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Tuesday, Sep 8, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Where Does the Time Go?” - the innocence mission
Written by Karen Peris
From Birds of My Neighborhood (Kneeling Elephant/RCA, 1999, a remaster was reissued by Badman Recording Co., 2006)


Whether entranced by the intricately-balanced poetics of Leonard Cohen, the artful turns-of-phrase of Smokey Robinson, or the PhD-in-lonesome of Hank Williams, I always seem to fall in love the hardest with songwriters who carve out their own distinctive place in the tower of song (to cop a Cohen phrase). If one counts their 1986 limited-edition debut EP, the innocence mission, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based group, has been making singularly lovely records for over 20 years. It’s a damn shame that their primary songwriter, Karen Peris, although well-loved by a loyal fan base and countless musician/songwriter peers, is not yet heralded far and wide as one of the most gifted pop/rock lyricists ever, because she most undeniably is. A poet at heart, Karen Peris’ lyrics are achingly beautiful, and she delivers them in a sweet and wise voice that is somehow both familiar and otherworldly at the same time.


“Where Does the Time Go?” is the opening track from the group’s fourth album, Birds of My Neighborhood, which introduced the stripped-down acoustic-folk sound the group has thoroughly explored for the past 10 years. The instrumentation is a delicate calibration of shimmering guitars, acoustic bass, and quiet-in-the-mix churchy organ, which lends the song a hymn-like quality. This musical framework is set in a lilting light-waltz tempo, a perfect pocket for the first few lines of Peris’ first verse: “We will walk on a hill / Red hats and blue coats / And everything still / Snow will cover until / We can’t tell the sky from the ground.” The chorus creeps up soon after, mantra-like in its insistent simplicity and repetition: “Waiting for you to arrive / Where does the time go? / Where Does the time go? / Where does the time go? / Where does the time go?”


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Friday, Sep 4, 2009
In the summer of 1986, Timex Social Club ruled radio with "Rumors".


Looking at Billboard’s Hot R&B chart for July 19, 1986, brings back a flood of memories for me.


I remember dancing to Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On but the Rent”, Jermaine Jackson’s “Do You Remember Me?” and Klymaxx’s “Man Size Love” (one of my all-time favorites). It was the summer Janet first got “Nasty”, El DeBarge asked who Johnny was, and Anita Baker praised the rapture of “Sweet Love”. Some of the best broken-hearted love songs ever recorded are ranked, from Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald’s “On My Own” and Atlantic Starr’s “If Your Heart Isn’t In It” to the epic “All Cried Out” by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force.


And the number one song on the chart for the first of two weeks was “Rumors” by Timex Social Club. Sung by the impossibly cute Mike Marshall, “Rumors” had an irresistible dance beat and a rawness to its funk that made it sound different from anything else out there. The song, written by Marcus Thompson, Alex Hill, and Marshall, became a mainstream hit too, spending five months on Billboard’s Hot 100 and peaking at #8.


Granted, the lyrics seem somewhat hypocritical. The singer complains about rumors while spreading them at the same time. The song specifically name checks Tina Jackson, a student that went to Berkley High School with Thompson (“some say she’s much too loose”), Michael Jackson (“some say he must be gay”), and Susan Moonsie from Vanity 6 (“some say she’s just a tease”). Then again, it makes sense to provide examples to back up your argument.


Timex Social Club would have two more hits on the R&B chart, “Thinkin’ About Ya” and “Mixed Up World”, both of which peaked at #15, but they would never again appear on the Hot 100, making them a one-hit wonder. Still, “Rumors” holds up surprisingly well more than 20 years later, and Timex Social Club still performs regularly (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)).


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Thursday, Sep 3, 2009
One of the foundations of the alternative rock genre, Hüsker Dü's best album is a vital, hook-laden work that deserves far greater recognition.

I say this with utter, unwavering conviction: Hüsker Dü is the most criminally underappreciated alt-rock band of the pre-Nirvana era.  While contemporaries like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth have joined the rock canon, Hüsker Dü (which consisted of vocalist/guitarist Bob Mould, vocalist/drummer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton) remains relatively unknown, and is often forgotten in the modern narrative of the development of the American underground scene in the 1980s.  This is especially troubling since Hüsker Dü was the group responsible for pioneering the sonic hallmarks traditionally associated with alternative rock: the potent mix of distortion and pop melodies, the angst-filled lyrics, and even the rhythm of the guitars.  Music journalist Michael Azerrad gave the group its due in his 2001 history Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, and the band does make sporadic appearances on various “Best albums of the 1980s” critics lists, but it’s nowhere near what it actually deserves.  Bluntly, Hüsker Dü‘s best albums deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as alt-rock classics like Nirvana’s Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, and the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa.


