The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

The Feelies are low key one of my favorite bands. I wish they were easier to see, but you basically have to live in the New York area nowadays. I was lucky enough to see them in Chicago some years ago. I also saw side project Wake Oolo when I lived in New York (they opened for Luna), but I did not really appreciate the significance at the time. The core of the Feelies – percussionist Dave Weckerman and guitarists Bill Million and Glenn Mercer – began playing together in Haledon, New Jersey in 1976. Lineup changes ensued and by the time of 1980’s Crazy Rhythms, bassist Keith DeNunzio (also known as Keith Clayton) had joined as had Anton Fier on drums (it is not clear what happened to Weckerman during this period, who otherwise has been a long time member).

What I Think of This Album

I don’t really believe in Top Ten Albums but fuck it, this is a Top Ten Album for me. It is odd and unsettling and comforting and comfortable and vibrant and vibratory and playful and inventive and impressive as fuck.

The title telegraphs the most obvious feature of the music, which is the polyrhythms that dominate the sound. Anton Fier is the main percussionist, but his efforts are augmented by the other three band members, who make contributions on exotic instruments like sandpaper, shoes, can, and coat rack (and also timbales, shaker, claves, castanets, maracas, temple blocks, cowbell, and extra snare and tom-toms). Keeping up with these darting and dizzying beats is a rapturous and disorienting experience, which I highly recommend.

The song titles also betray the band’s sensibilities:  “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness,” Raised Eyebrows,” and “Forces at Work.”  The Feelies share some DNA with Wire, in that both aim to strip things down to their essential parts. But whereas Wire exuded a sense of danger and mischief, the Feelies communicate anxiety and fatalism. And while Wire kept things spare in the most direct way, the Feelies one up them by creating a skeletal sound despite layering multiple guitar parts and percussion. Also, while perhaps less impish than Wire, the Feelies have a sense of humor, because no one is overdubbing sandpaper and coat rack without having some fun. Indeed, it is entirely possible this whole thing is a joke. While later albums built on this sound, the band never again engaged in this kind of perverse and claustrophobic minimalism.

The vocals owe a debt to Lou Reed, and the twin guitars are the offspring that Television and the Velvet Underground left to fend for themselves at the orphanage. Some songs approach pop while others simply find grace in repetitiveness and inflection. 

It’s all too easy – and liberating – to get lost in the beat of “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness,” which comes across like Jonathan Richman having sleep terrors. The unexpectedly delightful “Fa Cé-La” is insouciant and playful, with curlique guitar and a descending bass riff. Like “Perpetual Nervousness,” the slow build of “Loveless Love” creates dark tension that Million and Mercer amplify with their wiry guitar work; while Fier pounds away, the two cast spells around each other in a competition to see who will suffer a psychotic break first. 

The seven minute epic “Forces At Work” also starts atmospherically with a tremolo pulse before a motorik-type beat comes in and then a mesh of guitars is thrown in your face. Mercer adds some lead at points thereafter, seemingly without reason. The lyrics consist mostly of overlapping chants and eventually devolve into wordless vocalizations. This is basically “Sister Ray” but less artsy and more nerdy. It is appropriately the centerpiece of the album.

“Original Love” is probably the closest thing to a traditional song, albeit a smokily nihilistic one that would have made Ian Curtis dance dance dance dance dance to the radio. Speaking of icons, the Feelies have no compunction about making the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)” their own. It’s an exhilarating ride, as if there was an actual capuchin in charge of the tempo. And, the coat rack really does sound great on it. “Moscow Nights” is a convoluted exploration of rhythm with some fantastic lead work courtesy of Mercer.

Jesus fuck, the drum hits on “Raised Eyebrows” stir my soul in the way I imagine love might one day. There is a credit here for “spasmodic drum” (as well as “anchor drum” and “random tom-toms” in addition to plain old “drum kit”). The lead part is fantastic, the staticky rhythm guitar is great, the jangle jangles like no one’s business, and there is even a fun vocal melody. This is one of my favorite Feelies songs ever.

There are actual lyrics to the title track, which really pulls out all the stops and barrels to the end of the album with aplomb. What a way to end an album. What a way to end THIS album. 

My copy is the 1990 A&M release, which tacks on a cover of “Paint It Black,” with the stable post-Crazy Rhythms lineup, and it really does sound like a completely different band. It’s cool to have but it feels very out of place on the disc, especially when “Crazy Rhythms” is the perfect closer.

By the way, I love credits like “left guitar” (Million) and “right guitar” (Mercer).

Fier later played with Bob Mould and Matthew Sweet, and was a member of the Golden Palominos. He died in 2022 via assisted suicide in Switzerland.

The Best Thing About This Album

Everything. It’s a classic and unimprovable in every way.

