Friday, December 12, 2008

40 Greatest Albums: Elvis Costello - 'King of America'

My junior year of college was Dickensian. Best and worst. I rented a house right near the ocean with two insane good friends, I was in a string of great plays which were insular universes of creativity and sexual tension, and I drove a Karmann Ghia, a car I'd always wanted to own.

The first play of the year was 'Biloxi Blues' and it was a magical process. The combination of the military content and the freewheeling nature of a college theater crowd made for an amazing atmosphere. We all shaved our heads and started doing pushups without provocation.

My soundtrack for this play was Elvis Costello's 'King of America' which had been released a couple of years earlier.

Now, Elvis and I have had to break up. Once I started writing songs his influence was so immense that I sort of had to denounce him and concentrate on other artists. But my singing and writing style will always be very indebted to him and to this album in particular.

While working out to get in shape for the play I would sing along to this album. This doesn't sound like a big deal but when you try to sing along it is a workout all on its own. He holds notes, bends them, modulates the intensity of his is truly masterful singing.

The cast party for 'Biloxi Blues' is still burned into my brain. People were on the roof. A mass leap from the porch to the backyard occurred. My roommate had purchased 50 shot glasses for like 10 bucks and insisted that the party kick off with a ritual. He laid out the shot glasses along the railing of the porch and filled each with Southern Comfort, I think. Everyone had to do the shot and then jump off the porch into the backyard, a drop which varied from 5 to 12 feet depending on where you were.

Everyone celebrated in a way that I yearn for today, a simple exuberance that was unfettered by any sense of loss or fear. We were young, talented, and proud. The girls were hot and innocent and the boys were cool and tough. We were artsy-fartsy but unpretentious. We didn't take ourselves too seriously but we were truly dedicated to doing good work. And we did. And once we did it, we partied as hard as you would expect.

The show used a lot of music from the 30's and 40's to set the mood and we blasted the soundtrack at the party. I'd made a mix (cassette!!!) of appropriate tunes from my own collection. One of those songs was 'Poisoned Rose' from the 'King of America' album.

Somehow a lip-synching show spontaneously occurred with the army troop serving as a back up band. The party morphed instantly into an audience and allowed this to happen, mostly as a way to celebrate us for our performances in the play itself. It was exhilirating. To have your whole peer group validate you so unconditionally is truly wonderful.

I could go track by track and describe how perfectly played and written this album is. I could talk about how the lyrics, even on the page, are little diamonds. I could marvel at the fact that during the same calendar year that he recorded this album he recorded another with The Attractions called 'Blood & Chocolate' that is an evil twin so different it is.

But for a solid year I listened to this album in its entirety at least once a week, usually singing along at the top of my lungs. I was young and beautiful. I was the King of America too.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

41 Greatest Albums: Guns N' Roses - 'Chinese Democracy'

I know.


You fall into one of two camps.

Camp 1 hates Guns N' Roses but hates Axl Rose more. You consider him to be Journey on steroids or Poison with pretension. You can't fathom how a sensitive, educated, progressive, avant-garde leaning artist like myself could waste any brain space on Guns N' Roses. You probably think less of me for it. I have nothing to say to you.

Camp 2 loves Guns N' Roses, but only the first Guns N' Roses. The scruffy glamour scumbags who bummed cigarettes from hookers in front of the Whiskey and then threw up on the whole world with 'Appetite For Destruction'. You cringed at the racism of 'One In A Million' and were old enough to be turned off by the MTV over-saturation of 'November Rain'. The fact that the dirtbags now wanted to be IMPORTANT left you cold. You are predisposed to ambivalence. To you I shout, 'Let NOT the past deprive you of the glorious present!'

This prelude to the actual review is for those who fall into Camp 2. If you ever had any love for Guns N' Roses, I implore you to open your heart one more time. Try to listen as if you'd never heard of these guys. As if your hard rock itch had never been scratched, as if your adrenaline cherry had never been popped by 'Welcome To The Jungle'. You will feel like a virgin, touched for the very first time. Well,'ll feel like you're touching a virgin for HER very first time.

For 'Chinese Democracy' is not only easily the best Guns N' Roses album, I am, two weeks into listening to it, very comfortable putting it on this Top 50 list.

