One for Friday: The Tragically Hip, “Blow at High Dough”

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(via)

I remember when the first full-length release from the Tragically Hip arrived at my college radio station. It was at the beginning of my second year, when my footing was a little sounder and I finally had an inkling of the rhythms of the calendar when it came to new music pitched at student broadcasters. There was a certain confidence on the part of MCA Records, the major label that was home to the Canadian band, in putting the album in college organization mailboxes around September of 1989. It was right at the start of the school year, as many students were returning from summers at home, desperate to cleanse their ears and minds of the barrage of insipid pop hits that romped all over commercial radio. So there were all sorts of major left-of-the-dial bands — like Love and Rockets, Big Audio Dynamite, and Camper Van Beethoven — all lined up, ready to compete for the attention of those eager student programmers. A new band with an odd but cool name was facing stiff competition.

But the Tragically Hip had sleeves full of aces. As much as college radio could quickly fall sway to acts with offbeat musical innovations or a snarky sense of humor (matching the prevailing sensibility of the twenty-ish self-defined outcasts who were signing transmitters logs at stations coast to coast), there was a more straightforward quality that was equally rare and treasured. The Tragically Hip exuded a rough-hewn authenticity that played particularly well for those student broadcasters — like, for example, me — whose formative music experiences came a few years earlier, when Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp made their rock ‘n’ roll stands for the heartland. We spent a lot of time chasing music that was aggressive, brash, intoxicating, distracting in its pounding insistence on upending the norm. But there was still a pleasure in material that was earnest and true, inviting head bobs of recognition as the songs played out.

Up to Here opens perfectly, with the thumping, building “Blow at High Dough.” It’s deeply satisfying, in an irresistible stick-to-the-ribs way. But it stands apart from some of the most notable college rock singles of that era in that it also stirs interest to hear what else this band can do, how they can expand and challenge and bends the most familiar tones of rock ‘n’ roll to their collective will. Lead singer Gord Downie makes every word sound like pure testimony, so he immediately convinces that he can — and should — be followed anywhere. To put in plainly, as fine as the song is on its own, it’s the inherent promise that there is more like this — and the performers obviously have the chops to deliver the goods endlessly —that makes it special.

Although all journeys — intellectual, personal, creative — must end at some point, resonant memories of the beginning can make even the most trodden path look new again when the time for reflection arrives. And no matter what happens, the music endures, offering a sort of renewal every time it plays again.

Listen or download –> The Tragically Hip, “Blow at High Dough”

(Disclaimer: I’m not sure about the status of Up to Here, or any of the albums in the Tragically Hips catalog. Since the band was consistently celebrated in their Canadian homeland, I assume most of the releases are readily available. So I share this track in this space at this time not as a replacement for commerce, but as encouragement to engage with it. Head out to your favorite local, independently-owned record store and see what’s there. It’s all worthwhile. Although I mean no fiscal harm to anyone in sharing this song, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove it 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: American Dream

lcd

I mean, no one really thought there would never be another LCD Soundsystem album, right?

For all the anguish and wistful valedictory celebration that accompanied the announcement of LCD Soundsystem’s farewell, back in 2011, the dissolution of James Murphy’s triumphant collaboration of electronic extravaganzas always felt temporary. Viewed benignly, it seemed like more than an impulsive hiatus. Under more cynical examination, it had the air of a calculated put-on, which Murphy has basically admitted was the case.

And here we are, in the dazzling, spinning mirror ball reflected light of the least surprising reunion in ages. American Dream is the fourth full-length under the LCD Soundsystem name, and it no mere rehash. It shimmers and soars with all the same anxious ingenuity that has typified the group’s output from the start. Album opener “Oh Baby” immediately sets the mind at lovely unease, sounding like a warmer Public Image Ltd (I catch a hint of “Rise” in the track’s heartbeat rhythms) as Murphy pines with language that is simultaneously simple and achingly poetic (“Oh lover/ You run from me/ We move like a bad scene/ Shot in the dark”). It establishes that Murphy and his crew are back in the mode of channeling decades of electronic influences into material that is inventive and original.

