Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Zrbo's Favorite Songs of 2019

Wow, 2019! What a year, huh? All that STUFF that happened. It was nuts! Right? And let's not forget all those people that died. But, then, there were all those people that lived too! Crazy!

I don't have much to say about the state of music anymore. By now I've mainly retreated into my own world of music (sitting in a bunker), with only the occasional bit of popular music piercing through (here behind my wall). I couldn't even tell you what's in the Top 40 anymore, maybe a Kanye song, or maybe Drake? I heard there's someone named Lizzo? I dunno. With that caveat, here are some songs that managed to break through.

5 - Lebanon Hanover - "Babes of the 80s" (She Past Away Remix)

I have to give credit where credit is due. Youtube's algorithm is remarkably good at zeroing in on a specific music preference and offering more of it up for your listening pleasure. Here we have a song brought forth by our algorithmical gods, bestowed onto me, and I now bestow it on to you.

I've never heard of the band Lebanon Hanover, but these guys goth, and they goth hard. Yes, I just turned goth into a verb. This song is steeped in late-night murky spooky club dance. But look, what w'ere really here for is the VIDEO. And what a marvelous video it is.

This video is an amazing capsule of 80's dance culture. Look at these people! When modern entertainment tries to recreate the 80s (Stranger Things et. al.) it could never dream of achieving what we see here. Just look at the lanky, sweaty guy at 1:06, or the 80's version of Jersey Shore in his jacket at 1:25 and 3:27. There's also this amazingly average looking couple at 4:20 who dance perfectly in time with the actual song.

Then at 2:15 we have one of the most amazing specimens you could possibly hope to find. This guy saw the video for A Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran" and ran straight toward some marvelous hair. Holy New Wave Batman!

Ok, so I can tell that some of this video looks a little more recent. The mohawked woman who starts off the video and a few people shortly thereafter look like they were probably filmed in the past decade. Also, the more I watch the video the more I know I've seen some of this old footage before, I just can't remember where from. So this is probably not some long lost footage that the Swiss duo Lebanon Hanover have been sitting for 30 years. But wow. A nice, moody dark wave club song and a fantastic little video to go with it.

4 - Childish Gambino - "Redbone"

Alright, I realize I'm a couple years late to this song, but by god is this thing funky. I'll confess this only here on this very blog, but whenever this song starts up within about three seconds my urge to engage in some substances legal in my state begins to skyrocket. It practically demands it. Mr. Gambino (or should we say, everyone's second favorite Hans Solo) sure has an ear for the funkiest of grooves.

3 - Charli XCX & Christine and the Queen - "Gone"

You may recall that I had a Charli XCX song on last year's top 5. I put Charli on the list again this year because I find her pop experimentation intriguing. She's pushes at the boundaries of what pop can be. For example, on this year's album Charli which includes last year's pick "1999", she has a follow up called "2099" - and it sounds just like that. Like some sort of bizarre pop music from the future. I honestly think it sounds horrible. But you know what? I'm glad someone's at least trying to create something different in the pop music space.

With the video for "Gone" we have Charli and genderqueer artist Christine and Queens having some sort of sexual power fantasy strapped to cars in the rain thing going on, and damn do they bring the energy. Especially Christine, she just throws her whole self into the endeavor. It's quite impressive.

2 - Chvrches - "Never Say Die"

I said at the beginning of this post how I've largely retreated into music and artists I'm already familiar with. Why, just last year I had a Charli XCX song on this list, and I've mentioned Chvrches in my yearly top ten's at least twice before. This track is actually off of 2018's album Love Is Dead that I didn't get around listening to until this year. With Love is Dead the band decided to go with an outside producer for the first time, enlisting guidance by bringing in Eurythmic's Dave Stewart. It's a much glossier, almost pop-like album. It's a good album, but it feels to me like a lot of the weirder, stranger edges of Chvrches have been slowly sanded off with each subsequent album. Many songs sound a little too pop friendly. I miss the stranger tracks like their debut album's "Science/Visions", or "Lungs".

That being said, there are some good songs to be found on Love Is Dead and "Never Say Die" is one of them. I don't really have much to say about the track - I like the sparkly synths and the way it fades off at the end, lending the impression that it goes on forever.

