April 2012


These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

“Tell Her She’s Lovely” was the third and final single from the California band El Chicano to appear on the Billboard charts. In 1970, they made it into the Top 30 with “Viva Tirado, Pt. 1,” essentially the title cut from their debut album. Two years later, they just missed the Top 40 with a cover of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” “Tell Her She’s Lovely” was released the following year. Relatively new band member Jerry Salas handled lead vocal duties on the track.

Given the heavy presence of Mexican-Americans in the band and the willingness to employ Latin sounds, El Chicano was dogged by comparisons to Santana, an outfit that was far more successful at roughly the same time. While understandable, it’s also fairly reductive. “Tell Her She’s Lovely,” for example, might have some basic rhythms in common, but otherwise is has a soulful, jazzy vibe quite unlike anything Carlos Santana’s group would be inclined to try on. Maybe the fact that they didn’t truly fit into the mold they were being crammed into helps account for the limited crossover commercial success the band enjoyed.

After MCA dropped the band in the mid-seventies, El Chicano sort of petered out. They were always huge in the Latino community, though, and as that cultural group’s influence grew years later, El Chicano mounted a comeback with a late-nineties album followed by periodic live shows, including, of course, their song that peaked at #40.

Previously…
“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band
“Crazy Downtown” by Allan Sherman
“I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love” by Yes
“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde
“Come See” by Major Lance
“Your Old Standby” by Mary Wells
“See the Lights” by Simple Minds
“Watch Out For Lucy” by Eric Clapton
“The Alvin Twist” by Alvin and the Chipmunks
“Love Me Tender” by Percy Sledge
“Jennifer Eccles” by the Hollies
“Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Olympics
“The Bounce” by the Olympics
“Your One and Only Love” by Jackie Wilson


42. Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs

I was an early adopter of the music of Ben Folds. I read a review of the debut album from Ben Folds Five in CMJ New Music Monthly back in the day when I was scouring its pages for any palatable respite from the Pearl Jam wanna-bes that were flooding the playlist at the commercial radio station I worked for. The write-up was fine (although reading it now, it strikes me a surprisingly off-base), but it was the inclusion of the song “Underground” on the supplemental CD that came with the issue which sent me scurrying to my preferred local record store to secure a copy of the band’s debut. The song’s combination of sly humor and pop sensibilities they were both fundamental and wildly inventive was repeated throughout the entire release, and I was sold, seemingly for good. Turns out there may have been some magic in the trio, though, because the material was consistently fairly lacking when Folds struck out on his own, beginning with his solo debut, Rockin’ the Suburbs. There’s definitely some good stuff on there, but a remarkable amount of the album comes across as a tired retread, beginning with the title cut, awash in a music scene mockery that plays like a desperate attempt to duplicate the attention getting success of “Underground” (and the monologue in the middle of it is so bad that I won’t even link to the song). Folds next studio album was a bit of a rebound, but there was a truly terrible outing to come, which maybe inspired him to seek new opportunities sitting next to a Pussycat Doll on the judging panel of a reality show.


43. Superchunk, Here’s to Shutting Up

This was apparently the Chapel Hill portion of CMJ‘s year-end chart. Just as Ben Folds and his band hailed from North Carolina’s most musically prosperous college town, so too did Superchunk. In fact, the rugged, raucous outfit helped put the city on the college rock map in the first place, beginning with “Slack Motherfucker,” their defining single on Merge Records as the nineteen-eighties crossed into the nineties. By 2001, the band had a string of successes on the college charts without ever quite crossing over. As I mentioned in a “One for Friday” post a few weeks back, the overriding perception seemed to be that the album Here’s to Shutting Up was going to serve as their closing statement as a band, although I don’t recall if that was officially announced by the group or if it was just prescient speculation. Regardless, the album suited that task quite well, reuniting the band with producer Brian Paulson, who’d previously presided over 1994′s Foolish, widely considered their finest effort. Superchunk’s signature sound remained recognizably in place, but there was an added sonic richness to the music that was highly appealing. The album did wind up being the band’s last, at least until a 2010 comeback entitled Majesty Shredding which was strong enough to give the term “reunion album” a good name.

Previously…
An Introduction
50 and 49: Creeper Lagoon and Ryan Adams
48 and 47: The (International) Noise Conspiracy and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
46 and 45: Spoon and Black Box Recorder
44 and 43: Rival Schools and Aphex Twin

Given my well-reported excursion to central Wisconsin to dive headlong into pop minutiae, I didn’t have much spare time to contribute to Spectrum Culture. In fact, the only words I strung together were for our monthly mixtape feature, writing about a new track from the Screaming Females. I’ll be back up to speed in the coming week with new reviews in both the film and music sections. On the film side, I’ll be writing about a dirty movie from France, which seems like a weirdly satisfying way to return to digital print.