Release Date

February, 1980

The Cover Art

Like the album itself, there is something a little bit off about this art. Which is what draws you in. I do like the text at the top. I would accuse Weezer of having ripped this off for their debut, but I don’t think Weezer is cool enough to listen to the Feelies (well, probably Matt Sharp is). I can’t say for sure who is who, but I am relatively confident that Bill Million and Glenn Mercer are the center figures (Mercer the one with the curly hair). Anton Fier is for certain the guy on the left.

Dramarama – Vinyl

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

After several barren years despite significant effort, it was a surprise when 1991’s Vinyl turned out to be Dramrama’s best album. It also was the beneficiary of a major label marketing push, which included music videos. And the critical acclaim the band had generated probably helped lasso guests Benmont Tench, Mick Taylor, and studio pro Jim Keltner.

What I Think of This Album

Vinyl opens with the sound of a jukebox arm loading a record onto the turntable. The song that follows is the best Dramarama album opener ever. “Until the Next Time” blends acoustic and electric guitars, offers up a red hot solo, and John Easdale sounds completely energized, while also older and wiser. The tom-rolling “Haven’t Got A Clue” was a single, and deservedly so, as Easdale turns in a great performance, Chris Carter’s bass pushes and pulls, and Mr. E delivers a catchy wah-wah lead part and solo.

The mocking-but-sort-of-sincere protest song “What Are We Gonna Do?” features Benmont Tench (Tom Petty) and this downcast number was surely chosen as a single simply for the reference to Earth Day, which was a thing people were paying lip service to in 1991. The blistering attack on classic rock radio “Classic Rot” is enlivened by ex-Rolling Stones Mick Taylor’s guitar playing and the violin of Lisa Haley (a descendant of early rock ‘n’ roller Bill Haley), as well as more contributions from Tench. Perhaps appropriately, the band segues into a cover of the Stones’ (sort of – maybe just Mick Jagger’s) “Memo From Turner,” which is pretty good, and on which Mr. E does some impressive slide work.

I have to say that while the first half of lengthy ballad “Train Going Backwards” effectively bores me, I do like the second half quite a bit. Suspicious and sinister “I’ve Got Spies” is a sleeper deep cut, sinewy and dark and fucking fantastic – a masterpiece of arranging. “In Quiet Rooms” is a fantastic rocker, and “Ain’t It the Truth” is a cousin to “Spies,” sounding like a harder and faster version of something Lindsey Buckingham would’ve recorded in a cocaine-fueled frenzy during the Tusk sessions. The phased guitar would’ve made J Mascis smile. This also happens to round out a very impressive nine solid tunes in a row.

“Tiny Candles” is . . . not good, and eminently skippable. Final track “(I’d Like to) Volunteer, Please” is the Jim Keltner track for those of you keeping score, and I can take it or leave it (but mostly leave it, as it is too long). Basically, I think the album ends with “Truth,” though the short hidden track “Steve Is Here” is enjoyably stupid.

By this time, Dramarama had been reduced to Easdale, Mr. E, Pete Wood, and Chris Carter; they borrowed Brian MacLeod from Wire Train on drums and New Jersey friend Tommy T. for various other tasks.

Among the people mentioned in the “Thanks” section of the liner notes are Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople), Tom Petty AND the Heartbreakers, the Posies, the Wonder Stuff, John Wesley Harding, Mitch Easter, and Clem Burke (Blondie). Former drummer Jesse is gently teased for having left the band to teach spiritual therapeutics; he died in 2014.

Production credit goes to Don Smith (Bash & Pop, Cracker, Tom Petty). Also Jeff Lynne (ELO) is credited for having listened to a rough mix.

The Best Thing About This Album

That Dramarama came back from the dead to deliver a phenomenal album.

Release Date

October, 1991

The Cover Art

Excellent! The colors, the quadrants, the shag haircut, the pop art chair, the composition of the band name and title. I think the models legs look like they are turning into butterfly legs or something insectoid.

The Dawning of a New Era

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

My period of music magazine reading lasted from maybe 1986 to 2010? I am not sure about that end date, as things just sort of petered out. At no point, though, did I read MOJO regularly. But I did come across their compilations at the used record stores, and I picked up a few of them. As noted before, I used to slot all of them in the “M” section, but now I don’t think that makes as much sense as going by title.

What I Think of This Album

I love love love ska, and this is a wonderful collection of what I believe to be both popular and obscure ska tracks from the 1950s to the 1990s. The conceit was that this featured original versions of songs recorded by the Specials (hence the title, taken from a Specials song), but I think only two tracks fit that description. Who cares? This is a fun fucking album; almost every one of the fifteen tracks is excellent.

