Thursday, May 24, 2018

Albums of Influence: Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits

Writing about personal influences, it is easy to become preoccupied with selecting works for their signalling value, demonstrating diverse, unusual, or good taste. I have tried to avoid picking things that are too obvious -- there are a pile of canonical records that every rock musician would or could pick (anything by The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, etc.), and a huge assortment of albums that any musician with similar taste or born in similar times would pick.

When I think about how music became embedded in my life, I think about how often I heard it, and where I heard it. Some records were so present you almost forget about them or take them for granted, like breathing air.

So it is with Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits.

My father was a fan. To this day, "The Boxer" remains one of his favorite songs. It is easy to see why -- its distinctive crashing percussion, oboe solo, lyrics, melody, and hook are strong by any standards.

That is why, when I was writing the first Sid Luscious album, I thought it would be fun and clever to swap Duran Duran's "doo-doo-doos" from "Hungry Like The Wolf" for "lie-lie-lies" from "The Boxer".

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Dad had a cassette of this album, and it was one of a small selection he frequently played in his car. Others included Giorgio Moroder's soundtracks for "Cat People" (with David Bowie!) and "American Gigolo" (with Blondie!). But this was a consistent favorite.

Throughout my pre-driving years, going to soccer games or Saturday tae kwon do or running errands on weekends, I heard this record over and over. I memorized every song.

At first, I just listened as the songs breezed past. Eventually I sang along with the melodies. I began to notice the production details and how they worked with the songs. Then I heard the words, and was struck by how melancholy nearly every song was.

Paul Simon is a tremendously gifted songwriter. He writes great melodies and memorable hooks, without leaning on too many stylistic crutches. I also think he can be an incredible lyricist. Those early songs have a kind of "collegiate blues" that resonate so strongly with young adults and university students, at least from the kind of East Coast suburban background that I knew so well.

Then there are the harmonies. I would (and have) suggest this record to anyone who wants to learn how to write interesting harmonies. These guys do some unusual and interesting things with their harmony choices, and it is one of the most distinctive and memorable parts of their sound, especially when paired with their voices, which are expressive without resorting to yelling or "edge" of any sort.

I don't even have to post clips. You already know what Simon and Garfunkel sound like. Unlike some of the other bands or records I love, they're not weird. They didn't go in unusual directions. They stayed consistent during their run.

This record is not a particularly bold or cool choice. Greatest Hits aren't the right way to listen to music, but I've still heard this one so much when I hear their actual albums, the songs feel like they're in the wrong order.

I still listen to Simon and Garfunkel, and it still gives me chills. "Scarborough Fair" is beautiful and timeless. "The Boxer" is still epic.

When I consider influence, I think of those melancholy lyrics, those beautiful and catchy melodies. I have tried (and largely failed) to get close. I have definitely tried to copy those harmonies from time to time. That sort of thing is a little bit easier to emulate. I dream of writing songs so good, so moving, so timeless. Maybe on my next album (but probably not).

Countless bands owe these guys a debt. REM shamelessly ripped off "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and called it "Everybody Hurts". I hear echoes in other indie groups, and almost everyone with an acoustic guitar.

These days Simon and Garfunkel are used as comedy shorthand -- the "Sounds of Silence" riff used in shows like "Arrested Development" as a kind of parody of feelings first married to music in "The Graduate", then and now, one of the best pairings of music and movie.

British TV show "The Detectorists" even used the album cover as a way to define two characters:

Doesn't matter. I still love 'em.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Albums of Influence: 1999 by Prince

It is not surprising that many of the albums I find influential date back to my teenage years. I've written before about how those fresh ears and feelings make everything feel more powerful. I consider myself fortunate that some of the albums that landed in that fertile environment were so good. And few albums are as perfect for a teenager to get lost in as Prince's masterpiece "1999".

Released in 1982 (I was in 8th grade), I first knew it through the heavily-played radio singles -- the anthemic title track and the sly, sexy "Little Red Corvette".

"Little Red Corvette" is an unusual and beautiful song. Rather than kicking off quickly and strong, as most pop songs do, it slides in, gliding on those slinky OB-8 synthesizer chords and that understated Linn beat. The song builds slowly, releasing into the chorus. As far as I was concerned, it had everything: synthesizers, electronic drums, guitar, and suggestive and naughty lyrics. And it was catchy.

"1999" was a slightly more traditional single, but still weird. You don't normally hear vocals trading off the way Prince does it. Full of quotable lyrics, and again, instantly memorable.

Both of the videos got into rotation on MTV and other outlets. They aren't exactly high-budget, and are straightforward performance videos. But that only serves to emphasize how amazing Prince and The Revolution look. They remind me of Buckaroo Banzai's Hong Kong Cavaliers. One guy is wearing scrubs. The guitar player is about as new wave as it gets, with Japanese headband and angular shirt. They have synchronized dancing. Full-on show-biz. The band is multi-racial and includes women. The band exudes sex, and in a somewhat dirty way, too.

