College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #908 to #905

bears rise

908. The Bears, Rise and Shine (1988)

Rise and Shine was the second album from the Bears, a group guitarist Adrian Belew assembled when King Crimson went on hiatus. At the time, Belew had a reasonably healthy solo career and a resume dotted with highly valued stints with iconic acts such as Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads. Presumably, he could have pursued just about any creative avenue he wanted in rock music, and what he wanted was a truly collaborative band focused on songcraft. Joined by musicians from the relatively obscure Cincinnati-based band the Raisins (who Belew had produced at one time), Belew formed the Bears and landed a contract with Primitive Man Recording Company, a subsidiary of I.R.S. Records.

The egalitarian vibe is clear from Belew’s conviction to just another part of the combo. His wickedly warped guitar heroics are deployed sparingly — such as the burst of fevered squall at the end of the quite funk workout “Rabbit Manor” — in favor of solid, unpretentious tracks pitched clearly at the college radio market. There are still doses of weirdness here and there, surely a result of Belew’s curious tinkering in the studio (the album was recorded in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, essentially Belew’s home base at the time). Trilling sonic trickery subtly simulates ambient sounds from a primeval forest on “Save Me,” taking its cue from opening lines “I was a monkey dancing in the trees/ Out where the jungle used to be/ Before the lumber company/ Took my home away from me.”

As the environmental theme of “Save Me” indicates, Rise and Shine finds Belew and his cohorts joining in the social discourse. Released in the closing months of the Reagan era, the album is awash in the leftward politics of the day, agitating for enlightenment. “Robobo’s Beef” refutes attempts to impose motives of villainy onto other nations and people, but it also makes its point with such flat-footed literalism (“If you watch the news on TV/ It’s enough to make you sick/ Think we need a new solution/ Think we better find it quick”) that it comes close to Sting at his most geopolitically tedious. At least the argument is clear. Sometimes the direct language of the lyrics still can’t rescue a song from inscrutability, leading to the cryptic and the didactic to become intertwined. On “Old Fat Cadillac,” Belew sings, “‘So, Mr. President/ Whatcha doing?,’ I propose to say/ About this fallout business/ Raining all over our parade.” It’s puzzling, but the preacher-lite raving about the titular vehicle anticipates the carnival barker rock star tomfoolery of Jack White.

The single “Aches and Pains” plays like a less restless version of a Dave Edmunds song, making it one of the most successful realizations of the Bears’ mission of creating fine, straightforward pop songs. But I also find plenty of appeal in moments of goofball invention on Rise and Shine, like “Highway 2,” a throwaway play on Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone.” And I will surely never be able to parse the meaning of “Complicated Potatoes,” but there’s a clear, happy sense that the band is following their shared muse with a blithe fearlessness.

 

 

dregs earth

907. Dixie Dregs, Dregs of the Earth (1980)

It’s sort of remarkable that it took until their fourth full-length release for the Dixie Dregs to use the most obvious album title at their disposal. Dregs of the Earth was the Georgia band’s first outing on Arista Records, which they’d jumped to after their previous label, Capricorn Records, filed for bankruptcy. Led and produced by guitarist Steve Moore, Dixie Dregs made a careening mashup of all the styles of seventies rock music. It’s hard to say how good of a finished product they came up with, but it’s definitely of the era.

Comprised entirely of instrumentals, the album sometimes feels as though the Dixe Dregs are mostly committed to coming up with material that can be easily used as soun beds for other projects. Any given thirty seconds of the mid tempo “Twiggs Approved” could have been culled from to provide the theme music to a late night talk show hosted by a cool, up-and-coming comedian. If NBC had scrapped Pink Lady and Jeff and instead given Jeff Altman the slot after Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show, the opening titles would have sounded like this.

The tracks on Dregs of the Earth are mostly fairly compact, but the infectious sprawl facilitated by album rock pomposity sometimes gets the better of the band, “Hereafter” is just redundant enough to feel as endless as the afterlife, and “Old World” seems like it was crafted specifically for closing time at the Ren Fair. At nine minutes and change, “I’m Freaking Out” is all the traits of southern rock, prog rock, and fusion jazz plopped into one boiling stew of crazy.

Although this all seemed pitched right into the wheelhouse of rock record buyers, Dregs of the Earth apparently didn’t stir commercial appeal in accordance with the band’s hopes. By the time of their next record, the band had changed their name to simply the Dregs, believing it would help them find a larger audience. They evidently didn’t have a clear view of what might be holding them back.

