Wednesday, March 29, 2006

One of the earliest SongsWithoutWhich, Nick Lowe's "Tonight" is a simple, gorgeous love song that says everything a guy has ever needed to say to a girl. You wouldn't catch any of today's pre-fab music stars trying to sing a song this simple, without adding a busload of trills, false vibrato and other such aural gymnastics. A song this simple sorts out who can sing and who can't. Now I'll admit Nick Lowe isn't what you'd call a great singer, but when you're singing your own song, putting your own life up there for general consumption, it's something special.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

"When I'm Dead and Gone"

I'm a fan of pick-up bands, street-corner improvisation, jamming. A song doesn't have to be perfect to be great. It doesn't have to be polished and produced to within an inch of its life, and to be honest, it doesn't even have to be rehearsed to be great.
Tom McGuinness played with the likes Eric Clapton, Brian Jones and Manfred Mann before he got together with Hugh Flint. The pair of them then hooked up with Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, and they cut this terrific piece of jug-band folk gumbo. I can't think what kind of style exactly to call this - it's a little like the Band's "Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in that it's slightly loose, relaxed and more concerned with musicianship than with presentation.
There's a great trick in the production of this song, and I can't work out how they did it, but you feel like you're in the kitchen while these guys are working out in the front room. Maybe it's the really flat drum sound, but it sounds properly "live".
Simple pleasures...

Sunday, March 26, 2006

"Effloresce and Deliquesce" by The Chills.
This is downright spooky. As I said at the time, you've got fantastic echoed guitars, a hurry-up beat, coupled to sharp, observant lyrics....a winning combination. I came across this record when another of the tracks on the album was catching some college airplay in the US. I bet you didn't think they could do stuff this good in New Zealand.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

"Pretty Vacant"

History plays funny tricks on us all. From the safe distance of a decade or two, our perspective seems to slip sideways, so that we view major events a little from the side, rather than seeing them as they were at the time - up front, wide and tall and long, in full relief.
This is why I think the era of punk rock has slipped from being, as it was seen at the time, a threat to civilization as we know it and a disgusting boil on the face of the entertainment industry, to a charming little sideshow when young people played at being snotty-nosed dropouts.
But anyone who remembers the newspaper headlines at the time will have no problem remembering the shock, the confidence, the blast of fresh air, the extravagance, the clearing away of the old debris, that punk represented.
This song for me encapsulates the moment when punk first arrived on our doorstep. Oh yes, it had been breeding for a while in places like CBGB's in New York or the 101 Club in London, but "Pretty Vacant" brought punk to the masses.
The song begins like a crackling Tannoy announcement, a clearing of the throat - the distorted guitar intro, the tribal drums (later used to such good effect by Adam & the Ants) kick in, before we're held up against a wall by John Lydon's bored, sneering voice. His voice was the real aural image of the Pistols: despite their best efforts, Cook and Jones were not much more than your average pub rock band, but Lydon's voice was another thing altogether.
And the lyrics! When had we ever heard a song using lines like: "There’s no point in asking us you’ll get no reply", "Oh don’t pretend cos I don’t care", "I got no reason it's too all much"... and the immortal shout of "And we don't care!"
It was a manifesto for the bored, the disenchanted and the pissed-off. A lot of punk bands -- the Sex Pistols included -- tried deliberately to shock, but very few of them (The Clash, the Stranglers) had the wit to write songs that shocked but that also actually described things as they were at the arse-end of the 1970s.
Seen from the safe distance of 27 years, punk may not seem like a lot compared to the thugocracy of rap or the pubescent porn of Cristina Aguilera et al, but at the time it was an earthquake, and nothing since then has moved the goalposts with quite the same deliberate, violent determination.

Today's TasterWithoutWhich is Albedo 0.39 by Vangelis. Another SongWithoutWhich from way back, this is a mellow yet spooky piece of ambient-before-ambient-was-invented. The voice is terrific, the atmosphere is suitably space age and you're left feeling a little weightless at the end

Thursday, March 09, 2006

"No Surprises"

