May 6 – The Turntable Talk, Round 2 – Jammin’ A Lot Of Pearls Into One Set

Today we continue our second instalment of Turntable Talk. We hope you liked the first one we ran last month which dealt with why the Beatles were still relevant. This time around, we’re pleased to have six guest writers discuss The Live Album. Some people love ’em, some hate ’em. Some musicians put out some of their best work in live, concert recordings, others seem to use them as a stopgap to fulfill contractual obligations and little else. So we’ve asked our panelists to discuss live albums, however they see fit. Do they enjoy them? Do the records live up to the experience of seeing an act play live? What are their favorites? So far we’ve had rave reviews of live records by the likes of the J.Geils Band, The Who and Aerosmith.

Today, we jump forward a couple of decades from those and have Lisa, from Tao Talk, talking about Pearl Jam. Lisa a poet who writes about quite a range of topics ranging from foreign movies to current affairs to examples of her poetry at her site, which we encourage you to check out! Here’s what she’s got to say about Eddie Vedder and the boys-

The moment Dave named the topic of live albums, I knew that I wanted it to be one of Pearl Jam‘s, but I wasn’t sure which one to choose. Probably my most favorite one is Live at the Gorge, a “seven CD box set that documents the band’s three performances at the Gorge amphitheater in George, WA in September, 2005 and July, 2006,” but that one seemed a little too ambitious to write up, so instead today’s essay will be about the two-disk, Live at Benaroya Hall. The benefit concert was done on October 22, 2003, to raise funds for youthcare, an organization to end youth homelessness in Seattle, Washington. What makes me love PJ’s live albums are Eddy’s comments between songs. He’s a preacher in his own way and his flock are adoring of his pronouncements.

I decided to put this essay in a format where I will listen to the disks and while doing so write whatever bubbles up during the listen. Notes will be made on Eddy’s comments between songs, as I will also do for audience response. The plan also developed into including what album, if any, each of the songs are on and any orienting tidbits for each of them.

Disc 1 of 2

Of the Girl”

Gossard wrote this one and describes it (elsewhere) as “pretty somber.” And the crowd goes wild. The Jamily is feeling blessed that they are there with the band.

Low Light”

On the Yield album, this is bass player Jeff Ament’s first lyrics contribution. Listening to a live Pearl Jam album is like going to church. Every member is “on” and tweaking it with the vibe of the audience. I love the sound of the wood resonating in the rhythm guitar. Now here comes McCready with his soul-driven flourishes. Eddy’s singing like the benevolent God that he is. There truly is nothing other than the now of the music.

Thumbing My Way”

From Riot Act. “I love you, Eddy!” someone shouts from the audience. Too many hoots and cheers to count. This song is an anthem for every traveler going through this world.

Thin Air”

On the Binaural album. There is something about “Thin Air” that is deceptively simple yet deep and profound. The wordplay and the delicate manifestation of the melody brings tears to my eyes every time. One of the most magical things about live music is that you’ve got thousands of listeners communing with the band at the same time. “taken on on on on” crooned by Eddy urges an almost orgasmic experience. Multiply that by so many supercharged people in the audience and the energy of resonance has got to be off the charts. For those of us listening to a recording at home, we are aural voyeurs that feel it less intensely but are still satisfied. Where’s my cigarette?

Eddy comments about hearing beforehand about the good acoustics of the venue (Benaroya Hall) and talks about his mistake on the “Thin Air”. He introduces a new song, “Fatal,” that is coming out soon on, Lost Dogs, which is a collection of b-sides.

Fatal”

Written by Gossard. From the Lost Dogs album. Previously unreleased and was an out-take from the Binaural album. Lost Dogs is an often-overlooked album, and it shouldn’t be. It’s one I’ve listened to just as much as any of the others. There is more of a potpourri aspect to it than any conceptual thread, but that’s ok. It’s like walking around an amusement park.

Some loudmouth in the crowd is screaming unintelligibly. There is one in every crowd.

Nothing as it Seems”

Written by Ament, from the Binaural album. Rocking sweet McCready solos. Those long, lonely notes. Many audience members are howling and screaming.

Eddy says that Tim Burton sent “Big Fish” to PJ and asked them to write an ending song for it. They had just recorded it a few days before; they asked Tim if it was OK if they performed it at the show and he was ok with it. The song? “Man of the Hour.”

It appears on the “Man of the Hour” CD single. The chord progression in “Man of the Hour” is another one of those songs that seems to squeeze the tears out of my eyes.

Immortality”

On Vitalogy. Rhythm guitar jamming out. Bass prominent. Eddy waffles on whether or not this song was about Kurt Cobain (but not at this concert.)

Off He Goes”

From No Code. One of my most favorite of the favorite of their songs. How many of us have known someone like him? How many of us are him? McCready wails on his guitar to show support for our sorrow and for his lonely way of being.

Around the Bend”

From No Code. Such a sweet serenade! Written by former drummer, Jack Irons, as a lullaby for his son.

Eddy says that one of ushers notified him that someone wanted to talk with him. The person verified he was Eddy and then the man tried to serve Eddy legal papers. Eddy comments that it was, “the most punk ass mother fuckin’ move I ever heard of.”

