The 10Listens 500: Love’s “A House Is Not A Motel”

I’ve seen some bizarre coincidences in my time, but I’ve only experienced one synchronicity I’d go so far as to call “paranormal.” The year was 2005, the place was my tiny studio apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. I started listening to Love’s magnificent 1967 album Forever Changes for like the 23rd time in my life when I decided that this time, I wanted to enjoy it in a warm bath with a stiff drink. So I twisted the bath faucets to the perfect temperature, plugged the drain, and went to mix a gin and tonic while the tub filled.

As I fixed my drink, the song “A House Is Not A Motel” began. Now, Forever Changes is an album that emits disquieting vibes even while it seems pretty and flower-childish on the surface. And “A House Is Not A Motel” is the album’s darkest song, pulsating with paranoia and apocalyptic urgency.

I was cutting a slice of lime, and I heard Arthur Lee sing:

…and the water’s turned to blood,
and if you don’t think so, go turn on your tub,
and if it’s mixed with mud,
you’ll see it turn to gray

Which reminded me I should check on the bath, make sure it wasn’t overflowing. And when I got to the bathroom, I saw that the water rushing from the faucet had turned a reddish-brownish-grayish color.

Sure, it was only rust, not blood and/or mud. But come on, the timing was beyond uncanny. I’m not ashamed to admit it spooked me. Could it be that curious and inscrutable forces trapped within Forever Changes were messing with me, snickering from behind the wall of reason? I turned off the album, drained the tub…and honestly, I don’t remember what after that. Probably gulped my drink and curled up in bed for a couple hours.

I won’t try to convince anyone that “A House Is Not A Motel” is anything more than a powerful psychedelic rock tune, or that Forever Changes is, in fact, a living, breathing, work of magick. All I’ll assure anyone is that The Bathtub Incident most definitely happened, and more than anything else, it’s led me to wonder: Am I just a thought that someone, somewhere, somehow feels I should be here?

Bob Mould: Silver Age

Bob Mould didn’t invent anything, nor did he perfect it. That said, it must be strange to watch the a generation of people both master and deconstruct (some might say destroy) the music he sought to popularize. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t want to play the old stuff anymore. Maybe that’s why he put a foot in the electronic door. Maybe, maybe, maybe. At first glance, the only definitive idea we can nail down: Bob Mould decided Silver Age was going to rock.

It’s tough to know when a career renaissance is an insult to the creator or just a return to form fans always wanted. To say Silver Age is a renaissance admits that Mould was ever out of touch with his musicality. His career has been long and fraught with change. He has seen remissions and reissues, but Mould has been ever-present: stories of Husker Du still linger in books, Henry Rollins interviews and documentaries, Sugar’s albums pop up in lists and reviews, his solo albums come out every few years. He’s not milked reunion tours or craved attention in interviews about the old days being better than the new days. Continue reading

The 10Listens 500: Jungle Brothers’ “Because I Got It Like That”

Braggadocio can get stale or irritating real fast, but not here. The Jungle Brothers sound like they haven’t even had their first cups of coffee yet, and they’re still the coolest dudes in the room. Actually, they sound like they’re too cool to even drink coffee. Cups of coffee can only wish The Jungle Brothers would ever want to drink them. No, these dudes are all about wine. Not Hennessy, not Cristal. Wine. And if that weren’t cool enough, at the end of the track they take a minute to tell all of us around the country that we too have “got it like that.” There’s no way we got it like that quite like Afrika Baby Bam and Mike Gee, but it’s very cool of them to say so.

The 10Listens 500: Superchunk’s “Throwing Things”

Tough to pick one Superchunk song for this list. “Detroit Has a Skyline” nearly cracked the list. “Driveway to Driveway,” “Cadmium,” “Water Wings,” “Everything At Once,” and several others were good enough too. That said, “Throwing Things” had to be on here.

Plus, BONUS TIME. In this edition of the 10L 500, there’s two versions of this song. My preference is the acoustic version on Incidental Music, but hearing either of these takes me back to when I’d ride to high school with my sister and we’d sing the guitar parts more than the lyrics. Sometimes, this shit is more sentimental than anything. Scratch that, this song still rules as hard as it ever did. If you have the initial version of Superchunk’s Clambake Series laying around anywhere, you can here me saying “Yes.” as they begin playing this.

Note: Mac Macaughan looks like a cat yawning when he sings the “Yeahhhhhhhh” in this song.


What We Missed: Marq Spekt and Kno: MacheteVision (2011)

WARNING: This album came out in 2011, but I just got ahold of it so I’m reviewing it now.

If you talk to old-school hip-hop heads about hip-hop, they’ll complain a lot. They don’t like commercial rap, they don’t like new albums from the dudes they loved and they seldom care for hearing what people like nowadays unless recommended from fellow old-schoolers. Thinking it through, it’s a tough position to be in: the new things under the sun are either shiny and plastic or run-down and rusty.

