Category Archives: Music — 2000s

The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 7: The King, Queen, and a Prince

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020.

Exploring just a few of my Spotify playlists in roughly alphabetical order.

As I add my little autobiographical notes, try not to get chronological whiplash as I wildly veer back and forth between modern-day, my college years, my middle school years, and pre-school…

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were the best American band of the last four decades. Fight me.

Notice I didn’t say “greatest.” They had no interest creating moments of “sweeping grandeur” or delivering Major Statements. I didn’t say “innovative,” either. Several bands can probably top them on that. No, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers simply settled for being the best, especially when you consider the length of their career. (Yes, best vs. greatest is a distinction I make in my own mind, but I think you know what I mean.)

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They were always getting left out of the conversation because they made it look too easy. Whenever there would be debates about “best bands,” and people would be throwing around their R.E.M.s and Radioheads, it would always be up to me to say, “What about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers?” There was always a short pause, then a lot of nodding and people murmuring “ohhh, yeah…” They were never #1 on anyone’s list, and often forgotten about…but no one could deny the goods they brought to the table, year in and year out.

Petty’s first two albums without the Heartbreakers — Full Moon Fever (1989) and Wildflowers (1994) also generated tons of favorites. In fact, the casual listener might be more familiar with Petty’s solo work than his Heartbreakers stuff. “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and several other radio staples all came from his solo work. Wildflowers is probably one of my top ten albums of all time (I haven’t ranked them in quite awhile), and Petty was working on an expanded, deluxe, remastered re-issue at the time of his death. (It finally came out on October 16th of this year.)

I’m convinced any doubters would be turned into Petty fans if they took the time to sit through Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream, perhaps the greatest (now I will say “greatest”) rock documentary ever if you have anything approaching an attention span. Behind his laidback demeanor and crooked grin, Petty ran the Heartbreaks like a benevolent dictator, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Always collaborative, always respectful…but undoubtedly always in charge. He had a steely resolve and a stubborn streak, but was one of the most principled and generous people in the rock & roll pantheon. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell was the “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers — underrated and overlooked, never getting his due as one of the best guitarists of the modern era. Keyboardist Benmont Tench was valued for his keen wit, his unerring taste, and reliable bullshit detector, not to mention his formidable, classically-trained musicianship. 

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To my (incredibly over-biased) ears, even their lowest moments never dipped too far below their high bar. Yes, the loose concept album The Last DJ (2002) didn’t really coalesce all that well, Mojo (2010) suffered from bloat, and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987) — the lowest of their not-that-low — sounded exhausted even in its title…but that’s about it. Three clunkers in forty years. I’ll take it. (OK, four clunkers — Petty’s third and final solo album, 2006’s Highway Companion, didn’t quite do it for me.)

Anyway, Tom Petty is really the founder of our little feast here. His death in October of 2017 spurred me to sign up to Spotify and begin laboring over my in-tribute playlist. He is one of the few artists to earn “100 song” status, and it’s still the playlist I’m proudest of — the perfect blend of major hits, deep album cuts, live tracks, obscurities, and side-project stuff. 

huge_avatarAs much as I hate the trite term, seeing Tom Petty in concert was on my “bucket list.” I somehow kept missing him. I’d seen the Stones (twice). I’d seen Dylan (twice). I’d seen the Who (still with Entwistle). I’d seen McCartney. Petty was the only empty spot on my trophy shelf. The closest I came was when the woman I was dating in 2006 got us tickets, but we broke up before the concert. She ended up going with her ex-husband. So it goes.

For his 40th Anniversary Tour, I was gifted tickets by my wife Shannon’s family as an early birthday present. Just in time, too. Petty had been hinting this would be the last time he toured on this scale. The show was going to be at Sacramento’s brand-new Golden 1 Center, and was scheduled for August 25, 2017 — then was cancelled at the literal last minute. My in-laws were already on their way up from the Bay Area to join us when we got the alert on our phone — “As Tom Petty heals from laryngitis and bronchitis, he has been advised to take additional days off before performing.” My in-laws had to settle for dinner and a movie.

The show was re-scheduled for September 1. The in-laws made the trek east into the Sacramento Valley once more. This time, they were plunged into a pit of hellfire. I was afraid the respiratory-challenged Petty would cancel again — the air was soupy and almost unbreathable. Raging wildfires are now a seasonal event here in California, and we had a lively one going up in Butte County not too far away. The temperature hovered around 100 as the sun set, visible as a fiercely-glowing coal on the western horizon through layers of gray ash. Several people milling around the exterior of the Golden 1 Arena were actually wearing masks — an unusual and almost comical sight…at the time.

