Sunday, July 31, 2011

90's Hit Parade #46 (Revised)

Redd Kross - Elephant Flares

As the 90's began, the 70's seemed like a strange joke. The loud, silly fashions, gimmicky bands like KISS and The Village People, pet rocks, even Nixon and Carter all seemed too weird to have actually happened, yet we could all remember having grown up around it. Those things all had happy, childhood memories attached to them. So there was a strange mixture of nostalgic warmth and ironic chuckling in the 70's parties and disco nights and KISS covers. This mixture is perhaps the defining (and damning) aspect of our generation. It brings to mind annoying hipsters and childish nostalgia-addicts, but maybe it's not all bad. The ridiculousness of the 70's ensured that we couldn't quite romanticize the decade the way previous generations romanticized the 50's and 60's.

Redd Kross made this goofy nostalgia their stock in trade, not only on their albums but in cinematic side projects like Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and Spirit of '76. The latter featured David Cassidy as a time-traveler from the future who ends up in 1976, where his guides are the MacDonald brothers (the core members of Redd Kross), and is nothing but one long 70's joke. The soundtrack included a new Redd Kross song, "1976," which featured a dead-on Paul Stanley impersonation for no reason at all. This all seemed really cool when these guys were just about the only people doing it. By the end of the decade, Redd Kross' whole schtick would be a hit TV show.

"Elephant Flares" is all hooks, like one of those Desmond Childe compositions that Bon Jovi was topping the charts with at about the same time. It's even got three choruses, all of them catchy, but of course the best one, the one that makes it a bona fide summer classic is "Cruisin' down the highway in my Trans Am/Custom T-top down/Hear some BTO/Playin' on the radio." I've had existential crises over whether it's really healthy to dig the irony-rich not-quite-parodies that Redd Kross specializes in, but when I've got this cranked up in my car on a hot day, I feel no guilt.

Anyway, couldn't find this on YouTube, so I just embedded the audio, but here's one from the same album:

And it's analog:

Friday, July 29, 2011

90's Hit Parade #43

Beastie Boys - Negotiation Limerick File

Before we begin, I'd like to point everyone toward a recent post at the Just One Song More tumblr, and in particular the song "Fol the Rol Lol" by Edward M. Favor (the mp3 is here, the text explaining it is here). Like our entry here, "Fol the Rol Lol" is composed entirely of limericks, so the Beasties are working in extremely old school mode here. I like the idea of building a rap song out of limericks. It sounds so natural, in fact, that if not for the title I doubt I'd have made the connection. But that gimmick isn't really why I include this song among my favorite Beasties tracks. I just love the sound of it. It's so warm and inviting, soulful and almost pastoral compared to the urban sound of most NYC hip hop. This actually gets the summertime sound better than Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's classic "Summertime."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

90;s Hit Parade #44

Negativland - Helter Stupid

OK, Wikipedia tells me that this album came out in 1989, but I don't want to go fucking with my list at this point, so I'm keeping it here for now. Negativland had included a song called "Christianity is Stupid" on their previous record, Escape from Noise, which featured a sample of a fundamentalist preacher saying those words. They then launched a prank on the media by releasing a vague press release saying the song was suspected of driving a young man to commit murder (which, in the wake of certain court cases and jihads against satanic heavy metal, seemed fairly believable in 1989), and refusing to talk about the case. The media took the story and ran with it, and the band recorded the results and remixed them into a complex sound collage which made up the first side of their new album (they also included liner notes that explained the hoax and its results in detail). It's an overwhelming, hilarious, and somewhat trippy experience to listen to.

Friday, July 22, 2011

90's Hit Parade #45

Latyrx - Latyrx

So most of these songs I don't have stories about the first time I heard them, and how blown away I was. Most songs take a couple listens to really reveal themselves. This one, yeah, I remember it as clearly as the first time I heard "Eruption/You Really Got Me" or "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave." It was right after our first exploratory visit to L.A. We arrived at ATL around midnight, got to our car feeling somewhat dazed and confused, nearly got into an altercation with another driver who wanted our space and didn't think we were vacating it fast enough. I tuned in WREK, the Georgia Tech station (which is just a fucking BONKERS station), lit up and drove off. A midnight hip hop show was just starting. I think the first song they played was something by DJ Shadow, then it segued into this (which is also produced by Shadow). I was blown away, nobody else in the car seemed to care.

The track is called "Latyrx," by a duo that's either called Latyrx or Lateef and Lyric Born, and later kicked off an album that was either called Latyrx or The Album or maybe Latyrx: The Album. It begins with the best section, with the two rappers rapping simultaneously over sitar-like synth drone. this is the best section. I almost can't believe nobody had ever recorded anything like this before. Lateef's rap sounds almost like a Hindu chant, Lyrics affects a voice that sounds like Richard Pryor doing a white guy. Then, after a shadow cut-n-chop breakdown, the two go their separate ways, dropping all kinds of marvelous nonsense (my favorite headscratcher: "I taught neanderthal to use the rotary phone/I kicked the Devil in his neck without my rosary on." The rest of the album is solid, but there's nothing even close to this.

