Friday Music Focus: 2/17/17


Here we are in 2017… seven songs for a new edition of Friday Music Focus. Whether you’re like “Duckie” (Jon Cryer) in Pretty in Pink (1986) and you have a history with these songs, or you are a newcomer to any of these artists, there will be melodic food for thought.

Katy Perry featuring Skip Marley, “Chained to the Rhythm” (performed live at the Grammy Awards, 2017; single version released in 2017). Katy Perry has said that she hopes to inspire her listeners with “purposeful pop” records. If “Chained” is any indication, her new album will be able to achieve what few pop artists are able to do these days: create catchy music for the masses that is fun to listen to and also explores social and political dilemmas. Add to that the “Persist” armband and Planned Parenthood pin that she wore on her outfit at the Grammys, and the pop-activist look is complete. Let’s hope that the message can strike a deep chord.

Manic Street Preachers, “Slash ‘N’ Burn” (performed live at the Glastonbury Festival, 1994; studio version appears on the album Generation Terrorists, 1992). This February marks the one-year anniversary of my entry into the universe of Manic Street Preachers, and it is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of their infamous double-album debut, Generation Terrorists. If Katy Perry is the new purveyor of “purposeful pop,” then the Manics are the once and future kings of purposeful rock. Their show at Glastonbury in 1994 needs to be seen to be believed: every instrument plugged in and turned up to 11, James Dean Bradfield’s guitar strings threatening to pop off in the frenzy of his playing, and every song bursting with messages about our strange and often dangerous world. “Slash ‘N’ Burn” (lyrics here) is only one example of the band’s genius for deconstructing the entwined realities of pop culture, consumerism, celebrity and our planet’s violent history, but the song’s first four lines say it all: “You need your stars, even killers have prestige/Access to a living you will not see/24 boredom, I’m convicted instantly/Gorgeous poverty of created needs.”

The Smiths, “What Difference Does It Make?” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Smiths, 1984) and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” (performed live on “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” 1986; studio version appears on the album The Queen Is Dead, 1986). Two weeks ago, Marc Spitz, a unique talent in music criticism/journalism who had also published novels and plays, passed away at age 47. Author Chuck Klosterman distilled the essence of Spitz in two sentences written for Spin: “Spitz aspired to be Byronic. He believed life was better if people tried to be interesting, so he tried to be as interesting as possible.” Salon’s Erin Keane recalled in her tribute: “I don’t trust music writers who aren’t sentimental (if you’re not actively engaged in a love affair with the work, try investment banking instead), and I trusted Marc implicitly. As Alan Light, former editor-in-chief at Spin, where Marc made a great name for himself and won many of us over as readers and fans, said in his moving eulogy in Billboard yesterday, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who believed in rock & roll as much as Marc Spitz did. The grand gesture, the adolescent romanticism, the infinite possibilities of identity and sexuality — he bought it all, loved it, needed it.'” One of the most poignant compliments I have seen comes from a guest comment on Keane’s article: “I remember reading his piece on ‘The Boys of Summer.’ I was moved. [Don] Henley may not be one of the greats, but that song sure is! I’ll think of Marc every time I hear it now, for the rest of my days.” I probably will, too.

Marc Spitz was well known for his love of the Smiths, so much so that he wrote a novel titled How Soon Is Never? (2003), in which the protagonist attempts to get the broken-up group back together. In Marc’s honor, the clips embedded above are of two of the band’s best songs. Here’s to those who have a way with words – to answer the question posed by Morrissey and Johnny Marr, it makes a hell of a difference.

Johnny Marr, “New Town Velocity” (performed live at KCRW’s Apogee Sessions, 2013; studio version appears on the album The Messenger, 2013). “Here comes our poetry,” indeed. The former lead guitarist and co-songwriter of the Smiths has continued to make excellent music in the three decades since the band’s dissolution, and “New Town Velocity” is a high point in his solo career. The hook built on Marr’s iconic guitar sound is mesmerizing, winding its way around your brain so deftly that you never want the song to end and you have no choice but to click repeat.

Suede, “The Wild Ones” (appears on the album Dog Man Star, 1994). If the glam rock swagger of Suede’s self-titled debut album from 1993 made anyone wonder whether the band was merely a carbon copy of the equally decadent stylists (David Bowie and Marc Bolan in particular) who came decades before, then Suede’s follow-up, Dog Man Star, assured the quartet’s place in the pantheon of just plain great music. The lyrics of the “The Wild Ones” plead with their subject, “oh, if you stay…” – which is exactly what the band did. I don’t know about you, but I find it heartening that Brett Anderson and co. are still out there, still 100% brilliant.

Associates/Billy Mackenzie, “The Crying Game” (live at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (London), 1984). After rewatching Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game this past week, I thought about Billy Mackenzie’s version of the title song. Mackenzie, who was once the subject of a Smiths song, was the lead singer of the Scottish band Associates. He was born sixty years ago this March, and the twenty-year anniversary of his death was marked this past January. If only he hadn’t had to suffer through depression; if only he could have known that his music would continue to mean something to people for years to come. The Internet gave me the opportunity to discover the Associates; their/Billy’s music affected me deeply when I was a teenager and it still does today. Sitting through lonely lunches in my high school’s cafeteria was so much easier when I could listen to “Party Fears Two” on my iPod, and a few years ago I recall waking up from a dream in which “No” played in the background, the faint echo of it lingering as I opened my eyes. But maybe Billy’s covers were his finest moments; when I see and hear him perform “Gloomy Sunday” (sadly portentous since Billy committed suicide in 1997), “Amazing Grace,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Wild Is the Wind” (a heartbreaking interpretation) and the clip that I am highlighting now, the Dave Berry song “The Crying Game,” an undeniable magic takes place that transforms and transports me. There were entire worlds in Billy Mackenzie’s heavenly voice, and Earth is poorer for no longer being able to hear it in person. If there is an afterlife, I hope he’s wearing one of his favorite berets.


