One for Friday — Melissa Etheridge, “Bring Me Some Water”

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Thirty years ago, in the late spring of 1988, Melissa Etheridge released her self-titled debut album. By now, Etheridge has become such a mainstay on the rock scene (albeit one who has arguably shifted to legacy status rather than necessary and immediate and vital continuing contributor) that it’s hard to convey how spectacularly unique her voice was at the time. During 1987 and 1988, thirty-seven different songs took a turn at the top of the Billboard mainstream rock chart. Exactly one of them — “My Baby,” by the Pretenders — put a woman at the lead microphone. In a era dominated by an increasingly troublesome MTV, rockers lacking a Y chromosome usually needed to aggressively play to the male gaze to get any amount of attention. Etheridge, for some reason, didn’t seem particularly interested in playing that game.

Instead, Melissa Etheridge was filled with tough-minded rock songs that the performer sang like she was trying to topple a cinder block wall. My radio options were limited just outside of a bustling college town with no student-run radio station on campus, but one commercial station did commit to Etheridge’s album early and lovingly, playing “Bring Me Some Water” with admirable regularity. I’m not even sure it was a proper single yet, but it was clearly a standout, slinking up to a chorus that explodes in bluesy heartbreak. The call for help in hydration wasn’t the only reason the track was ideal for a sweltering summer night. The song is fierce and freeing, expressing roiling emotions with a thrilling vulnerability that transforms into power.

Years later, when I had graduated from my own college radio experience and moved on to advising students taking their own turn on the airwaves, one of Etheridge’s early albums turned up in a culling of the station’s music library. The staff, then about a decade and a half removed from Etheridge’s debut, mocked the notion that the performer, already deep into her middlebrow icon phase, would ever have had a place on the left end of the dial. I assured the dear youngsters that there was a time that Etheridge’s songs hit like depth charges, and everyone listening felt like, in the best possible way, they were burning alive.

Listen or download —> Melissa Etheridge, “Bring Me Some Water”

(Disclaimer: Initially, I was certain that Etheridge’s debut was readily available in a physical format that could be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store. After a cursory bout of research, I’m not so sure. Regardless, this song is shared in this space at this time not as a replacement for engaging in commerce that supports the artist and humble music peddlers, but as encouragement to do so. I can say with conviction that anything from at least the first half of Etheridge’s career is worth having in a collection. Anyway, go buy something. It’s good for your soul. Although I feel I’ve engaged in fair use here, 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.)

The New Releases Shelf — Love is Dead

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For their third full-length release, Scottish band Chvrches are making a concerted charge for broader commercial success. Despite their occasional protests to the contrary, I don’t think there’s too many other realistic interpretations of the choice to bring in an outside producer for the first time, especially since that collaborator is Greg Kurstin, known for co-writing and producing Adele’s maudlin monstrosity “Hello.” Their protests to the contrary carry a verifying defensiveness. “People are like, ‘Oh, you’ve got Greg Kurstin,’ and talk about him as if he’s like this big pop factory producer,” lead singer Lauren Mayberry told Billboard. “That belittles how good a musician he is, and the musicianship of what he’s doing. He doesn’t just go in with one thing and apply that to everybody; he’s such an intuitive person, and he listens.”

Bolstering Mayberry’s argument, the strong presence of Kurstin (in addition to co-producing, he’s credited co-writer on nine of the album’s thirteen tracks) hasn’t resulted in a significant change to the Chvrches sound. All of the band’s hallmarks are present on Love is Dead: slinky melodies, an eighties pop effusiveness, and lyrics that flitter mischievously between simple and profound, with little punches of cynicism that can be easy to miss in the romping squares of light reflected off the disco ball. The slick dance music affect was already there. Kurstin fortifies rather than remodels.

If anything, Love is Dead suggests Chvrches could have used a little more jostling. Iain Cook, Martin Doherty, and Mayberry still have enviable instincts for pop hooks and electronic rhythms, but the formula is starting to show. At their best, the tracks still shimmer with surprise. I suspect there are few other current acts who pull off the magic act of “Graves,” take the sentiment of railing against privileged complacency in a time that calls for protest (“Oh, baby/ You can look away/ While they’re dancing on our graves/ But I will stop at nothing/ Oh, I will stop at nothing”) and make it as effervescent as a freshly cracked orange soda on a summer day. When they falter, though, the result is something like “God’s Plan,” which sounds like Erasure on a day the lads are trying to punch out early. Even Mayberry’s vocals, easily the band’s strong suit, occasional suffer from too much pressing off the set style. I love the way, on “Heaven/Hell,” she sings “return” like there’s an unavoidable right angle built into the word, but I’m far less fond her choice to warp the title word of “Deliverance” into about six syllables through stuttering repetition.