I Believe in Miracles” (This is a Ramones cover.)

Appears on the 2003 Annual Vinyl Single. How this bridge starts and goes sends me into orbit: I close my eyes and think how it might be. I can’t tell you the number of times this one has done an earworm on me.

Sleight of Hand”

From Binaural. Existentialism is best not dwelled upon too long. McCready uses his wah wah pedal. The acoustics in Benaroya Hall are excellent.

All or None”

From Riot Act. It’s open to interpretation. Extremes are to be avoided in my experience.

Lukin”

From No Code. Stone Gossard introduces the song. The song is short, sweet, and damned intense. It’s about when a woman was stalking Eddy to the point that he was avoiding his own home. Also it is reported that it’s short and sweet because someone criticized PJ’s songs as being too long. Funk dat!

Disc 2 of 2

Parting Ways”

From Binaural. Looking through some comments on websites about this one, there are interesting theories but the consensus seems to be this was about the imminent breakup between Eddy and Beth.

Eddy gives a Public Service Announcement (PSA): 60,000 young adults have been helped through Youthcare. Eddy asks for a round of applause for the staff and the kids involved with the organization, and then to the audience for supporting them.

Down”

On the Lost Dogs album, written by Gossard, McCready, and Vedder. Originally on the, “I Am Mine single”. An up-tempo song with a line that is also the title of a Howard Zinn book, You can’t be neutral on a moving train.

Encore Break 1

Can’t Keep”

From Riot Act. Eddie on ukelele, singing about going to “the other side,” and the refrain is, “you can’t keep me here.” There is a definitely mystical aspect to this song.

Dead Man”

Included on the Lost Dogs album. Originally from the “Off He Goes” single. Originally intended for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, but passed over in favor of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dead Man Walkin.” (Wrong choice, in my opinion.)

Masters of War”

Written by Bob Dylan, I wish I could say this song is obsolete. It feels ever-fresh with new blood being spilled. Why young people continue to choose to die to serve their world chess playing masters is one of the great mysteries of our species.

Black”

This may the best known Pearl Jam tune. It’s unquestioningly one of their signature tunes. The poetry of the lyrics, the way Eddy sings it, and knowing he poured his all into it, trying to get over the one love of his life. Many times he sings with every drop of raw emotion. This time he sings as if the sting of anguish has subsided and it’s more in retrospect. Eddy invites the audience to sing along and it gives me the goosebumps to hear it sung in unison with Mike’s accompanying soulful guitar.

Crazy Mary”

One of my personal favorites. Surprisingly not written by PJ but by Victoria Williams. If you can listen to this song and not feel at least a little compassion for Crazy Mary, you have no heart. I also like the mystical aspect to this one. I wrote a poem in honor of Crazy Mary a few years ago. You can read it here.

25 Minutes to Go”

Johnny Cash wrote this one. It’s about a guy facing capital punishment by hanging. Eddy does it up right with some real nice flourishes by McCready on guitar.

Daughter” A quote from Eddy about it:

“The child in that song obviously has a learning difficulty, and it’s only in the last few years that they’ve actually been able to diagnose these learning disabilities, that before were looked at as misbehavior; as just outright rebelliousness, but no one knew what it was. These kids, because they seemed unable or reluctant to learn, they’d end up getting the shit beaten outta them. The song ends, you know, with this idea of the shades going down—so that the neighbors can’t see what happens next. What hurts about shit like that is that it ends up defining people’s lives. They have to live with that abuse for the rest of their lives. Good, creative people are just f***g destroyed.” – from Jones, Allan. Pearl Jam – The Illustrated Story, A Melody Maker Book. Hal Leonard Corp, 1995.

Eddy introduces the members of the band (Gossard, Ament, Cameron, McCready, and “you know my name, look up the number…”) He sings a few bars of “You’ve got to hide your love away.” and then sings, “you don’t have to hide your love away.”

Encore Break 2

Yellow Ledbetter”

Another song of theirs that got a lot of radio play. About a guy whose brother who has gone off to fight in war and the guy hopes he doesn’t come back in a box or a body bag. The guy gets a letter saying his brother has been killed.

OK, there you have it, a template for how I grok live albums, or at least how I grok live Pearl Jam albums. The musicianship is superior, they sound just as good live as they do on their sanitary studio versions, and you just never know what Eddy is going to say.

Thank you for the prompt, Dave. I enjoyed writing this very much.

I was going to link each song separately, but I found the whole concert out on youtube. There is a track listing where you can click to each song, which is always helpful.

https://youtu.be/mpygOcZYIws

 

March 21 – When Bridwell’s Horses Galloped Onto The Scene

People sometimes forget Nirvana and their Seattle peers didn’t invent the old jeans and lumberjack shirt look. It had been Neil Young’s uniform for a couple of decades by then. It comes to mind because A Band of Horses might look like other Seattle grungers but get compared to ol’ Neil much more than they do Nirvana. Their debut album, Everything All The Time, came out this day in 2006, on the ultimate Seattle grunge label, Sub Pop.