The first rarity is “Skinhead Moonstomp” by Symarip. They were a British band (whose members were all of Afro-Caribbean descent) formed in the ‘60s. The track was released in 1969 and then again in 1980, to capitalize on the Two-Tone movement. The original version of the song – “Moon Hop”  – is also from 1969, and was written and released by Derrick Morgan. The spoken intro by Symarip is modeled on Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You.”

The Desmond Dekker classic “It Mek” is next, but I already owned this one on my Dekker comp. “Monkey Man” is also a pretty well known song, by Toots & the Maytals from 1969; and this was covered by the Specials. The other definite Specials cover is “A Message to You Rudy,” here in its original 1967 form by Dandy Livingstone, with future Specials collaborator Rico Rodriguez on trombone. The Livingstone original also features a saxophonist named Pepsi. The track was originally titled “Rudy A Message to You.”

A Bob Marley & the Wailers track follows (“Concrete Jungle” but not the Specials’ subsequent original of the same name), which is not ska at all but rather reggae, and I don’t like reggae. So. Also not ska is “Babylon’s Burning,” by the Ruts – this is just punk, and doesn’t fit at all with the other songs on the disc.

“Gangsters” is here as performed by Neville Staples, but this is a straight up Specials song. This version is admittedly different from the Specials’ recording, but I do not believe for a second this is the original version. Not cool, Mojo. What is VERY cool is the sound of “I Spy (for the FBI),” by the Untouchables, a Los Angeles band formed in 1981; they played with X and were in the film Repo Man (as a scooter gang), and this song was produced by Jerry Dammers of the Specials. I do need to acknowledge that the lyrics get a little stalker-ish towards the end.

The Belle Stars were an all-woman band who opened for the Clash; their song “Hiawatha” was produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Madness), and is one of the weaker tracks on this comp. Rico Rodriguez’s instrumental version of “Sea Cruise” (on which he is backed by the Specials) is from 1980; “Sea Cruise” was originally a Huey Smith song recorded by Frankie Ford in 1959, and has been covered a lot, including by Jerry Lee Lewis, John Fogerty (CCR), Dion, the Beach Boys, and Yo La Tengo.

Legend Eddy Grant gets a song on here – “ Baby Come Back” – as recorded by the Equators, a 1977 British band with a core of three brothers (Donald, Leo, and Rocky Bailey) whose parents emigrated from Jamaica; the song was first released in 1966 by the Equals. The Godfather of Ska, Cuban-born Laurel Aitken, is represented with his song “Skinhead.” I am not sure what the original release date of this song is. Aitken worked with producer Duke Reid and recorded with the Skatalites. Rancid covered his “Everybody’s Suffering.” He died in 2005.

Judge Dread was actually a white dude from England named Alexander Hughes who sometimes worked security for the Stones. He holds the record for most songs banned by the BBC. “Skin Lake” has a horn part based on some classical piece I can’t recall the name of right now; I also can’t tell what the release date is.

Perhaps the most entertaining song on the album is Arthur Kay’s “Play My Record,” which he delivers in a Cockney accent not far removed from Ian Dury. This is a 1980 song, and Kay (born Kitchener) was a session bassist for the Trojan label in the ‘60s. The last track is the odd but catchy “Dambusters March,” by the JJ All Stars, which was the one-off alias of British band the 4-Skins, who were around from 1979-84; the alias is apparently a tribute to the backing band of the same name from the late ‘60s who worked with producer JJ Johnson.

The Best Thing About This Album

ALL of it (well, almost).

Release Date

April, 2008

The Cover Art

I sort of like this – the pink, in particular, is nice.

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle, Vol. 1

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Do I love CCR, or do I not? I don’t own a single of the seven (!) studio albums the band released in its four year lifespan (including three in 1969 alone), nor do I want to. I’ve listened to a couple of them, and they don’t do it for me. This is not true of all listeners – six of those albums went platinum, two hit double platinum, Green River achieved triple platinum status, and Cosmo’s Factory was the winner at quadruple platinum. But I love the singles. I think they are amazing, and I love that the band embraced a roots rock approach at a time when that wasn’t the popular path. And of course, it’s another sibling band.

What I Think of This Album

A great singles collection, Chronicle, Vol. 1 pulls together thirteen A sides and seven B sides. Right off the bat, I need to admit I am not a fan of the covers on here. I’ve never liked “Susie Q,” (Dale Hawkins) and while I can’t claim to hate it, that boundary is well within shouting distance. “I Put a Spell On You” belongs definitively to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and is therefore a sucker’s bet as a cover, though I concede that John Fogerty does a nice job on guitar. And the eleven minute version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is overkill; I don’t even think this post-breakup single deserves to be on this album.

