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Best Southern rock songs

I’m not a huge Southern rock fan, perhaps because I actually grew up there. I’ll be happy if I never hear That Smell again, and I’m still wondering why .38 Special felt it needed two drummers.

But the genre has given us some great music, from Allman Brothers jams to songs belted out by a guy who tips the scale at about 250 pounds, 300 if you include the hair and the belt buckle.

Some of the highlights:

Flirtin’ With Disaster, Molly Hatchet: The great underrated Southern rock epic, with the rhythm guitar laying down a heavy groove that backs away to let the drums take over between verses. Can’t beat the vocal, a snarled tribute to pointless risk-taking complete with an impeccably timed whistle smack in the middle of the guitar solo.

Fire on the Mountain, Marshall Tucker Band: Southerners are supposed to be great storytellers. I’m not, which is why I envy this well-spun tale in which the chase of gold turns out to be a fools’ pursuit. The slide guitar is evocative rather than irritating, and the understated vocal burns with the injustice of it all.

I’m Keeping Your Poop, Hayseed Dixie: I’ve listened a bit to XM’s bluegrass channel, and I can’t quite get into it. It’s generally fun music until someone opens his mouth and starts singing. Too many bluegrass song titles are just permutations of the following words: hills, moon, Kentucky, grass, Mississippi, mountain, green, blue, Tennessee. And then there are the gospel songs with names like I’m Using My Bible As a Roadmap. (Seriously. And check out the freakish cover to Satan is Real, which poses all sorts of theological problems.) It’s like going to a jazz club to hear Branford Marsalis, only to have him put down the sax and start ranting about an oversimplification of Buddhism or the sidewalk in his old neighborhood.

Fortunately, Hayseed Dixie realized and rectified the problem. For a good time with a bunch of guitars, banjos and fiddles, just sing a bunch of AC/DC, Kiss, Spinal Tap and J. Geils Band covers, then make sure one of only two originals in your first three albums includes the word “poop” in the title. They sing with all the sincerity of every other bluegrass artist you’ve heard, a deadpan performance worthy of the original Airplane cast.

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Mediocre bands, great songs

Here’s a list I’ll come back to at some point. Just wanted to get it started …

More Human Than Human, White Zombie: Not only is this the only decent song that will fall out of Rob Zombie’s addled mind, but the studio version is the only decent version you’ll ever hear. I saw them attempt to play this on one of those MTV award shows and they … were … horrible. You could pick four random guys off the street, spend an hour teaching them basics of how to play their instruments, and they’d sound roughly the same. If they had any sense of rhythm (or were sober), they might sound better.

But it’s a great song, isn’t it?

Mirror in the Bathroom, English Beat: It’s not really fair to call the English Beat a “mediocre” band, and they have other worthwhile songs — Stand Down Margaret is a nice bit of righteous anger to a danceable beat, and we all love Save It for Later. But did they ever do anything quite like this? The compelling minor-key riff fits into a backdrop much tighter than the usual laid-back ska settings that drag down some of their other efforts, and the driving beat fits perfectly with the lyrics’ tone of paranoia and alienation.

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Pigs fly, the Cubs win the Series, etc.

Which is more surprising — Keith Olbermann doing a new show for ESPN or Pink Floyd reuniting for Live 8?

I suppose I’d go with Olbermann because it’s a long-term deal and because a broadcaster-network relationship isn’t unique. ESPN could sign other guys and Olbermann could sign with other networks, so there’s less reason to get back together. Pink Floyd always faced questions of whether David Gilmour and Roger Waters would ever speak to each other again — not true for Olbermann and ESPN.

Still, the thought of seeing two guys on stage after couple of decades trashing each other is pretty strange. Wonder how they’ll pick a set list?

If I were Waters, I’d walk into rehearsal and say, “OK, gentlemen, let’s play five songs from The Final Cut. No matter that you guys barely played on it — it WAS the last album we did together, after all.” Then I’d pause, then I’d break out laughing and say I was kidding. That’d break the ice. Just don’t make that pause too long.

The blogosphere would have something to say about it if any non-political bloggers in the world were over 25. I wonder how many kids are thinking, “I like Pink, but who’s this Floyd guy?”

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Great bass lines

If you’ve heard Kasabian’s Club Foot more than once, you’ve probably got it stuck in your head. I actually hear it a lot, thanks to the memory function on my XM receiver. I can drive around listening to whatever, and then comes the “beep.” The display:

Song Found
Club Foot

I click, and then I’m back on UPop again listening to the great bass line, later echoed by the vocals in the chorus.

All together now: Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh bwow bwuh-bwuh bwow bwuh-bwow duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh bwow bwuh-bwuh bwow bwuh-bwow

(Hmmm … that’s not a very good representation. Now I know why podcasting is catching on.)

Anyway, it got me thinking about great bass lines.

In my younger days, I actually was a decent bass player. I sometimes had to carry a string bass on a campus bus, which usually meant people would demand to hear something. The standbys were the crowd-pleasers: Stand By Me and Pink Floyd’s Money. If I was feeling adventurous, I might give The Police’s Demolition Man a run, but that wasn’t as instantly recognizable, even in those days (late ’80s-early ’90s).

A few other great bass lines:

Anything by Rush: Yes, I’m weaseling out of the prospect of picking just one Geddy Lee work.

Roundabout, Yes: But I will single out one Chris Squire line, though the bass showcase Does It Really Happen? from the transitional CD Drama is equally good. The difference in Roundabout is that his Squire’s active bass provides the glue between the gentle classical guitar and the flashy synthesizer fills.

(By the way, I did hear the acoustic shuffle-time version of Roundabout the other day. It’s actually not that bad, though it’s too much of a novelty for me to rush out and download it. It’s better than Big Country’s similar re-working of In a Big Country, which made me think Stuart Adamson had spent too much time in Nashville.)

Radio Free Europe, R.E.M.: I’m sure the guitar magazines could have polls for years and never mention anyone from R.E.M., and I can recall a bit of anti-R.E.M. sentiment from the guys who thought Peter Buck’s guitar work was a little too elementary. If they’d been paying attention, they would’ve noticed that what makes a lot of R.E.M. songs so listenable is that they sound a bit different in ways that are more subtle that your typical art-student crap bands. I’m not the first to notice that Mike Mills’ bass lines often took the role usually filled by the guitarist, giving the counterpoint to the vocals while the guitar chimed in accompaniment — I think I first read it in Musician, which noted that The Who operated along the same lines.

My City Was Gone, The Pretenders: Speaking of Big Country, this classic line was a contribution from Tony Butler, who was filling in for the Pretenders as they sorted out their personnel after losing half of the original lineup.

(If I had a time machine, one of my first destinations would be a late-80s Big Country show. I’ve heard a couple of clips, and they … sound … amazing.)

A Sort of Homecoming, U2: Simplicity isn’t such a bad thing. This Adam Clayton effort is straight out of the Mike Mills school of providing a melodic contrast to a chiming guitar line.

Shark, Throwing Muses: I can’t tell you how happy I am that Bernard Georges has his own Wikipedia entry. He was the perfect bassist for the years in which the Muses were a power trio.

Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver, Primus: In retrospect, it’s a good thing Les Claypool flunked his Metallica audition. This is the high point of Claypool’s skittering bass style, though Tommy the Cat has its moments.

That should be enough to get the conversation started.