1 - Mila Mar - "A Song For Me"

With all the shit going on in the world, and with the multitude of stress in my own life (did I mention I had twin boys this year?) I needed something calm. Mila Mar's "A Song For Me" was my calming anchor. Mila Mar is this little German group I stumbled upon many years ago that musically is difficult to describe. They kinda alternate between world music, opera, and light pop music. It's a Mazzy Star situation as well - the name of the band is Mila Mar, but the amazing voice behind it is Anke Hachfeld, who I've read has a ridiculous four octave range (she performs solo under the name Milù).

You can hear Anke's versatility on this track, and if you're interested in hearing more you couldn't do any better than listen to their track "Was Bleibt" (What Remains), that would make Richard Wagner weep with envy (someone give her a viking helmet already, for God's sake!).

"A Song For Me" begins calmly and slowly, with notes that almost sound like a lullaby or children's song. Sung in a made up language, a la Sigur Ros, the song has no real lyrics, just impassioned morphemes that express great emotion. The song slowly gathers steam, with drums coming in near the end to help lift it to a triumphant finish. It's the perfect song to wake up to in the morning (which I did many times) and it's my favorite song of 2019.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

"Love Shack": Don't Call It A Comeback AKA "Roam" (Up The Charts) If You Want To

Take that Patagonia vest-wearing attorney, that cat meme-obsessed housewife, that Bible-thumping Mormon schoolteacher, that Tesla-driving tech bro, gather them together at a wedding reception, play "Love Shack" and "Roam" on the stereo system, and what will they be doing? They will be dancing. Sure as the lord made little green apples, they will be dancing.

Herein lies the beauty of '80s music. No matter how weird your band, no matter how how "deviant" the majority of the record-buying public might have deemed your lifestyle, no matter how unlikely it would have been that you and your listeners would have ever frequented the same zip code, with the right song, you could still crash into the mainstream and find yourself permanently lodged there for all eternity. Witness Devo and "Whip It." Witness the Clash and "Rock the Casbah." And with all due respect to "Rock Lobster," in 1989, The B-52's did this not once, but twice. Little did the straitlaced public know, however, that the ride to the top hadn't been all fish and candy.

To those paying attention in the early '80s, the B-52's probably came off like a non-stop party (in bounds or out of bounds). It would have taken a serious dose of bad vibes to kill that buzz. Well, if anything could do it, a band member dying of AIDS might have been just the thing. From Wikipedia:
During the recording [of their follow-up to Whammy!], guitarist Wilson had been suffering from AIDS, though none of the other band members were aware of his illness except for Strickland, as he "did not want anyone to worry about him or fuss about him." Wilson died from his illness on October 12, 1985, at the age of 32 ... Cindy Wilson was devastated by her brother's death, and her bandmates were depressed about Ricky's passing. The band went into seclusion and did not tour to promote their album. This was the beginning of an extended hiatus from their musical careers.
Many bands break up for trifling reasons. The guitarist stole the drummer's toothbrush. Their last single only peaked at #7 instead of #6. You know, little stuff. A member dying of AIDS ... is not that kind of reason. Talk about a party out of bounds. If the B-52's had honestly called it quits at that point, who could have blamed them?

But cue the saccharine made-for-TV movie music, because in arguably the most feel-good twist in all of '80s pop, not only did the B-52's re-group after the passing of Ricky Wilson, they essentially tripled their popularity. "Love Shack" and "Roam" were certainly the first B-52's songs I ever heard, although, to be fair, I didn't frequent gay clubs very often when I was nine years old.

"Love Shack" and "Roam" are so much more ... how can I put this? ... melodically graceful than the usual B-52's fare. It's a little suspicious. Even their best tracks tended to sound like free association jam sessions that barely skirted novelty status. "Love Shack" and "Roam" are like ... actual songs. At times I've wondered if they weren't even written by the band themselves, but it turns out the only outside contributor was Robert Waldrop, lyricist of "Roam." The traces of post-punk from their debut album apparently weren't allowed into this particular love shack. What I find so uplifting about these two post-Ricky hits is that they aren't mournful or defeatist in the least. The B-52's literally partied their grief away, and the public must have found the unexpected positivity infectious - assuming they were even aware that one of the non-singing members had died anyway (I mean, there's the two girls in wigs, the awkward MC guy, and ... some other people?). Like the Pretenders before them, the B-52's turned New Wave tragedy to New Wave triumph. I'm tempted to recommend this approach to other bands, but if biblically bleak misfortune was truly the fuel that down-and-out recording artists needed in order to return to commercial relevance, then DeBarge would have had as many comebacks as Cher by now.

