Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Zrbo Reviews: VNV Nation's Transnational

It surely must be difficult for any band to follow up a well received album. 2011 saw VNV Nation's release of Automatic, an album that demonstrated why the band was at the forefront of the so-called futurepop scene. With it's catchy synth arrangements evoking 80s synthpop and it's uplifting lyrics featuring plenty of retro-futuristic imagery, Automatic showed that VNV Nation were unafraid to take their music in new directions, shedding most of those industrial components that had originally come to define their sound.

2013's release Transnational continues in that new trajectory, but doesn't do much to evolve that sound. While Transnational still has moments of greatness there's a certain familiarity to many of the themes and lyrics resulting in an album that at first listen mildly disappoints.

Transnational seems to lack any big anthems. VNV Nation have always had a certain knack for anthemic songs with big emotional hooks that are easy to get swept up in such as Empires' Standing (1999) or Matter & Form's Perpetual (2005). This was no more evident than in their live shows where these anthems, coupled with the energy and enthusiasm members Ronan Harris and Mark Jackson brought to the stage, gave the audience a feeling that they were part of something larger (the titular "nation" perhaps?).

The songs on Transnational are almost entirely inwardly focused and personal. This is a bit strange given the worldliness of the album title. On nearly every song Ronan sings about himself, or he sings to an unnamed "you". While it's difficult to find fault in a songwriter telling us something personal about themselves, it can be difficult for the listener to make a personal connection if the "you" being described doesn't fit with the listener's sense of self. For example, on the track Everything Ronan sings: "You're hiding your beautiful mind/unaware of what it means to embrace it and defend". It's unclear whether this line, and many others like it, is intended for the listener or someone else.

The lyrics also seem to have been stripped of complexity, and on one song even delve into the realm of silliness. One strength Ronan has always had is he's adept at imbuing his words with strong emotions, so that he's generally able to sell his lyrics even when they aren't the most nuanced. On club-ready Retaliate Ronan tries to sell us this idea that he's on the hunt, but it comes across as some kind of survival-of-the-fittest rant that could be used in a trailer for the next Hunger Games movie. He manages to sell it, but just barely.

Another aspect of Transnational that is perhaps the most puzzling is the production on the album. Ronan has shown a great aptitude for production in the past, I noted in my review of their previous album Automatic "how amazing Ronan has become in the production department.  Everything on this album sounds smooth and polished, with the synths sounding amazingly powerful."

The vocals on Transnational however come across sounding a bit flat and on several tracks the vocals sound muted. This is no more evident than on the leadoff Everything. What would otherwise be a fine, up-tempo energetic song is marred by vocals buried in the background, robbing the song of emotion. That last bit is odd as over the course of the band's evolution, Ronan has put his voice increasingly at the front of the music. Before this album came out the band posted a story on their Facebook page that at the last minute one of the lines in an unnamed song had to be re-recorded (while Ronan was on a boat in the middle of the ocean no less) and it's easy to speculate that Everything was that song. As it is, the lyrics in the second half are barely audible over the music.

Transnational, without question, confers to the expected order of any VNV release. It starts with an instrumental, hits hard with a catchy leadoff, does another song, pauses for a mid-album instrumental, builds it back up with a thoughtful ballad, throws in another song for good measure, and finishes it off with some sort of epic, inspiring piece that typically includes lyrics that encapsulate the themes of the album. At this point in their career the track order, like the iconic logo that graces each album cover, is essentially part of the VNV brand.

A few thoughts on each song:

The album starts strong with Generator, beginning with slow building synths that evolve into a nice rhythm. This is perhaps my favorite opener since Judgement's Prelude (2007). I especially like how there's no seam between it and the next song.

Everything is a fine track that will probably sound great live, but the version here is marred by vocals buried too deep in the mix so as to be almost inaudible at times.

Primary is one of the better cuts from the album. Sounding the most like older VNV Nation, the song tells a loose tale of Ronan piloting some sort of craft racing through the atmosphere as Ronan attempts to control it. It's a bit of Space Oddity by way of Front 242.

The song Retaliate is VNV Nation nodding to its industrial-dance roots. Each album seems to include a song like this, so much so that when the album was first announced someone on a fan forum ventured that the hard track would be called 'Conquest' which is not too far off from what we got. At this point in VNV's career though it doesn't really fit with the milieu they've established for themselves. While the music is definitely club-ready, the lyrics ("one of us the hunter/one of us the prey/one of us the victor/one to walk away") are just kind of silly and come across as trying to hard.

The mid-album instrumental Lost Horizon, supposedly inspired by the 1937 Capra film of the same name, begins with a choir straight out of the band's Empires era (Fragments, anyone?). The track is enjoyable and fine.

Teleconnect (Part 1) is notable in that it's the first time the band has made a multi-part piece. It begins with a choir and plodding rhythm, and then proceeds to drift along with lyrics that don't rhyme, causing the song to come off as sort of meandering and directionless. The retro-futurist lyrics here also seem to be directly recycled from Automatic's superior Streamline.

If I Was begins with a lot of promise. A bouncy bubbly synth accompanies Ronan introspecting while riding a train and watching the world pass by outside. It's nice enough, perhaps a bit too saccharine, but goes astray when the lyrics shift halfway through from Ronan talking about himself to talking to this figurative "you". When he sings "Put aside your burdens/put away your fears/I'd carry them as I carry you/until the very end" does he really mean he's going to carry my burdens, or is he singing to someone else?

Aeroscope is another instrumental which is kind of fun in the way the song boomerangs back just when you think it's done.

