Saturday, November 26, 2011

90's Hit Parade #12

Wu Tang Clan - Da Mystery of Chessboxin'

Remember the baseball speech at the beginning of The Untouchables? Wu Tang always remind me of that. They're a very democratic organization. Oh, sure, there's a hierarchy, no doubt. There are stars, and there are second stringers. But everyone on the team gets their turn at bat. I especially like "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," one of the best ensemble raps ever recorded, because the two rappers that most would agree are at the bottom of that hierarchy both get plum spots: U-God kicks things off, and Masta Killa bats cleanup. And both of 'em knock that sucker outa the park.

U-God comes on with a gravelly voice, growlin' like Howlin' Wolf: "Raw, I'ma give it to ya/With no trivia/Like cocaine straight from Bolivia." Actually, I always thought it was "With no treble, yo," which would be a cool line because it would pun on uncut base and uncut bass, but it's still pretty great. I love how he just digs into certain syllables, like "eMANciPAtion PROclMAtion." Inspecta Deck and Raekwon both throw in some hot verses, and Method Man rocks a chorus, but then Ol' Dirty Bastard comes in and just takes the track over, half-rapping, half-singing, throwing out crazy shit like "Jacque Cousteau could never get this low." One of his best recorded moments is the line "Rappenin' is what's happenin'/Keep the pockets flappenin', hands clappenin'," not just because he adds those extra syllables, but because he makes them sound so good, like that ought to be how those words are pronounced, and because he makes those syllables hit right on the rhythm. And then there's the way he busts out "Gotta get up and beeeeeeeeeeeeee somebodeeeeeehhhh!" Finally, he introduces Ghostface Killa, and the track goes into yet another phase.

Ghostface is just nuts here, completely off the leash, hyperactive and chaotic, like a berserker swinging his sword every which way, chopping against the rhythm, "hittin' like a spiked bat." It's an amazing verse that builds momentum up to a chant of "Wu! Tang! Wu! Tang!" Then Masta Killa emerges in a clearing: "My styles illegal and death is the penalty." It's not necessarily the most impressive verse on the track, but it's exactly what the track needs right at that moment. His voice begins calm, contrasting with Ghostface's crazy spitfire routine, and slowly building intensity.

Bonus Beat:

Funny story: I got Enter the Wu Tang: 36 Chambers from Columbia House. I never really understood how Columbia House managed to stay in business. Pretty much everyone I knew had ripped them off at least once, getting those 12 CD's for $1 and then never buying anything else. Anyway, when the album came, I was extremely annoyed to find that it was the "clean" version. But I shrugged, and just made the best of it. It's possible that the reason "Chessboxin'" was my favorite is because it survived the editing process more intact than many of the other tracks. The worst, of course, was "Shame on a Nigga," which became "Shame on a Nuh." Not only does that not make any damn sense, but it doesn't even go with the rhythm. Years later, when I finally upgraded to the "dirty" version, I really started digging this song. While "Chessboxin'" is a great showcase for the whole Wu Tang crew (save Rza and Gza, who sit that track out), "Shame" showcases Wu Tang's bully boys, the stars of those early recordings: Method Man, ODB and Raekwon. They're all amazing, but if I had to pick a favorite here it would be Meth, who drops these amazing (and hilarious) lines: "razor-sharp I sever/the head from the shoulders, I'm better/Than my competor/You mean competitor? Whatever!/Let's get together." That's some all-time Hall of Fame shit right there.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

90's Hit Parade #13

Nine Inch Nails - Head Like a Hole

The sole criteria for inclusion on this list is my personal taste. These are my favorite songs from the 90's. I'm not taking into account their sociological significance or their influence or whatever. For the most part, the same applies to the rankings, but, as I mentioned when I was starting out, there are a handful of songs in the top 15 here that I ranked higher than my personal feelings would allow. This is one of them, because it's absolutely one of the best songs of the decade, far beyond my personal enjoyment.

I've had sort of a love-hate relationship with NIN over time. I like them alright, but as I mentioned before, I've never quite been able to warm up to that industrial, goth-y sound. And maybe I felt a little less charitable toward them back in the 90's, because I was surrounded by people who really worshiped the band. Almost everyone I knew in the 90's was a fanatical NIN fan. Which means I spent a lot of time listening to them, rather against my will.

