.

I would like to hear Earth Wind & Fire play Pachelbel’s Canon.

Bruce Springsteen revisited

I’m not just a simple backwoods music critic, you know. Some people say I’m a handsome Dan; others, a good-lookin’ Joe. Well, it ain’t no secret. I’ve been around a time or two. I admit I walk funny – one step up and two steps back – but that’s because I left my wallet back home in my workin’ pants. I don’t know what I’m wearing now. Jeggings, I guess. Anyway, I went to a gypsy and she swore that a) my future was right, and b) I’m tougher than the rest.

(I actually am tougher than the rest. I survived concerts by The Melvins, The Roches, the undiscovered Nirvana, the underdone David Cassidy, The Rolling Stones being four hours late to a concert in Boston when I was in high school, too many New Year’s Eve bands that forgot the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne,” and Cher.)

Why do I discount Tunnel of Love? Until Tunnel of Love, Springsteen was writing fiction and occasionally journalism. On this album he dives into memoir. He wrote “Brilliant Disguise” when he was 37. It’s the most painful, personal song he’d written until that time. When I look in your eyes, he asks his wife, who do I see? Who do you see in mine? The words are devastating. Mick Jagger or Keith Richards hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time would never have produced “Brilliant Disguise.”

But to my ears, the music doesn’t fit. It’s not devastating; it’s exuberant. It reminds me of Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life.” The lyrics on this disc stick (they’re all over this post), but for me, for intangible reasons, most of the music doesn’t.

Look at this new thing I’ve found

When I read what you’d discovered about fans ranking the Springsteen oeuvre, I immediately made my own list. I figured Tunnel of Love would be way down there. Wrong!

  1. Born to Run
  2. Darkness on the Edge of Town
  3. Nebraska
  4. Born in the USA
  5. The River
  6. TUNNEL OF LOVE

I can’t rank Springsteen’s first two albums ahead of Tunnel of Love because they were, at best, promising. I can’t rank anything from the ’90s ahead of Tunnel of Love because that’s his lost decade. I can’t rank any of his work here in the 21st century, even The Rising, ahead of Tunnel of Love because it’s been years since Springsteen sounded like Springsteen. Despite my best efforts to stop it, Tunnel of Love almost cracks my personal Top 5.

Could it be, Lurk, that you are one face and I am the other, and neither of us can ever make that other man go away? We’re the same sad story, and that’s a fact.

About that pound of caviar you got sitting home on ice: Let’s spread it on some bagels.

John Updike once wrote an essay about unread books and their migration route inside his house. They began with great expectations on the table by the front door, levitated to the top of the television, summited a bookcase, fluttered into the kitchen, made a break up the stairs, loitered on a bedside table, avalanched onto the floor, and ended up compressed like a seam of coal in an unused back room, “the Afterworld of unread books.”

You might assume that books go unread but music is always listened to, but I’ve met record collectors who hated music. And then there’s that Shins album you downloaded in 2007 and forgot about. You’re part of the problem. Why are you being so mean?

In our house, a book might wait 20 years for me to read it, but music always gets a listen. Some CDs, however, spend the bulk of their time in the bullpen (a drawer beneath our TV), chewing sunflower seeds, tapping their gloves, and waiting for a call from the manager. I’m not sure how they got there. Here are three examples.

Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love
1987

I was married in 1987, so everything about that year sort of glows, even the Twins winning the World Series and The Cult’s Electric.

But not this record.

Springsteen followed the breakthroughs of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town with Nebraska, an album about people on the wrong side of the law. He followed the breakthrough of Born in the USA with Tunnel of Love, an album about people on the wrong side of love. Nebraska didn’t sell. Tunnel of Love did. As Danny Glover’s character reminded the audience repeatedly in Silverado, “That ain’t right.”

Tunnel of Love might’ve been Bruce’s audition for the Woody Guthrie tribute album, Folkways. Maybe he was thinking ahead to The Ghost of Tom Joad. Maybe he was thinking back to that time he crossed the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone. Whatever he was this thinking, this album is too rooted to rock.

