Tag Archives: Stylus

I’m counting the grains and they’re so sharp: the best of Wire

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Well, I figured Graham Lewis and Colin Newman deserved a snotty reappraisal. My piece on Wire’s 154 triggered a a week’s worth of hate (e)mail when such things existed. Intended as provocation, the essay pretends the rest of Wire’s career didn’t exist, and it’s only then that the Graham Lewis show pieces I hated make sense. If anything, the recordings they’ve released since 2000 honor their commitment to a paradox that no other band, let alone punk band, has ever mastered: histrionic austerity.

In this list I’ve included tracks from every Wire period ending with 2013’s ultra-competent and too aptly named Change Becomes Us and Colin Newman’s first solo album. For Wire, their career was all in the art of stopping, then restarting. Anti-nostalgia will consume itself. If the song at the top of the list is startling, I owe it to them. I can think of few bands using English who’ve written as primal, mysterious, and devastating as “Kidney Bingos.” In 1995’s epochal SPIN Alternative Record Guide, Eric Weisbard mused that to prefer The A-List, compiling Mach II Wire’s experiments with echo and Depeche Mode synths, you’d have to be as coldly pure as Wire themselves. Well.

1. Kidney Bingos
2. Ex-Lion Tamer
3. Map Ref. 41°N 93°W
4. Practice Makes Perfect
5. Lowdown
6. Mannequin
7. I Am the Fly
8. 12 X U
9. The 15th
10. French Film Blurred
11. Pink Flag
12. I Don’t Understand
13. Ahead
14. On Returning
15. A Series of Snakes
16. Outdoor Miner
17. Strange
18. Sand in My Joints
19. Drill
20. Bad Worn Thing
21. Another the Letter
22. One of Us
23. Reuters
24. In the Art of Stopping
25. Eardrum Buzz (Single Mix)
26. Two Minutes
27. As We Go
28. I’ve Waited Ages
29. Ambitious
30. Better Late Than Never

New and true and gay: The best of Luther Vandross

Eleven years ago, I wrote a consideration of Luther Vandross for Stylus. Many of my points now embarrass me, but I’ll post it anyway. To call Luther Vandross the greatest R&B singer of the era reminds me of what my French teacher said about Victor Hugo: greatest isn’t “necessarily” the best. Yet listening to the songs on the list below as I’ve aged has been an education in comprehending how we worship love as a substitute for love itself — the coppery taste of desire, ungratified and persistent. Votive candles lit for unseen presences are comforts.

1. Give Me the Reason
2. Glow of Love
3. Stop to Love
4. The Other Side of the World
5. It’s Over Now
6. Never Too Much
7. Sugar and Spice
8. If Only For One Night
9. So Amazing
10. Power of Love/Love Power
11. I’ll Let You Slide
12. Any Love
13. The Night I Fell in Love
14. Searching
15. A House is Not a Home
16. I’ve Been Working
17. She Loves Me Back
18. Dance with My Father
19. The Rush
20. The Best Things in Life Are Free

Don’t hold back — just have a good time: Janet Jackson

Janet-Jackson-now-a-billionaire

Deflating expectations with modesty, “No Sleeep” is a perfect first single, the first Janet Jackson single since 2006 to bear the co-writing/co-production credit Janet Jackson-Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis and no one else. This partnership, thirty years old now, has weathered New Jack, Dre, wardrobe malfunctions, and the death of brother Michael. I can’t trace the moment when Jackson started asserting herself — “Control” off her 1986 breakthrough answers the question. But sometime in 1993 the specificity of her lusts felt all hers, leading Jam and Lewis to respond with the hardest, most operatic music of their careers. “The balance of power had clearly shifted, but this was no bitter emancipation,” Josh Love wrote in an examination of the Jackson-Jam-Lewis axix published as part of Stylus Magazine’s induction of the producers into our hall of fame (others: Electric Light Orchestra and Kate Bush). And “No Sleeep” has succeeded beyond its modest hopes: despite a flatfooted J.Cole rap appended for the kids, the single is a mainstay of adult R&B.

The Slant Magazine staff, boasting a Janet expert as devoted as Eric Henderson, compiled their twenty-five best songs. Lots of overlap between their list and mine, despite my including more tracks from The Velvet Rope, an album I hope my readers stream or buy soon. As minimal as Missy Elliott’s contemporaneous Supa Dupa Fly, The Velvet Rope compresses Jackson’s voice to its smallest expressive unit; it’s the quietest horny voice in nineties R&B. Which makes the sadomasochistic and bisexual fantasies less lurid: if she isn’t getting off on convincing us they’re outrageous, neither should we. That’s the point. Her commitment to staying within the demands of her scenarios, indivisible from her limitations as a singer, gives bone and sinew to those fantasies. Janet Jackson is us. It’s like she’s saying, Of course you have special needs, it’s okay.