Off Screen is, lyrically, a bit of a departure for the band. The lyrics are not only theatrical, they are literally theatrical, with Ronan equating the roles in relationships to roles on the stage. I've seen several commenters who were thrown off by this song and unsure what to make of it, but I actually enjoy it quite a bit. I get a strong 80s vibe with a synth line that could be mistaken for vintage Gary Numan, Off Screen is one of the album's catchiest songs. It has a lot of energy, and sounds more like what I would expect VNV to be doing at this stage in their career.

Finally, Teleconnect (Part 2) ends the album. As I stated above, the final song on a VNV album is usually something uplifting that drives home the overall message and theme of the album. Part 2 is basically one very long buildup, beginning with a delicate synth that slowly builds into a big sweeping wall of luscious sound, and then proceeds to keep building. Knowing that there's eventually going to be lyrics is key, as the listener is increasingly teased with a big cathartic moment that doesn't come until 3/4 of the way through. But when it comes, Ronan delivers what he's so good at: an epic man-on-top-of-the-mountain moment bearing his heart for all. The first time I listened to this song I was honestly left in tears, though upon repeated listens it doesn't affect me nearly as much. It also seems to end somewhat abruptly, as do several other songs on the album. I recommend listening to this one while alone, preferably with the volume turned up.

Overall Transnational is bit confusing. It almost sounds like two EPs mushed together, with the string of songs starting with Lost Horizon through Aeroscope sounding like they might belong to another album. At times the songs feel like they're leftovers from Automatic that didn't make the cut.

Around the time when Automatic came out Ronan said something (perhaps on Facebook  which makes this difficult to go back and verify) that he had so many songs for Automatic that he couldn't fit them all onto one album. In a sense, Transnational could be seen as an 'Automatic Part 2', though not nearly as strong.

Transnational takes a while to get into, and is not quite what was expected after the excellent Automatic. There's a feeling that VNV Nation are currently in a bit of a holding pattern, though as always, it will be interesting to see what they do next.

3.5/5 Zrbo points

Sunday, October 27, 2013

That Time When The Go-Go's Presented An Award To Marvin Gaye

A while back I wrote that Belinda Carlisle, the Forrest Gump of '80s pop, managed to cross paths with just about every one of my favorite musical artists at one point or another. Well, even I would not have guessed that she, nor any of the other Go-Go's for that matter, would have ever had an encounter with Marvin Gaye, given that a) he was about twenty years older than they were, b) was a soul music legend, and c) died in 1984. But then I found this clip of the Go-Go's presenting Best Soul Single at the 1982 American Music Awards.

First of all, did you know that there's something called the American Music Awards? From Wikipedia:
The American Music Awards, (AMA) is an annual American music awards show, created by Dick Clark in 1973 for ABC when the network's contract to present the Grammy Awards expired. Unlike the Grammys, which are awarded on the basis of votes by members of the Recording Academy, the AMAs are determined by a poll of the public and music buyers.
Really? So a network lost the rights to the Grammys, and decided to make up its own awards show, just based on ... whatever? Hey, sounds just about as prestigious and legitimate as the real Grammys if you ask me. Any excuse to put a bunch of unscripted musicians together in front of a camera on national TV is probably a good one, I say.

Case in point: see the Go-Go's decked out in all the colors of the rainbow! Belinda looks luminous in bright green, Jane is rather foxy in darker green, Charlotte just got off work as a stewardess in pink, Kathy just shot Professor Plum in the Study with a revolver in red, and Gina means business in a black suit. And Belinda really knocks it out of the park with her corny scripted banter [Edit: the full clip is no longer on YouTube]:

No offense to Aretha Franklin and Evelyn King, but as soon as Gina reads Marvin Gaye's name, you know this contest is over. Listen to the seismic wave of sheer erotic energy that erupts across the audience once the camera cuts to Marvin Gaye. He's like sex on a stick. A thousand rappers with a thousand hos couldn't even exude one crumb of this man's sex appeal. Even when he's just sitting there chewing gum, he's chewing it so sexily. However, I believe at this point the membranes of his nose were so worn out from coke usage that he was sleeping in hotel rooms set up with a special air filter in order to breathe comfortably. Perhaps as an alternate method of usage, he also fell into the habit of rubbing his gums with coke. In other words, Belinda, you may have met your match.

For his part, Marvin Gaye seems to grab the award from Kathy's hands while thinking, "Who the hell are these puny little white chicks?" More likely, he probably wasn't thinking about anything in particular and probably had no idea where he was. Perhaps sensing the coke theme, the producers even cut to a random shot of Stevie Nicks applauding in the audience. Don't worry, Marvin: your musical legacy may fade with your passing, but your cocaine legacy will live on.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Glass Houses: Yuppie Rock Tries To Go Punk, Ends Up Accidentally Going New Wave?

Billy Joel could've entered the '80s by sticking with his mildly rockified Tin Pan Alley Broadway New Yorker schtick, and probably wouldn't have received too many complaints. But no - he wanted more. Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes:
The back-to-back success of The Stranger and 52nd Street may have brought Billy Joel fame and fortune, even a certain amount of self-satisfaction, but it didn't bring him critical respect, and it didn't dull his anger. If anything, being classified as a mainstream rocker -- a soft rocker -- infuriated him, especially since a generation of punks and new wave kids were getting the praise that eluded him. He didn't take this lying down -- he recorded Glass Houses.
You see, Billy Joel may have been a dork in the world of pop music, but he wasn't exactly a dork in real life. He'd been a boxer, he'd dropped out of high school, he frequently rode a motorcycle - he was a tough guy at heart. He also played the piano. So here he is, it's 1979, he's made it to the top of the music world, but everybody thinks he's a wimp. He decides to show everybody he can be a bad ass hard rocker.