2015: Part 10

Black Mass. Directed by Scott Cooper. In 1990, Johnny Depp made a film called Edward Scissorhands which obscured his “21 Jump Street” looks under extreme makeup, hair and costumes and, by extension, allowed Depp the freedom to perform in a purer way. The audience could see his abilities as an actor better than they could when he looked like a teen heartthrob, and the result was a classic that I consider one of the ten best films ever made. Twenty-five years later, in Black Mass, Depp covers himself up with aging makeup, distractingly blue-eyed contacts, rotting teeth and an exaggerated Boston accent, the combined effect of which leaves me hollow and indifferent. What happened?

Maybe my opinion is too clouded by the recent, nasty divorce proceedings going on between Depp and Amber Heard; maybe it’s just that I’m no longer impressed by Depp’s detached, possibly inebriated persona in every late-night interview I’ve seen him do for the last ten years. Whatever the reason is, while watching Black Mass I realized that I could not enjoy an iota of Johnny Depp’s performance. He snarls and shoots and occasionally strangles while playing gangster overlord James “Whitey” Bulger, but by the end I felt like so what? The only sympathetic characters in the film – Dakota Johnson as Bulger’s girlfriend, Julianne Nicholson as the fearful wife of an FBI agent who is also one of Bulger’s closest friends (Joel Edgerton), Juno Temple as a prostitute whose relationship with Bulger’s main right-hand man gets her in trouble – are either dropped from the film or meet with violence from Bulger and his cronies. I’m not saying that the film glorifies the bad guys, but the direction and screenplay bring nothing new to this depiction of sadistic criminality. I have seen the scenes in Black Mass many times in similar movies, and they were almost always done more successfully by other filmmakers.

The Boy Next Door. Directed by Rob Cohen. The Boy Next Door is one of those sexy-but-stupid thrillers that plays out exactly like you know it will if you’ve seen the trailer (or, really, even if you haven’t): an English teacher (Jennifer Lopez), recently separated from her husband (John Corbett, who in middle age now resembles John Heard) after he cheats on her with a co-worker, is surprised and pleased when a hunky young man (Ryan Guzman) moves in with his elderly uncle next door. Said young man proceeds to befriend Lopez’s nerdy teenage son (Ian Nelson), and also to charm J. Lo and flirt with her endlessly; when Corbett and Nelson go on a father-son camping trip and Lopez has a bad experience on a blind date, a night of drunken loneliness leads her to make the terrible mistake of allowing sweet, puppy-dog-ish Guzman to seduce her and have sex with her. Ah, but comes the dawn…

Lopez knows she has done a problematic thing. The issue isn’t Guzman’s age – the character is “almost twenty” (the actor was 26/27) – but rather the fact that he has just enrolled in Lopez’s English class (I don’t recall an explanation as to why he never finished high school), which means an unsettling conflict of interest. Naturally Guzman can’t take “no relationship” for an answer and he turns out to be an A-class psycho who stalks Lopez at home, at school and everywhere else, as well as turning teen son Nelson against Lopez and Corbett. (There’s also the issue of Lopez’s best friend, Kristin Chenoweth, who is the vice principal at the school – she senses right away that there’s something not quite right about Guzman, and of course she eventually pays the price for trying to help Lopez.) Long story short, there’s not much to recommend The Boy Next Door unless you’re incredibly bored and you have an hour and a half to waste, although the cinematography by David McFarland is occasionally quite striking and Ian Nelson, as Lopez and Corbett’s son, is a pretty good actor. He has a kind of young John Cusack quality to him, so perhaps he can capitalize on that someday.

The Intern. Directed by Nancy Meyers. Ah, yes, the typical Nancy Meyers quote-unquote “chick flick.” I must try not to say that too disparagingly (as a lady myself and therefore in the wished-for demographic), but there is something hopelessly discouraging in the idea that a blend of The Devil Wears Prada and Meyers’ own What Women Want (at least as far as the “woman trying to balance being the head of a company and having a love life” thing goes) would end up as anything other than sappy. Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway, professionals that they are, do their utmost to keep the proceedings entertaining as the title intern and his overworked boss respectively and, when called upon to do it, they are emotionally engaging too. What weakens the film, however, is all of the melodrama Hathaway experiences both in and out of the office. Frustrated by too much paperwork! Looking for a new CEO! Dealing with a cheating husband! The Intern throws a lot at us. If anything, the film is most worth seeing for the charms of Rene Russo as De Niro’s love interest – in her early 60s, she is still effortlessly sexy – and for Anders Holm, who holds his own in dramatic scenes as Hathaway’s husband (you know he’s doing Important Acting since he has dyed-brown hair, a beard and glasses – but in all seriousness, he’s good in the film). (Also: Adam DeVine, Holm’s co-star on “Workaholics,” is also in The Intern but they don’t share any scenes.) You can guess where The Intern is going to go by seeing the trailer, or maybe even just from looking at the poster: De Niro always knows what to say in order to be helpful; he is probably one of the most feminist male characters of his age that you’re likely to see in a movie any time soon; ultimately he guides Hathaway to becoming a better, stronger person. You may cry at some of the touching sentimentality in The Intern, but it’s doubtful that you’ll laugh at the predictable, cheesy comedy.

