THROWBACK: MEAT IS MURDER

I posted this review on Amazon.com on March 11, 2007, exactly seven years and 11 months ago. Today, on this, the day of the 30th anniversary of its release (February 11, 1985), I repost it here on BlakeMadsBlog.

The Smiths’ second album of new material is essential listening for an unlikely reason: it contains some the band’s most mediocre songs. Now, “mediocre” is a relative term of course, considering that we are talking about the greatest band to emerge in the last quarter-century, i.e., since The Jam broke up in ’82. It isn’t that Morrissey’s voice sounds bad (how could it?), or that Johnny Marr’s guitar playing is less than tasteful. It’s just that somehow the words and the music just aren’t as great as one would expect.

Most of the tracks on this album are not particularly well-known ones. However, “How Soon Is Now?” pops up in the middle of the American issue. This is one of the band’s best-known and best-loved songs. It is not, however, one my personal favorites, if for no other reason than it is over six-and-a-half minutes long. For a group whose music is informed by classic pop ideals, The Smiths sure have a tendency to let their songs run a bit too long. This is especially to the detriment of the closing tracks. The nearly 7-minute “Barbarism Begins at Home” is quite good, as is the title track (even if it is a bit, dare I say, ham-fisted), but they just go on forever, and therefore lose some of their impact in the process.

Other than “How Soon Is Now?”, the only song that will be familiar to neophyte Smiths fans is the excellent single “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, which includes the fathomlessly clever line “It was dark as I drove the point home.”

Not surprisingly, The Smiths are more successful with shorter songs. “What She Said,” “Nowhere Fast,” and “Well I Wonder” are the album’s best songs. “I Want the One I Can’t Have,”on the other hand, expresses what was even by this point in his career a pretty trite Morrissey sentiment. And I still haven’t mentioned the opening tracks, “The Headmaster Ritual” and “Rusholme Ruffians.” Sadly, there isn’t really much to say about them, apart from that they sound a bit juvenile and uninspired. (Although the “Marie’s the Name of His Latest Flame” riff on the latter is a nice touch).

Given the excitement that had built up around The Smiths by 1985, it is not surprising that Meat Is Murder entered the UK album chart at #1. Fans were certainly justified in their expectations for the album, and were right to rush out and by it. Unfortunately, the material on the album proved to be disappointing by any standards. Fortunately, it was not enough to bring down the band’s hopes, as they re-emerged in the finest form of their career with their next release (The Queen Is Dead). While Meat Is Murder is not essential in the all-embracing sense of the term, it is worth hearing for that very reason. After all, every great band has at least one album that demonstrates what they sound like at their not-so-great. In the case of The Smiths, that album is Meat Is Murder.

THROWBACK: MARQUEE MOON BY TELEVISION

This coming Monday (5/12), Television is playing at the Paradise Rock Club. So I figured, why not revisit the review that I posted on Amazon.com in February 2004? No reason at all!

A decade on, I would say that I stand by all that I wrote about this highly revered album. But remember, I was 10 years younger when I wrote about it.

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Truly Unique, but Not Equally Great

This CD is difficult to review. For one thing, its reputation precedes it. It is universally hailed as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, so that might predispose the listener to read greatness into it. For another, it is difficult to classify. It has its moments of catchy songcraft, but it is certainly not pop. And it is NOT punk, neither in sound nor in attitude. At best, it is punk by association: Richard Hell (click for my review of his autobiography) was an early member, Malcolm McLaren offered to manage them, they played at CBGBs, the LP was released in 1977, Tom Verlaine wrote and recorded with Patti Smith, etc.

The whole of Marquee Moon generally does not follow any sort of obvious conventional structure, and it is more easily contrasted with than compared to other CDs of its era.

Finally, there is nothing obviously terrible about the CD, nor anything obviously and consistently great (except for the guitar work). So the album is very much a one-of-a-kind affair, and might be described as a warped sort of post punk or new wave. It is thoroughly unconventional without being particularly radical (although that may be a radical achievement in itself). However, uniqueness does not entail greatness, and in the case of Marquee Moon, the uniqueness is much more apparent than the greatness.

