31 July 2006

Five Songs For... Feeling Cooler

I have to write about the weather. The scorched earth compels me. If ever there was a time we needed to feel cooler, it's right freaking now. (This could be why I'm going to Iceland in a few weeks. But more on that in future posts.)

For now, I'm doing a temperature related Five Songs For...

That's right.

Five Songs For Feeling Cooler.

But what do I mean by "cooler," you ask? That's half the fun!

(1) "Tyrone" by Erykah Badu

In this song, Ms. Badu delivers a frosty rebuke of a no good man, telling him he better call his buddy Tyrone to come help him move his shit (her word) out of their house.

Just hearing her dis makes the temperature drop. Try not to suck air through your teeth and say, "Damn! That's cold!" every time you hear these lines...

I think you better call Tyrone
And tell him come on
Help you get your shit

You better call Tyrone,
but you can't use my phone.

Those who already know the song will remember how much fun Badu has with that "you can't use my phone" business. It's a live recording, and just before she drops the last line she says, "Hold up. Check this out." She's instructing us to pay attention as she hurls the coldest, nastiest dart at her no-good-lover's eye.

Damn! That's cold!

(2) "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other)" by Willie Nelson

Few people--singers or otherwise--are cooler than Willie Nelson. You guys? He just. Doesn't. Give. A damn. Can you think of one other male country artist who could sidle up to the mic and sing about how hard it is to be a gay cowboy? How the men who brag about banging girls are "most likely queer?" Listen to this sample. Nelson sings with a matter-of-fact drawl, as though he's telling a truth so obvious that he can't even be bothered to make a big deal of it.

Nelson can be that laid back because he's confident. He knows who he is. He's cool enough to call other people out on their homophobia without resorting to that bullshit about "Oh, I'm not gay. Seriously. I just don't hate 'em, you know?"

Because arguments like that are subtle defenses of homohpobia. Willie just out and out says to back off with the hatred. (Or, really, songwriter Ned Sublette says it. But the singer gets stamped with the song, I say.)

Nelson's cool factor gets upped by the fact that's he so old and crusty and cowboy-ish himself. And he wrote "Crazy" for Patsy Cline. He's the definition of hardass country music.

So while it was great when Pansy Division recorded "Frequently, Secretly" in the 90s, it was cool when Nelson did it last year because it was so unlike his image. It's politically unexpected, so it carries more weight as a gesture. Plus, it's a fun, touching song with a laconic steel guitar. Always a pleasure.

(3) "Theme from 'Shaft" by Isaac Hayes

This song makes the cut because it makes me feel like a cooler person for simply being in its vicinity. No matter how much of a Scientologist he may be now, Hayes made the sexiest ode to a private detective that will ever exist. It's a classic, and it only gets cooler because the song is indirectly responsible for the creation of the "Shaft" remake, which helped Samuel L. Jackson maintain his iron grip on the title of "Baddest Motherf***er in the Movies."

And that was before there were any motherf***ng snakes on the motherf***ng plane!

(4) "Anchorage" by Michelle Shocked

The thermometer drops a little when you hear a song about Alaska, right?

Well, even if it doesn't, I'm glad to have an excuse to bring up this gorgeous song. Shocked--a vastly underrated singer-songwriter who blends Texas twang with Cajun instruments and the occasional rock guitar--sings about writing a letter to an old friend. Then that friend writes back to say she's moved to Anchorage, Alaska because her husband got a new job. And now she feels like she's lost everything she loved in life. She feels, as Shocked puts it, "anchored down in Anchorage."

Much of this song is written in the voice of a letter, and you hear thousands of words behind what's actually said. Shocked's minimalist lyrics certainly helped pave the way for Lucinda Williams' rich work on "Car Wheels on Gravel Road."

Consider the ache implied in this verse:

Hey girl, it's about time you wrote
It's been over ten years you know, my old friend.
Take me back to the days of the foreign telegrams
and the all night rock and rolling.
Hey, Chelle, we was wild then

Hey girl, you know the last time I saw you
was on me and Leroy's wedding day.
What was the name of that love song you played?
I forgot how it goes.
I don't recall how it goes

The sadness only multiplies with Shocked's gravelly vocal, which ocasionally leaps to a cracked high note to suggest emotion breaking free. And the gentle shuffle of the rhythm suggests a wistful acceptance that this is friendship is lost. That the good times are over. That two young people have grown older and gotten anchored down in their different lives.

By the time Shocked repeats the word "Anchorage" over and over, it's obvious the song's ideas are spinning with obsessive regret. The music, however, does not change. The drums roll softly. A guitar gets strummed. A triangle clings.

We just keep moving forward, the song says, no matter how much we want to stop. Even as we're crying, something steady and unchanging is pushing us along.

(5) Your call! Which songs make you feel cooler?


26 July 2006

Never say never... New tracks from Jurassic 5 and John Mayer

Well, damn. The second I try to make a blanket statement, something always comes along to complicate things.

"I'll never buy clothes at a self-important Abercrombie & Fitch store!" becomes "Well, except for this one gray turtleneck."

"No more Coke products for me!" becomes "What? Dasani's water, isn't it? I don't think Coca-Cola actually made the water."

And now "I don't understand the appeal of Dave Matthews Band" becomes "Mostly."

Because this week sees the release of "Feedback," the new album from Jurassic 5, and the album features the single "Don't Stop." And "Don't Stop" features, you guessed it, Dave Matthews Band.

