Archive for the ‘Record reviews’ Category

emma blizzard 04

Right you film fans. Our look at movies about music concludes with Category D: Old biopic crud from Hollywood, by which I mean everything from before Hollywood discovered that not all people are white.

I was mainly thinking of the ’50s and before, but once I seriously got into this, I found I didn’t want to revisit these old music flicks. They’re too restricted, racially (you couldn’t make a story about a black entertainer, but you could black the face of a white one) and technologically. Also, I want to move on to something else. These six will stand for all the rest.

The Jazz Singer (1927)
Scholars have written books about this one, so I’m not going to touch it, except to say that the soundtrack is an example of how musical tastes change. No one alive today would choose to spend one minute with “April Showers,” “There’s a Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” or that ultimate in cultural appropriation, “My Mammy,” and their incredibly hammy performances. The auditory quality is, of course, dreadful. What else? It was 1927!

The film was remade in 1980 with Neil Diamond and no blackface.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
In 1993, Yankee Doodle Dandy was placed on the National Film Registry for being “the most obvious film ever made.” James Cagney won the Best Actor Oscar, and he earned it – he’s in every scene except the one where his character is born and the Civil War reenactors fire off a cannon because it’s a boy. He never stops talking, singing, dancing, cajoling, bantering, butting in, and exploding off the walls. Jimmy Cagney was a one-man bouncy castle.

I have this suspicion…and I apologize for expressing a negative thought about the film that won the war…that Yankee Doodle Dandy does not accurately portray the life of a working vaudeville entertainer from the early 1900s. I think they fudged some of this stuff. Like maybe all of it.

The official soundtrack wasn’t released until 1989.

Young Man with a Horn (1950)
Kirk Douglas falls in with some African-American musicians who sense his white power and bless him with their black magic. Daring at the time. Even if you can get past this, you’re still stuck inside a Kirk Douglas movie from 1950. Do you believe Douglas as a Roman slave? A Viking berserker? An Australian gold miner? How about as a trumpeter? I wouldn’t hire him to play a green tambourine.

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)
Jimmy Stewart, who flew more than 50 missions over Nazi Germany, plays band leader Glenn Miller, whose plane disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel in 1944. I know I saw this picture several times on the “Million Dollar Movie” rerun channel in the ’60s, but all I remember today is that Stewart looked good in a uniform. The soundtrack is a passable big band compilation. You can find better ones.

The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)
The forgotten Tyrone Power massacres this portrait of forgotten pianist and band leader Eddie Duchin, with music by the forgotten Carmen Cavallaro. Cavallaro’s readings of Duchin’s works are overwrought, about what you’d expect from Liberace. They probably hired him because he was cheaper than Liberace. One grace note: Cavallaro’s “Chopsticks.” Must be heard to be believed.

The Benny Goodman Story (1956)
Suggested by Loyal Reader Wm Seabrook. Good thought, Bill. Steve Allen (“Steverino”) plays Benny Goodman, who made musical history in the U.S. with the first integrated orchestra. “If a man’s got it, let him give it,” Goodman declared. “I’m selling music, not prejudice.”

Whether Allen as Goodman says that in The Benny Goodman Story, I can’t recall. I know this was another “Million Dollar Movie” rerun, which is where I saw it when I wasn’t watching Get Smart! or 12 O’Clock High. I wonder how serious they were about tackling the integration issue: there are nine real musicians in this film, including Steve Allen, but only two are African-American, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson. (There’s one African-American dancer: Sammy Davis, Sr.).

Nevermind the quality of the film. The soundtrack is a must-have collection of Benny Goodman performances, most of them live, and as I type this you can buy it on Amazon for $1.66 or just 1,500 Euros.

Thank you for reading along this past week as I meandered through movie history. I received super suggestions from Loyal Readers mikenr (“I put forth the fantasy biopic Yellow Submarine for your ridicule”) and Darwin (Across the Universe, “one of my favorite movies ever”). In time, gentlemen. Those will be a pleasure to rewatch.

And here’s something I never thought I’d write: Thank you, Queen.

Notes: The photo is of Emma, Boise, Idaho, 2004. She was mesmerized by a bone and didn’t notice when it started snowing. The title is from Loyal Reader lizkatz, who said this toward the end of one of our Passover seders.

 

 

blues brothers bobs country bunker

If you’ve just joined us, we’re examining movies about music, inspired by Bohemian Rhapsody. This list is incomplete, idiosyncratic, and possibly inaccurate. Welcome to Category C: Totally fictional biopics!

The Rose (1979)
Bette Midler stars in a film that’s “loosely based” on the life of Janis Joplin. I’ve never seen The Rose because the Divine Miss M and I go together like peanut butter and SPF 50 sunscreen.