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The Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA

Settling into my arena seat with a beer in hand, the conditions outside were forgotten. The opening act was a group of young Petty proteges from L.A., the Shelters. The sound was horrendous, but those kids were clearly having a blast being a rock & roll band, leaping around the stage and striking poses for the still-filling arena. 

Once they wrapped up and cleared the stage, it wasn’t more than a few minutes before the house lights dimmed. (That’s what I love about attending concerts with an audience that skews, shall we say, older. They always start on time, because everyone wants to be in bed by ten-thirty.) Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone came out to huge applause. He settled himself onto the drum stool, and gave his bass drum a few tentative kicks. I could feel the reverberation in my breastbone. Oh, this was going to be loud. The the rest of the Heartbreakers wandered onto the stage, putting down water bottles and picking up instruments. Then, in an instant, the house lights dropped altogether, the stage was awash in green and blue lights, and the Man Himself was before us — heavily bearded and in shades, blasting out the opening chords to “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from their 1976 debut album.

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Onstage at the Golden 1 — September 1, 2017

It was definitely a “greatest hits” type set, and fully half the songs were from his solo albums, a testament to their overall popularity. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” closed with an appropriately psychedelic extended freak-out, and Mojo’s “I Should Have Known It” pulsed with new life, re-interpreted as a Clapton-style blues guitar showcase for Mike Campbell. The sound was still a little muddy (basketball arenas are not concert halls), but the power and authority of the performance was towering. I emerged into the dark, smoky air deliriously happy, the encore “American Girl” still ringing in my ears. I looked forward to seeing Petty again someday in what he said would be his new concert incarnation — smaller, more intimate venues, stripped-down, Deep Cuts.

Petty played four more shows after Sacramento — the KAABOO Festival in Del Mar, then three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Then he died on October 2, 2017 from an overdose of pain medication. The night I saw him, he was likely in agony the whole time from a fractured hip, but soldiered on and played a great show. He kept quiet about the hip injury in order to finish the tour and keep his band and his road crew employed.

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(Pointless aside — according to my research, it is more stylistically correct to keep the article “the” before a band name lowercase unless it starts the sentence. It’s “the Beatles,” not “The Beatles,” despite what 9 out of 10 websites and even many professional writers go with. So I’ve been sticking to that rule. Unless the band name follows an ampersand. I don’t care what’s stylistically correct, “Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers” just looks wrong to my tiny mind. It’ll be “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” here.)

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 6: Radiohead Revisited (A Reassessment in Nine Movements)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

A patched-together overview of some of my Spotify artists’ playlists in roughly alphabetical order…

It was some time around the tail-end of the holidays, 1995. We (that is myself, WH, and our mutual friend Allen) were on one of our many record shopping excursions in Sacramento. Our route always began out in suburbia with Tower Records on Watt Avenue, then we worked our way into the city center by way of The Beat on J Street, and we usually ended up on K Street in the heart of downtown. Like many hearts of many downtowns, Sacramento’s K Street has faced the usual challenges of street crime and homelessness. It may have been at its lowest point on that cold, gray day as ‘95 changed over to ‘96. Someone in an army overcoat was loudly telling sinners to repent on the corner of 7th and K, and the scent of fortified wine and urine was in the air as we walked by huddled, sleeping figures, and slipped through the seedy doorway of 708 K Street. A former saloon, the address still boasted a flophouse hotel on its upper floors.

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The old K Street Records building as it appeared in 2011. It now has a new facade as part of the K Street renovation project.

But its ground floor was home to K Street Records, one of the most gloriously disorganized and haphazard retail establishments I have ever had the pleasure to peruse. Stacks of vinyl lined the walls with no rhyme or reason, and even the supposedly alphabetized bins of CDs were a crapshoot. To make up for it, a very friendly mottle-coated cat offered an almost deafening purr in exchange for an ear-scratch, which may have been the best deal in the place. Nick Cave was playing on the store’s sound system that day.

Even more stock was available down in the basement, but I don’t recall ever going down there. It may have been closed to the public entirely at that point. Local legend states the basement of K Street Records was haunted by the spirit of a lady (“Gertrude,” I’m told) in a Victorian dress who could be a tad hostile. The establishment is also semi-famous for being on the cover of DJ Shadow’s breakthrough sample-fest Endtroducing…, a photograph taken not long after this day’s visit. One has to assume a lot of the vintage vinyl that comprised the Davis native’s debut album came from K Street. 

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DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… album cover, 1996

We didn’t find anything at K Street Records, so we moved on down the block to another Tower Records. The K Street Tower Records was the venerable chain’s third Sacramento location (after the Watt Avenue and Broadway stores, both dating from the ‘60s), which opened in 1973. The entryway was decorated with a massive, funky, very ‘73 mural.

