Friday, February 20, 2015

Talent vs. Genius, Roung Two, or Bad News Bear Hug:

As I’m sure you remember (right!), last year I wrote about the Dandy Warhols and in particular their album Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, which I liked a lot.

I was prompted to get it because of the documentary “DIG!”, which was about the friendship/rivalry between the Dandys and their idols, the Brian Jonestown Massacre. One couldn’t help but be interested in both of these bands.

As 13 Tales confirmed, the Dandys were the professional ones, who were maybe a little more balanced and career-focused. And indeed, part of the tension between the two bands comes from the Dandys eclipsing the supposedly more talented BJM.

And what about BJM? As you can tell from their name, they’re bad news twice over. Worshipped by the Dandys, they were brilliant but mercurial - drugs, fights, breakups, all usually taking place right on stage - led by genius/megalomaniac Anton Newcombe.

In my younger days I would have immediately gravitated to this obviously misunderstood, greatly maligned gift to Western Civilization, but I’ve since come to believe where there’s smoke there’s fire. So I went for a surer bet - The Dandys - and 13 Tales turned out to be one of the best records I got in 2014.

Plus, the BJM made lots of records. And if I were younger I probably would have jumped into their catalogue head first, getting each one of them. But now I’ve got to be more selective with my time, and I’ve learned that geniuses are prone to inconsistency so why wade through all the records they made on their off days?

So I decided to hedge my bets by getting their 2 CD retrospective. Which, since xgau trashed it would be a hell of a hedge if it turned out to be awful. So it took until my birthday, and an excuse to get someone else to potentially waste their money, for it to be time to jump into the abyss.

And people, let me tell you It. Is. Just. Great!  

In what is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence, this record hit me on the first play. Each song - all 38 of them - had something to offer.

Review the Review:

How could something so obviously good have been trashed so thoroughly? So I went back to the xgau review.

“… Newcombe gets a no doubt small, no doubt excessive cash advance to prove his genius…. the world passed on the first time. The world was right, and will be right again every time Newcombe revives.”

Well xgua clearly dislikes this guy. Not just the music. The guy. He’s probably right. (Please watch DIG! to form your own opinion.) He never did have much use for drug people. As the former roommate of one, I can sympathize.

So they’re not role models. But I suspect that many of my heroes wouldn’t stand close scrutiny, either. Gandhi was a great man but I wouldn’t buy any of his records.

In terms of consistency and of how often I want to hear it, this is hands down, the best record I’ve gotten in 2014. The fact that it’s a best-of is the only thing that kept me from putting it at the top of my album list.

But deep down, I suspect I’ve been conned. These guitars may only sound so good because they’re so familiar. But if they’re so familiar why do I keep playing them?

So, back the the xgau review:

“His recombined riffs rarely break the shambolic surface...“
To me, those riffs sit real pretty right there on that surface. Plus I really like the riff, so when it gets recombined, I like that one, too. And I prefer the BJM’s shambolic to the Dandy’s commercial sound.

“and whenever two consecutive lines of lyric grab and hold, they complain.”
Well, yeah. Drug people are like that. Everyone’s against them, all the time. It’s never their fault. Newcombe's voice is nasally whine, so it’s actually pretty well suited to the words, which he's not really emphasizing anyway. Plus, I was never a big word guy, either, especially when the music is this good.

And finally, xgau goes on to contrast the Dandy’s “panache and professionalism” with BJMs (Newcombe’s, really) “heroin and lies”. Harsh, yet true. I really did hate that roommate by the time he moved out.

Did He Hear What I Heard?:

I heard these lovely, echoing guitars. Retro but you can’t tell from where (most of the time). It may be the best “lost sixties album” ever. When you were fifteen, if you ever half-heard a song on the radio and never found out who it was you could do worse than to get this record to make up for it.

On the other hand, when you do eventually track those obscure records down, they rarely live up your recollection. And in a couple of years I may look back on this record with some embarrassment. But for now, I’m basking in that shambolic, druggy, whiny, retro, probably-non-as-good-as-it’s-pretending-to-be record.

Like the Warhols, the BJM aren’t above, ahem, “borrowing” things, but where the DWs grab actual riffs and run, the BJM prefer to just wear the general aura of sixties on their sleeves. I should object on principle, but I just smile.

How many 2 CD sets (38 songs!) can you put on and listen to all the way through?

Brian Jonestown Massacre vs. Dandy Warhols: A Technical Decision:

So, who wins? Well, BJM, but it’s not really a fair comparison. This is a compilation afterall.
It’s also sit around and get high music. If you don’t partake, it’s probably sit around and get depressed music. Or be mad at the world music. Teenage music. Music for losers.