The band was, and still is, largely the vision of Ben Bridwell, whose heart was still back in South Carolina (where he’d later re-locate the band to)…something which perhaps comes through in the sound which has definite tinges of the Deep South. Bridwell had formed the band two years prior, after his previous band Carissa’s Weird – locally popular in the Northwest but not much known elsewhere – broke up. They put out their own EP in 2005, selling it off the stage, and that was enough to get them to sign them. Five of the six songs from that EP were re-recorded for Everything All The Time, with only “Boat to Row” missing. But completists can find, with effort, the EP which Sub Pop did re-release after the band took off.

The sound was hard to pinpoint, but not atypical of the lighter end of the alt rock scene of the early 2000’s – guitars, angst-y lyrics, a dash of country thrown in for good measure. But Band of Horses put a bit more polish into the result and threw in more melody than some, perhaps because Bridwell said of it “I wanted an ELO-sounding record, with strings, keyboards and synths, but as we got closer to it we wanted to take a more raw approach.” The overall result , particularly because of Ben’s voice, is difficult to pigeonhole, but nearly instantly identifiable. He did get to vary the sound some, and although strings and synthesizers didn’t appear, he did supplement his own guitar work with piano here and there and steel guitar on several, including the pastoral and easy-going “I Go To the Barn Because I Like”, one of the odder titles and more compelling songs on it. You might detect the other guitarist, Matt Brooke playing some banjo in there too! The album opens, fittingly, with one called “The First Song”, which allmusic compare to a mashup of Big Star and Crazy Horse. The almost-hit single was “The Funeral,” a song which slowly builds into a freight train rocker which they played on David Letterman’s show. It’s appeared in several commercials since.

Reviews were pretty good, though almost across the board inferior to those for the next album, Cease To Begin which appeared a little over a year later. The NME rated it 7 out of 10; Blender gave it 4-stars as did Uncut, allmusic put it at 3.5-stars while Entertainment Weekly noticed it and rated it “B+”. They applauded their “impressive mood manipulation skills” and compared them to “southern-fried Flaming Lips or a more austere My Morning Jacket.” Allmusic gave kudos to “beautiful melody (which) is present everywhere” and their “loud, raw, mid-tempo songs” they assume mean they “really love Neil Young.”

The album didn’t get a lot of love from radio or disc-buyers; it hardly edged into the top 200 in Britain, something it didn’t even do at home in the U.S. It was however, a mid-range hit in Scandinavia, oddly enough going gold in Denmark and Norway…something it would finally do in the States after their popularity rose in subsequent years.

Band of Horses are still at it, and just put out a new album, Things Are Great, which has given us one “adult alternative” chart #1 already, “Crutch.”

March 7 – Jack Wanted To Put An ‘Elephant’ In Every Room

Ba-ba-ba-ba-BAAA-ba…hum along in your best low voice to one of the best known bassline riffs in rock history, which made its debut 19 years back. Only the bassline isn’t really a bass-line, one of the many oddities related to the White Stripes, whose “Seven Nation Army” was released on this day in 2003.

You know the tune. Not only was it a major international hit that made the White Stripes a household name (in musical houses at least!), but it’s played at any number of sporting events, from Oregon Ducks football games, where the marching band plays it when the team takes the field, to Baltimore Ravens football and Orioles baseball games – the song says “I’m going to Baltimore” after all – to almost every European soccer match played in the last decade. It was used repeatedly by Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning team, which elated singer Jack White . “I am honored that the Italians have adopted this song as their own. Nothing is more beautiful than when people embrace a melody and allow it to enter the pantheon of folk music,” he told artistdirect.com in 2012. He probably also is proud that pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt adopted the song as something of an anthem for their Arab Spring movement. The Egyptians loved the aggressive, marching sound of the tune and the line “I’m going to fight them off. A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.”

So what don’t we know about the tune, or the band for that matter?

Seven Nation Army” (which, by the way is written as “7 Nation Army” on the cover of the single but with the number written out on other versions they released) was the first single from Elephant, the fourth album by the band and second on a “major” label – V2, owned by Richard Branson. It was sold to Universal Music in 2007, but had good world-wide distribution back the days when the White Stripes signed on with them. While their first V2 record, White Blood Cells, had done OK for them (going to #61 on Billboard) and earned good reviews- Britain’s Daily Mirror said it showed they were “the greatest band since the Sex Pistols” – it was Elephant that broke them wide open. Q magazine scored it 4.5 out of 5 stars, Rolling Stone upped the ante and gave them a perfect five star rating. It declared “the Detroit duo walked out with a work of pulverizing perfection.” Later on, the latter ranked it the fifth-best album of the entire decade.

Much of the reason the album zoomed up into the top ten in the U.S. and Canada and to the top of the charts in the UK, Norway and Sweden had to be the instantly-catchy “Seven Nation Army” (which itself spent three weeks at #1 on Billboard‘s Modern Rock chart and was a top ten hit in Britain) and its repetitive bassline. Oddly enough though, it wasn’t played on a bass, even though Rolling Stone referred to it as such. The riff was actually played by Jack on a 1950’s Kay Hollowbody guitar run through a “Whammy pedal set down an octave.” The old guitar and unusual low-fi approach fit Jack and the album perfectly. The liner notes mention “no computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing or mastering of this record.”

