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by PC Muñoz

30 Nov 2009

“Nobody can be you but you.”
—Steve Arrington

It’s almost inaccurate to call drummer/songwriter/producer Steve Arrington as plain a term as “singer”, as he doesn’t so much sing lyrics as much as he throws his whole being into them, disarming listeners with the pure physicality of swooping acrobatic highs, dramatic growls, and unexpected melodic turns. The former vocalist/frontman for funk legends Slave, as well as his own group, Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame, Steve Arrington, along with fellow Ohio natives Sugarfoot and Roger Troutman, has long been considered by funkateers to be one of the most distinctive funk vocalists of all time.

With all due respect to the aforementioned vocalists, as well as Larry Blackmon and other groundbreaking funk vocalists, I would actually go one step further and say Arrington is the most unique vocalist in funk, ever. While it is fairly common for funk vocalists to function as the lead rhythm instrument within an interlocking hyper-syncopated ensemble, Arrington, in my opinion, was the only one to use his voice in the same way other funk bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s used squealing, gurgling synths: as an undulating, unpredictable, but still pleasing-to-hear futuristic “sound effect” of sorts. Troutman, whose work I love dearly, of course also deftly and skillfully did things in this vein, but he had the help of his talkbox. Arrington’s vocal flights of fancy are organic, and his drumming background gives each of his texturized vocal performances a rhythmic precision that is funky-to-the-core. And to this day, no one sounds like Steve Arrington but Steve Arrington—nobody can be him but him.

by AJ Ramirez

29 Nov 2009

Photo by
Catherine McGann

How many times in your life have you have loathed that one guy just because you “knew” he was an utter tool (not like you ever bothered to actually get to know him)?  “Chump” is all about that sort of knee-jerk irrational prejudice. Backed by a distorted ringing guitar that recalls 1980s underground rockers Hüsker Dü (one of Green Day’s biggest acknowledged influences), Billie Joe Armstrong kicks off the third track on Dookie by sneering “I don’t know you but I think I hate you” and going on from there.

In the song, Armstrong takes the perspective of someone who knows he utterly hates another person before he has even met them.  The character’s disdain towards the subject of his woe is the sort of all-consuming preoccupation that tends to inhabit adolescent lives, best evoked by the couplet “You’re the cloud hanging out over my head / Hail comes crashing down welting my face”.  Armstrong’s character is perfectly fine in laying blame for all his misery at the other person’s feet, but notes “It seems strange that you’ve become my biggest enemy / Even though I’ve never even seen your face”.  He’s quick with the insults (“Magic man, egocentric plastic man”) but short of actual reasons.  In fact, all he has is a series of “maybes” that he lists off in the chorus, describing the whole situation as “A circumstance that doesn’t make much sense”, finally conceding “maybe I’m just dumb”.  It’s the song’s final cry of “I’m a chump!” that reveals who’s really the jerk in this story.

“Chump” essentially ends at the 1:25 mark.  At that point, the band segues into a two-chord instrumental jam that lasts about a minute.  It’s rather simple: Armstrong bashes out a few chords over Mike Dirnt’s ambling bassline, progressively shortening the number of rests between beats until the music becomes a flurry of guitar strumming and drum rolls.  Let’s not forget that these guys are punk rockers; they know how to craft an engaging musical section with the barest essentials.  And sometimes just smashing the hell out of instruments in the right fashion is all that’s needed.  After the chaos subsides, a shuffling drumbeat emerges that leads into the next track and the first of Dookie’s many hit singles…

by AJ Ramirez

26 Nov 2009

Photo by
Catherine McGann

“Having a Blast” highlights one of the great fascinations that frequently captivates adolescents: the thrill of blowing things up.  Green Day lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong uses this as the basis for a revenge fantasy where a frustrated bomber plans to take everyone else out with him.  When Dookie was released in 1994, the song’s lyrics were mere cathartic fantasy, about as serious an issue as the pyromaniacal antics of the animated stars of Beavis & Butthead (that is, more idiotically dangerous than truly threatening).  In the intervening years, however, school violence involving troubled, alienated teenagers who have no qualms about unleashing retribution on their classmates has become a fixture of the news media.  In the light of tragedies like the murders at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, “Having a Blast” has since become Dookie’s most uncomfortable track.

It’s important to note that in no way is the narrator of “Having a Blast” admirable; few characters on Dookie are.  The protagonist is extremely self-centered—with “explosives duct-taped to [his] spine”, he insists, “Nothing’s gonna change my mind”.  He says, “I won’t listen to anyone’s last words”, explaining in the chorus:

“Well no one here
Is getting out alive
This time I’ve really lost my mind and I don’t care
So close your eyes
And kiss yourself goodbye
And think about all the times you spent
And what they’ve meant
To me it’s nothing”

While he rationalizes his actions by stating “I’m taking it all out on you / And all the shit you put me through”, the song’s narrator is ultimately very selfish.  He doesn’t care about all the people he’s about to kill, and he won’t listen to anything else they have to say to try and save themselves.  Everything is “nothing” except the “loneliness” and “anger” that consume him.

