Friday, May 15, 2009

4 Greatest Albums: Graham Parker & The Rumour - 'Squeezing Out Sparks'

What if Salieri weren't second rate? What if Mozart's shadow obscured an equal instead of an inferior imitator? Wouldn't that be a greater tragedy?

Such a thing occurred in the late 1970's. If you went looking for the best album put out by a bespectacled guitar toting new-wave punk with a tight band roaring out of London, you'd probably wind up with Elvis Costello and the Attractions 'This Year's Model' or 'My Aim Is True' from '77 or '78.

But the best album that fits that description from that time period is actually 'Squeezing Out Sparks' by Graham Parker & The Rumour from 1979.

In one form or another, every album that is on this Top 50 List is, to my mind, perfect. They might be filled with mistakes, bad recording quality, even experimental music that fails. But they are perfect, either in the place they hold in my heart or an overall aesthetic.

This is a perfect album through either prism.

It opens with 'Discovering Japan' which is about (in no particular order) the A-bomb, a Japanese woman brokenhearted by the callous attention given to her by GI's, and the new American lover who is obsessed with her but can't break through the cultural barrier. It could also be about mankind hurtling toward a nuclear holocaust. Or hot Japanese schoolgirls. Basically all of the above.

Key lyric? 'I shouted sayonara/It didn't mean good bye'.

So what do you do after you've been burned by an international relationship overwhelmed by the nuclear zeitgeist? You turn to 'Local Girls'. This provincialism leads Parker to ruminate, 'You look all right in that cheap green dress/But every time you swish it round you make me disappear'. While the complications that arise from a globe trotting lifestyle are vast and sexy in their impossibility, Parker winds up spitting to himself, 'Don't bother with a local girl/Don't bother with 'em they don't bother me'.

He then takes a step back to look in the mirror with 'Nobody Hurts You' which contains the Dr. Phil-worthy bromide, 'Nobody hurts you harder than yourself'. Somehow coming from Parker it doesn't feel trite or patronizing but rather a hard-fought grim determinate necessity.

So far the album has been a sexy little joy ride, careening from girl to girl, lost in the ramifications of modern love.

You know that moment in a horror movie when a scene with a laughing crowd of teenagers goes on a wee bit too long? You have a small voice telling you the hit is coming, the fright is waiting, but you don't quite listen fast enough so when the monster jumps out at you it is doubly frightening because you almost saw it coming?

'You Can't Be Too Strong' is that scene in 'Squeezing Out Sparks'. The title of the album comes from a lyric in the song. It is hard to write about this song. It is a song about abortion. The voice of the song alternates from the voice of the mother to the voice of the unborn child. Now, I am a Pro-Choice guy. Read John Irving's 'The Cider House Rules' for a treatise on why.

This song makes me question my beliefs. I come out on the other end still believing in a woman's right to choose but Parker does something extraordinarily brave with this song. I don't even feel comfortable quoting the lyrics here, so perfectly married to the music are they.

The song has a dual effect. One you cannot ignore the central question inherent in the song. You are forced to contemplate your beliefs without any barrier of myth or analogy. And in context, it pushes the album to a higher plane, one in which all human behavior is up for judgment, one where every action however slight can have disastrous consequences.

Hence the next song, 'Passion Is No Ordinary Word'. The singer struggles inside of a relationship where 'The world is easy when you're just playing around with it/Everything's a thrill and every girl's a kill/And then it gets unreal/And then you don't feel anything'. The music throbs behind his moan and we sense his dissatisfaction in a visceral way. Plus it rocks.

He then howls that 'Saturday Night Is Dead' which is perhaps the most self-explanatory song title in the history of rock and roll. His rage has boiled down to the finest point and the next song is the aural equivalent of throwing your hands up in frustration and anger...'Love Gets You Twisted' twists and turns like an old-time dance reel and ends in Parker repeating 'Love gets you twisted/Screw yourself up/Screw yourself up/Screw yourself up up up'.

Here is where the shit starts to storm. The tension within the album has been building, like a tightening screw, like a tautening rope, and you get the sense that something will snap. In 'Protection' he opens with 'So all of you be damned/We can't have heaven crammed/So Winston Churchill said/I could've smacked his head' which is akin to Bruce Springsteen telling FDR to go fuck himself. Paranoia has overrun his synapses and he begins to obsess on negative imagery, saying 'It ain't the knife through your heart that tears you apart/It's just the thought of someone sticking it in'.