Chief among the transgressions, for me, is the ballad of Bill Horton, a cautious man of the road, who for the right woman throws caution to the winds and finds happiness. It’s the one song on this platter where everything turns out well, but from the music and the vocal delivery I’d guess Springsteen was trying to transform himself into Gordon Lightfoot and not succeeding. Too bad – the writing is superb. Springsteen knocks out entire short stories in a couple dozen words:

On his right hand Billy tattooed the word ‘love’ and on his left hand was the word ‘fear’/and in which hand he held his fate was never clear.

Tunnel of Love is not redeemed but it is interesting for two songs, which don’t fit on this or any other Springsteen record.

The title track has the excessive use of prepositions (“…if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love”) and the video with the sword-swallower, the snake-seducer, and the self-conscious Springsteen. It’s also the one song in Springsteen’s catalog where he goes head-to-head with the New Wave of the ’80s – and wins. He unleashes the synthesizers and an emo sad-face guitar solo and even curbs his use of “yer” for “you” and “sir” for “bro.” It’s better than “Tunnel of Love” by Dire Straits or “Tunnel of Love” by Doris Day, plus it features the wordless wailing of the woman who became his second wife.

On “Valentine’s Day,” the narrator is driving a big lazy car, which is fun, but he has one hand on the wheel and the other over his heart, which is unsafe, and he’s dreaming of the timberwolves in the pine forests, which hasn’t happened since Daniel Boone crossed the Cumberland Gap. The song ends with a dream that’s so scary, the narrator’s eyes roll back in his head, just like me whenever I have to work through lunch.

The words don’t speak to me, but the music is beautiful. The synthesizers are back, and they carry us safely down Springsteen’s cold river bottom. The song practically shimmers. And Bruce Springsteen is not a shimmery guy.

Rolling Stone’s critics picked Tunnel of Love as their top record of 1987. Of fucking course. The readers voted for U2’s The Joshua Tree.

Annie Lennox, Medusa
1995

In 1995, I was one of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and make more money than we were making in journalism. I ended up on the teeming shore of software, where I had a boss who liked to say that his first million disappeared up his nose.

He said this fondly, chuckling over his Boofin’ Brett Kavanaugh younger self, although the period he was referring to had only ended a couple of years before. His recreational-drug workouts might have caused his verbal dyslexia. One example was the line he deployed to rally the troops when we faced an impossible deadline: “We’re going to turn chicken salad into chicken shit!”

However, it’s because of this gentleman that I discovered Medusa. It was in heavy rotation on the office sound system (“office” being the supply closet we were vacuum-packed into).

Medusa is easy to write about, because there’s no there there. It exists solely to be admired. Annie Lennox and her team (17 musicians and programmers, whom she probably did not confine to a closet) covered 10 of her favorite songs, creating the musical equivalent of the Star Trek creature who was so beautiful that to look at it would drive you mad or maybe the ethereal Star Trek weirdos who lived in the sky city and wore natural cotton bed sheets.

While listening to Medusa, you’ll observe that your pulse never changes, not even when she’s covering Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River” or The Clash’s “Train in Vain,” but it’s all so gorgeous that you won’t care. Medusa is the triumph of form over content. It shimmers. Mike, Rik, Vyvyan, and Neil would throw a petrol bomb at it.

I don’t play this album often, but when I hear Annie Lennox’s voice I always know it’s a wonderful world.

Various artists, Whip It
2009

Nothing happened to me in 2009. I was working in insurance. That’s the whole point of insurance – to say that nothing happened.

Whip It is a film about teenagers and very young adults who learn about life and love by fighting on roller skates. Director Drew Barrymore’s soundtrack has more female voices than anything short of a Supremes biopic, and although nothing on Whip It will punch you in the head or chase your dog up a tree, it’s an eclectic lineup for sure. My favorites are “Dead Sound” by boy-girl Danish duo The Raveonettes, the instrumental “Black Gloves” by Belgian boy band Goose, and “Crown of Age” by girl-girl-boy New York-to-Los Angeles trio The Ettes.