And it rocks (listen here for proof). Jurassic 5 has long been one of my favorite hip-hop acts. Their best material has a laid back flow that's perfect for chilling in the current heat wave. The guys always seem like they're having a good time, mostly becasue their lyrics are so witty. It helps, too, that they generally rhyme about positivity, political consciousness, and resisting the assault of consumer culture. Listen to enough of their tracks, and you feel like you can go out and change a few things, dammit, without ever breaking a sweat.

The group's cool gets bolstered by their sound. Their musical pallette is dense with instruments
--none of the single-note-repeating that makes much commercial hip-hop sound unimaginative. Jurassic 5 might throw in in a steel guitar, a xylophone, or an old blues riff. You just don't know.

And their tempos are of the super-fly, pimp-walk variety. You know, mellow and funky and guaranteed to cause a strut.

And given that vibe, I'm surprised to see them collaborating with a frat-rocker like Dave Matthews. But there he is, singing harmony with himself on "Don't Stop." The song sounds like "Where Is The Love"--the Black-Eyed Peas' collaboration with Justin Timberlake--but with more street cred. There's a gentle insistence to the beat, a sung chorus about people getting along, and the clever J-5 verses we all can love.

Played at medium volume, the song is a perfect chill-out track. Listen especially for the weird echo the producers put on Dave's vocals. It makes him sound like the aural equivalent of a lava lamp, sliding and stretching.

In short, "Don't Stop" makes Dave Matthews sound cool. Something I never thought I would say. I mean, that's about as likely as John Mayer sounding genuine.

Rrrgh. Even the mention of John Mayer makes me angry. For the most part, I find his music to be the worst kind of cynical marketing ploy. It's like Mayer thought, "Hey! Ladies of all ages love non-threatening male singers! Why don't I record some breathy-voiced, sentimental songs about blandly universal topics like hating high school and wishing that fathers could be good to their daughters? Then all the daughters will want to sleep with me. And that'll be the undercurrent of my hit song 'Daughters,' but no one will notice it as they're turning my faux-sensitive lyrics into ads for perfume!"

Okay, maybe he didn't think all those things at one time, but I sure do. Mayer sounds like the more calculated version of Josh Rouse, keeping the Americana influences but dispensing with the wry lyrics. He postures like James Taylor, but lacks the dark back story. He is so inoffensive--naming his first album "Room for Squares" even--that he turns the corner right back to offensiveness, especially because in interviews he seems so proud of himself for being a swell guy that your sister could date.

I've always loved that Mayer named his second album "Heavier Things" and proceeded to churn out the same old easy listening tripe. Adding electric guitars just made him louder, not heavier. His voice remained thin and unupported. His lyrics stayed about as deep as 8th grade poetry. ("Someday I'll fly/ Someday I'll soar/ Someday I'll be so damn much more/ 'Cause I'm bigger than my body gives me credit for). I was ready to go on hating him forever, even naming "Daughters" my least favorite single of 2004.

Yesterday, though, I had to eat a little crow. I heard Mayer's new single "Waiting on the World to Change," and I had to admit that, this time at least, he had actually captured the 70s rock groove instead of just aping it. (Judge for yourself.)

What is it about this song that makes it sound honest to me? For one, Mayer's voice actually has some muscle in it. He digs down to the deeper end of his range to growls out a few words of disgust for the current political climate. Oh, right, and he also sings about politics, which makes this song akin to folkie protest tunes of my parents' time.

And for once, Mayer sings over an instrumental track with attitude. There's a lazy drum beat and nice bass line that make "Waiting" sound like a back porch jam. It's pleasant and accessible, but it isn't overproduced. It sounds relaxed and fun, like it got recorded in 1972 while some kids were running through a sprinkler

Who'd have thought?

Next thing you know, I'll hear some song from Insane Clown Posse and decide I wrote them off too soon.


23 July 2006

Won't You Give the Children Coolio?

Well, folks, here it is... my last post from The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Tomorrow I'm going home to Brooklyn. Tonight, though, I'm seeing special performances of some of August Wilson's greatest scenes, as performed by Charles S. Dutton and S. Epatha Merkerson. That's right, y'all. Tonight I'm hanging with Lt. Anita Van Buren of "Law and Order" (aka Reba the Mail Lady from "Pee Wee's Playhouse).

And I know this is a music blog, but I must digress to mention that I also got to speak with Merkerson last night. On the coolness scale, that ranks right around "I got to break the sound barrier in my very own jet." I choose to believe that her laughter during our conversation erupted because my jokes were really funny.

Anyway, my time at the O'Neill hasn't been all about meeting the bad-asses of prime time (there's that hyphen again!). It has also included a morbid consideration of my own mortality.

Most of the time I can smell the blooming flower of my youth, but that's because I don't hang out with very many people who are still in college. However, two of my esteemed fellow critics are students, and their presence occasionally makes me feel the chill fingers of death thrumming on the back of my neck.

For instance, here are two statements that the guys made that make me feel ready for the old folks' home (and I do quite like them, despite my likening them to Death approaching) :

(1) What's Friendster?

(2) Who's Coolio?

Oh. My. God. With regard to the first statement, I know that Friendster is already obsolete next to MySpace, but I didn't realize that a twenty-one year old would know as much about it as I do about the Pony Express. Wasn't it just three years ago that I felt really hip when I got a Friendster profile?

But the bigger fish to fry is Coolio. What is wrong with this world that we haven't taught the children to embrace him?

