Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Song Du Jour: "Respectable Street" by XTC

(Black Sea, 1980)

Perhaps one of XTC's greatest singles, at least the ones released in the UK, "Respectable Street" launched the band headfirst into ground already paved by Ray Davies, minus the musical throwback to British dance hall, British folk, and chamber music. Oh, sure, the song starts with a scratchy Victrola, like something coming out of late Victorian and Edwardian England, or The Village Green Preservation Society, but the rest is pure XTC (no pun intended): loud drums, energetic jerky vocals and guitars, witty lyrics. The songwriting duo that was Alan Partridge and Colin Moulding made XTC one of the stand out bands of the whole British punk and new wave explosion and into the respected art-pop we all know and love. "Respectable Street," a Partridge number, showcased the band's satirical side as they took on social ills affecting British society, all the while never losing their sense of humor:

Heard the neighbour slam his car door
Don't he realise this is respectable street
What d'you think he bought that car for
'cos he realise this is respectable street

From then on, the rigid British class system and the snobbery it breeds, abortion, sex positions, gardening, all become targets. "Respectable Street" foreshadowed XTC's foray into more British themed, as well as mature songwriting, would lose some early fans, especially with albums like Skylarking because of its polished studio sound and Sgt. Pepper tendencies. "Respectable Street,"off the album Black Sea, combined the new lyrical direction with their high energy sound. One of their best. Don't worry, I'll get to "Science Friction," "Making Plans for Nigel" & "Senses Working Overtime" soon enough.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Song Du Jour: "(Antichrist Television Blues)" by the Arcade Fire

I hope I say this first before Pitchfork, AllMusic, Rolling Stone etc. all do. (Antichrist Television Blues) off Neon Bible (out sometime in March) owes a considerable debt to Springsteen. In fact, this song would have fit comfortably on some of the Boss's darker albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town & Nebraska, being the first to come to mind. Maybe even as a darker number on The River or Born in the USA.

Win Butler's singing voice mimics Springsteen's as well as his strumming (guitar style. Its a frantic, paranoid little number laced with subtle orchestration, soft and high-pitched harmonies, and the occasional chimes from a distant piano. 9/11 imagery (Don't wanna work in a building downtown/Cause the planes keep crashing always two by two), Christian righteousness (Dear God, I'm a good Christian man/I'm your boy, I know you understand) & millenial desires (Wanna see the cities rust/And the troublemakers ridin' on the back of the bus) color the speaker's thoughts. Springsteen's anti-heroes from songs like "Atlantic City", "State Trooper" and the title track off Nebraska share the same panic & working class fatalism that the speaker in "Antichrist Television Blues" holds. After all, the speaker asks us and the unknown "little girl" where she (and us) was at his age. "I was workin' downtown for the minimum wage!" is his angry reply.

Resentment and renewal are prevalent in much of Springsteen's work. The speaker in "Atlantic City" promises his wife that all will be better once he does what he has to do, even if it means working with the criminal underworld. The fatalist cycle remains unbroken in a song like "Adam Raised a Cain"(You're born into this life paying/For the sins of somebody else's past). Butler's protagonist has, no doubt, been wandering the same darker landscapes in Springsteen's America, also filled with resentment for not seeing the full potential of a better life and calling for a renewal, but, in the form a new Messiah (Dear God, will you send me a child?)

He goes further:

Oh God, will you send me a child?
'cause I wanna put it up on the tv screen
So the world can see what your true Word means
Lord, won't you send me a sign?
'cause I just gotta know if I'm wastin' my time

Desperation is a powerful motivator and the speaker suddenly transforms into a prophet (Tell me what to say/ I'll be your mouthpiece). And just who is this "little girl" he keeps talking to? "Oh my little bird in a cage / I need you to get up for me up on that stage/Show all the men that you're old for your age" reads like a call for hyper pro-creation, perhaps being forced upon. He tells her to "Show the men it's not about the money/Want to hold a mirror up to the world." The speaker has now turned his inward anger on her and the decaying urban world around him. An urgent righteousness drives through him and despite showing brief moments of uncertainty, he soldiers on, like any good Christian patriot.

