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Tuesday, Apr 27, 2010
The riff: is there any sweeter two-word phrase in the rock vocabulary? AJ Ramirez offers his examples of the best riffs via video.

I always enjoy it when music critics sit down together—either literally or metaphorically—and engage in a lively discourse about an aspect of the medium. And what subject have music journalist Simon Reynolds and Carl of the Impostume decided to exchange sporting back-and-forth Blogspot posts about all this week?  Why, nothing less than the topic of the almighty riff. Between the two of them, they’ve already covered iconic licks by Iron Butterfly, Budgie, Ted Nugent, Nazareth, and Mountain, and I for one am following intently to see what slices of riff-based majesty they will whip out next.


The riff: is there any sweeter two-word phrase in the rock vocabulary? I say nay (okay, “Freddie Mercury” and “more cowbell” are contenders, but neither of them fill the soundtrack albums of summer blockbusters about Iron Man). As posited by Carl on the Impostume, “A good riff should, I think, make you squint. Or wince. Either way it’s eye-narrowing.”  I briefly touched on the power and allure of an excellent riff before when discussing Green Day’s “When I Come Around” here in Sound Affects, where I held a similar viewpoint to his. Basically, what makes a riff great is how it instinctively grabs you, to the point where words fail to adequately convey the enrapturing experience. Sure, I can go on at length discussing a riff’s melodic components or how it locks into the groove in an effort to illuminate why I feel it works, but at the end of the day what I really judge the effectiveness of a riff against is by how much I want to hear it again. And again and again. Great riffs are ultimately only held to the pivotal “does it rock?” standard, which makes attempts to further complicate that criterion pretty pointless. Because of this, I have to disagree with Carl’s assertion that the best riffs are generally the slower ones. Quality riffs come in all shapes and forms, so the blitzkrieg attack of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” can pack as much of a punch as the self-assured stomp of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, and both are as valid as the punk simplicity of the Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”.


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Monday, Apr 26, 2010
Recording artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” - Dionne Warwick
Music by Burt Bacharach, Lyrics by Hal David
From Dionne Warwick in Valley of the Dolls (Scepter, 1968)


“I was born and raised in San Jose.”
Dionne Warwick, via Hal David


As a kid, I knew that Dionne Warwick wasn’t telling the truth when she sang the lyric excerpted above, though I loved how she sang it. First of all, when I first heard the song, I had been in San Jose my whole young life, and I’d never seen her around. Not at Frontier Village, not at Eastridge Mall, not anywhere. Additionally, to my young mind, there was no way anyone could invest any sincerity in the lyrics to this song (especially anyone who was actually born and raised in San Jose). As a matter of fact, the idyllic ‘small-town San Jose’ the lyric described sounded so little like the San Jose I encountered every day as a kid, I had to ask my mother if the song was indeed about “our” San Jose. “Yes,” she answered. “Because to people from a city like LA, San Jose might seem like a small town.”


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Friday, Apr 23, 2010
Some artists are more than merely great. There are some artists that for a period of years, a period that is finite, consistently produced music that, it can be argued, far exceeded the work of their peers. For that brief period of time they were definitely Masters of the Form.

There was a time before America’s youth was even aware of Seattle’s existence. There was a time when the word “alternative” wasn’t just a marketing term. Alternative music wasn’t always a product of the post-1990 MTV marketing of anger prettily packaged in flannel. In the early ‘80s, alternative music was music that was alternative to the mainstream, music that serenaded university students all over the world—college music played by college radio stations that wasn’t defined as “grunge”. There was a time when alternative music was defined as “The Cure”.


The Cure had been more than just a cult success by the time they released their sixth studio album The Head on the Door in 1985. They had achieved a notoriety that rarely accompanies their modest level of musical and popular success. They had yet to breakthrough commercially like U2, INXS and Depeche Mode had, but before most American high school students could even name a Cure song, they could still identify the Cure as what alternative music looked like. Kids who’d taken a weekend to visit older brothers and sisters at their college campuses, had decided that alternative music had long, teased hair, pale white skin, black-lined eyes and blood red lips. Alternative music might have sounded like U2, INXS and Depeche Mode but it looked like Robert Smith. With the release
The Head on the Door, the Cure became Masters of the Form whose music had finally caught up to its image.