 

 

ono milk

906. John Lennon/Yoko Ono, Milk and Honey (1984)

Milk and Honey was released in January of 1984, a little more than three years after John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York City home. Assembled by his widow, Yoko Ono, from material he’d been working on shortly before his murder, the album was a spiritual sequel to the 1980 comeback effort Double Fantasy. As was the case with its predecessor, Milk and Honey was a collaborative affair between Lennon and Ono, alternating between his post-Beatle adult pop and her deconstructionist art rock. Taken as a whole, it traces the ways in which artistic discord and alignment can be mere threads apart.

Lennon’s half of the album is loose and a little loopy, obviously comprised of early takes that may have gone through steps of refinement before being pronounced ready. There’s no guarantee, however, that Lennon would have kept buffing them into shape, since he’d long been inclined to preserve his most spontaneous moments. The cartoonish scatting on “Borrowed Time,” for example, sounds like filler. If it is, it’s easy to imagine Lennon recognizing its playful charm and keeping the scattered syllable in place on the finished product. I’d like to think he would have eventually decided “Grow Old with Me” was pure schmaltz and moved it to the discard bin, but he was hardly immune from gladly hurling that kind of material into the world across his career.

More than most, Lennon and Ono always did seem to be cracking themselves wide open when they created music. They set their shared and individual memoirs to music. “I’m Stepping Out” is about Lennon’s time as a househusband, and “I Don’t Wanna Face It” explicates his mixed emotions as a curmudgeonly activist (“You wanna save humanity/ But it’s people that you just can’t stand”). Ono’s tilt toward the odd can initially make it more difficult to find the biography, but this insomniac recognizes the tale she’s spinning on “Sleepless Night.” Working in feeling and impression rather than more literal expressions of information doesn’t automatically make a song more distant from the truth.

As was clear at the time of its release, Milk and Honey was the final studio statement of Lennon, one of the most important songwriters of the rock era. That imposed a tremendous burden on the release. Everyone wanted to find a meaningful closing statement, a track that would encapsulate all Lennon had said before and perhaps hint at the future perspectives criminally snuffed from the world. The single “Nobody Told Me” meets that impossible expectation just well enough. Wry, observant, a little mischievous, irresistibly catchy, and quietly reverberating with personality, the track was originally written for Ringo Starr, but it feels rightly at home in Lennon’s land. If nothing else, “Everybody’s smokin’/ And no one’s gettin’ high,” that last word delivered in a cheerful falsetto, is everything endearing about Lennon’s creative outlook in a few buoyant seconds. He shines on.

 

soul while

905. Soul Asylum, While You Were Out (1986)

Soul Asylum wasn’t a well-known band in 1986, but they made sure there was plenty of music available for the faithful. Including the B-sides and random bits collection Time’s Incinerator (available on cassette only), the Minneapolis band released three different albums during the calendar year. While You Were Out was the final member of the trio and Soul Asylum’s last before jumping to major label A&M Records. Understandably, then, the album is brash, headlong, and mildly undistinguished.

The band bashes away at the songs like the power is likely to be cut at any second. “Freaks” is a steady march of fab hard rock clatter, and “No Man’s Land” sounds a little like the more muscular R.E.M. found on the same year’s Lifes Rich Pageant. Betraying their civic roots. “Miracle Mile” comes close to merely aping the punk tunefulness of Hüsker Dü. If the band is sometimes a little simple, seemingly plowing ahead with the first notion that comes into their heads, they’re at least always earnest about it. There’s nothing all that profound or defiant about the message of rejecting outside criticism found on “The Judge” (“Not that I care what you think of me/ But I hear every word that you say/ And I can’t let you misjudge me that way”), but the outcast empowerment of it undoubtedly sounded great in the confines of a dingy Midwestern club.

Although most of While You Were Out is Soul Asylum in their brash development stage, “Closer to the Stars” offers the clearest forecast of the band that would eventually crossover: yearning, achingly sincere, a little simplistic, offering rock that managed to be ragged and polished at once. Whether the song is good or not is immaterial. Listening to the track, it’s clear this is a band that has a least one hit in them.

 

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

From the Archive — Big

big

Since I’ve been on a little bit of a thirty-years-ago kick lately, why not take unearth a movie review of a film released in June 1988. I wish I could report I wrote about Big when it hit theaters, but I wasn’t quite plying that particular trade. This was first posted at my former online space as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series.