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Former entrance to the K Street Tower Records, c. 2011, where the Holy Bee was drafted into the Britpop Wars back in ’95. The foyer floor still believes it’s the 1950s and “Burt’s Shoes” is the proper occupant.

We weren’t there long before WH waved me over. “Come here.”

I did so.

“Hold out your hand.”

I did so.

He dropped two brand-new, shrink-wrapped CDs into my open palm.

“Buy these today. Thank me tomorrow.”

That’s how I came to buy Oasis’ 1994 debut Definitely Maybe and their new release (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. And WH was right. I had no regrets. Oasis rocketed to the top of My Favorite Bands list before Definitely Maybe was halfway over. (My other purchase from that day, Southern Culture on the Skids’ Dirt Track Date, ended up getting sold off within a few months.)

Oasis’ formula was simple: Build a song solely around its best parts — the big riff and the catchy chorus — and repeat them as loud as you can. It’s really not much different from AC/DC’s approach, but Oasis added just a splash of Beatles/Kinks melodicism. I derived immeasurable joy out of those first two Oasis albums. My white Dodge Colt (with the black left front fender) soon boasted an Oasis sticker in the back window. They were all I wanted to listen to in the first few months of ‘96 (well, them and Tom Waits, and the Pogues — see below — but I was never able to find a good Pogues sticker for the car).

[Sacramento’s K Street has been undergoing renovation and renewal for several years now, aided by the development of the adjacent Golden 1 Center basketball arena. The old K Street Records building now houses the stationary bike gym All City Riders. The Tower Records mural has been painstakingly restored, and the space is now occupied by Solomon’s Deli, named after Tower Records founder Russ Solomon. Unfortunately, the pandemic shut-down has hit K Street businesses pretty hard.]

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Tower Records K Street reborn as Solomon’s Delicatessen, 2018.

The “Britpop Wars” broke out around this time. It was Oasis (simple, working-class) versus Blur (nuanced, middle-class). It was the noisy pub versus the quiet university common room, and each band’s fanbase was very opinionated. Naturally, I was in the Oasis camp, and had many spirited debates at the local coffee shop with the snobbish and pretentious Blur crowd. In retrospect, Oasis and Blur weren’t really all that different. 

The true polar opposite to Oasis — musically, philosophically — is Radiohead. 

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Radiohead — more fun than a barrel of monkeys

I am dedicating the next portion of these Chronicles to a band that will probably not be getting a playlist. For a little over fifteen years now, I have declared Radiohead to be absolutely, without a doubt, the most overrated band in popular music history. But it’s been awhile since I voluntarily listened to them. Now it’s time to see if I need to eat my words. I have announced to certain members of the Idle Time collective, who never fail to quiver like jelly and sigh in ecstasy whenever Radiohead’s name is mentioned, that I would use some of my quarantine time this past summer to clear my mind of prejudices and preconceived notions, and listen to each and every album in the Radiohead catalog as if I’m hearing them for the first time (which, in the case of their last two albums, is literally true). 

Here we go.

Pablo Honey (1993) 

Radiohead.pablohoney.albumartRadiohead’s debut album is the one most likely to be dismissed as sub-par (especially by the band themselves). I thought it was pretty good, although the oppressive sulkiness of the lyrics precludes me from saying I “enjoyed” it. The production team of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade were chosen for their work with the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. and it shows. The quiet/loud/quiet dynamic of the Pixies (also used by Nirvana to great effect) and guitar crunch of Dinosaur Jr. are the dominant modes of Pablo Honey. The band were still clearly wearing their early influences on their sleeve. In addition to the aforementioned acts, there is a very healthy dose of early U2 all over the place, particularly in Thom Yorke’s Bono-channeling vocal gymnastics.

Ironically, as later releases would downplay the dominance of the six-stringed instrument, Pablo Honey may be one of the best “guitar albums” of the 1990s. Clear, ringing chords and arpeggios reminiscent of the Smiths or XTC are neatly interwoven with the fuzzed-out distortion of grunge — causing the album to be (unfairly, in my opinion) lumped in with the many other grunge knock-offs in the post-Nirvana world of 1992-93. (Remember, early Radiohead weren’t copying Nirvana, they were copying the bands Nirvana copied. There’s a difference.) What sets Pablo Honey apart from the more pedestrian knock-offs were the little sonic surprises that littered the first half, such as the stately piano that wanders into the last few seconds of “Creep,” the massive hit single that made the band instant stars and MTV darlings, and the song the band has worn like a millstone around their necks ever since.