Derivative. Morally wrong. But I’ve never been able to resist music that I shouldn’t like for some theoretical reason.

When things got really heated between the bands - BJM did a song called “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth” and the Dandys threatened to write a song called “You’re Not Sixteen, But Your Girlfriends Are”. So does this mean Newcombe’s a pedophile, too? I prefer to not think about it. The guitars help me do that.

Sixties style guitar rock is right up my alley, so God (along with James Brown, Art Tatum and Monteverdi - the other compilations I got in 2014) forgive me, this is the one I keep playing. Three months after getting it was still going strong. A

When to Listen to: When you’re in kind of a dark place and might otherwise take drugs. This will substitute.

When NOT to Listen: When your roommate has just stolen your rent money to buy drugs.

“Prozac vs. Heroin”

Friday, January 30, 2015

Fourth Annual Jaybee-bies:Or, Up Yours 2014

How Many Times Do I Have to Explain Something Just Because It Makes No Sense?:

I’m looking back on my own personal musical year, which is what I got to hear in 2014, as opposed to what may have come out in 2014. What do I care about stuff I haven’t heard yet? I’ll get to that in my own good time.

It’s kind of sad to no longer be so in sync with current music but that’s a young person’s game. We just don’t all sing together anymore.

But no matter old the music I got in 2014 was, it was all new to me. So, my musical year is unique. As is yours. How about yours, anyway?

2014 Resolution Fails:

Sad to day, I’m doing no better with my resolutions.

No CDs? - I’m lucky if I can’t keep it down to half of what I get.

More Music from the Current Year? - Only one. Beck. I’m just too damn cautious. I need a little more Nutboy in me.

More Music Books? I did great, I think. Now I just have to read them.

Less Music? - I failed utterly, and so have officially given up. That’s just the way it is now. What, with gift cards and $5 amazon mp3s, what’s a guy to do?

Weird Fears:

And as I get more and more music, one of my great fears rears its head again. It goes like this:

For each record I get, I give that much less attention to all the rest of the music I already have and all the other other potential music out there waiting for me. Does the existence of all this great music actually end up cheapening it?

I have to resign myself to the fact that there are musicians out there right now who are making great music that I may not ever hear. I also have to get it into my head that Great Music is not a finite resource. Every day there’s more and more, but that doesn’t make any of it less great.

It speaks to my prejudice that what is valuable must also be rare.  I’m working on it.

How About a Resolution to Get to the F*cking Point?:

The end of the year was dominated by Harry Nilsson.and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. You heard me. 

Harry shows up a number of times on the songs and album lists below. BJM’s record is a compilation of their work from the mid-ninties on, and in need of a whole explanation in and of itself, so I won’t even try here.

But in the spirit of brevity - as in I couldn’t wait for this year to be over - I’ll cut to the chase.


Each year brings hundreds of new songs, and if you rate them in iTunes like I do, you’d be awash in three star songs. Those are the ones that are perfectly fine and pass the time pleasantly enough without distracting you in a very negative (or positive way). I heard hundreds of these in 2014. You probably did, too.

The four star songs really get your attention, though. They’re superior to the\others either in melody, lyrics, execution or a combination of the above. And the best albums of the year are filled with them:

There are some of my faves:
and "Rowboat" - Beck which is not even on Morning Phase (Stereopathic Soul Manure, if you gotta know, and I do)

And then there are those rare songs that are so striking that they just stop you in your tracks. These are the ones that have a hold on you and always will.  They tend to end up on future top 100 Whatevers lists, if you know what I mean.

Like, “1941”, “Daddy’s Song” and “I Said Goodbye to Me” all, astonishingly enough, by Harry Nilsson. These three songs take the qualities I described above but in addition hit a depth of feeling I rarely hear these days and with a brevity that makes them all that more remarkable.  Don’t let that sweet melody or peppy rhythm fool you. They’re all devastating. All written over 40 years ago.


Let’s just call this Revenge of the Puppies, shall we?