Fred Schneider was lucky, I say - damn lucky. Because the two other singers in his band possessed such rich, powerful, distinctive, sensual voices, it allowed him to get away with murder. Funny, but back in the day I never thought there was anything remotely weird about Schneider's off-kilter delivery (which Wikipedia defines with a German word too magnificent to be real: "sprechgesang"). Sure, their male singer sounded like Jerry Lewis on Benzedrine, but come on, that David Bowie guy sounded pretty weird too, and no one seemed to comment on that. He knows just when to drop in and just when to cut out, hardly ever stepping over Kate and Cindy's parts (Flava Flav, take note). He's like the spice, not the key ingredient.

Look: you know "Love Shack," I know "Love Shack" ... what can I say about "Love Shack" other than that it grooves harder and more effortlessly than most of the '60s dance singles it's imitating (mainly the Temptations' "Psychedelic Shack") and feels about as dated to me as an Ansel Adams photo of Half Dome. Highlights:
  • 0:01 - Opening drum fill possibly lifted from the Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song," followed by handclaps possibly lifted from the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back" (all perfectly allowed, of course)
  • 0:29 - Mmm, those harmonies on "Lookin' for the love ... getaway"  - eat your heart out, Bee Gees
  • 0:59 - The little keyboard glissando that punctuates the double-timed drums after "get too-geh-thuh!"
  • 1:47 - Cindy stretching "highway" into a four-syllable word, resembling something like "highway-uhh-eee!"
  • 3:44 - The horns taking several seconds to haphazardly slide downward at the start of the "call and response" section, as if someone had just unplugged their power cable
  • 3:58 - The surprisingly lusty "call and response" section, which sports a good deal more of a "battle of the sexes" feel than the corresponding section from the Isley Brothers' "Shout" that most likely inspired it
  • 4:48 - Fred hollering "Your what?" and Cindy following with three of the most misinterpreted words in all of '80s pop. "Hen room ... busted"? "Can rule ... resting"? When informed one day that the words she utters are "tin roof ... rusted," I thought to myself, "How does that make any more sense than all the other mondegreens people have come up with over the years?"
  • 4:53 - The "crowd" inside this supposed "Love Shack" (I assume made up of the B-52's and sundry companions horsing around in the studio), having continuously kept its presence relegated to the background (a la Johnny Rivers' "Live at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go" hits like "Memphis" and "Seventh Son") suddenly letting out a prominent yelp or two in reaction to the news of Cindy's tin roof allegedly rusting
Watching the "Love Shack" video is always a frustrating experience for me because I'm so used to listening to the 5:34 album version, and the video features the 4:18 single version, which chops up the call-and-response section so thoroughly that, I mean, they might as well have cut out the whole thing, but otherwise I find it a hoot from start to finish, looking like the Russ Meyer/John Waters collaboration that the world was just not deserving enough to receive. The roof of the Love Shack - excuse me, "Shaque D'Amour" - is a giant chess board! They pour soap suds into your martini! Even the goats are having a great time! Does this look like the sight of a band whose guitarist just passed? Well, that's probably how Ricky would have wanted it.