“Never My Love” was a hit for The Association in 1967. Where did they dig up that old fossil? It’s covered by Har Mar Superstar. The cover is restrained, even though Har Mar (real name Sean Tillman) is an unrestrained chubby white guy with a Michael Jackson soul inside a relaxed-fit body. He doesn’t do much with “Never My Love.” If only Drew had made him record it while roller-skating.

Charlie Brown said that a hot dog never tastes the same without a ballgame in front of it; most of these songs only work if you’re watching the movie. That’s why Whip It spends most of the year chilling with Tunnel of Love, Medusa, and their friends, packed tightly and trying not to decompose into coal. At least they go for the occasional spin.

People give me things. Gift certificates, books, meals, ceramic corgi figures, opinions. On my 50th birthday, whooping cough. Recently, two people gave me a stack of CDs. Because one of these two people is my boss, I will refer to them by the code names I just invented: Thing 1 and Thing 2.

Thing 1 left the CDs on my desk. There in one neat pile I saw Thing 2’s testosterone-soaked, gasoline-fumed, 1990s adolescence: Stone Temple Pilots, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., the Dropkick Murphys, and…Simon & Garfunkel?

The Best of Simon & Garfunkel
1999

This disc was in excellent condition, even though I had to rescue it from a plastic baggie, which I assume the Thing family brought home from a shopping expedition to Budlandia.

You could argue about the selection of songs in this lineup. What, no “Bleecker Street”? But the 20 songs that are here will impress you yet again with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s harmonies, which lock together like Legos, with Simon’s exact enunciation, right down to the final t and d of every word, and with the duo’s blending of folk and rock like peanut butter and chocolate.

On “The Sound of Silence,” Simon predicts Donald Trump (“And the people bowed and prayed/to the neon god they’d made”), while on “The Dangling Conversation” he writes a New Yorker story in 160 words that’s every bit as soul-killing as a fully inflated New Yorker story:

And you read your Emily Dickinson
And I my Robert Frost
And we note our place with book markers
That measure what we’ve lost

“Homeward Bound” is a dues song. Most bands that sing about paying dues should be paying fines instead, but this one is perfect. Unlike other dues songs, “Homeward Bound” has a happy ending, because the viewpoint character is – well, it’s right there in the title.

And waiting in the middle of this platter we have “The Boxer,” one of the signature songs of the ’60s, with that chilling moment when we stand in the clearing with the fighter by his trade. The critic Tim Appelo once wrote that Paul Simon was our only songwriter literate enough to get writer’s block. I’d add Joni Mitchell. In fact, given the self-revelations and the experiments that have marked Simon’s solo career, I’d call him the male Joni Mitchell.

It’s not every album where you can sing along with the first 10 songs.

Radiohead, Pablo Honey
1993

The sum total of Radiohead’s musical ideas on their debut album would fit inside the walk-in closet of a Barbie dollhouse. I heard almost every note on this disc in the 1980s, on records by The Stone Roses, Dream Syndicate, and U2. Radiohead on Pablo Honey are like an alt-Monkees who turn on, tune in, drop out, and play sorta loud.

But attention must be paid. Track 2 is “Creep,” the male emo anthem of the ’90s and the call-and-response to Simon & Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her.”

Emily walks on frosted fields of juniper and lamplight. The woman stalked by the Creep floats like a feather in a beautiful world. She’s so fuckin’ special! Emily has honey hair (yum), and when you wake up beside her she’ll let you play with it. Unfortunately, our poor emo boy is not waking up beside his chick anytime soon:

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.

I’m sick of “Creep,” but when it comes on even I wait for the guitar that sounds like my neighbor trying to start his lawnmower with a pry bar. Radiohead improved as the decade went along, and I started to like them. I wouldn’t buy this thing, but lots of people did. Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes.

Stone Temple Pilots, No. 4
1999

Hello darkness my old friend. This shit is so heavy, it should be lead-lined and under glass at the Centers for Disease Control. That cover art is so bitchin’ – a white star on a black background – that David Bowie reversed it for his final album – a black star on a white background. These boys are so lawless, they began this set with a riff they swiped from Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” STP just doesn’t give a darn what anybody thinks.

