Category Archives: Music

Tubi discoveries: The Monkees’ Weird Good Time Hour

Mike considers Micky’s despair

One of the more overlooked streaming services is Tubi, which features a ridiculous amount of free content. I was browsing their selection of old television shows last week, and discovered The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour there. This was a variety show hosted by the then massively popular (and always massively talented) Campbell, which ran on CBS from early 1969 through the summer of 1972.

Good times promised, for at least an hour (minus commercial breaks)

The first thing I stumbled across while investigating was an episode from February of 1969, featuring one of the stranger Monkees appearances I’ve seen. Peter Tork had left the band in 1968, so the spot featured the remaining members of the “prefab four:” Micky Dolenz on drums, Mike Nesmith on guitar, and Davy Jones, also (surprisingly) on guitar (as opposed to his normal tambourine workout). This trio recorded two albums without Tork before the band called it quits (for a while anyway), and this appearance would have been in support of the first of those, Instant Replay, which was released the month of this appearance, and reached #32 in the charts, and the lead single, “Tear Drop City,” which hit #56, and would be their last single to chart inside the top 60 until 1986.

After an introduction from Campbell (in which he awkwardly refers to the band as “one of the hottest groups and most professional groups to ever hit show business”), the clip begins with a super brief (as in under two minutes) medley of Monkees tunes. They begin with a snippet of “Last Train to Clarksville,” segue into a bit of “I’m a Believer,” sidestep briefly into Nesmith’s “Salesman,” and then wrap up with a “Clarksville” reprise. At about one minute, thirty seconds, it’s not only disjointed, but seemingly pointless. Still, the producers did add the requisite psychedelic gloss to the proceedings:

From there, Campbell invites the group over to engage in one of the weirdest segments I’ve ever seen. The band clowns around in front of a green scene, singing lamely written odes to Twentieth Century history (“I’ve Got a Brand New Stanley Steamer,” “The Rage Dance Craze,” etc.), the gag being that the band had been around since the turn of the century, and … whatever. The fellas have a hard time hiding their lack of commitment to the bit, and Micky’s energy level is best described as “amphetamine-fueled.” The performance is aided and abetted by some professional dancers and bad graphics.

After that painful bit, the band gets to do what they presumably signed up to do, which is badly lip sync their latest single, “Tear Drop City.” Not a hit, but not a bad tune.

The clip below starts with that segment and rolls through the rest of the episode, which does include a couple other brief moments of Monkee comedy (such as it was by 1969):

Here’s the isolated performance of “Tear Drop City:”

It’s a minor bit of pop culture ephemera, but it is kind of interesting in the context of the group’s history. The band had torched any lingering teen idol residue with the Jack Nicholson/Bob Rafelson-penned film Head (now regarded as something of a minor classic artifact of the era) and subsequent album (also regarded as something of a neglected classic now), and the three remaining members were determined to forge their own path, controlling their own artistic destiny. It’s sort of remarkable they were ever able to wrangle that opportunity, considering the fact that they were literally assembled as actors playing a role. It’s also remarkable that the band did produce some fine music once given that opportunity, even if the public had stopped paying attention.

“Boys, let me set up a lame joke and get the hell out of here.”

But I think this appearance, kicking off with a mico-medley of two hits and a non-hit, moving into a nonsensical overlong clowning session, and culminating with a chance to promote a new single very few people would care about, and one you’d assume their label had little interest in promoting, demonstrates how steep the hill was they had to climb to regain anyone’s attention. No shock that they floundered around for a little over a year, ending their first and most successful phase with a Dolenz/Jones only “Monkees” album that once again turned most of the songwriting and production over to outside producers and writers.


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Cocaine and Colitas: Hotel California Reconsidered

Hotel California poster insert: Walsh, Felder, Frey, Meisner, Henley. Photograph by Norman Seef.

Hotel California, by the Eagles. 1976

The Eagles’ classic is ubiquitous, but it is it essential?

The Eagles (or, more specifically, Don Henley and Glenn Frey) were often viewed as cocaine-fueled El Lay misogynists. I think the cocaine-fueled and El Lay are indisputable, but is the misogynist tag a little unfair? Could be.

I’ve always been fascinated by Hotel California, the Eagles’ bazillion selling magnum opus, and how it plays with that perception in mind.