I have to start the fuck over. FUCK. This review sucks and YOU suck for taking it the wrong way even though it isn't actually the review I intended to write. So take your lack of patience and wrap it up in a live lemming and let 'em drag you ever the edge, buddy, coz' I ain't gotta put up with your misinterpretation of my elaboration.

See? Axl's vision is contagious. And if you don't let yourself get swept away, you are missing the fuck out.

What else kicks things off but 'Chinese Democracy' which, of course, is about Axl Rose making the album 'Chinese Democracy'. This whole album is like one of those photos where someone is looking into a million mirrors and each reflection stares back at them from a little bit further away. The power chords ring in but are immediately stifled, falling away in a gust of wind that conjures up Genghis Khan on the Steppes braving the 1,000 mile blast of snow. I admit I felt a pang of fear here, as if the entire affair was going to be Axl striking-curious-poses-they-feel-the-heat-the-heat-between-me-and-you.

And Axl anticipates this reaction in the first line...

It don't really matter
Gonna find out for yourself
No it don't really matter
Gonna leave this thing for somebody else

With that salvo, he breaks the funhouse rigidity into a billion little pieces, each one reflecting your own prejudices towards him and his band. Er, him.

I'm sorry for swearing at you earlier, it's just when I start off wrong I get so fucking angry. Can I please start this whole fucking thing over again? Oh, you're just gonna keep on fucking reading now even though I just asked you if I could start over? You've got a lot of fucking nerve and you're on my last one you fucking hypocrite. I love you more than you'll ever know and you know it's true because I'm standing on top of the Concorde as it takes its last flight into the Indonesian night.

That's it, I've had just about e-fuckin'nuff. I'm skipping ahead to the crown jewel of this whole sexy mess, 'Sorry'.

I like it more than 'Sweet Child O' Mine', '...Jungle', 'You Could Be Mine', 'Breakdown', 'Civil War', more than all of it. It is my favorite Guns N' Roses song.

It is also absurd.

Backtrack time I can do what the fuck I want it's my fucking review.

In the early 21st century I became aware that Guns N' Roses would include a song called 'Riad n' the Bedouins' on 'Chinese Democracy'. I wondered just what Axl Rose would have to say about a nomadic desert tribe. Well, the waiting paid off with this opening line...

Riad n' the Bedouins had a plan and thought they'd win
But I don't give a fuck 'bout them coz' I am crazy

See? He lets you conjure the image of the proud sand blasted warriors all by yourself and then looks right back into the broken fun house mirror.

I know you're tired of this album even though you've never heard it. I know Axl long ago forfeited any right to anything but skepticism. But even that adds to the pathos of this music. Here is a guy who KNEW he had a great album in him. He knew it wouldn't sound like the band he'd forced upon the world, making it the biggest baddest band on the planet. He believed in the album to the point that he let himself be the posterboy for all that is wrong with big label excess. He didn't say, 'Fuck it, I'll put it out now, it's good enough.'

No, he waited until it was too late to save his reputation.

And lo, there came unto him an angel who said, 'Fuck that...this album restores your motherfucking reputation, dog.'

This review sucks and I'm gonna start over. If I keep working on it until 2024 I'll have mimicked Mr. Rose. Don't be fooled, folks. This sucker is the real deal.

p.s. There's also the amazing fact that Tommy Stinson of The Replacements plays the bass. Which is absolutely bizarre. And awesome.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

42 Greatest Albums: The Raunch Hands - 'Against The World'

If there is one album that evokes my childhood, it is The Raunch Hands 'Against The World'. Released in 1960 or 1961, this collection of folk songs is still one of my favorite albums today. My sisters and I knew the album by heart and even though my parents had bought it, I am sure they grew weary of the hootenanny bellowing from the den.

You might be able to pick up a copy on eBay but most likely you'll have to take my word for it. This is one of the great folk albums of all time. And as far as I'm concerned you can remove the 'folk' and say one of the great albums, period.

First of all it is hilarious. It came out at the height of the Cold War, before social unrest became pigeonholed into long hair and stinky underarms. These guys look like a Skull 'n Bones charter meeting but this is some of the most radical shit ever. They open with 'The Bomb Song' which chronicles a Slavic terrorist group as they keep having to come up with someone new to carry the suicide package.

Imagine 3 kids in Toughskins, faces smeared with Oreos gathered around a record player in 1976. Nerf football in the corner. Fisher Price Little People everywhere. They chant in unison, "Mama's aim is bad and the copskys all know Dad so it's Brother Ivanovich's turn to throw the bomb!" God I love my parents for having that album.