I’m less moved by subsequent appearances. Don’t knock the list’s brevity; by this point her catalog boasts enough surprises, from guest appearances on tracks by Herb Alpert to an insouciant, sun-kissed collaboration with Luther Vandross, Jackson’s commitment to the pleasure principle has proven infectious.

1. Control
2. The Pleasure Principle (Long Vocal Remix)
3. Go Deep
4. Escapade
5. Love Will Never Do (Without You)
6. If
7. This Time
8. When I Think of You
9. Alright
10. The Velvet Rope
11. Because of Love
12. Someday Is Tonight
13. What About
14. Diamonds (w/Herb Alpert)
15. You
16. Doesn’t Really Matter
17. You Want This
18. Rhythm Nation
19. Got Till It’s Gone
20 The Best Things In Life Are Free (w/Luther Vandross)
21. Rope Burn
22. Feedback
24. Anytime, Anyplace
25. Throb
26. The Great Forever
27. All For You
28. No Sleeep
29. That’s the Way Love Goes
30. The Velvet Rope

Air can hurt you too: Talking Heads 1980

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Vinyl copies were available, but spottings were rare, like female cardinals in South Florida. I saw one in the late nineties; I bought a Japan album instead or some shit. So when Rhino issued The Name of This Band is Talking Heads twelve years ago I got as excited as David Byrne on stage. What good timing too: 2004 marked the peak of the Heads’ new influence on dance-oriented rock issued by DFA Records. Traces even appeared in the work of Interpol and Fischerspooner and other casualties of the first Bush term. About time too. Along with Bowie and Ferry, Talking Heads suffered from that excess of influence. I read this Chris Frantz interview done at the time of the Stop Making Sense anniversary and shared his wistfulness (“”We were almost overrated during our day, but we’re almost too much forgotten now”).

In one of my first reviews for Stylus, I revisited that two-disc wonder. It still sounds terrific.

—————

Talking Heads
The Name of This Band is Talking Heads
8-27-2004

The name of its leader is David Byrne. Until 1987, when U2 and R.E.M.’s declamatory arena moves flexed the populist muscle Byrne could never manage, his band Talking Heads was the biggest alternative band in the world—back when “alternative” signified a hell of a lot more beyond gormless marketing. Two double platinum albums, not a single year in which the band didn’t place an album in year-end polls and a Time magazine cover story—all for a band whose evolution from buttoned-up preppies to gonna-see-you-sweat synthesists of Afrobeat rhythms and art-school detachment should have confounded any commercial aspirations.

It was Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense that cemented Talking Heads’ mainstream acceptance. Unfortunately, the soundtrack, which remains the band’s biggest selling album, is a bit redundant, whether in its original configuration or in 1999’s expanded edition. The music was inseparable from Demme’s sustained flowing takes, as much dependent on how textures and images interweave as the Heads’ Remain in Light in 1980. The soundtrack fails because Byrne’s gonzo athleticism, otherworldly mugging, his sheer weirdness, is missing.

The 1982 The Name of This Band is Talking Heads was always the better live document; too bad not many people heard it. Out of print for at least 20 years (if you were lucky you’d find it in a good used-vinyl store), Rhino Records has reissued it with 12 previously unreleased tracks, a booklet of photos and a collection of press clippings (all of which prove how a band’s originality can make decent writers struggle for colorful adjectives). But this is no cynical cash-in; every new track adds gestalt to an album which in its original incarnation was pretty damn great to begin with. Versions of “Born Under Punches” and “Drugs” in particular disembowel the originals.

On its 1980-1981 tour, Talking Heads expanded its original quartet (singer/guitarist Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz, bassist Tina Weymouth, keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison) to include keyboardist Bernie Worrel (of Parliament fame), guitarist Adrian Belew, backup singers Nona Hendryx and Dolette McDonald, second bassist (!) Busta Jones, and percussionist Steve Scales. The result was glorious—as bustling, loud, funky and unhinged as Manhattan itself. Byrne especially was a revelation: the original Boy with Perpetual Nervousness reincarnated as Iggy Pop; he gave hope to every white guy who dreamed of being dorky and sinuous at the same time.