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So what is it that is so great about this CD? Well, it is impossible to not be impressed by the inspired and majestic guitar work. Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine trade off of each other with intuitive artistic ease.

They might be accused of showing off because it sounds so good, but this is one of the least pretentious guitar showcases that I have ever heard. It is virtuosic, but in a professional, unflashy way.

One cannot help but feel that beauty and grace with the instrument just comes naturally to them. Snotty and snarling riffs, ringing arpeggios, bright cascading scales, and wild and crazy solos adorn every song on the CD.

Richard Lloyd (left) and Tom Verlaine with Lou Reed

Richard Lloyd (left) and Tom Verlaine with Lou Reed

Unfortunately, the guitar work is the best part of every song, and the other components suffer a bit at its expense. Tom Verlaine’s voice is not great, but it is at least nicely off beat and it suits the material well enough. But the lyrics are often a bit too obscure, and one must not mistake obscurity for profundity (which is largely lacking on this record). Verlaine may have been a poet, but he wasn’t a great one.

Moreover, the emotion of each song seems a bit calculated, but that may be, in part, a downside of the naturally good guitar playing.

Still, the lyrics to “Venus”, “Guiding Light,” and “Torn Curtain” are quite beautiful. And the title track is stunning.

All of that said, however, I would certainly not discourage anyone from at least listening to this CD. Its uniqueness is itself refreshing and rewarding to the patient listener. Moreover, the weight of its reputation is lifted by repeated listenings, and once that happens, the listener is able to hear it for what is it: a fine, ambitious, and largely unpretentious record. Some of the songs are better than others, but none of them sound out of place. The CD plays very well as a whole, and should be listened to in a single sitting. And the influence of the album’s NYC cool is plain to see in bands like The Strokes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

BUT STILL, Marquee Moon‘s greatest asset is its uniqueness, and while that may not translate to an equal level of greatness, it still proves the validity of the effort.

And enough people have heard something all-around spectacular in this record, and it is worth taking the chance that you may be one of them.

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Left to Right: Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca, Fred Smith

(One last thing: There have been tests done in which each participant is shown three lines of obviously different lengths. S/he is asked to pick the longest one. When s/he picks the obviously longest one, s/he is told that most people picked a different one. Then s/he is asked if s/he wants to change his/her mind. Many participants do. What’s my point? This: if I were to call this CD “punk,” I would feel like one of the people in the study who changed his mind, i.e., like someone who said something he knew to be false just because everyone else did.)

THROWBACK: WHO’S NEXT

Little did I know when I posted this on April 12, 2006, that exactly eight years later I would be going to see Simon Townshend — whom I had just interviewed for The Somerville Times — at Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA.

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THE WHO’S GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

(Originally posted on Amazon.com on April 12, 2006)

For many, the end of the 60s came with the break-up of The Beatles in April 1970. For others, it came shortly before that, at the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. Or, in the political world, it may have occurred in 1968 – which author Jules Witcover called “The Year the Dream Died” – with the election of Richard Nixon.

But whether it was marked by a musical event or a political event, the fact is that at some point the glorious 1960s ended, and not simply by virtue of the fact that it eventually became the 1970s. The 60s were defined as much by attitude as they were a calendar.                                                                                                      blog_TheWho   

Released in 1971, Who’s Next was Pete Townshend’s farewell to the previous decade, and all that it encapsulated. 26 years of age when the record was released, Townshend had survived the first five years of his band’s career with both massive popularity and the accompanying scars to show for it. Who’s Next sounds like the result of a songwriter who had taken stock of his life and the world around him, and in doing so, cleared his mind and soul enough to make his greatest album to date, and probably of his entire career, even 35 years on.

 

And while it was initially intended to be an ambitious concept album like Tommy and Quadrophenia, the finished product ended up achieving an epic scope at least as great as its predecessor and successor.

