Sunday, April 18, 2010

Writer’s Jukebox – Dancerock, Memories, and B-Sides

I'm old! Every week, I feel like starting with a general “We’re back!,” but thanks to the efforts of my colleagues, that’s no longer feeling appropriate.  We have good momentum rolling into the Spring months and I don’t want to let it go.  So without further ado, I present your contributors for the week.

Pankin trolls through the Electric Six catalogue, which is helpful to me since I haven’t even thought of them since I first heard their breakthrough single.  Chris recalls road trips and the soundtracks that accompanied them.  Last but not least, Boivin digs through the lesser-known cuts by Weezer and Morrissey.

Let’s-a go!

Pankin – Dancerocking with the Electric Six

Electric Six burst on the scene in the early 2000's with such manic insane dance hits as "Danger! High Voltage" and "Gay Bar" off their album Fire. No one was really sure what to make of them: they received drastically mixed and polarized reviews. Some of their shtick smacks of a novelty act, like the practice of every band member adopting a pseudonym while they play. (And, also, no one has been able to figure out if that was in fact Jack White singing second-lead vocals on "High Voltage.")

But something about the "lusty growl" of singer Dick Valentine (Tyler Spencer), and the unabashed raw energy and unfettered delight with which they play songs about the decadence of the new fiery disco scene makes it difficult to turn away. I certainly couldn't turn away from their second album, Senor Smoke, which includes such biting commentaries on today's society as "Rock and Roll Evacuation" and "Future Boys," while sticking with their roots in intense dancerock ("Dance Epidemic"). And I've yet to hear a modern song more curiously haunting and poignant than the prophetic "Jimmy Carter," which heralds the rise to stardom of the Backstreet Boys as the first sign of the coming apocalypse.

They backed off a little on their next album Switzerland, as expressed by the neutrality-themed album title and the song "Pulling the Plug On the Party." But a return to form was forthcoming in the appropriately titled I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me from Being the Master. (The album's closer, "Dirty Looks," takes the rock ballad to a twisted new level.) They've definitely embarked on a descent into the depths ("Lucifer Airlines," "The Band in Hell") on which not many are willing to join - of the original six members that made up the band, only Valentine remains.

But I'm with them all the way, even if I don't understand their ultimate message or goal. We'll see if their two latest albums (Flashy and KILL, both of which I'm nearly totally unfamiliar with) will shed any light on where this six-piece dance-rock-pop-electronica-alternative-sinning-devil-decadent-gender confused powergroup is heading in the future.

Chris – Down Home Country Nostalgia

I've been experiencing a strange type of musical nostalgia. When I was seven years old, my family moved across the country. The actual trip is rather hazy, but I do remember distinctly the mixtape of country music that my mom made, and that we played incessantly during the very long drive. In the past few weeks, I've collaborated with her to reconstruct that mixtape, and because of this, I've been listening to a lot of country music from circa 1993. 

Some of it is better than I remember, and some of it is worse. There's songs like "Fishing in the Dark" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a catchy ballad about love on a hot summer night. But then there are songs like "Working Man's Ph.D" by Aaron Tippin, an embarrassingly kitschy tribute to blue collar workers ("There ain't no shame in a job well done / From driving a nail to driving a tee-ruck").

Yet, for the most part, early nineties country music is pretty good stuff - especially compared to the country music of today. During that era, the genre was in a transition phase; Garth Brooks was a major player on the scene, distilling country into more palatable pop songs, and some of the music of the time reflects that. But there's still the lingering tradition of outlaw country music, and the Johnny Cashes and Willie Nelsons of the world still held some influence. The tension between the old and the new is perhaps best expressed in Toby Keith's 1993 hit "Should've Been a Cowboy". Here, Keith laments that he never fulfilled the dreams of his youth; the song is melancholic and heartbreaking, paying tribute to country's outlaw roots while acknowledging that the era of true cowboys is over.

Alas, country music was doomed. In the early nineties, country artists were still able to release delightfully ironic songs like "Queen of My Double Wide Trailer" with a wink and a smile. But somewhere along the line the joke got lost; by the time Kenny Chesney released "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" in 1999, country music had imploded, consumed by its own kitsch, and was pandering to the most vile and offensive stereotypes of rural America. Country artists and audiences used to be in on the joke; now, I'm not sure if either artists or audience are even aware of the joke.

In 2010, country music stands in two camps - the tacky Southern stereotype ("International Harvester") and the sickeningly sweet pop song (anything by Taylor Swift).  But country didn't always have to be a choice between gimmicky redneck ballads and bubblegum pop; I'll take my mom's 1993 country mixtape over modern country music any day.

Boivin – Bodacious B-Sides

I think B-sides can be some of the most interesting songs in an artist's catalog. My fascination probably stems from the time I downloaded nearly every one of Weezer's B-sides and outtakes circa 2002. There were quite a few gems buried in there, many of which have gone on to become classics among Weezer fans such as "Jamie", "Mykel and Carli","You Gave Your Love To Me Softly" etc.

The thing about B-sides and their like is that they are a sort of  fun game for musical superfans, you have to research and discover them lurking around the internet or the dark recesses of your local record store. And with the passing of the LP format, we've seen fewer reasons for B-sides to exist (they're on the "B" side of a single, you see). But they're out there.

I recently picked up Morrissey's Swords, a collection of B-sides and outtakes from his post-You Are The Quarry comeback era. Morrissey is one of those artists who for one reason or another have made it very easy for the public to track down their B-sides in the age of CDs. Even before that, the Smiths' most essential album was in fact a B-sides compilation (Louder Than Bombs, do a Smiths"Music Snob", Chris!) and Moz has continued the tradition of putting out such compilations to the present day.

While Swords certainly isn't the sheer awesomeness that Morrissey's previous B-side endeavor Bona Drag was, there are some good ones on it. In particular I like "Christian Dior", "Sweetie Pie", "Munich Air Disaster 1958", and "Friday Mourning". It should also be said that "If You Don't Like Me, Don't Look At Me" deserves special mention for Most Morrissey-ish Title Ever. My absolute favorite on this collection though and the reason I handed over my $14.00 is Morrissey's live cover of one of my favorite David Bowie songs "Drive-In Saturday", because it's Morrissey covering Bowie and how has that not been a dream of yours since you were a child?