Friday Music Focus: 2/17/17

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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.

Friday Music Focus: 11/11/16

Despite this week’s soul-crushing news that Donald Trump is going to be our forty-fifth POTUS, the music-blogging wagon must roll on.

Bash & Pop, “On the Rocks” (music video, 2016; studio version will appear on the album Anything Could Happen, 2017). Bash & Pop is fronted by Tommy Stinson, former bassist for seminal Minneapolis punk/alternative rock band The Replacements; B&P released their first (and also last) album, Friday Night Is Killing Me, in 1992, so their new follow-up has certainly earned the adjective “long-awaited.” The lyrics for “On the Rocks,” which is the upcoming album’s lead single, are largely clichéd but the overall catchiness of the melody and Stinson’s lengthy guitar solo toward the end make this song a lot of fun.

PJ Harvey, “Ministry of Defence” (performed live at Terminal 5 in Manhattan, 2016; studio version appears on the album The Hope Six Demolition Project, 2016). I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: “To Make America Great Again We Need Less Donald Trump, More PJ Harvey.” With the realities of a Trump presidency still sinking in, we need proudly political, saxophone-driven music more than ever. If we could elect a British woman to the highest office in our land, PJ would get my vote.

Angel Olsen, “Never Be Mine” (appears on the album My Woman, 2016). In recent months I have made a habit of reading Pitchfork’s music reviews, and in late August I saw a review by Jenn Pelly for Angel Olsen’s My Woman that was more effusive and praiseworthy than anything I had beheld in ages. I had never heard of Olsen, but the descriptions of this St. Louis-raised singer-songwriter’s new work as “tough and tender at once, a bold rumination on how love and autonomy require one another” and that “My Woman walks a tightrope of love to figure out what it is—how to find it, how to allow it in, how to feel it, how to fight for it, how to let it go—by a person who does not lose herself in the process” made me want to learn more. The song that I love the most from the album, “Never Be Mine,” has an especially great write-up: “My Woman contains soda-pop rippers as pained and distraught and irreducible as any girl-group classic: ‘Heaven hits me when I see your face,’ Olsen sings with wide-eyed optimism that wilts on arrival, ‘But you’ll never be mine.’ So much of My Woman is rock‘n’roll in the traditional sense, from a ’50s or ’60s jukebox, and it is positively electric, a total blast.”

Suede, “What I’m Trying to Tell You” (appears on the album Night Thoughts, 2016). Suede is one of those bands that I’m forever trying to foist on my circle of friends (in the best possible way) since, like my beloved Manic Street Preachers, I’m pretty sure that Suede (or “The London Suede,” as they are legally forced to be called here) never found a wide fanbase in America, just some die-hard devotees scattered in random pockets of the country. Suede’s seventh album, Night Thoughts, was released in January, which earned them high marks from the British music press and – as you might expect – absolutely no fanfare at all in the US, where the band essentially doesn’t exist. (They played at Coachella a few years ago, but otherwise I don’t think they’ve toured here since the late 90s or early 2000s, and the only late night talk show appearance they have ever done here was on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” in 1993. For more discussion of Suede’s lack of impact on our nation by a longtime American fan, take a gander at this article: “Trash: The Problems of Being an American Fan of the London Suede.”) Anywho, Night Thoughts is a solid album and “What I’m Trying to Tell You” is just as enjoyable and hook-laden as any of their earlier songs; I’m particularly fond of the fact that “Tell You’s” final minute sounds similar to the “la la la…” outro of 1996’s “Beautiful Ones,” which, incidentally, was the first Suede song I ever heard, when the music video was made available for free on iTunes one day almost a decade ago and I just happened to notice it on the iTunes homepage.

Weezer, “I Love the USA” (music video; single, 2016). When Weezer put out this song over the summer, the band said that it was an honestly patriotic anthem that had to do with NASA, or something. Now that the music video is online (released last month, starring none other than Patton Oswalt), the intent is obvious. While listening to the track again, I’ve had a late-breaking realization: Rivers Cuomo sounds exactly the same at age 46 as he did at 24, the age he was when Weezer released their self-titled debut album back in 1994. Is that good or is that weird?