And speaking of covers, “Travelin’ Band” is basically “Good Golly Miss Molly,” right down to the screams; a ‘50s inspired sax break only cements the pastiche. Not surprisingly, it is a fun song. Again, Fogerty plays a nasty little solo, and I like Doug Clifford’s drum fills. And while “Travelin’ Band” gets a little too close to its source material, it serves as a signpost to CCR’s greatest talent. In so many of these songs, the band incorporates different bits of country, soul, gospel, and ‘50s rock to create a sound that was familiar but fresh. Is it any wonder that Ike and Tina covered “Proud Mary,” which is obviously a soul number, with a gospel feel to the “rollin’” refrain? “Bad Moon Rising” has distinct rockabilly roots in that guitar riff and the solo, too, filtered through the band’s stolen swamp sound (they were from California, after all, not the bayou), and made all the more memorable by its apocalyptic lyrics. The country influences come to the fore on resigned “Lodi,” perhaps one of the most overlooked Creedence songs, featuring a fantastic vocal from Fogerty. For all his gritty howling, he is arguably most effective when he employs his empathic croon.

“Green River,” like “Run Through the Jungle,” “Sweet Hitchhiker,” and “Commotion,” relies heavily on the swamp blues, which I don’t much care for, but the band plays it better than anyone else. “Down On the Corner” is a rare party song, with some nice drumming from Clifford (including the insistent cowbell) and a funk-soul performance from everyone else. “Fortunate Son” of course is an electrifying screed against privilege and hypocrisy, forever tied to the Vietnam War context in which it was born. “Who’ll Stop the Rain” is a song Neutral Milk Hotel would’ve done wonders with. As it is, it’s an amazing piece, with another strong Clifford performance and fine vocal from Fogerty, who gives this sad, pleading song a country-folk treatment. “Up Around the Bend” brings the good times back, with a cattle prod of a guitar intro and gut-punching gravelly, soulful vocals. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” is almost comically bluegrass, but the shuffle is irresistible just the same; I like when the tempo slows towards the close and then picks up again for the quick outro.

Fogerty’s way with a ballad is well-exemplified on “Long As I Can See the Light.” And “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” is the other meteorologic classic from the band, and the way the organ gradually makes its way into the piece is genius; Fogerty once again supplies a fantastic vocal. Another inimitable, spiky intro kicks off “Hey Tonight,” at heart a soul shouter dressed up in rock clothes. Ballad “Someday Never Comes” is another overlooked gem. I need to give a shout-out to bassist Stu Cook, who does memorable work on “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” “Down On the Corner,” and “Hey Tonight.”

Tom Fogerty died in 1990, after receiving a blood transfusion that led to an HIV infection. Stu Cook auditioned for the Stones upon Bill Wyman’s retirement. The Fantasy records logo looks a lot like the Bauhaus logo.

The Best Thing About This Album

Fogerty’s voice could grind limestone.

Release Date

January, 1976

The Cover Art

Is it an accident that John and Doug are featured on the front cover, while Tom and Stu obtain prominence only on the rear cover? I don’t know, but the drummer and vocalist/ guitarist were definitely the biggest talents in this band. The “Featuring John Fogerty” tag is super awkward and weird. Overall, not a great cover, or even a good one.

Sam Cooke – The Man and His Music

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I guess I first heard Sam Cooke through the Animal House soundtrack, which for reasons I will never understand, was very popular with the cool kids when I was in middle school (it was a very white, very affluent place – sorry). I know I also heard “Wonderful World” as a youth and was captivated. Much later, I was stunned at just how many amazing songs Cooke not only sang but wrote. I can’t think of any male artist (though possibly just any artist at all) with a better, more beautiful voice. Born Samuel Cook, he started his singing career as a child and gained fame in the gospel world with the Soul Stirrers in the 1950s. With some hesitation, he crossed over into the secular market, and was a central figure in the development and popularization of soul music. He also started a record label and publishing company, and was actively involved in the civil rights movement. Cooke had over thirty top 40 hits in a very short recording career (from 1957 onwards); he was shot under disputed, controversial circumstances in 1964 at the age of 33. What an amazing talent.

What I Think of This Album

This is an excellent, 28 song compilation that fails to provide any real information about either Cooke or the songs, but insofar as it serves as a vehicle for hearing those songs, it is fan-fucking-tastic. In fact, it is arguably the only single-disc compilation of Cooke’s work that spans almost all of his career; since then, the different record companies that own the recordings from different time spans have issued their own collections.

Basically moving chronologically from Cooke’s Soul Stirrer days into his pop songs and his soul numbers, this album is basically hit after hit after hit after hit. And if you didn’t know some of the songs before, Cooke’s clear, smooth voice (to which he could add grit on a moment’s notice) and supreme melodicism will win you over. This is a jaw-dropping collection.