The Name of This Band…
is gratifyingly looser than the Stop Making Sense soundtrack. You’ll hear this lithe10-piece trying to assimilate the polyrhythms the band and producer (and by now co-composer) Brian Eno constructed so painstakingly on Remain in Light, and it’s a little touching to discover that the parts don’t always mesh (that’s the chance you take when you construct polyrhythms with Brian Eno). Byrne’s pig grunts on “Animals” and elongated vowels on “Mind” are either appropriate or mannered or both, depending on your mood; Belew’s borrowed Robert Frippisms matches him, screech for screech.

The album also vindicates Tina Weymouth, a notorious troublemaker whose run-ins with her neurotic leader have soured her contributions to this day. Two bassists in a band are like six wheels on a car: not only unnecessary, but dangerous. But Weymouth’s steady bottom on the early uptight classics “The Book I Read” and “Pulled Up” encouraged her to experiment with the looser dynamics of “I Zimbra” and “Born Under Punches.” The same goes for underrated utility man Jerry Harrison, whose lead work on “Found A Job” serves as effective counterpoint for Byrne’s chaka-chaka attack, while his synth fills on “Stay Hungry” are as eerie as intended.

Radiohead and Wilco get undeserved credit these days for “stretching the boundaries”, whatever that means. Talking Heads may have been just as pretentious, but for Byrne and his mates their nerd-pop origin wasn’t a boundary; it was a starting point, a Year Zero, from which the next 12 years were a refinement, a man shedding clothing styles until he’s comfortable. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads reminds us that there’s no shame in being white so long as you’re willing to embrace it.

Memory wastes: Grant McLennan

Ten years ago tomorrow, a couple of Saturday night plans got canceled, so I turned, “as I usually do,” to quote the late Prince, to my computer. Post punk’s greatest melodist had died during the nap he took before his first housewarming party. What stung most about Grant McLennan’s death was the quashed hope: months earlier the Go-Betweens had released one of their very best albums. Middle age looked as promising as freshly transplanted begonias. I chose the simile because McLennan’s songs had the pungency of wild flowers and the strength of old bark. His partner Robert Forster, I suspect, has never quite recovered; when I interviewed Forster a month before his friend’s death, he spoke of albums waiting to be recorded, songs to finish. The Evangelist was the fruit two years later, although not the way he would have liked.

Below is the obit I wrote for Stylus.

—————–

Didn’t Know a Heart Could Be Tied Up and Held for Ransom
5-09-2006

Grant McLennan was never going to be a star. Look at him. For most of the last five years of his life he’d gained enough weight to resemble a ceramic Buddha; he was even bald like one. While his songs weren’t flabby, the ones he chose to include on the first two records he and Robert Forster released upon reactivating the Go-Betweens suggested that he had either entered a sort of Zen state in which craft dazzled in a way that art couldn’t anymore or had grown lazy (Forster’s songs, on the other hand, had become quiet miracles of illumined offhandedness). His voice had lost inflection. His guitar was content to strum instead of pick. I’d like to think he was in a relationship before he died—a remarkable woman, worthy of his intelligence, at his deathbed; something to explain how the restlessness of “A Bad Debt Follows You” and “Someone Else’s Wife” dissolved into the easy prettiness of “Going Blind” and “Poison in the Well.”

Then he and Forster recorded 2005’s Oceans Apart. With producer Mark Wallis and bandmates Adele Pickvance and Glenn Thompson being obtrusive in the best possible way, McLennan’s songs shook off their verse-chorus-verse fustiness. Wallis’ rococo embellishments tease open, bit by bit, the petals of “No Reason to Cry,” as it approaches its triumphant coda. He played solos again—listen to the searching, soaring lead on “The Statue.” He lost weight and, in the concert pictures I’ve seen, looked fit and content (then again, to expect McLennan to look saturnine is like asking Mick Jagger to look bucolic by posing with a garden hoe).

For the uninitiated, he was simply the most gifted melodist to emerge from the generation influenced by the punk ethos. This means: better than Pete Shelley, Roddy Frame, Morrissey-Marr, Bob Mould-Grant Hart. History will bear this out. McLennan, in Robert Christgau’s succinct words, was “the hooky Go-Between.” Melodies poured out of him. A natural, like the other “Mac”—the famous one who was awakened by a snatch of tune and the phrase “scrambled eggs.” But because he was unusually intelligent for a rock guy he was as incapable of la-la-la banality for its own sake as the other Mac was powerless to resist it. It wasn’t that McLennan was incapable of irony; in the warm light of his truthful-not-mimetic rendering of reality it was simply irrelevant. Forster’s oft-repeated ambition upon forming the Go-Betweens—to merge Tom Verlaine and The Monkeys—culminated in 1983’s “Cattle & Cane,” McLennan’s quiet exercise in Queensland nostalgia, anchored by his Peter Hook-worthy bass line and scalpel-sharp verses (“His father’s watch, he left it in the showers”). Childhood, the song suggests, remains a zone of indeterminacy, a heap of broken images assembled in confusion.