Is it my job to disillusion you? Of course it is. Listen up, Hobbits: Stone Temple Pilots were four stuntmen hired by Soundgarden to play Soundgarden’s leftovers. It worked! In the ’90s, STP was more popular than multiple sex partners. If there’s an action-adventure movie of the past 20 years that’s aimed at teenage boys and that doesn’t have STP on the soundtrack, I don’t know it.

No. 4 also includes “Sour Girl,” with its heartbreaking refrain, “She was a happy girl the day that she left me,” which is probably why Thing 2 – who was a moody 15-year-old back then – bought this album. I’ve bought albums just to get one song, and though I wouldn’t buy No. 4 just for “Sour Girl,” I can imagine myself standing in an aisle at Music Millennium with the gift certificate somebody gave me in one hand and No. 4 in the other and considering it.

Note: STP can also play ballads that will make you cry over the smallness of humanity in the vastness of space and the infinity of time: “I Got You,” which is not a remake of the Sonny & Cher hit but a love song (to heroin). Simon & Garfunkel never got beyond parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.

Dinosaur Jr., Ear Bleeding Country: The Best of Dinosaur Jr.
2001

Former punks who became underground alt legends and big guitar gods. Major street cred having this in your collection, Thing 2, and a strategic move to buy the best-of and get it over with. Dinosaur Jr. fought the big hair and shoulder pads of ’80s music and left us a catalog that rarely gets played on Classic Radio or college radio because, frankly, Depeche Mode are better.

Dino’s singer/songwriter, J. Mascis, plays some Neil-Young-and-Crazy-Horse guitar but sings like a too-tired-to-live Art Alexakis from Everclear or Dave Lowery from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. He can also invoke Bruce Springsteen, but I wish he wouldn’t.

Mascis’ overriding theme in most of his songs is his own incompetence, as in “Not You Again”:

If I say a word just stop me
Cause I really should shut up
Guess I’ll split now
Just forget you met me
Sorry I fucked it all up again

You think Simon & Garfunkel celebrated their own incompetence? If a girl wanted to leave them, they didn’t slink away, they refused to lose:

Oh, baby, baby
You must be out of your mind.
Do you know what you’re kicking away-yay?
We’ve got a groovy thing goin’, baby,
We’ve got a groovy thing.

Ear Bleeding Country doesn’t compare well with other underground acts of my acquaintance, such as Big Star from the ’70s or The Velvet Underground from the ’60s. But it sounds passable when you play it loud. Also, Dinosaur Jr.’s drummer, Murph, came from a band with a name that belongs in the Top 10 band names since the beginning of forever: All White Jury. That’s not nothing.

Sonic Youth, Murray Street
2002

The perfect record for a college kid like Thing 2 discovering his intellectual side. Better this than Jean-Paul Sartre. Been there.

Sonic Youth (there are only two heights in this band, tall and short) got their start making noises. Over time they made noises inside songs that approximated Western ideas of songcraft. They were a cult but they had hits, such as “Teenage Riot,” which I like though I wish it were a minute shorter because it’s actually kind of monotonous and anyway it’s nowhere near as good as The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks.”

Murray Street has songs, song experiments, and the kind of noise that makes me wonder if something is wrong with my car. Actually, I was listening to this disc while driving and at one point I wondered if something was wrong with my car.

I welcome music that elbows you in the ribs and checks you behind the goal. I love Gang of Four. But G4 also knew how to write a song that I recognize as a song. I’m glad that bands exist who are willing to live on an edge, especially an edge I didn’t know existed. Sonic Youth never produced even one song as strong as “I Love a Man in a Uniform” or “Love Like Anthrax,” but I’ll bet they’re the perfect band to keep you company if you’re ever awake Wednesday morning, 3 a.m.

The Dropkick Murphys, Live on St. Patrick’s Day
2002

I hesitate to disparage Live on St. Patrick’s Day, because between songs a guy got up on stage and proposed to his girl (she said yes), plus the grandparents of one of the musicians were in the balcony one night and in their honor the band played “Amazing Grace.”

The Monkees were too busy singing to put anybody down, but I’m not.