Rowland S. Howard, “Dance Me to the End of Love” (performed live at the Melbourne Public Bar, 1995). I cannot pretend that I am well-versed in the late Leonard Cohen’s discography since I am only familiar with the songs of his which have been covered by my favorite artists. Enough singers have been performing “Hallelujah” (from Various Positions, 1984) for the last couple of decades that the New York Times actually ran an article this past September titled “How Pop Culture Wore Out Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,'” so instead I present you with a different song from Various Positions, a cover of “Dance Me to the End of Love” by Rowland S. Howard. I’m going to end the post with an excerpt of an interview with David Todd that Rowland did shortly before his death in 2009 (the piece was published in Todd’s book Feeding Back: Conversations with Alternative Guitarists from Proto-Punk to Post-Rock, 2012):

Friday Music Focus: 3/11/16

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Continuing a recent interest in how music intersects with pop culture and personal identity, here are my five tracks for today (and clips which are music-adjacent).

Elle King, “America’s Sweetheart” (live on “The Late Late Show,” 2016; studio version appears on the album Love Stuff, 2015). Looking critically at some of the most popular women in the American music world from the last few years, the choices are less than thrilling: tall, blonde, model-shaped Taylor Swift’s biggest complaint is about her “haters” (“Shake It Off”); Nantucket native Meghan Trainor and her affected Southern patois gave us insidious, faux-retro bubblegum-pop about how Trainor’s ideal image of love is needing to be treated like a princess on a pedestal (“Dear Future Husband”), expressed via a watered-down version of Amy Winehouse’s much-copied musical style that makes me miss her more than I already do; Iggy Azalea raised the game by being an even more extreme example of utilizing a Southern US accent while not actually being from that region (sure, she’s from the South… New South Wales, Australia), breaking out on the charts with – as is so often the case in rap and hip-hop – an ode to her own awesomeness and all the material possessions that make her cooler than you (“Fancy”). This brings us to one of the newest stars in music, Elle King. I wasn’t a fan of King’s breakout single from this past fall, “Ex’s & Oh’s,” which bothered me primarily on the grounds that the title incorrectly uses apostrophes to indicate plurals, and secondarily because it sounds like a weird mixture of mainstream-ized folk rock and the kind of blue-eyed soul-pop that female singer-songwriters from the UK have mastered. Still, King has grit in her voice, and I liked what I saw (including a Grand Ole Opry-approved jumpsuit) on “The Late Late Show.” Both in talking and in singing she is extroverted, loud, kind of silly and somewhat exaggerated in her actions, but she seems to be having fun. She’s not a perfect role model, as the song says, and who ever said that she has to be one? Maybe some of King’s energy comes from being (I’m totally serious) Rob Schneider’s daughter, but I’m glad that she’s gained her own fame without his last name because I would probably do the same too if I had a parent who wrote and starred in a movie like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.

Robert Tepper, “Angel of the City” (from the film Cobra, 1986). O lucky viewers! Thirty years ago, Sylvester Stallone – the real America’s Sweetheart, am I right? – provided us with the cinematic majesty of Cobra and its centerpiece, a montage designed around the super-cheesy song “Angel of the City.” No, this isn’t a music video made to promote Cobra’s soundtrack; this is actually a scene from the film, made just like a typical MTV clip. Hours pass in the film’s universe, and instead of hearing dialogue from Stallone (a detective hunting for crazed serial killers) or Brigitte Nielsen (the model who is the only living witness to the criminals’ deeds), we get this series of shots that alternate between Stallone’s search through the wee hours of the night and Nielsen’s… whatever that photoshoot would be called. Are there sufficient words to explain a gig that involves posing sexily with robots? (It was the 1980s, after all, and given audiences saw in Rocky IV the year before, I’ll bet that Sly personally requested the automatons.) And then there are all of Nielsen’s wigs, easily the most hideous hairpieces that that decade could cough up. At least the androids got something good out of the deal; Nielsen pairs a frizzy ‘do (and oh-so-80s headband) with one of those high-cut swimsuits that were all the rage back then, but the modish bot displays haute couture mink. Get that fella a contract of his own!

