Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Cars: The Cars

Review # 68
Artist: The Cars
Title: The Cars
Format: LP
Label: Elektra/Asylum Records
Year: 1978
Songs: 9

Many people say that the Cars were basically a cleaned-up, commercial version of early punk, made marketable by stripping away most controversial elements of the form and divorcing it more or less entirely from the subculture. I think that's pretty much correct, but I like the Cars anyway. Even though the Cars were basically selling a safe version of much more interesting music happening at that time, it's impossible to deny that they knew how to write great pop songs, and on no record is that so wonderfully clear than on their self-titled debut LP. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it is really the only Cars album you need.

Side A features three perfect pop gems that are, not coincidentally, three of the band's best known tracks: "Good Times Roll," "My Best Friend's Girl," and "Just What I Needed." I have stories about two of these three. Back when I used to work retail, I worked with a guy who'd been playing rock music for a long time and had toured as an opening act for the Cars way back in the day.  He claimed to have written "My Best Friend's Girl." Not the lyrics, but the music, he claimed, was taken from a song by the band he was playing with at the time. They were never, he said, given credit for writing the song nor payed for their tune. While his story sounded feasible, I'll never know if it was true or not. I can say that even 20 odd years later, he was still bitter about it. I guess if a famous band stole my song and I never made it, I'd be upset too.

"Just What I Needed" is my favorite track from the record, and indeed, my favorite Cars song. This song will forever conjure for me memories of the Hi*Score Arcade on Capitol Hill in Seattle. The Hi*Score was one of my favorite places to hang out between 1998 or so and the night they closed, which I think must have been 2001. It was a video and pinball game arcade that also sold 80s nostalgia items and often had all-ages punk rock shows in an era when those were very hard to come by in Seattle. There was a also a pretty good collection of zines there, and the owners didn't mind if you just came in and sat on the couch and read them. It was a real community space for the punk and DIY music scenes in Seattle for several years. The newspaper I helped found had its first meeting there, and I saw countless shows and spent hours playing pinball over the years that it was open.  And, for whatever reason, "Just What I Needed" always seemed to be playing on the jukebox when I walked in. I came to associate that song with the Hi*Score arcade. I went there the last night they were open, for the farewell party, and for once, it wasn't playing. After playing some games and chatting with the owner for a bit, I put "Just What I Needed" on the jukebox. It was the last quarter I spent at the Hi*Score, and I still feel wistful when I think about it.

So those are my stories.  The rest of the songs are also good. Side one concludes with "I'm in Touch With Your World" and "Don't Cha Stop," both of which are Devo-esque and the later of which has a driving beat and a lead guitar part that I love. Side two has another of their pop hits "Your All I've Got Tonight" and the eerie and synthesizer heavy "Moving in Stereo," which always conjures images for me of driving at night in the city. The only thing I don't like about this record is that it has a pretty weak finish. "All Mixed Up" is the only song on this record that sounds like boring '70s rock. It lacks the herky-jerky feel of many of the other songs on the record and the harmonies just come off a little too smooth and produced. Plus, it's the slowest song on the record. Poor choice for a closing number.

Aside from that though, it really covers just about every Cars song you could want, except I suppose "Let's Go" and "Drive," the latter of which I've never actually cared for, but I guess was a big hit. You can find this album at thrift stores (I did) and you should pick it up if you don't already own it.

Here's "Just What I Needed." If you can remember the Hi*Score, put this on and raise a glass.

Total songs listened: 836

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Charlie Byrd: Byrdland

Review # 67
Atist: Charlie Byrd
Title: Byrdland
Format: LP
Label: Columbia
Year: 1966
Songs: 11

Almost a year into the 30,000 Songs project, Charlie Byrd's Byrdland marks the final LP by an artist who's name begins with the letter "B."

This was a record I got from my dad and which I had never listened to prior to putting it on for review. While my copy has seen better days, I'm actually quite pleased to have this in my collection. This record is quintessential 1960s cocktail party music, without being bland or generic.