Is there a believable middle-ground? It’s not underground mixtapes, those are optioned out to the hilt. It’s not shows, those are co-opted by annoying DJs who seek only to show you how much they know rather than get your body moving. There’s the occasional gem from the past, new producer who hasn’t worked with dummies, or flash-in-the-pan wunderkint that hasn’t been compared to Nas. Rarely, though, do you get a collaboration that is solid through and through. Rarely do you see an album that fills your voids and is viable. Rarely does an album like MacheteVision drop into our laps for little money and fanfare.

I’m not gonna focus on the members of other projects or guest stars all that much. Since the heyday of Master P guests spots have overtaken albums like these, but on MacheteVision, the spotlight stays on MarQ Spekt and Kno almost completely. A few songs feature other performers (including an excellent cameo/hook from Action Bronson), but the album remains intensely focused on the projects strengths: the rapping and the beats are dope.

The album-titled intro is, itself, an indictment. “MacheteVision” is actually just a song introducing the album the only way it knows how: a complex beat with complicated bars. “Roadhouse” is an out-and-out gangsta rap song, albeit with a beat that defies encapsulation. “The Royal Peasants” is a masterpiece from hook to finish– the song is both laid-back and aggressive simultaneously. MarQ’s flamboyant braggartism seems leashed by slow jams, but he unfurls an unbelievable flow over Kno’s uncanny ability to add layers without being too busy.

The hits keep coming. “Aquamarine” is an uptempo jam followed by “All Smiles (Plastic Mask)” in the same vein. It’s true, though, that MarQ is a better rapper when the darkness outweighs the light. The last three songs of this album are methodically dark and play perfectly to the strengths of both men. The fact that “WikiLeaks” isn’t the introductory track befuddles me.  It’s everything the albums claims to be, its end is a cliffhanger. I’m not going to nitpick too much, though, since the album’s ending is so strong.

MacheteVision got a lot of critical acclaim for calling out what is wrong with rap, but gets no credit for being what’s right with rap. So often, anything that is good is a response rather than a random act of brilliance. Do we talk about paintings or sculptures this way? Are good novels considered “shots fired” at 50 Shades? Rap’s major downfall isn’t lack of talent, nor lack of artfulness. The downfalls of rap are commercialization and, quite frankly, boring material. MarQ Spekt and Kno haven’t created the way out of any of rap’s problems, they just created a great (yes, great) album. No shots fired doesn’t mean the album failed or succeeded. Old-school heads are sitting around angry that everything sucks while albums like this are dropping, not to remind them of the past, but to forge ahead of the passable present. In that respect, MacheteVision is wildly successful.

Download the album for 6 bucks here.

The 10Listens 500: The Baptist Generals’ “Raw From Self Destruction”

The Baptist Generals are a haunting influence on my life. There’s no denying that I’ve tried to embody their spirit in my own bands– to no avail. Liking this band is all rabbit holes. They released an LP of glorified demos (Dog), Sub-Pop’s No Silver/No Gold (an absolute gem), an EP preceding NS/NG (Void Touching Faster Victuals), a series-driven live album (Live at Schuba’s), two tour-only EPs (I have both, but can’t copy them onto a mac since they are on tiny discs) and somewhere amongst the rubble there was an insane little ditty written for Esopus magazine. Then they vanished.

“Raw From Self Destruction” was supposed to incorporate an advertising slogan to make new art, thus the line “I’m the Freshmaker” repeated in reverential tones. Like all of their back-catalogue, it’s maddeningly unavailable. For a short amount of time, the song was available for download on myspace. After my last computer died, I implored people who used to like the band, but never found anyone who had it.

This story is longer than it should be.

It’s just that, I was at work and I heard the melody to “Raw…” and I started singing along. “I know this song.” My coworker knew it too. And it was his Ipod. He sent it to me. Re-owning this song is a delight in dark days. In true BGs fashion, no one has uploaded the song or placed it on youtube except to show a cat interaction. That’s right, some guy put his humdrum morning to the soundtrack of this glorious song, and it is the only way I can share it with you. It’s fitting. So many of their songs are about the ordinary, but every song is extraordinary. Their songs metastasize in you. “Raw…” builds to the point of preaching but scurries away too soon.

If this is your introduction point, it’s the climax of a band that went totally missing. For awhile, the lead singer boasted of a new record. He started a blog describing the shows he was going to play and the songs he was working on. Then, mysteriously, the blog went down. A “new track” came onto myspace and that, too, disappeared. It was lyric-less. The myspace page is gone. Infrequently, old live footage pops up on youtube and falls back into the mist. There’s little evidence that the band existed, but I know there are a few people in this world that, when they hear this song, nod their head as if in agreement without argument.

