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Thursday, Jun 19, 2008

The opening track on 1968’s Music from Big Pink is one of the most perfect pop compositions ever. It is a perfectly atypical opening number and a perfect introduction to the intriguing style of The Band. It is also a depressing suggestion as to how much more perfect they could have been had Richard Manuel been able to keep himself from himself.


Co-written by Manuel and Bob Dylan, “Tears of Rage” is the painful lament of a betrayed parent. The first recorded version of the song is the Dylan-sung one that was released on The Basement Tapes. Dylan’s – usually extraordinary – ability to capture the essence of the song was utterly obliterated by Manuel’s on the official Big Pink reading. The extraordinary anguish in Manuel’s voice added exponentially to the already heartbreaking lyrics. The slower composition, Garth Hudson’s haunting organ, Robbie Robertson’s swirling guitar, the unparalleled rhythm of drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko (who also provides backup vocals), as well as Manuel’s own piano work combined for one of those very rare occasions in which Dylan was completely schooled on one of his own songs (ironically, Manuel does it again on the same album with his version of “I Shall be Released”).


Sadly, the mood of “Tears of Rage” was forebodingly symbolic of the pain and suffering that would eventually consume Richard Manuel – who hanged himself in 1986 after two decades of extreme substance abuse. Perhaps the rarest attribute of The Band was the deficiency of a definitive front-man. With three lead singers and all five members’ status as exceptional musicians, there was no member of The Band who was more important to its achievements than the other; but for the first five minutes of their first album, they seemed to revolve around one genius.


Though the introverted Manuel would continue to prove integral to The Band’s success with his singing and playing abilities, his contributions decreased to the point that Robertson was getting credit for writing all of their songs (whether he actually wrote them or not has been debated) and Rick Danko became, more and more, the go-to-guy for mournful ballads.


The final and lasting image of The Band, for many, was Martin Scorsese’s documentary of their farewell concert, The Last Waltz, in which Manuel sang only one complete on-screen song (“The Shape I’m In”) and the middle verse of the closer “I Shall be Released”, during which he is barely visible, eclipsed by the throng of superstars on stage (Dylan, at center stage, sings the other two verses). As great a movie as it was, The Last Waltz did not portray Manuel in a way that would provide those unfamiliar with him any insight into just how important he was to The Band.


To this day, most people seem to know of The Band, but few know much about them outside of their association with Dylan and would probably only recognize the name “Robbie Robertson”. Their eponymous second album is generally regarded as their definitive statement. While I wouldn’t deny that it is a pretty great album, I feel that Music from Big Pink and, more specifically, “Tears of Rage” are perfect examples of how much better “The Brown Album” could have been had Richard Manuel conquered his inner demons a bit more and played a larger role in the songwriting.


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Wednesday, Jun 18, 2008
The Kills - Cheap and Cheerful

This song is a guilty pleasure for me.  Guilty because The Kills are the Marquis de Sade’s of skeletal alleyway rock wreckage, artists whose image has always felt a little too arch, constructed and Warholian for me.  A lyric like “I want expensive sadness”, regardless of the labored New York aesthetic is exactly the kind of thing I’d expect Paris Hilton to say.  Nihilism and empty heiress blather tend to meet on the extreme ends of the circle.  But there’s something about the gutter blitheness that makes The Kills a band that gets you in touch with your dirtiest, darkest most decadent impulses even if it is a hand-crafted collection of ironically non-ironic cliches.  Not to mention, they can concoct grooves that sound assembled from tenement litter with guitar little more that sparse, fierce punches.  I like them, but always fell like I should have my caveats handy. 


Imagine my surprise to see that the video for a song celebrating the destructive, melodramatic and snide aspects of human nature that has almost no creative energy behind its images.  We have tattered drum corps that really just looking like a methadone line forced to play band camp for day.  Splashes of paint smear the screen but the effect is campy, psychedelic, the antithesis of their sound.  If this is itself a cheeky inversion of their image, then I’m afraid I have to give up out of the sheer exhaustion of following such Olympic level posturing.  Allison Mosshart forgoes her pitch black mane for Flo’s wig from Alice making a perfunctory stab at the retro junky look that serves the video only in the sense of adding another decade to the slopped pastiche.  This song sounds sexy and dangerous, but the video is simply lazy, limp and tame.  They may as well have done it on a mountain top with someone’s “eyes on fire” for all the energy put into tossing this half-assery together.


