The New Releases Shelf — What a Time to Be Alive

(Image credit: Straight from the band’s Instagram)

Find the mid-nineteen-nineties version of me and ask him to indulge in a little pop culture forecasting. Specifically, get him to name the titans of alternative rock who’ll be still be around twenty years later, dishing out new music just as vital as anything from their heyday. I’m not sure what names he’d offer, but I’d wager Superchunk wouldn’t even occur to him as likely paragons of longevity.

Sure, the existence of Merge Records, founded by band members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, spoke to a stream of ambition and responsibility cutting through the tundra of their art. This is also an act that effectively introduced themselves to the alternative nation with the single “Slack Motherfucker.” That track may be about independent ambition (“I’m working/ But I’m not working for you”), but its brash disregard for niceties alone seemed an impediment to the long haul. It was grandly callous, punk-sparked rock ‘n’ roll, and the prevailing credo of the art still strongly favored burning out over fading away.

In the modern era of every reasonably talented bygone college radio artist getting an elder statesman revival if they want it, Superchunk has been one of the more distinguished boomerang bands. Officially, they never went away, but nearly a decade passed between Here’s to Shutting Up, released in 2001, and Majesty Shredding, from 2010. It certainly seemed like a semi-retirement. It also seemed to be good for them. It’s not fair to say Superchunk sounded revitalized on Majesty Shredding, if only because its not-so-immediate predecessor was a fine album, too. But the all-grown-up vibe of Here’s to Shutting Up was easier to build on with a few extra years of distance. It was better to let the new foundation settle.

Wonderfully, the band’s latest album, What a Time to Be Alive, utilizes the improved sense of craft in revisiting the fierce discontent of Superchunk’s earliest material. Driven by dismay over the grisly political turns of the past couple years, the band made an album that kicks up a furor. It roils and snarls and stands aghast at what’s happening. “Nothing is familiar out there/ But everything’s the same/ It’s just the center leaking out/ While all the trees go up in flames,” McCaughan sings on “Break the Glass,” his trademark nasal firecracker of voice making the song come across as part manifesto and part plea. Tuneful and charged, the song captures the sense of trudging onward in an unsettled time.

“Reagan Youth” honors one of the key ancestors of protest punk (“Reagan Youth taught you how to feel/ Reagan Youth showed you what was real”), as if deliberately calling upon magical figures of past glories could help Superchunk get the universe wobbling on its axis. The bristling punk charge of “Lost My Brain” suggests they might manage it, as does “I Got Cut,” which was specifically inspired by attacks on reproductive rights by elderly white men (“All these old men won’t die too soon/ Flesh balloons still waving their arms around and/ Slipping over the sides”), with Superchunk name-checking Chelsea Manning in the process. On these tracks — and across the album — the music is lean and propulsive, meant to send sweat spattering onto dingy club walls.

“Erasure,” featuring guest vocals from Stephin Merritt and Katie Crutchfield, might be the album’s clearest, most compelling statement of purpose. Against a loping beat and buzzy guitars, the lyrics call out the current power structure’s dastardly attempts to cast delegitimize any and all dissent against their careening agenda of rolling back social progress. “Our empathy weaponized/ Our history bleaching out during the day,” McCaughan sings, ultimately warning that any attempts at erasing the voices of opposition will be fruitless. “Hate so graceless and so cavalier/ We don’t just disappear/ Shifting shapes you’re just an auctioneer/ But we’re still here,” he adds.

What a Time to Be Alive won’t topple any ramparts. Superchunk knows that as well as anyone. But it’s plenty cathartic, anyway. The album will provide a dandy soundtrack when the revolution comes.


College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #964 to #961

sid soundtrack

964. Sid & Nancy soundtrack (1986)

I haven’t done the research to confirm my theory, but I believe Gary Oldman is the first and only winner of the Academy Award in the best actor in a leading role category who has delivered a cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” on a major label album release. Some Oscar-related trivia is more obscure than others.

The mid-nineteen-eighties was a time when a lot of people sorted through the wreckage of punk rock’s heyday. Time had not yet conferred the romanticized retrospection of misfit charm on the most spectacular blunders of career self-sabotage and more grievous infractions. All manner of punk rock survivors were engaged in exculpatory examination of their own recent legacy — or embarking on bizarre acts of personal reinvention — and a few interested outside artists took it upon themselves to dramatize the thrilling tumult. A convergence of insider and outsider is present on the soundtrack to the 1986 feature film Sid & Nancy.