Anyway, like I said, they have some really great stuff. The Downward Spiral is a great album, they do a killer cover of Queen's "Get Down Make Love," and then they have this song, which is just an incredible single.

"Head Like a Hole" is a rowdy dance song, probably as energetic as industrial music ever gets. The song has a central tension between its two choruses sung in two different voices. One, perhaps a parody of Depeche Mode's "Master and Servant," demands submission: "Bow down before the one you serve/You're going to get what you deserve." The other refuses, screaming "I'd rather die than give you control." Eventually, the two voices overlap, control and rebellion locked in an eternal struggle. Perhaps the two voices are coming from the same head: when Trent Reznor removes Number One's mask, does he find Number Six underneath?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Comeback!

My triumphant return to the stage! Well, to stand up. I've been doing improv for about a year and a half now, but I've been meaning to go back to doing stand up for a while, and I finally took the plunge. The first bit, about A Separate Peace, was the kind of thing I didn't really think anyone else would find that funny, but it gets a laugh every time. Might just be the way I say it. I dunno, more to come I reckon.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

90's Hit Parade #14

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Bellbottoms/Ditch

I saw JSBX 3 times: twice at the 40 Watt, once opening for the Beastie Boys at the enormous (and notoriously acoustically impaired) Omni. All three shows rocked, but strangely enough, the best was the Omni. They were just so far down into the groove, so tight and so loose. When they played "Bellbottoms," the band was just going off on this extended jam, Jon just wailing on the guitar. He started playing this three-note riff that I think he might have stolen from KISS: Alive! (from the extended jam on "Let Me Go Rock n Roll"). Then he switched up suddenly, and started playing this boogie-woogie riff, like the one Angus Young plays on "Let There Be Rock" right when they're going into the unending guitar solo, but much faster. And if I've failed to explain how awesome that moment was, it just points out a larger truth about JSBX live shows: you had to be there. None of their albums capture it, but they do come pretty close on the best tracks on Orange (the first three and last three or four tracks are all prime. The rest is a'ight). "Bellbottoms" starts with a skronky one-note riff (here, listen to the full version, since this is all cut out of the video), which turns into a blaxploitation film theme with string accompaniment, then goes through a rather silly attempt at a James Brown "Sex Machine"-style vocal intro, and then just breaks the fuck loose, climaxing in a wild feedback jam (although nothing close to what you'd hear from them live on a good night). Then it segues into the funky "Ditch," which climaxes in an incredibly hard drum breakdown, with Jon hitting the hell out of the vocals: "I'm gonna dig that...DITCH!!!" And THEN it explodes into some nasty saxophone torture.

Friday, November 11, 2011

90's Hit Parade #15

Beastie Boys - Root Down

I wrote a bit about this song in 2007
. Here's some of what I said:

I've decided that "Root Down" is my favorite Beastie Boys song. It used to be "Shadrach," but "Root Down" has taken the lead. It's Mike D's final, autobiographical verse that sends it over the top for me:

Every day I'd take the train to the High Street Station
Doin' homework on the train, what a fucked up situation
On the way back up hearin' battle tapes
Through the underground underneath the skyscrapes
Like Harlem World Battles on The Zulu Beat Show
Like Busy B/Kool Moe Dee, that's one you should know
Enough of that, just gotta give some respect
To MCA, grab the mic and Ma Bell will connect

(I had to look that up. I always thought the last line was "To MCA, grab the mic and rock it all to heck" or something) I love the picture that paints so vividly of growing up in NYC in the 70's and 80's. And "underneath the skyscrapes" has a great, percussive sound to it.