Except he can't. Which is fine. Every artist has his strengths and his weaknesses. Look, I'm the biggest Billy Joel advocate in the whole God damn universe, but ... is being a hard rocker one of his "strengths"? Eh ... erm ... gee Billy ... I don't know about this one. The Billy Joel entry in Rolling Stone's album guide starts out by saying, "With Billy Joel, a light touch is everything." Well, his touch on Glass Houses is about as light as Mama Cass.

To be honest, I hadn't listen to the album in its entirety in about fifteen years; I just had the big singles in my mp3 collection and felt pretty satisfied with that. So I recently gave it another spin. You know what? It's better than I remembered it being! But it's definitely top-heavy. The first side is loaded. The second side is not quite filler, but I feel like it's weaker and lacks cohesion.

Now that I know a lot more about rock history than I did when I was 14, I've noticed a couple of qualities that totally passed me by earlier. You know what I realized? Glass Houses is totally Billy Joel's "New Wave" album! It's his Elvis Costello/Joe Jackson album. As Joe Jackson did on his first couple of albums, Billy barely plays piano here, even though he is essentially a piano player. And now that I'm more familiar with Elvis Costello's catalog, I'm shocked to realize how much the verses of "I Don't Want To Be Alone" sound like a dead ringer for "Alison," complete with the awkwardly stiff white guy reggae beat, and how much "Sleeping With the Television On" sounds like his version of "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes."

Making an imitation New Wave album, however, was not Billy's exact intention. Here's what he recently had to say about the album's genesis:
When it came time to do Glass Houses, that was around 1980, and we were playing ... we had now had about two or three years of playing in arenas and colosseums, and I recognized that I needed to write bigger music. Songs like "Just the Way You Are," Honesty" ... ballads, didn't always fly that well, you need big sound. So I started writing harder-edged songs, guitar based songs.
Well, I guess if you take a random clump of Billy Joel songs and press the "harder-edged" button, you end up getting skinny tie power-pop. It's sort of like adding green and yellow together, hoping you'll get blue. You won't get blue, but you'll probably get something kind of weird and compelling anyway. In one sense, that's what makes Glass Houses interesting. None of his other albums sound like this. On the other hand, Glass Houses still strikes me as the sound of Billy Joel trying on a style that's not really "his." At least he tried it, realized it, and moved on. Let me put it this way: I often feel like I need to "defend" Billy Joel to his detractors. The problem with Glass Houses is that it's not the album I would give in his defense - even if I sort of like it myself. It's Billy Joel at his most ... bratty.

Witness the lead-off track and Top 10 hit, "You May Be Right." I once read an article describing "You May Be Right" along these lines: "Billy Joel's idea of being a rocker is acting like an asshole." Well sure, but you probably can't take these lyrics too literally:
Friday night I crashed your party
Saturday I said I'm sorry
Sunday came and trashed me out again
I was only having fun
Wasn't hurting anyone
And we all enjoyed the weekend for a change

I've been stranded in the combat zone
I walked through Bedford Stuy alone
Even rode my motorcycle in the rain
And you told me not to drive
But I made it home alive
So you said that only proves that I'm insane

You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be a lunatic you're looking for
Turn out the light
Don't try to save me
You may be wrong for all I know
But you may be right

Remember how I found you there
Alone in your electric chair
I told you dirty jokes until you smiled
You were lonely for a man
I said take me as I am
'Cause you might enjoy some madness for awhile

Now think of all the years you tried to
Find someone to satisfy you
I might be as crazy as you say
If I'm crazy then it's true
That it's all because of you
And you wouldn't want me any other way

He even rode his motorcycle in the rain! He told her dirty jokes until she smiled! The man is unhinged!

Then there's "Sometimes A Fantasy," which is either about phone sex or just plain old masturbation. Even though it doesn't appear on any of his hits collections, it was actually a small hit (peaking at #36), and as Billy Joel wannabe uptempo rockers go, I'd say it's sort of a hidden gem, with Billy trying to out-Ric Ocasek Ric Ocasek. The video might be even more hidden, and even more of a gem. Beware of evil greaser Billy:
Ooh, I didn't want to do it but I got too lonely
I had to call you up in the middle of the night
I know it's awful hard to try to make love long distance
But I really needed stimulation
Though it was only my imagination

It's just a fantasy
It's not the real thing
It's just a fantasy
It's not the real thing
But sometimes a fantasy
Is all you need

When am I gonna take control get a hold of my emotions
Why does it only seem to hit me in the middle of the night
You told me there's a number I can always dial for assistance
I don't want to deal with outside action
Only you can give me satisfaction

Sure it would be better if I had you here to hold me
Be better baby but believe me it's the next best thing
I'm sure there's many times you've wanted me to hear your secrets
Don't be afraid to say the words that move me
Anytime you want to tell them to me

"Don't Ask Me Why" is the one single on Glass Houses that fits right in with his mellower late '70s hits. Whenever this one comes on, I always have the desperate desire to stick a rose between my teeth and dance the tango. Also, I've always swooned over the "dueling" piano solo, where Billy plays one piano on the left channel, and then overdubs another piano on the right channel playing the exact same solo, only an octave higher. On the lyrical side, like "She's Always a Woman" before it, I can't really tell if he's praising or slyly insulting his subject, but the music's so relaxing, you barely notice the sarcastic barbs:
All the waiters in your grand cafe
Leave their tables when you blink
Every dog must have his everyday
Every drunk must have his drink
Don't wait for answers
Just take your chances
Don't ask me why

All you life you had to stand in line
Still you're standing on your feet
All your choices made you change your mind
Now your calender's complete
Don't wait for answers
Just take your chances
Don't ask me why

You can say the human heart
Is only make-believe
And I am only fighting fire with fire
But you are still a victim
Of the accidents you leave
As sure as I'm a victim of desire