Across all the various concerts and liver performances that I’ve seen over the years, I maintain that I’ve seen two genuine encores, two instances in which the band was done for the night and the enthusiasm of the crowd drew them back on stage. I’m convinced these two particularly encores weren’t contrivances of showmanship with the performers holding back one of their hits (or, in the case of the bands that I tend to go see, “hits”) to blow the roof off the dump when the lot of us went through the sham of clapping and cheering to bring the musicians back from whatever temporary perch they’ve settled on just offstage to play the remainder of the pre-penned set list. One of these concerts was Too Much Joy at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall, at a time when my collegiate cohorts and I were uniquely passionate about the smart, smart-alecky quartet. The other was a performance at Madison’s Barrymore Theatre by the Sundays.

The Sundays were touring on their resoundingly successful debut album, Reading, Writing & Arithmetic. My ticket was provided by the record label. My station cohort and I even had backstage passes to interview the band. We sat in the dismal basement dressing room area of the Barrymore and asked questions of lead singer Harriet Wheeler and guitarist David Gavurin. (I used the word “we” very loosely in the preceding sentence as my fellow fledgling rock journalist spent most of his time speechless as he sat enthralled by Ms. Wheeler’s eyes.) When it came time for the show, we sat right in the midst of an audience that was absolutely enraptured with every bit of chiming, glistening pop the band put out. “Here’s Where the Story Ends” naturally received the greatest response, but this was a crowd filled with devotees. Every song was cause for joy.

After the band played their last song, they departed only to come back like clockwork for a couple more songs. Then they slipped from the stage again, the pact between performer and audience completed for the night. But the crowd wouldn’t stop cheering. House lights edged brighter, but still the assembled fans cried out for one more. After a long enough wait that I suspected that the band did need to traverse the clunky stairs from down below again, the band took the stage for a third time. Wheeler sheepishly explained that they didn’t actually know any more songs and basically asked if the audience if it would be all right to repeat a song from earlier in the show before launching into “Can’t Be Sure” for the second time that night.

The boundless charm of that night helped insure that “Can’t Be Sure” would push past the smashing lead single to become my favorite song off of that debut album, and I snapped up an extra copy of the single when it came into the radio station. “Don’t Tell Your Mother” is a b-side on that single and it’s simple proximity to that song, it’s tacit connection to it, means it carries some of the excitement of that night for me. I don’t remember for certain whether or not they played this song at that show, but they probably did. After all, they played every song they knew.

The Sundays, “Don’t Tell Your Mother”

(Disclaimer: It seems that most of the Sundays’ catalog remains in print, which only means that you should run, not walk, to your favorite local, independently-owned record store and secure a copy of Reading, Writing & Arithmetic. The song posted today, however, isn’t on that release, nor, as far as I can tell, is it on any other proper Sundays album. It may have landed on a compilation I don’t know about and I’ll admit that I discovered that it’s available for digital purchase, but the band probably gets cheated on compensation when the music is bought that way. At least that’s what Tim Quirk from Too Much Joy–see above–has told the world. Regardless, I post this to share the music, not to deprive any business owner or creative personnel from well-deserved earnings. If anyone with due authority to request its removal contacts me with such a request, I will promptly and graciously comply.)

#37 — Day for Night (François Truffaut, 1973)
Auteur theory was first posited in the mid-nineteen-fifties in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, advocated most persuasively by a young French film critic named François Truffaut. Suggesting the director should be seen as the predominant creator of a film, almost to a degree that he or she can claim total ownership of the art, Truffaut himself became one of the most persuasive pieces of evidence in argument for the viability of the theory when he started making films a few years later. From his debut The 400 Blows on, Truffaut’s films rang with a distinct humanism, a visual rambunctiousness and loving adherence to the well-established narrative mechanics of the form that came together as a vibrant, unmistakable voice. After spending over a decade demonstrating the primacy of the director’s influence through the accumulated artistry of his career, Truffaut slyly presented the counter-argument with Day for Night.