The Arcade Fire drive the song as both a militaristic Protestant hymn, with its highs, into a absolute frenzy of fire and brimstone and as an ambiguous ballad, with its lows, concerned with redemption and salvation. It is a curious mix as in my head I hear Jerry Falwell's callous comments blaming 9/11 on homosexuals & secular humanists contrast with Clive Owen's jaded face transforming into one of hope in the recent dystopian film Children of Men. These are the concerns of our times everyday flashed on HDTV filtered here in a pop song. And just when I am starting to put it all together, it ends, abruptly: (Threw me a kid, God, throw me a knife/So tell me Lord am I the Antichrist?)

The Montreal octet (I think there are 8 now) wowed us all with their 2004 debut Funeral, an album that masterfully combined an inward looking passion with a big and all encompassing sound, another characteristic they share with Springsteen. Whereas that album, however, dealt with death on a smaller and personal level, the Arcade Fire now strive for more ambitious and bigger concerns (religion, 9/11, terrorism, war etc). (Antichrist Television Blues), just one of the many songs on the album that carries this overall theme, stands out as a must hear. I make the comparison to Springsteen not to take away from the band's talents. On the contrary, I make it in effort to convince those with any doubts that the Arcade Fire are becoming a very good and important band.

R.I.P. Tower Records (1960-2006)

Tower Records passed away on December 22, 2006 after a long battle with bankruptcy. It was 46*. The Tower Records in Nanuet, NY & Tower Records on 68th & Broadway were my stores of choice. I can't tell you how many important albums in my life as well as movies & pop culture literature I bought in both those stores. Even in the age of downloading I still would regularly visit there, especially the one in Nanuet, whenever I was home from college and browse for new music, hidden gems, singles compilations. The Tower Records on 68th was always good to visit before or after seeing a movie at the Loews around there. Mainly it was there affordable prices that kept bringing me there (I was a fan of the 9.99 deals) but, also that they simply had a superior selection of music to choose from as opposed to Sam Goody, Best Buy, or FYE who perhaps have some of the safest music choices you can think of. The impact of the stores closure really didn't affect me until this weekend when I realized I no longer would have a reason really to drive to Nanuet anymore, which is something I usually do to kill time whenever I am home. SoulSeek and other online downloading services have been a stronger presence these days, but, it was nice knowing that a place like Tower existed and offered low prices. If I have the strength to plow through tourists & other gawkers, there is always the Virgin Mega Store on Times Square. You will be missed.

*Apparently, the store chain lives on in Ireland, Mexico, & Japan though in very small numbers.

More Pop Culture Wasteland: Ricky Gervais's Failed Singing Career

Ricky Gervais (The Office (UK), Extras) decided before entering comedy that he would have a go at the synth-pop heavy British pop world. The band, Seona Dancing, existed briefly between 1982-84.

What's catchier? David Brent's "Free Love Freeway" or Seona Dancing's...I don't know the name of this song actually.

Oddly enough, the band found success a year after they disbanded in 1985 with a hit single, "More to Lose," in all places...The Phillipines. Seona Dancing was in good company as The Zombies' 1964 single "The Way I Feel Inside," resurrected by Wes Anderson in the 2004 film Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, also became a huge hit there.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Lost in Translation?

Before Bill Murray, there was Charles Bronson. Check out this Japanese ad (circa 1970) for an aftershave called "Mandom" being plugged by the iconic 70s action star. Even a "shoot first, ask questions later" kinda guy like Bronson needs a sensitive yet appropriately manly aftershave to compliment a smooth shave.

More Recommended Reading: Our Band Could Be Your Life

Whether you have been inspired, intrigued, or angered by the posting below and are now willing to delve into the music underworld, your best bet is to start with the excellent book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad. The book chronicles the birth of American indie and "college" rock. It's title, taken from The Minutemen song "History Lesson, Pt II" refers to the power of punk rock and underground rock as a whole, emphasizing the "DIY" (Do It Yourself) attitude that seems to string these very diverse bands together.