If that seemed to swim against the stream, it didn’t seem unusual for Jack. After all, when Jack married Meg – the other half of the band – Mr. Gillis took his wife’s last name, and still uses it years after they split up both as a couple and a band. And then again, the fact that he married was a bit of a surprise, since he once applied to a seminary and had thoughts of being a priest! His Scottish-Canadian dad (hence the famous cross-Canada tour of 2007 which included sets on a city bus and in the Arctic) worked for the Detroit diocese and raised him devoutly Catholic. He told 60 Minutes that he might have gone on to that walk of life had he not been so into music and just bought a new amplifier. “I didn’t think I was allowed to take it with me,” he told Dan Rather.

The song had roots that went back a long way with Jack. The famous riff was something he’d come up with years earlier and thought would make a great James Bond theme. By 2003, when he began to think 007’s producers weren’t going to ring him, he decided to use it for one of his own band’s songs. And why a “Seven nation” army? Turns out the title was how little Jack used to mispronounce the “Salvation” Army and the childhood memory stuck with him.

Seven Nation Army” won the Grammy in 2004 for Best Rock Song, and Elephant for Best Alternative Album. A signature bass riff played not on a bass, an album recorded on vintage eight-track tape decks in the computer age by a divorced couple whose male still used his ex-wife’s surname- yep, that’s pretty alternative! And few would argue that for the year 2003, it was best.

March 6 – The Boss’s Growing Anger Was Born In The USA

He didn’t ride a swinging metal orb naked for the video, but a year before Miley Cyrus attained pop culture immortality doing so, Bruce Springsteen delivered a Wrecking Ball of his own. That was the name of his 17th studio album, which came out this day in 2012.

The album had been long in the works, with some of the songs actually dating back to the late-’90s canon of his, and recording of the album actually being spread out over a year, mainly at his New Jersey home. As such there’s a vast array of sounds and musicians helping out, but the one constant was the feeling of disenchantment with the then present-day U.S.A.

The Boss found a new producer to work with on Wrecking Ball, Ron Aniello. Aniello had been a successful and respected producer for about a decade by this time, but had largely worked with Christian rock crossover acts like Jars of Clay and Lifehouse (actually producing their rock hit “Hanging by a Moment”). He’d won three Dove Awards – the Christian music ones – before, but this one would get him a nomination for a Grammy for his work. Bruce utilized his E Street Band for some tracks; his own wife Patti Scialfa added backing vocals, Little Steven appears and played mandolin and added backing vocals, Max Weinberg drummed on three tracks and Clarence Clemons gave his final sax performances (he actually died before the record came out). But Bruce also called in all sorts of other talented musical friends including Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello for guitars on “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression”, talented sax man Stan Harrison (who’d played with everyone from Diana Ross to Duran Duran) and drummer Steve Jordan, who currently has the enviable/unenviable job of filling Charlie Watts’ shoes behind the kit for the Rolling Stones. And for good measure, he invited Bob Clearmountain back to the studio, this time to do the final mix. Clearmountain had worked his magic similarly on several other Bruce albums, notably including Born in the U.S.A.

The result was an 11 song (expanded to 13 on a few “special edition” versions) tome released on CD, digitally or as a double-LP. One of the bonus tracks was “American Land” which featured producer Aniello playing the hurdy gurdy, one of the decidedly least common rock album instruments! Despite having quite a range of sounds, touching on Gospel, Irish jig and hip hop in various places, there was a uniformity in the solemn feel, as even the titles might suggest: “Rocky Ground,” “This Depression,” the title track and an apparent sequel to the slow song on Born in the U.S.A. , “Death to My Hometown.” Springsteen had by then, as allmusic put it, “shouldered the burden of telling the stories of the downtrodden” for his generation and that was “a class whose numbers increase” prior to the release. It was written largely in the shadow of the Wall Street meltdown of 2008-09, although a couple of songs that fit the mood preceded that financial event. “Land of Hope and Dreams” was a song he’d first recorded in 1998 but not released and the title track had been one he’d played frequently in concert for some years. He’d written that one actually as an ode to Giants Stadium in metro New York, a venue he loved to play in that had been slated for demolition.

The result was in the words of both the Hollywood Reporter and his own manager, Jon Landau, Bruce’s “angriest record.” Whether or not one felt this was a good thing directly influenced the reviews, which were largely – but far from unanimously – very good. Rolling Stone picked it as their Album of the Year, giving it 5-stars. Britain’s The Guardian rated it 4-stars and its NME, 8 out of 10. The Guardian noted that on it he “paints in broad brush strokes but its bombast rarely seems hollow”. The Hollywood Reporter called it “very rock’n’roll with unexpected textures.” Barnes and Noble stores called it “his best since Tunnel of Love, if not Born in the U.S.A” However, the Chicago Tribune also found it bombastic but lamented he was “going for stadium bombast instead of unadorned grit these stories of hard times demand” and found the result “sterile”. Later, allmusic agreed in part, giving it 3-stars, one of his lower-rated albums, and decried that “the message has been placed before the music” and in his righteousness he “has systematically removed any element of fun”.