Based on the strength of those 2 tracks, and a few others I had heard on mix tapes, I bought "1999". I got a lot more than I bargained for.

"1999" is a big record in every way. It's a double album, for starters. The songs are long, with most clocking in around 6 minutes. The shortest is 4 minutes and the longest at 9:28. It almost feels like Prince decided to release the 12-inch mixes of all the songs, rather than tight edits. He gives them room to stretch and digress.

Reflecting the collage on the cover, it feels like Prince laying out his manifesto and agenda. Prince has literally cut up his previous albums and used those elements to build his new record. Look closely and you'll see the eyes and button from the "Controversy" cover, and some black-and-white stuff snipped from "Dirty Mind". There are cryptic symbols and vaguely religious drawings. It's also remarkable the cover wasn't censored, as the "1" in "1999" is clearly a penis.

Thematically, the album covers a lot of ground, too. There are very few ideas in Prince's catalog that don't show up here, and some show up here first. "1999" is an anti-nuke/anti-war song. The beautiful "Free" seems to be a song of gratitude decades before "gratitude culture". There's a whole spectrum of relationship songs, covering infatuation, seduction, heartbreak, and loneliness.

And, because it is a Prince record, it is also strange and weird. And sexy in a dark, slightly dangerous (or at least non-normative) way. Prince's devotion on the Numan-ish "Automatic" is so intense that he has lost his own will. He'll "rub your back FOREVER" and he'll "go down on U all night long", and when he sings it, you feel his desire.

But you also feel his heartbreak. I played "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)" over and over, nodding my head as Prince laments:

U think you're special well so do I
Why do special women make me cry
Does not compute
Don't not compute
Must be somethin in the water they drink
It's been the same with every girl I've had
Must be somethin in the water they drink
Why else would a woman wanna treat a man so bad

The song is driven by a restless, echoing drum machine and punctuated by self-consciously sci-fi synths, which burble and flow. Prince's vocal builds intensity throughout, starting out conversational, growing pleading, accusing, until finally he is wailing with all the pent-up frustration so familiar to teenagers everywhere. And because it's Prince, it also does some musically interesting things as well.

The ending suite of "Lady Cab Driver" and "All The Critics Love U in New York" are also strange and fantastic. Both songs have unusual vibes. The former has a delicate vocal over a groovy human drumbeat, and seems like a straightforward confessional come-on song...until the shocking bridge where creaking bedsprings provide the background for simulated sex while Prince enumerates a number of injustices ranging from why he wasn't born like his brother (handsome and tall) to "the rich" (not all of them, just the greedy, the ones that don't know how to give, to (bizarrely) Yosemite Sam, and the tourists at Disneyland. You've never heard anything like it, and he sells it.

"All The Critics Love U" is an effortless doodle that is still more compelling than most tracks on other hit records. Prince sounds like he's having fun, and it's hard not to have fun with him, as he flips around through attitudes and couplets that describe how "you don't have to keep the beat, they'll still think it's New York."

But for me the centerpiece and highlight of the record (if not Prince's entire career) is "D.M.S.R.", a menacing dance track. The groove is powerful, and the lyrics are full of a strutting confidence every teenager covets. Prince sings with some edge to his voice, which darkens the already verge-of-danger lyrics. The song feels like a party about to spiral out of control and turn into a street riot, a vibe reinforced by the strange ending where a woman is pleading for someone to call the police and to help her. It's like a teen movie directed by David Lynch.

Throughout, "1999" does not disappoint. It surprises and entertains, and if the worst thing you can say about it is that "Delirious" might be a bit long (at over 9 minutes), well, fine. It's still memorable.

I spent many a night with headphones on, listening to this album, and still know it better than most of the albums I own. Aside from the great music, there was what the album represented to me: another element of that just-around-the-corner new wave utopia. Here comes a black guy playing rock music that redefines genres. He's got this killer diverse band. He's against all the right things and for all the right things. But instead of the 60s-hippie "let's all love each other", he stares right at you and says "let's all fuck."

How could that dream not resonate with a teenager?

Perhaps those "adult" themes didn't consciously influence me, but I have to believe they had at least a subconscious effect on my own worldview. A different kind of influence, and a record that "changed my life".

Prince did the record almost completely himself -- his band is credited only with backing vocals and a guitar solo. And yet, for such a controlled solo record, it feels remarkably loose and improvised. But the fact this was a one-person project was not lost on me, and yet, he also had this great live band -- a template that (somewhat unwittingly) I would replicate in my own life.

The modernism of the record -- its matter-of-fact adoption and integration of current technologies -- also seemed ahead of its time. Prince wasn't using new sounds as a gimmick, he made it his palette and his clay. That also registered. You could make music with synthesizers and drum machines that wasn't Kraftwerky or self-consciously "space music". It could be sexy and dangerous.