Special D once summed up AD/DC by saying “they’re really annoying if you’re not drunk.” The Dropkick Murphys would transform her into Mr. Furious. Even I struggled to survive this set, the musical equivalent of one of those day-long corporate off-sites on process and collaboration with names like “Day of Engagement” (which are always followed by “Night of Extreme Drinking”).

The Dropkick Murphys are for people who love First Gen punk (The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones) exactly as it was played in 1979, but who also want some Irish flavor, shoutouts to the Red Sox and the Bruins, and a bagpiper, if he’s not too talented. Thus almost every Dropkick Murphys song sounds like an Irish Sex Pistols covering “My Way,” which was just fine with the 2 million people who today claim to have filled the Avalon Ballroom in Boston for the 2002 St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

Of the 173 songs and audience-participation bits on this record, I liked “Wild Rover.” “Amazing Grace” is funny. Their cover of Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” might’ve been good if they hadn’t assigned the singing to the one guy in the band who gargles with stove bolts.

They saved the real gem for the end, which makes it easy to find if you can only tolerate about three minutes of this crud: their reinvention of The Kingston Trio’s public-transportation classic, “Skinhead on the MTA.” Gone is the hapless Charlie, short 5 cents and wailing over his fate:

Skinhead goes down to the Kendall Square Station
and he changes for Jamaica Plain,
The conductor says, ‘Skinhead, I need a nickel,’
Skinhead punches him in the brain.

And just like that, we’re right back with the folk music! What Simon & Garfunkel couldn’t do with this kind of material.

That’s it for my plunge into the formative years of Thing 2, a man I met once for about an eye blink. He’s obviously a good sport, probably more advanced that I was at the same age (there’s nothing here to rival Three Dog Night), and I’m curious to learn what he listens to today. Please, not Coldplay.

Who I want in my book group: Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

Book I want to read: Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon.

Who I want on my side in a bar fight: The Dropkick Murphys. They palmed handfuls of darts 10 minutes before anyone knew there was going to be a bar fight.

Who I want as neighbors: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. They don’t speak to each other, so I couldn’t invite them both to my birthday party unless I hired the Dropkick Murphys to provide security.

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How many times have you danced to “Respect”? How many times have you thrilled to hear Aretha say “I tell you girls,” even if you aren’t a girl? And how many times have you gone to YouTube to watch not The Blues Brothers but that scene in the café where Aretha performs “Think”?

(Also the scene in Bob’s Country Bunker.)

How did you answer these questions, and why should I care? Aretha Franklin is dead. I expected the planet to stop spinning.

What do I say about a woman who’s been singing the story of the human race since I was old enough to know what singing was?

All I can do is what I always do: Listen.

In Aretha’s honor, today I tried out two surveys of her career.

The Queen in Waiting: The Columbia Years 1960-1965
2002

Knew You Were Waiting: The Best of Aretha Franklin 1980-1998
2012

I recommend both. The Queen in Waiting shows how Columbia Records and her manager (her first husband) couldn’t figure out what to do with her. Even so, at times she blasts off this platter: “Hands Off,” “Today I Sing the Blues,” “Walk on By” (1,000 times better than the Isaac Hayes version), and “Evil Gal Blues.”

Knew You Were Waiting has several problems, Elton John and Michael MacDonald among them, but this disc also has “Get It Right,” “Freeway of Love,” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” I don’t even mind puny Michael Bolton in their title-song duet. Plus the record ends with “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” Aretha’s collaboration with Lauryn Hill, the farthest she ever got with hip-hop (a lot farther than she got with disco).

You cannot think about Aretha Franklin without thinking about God, getting it on, and the greatest parties you’ve ever hosted, guested, or crashed. Triple crown. Rest in peace.

 

Our Spotlight Team’s examination of the lounge side of the moon concludes with an Englishman who is usually categorized as “blue-eyed soul” (like The Righteous Brothers) but who is actually a much more complicated man (like Shaft).

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Rock Swings: On the Wild Side of Swing released in 2006

Paul Young had several easy-listening hits in the U.K. in the 1980s and one in the U.S., “Every Time You Go Away,” a Hall & Oates cover, in 1985. Looking back, I can hear his expertise as an interpreter of pop and R&B, but in those years I paid no attention to him. I was probably too busy with Duran Duran.