Because I would argue that Coolio represents some of the best of nineties hip-hop. Intelligent, witty, and able to make fun of himself, he offered a brand of hip-hop that felt human. Some hardcore rappers (and fans) may have dismissed him as silly, but I think they're wrong. Coolio just had a more playful side.

Don't get me wrong: I don't need a rapper to be funny. I like DMX and all. But Coolio deserves credit for being so multifaceted. Go back and listen to "Fantastic Voyage" and "1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin' New)." The samples are bouncy and melodic, the lyrics are sharp. He just wants to party Who wouldn't want to join him, even today?

And of course, there's "Gangsta's Paradise," one of the greatest rap songs of all time. Remember how it got nominated for every major Grammy? Sure, maybe the voters should've gotten to hip-hop faster, but they were dead on for praising this one. To this day, the track still sounds urgent and fresh.

It desesrves to be remembered. As do Coolio's other hits.

So go out there, find some youngsters, and shove copies of "Fantastic Voyage" into their hands.

Do it for the future. Do it to help us all feel a little younger. Do it so that "Gangsta's Paradise" doesn't get reduced to the soundtrack of future AARP convetions.


20 July 2006

A follow-up on DMB and BFF

I knew that my post on DMB and BFF would raise a few hackles, and thanks to Carrie and Katy for offering other points of view. I certainly know that many people love the music of Dave Matthews and Ben Folds, finding in it everything I can't. And it's great to have that voice represented here.

I would like to touch on something mentioned in Carrie's comment, since I think it could inspire further discussion.

Carries mentions feeling unsettled by my comment "life feels more manageable because for at least one track, someone else can feel your feelings for you," saying instead, "What I connect to so intensely in Ben's music is his provocation of intense feeling in me, not for me."

And I realize that my point was not as clear as it could be. What I meant was that a frequent joy of pop music is recognizing my own feelings in someone else's music. It's not that I stop feeling but that I feel a rush of connection as I hear a private emotion recreated in a song. Sometimes, the song articulates something I couldn't express yourself, and so does seem to be "feeling for me," but I never give my feeling over to the artist. As Carrie says, I just have my own emotions provoked.

So that's a bit of clarification. Please keep discussing if you feel so inclined!


18 July 2006

The Mystery of Ben Folds and Dave Matthews

I don't know much gospel, but I would like officially to sing hallelujah. Thanks to the advice of people on this very blog, I was able to get my iPod working.

Watson's back!

And it was all because of the "slam your iPod on the desk" technique (please see comments on this post for more info). Screw Apple tech support and the policy that says, "You only get one free call to us and then we charge you for advice that won't help anyway." Seriously, guys. Apple may like our money, but it hates us all the same. I get better customer service at the DMV. (Thank, Mr. Pritchard! I got my new license in the mail, just like you said.)

Anyway, when I got Watson back to life, the first thing I did was celebrate with a dance party in my room. As I was working up a sweat, I was aware that not everyone in the world agrees with me that Cher and Christina Aguilera are the perfect soundtrack to shaking one's booty. But that's their prerogative. I mean, I feel bad for them, but not everyone can understand the genius of the "Believe"/"Genie in a Bottle" two-pack.

And this got me thinking... what popular music do I not understand?

There are two answers to that question: Dave Matthews Band and Ben Folds (with or without the Five).

I know that people flip for both, but each act has always struck me as belabored and boring. Their music sounds like all thinking and no feeling. Even in the live performances I've heard and/or seen, I cannot detect a trace of spontaneity, yet neither act is willing to embrace their calculation. Madonna doesn't seem spontaneous either, but her work highlights her theatricality. BFF and DMB have the stilted creak of artists who try too hard to seem like they're just tossing off some chords.

Not that each has the same turgidity. Dave Matthews groans under the weight of jam-band boasting, whereas Ben Folds sounds bloated because he's trying to prove how exceptionally clever he can be.

Case in point: a few years a go, I saw a concert that featured Rufus Wainwright, Guster, and Folds. (It could have been called the Self-Seriousness Revue, but that's another post...) I was mostly there for Rufus, but I figured Folds would do me right, too. (I knew Guster was going to be adolescent whining and generic guitar riffs. I was right).

But I noticed that I could not keep my mind on a single Folds song. I'd get into his energetic piano playing or maybe a catchy chorus, but I'd always drift off. Finally I realized I couldn't stay engaged because he never gets to the point. His lyrics are a maze of complicated metahpors, and the melodies are so free-form that there's rarely anything to latch onto. His songs are smart, I guess, but their intelligence is cold. There's no easy pleasure to be gained from listening to his dense production. His convoluted lyrics deny the mindless sing-along.

Not that songs need to be stupid. Sometimes, however, they need to be fun. That's what pop music is. Even when a pop song is upsetting, there's something pleasing about hearing real emotions captured in a four minute vessel. Life feels more manageable because for at least one track, someone else can feel your feelings for you. But for a song to produce that pleasure, it needs to be accessible on a level that doesn't require intellectual investment.

And there are plenty of artists who are just as smart as Folds who also manage to write an easy hook now again. Death Cab For Cutie has "Sound of Settling." Tori Amos has "God." Still intelligent. Still interesting. But also simple enough to reach the gut.

I'd say this problem also applies to Dave Matthews, though his over-work is geared less toward proving he's smart than that he's cool. All those show-offy, playing-seven-
chords-with-one-hand tricks. The sly little references to vaginas in radio singles like "Crash." Dave Matthews is like your older brother's best friend who can't walk out of your driveway without jumping up to grab the rim of your basketball hoop. He doesn't stop the conversation he's having, of course, because he wants it to seem effortless, but he always wants you to notice his jump shot.