Prince's inclusionary attitude must again be mentioned. Despite this really being a solo album, one of the inner sleeves featured a photo of him in front of his band. You see more than one race, more than one gender. Not presented in a schoolhouse-special-corny-moralizing way. Again, very matter-of-fact. This is The Revolution (in every sense). They look bad-ass. Too few bands and artists neglected to copy or pick up on this aspect of Prince's work.

Prince was a once-in-a-lifetime genius. He would go on to record more successful albums. While "1999" was the 5th best-selling album of the year, his next record would be the chart-dominating "Purple Rain". Prince would make better-sounding records."1999" is kinda murky and demo-ey, which isn't necessarily fits with the kind of grimy proto-indie thing he was doing, but doesn't quite do his talent justice. Prince would make weirder records and more sprawling records, most notably "Sign O' The Times". He had made rawer records ("Dirty Mind"). And, sadly, he would make some very bad albums (let's not name names).

But he would never, ever make a better record than "1999".

And now he's gone. I still miss him.  

Monday, May 21, 2018

Albums of Influence: Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen

In 1991, I was working as a secretary in a small office in Beverly Hills by day, and at night, rehearsing and writing songs with my band.

The job was easy, and I had a lot of time on my hands. I spent a lot of it trying to fill in what I felt were gaps in my musical education. I read a lot of books, and spent my money on what seemed to be important records that I hadn't heard.

I didn't have a lot of money, and records were expensive. I kept a list of what I thought I needed to hear and worked my way through it. At some point in the year, I received an unexpected bonus of something like $50. I headed for Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard.

I was going to buy "Nebraska" by Bruce Springsteen.

I knew The Boss from the big radio hits. I had heard "Hungry Heart", "Thunder Road", "Born To Run", "4th of July, Asbury Park", "The River". My father had a cassette of "Born In The USA" when it came out, and between listening to it in his car and the endless radio airplay the album received, I knew that record all too well.

Springsteen seemed like a good songwriter, but maybe a little too bombastic, with his giant bar band sounding and seeming kind of dated to my raised-on-new-wave ears.

But everyone talked about how great "Nebraska" was.

They were right.

After some acoustic guitar, Springsteen opens the album with these words:

Saw her standin' on her front lawn
Just a-twirlin' her baton
Me and her went for a ride, sir
And ten innocent people died

Listening to the album for the first time, I was floored. Instead of loud, overblown rock, this was almost folk or country. The album is famously little more than a 4-track demo, featuring a vocal track or two, an acoustic guitar, and maybe some harmonica or other minor embellishment.

Where Springsteen's other albums were heavily produced, "Nebraska" was lo-fi. Springsteen had hollered from the stage to the cheap seats. Here, he was whispering to you, or sitting right in front of you.

The desperation in his other works was cranked up to gothic maximum here, with no release, no escape, and no future. The songs all told stories or sketched out vignettes. It was like a collection of short stories, all told in the same grainy, blurry black-and-white with bold splashes of blood red that the album's cover displayed.

I put it on a cassette, with Nirvana's "Nevermind" on the other side. It barely left my car's player for a year.

"Nebraska" helped me understand how hard you could hit by barely doing anything. It is a remarkable magic trick.

I had been trying to write songs that were sweeping statements about feelings and the world, and had been increasingly abstracting my lyrics. It wasn't working.

Springsteen, on the other hand, seemed to connect to something universal by being incredibly specific. Where I was trying to draw almost mathematical equations, he wrote stories. He hit hard with just his voice, sometimes barely rising above a whisper, and a guitar. I took note.

Here also were dark, bitter songs that still were hooky, catchy, memorable. Something you could sing along to. Some of the melodies sound like folk songs or hymns. This was an important lesson (and one which it seems Springsteen himself would forget on the similar-but-lesser "Ghost of Tom Joad").

"Nebraska" made me a Springsteen evangelist, and caused me to go back through his catalog with a different and more critical ear. To this day, I tell everyone it is by far his best record.

This album also made me really re-think how I wrote lyrics. Fortunately, I haven't really tried to directly copy this style. I'm not as good a storyteller. I can't pull off Bruce's "I'm just an ordinary guy" pose. And I can't play folk/country acoustic guitar the way he can.

"Nebraska" remains a critical favorite in the rock canon. I hear its influence in countless ways. The entire "lo-fi" movement. All 90s "indie rock". There are many acts who have tried to find a spot somewhere on the spectrum between Leonard Cohen's elegant acoustic despair and Springsteen's 3am Americana. Most don't come anywhere close.

I don't listen to "Nebraska" frequently. It's a bit much for me these days. But it is always in my car and on my phone, and when the mood hits, there's nothing else like it.