Friday, July 15, 2011

90's Hit Parade #47

Busta Rhymes - Dangerous

Look, I'm a white guy from a suburban, upper middle class family. I don't know shit about any aspect of black life, inner city life, poverty, violent crime, any of it. In other words, I can only process hip hop through the filter of my own social experience. And one of the most important things hip hop gave to white music fans was a way to talk about money as something other than the root of all evil, or capitalism as something other than a corrupting influence. I remember watching Bones, Thugz and Harmony being interviewed on MTV. There was some stupid question about what to call the particular genre of rap they were creating, and they said something like "We don't care, it's all about the cheeze." In other words, we don't give a fuck what it's called, as long as we're getting paid. I thought it was amazing, because it was impossible to imagine a white rock musician saying anything like that. The punk ethos was adamantly opposed to any association between art and commerce. At it's root, this is a positive idea: an artist shouldn't compromise his vision to fit the audience's expectation. But like anything else, when this philosophy crystalizes into a dogma, it ceases to be very useful, and transforms into this hostility toward the idea that the effort involved in creating music deserves any financial reward. Second- and third-wave punk bands were deeply infected with this neurotic worldview (first-wave punk bands formed without realizing they were punk bands, and wanted to become famous, same as any other rock band--in fact, in the UK, many of them did become famous). You can see this in the vicious hostility that greeted Nirvana when they became famous, or the way Green Day and Offspring were referred to as poseur punk for mall rats when they sounded pretty much like 80's punk bands. Or the outrage over the Buzzcocks music being used in a car commercial. God forbid a band that had been making great music for years get some kind of financial reward for it!

Take, for example, the gratingly ascetic Fugazi. They're a band I greatly admire for most of their business model. They refused to sign with a major label, in order to keep full control over their music. They actively work to keep the price of their albums and concert tickets low. All great stuff, as far as I'm concerned. But they also refuse to sell t-shirts or other merchandise. They consciously refuse a revenue stream. Their fans are holding out money for t-shirts, and they're like "keep it." I'm sure they think "we're musicians, not a t-shirt shop." Well into the existence of the band, Ian McKaye was scooping ice cream at a Haagen Daaz shop, and Guy Picciotto was waiting tables. Did they think there was more dignity in listening to their stupid boss give them shit than in selling t-shirts to fans who want them? What kind of puritanical bullshit is that for an adult to be hanging onto?

Or take the Dead Kennedys, who went through some legal turmoil in the late 90's. This dispute seems to me a very two-sided disagreement among musicians about royalties and licensing (which may or may not have included a plan to use "Holiday in Cambodia" in a Levi's commercial), but all Jello Biafra had to do was drop a few buzzwords about "corporate greed" to win the P.R. battle with their fans (read the user reviews of Dead Kennedy's albums on eMusic to see what I mean). Even if the Levi's story is true (my guess is that it is), I find it baffling that fans would rather see the musicians who made their favorite records spend their 50's and 60's working menial labor than to hear their favorite songs in a Levi's commercial. It reminds me of a t-shirt popular among Harley Davidson enthusiasts: "I'd rather see my sister in a whorehouse than my brother on a Honda." You notice that there's not much concern about what the sister wants, but at this point I'm about 4 degrees removed from Busta Rhymes, so I should start tacking back to shore.

So yeah. In the midst of this idiotic neurosis about money, how fucking liberating it was to hear musicians talk about getting paid like it was a good thing, like it wasn't something shameful! My all-time favorite acquisitional rap line? "Back in the day, a nigga used to be ass-out/Now a nigga holding several money market accounts." God, I love this song for being such a sweaty, horny jam, but I also have to love it for it's naked love of capitalism.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

90's Hit Parade #48

Ween - Piss Up a Rope

Believe it or not, when I was working out this list, the hardest part was deciding which Ween song to use. They've got so many good ones! (I ended up getting it down to two.) I settled on this rowdy faux-country song in which a cartoon redneck kicks his good-fer-nothin' woman out the house and lets loose a misogynist tirade. The rant is hilarious for both its absurdly colorful profanity ("Up shit creek with a turd for a paddle," "You can wash my balls with a warm, wet rag") and its strange specificity ("I'm sick of your mouth and your 2% milk"). Like their spiritual forefathers the Butthole Surfers, Ween have no filter--their music travels directly from their subconscious to their mouths, although their lyrics are more clever and their muscianship more disciplined than the Buttholes. Track down a live version, though. The studio recording is marred by a completely inappropriate guitar solo.