In a minor impossible moment of levity he then sits and turns his attention to the sky in 'Waiting For The UFOs'. To give the song that little bit of absurdity it needs, he does not pronounce UFO as three separate letters but all as one word, Yufos. It is hilarious but chilling as we've witnessed his descent into madness until he can no longer relate to people at all but can only obsess about visitation. In what seems like an aside, he muses, 'This new obsession is turning us alien too/Much more resounding my heart just stopped pounding for you'. The prospect of an invasion is the only thing that can kill his love.

In the finale 'Don't Get Excited' what seems like an order is actually a description. He can't feel. The new girl doesn't get it. She tries but his capacity for arousal has been stunted after what he's been through. He croons, 'You try to reach a vital part of me/My interest level's dropping rapidly/It's all excuses, baby/All a stall/We just don't get excited'.

And that is the final fallout from the nuclear disaster which opens the album. How can you get a hard-on in the face of the devastation of the planet? How do you commit to a woman when she can't stop the dead voices in her head? How do you have a good time when Saturday night is dead?

If you'd never heard of Elvis Costello you'd listen to this album and say you'd found a Mozart.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

5 Greatest Albums: The Broken Remotes - 'Tonight's Last Stand'

I don't know how to review this album.

Full disclosure. Jon Leahy is the creative force behind this band and he and I are close friends and collaborators. I played my first show in Los Angeles with an early incarnation of Jon's band, he's produced a good bit of my music, and he is basically an honorary O'Malley.

But it is not my closeness to Jon that renders this review a treacherous little ride. His music is unsettling while being deeply satisfying. His lyrics feel like that moment every kid has, standing in the dark of their room, hand stretched out to a closet door, willing themselves to get over the fear and just open the damn door already. Before you open the door what's behind it is real.

His voice is quite often tucked around a killer guitar. He doesn't insist that you hear every word. He is not hiding or mumbling which many of his indie rock brethren do. But the music is so assured that he is confident of how it will land. So he'll whisper, he'll be restrained, he'll let the crash of a drum or the drone of an organ do the talking for him. Until the moment strikes.

When Jon Leahy raises his voice something CONCRETE happens. There is a retroactive aspect to this...when you hear that roar you realize that he has been sitting on it. That he doesn't feel the need to use it unless it is absolutely necessary. That his expression is deliberate.

I can't tell you how many times I've been disappointed in singers when I feel them riding their favorite part of their voice. They aren't concerned with the song or what needs to be said. They are concerned about sounding as good as they can. They are like big sluggers who can only hit fastballs. It's all well and good until someone throws you a nasty curve.

The Broken Remotes write songs that are (to continue the baseball pitching analogy) filled with curves, splitballs, knuckleballs, high heat, brushback pitches, flat out beanballs, and even the occasional wild pitch that flies into the stands.

And like a Rubik's cube one move from completion there is a sense of breathless anticipation to EVERY SINGLE MOMENT on this album. Like the kid outside of the closet. Like a man on a bridge. Like a car about to roll. Like a finger on a trigger.

Somehow they manage to maintain that tension without sending the listener over the edge into some sort of panic attack. Mostly 'coz the shit is fun to sing along to. Leahy's voice has that deceptive quality all great singers have in that you hear it and want to sing along. Then when you do you are struck by how HARD he's actually working, how difficult it is to be a real front man. Go listen to The Broken Remotes and it will help you clear all the posers out of your iPod.

The song titles have what I call totemistic qualities. They seem like physical things. They could be mantras. They have power.

Shut Off The Machines
Stick With Me, Kid
Lose The Swagger
This Time Is The Exception
On The Take

I could type each song on the album but I'll let you discover those for yourselves. Just like you discovered that there was no monster in your closet. But if that's so, why do you still get afraid?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

6 Greatest Albums: Green Day - 'American Idiot'

Calling this album a shock is an understatement of the highest order. By the time September 2004 rolled around, Green Day had become an after-thought at best. Fans of the band will dispute this but those are true-believers. If you had said that Green Day's next album would be a blockbuster along the lines of The Police's 'Synchronicity' or Michael Jackson's 'Thriller', you would have been laughed out of the room.