As I recall it, Big was the first film I saw when I went away to college. It was a June release, but those had a tendency to slip back into town at the end of the summer in humble little Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Sure enough, during my first few days in my new academic home, sleeping in a converted study room in Hyer Hall because the dorms were overbooked at the start of the year, one of the four screens of the nearby Campus Cinema was playing Penny Marshall’s comedy about a boy who grows up unexpectedly fast. It wasn’t a transformational experience, exactly. It was, however, a nice bit of personal foreshadowing. I would spend countless hours in Stevens Point movie theaters in the years to come.

Putting aside nostalgic pangs, the movie itself is pretty terrific. It had the weird misfortune of coming out when there was a spate of movies about boys magically tossed into adult bodies, but Big was the only one that really worked. This certainly owed a great deal to the performance by Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin, bringing a winning innocence and uncertainty to this kid thrust into an adult world, his previous posturing abut wanting to grow up stripped away from the scary reality of it. Hanks had a career that was flailing at this point, far better known for the films that were resounding failures than anything else. He probably looks back fondly on Volunteers since it’s where he met his wife Rita Wilson, but no one else does. Big was a clear view of how well he could do when the material was better, and he got a Golden Globe and his first Oscar nomination for the performance. The bumpy road wasn’t completely smoothed over at this point. There were still problematic films to come, things that probably seemed like good ideas when he signed on for them, and fascinating disasters. Then there was the freeway pile-up that was The Bonfire of the Vanities, which Hanks was served a hefty portion of the blame for considering most decided his was woefully miscast as “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy, although any film that is counting on Melanie Griffith to do dramatic heavy lifting has graver misjudgments contained within its frames. That was actually the film that changed things for Hanks. He retreated and rethought his career, emerging a year-and-a-half later reunited with Penny Marshall to deliver inspired character work in A League of Their Own. From there, back-to-back Oscar wins loomed.

The other major beneficiary of Big was Penny Marshall. Her debut as a film director was thoroughly unengaging, borderline unwatchable Whoopi Goldberg comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash (now that I think about it, there are a remarkable number of Whoopi Goldberg comedies that can be described in the same unkind manner), but Big demonstrated a deftness and a command of tone that briefly earned Marshall greater opportunities. Probably the most notable was her very next film, Awakenings, which earned her the distinction of being one of several female directors that crafted a Academy Award Best Picture nominee without getting corresponding attention in the directing category. Marshall’s boost was more short-lived. By 1994’s Renaissance Man, her directing was surprisingly indifferent. Only two more films followed after that, neither registering much more than a blip on the cultural consciousness. It’s now been ten years since she directed a film.

I don’t know that anyone would consider Big a classic, but its the sort of film that remains charming and warm and offhandedly delightful, especially when discovered somewhere amidst the legion of channels on a lazy, rainy weekend afternoon. But, again, maybe that’s my nostalgia typing. After all, somewhere in my psyche, the film represents the door cracking open to a completely different level of commitment to the movies. It helped this kid grow up into who he’d become, too.

One for Friday — Voice of the Beehive, “Don’t Call Me Baby”

voice

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Voice of the Beehive released the album Let It Bee. The band is best known as a showcase for sisters Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland, transplants from California who settled in London in part because they felt the U.K. music scene would be more amenable to the breezy, buoyant pop music they wanted to create. After the toe-dip of a couple singles, Voice of Beehive delivered their debut full-length, punnily swiping its title from the Beatles.

If the music was touched by vintage girl group sunshine, the lyrics often told a different story. Largely penned by Bryn, they exhibited a take-no-guff feminism and a bracing willingness to offer reportorial assessments of the indignities heaped upon women. Let It Bee includes a track titled “There’s a Barbarian in the Back of My Car,” which is about an accurately dismal an assessment of the male half of the specifies as exists on a pop record.

In its particulars, “Don’t Call My Baby” is fairly standard tale of romantic woe, with a caddish paramour deploying terms of affection to one woman while another is “waiting in the car.” But I’ve always heard the declaration of the title as broader, essentially declaring independence from any lousy dude who tried to diminish the singer in any way. It’s a revolt against sexism that happens to have a killer hook. That may not be the most accurate assessment when the track is given a literal reading, but I swear that’s the spirit that imbues it.