The most obvious eulogies for the 60s come at the very beginning and very end of the record. While just two years earlier The Who was rocking Woodstock, the disc’s opening track “Baba O’Riley” finds them surveying the wreckage of a “teenage wasteland.” Such a masterful phrase brings to mind unmistakable images of the site of a cultural milestone which had probably not yet recovered from from the event which was a generation’s last hurrah.

On the other end of the record, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is more straightforward in its recognition of the end of an era. The new boss – Nixon – is the same as the old boss – Johnson, and the parting on the (political) left is now parting on the (political) right. Yet there is still hope, and thus the prayers that “we don’t get fooled” again. (Yeah, I know that I am focusing on events in America, but if only Pete Townshend knew at the time what awaited the US in the 1970s.)

In between these bookends, Townshend seems to be putting himself together emotionally – “getting in tune,” as he might say – with some of his very best songs as the result. The fact that Roger Daltrey never sounded better certainly doesn’t hurt. (I mean really, who knew the guy could sing so well?) These songs are divided between straight-ahead rock songs and slower ballads, the latter featuring the always superb piano work of – who else? – Nicky Hopkins. Bassist John Entwistle also contributes his morbid black humor on the genuinely great song “My Wife.”

“Going Mobile” also references the ethos of the previous decade, with its wah-wah guitar solo and its air-conditioned hippie gypsy protagonist. I am guessing that Townshend may have had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote this one. Then there is “Behind Blue Eyes,” a virtuoso performance by Townshend and Daltrey, with the latter flawlessly capturing every iota of the former’s vulnerability and anger, and probably tossing in a bit of his own while he was at it.

 

This song and the equally beautiful “The Song Is Over” are the most plaintive songs in the band’s repertoire. “Bargain” and “Love Ain’t For Keepin’,” meanwhile, are classic Who rock songs.

Who’s Next tamed and perfected the elements that had made The Who one of the greatest and most popular bands of the 60s. Without being the lead vocalist, Pete Townshend proved himself to be as capable of composing in the singer/songwriter mode as any of those who were famous for doing both.

Roger Daltrey, as mentioned, sounds spectacular, and more like a great singer than he ever did. (Not that he ever sounded bad, but here….whoa.)

John Entwistle and Keith Moon

Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon, who made up The Who’s infamously combustible rhythm section, keep themselves finely in check on this record, and earn their spurs by being more musical, rather than more rackety, than ever. In short, each member of the band emerged sounding like rock ‘n roll musicians, rather than rock ‘n roll players. And lyrically, one should obviously not take Townshend seriously when he claims, on “Getting In Tune,” that he “can’t pretend there’s any meaning hidden in the things I’m saying.” This is a classic rock CD that you will continue to appreciate long after you have outgrown classic rock.

The Who would create five more records over the next decade of their career, each, alas, bringing diminishing returns. After breaking up in 1982, they would eventually come together solely for the sake of lucrative tours.

But perhaps such tours are the band’s reward for being a great singles band (“Substitute,” I Can’t Explain”), albums band (The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Quadrophenia), and one of the loudest and most influential rock groups ever. Who’s Next will forever survive as a testament to everything that was great about this band.

(Having said all this, however, I am still a bigger fan of The Kinks, who were — as Pete and Roger themselves have acknowledged — a major influence on The Who. Too bad that there will never be any chance for them to charge $200 per ticket.)

THROWBACK: SETTING SONS BY THE JAM

The Jam was the best British band of the late 70s and early 80s. Let’s be done with that debate. No, they weren’t as punky and rebellious as The Sex Pistols or as “look-how-badass-I-am” as The Clash. But they were the best.
Sure, some think that The Jam’s popularity undercuts their cred. But sometimes it happens like that: sometimes
the best band of a given time and place is also the most popular one. Not very often, but sometimes. Between 1977 and 1982, thanks to The Jam and the British record-buying public, it did.

blog_Jam-Setting-SonsWith 9 Bonus Tracks, This Is The Jam’s Finest Hour

(Originally posted on Amazon.com on March 13, 2005)

The Jam’s November 1979 release Setting Sons is generally considered to be one of their 3 best albums. Inexplicably, however, it is also considered to be the weakest of those three. The only reason for this seems to be that it is neither All Mod Cons (its predecessor) nor Sound Affects (its successor), their other two great albums. Sadly, this underrating of Setting Sons obscures the fact that it contains some of the band’s best material and one of their finest singles. (Why only one? Because the 3 other brilliant songs from this era were released as singles but not featured on albums.)