And Dave's been jumping for the same basket for years. Really, what difference is there between "Ants Marching" and "So Much to Say" and whatever that last single was? Same horns and stuttering rhythm. Same sweat of effort. Same desire to seem hip. Not what I want on Watson, especially since he's just getting over an illness.

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13 July 2006

iPod: R.i.P. (a very special Five Songs For...)

This is never the image you want to see on your iPod.

This is the image I currently see on mine.

That means I am in the woods of Connecticut without any music. Moreover, when I return to my humble Brooklyn home, I face the possibility of losing over 5,000 songs that I don't have backed up on my computer (which crashed last summer.) And we're not just talking about Whitney Houston remixes here, people. There were some great albums on Watson (that was my iPod's name). Fun, obscure groups like Apples in Stereo and classics like the best of Simon and Garfunkle. Now they're like Wednesday nights on ABC. They're Lost. (Okay, okay. I should sometimes activate my joke censor before I turn into my father.)

So now, ever so humbly, I present to you with a very special "Five Songs For..."


Imagine that you're in the woods of Connecticut with no access to music. What songs are perfect to sing to yourself as you try to keep the hum of insects or the crushing, crushing silence of undeveloped nature at bay? As a person living the experiment, I offer these...

(1) "Theme from the Facts of Life" -- TV themes are perfect for singing as you walk short distances because they can be over just in time for you to go back inside, away from the aforementioned bugs. I find this ditty--cowritten by Alan Thicke of "Growing Pains" fame--to be particularly choice because it doesn't require the vocal chops of, say, "The Jeffersons" yet it has a bouncy melody that lifts the spirits in a similar way.

(2) "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by The Proclaimers -- This hit from the film "Benny and Joon" obviously fits the bill because it's about walking, but there's a hidden reward as well...

It's easy to act this song out without seeming insane. You can walk in time to the rhythm and imagine you, too, are walking 500 miles (and walking 500 more) just the be the man who walks a 1,000 miles who falls at someone's door.

And when you're secretly performing, it's hard not to be in good mood.

(3) "Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers -- Few of us may be able to hit all the notes, but is there a better tune to hum as you wander home in the dark? Romance!

(4) "The Lumberjack Song" by Monty Python -- You know the one. "I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay..." Silly sing-songy chants make nice background noise while the rest of your mind focuses on whether it's chilly enough to put on your cute blue zip-up jacket that you got at the Banana Republic outlet near Nyack, NY. (You know the one I mean, right?) And sing-songy chants are better when they're this funny.

(5) You choose! Which songs do you like singing to yourself when you find yourself without earbuds, headphones, or other such things?


12 July 2006

Whither the Lilith Ladies?

Don't get me wrong, I never expected Jill Sobule to have a major career. Or Heather Nova or Merril Bainbridge or Abra Moore or any of the other minor female talents who poked out their heads between 1995 and 1999. That was a time I call the "Lilith Era," when female singer-songwriters were experiencing a level of popularity not known since the mid-1970s heyday of Carole King, Carly Simon, and a newly resurgent Joni Mitchell.

I did, however, expect major things from a few of the Lilith Fair superstars.

Though its first major trek wasn't until 1997, The Lilith Fair epitomizes this period of music history. For three summers, it toured the country with a rotating line-up of nothing but female performers. Every date featured five mainstage acts and plenty more on smaller stages, and ticket sales were alway strong. Remember when all your friends were suddenly wearing sandals made out of hemp or skirts sewn from that crinkly, could-go-up-in-flames-at-any-minute fabric? They were all dressing to go to the Lilith Fair.

And though later summers featured hip-hop, jazz, and country acts, the festival was largely known as a platform for folkie pop-rockers. When I went to the Nashville show in 1997, for instance, I saw Indigo Girls (my then faves), Emmylou Harris, Lisa Loeb, Jewel, and tour founder Sarah McLachlan. The first three were already established, but the last two had risen to fame during the Lilith Era.

What seemed obvious to me at the time was that McLachlan especially had made it to the big time. Not only was this huge musical event her brainchild, but its first summer also dovetailed with her new album "Surfacing," which became her first blockbuster and yielded two top-ten hits in "Adia" and "Angel."

I figured Sarah McLachlan was going to be an evergreen superstar, much like Alanis Morrisette, who kind of kicked off this whole era with the success of "Jagged Little Pill," and Jewel, whose music I loathed but assumed would be unavoidable for the rest of time. (Honestly, is there any song worse than "Hands?" Okay, maybe "You Were Meant For Me," but you get my point.)

But you know what? I was wrong. On all counts. Not a single artist who came to prominence during the Lilith Era has maintained a high-profile career.

Sure, McLachlan and Jewel may still move copies of their new records, but after a few weeks, they tend to slip from view. Did you even know that Jewel released her latest album "Goodbye Alice in Wonderland" just a few weeks ago? Most people didn't.

Alanis Morrisette, meanwhile, has been reduced to remaking her one hit album and calling it "Jagged Little Pill Acoustic." That's a sign of desperaton, folks, not of thriving artistry.

Nor is it a good sign that Paula Cole--golden girl of 1997, wondering where all the cowboys had gone--just had an erroneously plural "Greatest Hits" album dumped quietly into stores. Or that Shawn Colvin--who rode "Sunny Came Home" to platinum status after years of releasing beloved indie folk albums--had to issue a press release saying she wasn't retired.