Young has overcome health crises that at times robbed him of his voice. He’s been committed to his music for more than 40 years. (He also built a back-up career as a celebrity chef.) He seems to be the kind of person who lives to try something new, as in 2006 when he followed Paul Anka’s lead and recorded Vegas interpretations of rock songs.

Young has a beautiful voice that has significantly deepened since he was 29 and looked like a stunt double for somebody in Wham! or Spandau Ballet. His voice reminds me of Lou Rawls’, though it’s not as deep and smoky. He sings without trying to sound black; Paul Young is always Paul Young. And unlike Pat Boone, this man is built for a swingin’ set of rock ’n’ roll.

Unfortunately, on Rock Swings: On the Wild Side of Swing, Young can’t decide to love or laugh at these songs. He’s not a Richard Cheeseball, but most of these covers don’t work – for example, Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets,” which is like a marching band crashing a funeral, or Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” which is neither wild nor walkable.

Two songs redeemed this disc…

Pat Boone covered Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” on I’m in a Metal Mood, but he didn’t know what to do with this nightmare on Elm Street. Richard Cheese attacked it on Aperitif for Destruction, but I hit Skip inside the first minute. On Rock Swings, Young captures the horror. It’s an adolescent’s idea of horror – look who wrote it – but he captured it just the same.

(“Enter Sandman” ties “Black Hole Sun” for the most popular number among lounge singers – reinterpreted three times each. Why? The two songs are nothing like each other, except that all the people who originally performed them had terrible hair.)

Young also covers David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie.” He’s the only man in this foursome to try on some Bowie. (Cheese covered “Under Pressure,” but that’s a Queen song written by Bowie.) His cover swings like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra commuting to work on jungle vines.

…and one song escaped it

I don’t spend much time listening to Eminem. In fact, I don’t spend any time listening to Eminem. “Lose Yourself,” an 800-word essay on becoming a star, was a blank to me.

On his cover of “Lose Yourself,” Young reimagines himself as the rapper, though they’re from radically different generations and cultures. The one man’s voice and the other man’s words had me at hello:

Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted
One moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?

The arrangement is stellar, the kind of thing that Nelson Riddle would’ve whipped up for a Sinatra showstopper. The producer doubles Young’s stunning vocal so that he’s singing back-up for himself, but the producer also dropped words at random from this backing track. Young singing the lead while his duplicate appears and disappears behind him produces a staccato effect that makes it sound as if he’s singing and rapping the lyrics at the same time.

Eminem’s words must have spoken to something in Paul Young’s DNA:

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime

And when Young gets to the spoken-word part, you can believe it when he says “motherfuckin’.” This is so not Pat Boone observing, “Yeah, we’re runnin’ a little bit hot tonight,” while wandering aimlessly inside Van Halen’s “Panama.”

Young’s Rock Swings doesn’t have anywhere near the overall consistency of Paul Anka’s Rock Swings, but “Lose Yourself” is the brightest, sharpest gem of all the music I’ve been writing about this week.

Eminem’s original is not bad, but he’s no Paul Young.

Thanks for reading along, and I hope you now find yourself ready to engage with compelling Vegas-based content. Go easy on the martinis and don’t be a stranger in the night.

 

To prolong the suspense, or the agony, of our Spotlight Team’s series on lounge versions of pop songs, we pause tonight to consider the question Frank Sinatra would surely ask if he were still with us: How am I supposed to swing with the broads when it’s nothin’ but lugs in here?

Excellent question, Mr. Chairman. We have only a small pool of data to work with, but so far every practitioner of this strange art has been a white male. (The gentleman I’ll introduce tomorrow doesn’t break the pattern.) Where are the women? Why can’t we have an album of swinging rock music by Diana Krall or Cassandra Wilson?

Possible explanations: The women are not interested. They’re not nerds. The music is weird. They have better things to do. They don’t want to record an album of rock or hip-hop in the Las Vegas style and then have millions of middle-aged male trolls whine on Twitter that “You’ve stolen my childhood!”