Hotel California is the Eagles stretching their powers as far as the rubber band will allow before it snaps or loses its shape forever, leaving them nowhere else to head but down. No surprise that their only subsequent release as an active band was the lackluster The Long Run, a collection of half-assed disco shuffles and by-the-numbers rockers. (Aside from barely an Eagle Timothy B. Schmidt’s heartfelt soft rock gem “I Can’t Tell You Why,” and barely upright Eagle Joe Walsh’s catchy as hell guitar rocker “In the City,” which also closed Walter Hill’s late 70s schlock classic The Warriors.)

For what it’s worth, the stretched rubber band theory is one I apply to most great rock acts who spend any time working under the Album as Art theory of record making (acknowledging that there have been many, many Not Great bands operating under this theory). The Beatles wisely realized they’d reached that point with Abbey Road, and packed it in before the slope slipped. The Stones began that climb with Beggar’s Banquet, and went from strength to strength until they reached their apex by plunging back down through the depths with Exile on Main St. The Kinks bucked the trend to some degree by releasing one pretty brilliant and one almost pretty brilliant album after their ultimate statement of intent, The Village Green Preservation Society. The Who … well, the Who never really got there. They fooled the world into believing Tommy was their Everest flag-planting, but the truth is Quadrophenia was a better album. All of which obscures the fact that the Who’s greatest album is Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, a perfect collection of classic singles, few of which managed to tickle the U.S. charts.

And then there are the Loves (Forever Changes) and Zombies (Odessey & Oracle), who strayed outside their comfort zones long enough to produce single discs that stand up to the greatest of the Greatest, despite neither band ever really being truly among the Greatest. (And, yes, both bands were otherwise very, very good at times.)

Whew. I digress.

Let’s start with this: Is Hotel California a great album?

I’d like to say it is, but it might not even be the Eagles’ best album. I think, assuming assessing a “best” of anything Eagles-related doesn’t make your stomach clench, an argument could be made for One of These Nights (the album that immediately preceded this one — which easily wins the battle of cover art, anyway). But Hotel California is the most Eagles of Eagles albums, and stands as the best summation of their moment in the sun. And, it marks that moment when tuneful music produced by strong personalities could dominate the American pop culture landscape like no other medium.

In hindsight, Hotel California, riding shotgun with Fleetwood Mac’s equally mammoth Rumours, stands as a signpost in a pivotal moment in pop culture’s de-evolution from artist-controlled playground to complete corporate takeover. The suits always knew there was money in the music, but, holy shit, this much money?

Hotel California is an arrogant, confident, pretentious, calculated work of fiction, and you can hum along to it. It’s dominated by Don Henley, but it’s the input of the other band members that prevents it from completely collapsing under its own weight.

So, in review, let’s start with the title track, which can almost definitely be tuned in somewhere on your terrestrial radio dial at this very moment.

“Hotel California” started as a killer guitar riff by lead guitarist Don Felder. (Fittingly, Felder, who primarily kept his head down and played the shit out of his guitar throughout the Eagles’ history, eventually became estranged from the band.) Once Don Henley grafted his lyrics to the music, the song became the ultimate distillation of the Eagles’ Desert Cocaine Tableau. Most of the group’s biggest hits were pretty direct, lyrically. A woman either pissed them off, or a woman was invited to lay down in the desert with them. Or sometimes the women were left behind while the band wrote their own desperado inspired mythology. But the fragmented imagery in “Hotel California” could only really make sense if the listener has a straw permanently lodged up his nose. The Witchy Woman of the past becomes the hostess of a demonic hostel where pink champagne replaces wine and pretty boys dance endlessly in sweat drenched courtyards. It seems as if the Hotel California is a place to run to and to run from, and we’re pretty sure Henley is only lamenting the “mirrors on ceiling” because all of his coke is now going to wind up on the floor.

With all of that said, the interplay between the guitars is deathless, and even vague descriptions of driving through the desert at night are enough to conjure up personal imagery for anyone confused as to what “colitas” is (are?). (The fact that the Eagles played an acoustic version of this live is either proof that they’re assholes, or that, like Eric Clapton’s tedious acoustic return to “Layla,” they just don’t quite understand the reasons for their own success — Felder trumps Henley here, and that’s that.)

With that out of the way, we catch our breath and listen to the gang take it down a notch (with the help of JD Souther — the Eagles were never lacking for talented SoCal co-conspirators, starting at the beginning with Jackson Browne) with “New Kid in Town,” which, damn it, is pretty unassailable, musically. It’s got hooks for days, lush production that never swamps the tune, and a sincere, understated vocal performance from Glenn Frey, backed by great group harmonies. What? The lyrics? Well, okay. The woman is doing him wrong (in the third person, for some reason — maybe it’s not manly to admit you’re the one being cuckolded?), and she’s not living up to her end of the bargain, and…

Okay, you get the point. It’s a Henley/Frey lyric.