In that alchemy that makes the familiar into the blazingly new, American Dream is a sort of successor — or perhaps an answer — to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Where the French duo was explicit in their glitter-doused history lessons — bringing the likes of Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder along for the rollicking ride — LCD Soundsystem is slyer, more playful in deploying echoes of influence. “Other Voices” takes the ersatz funk of Talking Heads and folds in the mind-bending casual experimentation of Laurie Anderson. It’s followed by “I Used To,” which sounds like Art of Noise with a welcome soul transplant. And “How Do You Sleep?” plays like the disco reconstruction U2 thought they were making, circa Zooropa and Pop.

Drawing those comparisons might imply American Dream is derivative. It’s not. LCD Soundsystem has long had a skill for making their material reverberate with grand invention. That remains in full evidence throughout the new album. “Tonite” is a quintessential LCD Soundsystem song, at once satirizing and mastering modern dance floor fare as Murphy zings back and forth between slump-shouldered asides and questing croons in his vocals. “But embarrassing pictures have now all been deleted/ By versions of selves that we thought were the best ones/ ‘Til versions of versions of others repeating/ Come laughing at everything we thought was important,” he sings, getting at the existential woes of the modern age with a plain perfectness that puts to shame lyricists who stick with the established she-made-me-happy-then-she-made-me-sad grammar of pop songs.

As the album grooves to a close with the elegance of “Black Screen,” a heartbroken, mournful, and icily experimental David Bowie tribute, its clear that LCD Soundsystem have provided a danceable argument for their continued contribution to the pop culture discourse, no matter what feigned bows they may have already taken. There’s no cause for a band to leave the stage when they can still dominate it. The dream is real, and it offers uncommon sonic luxuries.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990 — An Introduction

Last week, we came to the conclusion of the mightiest College Countdown effort yet, a survey of the Top 250 songs from the first ten years of CMJ, the trade publication that once served student broadcasters — and maybe still does, sorta. It took over a year-and-a-half of weekly posts to count backwards from the lower reaches of the chart to the top spot.

For my next big trick, I’m going to mount an even more ambitious — or perhaps more lunatic — College Countdown undertaking, one that is so large and will take so long that I’m thinking of it as “the final Countdown.”

Right now, though, I haven’t even completely figured out how to pull that off, or at least the basic logistics of the weekly posts are currently eluding me. In part due to that, and in part out of a desire to have something of an interlude between the two massive Countdowns, I’m going to do something a little simpler to carry through to the end of the calendar year.

As I’ve noted before, my College Countdown borrows its name and basic concept from a weekly show that aired at my student radio alma mater, WWSP-90FM, roughly during the years I was a proud member of the staff. Primarily hosted by the fine fellow who would also become my cohort on the on-air movie review show I often remember in this digital space, the weekly program aired on Sunday nights and used the regularly published CMJ 40 Cuts chart to set the playlist.

For the next few weeks, I will honor my predecessor the proper way.

cmj top 40

This chart comes from the spring of 1990, which I don’t idealize quite as fervently as the same time frame one year earlier, but I look at the music that dominated our attention and still see a version of college radio from the days before Nirvana unintentionally knocked sonic diversity asunder with their runaway success. A playlist could go just about anywhere, and the tracks on this chart reflect that.

