6/19/19 Depeche Mode – 101

There’s probably no band more famous in the synth pop genre than Depeche Mode. Can you name another that has maintained Depeche’s longevity, cultural impact and timelessness?

They’ve been playing a lot (more than usual) of Depeche Mode lately on the First Wave channel on SiriusXM as yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of their 1989 live 101 album, recorded at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. And the 31st anniversary of the date of the concert. 60,000 screaming fans can’t be wrong.

I have to say that I’ve never, until today, listened to this album before. I may have heard a song or two on the radio from it, but for the most part, all I’ve heard are the studio versions of these songs. And there’s a concert video of the famous performance available too! All of it can be found on YouTube.

Stripped – maybe my favorite of their lesser-known songs

Some people might prefer Depeche’s earlier albums or their later work, but in my opinion, the time this live album was recorded, was peak Mode. Coming between 1987s Music For The Masses and 1990s Violator, 101 captures a band in top form and on top of the world.

I’m looking at the song list on this double album (20 songs) and almost every single track was a hit. “Blasphemous Rumours,” “Strangelove,” “Black Celebration,” “Shake the Disease,” “People Are People,” “Just Can’t Get Enough,” “Everything Counts”….and the list goes on.

Yet, I can’t say that I’ll ever play this album again.

Don’t get me wrong — I think Depeche Mode belong in the rock and roll hall of fame. That they didn’t get in the last two years is blasphemous….(ha ha). But as anthemic as so many of their songs may be, my tendency is to want to listen to DM alone. In my room, with the lights down low or off, and with top of the line headphones. And only the studio versions. I don’t want to share the experience with 60,000 fans. I want to believe I’m their only fan. That they’ve written their songs just for me.

Much like The Cure, Depeche Mode (mostly early DM, but later albums also) speak to the outcast, the sad, the lonely, the misunderstood. They were never quite goth, they liked dancing way too much, but Depeche Mode snuck into the hearts of so many young people of the 80s and early 90s. I have to assume new fans were won with their later albums, but likely most of their post 2000 catalog was purchased by existing Moders and Modettes (I just made that up, you can’t use it).

Essentially, what listening to this live album has accomplished, is now I want to go back and listen to all the Depeche Mode albums again. From their debut, Speak and Spell, to Construction Time Again to Some Great Reward, to later albums like Songs of Faith and Devotion and Exciter.

I haven’t even mentioned that Depeche Mode is still around, 38 years after their first album. Releasing new music that only adds worthy pieces to their amazingly prolific catalog.

I could have attended that Rose Bowl show back in 1988. I was not far from Pasadena, back home for the summer, living in the San Fernando Valley, between my Sophomore and Junior years at UC Santa Cruz. But I didn’t go. In fact, I don’t remember that show happening. Maybe I was not into Depeche Mode at the time. I can’t remember. I do remember being a big fan of their earlier 80s albums, and I don’t recall ever having stopped liking Depeche Mode, but it’s possible. I’m old and forgetful now.

At least now I can pretend like I was there, from the comfort of my dark bedroom and play this album at full volume, in full recline, wearing my fancy Sennheiser DT 770s. Nothing better than that.

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6/16/19 Heavy Metal – Movie Soundtrack

heavymetal-movieI was 14 when the animated film Heavy Metal was released in the summer of 1981.

It was rated ‘R’ but it was easy enough for a teenager to see it by purchasing a ticket to a PG-rated movie and then sneaking over to the desired film. I knew about the comic magazine from which the movie was based, but the truth of the matter is that I was obsessed with heavy metal, the music genre, at the time, and was hoping to hear some ear-splitting music….in addition to the non-stop sex, drugs and violence I’d heard were in abundance in the film.

I was the ideal audience for Heavy Metal: pimply-faced, virginal, a love of fantasy imagery (including the fantasy of thin, blonde women with enormous boobs who preferred them left uncovered by the oppressiveness of clothing), with nerdy dudes who are heroic and save the day with their awkward braininess.

The unexpected impact of the film, though, was via its decidedly non-heavy metal soundtrack. There were enough rockers on the double album (which I’d purchased from Record Trader the day after seeing the film) to appease the metal-head in me — Black Sabbath, Trust, Sammy Hagar — but for the most part, the soundtrack contained a wide swath of musical genres, exposing me to such artists as Devo, Stevie Nicks and Don Felder (who I’d later learn was a member of The Eagles, which I didn’t know how to process).