Midler doesn’t have Joplin’s grit and she doesn’t know Joplin’s pain, but she has a superlative voice, and on this platter she proves she can sing rock ’n’ roll and the blues. Two of the songs became hits, “When a Man Loves a Woman” and the title track. Her producer used different musicians for different songs; to my ears, that prevents the songs from hanging together. And yet in many places this record rocks. I’d say it’s unlike anything else in Midler’s catalog but first I’d have to listen to Midler’s catalog. I’ll stop here.

Renaldo & Clara (1978)
Bob Dylan filmed his Rolling Thunder tour and cast the musicians in a movie-within-a-movie. Ronnie Hawkins stars as @RealBobDylan and Bob Dylan stars as the fictional Renaldo. Dylan co-wrote the script with Sam Shepard. Jettison the escape pods.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
This film has as much to do with making a living in music as Raiders of the Lost Ark has to do with making a living in archeology. The soundtrack is a gas, even though John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd don’t sing well. The six people who did the most to popularize American roots music were John, Paul, George, Ringo, Jake, and Elwood.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
What can anyone say about this picture except turn the volume to 11? It’s the closest thing on my list to Bohemian Rhapsody.

The Commitments (1991)
One of those rare moments in Western civilization where the book and the film are equally memorable. The soundtrack, though it was played by amateurs, holds up well on long car trips.

Almost Famous (2000)
A teenage boy cons Rolling Stone’s editors into giving him the sort of assignment an experienced writer would kill for: Embed yourself with Billy Crudup’s band and write a psychologically revealing feature about them. Hijinks ensue. It’s a fun film, the soundtrack is a buffet of early-’70s gold, and I can even accept the two songs written by Nancy Wilson of Heart.

What I particularly loved about this picture was the kid finally admitting to his editors that he had no story and instead presenting them with wadded-up pages of disconnected, almost indecipherable, notes. That, ladies and gentleman, is what I put my editor through every week.

That Thing You Do! (1996)
I was working at a software company when this film was released. One of my co-workers, Hojo*, appeared at my desk one day, proclaimed, “I have discovered the worst song of all time,” and placed his headphones over my ears. This is what I heard:

You got me all tied up in knots
And I’m lovin’ you lots and lots
I’m just lovin’ you lots and lots
I’m lovin’ you lots and lots

Hojo was right. The opening track of That Thing You Do! is so bad that resistance is futile. The rest of this album is a perfect rendering of pop music after The Beatles invaded the U.S. but before the U.S. struck back with The Byrds and The Monkees.

True, this is an all-white lineup, the two songs by girl groups are abysmal, and the true-to-the-period fake band names (Saturn V, The Heardsmen) will only take you so far. But a couple of songs are worth repeat listens. “She Knows It” could’ve been a Beau Brummels B-side. “Mr. Downtown” sounds like the theme song to any American private-eye show of the ’60s, and it’s sung by somebody who can belt out ridiculous lyrics without losing one goddamn bit of his pretentiousness.

The film is silly, and it needed a clash between the two alpha males over Liv Tyler (who plays The Reward), but as a glimpse of that era it’s above average. It was probably written by the kid from Almost Famous.

* I immortalized Hojo in this story. After he read it, he said, “Your Hojo is too nice!”

La La Land (2016)
I was impressed by La La Land, the story of an aspiring jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, and I was happy that so many people would pay real money to see a film packed with all that jazz. This is particularly noteworthy today, where jazz festivals that want to turn a profit usually start by ejecting the jazz.

The soundtrack sounds just like a musical from the swinging ’60s. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling do their own singing; they’re not great, but they don’t embarrass themselves. Gosling’s character is a reactionary who wants to stop the musical clock in 1960, and Legend’s character might as well be walking around with a big sign on his chest that says SELLOUT, but Stone won an Oscar and I’d see this picture again in a heartbeat.

Grace of My Heart (1996)
Illeana Douglas tries to make it as a female songwriter in the ’60s. (Note how often that decade appears on my list.) Douglas is always watchable, but the vaguely Carole Kingish narrative is dizzy with plot and the music doesn’t stand out for me. Joni Mitchell and the team of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello each contributed a song.

Subcategory: Totally fictional biopics that star actual musicians

’Round Midnight (1986)
A slow, ultra-depressing movie about a self-destructive sax legend played by formerly self-destructive sax legend Dexter Gordon. The real theme of this film is France’s unending love of American jazz. The soundtrack is an avalanche of bop-you-in-the-head jazz players, led by Gordon and Herbie Hancock.

Next time: We wrap up with our final category, Old biopic crud from Hollywood. Brace yourself for some serious suckicity.

 

Tonight’s very exciting post is all about – not music in movies, but movies about music!

