Kids love the Firefox
Archive for April, 2011
OK enough with the quietly introspective songsmithery; it’s time for some adrenaline-soaked, mach-10-with-your-hair-on-fire, sonic bombast rock and roll. If this song doesn’t make you want to get in a car and drive fast with the windows down, then an important part of you is missing and needs to be recovered from maturity’s dustbin. Or maybe you have no use for boisterous immaturity, maybe you don’t still enjoy yelling into the wind every so often. That’s OK; you’re a better adult than I am.
“Addicted to That Rush” is, to my mind, the single greatest audio approximation of what it means to be 14 years old. There were plenty of things wrong with hair metal – the boneheaded lyrics, the posing, the lifestyle excesses – but the one thing it did exceptionally well was provide high-energy fun. I’ve said my piece on this before (on the blog David Slade and I started but never got around to maintaining) but I’ll continue to speak up for the joys of vulgarian exhilaration that loud, fast music provides.
There is a helium-inflated flotilla of rock critics and indie rock hipsters out there who will tell you that fast guitar solos = soulless masturbation. This metaphor, while occasionally accurate, misses an important point about music: it doesn’t have to be art. It can be whatever its audience wants it to be. It can be sports – a viscerally exhilarating contest of physical feats. It can be speech – a means of simple communication. Can a sporting event be said to have a soul? Are the Olympics inherently masturbatory? Of course musicians should aspire to be more than athletes, but the performance of a truly great athlete is still worth experiencing, and that’s what we have here in Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan of Mr. Big.
Music contains multitudes. I’ve heard people say music is a language, but it’s actually something that sits in parallel to language, and is roughly the same size because it contains within it all the various forms and dialects of what individual cultures consider music to be. Humans are often as guarded and belligerent with each other about their music as they are about their religion. We need individual religions and languages to have discrete boundaries and rules, but there are no rules on Music itself, just musical genres. Nor, really, are there rules about Language and Religion – you can make up your own language or religion today if you want. It’s yours for the taking.
All of this is far more mileage than I ever expected to get out of the hair metal shredfest that is “Addicted to That Rush.” My attempts at philosophizing will always fall short of expressing the sensation that this song gives me. It gets me energized; it provokes a significant physical and emotional response. Isn’t that what the best songs do?
Our Man Flynt
For many years my perpetually adolescent outlook on life had led me to view with deep suspicion all acquired tastes. If a taste had to be acquired, I thought, what good was it anyway? At some point in my late 20′s I realized the answer: because sometimes things are more complex than you are. Only by surrounding yourself with something unfamiliar and being exposed to it on a regular basis can you crack the necessary codes to understanding it.
Not that it happens all at once. I willed myself into jazz based on the trust I had in the musicians I admired who acknowledged its musical supremacy, and that process took a few years. Jazz really is the most advanced musical artform from the standpoint of rhythm and harmony, so it naturally turns a lot of people off. For many people raised on rock music, it is the textbook definition of “acquired taste.”
So, for me, was Neil Finn. In the late 90′s, I was still recovering from guitar addiction and transitioning into the pomp and fanfare of Jellyfish. Neil Finn just seemed like another guy singing songs, nothing particularly impressive from the standpoint of timbre or instrumentation. It wasn’t until the early 2000′s when I heard “She Will Have Her Way” in an episode of Sports Night that I knew I needed to revisit Neil and Crowded House.
Neil’s lyrics manage to be simultaneously direct and vague. He’ll alternate something structured and coherent like “I’m so sore that I could cry” with an abstract photo-lyric like “always in the night lay your tired arms.” His chord progressions often take a left turn on the second or third time through a verse. He can also write lyrics that don’t rhyme but you never notice it. Like The Weepies, he writes songs that can put you in your own movie, but it’s always a movie directed by Neil Finn, where the sky is always cloudy but the grass is usually green.
Whatever your interpretation of this song’s lyrics, the title makes clear that the woman gets her way. For as many love songs as exist in the pop universe, I found this topic of relenting to the will of the woman to be surprisingly underrepresented (“Baby’s Got Sauce” by G. Love notwithstanding). Not many men like to admit their lack of control in a relationship, and the resignation in Finn’s voice speaks to the underlying assumption that no matter how smart or in control a guy thinks he is, there’s usually a woman out there smarter and more complex than him.