No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers. Directed by Elizabeth Marcus. I am of two minds regarding this documentary about Manic Street Preachers, the Welsh rock band I discovered five months ago and who have totally turned my world upside down with their brilliant music, lyrics, singing, glamour, politics, love of literature and so much more. Enjoying an hour and a half to absorb this fantastic band’s music and philosophy is divine, but the question is for whom the film is intended. If it was made primarily with fans in mind (viewers who, let’s face it, make up the majority of people who have seen/will see the film), then the film does not offer enough to appease superfans. (The most interesting bits – Nicky and Sean arguing about the longevity of music, James and music producer Dave Eringa having breakfast in an NYC diner – were left out of the finished film and appear as extras on the DVD.) If the film was made to introduce the Manics’ discography to prospective fans, then the film also falls short; director Elizabeth Marcus tries to make the film both a current (well, current at the time) look at the band recording their 2007 “comeback” album Send Away the Tigers and also a retrospective history of the band from 1986 to the present day. It is an impossible undertaking to attempt to chronicle every detail of the band’s oeuvre (so of course that doesn’t happen) and it feels like a failing on Marcus’s part that we see footage of the Manics being interviewed in the early 90s, yet there is no concert footage from between 1992 and 1994; we see the guys do “Stay Beautiful” in 1991, and the next chronological show clip is “A Design for Life” in 1996. This means that inexperienced viewers never see the band performing in their leopard-print Generation Terrorists get-ups (although we see the clothing in pieces of interviews), doing the more low-key thing in 1993 or performing in military regalia for The Holy Bible in 1994. The visuals are just as important as the sounds! And while it’s all well and good to see the trio doing “Motorcycle Emptiness,” “Sleepflower,” “Yes,” “Archives of Pain,” “Faster,” “Die in the Summertime,” and others circa 2006/2007, not hearing/seeing the songs from when they were originally made does a disservice to the film and to the band. It might be somewhat difficult for non-Manics fans to get a strong enough sense of why people get so obsessed with the band.

Oh, and how can you make a film about the Manics and not include one of their signature songs, “You Love Us”? I’m not sure I heard the phrase Everything Must Go uttered at all either, despite the time spent talking about “A Design for Life.” Strange.

Obviously it is fun, though, to spend 95 minutes in the presence of a band that has the power to change your life. It’s easy to see from the interviews with fans that the Manics have altered their lives permanently (and wonderfully). Watching Nicky jumping rope in a skirt, or playing with his dog Molly, or excitedly meeting Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, is lovely; seeing James cook omelets is a delight; Sean’s enjoyment of sniper rifles and his time spent at a shooting range is a little scary. I just wish that the film had either spent more time focusing on the making of Send Away the Tigers (wouldn’t it have been nice to see/hear the creation of the major hit “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough”?) or else make a film concentrated more deeply on the band’s history. By trying to do both, the film unfortunately does not completely succeed.

P.S. When the DVD came in the mail, there was a thank-you note from director Elizabeth Marcus and producer/editor Kurt Engfehr. Very nice!

Suffragette. Directed by Sarah Gavron. A film so disappointing that I almost forgot that I watched it last week, Suffragette takes a fascinating topic and grinds it down into mediocrity with bland, dreary direction. The 1910s suffrage movement and the fight for women’s rights are topics that are still relevant today, but Sarah Gavron’s film dilutes its own potential impact by focusing its narrative on a composite character, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, a good performer as always), rather than on the real-life suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (played by Natalie Press in a supporting role). The melodramas of Maud’s family life take up quite a bit of the running time; while the issues of abuse at home and in the workplace are stories that should indeed have been told in the film, it might have been more effective if Abi Morgan’s screenplay was based on a real protagonist rather than a fictional one. That being said, Ben Whishaw did an excellent job at playing Carey Mulligan’s unsympathetic husband and I liked the performances by Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson and Anne-Marie Duff as well. Meryl Streep overacts embarrassingly, but her performance as leading activist Emmeline Pankhurst is merely a cameo. Watch Suffragette if you like anyone in the cast, but don’t expect an accurate history lesson.

Friday Music Focus: 7/8/16

Since this will be my last “Friday Music Focus” post for a while – I will be on vacation starting next weekend – I hope I can make this one count. These ten entries form a small percentage of my musical intake. I am constantly listening to new albums, singles, live performances and random, weird stuff; the following list may introduce you to some exciting new sounds. Enjoy!

Glass Animals, “Life Itself” (single, 2016). My favorite new song that I heard on a BBC radio program this week: the first single released from British indie rock group Glass Animals’ upcoming second album, How to Be a Human Being (due out in August). I always like a song that tells a story.

We Are Scientists, “Buckle” (live on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” 2016; studio version appears on the album Helter Seltzer, 2016). Seen last week: a catchy song by a band that I have heard of (their first album came out ten years ago) but never listened to; the new album, Helter Seltzer, turned out to be disappointing, but this lead single is really good and I was impressed by what I saw in this TV performance.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dark Necessities” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Getaway, 2016). Much less impressive than the previous number on the list is the first single from the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album, The Getaway. (Anthony Kiedis and Flea have been doing this music thing since 1983, so it’s a miracle that they aren’t fossils yet.) The music video was directed by actress Olivia Wilde, which is interesting since the skaters seen in the clip are all women – God knows the Peppers are not the world’s most feminist band, so I guess this is a step forward – and perhaps Wilde contributed some ideas to the concept. I cannot, however, get over the fact that Josh Klinghoffer, the guitarist who joined RHCP after longtime member John Frusciante’s departure in 2009, both plays and sings like Frusciante. Same guitar tone, same high-pitched background vocals. He even has a hairstyle similar to John Frusciante’s funky late 80s/early 90s ‘do. I wish Josh would carve out his own niche instead of being a replacement and a mimic.

Tacocat, “Talk” (music video; studio version appears on the album Lost Time, 2016). If you want to hear and see a real feminist rock band, try Tacocat.

Mick Harvey, “Deadly Tedium” (music video; studio version appears on the album Delirium Tremens, 2016). From Tacocat to a music video co-starring a cat. Mick’s translation/interpretation of this Serge Gainsbourg song has a jazzy, loungy cabaret quality and there is a delightful sense of humor, sort of like an oddball film noir in color, evident in the video.