All the servants in your new hotel
Throw their roses at your feet
Fool them all but baby I can tell
You're no stranger to the street
Don't ask for favors
Don't talk to strangers
Don't ask me why

With its pounding keyboard riff, "All For Leyna" sounds like an homage to Toto's "Hold The Line" (which itself was an homage to Sly & The Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime," but whatever). Billy's high-pitched vocal overdubs on the chorus sound like groggy Queen, or maybe Bowie with a cold? Meanwhile, the lyrics paint a vivid picture of a frustrating teenage crush. Leyna might be a maddening tease, but I sure as hell wouldn't want a guy this tightly-wound pursuing me if I were her. I'm kind of thinking that Weezer ... started here?
She stood on the tracks
Waving her arms
Leading me to that third rail shock
Quick as a wink
She changed her mind

She gave me a night
That's all it was
What will it take until I stop
Kidding myself
Wasting my time

There's nothing else I can do
'Cause I'm doing it all for Leyna
I don't want anyone new
'Cause I'm living it all for Leyna
There's nothing in it for you
'Cause I'm giving it all to Leyna

We laid on the beach
Watching the tide
She didn't tell me there were rocks
Under the waves
Right off the shore

Washed up on the sand
Barely alive
Wishing the undertow would stop
How can a man take anymore

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Answer is Die Antwoord

Forgive me if I'm late to the party, but just recently I was exposed to the videos of South African group "Die Antwoord". With a bizarre mix of hip-hop and rave music, Die Antwoord has some of the weirdest and outlandish music videos that I've seen in a great while (perhaps since Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy").

AMG tells me that members Ninja and Yolandi are merely conceptual artists, and I'm glad to hear that because their videos look like they come out of some sort of post-apocalyptic heroin-infused hell. Take a gander at these three videos:

Baby's on Fire is perhaps their tamest video, but still weird.

Cookie Thumper gets a little stranger...

And then there's Fatty Boom Boom. Featuring a Lady Gaga impersonator wearing the infamous meat dress  and Yolandi in blackface, this video is just all kinds of bizarre, including Gaga visiting a gynecologist with some unexpected results (one conceptual artist taking a swipe at another?). If you're going to watch one of Die Antwoord's videos, watch this one. Then be glad that you don't do meth or heroin.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Billy Joel Meets The '80s ... And He Likes It

When people think about the most prominent artists of the '80s, they probably take a while before they get to Billy Joel. And yet. From the very start of the decade to the end of it, you could not keep that guy off the radio. He took to '80s Top 40 like flies on sherbet. And, he managed to do this without looking all that great or dancing all that well. No small feat.

I might as well admit it: Billy Joel was one of the first artists, after the Beatles, whose entire recorded catalog I ended up acquiring. Well, I didn't acquire it. My older brother bought River Of Dreams when it came out in 1993. Shortly afterward he bought Greatest Hits Vol. I & II, and he couldn't stop listening to it. At first I started to tease him, but sure, I thought some of the songs were pretty good, even some of the ones I hadn't heard before. Over the course of about six months, my brother gradually acquired every Billy Joel album. There are about twelve of them, plus a couple of live albums. It was quite an undertaking. I'd been listening to '60s pop for about three years straight and was getting a little sick of it. I guess my brother's enthusiasm couldn't help but rub off on me a little bit. Eventually, I had to admit that, on some level, I liked every Billy Joel album. I figured he must have been one of those few artists whose whole catalog was enjoyable and worth hearing. I wasn't exactly wrong to think that. But see, what I didn't know is that I would eventually feel this way about, oh, say, 450 different artists. Not just Billy Joel.

Later I learned that there were some rock critics who hated Billy Joel. I mean hated him. I couldn't comprehend it. But he was so good! My brother had all his albums! What were they talking about? Gradually, as I discovered more and more music, I suppose that Billy did begin to slip a little bit. My brother made the natural transition from Billy Joel to Elton John, and so I did. Sure, Billy was no Elton, but he had his own (more heterosexual) style. I mean, just when Elton ran out of gas around 1976, Billy stepped up and managed to fill that piano-based singer-songwriter void. Which would have been a horrible, horrible void.

Later, as I discovered punk, New Wave, post-punk, and alternative rock, I started gaining a different perspective. See, for people like my brother, to whom punk hardly registered as a thing, Billy Joel fit comfortably into the lineage of rock history. For people who saw punk as rock's official "re-boot" moment, artists like Billy Joel didn't really "count." But, damn it, whenever a Billy Joel song would come on the radio, I would still ... like it! According to rock critics, that was bad. I was supposed to like Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits instead. Whatever. Sometimes music simply reminds you of a certain period of your life, and you can't go back and change your feelings about it. Still, I wrestled with the Billy Joel Question for years. Was he just a guilty pleasure of mine, or a worthy member of the rock canon? Was it safe to admit that I still liked Billy Joel, or did I need to keep his CDs in a different drawer? One day, several years ago, I think I was listening to "Uptown Girl," and I finally said to myself, "You know what? Fuck it. He's great."

Here's the deal: Billy Joel's rise to commercial prominence directly paralleled the rise of punk. And to many rock critics, punk established itself as the "legitimate" branch of white late '70s rock. Anybody who wasn't punk was corporate soft rock crap. Except for Bruce Springsteen, who somehow had a "get out of punk free" card (perhaps by hanging out with Patti Smith and the Ramones?). Basically, the new rule was: if you wanted to be angry, you had to be punk. Billy Joel was angry, but he was middle of the road angry. Thus, his success was even more offensive. I think a lot of critics felt like Billy Joel didn't "get it." You can't be angry and make soft rock. Sure you can! Besides, what's more punk than being angry, but not actually punk?

