One for Friday — The Smithereens, “Crazy Mixed Up Kid”

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(Image via the Smithereens’ web site)

I landed in college radio in the fall of 1988. By that point in time, there were already loads of artist who were cemented as the signature acts of the left side of the dial: the Cure, the Smiths, R.E.M., and U2 (though the Irish lads had recently become the form’s first true graduates, moving on authoritatively to the “real world” of commercial radio). I think the accepted stratagem of cool kids mandated we primarily seek out bands who were more abrasive and challenging than those who bore our standards. That’s why Sonic Youth broke through in a big way that winter.

The station I called home tended to move a little more slowly when it came to exploring the outer reaches of modern music, which reflected the sensibility of the community we served. But I think it also spoke to an appreciation for creators who didn’t flail around with half-baked ideas, but instead truly and properly committed to the crafts of songwriting and musicianship. I will tell you without hesitation that the self-titled release commonly referred to as the White Album represents the peak of the Beatles’ power because they reinvent pop music anew with every track, but there’s a compelling argument to be made that it’s more difficult — and therefore more impressive — to create the pure perfection of something like “Love Me Do.”

The Smithereens arguably came closer to achieving that ideal of classic rock ‘n’ roll songwriting and execution than any other band of their era. The songwriting of Pat Dinizio effortlessly reached back to a simpler time, when relatively straightforward proclamations of love and heartache were enough to fill up a couple sides of a 45, providing a soundtrack that lasted all summer long. The emotions depicted in the songs weren’t facile. They were piercing and true, universal enough to be applied to any relationship weather front that sent me scurrying to the record player for validation or salve. Their songs were timeless, in the very best sense of the word.

I’ve typed this out before (recently, even), but it bears repeating: as much as any other artist, the Smithereens were the sound of my college radio experience. They hit the sweet spot of our varied tastes, so just about every on-air staffer could find a song or two that was irresistible. There were two full-length albums in the station stacks when I arrived, and the raggedness of the sleeves signaled how deeply the band was already embedded in the shared consciousness of the station. The needle could be dropped anywhere and find a true treasure.

So let’s drop the needle.

Listen or download —> The Smithereens, “Crazy Mixed Up Kid”

(Disclaimer: I assume most of the Smithereens catalog is available for purchase from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said store. This track is not offered as an alternative to engaging in such commerce, but instead an encouragement to do so. Without a moment’s reservation, I can recommend any of the band’s first three albums — Especially for You, Green Thoughts, and 11  — and I’ll also note that the Smithereens is one of those rare bands that may actually be well-served by a smartly curated “greatest hits” collection. Blown to Smithereens fits that bill. Although I firmly believe sharing this song in the space in this way qualifies as 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 — Will and the Bushmen, “It’s Gonna Be Alright”

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I’ve alluded to the following before: Being immersed in a college radio station is a little like living in an alternative cultural dimension. This is especially true back in the pre-internet era, where there wasn’t a towering wall of external music websites offering guidance about the vital music of the day. Except for a little prompting from certain publications, college programmers were basically on their own. The on-air staff elevated bands on the basis on their own taste and predilection. What the record sounded like mattered.

In my cultural universe, then, Will and the Bushmen delivered one of the surprise hit albums of 1989. The self-titled effort was the Alabama band’s debut with the upstart major label SBK Records. The lead single, “Blow Me Up,” completely won over my crew (and became a holiday staple for several years, thanks to the repeated chorus line “She’s better than, much better than Christmas”), but that song was hardly the end of our affection for the music of Will and the Bushmen. As I recall it, the album was played extensively, with several different cuts flaring up as favorites.

I still hang onto this album as a personal treasure, an artifact of the time when earnestness and earthiness were valued qualities in the music that filled out the corners of my life. The song “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” for example, is about as straightforward as the title implies, offering encouragement to anyone who needs to “get the sour grapes and the moldy bread out of your basket.” It had — and still has — precisely the right rejuvenating effect for me, serving as a battle cry of perseverance built upon a dandy hook. In my slightly fantastical memories of music in the world, that combination is the making of a smash hit.