A few other songs that I considered:

And of course, the big hit:

Friday, July 08, 2011

90's Hit Parade, #49

Radiohead - Paranoid Android

Like most people my age, I spent a great deal of the last 15 years bitching about how MTV didn't play music videos anymore. In retrospect, I'm not sure why. Most music videos are horrible, and can you imagine a bigger waste of time than sitting around watching videos? Well, that's an easy set up of course: a bigger waste of time would be watching the original programming that replaced them. MTV really was a bad habit, and in fact I watched a lot of that original programming because I retained a Pavlovian need to turn the TV onto that channel where the videos used to be. Some of it was OK: Beavis and Butthead was fun, at least for a while, and Daria and The Maxx were both awesome, but I also watched junk like Dead at 21 (about a teenager who had received super intelligence from a government experiment, but never did a smart thing in the whole run of the show) and The Real World (I watched the second and third seasons, and might have watched more if Puck hadn't made season three so unwatchable).

Anyway, I'm pretty sure the last time I regularly tuned into MTV was for The Osbournes. And in the minutes before and after The Osbournes, I remember two things. First, seeing Kurt Loder announce that Rob Halford had come out of the closet. This was funny, because just a couple days before, a friend and I had been talking about Judas Priest, and I came to the realization that their whole act was basically a gay fetish show (something I'd never realized as a metal-obsessed youth). The second thing was, I saw this demented animated video for a dark prog rock epic. Captivating, ain't it? I watched to the end to find out the band, and it was by Radiohead! The band that had that awful song "Creep" a few years ago (or was Radiohead the band that did "Connected"? I always got them mixed up)! I didn't realize at the time that Radiohead had followed up their lame debut (which, to be honest, might be a great album aside from "Creep"--I've still never heard it) with a fine rock album called The Bends. I wasn't even aware they were still around. They completely blindsided me with this one.

"Paranoid Android" is as dark and paranoid as the title implies, and gave me the first real hint of Thom Yorke's strange, trance-like singing (my favorite moment being the way he suddenly begins chanting the line "God loves his children" before breaking into a distorted guitar section). Maybe it's because of a nursery rhyme that I remember, but when Yorke sings "When I am king, you will be..." my mind always anticipates " queen," and is always shocked to get "first against the wall" instead.

I still think "Creep" is a pretty awful song, though.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

90's Hit Parade #50

The Fugees - Fugee-La (Sly and Robbie Remix)

Hey, look, we're half way through! And a seasonally appropriate tune here, perfect for hot, sweaty summer nights. How can you hear that beat and not start shaking your hips? I guess this is more or less the same beat that nowadays gets called "reggaeton," right? Like I said, I'm not that big on remixes, but this one, tacked onto the end of The Score, is by far my favorite thing on the album, takes the whole vibe of the group and kicks it up to the next level. Should probably be used in a Bacardi ad or something.

Monday, July 04, 2011

I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficara and John Requa, 2009)

In I Love You Phillip Morris, Jim Carey does what Jim Carey does. He plays real-life conman Steven Russell as a grotesque. I don't mean anything negative by this. Like I said, it's what Jim Carey does. It's not how Phillip Seymour Hoffman would play the role, just as Marcel Marceau wouldn't go about portraying a man in a box the same way Harry Houdini would. There's a perverse joy in watching Carey apply his physical comedy skills to this tragic human being. His face is still as expressive as it was when he appeared on an early 80's HBO Young Comics special and conjured Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart and Chairman Mao using nothing but his facial muscles.

Americans traditionally have a fascination with fictional con men. We generally hate the real life version, especially when we are their target, but when we see them on screen we somehow identify with the con, not the mark. A big screen con man usually has about as much in common with Bernie Madoff as Batman has with Bernie Goetz. They're clever people who take pleasure in separating arrogant millionaires from their money, and for whom the con is a fun little puzzle to work out, a childish game. This portrayal of Russell undermines that idea. Russell is a sociopath, but he's also a desperately hurting man. In fact, the latter is a much more central point to his life than the former. He doesn't see himself as a con man. In fact, most of the cons I've known in my life don't. They always think they've just got this one white lie to get through to achieve happiness. They've conned the hell out of themselves. And Russell is just trying to win over the man he loves, or live the life he feels he's entitled to, to fill that craving in his heart. God, he can see it right there, and he's absolutely convinced himself that he can get it if he just goes through with whatever con he's running at the moment. And Carey, in his grotesque facial sculpture, brings all of these emotions to brilliant life.

Friday, July 01, 2011

90's Hit Parade #51

Jesus Lizard - Boilermaker

Jesus, this song is brutal. Sounds like a boxer, dancing on his feet while delivering knockout blows. Along with Killdozer, absolutely one of the best heavy metal acts of the era.