Did fans agree with Rolling Stone or allmusic? We can only guess it was some each. “We Take Care Of Our Own” was the lead single, with a mixed message of American pride and a stinging rebuke of big business as well as the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It was picked by Barack Obama for considerable use in his re-election campaign, which The Boss had endorsed. But the song was far from a massive hit, getting only to #41 even on the rock charts, ones he’d dominated a couple of decades back. Further singles from it like “Death to My Hometown” and “Rocky Ground” fared even worse. But of course he had some level of dedicated fanbase left and the album itself did get to #1 at home, as well as in Canada, Germany, New Zealand and a few other places, making it his tenth #1 American album. It went platinum in Germany and gold discs came from Canada and Australia but it was very noticeably the first studio album of his to not hit that level in the States. Maybe if he’d ridden a wrecking ball naked in the video…

March 4 – Change Was Good For Matthew

Yesterday we looked at a Julian Cope album which was produced by Warne Livesey in England, and noted that right after that the producer took off for Australia to work with Midnight Oil. Well, if you were a rocker and lived somewhere where Queen Elizabeth was on the money, perhaps Livesey was your man. Today we look at a Canadian album he produced, Avalanche by Matthew Good. It came out this day in 2003.

Avalanche was technically the debut by Matthew Good, but that’s almost a technicality. By that time he was popular and well-known in Canada, having fronted the Matthew Good Band throughout the ’90s until 2001. Since he was writing the material, singing and playing a good chunk of the guitars (not to mention that bassist Rich Priske played in the band and on the solo record), it was a distinction not altogether obvious to many listeners. Indeed, even allmusic lump his “band” and solo records together.

What was different though was that Good seemed happy for this record – even though with titles like “A World Called Catastrophe,” “Weapon” and “House of Smoke & Mirrors”, you might not have guessed it! Good had by then built up quite a reputation as a rather “brash outspokenness” as Sputnik Music put it and a willingness to talk loudly about things which bugged him, including Canadian politicians, American politicians even more, big record companies and their effect on music…and Nickelback. He’d let it be known he thought very little of that Canadian band and its “derivative” records; Chad Kroeger of that band in turn ranted to Rolling Stone about Matthew and called him “the person I hate the most in the world!”.

That had occurred in the nearly two years between the last Matthew Good Band album and Avalanche. In the space between, he’d also had serious lung problems causing him to have to stop smoking, had to put up with a stalker and disbanded his band. That he said, was because he was “no longer wanting to placate the needs of other band members”, one of which was constantly touring, something he was growing weary of.

So, he set about making the first solo album, writing the 13 songs with an increasingly upbeat mental attitude. “That whole ‘angry young man’ thing – you can’t do that forever,” he told The Globe & Mail at the time. And he made the songs a little less intense than he’d done before, even bringing the string section of the Vancouver Symphony into Mushroom Studios (the former home base of Heart) for some of the tunes. He credits that effect to both the reduced pressure of not having to answer to a band, and him listening to a lot of Beatles, Pete Townshend (Empty Glass) and Talk Talk while making it.

The result was a pleasing if not ground-breaking effort, sounding like a natural progression from his MGB records. Sputnik Music graded it 4.5-stars, 61st best of any record in 2003. They noted he’d been similar to Smashing Pumpkins and Our Lady Peace before but this was “chill music at its finest.” And it “makes up for the lack of a catchy, hard-hitting single with a carefree, laid-back sound” highlighted most on “Song for the Girl” and “A World Called Catastrophe.”

The latter was indeed a hit single, getting to #5 in Canada. It, and the album itself received very little notice in the States, and what it did get was largely negative due to the video for the single showing a world map being taken over by American flags. Indeed, for his string of gold and platinum albums at home, he’d barely been noticed south of the border, with 1999’s “Hello Time Bomb” being the closest thing he had to a hit there, scratching up to #34 on the Alternative Rock chart. But he remained popular in Canada, with “Weapon” also being a major hit on rock radio domestically. The album itself hit #2 on the Canadian charts and went gold in less than two months; his next three solo ones would sell in the same range.

Good’s still recording, and touring sporadically, and seems to have made a friend in Warne Livesey. He produced Matthew’s latest record, 2020’s Moving Walls. l

February 2 – Maybe Queen Really Are Champions Of The World

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character famously wakes up every morning (which is in fact the same morning) to the sound of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Well, if you ever put on the car radio, or have it on at your work, you might think every day is Groundhog Day…but Queen has replaced Sonny & Cher. Because apparently the Brit rockers are the most-played rock artist on radio world-wide.

That according to a much quoted recent report by Viberate. I wasn’t really familiar with Viberate, so I turned to musicologist Alan Cross who calls it “a new way for artists to both keep track of their music and to make vital connections within the music business.” Essentially, it’s a gigantic database which tracks music radio play, streaming, downloads and even appearances on social media, rating songs social media performance, radio performance and even “respect.” It’s fascinating…but altogether too big a rabbit hole to fully explore here! However, their 2021 report had some interesting observations, including “rock is resurrected.”

