Friday, August 29, 2014
Bob Dylan – “Abandoned Love” from Biograph (1985 Columbia)


My opinion of Bob Dylan tends to change with the weather. For me he falls into a class of artists who are so prolific that I don’t even know how to take their body of work as a whole. It’s so much it overwhelms. When it comes time to talk about Neil Young or Elvis Costello, I’ll be expressing a similar sentiment, I can assure you.

I realize, however, that this Shuffler deal isn’t set up in a way that requires me to make a definitive statement about each artist, especially one as prone to genius and madness as Dylan. More important is that I like this song, and I do. Recorded a year after “Forever Young” (but not released until a decade later), this song gives a similar feel, begging you to sit down at the warm and cozy outdoor dinner table with the Bravermans. Or it could be that I’m approaching middle age and waiting to Hulu an episode of Parenthood with my wife. Who can really say?

Here’s a better question. Why are rock musicians not writing lyrics like this today? Or are they? Apparently Dylan was going through a divorce at the time that he wrote this song, which makes the lyrics and the haunting melody that goes with them all the more penetrating. I’ve included them below in their entirety, which is especially helpful given that the video version I’ve included contains Spanish subtitles.

I’m grateful for this Shuffler business, and for those of you who continue to click and read. I know I wouldn’t have stopped to really notice this song and listen deliberately to it without having created these constraints, and I’m glad I did it.

I can hear the turning of the key
I’ve been deceived by the clown inside of me
I thought that he was righteous but he’s vain
Oh, something’s a-telling me I wear the ball and chain
My patron saint is a-fighting with a ghost
He’s always off somewhere when I need him most
The Spanish moon is rising on the hill
But my heart is a-tellin’ me I love ya still
I come back to the town from the flaming moon
I see you in the streets, I begin to swoon
I love to see you dress before the mirror
Won’t you let me in your room one time ’fore I finally disappear?
Everybody’s wearing a disguise
To hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes
But me, I can’t cover what I am
Wherever the children go I’ll follow them
I march in the parade of liberty
But as long as I love you I’m not free
How long must I suffer such abuse
Won’t you let me see you smile one time before I turn you loose?
I’ve given up the game, I’ve got to leave
The pot of gold is only make-believe
The treasure can’t be found by men who search
Whose gods are dead and whose queens are in the church
We sat in an empty theater and we kissed
I asked ya please to cross me off-a your list
My head tells me it’s time to make a change
But my heart is telling me I love ya but you’re strange
One more time at midnight, near the wall
Take off your heavy makeup and your shawl
Won’t you descend from the throne, from where you sit?
Let me feel your love one more time before I abandon it.



With your beard newly full
and the banks of your eyes failing,
I turned, unceremoniously, and left.

An altar of stone, countless arches
receding to the kind of tiny ache
that grows to insurmountable heights.

This, put plainly, is loss.
It’s every friend I ever left,
the time I narrowly escaped arrest

protesting some illegal war or another
only to watch it unfold in night vision
on the cable news networks of the day.

Grandiose gestures are the bricks
we hurl at inefficacy, only to wind up
pushed down, wriggling out of flexicuffs.

Please wait for me at home, as I await
processing. I swear I’ll make it up to you,
I swear this time I’ll stay and fight.


Thursday, August 28, 2014
Billy Bragg – “The Passion” from Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (1986 Go! Discs/Elektra)


Wasn’t somebody just complaining about the lack of apocryphal stories on this blog? Well, do I have a treat for you. I remember buying this album on the now-on-trend-but-then-conventional cassette format somewhere around 1990 as a gift for my older sister. It was one of too-few trips that I made to the now-defunct Northern Lights Records in downtown Minneapolis. Young people will be surprised to learn that a) there was once a time where one could purchase music in downtown Minneapolis* and b) Billy Bragg was doing Frank Turner’s deal before Frank Turner.**

These days Billy Bragg kind of looks like what might happen if you accidentally washed your favorite pants but forgot that you had an Anderson Cooper or a Conan O’Brien in one of the pockets. That’s entirely irrelevant, but also fairly true. What I appreciate about him, though, is less superficial — it’s his radical left-leaning politics. In my time on this planet, I’ve observed the way the world works, and I think that working people need all the voices they can get, and if one of those voices happens to be socialist and has one of those funny accents, well, so be it.