Pi Ja Ma, “Radio Girl” (music video; studio version appears on the EP Radio Girl, 2016). Utilizing another pop-throwback type of sound, Pi Ja Ma (aka Dominique de Tarragon, a French musician/visual artist) offers a memorable beat and a ton of whimsy.

Meilyr Jones, “Strange/Emotional” (music video; studio version appears on the album 2013, 2016). There is something immensely charming about Meilyr Jones, whether in his music or in soft-spoken interviews. Reviewers have described his style as “chamber pop,” a categorization that aptly describes many of his slow, lushly orchestrated songs but which I think also applies to the more upbeat track “Strange/Emotional.”

The Anchoress feat. Paul Draper, “You and Only You” (music video; studio version appears on the album Confessions of a Romance Novelist, 2016). The Anchoress, aka Catherine Anne Davies (or “Catherine AD”), first appeared on my radar when I saw a review of her debut album in The Guardian this past January. But the Welsh singer-songwriter permanently earned a place in my heart when she wrote a guest column for Q magazine last month, detailing her lifelong obsession with her fellow countrymen, the Manic Street Preachers. One paragraph contains some of what I consider the best assessments anyone has ever made of the group: “…as a Manics ‘groupie’ (and I use the term very loosely here) you were more likely to end up with a PhD than an STD. This was a band that encouraged you to devour books and films and suck in culture; to open your mind, not your legs. They were a band that glamourised the idea of being intelligent – a notion that can be endlessly empowering for a young girl looking for a way to be valued in a world that seems only concerned with the value of appearances. As the working class kid who’d been taught that education is your only route to social mobility, and as that kid who’d been relentlessly bullied for being ‘smart,’ this was a revelation to me. You could be well-read and wear fake leopard print. You could have intellectual aspirations and be glamourous. The two were not mutually exclusive. Wow, I thought. This changes everything.” And now here she is as an artist in her own right, a pop-rocker with a PhD (literature and queer theory, University College London), opening for the Manics when they perform in Cornwall tomorrow.

James Dean Bradfield (of Manic Street Preachers), “Together Stronger (C’mon Wales)” (live on “The Andrew Marr Show,” 2016). Last Sunday, JDB made a solo acoustic appearance on BBC One to promote the Manics’ beloved Welsh football anthem for Euro 2016. Although the team lost to Portugal in their semi-finals match two days later, “Together Stronger” may yet become a chart-topper in the UK since there was a push for it to happen by both fans and footballers alike (star player Gareth Bale retweeted the Football Association of Wales’ post about getting the song to become a hit). Also on the couch with James, prior to the start of the song: Neil Kinnock, a Labour Party politician who is also from South Wales and apparently recognized the talent in the Manics when they were wee lads at Oakdale Comprehensive School.

Viola Beach, “Boys That Sing” (single, January 2016); Coldplay, “Boys That Sing” (live at the Glastonbury Festival, June 2016). Rather than play David Bowie’s “Heroes,” as has become a standard tribute in the last half-year, Chris Martin and company decided to honor the members of British band Viola Beach, all of whom died in a car crash in Sweden in February. (Their first – and sadly, their last – album, self-titled, will be released on July 29.) I can think of a couple of similar tragedies that befell young bands just starting out; the lead singer, bassist and tour manager of alternative rock band For Squirrels died in a crash right before the release of their major-label debut album in 1995 (which, ironically, had a minor radio hit with a song about the death of Kurt Cobain, “Mighty K.C.”) and three-fourths of the punk/power pop band The Exploding Hearts died in a car wreck only a few months after the release of their 2003 album Guitar Romantic (featuring the wonderful song “I’m a Pretender”). At least nowadays when such a horrible loss happens, the world can talk about it on social media and spread the love so that the band is not forgotten before they even had a chance to begin. The “alternate future” that Coldplay collectively create for Viola Beach by allowing them to “headline Glastonbury for a song” is a beautiful gesture.

Friday Music Focus: 7/1/16


After Kanye West’s music video for his song “Famous” was released last week and caused a roaring hullabaloo on the Internet for depicting nude likenesses of celebrities sharing one huge bed, I began thinking about songs and videos which connect to ideas of fame, usually in negative, toxic connotations. Here are a few examples from yesteryear which still ring true.

(Pictured above: an ad for one of Nick Drake’s few live gigs, c. 1970.)

David Bowie, “Fame” (appears on the album Young Americans, 1975). David Bowie’s funk classic – his first #1 hit in America – remains the definitive statement on the ridiculousness of celebrity. Bowie was later quoted as saying: “I’d had very upsetting management problems and a lot of that was built into the song. I’ve left all that behind me, now… I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.”

Genesis, “Land of Confusion”  (appears on the album Invisible Touch, 1986). The lyrics of “Land of Confusion” are not concerned with fame per se, but the music video is the closest approximation to Kanye’s “Famous” clip that I can think of, displaying puppet representations of politicians and celebrities which, frankly, are terrifying in their grotesqueness. The gathering of these self-obsessed, self-congratulating celebrities for a “We Are the World”-style singalong at the end further shows Genesis’s sense of satire while still rallying around the straightforward sociopolitical message in the band’s song.

Kirsty MacColl, “Fifteen Minutes” (appears on the album Kite, 1989). In three short minutes Kirsty pleasantly – because you can imagine her singing with a grin – takes down the extensive network of types who become famous without deserving it: “Then there’s always the cash/Selling your soul for some trash/Smiling at people that you cannot stand/You’re in demand/Your fifteen minutes start now…” Icing on the cake: the clarinet solo at the end, a spotlight on a decidedly not-pop instrument.

Note: the user who uploaded this video to YouTube accidentally included a photo of Ellie Goulding in the slideshow at the 0:55 mark; you could view this error as extra commentary, confusing one English singer-songwriter for another as though they were interchangeable.

