Here’s a few more of these. Boy, this is taking a while, isn’t it? One more after this, then it’s time for the Summerfesst Live Action reports!
16 • Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet
Matthew Sweet has a new album out (ed. note; that this was originally written a few years ago. Although he probably DOES have a new one out, depending on when you read this. I’d check, just to make sure). Yes, if you don’t have it, you should.
But many years ago, Sweet was an unknown. He teamed up with Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, veterans of punk and art-rock, who lended a muscular urgency to this album that took quintessential power-pop and gave it a knife edge. They wrapped intertwining guitar lines around Sweet’s accomplished songwriting.
I saw them on this tour, playing a basement at Marquette with unfortunately placed columns. Quine and Lloyd were not on tour. A couple of years later, he played at Summerfest with the Jayhawks and The Indigo Girls.
Since then, he has continued to work the same vein, continually releasing chiming, shimmery power pop that in a sane world would be omnipresent on the airwaves. But he’s never been able to (quite) recapture the mix of pop sheen and raw energy that suffused Girlfriend.
Not that I’ve cared. He’s so good at what he does. For a while, though, in the 90’s, it seemed like commercial music was poised to embrace simple, beautiful, and modern pop songs.
Maybe it’s for the best that they didn’t.
Postscript: Last year, he toured again for the 20th anniversary of Girlfriend, and stopped at Shank Hall to play the whole album. We had front row seats, and it was just as good as when it was released. Sweet played an intensely worn Explorer. Although I decided to illustrate this with one of his encores, Sick of Myself, also a personal favorite. What a spectacular opening riff! And the way they fake-end it three times…
17 • Viva La Vida, Coldplay
Not much new stuff on this list. Maybe it’s because I’m less plugged in to new music than I used to be; maybe it’s because it’s natural for formative listening to occur to younger folks. I don’t know; but certainly folks like Chuckles and Pinko Punko amply demonstrate that there is no shortage of good new bands out there.
I had resisted listening to Coldplay, even as they were receiving some critical success; there was such a critical backlash that I just never paid attention. I know there are going to be mockers and haters when they see this one on the List. But this one, serving as a soundtrack to an iPod commercial before the album was available, commanded my attention.
The song contains so many referents, it’s hard to pick them all out. There is some Radiohead in there, and a healthy debt to some of U2’s work. I also heard some nods to progressive rock, at least the less self-indulgent side of it. And after hearing much criticism of the vocals, I found I liked them. Quite a bit. And the way the tympani come in at the first chorus echoes through my brain.
Maybe it’s also because the song itself works within the bounds of pop songs, while expanding them maybe a bit.
It’s refreshing to still be able to find new music that becomes important to me. As my son’s Spamalot shirt says, “I’m Not Dead Yet”
But that was when I ruled the world…
18• Smells like Teen Spirit, Nirvana
How many people has Kurt Cobain inspired? When this album was released, it was a sleeper, and I picked it up right away because of the local buzz due to Butch Vig’s involvement.
The release of Nevermind was luckily timed; about 6 months later, Billboard revamped the way they calculated album sales, using actual register sales rather than distributor sales, so huge middleman sales of albums that don’t sell to consumers no longer registered as big hits and counts the albums people actually buy. Almost immediately, Michael Jackson’s album dropped off the top sellers and a little known semi-punk band from Seattle showed up….
Kurt Cobain once said that they knew they had made it when Weird Al asked to parody this song. His only concern was that it was going to be about food, but of course it wasn’t:
The soft/loud dynamic has become trite, cliched by now; but in 1992 it was an a bracing addition to the punk aesthetic. The album opens with Smells Like Teen Spirit, and a better opening track is hard to find. London Calling, maybe, but I’ve already covered that.
My favorite memory of this song, however, is riding in a friend’s brand new Porsche at about 85 miles per hour through an early evening office park while it blared from the stereo.
19 • I Wanna Be Sedated, The Ramones
All things being equal, sometimes three chords is one chord too many.
20• Drunk By Noon, Sally Timms
Sally Timms of the Mekons covering a song by the Handsome Family, formerly of Chicago. This song is so sublime, Sally’s sweet voice murmuring the near-nonsense words that culminate in one of my favorite lyrical couplets ever.
There once was a poodle who thought he was a cowboy, But he lived in a cage the size of his thumb. And, though his white horse was a box of toothpicks, He galloped around until hit by a car. Sometimes I flap my arms like a hummingbird Just to remind myself I'll never fly. Sometimes I burn my arms with cigarettes Just to pretend I won't scream when I die. If my life was as long as the moon's, I'd still be jealous of the sun. If my life lasted only one day, I'd still be drunk by noon. Sometimes I can't wait to come down with cancer. At least then I'll get to watch TV all day. And on my deathbed I'll get all the answers Even if all my questions are taken away. If my life was as long as the moon's, I'd still be jealous of the sun. If my life lasted only one day, I'd still be drunk by noon
This was released on a hard-to-find EP called Cowboy Sally that is well worth searching out. The rest of the songs are also covers, though she owns them totally and completely. But this song is one that always connects with me. And often when I’m drunk by noon.