Despite how it may sound, I am not making value judgments against any of these artists. Being popular doesn't make you good, and I still love my copies of "This Fire," "Steady On," and "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy." I'd wager that most of the women mentioned above have made their peace with their fleeting time in the spotlight.

But isn't it weird that not one of them got to stay in the pantheon of fame? Movements in pop music tend to produce scads of temporary stars, most of whom either go on to make interesting, less commercial products or just take up, um, floral design. Usually, though, there's one or two that stick it out. Pearl Jam is still a pretty big deal after grunge. Green Day certainly made it through post-punk. Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera both survived late 90s teen pop after Britney and Jessica Simpson traded music for tabloids and the Backstreet Boys got really, really fat.

So why did no one make it out of Lilith?

Do we really have to count Sheryl Crow?

I don't guess it matters, of course. I can hear these women whenever I want, and with the exception of Cole, it doesn't seem any of them are gone for good.

I just figured, given the huge success of the Lilith Era, that it might add up to something more than a passing fad.


10 July 2006

Do You Want Divas With That?

When Andrew and I went on our recent trip to Montreal, we happened across the restaurant to your left, Pizza Madona. Being the clever fellows that we are, we thought, "What if we opened a pizza place--in the Village, of course--that was entirely themed after Madonna's hit singles?"

Tickled with ourselves, we spent about two minutes coming up with menu items. Then we realized it was time to eat. Again. We were on vacation, after all.

But when we got in the car for the 6 hour drive back to New York (plus potty breaks, an outlet shopping marathon, and one horrifying traffic jam), the Madonna-themed pizzeria sprang back into our minds. Could this be because we're too creative to let a good idea go? Could it be because I kept playing selections from the original motion picture soundtrack of Evita? You be the judge!

At any rate, I'm pleased to present you with the menu we devised. Look for our restaurant to open the moment some wealthy investor with a nose for success writes us a check.



(1) Just a Pie, My Love (hand tossed)

(2) Like a Prayer (thin crust--thin as a communion wafer)

(3) Deeper and Deeper (deep dish)

(4) Secret (stuffed crust, with cheese or some other secret delight)

STEP TWO: DO YOU WANT BORDERLINE? (Meaning half of your pizza has one set of toppings and the other half has another)


Our pies include...

(1) Holiday (Hawaiian--ham and pineapple)

(2) Clucky Star (chicken and mozzarella)

(3) Like a Virigin (white pizza--no tomato sauce, rocotta cheese, your choice of toppings)

(4) Material Girl (black truffles, foie gras, brie)

(5) Dress You Up (supreme)

(6) Papa Don't Preach (caviar, baby spinach, ground veal)

(7) True Bleu (bleu cheese, sundried tomatoes)

(8) Open Your Heart (meat lover's pizza with extra cheese)

(9) La Isla Bo-Pizza (jalapenos, salsa, spicy ground beef)

(10) Take a Bough (veggie lover's pizza)

(11) You'll Sea (calamari, shrimp, scallops)

(12) Don't Cry for Me, Sausage Pizza (chorizo sausage, ricotta cheese)

(13) You Must Love Cheese (cheese lover's pizza--ricotta, mozzarella, feta, and parmesan)

(14) Ray of Lite (Whole wheat crust, soy cheese, spinach, broccoli, grilled chicken)

(15) American Life (pepperoni and cheese)


(1) Hanky Panky (whipped cream, chocolate sauce, cherry pie filling, an unrolled pair of edible panties... served on graham cracker crust)

(2) This Used To Be My Playground (shortbread crust, cake icing, M&M's, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups


**Dine Another Day gift certificates available at register

**"Where's The Party" discounts available to groups of 10 or more (the management knows that Where's the Party was not a single but feels the pun is too good to pass up)

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07 July 2006

Cher thinks I'm awesome, though. Right?

A quick post tonight as I prepare for a two-week trip to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute. (I'll still be updating the blog, though... don't worry!)

Anyway... the other week I was uploading CDs to my iPod, and I noticed the following albums were all on the same page of my old school CaseLogic carrier...

Ace of Base's Greatest Hits

Paula Abdul's Greatest Hits

En Vogue's Greatest Hits

The Very Best of Cher

And, you guys? I had already uploaded ALL OF THEM to my iPod. Ages ago.

I may never be cool. But damn if those songs don't get me rocking in the gym. And in my home. And on the plane. And everywhere.

What are some of your guiltiest pleasures? And I'm talking about CDs you own and still actively listen to. No fair saying, "Tee-hee! I totally liked Kriss Kross in middle school." Because we ALL did, okay? I want to know what makes you giggle with embarassment now.


04 July 2006

The Mountain Goats : Too Late Is Right On Time

Frankly, I'm glad I discovered The Mountain Goats too late. By the time he released his 2004 album "We Shall All Be Healed," John Darnielle (a.k.a. the man who essentially comprises The Mountain Goats) had already become an indie-rock legend, releasing underground tapes and ambitious concept albums that highlighted his nasal voice, bizarre lyrics, and knack for eerie melody.

As tends to happen, Darnielle's cult got larger, and he finally moved to a bigger indie label (4AD) which allowed him wider distribution of his music.

Now 4AD isn't exactly the Universal Music Group, but many people who once fell at Darnielle's feet started to feel he'd lost his edge as he grew from his ramshackle roots. "We Shall All Be Healed" was The Mountain Goats' second album for 4AD, and it received a score of fretful reviews like this one in which fans and critics went into paroxysms mourning the loss of a once-private musical hero. The general tenor of the responses was one of people who were diasppointed the the guy they once got to keep for themselves had been replaced by someone they had to share.