Bands chronicled include:

Black Flag
The Minutemen
Mission of Burma
Minor Threat
Hüsker Dü
The Replacements
Sonic Youth
Butthole Surfers
Big Black
Dinosaur Jr.
Beat Happening

Salad Days Drenched in Vinegar (Beyond Classic Rock)

If you're understanding of rock and/or roll comes from Rolling Stone or classic rock radio then you just might believe the following: Rock peaked creatively sometime in the mid-70's and soon plunged into a dark age starting in the latter half of the 70s and all of the 1980s. All was lost until a savior known as Kurt of Aberdeen ressurrected rock during that fateful year, 1991. But then, he too would fade, dying for our "musical sins" and well, rock & popular music as a whole ain't what she used to be. Ahhh, I can already hear it, "Mannn, the 70s man, Zepplin, Hendrix, Clapton, Jim Morrison, that's what it was all about." Or, "I think the worst period of music was during the 80s, all superficial and filled with synthesizers. Give me that good old time rock mannn." Or, "The early 90s weren't too bad, you had grunge saving us from the hollowness of hair metal, synth pop and Madonna mannn." Personally, I haven't much use for Zepplin after 1970, Hendrix after 1967, and very little, if any, for the Doors beyond their greatest hits collection (If we're talking about the Oliver Stone movie, then that's entirely different. Val Kilmer works better as Jim Morrison for more me better than Jim Morrison works as himself). Clapton has always been a very gifted musician but his songwriting does very little for me, "Layla" being the obvious exception. As for Cobain, where do you think he got his early ideas from? Probably from that decade between 1979 and 1990.

The classic rock crowd won't let go of its stranglehold on the music history they have written for so long. It's their story and they are sticking to it. If any music today is deemed good, it is usually because it has been modeled after some period during the "salad days" of rock and roll. Don't get me wrong, my observation is in no way to diminish classic rock. I like the Zepplin BBC Sessions. The first few Jimi Hendrix Experience singles were wonderful. Jim Morrison was cool...sometimes. I love my Beatles and my Stones. I love a lot of it. Still, was that it? A big gray area continues to loom over the years 1977 to 1991 despite much ink being spilled over punk and every other maligned musical movement. And today's music scene is derided as way too hip for its own good. Many prefer to buy into the "older is better" theory, a theory that continues to discredit anything beyond established rock. Were the 70s & 90s really that flawless? The 1970s also gave us soft rock, run of the mill "singer-songwriters", the rise of AOR, and disco (for better and for worse). The 1990s gave us such wonderful acts like Dishwalla, Everclear, Third Eye Blind, Goo Goo Dolls, and hey, anyone remember The Rembrandts? (Friends theme). Oh, and who can forget, nu-metal with such winners like Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Creed. Very edgy, very "real." All of it sounded the same! Same pseudo-angst, "grungy" attitude now packaged and sold off.

Should we really blame the 1980s as the beginning of the decline? To me, that's just sheer laziness and ignorance. I use ignorance not to claim that I am hipper than most people or that I am smarter; rather, to point out that people haven't bothered to go beyond what they have been told, heard, or read for so long. True, indie rock acts of the 80s, 90s and 00's have not been above looking to the past for inspiration. Much of the first wave of punk rock during the 70s was, in fact, a reaction against the deemed self-indulgence of 70s rock, going back to a time when rock was simpler, their version of rock and roll's "salad days". However, with the admiration for the past there was also much willingness to move forward and experiment. Sythesizers, for example, have been derided for their supposed "cold" and "artificial" sound. Anything with a synth-like sound written off as "too 80's" or "dated." The guitar-bass-drum combo pre-dates the synthesizer far longer yet whenever there is a "rock revival" the words "fresh" and "organic" are thrown around to describe it. Guitars equate "real", sythesizers or sounds not related to traditional rock "fake."

The truth is that there was a very rich, vibrant, diverse rock scene during the 80s, 90s and continues throughout this current decade. You might not of heard it on the radio or read it in Rolling Stone's lists but in this blogger's opinion, there has never been a lull in rock and roll. Rock has existed above ground, it has fled underground. This blog will cover all of it, old and new. Stop listening to aging publications and stale radio formats.

Recommended Reading: 33 1/3

If you are truly interested in music then you should check out a wonderful little series, 33 1/3, published by Continuum Press. These books analyze seminal albums by different bands and musicians, old and new, well known and forgotten. So far there are 41 titles in the series with more on the way, all big enough to fit inside of your pocket. Wild!

For more check out their blog:

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Culture Vulture Welcomes You!

Here at Culture Vulture we pick at the bones of pop culture until they bleach and dry up enough to become high art. How's that for a metaphor? Zowey!