They then turn their laser aim on modern psychology in a song called 'Dr. Freud'. Again, picture 4 kids ages 2 to 11, faces upturned, nailing the harmony in a song whose refrain ends, 'Dr. Freud, oh Dr. Freud! How we wish you had been differently employed! For this set of circumstances now enhances the finances of the followers of Dr. Sigmund Freud!'

Simple arrangements, 4 or 5 voices in harmony, 1 guitar and a whole lotta attitude. After these two subversive songs, they dig back into the respectable canon for a religious rendering of 'Michael, Row The Boat Ashore'. I am not a religious man. But this song, coupled with their version of 'Jordan River' which is on Side B, is about as close as I come to feeling the spirit of the Lord.

Not a group to stay serious for very long, they jump to a folk medley using the song 'I Gave My Love A Cherry'. With spoken word segments explaining the path a folk song takes to the top of the charts, they interpret the song as an a cappella soprano aria, a hillbilly jamboree, a calypso romp, and an Elvis Presley rock and roll shouter.

There is another goofy song called 'A Horse Named Bill' and then comes the piece de resistance...

A song called 'The Old H.U.A.C.' Now, for the uninitiated, the H.U.A.C. stands for the House Un-American Activities which was Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt group. The Red Scare was in full effect and the fallout from McCarthyism was still rampant by 1960.

Here are the lyrics...

The Old H.U.A.C.

I am a college student
And I've come to sing this song
I've always been a liberal
I never thought it wrong
But I have come to tell you
Take warning now from me
Or you may have to tangle with
The old H-U-A-C.

Now, I am only eighteen years
Of age as of this date
It's hard to see how I could be
A danger to the state
But that's what the committee said
And so it has to be
For their sources are of
Unimpeachable integrity.

H-U-A-C, H-U-A-C
What a lucky thing it is for you and me
That our freedoms are well guarded
By politically retarded
Men of unimpeachable integrity.

I went and joined a picket line
Because I'd like to see
No more discrimination
If our land is really free
I'd like to see them put an end
To weapons testing too
But they say this is a dangerous
Subversive point of view.

I tried to be progressive
But I never was a red
I thought the first amendment
Meant exactly what it said
But now that that's gone out of style
There's just one thing to do
Be silent or conservative
The choice is up to you.

H-U-A-C, H-U-A-C
They're just lookin' out
For guys like you and me
So become reactionary
And of progress be most wary
Keep our country true and brave
And strong and free.

So listen to my warning
And reject each liberal view
And praise the men who govern us
No matter what they do
But even this is not enough
For those who would go far
You'd better make your mother
Join the local D.A.R.

Now please don't tell them who
It was that wrote this song
If anyone should ask you
Tell them I have moved along
I'm sorry that I have to leave
The evening has been great
But I have been subpoenaed
And I really can't be late.

Now, you might think those lyrics are quaint and I suppose they are. But when you consider the context and the source, it gives you a good idea that these guys mean business. They are not 'kumbaya-ing' us to death with platitudes about love and understanding. They are FURIOUS. In many ways this album reminds me more of the punk movement than the folk movement.

Now I could go on and on and on. And none of this really makes enough sense without the SOUND. It is catchy to an almost unbelievable level. And memorable. My mother had CD copies of the album made and gave all of us copies for Christmas (best mother ever) and so I did a little experiment.

My son (best son ever) is 11 years old. He is primarily a Beatles and John Williams fan with a dash of Green Day's 'American Idiot' thrown in for good measure. I popped The Raunch Hands in and within 3 listens he KNEW EVERY WORD.



Now, I could give him a whole bunch of gobbledygook about the folk movement and how important it was and the historical meaning of these obscure Ivy League freaks who cut one record. But is that what caused these songs to imprint themselves so fully and instantly onto his mental hard drive? Did that make it easier for him to memorize 16 songs almost instantaneously?

These punks conclude their battle 'Against The World' with 'Victory in Korea', singing in their beautiful pristine harmony-

Thank you dear God for Victory in Korea
We're thankful that the battle's won
We give you dear God praise for Victory in Korea
We're thankful dear God for what you've done

Now, I don't know what's punker than that. Just type in Iraq to see how raunchy these hands still are.