  1. Morning Phase - Beck - Pretty isn’t enough. You have to love her/him/it, too.
  2. Stardust - Willie Nelson - Freshness, consistency, and from an unexpected source..
  3. Vehicle - The Clean - Those chiming guitars!
  4. Aerial Ballet - Nilsson. Often brilliant songwriting and singing.
  5. Aerial Pandemonium Ballet - Nilsson - Almost as often brilliant songwriting and singing
  6. Same Trailer, Different Park - Kacey Musgraves - Country music redeemed via voice and words.
  7. Before Hollywood - Go Betweens - Raw talent beginning to coalesce into brilliance.
  8. There’s Nothing Wrong With Love - Built to Spill - Rough, noisy but full of feeling  

Most Plays:

Morning Phase - 41 Plays
There’s an aspect of this I must relate. We’ve got a small house. The computer (where I take the play count from) is in the middle of everything, and since I’m not big on headphones, what gets played here gets heard by everyone. And when you impose something on everyone, they better like it, too. So not only is this something that I like. It’s something everyone here likes.

Artist of the Year:

Harry Nilsson.
I always thought that Harry was a bit overrated. He peaked “early” with Nilsson Schmilsson, etc. But then there was the wonderful The Point. Harry and Son of Schmilsson were pretty damned good, too. But now that I’ve delved a bit more deeply I can see that Harry - despite some bad habits that probably sabotaged his career - was everything people said he was, and more. RIP Harry!

And 2014 Overall? Maybe Even Suckier Than 2013:

A couple of people who are very close to me got very sick in 2014. They recovered, thank god, but it kind of colored the year.

And music? Very good, but not quite great. In a word. Frustrating. Even Nilsson, who could write such great songs, could also do too many covers, or attempt too many styles to make a truly great album.

Perhaps I expect too much. Music can’t fix life. Some events are just too big. And we had our share of them this year. You probably did, too.

So my only resolution this year will be to love music a little less, and life a little more.

It’s all we’ve got, after all.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Free Willie

Quotes Supplied by Mrs. Jaybee!

“Can’t We Just Sit Here and Have a Nice Meal?”:

Well, no.

So there’s Mrs. Jaybee and me sitting down to brunch, with a piano player (if I say pianist, everyone giggles) playing in the background. Because that’s what brunch is, right? Breakfast, but with a piano player.

I’m trying to impress the Mrs. by guessing the songs he’s playing. I say “The Lady is a Tramp”, but of course I’m wrong. She tells me it’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”.

She corrects me a couple more times. If it were a competition she’d be kicking my ass. But she just sits there patiently trying to eat her Chesapeake Omlette in peace while I take shot after shot and my Crab Benedict gets cold.

I don’t get them all wrong (there were a couple of Beatles songs, you see).  But why am I even trying?

It’s Willie Nelson’s fault.

“Do I Have to Hear ABout Your Allegedly Deprived Childhood Again?”:

But before I get to him, let me try to explain this behavior by revisiting my deprived childhood.

It was in war torn Berlin. No food. No heat. No air conditioning. No cable. Okay, I may be remembering it wrong.

It was actually Brooklyn. There was plenty of food, heat and even A/C. But while our parents provided us with all the basic comforts, they couldn’t help but also dish out a lot of negativity about my beloved rock n roll music.

I’d deal with it by going on the counterattack. I’d ridicule old music and dare to say it was inferior to rock  n roll. My logic went something like this: old movies were in black and white, people always had to dress up, and the bands had no electric guitars. Case Closed.

In retrospect, the parental reaction to our music was understandable. Rock was, after all, storming the citadel of what was considered to be acceptable music.

And their music wasn’t representing itself very well, on TV at least. Lawrence Welk, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Joseph Goebbels. You get the idea.

It wasn’t until I started going out with Mrs. Jaybee that I even began to scratch the surface of the alleged Great American Songbook, whose appellation I objected to more for what it implicitly left out (rock and roll) than what it actually contained.  Hey, it's not my fault said Great American Songbook up and left for Liverpool in 1963.  Get over it already.

I’d eventually hear better singers who would sing all those old songs that everyone recognized but me. Even Mrs. Jaybee sang along!  It turns out she knew all those songs! How did this challenge to my Musical Authority come about?

Well, in Mrs. Jaybee’s actual deprived childhood, she spent a lot of time in front of the TV, escaping. And she didn’t have the luxury of two parents deriding her musical taste. This made it easier for her to hear old music without prejudice.

I guess I had the luxury to be bored with/depressed by my surroundings. She had to take what she could get.

And in the process, she learned all those songs.

It Takes an Outlaw:

Willie Nelson.jpg

In 1978, punk was storming the Rock citadel. (Ah, the irony!)

Willie Nelson - a well-respected country singer and songwriter, but by no means a household name yet -  picks this time to look back - and off to the side - to rediscover several American “standards”, and in doing so, makes them real for me for the first time.