Listen or download —> Will and the Bushmen, “It’s Gonna Be Alright”

(Disclaimer: Though I’m not certain, I believe Will and the Bushmen to be out of print, at least as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said place of business. I offer that track here with that understanding, and mean no fiscal harm to deserving souls. Also, I mean for this be an encouragement to seek out more music from the artist in question, not a replacement for snapping up any record of theirs that you ever encounter. Although I believe my use of the material here qualifies and fair use, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of digital world if asked to do so by any entity or individual with due authority to make such a request.)

One for Friday — Tommy Keene, “In Our Lives”

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One of the great pleasures of working in college radio is discovering monumentally talented songwriters and artists, and then claiming some sliver of their coolness by playing their songs on the radio. This was especially true in my personal era, back before sampling just about any existing track was a click or two anyway. It felt downright revolutionary to have a little bit of knowledge about a great performer, slipping their songs into a playlist. “You guys think Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe is cool? Well, just listen to this.”

I found Tommy Keene relatively early in my college radio tenure. The 1989 album Based on Happy Times arrived during my first year at the station, and it became a touchstone, the sort of record I routinely circled back to, finding a gem no matter no matter where I landed on the track listing. Eventually, I dug into what little back catalog we had in the library, notably Songs from the Film, which has enough lingering cachet that Keene was able to tour on it in recent years. Like the album I landed on first, every track was a winner.

There was something remarkably pure and lovely about Keene’s songwriting. There was some power pop around the edges, but it was mostly lean, perfectly realized songs about simply being. The songs felt specific and universal all at once. And they had sterling hooks that Keene played with sharp, unfussy musicianship. For as much time as I spend championing dense musical soundscapes from modern artists, listening to Keene reminds me that there’s a special artistry to more direct rock songwriting, songs that make their points in three minutes and then fade out in chiming assurance.

Plain and simple, Tommy Keene was one of the greats.

Listen or download –> Tommy Keene, “In Our Lives”

(Disclaimer: Honestly, I haven’t done my usual due diligence to see if Keene’s Songs from the Film is in 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. I wanted to share this today, regardless. I don’t mean to impede commerce, but instead to encourage it. Head out and buy every Keene album you see. 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 — Blue Aeroplanes, “Jacket Hangs”

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The countdown currently occupying our Sundays around here is pulled from the March 16, 1990 issue of CMJ New Music Report, the trade publication that served college radio for a few happy decades before imploding the last couple of years. In the era of the issue in question, the front cover of the weekly publication told a story. There were always four album covers on the front, representing the best new music of the week — presumably in ranked order. I purchased the back issue in part because it aligned with a banner week for college rock: Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, The Chill’s Submarine Bells, Luke Bloom’s Riverside, the House of Love’s self-titled album, and Robyn Hitchcock’s Eye are all reviewed in the issue.

Despite the presence of at least one album that immediately announced itself as a true classic, the fine music fans at CMJ awarded the week’s pole position to somewhat curious entrant: Swagger, the fourth studio album by the British band Blue Aeroplanes. I don’t submit that fact with animosity nor judgment. Instead, I mean it as an acknowledgement that — more so than with other types of pop culture — music can be thrilling and disarming a different speeds. The crafty complexities of Swagger absolutely rattled the brain when the needle first dropped, and yet the album opener and lead single, “Jacket Hangs,” offered a firm promise that the album was built on the most terrifically accessible songcraft. Layers and intricacy are great, but an irresistible guitar riff is even better.

“Listen to this record once and you’ll probably find yourself drawn to it again; listen to it a lot and you just might find yourself measuring your life to it, a milestone LP that’ll always be a marker reminding you of this time here and now,” wrote CMJ.

Again, I think there are a couple other records in the issue that would have been more prescient recipients of that line of praise, but I must admit that Swagger does have that quality of placing me back in my old radio station air studio, as firmly and certainly as a well-honed sense memory. It was grand, that time when wonderful discoveries could be pressed into any number of records that came through our doors.