Pablo Honey’s music itself is often quite sprightly, even though the lyrics wallow in alienation and self-pity, always warning the perpetrators of their torment that some kind of personal or spiritual retribution is coming. At times they sound like Material Issue’s depressed, vindictive British cousins. The album does suffer from second-half fatigue. (Certainly not the only album guilty of this — many artists and their production teams beginning in the CD era felt it was best to front-load albums with the strongest stuff to keep short attention spans from punching the skip button too early.) As the album winds down, it gives us a run of mid-tempo odes to self-loathing that blend into each other with little to distinguish them. The closer, “Blow Out,” has a nice, hushed urgency, and reminds me a little of Television. Overall verdict: A solid, but at times gloomy and derivative, debut with a great guitar sound that elevates it slightly above its post-grunge peers. 

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 1: The Institute of Idle Time (A Re-Introduction)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The “Spotify Chronicles” were/are cobbled together out of random music-based thoughts I shared with the Institute of Idle Time via instant messaging as I “worked” from home, or typed piecemeal into a constantly-open Google Doc late at night as I was drinking old-fashioneds and plugged into my earbuds listening to Spotify…so some of it is a little venomous (talking to my fellow Idle Timers brings out my feisty side) and a little more rambling than usual (imagine!), but keep in mind, chunks of the following are literally copied-and-pasted out of IM discussions…

And, for the first time in Holy Bee of Ephesus history, this piece has a co-author. My friend and Idle Time collaborator for almost twenty years, MMDG, will be weighing in with his recollections. (In our written shorthand, we always refer to each other to this day by initials, like some kind of music-nerd Cosa Nostra…I’ve changed my actual initials to “HBE” here for clarity purposes.)

If you were to dig back into this website’s early history, say 2007-2010, you’d find me mentioning the Institute of Idle Time quite a bit. Since they’ve made a bit of a resurgence in my day-to-day life (due to the sheltering-in-place), and are an important part of the chronicles to come, I thought I’d re-introduce them. 

Idle Time Logo invert-01I co-founded the Institute of Idle Time in early 2002 with two people — WH and MMDG — who were my co-workers at the time. (Actually, I’ve known WH since I was 20 — almost literally a kid.) It was a jokey name for what we did in our spare moments away from being rookie middle-school teachers, which was talk about music, argue passionately about music (we have very different tastes), and make ranked and themed lists of music. 

Once we abandoned our Pitchfork-style decimal-based rating system, the Idle Time ranking process became a drawn-out and brutal ritual of MMDG’s invention we call Rock & Roll Roulette. The basics are simple, but the nuances and subtleties amount to sustained psychological warfare. Depending on the number of albums or songs we’re working through, it can take days, weeks, or months. It can be done in person (where it is the most fun, especially over several beers) or online (thanks to shared spreadsheets and polling apps).

We used to compile songs into individual mixes (or entire series of mixes) to share with just each other via burned CD-Rs. Then we started collaborating on group mixes for public consumption, and gave away CDs of our lists to anyone who was interested (they made great stocking stuffers and wedding gifts). Beginning in 2003, the CDs got elaborate — glossy covers and extensive liner notes (“blurbs” in IT-speak). We truly became a collective at that point.

Let’s hear from MMDG:

“Adrift on the wide-open internet waters was a bounty of images, mp3s, and treasure-map signposts towards albums, singles, and recordings that we never knew existed. It was a grand time to be a pirate. HBE had his Your Music Sucks series, which seemed to specifically target my indifference towards bands like Son Volt and Supergrass. I adopted The Promise Ring’s “Make Me a Mixtape” as a battlecry for any number of mix-CDs. We mail-ordered labels and booklets in bulk.

It was WH’s What I Heard compilation that gave real direction to our operation. Following his lead, we shared our favorite albums with one another just prior to winter break in 2002. Initially, these discs included songs from 2000 and 2001. That was before the project took on radioactive parameters and, screeching with mathematical fury, threatened to destroy Tokyo to the hundredth decimal point.

idle-time-002We went from friends, happy to find common ground in something like 02’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (HBE: I actually didn’t like it all that much past the first two songs, I think I was still playing nice), to bitter rivals, arguing vehemently over whether or not 03’s Hail to the Thief belonged on a year-end celebration of the best music. (HBE: It didn’t.) We were doing one list, one compilation, and affixing one name to the glossy inkjet-printed booklet: The Institute of Idle Time’s Top 20 Records of the Year. I even had the audacity (or foresight) to stick a little ® on there, even though I shamelessly stole the Jack White artwork from someone on the internet.

The cute pseudonyms were born in the 2003 CD booklet too. I think subconsciously all this rampant piracy made us a little nervous. How were we to know that not even a decade later intellectual property rights would hardly mean a damn and the world wide web would turn into a playground of digital socialism? So we hid cleverly behind the impervious anonymity of our own actual initials, confident that this would foil any FBI plot to root out felonious file-sharers and make an example of them. We had our own paper-and-staple usernames way before any online avatars came into being.”