Much of the underrating of Setting Sons can be attributed to the overrating — in hindsight — of All Mod Cons. The greatness of that album is probably confused to some extent with its significance.

AMC was their great leap forward, and proof that their sophomore slump would not cause them to flunk out. So the importance of this album should not be underestimated, but neither should its greatness — bountiful though it is — be overrated.

Setting Sons was a highly anticipated album. Not only was it the follow-up to The Jam’s breakthrough, it was also preceded in the eight months prior to its release by two top 20 singles — “Strange Town” and “When You’re Young.” While these songs would not appear on the new album, they did confirm The Jam’s status as one of the more important bands in the UK at the time. When the album was finally released in November 1979, it reached #4 in the UK (and #137 in the US) and was accompanied by the band’s highest charting song to date, the explosive #3 single “The Eton Rifles.”

It had been reported prior to release that the album would deal with the concept of how 3 childhood friends had changed as they became adults after a modern-day English civil war (described in the song “Wasteland”). In essence, it was to be a Weller-generation version of The Kinks album Arthur, or: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. (The two albums do make very good companion pieces.) About half of the 10 songs on the record addressed this theme directly. But when listened to as a whole, only the first and last tracks — the latter being a cover of “Heat Wave” — seem to have nothing to do with the intended concept.

Some have criticized Setting Sons  for being too “mature”, but since Paul Weller was only 21 when the album was released, perhaps “precocious” is a better word.

The album kicks off with the gleefully playful — yet somewhat cynical — “Girl On the Phone.” Then come the songs that form the core of the album’s theme. The songs take on such issues as dissolving friendships, aging, war, and selling out. The anti-war track “Little Boy Soldiers” is particularly good, pre-dating the Falklands War by a few years and also containing the eerily prescient line “God’s on our side and so is Washington.” (I don’t know if Margaret Thatcher ever said that, but Tony Blair probably has.)

The remaining songs contribute to lesser degrees to the album’s theme. Foxton’s finest composition, “Smithers-Jones,” is basically The Jam’s version of The Kinks’ song “Shangrai-La,” with its tale of a middle-aged man who has worked his whole life only to see it amount to nothing. (It also has an instrumental nod to The Kinks’ “Victoria” at the end.) “Saturday’s Kids” vividly depicts the misadventures of contemporary British youth. Finally, “The Eton Rifles” is plucked straight from the papers, with Weller railing against snotty students’ disrespect for workers.

Musically, The Jam is a formidable trio of players, and the fact that they are not virtuosos is part of their strength. Paul Weller is an extraordinarily capable guitar player. I know that does not sound like particularly high praise, but it is. He knows exactly how to craft his guitar work so as to give each song the distinctive flavor that made The Jam so unique. Be it chords, riffs, or solos, the patented Jam sound springs effortlessly from Weller’s fingers, and never for a moment does he sound like a show-off. Bruce Foxton’s bass playing is good enough to qualify him as what Jake Burns–his current band’s lead singer*–calls him: “one of the all-time greats.” His trademark ominously punky bass lines give the perfect touch to “Private Hell” and “The Eton Rifles,” and his punchy, more straightforward playing fills the space beautifully on “Girl On the Phone” and “Saturday’s Kids.” And while rock critics will forever struggle to find a non-perfunctory way to compliment drummers, the fact is that a band as energetic yet focused as The Jam needs the perfect timekeeper to speed them up and slow them down. Rick Buckler fits this role to a T. [*Foxton was a member of Stiff Little Fingers when I originally wrote this.]