It’s telling that the most intriguing tracks are distinct deviations, at least in terms of collaborators. “My Enemy” sets Mayberry in a duet with Matt Berninger, of the National, and the stateliness he brings with him like a trailing cape provides a nice contract to Chvrches’ clockwork. Then there’s “Miracle,” which enlists Steve Mac as a producer. Although his credentials are yet more gruesome than Kurstin’s, Mac seems to understand that Chvrches needs some sonic friction to movie forward creatively. It’s a small touch, but the probing melody and the rhythm track that alternates between skulking and booming cuts against Mayberry’s sweetly refined voice, even she swerves into digital manipulation.

Whatever the album’s aspirations, “Miracle” is the one cut I can truly imagine taking hold as a mainstream hit. Maybe the real secret code that reveals the reason Love is Dead wobbles is contained therein. Chvrches might have started off as indie darlings, but these days their collective heart is with the other plasticine pop purveyors in the sterilized music biz factory. The closer Chvrches gets to them, the truer they sound.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “State of Independence”

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.

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In his notorious and freewheeling interview earlier this year with Vulture, New York magazine’s online culture site, Quincy Jones leveled a pointed accusation at his former collaborator Michael Jackson.

“I hate to get into this publicly, but Michael stole a lot of stuff,” Jones said. “He stole a lot of songs. ‘State of Independence’ and ‘Billie Jean.’ The notes don’t lie, man. He was as Machiavellian as they come.”

Although “State of Independence” was first written and performed by Jon Anderson and Vangelis, Jones was referring to the cover version Donna Summer released one year later. A single from her self-titled album, Summer’s take on “State of Independence” was produced by Jones. Presumably in an effort to accentuate the song’s feel-good vibe, Jones recruited a batch of ludicrously overqualified performers to sing in a chorus. It was a sort of communal validation of the song’s inclusive, accepting spirit. Alongside Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, James Ingram, and Kenny Loggins stood Michael Jackson.

Summer’s album was released in July, 1982. At the same time, Jackson was ensconced in Westlake Recording Studio, in Los Angeles, working with Jones on the album that would become Thriller. Jones maintained that Jackson nicked the riff from “State of Independence” and infused it with a funk drive rather than its original reggae lope. (Daryl Hall claims Jackson once told his the riff was actually swiped from “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).”) Thriller was released in November, 1982, and “Billie Jean” was the album’s second single.

As a single for Summer, “State of Independence” peaked at #41. “Billie Jean” spent seven weeks atop the Billboard chart.

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

Laughing Matters — Parks and Recreation, “The Cones of Dunshire”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

In the era of endless reboots, the teeniest rumblings have started about getting the Parks and Recreation gang back together. I’d personally rather they leave the show to history rather than risk the tarnish of an inadequate revival.

Although I have to admit that — especially on fairly glum days like today — I do miss Ben Wyatt.

The New Releases Shelf — Tell Me How You Really Feel

Courtney-Barnett
(source)

Courtney Barnett clattered into the public sphere — here in the U.S., anyway — with a fitting hesitancy. Her first two EPs were collected together on a release that got the most meager of pushes, as if her modest indie label, Mom + Pop Music, was concerned about her flaring out too quickly in the ever-fickle stateside scene (a fear that was probably spot on, p.s. and by the way). Then her proper debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, arrived to acclaim and broader recognition that escalated like a fireworks show grand finale. The self-effacing, endearingly anxious lyrics, gently warbled vocals, and muscular guitar work added up to something special, drawing on decades of college rock affected disaffection and miraculously making it seem fresh.

For her sophomore effort (following a collaboration with Kurt Vile, released last year), Barnett demonstrates a capacity to grow beyond the tender, wryly comic scuffle of her previous work. Tell Me How You Really Feel is fuller and richer, with lyrics that are slightly more conventional and music that chugs along amiably only to take nifty little turns into noisemaker bursts of sly invention. She doesn’t exactly shed her prior skin, but there’s a sense she’s trying to wriggle out of it. At first, “City Looks Pretty” is familiar Barnett, presenting the jauntiest version of the slacker lifestyle (“”Sometimes I get sad/ It’s not all that bad/ One day, maybe never/ I’ll come around”), peppered with guitar flourishes that sound like the precise moment a purr turns into a growl. Before it ends, though, the song shifts into a more ruminative tone, as if a brave face has slipped away.