Manic Street Preachers, “Kevin Carter” and “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky” (both appear on the album Everything Must Go, 1996). The trappings of fame were often on the Manics’ minds in the early-to-mid-90s. “You Love Us” (Generation Terrorists, 1992), both in audio and video form, observes some of the glamorous yet absurd aspects of being a rock band with a major-label record contract and a presumption by the media that they’re only there to look good (all the while continuing to encourage true believers to maintain their obsessive love for the band); “Archives of Pain” (The Holy Bible, 1994), essentially a song speaking out against the glamorization of serial killers, aligns the band with those criminals by including “Manic Street Preachers” in the list of names sung in the second chorus. Two of the Manics’ most potent examinations of the effects of fame came later, though, in two sets of lyrics penned by Richey Edwards before his disappearance. “Kevin Carter” recounts the life and death of the photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for an image of a suffering Sudanese child with a vulture hovering nearby. Unable to live with the horror of what he had witnessed and the fame he had attained because of it, Carter committed suicide a few months later. The second song, “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky,” is not explicitly about fame, but I think connections can be drawn between the tale it tells of caged animals and the oppressive nature of celebrity – gawkers looking in and watching your every move. The disturbing lyrics are perfectly offset by James Dean Bradfield’s voice, the delicate strums of his acoustic guitar and the beautiful swirls of the harp.

Britney Spears, “Lucky” (appears on the album Oops!…I Did It Again, 2000) and “Piece of Me” (appears on the album Blackout, 2007). You could look at the difference between these two songs about fame as Before Shave and After Shave since the moment when Britney Spears shaved her hair off in 2007 was probably the ultimate sign that she was no longer the sweet, carefree teen idol she was in 1999 and 2000. “Lucky” can be interpreted as an autobiographical account of Britney’s own life as a pop star, but even if it really is just a generic look at the hollowness of Hollywood success devoid of real love and happiness, it is still a story told effectively. “Piece of Me,” however, is specifically about Britney’s own struggles, told from her point of view. Released only half a year after the head-shaving incident, the song attacks at the destructive nature of tabloids and paparazzi while the video proves that Britney then in her mid-twenties, wasn’t washed up and could indeed rejuvenate her career. The pop queen lives on.

Nick Drake, “Fruit Tree” (appears on the album Five Leaves Left, 1969). I saved this Nick Drake song for the end because his career exists separate from of the usual progressions of fame and time; his mythic ascent to the ranks of the all-time great British singer-songwriters happened posthumously and “Fruit Tree” seems to foretell this. We hear a fragile-sounding man (then only twenty years old) mourning an artist being “forgotten while you’re here/remembered for a while/A much updated ruin/From a much outdated style” (indicating the lack of public interest in Drake’s low-key folk music) and explaining in the chorus that “Fame is but a fruit tree/So very unsound/It can never flourish/‘Til its stock is in the ground/So men of fame/Can never find a way/’Til time has flown/Far from their dying day.” Is it any surprise that happy-go-lucky hippies weren’t flocking to record stores to buy that song? (Although now that I think about it, perhaps the free-love generation wouldn’t have been a key demographic in London then, which I suppose was the only city selling anything by Nick Drake while he was alive.) As Drake sings the final verse – “Fruit tree, fruit tree/Open your eyes to another year/They’ll all know/That you were here when you’re gone” – the after-the-fact parallels with his own career are obvious. No one bought his albums between 1969 and 1974, but after a decade or so, his genius was realized by critics and musicians alike. Nowadays he is a legend. But evidently he knew on some level that that’s what would happen, didn’t he?

Friday Music Focus: 6/10/16


Rowland S. Howard with his collection of records and books, photographed in 1999.

Today we look at a few examples of some of my favorite artists doing cover versions of other people’s songs. As Tess Duncan wrote for Paste last year: “There are some songs that you don’t truly appreciate until another artist takes it on and makes it their own. Oftentimes the newer version draws out the original’s complexities in a way you never would have noticed before. Or maybe the first version is equally compelling, but the cover artist reimagined it with such grandeur that many don’t even realize that it’s a new take on an old song. Whether converting dance bangers to melancholic ballads or pop hits to garage-rock anthems, sometimes a complete 180 is exactly what a track was missing.”

Cyndi Lauper, “When You Were Mine” (live at the American Music Awards, 1985 + live on tour, 2016; studio version appears on the album She’s So Unusual, 1983) [originally by Prince, 1980]. In honor of Prince’s birthday, which was on June 7, here are two examples of Cyndi Lauper covering one of my favorite songs of his, “When You Were Mine” (from the 1980 album Dirty Mind). Obviously the version from last month has a particular poignancy to it, but even back in the 80s, Cyndi had her own twist on the song that was almost as uptempo as the original while also being more bittersweet. My favorite part of both performances is that she sings the high-pitched electronic synthesizer solo heard in the recording from her debut album, She’s So Unusual.

Manic Street Preachers, “(Feels Like) Heaven” (live on BBC Radio 2, 6/3/2016) [originally by Fiction Factory, 1983]. It was worth sitting through all three hours of DJ Chris Evans’ hideously annoying BBC Radio 2 breakfast show (it airs 6:30-9:30 am, UK time) just to hear the Manics do a few songs from Everything Must Go (which is, as has been mentioned on this blog before, an album currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary) and also this rendition of Scottish group Fiction Factory’s one-hit-wonder single from three decades ago. Speaking of fiction, I thought I would also include a minute-long snippet from an interview with Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire from December 1991, talking about the power of literature. Looking at Edwards’ and Wire’s wonderfully gaudy fake-fur coats, I’m reminded of this quote from musician Danny McCormack: “Richey and Nicky were inseparable at one point – you’d never ever see them alone. It was like two big leopard-skin jackets walking towards you.”