“Life in the Fast Lane” (it’s interesting to note the band led the album off with Hotel California’s only three single releases — all smash hits, of course) kicks in next, and we’re reminded overtly of the cocaine. It’s a great radio rocker — guitar licks weaving in and out, featuring maybe the slickest production on the album, and Henley doesn’t spare the dude in the equation this time, letting us know that both parties are feeding each other’s sinful excesses (sex and drugs). It’s a tale as old as Los Angeles, and the spoken “are you with me so far” dropped in by Henley manages to insult the listener almost by accident. (Yeah, we’re with you, Don! Sex and drugs go hand-in-hand with rock and roll, brother! Revelation!)

And then we roll into “Wasted Time,” in which Henley (boy, so far, this is really a Don disc more than a Glenn disc) strains to let the poor dumb broad who left him know that she’s done nothing but fuck up her love life by fucking the wrong dudes, and, most importantly, by leaving Henley. It’s definitely this type of sentiment that allows critics to glue the MYSOGYNY label on our heroes. It never occurs to Don that this girl might have made the right choice in leaving a dude who not only plods through an orchestrated piano ballad about the terrible decisions she’s made, but backs it up with an orchestral reprise to hammer the point home. (The reprise actually originally opened side two, just to make sure you couldn’t escape the sentiment by flipping over the album — the fucking Eagles led off side two of their biggest album with an orchestral reprise. Admire their balls.)

The sequencing of Hotel California comes across as pretty messy in the era of the compact disc/digital album, with the “Wasted Time(s)” dropped right smack into the middle of things, and “Life in the Fast Lane” book-ending the song(s) with the next track up …

And it’s another Henley rocker (what demons was Frey battling in 1976 that allowed him to take such a backseat to his his white ‘fro-sporting partner?), “Victim of Love.” It’s a catchy kicker about … some poor dumb broad. I hate to harp on the cocaine (obviously not true), but how much of it was Stevie Nicks doing to think Henley was a fun dude to party with? Anyway, this one is another radio staple, despite never being released as a single. Truthfully, all the album really needed was “Life in the Fast Lane” to remind us the boys could rock a little. But here they slowed it down a notch in case you had trouble keeping up with them the first time.

And then, out of nowhere, we’re dropped into Joe Walsh’s melancholy reflection on life, “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” I can’t say exactly what the Eagles were thinking when they pulled Walsh into the band (”Hey — this dude makes us look sober!”), but I’d be hard-pressed to believe they anticipated his first recorded contribution would be such a beautiful, naked sentiment, punctuated not with his trademark guitar rips, but by piano and synthesizer. It’s a jarring shift in tone, helping the album achieve an eclectic vibe it was struggling to achieve with Henley dominating the proceedings, and all the more powerful for it.

Anyway, great track. And it’s followed by another great track.

Backing up “Pretty Maids” is, for my money, the best track on the album, and one of the most overlooked songs in the band’s catalog. No coincidence it’s a Randy Meisner song. “Try and Love Again” is a soaring, hopeful rocker, punctuated by Meisner’s upper register, and some truly uplifting guitar soloing. It’s a mystery why this track wasn’t released as a single, unless Henley and Frey were still annoyed that Meisner’s “Take It to the Limit” was the band’s first number one single. But it’s the one track from the album I find myself revisiting most often, without apology. It’s also worth noting that while Meisner’s lyric is treading on self-pity, he’s not blaming a chick for his problems.

At this point we’ve wound our way through a collection of hit singles, timeless riffs, and a couple of contributions from lesser used band members that stand up to the hits. It’s hard to say there’s a definite theme at play here, although California and Los Angeles are definite players on the scene. So it’s up to Henley, again, to hammer things home with the most pretentious track in the Eagles’ entire catalog.

“The Last Resort” answers the question, “What if Randy Newman didn’t have a sense of humor?” A confused history of California (and over seven minutes long, to punctuate its importance as a statement), complete with references to the “Red Man” and Malibu and all of those bright lights that sullied the landscape, presented by a group that pretty actively moved closer and closer to the neon the further their hitmaking prowess ascended. The song starts as a literal travelogue about a girl from Providence (“The one in Rhode Island”), and then slips into a reminder that California has really succeeded at excess, which is evidently a bad thing.