“Need a Little Time” offers the indie rock version of the downbeat melodic exhaustion with life perfected by Kacey Musgraves. There’s a similar vibe on “Walkin’ on Eggshells,” which finds Barnett singing, “Before we get started, I’ll clean this up/ No use drinking from a leaking cup/ You know what I mean?” Barnett wanders sonically with the punk punch of “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” and the vibrantly catchy “Charity.” Variety is always welcome, but I can’t quite shake the sense that the little shifts in sound on the album aren’t assured explorations so much as Barnett trying doors at random, waiting to discover a confirming mirror. Maybe that’s because when it doesn’t quite work (as on “Help Your Self”), Barnett’s brimming creative personality becomes vaporously indistinct.

It’s still early on the arc of Barnett’s career, so it’s entirely reasonable for her to skid a little as she sprints forward. Tell Me How You Really Feel is a strong album, just not quite as nimble as its predecessors. The sneaky ingenious songwriter is still there, and it’s a pleasure listening to her find her way.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #904 to #901

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904. The Cure, Japanese Whispers (1983)

Somewhat unexpectedly, 1983 ushered in an era in which the Cure could accurately be described as hitmakers, at least on their side of the Atlantic. The transformation began with the 1982 single “Let’s Go to Bed,” a sweetly ribald seduction that Cure leader Robert Smith viewed simultaneously as a satire on the insipid pop songs that regularly made headway on the U.K. charts and an opportunity for the band to shed their doom merchants image.

Despite its enduring status as a Cure touchstone, “Let’s Go To Bed” was initially only a minor success, but it arguably set the stage for the kinder, gentler version of the band to push two singles into the U.K. Top 15 during the following calendar year. The cheerier personality was so complete — and so embraced — that the British music press occasionally took an alarmist tack, warning fans that the turn to brightness was sure to be fleeting. On the occasion of the release of Japanese Whispers, a collection of the peppier hit singles and associated material, Sounds magazine issued a warning: “Beware! All the signs are that Smith intends to return to the plodding ground of past work for the next album, so get happy while you can.”

As the title of the compilation suggests, Smith originally assembled the album solely for the Japanese market. The record label overruled him, though, obviously seeing some enticing sales potential in packaging together the Cure’s strongest performers to that point. Certainly having those two hits —  the beautifully bedazzled “The Walk” and the resolutely playful “The Love Cats” — one the same album was useful. Otherwise, Japanese Whispers is as scattershot as any release of similar origin. The tracks were from the same timespan, but that doesn’t automatically mean they belong together on something purporting to be a cohesive whole. There’s plenty to enjoy on the album, including the rubbery, robotic synth lines of “The Dream” and the loopy modern lounge of “Speak My Language.” And “The Upstairs Room,” awash is dreamy gloom disco (“I’m sure I asked you to stay/ But now you’re gone/ And so I feel the grey/ Pulse in my head”), argues that Smith hadn’t entirely jettisoned his glam goth musical vernacular.

It’s undeniable, though, that the Cure were in a state of flux at the end of 1983. The lineup was so unsettled that the next full-length studio effort — The Top, released in 1984 — was essentially a Smith solo album in disguise. They weren’t full-fledged college radio darlings just yet, but the possibility is clearly bubbling up. In its best moments, Japanese Whispers suggests such status is all but inevitable.

 

 

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903. David Bowie, Never Let Me Down (1987)

Never Let Me Down arrived two months after David Bowie’s fortieth birthday. In 1987, rock ‘n’ roll artists weren’t supposed to hang around that long, creating new music and insisting on continued cultural relevance. By the same age, Elvis Presley was a parody of his former self, rumbling out mildewed hits on a Las vegas stage, and most other artists whose birthdays cakes had candle counts similarly approach fire hazard levels had passed onto the semi-retirement of the oldies circuit. Bowie was doing his best to defy the expected descent, putting out a new record and mounting an ambitious world tour. Unfortunately, the product didn’t make a good case for the sustainability of Bowie’s creative vision. Even the retrospective magnificence bestowed upon the bulk of Bowie’s output hasn’t rescued Never Let Me Down, which is still widely considered one of the low points — maybe the low point — of his career.

