Archive for the ‘music’ Tag

[50/50] Song #28: “Heaven & Hell/Movement 3”

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Song #28: “Heaven & Hell, Movement 3” (aka the Theme to Cosmos) — Vangelis (1975)

satpicAh, the instrumental. Do you know how hard it was to track down an instrumental you heard in passing, even after the internet and iTunes arrived? Song ID software now makes it easy, but before that, with no lyrics to google, instrumentals were songs that could haunt you for years. I once overheard a photographer at the Herald-Sun complain it took him weeks to find out the name of that Booker T. and MG’s tune was “Green Onions,” and I spent even longer trying to find out the name of the song AND the band on a mix tape a college girlfriend made for me after I lost the playsheet. (It was “Someone up there likes you” by Simple Minds by the way.)

Of course, an instrumental could still haunt you, even if you knew exactly who did it. This was certainly the case with “At the Heart of it All” by Aphix Twin, done with Nine Inch Nails on their “Further Down the Spiral” album.

And who could forget the still-freaky-even-after-30-years of Herbie Hancock:

For me though, the winner has to be the first Vangelis I ever heard, Movement 3 to his Heaven & Hell album, or as it’s better know, the theme to “Cosmos.” The PBS show that made a household name of Carl Sagan in 1978 also showcased Vangelis’ elegant, grandiose, and occasionally bombastic electronica long before he would go on to win the Academy Award and American Top 40 for “Chariots of Fire” or do the soundtrack for “Blade Runner.”

It turned my brother and I into such fans, we even got his weirdly experimental stuff, which for Vangelis meant teaming up with Yes frontman John Anderson for the strange ode to film noir, “Friends of Mr. Cairo,” a favorite late-night staple of DJs on Starview 92 who used the 12-minute epic whenever they needed a bathroom break or to go get stoned.

None of which takes away from the angelic ambiance of “Movement 3,” which I once thought would make great music at my funeral. While I realized now that would probably be a mistake, it was certainly the perfect pick for Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.”

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[50/50] Song #30: “Texarkana”

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

Song #30: “Texarkana” — R.E.M. (1991)

My best friend from college died of cancer before she was in her 30s. Lisa wasn’t a fan of R.E.M. — I don’t even know if she liked them; she was always more funk and R&B than anything else  — and she certainly never heard this song, as the album it appeared on (“Out of Time) dropped a month after she was buried. Yet every time I listen to Texarkana, I think of her.

[50/50] Comedy #5: “High Fidelity”

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Comedy #5: “High Fidelity” (2000)

220px-HighfidelityDVDTop 5 all-time reasons “High Fidelity” deserves to be on this list:

1) It is the single best — certainly the most honest — movie about relationships ever made.

2) It is witty and eminently quotable (and, curiously enough, from a screenplay by Scott Rosenberg, who also wrote “Beautiful Girls.”)

3) It completely nails the culture of the collector, and scarily so. (“High Fidelity” also came out at the same time as “Wonder Boys,” which completely failed to hit its target re: obsessive fandom and a niche culture, so an interesting compare/contrast on What Not to Do.)

4) It has a kick-ass soundtrack that is almost as good as the ones from “Beautiful Girls” and “Fast Times

5) It was Jack Black’s first movie, when he was still an unexpected surprise — and still entertaining.

 

Bonus track! Read the book — it is even funnier than the movie, if that’s possible.

[50/50] Album #39: Led Zeppelin IV

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

Album #39: Led Zeppelin — Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

Zoso.svgIn the only real music debate I ever had with Grayson Currin, our music editor at the Independent, he expressed disappointment when I said Led Zeppelin IV was their best album. “What? III is the better record,” he replied authoritatively, standing in the lunch room while waiting for the microwave to ding. Sure, I agreed, Led Zep III IS the better record — but IV is still my favorite. He shrugged dismissively, as if to say, how can you base an argument on that?

Soaked in Tolkien references and faux mysticism, the band’s fourth studio album marked their transformation from a mere British blues-rock group to LED ZEPPELIN; by the time we caught up with them in the mid-70’s they had already become the bloated rock leviathans “Spinal Tap” would eventually so accurately mock, yet at the time it was still new to us, and my brother and I proudly wore our Zoso t-shirts until they shredded.

Led_Zeppelin_-_Officially released with no title — and adorned only with medieval drawings, a strange photo of a woodsman, and the aforementioned runes — Led Zep IV suffered from the collective scorn of having “Stairway to Heaven” as one of its tracks, even as it ensured it would be Zeppelin’s best selling album ever. But IV was also the home of “Black Dog,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” Rock and Roll,” “Going to California” and other songs that are still in heavy rotation on a radio station somewhere, probably this very minute.

While overexposure has no doubt worn IV’s welcome thin, it still has one song that calls out to me — literally. At about the 1:36 mark in “The Battle of Evermore” — Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s ultimate fantasy mashup — a clash of voices in the chorus conspire to sound like someone is saying “JP?” I first noticed this, back in the misty days of middle school, while listening to the track through headphones. Thinking my mom was calling me from the kitchen, I took off the headphones and went to see what she wanted. It went something like this.

“Yeah, mom?”