The new Countdown gets underway properly next week. In the meantime, here is the listing of all that have come before in this space:

The 90FM-WWSP charts

90FM’s Top 90 of 1989

90FM’s Top 90 of 1995

90FM’s Top 90 of 1996

The CMJ charts

The First CMJ Album Chart (from 1978)

CMJ Radio Top Cuts chart from Winter 1991

CMJ Top 50 Albums of 2001

CMJ Top 250 Songs of 1979-1989

The other charts

The Trouser Press Top 10 of 1981

KROQ-FM’s Top 40 Songs of 1987

First Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart from Fall 1988

Rockpool‘s Top 20 College Radio Albums from November 1988

The Gavin Report Top 20 Alternative Chart from October 1992

 

One for Friday — Big Pig, “I Can’t Break Away”

big pig

I need to acknowledge the walls of the college station where I made my home from 1988 to 1993 (and beyond, truthfully). Not the college issued white blandness, but the scrappy, unkempt cover-up provided by student programmers over the years. The walls were adorned with posters sent by the labels and promotional agencies, hand-lettered station policy announcements peppered with wry comedy, and bumper stickers procured from broadcasting brethren across the nation.

There were also patchwork arrays of album flats, the recreations of covers used to promote new releases. A few of those popped out to me, achieving their insinuating purpose of sending me to the record itself, giving it a place on my playlist. Some of those covers tickled my mind because they were vivid or lovely. Some simply served as a reminder of an album to which I’d already silently pledged my allegiance. Interestingly, one of the album flats that always grabbed my eye and interest did so because of its graphic simplicity.

Bonk, the debut full-length from the Australian band Big Pig, boasted a markedly straightforward cover:

Big_pig-bonk

The band name, rendered large, and the album title superimposed over it. That’s it.

The music I found there was very 1988, especially the quasi-hit single known as “I Can’t Break Away” in the U.S. Thumping, post-disco with a fierce female lead singer yearning for Annie Lennox comparisons and backing vocals that try to replicate heavy bass drum urgency in their tone, the song almost seems genetically engineered for the movie soundtracks of the day. Of course, that’s precisely where it ended up, getting sonic space on the TV series Miami Vice and in the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (on the movie’s soundtrack, it is nestled between two tracks by the L.A. hair metal band Shark Island.)

The track worked pretty well in a college radio set, too, although it was likely to send fragile little me scuttling back to the personal safety of some gruffly downbeat guitar band, preferable from the Upper Midwest. I might have been occasionally inspired to sample Big Pig’s Bonk because of the album cover, but I also had difficulty breaking away.

Listen or download –> Big Pig, “I Can’t Break Away”

(Disclaimer: I believe Big Pig’s Bonk to be out of print, at least as a physical object that can be acquired from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensate both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. I suppose it could be residing on a compilation or soundtrack out there, but my crack research department — which is, you know, me — has limitations to how deep of digging will be done when, being real, sharing this song in this way in this place should count as fair use. Regardless, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this track 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: A Deeper Understanding

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I readily concede that at this melancholy moment there’s a greedy desire to hear echoes of Tom Petty just about everywhere. But, whenever I now cycle back to A Deeper Understanding, the new album from the War on Drugs, I hear little shimmers of Petty’s reflected sensibility all over the place. The album’s first track, “Up All Night,” might open with a electronic hummingbird shiver that seems nicked from a vintage Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, but it quickly gives in to a loping, keening melody that is like an even more relaxed version of Petty’s “Learning to Fly.” Elsewhere, “Pain” has the balladic ruminating and “Nothing to Find” has some of the highway reverberation I associate with the dearly departed rock legend.

Acknowledging those comparisons upfront seems only prudent, since they’ll happen anyway and will be conspicuous no matter how they’re deployed. The invocations are inevitable because I can’t listen to the War on Drugs without my mind tumbling into a undulating mass of other artists, each new musical reminiscence arriving and departing with the fleeting suddenness of a bursting bubble. When I wrote briefly about the Philadelphia band’s previous album, Lost in the Dream, I conceded my bafflement in trying to settle on an assessment of what the music contained therein sounded like to me. “Right now, I think this is the record the Waterboys would have made if Mike Scott had been raised alongside Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey,” I wrote, helplessly. The new album sounds nothing like that. Except when it does. Once again, it changes day to day.