But that is just what happened and more. Somehow these bratty snot-nosed punks pulled a rock opera out of their collective ass that perfectly encapsulated the malaise of Post 9/11 American consciousness. They did wha????

I will again use my son as a barometer. Cash is not huge into music. He has always loved The Beatles, he loves the music of John Williams from Star Wars fame, and he champions the music that I make out of love. As far as modern music goes, he doesn't care, and doesn't even want to. This will probably change once he hits puberty and then he'll start bringing home crazy new stuff but as of now he is in that pre-pubescent state where music just isn't all that important.

But 'American Idiot' struck a major chord with him. He wanted to read the lyrics. He wanted to talk about the meanings behind the songs. He was impressed by the longer epic tunes and equated them favorably to the longer orchestral pieces that he loves so much by Williams and other classical composers. He was/is in AWE of this album.

Now I'm not saying that because my son likes it it is great. But it pierced the dream world of a child and touched the part of his brain that is already an adult. And kids resist that stuff when you try to impose it on them. To me that says that the content of this album is so perfectly achieved that it rids him of the anxiety that contemplating adult questions naturally elicits in an 11 year old. Of course, he was 6 or 7 when it came out and that quality was even more pronounced back then. He didn't want to listen to music in the car; he wanted to talk to me about Star Wars, or Kermit, or spaceships.

For a modern punk rock opera to grab his attention so forcefully that he stopped that kid-like stream of consciousness and TOOK IT IN is a testament to the clarity and force of the songs.

We're both psyched to pick up '21st Century Breakdown' and talk about it in the car. He's almost old enough to sit up front with me.

Monday, May 11, 2009

7 Greatest Albums: The Streets - 'Original Pirate Material'

London is fucked for me now. All my friends are wankers who owe me money or won't give me a break on the money I owe them. My girl is fucking some other guy and I saw them eating fish and chips out of tiny cardboard containers at some outdoor shop and laughing. Pretty much all I do is drink and smoke and play video games.

The weed seems like it'll help but then I just get all paranoid and creepy. The gray of the city seems to come from inside of me when I'm stoned when what I want is to add some fucking color to shit. The World Cup is going on and I could give two shits. Unless they lose and then I'll probably start a fight with the next Spaniard I see.

See, the trouble is, I blame myself that she's fucking this geezer. I snapped on her about something trite like where she put my hand-held TV after she borrowed it. Don't know why I got so angry but things were never the same after that. I begged her for another chance and she gave it to me but when she started working at that bar in Chelsea I barely saw her. I got a sneaky feeling so I followed her one night after she got out of work and she met this fucking bastard and they smoked up in his car and then she went up into his place. Now when I'm not at darts with my geezers I'm traipsing around SoHo letting them put daggers in me every time they kiss.

Plus I owe a guy a whole lotta cake from this deal I tried to pull off last monf. I bought a bunch of brown (not using that shit yet but you fucking never well know) and passed it on to this numbskull who was trying to get it over to Paris through the Chunnel. Of course he got pinched and now I have to pay up and worry about Scotland Yard all at fuck once.

But, yeah, I still have a good time with my geezers down the pub when I can relax and balance the beer and weed just right. Without them I'd be noffing.

And yeah, this music might be something if I could get some time to work on it. The 808 is busted though. And all I want to write about is how I want to kill the motherfucker who is probably out with my girl right now. Not that I blame her. I did a number on her in the beginning and she just can't let it go.

Memory is a bitch.

I am the last/latest in a long line of outsider philosophers. While I'm scraping along these dirty London streets I am high above it all, staring down at the slate rooftops and pointed steeple spires, and you all seem absurd, rushing about as if your every move mattered past the edge of your molecules. And it don't, homie. It simply don't. All that does matter is a vision of the world that you'll never have, the singular vision, the one that includes all of us, but by very definition this vision is unreachable to any one of us, it cannot be attained. But our belief in that vision while being unable to perceive it is maddening to us so we transfer the intent of thought into meaningless things hoping to infuse them with meaning...a bird, some weed, a football match, a brick of cash. And you'll never see it for what it really is.

Take my word for it. 'Coz I see it all from up here above all you petty little bitches. Don't stop me from crying over her though.