Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Shine On You Crazy Wiggle

He appeared like a ghost before the show and his specter hung over the entire evening.

Just before Australia’s biggest band took the stage in Kansas City on Tuesday night, founding front man Greg delivered a recorded message on the giant screen, explaining that a condition called orthostatic intolerance had forced him to retire from performing. He then ceremonially handed a long-sleeved t-shirt to a protégé named Sam, passing the torch to the new Yellow Wiggle.

With that, Sam – and original Wiggles Murray, Anthony and Jeff – stormed the stage in their Big Red Car, and they brought along all their famous friends. Captain Feathersword (the fifth Wiggle) was there, as were Wags the Dog, Dorothy the Dinosaur, and Henry the Octopus.

Still, it seemed like something was missing.

While Sam filled the yellow shirt admirably, as the night went along, it became clear that Greg was the David Lee Roth of the Wiggles. I realize that I’ve mixed classic rock metaphors here, but such is the power of the Wiggles, who bring Van Halen’s Big Lost Weekend to the pre-school set and mix it with trippy, mind-expanding psychedelia a la Pink Floyd (you watch a red-rose-eating, green-and-yellow-spotted, dress-and-hat-wearing dinosaur sing and dance and tell me that it’s without lysergic origins).

In the end, the problem was earnestness. Clearly feeling a duty to recreate the Wiggles experience as authentically as possible, Sam’s faithfulness bordered on mimicry, like when Ripper Owens temporarily filled Rob Halford’s leather, studs and codpiece in Judas Priest (the metaphors are coming at warp speed now). Lost was the insouciance and irreverence that Greg brought to the original band, stripping the psycho-sexual drama out of classics like “Fruit Salad,” “Joanie Works With One Hammer” and “Do the Monkey,” rendering them little more than children’s songs.

The evening still had its charms, though, as when the band went deeper into the catalog for tunes like “Swim Like a Fish” and “Romp-Bomp-A-Stomp,” leaving long-time fans overjoyed (though several clearly were disappointed that “Cruncy Munchy Honey Cakes” failed to make the set list). And the production was first-rate, with enough streamers and confetti to win over even the most hardened skeptic. Despite it being a transitional period for the Wiggles, the beat goes on.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder where it all goes from here. Last night was mostly about nostalgia, as the band traded on its old hits while introducing a new member. With Greg gone, a creative vacuum has been formed within the group, sure to be filled by the extroverted Anthony or the more brooding Murray (Jeff, with his extreme narcolepsy, seems permanently relegated to a supporting role). Will it be a peaceful coexistence? Will one or the other come to dominate the group? Will creative tensions rip the band apart? Or will they elevate the Wiggles to new heights?

In the end, it’s hard to know, but I suspect that Murray, haunted by his friend’s departure, moves to the fore, and brings a more thematic element to the band. I see an old-style double-album/rock opera in him, exploring the debilitating effects of money and fame. Greg, though gone, will continue to be central to Murray’s psyche, as he comes to grips with how to emerge from his friend’s long shadow and lead the band. For him and for us, the defining question will be: Which one’s Yellow?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Michael Reads a Book

Love Is A Mix Tape, by Rob Sheffield

Let’s get this out of the way: Comparing a book infused with music, romance, pain and humor to High Fidelity is like comparing a painting about the horrors of war to Guernica. The temptation may be irresistible, but it doesn’t do anyone any favors. And so, despite comparisons from every corner of the web, let’s put to bed the notion that Rob Sheffield’s new memoir recalls Nick Hornby’s masterful first novel in any but the most superficial sense.

Moreover, the comparisons seem to slight the memory of Renee Crist, Sheffield’s first wife. High Fidelity is a piece of fictional comedy that sees the guy get the girl in the end. Love Is A Mix Tape is a real-life tragedy in which the girl dies before the book even begins.

Sheffield, a Rolling Stone writer, chronicles his relationship with – and all-too-brief marriage to – Crist, a fellow rock crit who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism in her early thirties. Emotionally fractured, Sheffield is left to remember Renee and make sense of their brassy-mountain-girl-meets-geeky-northeastern-introvert relationship through the prism of the mix tapes they made for each other.