They looked at radio stations from 150 countries around the globe and list “Pop” as being the most-played genre, with 141 million total spins from tracked stations, followed by “rock” with about 80 million. Hip-hop then Latin Music follow, each with less than half the prominence of rock. Now, how they exactly draw the line between pop and rock is unclear (Billy Joel – rock? pop? who’s to say), but we can see that rumors of rock’s death have been greatly exaggerated. On Spotify, the presumably younger base still pick Pop the most (145 billion streams) but hip-hop is next, then Latin and then Rock, with about 32 billion streams.

Back to radio, world-wide, Ed Sheeran is becoming one very wealthy young man. His music was played more on radio than anybody else, over four million times last year. He was followed by Dua Lipa, the Weeknd…and then Queen. Queen tracks were played just under three million times worldwide. If you’re at all like us, it might seem that about two million of those airings were on stations that you happened to be tuned into at the time! I-heart Radio report that “Another One Bites the Dust” was the #1 played song by Queen on the Viberate report, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions” couldn’t have been far behind. More surprising – the fifth most-played artist, worldwide was… Maroon 5.

So, there you go. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” might be the most-played song ever on radio, but Sting and friends apparently have to curtsy to Queen, when it comes to total radio attention these days.

February 2 – Sisters Cut A Path To Stardom Overseas

Musical appeal doesn’t always cross the Atlantic. Through the years, we’ve seen a number of British acts which were huge at home but not well-known over here: T Rex, Slade, Robbie Williams, etc. Likewise, a lot of huge American acts had middling at best success in the UK: Doobie Brothers, John Mellencamp and so on. Today though, we look at an act which was the opposite – an American act who were huge in Britain but close to ignored at home. It was on this day in 2004 the Scissor Sisters came out. To the record aisles that is. Those who knew the band knew they’d largely “come out” years before. Their self-titled debut was released 18 years ago in Europe. Their native land would have to wait until July to get it (surprisingly on the by-then Universal Music-owned Motown label, unlike the Brit version on Polydor.)

The Scissor Sisters are a New York City band which formed about four years earlier, largely the efforts of male lead singer Jake Shears and female one Ana Matronic. The pair loved both disco and glam rock as well as hanging out in the Big Apple’s gay clubs. They formed a band (the straight member, drummer “Paddy Boom” notes “it’s not a gay band… there are gay members but it doesn’t matter. It’s about the music.”) and became popular on the dancefloors of the city. However, they astutely realized that there was probably little room for them in the mainstream of American radio dominated by lightweight pop acts like Britney Spears and Clay Aiken or rap artists like 50 Cent and Ludacris. So they concentrated on Europe, touring extensively and putting out the single “Comfortably Numb” – yes, that “Comfortably Numb”, as in a cover of the Pink Floyd standout – in Britain and parts of the continent long before America. As The Guardian newspaper there put it, “it takes a genius to cover ‘Comfortably Numb’ in the style of the Bee Gees and not reduce it to a kitsch joke” but they pulled it off. So anticipation was high for the debut in “jolly ole”. And fans there weren’t disappointed.

Scissor sisters contained the Pink Floyd cover, plus ten originals, largely rowdy dance numbers like “Tits on The Radio” and “Filthy Gorgeous”, although (to these ears) the real standouts were a couple of slower pieces, “Return to Oz” and “Mary.” The latter, despite the name being slang for a gay was straight-forwardly enough a love song Shears wrote about a close friend of his, a girl called Mary.

Brit fans ate it up. It quickly jumped to #1 on the album charts there and ended up being the biggest seller of the year, going 9X platinum (thereby ranking in the top 10 of this century so far in the UK.) All five singles hit the top 20, including “Filthy Gorgeous” getting to #5. It won the Brit Award for the Best International Album the following year. Bono called them “the best pop group in the world.”  The media there raved about it. Take for example, the NME which graded it 9 out of 10. They said of the Sisters, “at first glance it’s easy to sneer at the Scissor Sisters – five achingly hip New Yorkers” but when you listen, they look at music “from a different angle”, “just like Bowie or the Smiths” and create “universal sounding party anthems that could get indie fans, pop-heads and 70 year old nutcases hitting the floor in tandem.”

Scissor Sisters also did well in a number of European countries. Over here, not so much. It failed to get into the U.S. top 100 and to date hasn’t cleared the 300 000 sales mark, meaning it sits far below gold status. They did crack the American top 20 with the follow-up, Ta-dah!, which garnered them their first UK #1 hit single (which was the first to make the Canadian top 30 as well), “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” a disco answer to Leo Sayer’s ’70s hit “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” The upbeat tune saw them working with one of their idols, Elton John, who co-wrote it and performs on it. However, the rest of the album was seen as a bit of an over-produced yawn, and while it sparked some interest in North America, Brits bought it in reduced numbers than the huge debut. When their fourth album flopped everywhere, the band went on hiatus” in 2012, although they still say they continue and will return some day.