As for "Roam": while it's not quite as quotable and not quite as kitschy as "Love Shack," I'd say it's just as infectious in its own swirling, kaleidoscopic way, not to mention just as popular (both songs peaked at #3 in the US). It has something that very few B-52's songs have: wistfulness. I think Fred wisely knew to sit this one out. Question: have handclaps ever made a chorus worse? If anyone out there can find an example of this, please mail your response to Little Earl c/o Cosmic American Blog, 113 7th Ave., New York, NY 10026. A colleague at work recently asked me to name my top five favorite songs produced by Nile Rodgers, offering "Roam" as a possibility. I nodded and said, "Oh yeah, that's probably one," as if I was well aware that Nile Rodgers had produced "Roam." But I wasn't! Nevertheless, I kept my cool under pressure. Hemingway would have been proud. Funny but the production doesn't sound markedly different from the production on "Love Shack," which was produced by Don Was. I mentioned that I got a Pee-Wee's Playhouse vibe from the "Stand" video, but I definitely get a Pee-Wee's Playhouse vibe from the "Roam" video, which features the band members literally "roaming the world" via blue screen (I wonder if they've found Lisa Stansfield's baby) and what appears to be hand-drawn, stop-motion graphics. Check out Fred's face as a banana flies through a donut hole at 1:26. The studio they filmed it in was probably so cheap, I wouldn't be surprised if the tin roof had rusted.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

I Guess R.E.M. Couldn't "Stand" To Take Every Song Of Theirs Too Seriously?

Oh yeahhhhh. These guys.

See, if you want to knock the pop music of 1989, you have to remember that there were also real, thoughtful, ambitious, oddball, flesh-and-blood bands like R.E.M. floating around at the time as well, right out there in broad daylight, for crying out loud. At this point, a band like R.E.M. weren't just having "alternative" hits; they were having "actual" hits. Once the sole province of comic book-collecting Art History majors, R.E.M. were now appealing even to the jocks and cheerleaders who were probably pointing and laughing at long-time R.E.M. fans on their way to the latest pep rally.

I'm glad that "Stand" (which peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100) wasn't R.E.M.'s first top ten hit. Instead, I think it was a perfect "second" hit. Dear God, can you imagine? If "Stand" had been R.E.M.'s first hit, it could have easily sucked them into years of undeserved ridicule from low-information record buyers, like, say, what happened to the Flaming Lips with "She Don't Use Jelly." But because "The One I Love" sounded so firmly like the work of a serious, brooding, fiery, artistically credible rock band, I feel like "Stand" was able to take their whole Southern gothic persona in a lighter direction without derailing that persona entirely. Also: smart move to follow up their goofiest-ever single with a gnarly, riff-heavy, hard-rocking ode to the U.S. government's deadly use of Agent Orange - just in case anyone was about to accuse them of having gone "soft" or "selling out."

Granted, I wasn't around during the Chronic Town days and I can't bitch about having listened to R.E.M. back when they were still "good" in 1982 (*eye roll*), but I feel like R.E.M.'s late '80s move toward greater commercial success came about in a very organic, respectable way, with the band genuinely evolving in a more radio-friendly direction and the radio genuinely evolving in a more "left of the dial" direction simultaneously. I doubt that, during the making of Document and Green, the boys were really sitting around thinking, "All right, we need to write some hits!" - unlike, say, my impression of the Ramones when they recorded End of the Century (and the Ramones would have killed for a hit the size of "Stand"). I was quite surprised to have learned many years ago that R.E.M. had always been somewhat commercially successful even from the get-go, with Murmur charting in the Top 40 and "Radio Free Europe" actually being judged on American Bandstand. Don't believe me? Behold the most mesmerizing, most surreal, most uncategorizeable YouTube clip you will ever lay your eyes on:

What is this? What is going on here? This may be the greatest two minutes of '80s television I have ever seen. If you switched out "Radio Free Europe" with Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" on the audio track and simply observed the visuals in front of you, you would find absolutely nothing amiss. I love every single dancer in this clip. I love the black guy in a tux thrusting his hips forward as if he were grooving to Rick James, I love the white couple on the balcony whose entire style of dancing is simply to flip around 180 degrees over and over again, I love the blonde in high heels and tan short shorts with the impressive, shall we say, derriere, I love the blonde in the referee shirt kickboxing in place - I love every God-given second of this clip. Were these kids thinking about how R.E.M. "marked the shift from post-punk to alternative"? Did these kids know that R.E.M. were "laying the groundwork for a new network of venues that would help kick-start the modern rock revolution"? Oh heyyyll no. They didn't give a shit about any of that. They just wanted to dance! And the song got a 95? Pretty good! The purity of this clip can never be taken away from me.