“You Send Me” is perfectly lovely. “Just For You” is similarly pretty and romantic, with great interplay between Cooke and the backing vocals. “Chain Gang” avoids crossing over into novelty, and the way Cooke sings “gang” is magical. Cooke captures teen love and heartbreak on “Only Sixteen,” relying on more doo wop style backing vocals. Has anyone’s voice ever sounded better than Cooke’s does on “Wonderful World”? I am not confident about the songwriting credits on this album, but this was actually written by Lou Adler and Herb Alpert, with lyrical contributions from Cooke. I love the Latin rhythm. “Cupid” rivals “World” for the beauty of Cooke’s voice, with the help of some angelic strings and another Latin rhythm. “Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day” adds some horns to the mix.

That’s Darlene Love in the background to “Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha,” a song I find a bit silly (though, on the other hand, I am not entirely sure Cooke is talking about the dance). The notable drumming on “Another Saturday Night” is by the legendary Hal Blaine; drumming duties were often handled by Earl Palmer (Little Richard, Fats Domino, Righteous Brothers). Meanwhile, the arrangers for most of these songs were Belford Hendricks, René Hall, and Sammy Lowe (individually, not together).

Cooke’s childhood friend Lou Rawls sings backup on “Bring It On Home to Me” and “Having a Party.” I like how “Having Party” starts out all sedate and then slowly builds in intensity. The vocals on “Good Times” – Cooke’s last big hit before his death – are wonderful. The Stones covered this one shortly thereafter. You can’t have more fun than on “Twistin’ the Night Away,” with a fantastic saxophone part; the Wrecking Crew were the studio musicians on this track. “Shake” – posthumously released – takes things to another level, with a Stax approach of full horns and pounding drums. There is an ingratiating bossa nova sound to “Ain’t That Good News.”

“A Change is Gonna Come” was the B-side to “Shake,” which doesn’t make any goddamn sense at all. Cooke played this song live once, on The Tonight Show. It just so happened that two days later, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, stealing any attention Cooke might have otherwise gotten. He was troubled by the song, and refused to play it live again. He had written it as a response to Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” which he found fascinating.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Wonderful World” almost brings a tear to my eye.

Release Date

February, 1986

The Cover Art

Again, a typical record company compilation album cover. It’s fine. Whatever.

Jimmy Cliff – Reggae Greats

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I actually have little use for reggae – I find the tempos way too slow, so slow that it almost causes anxiety. Ska, of course, I love. I am not sure what compelled me to pick this up, but I like it more than I thought I would. Jimmy Cliff was born James Chambers in Jamaica. After considerable success there, he went to England, where he eventually had a number of hits (none of which appear on this compilation). He moved back to Jamaica and his starring role in 1972’s The Harder They Come led to worldwide popularity . . . for reggae but not so much for Cliff personally. Cliff converted to Islam and changed his name to El Hadj Naïm Bachir. Since then, he has worked with Joe Strummer (the Clash) and Tim Armstrong (Rancid), as well as the Stones and Elvis Costello. He appeared in a Steven Seagal movie (Marked for Death). His song “You Can Get It If You Really Want” has been used as a campaign anthem by both the Sandinista National Liberation Front and the British Conservative Party (it has also been covered by Desmond Dekker, for whom Cliff did some production work). He sang on the Cool Runnings soundtrack and released a version of “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King.

What I Think of This Album

The soundtrack to The Harder They Come is supposed to be one of the great reggae albums. Every Jimmy Cliff song on that soundtrack is included in this compilation.

The liner notes on this thing are basically non-existent. It would be nice to know who played the wonderful organ on “Vietnam,” for example. Cliff has an immensely appealing voice, sweet and smooth. And his songwriting is excellent. “Struggling Man,” “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah,” and “Sitting In Limbo” (co-written with Guilly Bright) are all superb. There is a soul element to excellent “The Harder They Come,” and an incongruously joyous gospel sound to the jumpy “Sufferin’ In the Land.” The stately “Many Rivers to Cross” is a bit overcooked. “Hard Road to Travel” is fantastic. Goddammit, I really wish I knew who the musicians were on these songs. The bright “You Can Get It If You Really Want” is warm and welcoming.

The Best Thing About This Album

The anonymous musicianship.

Release Date

1985

The Cover Art

The more I look at it, the more I like it. This is by British artist Cathie Felstead – I can’t tell what the medium is. Can you spot the taxi and the motorcycle?

Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – 1992 The Love Album

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Carter USM released six studio albums, which I find hard to believe. The first three are arguably must-owns (though I, admittedly, do not own 30 Something, which most Carter fans adore; I did at one point but it didn’t really resonate with me).  Jim Bob wore a lengthy, stringy forelock (with close cropped hair elsewhere on his dome), which is exactly the jester-like insouciance that they imbued their best work with (Fruitbat preferred cycling caps with the bill upturned). Long live Carter USM.