“What, dear.”

“Didn’t you just call me?”

“Nope.”

“OK.”

I went back to my dad’s office, where all his recording equipment was set up, and started the song over. Again, I heard my mom yell for me from the kitchen.

“What.”

“What?”

“I just heard you call my name.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Are you sure? I heard you yell ‘JP'”

“No, I’m sure.”

“Oookay.”

Again I went back and put on the headphones — and there it was clear as day. In the chorus, you can hear two voices collide in something that sounds almost exactly like “JP?” … I lifted the needle again and again to try and isolate the sound. “JP?… JP? …JP! … JP!?” — Suddenly, my mom ripped off the headphones.

“HEY! I’VE BEEN CALLING YOU FOR THE LAST FIVE MINUTES!”

“Wha? But — but, the song! It’s in THE SONG!”

“WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? DAMMIT, TURN OFF THE STEREO RIGHT NOW, I NEED YOUR HELP IN THE KITCHEN.”

I later played the track for my brother, to see if I was crazy or not, and after he too heard it he took off the headphones and said, ‘Okay, that’s weird.”

[50/50] Song #48: “Sausalito Summernight”

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Song #48: “Sausalito Summernight”—Diesel (1981)

ford-custom-500-09Ahhh yes, the One-Hit Wonder. A band you’ve never heard of (and never will again) suddenly blasts out of your radio with a song made of pure earworm and instantly etches itself on a time and place. Such was “Sausalito Summernight,” which ironically peaked in the top 40 in the midst of a particularly cold winter my senior year in high school as I hauled around in a 1964 Ford Custom 500 I’d inherited from my grandfather. “The Tank” had a shitty transistor radio with speakers that blew out if you played it too loud — which was always the case when this tune came on — but I didn’t care. I had a car. I had a solid American car with a V8 engine that would go on to survive at least three crashes in a year, including the infamous drag race with Darrell Smith across the school parking lot. (A friend who was following us swears he saw the bottom of my car as I caromed off the low retaining wall that folded the right front wheel up into the engine block.) A tow job, a few replacement steering rods, and it was back in business. They don’t make them like that anymore.

They don’t make sweet, goofy songs like this any more either. Leave it to the Dutch to capture a perfectly American experience, the out-of-control road trip, with wailing rock ‘n’ roll guitar. While Diesel’s sole American hit had an infectious hook, clearly it was the lyrics that got to me, as it perfectly (and prophetically it turned out) captured my epic bad luck with cars.

[50/50] Album #16: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

Monday, January 21st, 2013

Album #16: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — Eurythmics (1983)

annielennoxThe orange hair. Oh god the orange hair.

I’m skipping ahead in the countdown this week, because today is the 30th anniversary of the release of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” — the second album from the duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, and the one that put them on the map in every way imaginable.

Thanks to that shock of orange hair and the music video — which seemed to run every hour on MTV that summer — the title single went to number one. While Lennox’s androgynous style and edgy beauty helped sell their videos, it was her powerful voice and Stewart’s soulful synth pop that made them so much more. Over the next few years they would go on to have ten top 40 hits.

“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the album, has aged much better than the dadaesque video of the same name — although it’s still a lot of fun, in that goofy early MTV style.

The second hit off the record and its subsequent video, “Love is a Stranger,” continued to push the krautrock/cyberpunk/S&M vibe of early Eurythmics (which would eventually reach its pinnacle the next year with the infamous “1984” soundtrack.) Whatever you think about the music or the pair’s style however, it is impossible to take your eyes off Annie Lennox’s eyes.

The rest of the album is just as moody and evocative, full of Stewart’s driving basslines and Lennox’s primitive yelps and bitten-off snarls. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” still has such an immediacy, it’s hard to believe it’s already 30 years old.

Bonus round: Eurythmics’ music was so deeply entwined with Annie Lennox’s voice, there have been few good covers of their material … however, I am partial to Emily Browning’s take on “Sweet Dreams” for the Sucker Punch soundtrack. Here’s a fan mashup of the single with the scene from the movie where the dragon fights the B-24 bomber.

[50/50] Song #49: “Children of the Revolution”

Friday, January 18th, 2013

Maggie_riding a hooverbikeSong #49: “Children of the Revolution” — Violent Femmes (1986)

There had to be at least one T. Rex song on this list. I considered “20th Century Boy” before deciding to go with “Children of the Revolution.” Specifically the Violent Femmes cover of “Children of the Revolution.” The Marc Bolan original is arguably better, but I heard the Femmes version first and preferred its uptempo take. Plus, it still manages to keep both the song’s irony and its sensuality with Gordon Gano’s guttural howls.