In this instance, Billy is making the personal political, or actually just personal. This is a song about a young couple expecting a baby girl long before they are emotionally ready to deal with parenthood, or, for that matter, each other:

It pains her to learn that some things will never be right
If the baby is just someone else to take sides in a fight
Harsh words between bride and groom
The distance is greater each day
He smokes alone in the next room
And she knits her life away

It isn’t a happy song; there’s no resolution, save for the refrain “sometimes it takes a grown man a long time to learn / Just what it takes a child a night to learn.” It is, however, a real snapshot, a kind of working-class Raymond Carver portrayal of what can happen to people and their lives almost without their knowledge, and it’s set to the minimalist soundtrack lf Billy and his guitar.

I understand why pop music isn’t often this honest — it makes people uncomfortable — still, I wish this level of honesty in music wasn’t quite so rare.

I’ve always enjoyed the evocative title of this album, but didn’t know until now that it is named after a poem by the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. My sister probably knew — apparently the poem is included in the liner notes.

* I think there’s maybe a Whole Foods in downtown Minneapolis these days. If it’s anything like the Whole Foods I frequent in Orange County, one could, unbelievably, purchase the middling At the Drive-In 10” Vaya for $20, among other vinyl releases that are for some reason available at the supermarket.

** I’m not super duper familiar with Frank Thomas, but upon watching him from a distance, have good feelings about him. I was just using him as a point of illustration. I suppose I could just have easily have picked on John Sampson of the Weakerthans, someone I also enjoy.

I was unable to locate video of this song. If anyone has more success than I did, please let me know.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014
My Bloody Valentine – “Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)” from Isn’t Anything (1988 Creation Records)


I feel like the first thing that I should say is that there are a lot of people who are rabid My Bloody Valentine fans. This was easy enough to discover, via social media, when MBV recently “came back.” Those same people would probably be horrified to learn that I am, at best, a casual listener. Worse, I suppose, is that I routinely characterize their sound as “bendy,” and worse still, I often confuse the band with the Jesus and Mary Chain (in my defense, they toured together in 1992).

This song is bendy. And because of the vocals and drum machine, sounds to me a bit like New Order. Which is to say that I can take it or leave it. Wikipedia offers this:

“Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)” was also released as a promotional single in the United States in December 1988. Neither of the album’s retail singles charted.

The lyrics, it turns out, are pretty juicy, as excerpted here:

Touch your head, then your hair
Softer, softer everywhere
Fingertips are burning
Can I touch you there
Soft as velvet, eyes can see
Bring me close to ecstasy
High away to heaven
And I’m coming too

I’d like to have some apocryphal tale to offer in conjunction with my visceral indifference, but I don’t really have one. I appreciate bendy because it’s different. I’m not going to delete this song, but I don’t have a whole lot of high praise for it, either. I was initially interested in and still understand the importance that this band played in the development of the shoegazer sound, a term that I don’t fully understand to this day and believe is likely misused more often than not.

Okay, one final thing I’ll say. The kids, the young people, have this band now called Bullet for My Valentine. Whatever lack of enthusiasm I may have displayed about MBV, I have to say, there’s just no call for that sort of thing, and doesn’t bode well for the future — of rock, of anything.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Devo – “Ono” from Hardcore Devo Volume One: 74-77 (1990/2013 Rykodisc)


At this point I think a lot of us look back at Devo as those weird Ohio art rockers with the flowerpots on their heads who sang that cute “Whip It” song. They were zany, kind of camp, and isn’t one of those weirdos on Yo Gabba Gabba now?

All of these things are true, and I’m guilty of thinking of them in this way as well, but what I didn’t know was that the group was formed at Kent State, and that Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale actually witnessed the National Guard mowing down student protesters at that campus on May 4, 1970. Classmates and friends of theirs. And apparently, according to Casale, this was the impetus for everything after, when he “started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”

For me, that colors my entire view of Devo, a band I kind of had heard in the background ether, but, if I’m being honest, didn’t really deliberately explore until hearing Skankin’ Pickle cover “Gates of Steel.” Look, it is what it is, okay?

It’s difficult, now, to hear anger in Devo’s songs unless you go looking for it. There have been so many subsequent challenges to what music is or should sound like, it’s hard to really understand exactly how devolutionary the band was at the time. Here is some context:

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1974

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1975

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1976

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1977

Certainly not all terrible, but it’s easy to see how it maybe didn’t seem relevant to young people who had seen the government’s most bloody response to the student movement. And given that, it’s easy to see how Devo wanted to fashion themselves as a sort of wrench in the gears of a system that allows for that sort of thing.

Thankfully, it is impossible to think of anything even remotely analogous in today’s headlines.

“Ono” is a song that, like a lot of Devo’s music, could be about anything for as much as the lyrics make sense. They are dark, frustrated, possibly sexual (though not necessarily), and for some reason, the song is named after John Lennon’s surviving wife, a disruptive artist in her own rite.

