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

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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.)

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

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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:

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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.)

One for Friday: Tom Petty, “Wildflowers”

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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.)

One for Friday — Any Trouble, “Girls Are Always Right”

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This is it, friends. This is exactly what 1980 sounded like. The single “Girls Are Always Right,” from the U.K. new wave band Any Trouble, has some Joe Jackson to it. And Elvis Costello, and Graham Parker, and Marshall Crenshaw. And Squeeze. And Nick Lowe. It could have been the catalyst for the invention of wistful montages in the third acts of eighties high school movies.

It’s flat-out perfect. Much I might try to be wordier, that’s all I got.

Listen or download –> Any Trouble, “Girls Are Always Right”

(Disclaimer: As best as I can tell, this song is currently out of print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. It is shared in this space with that understanding, but I do know the rules. I will gladly an promptly remove it from my little corner of the digital world if asked to so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

One for Friday — The Magic Numbers, “This Love”

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When I spent time in the broadcast booth at various college radio stations, one of the finest gifts that came with it was the chance to flip through the ever-changing batch of new music that sat on the shelf. It was a constant exploration process, supplemented by trade journals, record company suggestions, and other media resources, but it was primarily driven by simply going through the albums, scrutinizing their song titles and sampling tracks until gold was struck.

I always took a certain amount of pride when I found my way to some tremendous song on my own, but my fonder memories are those instances when a friend at the station pushed me in the right direction. “Yeah, that song is good, but the best song on the record is actually this one,” they might say, completely transforming my view of an album, or even a whole band.

When the debut album from the U.K. group the Magic Numbers landed at the Florida college radio station where I served as the advisor to the students — while also getting in a fair amount of airtime, given the culture of this particular broadcast outlet and the preferences of those students — I gravitated to the the couple of the more boisterous pop songs on the record, which had been fairly successful singles in their homeland. I was pretty satisfied, too. And then, as the above set-up implies, I discussed the band’s music with a friend at the station. While conceding those songs were solid, she noted that the true standout was the ballad “This Love.” Of course, she was correct.

In this simple story sits one of the aspects of music fandom I value most. While much of my listening has been done in isolation, just me and the records (and maybe a bottle or two of something, depending on the night), the songs are also a conduit to others who take the same rejuvenation from the perfect mix of words and tones, rhythm and melody, giddy invention and great pop hook. Music is for sharing.

Listen or download –> The Magic Numbers, “This Love”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me, on an admittedly very cursory bit of research, that the self-titled debt from the Magic Numbers is out of print, at least as a physical object that can be acquired at your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said shop. The music file is shared in this space at this time in this way with the understanding that doing so impedes no fair and proper commerce. That noted, 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.)

One for Friday — Grant Hart, “2541”

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During my first academic year at my college radio station, from the fall of 1988 through the spring of 1989, there was one song I was desperate to hear, even as it remained agonizingly elusive.

Before I showed up at the station, the Minneapolis trio Hüsker Dü was a mere abstraction to me, an oddball name and a few stray music reviews that strained to convey the tuneful thunder of their sound. Once I heard music from the band, I fell fast and I fell hard. Other albums in the band’s catalog were considered more important — more seminal — but I adored the swan song Warehouse: Songs and Stories above all others. There was an amazing sense of agitated exchange across the four album sides, a feeling of aggrieved competition engaged by the band’s two songwriters, creative visionaries both. When I first listened, I didn’t realize the levels of contentiousness that existed in the relationship between Bob Mould and Grant Hart, but I heard it, I felt it.

Hüsker Dü was over by the time I got my FCC card and flipped on a radio station microphone for the first time. Hart was the first one to extend the creative argument past the confines of the band. His debut solo single, “2541,” was released on SST Records in 1988. At the time, “2541” was speculated to be all about the dissolution of Hüsker Dü, its lyrics wistfully remembering better days at a certain address as a sad ending has arrived. “Now everything is over/ Now everything is done/ Everything’s in boxes/ At 2541,” Hart sings, announcing the close of a relationship with a ruefulness tinged by anger.