In the end, it’s all the preacher’s fault, anyway. One suspects that Henley (and Frey?) realized he wasn’t really headed toward any logical conclusions with this one, and the lesson we’re left with is that the missionaries traded the Red Man’s peace of mind and started us on the path toward…well…all of that cocaine and colitas, I guess. (It is a pretty tune, though.)

And that’s it. Nine songs (split into ten tracks), three hit singles, and 38 million copies sold.

Is Hotel California essential? In terms of understanding the “evolution” of pop culture, it’s an essential landing point for those curious how Los Angeles went from acoustic canyon-dwelling hippie haven to the paranoid personal driveway for limos filled with coke-addled celebrities wearing sunglasses at midnight because the lights fuck with what’s left of their peripheral vision.

But in the battle of juggernaut Los Angeles pop albums, Rumours creams Hotel California because Fleetwood Mac can be heard shutting out the world and wrestling with their relationships while coincidentally at the peak of their songwriting and performing abilities, whereas the Eagles were trying to make statements without much to state. Rumours is essential. Hotel California sounds good when you’re not paying attention too closely.

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The Year in Music!

Albums that turned me on in 2011. This, as usual, turned out to be way harder than I thought. In fact, I ended up paring it down quite a bit to give more space to some things that I think have been overlooked or underrated (like Cults…I dropped Cults because everyone seems to be into Cults). Yeah, this list is still huge, but I spend a lot of time listening to new music, especially when I’m working. And Spotify has been a great help there this year…

So, 2011 was heavy on pretty and lo-fi, I think. I’m sure my list looks a little wispy to some people, but what can I say? That’s what got into my head this year. Wisps.

Here are a bunch of discs that I found myself giving a close listen to more than once, and enjoying the experience:

The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient

I almost cut this one because I see it on a lot of “best of 2011” lists. But it’s really good. Evocative is a good word? Kind of like a solo road trip soundtrack for your head (which describes a lot of shit I like, I guess). Poke around. Check it out.

The Caretaker: An Empty Bliss Beyond This World

This disc is almost literally the sound of warped 78 records playing on a hissing Victrola with slight production. Inspired, I guess, by Alzheimer’s as much as anything. Anyway, it’s a very haunting collage.

Stevie Jackson: I Can’t Get No

Solo debut by Belle & Sebastian guitarist/occasional singer/songwriter Stevie Jackson. I love B&S, and have loved most of Stevie’s stuff.  This is no exception. Stevie’s kind of a slave to his sixties inspirations, but his inspirations are broad, so he’s usually engaging.

Josh T. Pearson: Last of the Country Gentlemen

Crawling and intimate. Unfolds slowly, but it’s really affecting.

Come Together: Black America Sings Lennon & McCartney (Various Artists)

The title is accurate. Some of the black Americans included are Otis Redding (“Day Tripper”), Aretha Franklin (“Let it Be”), Al Green (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”), Billy Preston (“Blackbird”), and Chubby Checker (“Back in the USSR”). It is a fantastic collection, and more proof that Lennon & McCartney might have been pretty decent songwriters.

Cake: Showroom of Compassion

I’ve never been a HUGE Cake fan, but I think this is clearly their best album. And it’s not so snarky and clever as their earlier stuff. I like it. So I listed it.

Other Lives: Tamer Animals

It’s really pretty. I mean, the opening track kicks in with an oboe right off the bat. I think it’s an oboe, anyway. This disc should be getting more year-end love.

J. Mascis: Several Shades of Why

I dig J. Mascis at full blast, and I dig acoustic sounds. So a J. Mascis acoustic disc is an easy sell.

Amor de Dias: Street of the Love of Days

AMG says this of Amor de Dias: “a breezy blend of tropicalia, English chamber pop, and psychedelic folk.” Hello!

Buffalo Killers: 3

This is a great album. I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more love. Sunny California guitar pop/rock. Feel good music, I guess.

Bill Callahan: Apocalypse

Oh, man. How to describe this record? Well, there’s a song called “America!” on it. Callahan (formerly of Smog) kind of half-sings, half-speaks some relatively strident tunes about America from the perspective of…an outsider, I guess? Anyway, it’s a really interesting listen, especially if you pay attention.

Nerves Junior: As Bright As Your Night Light

I don’t really know how to describe this one, but I have a feeling it will be hailed as an overlooked classic somewhere down the line.