The Institute drifted out of workplace lunch breaks and into our social lives. IT06Membership expanded and became fluid — different members have come and gone over the years (including myself, as we’ll see), but it always seems to hover around ten. 

At a certain point, several years in, a healthy portion of the group was made up of a handful of former students from our first year or two of teaching (we were only decade and change older than them, and they were the frequent, sometimes puzzled, recipients of those early CD-Rs).

This was the Idle Time Junior Division…still thought of that way even though they’re all now in their thirties. For those keeping track, the three original members are referred to as the Elder Idlers. The Elder Idlers plus the longest-standing member of the Junior Division (known by the moniker RF, who joined as an enthusiastic mascot while still in high school) are known as the Core Four.

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The Core Four looking like sad pandas, posing in front of our favorite record store that went out of business in December 2006

What self-respecting music junkie of a certain age can resist a lavish CD box set? We designed a pretty elaborate one (limited-edition, of course) for our fifth anniversary in 2007. An unprecedented two discs of the collectively-chosen “best of 2007” (featuring Spoon, Arcade Fire, the Shins, LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes, Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, and many, many more), and including four more discs, each individually curated by a member of the Institute. (Mine sadly included a Velvet Revolver track, but I stand by everything else.)

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You don’t still have your copy?

The cover art of the box was intended to be a parody of the Hives’ The Black and White Album (see below), a timeless reference and sure never to date itself at all.

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Our version was a little off. We did what we could with the matching outfits. I normally keep my jowly double-chin covered with at least a goatee if not a full beard, but I took one for the team and shaved down to just a skeevy-looking mustache to replicate the cleft-chin glory of Hives bassist Dr. Matt Destruction.

I tried to capture his intense stare, looking straight ahead as fiercely as I could. Of course, I should have been staring straight at the camera lens…which was slightly to my right. Oh, well.

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I had to walk around looking like that for two weeks until my goatee grew back.

We self-published a few zines, and our magnum opus — a big, glossy book called Decades: A Tribute to Our 400 Favorite Albums of the Last 50 Years, which gave rise to the Roulette process. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Retires…Sort Of (The Top 20 Albums of 2012)

Timeliness has always been a watchword here at Holy Bee World HQ, so it may seem odd to post my Top 20 Albums of 2012 in March of 2013. Ordinarily an eagerly-anticipated feature of January, there has been a bit of a drift around here, and I have to ‘fess up to what’s causing it.

Looking back on 2012, I see that the most acclaimed albums are from the likes of the xx, Swans, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, Shonen Knife, Flying Lotus, Cloud Nothings, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Bat For Lashes, Chromatics, Beach House, Purity Ring…

…and I’ve decided they can all go die in a fire. To my ears, they all kinda sound like shit, and wash by in a clatter of forced artiness, or smug haziness, or often, downright tunelessness. Sometimes all three. I blame Radiohead. Fuck those guys and what they’ve wrought. Someone needs to tell that emperor he’s buck naked.

I kind of hate them.

I kind of hate them.

Yes, I’ve always been a proud classicist and defender of old-school dinosaur rock, but I felt I balanced that with an eagerness to explore other areas and a respect for those breaking new ground. But now, I can no longer pretend to be interested the newest and different-est. In fact, I may have been faking it for quite some time, because time spent trying to like the Mountain Goats was less time I got to spend listening to Led Zeppelin.

I realize that this is on me. I own this, it’s my failing. If you like the kind of music listed up there, I’m not judging your taste, I’m judging mine. You don’t have to write me to say “you couldn’t be more wrong about the xx.” I know I’m wrong. But my ears are now dead  to the sound of what is still frequently called “indie” music. Which is sad, because ever since I (and a lot of people my age) lost touch with the “mainstream” well over a decade ago, “indie” (which has, admittedly, lost any true meaning as a descriptor, but it’s handy) was the discerning music-lover’s haven. And now that has passed me by, too. It all leaves me cold. I guess there’s something to be said for the mainstream trending back toward roots music, but I can’t stomach Mumford & Sons either, so where does that leave me?