I understand their pain. While I was living it Atlanta, I loved the local-celebrity music of Jennifer Nettles. She was astonishingly good, and I got to feel really, really cool because I was one of a few thousand people who had ever heard of her. Then Nettles formed helped found Sugarland, a popular country group that has had all sorts of hits and even got a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. The secret was out.

At first, I couldn't stand the fact that Nettles had traded earnest folk-rock for shiny country-pop, though eventually I caved. Now I love Sugarland. But at first, I was inconsolable that I'd lost a secret treasure.

Similarly, I've never gotten over the broader popularity of Ani DiFranco, and I think it's caused her music to suffer. All I hear on her later albums (meaning anything past "Little Plastic Castles) is messy songrcraft and the arrogance of an artist who believes she can release any old thing.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm clinging so tightly to the way Ani's old music made me feel (when I was a closeted adolescent salving for my emotional crises with her angry, liberating songs) that I can't accept any change from her.

And if I had heard any of The Mountain Goats' older music, maybe I'd be as fiercely protective of them, too. But in late 2004, when I heard a track from "Healed" called "Palmcorder Yajna," I was a stranger to the group. And what I heard was exhilarating. The jangly guitar and shuffling tempo made the song sound good for driving, and Darnielle's voice was somehow both whiny and powerful. Meanwhile, the lyrics told a strange story of a teenager sitting stoned in a Califormia hotel room with his friends. Here's a bit of the portrait the track paints:

Sent somebody out for soda
Combed through the carpet for clues
Reflective tape on our sweatpants
Big holes in our shoes

Every couple minutes
Someone says he can't stand it anymore
Laugh lines on our faces:
Scale maps of the ocean floor.

I'll admit that the rest of "Healed" took some work for me to embrace, though eventually I found about half a dozen songs that I loved for the same reasons I love "Palmcorder Yajna." There's an emotional urgency in the way Darnielle sings, and producer John Vanderslice keeps all the songs stripped to essentials. Even tracks with strings and drums feel naked, like there are just three people sitting in a room and no mistake has been edited over. The music often feels desperate or anxious. It always feels alive. It compels me to pay attention as it makes one visceral statement after another.

And this from an album that's supposed to be a nadir. I still listen to it all the time, still excited by how strange and beautiful its hight points are.

Even better, since I started my Mountain Goats journey with "We Shall All Be Healed," I got to have my expectations blown away by the follow-up album "The Sunset Tree." The most explicity autobiographical of Darnielle's work, it charts the abuse, divorce, and eventual peace that defined his adolescence.

It is a stunning work of art. Flooded with feeling--everything from rage to sadness to hope-- each song is beautiful.

You can hear samples of every song here. I recommend the lush piano/drums of "Broom People" to start, in which a teenage Darnielle tries to explain to his girlfriend how her small kindnesses melt his emotional reserve. He tells her, "I write down good reasons to freeze to death/in my spiral ring notebook/but in your arms, in your arms/ I am a babbling brook."

Then try the slashing strings of "Dilaudid" and the ironic cheer of "Dance Music." The latter chronicles six year-old John's fear of his stepfather with the following insight:

I'm in the living room watching the Watergate hearings
while my stepfather yells at my mother.
Launches a glass across the room
straight at her head
and I dash upstairs to take cover.
Lean in close to my little record player on the floor:
so this is what the volume knob's for.
I listen to dance music.

In less than two minutes, we understand so much about this little boy. And I love how Darnielle trusts us to hear what's being said behind a lyric like "so this is what the volume knob's for." Rather than just saying, "I turn it up loud so I don't have to hear them fight," he expresses himself in a way that adds a level of pained sarcasm to his adult reflection on his past. We get a sense of how this memory affects him still.

And that's the kind of complexity-plus-tunefulness that "The Sunset Tree" offers on thirteen tracks. For the most part, critics agreed with me about how good the record is, though there were still plenty of older fans who compared this new music unfavorably with the past.

I'm glad I don't have to overcome a long history with The Mountain Goats to like what I hear today. I'm glad I missed their hippest indie days. Because sometimes ignorance allows me to listen freely. To listen (ahem) without prejudice.

Volume one.

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03 July 2006

July 4th, a day for (romantic) fireworks. Ooh!

Titillated by the title? Heated by the heading? Well, don't be filthy, you guys. Okay, do be filthy, but be aware that the title of this post is not meant to encourage said (and supported) filth. Instead, it's meant to reference a logical leap about how today's topic is in league with the 4th of July.

See, I noticed that the number one song this week on Billboard's Hot 100 is "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland. And while I've already discussed the credits and debits of that track, it occurs to me that it is also part of a long lineage of singles: namely, it is a "fighting song." By that I mean it's a song in which a romantic couple has an argument set to a beat.

And as it happens, "Promiscuous" isn't the only fighting song to top the chart over the 4th of July. On this very day back in 1982, The Human League was at #1 with "Don't You Want Me," which is one of the best examples of this genre ever produced.

With fighting songs celebrating our independence on two separate occasions--each one a reminder of our noble forefathers' fight for freedom, despite The Human League being British and Furtado being Canadian--I thought it was apropos to suss out what makes this type of tune succeed or fail.