The High Llamas: Talahomi Way

If you know the Llamas, you know what you get when you listen to them. Sunny, Beach Boys inspired melodies with light electronica mixed in. This is the same, but I think it’s as strong as ever. Always up my alley. They exist in some sun-kissed, timeless neverland. And that’s okay with me.

Butcher Boy: Helping Hands

If the cover art to this record resonates with you (The Smiths? Sarah Records? Belle and Sebastian?), then you’ll probably like it.

Fran Healy: Wreckorder

I like Travis more than most people seem to. I resisted this release by Travis frontman Fran Healy based on a review I read. Once I gave it a close listen, I realized I like Fran Healy solo more than more people seem to, as welll.

Ghost: Opus Eponymous

My pal Chuck BB recommended this one to me. Awesome metal throwback band. But smart, too. And, yes. EVIL. (wink)

Girls: Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Girls is just a great band. Their last album was great. This one is great. They’re all over the map, but they can get into your head in a heartbeat.

Gold Leaves: The Ornament

Beautiful and hazy.

Gruff Rhys: Hotel Shampoo

Do you Like Super Furry Animals? Well, you should. I like Super Furry Animals. Rhys is one of them. And here he makes with the catchy soft pop.

Hotel Lights: Girl Graffiti

As Hotel Lights, former Ben Folds’ drummer Darren Jessee (and pals) makes lovely melodies about girls. I don’t know who would get the reference, but he kinda reminds me of an American Stephen Duffy.

Cliffie Swan: Memories Come True

Mid-seventies Fleetwood Mac seems to be an influence here. If Olivia Newton-John was their lead singer. Okay, so what? That’s actually sort of awesome.

Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring for My Halo

Vile was, to my mind, the lead figure in a sort of underground movement toward a certain sound that was all over the place in 2011. Lo-fi rock? But with actual tunes? I dunno. The new J. Mascis disc (which I also mention here) slides right in there, too.

Metronomy: The English Riviera

This disc mines the seventies and the eighties, but with a distinctly British accent. There’s a little synth thrown in here and there, but it’s catchy and lyrically affecting.

Our Lives Are Shaped By What We Love: Motown’s MoWest Story 1971-1973 (Various Artists)

If you’d told me there was a great Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons single I’d never heard, I’d have punched you in the arm with a disbelieving chuckle. If you’d told me it was released on a Motown label, I would have burned your house down with maniacal laughter. BUT THIS DISC KICKS OFF WITH JUST SUCH A THING! This is a fantastic collection of singles from a failed Motown experiment. Here…read this informative review if you think you might like it:

Noah and the Whale: Last Night On Earth

I don’t really get why these guys aren’t indie darlings. This album is ridiculously catchy and pretty clever, but it seems to have slipped under everyone’s radar.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds: Self-Titled

Noel Whips Liam right out of the gate. In a year stuffed with lo-fi and subtle, Noel just piles it on as thickly as he can. And that’s why I love the guy.

Charles Bradley: No Time For Dreaming

Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’

The above two albums sound exactly like you’d hope they sound based on their album covers. It’s so nice to have organic soul music back.

The Sound of Arrows: Voyage

I don’t love a lot of the new wave of synth pop, but these guys remind me of the Pet Shop Boys, and, man, do I love the Pet Shop Boys.

Starfucker: Reptilians

Hey, it’s your band. Call it whatever you want, right? Starfucker does easy to sing along to, synthy songs that often build nicely into danceable mini-anthems. I think I like this album more than most people.

The Embassy: Life in the Trenches

Kind of like an updated Aztec Camera, with more electronics mixed in. Okay, I don’t think that makes any sense, but it’s what came to mind first. They’re Swedish, and this is actually a compilation of sorts, but it’s real good.

The Go! Team

Not as good as their first (almost nothing is), but better than their last. A good sign.

Youth Lagoon: The Year of Hibernation

One of those albums I kept hearing about, but decided to resist, and then couldn’t. Bedroom pop by a guy who’s likely to emerge as an Important Figure in the bedroom pop scene. (I know, I know…I’m saying, you know, if there were such a thing…)

People Like Us: Welcome Abroad

You’ll probably hate this. Unless the idea of a Julie Andrews/Doors mash-up turns you on. In which case we can share popcorn and listen together under the covers with our flashlights.