As I noted the first time, it's also got a great video that mixes the Beasties with old footage of dj's, b-boys, graffiti and subway trains, adding to the 70's NYC vibe that the song evokes so well. Mike D really dominates this track: he also has this great rhyme:

We're Talking Root Down, I Put My Root Down
And If You Want To Battle Me, You're Putting Loot Down
I Said Root Down, It's Time To Scoot Down
I'm A Step Up To The Mic In My Goose Down

And this excellent piece of philosophy:

Sometimes I Feel As Though I've Been Blessed
Because I'm Doing What I Want So I Never Rest

Anyway, since the Beastie Boys are my all-time favorite band, and this is my all-time favorite Beastie Boys track, I have to rank it pretty high. The track is entirely constructed from cutting up Jimmy Smith's jam "Root Down and Git It." Listen to the original if you've never heard it, it's dope!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

90's Hit Parade #16

Hole - Asking For It

It used to seem like there was always a great, ubiquitous, hard rock album out there at any given time. Led Zeppelin IV, Toys in the Attic, Van Halen I, Back in Black, Appetite for album everyone knew back and forth, that sounded great cranked up in a Camaro or blasting out of the Tilt-A-Whirl, an album you could bang your head and air guitar and sing along to. For me, in the early 90's, even more than Nevermind, that album was Hole's Live Through This.

"Asking For It" is my favorite track on Live Through This, and probably the perfect example of what makes Hole a great band. It's a righteous riot grrrl anti-rape anthem grafted onto an eerily beautiful power ballad. And yes, I know Hole weren't officially a part of the whole riot grrrl movement, but that statement requires looking at riot grrrl differently than we look at any other movement in rock. Courtney Love was the great translator of riot grrrl. She translated Kathleen Hannah's rage to mainstream listeners in the same way that Elvis translated rhythm n blues. The chorus of "Asking For It" could easily be from a Bikini Kill song, and Courtney has no problem equaling the rage factor of Kathleen Hannah.

Courtney has always had a Stevie Nicks/"Witchy Woman" vibe to her. It's easy to picture 12-year-old Courtney Love, obsessed with rereading V.C. Andrews' Flowers in the Attic, drawing pictures of horses and listening to Heart's "Crazy on You." So while the screaming refrain echoes riot grrrl rage, the verses have this total full-moon-shining-through-the-Autumnal-branches-as-lace-dress-flutters-in-the-wind feeling. In fact, even the chorus sounds like that. I can't think of another band that pulls this combination off.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

John David Oliver, Jr., 1938-2011

Dad (R) and his brother Bob in the 70's. Probably at a chalet we rented in the mountains of North East Georgia near Dillard/Clayton.

Dad with me and Tom, probably about 5 years ago.

If you noticed the blog being dead for a week, it's because I had to fly to Georgia to visit my father, who, after being in poor health for rather a long time, took a sudden nosedive. He died on Sunday, October 30.

My dad was a great guy. His story was a classic American success story. He was born in Closter, NJ, and joined the Army after high school with the intention of being trained as a pharmacist. As it happened, there were no slots open for pharmacists, so he studied laboratory science instead, and when he left the service he got a job as a lab tech at Martin Memorial Hospital. He was eventually promoted to Lab Supervisor, then Assistant Administrator (in charge of the technical staff for the whole hospital), then Vice President. The house I grew up in was like a symbol of that progression. When I was born, it had terrazzo floors and bare, white walls. By the time I left for college it had carpet and tile in every room, wood paneling on the walls, French doors that opened into a screened-in porch with a swimming pool, and a fireplace in the Florida room. All these were added gradually, paid for by second mortgages.

After my mother had multiple miscarriages, my parents adopted me and (two and a half years later) my brother, Tom. They surely got more than they had bargained for--we both turned out to be very troubled kids with extreme behavioral problems, and had to have been constant headaches for our poor parents. But it occurred to me over the last week that I don't even have to ask myself whether he would have done anything differently if he had known. He would have done exactly what he did, because that's just who he was. He was as cool a dad as anyone could have had.

Dad was very involved with the Catholic Church, and sat on the board of Catholic Charities (he was president of a branch of that organization on at least two occasions), but he never went in for the fire and brimstone or the social conservatism associated with the Church. His understanding of Catholicism was about following a moral code that had more to do with treating other people with respect and compassion then with any kind of disdain for other people's personal decisions. There were times when he would tell us over the dinner table about debates happening among the hospital administration about ethical dilemmas regarding, for example, emergency room patients who were uninsured and unable to pay for their treatment. My dad would always fight for the patients. After all, how could he do otherwise and call himself a Christian?