It leaves me as someone who no longer considers music a central facet of his existence, which is a difficult truth for me to face. I used to go hungry to be able to buy a CD. I’d have some sleepless Monday nights waiting to get Tuesday’s new releases. I have written more on music than any other subject, and had more conversations about it with more people than any other subject. But the flame has gone out. And it’s not an age thing. Several of my friends my age and a little older still have the passion. Great rock writers like Anthony Decurtis, Jim DeRogatis, Greg Kot, and many, many others are a decade or two older than me, and are still forward-thinking, ever on the prowl for the cutting edge. I think that’s fantastic…but they’ll have to carry on the mission without me. Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 4: Ringo Starr

Part 1: John Lennon

Part 2: Paul McCartney

Part 3: George Harrison

OK, this is the one I’ve been dreading. Most folks who lead normal lives are blissfully unaware that the former drummer for the Beatles has released sixteen solo albums. That is not a typo. But the experience of listening to all of them actually turned out not to be excruciating. Read on…

Starr may have been the Beatle who least matched his public persona, a persona created out of thin air by the early-’60s media (especially the American media, who initially had trouble telling them apart) and reinforced by his “Ringo” character in A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and especially the ridiculous Beatles Saturday morning cartoon. He was the mascot, the goofy dimwit, condescended to and put upon by the others, but always childlike and cheery. Out of the spotlight, however, the real-life Richard Starkey could be just as cutting and sarcastic as Lennon, as moody as Harrison, and as savvy as McCartney.

He was the oldest Beatle, and the others have all reminisced about how much more cool and sophisticated Starr seemed before he signed on with them. In fact, “Richy” (his spelling) was considered something of a tough customer, rising up from the lowest of the Liverpool slums (a place called “The Dingle”) to become the powerhouse drummer for the hardest-rocking band on the local “beat” scene, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. He drove a sporty car while his future bandmates still scrounged for bus fare, wore flashy jewelry (hence the stage name, which close friends never referred to him by), and cultivated a cool bohemian beard as early as 1960.

The fact that the proto-Fab Three had coveted him and his drums for years should certainly say something about how his skills were regarded at that time, and the fact that the great Ringo Starr ditched his sweet gig with the Hurricanes and deigned to join these upstarts should say something about Starr’s own musical judgment. [ADDENDUM: I’ve recently (Nov. 2013) read the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive three-volume Beatles biography, and it shed a lot of light on this era. Evidently, the Hurricanes were stagnating — Ringo had already quit them once — and the Beatles, far from being “upstarts,” had been top of the heap in Liverpool for some time, and were clearly poised for bigger things.]

Maybe his role as the “runt” stemmed from the fact that he joined the band at the last moment before they skyrocketed in late ’62. Maybe it was the fact that he was three inches shorter than the others, or wasn’t quite as handsome (that nose, y’know.) What seems clear is that the dismissiveness people sometimes projected onto Ringo as a personality began to spill over to his skill as a drummer, and that’s just plain unfair. Continue reading

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Top 20 Albums of 2011

#20. The Beastie Boys — Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two. A welcome return after a cancer scare for Adam Yauch, and their overwrought and just-no-damn fun-at-all previous album, 2004’s To The Five Boroughs. Although the Beasties love an epic sprawl, you gotta admit their albums are often about five tracks too long. Hot Sauce Committee is succinct and tidy, never wears out its welcome, and the wordplay and beats are more reminiscent of the classic Paul’s Boutique than anything they’ve done in between now and then.

#19. Raphael Saadiq — Stone Rollin’. Sometimes it’s hard not to hold a person’s artistic past against him or her. (For example, in order to finally be taken seriously as an actor, Mark Wahlberg had to take years to overcome the stigma of being the tighty whiteyflashing teen rapper “Marky Mark,” which — to his credit — he did with grace and good humor.) Raphael Saadiq started out as a member of the ultra-slick, super-shallow New Jack Swing outfit Tony! Toni! Tone! in the late 80’s. He finally hung up his poofy Hammer pants in ’96, and began making solo records that hearkened back to ’60s soul — not so much in the smooth, jazzy Motown mold (which is great in its own way), but the more stripped-down, beat-oriented sound of Memphis R&B (with occasional flashes of funky West Coast psychedelia — love that Mellotron!) Saadiq plays most of the instruments himself. He’s a passable guitarist, and a great bassist, but the most immediately noticeable thing on most of the tracks is his absolutely gleeful bashing around on the drum kit.

#18. Cut Copy — Zonoscope. My love/hate relationship with electronic music comes down pretty firmly on the “love” side regarding Cut Copy. Human fingers moving across real instruments made of wood and metal will never (ever, ever, ever) be bettered by mouse-clicks and microchips, but the artifice and machine-assisted pulse of such creations can weave their own weird spells. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, true humanity reflected in a less-than-human simulacrum can be riveting to experience, if concocted by people still connected to emotions rather than simply sounds. This is why artists such as Cut Copy (with songs like “Take Me Over,” one of the best singles of the year) will always have longevity and resonance, as opposed to shallow sonic dog-shit like Skrillex. (I’m going to start a Kickstarter page to raise money to hire someone to punch that stain in the face.) Continue reading

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Top Albums of 2011: Honorable Mentions

I thought 2010 had been a great year for music, but it was really just a prelude to the embarrassment of riches 2011 has brought. As always, my Top 20 of 2011 list will be brought to you some time in early 2012 long after everyone has stopped caring, and as always, I begin December by taking a quick look at the albums that are worth hearing, but didn’t quite make the cut.