The Baptist Generals are one of those underground phenomenons– a band good enough to reach thousands of ears yet erase themselves as quickly as they came. They’re sound is one that was done over and over again, but I can always slip into them like bedroom shoes you don’t throw away. “Raw From Self Destruction,” I’ve joked, is the anthem of my despair. Partly, it’s because I’m sad the relic will go unappreciated. Mostly, though, it’s the recording and piercing lyrics; the idea that “you can do anything as long as it’s real/ you can do anything you want.”

The 10Listens 500: The Tornados’ “Telstar”

The miracle of “Telstar” is that it sounds frozen in time, exactly what you’d expect 1962′s vision of the future to sound like…and yet, listening to it in 2012, it still makes me feel like the glorious infinite is in our hands, ready to launch us into the cosmos of a better tomorrow. On those mornings when I wake up thinking the state of the world is especially bleak, I play “Telstar,” and it assures me that the trajectory of history tends to curve toward progress, just like a rocket into the wild blue yonder.

Short Cuts: Joe Norkus’ EP

There no shortage of ways to laud these five songs, but I’ll go with an old stand-by: I wish I had written them. Writing simple, melodic jams that sparkle over easygoing vocals and rambling lyrics, Norkus has been a stalwart of my music collections for a long time. For the first time, however, I feel like he’s writing his songs at his pace. This isn’t some coming out party for a superstar singer-songwriter. EP is a combination of style and substance rather than a fight for collaboration.

“Time” is a realization of failures without rationalizations, something that very rarely comes without over-reaching metaphors or metacritical wisdom. “Call You Up” is a failed-relationship opener that asks simple questions with simple answers. “Decide” might be the prettiest song, with an opening line that masterfully recreates the theme without beating us over the head: “It’s time to decide/ between quick guilty pleasures/ and happiness.” These aren’t songs about growing up, they are songs about being a grown-up. Decisions aren’t so important as they are prevalent. “It’s time to decide/ between self-preservation and selflessness.” Meanwhile, the song itself is marked by a shiny guitar lead that poses as a solo each time the lyrics drop out. It’s painfully short, too. “Long Night” is, strangely, even shorter: “I’m tired of writing/ songs no one will hear./ I’m tired of fighting,/ so let’s shut up my dear.” Conversational, clear and fantastic, this song envelops more obfuscated frustration than a thousand metaphor-laden, folk-indie songs combined.

By the time “We’re Free” begins, you’ve already decided to listen to EP again. Trust me, you’ll need to. The one-liners, the solos, the weight of decades of tempered musical knowledge, the entire bundle is a beautiful, brilliant simplicity you have to repeat. The characters in “We’re Free” would be blissfully aware of their unironic inclusion in this series of vignettes, but would likely misrepresent the source of their inclusion. Norkus masterfully describes them as if describing food or colors. They are waste lain against the side of his artistic endeavor. Sure, EP is more of a lean-to than a mansion, but who’s really all that upset so long as the rain doesn’t come? That’s precisely the convoluted metaphor that wouldn’t make it to Norkus’ songs and precisely the reason I’m gonna stop talking and listen again. And maybe again.

The 10Listens 500: The Chantels’ “Maybe”

Denial rarely sounded so gorgeous. You just know the guy she’s singing to told her “maybe” they’d get back together as a way to make her stop crying outside his bedroom window, but of course he didn’t mean it. And she took that “maybe” home with her, and cuddled it to sleep, and hasn’t let it go since. Arlene Smith’s voice is the deluded glory of false hope, the background singers are her friends telling her it’ll be OK while secretly hoping she’ll see her folly before it’s too late, and the drums & piano limp along like her heart simply trying to get through the day. Lord, we’ve all been there- hopefully none of us past our mid-twenties. And “Maybe” is exactly what that place sounds like.

(Equally gorgeous bonus version by John Frusciante)

The 10Listens 500: Avail’s “F.C.A.”

Describing death is a dreadful task. There’s no calmer way than quoting the bible or reminiscing on the good times, but Avail is not a typical band. Richmond, VA is not a typical city. This is not the typical song about death. Fractured images rollick through the song including destructive, youthful discretions, crying men and a constant cry of “it wasn’t time wasted.” I’m definitively telling you this: I have, since hearing this song hundreds of times since I was a teenager, kept this as a reminder to try and enjoy my time with friends and family as much as possible. The point of “F.C.A. (For Christy and Andy)” isn’t only to honor fallen compatriots or rile the innermost destructive brilliance which drives 4 Am Friday as a whole album. The point of “F.C.A.” is to promote a learned institution. Death isn’t just the rawest form of life’s cycle, but an idea of brevity. “F.C.A.” is a simple war cry from the worst possible point of being, but it is one that celebrates while decrying an early exit. The song is short, this life is short and if emotional frailty doesn’t sound like Tim Barry screaming “What happens tomorrow can never be told,” you might be doing it wrong. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to drive around screaming this song at the top of my lungs while trying not to burst into tears.