Normally, I’d have gagged at having to listen to Journey’s weepy balled “Open Arms,” but in the context of the film, with the song accompanying a fairly graphic animated sex scene, it allowed me to appreciate such sentimental dreck — especially since I did like some of the band’s more muscular tunes, like “Any Way You Want It” and “Wheel In The Sky.”

Two songs on the soundtrack shared the same name as the film’s title, “Heavy Metal.” the aforementioned Donald Felder and Sammy Hagar. Anyone with half a brain would prefer the Sammy Hagar version, but I have to admit, that the older me of today might turn to Donald Felder’s tune first, even though Sammy’s is the one that gets to begin the soundtrack as track one. To me, Felder’s version sounds more like a Joe Walsh tune than an Eagles’ hit, which is right up my alley. If you separate the song’s title from its decidedly non-metal sound, it’s hard to deny that it’s a good tune.

As much as I love Devo’s version of “Working In The Coal Mine,” a truly brilliant song that fits so well within the film’s animated fantasy, the song that I would have to say is my favorite on the soundtrack is Blue Oyster Cult’s “Veteran of The Psychic Wars.” To this day, the album from which this song is from, Fire of Unknown Origin, is the one I consider their best and the one I turn to more than any other. That can be my album pick next, perhaps….

Although the movie hasn’t proved to be timeless, the soundtrack definitely has, and what at first seemed to be an almost random assortment of songs, holds together like a finely woven tapestry, 38 years after its release.

6/5/19 Klark Kent – Klark Kent

KKentKvrThis is one that I’m going to have to be creative in finding musical samples to include with this post. This fairly obscure Stewart Copeland solo album (considered an EP), released in 1980, was viewed by the press as a jokey side project during the peak of popularity for The Police, who’d just released Zenyatta Mondatta.

Too bad for those close-minded critics, cause they missed out on the pop-punk joys of a true gem. Stewart Copeland was no stranger to songwriting, and was more than just a drummer. All the instruments on Klark Kent were played by Copeland. Guitar, bass and drums. Probably some keys too.

What’s great about these 8 songs, is that you can feel the energy and spirit exuding from every note. The melodies are catchy, the lyrics mostly dumb but fun (the sort of stuff a high school boy would write — and apparently that was the age a lot of it was written….watch the video below of Stewart talking about the origins and history of Klark Kent).

If you never knew about Klark Kent before, you are in for a treat. These are sort of like the lost Police tapes, if your favorite songs by them are “Does Everyone Stare” and “Bombs Away” and “It’s Alright For You.”

I remember finding the cassette of Klark Kent at Wherehouse Records and buying it simply by the name. I had no idea it was Stewart Copeland. I probably didn’t figure it out for months, probably until someone with better musical knowledge knowledged me. But I pretended I knew, that I can pretty much guarantee. Cause that’s what you do when you don’t want to seem like a dumb-ass in the obscure music culture. I still do that to this day. Fake it ’til you make it! Am I right?

I couldn’t find the actual Klark Kent album anywhere online, but I did find this (see below) which in a lot of ways is even better! Though I will say that I do have a soft spot for the track order of the original. If you click the YT link, you can skip between songs, which I recommend because the best songs are in the second half. “My Old School,” “Rich in a Ditch,” and “Don’t Care” are particular standouts.

 

 

 

5/29/19 Lizzo – Cuz I Love You

 

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I came late to the Lizzo bandwagon. I had heard her name bandied about in the old-people music mags and online forums I follow, as someone worth checking out, and so that’s what I did.

The album’s cover stood out at first, as it’s a shot of Lizzo naked, seated on the ground in a black studio room, her arms and legs covering her naughty bits. It’s not especially unique or risque nowadays to pose nude on an album cover, but women with Lizzo’s plus-sized figure rarely are the ones adorning such artwork. What makes this extra bold, is that Lizzo is not even attempting to be seductive or flirty here. She’s looking right at the camera, right at you, the viewer, but the expression on her face is neither soft nor hard. It can be read a multitude of ways, but what I see is a relaxed confidence, a fierce vulnerability.

But do those adjectives describe her music too?

Most definitely.