At least that’s the conceit. And let’s face it, it’s a pretty flimsy and forced conceit at that, designed to graft Sheffield’s intuitive sense (and massive knowledge) of pop culture on to a story about love, loss and healing. What songs did they share? What does it matter? Their mutual love of music was key to their relationship, but the mix tapes themselves do little more than frame a story that’s about something else entirely.

And it’s to Sheffield’s great credit that this doesn’t seem like a problem. To the extent that a book about the death of one’s spouse can be breezy, this one certainly is (a quick aside: on its face, Mix Tape bears little resemblance to Joan Didion’s fabulous, but far more grim, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the aftermath of her husband’s death; still, the authors’ experiences – Sheffield sat by the phone in case Renee called, while Didion kept her husband’s shoes lest he come back and need them – shed light on the disorienting experience of grieving spouses). Inflected with a self-deprecating humor that masks the pain, Mix Tape is a short book that flies by, leaving only a gossamer sense of the people, times and places it describes, putting the reader in a position similar to the author. As he tries to hold on to his past even as specific memories begin to fade, we come to Renee pre-faded. We know what kind of footwear she preferred and the kinds of music she loved because Sheffield kept the shoes and tapes. But like the widowed author looking back across time, we have trouble placing her scent.

Not surprisingly, Sheffield soars highest when writing about music. In some ways, Renee remains a mystery to him, and he can still seem like a love-struck puppy when it comes to her. But he knows his rock and roll cold (he may be the foremost public champion of The Hold Steady, which gives him enduring credibility around here), and he writes up to his audience, not down, trusting his readers’ intelligence and base of knowledge when it comes to obscure lyrical references, out-of-print albums, and the sublime pleasures of the band Pavement (I was going to quote one particularly impressive passage, but now I can’t find it; alas, dear reader, you get what you pay for). He makes compelling cases for top 40 radio, the perfect sexual dynamics of synth-pop bands, and the way certain songs fuse with our memories and take on new meanings.

Sheffield struggles a bit when he tries to cram a story that stands perfectly well on its own into the mix tape framework, especially when he attempts to put a bow on it at the end (he also throws in a gratuitous and peculiar political broadside; there are lots of perfectly legitimate failures to pin on the Bush administration, but “the economy is in the toilet” isn’t one of them). Renee may be gone, but for him the story never really will end even as he embarks on a new marriage, and trying to sum it up rather than allowing it to fade out seems forced.

Still, the book is a pleasure – deeply human, heartbreakingly sad, frequently funny, with a good beat that’s easy to dance to. By being so engaging and likeable, Sheffield evokes an avalanche of empathy in the reader, his pain becoming our bond, and ultimately, that’s the book’s lasting triumph.
New Album Haiku

Ron Sexsmith, Time Being
Yet another disc
Replete with hummable tunes
Songwriters bow down

The Good, The Bad & The Queen, The Good, The Bad & The Queen
Floats in like the fog
Dark and spacious, hints of dub
Albarn cannot fail

The Shins, Wincing the Night Away
Geek boys with guitars
A rainstorm of melodies
January's best

Monday, February 12, 2007

Skip To The End - 2006 Songs

Better late than never... my favorite songs from 2006. I'm already looking at 2007's mix with early candidates Lily Allen, Jesse Malin, The Shins, Patty Griffin, The Broken West and The Red Button. As my partner says - I wish I could sleep less so I could listen more.

1. The Futureheads – “Skip to the End” – Short blasts of white heat, high harmonies and nah-na-na-na-na’s out the wazoo – is it a happy ending or a broken heart? It’s the best rock song of 2006 – kick yourself in the ass if you have yet to be captivated by its charms.

2. The Hold Steady – “Massive Nights” – It’s rare that one band can crystallize everything I love about rock and roll – great hooks (check), face full of guitar (check), literate songs (check), sense of humor (check), unmistakable passion (check), whoa-oh-oh-oh vocals (check). If you’re a regular reader of Teenage Kicks (and seriously, who isn’t) – buy Boys And Girls in America today.

3. The Format – “She Doesn’t Get It” – This is pop music so inventive, so thrilling, so joyously melodic, I can’t believe it was made in 2006. Can’t we invent top 40 radio that plays this stuff?

4. The Fratellis – “Flathead” – The soon to be ubiquitous Fratellis leap out of the gate with this frenetic genre-hopping stomper and before you know it, everything old is new again.