I was reading a lot of Love & Rockets at the time, and for some reason thought the Violent Femmes version would make the PERFECT song to play over the opening credits of a Love & Rockets film, as Maggie the Mechanic zipped across the desert on her hoverbike (back when the series was still mixing sci-fi and dinosaurs with Lucha Libre wrestlers and life in East L.A.) Of course, now I realize what a mismatch that is for a L&R … not that a movie version will ever get made. Still, it’s nice to imagine…

“Twist & shout/Let it all hang out”

[50/50] Album #49: “The Stranger”

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Album #49: “The Stranger” — Billy Joel (1977)

the-wall-gerald-scarfeI was genuinely surprise to see the competition for this next slot. There was never any question “The Sound of Sight” would be on this list, or that it would kick off the countdown, so this position was the last opening for those records on the bubble. Should I pick Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” the angsty rock opera with mind-bending album art by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, or another favorite with an iconic cover: Electric Light Orchestra’s “Out of the Blue.” Or do I choose another high concept album, Thomas Dolby’s “The Golden Age of Wireless,” whose forlorn reverb kept me company many a late night in the studio during art school.

Thestranger1977Finally, I decided to go with Billy Joel’s breakthrough album, “The Stranger.” You have to understand, while I always enjoyed Joel’s lounge act just fine, he was THE all-time favorite of my brother the pianist. (In fact, in a famous bit of family lore, my parents had to talk Brent out of quitting school and running off to New York to play piano in a bar just like Billy Joel did!) Even if Billy Joel’s singles weren’t ubiquitous in the Top 40 at the time, he was in heavy rotation in our house. Of all of his albums, “The Stranger” finds Joel at his pop-music best, before his high-minded ambitions outstripped his song-writting abilities in the 1980s. And as an awkward eighth grader trying to figure out girls, I greatly appreciated the double-sided coin of “Vienna” and “Only the Good Die Young” Joel tossed to listeners.

While I eventually grew tired of rock operas, even the very idea of rock operas, I still love the pop operetta Joel serves up in his “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”

[50/50] Song #50: “Convoy”

Friday, January 11th, 2013

Song #50: “Convoy” — C.W. McCall (1975)

convoy45OK, let’s get this out of way up front: I love novelty songs, especially when I was a kid. Of course, children have no natural defense against the novelty song but after growing up listening to Spike Jones, Alan Sherman and Monty Python, there really was no hope for me. I think “Fish Heads” is hilarious. I listened to the Dr. Demento Show for years, and still wonder what Weird Al will come up with next. That said, with one exception, none of those songs will appear on this list.

I didn’t just pick “Convoy” out of nostalgia or to stand in for all those “Disco Duck”s and “Amish Paradise”s that didn’t make the cut — it really is one of my favorite songs of all time. C.W. McCall’s paen to truckers and CB radio is as tight an epic as you will ever find, a complete cross-country story in one little pop song. (As good a director as Sam Peckinpah was, his mistake was even trying to expand that into a two-hour movie, as he did three years later.)

“Convoy” hit #1 when I was in 6th grade — so of course I was helpless to resist its charms — and was one of the last novelty songs to reach the top of the Billboard 100. Still, it was pretty sophisticated for a novelty song: from the crisp staccato drum that opens the record to the orchestral crescendo of strings as they “crashed the gate doin’ 98,” the music builds to a satisfying stick-it-to-the-man climax, as dueling voice overs lay down the tale of convoy that stretches halfway across the country. Hell, it was even educational — I learned the word “chartreuse” thanks to “Convoy.”

Come to think of it, Robert Altman probably would have been a better director for the movie version. Let them truckers roll 10-4.

[50/50] Album #50: “The Sound of Sight”

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Album #50: “The Sound of Sight” — Ray Martin & His Orchestra (1964)

Does anyone remember stereo? I’m not talking about an audio element now so common it’s often dropped from the list of product features — I’m talking STEREO!  Stereo as THE selling point of a record, stereo as a noun, stereo as a pickup line (“Hey, wanna come back and check out my —”), stereo as actual entertainment in and of itself. As sales of home sound systems took off in the 1950s and ’60s, record companies put out dozens of albums specifically designed to show off the proud new owner’s speakers. Some tracks where as simple and silly as a recording of a ping-pong ball bouncing back and forth, while others recreated the experience of listening to marching bands pass by on the street. My dad had several of these records, and when we were kids my brother and I would lay on the floor in between the speakers and marvel at the stereo.

sound of sightThe most ambitious of these concept albums was “The Sound of Sight” by composer Ray Martin. Martin, a producer at EMI and the British equivalent of Henry Mancini, had written songs for numerous movies and TV shows in England, and used his experience to great effect in this epic LP. Dubbed “Music For An Experiment in Imagination,” “The Sound of Sight” was the soundtrack to 9 fake movies, each a different genre, each telling a story complete with sound effects and dialog — and all in STEREO! Westerns, tearjerkers, costume epics, film noir … Martin even included a cartoon short detailing the misadventures of a cat & mouse. No mere gimmick, many of the themes Martin penned were as good if not better than many actual soundtracks.

Finally, The Sound of Sight came with what is arguably the greatest album cover ever* — a fold-out wrap-around by cartoonist extraordinaire Jack Davis, with hundreds of characters exploding into view. You could look at this thing for hours and still come back to find little details you missed. (It was this cover, along with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, that made me want to become a cartoonist.)

You can check out the album’s blazing film noir take below — with the awful pun “Hoodunit” as its title— and a large version of the cover here. See you in the pictures shows!

*I will accept votes for Herb Albert’s “Whipped Cream & Other Delights,” but that’s it.