Even if they don’t, they can live happily with the memories of being on top for a brief while… and presumably, the revenue that generated! And even if it wasn’t one of the all-time greats, we can be happy they added a bit of flair and color to the discouragingly dull music scene of the early-21st Century.

January 28 – Fresh Spins : Strictly A One-Eyed Jack

On this day in 1988, John Mellencamp was sitting at #22 on the charts with the nostalgic, cheery and slightly rustic-sounding “Cherry Bomb.” Well, John’s still seeming a bit nostalgic and rustic, but a lot has changed over the 34 years in between…as we clearly hear on his brand new album, Strictly A One-eyed Jack.

Now by definition a “one-eyed Jack” is a Jack of Hearts or Jack of Spades in a card deck; both are portrayed looking sideways so we only see one of their eyes. Metaphorically however, a “one-eyed Jack” is someone who only lets you see one side – the good one – of themselves. More and more as the years roll by we see Mellencamp was the one-eyed Jack with his early, reasonably happy-go-lucky rock star persona. As Rolling Stone noted, the cover of The Lonesome Jubilee (from which “Cherry Bomb” came) John was “sitting in a small-town bar next to a stone-faced farmer who looks like he’s been parked there since the Dust Bowl. Now Mellencamp has essentially become that guy.” Or as Pop Matters declare, by now he’s “dropped the rock persona entirely and stripped his songs down to scratchier, scorched earth, largely acoustic” ones. Clearly, …One-eyed Jack is a long way removed from “Jack and Diane”.

Although, perhaps not as much as we might guess. Remember, that single that made John a household name urges the young ‘uns to “hold on to 16 as long as you can” because “life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.” Sentiments which set the tone for the new album. Strictly A One-eyed Jack is a bleak affair to listen to, lyrically and at times musically. But it’s also compelling, well-played and thoughtful. It’s a good album, but it’s not the one you put on while the party is roaring… it’s the one you go to when those last few drunks won’t clear out and let you get to bed. Starting with the starter, too. “I Always Lie to Strangers” is probably the bleakest of the lot, with Mellencamp sounding as old as his state of Indiana (as Rolling Stone note, he now “approaches Bob Dylan and Tom Waits territory in its rangy, weathered gravitas) as he wearily talks of lying and reminds us “this world is run by men more crooked than me.” It comes across a little like an endurance test… only the devout or daring are going to keep listening after such a downbeat entrance. And, yep, it’s only one of two songs with “lie” in the title. There are two about rain too, for good measure!

The album does pick up from there, however, and exhibits a surprising range of musical territory played through an underlying roots, Americana theme. “I Am A Man That Worries” sounds like a brooding old blues number from the Delta. “Streets of Galillee” more like a pop tune played by a bluegrass band. “Gone So Soon” sounds like it could be a Billy Joel number sung by Ray Charles. One wonders, listening to it if he was thinking of the many friends and family that have gone on to the after-life before him, or about his on-again, off-again girlfriend Meg Ryan, when he sings “all the plans we made are now being remade with someone new.” There’s even a ballsy rocker for old-times sake, albeit a blisteringly angry one, “Did You Say Such a Thing”, which not coincidentally is one of the three tracks that Bruce Springsteen worked on with him. And there are moments of brightness and light. “Driving In the Rain” is a folksy little waltz and “Chasing Rainbows” (a song which several, myself included have found to sound rather like The Band) offers up some smart advice : “at the end of the rainbow, turns out it’s not somewhere, look around it’s everywhere for anyone who cares.” After all the songs about lying and getting old it almost comes across like a Muppet Show ditty. But in a good way.

The best track though is probably the one that lends its name to the record. “Simply a One-eyed Jack” is instantly catchy and the most interesting song about a card game since Kenny Rogers boarded that train decades ago. It showcases his new band’s strengths, which in turn is the album’s real shining moment . Troye Kinnett in particular stands out on the accordion, traditional organ and piano while several players use violins and fiddles to great effect. About the only time you’re going to discern a Stratocaster or Les Paul in the whole effort is when The Boss happens into the room.

Strictly A One-eyed Jack. Not quite four aces, but I’ll give it a full house… 3.5 face cards out of five. It’s like a meal of steel cut oats and turnip greens – tasty, nutritious, a bit old-fashioned, but after awhile you might start craving something a bit lighter and sweeter for a break.

January 26 – Mudd-y Sounds Ruled 20 Years Back

Grunge had run its course by the end of the 20th Century, but the teen angst that apparently inspired it never quite went away. Twenty years ago, a new generation of p.o’d youth were growing up, seemingly thinking grunge was OK in its morose outlook on life but a tad too quiet and musical. Enter “nu metal”, or “alternative metal” the way Millennials chose to annoy their parents. It was the sound de jour , as shown by the success of band’s like Limp Bizkit, Alien Ant Farm, Sum 41 and of course, Puddle of Mudd who rose to the top this day in 2002. Their song “Blurry” went to #1 on Billboard’s Alternative Rock chart. It would stay there for nine weeks and end up as the year’s top Alternative song; about three weeks after topping the alt rock list, it also went to #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart, where it also ended up on top of the year-end list. As a single, it hit #5 in the U.S.