Byrd plays bossa nova influenced jazz on a classical guitar, backed by a a bass, piano, and drums. Some sparse horn work appears on some tracks, but never does it eclipse Byrd's excellent guitar playing. While I might not go so far as to use the word "virtuoso" to describe Charlie Byrd, he gets pretty close at times. His performances on this record are always precise and often innovative.

Interestingly, the music on this record manages to be a clear product of the era in which it was recorded, while also sounding fresh and interesting. It is clear that Byrd did not limit his musical intake to artists playing in the same genre as himself. Some of the songs that stand out most on this record have melodies that might be familiar to fans of other other genres of music.  One standout track is Byrd's rendition of the Beatles' "Girl" from the album Rubber Soul, which would have been released earlier the same year as Byrdland. Another interesting track is "Work Song." Drawn from the folk tradition, this is in fact an interpretation of a Mississippi cotton field song, which Simon & Garfunkel fans will note shares a melody with their "We've Got a Groovy Thing Goin,'" a song appearing on their Sounds of Silence album the same year that Byrdland was released. Sinatra fans, meanwhile, may be struck by the melody of "Manha de Carnaval," a famous bossa nova tune from the 1950s which is the basis of Frank's "A Day in the Life of a Fool." Sinatra's rendition appeared on his famous My Way album a couple of years after the release of Byrdland. Byrd makes all these songs his own, and while instrumental versions of this era often fall off the edge of the cliff between real jazz and elevator music, Charlie Byrd doesn't even approach it.

Byrdland, then, is clearly a record of it's time, drawing on a range of musical influences that were ascendant in the mid 1960s, yet does so without being derivative. Pick up a copy of this if you can, and have some friends over for martinis. You won't find many better records to listen to while you sip on a cocktail.

Here's Byrd's rendition of "Girl."
Total songs listened: 827

Monday, May 7, 2012

Charles W. Burpo: A Minister Speaks for God and Country

Review # 66
Artist: Charles W. Burpo
Title: A Minister Speaks for God and Country
Format: LP
Label: The Bible Institute of the Air
Year: Unknown
Tracks: 2

Welcome to the penultimate "B" LP review. Consistent readers may note that, once again there has been a long time between posts. There are two reasons for this. The first is that I got bedbugs, and dealing with that took up way too much of my time. The second reason though, is that I haven't been too excited about listening to this record, so I kept putting it off.

I actually bought this record. I bought it, though, to use for samples on the ill-fated second full-length by an old punk band I used to be in. Had the band survived (and released an LP), it would have been reviewed three or four records ago on this very blog. The samples would have appeared before or during a song called "Blind Faith" that denounced dogmatic adherence to religion and the ways that it is used to justify an array of harmful policies. But instead, the album was never recorded and I was left with this piece of crap LP.

Charles Burpo, who describes himself on the back cover of this record as "fiercely against Modernism, Communism, or any evil that will threaten my Country," was (is?) as the title suggests, a minister, and this record encapsulates a sermon and his reading of the Declaration of Independence, both backed with patriotic music.

I don't have overly much to say about this LP--I'll skip over the Declaration of Independence side of the record, because it really is just him reading it dramatically. The other side, a sermon entitled "The Old Moorings," is a scree that mixes Christian fundamentalism and paranoid far-right ideology as it bemoans the supposed moral collapse of America. There's anarchy in streets, people are mocking Christianity and turning away from the true American values that generations of American veterans fought for, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.  It's much of the same nonsense you'd hear today if you tuned in TBN or any number of AM radio stations around the country. The only thing interesting about it really is the fact that, although this record must be at least 35 years old (hard to say exactly, couldn't find any information about it on the Internet), the words on this record could be spoken today by any number of television or radio ministers and would not sound any more dated than anything else those folks say. The notion that the real America is about to be destroyed by Secularists, Socialists, and Bears (oh my!) hasn't changed much in 60 years.

The sad thing is, if someone listens to this record 35 years from now, they'll probably say the same thing.

Total songs listened: 816