The album starts off with “Cuz I Love You,” a barn burner of an opener, a thick and funky R&B epic which shows off Lizzo’s vocal range, her ability to growl and screech and hit the high-notes with the best of ’em. She’s not just some rapper who can sing on the side.

“Like A Girl,” the next song, brings it back to modern times, conjuring up a bit of Missy Elliott in her uber-confident rapping, flipping the meaning often seen in the common usage of the title. It’s a true female-empowerment song, telling the girls of the world to celebrate being “like a girl.” Throwing like a girl, crying like a girl is not something disparaging but something to be proud of.

The 3rd song, “Juice,” is my favorite of the album, by a long shot. It’s the funkiest song this side of “Uptown Funk,” which, even if you think that song was overplayed, have to admit is simply a great song. I’m bouncing around on my couch right now, trying to type these words while my hips and shoulders have other plans. It just might be the song of the year. I can see it being a staple on the dance floor. Another plus: Lizzo plays the flute solo at the end of the song (and elsewhere on the album).

The first three songs are my favorites, though the 5th song, “Jerome,” a Prince-esque ballad, is a highlight worth mentioning. The emotion and conviction in Lizzo’s vocal delivery elevates a rather straight-forward soul-blues musical structure to something more urgent and necessary.

I never thought my favorite soul-rap album of the year so far would be a fat-positive, girl-power, anthem-filled groove-fest like Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You.” But like she sings with Gucci Mane later in the album, that’s exactly how I feel. 

 

5/26/19 Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle

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Guest blogger, Colin Sjostedt is back for another post….

On February 16, 1980 Gary Numan appeared on Saturday Night Live and performed the song “Cars.”

I had just recently turned the tender age of 12 but this performance would have a pivotal impact on my life. It was the first time I made a strong connection with music. I don’t know if it was the synths or Gary’s robotic delivery but this song really slayed me. For days and weeks after that glorious night I would call local rock station WBCN frequently to request “Cars” – the only way I would be able to hear it. Gary sings, “Here in my car / I know I’ve started to think / about leaving tonight / although nothing seems right”, but it would be another month before my mom and I would drive cross country (from Boston to Berkeley) in her new Datsun 310.

It was on that trip at a stop at a mall in Milwaukee that I made my first music purchase: Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principleon cassette. My mom has pretty great taste in music so there were tapes by Marley, Dylan, and Van Morrison but I’m sure she regrets making the deal that we would alternate turns playing music because I only had the one tape. Needless to say we heard The Pleasure Principlea shit ton of times on that 3,000 mile journey and she was slightly less excited about this album then I was.

It’s actually a pretty great road trip album with soaring synths and long stretches with minimal singing. He even starts it out with an instrumental! (“Airlane”). While the name Gary Numan makes most people only think of the song “Cars,” which was a massive hit, it is actually track 2, “Metal,” that is the stand out from this album. Without using guitars this song just sounds heavy and oh so cool. Lyrically Gary is exploring the idea of relating to the cold austerity of androids and machines over the unpredictability of humans. As an only child I could definitely relate to the idea of being an outsider and a prisoner of my own imagination.

“Why should I care, why should I try, I know, I know, I turned off the pain like I turned off you all, Now there is only me” (“M.E.”). The music coupled with the scenery out the window for that long road trip allowed me to disappear into another, better world – “I could wait for a day – Or I could wait for an hour – I could wait here for a lifetime – Watching you and thinking always – I could observe you all” (“Observer”).

Another epic track from the album is “Films.” It borrows some heaviness and the same snare clap as “Metal” with thick synth rhythms that propel the song forward. I wonder if Gary’s musings as a director planted a seed in my head for my future appreciation and study of film. In the end Gary says, “Turn off the lights and turn off the sound,” but I’d rather just kill the lights and let The Pleasure Principleplay on repeat forever more . . .

 

5/24/19 3rd Bass – Derelicts of Dialect

3rd_BassI’ve been listening to a lot of old school hip-hop lately. For the most part, this early era of rap, from the late 1980s to the mid 90s, represents the majority of the hip-hop I like. Because I’m so open-minded when it comes to music, I like to believe my preference for old-school is simply because it was/is objectively better than the crap coming out these days. That’s a joke, in case you couldn’t tell. There are modern hip-hop artists I like, but they are far and few between, and they tend to have an old-school flavor. Like Run The Jewels and Anderson .Paak.