In less certain, less capable hands, the tonal and spiritual fluidity would come across as indication of soulless, visionless music. A Deeper Understanding couldn’t be further from that. Chief songwriter and frontman Adam Granduciel builds tracks of strident sonic exploration, like a Flaming Lips record, but aspiring to the polished discipline adopted by legacy rockers when they were given the keys to state of the art recording studios in the nineteen-eighties. “In Chains” has signs of Jackson Browne’s gentle agitation, “Strangest Thing” could have retrieved from Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, and the sprawling “Thinking of a Place” is one whole side of an old LP all on its own, cooing and coaxing toward achy poignancy.

Amazingly, this tall stack of the familiar doesn’t tally up to a finished product that moans with derivativeness. Rich with the past and crackling with the easy confidence of an artist with a restless eye to the future, A Deeper Understanding feels fiercely original in its commitment to a certain true-heartedness that used to come standard on rock ‘n’ roll albums. I’m not sure if any of the predecessors of the War on Drugs feel as though they’ve passed the torch along to them, but it doesn’t matter. A Deeper Understanding shows they’ve got a firm grasp on it, and they’re carrying it proudly.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 1

1 tenderness

1. General Public, “Tenderness”

The Beat had just had their biggest hit in the U.K. when the breakup happened. A cover of the pop standard “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” a song first elevated to hit status by Andy Williams, carried the ska-driven Beat all the way into the British Top 5. That success didn’t stop the erosion of their unity, a devastating turn for a group that took pride in a sterling egalitarian ethos.

“We were still trying, still kicking, but we weren’t kicking in time with each other,” guitarist and vocalist Dave Wakeling explained at the time. “The work became harder and harder for less and less.”

Wakeling and fellow vocalist Ranking Rogers departed the band, citing the pressures of a U.S. tour as the culprit in expanding the fissures already breaking the surface of the Beat. Establishing a new outfit, the pair filled out the roster with evacuees from Dexys Midnight Runners and the Specials, while also getting a special assist from Mick Jones, then recently excused from his duties with the Clash. The called the new group General Public.

“We were outside the House of Commons, and there were all these little signs on the gates saying, ‘No Admittance to the General Public,” said Wakeling. “And then, of course, they’re always referring on the telly news and documentaries to the ‘general public,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean.”

Since the new band released their first music in 1984. Wakeling added that the calendar catching up with the title of George Orwell’s most famous novel — and the rampant reintroduction of concepts like doublespeak and Big Brother — made him think of how the term “general public” was foreboding in its own way, like some benevolent dictatorship of democracy.

“Now, any name that has three different meanings has got to have something going for it,” said Wakeling.

General Public’s debut album, All the Rage, was released in January 1984. A few months later, a track called “Tenderness” was chosen to be one of its singles. Sweet at first listen, the lyrics of the song are infused with melancholy, the product of songwriting conducted on the road, away from family and other loved ones. Wakeling said he spent time chatting via CB radio with the truck drivers that were out on the highway while he traveling similar roads on a tour bus late at night.

“And the notion was that you were driving around in there in America searching for the tenderness, whereas, of course, it’s in your heart all the time,” he noted many years later. “So it’s like you’re looking in the outside world for something that can only be discovered in yourself, because love is a verb, not a noun. That was the notion of it.”

At the time “Tenderness” was released as a single, Wakeling’s assessment was even more direct, noting it was simply one of the strongest songs on the album, essentially the culmination on everything he’d worked toward in his creative efforts.

“What we’ve been trying to say in the song is very serious,” said Wakeling. “It’s been enough to make me cry on a number of occasions, but if you can say that while making it sound poppy and cheerful, then that’s really what I’ve been aiming for since we left the Beat.”

Back in the U.K., the single was a dud, stalling out in at #95 on the charts. It had a far different fate on the other side of the Atlantic, taking a place of repeated prominence on MTV, then coming into its own as a musical tastemaker.