Dramatizing the doomed love affair of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Oldman) and Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), Sid & Nancy was filmmaker Alex Cox’s follow-up to the Repo Man, which became an immediate cult hit upon its release, in 1984. It was at the wrap party for the biopic — then titled Love Kills — that Cox met Joe Strummer, former member of the Clash, who’d crashed the event. As legend has it, Cox cornered Strummer in the bathroom and suggested that the proper penance for his trespassing was the composition of an original song for the film. The meaty “Love Kills,” framed lyrically as a conversation between Vicious and an arresting officer, was the significant result.

Other musicians who’d traversed the punk years and emerged relatively unscathed were also present, with the decidedly mixed results endemic to soundtracks of the nineteen-eighties. “She Never Took No for an Answer” is a lovely John Cale song from the era in which he sounded like an art-pop Leonard Cohen, but “Pleasure and Pain,” contributed by Vicious’s bandmate Steve Jones, is remarkably drab. The soundtrack also includes a couple instances of Oldman aping Vicious in brash covers, gems from the Pogues (such as the wonderfully lax instrumental careen “Junk”), and enough of the spindly synthesized score by Pray for Rain to fully verfity the film’s 1986 copyright date.



963. Pushtwangers, Here We Go Again (1986)

For a flash in the mid-nineteen-eighties, there was a demand for punchy, straightforward rock ‘n’ roll, played with murky brio and a distinct undercurrent of heart country earnestness. Evidently, the supply of such sounds required such consistent resupplying that college radio programmers occasionally needed to import the material, even from highly unlikely trading partners.

The Pushtwangers hailed from Sweden, a strange land more renowned — both in days gone by and more recently — for shaming the rest of the world for their absolute command of pop music than guitar rock that sounds like it came straight outta the garage. Nonetheless, Here We Go Again, the second full-length from the band, is as direct a stab at gaining inroads onto album rock radio as anything the Black Crowes ever laid down in their various studios filled with skunky smoke. Adhering to the rowdy rock boys stereotype, the Pushtwangers even signed off on an album cover featuring a model wearing a dress that could be stripped off, like a melding of Andy Warhol’s famed “Peel Slowly and See” gag and dirty playing cards.

The material on Here We Go Again is solid enough, but rarely transcends — or builds on in the slightest way — its inspirations. The snarly and brash “I’m a Man” would be a worthy addition to any skilled bar band’s set list, and “The Shot” amuses simply by sounding like a more caffeinated version of the Georgia Satellites. “Dancing on Thin Ice” opens with one of those spooky, downbeat guitar lines that metal bands like to deploy when they’re trying to project quiet menace, and progresses into lyrics only partially forgivable due to their origin in a different language (“So don’t let me hear it’s a fire you feel/ cuz hell is a place you’ve never been/ You’re a stupid girl/ And you’re dancing on thin ice”).

And there’s no language barrier that can excuse the worst infractions on the album. I will undoubtedly encounter several terrible song titles during the course of this long Countdown trek, but let’s go ahead and name “She’s Blind (But I Don’t Mind)” as an early nominee for worst affront against all that is verbally respectable.


more george

962. George Thorogood, More George Thorogood and the Destroyers (1980)

How perfect it is that Delaware’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll son has an album simply called More George Thorogood and the Destroyers. A unpretentious practitioner of blues rock with a particular proclivity for inspired raiding of the songbooks of ancestral titans of the form, Thorogood was a performer who simply out his music out there with little evident anguish. These are great songs played with loving care, he seemed to argue, so why fuss about it?

His self-titled debut of Thorogood and his backing band was released in 1977, followed on year later by Move It On Over. Released on Rounder Records, they were successful enough that MCA rummaged through their discard pile to retrieve the demo Thorogood recorded for them in 1974, releasing it as the 1979 mini-album Better Than the Rest. In 1980, Thorogood reclaimed control of his discography with More.

As usual, the album was comprised largely of covers of mid-century blues classics. Opening with a version of Willie Dixon’s “I’m Wanted” (“Well, I’m wanted by the men want to learn my line/ I’m wanted by the women cause I love so fine/ Wanted by the boys wanna learn my style/ I’m wanted by the girls cause it drives ’em wild”), the album quickly establishes itself as a magic backwoods bar jukebox of gritty jams to accompany the progress from sorrow-drowning to loud, slurred testimony atop a rickety table.