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The Jam (l-r): Rick Buckler, Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton

Paul Weller sings from several points of view on Setting Sons. At times, he is the 21-year old who he was in 1979 (“Girl,” “Rifles,” “Soldiers”). At others, he is an adult singing in the first person (“Thick As Thieves,” “Burning Sky,” “Wasteland”). Finally, he is sometimes someone slightly older than himself commenting on the grown-ups around him (“Private Hell,” Foxton on “Smithers-Jones”). The loss of ideals as one grows older is of particular concern to Weller: “we watched our ideals hopelessly unwind,” “ideals are fine when you are young,” “the smouldering embers of yesterday.” It is the loss of such ideals that leads to unhappiness later in life: “we’re no longer as thick as thieves,” “We’ll watch the rain fall/Tumble and fall/Just like our lives”.

This unhappiness takes the forms of broken friendships, unhappy marriages, alienation from family, and unsatisfying work. While ideals may seem helpless in the grip of hard reality, it is only by sticking to them and making them a reality that one can avoid being stuck in a “Private Hell.”

In the songs described above, Weller is singing from perspective of another person. He does so beautifully, but hearing him sing from his own perspective is always a unique treat. He is at his cynical and punky best on “Girl On the Phone,” “The Eton Rifles,” and “Saturday’s Kids.” “Girl” has Weller commenting on how his fame has made him so recognizable that even a girl who he cannot identify knows his “leg measurements and the size of his cock.” In “The Eton Rifles,” Weller caustically spews his disdain for privileged students, ridiculing on their love of rugby, their ties and crests, their brand new shoes, and their “untamed wit.” He knows damn well that the ivory towers will not protect them forever.

“Saturday’s Kids,” meanwhile, finds Weller singing in a whimsical (and less cynical) tone about a group of youngsters he may be too old to be part of now, but to which he will always belong in his heart. He gets all the details right: the boys with their beer and football (soccer) games, the girls with their cheap perfume and discos, and their parents with their Capston non-filters. (And let’s not forget the “v-neck shirts and baggy trousers,” which come off in the backs of cars with predictable results.)

The influence of Ray Davies clearly trumps that of Pete Townshend on this record.

The 2001 CD re-issue of Setting Sons features nine very valuable bonus tracks. Individual singles were released as many as 8 months prior to and 4 months after the release of the album. All three of them — “Strange Town,” “When You’re Young,” and “Going Underground,” their first #1 single–are all included among the bonus tracks. Also included are the wonderful “The Dreams of Children” — the double A-side of “Going Underground” — and two indispensable B-sides: a version of The Who’s “So Sad About Us” and the brilliant “See Saw” (the B-side of “The Eton Rifles”). The latter is particularly valuable not only because it is probably The Jam’s best non-political, Who-inspired pop song, but because the only other place it is available on CD is the 5-disc box set. The re-issue is topped off by “Start!”, the #1 single from the forthcoming Sound Affects LP.

All things considered, this version of Setting Sons is an ideal first purchase for a Jam newcomer. It captures one of the greatest post-Beatles bands ever at their youthfully energetic but tightly focused best.

The newcomer could also opt for Snap! or Greatest Hits for a career overview, but for a snapshot of a terrific band at their peak, the 2001 re-issue of Setting Sons cannot be beat.

THROWBACK: THE BEST OF BLUR

A Great Place to Start (and an Equally Bad Place to Stop)

(Originally posted on Amazon.com on February 6, 2004)

Blur is both a great singles band and a great albums band. The Best of Blur focuses on its prowess as a singles band, and in this regard might more correctly be called “Blur’s Greatest Hits.” (If I may split hairs, it seems to me that a CD called “Greatest Hits” should include pretty much only hit singles, while one titled “Best of” should more fully represent the artist’s “best” material, including hit singles and album tracks.)

Blur (l to r): Damon Albarn, Alex James, Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree

Nit-picking aside, The Best of Blur serves as a perfect model for a worthwhile (and worth the money) compilation. First, with 18 tracks, it features about three-quarters of the singles that charted in the US and UK, plus one well-chosen album cut and a new song for good measure (the fact that about a half-dozen chart singles are missing is indicative of what a successful band Blur was in the 90s). Moreover, the content of this disc leaves no question as the overall quality of Blur’s output.