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Ten (of the) Top Tracks: 2011 (Part One)

Frank Turner: “Peggy Sang the Blues”

Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Bird: “If I Had a Gun”

Anna Calvi: “Blackout”

The Beastie Boys: “Make Some Noise:

Drive-By Truckers: “Ray’s Automatic Weapon”

The Embassy: “You Tend to Forget”

Ghost: “Ritual”

Metronomy: “Everything Goes My Way”

Other Lives: “Tamer Animals”

Raphael Saadiq: “Good Man”

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Mid-Year Musical Interlude

It’s been a good half year for mellow, folky pop.

So I give you four of my favorite 2011 releases:

Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues:

Other Lives’ Tamer Animals:

Cliffie Swan’s Memories Come True:

Loose Salute’s Getting Over Being Under:

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2010 Sounds

Not as much detail as usual, but a list, at least. Twenty favorite listens from the past year:

  • Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love
  • Ariel Pink’s Haunted Grafiti: Before Today
  • Manic Street Preachers: Postcards From a Young Man
  • Fresh and Onlys: Play It Strange
  • Aloe Blacc: Good Thing
  • Clientele: Minotaur
  • Clinic: Bubblegum
  • Black Keys: Brothers
  • Divine Comedy: Bang Goes the Knighthood
  • Superchunk: Majestic Shredding
  • Dungen: Skit I Allt
  • Lucky Soul: A Coming of Age
  • Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
  • Steve Wynn: Northern Aggression
  • Steven Page: Page One
  • Jamey Johnson: The Guitar Song
  • Strand of Oaks: Pope Killdragon
  • Paul Heaton: Acid Country
  • Fabienne Delsol: On My Mind
  • Laura Marling: I Speak Because I Can


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Ranking the Kinks

Stepping aside from my normal work-related blogging, I was listening to the Kinks while raking leaves, and started composing a list of Kinks discs in my head. Since one of my quirks of character is an incessent need to create useless lists, it put me in the mood to attempt a ranking of Kinks albums. So, here goes:

1. Village Green Preservation Society (1968)

For years I would have listed Something Else at number one, but this is really the best Kinks album. It’s more mature, with a more fleshed out sound. Some of the recent reissues really drive that point home. Probably (hell, easily) one of the ten greatest albums of the rock era. It’s nostalgic, wistful, tuneful, smart and catchy. The title cut, “Do You Remember Walter?,” “Picture Book,” “Johnny Thunder,” “Big Sky,” “Starstruck,” “People Take Pictures of Each Other”… All are phenomenal songs. Really a shame it took this disc so long to be recognized for the masterpiece it is. The upside to the Kinks being out of step with the “sound” of the sixties in 1968 is that their music from that period feels almost timeless.

2. Something Else (1967)

One of the prettiest, saddest albums of its era. Any disc that contains “Waterloo Sunset” is going to be near the top of the list, but Ray Davies’ character sketches (“Two Sisters,” “David Watts,”) and hazy ballads (“Lazy Old Sun,” “No Return”) give the disc depth and variety that’s hard to match. And Dave Davies contributed “Death of a Clown,” which is probably as good a song as the Kinks ever recorded.

3. Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969)

For some reason it took me a while to realize how great this disc is. “Victoria” is one of the best Kinks songs of the sixties, but “Shangri-La” is beautiful, “Some Mother’s Son” is a smart, no bullshit anti-war song, and “Drivin'” is a great little swinging ode to…you know…driving…

4. Face to Face (1966)

The first in the Kinks’ run of five-star classics (the other three are listed above). A huge evolution in the Kinks’ sound, with a variety of sounds and themes. Catchy rock songs (“Party Line,” “Session Man”), cynical hit singles (“Sunny Afternoon”), English music hall numbers (“Dandy”), and, of course, lots of lovely Ray Davies pop songs (“Rainy Day in June,” “Fancy,” “A House in the Country”).

5. Lola vs. Powerman & the Money-Go-Round, Pt. 1 (1970)

Kind of a let-down when compared to the amazing run of discs that proceeded it, but it’s still a great album. Aside from “Lola,” it contains some of Ray Davies’ best melancholy ballads (“This Time Tomorrow” and “A Long Way From Home”) and one of Dave Davies’ all-time greatest songs (“Strangers”).

6. State of Confusion (1983)

It’s very hard for me to be objective here, since this is the disc (tape at the time) that made me fall in love with the Kinks (aided also by my parents’ worn vinyl copy of the Kinks Greatest Hits). “Come Dancing” was a beautiful single, as was “Don’t Forget to Dance.” “Heart of Gold” is a great, timeless Kinks track, and the title cut is a pretty effective hard-driving ode to the headaches of modern life.