The Head on the Door was an unexpected release from the Cure in 1985. Most fans thought the band was on the verge of breaking up. Robert Smith had spent most of 1983 touring with Siouxsie and the Banshees and releasing an album with the Glove, a side group formed with Banshee’s bassist Steve Severin. That same year saw the release of the successful pop confection “Lovecats”, but Smith’s next release with the Cure, 1984’s The Top did little to encourage the band’s fans. The album was a disparate collage of murky, dirge-like ideas that failed to coalesce into a collection of strong songs. Using The Top as exhibit A, it was easy to argue that the group’s best music was behind it and that the Cure was on its way to being a small footnote in musical history.


The most striking thing about 1985’s The Head on the Door though, is how big and accessible it sounds. This was not a murky album content to stare at the floor and be anybody’s definition of “depressed music”. Compared to the group’s earlier releases, the sound was massive. “In Between Days” doesn’t play from the speakers as much as it echoes through them like an anthem echoing through an empty arena during sound check. There is an echo to the drums and percussive strum of the acoustic guitar that, coupled with the soaring keyboards, makes the track’s opening a visceral experience, a breathless example of a band coming into its own.


The fact that the Cure was a band again played a large role in the album’s success. The Top had largely been a solo project with Smith writing the music and playing most of the parts himself. The Head on the Door was recorded as a full band effort and the presence of a band, particularly guitarist Porl Thompson, seemed to reenergize the concept of what the Cure could be. The Cure was a hungry musical animal, with twin guitar teeth it freely bared on tracks like “The Baby Screams” and “A Night Like This”, that were prepared to devour the musical world, and with The Head on the Door they left the sound of clubs and theaters behind for the large sound of arena rock.


Virtually every song on The Head on the Door is poppy, but this accessibility did nothing to make them sound like any of their contemporaries. “It tastes like nothing on Earth,” Smith sings on “Kyoto Song” and he may as well be singing about the Cure. The radio readiness of the album’s tracks seemed to crystallize it into a decisive musical work, but it was still wholly unique. The hooks were bigger, but they were still the Cure. So, the ear could be seduced by the Spanish guitar of “Blood” and the tongue could sing along with the chant “I am paralyzed” but the song’s catchiness doesn’t change the fact that complete line is “I am paralyzed by the blood of Christ”. “Push” carries on the Cure’s affection for extended guitar intros, but the fact that the song has no vocals for almost two and a half minutes does nothing to diminish its power. The song’s hook isn’t in the vocal at all. The hook is in the guitar; the vocals lend an already great “chorus” accompaniment and punctuation.


The album’s two strongest songs might be its two most overtly pop compositions. “Six Different Ways” is an incredibly underrated pop gem. The song is so sugary sweet that it’s almost difficult for a listener to decide exactly which part to hum along with. The piano bounces between the drums, the keyboards sparkle across the piano until the strings slide through the loops of all the other instruments and tie them together like a sash underneath the bow of Smith’s perfect vocal crackling into falsetto as it approaches the end of each line. The poppiest song on the album, “Close to You”, is also its most simple, a yearning love song that seems to be told from the vantage point of a lovesick Casio keyboard. The song is a few moments of pop magic from Masters of the Form who were finally in a position to create magic with regularity. In two years, the Cure would create more with the release of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.


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Thursday, Apr 22, 2010

Throughout the course of its storied career, Blur more often than not seemed to be playing a role. While the Britpop group’s incarnations as faux-Cockney punters (circa Parklife) and as the British Pavement (Blur) are most often hailed as the band’s high water marks, Blur’s early dabbling in the top trends of the British indie scene at the start of the 1990s—Madchester and shoegaze—on its 1991 debut Leisure is often referred to in less affectionate terms, if at all. In spite of the lack of love for that period, consensus is clear that the record yielded at least one top tune, “There’s No Other Way”, a groovy genre workout that outdid some of the better attempts at crafting danceable Madchester singles by actual Mancunian bands.


Tagged as: blur, damon albarn
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Tuesday, Apr 20, 2010
In a weekend where Gorillaz closed out Coachella and Blur released its first single in a decade, one man swoons over the force at the center of it all.

Credibility is apparently a big deal in the music journo biz. I get that, at least in theory. I mean, I know why I’m supposed to take shit at face value and not let myself fall in love. But the whole reason I got into this mess in the first place was because I’m a fan and I get all emotional about music, and then I get all verbose and that just leads to trouble.


I love Damon Albarn.


There, I said it. It feels kind of good to get it out there, like therapy. Or exorcism.


I know it’s uncool or whatever to admit to having a musical crush on someone, but screw it. I love Damon Albarn. I love his vocals, both languid and falsetto, his enthusiasm for music of all shapes and sizes. I love that ridiculous gold tooth.


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