So how did he do it? Did the look - ponytail, beard, jeans and tee shirt - similar to a lot of rock musicians, help break down my defenses? Or does that look signal a lack of pretension?

Or was it that there’s about the same amount of time between the writing of these songs and his recording them, and between the release of this record and my hearing it?  To put it another way, did I just have to grow up a little? Let’s All Do the Time Warp (yet) Again, shall we?

The key - I think - is that Willie sings in that smooth, relaxed voice of his. None of that overbearing vibrato that was popular way back in the day to distract you from those otherwise jazzy chord changes and sinuous melodies. And here, he really nails it.

He also throws in a couple of more recent - but by no means new - songs, which only serve to buttress the concept that they can all sit together on the same record and play nice.

And a small band to keep it all nice and simple.  Not much bigger than, say, the Beatles.

Willie was way ahead of the curve on this. This record was released way before a bunch of washed up rock singers began to pontificate about the abovementioned Great American Songbook, which I guess is what you do when you’re done playing in apartheid South Africa.

I wonder how these versions sound to people who’ve always liked these songs? I assumed some kind of sacrilege must have been committed for me to like them. But Mrs. Jaybee likes them. She always was very open-minded. That’s how she got to be Mrs. Jaybee. And now, will I come to like other versions of these songs? Time will tell.

I've expressed my frustration with the very good but not quite great music I was hearing throughout 2014. This record is a glaring exception. It's outside my comfort zone, and yet done so well, that I enjoy every minute of it. And it may be the most consistently appealing record I’ve gotten all year. Okay, there’s nothing that knocks my socks off, but every single track rolls them down a bit.

So, now to answer the question of why I persisted in guessing the song titles during brunch.

Well, it was because I got the first one right.

It was "Stardust".


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Holiday Music Fail

Premeditated Fun:

Ever since some key albums imprinted themselves on my brain during past holiday seasons - thus forever coloring my recollections of those times - I’ve been trying to engineer the holiday spirit via pop music.

I figure I’m getting music anyway. Why not try to time it and select it in such a way that the holiday spirit is guaranteed?

Insane! I agree. Real life should be providing the spirit, not music.

Engineered Joy! Guilty! But spontaneity is really overrated.

And, of course, people remind me of, uh, Actual Holiday Music, which I’ll admit exists, but which has only a limited effect on me. Here’s the whole sad tale.

So there’s nothing like hearing great new music on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving to give the overall holiday season an added bump.  

And when it works, it works!

Don’t believe me?

Digging the Fossil Record:

Here are some records I will forever associate with past holiday seasons, and the years they marked:

1969 - Abbey Road, of course. It played constantly during Christmas break. A great memory from a childhood that was about to end.

1975 - Liv by Livingston Taylor - Slow and sad (just like me!), but Sweet Revenge by John Prine
snapped me out of it.

1976 - Valley Hi by Ian Matthews - Beautiful enough to overcome a lot of solitude.

1977 - Sailin’ Shoes by Little Feat - The opening number - “Easy to Slip” - took about two seconds to kick in, and first made me aware of the impact music could have on my state of mind during the holiday season. The rest of the album can barely keep up.

1980 - Remain in Light by Talking Heads - It had just come out and was capturing everyone’s attention. It was nice to feel young and part of what was going on at the time.

1983 - High Land, Hard Rain by Aztec Camera - It has more than enough melody and emotion to overcome its minor flaws, and haunt my imagination for the entire holiday season.

1985 - By now I was consciously seeking out music to accompany the holidays. 
Wise Guy by Kid Creole and the Coconuts started the season off with a bang, assuring me before the first cut was over, that it was going to be a good holiday. Getting married that year had something to do with it, too.
And that’s where Listen by A Flock of Seagulls (Yes, those FOSGs!) comes in. Mrs. Jaybee got this one, and since I’m the self appointed music arbiter in the house (it’s in the pre-nup) I’ll decide what’s good and bad, thank you! But in the spirit of the holidays, I tolerated this. Then it kicked in at New Years, when Mrs. Jaybee and I, after having been out and about for most of the night, stayed up even later just talking and listening to this. If this sounds lame (and I don’t blame you) play “Transfer Affection” at 4am with the one you love.

1986 - Paul Simon - A truly great album at any time of year, but it’s one you can listen to by a quiet fireplace. Don’t worry if you don’t have one. This record will make you feel like you do.

1990 - Go Betweens: 1978-1990 - Please refer to the abovementioned sad (not really) tale

1991 - All of this and Nothing by The Psychedelic Furs - A truly F'ed up year. Was it my dad’s fatal bout with cancer that made this hard rock record (most of which I’d already heard) resonate so much? “All of This and Nothing” explains all of this, and none of it.