My point is, you didn't exactly see Husker Du's "New Day Rising" ever getting played on American Bandstand. Still, "Stand" is the kind of song that could have been written by Ren and Stimpy, or perhaps Homer Simpson on a good day, or Lloyd and Harry from Dumb and Dumber on a really good day. (Like a few people my age, my initial exposure to "Stand" was from its use as the theme tune to Chris Elliott's Fox sitcom Get A Life - it suited the "adult trapped in adolescence" attitude of the show so well, I simply assumed it had been composed for that purpose). Like the Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" before it, "Stand" is what happens when highly intelligent people write an intentionally dumb song. And it wouldn't be the last time either. See this on-the-nose comment from YouTube: "R.E.M. (1988): 'Stand' is our dumbest song. R.E.M. (1991): (Releases 'Shiny Happy People.') R.E.M. (1991): 'Stand' is no longer our dumbest song."

The herky-jerky organ intro conjures up a playful fairground atmosphere (Being for the benefit of Mr. Stipe!), which Mike Mills promptly farts all over with a couple of meaty bass plucks, and off we go. The chord progression is straight out of "La Bamba" or "Twist and Shout"; perhaps the Georgians had been inspired by Los Lobos's recent #1 remake of the former, or Ferris Bueller's Day Off's memorable revival of the latter? Not the usual sources of R.E.M.'s inspiration, if so, but I will allow it. Other favorite touches:
  1. The xylophone during the second verse, adding to the song's whole "Fisher-Price" aura
  2. The chirping backing vocals that seem to peek out from behind Michael Stipe during the third verse: "Your feet (feet!) are going to be on the ground/Your head (head!) is there to move you around." This is what happens when your song has been hijacked by all those high-pitched gnomes who were hiding in your garden.
  3. The ultra-compressed, terrifyingly metallic-sounding background shouts of "Stand!" during the last chorus before the key change, which turn the title into less of an exhortation and more of a military command
  4. Stipe's deliberately moronic pronunciation of the final "Stannnnnnn-duh!"
So I think what they're saying is ... that we are supposed to stand?

If there is a more joyous video for "Stand" than the one R.E.M. made, I have not seen it. The vibe I get is of a ragtag cluster of local musicians simply inviting a bunch of friends to town and saying, "Hey, who wants to be in our version of Pee Wee's Playhouse?" The video comes across like the Southern version of Talking Heads' "Wild Wild Life," except this time with some actual wildlife in it. The dancers look more like the habitués of the local bookstore than the supermodels one usually finds on MTV, their choreography admirably hit-or-miss. "Stand" is apparently fun for the whole family, be they kids drawing chalk circles on the pavement, or little old ladies tending their gardens. Let's not forget the obligatory shots of the Georgian countryside, and, holy shit, each member of R.E.M. is jumping into the air and morphing into another member before our very eyes!! (And check out the hair on that lead singer at 3:03.) Honestly, I watch this and I just want to move to Athens, Georgia and frolic in the fields with R.E.M. and all their bohemian art school buddies.

In summary: "Stand" may have been a tasty hint of the alternative explosion that was just around the corner, but it doesn't feel much like an explosion. It feels more like a whoopie cushion. Then again, sometimes a well-placed, strategically employed whoopie cushion can liven up the party like nothing else.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Some Songs That Got Stuck In My Head This Year

As you all wait in anticipation for my favorite songs of the year list, here's a few songs that got stuck in my head this year. I didn't want to completely clutter up my top 5 with retro picks, so I thought I'd throw them into their own blog post.


Eric Clapton - "It's In The Way That You Use It"

The older I get the more I find myself retreating into older music, especially music from when I was young. It's strange to realize that you are no longer young. I mean, I don't feel old, I often think of myself as some sort of recent college grad, but recently I started realizing how a lot of music that I listen to that I consider "recent" is now closing in on ten or even twenty years old. Yikes! This is what Boomers must feel like when they hear a Beatles song playing over an iPhone ad - hey I remember when this was fresh! I think I'm starting to understand.