I could easily write about my favorite old-school artists, such as Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy or even Beastie Boys (who I already wrote about). But instead, I’ll write about another (mostly) white-boy hip hop crew who put out an album I play on the regular more than any other. 3rd Bass’ Derelicts of Dialect. MC Serch and Pete Nice had mad flow and could match up with the best of the MCs of the era. The great DJ Richie Rich added innovation and great beats to their sound. And their lyrics were funny, smart and politically vital. Derelicts’ was their 3rd and last album, and never got the accolades of their debut, The Cactus CeeDee. But I played both Cactus and Derelicts back to back and they are equally great. In fact, I constantly quote from several songs on Derelicts. Just ask my wife. Whether it’s the uber-catchy “Pop Goes The Weasel” which samples Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” The Who’s “Eminence Front” and Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”; or the silly pro-ganja “Herbalz in Your Mouth,” or the endless call out classic, “Ace In The Hole,” 3rd Bass’ last album was chock-full of great songs.

It was fun reading about the beef the 3rd Bass’ers had with the Beastie Boys in the early days in the recent Beasties book. It was all based on misunderstanding, at least the way Adam Horovitz describes it, but they eventually made up so it’s all good.

If they put out a 3rd Bass book, I would definitely read it (I did a cursory look to see if there is one and didn’t find one – but there is an article). Their lifespan was short, lasting only from 1989-1991, but they were an important voice in the early days of hip-hop and definitely deserve mention alongside their more recognized peers.

5/22/19 Cat Stevens – Catch Bull At Four

Bullart-1I don’t think there’s another musical artist who can tug at my heartstrings, who can send tears streaming down my face, whose songs, even in muzak version, summon feelings of deep melancholy, more than Cat Stevens.

Harold & Maude, the classic Hal Ashby film from 1971, is one of my top ten favorite films of all time, and the all-Cat Stevens soundtrack is an important reason why. I’m sure I’d heard several of his songs before seeing the movie; Cat Stevens was a staple of KRTH 101, AM soft-rock radio, which played regularly in the family station wagon. But I don’t have specific memories of those classic early hits like “Trouble” and “Father and Son” and “On The Road To Find Out.” Most of my connotations with Cat Stevens are from Harold & Maude. Even songs that weren’t in the movie. Even songs that came out years later. Perhaps this is because a great Cat Stevens song is a microcosm of the film: sad, hopeful, sweet, free-spirited, and a bit optimistically naive.

 

Yet, the album I listened to today wasn’t one of Stevens’ brilliant early ones. I put on 1972’s Catch Bull At Four, because I’d heard his song “Sitting” on the Deep Tracks channel on Sirius XM in the car this morning and felt that familiar emotional wave filling my body. It was a song I recognized, but not one I knew all that well. I knew it wasn’t on Tea For The Tillerman or Teaser and the Firecat. Was it from Mona Bone Jakon?

When I got home I looked it up. It was the opening track from Catch Bull At Four. Had I listened to this album all the way through before? I didn’t think so.

There are essentially two types of Cat Stevens songs. Acoustic guitar songs and piano songs. Of course this is super simplistic, but it more or less applies. The variation is whether the song is a ballad or something more upbeat.

“Sitting” is one of his piano songs. It’s got that minor key, sad opening (Oh, I’m on my way/I know I am/Somewhere not far from here), but then the song builds and Cat’s voice even gets a bit growly and insistent (And if I make it to the waterside/Will I even find me a boat/And if I make it to the waterside/I’ll be sure to write you a note, or something) And then it ends on a pretty depressing thought (Just keep pushing hard boy/Try as you may/You’re gonna wind up where you started from). Which is a bit surprising, as most of Cat Stevens’ songs have a message about hope or pushing through or being OK with loneliness. It seems that this album was written and recorded during a period of feeling like he was spinning his wheels, not progressing musically. So he tried different guitar tunings and song structures. It’s a less consistent listen than the three albums prior, but some of his more ambitious tunes, such as the Spanish-Flamenco styled song, O’Caritas, are true masterpieces. He friggin’ sings in Latin! Even if we don’t know what he’s singing about, we can feel the words in our bodies.

Catch Bull At Four is an essential album in the Cat Stevens canon and deserves a revisit if you haven’t heard it in a while. It expands his sound without straying too far from what has put him in the upper echelon of our all-time best singer songwriters.