7. Muswell Hillbillies (1971)

Maybe the last great Kinks album. Affecting acoustic tracks, boozy music hall numbers (“Alcohol”), Americana filtered through the Kinks’ English rose-tinted glasses. And the jagged “Twentieth Century Man,” which reminds us that Ray Davies is never too comfortable in the here and now. Works as a good sampler of the Kinks’ various moods circa the early seventies.

8. Kink Kontroversy (1965)

This is where the Kinks started to morph from a great singles band into a great band, period. It’s not as consistent as the discs that followed, but there are some classic songs here, including “Till the End of the Day” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone.”

9. Give the People What They Want (1981)

A pretty killer rock album. “Destroyer” was a big hit, and most of the album  rocks hard, but the creepy ballad “Art Lover” and the beautiful “Better Days” are probably the two best tracks on the album, from my perspective. I think it’s interesting that the Kinks were one of the first bands to really embrace video in the MTV era (considering they’d been around for two decades), and “Predictable” was an early MTV staple.

10. Misfits (1978)

Most people would probably rank this one higher, but State of Confusion and Give the People What They Want hold a lot of nostalgic charm for me. “Rock & Roll Fantasy” is the killer cut on this disc (where the Kinks recognize the impact music has on fans). But the title track is pretty great, too. The more I listen to this disc, the more I like it.

11. Low Budget (1979)

It’s taken me a long time to warm up to the Kinks’ arena rock years (the mid to late seventies), but this is a fun listen. And how can you resist “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman”? It’s kind of disco, I guess, but that’s okay.

12. Sleepwalker (1977)

“Juke Box Music” is a great tune. So is “Sleepwalker,” which really should have been a hit.

13. Phobia (1993)

This isn’t a great album, but it’s way better than it’s given credit for being (not that I’ve ever heard anyone talk about it). The last real Kinks album to date. It rocks pretty hard and has some catchy, pretty tunes, too. I think it Ray and Dave put more into it than they had their previous couple of releases, but it just vanished without a trace.

14. Word of Mouth (1984)

Essentially two good tracks, one of which (Dave Davies’ “Living On a Thin Line”) was kind of great. The other one was “Do It Again.” Kind of a bummer after the two previous discs.

Not ranked:  Kinks, Kinda Kinks (the early Kinks are best sampled on one of their fantastic singles comps), Percy (although I should revisit this one), Everybody’s In Show-Biz, Preservation, Acts 1 and 2, Soap Opera, Schoolboys in Disgrace, Think Visual and any live albums or compilations (although there are a couple of stunning Kinks comps).

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The Year 2009 in Music Part Two

More choice cuts from the Year in Music. Please check ’em out:

Diego Bernal – “Bring It On Home”

Julian Casablancas – “Glass”

Grant-Lee Phillips – “Buried Treasure”

Bebel Gilberto – “Sun is Shining”

Sondre Lerche – “Heartbeat Radio”

Jay-Z – “Empire State of Mind”

Mika – “We Are Golden”

Arctic Monkeys – “Crying Lightning”

Coconut Records – “Microphone”

Dinosaur Jr. – “Over It”

Phoenix – “Lisztomania”

The Temper Trap – “Sweet Disposition”

I Come to Shanghai – “Your Lazy Eye”

Joe Henry – “The Man I Keep Hid”

Dan Auerbach – “Heart Broken, In Disrepair”

Wild Light – “California On My Mind”

The Duckworth Lewis Method – “Meeting Mr. Miandad”

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The Year 2009 in Music: Part One

Some of the albums from 2009 that truly caught my sensitive ears, complete with videos (whether official, live or fan). Please stroll through and enjoy.

More to come.

Girls – Album

The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism

The Black Crowes – Before the Frost

Brendan Benson – My Old, Familiar Friend

Brian Setzer Orchestra – Songs From Lonely Avenue

Bruce Springsteen – Working On a Dream

Clientele – Bonfires From the Heath

Diana Krall – Quiet Nights

God Help the Girl – God Help the Girl

James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game

Lovetones – Dimensions

Lucero – 1372 Overton Park

Madness – The Liberty of Nolton Folgate

Mayer Hawthorne – A Strange Arrangement

Skygreen Leopards – Gorgeous Johnny

Swell Season – Strict Joy


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Madness is All in Your Mind (again)

I haven’t done much music reviewing or commenting for a while, but I wanted to give a nod to the latest disc by one of my all-time favorite bands, Madness.