Of all its records, Hüsker Dü‘s New Day Rising is its best and most consistent, bursting with hooks and driven by a sheer urgency that overwhelms the listener.  Recorded in July 1984, New Day Rising was the first of two albums the Minneapolis band released on Southern California indie label SST in 1985.  The group’s preceding release, the justly acclaimed double album opus Zen Arcade (1984), blew apart the conventions of hardcore punk into a thousand searing pieces in methods that ranged from one-and-a-half-minute acoustic numbers to fourteen-minute punk-psych epics.  Zen Arcade‘s legend looms large in the Hüsker Dü discography; what is generally overlooked is that the group’s follow-up album naturally had to figure out what to do next.  SST’s edict that the group’s next release be restricted to a single disc actually benefited the trio. What the Hüskers did on this album was summarize the lessons learned on Zen Arcade into a concise 40-minute package, in the process closing the door once and for all on its punk incarnation and setting the template for the sound of alternative rock well into the next decade.


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Thursday, Sep 3, 2009

A San Francisco band calling itself My First Earthquake is akin to a Philadelphia band picking a name like I *Heart* Cheesesteaks—so obvious that it must be ironic. With so much willful irony floating around indie music these days, it was only a matter of time before the backlash began. Behold: Hipster Haters!


Perhaps the cleverest example of the HH phenomenon is the website Look at This Fucking Hipster.


Type in the word “hipster” on YouTube and you’ll find a slew of videos aimed at skewering this most loathesome of pop culture sub-groups. I recommend POYKPAC’s “Hipster Olympics”, where contestants are screened for “an overall level of nonchalance and a reticent air of superiority”. And the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You” gets prescience props for hipster hating all the way back in 2000!


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Wednesday, Sep 2, 2009
Pontificating on the words behind the meaning behind such words as: "Now that it’s raining more than ever / Know that we’ll still have each other / You can stand under my umbrella, ella-ella-ay-ay-ay".

What happened to unconditional love? Or is it just regulated to Grandma, and her wonderful hands.  “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers in a ‘70s soul beat. And just like Prince singing “Adore”, or a million other balladeers crooning in their best falsetto, it’s catchy and captivating when men wear this sort of vulnerability. Yet, societies have even contended to cut off boys’ balls in order to maintain that pre-pubescent, innocent, unthreatening sound—the emasculated male is somehow so alluring.


Nonetheless, it’s all fantasy: We prefer our men so-called ‘real’. So we give all our stars a damn hard time for the ways in which they effeminate themselves just to maintain our titillation: the make-up, the feather-light hair, the hairless face, the fitted clothes, the glitter, the glam, and, of course, those high voices. We might call them “faggot” in public, then swoon and swing alongside their beats in private. Even as fans, we love conditionally.


Until the end of time
I’ll be there for you.
You are my heart and mind
I truly adore you.
If God one day struck me blind,
Your beauty I’d still see.
Love’s too weak to define
Just what you mean to me. 



“You gotta stand by your brother”, Erykah Badu croons in a soft, lofty voice in the live version of “Other Side of the Game”. “Work ain’t honest, but it pays the bills”, her talented back-up singers say. “Through whatever, whatever, whatever”, she says, and again members of the crowd slap their palms together while others shout and cheer.


An expectant Jennifer Hudson bouts out

An expectant Jennifer Hudson belts out “Will You Be
There” before a mourning crowd at Michael Jackson’s
Memorial in July 2009


“Carry me, like you were my brother / Love me like a mother”, Michael Jackson opens his song “Will You Be There”. And since his childhood, fans around the globe have watched this artist dance and sing on stage with his brothers, envisioning the unconditional love of family while singing about how unconditional his love was in songs like “I’ll Be There”.


