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by AJ Ramirez

20 Jan 2011


When discussing half-remembered post-grunge hits with my friend Dustin a few nights back (this happens more often than you would think), he argued that any greatest hits album released by the Pennsylvania quartet Live should simply contain a copy of the group’s 1994 album Throwing Copper inside. And, you know, I have to completely agree with that, and I think most everyone else would, too. Sorry, “Pain Lies on the Riverside”.

Oh, Live: stridently passionate, humorlessly sincere, and insufferably portentous, the band always had a habit of crossing the mark into becoming unbearably overwrought. Around before grunge had even penetrated popular consciousness, the members of Live were in fact ardent devotees of R.E.M., injecting their spiritually-tinged college rock with U2-sized bluster and self-importance as well as the occasional questionable white-funk bass lick. Forgive Pearl Jam, everyone: it was really Live who paved the way for Creed. Yet for one album the group managed to dial back its most grating tics, beef up the hook-per-song ratio, and turn out one of the most consistent rock albums of the ‘90s. Live coasted for a long time upon the goodwill generated by Throwing Copper—allowing the ensemble to vex rock radio with the likes of the leaden “Lakini’s Juice” and the atrocious Tricky team-up “Simple Creed”—yet the band’s second album holds up today better than you would expect, in large part due to the presence of industrial-strength hits “Selling the Drama”, “I Alone”, “Lightning Crashes”, and “All Over You”.

by Sean Murphy

13 Jan 2011


“When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band. . . .” The rest was history, wasn’t it?

I am, of course, quoting from “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, the second song from Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece, Born to Run (1975). It seems appropriate to send a shout-out to E Street Band member Clarence Clemons (a.k.a. the Big Man) on the occasion of his 69th birthday, and celebrate what I consider his finest moment—and one of the finer moments in rock and roll history. We’re talking about “Jungleland”, needless to say. It is a perfect song, closing an album that also begins with a perfect song (“Thunder Road”).

First, a bit of backstory may be useful, since it would seem that little more needs to be said regarding Born To Run: it certainly does not need anyone to make the case it clearly and indelibly makes for itself as one of the ultimate rock albums, no further questions or comments necessary. That it came as the result of a fanatical and obsessive quest on the young Springsteen’s part (he was 25 when it was released) is well-documented. What is less understood and, for younger fans who came to the party during (or after!) the ubiquity of Born in the U.S.A., is that after two critically-praised but commercially-D.O.A. albums, there was a very real chance that millions of frenzied fans would never get an opportunity to scream “Bruuuuuuce!” at concerts for the next several decades. The desperation, ambition, and yearning wrapped within each song was very real, and more than slightly mirrored the state of mind of this scruffy underdog who (not unlike Rush before it made 2112) had the balls to stay true to his vision and figure he would either hit a grand slam or go down swinging.

And the rest is history, isn’t it?

by AJ Ramirez

5 Jan 2011


Roughly 20 years ago was the popular apex of new jack swing, a subgenre of R&B that was the conclusion of the path that the musical form had explored for much of the 1980s. Hands down my favorite style of R&B, new jack swing marked the point when the genre began to fully acknowledge hip-hop, working its rhythms and raps into tight, well-oiled pop-funk compositions that valued high-stepping energy and intricate production above all else; the now thoroughly-blurred overlap between R&B and hip-hop in mainstream music is the style’s enduring legacy. New jack swing was club music—while certainly Bobby Brown or Guy would be wooing the ladies with every lyrical opportunity, it wasn’t the bedroom but the promise of a vibrant dancefloor that was the destination of choice—that was a much as feast for the discerning ear as it was fuel for a weekend out party-hopping.

A large part of new jack swing’s appeal is its irresistible energy, achieved through busy arrangements that incorporated stuttering grooves, swooping synth stabs, and confident, self-assured rap interludes.  Mainstream R&B of the 1980s was by and large upbeat and uptempo, and new jack swing maxed out those qualities as much as possible, making extended 12” vinyl remixes mandatory to keep the dancefloors happy. Part of what drew me to the genre as a kid which I only recognize now was its modernist nature: here was pop music that sounded daring in its slick construction and incorporation of (new to me then) sounds, not at all as dinky as technologically inferior synth-based efforts from earlier in the decade. The artists look the part, too—decked out in flattops and colorful outfits, they looked urban and urbane, the hip embodiment of the age.

by Sean Murphy

16 Dec 2010


“Living is easy with eyes closed / Misunderstanding all you see / It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out / It doesn’t matter much to me”. Those aren’t just defining lines from a defining song by the defining band of all time, the Beatles. They are lines written by the closest thing we humans get to a super hero at the top of his game, having just shouted down from the mountain top on one of the most innovative, shape-shifting songs of all time, “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

If some people, understandably, think the everything-plus-kitchen-sink approach on the subsequent Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was in places a tad too haphazard and indulgent, no such concerns can apply here: songwriter John Lennon knew what he wanted, telling MVP producer George Martin he wanted his vocals to sound like “a hundred chanting Tibetan monks”. No worries, right? Martin, with appreciable assistance from an always-game Paul McCartney, sliced, diced, looped and spliced, and second by painstaking second, reel-to-reel tape transported the magic from Lennon’s mind. To say that this song set the tone for experimentation and was influential across multiple genres, including—or especially—ones that didn’t even exist yet, scarcely does it justice.

by Sean Murphy

9 Dec 2010


December 4, 1993: impossible as it is (at least for me) to believe, it’s been 17 years since Frank Zappa passed away.

Zappa, to me, has always functioned as a corrective sort of converse to the Grateful Dead: he was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it’s difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy. Unlike the Grateful Dead, once the dust clears, it becomes obvious that Zappa’s dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding, and likely to be dissected several generations from now.

Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn’t particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn’t be. His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. Where many (most?) of the more adventurous prog-rock bands of the mid-to-late ‘70s were reviled for taking themselves entirely too seriously (a common sin), they also made music that sucked in almost direct proportion to their augmented self-regard (an unforgivable sin). Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer wore out their welcome not ultimately because of their insufferable pretension (although naming their double album Works was an invitation for a critical backlash that was well-earned), but because their inspiration could not keep pace with their egos. Or, to put it as plainly as possible, they just started to suck in the mid-to-late ‘70s.

Zappa, on the other hand, appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro”, and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he understood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music; he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious, and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.

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