The trick with Billy Joel is that he's good, but he's dorky. He's cheesy. He's not cool. Here's How Chuck Klosterman put it in his highly appreciative but somewhat rambling essay on Billy Joel from Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs, "Every Dog Must Have His Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink":
Nobody would ever claim that Billy Joel is cool in the conventional sense, particularly if they're the kind of person who actively worries about what coolness is supposed to mean. Billy Joel is also not cool in the kitschy, campy, "he's so uncool he's cool" sense, which also happens to be the most tired designation in popular culture. He has no intrinsic coolness, and he has no extrinsic coolness. If cool was a color, it would be black - and Billy Joel would be sort of burnt orange.

Yet Billy Joel is great. And he's not great because he's uncool, nor is he great because "he doesn't worry about being cool" (because I think he kind of does). No, he's great in the same way that your dead grandfather is great. Because unlike 99 percent of pop artists, there is absolutely no relationship between Joel's greatness and Joel's coolness (or lack thereof), just as there's no relationship between the "greatness" of serving in World War II and the "coolness" of serving in World War II.
So Billy Joel's not cool. Well you know what? I'm not cool either. And like Klosterman suggests, maybe sometimes it's more important to be thoughtful, responsible, conscientious, or compassionate than it is to be "cool." I love punk, but I don't wear safety pins or a mohawk or anything remotely rebellious. I am the tamest guy around. Maybe if I'd grown up in the late '70s and all those boring kids at my school listened to Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac and ELO, then I might have gravitated towards punk and thought of punk as "my" music. Well, I grew up in a trailer park in rural San Mateo County in the mid-'90s. All the kids I knew who listened to punk and alternative rock were all the privileged upper-middle class white kids. I'll tell you what was rebellious at my school: listening to Billy Joel.

Which brings me to the task at hand. Not every late '70s superstar managed the transition into the '80s too well (I'm looking at you, Bee Gees). But maybe because, somewhat like Hall & Oates, Billy Joel's music was so firmly rooted in Brill Building pop, doo wop, and McCartney-esque songcraft, he didn't have much '70s in him to shed to begin with. Yeah, he fondled a synthesizer here and there, but for the most part, Bill Joel's '80s music doesn't really sound that "80s," just as his '70s music doesn't really sound that "70s." He always sounds like he just came back from a jam session with Carole King and Neil Sedaka.

For Billy Joel, entering the '80s was like a walk in the park; he was in the midst of his commercial and creative peak. By writing about Billy Joel in the '80s, I am literally cutting his career in half: he released six studio albums before 1979, and six studio albums after 1979. It's kind of an awkward spot to do any sort of division. I suppose I could do a "How Billy Joel Went Yuppie Rock" post, but I would have too much ground to cover. Streetlife Serenade, Turnstiles, The Stranger, 52nd St. ... another place, another time, I'm afraid. No, better to stick to the Yuppie Rock years, particularly those first three albums of the decade (I'm not even sure I want to go anywhere near "We Didn't Start The Fire").

You know what? You want the short version of how Billy Joel went Yuppie Rock? I have two words for you:

Christie. Brinkley.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Picture This, Album That?: Yuppie Rock Comes Of Age

You know how, sometimes, a band's initial commercial breakthrough album might actually be stronger (or at least less over-exposed) than the blockbuster album or albums to follow? Maybe the breakthrough album created the hype, and the follow-up album merely cashed in on the momentum? Take Madonna. Her self-titled debut peaked at #8, while Like A Virgin peaked at #1. Well sure - how were people supposed to know who the hell Madonna was when she hadn't even made an album? Sometimes you need that first hit record to generate word of mouth. Still, let's face it, I mean, Like A Virgin's pretty terrific, but it's no Madonna.

This phenomenon probably occurs with greater frequency in rap. Was Wu-Tang Forever better than Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)? Was It Was Written better than Illmatic? Was Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life better than Reasonable Doubt? And yet, the follow-up albums all peaked at #1, while the debut albums peaked at #41, #12, and #23 respectively. This can even happen with entire careers. I'm guessing that few Cure fans would call Wish the band's best album, and yet it went to #1 in the UK and #2 in the US while their more influential early material barely scraped the American charts. See also: New Order and Republic, Depeche Mode and Songs of Faith and Devotion, and Metallica and ... everything post-80's? Although I actually like the Black Album.

All of which is roundabout way of saying that, maybe it wasn't the juggernaut that Sports and Fore! were, but I'm thinking that Picture This, Huey Lewis and the News' second album, might be a sleeper gem. It is, quite possibly, the group's loosest, punchiest, most consistent, and ... best album? The whole platter just goes down so smooth. Also, bonus points for the absence of any awkward gimmick songs like "The Heart of Rock & Roll" or "Hip To Be Square." Both Stephen Thomas Erlewine and "Patrick Bateman" seem to be on the same page this time around. Erelwine writes, "By incorporating stronger elements of R&B and doo wop (their cover of "Buzz Buzz Buzz" is first-rate) and embracing pop to a much greater extent, the News find their own distinctive sound -- clean-cut, steady middle-class rock & roll." Bateman observes:
The sound, though still tinged with New Wave trappings, seemed more roots-rock than the previous album, which might have something to do with the fact that Bob Clearmountain mixed the record or that Huey Lewis and the News took over the producing reins. Their songwriting grew more sophisticated and the group wasn't afraid to quietly explore other genres - notably reggae ("Tell Me A Little Lie") and ballads ("Hope You Love Me Like You Say" and "Is It Me?"). But for all its power-pop glory, the sound and the band seem, gratefully, less rebellious, less angry on this record (though the blue-collar bitterness of "Workin' for a Livin'" seems like an outtake from the earlier album). They seem more concerned with personal relationships - four of the album's ten songs have the word "love" in the title - rather than strutting around as young nihilists, and the mellow good-times feel of the record is a surprising, infectious change.
You took the words right out of my mouth, Patrick - and please put that chainsaw away. It's like the engineer turned off the "Knack" switch and flicked the "REO Speedwagon" switch instead. Forget the "yer average band" schtick; this time, Huey Lewis and the News are larger-than-life arena rock demi-gods. Enough of that bare-bones minimalism shit; now we've got an endless supply of guitar echo, multi-tracked vocal overdubs, and synthesizer embellishments. True, Picture This may have a more muscular, beefier sound than the debut did, but rather than making the band sound glossier, I'd say these more contemporary additions simply make the band sound livelier.