There’s yet another question that Sinatra wouldn’t have thought of asking – Why is it that Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Richard Cheese, and tomorrow’s guest, who are all men, only cover songs by men? – but I don’t have an answer and frankly that’s quite enough diversity for tonight. Equality takes time, female readers, especially when you’re a male.

(Just to be fair: Cheese covered Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Isn’t that enough?)

Let’s check the inbox

When my friend Paul appeared on NPR after his first book was published, he quickly eviscerated the caller with the opening question. “That’ll teach her to participate,” he told me later.

It is with a similarly generous spirit that I turn to a just-received comment from a Mr. Jerry Kaufman of Seattle, Washington. Jerry and I met in a trench outside of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. The British accused Jerry of colluding with the Russians, but I just laughed. I knew he was good-bad but not evil.

At the time of our meeting, Jerry was an advanced music fan with a record collection I envied and who was about to form a New Wave or No Wave band called Pictures of Vegetables. You can tell right there that he and his bandmates (they might not all have known that they were his bandmates) cared not a bit for commercial success. I would’ve changed at least three words in that name, but then I’m a crass person who has a love-hate relationship with money.

Jerry writes: “So have you listened to a band called Nouvelle Vague? They do lounge covers of 1970s and 1980s songs (for example, ‘Blister in the Sun’).”

Excellent! A band I had never heard of. However, this collective of sexy French people plays bossa nova, not lounge. If you like Brazilian pop – even Frankie did – you’ll enjoy their debut album, Nouvelle Vague (2004), though I got tired of them messing around with their tricks a ways before the 14 tracks ended.

The highlights for me were The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” Modern English’s “I Melt with You,” The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” (one of my favorite songs), and the song that never fails to make me turn my head to hide my tears, The Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to Fuck,” which sounds far better than the original when the lyrics are sung with a French accent.

Thank you for writing in, sir.

Tomorrow: We’re done!

 

This is Part III of our investigation of Las Vegas and what the Rat Pack can do with rock ’n’ roll. Tonight the Spotlight Team revisits a record I reviewed in 2013.

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Rock Swings released in 2005

Here’s what I said:

I respect Paul Anka for his creativity; he wrote for Buddy Holly and Frank Sinatra, and how many people can say that? But Anka is also responsible for three crimes against humanity: “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “Puppy Love,” and the ultimate in offensiveness at the molecular level, “(You’re) Having My Baby.”

I stand by this statement, but after five years of thinking it over (I had nothing else to do), I must make two emendations:

1) The more I learn about Paul Anka, the more impressed I become. He’s recorded 45 albums, which puts him ahead of The Rolling Stones, Santana, The Muppets, and even Mannheim Steamroller. He’s been a success since I was a baby, and I was a baby when Athens fought Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, and also based on things my parents have said I believe I wasn’t a success being a baby.

2) I wrote that Rock Swings “just slips in as a Buy.” As we say in the porn biz, “This is so wrong.” I’ve learned to appreciate this record. I’ve learned to love this record. This is a fun record! It’s not only the best overall example of all this lounging around in the rock arena; if I had to make a list of the 50 best albums of the ’00s, Rock Swings would be 49th or 50th. (Full disclosure: I only know about 50 albums from the ’00s.)

I don’t know if Anka modeled any part of his career on Sinatra, but I’m convinced that if Sinatra had ever decided to play the same game as Pat Boone and Richard Cheese, the result would’ve been very close to Rock Swings.

And yet Rock Swings, as superb as it is, does not provide the ultimate thrill of this weird, lonely rock-as-lounge genre. Nor does it answer this question: Can you enjoy these covers if you’ve never heard the originals? Because up until this point, I knew almost all the originals.

In Part IV, we unveil the man and the mystery song that punctured the blood-brain barrier and inspired my co-workers to insist I wear headphones.

Soundgarden trivia

Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” was covered by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, Paul Anka, and, of course, Richard Cheese, making it the single most popular tune among Vegas-style crooners. I can see why Pat Boone passed on it – he was doing metal covers, and in 1997, Soundgarden wasn’t metal, it was grunge. That distinction is meaningless today. But the song is about as speedy as a 15-year-old retired corgi. It was perfect for Pat.