Finally, while this can only be realized in hindsight, The Best of was released at an ideal time, as the recording of Blur’s 2003 release Think Tank would mark the beginning of a new era for the band.

The most obvious shortcoming of this disc is that it slights Blur’s superb second CD, Modern Life Is Rubbish, by including only one of its tracks, “For Tomorrow.” The most inexplicable omission would be the the proto-Britpop single “Popscene”, but the singles “Chemical World” and “Sunday, Sunday” are also missing.

As it happens, however, this weakness is turned into a strength by leaving room for the inclusion of three tracks from its more experimental (i.e., less poppy, more personal) sixth CD 13. Here’s how that works: “For Tomorrow” serves as a great teaser for the Modern Life CD, which is brimming with great tracks, and should be owned by anyone who likes what they hear on The Best of. Moreover, 13 is not the place to start for someone who is being introduced to Blur.

Hence, the disc both whets the listener’s appetite and fills his or her plate. If the tracks from 13 don’t quite click with the listener (and there is no reason why they shouldn’t), at least he or she will have three of the best tracks from that CD here. And the absence of the singles from Modern Life gives one all the more reason to buy that CD, which anyone with more than a passing interest in the band – or in good music in general – should do anyway.

From Blur’s other discs, you basically get all the singles: two of the three from Leisure, all four from Parklife (plus the album track “This Is A Low”), three of the four from both The Great Escape and Blur, and all three from 13. (Two of the missing singles, “Stereotypes” – from The Great Escape – and “M.O.R.” – from Blur – are included in live versions on a limited 2-CD edition.) Also included is a decent new track,”Music Is My Radar,”
which sort of foreshadows – for better and for worse – the direction Blur would take on its next studio album.

While some of the hits are better than others, none of them are sub par as songs, and they all belong on what is likely to be the first Blur purchase for many listeners, especially American ones.

And while some may complain about the non-chronological order of the songs, the sequencing actually does a very good job of accentuating both the variety and continuity of Blur’s catalog.

The bottom line is that a compilation should be practical: it should serve as an introduction to encourage you to buy more by the artist, or it should be comprehensive enough to prevent you from having to buy anything else. That said, The Best of Blur is unlikely to save you any money, but it will make you happy to spend the extra that you do. If this is the place you start, it is unlikely to be the place that you stop. There are simply too many terrific songs on the band’s studio discs for any compilation short of a box set to be truly comprehensive. All the same, this is a great compilation to have even if you own the other discs, as it puts almost all of the band’s hits in one place. (I had four other Blur CDs when I bought The Best of. Modern Life, Parklife, and The Great Escape are also great places to start.)

Clearly, The Best of Blur succeeds at being a model compilation. Now, does this model compilation contain great songs? In a word, yes.

For the most part, it is catchy, distinctly British pop, with sophistication, some keen social commentary, and an impressive amount of variety considering that it contains music recorded in a span of less than a decade. The songs are alternately entertaining and poignant, and usually both. In short, this disc is an essential chapter in the history of British popular music.

Sure, the lyrics may not always be terribly profound, and there may be one too many “na na na” or “la la la” sections to fill space, but if that were a crime in pop music, then many artists would have to plead guilty.

But reviews of the individual records is the place to talk about the songs, and if you are interested in checking out Blur for the first time, I assume that you are reading those as well. At the same time, however, you are probably wondering if this compilation is worth investing in. Put it this way: the songs on The Best of Blur are the ones that made this group one of the most popular British bands of the 90s. As a whole, they suffice to show that while Blur may not be as great as The Kinks or The Jam (and that is too tall of an order for any band to fill), they are truly their worthy heirs.

Long Live Blur!

FLASHBACK: THE MODERN LOVERS

A No Man’s Land Between Proto-Punk and New Wave (Originally posted on Amazon.com on January 27, 2006.)

There is a scene near the end of the movie “Manhattan” in which Woody Allen’s friend angrily says to him, “You think you’re God!,” to which Woody replies, “I gotta model myself after someone!”