Check out the sweet, slow sway of "Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do," (curiously, a minor hit that peaked at #36):

Get a load of the biting reggae groove that is "Tell Me A Little Lie" (eat your heart out, Sting):

And if you thought the News were eagerly shedding their bar band street cred in a desperate bid to go Top 40, "Workin' for a Livin'" ought to put those fears to rest. The lyrics, chanted over a rhythm that sounds a little like Nick Lowe's "They Called It Rock," paint a pretty bleak picture of life as lived by the world's most inoffensive rock band:
Bus boy, bartender, ladies of the night
Grease monkey, ex-junky, winner of the fight
Walking on the streets, it's really all the same
Selling souls, rock n' roll, any other game

Whoa Nelly! Still, nothing may prepare you for the epic Springsteen teenage male bonding pastiche "The Only One":
He was always the toughest kid
But he never meant no harm
But looking back I could see his fate
Was tattooed on his arm
Walking through the courtyard
Always there to be seen
He and little Janie
Together they were the king and queen

He was the only one, who ever really knew
He was the only one, what can we do
He was the only one, he always showed us how
He was the only one, where is he now

Three years later at the bus stop
I know I'll never forget
He looked smaller in real ways
As he bummed a cigarette
And I asked him what he'd been doing
And how's little Janie anyway
Seems he was drunk
They had a fight
Janie got hurt and they took him away

I heard about the accident
There's not much left to say
He wandered out in the middle of the freeway
It must have happened right away
And I thought about what a shame it was
Now that it's all said and done
And it may sound strange, but even now
He's still the only one
Springsteen scholars often talk about the potentially homoerotic undertones to songs like "Backstreets." Well it sounds to me like Huey might be expressing a little too much fondness for this high school buddy of his. Was Huey Lewis ... a pioneer for gay rights? And what's the deal with the "Leader of the Pack"/"Dead Man's Curve"-style "accident"? Did he just stumble drunkenly out onto the freeway one night? Who does that? I mean, anybody who does that probably deserves to get hit anyway. Or maybe he committed suicide. Or is Huey saying he drove out in the middle of the freeway and got in a car accident? We need answers, Huey. We need answers!

But before you've even had time to recover from that searing adolescent saga, Huey and the boys hit you with an album-closing cover of the Hollywood Flames' 1957 doo-wop classic "Buzz Buzz Buzz." Talk about pulling a 180. Imagine if REO Speedwagon ... could also play doo-wop!

Seriously, what more do you want? Oh I forgot, there's also this little ditty called "Do You Believe In Love." Erlewine describes the band's first big hit (written by AC/DC/Def Leppard/Foreigner/Cars producer and future Shania Twain husband Robert John "Mutt" Lange) as "a stunner, a tight set of polished, anthemic hooks that is one of the best mainstream pop singles of the early '80s." Who else besides Huey Lewis could make the line "I wanna love you all over" sound tender instead of lecherous? And who else but Huey Lewis could make a video featuring he and his band members serenading a woman in her bedroom seem sweet instead of disturbing? Well, some of our YouTube friends may have a different interpretation:
All together now "Gangbang" !

Poor, misguided girl from the 80's. She doesn't believe in love OR orgies.

Coffee and the morning after pill. A remedy for any Huey Lewis and the News sex-train.

You know, if I were a lady, and I woke to find Huey AND the News in my bed.....I think I'd be okay with that.

She bought a king size because you never know when a 6 man rock band will want to get into the bed with you

Sure, the video seems happy and upbeat, but what you probably didn't know is when the camera faded to black, the lady pulled out a gun and shot herself in the mouth after years of being harassed by six men singing to her nonstop.

This is a great band and a terrific song, but what's really interesting about this video is the hair. The News were gradually transitioning from the long shaggy hair of the 70's to the shorter more tamed hair of the 80's. Obviously, the mullet was the intermediate step.

Bottom line: Sports and Fore! may get all the nostalgic pop culture attention, but come on, folks, this is the one you want.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Go-Go's Take Amsterdam AKA Adventures With "Jeff Jetsetter" (Bonus Post: Go-Go's Down Under)

The Go-Go's. Amsterdam. A fifty-year-old French man. This blog post pretty much writes itself. From Lips Unsealed:
I arrived with the intention of having a good time. But I was run-down and needed to rejuvenate. So, soon after checking into our hotel, the Sonesta, I corralled Charlotte into going to the health club with me. I thought a soak in the hot tubs and a massage would do the trick ... At the desk, the attendant informed us of the club's policy: We had to take off all our clothes ... Charlotte and I looked at each other and said what the hell ... We didn't even consider the spa might be co-ed - that is, until a French man in his fifties sauntered up to our hot tub. He arrived just as we were starting to relax and gazed down discerningly at us. (We also looked up discerningly.) After a moment, he joined us.

"So where are you girls from?" he said in heavily accented English.

"America," we said.

"I'm going to guess how old you are," he said. "Twenty-five or twenty-six?"