Thorogood is no innovator, but he’s genuine enough in his acts of preservation to still feel as though he’s providing a blessed service. His version of “Bottom of the Sea,” originally by Muddy Waters, is tight and satisfying, and the take on Elmore James’s “Goodbye Baby” shows that Thorogood can also thrive when he slows it down. The album’s sole original has its own stick-to-the-ribs appeal. “Kids in Philly,” an instrumental penned by Thorogood (billed on the label as Jorge Thoroscum), has the forthright charge and horn-dappled flourishes of early rock ‘n roll, when the indebtedness to the blues was still deeply present in every 45. Thorogood himself would probably never claim it was as strong a piece of songwriting as those he covered on the album, but it’s reasonable evidence that he was a rock ‘n’ roll student who could apply his learning.


billy nylon

961. Billy Joel, The Nylon Curtain (1982)

A devoted fan of the Beatles. Billy Joel surely knew that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was officially the eighth studio release by the four lads from Liverpool. That might explain — if not consciously, then at the cellular level — why Joel brought a previously unseen vigor to his recording efforts when it came time for his own eighth album, The Nylon Curtain. Without necessarily noting the numeric symmetry, Joel has acknowledged the influence of the Beatles’ landmark 1967 album, noting the significant production layering and heavy lifting that needed to be done in the studio to wrangle the individual tracks into place.

The influence of the latter day Beatles records is a resonant presence on the album, most notably on the grinding ballad of obsession “Laura,” the churning “Surprises,” and the gently psychedelic “Scandinavian Skies.” The latter track, though, also demonstrates the way that decidedly more modern material was seeping into Joel’s psyche. Due to its restrained, edgy synthesizer line and the incursion of a faint vocal line that sounds like public address announcements from a foreign airport, I swear the first thirty seconds of “Scandinavian Skies” could make a not-so-casual listener believe they’d stumbled on a previous unearthed Laurie Anderson record.

Joel may already have become as mainstream as an artist could get (over the course of the previous five years, he’d released four multi-platinum albums and collected five Grammy Awards), but there was revolution in the air. New wave was a significant force in music when Joel recorded The Nylon Curtain, and elements of the subgenre’s jittery agitation are all over the record. Single “Pressure” is the most obvious example, riven by a piercing synthesizer part and expressing anguish over modern agony heightened by disconnection (“I’m sure you’ll have some cosmic rationale/ But here you are with your faith/ And your Peter Pan advice/ You have no scars on your face/ And you cannot handle pressure”). But it can also be found in the escalating pop thunderstorm of “She’s Right on Time” and singing the margins of practically every song.

In “Pressure,” Joel snarls about the emptiness of reading Time magazine, but his subscription clearly informed his songwriting in a whole new way. If Joel was subconsciously reacting to new wave and other emerging styles of pop music, his creative interface with current events was more intentional. On the single “Allentown,” Joel directly addresses the erosion of the portions of U.S. industry that helped build the middle class, correctly surmising the long social guarantee on one generation’s fortunes improving on those of the generation before was about to come to an end: “Every child has a pretty good shot/ To get at least as far as their old man got/ But something happened on the way to that place/ They threw an American flag in our place.” Similarly, “Goodnight Saigon” was a relatively early example of a rock ‘n’ roll artist devoting energy to the story of Vietnam veterans being callously discarded. The songs aren’t subtle — they’re so overt they skew perilously near to becoming didactic — but that’s part of their appeal. If the millionaire rock star is going to sing about the travails of those stuck with fruitless grinding as they strive for the promise a better life, then he’d best be a clear, honest reporter on the subject.

For me personally, The Nylon Curtain is a hugely important album. For many years, anyone who made the mistake of lending their ear was likely to be inundated with my dead-certain opinions on the unassailable genius of the album. I was probably wise enough to refrain from calling it the best rock album ever made, but I would quickly insist it was my favorite. It was one of the first albums in my collection, purchased not too long after its release, and I just about wore it out. Although I’ve occasionally championed it in the public sphere in recent years, I’m ashamed to admit I’m more likely to ignore it when rattling off other cherished albums that I feel make me seem cooler. But The Nylon Curtain was my unquestionable gateway to all the college rock, alternative, and indie that later filled my speakers with song.

Let others disparage the piano man. I’m prepared to declare that, like his beloved Beatles, on his eight album, Joel crafted his masterpiece.


