In The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, Buckaroo’s guitarist Perfect Tommy asks why he must give his coat to a lady, to which Buckaroo responds, “Because you’re perfect.”
The Mike Keneally Band is perfect like that. I dream of a world where musicians simply play the music that’s in their hearts, unaffected by the compromises and limitations of imitation, commerce, ego, and idolatry – a place where no one is trying to be anyone else and everyone is attempting only to be the best at being themselves. So far, to the best of my awareness, the sole citizens of such a place are the Mike Keneally Band.
They’re too irreverent for jazz, too smart for rock, and too silly for fusion. Everyone else has to compromise somehow, consciously or unconsciously, either by adhering to the dictates of genre or the needs of a given audience. As a natural consequence, the Mike Keneally Band are understandably obscure, but thanks to the Internet they’ve connected to enough like-minded listeners to sustain themselves.
As one of those people, having followed Mike’s career since the early 90’s, I have to say that what he does excites me to play music but not in an imitative way because Mike’s music is so idiosyncratic that it wouldn’t seem right to take his statements as my own. Most of my heroes play music generic enough to be consumed and absorbed by society at large, and their ideas are just original enough to give them a unique voice within the confines of a particular genre, but Mike exists only in Mike Land. He only makes me want to be original.
While it’s certainly true that the songs flow from the mind of Mike, several words need to be said about Bryan Beller, Joe Travers, Rick Musallum and newcomer Griff Peters. These guys are obviously Special Forces-grade musicians but they are dedicated to Mike’s cause and not to their own aggrandizement. They’re not mercenaries because Lord knows there’s no money in originality or virtuosity. Beyond that, they have achieved a level of unit cohesion that allows them to operate as a single entity. Every band wants to be what they are.
For their steadfast and more than a little Quixotic dedication to originality and creativity, for their mind-boggling musical skills, and for their refusal to be egotistical or bitter about the industry that doesn’t care about them, the Mike Keneally Band deserves to be called Perfect.
1.) Frank Zappa comes close, but Frank was forced to make his compromises with commerce and audience, so he was continually playing an artistic game of Twister — one foot in rock, one foot in classical, one foot in Frank Land.
In the 80′s there was a brief media to-do about backmasking, the encoding of evil messages in heavy metal records, accessible by playing certain albums backward. If only they’d known about the coded messages of De La Soul. If America’s parents in 1989 had any idea what “Jimbrowski must wear a cap, just in case the girl likes to clap” really meant, they’d be more afraid of De La than Judas Priest.
For any small-town kid in, say, Arkansas, listening to a De La record might as well have been a starter course in cryptography. In addition to the usual hip-hop slang, De La went further to fashion their own inside references and characters: “Jenny,” “buddy,” “Derwin,” “chestnuts.” Factor in Prince Paul’s curatorial approach to sampling, and you’ve got the makings of an album that rewards repeated listening across decades. Every time I catch up to a DJ like Prince Paul by discovering the source of a cut, or untangle the rhymes of MCs like Dave and Pos, I feel like I’m slowly graduating to their level of awareness.
But it’s not all knotty linguistics or DJ science on this tune. This one ain’t about bragging or sticking it to the ever-present threat of sucka MCs. This is the band stepping back and letting their friends Q-Tip, Monie Love, and the Jungle Brothers join the fun, and the effect is something like stepping into a summer barbecue in a Brooklyn neighborhood of the mind. So maybe it’s fine that the parents don’t know who Jimmy is or why he needs a hat.
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If aliens came to me and asked me to play them one song to represent humanity at its best, I would play “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells for them. It is distilled joy.
If this song does not make you at least a little happy every time you hear it, then you may be a heartless robot. This song is as irresistible as a basket full of puppies and kittens on Christmas morning. It has the most perfect bassline. It has the happiest two-chord progression ever. Even its brief, mellow bridge makes one smile. The fact that it has no real lyrics to speak of is immaterial. The fact that the song was ostensibly written as a companion to a dance no one knows is irrelevant. It remains the simplest, most elegant musical construct man has yet devised.
If I were L. Ron Hubbard, I would have designed a religion around this song instead of a lame sci-fi story. It is a testament to the ability of music itself to spontaneously generate joy. Perhaps the secret to its magic is that is has no melody. It is simply a groove. The happiest groove ever written. Melodies lose their luster with overuse, but grooves never die. A fat groove is a joy forever.
As an added bonus, if you listen to it with headphones on, you can hear all sorts of extra voices in the studio. It’s like you’re there with them, making this thing up as they go.
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Kids love the Firefox
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.