What I Think of This Album

Carter basically does one thing and they will either do it well or they will do it poorly. On 1992 The Love Album, they do it very well, indeed. This is a strong album from almost start to finish, and was a UK number 1, and also gave them their only UK Top 10 hit in “The Only Living Boy in New Cross.”

“Is Wrestling Fixed?” maintains a delicate a bar-room piano figure until the beats and synths kick in and Jim Bob sneers the answer to his question “Am I un-H-A-P-P-Y?” by shouting out sarcastic queries like “Did Little Red Riding wear a hood?” and “Does the Pope wear a funny hat?” Flimsy, perhaps, but highly enjoyable.

“New Cross” is next, with an unbeatable rhythm track and a catchy rising sequencer line. I have no idea what this song is about. Unless you are British or a savant, a single lyric like “Marble Arch criminals and Clause 28’ers” will likely be lost on you at first listen (Marble Arch criminals seems to be a reference to the British royal family, and Clause 28 was a 1988 anti-LGBTQ law). What I take away most from this song – accurately or not – is the embrace given to “The gypsies, the travellers, and the thieves / The good, the bad, the ugly, and unique / The grebos, the crusties, and the goths.” And that first part of the lyric *has* to be a Cher reference, right?

“Suppose You Gave a Funeral and No One Came” begins with a sample from the film Flatliners and only gets better after that, with some meaty riffing and horn-like keyboard parts, as well as a surprisingly subdued final section. The bitter, demoralizing waltz “England” contains colorful lyrics like “I’ve been Amsterdamned and Reeperbahned / Wham bam thank you ma’amed / If the spirit’s willing / Then the telephone is cheap.”

The wonderful “Do Re Me So Far So Good” samples This is Spinal Tap and then goes on a high-octane rant about the injustices of life and the irrelevance of pop music. “Look Mum, No Hands!” is a gripping and dramatic anti-war song. More personal is the oddly vulnerable “While You Were Out,”  which still does not skimp on the beats or the guitars (or the keyboards or the sequencers).

The gentle, piano-driven “Skywest and Crooked” (also the title of a 1966 Hayley Mills movie) could almost be a country number, though one that ends with Ian Dury of “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” fame reading from the The Man of La Mancha script. Appropriately, the album ends with a cover of “The Impossible Dream” from that musical, which works better than it has any right to.

Trivia: This album was supposed to contain the single “After the Watershed,” but that song happened to quote the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and the ensuing legal fallout meant the song was omitted. This album was undoubtedly Carter USM’s masterpiece.

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Only Living Boy in New Cross” is tuneful, danceable, and built around a Simon & Garfunkel joke.

Release Date

May, 1992

The Cover Art

I can only guess at what Carter’s intentions were here. The European Union flag as cover art, bastardized with the band’s logo in the stars, by itself comes across as nose-thumbing and self-aggrandizing. Combined with the album title, though, the message appears to be one of hope and affection. But the dedication in the liner notes to “our friends in ‘Yugoslavia’” – acknowledging the bloody ethnic conflicts taking place while the EU (and the world) stood by and watched – suggested that the band knew better than expect too much of humanity.

Paul Westerberg – Stereo / Mono

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Originally packaged with bonus album Mono (otherwise a standalone release under Westerberg’s Grandpaboy alias), Stereo was the great comeback album. Paul had been dropped by two major labels at this point and hadn’t released an album in three years; the stardom that people expected after the Replacements broke up never materialized. So he hunkered down in his basement – goodbye producers Brendan O’Brian, Lou Giordano, and Don Was – and recorded himself, mistakes and all, in the middle of the night. On his own schedule, in the Minnesota dark, with neither pride nor shame, Westerberg made a great album. And backed by the energetic, refreshing Mono, this is the highlight of Paul’s solo career.

What I Think of This Album

Stereo

The title deceptively suggests this is going to be full of the high-wire, beer-soaked rock from the heyday of the Replacements. In fact, this is mostly somber, reflective stuff (which was always the strongest aspect of his solo career anyway) – contemplative, rueful, resigned, sorrowful, and apprehensively grasping at wise.

Battling it out for the top spot here are self-abasing, ironic “Only Lie Worth Telling” and the elegiac, tentative anthem “We May Be the Ones.” The latter boasts careful lyrical details and a brilliantly balanced tone halfway between declaration and question, while the former communicates, with only a few repeated words, the conscious choice to prostrate oneself. Westerberg counsels the other other (and possibly abused) woman on “He’s Got You Down,” and “Boring Enormous” melodiously details the slow domestic death of a relationship over a series of acoustic guitar chords. I think “Baby Learns to Crawl” doesn’t quite hit the mark, but it is still a really good song, with a nice solo and an accordion in the background. “Dirt to Mud” is an acoustic number about survival and perseverance (that cuts off in the middle of a line).