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 — Five for Friday, Guinness for Strength edition


Well, we should come up with something appropriate to the day, shouldn’t we? Once again, I raid my former online home, specifically traipsing through the two hundred installments of weekly exercises in crowdsourced music lists. Below is the prompt I provided to my far-more-brilliant-than-I cohorts on March 17th, 2006. My quintet is included below, and the responses of others have been used to fill out a YouTube playlist to accompany cheery pint-hoisting, if you’re so inclined. Spoiler alert: There are a lot of Pogues songs on there.

Five Songs for St. Patrick’s Day

1. The Pogues, “Lorelei.” “You told me tales of love and glory/Same old sad songs, same old story/The sirens sing no lullaby/and no one knows but Lorelei.” One of the rare instances pre-Hell’s Ditch that finds Shane MacGowan off lead vocal duties, its a lovely ballad about lost love and deep sadness where his grand gargle would indeed have been a distraction. That doesn’t mean we’re talking about some lilting, soft thing you might find on a rummage sale album of Irish favorites. It absolutely has it’s own fullness and drive, marking it a distinct product of the Pogues.

2. The Drovers, “Insulated Man.” The only place you can find this song is on the soundtrack to the film Blink, which weirdly casts Madeleine Stowe as the violin player for the Chicago band The Drovers. I never fully connected with the Irish bar rock of the Drovers, but I love this song. It’s one of those that builds and builds and builds. It’s the perfect song to play as the tavern is burning down around you.

3. The Saints, “Grain of Sand.” Get it? Get it? The Saints…St. Patrick’s Day…Ahhh, wocka wocka! The Australian band started in 1977 cranking out little bursts of punk greatness and eventually evolved into just a simple, strong rock band. This is a big, energizing song about feeling insignificant, but until I check the lyrics right before posting this, I never realized that “My tongue was covered in fur/So I shoved it in my pocket” was among the things Chris Bailey sang on the song.

4. Too Much Joy, “Drunk and In Love.” It was handy in college to have a much-loved smart-mouthed band that also sang a lot about beer. While “King of Beers” (“I am invincible/I have no fear!”) is the one that tends to get dragged out for celebratory drinking excursions, this song nicely covers the feelings that just might overtake you if you’re still in the bar about two or three hours later. The lyrics perfectly captures a guy rambling endlessly about the woman he’s in love with (“She’s asleep in some other time zone/I’m with a friend who wonders where I’ve been/I wanna tell her why she’s so amazing/She’s not here, so I’ll just tell him”) as he considers indulging in the dreaded drunken dial. One of the last songs the band recorded before they finally gave up playing Don Quixote to the music industry’s windmill.

5. Iggy Pop, “Lust For Life.” Because before Trainspotting made it ubiquitous, finding this song on the jukebox was a sign you’d found the right bar. And, for whatever reason, it was usually an Irish bar where we found it (come to think of it, that may have more to do with the fact that we sought out the Irish bars). But more to the point, on St. Patty’s day you have to raise a pint to a bonny Irish lass, so here’s to Trainspotting’s Kelly Macdonald. For today, we’ll ignore the fact that she’s actually Scottish.

One for Friday — Jonathan Richman, “You Can Have a Cell Phone That’s OK But Not Me”


Ages ago, I was engaged in one of those late night, multiple-beer-fueled, freewheeling conversations that only seem to happen in one’s collegiate years, when the constant exchange of ideas and theories is the coin of the realm. Since it was a bunch of radio kids, one of the avenues was naturally the live music we had and hadn’t seen to that point. One question centered on the band or performer who represented the most coveted concert that hadn’t yet happened for each of us. In my hazy recollection, there were a lot of big name acts submitted for everyone’s clucking approval. Then my friend Gunner (in college, I routinely hung out with people who were largely known only by their beautifully odd nicknames, which strikes me as the white, Midwestern version of rap monikers) piped up with a name I never would have considered: Jonathan Richman.

This was the late nineteen-eighties, so Richman was over a decade removed from the seminal self-titled album with the Modern Lovers, and he’d been releasing albums full of lovely esoteric songwriting with reasonable regularity. He was — and still is, and likely forever will be — the only person who could pen and perform a song called “I Like Gumby” and have it be sincere and utterly logical as a topic for pop crooning. He describes the world as he sees it, and his vision is clear and his outlook enviably positive. I want to take up residence in nearly every Jonathan Richman song I hear.