THE VETERANS:

R.E.M – Collapse Into Now. We all had to say goodbye to one of the cornerstones of modern rock when R.E.M. called it quits after 29 years. In this writer’s opinion, they should have done it after original drummer Bill Berry quit in 1997. The three albums after Berry’s departure were lackluster and hollow. (Some people still like Up, though.) But just when they were about to be written off as totally irrelevant, they came back to life with 2008’s aggressive Accelerate, and now this — their final album, which recaptures their signature sound. (“Oh My Heart” is the R.E.Miest song R.E.M. have ever done.) Glad they’re going out on a high note.

Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto. Always commercial-oriented (remember when “Clocks” was everywhere?), Coldplay doesn’t lose a step, putting out an album that captures the sound  of  “Top 40 Radio in 2011,” but proving those big, glitzy pop/R&B grooves don’t have to restrict themselves to brainless fun. If you program your ‘pod to skip some of the weaker Melancholy Ballads (TM) that are also Coldplay’s stock in trade, this would make a good “summer” album.

THE THROWBACKS:

Black Lips

Pains Of Being Pure At Heart — Belong. Some great hooks to be heard here, but man do these guys wish it were 1988 and they were opening for My Bloody Valentine. Belong is a meticulously crafted homage to those halcyon days where straightforward pop like The Outfield began co-mingling in listeners’ ears with the stuff coming from the fuzzy underground. They re-create it so well that it’s almost distracting.

Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears — Scandalous. Retro soul of the Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings variety, but lacking that outfit’s dark edges. This is a party record through and through.

Black Lips — Arabia Mountain. A Georgia punk band formerly known more for their onstage antics than for their music, they’ve finally began developing some real chops over their last three albums. They’ve dug a nice little niche between the primal garage rock of the 1960s and the hardcore sound of 1980s acts like Husker Du and the Minutemen. They’re still a little inconsistent over the course of an entire album, but I predict their arrival in my actual Top 20 within their next few releases (if they don’t electrocute themselves or OD in the meantime.)

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 2: Paul McCartney

I have a little theory: Paul McCartney is insane. Batshit nuts. I don’t know quite when the cheese slid off his cracker, but I’m guessing about twenty-five years ago. Yes, he’s always been a little goofy, but lately? From his bizarre hair-dying experiments to the interviews that are about equal parts inane platitudes, vegetarian propaganda, and total gibberish accompanied by a cheery thumbs-up, he’s been leaving a trail of crazy wherever he goes since the mid-1980s. It’s not train-wreck, flame-out crazy, like Martin Lawrence wandering through traffic with a  handgun. It’s a subtler crazy, as if during the recording of Press To Play, alien beings had made off with his brain and attempted to replace it with an exact replica, but assembled it from poorly-translated instructions.

That’s not what happened of course. What happened is that his ownership of many valuable song publishing rights kicked in about then, he became a multi-billionaire instead of a multi-millionaire, cut himself off from anything resembling reality, and has been living in a totally self-generated bubble-world ever since. And I don’t blame him. If I became a multi-billionaire, I would reach foaming heights of crazy that would make Andy Dick look like a Presbyterian deacon.

For reasons directly related to his billionaire-induced craziness, Paul has become the most-maligned Beatle. With every misfire album and every cringe-worthy quote, his light dimmed a little more. But make no mistake — he was the driving creative force of the Beatles in the second half of their career, and that’s no small thing. He always valued the concept of being in a band more than the others. Lennon gets credit for being the witty, rebellious iconoclast, Harrison gets credit for being the quiet mystic, and let’s face it, both of them get double-extra-credit for being dead. Everyone loves a corpse, because they never disappoint. They’re not around to release mediocre albums anymore. But both of them tired of the “band” concept long before Paul did. In the 70’s, Paul tried to keep the idea alive by putting together a bunch of hirelings and calling it “Wings,” but even he knew they weren’t a real band — they were his employees, and various members came and went like the clock-punchers they were.

(At the start of his solo career, he followed the example of Lennon and installed his wife as full creative partner. His second solo album is officially credited to “Paul & Linda McCartney.” On John & Yoko’s joint albums, Yoko contributed full songs. Horrible, horrible songs. But songs, nonetheless. Linda’s contributions consisted of 1) hilariously flat backing vocals placed super-high in the mix, and 2) helping to write some lyrics. The conceit fooled no one, but co-crediting songs kept their royalties from becoming “frozen assets” in the morass of the Beatles break-up lawsuits going on at the time.)