When people find out I was adopted, they often ask me if I have a desire to track down my birth mother so that I can find out where I came from. Truth is, I don't need to. I know where I came from. The older (and more self-aware) I got, the more I would look at my father and see myself. Every aspect of my personality seems to reflect him. He passed on his sense of morality and kindness, but also his moderate, easygoing nature, his sense of humor (usually off-color), and his love of the good life. (Maybe I didn't quite get his work ethic.) My dad enjoyed life, good food, a good drink, a good cigar. He retired twice, and each time was followed by the stock market taking a nose dive, so I don't know if he ever really had (in his mind) that real sense of being able to take it easy and not worry, but he didn't really need it. He always took it easy and enjoyed life to the fullest, even if he was working 12 hours a day. And I guess that's true enough for me as well.

Here's to you, Dad.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Words That Strike Terror: "Coming Soon - eMusic's New Look"

Over the last few years, it's become almost a routine for people to freak out every time a social network or website they use modifies their interface. Most of these I've shrugged off. For instance, the half-dozen or so times Facebook has "improved" over the last few years haven't really bothered me much, although I see people on my feed infuriated by each change. But I certainly understand the problem. People don't like the stuff they're using every day to change radically. It usually feels like everything's been rearranged just as you were getting used to it.

Last week, Google modified the look of Google Reader, and it really pissed me off. And I think it gives me a little more insight into how this process happens. One of the things Google did was get rid of the "share" button on the reader, and other "social network"-type functions. The strategy seems to be to get more people onto Google's social network, Google+ (and away from Facebook, presumably). But here's the problem: when developers are making these changes, they see everything in terms of it's "intended use." The "share" button is intended to enhance a social network of Google Reader users. They don't see all the weird little hacks that people figure out, ways to use a function that have nothing to do with their intended function. So, for example, the "share" button on Google Reader, which I have never used to actually share anything (since I don't have any "friends" or "followers" on Google Reader, and don't really know how to even go about getting them). I use--that is, I USED--it to bookmark stuff. This was an essential part of the function. With the huge amount of blogs, tumblrs, twitters and websites I have in there, this is the only way I can ever hope to keep track of stuff. I will now have to figure out a different way to do this.

And now I receive an email from eMusic with the subject line you see above. Hopefully, this will be another thing that doesn't really effect my life. But I'm a bit nervous.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

90's Hit Parade #17

N.W.A. - 100 Miles and Runnin'

N.W.A.'s finest moment, with Ice Cube nowhere in sight. It's a full speed sprint, as Ren, Dre and Eazy each drop fantastically aggressive verses, then pass the mic around for a final verse. They spend most of the time doubling down on "Fuck tha Police" (Ren shouts "I didn't stutter when I said Fuck tha Police," Dre taunts "And while you treat my group like dirt, your whole fuckin' family is wearin' my t-shirt"), but they take some time out to dis departing member Ice Cube. Eazy E used to get a lot of shit, but let's not forget that the reason he was even in a position to be given shit was because he had skills to begin with, and he really makes this track. His high, thin voice stands out over Ren and Dre's drill sergeant shouts, and when he comes in with a machine gun staccato that cuts against the rhythm, it seems to change to whole feel of the song, like entering the bridge of a James Brown jam. In fact, when he starts out with "Runnin just to find the gun that started the clock/That's when I ease up off the startin' block," it's the second most exciting moment in the song. The first comes a few lines later when he says "TAKin' a MINute to TELL you what's ON my MOTHerFUCKin' MIND!" over a ticking clock that swings back and forth between the speakers.

The stereo panning is probably overdone a bit here, but it's a cool trick, and this is one of Dre's most intricate compositions, taking influence from Public Enemy's Bomb Squad and building on the PE-inspired "Straight Outa Compton." There's a runner's heavy breath going back and forth through most of the song, and when it breaks down after E's verse into the sample of "Nowhere to Run" from The Warriors (or was it Vanishing Point?), you can almost see a bouncing devil head providing the diabolical laughter. The fantasy of N.W.A. as FBI fugitives that provides the thematic structure of the song reaches back to a deep vein of black folklore, from the underground railroad to gospel to blaxploitation, with emphasis of course on the latter. When a guitar comes in at the end, it plays long, slow notes that sound like they could have come from a classic 70's soundtrack. N.W.A. produced precious little worth listening to in the following years, and Dre would smoke some chronic and abandon the harsh, aggressive style, but "100 Miles and Runnin'" is one of the most exciting hip hop tracks ever produced.