P.S. One of the most fun paragraphs I’ve read all week, courtesy of Wales Online writer David Owens in his review of the Manics’ recent home-turf concert at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea: “Head down and into the home straight, the forecast torrential rain finally arrived at the precise moment Nicky Wire re-emerged after his third costume change of the evening, bedecked in a Welsh flag skirt and musical note knee socks underlining his status as possessing the best pins of any fortysomething man in rock ‘n’ roll – and giving the front row quite the treat into the bargain.” (Photographic evidence here.)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” (appears on the album Kicking Against the Pricks, 1986) [originally by David and Jonathan, 1967; popularized by Gene Pitney, 1967]. I did a lot of listening to Nick Cave last Thursday and Friday because of the announcement that a new Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree, will be out this September, in addition to the release of a partly-3D documentary about the making of the album (a one-night-only event on September 8 for which I already have my tickets, of course!). But last Saturday I was surprised and delighted to hear the song “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” sung by actors Olivia Colman and Garry Mountaine in the new film The Lobster, which I saw at BAM Rose Cinemas. Even though the song is thought of as a Gene Pitney classic, I know it best from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Kicking Against the Pricks, an album comprised solely of covers. I don’t think it would be a stretch to call “Something’s…” one of Nick’s better vocals from his early years; he did a lot of atonal shouting when he fronted the Birthday Party between the late 70s and 1983, so the fact that he could do quite nicely with a good melody probably swayed people who had previously been on the fence about his musical abilities, and nowadays it serves as a good introductory tune for people who have never listened to his work at all.

Rowland S. Howard, “The Passenger” (appears on the soundtrack for the film He Died with a Felafel in His Hand, 2001) [originally by Iggy Pop, 1977]. It is sometimes hard not to think of Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard being joined at the hip since the Boys Next Door/the Birthday Party was really the beginning of making music history for each of them (although to be fair, Rowland’s version of “Shivers,” done with the Young Charlatans in 1978, is still the definitive punk take on that song before Nick turned it into a moody ballad in ’79). Each man has a separate style, so it’s not like their recordings necessarily beg comparison to one another, but one thing that has always amused me in judging their oeuvres side by side is that Rowland had a knack for covering songs in a high-spirited way that Nick has never done. (I don’t expect Nick to start now, particularly with the painful year he has had, but this is an observation based on the entirety of his career with the Bad Seeds. With few exceptions, lightness is not Nick Cave’s specialty.) But Rowland could finesse a rock or pop-rock song into something just as snappy yet in his own inimitable voice, and his interpretation of one of Iggy Pop’s most famous songs is first-rate. There is a sense of humor there. You can hear an unmistakably raised eyebrow.

Courtney Barnett, “New Speedway Boogie” (appears on the compilation album Day of the Dead, 2016) [originally by the Grateful Dead, 1970]. Coming back around to recently released covers, here’s a little something by Courtney Barnett, the best artist to emerge from Australia in the last couple of years (as well as being a fan of Rowland S. Howard, who influenced her guitar-playing and whose song “Shivers” she covered last year). I have never cared for the Grateful Dead, the one exception being their late 80s pop hit “Touch of Grey.” So when I listen to Courtney’s cover of “Boogie,” I hear it as new – a slow-burning but foreboding landscape – rather than as a reworking of the old, which is ideally what you want out of a successful cover anyway.

Friday Music Focus: 5/27/16


Today’s post is a concentrated look at the last week in music and pop culture, at least as far as I was concerned. (I would have also included Courtney Barnett performing my favorite song from last year, “Pedestrian at Best,” in her appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” but NBC doesn’t allow their clips to be shared on WordPress.) Friends, get ready for a good time.

February 1/May 20: Primal Scream featuring Sky Ferreira, “Where the Light Gets In” (music video; studio version appears on the album Chaosmosis, 2016) + BBC Radio 6 Music show (hosted by Bobby Gillespie, filling in for Iggy Pop). Primal Scream is a band that defies description; they’ve done dreamy indie pop (“Love You,” one of the finest songs of 1987), acid house-inspired dance-rock (“Loaded,” which owes a lot to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”), more overtly Stones-esque rock ‘n’ roll (“Rocks”) and a lot of other stuff that I have yet to listen to but which I would probably like as much as the songs I already know. Their latest single, “Where the Light Gets In,” doesn’t seem to have made a dent on the UK charts, but it’s one of the catchiest pop songs of the year. And it’s so good to know that Bobby Gillespie still has the best hair in rock music after 30+ years in the game.

I might not have even realized there was a new Primal Scream album, though, if I hadn’t been listening to BBC Radio 6 Music online last week (I had tuned into the Radcliffe and Maconie show, though they don’t factor into this story) and noticed a link to Iggy Pop’s Friday night program. Iggy is on tour at the moment, so for the last few weeks Bobby Gillespie has been filling in as host. I listened to his two-hour selection of songs and was blown away. There were songs I have loved for years, brilliant things I was introduced to and, of course, Bobby’s guiding voice. (The first bit of commentary starts about four minutes in; I also enjoy the mileage that his Scottish accent gets out of the phrase “it was very, very interesting” during the discussions of the Pop Group and James Brown at 1:22:44.) The widget I have posted here on the blog doesn’t seem to offer the option of rewinding – sorry about that! – although fast-forwarding works as long as you’re careful about not overshooting the mark, and you can always refresh the page and try to get to the right place again. This particular show’s playlist can be read on the official BBC website, where you can also listen to the program with rewind and fast-forward capabilities, but there are only 23 days left before the ability to listen to that specific broadcast expires.