“Just call my name…”. That’s the most that we could ask of anyone. Sadly, today’s divas and divos would rather just watch us pack, treating each other as if we’re simply replaceable. And despite all that we have, love cannot be bought at Ikea, nor is love found in the aisles of Walmart. In spite of their lifetime warranties, retailers LL Bean and Lands’ End don’t sell unconditional love.


I wanna be
More than your mother,
More than your brother;
I wanna be like no other
If you need me,
I’ll never leave.
I know that you know….
Be with me darlin’ till the end of time



Just like his own androgyny, Prince is notorious for exploring the fine division between the erotic and the platonic, the parental and the lustful. Furthermore, given his backdrop of gender-bending and unadulterated sexuality, Prince’s force is intense and unconditional. Again, it’s this unconditional love that makes His Royal Badness so fascinating to fans spanning a range of musical genres. “I wanna be your lover / I wanna turn you on, turn you out”, he chants over an earlier, funkier beat that he thankfully extends well beyond the dope lyrics and pop radio strip.


Then, of course, there’s Purple Rain. On screen, fans witness that the madness and fervor with which the artist approached love—the willingness to abandon all reason in tunes like “Darlin’ Nikki”—clearly stemming from the dysfunction at home.


His lack of fraternal love—fraternal disapproval and the maternal abandonment in tolerating the abuse—all lead the character portrayed in the film to supplant the erotic over and above all that he lacked. He was a man who would do anything for love, and it’s this illusion and allusion of success that draws women and men, the premise and promise of unconditional love. Yet, in spite of the fantasy, we’d all rather settle for so much less, like sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.


“Drugs / Rock-n-Roll / Bad-ass Vegas hoes / Shiny disco balls”. Ecstasy. Illusion and fantasy. The fantasy of unconditional love is all that it’s about, and any amount of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll can lead us there. Yet, like any cheap high, it’s unsustainable.


If I was your one and only friend,
Would you run to me if somebody hurt you,
Even if that somebody was me?
Sometimes I trip on how happy we could be


It is a trip. It’s a vacation from life to believe in unconditional love, yet abandon that promise as soon as anything real occurs. “Baby, baby, baby: What’s it gonna be”, Prince begs Apollonia (or wasn’t it Vanity?) on bended knee as she sits and sips with the next man. Just as soon as we promise love, we withdraw these pleas and lament over loss, which we seem to do as easily as we do the falling in love. It’s unrealistic and juvenile to believe in infallibility, for that is what makes us human. So, “let’s just pretend we’re married—tonight”.


And Michael McDonald bridged:


I know you’re not mine
Anymore
Anyway
Anytime.
Tell me how come I
Keep forgetin’



People lie, cheat, and steal. And all this stems from the abandonment we’ve felt at home, often in spaces were there is lovelessness, even with an abundance of care. Indeed, few heal from those scars, yet pretty much all are involved. Like “Thriller”, where each and everyone crawled out of tombs and graves, mortified and decrepit—we are all perishable. Yet, even in Michael’s fantasies, we don’t all remain that way. “Heal the World”, the Jackson family has inevitably advocated in their music, from the Jacksons and “Can You Feel It” to Janet’s “Rhythm Nation” among several other tunes, to most of what Michael Jackson had to say in his music.


Hold me
Like the River Jordan
And I will then say to thee:
You are my friend. 



You are my friend? “I’ve been looking around / And you were here all the time”. So the message seems to be, “through whatever, whatever, whatever”, if we genuinely know how to cherish those around us, we’ve probably known unconditional love all the time. “You are my friend / I never knew it till then, my friend / You hold my hand / You might not say a word / But I see your tears when I show my pain”, Patti drones in that other-side-of-the-‘80s soul beat. Now, there’s the unconditional love that recognizes friendship through each other’s humanity and occasional fallibility.


But they told me:
‘A Man should be faithful,
And walk when not able,
And fight to the end’
But I’m only human



Love, it seems, is only as conditional as our wiliness to heal. Recognizing that, as REM says, “Everybody Hurts”, then will we be there when our lovers, friends, parents, neighbors show out? Will we be there, as Michael suggests, in our darkest hours? Or are we just fair-weather friends? The weatherman can’t predict those conditions with any real accuracy. And Rhianna said: “You can stand under my umbrella, ella-ella-ay-ay-ay / Under my umbrella, ella-ella-ay-ay-ay. (BTW, that’s just the catchy part of the chorus, the song’s actual verses are significantly more instructive).


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