Puddle of Mudd had by then been around for over a decade. They been formed by singer/rhythm guitarist Wes Scandlin in Kansas City in 1991. He says they got their name from the rehearsal space they used initially; right by the Missouri River, it often flooded a little although they were unconcerned since their space was on the second floor. They put out an indie EP in 1994 and played fairly regularly but with little attention until Scandlin decided to send a tape of their music to Fred Durst, the leader of Limp Bizkit. Durst liked them, signed them to his own label, Flawless Records (which was distributed by Geffen so therefore well-represented) and even found a new guitarist to back Scandlin, Paul Phillips. Mind you, if you ever end up talking to Scandlin, you may want to avoid Mr. Durst’s name. “He doesn’t write our songs, he doesn’t produce our songs, he doesn’t do anything for us…I don’t know what he’s doing, all I know is he’s ‘Mr. Hollywood Guy, Mr. Celebrity’…every single…interview I get asked about that …guy” he once noted to an interviewer in a highly expletive-laced rant.

Be that as it may, Durst took them to L.A. to record their first album with his company, Come Clean. It didn’t do much initially when released in 2001…hitting the shelves just days before 9/11 didn’t help any record. Nor did the reviews. Rolling Stone, for example gave it 2.5-stars but commented “it’s hard to imagine a record more indebted to the leading lights of grunge and less imaginative”, suggesting “Alice in Chains and early Days of the New seem almost visionary by comparison.” The first single “Control” got a little airplay in the States and Britain, but it took “Blurry” to vault them into the spotlight.

The song seemed to clearly be recognized as the album’s standout. Scandlin says he wrote it for his child, wanting to be a good father. His real-life son appears in the video. The song rocketed up the charts, topping both different rock ones for weeks as we noted, and winning the ASCAP Award for Song of the Year. It pushed Come Clean to the top 10 and triple-platinum status at home and made it difficult for a whole generation of school kids to correctly spell “mud.

Puddle of Mudd never matched that level of success again, although they did alright for a few years, notching three more Mainstream Rock #1 hits in the first decade of the ’00s. They’re still active, led as always by Scandlin…who’s probably still being asked about Fred Durst.

January 18 – Bowie’s Star Shone Bright

On this day six years ago, the world was still mourning the unexpected death of the great David Bowie... and he was sitting on top of the British album charts.

Blackstar came out on Bowie’s 69th birthday, January 8, 2016, and preceded his death by a mere two days. No coincidence that; producer Tony Visconti ( a longtime friend of David’s and producer of many of his best albums, like Heroes and Scary Monsters) was with him as they recorded it in New York early in 2015 and says Bowie wanted it as a “parting gift” to his fans. By that time, the singer knew he had cancer and little time left but few others did. The backing band for instance, say he seemed healthy and worked a solid schedule every day, something one couldn’t always say about the 1970s version of the man!

At the time, Bowie was listening to a lot of electronica music as well as rap, and perhaps some jazz, which had been his favorite type of music when he was a youth. All those forms came into play on Blackstar. What didn’t was mainstream pop-rock. This was no “Let’s Dance…Again!” effort. Instead we got a mass of bleak lyrics and odd, varied sounds utilizing everything from harmonica to regular electric guitars to orchestral strings. If there was one “pop” inspiration involved it would almost assuredly be Radiohead, not Nile Rodgers or Iggy Pop. As The Independant would say, it was “as far as he’s strayed from pop” through his varied career of 50 years. The title track – all 10 minutes of it – and “Lazarus” , the singles from the album, both seem to deal with mortality and death. Many pointed to the line in “Lazarus” that went “Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” as the definitive statement about him and about the album’s relevance.

Reviews were excellent, although a cynic might debate how wonderful they would have been if Bowie had succumbed to his cancer a month or two later. The release date meant most publications were reviewing it right beside the unhappy obituary for him. Rolling Stone gave it 4-stars, Spin 7/10. Entertainment Weekly graded it “A-”, saying it was expected in its unexpectedness since “the man who fell to Earth has made an entire career of defying terrestrial categories and classification”. Pitchfork figured he was “adding to the myth while the myth is his to hold.”

The public agreed and were eager to revel in their sorrow. It hit #1 in Canada, Australia and many other countries, including the U.S. That was a surprise because he’d never had a chart-topping album before in the States; even Let’s Dance only made #4. The first week Blackstar sales there of 181 000 were the best single week sales on record for The Thin White Duke.

But it was his Britain that took to it the most. It knocked Adele from her seven-week run at #1, and spent three weeks on top, before a greatest hits compilation of his edged it out at #1. One week in January, Bowie notched seven of the 40 biggest-selling albums in the UK, a feat only Elvis Presley had done before.

The album has resonance and was remembered come year-end. Newsweek, Mojo and Q each picked it as the “album of the year” . As well it earned five Grammys including Best Alternative Album and Best Rock Song for the title track, and the Brit Awards Album of The Year… something Bowie had never done while alive.

Long may you shine on, “Black star.”