May 22: PJ Harvey, interview and performance of “The Community of Hope” (live on the “The Andrew Marr Show” on BBC One; studio version appears on the album The Hope Six Demolition Project, 2016). It’s pretty amazing that English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey scored a #1 album in the UK with her newest album; the work is absolutely deserving of such success, but it’s a little surprising since she’s been around for so long (her first solo album, Dry, came out in 1992) and many of the albums that have topped the charts in the UK in 2016 are from younger and/or more commercial acts: Adele, Beyoncé, Drake, Zayn, Coldplay, the 1975, the Last Shadow Puppets, the Lumineers. I also assume that PJ has a lower profile than most media-saturated superstars these days, but despite this her fans evidently thought it was a big enough deal that she had new music out that the sales were raised to such a high degree. That’s why it is especially inspiring to hear her talk about the sociopolitical issues that fueled the making of her album, and why it’s so interesting that she describes herself as a writer and a journalist as much as a singer. Even though this stripped-down version of “The Community of Hope” doesn’t have the drums and other instruments that the album recording contains, all Polly Jean needs are her voice and her guitar to get her point across.

May 23: Garbage, “Empty” (music video; studio version will appear on the upcoming album Strange Little Birds, to be released 6/10/16). I must admit somewhat ruefully that I’m not familiar with most of Garbage’s oeuvre, although I love Shirley Manson’s voice and I know some of the band’s classics, like 1995’s “Stupid Girl,” the title song from The World Is Not Enough (1999), which I consider one of the top five best themes in the history of the James Bond franchise, as well as the single that Garbage released on Record Store Day last year, “The Chemicals” (a duet with Brian Aubert, frontman of Silversun Pickups). Now, with “Empty,” pink-haired Shirley and the rest of the gang have made a song that’s catchier and lyrically/emotionally deeper than most of what’s being done by performers half their age (the members of Garbage range from 49 to 65 years old).

May 23/May 16: Nicky Wire interviewed by Edith Bowman (live on Virgin Radio UK) + Manic Street Preachers, “A Design for Life” (live at the Royal Albert Hall, 2016). For the ultra-obsessed: all the best Manics fans surely listened to Nicky Wire’s interview on the radio this past Monday, in which he discussed (with the delightful Edith Bowman, who has a great way of laughing) topics including skirts, hair, long-lasting friendships, parenthood, recent music by Bill Ryder-Jones and Cate Le Bon, sports, children’s movies, politics and “lyrical integrity,” the last of which connects back to PJ Harvey and having “something to say.” You can see how much the working-class anthem “A Design for Life” (being performed on the twentieth-anniversary tour of the Everything Must Go album) still means to the audience in 2016 as the stage’s overhead screens flash images and messages from the song’s 1996 music video: “Hope Lies in the Proles,” “Tomorrow Is Too Late,” “Make Your Choice,” etc. As Nicky shouts during the solo break: “This is working-class empowerment!” (In the same breath he also gets in a dig at the Britpop album Parklife by Blur.)

May 25: Argument City, “Spirit of 58” (music video; written for the Wales football team competing in Euro 2016). The Manics recorded the official single for Welsh footballers but the up-and-coming band Argument City released their song, which is another we-can-do-it sing-along, first. Now that the accompanying music video has been uploaded to YouTube, I’m pleased to see that the band is having just as much fun as the audio had suggested. Plus those schoolkids are adorable!

May 25: James McAvoy interviewed by Stephen Colbert (on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” 2016). What could be cooler or more rock ‘n’ roll than wanting all kids to have access to an education in the arts? James McAvoy’s statements on the matter are articulate, persuasive and obviously heartfelt.

Are You the Person You Always Thought You Would Be?


Sometimes I look at singers in their current-day incarnations and wonder what their younger selves would think of the directions that their careers have taken. I wonder how often those artists allow themselves to look back, or if such a thing is too detrimental to consider. When they were children and teenagers – as in the cases of those pictured above: Cyndi Lauper (c. 1970s), James Dean Bradfield (c. mid-to-late 1970s), Gwen Stefani (c. mid-to-late 1980s) – could they ever have dreamed of who they would be in their 20s, 30s and 40s? Is it too strange that I would imagine them imagining those ideas or memories?

Music is all about imagination. The artists have to have it and so do I. Jumping around through the decades, here are six singers or bands who have inspired (past) and do inspire (presently). Ups and downs have been noted.

Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (music video; studio version appears on the album She’s So Unusual, 1983) and “Girls Just Want Equal Funds” (live on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” 2016). We start with one unassailable truth: Cyndi Lauper was, is, and shall always be great. No matter how many decades pass, she will always be perfectly iconic, perfectly weird, perfectly herself.

P.S. Please check out Cyndi’s new album of country covers, Detour. Her version of Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World” is beautiful.

No Doubt, “Just a Girl” (music video; studio version appears on the album Tragic Kingdom, 1995) and Gwen Stefani, “Misery” (live on SNL, 2016; studio version appears on the album This Is What the Truth Feels Like, 2016). In 1995, Gwen Stefani hated the way the world infantilized women and too often compelled them to become, essentially, men’s property; these days she sings of begging to be with a man (Blake Shelton, I assume) because she can’t imagine anything more dismal than being alone. (To paraphrase “Just a Girl”: what she has succumbed to – bad pop – has made her numb.) Sure, you could fine-tune the explanation by clarifying that Stefani is talking about one specific man, not all men in general, and that maybe she’d be fine on her own if only she were not in love with this particular guy… but isn’t it still so disappointing to think that the source of her feminine suffering is the country music judge from “The Voice”?

Lush, “Sweetness and Light” (music video; studio version appears on the EP Sweetness and Light and the compilation album Gala, both 1990), “Ladykillers” (music video; studio version appears on the album Lovelife, 1996) and “Rosebud” (studio version appears on the EP Blind Spot, 2016). Lush has two genre legacies: one is shoegazing and the other is Britpop. The dreaminess of “Sweetness and Light” is the sound that I most often associate with Lush, although my favorite 90s-era song by the band is “Ladykillers,” an uptempo rocker that features different, yet still terrific, vocals from frontwoman Miki Berenyi. After drummer Chris Acland’s suicide in 1996, Lush went on hiatus, but their reformation last year has led to a new set of recordings titled Blind Spot. My favorite among the songs is “Rosebud,” a melancholy melody paired with poignant lyrics about love and loss. It’s so good to have Lush back.