As Armstrong sings, he utilizes palm-muted strumming during the verses, gradually building up intensity until he switches to regular strumming for a fuller sound.  This evokes the burgeoning tension of the protagonist, who’s literally ready to go off at any moment.  After the second chorus, the song forgoes repeating the verse chord progression a third time in lieu of an extended bridge section featuring several dramatic pauses to underscore Armstrong’s vocals.  Here, Armstrong employs a songwriting trick he will use throughout the album: introducing a twist into his lyrics to change the listener’s perception of the characters.  Armstrong poses a series of pointed questions, culminating in the clincher: “Do you ever build up all the small things in your head / To make one problem that adds up to nothing”, which insinuates that the song’s protagonist is making a big deal out of insignificant slights in life.  The protagonist of the song may want to “mow down any bullshit” that confronts him, but Armstrong concludes the track by questioning whether or not it’s anything actually worth blowing everything to hell over. 

By ending “Having a Blast” with the chorus refrain “To me it’s nothing”, Armstrong argues it isn’t.

by AJ Ramirez

24 Nov 2009


All the recent name-checking of classic albums from 1994 on this blog got me thinking: wow, wasn’t that a great year for rock music?  Thinking about the Sound Affects posts on Blur and “Soundgarden” as I chowed down at a fast food joint, I instinctively rattled album titles off the top of my head: Definitely Maybe, The Downward Spiral, MTV Unplugged in New York, Vitalogy, and so on. After several titles ran through my brain, I couldn’t help but think I’d missed something blindingly obvious.

And then I remembered: well, of course Green Day’s Dookie was the best rock album of 1994.

Fifteen years ago, scores of critics admitted that yes, this 14-track album full of speedy pop punk tunes about panic attacks, boredom, and masturbation was quite catchy, but no one would’ve held it against them if they doubted that Dookie would have had staying power. It’s too unassuming, too fidgety, and too juvenile to fit the standard mold of a “Classic Rock Album”. But then again, rock started simply as good-time music for teenagers to lose themselves in, not to incite pop culture critics to stroke their beards in contemplation. Dookie was such a massive success (with ten million copies shipped in the United States alone since its release) because not only was it an unpretentious, remarkably consistent hit package with tons of great hooks, it was also fun as hell.

Which is not to sell Dookie short as an artistic achievement. In addition to being the Californian punk trio’s best album, it may also be its most culturally relevant. Sure, American Idiot (2004) captured the zeitgeist of discontent and uncertainty of those who felt weighed down by the Bush Jr. era and conveyed that sentiment through all the rock opera trappings listeners love to dissect for years on end, but Green Day’s major label debut is more universal and far more profound. It’s a record that speaks of the frustrations, anxieties, and apathy of young people (be they Generations X or Y) with an artistry and empathy few would have credited Green Day with possessing before it yielded its “Big Important Album” with American Idiot. At its core, Dookie is an album about coming to terms with one’s self and one’s failings in a manner that is not often triumphant or celebratory, but is nonetheless reaffirming to the underachievers of the world. Dookie is an album that says “Yeah, I’m a fuck-up” in a way that millions of people wish they could express themselves in, and that’s why it’s so great.

by Jennifer Cooke

23 Nov 2009

On the TV show Project Runway, hopeful designers are given challenges to make fabulous fashions on a shoestring budget. Their faces invariably crinkle in dismay when they find they’ve only got $150 and 24 hours to make a gown worthy of the red carpet. When the results are evaluated, one of the most coveted comments from the judges is that a piece “looks expensive” even though it was created with very little money. The ultimate compliment is when Heidi Klum says something like, “I could walk right out of here and wear that to a party tonight.”

Being an unsigned band is kind of like being a contestant on Project Runway. You might have more time to produce a CD, but not a whole lot more financial resources. Most of the time, the results are a bit rough-hewn, raggedy around the hem, with an exposed zipper or puckered fabric here and there. But every once in a while, a little nobody band manages to produce a CD so good, so cohesive, and so professional that it could sit right beside the cream of popular music, today, as is. San Diego’s own Transfer has submitted just such an album, Future Selves, and if enough people heard it, I have no doubt it could walk right out of here and go to a party with Kings of Leon, Weezer, Muse, and everyone else on Billboard’s rock charts for November 2009.

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

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