It’s because of “Cattle & Cane”—not just that it exists, but what it says about how we use our past—that I worry most about Robert Forster. I know little about their relationship, but if the songs can be trusted (why not?) theirs is the kind of intimacy for which even the word “love” is inadequate. It speaks volumes about their friendship that it survived the rancor of the Go-Betweens’ first implosion in 1989 (a Rumours-worthy scenario: Forster broke up with drummer Lindy Morrison while McLennan was falling in love with violinist Amanda Brown). But the women were mere muses. The best Go-Betweens songs are missives written by and sung to men whose gradual acceptance of life as a beautiful, sad, and absurd thing was prompted by midnight discussions in the touring van, fueled by Keats and beer, on the perfidy of women. Don’t think Forster was unaware of his debt to McLennan. Shunning the rather forced dolorousness of his early material Forster embraced his partner’s melodic generosity so that later albums like Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane hurt the ears in the best sense, triumphant testaments to what three-minute pop songs can say about the elusiveness of comfort and joy. Listen to Forster’s “Dive for Your Memory” and you’ll hear the affirmation “Cattle & Cane” won’t yield. You couldn’t tell Robert and Grant apart, lying in the unmade bed of their songcraft, arms and legs entwined.

I keep forgetting that Grant’s dead. My first thought upon hearing the news was a variant on that famous Billy Wilder line, about Ernst Lubitsch’s death: “Agh, no more Ernst Lubitsch pictures.” No more Grant McLennan songs. Hearing “Bachelor Kisses” on my Discman on a late afternoon stroll around Columbus Circle in 2000; a would-be lover driving away as the exultant chorus of “Bye Bye Pride” chased him; a chilly South Florida night, warmed by the thunderous “Lighting Fires…”

Memory wastes.

‘Like the lion of Judah, I’ll strike my enemies down’

I was supposed to review Art Official Age for a publication but the request got pulled; it would’ve been the first new Prince album in whose honor I wrote a few hundred words since Planet Earth in 2007 (I still don’t mind “Breakfast Can Wait.” Oh well). Below is that review, published in Stylus and which I reprint as part of my reclamation project before its archives vanish into the ether. Another three-star Prince album, although to my ears it didn’t halt the commercial momentum he’d built since 2004’s Musicology; it was a lesser record released as traditional sales began their erosion. The concluding trio is expert; “Chelsea Rodgers” is his best jam of the year this millennium. Don’t discount “Lion of Judah” though.

————
Prince
Planet Earth
7-23-2007

ver the shape-shifter, Prince Rogers Nelson makes his most outrageous move yet. Lots of fans grumble about the lengths to which the artist formerly known as the Artist will go to ensure listenability. No doubt about it: distributing an album with The Mail is a masterstroke.

A shame, then, we’re not discussing another Parade or, hell, The Gold Experience, but lately Prince puts his talent into recording albums and his genius into marketing them. In 2004, for example, he included Musicology with the price of a concert ticket and forced the RIAA to like it. Although he’s released plenty of indifferent albums since 1988’s Lovesexy, this is the second time he’s pulled a Steel Wheels: recording an album as an excuse to tour (like Steel Wheels‘ “Mixed Emotions,” the mildly compelling nostalgia of Musicology‘s title track, the first single, embraced dubious notions of musical solidarity). 3121 was a little better: he was studying the Billboard top ten (“Black Sweat”) as much as he was copying himself (the title track). Planet Earth marks a slight improvement on that one, which is progress of a sort, but incremental advances like this almost guarantee that the marketing hoo-hah will get more attention anyway.

However, since this is Prince and not another middle-aged white songwriter/guitarist he’ll force us to listen to Planet Earth for three tracks so ebullient that you understand why he records albums as excuses to tour. “Chelsea Rodgers” might be the best use of a brass section in the Prince songbook since “Housequake,” and the most compelling evidence that witnessing for Jehovah hasn’t stunted his imagination; mitigating this story of a reformed libertine with a piano part swiped from Sylvester’s “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real” is the kind of perversity we used to take for granted from him. He doesn’t sound crabby; he’s reminding himself that even God-fearing wretches like him need parables to explain himself to the rest of us; that Sylvester could hear gospel in disco. The irresistible bitchery of his guitar work on “Lion of Judah” redeems the Bible-adducing triumphalism of its chorus. Finally, the good will Prince has accumulated doesn’t clarify the lyrical equivocations of “Resolution” (the musical ones though—like the concluding synth swoop—are a delight), but if you want anti-war slogans go listen to Neil Young.