“No Place For You” is sort of forgettable but nonetheless empathic (and continues a feminist streak that dates back to “A Little Mascara”). Existential observations are the name of the game on the delicate “Nothing to No One.” “Let the Bad Times Roll” is a dark admission of giving up, and relatively lush (re-la-tively) “Call That Gone?” is a humorous kiss-off. I can’t deny that “Mr. Rabbit” is super-charming, and the hidden ramshackle cover of Flesh for Lulu’s “Postcards From Paradise” is a wonderful treat.

Mono

Not exactly the Replacements redux people wanted either, it is instead a loose, ragged collection of riffy, Faces-inspired power-pop songs. Like Stereo, there is no polish here, and in fact, a couple of the songs could’ve used a little more work. But there is no denying this is a fun, uplifting album that scratches an itch many Westerberg fans had lived with for a long time.

“High Times” is affable and laid-back, riding a not-too-dirty riff. Things get a little grittier on “I’ll Do Anything.” Westerberg hits a jangly power-pop home run with the outstanding “Let’s Not Belong Together,” with a jumpy rockabilly-lite riff that sounds like every Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album blended together. Westerberg’s snide delivery well-serves the funny and sharp “Silent Film Star” : “You ought to be a silent film star / Keep that pretty little trap shut.” There isn’t much to “Knock It Right Out,” but it’s still a decent bit of filler that probably could’ve been something more. Paul slows down just a bit on the sweetly vulnerable “2 Days ‘Til Tomorrow,” which could’ve easily fit on Stereo and has a tidy little solo. I desperately wish Westerberg had put a little more effort into “Eyes Like Sparks,” which is basically just a short chorus repeated over and over and a riff, but shit – what a line (“Stay where you are / Baby, stay away from me / Your eyes like sparks / My heart like gasoline”) and the riff is one Keith Richards and Ronnie Lane would’ve arm-wrestled over.

“Footsteps” has a sort of Eastern guitar solo, but the vocal rhythm is a little annoying. “Kickin’ the Stall” never comes together but it isn’t bad; it is not the loud rocker the title implies. “Between Love and Like” is another power-pop nugget, orbiting around the twin suns of its riff and the bright chorus. And “AAA” is an obvious contender for best song on the album – an energetic, downcast jangle-fest. I think Westerberg has claimed he did this by himself, but supposedly, Tommy Stinson played bass (under the Zeke Pine pseudonym). The putative cover art here is even scarier than on Stereo.

The Best Thing About This Album

From Stereo, it’s “If not, then why are we here / Why the hell then are we here?” And from Mono, I have to give it to “Let’s not belong together.” That sounds wonderful.

Release Date

April, 2002

The Cover Art

Not a cover I really want to spend any time looking at. The font is okay, I guess.

Yo La Tengo – Painful

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Weird that this band hits its stride on its sixth album, but this is one of the glories of independent music. Major labels exist to make money. Indie labels exist to make art. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it’s close enough for jazz. What would my collection look like but for artists who at least got their start on indies? Thank God bands like Yo La Tengo were permitted to make music early so that we could hear everything they would later make as well.

What I Think of This Album

The first essential Yo La Tengo album (their sixth overall, and their second with now-essentially-permanent bassist James McNew), Painful adopts a greatly expanded approach, as the band explores shoegaze atmospherics, drooooooooooones, and the joys of keyboards. I don’t know how much credit goes to producer Roger Moutenot (who shared the work with Fred Brockman), but the band was happy enough to keep on collaborating with him past this initial effort.

The sound of the future meets the practice of the past, as the album opens with the first version of “Big Day Coming,” a shockingly effective song that consists of just feedback, a very quiet bass, hushed vocals (including about covering the Stones), and a repetitive organ riff; it still feels too short at seven minutes. “From a Motel 6” may make a joke of the Dylan song, but the guitar is pure shoegaze, which gets its due again on the smeary “Double Dare.” Atmospheric instrumental “Superstar Watcher” somehow manages to leave an impression in under two minutes. That sound carries over into organ-heavy “Nowhere Near,” sounding a lot like early Spiritualized/late Spacemen 3, but actually written by drummer Georgia Hubley.

The band seemingly pays tribute to its newest favorite instrument on the droning “Sudden Organ,” which could just as easily have been titled “Surprising Drums.” Kaplan’s vocals are excellent on the entire album, perhaps nowhere better than on the sweet “A Worrying Thing.” The guitars get a bit heavier on “I Was the Fool Beside You for Too Long,” another piece that seems heavily indebted to J. Spaceman and Sonic Boom. The tender, skeletal, subdued version of the Only Ones’ “The Whole of the Law” is enough to bring a tear to your eye. The second version of “Big Day Coming” showcases markedly louder vocals and muscular drumming. The album ends with another epic track, the exploratory, tidal “I Heard You Were Looking,” where Kaplan finally breaks loose.