Listen or download —> Blue Aeroplanes, “Jacket Hangs”

(Disclaimer: In truth, I have a hard time discerning whether or not this song — or the album it stems from — is available as a physical item 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 appears that Blue Aeroplanes have never really ceased as a going concern and there are all sorts of albums that have been issued under their name. So let this shared song be an encouragement to seek out material from the band rather than a replacement for engaging in commerce. And definitely hit that local record store. Tis the season for box stores and online retailers beckoning shoppers away. The record store deserves your love and your dollars more. Although I mean no harm and believe I’m adhering to a well-established legal principle of fair use, 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: NirVincent, “Lithium”

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(Image credit: CHARLES SYKES/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Based on the albums Annie Clark released under the name St. Vincent, I thought she was an incredibly impressive and intricately creatively musician. Then I saw her play live — during the tour to support the utterly magnificent St. Vincent — that I realized she was a bona fide rock star. I’m not sure anything Clark has ever put on record fully prepares a person for the experience of seeing her nonchalantly create sonic genius with her guitar.

If I had any hesitation whatsoever about Clark’s talent (and I didn’t), the doubt would have been erased by her appearance at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Nirvana was among the honorees, and they adapted to the sad absence of lead singer Kurt Cobain by inviting a series of women to handle lead vocal duties during the obligatory live reunion performance. The other guests were fine, but Clark absolutely owned “Lithium,” respectfully celebrating the original while added her own icy intensity to it. If the performance had been immediately followed by a spontaneous announcement that Clark, drummer Dave Grohl, and bassist Krist Novoselic were taking their newly-formed trio on the road, I would have followed them like a vintage Deadhead who never lost site of the tailpipe of Jerry Garcia’s tourbus. In my fantasy, they called the group NirVincent.

I tap out these memories as prelude. I’m seeing St. Vincent perform live tonight. I couldn’t be more excited. It’s not often in this day and age that I get to see a real, vital rock star on stage.

Listen or download –> NirVincent, “Lithium”

(Disclaimer: To the best of my knowledge, the above track has never been officially released in a way that it can be purchased, at least not in a manner in which the original performers and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store both make a reasonable amount of money. The track is shared in this space with that understanding. Even so, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

One for Friday — Jack Frost, “Thought That I Was Over You”

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When the self-titled debut album from Jack Frost was released, in 1991, the pitch to college radio kids was simple and obvious. The group teamed Steve Kilbey from the Church — still delivering sturdy left of the dial hits at the time — and Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens —recently disbanded, but only after delivering a stunner of a closing bow. In the parlance of the moment, it was a supergroup, just like the Traveling Wilburys or, you know, Hindu Love Gods.

I’m sure the pedigree help initiate my initial spin or two of Jack Frost, but the thing that kept me coming back to the record — over and over again — was the presence of a song that spoke to the cynical romanticism of my oh-so-wounded young soul. Robustly strummed and sung with melancholy yearning, “Thought That I Was Over You” was exactly the song I wanted to play on the air at about 1:45 in the morning, in the last set of music before shutting the station off for the night. Those closing sets were my diary, and this track was a common entry.

Listen or download –> Jack Frost, “Thought That I Was Over You”

(Disclaimer: I think — but I’m not sure — the two albums under the Jack Frost name are out of print, at least as physical objects that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensate both the original artist and the proprietor of said shop. There are plenty of records from the Church and the Go-Betweens that are readily available, and every respectable collection needs material from both of those bands. Go spend money at the record store, is what I’m typing here, and don’t let one free song stop you from doing that. While I can go on at tedious length about the inherent value 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 — Eva and the Heartmaker, “Superhero”

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When I was on the radio, I used to get overly enthused about about those instances in which I could make a tangential connection between a song I played and some current event stirring chatter outside of the confines of the on-air studio, taking dorky glee in calling attention to my ever-so-clever association the next time I opened the microphone. It is with that in mind that I believe I would today bolster my playlist with the song “Superhero,” by Eva and the Heartmaker, a group hailing from the mighty Thor’s Norse homeland.

I no longer have a regular radio show, of course, but I do have this little hunk of digital real estate.

Listen or download –> Eva and the Heartmaker, “Superhero”

(Disclaimer: It is unclear to me as to how much of the Eva and the Heartmaker catalog is readily available for purchase in the U.S., at least as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said store. Regardless, I am sharing this track as a celebration of the band’s music, as encouragement to seek out more of their material, and with no malice or ill intention. I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this 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.)