Listen or download —> Voice of the Beehive, “Don’t Call Me Baby”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that the Voice of the Beehive catalog is out of print in the U.S., unavailable in a physical form that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner than compensates both the original artists and the proprietor of said shop. This track is being shared in this space with that understanding. Also, I still believe in the legal concept of fair use and believe this qualifies. Even so, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

The New Releases Shelf — 7

beach house

In writing about recent albums, I can sometimes lose sight of the simple fact that new bands aren’t always that new. (Unless the band has been around for ages, of course.) I go through a litany of comparisons to other songs and artists in trying to provide an approximation of the band’s sound, hobbled by the usual dancing-about-architecture shortcomings of scraping together shards of my limited vocabulary in the service of describing an art form that I find both transporting and so apart from my own skill set that it may as well be quantum metallurgy. In tapping out a review of the new Beach House album, I’m reminded by its very title that maybe agonized correlations aren’t always necessary.

7 is, as is implied, the seventh album from the Baltimore duo Beach House. And it sounds exactly like a Beach House album. Even as I write that, I’m wrenched by a pang of guilt at the reductive quality of the description, but it’s true. Although Beach House has gone through subtle, satisfying evolutions on every album in the twelve years since they released their self-titled debut, the core has remained the same. Rather than a sign of stagnancy, the consistency speaks to an admirable — and, given the quality of their music, completely understandable — purity of artistic vision. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally developed a style that drew on some predecessors, but was immediately all their own, too. The music swirls and undulates and serves as a billowy cloud for Legrand’s airy, emotive singing.

The new album begins with “Dark Spring,” featuring music that moves like a stride picking up and singing that is like sunlight breaking through haze. It is elusive and immediate, soft and sharp, and all sorts of other contradictory textures merged into one. The same is true of the casually lush “Pay No Mind” and “Black Car,” which has a  burbling pulse that’s irresistible. Arguably, “Drunk in LA” achieves this magical intertwining most memorably, as it somehow manages to be both hypnotic and edgy as Legrand intones beautiful abstract poetry such as “Strawberries in springtime/ Pretty happy accidents/ My awareness that I’m lucky/ Rolling clouds over cement.”

Beach House even manage to avert the lapses into self-parody that can easily emerge when a band has been at the same basic approach for long enough. Ss if trying to triple underline the first word in “dream pop,” the track “L’Iconnue” features Legrand’s vocals layered into a small heavenly choir singing in French. And yet it works, coming across as sincere and exploratory rather than indulgent. On album closer “Last Ride,” which lasts precisely seven minutes, a spare piano leads into a slow sonic build that refuses to crest. It’s a feat of restraint and, by extension, confidence. And why wouldn’t they be operating with supreme certainty at this point? As 7 thrillingly reasserts, Beach House are no newcomers. They know what they’re doing.

 

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Till”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

tom jones

In 1956, the French singer Lucien Lupi released a single entitled “Prière Sans Espoir.” One year later, U.S. songwriter Carl Sigman, whose specialty was adapting songs originally performed in languages other than English, delivered a set of new lyrics and dubbed the revised number “Till.” Percy Faith recorded it and had a minor hit, peaking at #63 on the Billboard chart. From there, the song went into the music industry rotation, resulting in visits to the Top 40 for Roger Williams, the Angels, and the Vogues.

Welsh singer Tom Jones was enjoying one of his most successful stretches on the U.S. charts when he took a crack at the song in 1971. Beginning with the 1969 single “Love Me Tonight,” Jones had a series of Top 40 hits, including “She’s a Lady,” which reached the runner-up position on the Billboard Hot 100. With a little more oomph, it would have become his first — and only — track to reach the top spot in the U.S. “She’s a Lady” was released at the beginning of 1971, as the lead single from the album of the same name. He squeezed a couple more singles from the album with diminishing returns, though they both spent time in the Top 40.

A non-album single, “Till” was his last offering of 1971. It stalled out at #41, forecasting the chart struggles to come. Jones kept recording, but he reached the U.S. Top 40 on only one more occasion: “Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow,” released in 1977 as Jones, weirdly, pivoted to country music. It might seem a shaky strategy for prolonging a career in the States, but it worked. Jones had nine different tracks make it into the Top 40 of the Billboard country music singles chart during the nineteen-eighties.