Tagged as: the kills
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Wednesday, Jun 11, 2008
I Gotta Know - Wanda Jackson

Okay, so the title is both an exaggeration and a reversal of proper chronology.  Wanda Jackson is a huge Elvis fan, as evidenced by her one of her most recent releases, I Remember Elvis, but I couldn’t resist the quip since nearly all writing about Wanda Jackson contains the diminishing compliment, “the female Elvis”. 


Personally, I listen to her more and get much more enjoyment from her sound than I do Elvis’ oeuvre. (Also, please note that she could really play the guitar from the very beginning of her career.) The comparison also misses the deeper country and western influence, nowhere more evident than on the song, “I Gotta Know” which almost comically accents the twang on “thang” and “rang” (ring). 


She’s still touring; I guess that’s one of the benefits of being a hard working musician over a worldwide icon.  Try to sit still through the song’s bounce and her tight little jig around the stage.  Granted, she doesn’t have the smoldering sexy that pre-Rx bloat Elvis had, but her pin-up beauty and spitfire confidence go a long way in cultivating a wholly different brand of star presence.  She should have garnered bigger fame in her time, but has to instead settle for a devoted following and a belated critical resurrection.


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Wednesday, Jun 11, 2008
8Ball and MJG - Candy

I wish more people would stay on top of mid-‘90s hip-hop videos. This little gem by 8Ball and MJG is a prime example of how much nostalgia some of these videos create. It’s hard not to think of something like 8Ball and MJG’s “Just Like Candy” or Biggie’s “Hypnotize” and not remember the time or place in one’s life during the release of these videos. The quick cuts and the fade-ins and outs were staples of ‘90s hip-hop videos, especially the more laid back summer suave cuts.


This was before Southern hip-hop became immersed in clap-style snares and a much more narrow topic base—these were innocent party hits that play out over time as classics with style and class. 8Ball and MJG are two of the South’s kings—and its tracks like “Just Like Candy” that keep them on that throne. The Dirty South has changed quite dramatically, but it only takes a look back on tracks like these to realize the kind of soul there was at the party long before the youngsters hit the streets.


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Tuesday, Jun 10, 2008
Emily - The Shocking Pinks

This is a perfectly good example of great songs getting a video treatment that not only highlights the song’s weakness but makes the band seem a little bit on the desperate.  “Emily” has all the morose grandeur of a Psychedelic Furs song with a fair amount of Jesus and Mary Chain sonic smudging around the edges.  Not that the band doesn’t ad some elements of their own, it’s just that this particular song has enough 80s immediacy to make you think that you’ve heard it all before. 


But the video only makes the song seem entirely too long and, with its unsparing use of cliched image, entirely unoriginal.  This is the video a stupid ex would send you as evidence of their undying devotion to your idealization.  It’s if to tell someone, “I’m still getting over you, that’s why I’m having all of this anonymous sex with different women”.  Granted, he seems disconnected from all the half-clothed women, but the entire concept seems like an excuse for the band to place a dirty craig’s list ad soliciting video babes.  It seems wholly out of a genre, a mopey little piece of drone pop being given the poolside hip hop/hair band metal video treatment of boobs, boobs, boobs. The Michael Jackson “Black or White” morphig of all the other women into each other seems as disturbing as Edina (from Absolutely Fabulous)telling her daughter Saffron that she was born she named her “thing-it”.  The fact that it’s an attempt to tastefully render this kind of interchangeable-laws-of-booty video only makes it seem more farcical. 


It’s a shame too because the song has the kind of woozy, blurred undercurrent that sets it up for visual play.  But the time lapsed walking and thing-it “not Emily” girl are all you get.  Of course, the video shouldn’t taint your experience of a song, but with images this inept, there is the somewhat comical conclusion that Emily isn’t all that special.  Incidentally, according to the research cited by Rob Horning, this is close to the perfect pop song length.


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