This is my long-delayed confession that my confusion over Gunner’s answer was misplaced. By now, I’ve seen Richman live several times, and it is always splendid, full of charm and simple wonderment in a way that I can’t adequately describe. Gunner’s aspiration was spot-on. I hope he’s had his night in the audience of a Richman show, too.

Listen or download —> Jonathan Richman, “You Can Have a Cell Phone That’s OK But Not Me”

(Disclaimer: Blessedly, it appears a substantial portion of Richman’s voluminous discography is still available for purchase as physical items that can acquired from your favorite local, independently-owned records store, though it’s likely some special ordering will need to take place. Regardless, go get some of that. No matter the album, there are gems to be found. It’s my belief, however, that the track shared here is available only on a ten-year-old seven-inch single which can no longer be secured in the manner described above. It is shared with that understanding and as an enticement to send some business Richman’s direction, one way or another. But really, take any opportunity to see him play live. It’s pure joy. Although I believe sharing this song in this way constitutes fair use, I 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.)

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #968 to #965

jorma king

968. Jorma Kaukonen, Barbecue King (1981)

Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen was carrying a sturdy rock legacy with him when he recorded the album Barbecue King. He was also toying with that storied reputation, which might very well have been the album’s undoing as a commercial effort. Following the dismal performance on the charts of this release, Kaukonen’s third as a solo artist, he was dropped by RCA Records and spent the rest of the nineteen-eighties in a sort of music industry limbo.

A veteran of both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna (which he co-founded with fellow Airplane escapee Jack Casady), Kaukonen spent the tail end of the seventies adopting some of the stylings of the punk rock movement, which was still insurgent and evolving. Just enough of that influence filtered into his music that it confused the fans who were simply looking for more blues riffs repurposed into classic rock workouts. Further denting Kaukonen’s prospects for success, the punk attitude was mostly pilfered from fellow rock veterans like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, who came by it genuinely because they’d helped invent it, but a copy of their efforts was doomed to sound tepid to the kids jabbing safety pins through their own flesh. “Man for All Seasons,” for instance, strives for Reed’s street poet authenticity (“Just a junkie on angel dust/ Looking for a man to trust”), but has a tourist detachment.

Despite the tentative attempts at branching out, much of Barbecue King sounds like precisely the sort of album Kaukonen could have delivered at practically any point in his career. The records opens with a squall of guitars which quickly segues into the deeply fundamental rock song “Runnin’ With the Fast Crowd.” “Roads and Roads &” (a reworked song from Kaukonen’s previous album, Jorma) features the sort of intricate guitar work that seems deliberately made for sorting out stems and seeds on the inside of a gatefold album cover, and a passable cover of “Milkcow Blues Boogie” is practically designed to give comfort to those who listeners who grew up on the murky gospel of nineteen-seventies FM radio.

There album arguably peaks on the easy charm of “Rockabilly Shuffle” (“You know I love you ’cause I told you so”), which could pass for a White Stripes B-side, if it were toughened up a bit, and bottoms out on the title cut, a lame-o blues riff gag that feels like it takes forever. Barbecue King is slightly out of step for the era, but it’s solid enough that the commercial flop is a little puzzling. There was far more dire music from Jefferson Airplane alumni being released in early 1981.


wilde teases

967. Kim Wilde, Teases & Dares (1984)

I will someday go to my neo-mortality quasi-sleep stasis fervently insisting that Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” is one of the all-time great pop singles. Largely categorized as a one-hit wonder in the U.S. (by those who fail to realize “Kids in America” was only a modest hit at the time of its release and that Wilde actually topped the Billboard chart around six years later with a cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”). At home in the U.K., Wilde had a much longer and more robust career, charting seven Top 10 hits (and many more that made the Top 40) during the nineteen-eighties.

Teases & Dares, Wilde’s fourth studio album, represented a significant transition. It was the performer’s first for RCA Records, and it expanded her family-affair approach to making music. Her brother, Ricky Wilde, had long served as her producer, and he was now joined by their father, Marty Wilde (who had previously co-written most of Kim’s songs with Ricky). Kim Wilde was also shoehorned into a glammed-up, fluffed -hair version of pop futurism, presumably designed to help her fit in on the increasingly influential music television platforms across the globe. As if emphasizing the science fiction vibe, the album even includes a track called “Bladerunner,” supposedly inspired by Ridley Scott’s film.  Unfortunately, it’s the drabbest appropriation of influential 1982 cinema to pop music this side of Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight.”