That success might not have happened if the band had stuck with their original vision for the music video. In the U.K., the clip emphasized the forlorn attempts at escaping loneliness hidden in the lyrics, depicting Wakeling stumbling into a tryst with a female bodybuilder in a hotel distant from his wife and child. The band members thought it was dandy in its twisted, cynical depiction of life as traveling musicians. Their U.S. label, I.R.S. Records, voiced a different opinion.

“We brought it over and showed it to I.R.S.,” Wakeling told Mother Jones. “‘Good video, eh? What do you think?’ And they just stood there horrified. So we had to make another video for the American audience that makes us look very pretty. My mum thinks the American video is fantastic.”

Wakeling’s mum wasn’t the only person to hold that opinion. The video of “Tenderness” helped garner General Public their first Top 40 hit in the U.S. On the college charts, the single was a smash, and Wakeling later acknowledged it was the label execs taking their honed skills with promoting to student programming — and the money they were starting to make — and effectively transferring those strategies to the commercial end of the dial that led to the track’s success.

“If you look at the history of I.R.S., you can see there’s a certain point right about the time when ‘Tenderness’ came out — just before — where all of a sudden songs on I.R.S. were starting to enter the top 40,” Wakeling told Popdose. “And I think that they’d had enough success with the college charts and the independent charts that they could now afford to enter the Top 40 lottery game.”

Chuffed with chart success or not, General Public didn’t last long. There was only one other full-length album before Wakeling and Ranking Rogers each went on to middling solo careers. Reunions happen, though, and General Public, in some ways, had one of the stranger ones. They got back together to record a cover of the Staple Singers’ song “I’ll Take You There,” which was featured on the soundtrack to Threesome, a now-blessedly-forgotten attempt at daring cinema starring Lara Flynn Boyle, Josh Charles, and — help us all — Stephen Baldwin. Bizarrely, the cover song stands as officially the highest-charting General Public single in the U.S., outdoing “Tenderness” by five places.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

One for Friday: Tom Petty, “Wildflowers”

petty wildflowers

It’s very possible Wildflowers was the last album I purchased while living in my college town. I stuck around for roughly a year and a half following my graduation, working a thankless movie theater management job and soothing my post-collegiate existential disconnection by routinely purchasing music from the finest record store I’ve ever encountered. I don’t believe I owned any other Tom Petty records at that point, but Wildflowers was irresistible. Producer Rick Rubin had just established himself as a sterling shepherd of legacy artists with Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. The prospect of him paring Petty’s music down to something lean and pure was downright thrilling.

I have memories of sitting in the crusty bedroom of my last residence in Stevens Point, listening to Wildflowers over and over, finding warmth and honesty in its tones. I especially connected with the title cut, a tender and lovely ballad that spoke to the wounded romanticism I carried around like a overstuffed duffel. The plainspoken grace of the repeated lyric “You belong somewhere you feel free” is as perfect an expression of affection as I’ve ever encountered in a rock ‘n’ roll song, a medium that has no shortage of expressions of affection.

I’m a sucker for silly symbols — knowing the first song I played on the radio or the last movie I saw before moving away from a town. Even so, I don’t actually record those details. I just retroactively come up with a plausible story. So, I will say that Wildflowers helped close out my time in a place that means the world to me. Why not? It was a place where I felt free.

Listen or download –> Tom Petty, “Wildflowers”

(Disclaimer: I didn’t check, but I fully suspect that Wildflowers remains in print and can be purchased from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a format that will provide compensation to both the proprietor of said store and the all artists who deserve a cut of the proceeds. This song is shared in this space at this time as encouragement to engage in that commerce rather than a replacement for it. More than most, Petty is well-served by the various greatest hits collections under his name, but his full albums — especially the couple that are official solo efforts — a vital additions to a music collection, too. Although I’m sharing this under the auspices of fair use, I do 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.)