If smugness erodes the empathy he extends to the putative love objects that populate Planet Earth‘s fair-to-good ballads, his skill compensates. Thanks to Jesus and a lifetime of teetotaling, his voice remains impossibly supple, and as elastic as he thinks his dick is. So is, of all things, humor. Unlike R. Kelly, Ne-Yo can tell the difference between smarm and charm—to be fair, it’s Kells’ confusion that makes him intermittently excellent—but he couldn’t put over pillow-talk piffle like “Future Baby Mama” like Prince can (not enough to convince you that it won’t join “Call My Name” and “Beautiful, Loved, Blessed” in second-single limbo, mind).

Speaking of smarm-vs-charm, “I love you, babe, but not like I love my guitar” is the asshole come-on he’s been trying to write since Controversy, and more devastating for being apt. Just don’t remind the little guy of his lifetime of broken promises. Listening to “Guitar” brings to mind the seven-minute entreaty in which he let his axemanship show what his heart couldn’t, even when this entreaty was called, simply, “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man.” That song was a lifeline, while “Guitar” comforts itself with being a manifesto. Manifestos can incite passions, but the chance always exists that you’re speaking in an empty room.

Planet Earth
may, like 3121, top the charts. Credit those amazing live shows and what he signifies in pop culture; everybody likes the idea of Prince. Not exactly encouraging for an artist this fecund, who hasn’t shaken off the millstones of his past achievements as thoroughly as he thinks. It may be enough that Prince transforms what’s already a strong case for his own solipsism into a moral imperative.

Bryan Ferry, afraid of his shadow

Bryan Ferry is a marvel. After releasing this farrago, the minor pleasures of Olympia and Avonmore were like a glass of cold Pellegrino after a day of beer drinking. From the cheapo cover to the indifferent song selection Dylanesque is the dullest album with his name on it.

————————
Bryan Ferry
Olympia
July 3, 2007

Why the God of Love yielded to an irresistible urge to cover more songs by the God of Song is less a mystery than an inevitability. Bryan Ferry may dress better than Bob Dylan, and probably plays better piano too, but like his idol he understands the paradoxical demands of a great cover: subsume your personality yet don’t ever let your audience forget who’s singing. Re-listen to Ferry’s 1973 version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Although Ferry transforms the original’s plodding accumulation of nightmarish images into what Robert Christgau called “high camp” that nevertheless “reaffirms its essential power,” there’s also a sense in which the impending doom Dylan evokes seems more terrifying when barked by a singer who sounds like a masculinized drag queen alternately charmed and nonplussed by the sound effects and girl backup vocals. The ironies are telling: it’s a hard rain, alright, if a singer this grotesque can get away with this farrago.

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is the greatest cover in rock history, as scary and wondrous now as it ever was. No one expects Ferry to wrinkle his pants any more—no one expects an exertion of any sort—but we do demand, even through the velour, flashes of vulgar wit, of the kind he showed on 2002’s cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” How sad then that Dylanesque resigns itself to being merely a better-sung, better-played Bete Noire, an album committed to irrelevance and Ferry’s sui generis conflation of pedigree and competence. To be fair, you try wringing something worthwhile out of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in 2007. He does better with a glacial “Gates of Eden,” on which his talent for languor infuses every line with a sinister preemptoriness; for once the space between Ferry and his boring band is committed, not unintentional. They also alchemize the vitriol of “Positively Fourth Street” into something approaching pique—the only emotion Ferry understands in 2007. You suspect that Ferry insults the hapless target of Dylan’s barbs because she had the misfortune to attack his fashion sense (one glance at the album cover and you’ll think she had a point), so one wonders why his version doesn’t go far enough.

Ferry’s in an enviable position. Tiptoeing daintily past one contemporary trend after another, extending polite hauteur to his followers, he’s free of any ties. No other artist from his generation can rally his powers for some kind of autumnal triumph. It’s clear that the contemporary pop landscape frightens him; that’s why returning to Dylan provides a little succor. That Dylanesque finds him unfit to a task his own idol—as equally repulsed by Modern Times—succeeded in transcending makes me worry about his future.