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Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Starring Rami Malek as Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, Gwilym Lee as guitarist and hair farmer Brian May, Ben Hardy as singing drummer Roger Taylor, Joseph Mazzello as dorky bass player John Deacon, and Branson from Downtown Abbey as Super Bad Gay Dude.

From the moment I saw the trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody, I knew I wanted to see it, even though I have never wanted to see Queen.

My enthusiasm waned when I realized no one could make a movie about Queen without including the dreaded music of Queen. I pictured myself wrapped in a ball beneath my seat while the house speakers pummeled me with “I’m in Love with My Car” (“With my hand on your grease gun/Mmm, it’s like a disease, son”) and “Fat-Bottomed Girls” (“Heap big woman, you done made a big man of me”).

But on a rainy night when our only other choice was Mary Poppins Returns, we grimly fastened our safety harnesses, faced the camera, said, “Let’s do this,” and walked in slow motion into the suburban multiplex while cars and helicopters exploded behind us.

(Is there a musical line I won’t cross? Oh yes, and I know exactly what’s on the other side: Close to the Edge, the Yes biopic.*)

Two and a half hours later, we left the theater wrapped in a happy rock-and-roll daze. What a film! Rami Malek, who had barely heard of Queen before he was hired, resurrected Freddie. When people in the far future envision Freddie Mercury (which they will, despite everything I’ve said about him here in the present), they will think of Rami Malek.

I didn’t like how the film played with Queen’s actual history – Freddie didn’t break up the band by being selfish, Freddie broke up the band by being dead – and there were zero mentions of the glam rock and art rock worlds that birthed them, but I still give this film Four Paws Up for its superlative performances, exceptional sound, and riveting scenes that give us a notion of what it was like to be in the band. The recreation of Queen’s set at Live Aid in 1985 was a spectacle on a level with the “Once in a Lifetime” sequence in Stop Making Sense or the chariot race in Ben-Hur.

Can I do the fandango? Yes, but I prefer not to.

I wanted to see Bohemian Rhapsody because I love films about bands. Naturally, I’ve made a list of all the ones I’ve seen (and some I haven’t). I’ve divided my list into four handy categories (with two subcategories). I don’t claim this list is complete – your nominations are welcome, and will be ridiculed.

Note: Documentaries are off-limits. So no mention of the legions of Beatles docs (such as Imagine: John Lennon and George Harrison: Living in the Material World) or the Decline of Western Civilization movies (punk and metal).

Also, I am arbitrarily striking off all the Star Is Born and Phantom of the Opera movies, including Phantom of the Paradise. This is just too much work.

Ready?

Tonight, Category A:

Biopics about The Beatles

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
The ultimate band movie, this one about a day in the life of a band that’s very like but not exactly like The Beatles, played by real Beatles. A Hard Day’s Night will not be equaled until they start making fantasy RPG movies where you can be Paul’s grandfather.

Birth of the Beatles (1979)
This was the first movie about The Beatles after their break-up. The songs were recorded by a Beatles tribute band with contributions from Paul McCartney. I don’t recall this film as amounting to much of anything, but it might be nostalgic to rewatch it. We’re probably better off with the next entry, even though like most people I can only handle a finite amount of Pete Best:

Backbeat (1994)
Young Beatles on a rampage in Berlin. The film is only above average, but the soundtrack – ooh-la-la! Alt-rock musicians covering The Beatles covering black R&B hits. Sweet.

Now for Beatles films I haven’t seen:

The Hours and the Times (1991)
Two of Us (2000)
Nowhere Boy (2009)
Lennon Naked (2010)

There are no Beatles songs on these soundtracks. The first two don’t even have songs, just the music that follows the actors around. The other two have some Lennon solo tracks. I can’t claim I’m in rush to see them.

Where are the Ringo movies??

Subcategory: Biopics about bands based on The Beatles

Head (1968)
Correct me if I’m wrong, Princess Internet, but A Hard Day’s Night and Head are the only movies about a band in which the band is played by the band (The Beatles and The Monkees, respectively). Unfortunately for The Monkees, the distance between A Hard Day’s Night and Head is about as wide as the distance between the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the bottom of an abandoned swimming pool. A living-room full of stoners would vote to watch Mary Poppins Returns.

The opening track, “Porpoise Song,” is a representative sample of late-’60s psychedelia, but other than that, I recommend you watch The Monkees’ old TV show.

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)
The first Beatles parody. My problem with Beatles parodies is that after I hear the first song, I want the real thing. I’m afraid if tonight I watched All You Need Is Cash, I’d be disappointed.

In our next movies-about-music posts we’ll tackle Biopics about non-Beatles, Totally fictional biopics, and Old biopic crud from Hollywood. Until then, we will, of course, rock you.

The song “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t make sense, but, to be fair, neither does “I Am the Walrus.”

* There is no Yes biopic. I just said that to scare you.

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.

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 co-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.