The most important factors are the characters in the story. A fighting song is not just a pairing of voices. The generic narrators of a happy love duet (a la "Endless Love") won't do. Nor will this type of ditty be engaging if it seems like both people have similar perspectives. For example, while it's only right for Annie Lennox and Aretha Frankling to be on the same side in "Sisters are Doin' It For Themselves," a state of agreement lessens the drama of a fighting song.

And I hate to say this, but a case in point is "Promiscuous." Both Nelly Furtado and Timbaland are making the same observation: they're each shocked (shocked!) that the other would be so horny. That's kind of funny, but it's not very dramatic. Listeners need to be able to take sides in a song like this, to hear two different people and decide which one to sing along with as the argument unfolds.

(Sidebar: Have you noticed how my feelings about "Promiscuous" are changing over time? That's the reward for long-term readership, you guys! Evolution of critical thought signals a nimble mind! No, not fickle. Nimble!)

Anyway, this same need for difference applies to romantic comedies. Even the crappiest Tom-n-Meg movie--which would be "You've Got Mail"--hinges on the opposites attract theory. (Ooh! He's a big businessman, and she runs a little book shop! He's got bags under his eyes, and her lips have been collagen-inflated to look like bags of flesh!) You need that tension to keep your story engaging.

And The Human League's "Don't You Want Me" (here's a sample) has tension all over the place. With storytelling straight out of Rashomon, we get one event from two perspectives. Both male and female singer agree that she was "working as a waitress in a cocktail bar." The man, however, believes that he saved his ladyfriend from a dumpy life and gave her five years of bliss. "Don't you want me?" he asks. And how could she not? She'd be nothing without him.

Or so he thinks. Until she chimes in to say, "I knew I'd find a much better place, either with or without you." SNAP! Drama! And it doesn't hurt that the synth rhythms of the track are so catchy.

Flash forward a few years to "I Got a Man," a 1993 song credited only to rapper Positive K, though it includes a crucial female vocal (from a woman whose name I cannot find). This song rules because the woman keeps shooting down K's attempts to seduce her (the anti-"Promiscuous," if you will).

"I got a man," she says. "What's your man got to do with me?" he retorts. Ah, the innocent days of the early nineties. Remember how they made this song into a Coke commercial? With animated stick figures?

I still love this track because of its sense of humor. "And when your man don't treat you like he use-ta/I kick in like a turbo boosta." Indeed.

K doesn't take himself seriously. This is an argument, but everybody's having fun at the club tonight. Whether or not these two get together, they'll have a chuckle.

Again, it's all about the dynamic of opposites, and the success of "I Got a Man" is clarified by "All I Have," a cheap copy performed in 2003 by Jennifer Lopez and LL Cool J. Though J. Lo may resist his advances ("All my pride is all I have"), LL is clearly the winner from the beginning ("Pride is what you had, baby girl I'm what you have.) Ms. Almost-Affleck puts up such a weak fight that you can't believe her at all. Plus, she can't sing. Cannot sing. Can't.

But let's not think argument songs are all about anger or sass. Once in a while, the rare example comes along that manages to reveal something remarkably honest about the way relationships work. Take "Nothing Better" by The Postal Service, a side project of Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel) that could be one of the greatest bands of all time if they'd just keep recording together.

The reasons for the The Postal Service's greatness are legion, but one is the perceptiveness of Gibbard's lyrics (also on display in Death Cab). For "Nothing Better," he brings singer Jen Wood along to evince a devastating break-up set to a bouncy rhythm. (Buy it here, or hear a sample.)

See, the woman has said she's leaving, but the man just can't face that, so he's willing to do anything to make her stay. Pride be damned. He tells her:

Will someone please call a surgeon
who can crack my ribs and repair this broken heart
that you're deserting for better company?
I can't accept that it's over.
I will block the door like a goalie tending the net
in the third quarter of a tied-game rivalry.

So just say how to make it right,
and I swear I'll do my best to comply.

See how it's different, LL, for someone to say for themselves that they have no pride, rather than be told that they don't? Gibbard's deft imagery let's us know the depth of this man's desperation to keep his relationship in tact.

And his girlfriend doesn't just kiss him off. She asserts herself with intelligence and a sense of humor, indicating why he loved her to begin with...

I feel I must interject here.
You're getting carried away feeling sorry for yourself
with these revisions and gaps in history.
So let me help you remember:
I've made charts and graphs that should finally make it clear.
I've prepared a lecture on why I have to leave.

And just like that, you've got two fully-formed characters that are better drawn than anyone in a season of "Doogie Howser." These are people whose complicated language and subtle sarcasm suggest the intimate knowledge all couples share, even when they're dissolving. At the end, the woman even admits to the man that "[he's] got a lure [she] can't deny," but that closeness isn't enough. So much to consider in three minutes.

Just for fun, try singing along to "Nothing Better" as one character, then do it again in the other role. Talk about range. Watch out, Meryl!

(Oh, and speaking of Meryl, go see "The Devil Wears Prada." She rocks in it.)

That's pretty much where I stand on argument songs, though I do have one question. Are there any examples that feature same-sex couples? If so, please let me know. I'd love to listen in on that hollering.


01 July 2006

In Search of Disasterpieces: Rihanna vs. Janet Jackson


"I Totally Hear That" is a blog of the people, you guys! Last night, my friend Travis called and asked me to address a particular pop-music issue that concerns him, and I am happy to honor his request.