In general, the album operates at a sleepy simmer. The surprisingly wan “Is It Over?” is fully indicative, dressed up in studio glitter than coheres into a dull mass. “Rage to Love” washes its corners with a weird watered-down version of Prince’s Purple Rain funk (released about six months earlier) and “Shangri-La” couples Frankie Goes to Hollywood styled dance floor thump to really dopey lyrics (“She’s still looking for her Shangri-La/ But she wouldn’t know it/ If it hit her in the face”).

“Fit In,” one of two songs credited to Kim as a songwriter (Teases & Dares features her first instances of sole songwriting credits), has indications of the novel in the off-tempo burbling that opens the track, but it quickly settles into the same old dull fluff   (“I’m spending nights just dreaming/ And playing the music loud”). Wheels spin and Wilde, despite all the markers of change, stays in precisely the same spot on the pop freeway.


scruffy high

966. Scruffy the Cat, High Octane Revival (1986)

Scruffy the Cat started with a move away from Iowa. Singer Charlie Chesterman and bassist MacPaul Stanfield knew they wanted to form a band, but figured the clubs of the  Hawkeye State weren’t likely to vault them onto the national scene. At the time, Boston was one of the more fruitful American cities for the performers’ preferred style of roots rock turbo-charged with punk verve. There, the duo connected with a guitarist (Stephen Fredette), a drummer (Randall Lee Gibson IV) and a banjo player (Stona Fitch). Within a couple years, they were signed to Relativity Records and High Octane Revival, the debut EP as Scruffy the Cat, was released.

While only hinting at some of the hooky brilliance to come from the band, High Octane Revival is a well-named introduction. Showing little interest in ballads or any other tempo that could be described as anything less than headlong, the band romps through a half-dozen blazing charmers, bringing a rip-roaring assurance to the traditional swoons and romantic woe that gave most pop songs their spines. “40 Days and 40 Nights” borrows from the story of Noah and his ark to express lovelorn challenges in heightened bluesy fashion, and “Land of 1,000 Girls” puts an earnest, extremely-mid-eighties heartland guitar sound to a melancholy tale of retreating from heartache to the overstocked schools of others swimming in the dating pool.

“Life is Fun” could be drawn straight from the Young Fresh Fellows songbook (there was some intermingling of personnel of the two bands in their respective prehistories), thanks to its shrugging wit. And then there’s the endearing directness of “Buy a Car” (“Think I’ll buy a car again/ Like the one that I had when we were friends/ Think I’ll buy a car”), which eventually reveals that there’s a little more weight to its offhand wistful nostalgia.

There’s not much to High Octane Revival — it’s over in less than twenty minutes — but it serves as a fine introduction to the band and an accurate encapsulation of a certain sound that was all but guaranteed to get airplay in college radio in the mid-eighties. And it’s good enough to demonstrate why that automatic attention was an entirely reasonable strategy.



martin street

965. Moon Martin, Street Fever (1980)

John David Martin was hardly the first or only rock ‘n’ roll songwriter to regularly reference the moon in his lyrics, but he apparently did it often enough that it impacted his onstage billing. Moon Martin had his greatest success writing songs for others, most notably “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor),” which surely would have stood as Robert Palmer’s signature hit had music video director Terence Donovan never alit on the idea of dead-eyed model musicians in tight dresses.

Martin released several albums under his own name. Street Fever was the fourth, and it likely arrived with some modest but real expectations of commercial success, spurred by his excursion into the Billboard Top 40 the prior year, with the single “Rolene.” Much of Street Fever mines the same vein from which Martin extracted that hit for Palmer, but with fewer causes to cry, “Eureka!”

“Five Days of Fever” has a guitar line that recalls Heart’s “Barracuda” (Martin really liked building songs with a racing pulse), but a leaden delivery, and the otherwise solid “Signal for Help”  is nearly undone by limp lyrics (“Little girl, you’re all mixed up/ You oughta know by now/ L.A. dreams have no cure/ They got you cryin'”). It’s worse when Martin tries to stretch much beyond the early rock ‘n’ roll that clearly inspires him. In particular, “Love Gone Bad” is the sort of gruesomely lush ballad that helped invent adult contemporary radio.