I've spent the last two weeks on jury duty, spending long hours in a crowded room waiting for a case, and then sitting in airless rooms listening to barristers loving the sound of their own voices. I spent a good deal of time getting to know my iPod again and hanging out with some of my very favourite songs; hence Johnny Cash last week.
This week I sat in on a case that involved a young black girl. She'd been accused of nothing really bad -- she'd made some mistakes in the heat of the moment and got herself into a position she really shouldn't have. She was only 21 years old, had managed to pull herself up and out of a tough childhood and was -- it seemed -- making her way in the world. So being dragged into court must have been both a shock and a depressing backward slip towards some distant childhood memories she thought she'd left behind.
For three days she sat in the dock listening to her character being blackened by one smug middle-class white guy, while the other tried to blacken the character of her accuser. Nobody really rode to her rescue, nobody thought for a moment that she might feel like a great trapdoor was opening beneath her. No family sat nearby to boost her.
This song quite precisely describes the look on her face for those three days. A mixture of helplessness, resignation, sadness, fleeting fear but most of all, utter despair.
The quiet, childhood-singalong guitar notes at the intro let you know you're in for something special here: what's so good about this song is that it once again proves the maxim that less is more. Everything about it is restrained, tasteful and muted. This is a song that's almost completely bereft of hope. And yet it's a song that you'll listen to again and again, marveling at Thom Yorke's ability to create such a completely hopeless picture but marveling even more at how seductive it is.
"A heart that's full up like a landfill/A job that slowly kills you/Bruises that won't heal/You look so tired and unhappy/Bring down the government/They don't, they don't speak for us/I'll take a quiet life/A handshake of carbon monoxide/No alarms and no surprises." Yorke's voice doesn't soar, doesn't reach almost beyond the stars here as it so often has but instead just caresses us, consoles us and persuades us to accept our fate with whatever shreds of dignity and resignation we can muster -- just like the girl did, sitting desolate in court.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


I'm in awe of this song.
"I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel/I focus on the pain/The only thing that's real/The needle tears a hole/The old familiar sting/Try to kill it all away/But I remember everything."
Everything about this song speaks of the end. It's like King Lear: a man abandoned, persecuted, resigned; a man that fought all the wars that he had to and came out the other side old and tired, raising his head one more time, remembering the force of his youth and channeling it one last time. "What have I become?/My sweetest friend/Everyone I know/Goes away in the end/And you could have it all/My empire of dirt/I will let you down/I will make you hurt."
This is utterly hypnotic. At times, the song itself takes over from Johnny Cash's voice and builds up into a raging, clanging crescendo of noise, as if he's engaged nature itself as an ally for his last battle.
A few songs don't need much of an entry here, just a listing: they do their own talking.

"A Hazy Shade of Winter"

This could be a crime. As if it weren't bad enough to prefer a cover version of a song to the original, but to prefer a version by The Bangles over an original performed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel will, in certain parts of Massachussetts, mark me down for instant death.
Well, whatever, folks. I'm here to say this song, along with "Head Over Heels" by Alanis Morissette, has just about the greatest drum sound ever, the best guitar riff and a terrific mood. With a Simon & Garfunkel song, you know what you're getting in terms of lyrics: coats buttoned up against the autumn chill, monochrome shadows somewhere near Harvard Yard, pessimism and bags of portentious ambience.
As I said, well, whatever. The Bangles take this song around the back of the bike shed, kick a few whiny lumps out of it, mess up the overcoat and then drag it back to the front for a top-fuel burnout. Why they ditched a sound like this for dreck like "Eternal Flame" I'll never understand, but then the same thing happened to the Go-Gos so it must be some unwritten rule in the music biz that great girl bands must sell out no later than the third album.
Anyway, play this back-to-back with the original and I hope you'll agree there's no comparison.

"Are Friends Electric?"

Remember this? Back in 1979, when we were just wiping the dust of the punk revolution off our clothes, wondering what the hell was goin to come along and top THAT, along came this. Imagine, right after punk - the second era of the three-minute single - comes a slow, leaden-paced piece of electronica that clocked in at five minutes 22 seconds. A song about students, bedsits, shoegazing loners and pretentious arty references. And it made number one.
It was like punk had never bloody happened!
What this song did do, though, was usher in possibly the most sartorially-challenged decade of the last two hundred years. After Gary Numan came Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Ultravox and a whole cosmetics counter's worth of floppy-haired, tight-trousered, transistor-plucking art-school dropouts. Hey-ho.
It's hard to describe exactly what makes this a SongWithoutWhich: there's the industrial instrumentation, which comes over like a cross between a steam train and an air-raid siren, the narcoleptic beat - I believe only Black Sabbath have ever performed songs with fewer beats per minute - but most of all, it's the utterly impenetrable lyric, which you'll have to fathom for yourself. twenty-seven years on, I'm still working on this one.