At times, Paul seems to be resented by fans for simply still being alive and somehow tarnishing the image of the Beatles by his very existence as a living, breathing doofus, which can’t be helped. This can result in some unfair treatment. (There’s a song buried in the second half of Off The Ground — if you make it that far– called “Winedark Open Sea,” a kind of sparse, dreary piano ballad that I suspect would be hailed as a “classic” if it came from Springsteen or Neil Young. Those guys can get away with almost anything.) Other times, it’s entirely his own fault. The parallels with George Lucas become obvious if you’re petty enough to examine them (which is my stock in trade). The younger creative genius gives us several gifts we all cherish, things that beyond providing hundreds of hours of entertainment, may even have molded us as people. He then ages into the older billionaire crank and starts doing stupid shit, such as going back and futzing with the legacy. McCartney’s bone-headed attempt to change the songwriting credits on “his” Beatles songs from “Lennon-McCartney” to “McCartney-Lennon” a few years ago is the musical equivalent of Greedo shooting first. Continue reading

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Top 20 Albums of 2010: #9-1


Well, this is thoroughly shameful. Every website, every major music magazine, even the goddamn
Grammys, have already weighed in on the best of 2010. My excuse for not posting the second half of my best-of in a timely manner is pretty much unacceptable: the demands of a day job, plus too many good books to read and shows to watch in the hours off from the day job. And a lot of single-parent crap (despite my fervent wishes, enormous slag-heaps of laundry do not do themselves). Some of the material you will be reading below was composed months ago for the the official Institute of Idle Time website, some was composed over the last few hours in a hazy, sweaty white heat fueled by vodka, over-the-counter Benadryl, and desperation.

The Walkmen’s recordings are sparse — simple but effective tick-tack drumming, flashes of almost flamenco-style electric guitar strumming, and Hamilton Leithauser’s straining rasp — but they weave a melancholy spell that stays with the listener long after the last sad song has faded. The Walkmen have attempted to flesh out their sound a bit before (2006’s A Hundred Miles Off owes more than a little to the cluttered, rustic sound of the Basement Tapes-era Dylan*), and although their stock-in-trade is wistful meditations on loss and regret, they certainly do have a sense of humor (witness their track-by-track re-recording of Harry Nilsson’s 1974 cult classic Pussy Cats), but here they play to the more subtle strengths that have carried them since their 2002 debut.

#8. Dr. DogShame, Shame
Philadelphia’s Dr. Dog has been a band I’ve been listening to for quite some time, just waiting for them to do something great. The potential was always there, but they seemed content to work within a certain template, where their classic rock influences (usually the Band, late-period Beach Boys, and the Beatles) were paid respectful homage, and they ended up chasing their tails. Now, their training wheels are off, and they’ve broken through with an original sound, and their influences — great as they are — are finally where they should be: buried deep, seeping into their material like an unseen, underground spring feeds a river. Shame, Shame is a fast-paced, jittery album for the most part, percussion and rag-time piano in the forefront, with a clarity of purpose and unity of theme that previous albums lacked. Even if the material was weak, Dr. Dog could always rely on its secret weapon to put a song over — gorgeous, harmonized backing vocals — and that trait is out in force and better than ever on Shame, Shame.

#7. LCD SoundsystemThis Is Happening Continue reading

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Top 20 Albums of 2010: #20-10

#20. Old 97’sThe Grand Theatre, Vol. 1
The Old 97’s continue their winning streak, even they did just squeak in at #20 (beating out all theHonorable Mentions, many of whom could realistically occupy this space.) This powerhouse country-rock quartet once again makes its traditional appearance on the Holy Bee’s Best Of list. The Old 97’s are my musical comfort food, and while they may never again reach the heights of Too Far To Care or Satellite Rides, their charisma and eminently agreeable blend of rollicking Tex-Mex and bubblegum power pop is something I can listen to at any time in any mood. Old 97’s are the old standbys. Bless ‘em.

#19. The Constellations Southern Gothic
This mixed-gender collective presents a travelogue through the sometimes seedy nightlife of their native Atlanta. Harnessing a jam-band mentality to a hip-hop framework, the best Constellations songs are so insanely catchy that they border on commercial jingles (“We’re Here To Save The Day,” “Felicia”), and even their worst make you admire their moxie (a nine-minute cover of Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up”? Really?). A word of warning: visually, they’re a nightmare, encapsulating everything hateful about insufferably smug “quirky” hipsters. (Avoid pictures of them. They will make you stabby. OK, click here at the risk of ruining your enjoyment of their music.) Continue reading

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