Let me paraphrase what he said:

"Mark, I hate the song 'Unfaithful' by Rihanna so much that it's almost destroying me. Could you please help me sort through my rage by writing a post titled 'Unfaithful: Bad Song or Worst Song?" Also, remember that summer before senior year when we were roommates in the sororoity lodge, and I acted like I was asleep when the university maintenance men came in to remove that desk, meaning you alone had to get up at 7:30 in the morning to deal with it? Remember how I was clearly awake because I asked you, from my bed and at the last minute, to take my floppy disks out of the drawer before the desk was whisked away for ever? Well, I apologize, and I plan to do so formally by sending you a funny greeting card."

Travis is a stand-up guy. I hope the card is Shoebox!

Anyway, far be it from me to deny Travis' anger. Having listened to "Unfaithful" (which you can do here), I certainly agree that it's no gem.

However, is it the worst song? Is it so bad that it deserves, as the title of this post suggests, to be called a "disasterpiece?" (Trademark on that word, y'all. Trademark.)

I would suggest that another track may very well be worse than "Unfaithful": "Call On Me" by Janet Jackson featuring Nelly (listen here).

You are the jury, dear readers. Below, I will present both cases for utlimate in suckiness, and then I will ask you to decide. (My arguments against Rihanna will be largely cribbed from Travis.)

Court is in session!

DEFENDANT #1 : Rihanna's "Unfaithful"

FOR: The first strike against this song is that it has the audacity to follow "S.O.S," which is one of the greatest singles of recent memory. Where that song was fresh and exciting, this one is boring and forgettable. Rihanna's reed-thin voice is well-suited to dance pop, but sounds laughably bad in this ballad.

And let's discuss the word "ballad." It should only apply to songs with melodies, right? Not songs that are simply slow? If so, this ditty doesn't count. The music is bombastic but tuneless.

That sonic crisis pales, however, compared to the atrocity of the lyrics, in which teenaged Rihanna likens her cheating on her boyfriend to murdering him. ("I don't want to hurt him anymore. I don't want to take away his life. I don't want to be [dramatic pause] a murderer.") How arrogant! What kind of ludicrous crap is that?

As supplementary support for the claim that this song is a disasterpiece, please read the following review of the track from "Entertainment Weekly" (while noting that EW agrees with Mark about the awesomeness of Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man.")

Against: Yes, the song is bad, but it's mostly Rihanna's vocal that's the problem. The music is at least interesting if not revolutionary. Plus, it's rare to hear a love song in which a woman sings about the pain she's inflicting on a man instead of the pain she's enduring because of him. That change in perspective give us the refreshing chance to hear about a man who is vulnerable and emotional and a woman who has some degree of power--a regular scenario in real life, but not so much on the radio. That alone keeps the song from being a disasterpiece.

Defendant #2: Janet Jackson and Nelly's "Call on Me"

For: Ever since she flashed her nipple at the Super Bowl, Janet Jackson has been spiralling out of control. From the obvious plastic surgery (do you see that picture over there?) to the fluctuating weight, her public image is taking a beating.

Worse, her music is, too. Albums like "Control," "Rhythm Nation," and "janet." were towering achievements of dance-pop that still sound great today. Even lesser efforts like "All for You" and "The Velvet Rope" had undeniable moments of booty-shaking brilliance.

Post-Nipplegate, however, Janet had her first flop album, "Damita Jo." How many top 40 singles? Zero. Ouch.

And so like Nelly Furtado, Janet is aiming for a boost in sales by heading straight for the least common denominator of current R&B. Unlike Nelly Furtado, however, she's not maintaining any of the personality she brought to her more idiosyncratic records. Instead, she's releasing "Call on Me," a song so generic that it could be sung by anyone.

Oh, wait! It has been sung by anyone! Twice before! That's right: Janet's duet partner Nelly (the rapper, not Furtado) has already released two sound-alike singles in which he sing-raps over a repetitive sample while an established singer croons a hook. The first was "Dilemma" featuring Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child, and the second was "Over and Over" featuring Tim McGraw. Both those tracks were big hits, so Janet and her people clearly thought the formula would strike gold a third time and rescue her from an obscurity darker than Vanessa Williams'.

That decision is a major step toward making the song a disasterpiece. A star as established as Janet Jackson should not be releasing material this faceless. I mean, it may as well be Rihanna or Tweet or Monica or Jessica damn Simpson on this song. When Mariah Carey struggled back from the brink, she returned with the distinctive-sounding "We Belong Together," and Madonna has crafted catchy comebacks about thirty times. Janet in certainly in the same league as those women, and she and her producer/husband Jermaine Dupri owe it to her legacy to do better than this.

Nor does it help that Janet is a weak singer. (It's true.) Listening to "Dilemma, part 2" only reminds us that Kelly Rowland sounded better.

Finally, "Call on Me" just sounds like a third-generation idea. That's not surprising, since Jermaine Dupri hasn't been connected to an original-sounding song since Kriss Kross' "Jump." He's always been a knock-off of P. Diddy, who in turn is a knock-off of everyone and everything available. For "Call on Me," though, Dupri's choice of sample is particularly bland. And you think "Unfaithful's" lyrics are ass? Try these: "Call on me when you need someone who cares / Say the words and I'll be there / I can meet you anywhere."

Against: A true disasterpiece should be spectacularly, ingeniously bad. So bad that the mind can barely fathom it. (See: "Mambo No. 5"). "Call on Me" is just bad in a familiar way. It may sound the death knell for Ms. Jackson-if-You're-Nasty, but it won't make us want to gouge out our eardrums as we topple before its sublime hideousness.

DECISION: You decide! Which is the true disasterpiece?

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