The liner notes contain a reprinted “fan” letter hilariously excoriating the band for a less-than-appreciated live performance (“nebulous, abstract, feedback fucking nonsense”), incorporating aspects of the evening the band could not be responsible for (e.g., the lack of satisfactory ventilation at the Knitting Factory), and closing with the unimpeachable “up yours, you no talent fucks!” The only not-funny part is the anti-semitic slur tossed in the middle of the diatribe.

The Best Thing About This Album

“I Heard You Were Looking” is amazing.

Release Date

October, 1993

The Cover Art

This is another great Yo La Tengo cover (traditionally by Hubley, but no credit given on this release). A dark (quite a bit darker than the image I’ve uploaded here), heavily manipulated shot of a car driving by a New Jersey refinery, with maybe some long-exposure head/taillights, it’s a masterpiece of color and abstraction, and pairs perfectly with the music on the album. I like the dual colored font for the band name. The back cover is the same shot with different coloring.

Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty-Eight

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I hate when people ask questions like “which is the greatest rock band?” What does that even mean? What is “greatest?” This shit isn’t quantifiable – it’s not like measuring feet above sea level. And even being asked to list my top 10 favorite artists is an impossible task; there is simply too much out there and how do you begin to compare between even 100 artists? Inviting me to rank songs by one band is a more discrete but no less difficult task. I figure at best you can divide a band’s catalog into three parts (great/good/not good), and even then, things get tricky at the margins. Where would I rank Chuck Berry? How important is he to me? I have no fucking idea how to answer those questions. Like with the Beatles, if Berry did not exist, someone else – or multiple someone elses – would have created similar things, eventually. There wouldn’t just be this black hole dramatically altering the future of music; it would be different but roughly (on a grand scale), it would be similar. But he did exist, and where we are today is due in large part to him. Do kids still listen to Chuck Berry? Will bands continue to cover his songs? I doubt it. But that doesn’t change anything.

What I Think of This Album

Jesus. Fucking. Christ. I don’t even know where to begin. Please buy this album. If you care at all about rock ‘n’ roll, it is basically a moral imperative that you own this. These songs are: a) eminently witty; b) fun; c) the best showcases of the importance of a guitar riff; d) full of attitude and spirit; and e) the fucking cornerstones of rock ‘n’ roll.

All the great and critical Berry hits are here:  the iconic “Maybelline;” the racism parable “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man;” “Memphis,” the most heart-breaking song ever; poetic “Nadine;” anthem “School Days;” the warning shot that is “Roll Over, Beethoven;” the song that helped birth the Beach Boys, “Sweet Little Sixteen;” the song that gave the Stones their start, “Come On;” the song the Beatles copied for “Come Together” in “You Can’t Catch Me;” the lyrical geyser of “Too Much Monkey Business,” which inspired Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues;” the guitar masterpiece of “Carol;” sexualized “Little Queenie;” the self-mythologizing “Johnny B. Goode;” and the comical “No Particular Place to Go” (which is just “School Days” with new lyrics, but that’s okay). Plus a bunch of others that you have never heard before but should have, because they are also great (maybe not “Havana Moon”). Each of these songs is literally begging to be studied, not just listened to. Berry was a revolutionary guitarist, a stellar lyricist, a consummate showman, and an undeniable force. He was a visionary, and this collection proves it. Sometimes the sound quality on these recordings is a little lacking, and that can be disappointing but it’s a minor quibble.

The song-by-song credits are delightful to read through. Johnnie Johnson was Berry’s pianist on most of these tracks (with Lafayette Leake on several others, and legend Otis Spann on a few) and oh my, how they could play! The piano parts on the classic Berry songs like “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Reelin’ & Rockin’” are mind-boggling. Also, Willie Dixon played bass, and Etta James and the Moonglows sang backup. And, Jerome Green (Bo Diddley) shook the maracas on “Maybelline” and “30 Days.” The sheer amount of talent on this compilation is nearly incomprehensible.

The Best Thing About This Album

That it exists. Are you kidding me? Literally close your eyes and put your finger anywhere on the track listing. Fine . . . if “Memphis” doesn’t make you cry, you are not human.

Release Date

1982

The Cover Art

Pretty good. The picture could be sharper but I like the pose and Berry’s smile. The primary colors work and I like the Chess Records element across the top on an odd diagonal, and particularly how it integrates the “often imitated, never duplicated” phrase into the graphic.

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