Bowie was working with many of the same partners he’d enlisted when producing Iggy Pop’s 1986 album, Blah Blah Blah. The album was intended to be vast in its creative scope.” The album was reflective in a way, because it covers every style that I’ve ever written in, and also all the influences I’ve had in rock,” Bowie said at the time. That mining of history might have been the catalyst for the songs on the record, but it has only the barest discernible presence on the finished product. Layered with the worst of nineteen-eighties studio indulgences, the sound of Never Let Me Down is rock candy that’s further atrophied to the hardness of the strongest steel. And the songs are stuffed with so much sonic ephemera that they become exhausting within seconds. Lead single “Day-In Day-Out” is a prime offender, projecting rock bombast with a cyborg stiffness.

The most charitable assessment of Never Let Me Down is that the production tics of the era took over, demolishing numbers that might have been enjoyable in a different configuration. That theory occasionally holds up, but it’s highly dependent on where the needle drops on the spinning disc. The title cut is a nice song swamped by overproduction that puts it somewhere between the Blow Monkeys and Starship. Just as often, though, the foundations are equally rotten, as on the gloppy “Beat of Your Drum” which is distinguished by some of the worst lyrics of Bowie’s career (“I like the smell of your flesh/ I like the dirt that you dish/ I like the clothes that you wear/ I’d like to beat on your drum”). “87 and Cry” is empty puffery, and “Glass Spider” carries echoes from Bowie’s Labyrinth turn in the fairy tale portent of the spoken word introduction, given way to a galloping rock abstractions.

The album concludes with “Bang Bang,” a song which first appeared on Pop’s 1981 album, Party. Seemingly tacked on as an afterthought — presumably as part of Bowie’s charitable policy of stocking his releases with tracks that would earn some songwriting residuals for his buddy Pop — it encompasses the misguided confidence of this album perfectly. Bowie was of course a strong enough artist that there were genuine triumphs to come, but with Never Let Me Down he was making choices for little reason beyond the simple fact that he was allowed to do whatever he wanted — adding, adding, adding until he had a big, gnarly cluster of slop.

 

 

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902. Various Artists, Live! For Life (1986)

According to the back cover of the compilation album Live! For Life, all the proceeds from the I.R.S. Records release were donated to the AMC Cancer Research Center. “Through research programs in the laboratory, clinic and community, AMC scientists seek to develop more effective methods of cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment,” the description notes, before specifically name-checking I.R.S. Records chief Miles Copeland as the magnanimous soul who rummaged through the label’s stockpile of unreleased material to find ten tracks that might prompt music fans to provide a little charity with a purchase.

As the album’s title implies, most of the tracks are from live concert recordings. To the credit of Copeland and the other overseers of the record, they aren’t especially coy in their selections. General Public and the Go-Go’s are represented by significant hits (“Tenderness” and “We Got the Beat,” respectively), and Squeeze rounds out the album with an appealingly relaxed version of “Tempted.” Since R.E.M. was likely the biggest act on the label at the time, they’re present with the notable enticement of a previously unreleased song, “Ages of You,” making its first appearance on record, a full year before it was the centerpiece of the discards collection Dead Letter Office.

Nothing here is so revelatory or essential that it will have much appeal to any but the established fans of the featured acts. A 1975 Bob Marley and the Wailers performance of “Lively Up Yourself” strikes me as numbing in its redundancy, but I’m sure it causes the reggae legend’s true believers to sway along with beatific grins. The more egregious additions come from the Copeland family tree, official and extended. The album opens with a the drab studio effort “Love Lessons,” by Miles’s brother Stewart Copeland, teamed with Derek Colt. And Stewart’s bandmate in the Police, Sting contributes some of his insufferable jazz-rock riffing on “I Been Down So Long,” recorded on the tour in support of The Dream of the Blue Turtles tour. At least it’s all for a good cause.

 

 

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901. Billy Bragg, Help Save the Youth of America (1988)

Billy Bragg includes a note to record-buyers on the back of the EP Help Save the Youth of America. “Beloved listener, well may ask, ‘Why is this limey whining about our country, when, it’s got nothing to do with him?'” writes Bragg. “I have no vote in your Presidential election yet its outcome will directly effect my future and the future of millions of other people around the world. Forgive me for putting this immense responsibility on your shoulders, but I implore you to take part in the democratic process this year however imperfect it may be. Remember, when you elect a President, you are electing a President for all of us. Please be more careful this time.” The voting population, as it turned out, weren’t careful enough.

