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Thursday, Dec 9, 2010
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.

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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Wednesday, Nov 10, 2010
Tears for Fears don't get much respect. Even in the wake of Donnie Darko, they're mostly considered an afterthought in pop history. Yet, in an era that favors stripped-down, no-fi production, the sheer majesty of Tears for Fears' sound is surprisingly refreshing.

In the not-so-distant past, the roundtable of NPR’s All Songs Considered sat down to discuss the ‘80s. What was at times a thoughtful discourse on the much-maligned decade more often than not devolved into a bunch of aging hipsters laughing at synthesizers. At one point, a panel member (I can’t recall whom) brought up Tears for Fears. Immediately, Bob Boilen (the host) recoiled in disgust. After some coaxing from the forgotten panel member, he reluctantly began to spin “Head over Heels”. Before the synth-laden opening bars of the song could even give way to the first verse, he hit the faders, gasping, “I can’t even get past the damn opening keyboard!”


Nineteen eighty-five was 25 years ago. I wasn’t even born yet, but given my childhood worship of Marty McFly, that’s still pretty hard to believe. To many, Back to the Future is about the only thing worth celebrating from that year (the Goonies and The Breakfast Club notwithstanding). Yet seemingly lost on pop culture historians is the anniversary of another massively successful piece of pop art celebrating its first quarter-century: Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair.


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Tuesday, Oct 26, 2010
Halloween is coming, so don't forget to cue up one of goth's most overblown anthems to foster the proper gloom-and-doom vibe.

Halloween is less than a week away, and that means you need to start thinking about your party soundtrack for the night. Never mind the hackneyed, overripe “Monster Mash”—what you need is some goth. Defined by grim-faced performers sporting pallid complexions, an overabundance of black lace and leather, a fascination with all things olde and macabre, and vocal stylings that more often than not evoke an undead Ian Curtis, no other genre of music is better suited to score the spookiest day of the year.


So what is the most essential goth anthem to blast out of the speakers on Halloween? Popular wisdom would suggest Bauhaus’ debut single ”Bela Lugosi’s Dead” since it’s the song that kicked off the whole gloom-laden trip over 30 years ago in the first place. Sure, the nearly-ten-minute-long song has a fantastic eerie vibe and (just as importantly) conjures up visions of the funeral of Hollywood’s most famous silver screen vampire. But it suffers from one major flaw: you can’t dance to it. Anyone who’s ever been to a goth club night can tell you that whatever is playing at any sort of mass gathering of scary-vibe aficionados has to get your feet moving. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” doesn’t do that, but luckily there’s always the Sisters of Mercy’s pummeling seven-minute-plus goth dancefloor anthem “Temple of Love”, a track that’s not as well-known outside of goth circles but stands toe-to-toe with its spectral predecessor.


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Wednesday, Oct 20, 2010
This riveting tune by the New Wave icons remains a potent reminder of the power of a well-written three-minute pop single.

Let me tell you, Adam Ant is awesome. Boasting a natural charisma, cool pirate-themed outfits, and ridiculously-chiseled facial features, at the height of his powers in the early 1980s Ant was a pop star to behold. Certainly his heroic image was striking and well-timed following punk rock’s ascent and sputtering-out, but even Ant’s own force of personality would have been meaningless if he didn’t have songs like the 1981 single “Stand and Deliver” to back up his self-assured posturing.


Adam and the Ants’ string of early ‘80s hits is one of the most unconventional runs of chart busters from any artist. Tunes like “Kings of the Wild Frontier”, “Antmusic”, and especially “Prince Charming” were bizarre tribal calls that mixed world music exotica with messianic self-belief. Of those hits, the group’s first UK chart topper “Stand and Deliver” has one of the more conventional song structures, sticking the tried-and-true verse/chorus/bridge pop outline. The wedding of that structure to the Ants’ trademark sound (defined by clacking Burundi polyrhythms and Marco Pirroni’s twangy guitar lines) is what makes “Stand and Deliver” the group’s most indelible song for me. The Ants always threatened to overtake the pop world, and here they turn out the ultimate pop single of the time.


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Friday, Oct 15, 2010
Stephen Rowland kicks off a series of retrospectives to showcase Beach Boys and Beach Boys-related material that is not very popular, rare, or has been forgotten completely.

Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue seemed the best place to start because it is probably the best album that will appear in this series. That, and it haunts me to my core. It is not easy for me to listen to this record.


The strangest thing is, after shedding pretty much all of the classic Beach Boys sound, after coming into his own and releasing a near-masterpiece, Dennis hated this record (Brian Wilson loved it, by the way). It took him nearly seven years to complete, so my question is: why spend almost a decade creating something you would come to loathe? That’s what marriage is for.  And another question, Dennis (R.I.P.): what exactly is wrong with it?


After the release of Pacific Ocean Blue in 1977, Wilson was extremely excited about his next record, entitled Bamboo or Bambu (no mooks like me can seem to agree). But then he died, and it was never released. Bootlegs exist, but again, nobody can seem to agree on the proper track order, which tracks would’ve been on the actual album (there are about 20 or more floating around)—maybe one day I’ll get it together and try to give my quintet an impression of what could’ve been. My confusion still lingers, however, because he barely wrote any of the songs on Bamboo/u and a lot of them ended up on the Beach Boys’ much-maligned L.A. (Light Album). More to come on that one.


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