Suede, “Beautiful Ones” (from the album Coming Up, 1996). The visuals in the music video for this Britpop gem effectively contrast the ridiculousness of the “Angel of the City” montage. I first discovered “Beautiful Ones” when iTunes made it their free music video of the week, probably around eight or nine years ago. I didn’t know anything about Suede at the time, but I loved the video straight away. The imagery complements the songwriting so well, taking pop culture to task while still sort of loving the incorporation of those products, fads, brands and logos. Suede fell a bit short of the wave that Oasis and Blur rode into America in the mid-90s (they have also had to be rebranded in this country as “The London Suede” due to a lawsuit brought by an obscure American lounge act), but Brett Anderson really deserved superstar success here in the States; he was (and still is) tall, lean and good-looking, but he also has that distinct nasal voice, which I guess is a very take-it-or-leave-it tone. (The band is still in fine working order, if you ask me, and the Brett Anderson/Emmanuelle Seigner duet “Back to You” is one of the most exquisite songs of the 21st century.) The black-and-white aesthetic of the “Beautiful Ones” video brings me to the next clip: we’re returning to the Manic Street Preachers.

Manic Street Preachers, “You Love Us” (from the album Generation Terrorists, 1992). When I wrote about the Manics last week, there was so much music to discuss that it was inevitable that some things would be left out. “You Love Us” is one such song, and the video is particularly interesting because it contains so many elements worth analyzing: lyrics that assert the band’s authenticity, demonstrating spirited opposition to derivative, manufactured pop idols; turning the making of a music video into high-glam parading around for the cameras, complete with heavy makeup, supermodel stances and vacant stares, especially coming from the group’s poster child for rock ‘n’ roll deification, Richey Edwards; images of Malcolm X and atomic warfare; the juxtaposition of black and white skin; eroticized Popsicles and oysters; the band members being torn apart in the frenzy at the end. The video begins with a mission statement from the turn-of-the-century Futurists (“Regard All Art Critics as Useless and Dangerous”), but citing a quote from 1910 is at odds with some of the slogans that MSP used to wear on their homemade clothes, like Richey’s “Bomb the Past” shirt and Nicky Wire’s “I’m So Modern That Everything Is Pointless” jacket. (On the other hand, as the Wire once said: “We reserve the right to contradict ourselves.”) The video didn’t even take its tangle of themes as far as it could have gone; there was supposed to be a segment that showed Richey as a “Suicide Bride” (“looking unspeakably gorgeous in a white wedding dress, a hand grenade stuffed in his mouth like an apple,” to quote music journalist Simon Price), but it was cut from the final edit.

Nicky Wire cooking mac & cheese donuts (on “Sunday Brunch,” 2014). As guest Kevin McHale says at one point: “Donuts and mac & cheese – it’s America in a dish.” I wish that the US had a show like “Sunday Brunch,” combining celebrity panel discussions with hands-on cooking and baking; it seems like a pleasant way to spend a morning, both for the participants and for the viewers at home. If this is where longevity in the music business can take you, then it’s a nice destination. Connective tissue attached to the previous video: Nicky Wire wears a “You Love Us” button on his blazer.

Shirley Bassey featuring James Dean Bradfield, “The Girl from Tiger Bay” (live on “BBC Radio 2 Electric Proms,” 2009; studio version appears on the album The Performance, 2009) + a clip about the creation of the song.

Growing up in small-town south Wales in the early 1980s, you never saw your home town on television; never read its name in print. Even if something newsworthy were to happen – then or today – you might never hear about it, as topographical anomalies mean that many households cannot receive local television news (their aerials point to the west of England instead). For all you knew, the place you came from might as well not exist. (Simon Price, Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers) (1999), p. 5)

Although Shirley Bassey grew up in the capital of Wales, Cardiff, she is specifically from a community around the docks that was referred to as Tiger Bay, perceived by many as a dangerous area. The locale as Bassey knew it no longer exists because it was torn down, rebuilt and renamed in 1999, but this tribute to her extraordinary life – written and composed by the Manic Street Preachers – ties her identity to that humble place of origin. While early in the 90s the Manics were vocal about loathing their cultural wasteland of a hometown (Blackwood), “The Girl from Tiger Bay” is about pride. Instead of exhibiting a sense of hiraeth, which is a uniquely Welsh term for homesickness mingled with nostalgia and melancholy, “Tiger Bay” is a celebration.