Charlotte nodded.

"How'd you know?" I asked.

"I can tell by your bodies," he said.

It became an endurance contest: Which of us could tolerate the hot water the longest, the two of us or our new friend, whom we nicknamed Jeff Jetsetter.
As we began to shrivel up like vegetables in a pot of simmering soup, Jeff invited us up to his room that night.

"I have a big penthouse," he said.

Charlotte and I traded looks that spoke volumes. We were at a loss for how to politely say thanks, but no thanks. Sensing our wariness, he quickly added, "I also have champagne and cocaine."
Looks like Jeff said the magic word.
"Cocaine?" I said.

He nodded.

"How much do you have?" I asked.

He smiled. "A lot."

"Okay, we'll come up," I said.

With a satisfied nod, he stepped out of the hot tub and said he'd see us later. When the coast was clear, Charlotte said that was weird. I shrugged. Weird was relative. We were in Amsterdam.
See, Charlotte, somebody knows how to roll with the flow here.
Later that night, the five of us went up to Jeff Jetsetter's penthouse. It was magnificent. As promised, he had a ton of blow. He was extremely generous, too, but before long I saw what Jeff had in mind. He put it right out there. He wanted to have sex with us. I was equally blunt, as were the others. It wasn't going to happen.

Buoyed by drugs, booze, and his intense desire to get laid, he refused to give up. He tried charm, jokes, gestures, and direct invitations. He brought out a suitcase full of sex toys. He thought he was being romantic ... I finally said, "We aren't going to screw you. Just give us the drugs."
Could somebody please tell me why this was not the name of the Go-Go's' next album? We Aren't Going To Screw You, Just Give Us The Drugs: now available on I.R.S. Records. Beats Talk Show.
Something clearly got lost in the translation. That or he was just thick. It turned into a pretty comical scene. He kept going into the palatial bathroom, filling up the tub with bubble bath, and lighting candles. He came out each time grinning mischievously, perhaps hopefully, announcing it was almost ready for us. Then one of us went in there, blew out the candles, emptied the tub, and turned on the lights. We were terrible. This went on for two days.
Two days??? Oh you have got to be kidding me. I thought she was going to say "two hours." And they probably shouldn't have even been hanging out with this guy for more than two minutes.

Ah, but who am I to judge? At any rate, I thought about posting a track from Vacation to commemorate the Go-Go's' little run-in with this horny French lothario, but I didn't really see a good fit. I could have gone with "He's So Strange," but I already posted the earlier, punkier version a few months back, so I should probably leave that one alone. I could have gone with their cover of the Capitols' "Cool Jerk," but Jeff Jetsetter wasn't exactly "cool," and, come to think of it, he wasn't really much of a "jerk" either. I could re-post "Get Up and Go," given that the girls may have wanted to do exactly that ... except for the fact that they actually stuck around to humor the guy.

Instead, here are a couple of clips from the band's appearance on Countdown, the Australian equivalent of Solid Gold, featuring a male host by the name of ... Molly? Well, everything's a little funny down there. I wonder who the special guest hosts are going to be tonight? Well I do declare: it's the Go-Go's! Our five foxy females manage to introduce hit videos from Huey Lewis and the News (the soon-to-be-discussed "Do You Believe In Love?"), Joan Jett (Belinda's thoughts on "Crimson and Clover": "It's great, it's really good..."), Altered Images, and ... Stevie Smash? Jane and Gina actually sound like they have opinions on the music and don't just want to sit there and be music industry puppets, while Charlotte flubs most of her lines, and an equally dazed Belinda still manages to read from a cue card without making a spectacle of herself. Molly even makes a couple of digs at the week's #1 single, Charlene's hilariously mawkish "I've Never Been To Me."

So what happens when our spunky hosts take the Countdown stage (magically introduced by Tina Turner, several weeks later)? Despite the Aerobic Rock tunic and earrings the size of a basketball hoop, Belinda is still radiating some seriously sensual lip-syncing magic here. A few of my fellow viewers happen to agree:
Belinda was & is such a pritty kitty kat girl from SoCal. Purrrrrrrrr She has such a little upturn nose & cute/gorgeous blue eyes. Any negative replies will be ignored.

Belinda was an all american cutie pie. And I do agree that she was a little thick in her younger days but when she went solo and slightly aged she blossomed into a ravishingly beautiful woman and still looks great to this day. Hey I wouldn't kick her out of bed for eating crackers.

Sorry Belinda, I have told only one other women that she is the most beautiful woman i have ever seen. But it wasn't true. You are simply perfect to me and you are the benchmark or for every woman i have ever met in my life. a tough act to follow for them darling. Woooh wiii!!!
Well, I don't know about that. Even Jeff Jetsetter probably wouldn't go that far.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Huey Lewis And The News: The Humble Origins Of Yuppie Rock

Until about 1991, I used to tell people that my favorite group was Huey Lewis and the News. Which is funny, considering that I never actually owned a Huey Lewis and the News album - not even on cassette. Maybe I figured, "What rock band could possibly be an improvement over Huey Lewis and the News"? They had everything. They were funny. They were catchy. They were zippy. They didn't make mushy ballads, and they didn't make preachy message songs. But around April 1991, I discovered oldies and decided that my favorite band was now going to be the Beatles. Playing the game of "favorite band" has been pretty dull ever since.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine nicely sums up the band's appeal (or lack thereof) in the intro to his AMG biography:
Huey Lewis and the News were a bar band that made good. With their simple, straightforward rock & roll, the San Francisco-based group became one of America's most popular pop/rock bands of the mid-'80s. Inspired equally by British pub rock and '60s R&B and rock & roll, the News had a driving, party-hearty spirit that made songs like "Workin' for a Livin'," "I Want a New Drug," "The Heart of Rock & Roll," "Hip to Be Square," and "The Power of Love" yuppie anthems. At its core, the group was a working band, and the bandmembers knew how to target their audience, writing odes to nine-to-five jobs and sports.
In retrospect, Huey Lewis and the News were the epitome of "inoffensive." They were so inoffensive that many people find them offensive. After all this time, I'm still not sure if there's a critical consensus on the artistic merits of the band. Witness this sampling of comments from an article the AV Club wrote on Sports a couple of years ago:
Huey Lewis and the News...
... were /are a more than competent pop band. They're fun and never claim to be anything but. I shall not disparage them.