Madness, you say? The eighties pop/ska outfit with one American hit (the rather massive “Our House”) to their name?

Yes, that’s what I say.

When I was a kid Madness videos on MTV were a treasure that popped up rarely between Madonna hits. Hell, until “Our House,” you couldn’t even buy Madness discs in the U.S. But I was immediately taken with the group’s mugging lead singer, Suggs, whom I was pretty sure was the coolest motherfucker on the planet, followed by the group’s jack-of-all trades stage dancer/songwriter/trumpet player/occasional lead vocalist, Chas Smash (Carl Smyth). A glimpse of the seven man band doing their Madness walk in unison, or of Chas skanking in his shades and rudeboy hat, or of Lee Thompson hunched over his sax blasting away, was enough to transport me to grimy Olde England.

The first great blast of Madness, from 1979.

Relatively huge in Britain during the early 80s, Madness were the off the wall, poppier counterpoint to the Specials, and released a handful of terrific albums and a long run of great singles during their heyday, before they gradually faded away following the departure of a key member (keyboardist Mike Barson). While the Specials said what they had to say without changing their sound (much), and then disappeared, Madness took their initial burst of “nutty” ska (demonstrated best on the absolutely classic “One Step Beyond…” disc) and retooled it in a more pop-friendly direction. They never stopped paying tribute to their roots, and the horns were always near the surface, but more and more Barson’s piano-driven melodies danced to the forefront.

After said string of great albums (One Step Beyond…, Absolutely, 7, and The Rise and Fall), Madness started to slip into the trap just about everyone in the eighties fell victim to, with the slightly overproduced, rather compressed sounding Keep Moving LP, and despite a couple of tasty numbers contained therein (notably “Wings of a Dove” and the evocative “Michael Caine,” sung by Chas), the album didn’t really work. At that point Barson split, leaving the band to struggle on without him for a couple of albums, which, again, produced a few high points, but not much matching their classic period, and the group split up.

The House of Fun video, the band at their nuttiest.

1999’s “Drip Fed Fred,” featuring the great Ian Dury, one of Madness’s latter day highlights for me. 

Eventually, the lads got together again, starting with a series of annual “Madstock” concerts in 1992, culminating with the decent enough reunion LP, Wonderful in 1999. A few years later a covers disc (The Dangerman Sessions, Part One) showed up, and a couple of years after that a new single debuted. To my ears, virtually everything recorded after The Rise and Fall sounded attached to the era in which it was recorded, and as a result even the best stuff sounded a bit compromised.

So out of nowhere, the boys have come together with their original production team, some thirty years after their first release, for a new album. And it’s fantastic. The Liberty of Norton Folgate is something of a concept album, but it’s also the first thing they’ve done in decades that doesn’t sound like a slave to the times. It’s an update of their early eighties sound, but it doesn’t sound like a bunch of guys in their late forties and early fifties trying to cling to their youth. Instead it’s a mature pop record that reflects a sense of looking back while moving forward.  If anything, there’s a bit more brassy bounce than they’ve displayed since the early days. The horns are still there, as are Barson’s keyboards, and Suggs is still out front, lending a touch of melancholy to the songs that suits his age but fits the feel of the music as the band bounces through their London songscapes, ending with the extended title track.

Along the way there are several songs that prove almost as catchy as Madness in their prime, beginning with the addictive tribute to fellowship in London, “We Are London” (which features a great uplifting chorus), and continuing through “Sugar and Spice” (the tale of married life together), “Forever Young” (in which Suggs urges the listener to not do what he has done, and to stay, well, forever young), and on down the line. Frankly, it’s hard to believe it’s been so long since Madness got together and recorded original material, because this is the sound of a veteran band, confident in their identity, not attempting to pander to the market.

To be honest, a Madness revival was the last thing I expected to see headed our way, but it’s welcome. I just wish the group was hitting the States in support of the disc. Judging from the evidence I’ve seen from recent shows, Madness still has energy to burn live, where they’re not afraid to dig into their old school bag of nutty tricks, led by Chas Smash’s booming call to arms from 1979: “HEY YOU! DON’T WATCH THAT! WATCH THIS!…” before covering the new stuff, which stands up proudly next to the old stuff.

Anyway, check it out if you’re so inclined. And here’s a video for one of the new tracks:

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