5. Primal Scream – “Country Girl” – While I love the Drive By Truckers, their influences seem more homage than Primal Scream’s in-your-face Faces/Stones swagger – this little greasy plate of amphetamine rush approximates 70’s Stones with a “Maggie May” mandolin – and if that description ain’t working for you, then don’t bother.

6. Art Brut – “Good Weekend” – Because if I didn’t have it on here, my son would kill me. Every 10 year old that has graced my car in the last 9 months now knows “He’s seen her naked. TWICE!

7. Lucero – “I Can Get Us Out of Here Tonight” – Certainly destined to play dive bars in perpetuity, Lucero’s scorched earth vocals, mid E-Street camaraderie and white heat passion combine for the year’s best country punk record.

8. Ben Kweller – “Penny on a Train Track” – Kweller’s fatalistic view of “the grass is always greener” allows every one their faults but still awaits the inevitable crushing blow… all with sweet as apple pie vocals and a sticky sweet melody:

“I’m just a penny on the train trackwaitin' for my judgment day
Come on baby girl let me see those legs before I get flattened away”

9. Rhett Miller – “Help Me Suzanne” – Even though The Believer doesn’t scale the heights of classic Old 97’s, this song is a jangle pop classic. And ladies, sorry, but he’s in love.

10. Tilly and the Wall – “Rainbows in The Dark” – Indie bubblegum with a tap dancing percussionist – you bet it’s good. They know music has the ability to ease the pain, even if only for a little while:

"I laid on my back, let the punk record spin
The stomping guitar, it was shooting out stars
It all went to my heart, yeah some rainbows in the dark"

11. Jason Collett – “I’ll Bring The Sun” – I am such a melody whore. Much more accessible than Broken Social Scene, Collett’s Idols of Exiles was brimming with bouncy, shimmering alt pop, alt country “waiting to be” hits. Thanks Michael for the heads up on this one.

12. Portastatic – “You Blanks” – I’ve been ignorant to Portastatic’s pleasures until recently. Thanks to a few mix cds from a friend, I’m now hooked. How did such a fine rock band elude me for so long? Just be careful if you play this one around the kids.

13. Terry Anderson & The Olympic Ass Kickin’ Team – “Raindrops” – Two reasons this makes the list. First, this song comes closest to matching the spirit, wit and insouciant sensibility of prime Big Al NRBQ. And second… great band name.

14. Bottle Rockets – “Mountain to Climb” – While former alt country leading lights have left for whacked-out, over-praised psych pop (Wilco) or Boreassville (Jay Farrar), Brian Henneman has kept the Bottle Rockets chugging along with salt-of-the-earth ruminations like this one, which comes complete with guitars that sound like horns and handclaps, sweet handclaps (and why do handclaps always make a song sound better?).

15. Todd Snider – “Looking For A Job” – The working man’s battle cry for 2006 – this update of David Allan Coe’s “Take This Job and Shove It” hits the right balance between bubbling under rage and a sly sense of humor.

16. Josh Ritter – “Girl in the War” – Forget Neil Young, the Dixie Chicks and Bruce Springsteen, the great anti-war statements of 2006 were Josh Ritter’s “Girl in the War” and “Thin Blue Flame”. Spellbinding.

17. The Elected – “The Bank and Trust” – Blake Sennett, the other half of Rilo Kiley’s brain trust, is the mastermind behind this little alt-country firecracker that seems to rue the creative tension in signing with a major label or being in a band with your paramour. Love the pedal steel.

18. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins – “The Charging Sky” – I *heart* Jenny Lewis.

19. Radney Foster – “Half of My Mistakes” – Best ever song - not named “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” - by somebody named Radney.

20. Scott McClatchy – “Come Across The River” – Gently loping, sweet alt-country love song by my little brother… my little brother just discovered rock and roll!

21. Lester Chambers – “Walking Home Late” – From the Peter Case 3 disc tribute (A Case For Case), this folk-country-blues shuffle celebrates not only Case’s superb songwriting but 70’s southern soul. Bravo and a tip of the hat to Arthur Alexander.

22. The Hiders – “Into the Sun” – Yeah they sound like Neil Young… that’s a good thing. So don’t let that deter you from checking this out elegiac rear view look at faded love – it’s an end of film song for a script yet to be written.