The music is kind of herky jerky, culminating in a buzzing of synths that builds throughout, sounding eventually like an air raid siren that is paired with mad, desperate laughter. It isn’t just a bunch of weirdos being weird, it’s rage, and if it doesn’t make any sense, I suppose that’s because it existed in a time that didn’t make any sense. A time, perhaps, not so different from our own.


Monday, August 25, 2014
Atmosphere – “Pour Me Another” from You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having (2005 Rhymesayers Entertainment)


Oh, Atmosphere. I have such a love/hate relationship with Atmosphere, generally coming down on the far side of the opinion that they’re fairly overrated. That’s not a thing you can really say in Minneapolis, and I may yet catch some flak for saying it from California.

In a DJ/MC duo situation, the personality most prominent is always going to be that of the MC, and that’s unfortunate, because Slug is so problematic. At times he’s incredibly vulnerable, which I have always found compelling — really, I think he was at the vanguard of rappers who were willing to poke holes in the usual bluster and braggadocio. The rest of the time, though, he just comes off as, well, a creep. The worst part is that he seems to recognize his creepish, chemically dependent, womanizing tendencies, and is vulnerable about them, but self awareness about one’s faults absent any real action is pretty gross, especially when made fodder for entertainment. Eventually this thing will shuffle me over to one of Tim Kasher’s projects, and I’ll be retreading the same gripe.

In the meantime, though, what really carries things, especially on this song, is Ant’s production. He has a knack for finding soul and gospel piano hooks to sample and build beats around, featuring Laura Lee’s “We’ve Come Too Far to Walk Away” here. I suppose that if Minneapolis hip-hop has a sound, this is it, as Ant has produced many a song in this vein for both Atmosphere and Brother Ali, arguably the town’s best-known entities.

Lyrically, this is a song about getting fucked up both in love and at the bar. Slug is so transparent about the endurance of this theme that he reaches back five years to reference a better song from the Ford Two EP:

Bottles and pints, and shots and cans
Couches and floors, and drunk best friends
Models and whores, and tattooed hands
Cities and secrets and cats and vans

Atmosphere is a group that could have moved on from Minneapolis indie rap label Rhymesayers Entertainment years ago, but has consistently rejected offers from major labels in favor of keeping things in the local community. That’s a big deal, and I have a ton of respect for it. I remain conflicted about the group as a whole, to the point where I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel when I hear Slug repping “the whole Southside” as the title track to their newest album makes its way to KCRW’s playlist and the greater Los Angeles public radio listening public. Is this the guy we want representing us to the world?

I don’t know. I really don’t.


Friday, August 22nd, 2014
Neurosis – “Purify” from Through Silver in Blood (1996, Relapse)


It almost doesn’t even seem fair to have to try to describe Neurosis. This song has elements of being buried aliveindustrial music, and drumming that we always referred to, ignorantly, as tribal. Neurosis is a band that started with more of a straight ahead punk approach in the mid eighties, but were always real dark and real heavy, and seemed to spend the rest of their career looking inward with those two ideas in mind (for further proof of this ineradicable darkness, check the lyrics below).

I first heard Neurosis during the Through Silver in Blood era. At that time, my friends and I were listening to a lot of metal-influenced hardcore. I think there was always a sense among us that Neurosis was a hardcore-influenced metal band. They came from hardcore, but they didn’t need it, per se, and that was compelling.

There was a time in Minneapolis when just about every other dog-owning crust punk spare-changing passersby on the corner had on a Neurosis shirt. Contrast this with the fact that straightedge hardcore kids were devouring their records as well, and you get a sense of the sort of genre-busting influence of Neurosis in the nineties. In some ways, I think, a lot of what they were doing in those days paralleled what bands like Godpseed You Black Emperor and their ilk were doing more quietly.

In that spirit, let me close by mentioning that this song ends with the absolute heaviest bit of bagpiping anybody’s ever heard.

Blazing eye sees all
Nature of firey triumph
Patterns unfold
Whispers revealing
Path of spiral reaps
Fetal buried gold
Humbled in the womb
A centre opens
To the unknown
Can you feel your fate
Can you see you’re
Biding time hide
From your life
Drowning in the birth
Place of the sun
Descending the path
Of an ascending god
Purify my hells to
Climb the heavens
Sacrifice the flesh
Feeding solar visions
Set your mind to soil
Set your mind to soil
In darkness
Bringing light
A knowing old
A knowing wise
Flames to blades
On earth, stabbing
Scorching sacred lust
Fall back to stone
Fall back on spear