1992 - Harvest Moon by Neil Young - Two am on Christmas morning, after the guests have left. But the hidden masterpiece is the strange “Natural Beauty”.

1993 - Lucinda Williams There were a lot of other records happening at the time that were almost as good, but “Side of the Road” and “Crescent City” gives this one the edge. One of my all time favorites.

1996 - Moving by the Raincoats - Nothing major, but sweet and weird. I was feeling weird myself at the time.

1997 - Diary of a Mod Housewife by Amy Rigby - Beauty, both lavish (“Sad Tale”) and spare (“Knapsack”), and a dose of reality (“Beer and Kisses”). Good for new beginnings.

2007 - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood by Neko Case - It had to compete with Oceans Apart that year, and because it was a little weirder, took a back seat for a while, until we kept playing it and playing it and playing it, well into Spring.

2009 - I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson - You could listen to this one by the fire when Paul Simon is over. Actually, put this one on first.

2010 - Push Barman to Open Old Wounds by Belle and Sebastian - The young people call it “twee”. I call it incredibly beautiful, sad, and guaranteed to put you into a major depression. What the hell???

2011 - Sophtware Slump by Grandaddy - So sad!” son Michael said. But you wake to be happy again.

“Survey Says!”, Just in Reverse:

Aside from a consistent theme of utter desolation (perfect for the holidays!) - plus a bit of joy to keep you going - what else do these records have in common?

They’re song-based and melodic. As simple as that. And they kick in right away. No multiple listens needed to know what you’ve got.

You’ll notice there are some years missing. That’s not because I somehow don’t remember. Nerds like me keep records!

Those years are the ones where the music just didn’t work, like when I got hilariously wrong with Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth. A very worthy album but completely inappropriate. (Duh!) The holidays are not the time to get adventurous. It just proves that Great Music does not necessarily equal a Great Time.

And 2014?:

And it didn’t work this year, either. What went wrong?

Well, first, the albums have to be pretty great. That’s a tall order under the best of circumstances, and not much has risen to that level lately.

The other reasons I’ll give below. I’m tempted to review these albums on how they function as holiday music but that would be a mighty harsh assessment.  I’ll just do my best to rate them as albums and explain how none of them put me in the holiday spirit:

Hokey Pokey.jpg

A perfectly good album, but wow, what a let down! This is unfair. After the powerhouse I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight how could I think another R&LT record could compete? Oh, it's beginning to emerge from the shadow of that classic to stand on its own, but I doubt I’ll ever consider it an equal.
So we now know that the strategy of going with an old reliable can actually backfire! B+

Rain Dogs.jpg

Really? I thought this would sound nice?  Why didn't I just get more Sonic Youth? It starts off with a song about a one-armed dwarf, for chrissakes, and goes from there. I thought I might be able to catch Tom before he took the plunge into the ditch, but by this point he's definitely hit it, and bounced a time or two. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I like Mule Variations, but it did take 20 listens or so to get there. There’s no time for that during the holidays! Not bad at all, just nothing I'd play around the Christmas dinner table, unless I was trying to clear the room. B

Built to Spill.jpg
Probably the best of the three. A new artist (to me). Song driven, I’d heard. But it wasn’t clear on the first listen. Guitar driven, I’d heard, but I didn’t know it would be an angular, noisy guitar. The whiny vocals (Freedy Johnston going apesh*t.) can put you off, too. The lyrics are right up front and interesting, the chord changes very idiosyncratic. Very worthwhile, but just not pretty enough for this wonderful time of year. A-

So 2014 was a pretty big fail.

No music to fill my empty head during boring meetings at work. No magic added to my life via music.

As much as I talk about music, I ran out of things I felt like listening to about two weeks ago, and my house had something it hadn’t had in a long time - silence. For hours or even days at a time.

So I may need to take a break. Music was just not of huge interest to me this month, or at least it couldn’t overcome what real life occasionally dishes out.

It’s probably a temporary thing. Tomorrow something could come out of left field, blow me away, and me and music are best buddies again. It’s happened before.

But right now I’m feeling doubtful. I no longer look at album lists and see potential joy. Just temporary encounters that may offer limited fun, but no transcendence. Perhaps I expect too much.

Or I could try to find the Magic in real life. It’s there, along with the Loss, which is what I tend to dwell on. I’ll just have to resolve to recognize the Magic while it’s happening.

Now that’s a tall order.