I've always thought that anyone who hates Huey Lewis & The News were raving douchebags. You don't have to LIKE it, so much, there's plenty not to like. But Huey and the gang are so much fun, so inoffensive, that to actively hate them is akin to hating fun. At the absolute worst, they're a harmless distraction. At best, they're a really fun band who were among the best at pure, awesome, entertainment in the 80's that didn't involve a grotesque amount of hair spray.

I think there is something to the notion that he's a "dork" with no pretensions about him, and whatever others might have thought of him, or of music at the time, it just seemed like he had the attitude of, "I don't know why I'm popular now, and I don't know what that says about music now, but I'm just glad to be here." That and the undeniably catchy music is why I think he's still listenable these days, or at least hard to actually hate.

For the record: I kinda like a few Huey Lewis songs. He's a fun, silly but catchy pop singer. If anything he's mediocre... not horrible. I never really understood the animosity that he inspired in people and I thought that it was strange that Ellis choose him to symbolize the worst of the worst of eighties yuppiness.

I hated Huey Lewis, but it just might be because I hate saxophone. Mind you, hating the sax in the 80's was like hating synth or hair spray - it made you unable to turn on a radio or television.

I didn't like Lewis at the time, but it wasn't as much the music as his 49ers fandom. Man, I fucking hated the 49ers.

Huey Lewis was just kind of... there. On the radio. Like white noise or that bland wallpaper found in doctor's offices. I have no positive or negative anecdotes regarding Huey Lewis, or his band or his music.
So there you have it. In fact, Huey Lewis and the News ended up becoming so inoffensive that you have to wonder what kind of band they'd originally been trying to be in the first place.

It turns out that a band like Huey Lewis and the News, in the 1980 musical landscape, was not a particularly uncommon kind of band at all. They were basically one of several New Wave/power pop/pub rock groups in the mode of the Knack, the Plimsouls, The Romantics, etc. etc. These groups were a dime a dozen; they all ended up on those Rhino D.I.Y. power pop compilations. I think the theory was that, by 1980, since rock 'n' roll had become so convoluted, it was now actually a clever twist to be blatantly straightforward. It was, if you will, "hip to be square."

Hell, just look at the band's name. It's almost deliberately generic and WASPy. When Morrissey and Johnny Marr named their band the Smiths, they were trying to be ironic. Huey Lewis was probably just trying to get a record contract. Well it worked, although their debut album, the imaginatively-titled Huey Lewis and the News, didn't exactly set the world on fire. Erlewine writes:
On their eponymous debut, Huey Lewis and the News essentially act as a pub rock band, turning out hard-driving covers and originals in a workmanlike fashion. While that usually makes for great club gigs, it only occasionally makes for great records, and the debut suffers from an uneven selection of material and a somewhat stiff production, mainly because the group can't quite reproduce its sound in the studio. Even with such flaws, the album shows signs of promise, particularly in the charging "Some of My Lies Are True (Sooner or Later)."

Fair enough. For a slightly different take on the material, let's hear from Bret Easton Ellis - ahem - "Patrick Bateman":
Though the boys hail from San Francisco and they share some similarities with their Southern California counterparts, the Beach Boys (gorgeous harmonies, sophisticated vocalizing, beautiful melodies - they even posed with a surfboard on the cover of the debut album), they also carried with them some of the bleakness and nihilism of the (thankfully now forgotten) "punk rock" scene of Los Angeles at the time. Talk about your Angry Young Man! - listen to Huey on "Who Cares," "Stop Trying," "Don't Even Tell Me That You Love Me," "Trouble In Paradise" (the titles say it all). Huey hits his notes like an embittered survivor and the band often sounds as angry as performers like the Clash or Billy Joel or Blondie.
Um ... "Patrick" (if that is your real name) ... you sound like you may have read bits and pieces of rock journalism here and there, but I'm not really sure you ... know what you're talking about. That's OK, Huey will probably take all the fans he can get, even if they're well-groomed Wall Street psychopaths. Punk rock has not exactly been "forgotten," and I'm not sure anyone would classify Blondie as "angry," but your writing shows some promise and you should keep working on it.

So, my take? Well, even early on, it seems like Huey was terrified of displaying any sort of edge whatsoever; on "Who Cares," he sings, "Change the channel, standard shift/Does anybody give a sh-." No, I did not block out the word "shit." He actually says "sh-" with the dash in there. Oh my God. He almost said "shit." Almost! Yeah, I'll tell you who cares, all right: Huey Lewis cares, about saying profanity on his rock and roll album. Look, Huey, no one was going to buy the damn thing anyway!

Overall, the disc is pretty hit-or-miss, although it definitely picks up steam at the end, with the aforementioned "Who Cares" and "Trouble In Paradise," (best YouTube comment: "There's never been a sit-com called Trouble in Paradise, but if there ever is, this song would make my top 5 as potential intros"), and the frenetic closer "If You Really Love Me You'll Let Me," which is the last time anyone could have plausibly compared this band to XTC. But don't you worry, Patrick Bateman: Huey Lewis will never sound this "punk" again.