In its better moments, though, Street Fever approaches the high bar set by Martin’s classicist contemporaries Marshall Crenshaw or Dave Edmunds. “No Dice” even has the sound and cadence of a nifty Rockpile knock off, complete with briskly delivered, amusing lyrics (“Only a voodoo pin/ Could account for the shape I’m in”).  There’s a real sense of anxiety in “Bad News,” both in the popping guitar line and Martin’s trilling vocals, and “Rollin’ in My Rolls” nearly captures the easy, mischievous spirit of the Chuck Berry songs it ably apes. Again, it’s the lyrics that could have used another pass. They’re about as dumb as the song title implies.


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

One for Friday — Concrete Blonde, “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)”

concrete blonde

Well before I ever set foot in the city of New Orleans, impressions about its rough, spooky charms were set for me. Movies fed my notions, but a more significant part of the mural was colored in by music. Since the place is absolutely overloaded with music history, it was always easy to find bands and artists who hailed from the Crescent City. But, somewhat oddly, one of my most distinctive and enduring tracks evoking New Orleans came from an act that set up their home base over one thousand miles away.

As I’ve recounted on more than one occasion, Concrete Blonde was one of my bands when I qualified for the descriptor in the term student-run radio. Their most significant albums landed on the new releases shelf during my youthful tenure, and the combination of punchy, driving guitar music and Johnette Napolitano’s shredding vocal  were ideal suited to my tastes. Over and over, I returned to their albums when I was on the air, with Bloodletting, released in 1990, undeniably in the lead.

It’s the title cut, employing gothic creep in both the music and lyrics, that comes echoing in my head whenever I’m in New Orleans. The reason is fairly simple. It’s right there in the lyrics:

I got the ways and means
To New Orleans
I’m going down by the river
Where it’s warm and green
I’m gonna have a drink and walk around
I got a lot to think about

That’s it. That’s my experience when I’m among the Creole cottages and booze-spattered streets. The world slows down to accommodate strolls, sips, spirited conversations, and heavy thinking. That’s what I’ve always found in New Orleans, and Concrete Blonde was the band that told me to expect it.

Listen or download –> Concrete Blonde, “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)”

(Disclaimer: As hyperlinked above, I’ve brought Concrete Blonde to this weekly dance before, at least in part because I believe a significant amount of their discography is unavailable, at least as physical objects that can procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said store. Although I’m neglecting the research that could confirm or deny this speculation, Bloodletting may very well be an album that still be acquired, if only because it contains “Joey,” the band’s sole excursion into the Billboard Top 40. If that’s the case, let the sharing of this song be enticement to go buy the entire album. It’s choice, start to finish. Or buy a different Concrete Blonde release. They are one of the bands that is likely well-served by a “greatest hits” type collection. Regardless, go spend money on some records. You’ll be glad you did.)

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Muddy River” and “Curious Mind (Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um)

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.


Johnny Rivers was born in New York City, but he started slinging his guitar when his family lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Recording and releasing a smattering of songs during his teenage years, Rivers had basically given up on the notion of being a performer by the early nineteen-sixties, when he moved to Los Angeles seeking his fortune as a songwriter and studio musician. He first muscled his way onto the charts in 1964 with a version of “Memphis,” originally written and recorded by Chuck Berry (who included the Southern town’s state in the title).

From there, Rivers had a solid career notching thirteen Top 40 hits, including one that reached the top of the Billboard chart. And then there were the near misses.

Although Rivers initially made his way in the music business as a songwriter, he was a dedicated borrower in his performing career. That include borrowing Van Morrison’s “Slim Slow Slider” — once again slightly renaming it — for the title and lead track on his 1970 studio album. The primary single was “Muddy River,” written by James Hendricks, in between his tenure in the Mamas and the Papas precursor the Mugwumps and spitting out Christian music ditties for the rest of his career.

Several years later, was one of many artists trying to navigate the music business waters that had turned rough because of the giant mirrored ball that had been plunged right into the deepest end. There were worse strategies that releasing a song about dancing, even it was closer to soft rock than a synth-powered workout designed to send feet skittering across a flashing-light floor. Originally done by Funky Kings (again with a slightly different title), “Swayin’ to the Music (Slow Dancin’)” was a Top 10 hit for Rivers in 1977.

For the follow-up single, Rivers drew another cover song from his album Outside Help. Penned by Curtis Mayfield, “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” was a Top 5 hit for Major Lance, in 1964. Rivers took the classic, oldies rock sound and watered it down into more featherweight nineteen-seventies glop.

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