I had known about Jeff Buckley since 1997 when I met him at my college’s annual spring concert. The weather was unseasonably cold and Jeff had been prevailed upon by some friends of mine to come to Conway from Memphis where he was working on the followup to his now-classic album, Grace. I wish I could remember the occasion better, but at the time I was busy working as stage crew. I remember the guy had a unique voice, but that’s about it. A few months later I read that he had drowned.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I even picked up a copy of Grace, and then everything else. I won’t go on about the talent we lost in Jeff, or the incredible influence he’s had on just about every rock vocalist since about 1999. I’ll just say that while I very much enjoyed his work, it wasn’t until the two-disc Live At Sin-é legacy edition was released in 2003 that I realized just what we had in Jeff. His a cappella version of Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” in which he naturally adjusts the possessive adjectives to “Be Your Husband,” sets the tone: you hear the patrons of the cafe chattering and clinking their glasses as Jeff sets up and starts stomping and clapping. By two minutes in, the place is dead quiet as Jeff calls forth the ghosts of Parchman Farm, conjuring spirits to be his backing vocalists. What he did, I was not previously aware humans could do.
His chops as a soul vocalist established, he opens disc two with a verbatim rendition of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai” and immediately you’re hit with the realization that this is not merely some white boy who knows his Memphis R&B. This is a musical traveler with bigger ears than anyone his age has any right to have. In between songs, he reveals himself further to be a complete dork, talking about the radio, Nusrat, beverages, poking fun at CBGBs, and whatever else pops into his head. In doing so, he shows his allegiance to the ranks of The Uncool by admitting to a variety of enthusiasms, thus shearing him of any facade of Cool (because cool people, as everyone knows, are perpetually bored). He becomes no longer the packaged product of a record label, hair perfectly mussed and guitar slung low. He’s just Jeff, the guy for whom Nusrat is Elvis, a guy with boundless potential whose artistic voice is still under construction. It’s one of the only times on a record that I’ve ever felt like I was getting to know a real person.
As a small tribute to Jeff and to this song, I hastily assembled this video a few years ago using public domain footage from archive.org. I hadn’t looked at it in awhile; it’s got 44,000 views. Neato.
1.) 10 years passed between the EP version and the two-disc legacy edition, which makes me wonder if this sort of thing could only have been released posthumously, when Columbia Records had less of an investment in the persona of “Jeff Buckley.”
Sometimes a song arrives in your life at an important moment and is forever elevated in your mind by the association. These are the soundtrack songs, playing underneath the movies we like to pretend our lives are. Very often we come back to those songs years later and realize they’re as immature and embarrassing as we were at the time. Only rarely does a song live up to its moment in time and still withstand scrutiny years on as something that not only witnessed our growth but perhaps even contributed to it.
This is one of those songs.
Somewhere I heard the story that Deb Talan and Steve Tannen were each singer-songwriters who were fans of each other’s before they met. When they did meet, they began playing together and eventually married. It’s the story every musician would die to have come true. So it’s an impressive feat, then, that The Weepies can still write some deeply sad songs.
“World Spins Madly On” was my soundtrack song for the first few months of my New York residency. I had just started a job at an ad agency that had provided me with more stress than I’ve ever experienced. Adapting to life in a large ad agency in a massive city, living in a shoebox apartment, working from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on an impossible project…I just felt empty inside. I felt the hope of something new, the anxiety of the unknown, and the fear of failure. This song regularly accompanied me from the subway at 14th street to Union Square to the office and back again. It functioned as a constant reminder that I was not alone in my particular suffering, and it hinted that my loneliness might even be so commonplace as to be unremarkable. The song never quite despairs; it sits suspended in judgment and in time, as the whole world keeps moving while I’m standing still. It remains a song that never wears out its welcome. It’s so good it doesn’t even need my emotional attachment to it to give it weight.
In our first installment I talked about bands versus singer-songwriters. Here’s what a band brings to the table that I’ve rarely heard a singer-songwriter accomplish: every part of the song represents a uniquely creative musical idea. When I heard this drum part, I immediately wanted to sit down and learn it. Then I wanted to learn the intertwined guitar parts, which are in the band’s own idiosyncratic tuning. And then the bassline. And the vocals. Everything about this song is f*cking magical.
In particular I enjoy the parts of the song where the lyrics are stretched so far apart in time that they’re hard to parse as a full sentence and are processed primarily as just chunks of words. At the end they add up to the very conversational, almost stammering statement, “Not to be, overly dramatic, I just think it’s best. Because you can’t miss what you forget. So let’s just pretend everything and anything between you and me was never meant.”
Alas, Chicago’s finest one-album wonder, America Football, is long gone. Its chief songwriter, Mike Kinsella makes his living as indie rock singer-songwriter Owen. More on him in another installment. The whole record is full of creatively composed arrangements and beautifully sad lyrics. I’ve read that they were mainly a studio project and not really a band, but man, when the tunes are this good, why make something this good only once?
For the musicians, the song is a great puzzle to learn, for the non-musicians it’s a warmly sad breakup song. In my case, given the person who introduced me to the song and the relationship we had, it’s both.