This is the same line of defense I would offer to any singer who is accused of sounding too much like Lou Reed. Jonathan Richman is perhaps chief among those who have met with this accusation. Whether or not Richman really does sound that much like him is debatable, but he clearly and unapologetically invokes the powers of the leader of his favorite band. (Richman explained in an interview that he used to draw and paint all day as a young man, but that was before he discovered The Velvet Underground.)

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The Velvet Underground … Simpsonized!

The Modern Lovers’ debut seems an unlikely candidate for such an influential record. It has certainly received its share of nearly hyperbolic praise. Andy “Music Geek on ‘Beat the Geeks'” Zax says that “Roadrunner” is his all-time favorite song, and the good folks at Pitchforkmedia.com say that without this song, “we’re pretty sure Western culture would have ended in 1977”. And the fact that The Sex Pistols (and Joan Jett, and others) did a cover of it hardly helps to refute the idea that this completely unthreatening track is a quintessential proto-punk single. Moreover, I have seen the track “Pablo Picasso” performed live by three different artists: David Bowie, Richman himself, and John Cale, who produced the early Modern Lovers sessions.

But there is more to Jonathan Richman’s influence than his music. His image has had an equally widespread impact. He was surely not the first geeky, awkward outsider to become a rock star, but he was surely among the first to flaunt it (with all due respect to Buddy Holly).

In addition to Richman’s obvious influence on punk, his whimsy, winsomeness, silliness, and geekiness is apparent in Talking Heads (of whom Modern Lover Jerry Harrison was later a member), They Might Be Giants, Weezer, Fountains of Wayne, The Magnetic Fields/Stephin Merritt, and the Swedish songmeister Jens Lekman.

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Talking Heads: Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, David Byrne

The best place to start in reviewing this record is with the setting of many of the songs. Plenty of major cities in the world – L.A., New York, London – have had their stories chronicled in popular music. With The Modern Lovers, Boston (my adopted hometown) gets a bit of its due. Granted, the lure of Beantown may not be as romantic as the City of Angels or the Big Apple, but it certainly has its charms for a young Jonathan Richman-type suburbanite.

From the Stop-N-Shop and “[Route] 128 in the moonlight”, to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Fenway, and BU, Richman knows the town he loves the way Lou Reed knows NYC and Ray Davies knows London.

(Of course, the Naked City – Richman’s adopted hometown – is mentioned a few times on the record, too.)

The songwriting and musicianship on this record are deliberately amateurish. Notice how he spells “Girl Friend” incorrectly in the song of the same name in order to make a pretty obvious rhyme. Sometimes it is to a fault, and the quality is a bit compromised (eg, “Old World”), while other times the results are inspired, such as in “Modern World”. “I love the USA/I love the modern world/Put down the cigarette/And drop outta BU” is one of my favorite lyrics on the album. (The variations on this refrain include that last line being “act like a true girl” and “drop outta high school”.) I know that doesn’t sound like much, but to hear Richman sing it in his mock-tough guy voice makes all the difference.

And while he could be accused (if not convicted) of posturing, Richman convincingly shows his many sides on this record. He is a giddy and optimistic young man on “Roadrunner” and “Government Center”, but sad, lonely, and mature on “Hospital” (“there is pain inside/you can see it in my eyes”), “Someone I Care About” (“I don’t want a girl just to fool around with”), and “Girl Friend” (“I walk through the Fenway/I have my heart in my hands”). He is also a geeky Lou Reed on “Pablo Picasso”, which struts along at a cocksure midtempo pace, “She Cracked” (“she’d eat garbage, eat shit, get stoned”), and “Modern World”. (And like Fountains of Wayne after him, he makes his disdain for hippies obvious on “I’m Straight”.)

The music includes pre-New Wave, Steve Nieve-ish keyboards, sloppy Velvets-y guitar, and the welding of the two. Whether these songs are dated from 1972 – when they were first recorded – or 1976 – when they were first released, they manage to land smack dab (chronologically and stylistically) in the middle of proto-punk and New Wave.