The Stone Roses, “I Wanna Be Adored” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Stone Roses, 1989) and “All for One” (single, 2016). Few bands have had the success that the Stone Roses had with their self-titled debut album in 1989, earning the kind of critical reputation that can put groups in the “legends” category. “I Wanna Be Adored” is a brilliant way for them to open their album. What a statement to make about stardom! Anyway, long story short: the Roses were delayed in releasing their less “indie,” more bluesy follow-up album, Second Coming, an effort which was booed by all but the die-hard fans in 1994. Twenty-two years later, after numerous break-ups and reunions, the band has finally released new material. If almost any other band had recorded “All for One,” an inoffensive pop-rock tune that is easy to sing along to, I might consider it wonderful; because it comes courtesy of the Stone Roses, I’m slightly frustrated. I know it’s not right for me to have hoped for “I Wanna Be Adored, Part II,” but the glory days were so particularly, well, glorious for them that it is nigh impossible not to feel let down by Ian Brown and company.

Manic Street Preachers, interview and “Motown Junk” (“live” (lip-synched) on Snub TV, 1991), “Land of My Fathers/You Love Us” (live at Cardiff Castle, 2015; studio version of “You Love Us” appears on the album Generation Terrorists, 1992) and “Together Stronger (C’mon Wales)” (music video, 2016; promotional single for Euro 2016). You kind of have to enjoy the unflinching determination visible in the Manic Street Preachers in the early days: steely-eyed Richey Edwards stating that “youth is the ultimate product” and that the Manics were “the most original band of the last 15 years just ’cause we don’t wanna do anything that’s been done before”; Nicky Wire asserting that “we will never write a love song, ever, full stop” (five years later he wrote “Further Away”); James Dean Bradfield saying that “we’d rather be sensationalized than be just another NME band and get easy critical respect.” Strong words coming from guys who wanted to rule the world. They didn’t realize how difficult that would be.

Cut to 2015/2016: after a quarter of a century, the Manics are obviously a different band. I can’t begrudge them the patriotic tendencies they discovered twenty years ago; there was undoubtedly a time when they never would have believed that anyone would ask them to record the official song for Wales’ football team, yet that is exactly what they’ve done for the Euro 2016 tournament. They once joked about being “national treasures,” but I think these underdogs finally have become exactly that. And yeah, “Together Stronger” is a cheesy song, full of clichés and platitudes, but the band is so thoroughly earnest about the entire affair that it’s tough not to cheer the song on regardless. (Sean Moore, wearing his ever-present drumming gloves, retains total integrity by doing his job, doing it well and looking good while doing it.) The Manics have had their unfair share of sorrow in their thirty-year history, and no matter how they appeared to the public while in the midst of vitriolic youth, they earned the right to become who they are now. So they can perform the Welsh national anthem and then do their old ’91 classic “You Love Us” in the same breath at Cardiff Castle and not think twice; Nicky Wire famously once said that “we reserve the right to contradict ourselves,” and that is something the band continues to do all the time – which keeps us fans on our toes.

And as much as some things change, one thing always stays: the Manics’ relationship to photography and media representation. Or maybe I’m thinking specifically of Nicky Wire’s relationship to images. The Manics have always promoted themselves as much as their music. It seems to me that there is no difference between the photos taken of Nicky at music video photoshoots or in shiny NME spreads back in 1991-92 and the shots he posts on the Manics’ Twitter feed in 2016; only the method of disseminating the pictures has changed and now the artist himself has control. This week, highlights have included the usual post-gig selfie (as part of the Everything Must Go 20th anniversary tour) and, to the probable delight of every devoted Manics enthusiast, a selfie displaying Nicky’s everlasting affection for his favorite type of animal-print miniskirt. Whether at 22 or 47, the love of leopard never leaves a true believer.

Radiohead, “Just” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Bends, 1995) and “Burn the Witch” (music video; studio version appears on the album A Moon Shaped Pool, 2016). To many people, “Creep” may be the defining moment from Radiohead’s early days, but I have always had a particular affection for “Just,” which I used to listen to a lot when I was a teenager. (I also often connect it to the memory of seeing the music video played on VH1 Classic a couple of years ago; has it really been so long since 1995?) “Just” is one of their finest songs and people will likely be trying until the end of time to decipher what words are said at the end of the video. I guess what I liked best about the song and video as a teenager was that Radiohead seemed to have made them the way they wanted to, not the way a record company would want.

(A brief interlude Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood interviewed by Jonathan Ross in 2003. It’s a really amusing clip.)

This month, Radiohead resurfaced after years of speculation about an upcoming album. (The new opus, A Moon Shaped Pool, was released online on May 8.) After wiping their Twitter and Facebook pages clean of all previously posted information, the band started anew by sending out a music video for a brand-new single, “Burn the Witch.” For an industry already curious as to what Radiohead was up to after their apparent disappearance from social media, the song was a perfect choice for a rebirth. The fact that the video retells the story of The Wicker Man in the form of stop-motion animation somehow makes perfect sense for a song about the many dangers facing our societies today: people jumping the gun on which groups should be blamed for whichever problems, the pitfalls of mass media and social media, the pesky phenomenon of groupthink, etc. I guess Radiohead have held onto their principles, and Thom Yorke is the kind of lead singer whose dignity remains intact since he tends not to do things for the benefit of easy public consumption. A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t the kind of album that’s made by a band looking for number one hits. I admire such dedication to originality and purity.