My station got serviced with records from SST all the time, but we didn’t get that single. I ached to hear it, wanting to extend the drama I found on Warehouse. On some level, I just wanted more Hüsker Dü, and the best possible option in the wreckage after the breakup was a song about the band from the man who wrote nearly half its songbook, including stellar entries “Books About UFOs,” “Green Eyes,” “I Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely,” and “You Can Live at Home”.

Of course, all the speculation was wrong. “2541” wasn’t about Hüsker Dü. Hart supposedly had at least the foundation of the song as far back as the recording sessions for New Day Rising, the band’s third studio album, well before the end. He gladly disparaged lore around the song and the residence within it. “I don’t want to bust any bubbles or myths, but it was just a fuck pad,” he informed the audience at a show earlier this year.

The emotional rawness and highly fraught personal exposure that some saw in Hart’s songwriting was equally up for disparagement by the creator himself.

“I DON’T PUBLISH SONGS THAT I DON’T WANT PEOPLE TO HEAR,” Hart wrote in a Facebook Q&A. “I HAVE TAKEN STEPS TO PREVENT ANYBODY FROM EVER HEARING ‘MY FEELINGS OF INADEQUACY’ AND ‘MY DADDY’S PEE-PEE’.”

Whether he liked it or not, some of found deep, resonant truths in Hart’s songs. That was part of the skill he brought to his craft. He wrote in such a way that it was easy to find whatever was needed within his lines, his melodies, his beats. The lyrics were just specific enough to lap over into the universal, open to interpretation and then assured application.

I eventually heard “2541.” We never got the single, but the track was included on Intolerance, Hart’s first solo album, released in late 1989. I played it on the air many, many times, usually offering my own mistaken reading of the song. I may have been wrong about the particulars, but I think I was basically correct about the core of the song, its fierce and fervent heart. Deep down, we’re all looking for that place that has windows big enough to let in the sun.

Listen or download –> Grant Hart, “2541”

(Disclaimer: Hart was instrumental to the creation of a load of great music that can bought right now at your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the designated recipients of all proceeds due to the artist. If nothing else, you could inquire about Savage Young Dü, the entirely atypical archival project on Hart’s most famous band. Hart was a key contributor to the project’s assembly, and it is already being cited as a jaw-dropping bit of legacy-building. I offer this song in this space as tribute and encouragement to engage in commerce, not as theft. I will gladly and promptly remove the file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with authority to make such a request.)

One for Friday — Robyn Hitchcock, “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs”

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I appreciate those songwriters who can look to nearly inspiration in plying their trade. The annals of pop music is overstuffed with songs that offer up generic views of romance and heartbreak, but it takes a special craftsman to pen a warm, lovely, rueful song about the villain’s comeuppance in Magnum Force.

The second feature to cast Clint Eastwood as snarling San Francisco cop Harry Callahan, Magnum Force wasn’t a beloved favorite of Robyn Hitchcock. It was simply a movie that played with numbing regularity on cable television, the refuge of distraction for touring musicians in bland hotel rooms. And, as a creator who obviously loves a good turn of phrase, Hitchcock locked in on Callahan’s rugged understatement in assessing the end of the line for Lieutenant Briggs (although, Hitchcock admits, his misremembered it slightly).

The magic that Hitchcock does, routinely, is to take the odd and absurd and somehow make it seem universal and truthful. The lyrics of “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs” comment explicitly on the explosive plot turn at the end of Magnum Force, but “You were riding in your car in San Francisco/ You were riding through the weather and the rain/ You were riding in your car in San Francisco/ But you’re never gonna ride that way again” winds up feeling like so much more, like it’s encompassing any number of experiences of loss into a single lilting sentiment.

When songs like this are the result, Hitchcock should channel surf all he wants.

Listen or download –> Robyn Hitchcock, “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs”

(Disclaimer: It’s possible this song crops up elsewhere, but the version posted in this space is from the album Obliteration Pie, which I believe to be out of print, at least as an item that can purchased from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that properly compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. I’m fairly certain Hitchcock’s latest, a self-titled effort, is available at that store, and should be sought out eagerly and urgently. It’s great. Though I mean no harm in sharing this 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.)