If there were a Hall of Fame for cult rockers, Richman would surely be among its first inductees. His artistic and commercial success are inversely related, and he is best known to a mass audience as that guy in “There’s Something About Mary” (or for the old school rock fans who haven’t seen that movie, he is best known as the guy who is always described as the guy who is best known as that guy from “There’s Something About Mary”).

Keyboardist Jerry Harrison, on the other hand, is in the actual Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Talking Heads, and David Robinson, later the drummer for The Cars, may well end up there himself. (These two have been given a bit of poetic justice as members of more successful and well-known bands, but I am not sure what became of bassist Ernie Brooks.)

Although The Modern Lovers will never get the attention or credit they truly deserve, the fact that so many other artists are indebted to them is a start. It vicariously gives them a mass audience that they could never have on their own. Like The Sex Pistols and Television – both of whom could qualify as kindred spirits of the band – The Modern Lovers made a huge impact on the basis of a single album.

But sometimes that is all it takes to change the world of popular music: sometimes someone needs to do something for the first time, just to show that it can be done. By this standard, the importance of The Modern Lovers first record should not be underestimated.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

FLASHBACK: LET IT BE BY THE REPLACEMENTS

This review first appeared six years and one day ago on January 6, 2007. I have added and edited a few words to this version.

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Let It Be is not as consistent as its follow-up, Tim, but it contains more of The Replacement’s best songs. It also contains filler in the worst sense of the word, but that is forgivable since it is surrounded by wonderful hardcore and straightforward rockers, as well as sincere acoustic guitar and piano based-ballads.

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“I Will Dare” – featuring old-timey guitar and even a mandolin – and “Favorite Thing,” also with a twangy guitar, are cleaner (but hardly pristine) updates of their earlier sound. After these opening tracks, the band revisits that earlier sound with the album’s hardest-rocking numbers, “We’re Coming Out” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out.” (The latter provides two minutes of comic relief, but it’s too bad that Paul Westerberg stumbles over the lyrics in the second verse.)

Following these four rockers, the rest of the worthwhile tracks are basically ballads, and are just as good and sometimes better than the disc’s rock songs. “Androgynous,” which follows on the heels of “Tommy,” is a stunner. Musically, it is shoved along by a weeping piano. Lyrically, it vividly portrays the desolate streets of a small Midwestern town, where anything other than stiflingly normal is suspect: “Kewpie dolls and urine stalls/Will be laughed at/The way you’re laughed at now.” (I am originally from such a town, so I know what Westerberg is talking about.) This song shows the influence of the more haunting moments of the Big Star record Third/Sister Lovers.

Finally, in terms of the good songs, the acoustic “Unsatisfied” and the electric “Answering Machine” makes Westerberg’s influence on the alternative scene that blossomed in the early 90s blatantly obvious.

Let It Be is not perfect, of course. “Seen You’re Video” and “Gary’s Got a Boner” are the previously-mentioned offending filler. The cover of Kiss’s “Black Diamond” isn’t terribly bad, but it isn’t terribly inspired, either. Finally, “Sixteen Blue” is often praised for its portrayal of “the hardest age.” Granted, it makes some accurate enough observations, but as a song, it isn’t really anything special (except for Bob Stinson’s cool fade-out guitar).

This is one of several songs on the disc that indicate that Westerberg was looking to his teenage years for lyrical inspiration. However, the Kiss cover and Ted Nugent riff on “Gary’s Got a Boner” suggest that he and Stinson may have relied too much on their teenage record collection for musical inspiration. Nevertheless, there are several more palpable points of reference, too, such as the New York Dolls, Alex Chilton (duh), and that other Minneapolis post-punk outfit, Hüsker Dü.

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I was only 8 years old when Let It Be was released, and too into classic rock when my high school classmates got into The Replacements via Paul Westerberg’s solo work. For both reasons, I don’t have any memories of listening to the band when I could have really related to their songs. In fact, I didn’t really start listening to them until I was in my late 20s. The fact that they can be appreciated so many years after the fact is evidence of the timeless quality of their songs, and proof that they were as responsible for albums that were as essential to the 80s as those by American peers such as Hüsker Dü, R.E.M., and The Pixies.