By now I'm sure Tori Amos is sick of being compared to, or lumped in with, Kate Bush. "We sound nothing alike!" she would protest, and it's true. But they do have this in common: guys despise their music. Perhaps "despise" is the wrong word: guys can't abide by their music, it's a nails-on-the-chalkboard thing.
Cover songs: they're not just for bar bands anymore. (Question: Do bar bands still exist?) The new wave of covers probably started with Cat Power's The Covers Record, in which the slack-jawed yet grippingly talented Chan Marshall turned The Rolling Stones' classic and overplayed "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" into something creepy and mysterious, simply by slowing it down to 2 RPM and, oh by the way, cutting the chorus. I mean, if you're gonna make it your own, you might as well go for it, right? Who knew there were any lyrics other than "I can't get no! Satisfaction!" etc. Well, Chan Marshall did -- and it works.
Music and the Oscars. They go together like... like... peanut butter and orange juice. Er... like Reese and Ryan? Hmm. It's a shame; apparently they used to have such a nice relationship. I heard an old-school Hollywood techie reminiscing about the good old days last week on NPR. The scene he described made the old Oscars show sound like a Vegas showgirl revue, and it probably was. Girls! Costumes! Lights! Song! Dance! Tap dancing, even -- and not Savion Glover, either! When was the last time you saw that -- and don't say Happy Feet, because that was Savion grafted onto a penguin body. Seriously, he is the only person allowed to tap dance in North America, as far as I can tell.
Do you like Stereolab? Do you like their girl + guy harmonies and lovely melodies, but are you sometimes annoyed by the wacky computerey sounds that seem like they're in the mix just for the "techno" aspect of it all? No offense to Stereolab, but there have been more than a few moments when I've wondered whether they focus too much on the "lab" and not enough on the "stereo."
Back in the days when most people my age were making their first trillion at Lint.com, I was spending my grad school career (only partially publicly-funded) with M, G, and D thinking up the ultimate new music magazine. We would meet at D's space-age bachelor pad, the only building in the Tenderloin with a doorman, and waste away the hours, complaining about the lameness of all current and past music publications, assigning ourselves creative titles (Chief Delegator, Executive Title Assigner, etc.), and basically ignoring the distant drum of reality as we gazed out on a silicon-crazed San Francisco from D's 17th floor window. During one of those caffeine-fueled "meetings," D beckoned us over to his laptop and pointed to the music library therein.
Gee, music's good these days. There was once a time, not so long ago, when the phrase, "Hey, you want to hear my demo?" was an entreaty on par with, "Hey, want to buy my extra ticket to the local dinner theater's version of Krapp's Last Tape?" In a word, no.
Part I: Thanksgiving"Lost in the Supermarket" -- The Clash: Let's ignore the capitalist critique for a moment and think about the lyric, "I can no longer shop happily." This is me in Safeway on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving with all the ten thousand other folks who left their shopping until the last minute and are now suffering each other's company. On top of that, I'm wondering, "What goes in that Green Bean Casserole again -- half and half, or cream? And why would I want to combine green beans with either? Ah, yes: tradition. And the wrath of Aunt Phyllis."
Fans of Robyn Hitchcock. Fans of the Beautiful South. They're out there, and they're a special breed. These are folks who appreciate the potential for pop-music-as-short-story. Hitchcock wrote "Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl" and revealed more about male-female understanding than The Rules ever could. The Beautiful South wrote "Don't Marry Her" and evoked a marital ennui that was harsher than a Cheever story and funnier, too ("When your socks smell of angels / But your life smells of brie / Don't marry her, fuck me").
When I was seventeen I left my tiny, snowbound hometown and enrolled as a freshman at UCLA. There were as many students in my Psych 101 class as there had been in my entire high school. This was, of course, why I'd elected to go there: L.A. represented The Outside World I had heard so much about.
I always suspected that Lloyd Cole's "Rattlesnakes" was about the heroine of Joan Didion's semi-autbiographical novel, Play It As It Lays because of the way Cole croons, "her neverborn child still haunts her / as she speeds down the freeway." That is so Didion, from the abortion to the cloverleafs. Even the "rattlesnakes" part ("She says a girl needs a gun these days / Hey on account of all the rattlesnakes") is Didionesque in its paranoid logic. The young Joan Didion -- as pictured on the back of Slouching Toward Bethlehem, cigarette in her bony hand, half a smile on her waif-like face -- is a perfect model for the eternal Lloyd Cole heroine: smart, nervous, and overwrought. "Like Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront." Lloyd Cole sings about neurotic girls. And he, of course, is neurotic, too.
It's a trend that never happened... yet. The whole singer-who-isn't-really-a-singer trend is the non-trend I'm talking about. Still with me? Here's a quick taste: "Tall and tan and young and lovelyThe girl from Ipanema goes walkingAnd when she's walking each one she passes goes, 'aah...'
We all have our own San Franciscos. I first moved to the city in the mid-1970s and attended elementary school in Precita Park, where my first grade teacher, the gorgeous Ms. Soo Ying, had a pierced nose, several butterfly tattoos, and a boyfriend named Babatunde who taught us to count to 100 in Swahili. My mom worked at Emporium Capwell and hung out with a group of writers and underground comic artists whose apartments were filled with smoke, conversation, and strange music. All of this left a permanent impression on me of a city that was a funky home to bohemian weirdos of all stripes.
A lonely voice, wailing to the world: why can't you understand me? Not only does this describe my attitude toward what I hereby dub SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy) Rock, it pretty much sums up the message of the genre itself. In my case, I would like to know why SNAG Rock has proliferated kudzu-style all over the sonic landscape. In the SNAG Rockers' case, they would like to know why their girlfriend dumped them/why they screwed up a good thing/what the meaning of it all might be.
Oh say, have you heard of The Heavenly States? In a world of bad band names, they got a good one. And the name tells you something about the music: The Heavenly States are not afraid to be beautiful. They're not averse to a great hook. They're very open to "oooh-aah" backing vocals that just sound good. They're not trying to be clever, they just want to rock. Oh, yeah, honey Â– The Heavenly States will rock you ... maybe not like a hurricane, but they will rock you like a tropical storm: heavy at times, fading into a spooky calm, with plenty of atmosphere. Does anybody in this post-Katrina world really want to be rocked like a hurricane anymore?
Consider the virtually simultaneous appearance on earth of the following: Ambient music (mid-1970s); the Sony Walkman (1979); MTV (1981). Coincidence? Yes, but...Admit it: you have spent time -- valuable time -- imagining what a TV show or film based on your life would look like. Who would play you? Who would play that jerk of a kid who picked on you in junior high? (May I suggest Seth Green?) And, most importantly, what would be on the soundtrack?
The Clock of the Long NowRemember the Y2K panic? A nation groaned when it realized that the brainiacs who devised the world's computer operating systems had neglected to look far enough into the future to realize dates would eventually begin with "20-" instead of "19-", and we waited and wondered what chaos this global typo would wreak. Not much, as you may recall. But Y2K was useful in exposing the shallowness of human imagination. How are we ever going to address a long-term issue like global warming if we can't even look beyond the next election cycle? Glad you asked. Have you heard of The Clock of the Long Now?