Released in North America to coincide with a U.S. tour, Help Save the Youth of America provided a sampling of Bragg’s political tune-slinging, supplemented with supporting documentation urging voter registration. At around the same time, he was unexpectedly on top of the U.K. charts with a cover of the Beatles’ “She Leaving Home,” culled from the compilation album Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father. Bragg’s cut on the flip of a double A-side with Wet Wet Wet’s take on “With a Little Help From My Friends.” On the basis of radio airplay (and the string of Top 10 hits they’d enjoyed the previous year), it was the Scottish quartet rather than the Essex-born protest singer driving sales. Still, Bragg was probably took some added satisfaction in having some more pointed new product out in the world while he was achieving unlikely commercial success with material that was far more benign.

Subtitled “Live and Dubious,” Help Save the Youth of America includes a live version of the title song, recorded in Moscow and including Bragg’s verbal introduction translated into Russian. Irish folk performers the Pattersons join Bragg for a bluegrass-tinted take on “There is Power in a Union,” and there’s a cover of “Think Again” (originally by Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan), a plea for peace that invokes the hardscrabble history of the Soviet Union (“Do you think that the Russians want war?/ These are the sons and the daughters of parents who died in the last one/ Do you think that they want to go through that again?/ The destruction, the bloodshed, the suffering and pain”). Bragg doesn’t leave a lot of mystery to his political leanings, but protest songs are blunt objects by design. There’s no place for subtlety when there are youth that need saving.

 

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 — The Orphanage

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It appears director J.A. Bayona is on his way to a second straight week at the top of the box office. To a large degree, that’s attributable to being handed the keys to the right ongoing cinematic venture. I can’t speak to the quality of the latest edition of Dinosaur Land, but when I reviews Bayona’s feature debut, it sure looked to me like he has some impressive skills. This was originally posted at my former online home.

Picturehouse Entertainment has made sure that producer Guillermo del Toro’s name figures prominently in promotional efforts for the new film The Orphanage, undoubtedly hoping that some of the moviegoers that made 2006’s dark fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth into a modest hit will exchange dollars for tickets to see this Spanish-language film. Fans of Pan aren’t necessarily going to have an automatic affinity for this film, but those who recall del Toro’s exquisitely bleak dalliance with the dark with The Devil’s Backbone may be another matter.

Like Backbone, The Orphanage is a moody, elegant ghost story which makes great use of simple, unsettling imagery. This film follows a woman who brings her husband and adopted son back to the orphanage where she grew up, fulling intending to revive the imposing structure to make it into a sort of group home for special needs children. The fates (and filmmakers) have different plans. Screenwriter Sergio Sanchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona use long hallways, creaking doors and enveloping shadows to great effect. There’s a clear understanding that the sort of cheap jolts are commonplace in U.S. horror films isn’t nearly as potent as long, agonizing considerations of deep-set, unidentifiable noises or probing eyes staring out of a rudimentary mask. The suddenness of an unexpected figure jumping from the dark may get the adrenaline rushing. The smothering anticipation of something horrific emerging will haunt dreams. (That’s not to say they’re completely immune from the temptation to shock as at least one moment relies on mere surprise to make it work, and it winds up as one the film’s weaker points.)

A film like this also benefits immeasurably from good acting, usually not a priority for those who craft films likely to be labeled “Horror.” In the lead, Belen Rueda is completely committed to finding the honesty in the supernatural goings-on. She plays the grief, desperation, personal fortitude and fear of her character with a grueling exactitude. Even when the film shows some narrative strain–the unconvincing skepticism of other characters or plain familiarity of the storyline–Rueda wrenches it back into effectiveness with the conviction of her acting.

Bayona is very strong and creating mood and ever better at developing tension. The film may occasionally falter in ways typical of the genre, but Bayona’s elegant shot construction (the beautiful cinematography is by Oscar Fauna) and assured visual storytelling help smooth over those rough patches, including the unnecessary coda which washes away the mild ambiguity of the scene that immediately precedes it and should have been the film’s closing note. Thanks to the honorable efforts of Bayona and his collaborators, The Orphanage is sharp and deep and, yes, scary.