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by Jennifer Cooke

3 Nov 2009


In honor of the 15th anniversary of its release, Blur’s Parklife has gotten a lot of extra play on my iPod lately. 1990s Britpop comprises an alarming percentage of my life’s all-time hit parade, with the bulk of it emerging from smack in the middle of that decade—Oasis’s What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?; Supergrass’s I Should Coco; Bluetones’s Expecting to Fly; Seahorses’ Do It Yourself. And Parklife is noteworthy for the fact that it is the only Blur CD I love. In fact, it is the only Blur CD I like. If we’re really getting honest here, it is the only Blur CD that doesn’t put me to sleep.

I’m not alone in my enthusiasm, as Parklife remains the band’s best-selling release. It was my first introduction to the band, their two previous discs having somehow eluded me. Lots of people feel partial to their first taste of a favorite band—usually not to the complete exclusion of the rest of their catalogue, however. I really tried!  After Parklife grabbed me and took up permanent residence in my collection, I marched right out and got Leisure and Modern Life Is Rubbish. Later, I faithfully lined up when The Great Escape and all subsequent releases came out. They all ended up in the resale pile.

Modern Life Is Rubbish is the one that comes closest to Parklife‘s greatness. “Advert” is in the same vein as the exuberantly manic “Bank Holiday”, but just doesn’t take it far enough. Vocalist/lyricist Damon Albarn’s party trick, Songs About Guys with Funny Names, started with Rubbish‘s “Colin Zeal”, and continued on through later releases with “Ernold Same” and “Dan Abnormal”. But it is on Parklife, with “Jubilee” and “Tracy Jacks” (and even Bill Barrett from “Magic America”) that Albarn’s characters are the most fleshed out, the funniest, and the most tragic.

The bottom line is this: what Parklife has that none of Blur’s other records have is balls. I don’t know if the band let up on the weed-smoking or had a brief fling with amphetamines during its recording, but everything else these dudes ever made is a crashing bore to me. Sure, “Song 2” is a crowd-pleaser that will never fail to get me pumped up for the hockey game, but that’s about it. Parklife is like a dream date—it’s smart, it’s funny, it rocks, it’s tender, it gets your blood pumping, and when it’s over, you can’t wait to do it all over again.

by PC Muñoz

2 Nov 2009


“Dedicated Thespian Has Teeth Pulled to Play Newborn Baby in High School Play”

“Embarrassed Teen Accidentally Uses Valuable Rare Postage Stamp”

“Retired Grocer Constructs Tiny Mount Rushmore Entirely of Cheese”

“High School Shop Class Constructs Bicycle Built for 26”

These waggish tabloid-headline song titles, and the whimsical lyrics that go along with them, can all be found on Strange But True, the 1998 collaboration between renegade songwriter/vocalist Jad Fair and alt-funsters Yo La Tengo. Each song consists of Fair singing and speaking mini-stories which expand on the title, backed by Yo La Tengo’s avant-indie-pop grooves and soundscapes.

Jad Fair has been a prolific artist and mischief-maker for over three decades now, starting in the ‘70s with Half-Japanese, a band he founded in Maryland with his brother, David Fair. Over the course of the last 30 years, the Fair brothers have been hailed as archetypal, out-there popsters/rock ultra-deconstructionists by critics and in-the-know fellow musicians (including Kurt Cobain, who was reportedly a big fan), while remaining relatively unknown by many mainstream music fans. Their sound is an intense, chordless (detractors would say tuneless) amalgamation of earnest singer-songwriterism and primal skronk, decorated with often-tortured lyrics about girls or monsters/imaginary creatures. The result is the kind of raw-nerve honesty (in both a sonic and lyrical sense) which compels some folks to listen more closely, other folks to run for the hills, and still others to wax hyperbolic over the genius inherent in such a nakedly unfeigned artistic emission.

Since in the past I’ve occasionally been faked-out by hipster-chic critic endorsements of various “underground geniuses”,  I should make myself clear: I believe Jad Fair deserves a respectful ear not because of some kind of cool-kid/quirkier-than-thou fetishization of his “unschooled” music. Rather, it’s his obvious love for creating and exploring, his prolific output, and his utter fearlessness in expression that is most striking, and quite undeniable.

The 1993 documentary, Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King is a good place to begin for those who are intrigued. I also recommend the reasonably accessible, above-mentioned Strange But True as an introduction to Fair’s lyric and vocal style, though diving right into one of his solo albums, or any of the 25-plus Half Japanese releases, is a more completely immersive experience for those with a burning desire to go full-on Jad right away.

What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
I was a big fan of the Beatles when I was a kid, and really liked “I Saw Her Standing There”. Beatlemania was so huge. It all seemed so modern, and so cool.

Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Hedy West is one of my favorite singers. She was a banjo player and released some great albums. It’s difficult to find much by her.

Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Vic and Sade was a radio show in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and is by far my favorite comedy show. It was a 15-minute show which had five shows a week. The show’s writer was Paul Rhymer. He was a comic genius. I have all of the shows I could find on my iPod and listen to the show almost every day. I’m not sure how it influences my music, but I’m sure it does, because it has such a strong hold on me.

Do you view songwriting as a vocation/calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I used to make my living off of music, and song writing is a good part of that. For the past seven years I’ve focused on my art. My main vocation now is paper cutting. I’ve had six books published and several exhibitions.

Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
Amy Allison‘s song “What’s the Deal?” is great. She’s one of the best songwriters around. There are many musicians that I like, but it’s hard to find a good songwriter. Amy gets my vote.

As Fair notes in his answers above, as of late he has been concentrating on his visual artwork. Visit jadfair.org for lots of information on Jad Fair’s art, music, and other activities.

by AJ Ramirez

31 Oct 2009


August marked the 30th anniversary of the release of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, the first single by goth pioneers Bauhaus.  I knew in the back of my head that the song would hit the three-decade mark this year, but the exact date of release slipped my mind, otherwise I would’ve written a glowing tribute to the song two months ago.  My forgetfulness works out all right, given that there’s no better time to ruminate on “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” than in the light of Halloween.

Listening to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” provides the rare opportunity to hear a style of music emerge fully-formed.  Sure, there were clear influences (David Bowie) and important predecessors (Joy Division).  But on that 1979 release, Bauhaus pulled all that had come before it together to present something unique: goth.  In this nine-and-a-half-minute requiem for the actor who played the title character in the classic 1931 film version of Dracula, Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins lay out all the tricks of the form for later practitioners to follow: the ominous bassline, the spectral guitar, the foreboding low-range vocals, and (of course) the horror-movie imagery.  Most importantly, Bauhaus constructs the perfect mood: sepulchral, gloomy, and with a hint of fear.  Will Hollywood’s most famous bloodsucker stay in his tomb?  When Peter Murphy switches his mannered intonations from commenting “Bela Lugosi’s dead” to repeating the word “undead”, it seems frighteningly unlikely.

Even if one is not a fan of gothic rock (and there are a lot of people who aren’t, finding it too pretentious, too introverted, too silly), Bauhaus’s importance as the author of the first goth single cannot be denied.  But there’s another honor owed to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” that is largely unrecognized: it can be very well be called the first true alternative rock record.

by Tommy Marx

29 Oct 2009


The phrase “no homo” (signifying that the user isn’t gay) is used often in music now, especially in heavily auto-tuned rap cameos appearing in otherwise generic pop songs, but it still makes me laugh every time I hear it. Most of the time, the words are used after either the most innocuous of statements (“the light turned green, no homo”) or after the most unabashedly gay statements (“I enjoy having lots of sex with men, no homo”). Either way, the phrase makes no sense.

Cam’ron, Lil’ Wayne, and Kanye can protest all they want, but in my experience, most men don’t worry whether something they say might be misconstrued as sounding gay. And if a man actually said something “gay” inadvertently, most of them would laugh it off and promptly forget about it within two minutes. It’s just not something your average guy, regardless of orientation, worries about.

Let’s be brutally honest, shall we? When someone says “no homo”, it usually translates as “Omigod, did that sound gay? ‘Cause I’m not gay! I have never placed ads on craigslist looking for hot man-to-man loving, those magazines hidden underneath my sweaters in the bottom dresser drawer actually belong to my sister, and I have a girlfriend in Canada that I have major sexual intercourse with all the time!”

My suggestion? If you’re worried something you’re about to say (or rap on a record that will be heard by millions and last forever) could be taken as homosexual in nature, find a different way to say it that doesn’t require you to explain your sexual orientation in a suspiciously defensive manner. And if you ever decide to peek out from behind the door and take baby steps into the open, here are a few one-hit wonders that are, in fact, homo and aren’t obsessed with staying in that narrow closet you prefer.

by AJ Ramirez

29 Oct 2009


It begins with a drumbeat that pulses like a human heart but sounds more like shutters flapping in an empty manor.  A synthesizer whines as a voice wafts in like a cold wind over the sparse backdrop.  It smolders for a while; then, as keyboards enter like rays of sunlight, the voice bursts out into full force in a cry verging on the operatic, punctuated by delicate piano keys.  The song is nothing less than poised grandeur, mourning a deep loss in a somber, moving fashion.

The single “Vienna” was an affirmation for struggling synthpop pioneers Ultravox.  At the dawn of the 1980s, the group was in a precarious situation. Not long before the song was recorded, original frontman John Foxx had departed the group, and his replacement, Midge Ure, arrived in the middle of a group whose chance at stardom was widely considered to be long past.  “Vienna” proved Ultravox was ready for another shot.  In fact, the song was so strong that Ultravox’s record label, Chrysalis, changed the band’s fourth album title name to Vienna from the less straightforward Torque Point.  Released in January 1981, “Vienna” hovered at number two on the UK Singles Chart in the early part of the year.  Oddly enough, it was kept from the top slot first by a pair of singles by then-recently slain ex-Beatle John Lennon, then by Joe Dolce’s novelty hit “Shaddup You Face”.

Although it never reached the top of the charts, “Vienna” is nonetheless Ultravox’s greatest triumph.  “Vienna” excels at creating a mood suggestive of reflection, despair, and longing.  The song’s restraint of composition is its strength, keeping its more sensational moments from coming off as overblown melodrama. This does not just apply to execution of the music.  The beautifully-realized atmosphere of “Vienna” is crafted in part by lyrics that suggest emotions instead of outlining hard details.  The words do not explicitly state what the song is about, for the lyrics are concerned with conveying the feeling through word choice and phrasing rather than explaining what exactly the narrator is ruminating about.

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