For this film about filmmaking, Truffaut not only directs but steps in the central role, that of a director named Ferrand who’s embarking on a new project entitled Meet Pamela. The cast and crew are assembled in a idyllic location for the shoot, which proceeds as a endless series of miniature melodramas and compromises intended to avert catastrophe. Nearly every person involved with the film carries with them some amount of slippery propensity for existential self-harm. The task of getting the film from conception to finished work is not some generous act of creation presided over by a genius artist, but instead a grinding toil, forever susceptible to the whirling whims of fate, every ill turn simultaneously shocking and wholly predictable as fragile egos collide like pebbles in a rock slide. The director is in the eye of storm but any belief he is controlling its torrents is sadly misguided. In his most confident moments he may view himself as Prospero, bending the winds, but he is conducting a tempest that moves of its own accord. Any synchronicity is pure happenstance.

Truffaut certainly had no reluctance about trafficking in veiled autobiography in his filmmaking so it’s reasonable to read Day for Night as a simple report on the state of his own career in the shifting realm of cinema, inviting speculation on who the star played by Jacqueline Bisset might be based on or which specific film experience might have inspired the director to finally plumb his own profession for a story idea. The deeper pleasure of the film, though, is that it seems to be going for so much more. Instead of looking to his own personal history, Truffaut is presenting a sort of autobiography of the creation process, an exposing of all its myriad wrinkles that can never quite be ironed out. Where he once saw a sort of magic in the authority of the person behind the camera, with Day for Night he concedes the fallibility of the role. Film is a collaborative art and Truffaut exposes all the fissures between the connections.

Cabin in the Woods, the new collaboration between Buffyverse compatriots Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, positions itself as a cheeky deconstruction of the horror movie. At it’s very best moments, and they are plentiful, it achieves something more: it becomes a complete demolition of the genre. The audience is recast as malevolent forces of evil, demanding gory violence (mixed with a little sex, of course) as the only means of appeasement and creators become sadistic, jaded purveyors of mayhem who blandly keep the blood flowing. Whedon and Goddard co-wrote the film and Goddard directed, and the exuberance of each of them in rending the flesh of an entire, highly profitable subsection of filmmaking is evident in every frame. They don’t always transcend the cliches they mock, but there’s a intoxicating slyness to their joined effort.

The film’s very first scene exposes the conceit for anyone at all keyed in to meta tomfoolery, but it still seems unkind to expose the film’s secrets. Instead, it’s safe to share that there is a quintet of college kids who embark on a weekend of boozy, frisky debauchery in the deep, dark forest, taking up temporary residence in a remote cabin supposedly owned by one of the character’s unnamed cousins. What follows is frightfully familiar from dozens upon dozens of other films, as terrible omens are ignored, indulgances lead to grisly fates and their joined world goes careening apart as a direct result of their blithe meddling with forces they can’t possibly understand. They are beset by horrendous fates, except maybe for the virginal member of the group. Her death, in the grammar of the genre, is optional, as long as she’s the last one standing.

The sense of play is terrific, especially as the film moves into its lunatic third act. Rules are smashed like so many dirty windows in abandoned old shacks, as Whedon and Goddard essentially present the existential backstory for every horror story that ever was and ever will be. The film has a sharp satiric edge that moves it beyond mere snark (a skewering of modern Japanese horror films is especially inspired), a quality that is especially enhanced by the dry performances of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins in a couple of key supporting roles. Goddard, a first-time director, could have perhaps employed a little more visual inventiveness, and there are times when the limitations of the central actors, while oddly appropriate, shave away at some of the satisfaction of the layering. Overall, though, this is the blessed result when boundlessly clever people get the chance to create with spirited abandon. They simultaneously make horror films seem suddenly obsolete while presenting a sterling new addition to the genre.

Finally home. Still exhausted.

I can’t believe it’s another year before I get to do that again.

Since I devoted most of last week to stories of Trivias past, I should probably acknowledge how my team did in the contest completed so recently that it still feels like the present. We finished in 13th place, which is a remarkable feat considering there are almost 400 teams that participate in this annual event.

Consequently, though, my brain feels a little like a sponge squeezed dry. My words will return someday soon.

Despite all the best of intentions, I simply don’t have the time, energy or necessary current mental functionality to hold up my obligation to provide a new installment of College Countdown today. In fact I may need to cook up some general low-impact content for the whole week ahead. That’s how thoroughly my annual excursion into the land of total cognitive exhaustion has done a number on me. My apologies.

Given that this is Trivia weekend, I tried to take a little bit less for Spectrum Culture this week. However, I couldn’t quite resist a documentary about the drummer from Hole. It’s too bad it wasn’t as good as it could have been.

I also pitched in on this week’s List Inconsequential feature, which gave me a chance to throw a few darts at an old Robert Zemeckis film.

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