Like the following song on this list, I really only fell in love with this song for the extended riff that closes out the song. I've never really listened to Eric Clapton much but holy shit, this guy can rock a guitar! The bit that starts right around the 2:58 minute mark rocks my socks. I also kinda love the little horn section that punctuates the guitar. Then starting at 3:37 Clapton just makes the guitar sing. I had this riff stuck in my head for months. I would wake up in the middle of the night and it would be there, playing over and over in my head, like some carnival ride I enjoyed but couldn't get off of.

The video is that outdated form of motion picture marketing that intersperses cuts from the film with those of the band/artist. Bryan Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You" might be the pinnacle (or nadir) of this form (and like other Bryan Adams omissions from the Internet, the original video for that song seems to not exist online). Here we see Clapton standing under a blue light alone with nothing but his guitar while various clips play from Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money" (with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise!). It's really not much of a video - and the song itself, outside of the guitar, is not much either.

Mötley Crüe - "Home Sweet Home"

Now here's a video I actually remember liking at the time it debuted. Yes, like many when I was a wee lad and my music tastes were just starting to develop, my friends and I listened to whatever was popular at the time, which in my case was late 80s hair metal, or what would later be called by the cartoon idiots Beavis and Butthead: butt-rock.

As an aside, upon research for this post, I've discovered that the definition of butt-rock has changed over the years. For me it means the kind of rock that was prevalent in the late 80s right before grunge hit. Think Mötley Crüe, Winger, or Def Leppard. Now when I look online it seems the meaning has changed to the kind of rock that came after grunge/alternative. Think Puddle of Mudd, Limp Bizkit, or any other nu-metal band. Strange.

Anyway, this is once again a song that got stuck in my head, not because of the song itself, but because of the guitar bit that features about two-thirds of the way through. Beginning at 2:03 Mick Mars builds this incredible riff that, like Mr. Clapton's contribution above, I just cannot get out of my damn head. This thing rides down the center fissure of my brain hemispheres like Luke flies the Death Star trench run. I simply want it to go on for longer - I would take a five minute version of this riff alone.

I chose the "'91 Remix" version because this is the video version I remember the most. The '91 version actually peaked at 37 in January of 1992 (the Crüe's last top 40 hit). It's amazing to think how just how far into the 90s hair metal lasted. I think there's a misconception that the moment grunge came into being, hair metal vanished. But they really did coexist for a while. The same week "Home Sweet Home" hit its peak "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was no. 9. But they were both destined to be bested by everyone's favorite "Ladies-and-gentlemen-Mr.-Elton-John!" hit "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" coming in at no. 4 that week by a former member of Wham!.

Madonna - "Bad Girl"

While I absolutely love 80s Madonna I also very much like the not quite as popular 90s Madonna. Now that she's been around so long we might refer to anything post "Vogue" as middle-period Madonna. She went and got all sexual and experimental. Yes, the Erotica album has a lot of filler (I mean, a lot) but there's some amazing tracks on the thing as well.

Enter track six - "Bad Girl". I guess I've always liked this song a bit, but I ran into this song earlier this year and yowza, this thing turned into a major earworm for me. There's an almost hypnotic way she delivers the lines, where some phrases are said quickly, but other more drawn out, that just grabs me. The repeat of the pre-chorus after the bridge at 3:37 (right after Christopher Walken is done dancing) is a wonderful bit of raw Madonna emotion. I can't get enough.

I enjoy the unresolved melancholy of this song. She's not mad at her ex-lover - she's mad at herself. It's a song you'd sing to yourself after a breakup on a cloudy, rainy day.

When I ran into this video earlier this year I had kinda forgotten about it. "Oh yeah, it's the one with Christopher Walken doing a detectivey Wings of Desire thing." But upon re-watching it this year I could tell without confirmation that once again it's a David Fincher directed Madonna video (see "Express Yourself", "Vogue", "Oh Father"). The reason I knew this is because as I watched the video it indelibly reminded me of the video for Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun" (also directed by Fincher). A moody cinematic whodunit with a detective-like figure trying to figure out a death featuring an attractive woman? BINGO. I guess you could say Fincher was, uh, developing a style.


Well that's it for now. Stay tuned for my upcoming favorite songs of the year!