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Now Playing — Incredibles 2

inc 2

Incredibles 2 essentially begins at the precise point its exemplary predecessor ends. The Parr family, super-powered individuals who have largely refrained from costumed heroism because of legal prohibitions, spring into action against the villainous Underminer (voiced by John Ratzenberger), who has burrowed up from beneath the street, in a manner reminiscent of the Mole Man. The close of The Incredibles implied that vigilantes were allowed to once again do their thing, but that’s emphatically not the case, and the opening of the sequel suggests why that may be the case. The battle in the heart of Metroville leaves a lot of destruction behind with little to show for it. The bad guy got away, and, as the authorities explain to the sullen superheroes, the bank the Underminer robbed was fully insured. The do-gooders’ intervention compounded the mayhem and exacted no justice.

As in our world, though, superheroes have fans. One of them is wealthy industrialist Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who believes a strong PR campaign can bring superheroes back into the good graces of the law. He enlists Helen Parr, a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), to suit up again, equipped with a body camera created by his sister, electronics whiz Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), believing that Elastigirl’s heroics will be better appreciated by the citizenry if they can see the adventures literally from her point of view. That leaves Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), at home with the offspring, Violet (Sara Vowell), Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), whose cornucopia of unpredictable powers are just starting to manifest. Helen gets the spotlight, and Bob faces his own challenges as Mr. Mom, from Violet’s boyfriend woes to Dash’s new math homework to Jack-Jack’s tussles with wildlife.

Writer-director Brad Bird returns for Incredibles 2, his first animated effort since Ratatouille, released in 2007. Although Pixar has gotten into the franchise biz and had incentive to revisit the Incredibles characters no matter what, rendering this computer world without Bird’s involvement is inconceivable. It is such a clear, boisterously vivid expression of Bird’s fascinations, including society’s chronic undervaluing of excellence and the unique brand of nostalgic futurism that swirled like gnats around his 2015 bomb, Tomorrowland. Presumably anyone could have dropped these figures into a suitably imaginative tale and had a shot at creating an entertaining diversion (and, in truth, Bird’s primary plot is a little uninspired, especially in a revelation of villainy so predictable, I suspect even a good chunk of youthful target audience will see it coming). But Bird brings to Incredibles 2 its soul, resounding with charm and sincerity.

Just as importantly, Bird demonstrates an enviable command of the pure mechanics of cinema. His well-established deftness with action sequences in solidly in place, but he elevates it further with a stunning visual sense. The infinite pliability of computer animation leads to Bird washing the screen in lush, rich colors, as if the entirety of the film takes place during a perfect sunset. In collaboration with cinematographer Mahyar Abousaeedi (a Pixar veteran), Bird gives Incredibles 2 a look unseen outside of Roger Deakins’s dreams. The music by Michael Giacchino is a constant reward, and the voice cast is exceptional, especially Hunter and Nelson. Sequel or not, animation or not, Bird is not coasting, and his team is equally committed.

The film is funny, thrilling, smart, and warm. It lacks the snap of invention that made the first outing with the Parr clan a clear Pixar peak, but that’s to be expected. The excitable readings of its embedded politics impose more weight on Incredibles 2 than is actually there. In way that mirrors the Marvel movies that exploded betwixt its two installments, Bird’s new film has little agenda beyond entertaining. In fulfilling that mission, it is indeed super.

The Art of the Sell — “The Player” movie poster

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Player ,The

In the early nineteen-nineties, movie poster design was increasingly dominated by incredibly dull images. As movie star salaries spiked, there was a clear reticence to sell a blockbuster hopeful in any manner other than the celebrities at the top of the cast list. If a studio paid a lot of money for Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn, they damn well wanted to sell Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn on the poster. If the poster conveyed practically nothing else about the movie as a result, it didn’t seem to stir any worry with the Hollywood muckety-mucks.

For smaller, independent films, the cast was usually a touch to the side of the point, at least in cajoling moviegoers into buying a ticket. Those films also were a little more complicated, making them difficult to distill down to a single image that could reasonably convey what potential moviegoers would find if they were willing to purchase a ticket. That often led to great ingenuity, and few posters from the era exemplify that quite as well as the one-sheet for Robert Altman’s The Player. The film’s bleakly comic view of Hollywood is perfectly communicated by the the inspired visual of a noose fashioned out of celluloid. Even the pastel sunset hints at a glamorous world in decline.

The poster is an ideal representation of an utterly fantastic film. As much as love Altman’s caustic satire, I have to admit when The Player comes to mind, I think of the poster first.