Happy Birthday, Cat Power! Yes, Chan Marshall turns 38 today. It’s been a long, winding journey for Ms. Marshall, starting out working with members of Sonic Youth and Two Dollar Guitar on oddly written songs, gaining more notoriety, dropping out, coming back, developing a reputation for erratic live performance and eventually breaking through to a larger audience, playing blues based rock that spotlighted her wonderful voice. Moreover, it seems like she is finding herself on stage and overcoming personal problems. Thus, the best may still be to come. In Chan/Cat’s honor, get out your iPod,, hit shuffle and please share the first ten songs that come up.
The Everly Brothers — I Wonder If I Care As Much (24 Original Classics): A lesser known Everly song which starts off with a strong lead guitar snippet before heading into pretty harmony territory. The melody of this song and the arrangement seem like a big influence on the British beat groups, especially The Searchers and The Hollies. I should check to see if they covered this. The electric guitar part really provides a nice contrast to the self-flagellating pathos of the lyrics.
Frisbie — Shakin’ The Tree (New Debut): The second iteration of this great Chicago band was a bit more rock, even though the original line up rocked quite a bit. This is a great example of the band’s smart approach to pop, with precise parts played by each member. Indeed, this song may sound simple on the surface, but it was actual one of the more difficult tunes for the band to pull off live. While not the type of anthemic roof raiser that Frisbie built its reputation on, this is a great display of how you can have a bit of an art-pop edge without losing accessibility.
Steve Dawson — Goodbye (I Will Miss The Trumpets And The Drums): Dawson, the lead singer of Dolly Varden, has made two top notch solo albums. On each album, he makes some forays into R & B inflected pop. This is right in the wheelhouse of his wonderful white soul voice, which is reminiscent of singers such as Darryl Hall and Van Morrison. This song is somewhere between Memphis and Philly, with a sublime middle eight.
Chris Stamey — Kierkegaard (Travels In The South): Speaking of soul, Chris Stamey let some R & B influences seep into his Carolina power pop on this album. That is certainly true on this number, where he also busts out some impressive lead guitar licks, augmented by a Hammond organ. These R & B touches merely frame the primary melody, which is more in the wistful vein of Stamey’s earlier solo work. And yes, the song definitely touches on philosophy.
The Clash — Groovy Times (Super Black Market Clash): This song first came out in the U.S. on a bonus 7-inch single that came with the band’s self-titled debut. This song is more in the vein of Give ‘Em Enough Rope or London Calling, with Joe Strummer declaiming over a spry rhythm and acoustic guitars. This song is much more in the vein of Clash heroes like Mott The Hoople and even includes a Spanish guitar solo. Not a great Clash song, but an interesting one nevertheless.
The New Pornographers — Moves (Together): There is a bit of Electric Light Orchestra influence in the ominous chords that begin this song, which A.C. Newman contrasts with one of his chirpiest melodies. This is one song where Newman has the lead vocal, but Neko Case’s accompaniment nearly dominates. Moreover, Newman finds a way to throw in three or four different catchy parts and blends them expertly.
Richard & Linda Thompson — A Heart Needs A Home (The Best of Richard & Linda Thompson): The gossamer voice of Linda Thompson over a song that’s three parts bluesy rock and one part folk, with Richard supplying tasteful lead guitar ornamentation. This would be a great song for Mavis Staples to cover, as there is a great soul song wanting to burst out of this tune.
Eurythmics — Love Is A Stranger (Sweet Dreams): The band’s second hit single is icy synth-pop perfection. Annie Lennox is simultaneously angelic and sinister, showing amazing vocal control, starting out low key, and slowly picking up her intensity as the tune goes on. The electronic percussion track is also brilliant, mixing a few different parts into pulse that gives the song momentum. A true classic.
The Gun Club — The Master Plan (The Las Vegas Story): While not acknowledged as a classic, the final proper Gun Club record cements them as a band that blew up the blues to cinematic proportions, with big guitar parts and stomping percussion and the out of control vocals of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. This is a dramatic instrumental.
Sagittarius — The Keeper of the Games (Present Tense): This legendary soft-pop aggregation was the creation of producers Gary Usher and Curt Boettcher, who composed pretty harmony infused pop with a baroque feel. The result was a more psychedelic variation on what bands like The Beach Boys and The Association were doing. This is an instantly memorable song that is sadly, only a couple minutes long.
While Krush Groove is a so-so hip-hop movie, there are two essential scenes in the movie: 1) watching The Fat Boys sing “All You Can Eat” in a Sbarro’s pizza place, and, 2) the galvanizing performance by a young LL Cool J of “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”. L.L. was a nice middle class boy with a great flow who played his part in giving hip hop more mass appeal. He was a malleable rapper who would rap over anything, whether it was Rick Rubin’s hard beats or a soppy ballad like “I Need Love”. While he wasn’t the first to rap over live instruments, when he did so on MTV Unplugged, he helped show how hip hip was really music. Sure, LL has cashed in his charisma to mediocre acting gigs and line of Sears’ clothing, but you can’t take away his significant legacy. In James T. Smith’s honor, everyone should grab his or her iPod or MP3 player, hit shuffle, and share the first 10 tunes that come up:
Solomon Burke — Don’t Give Up On Me (Don’t Give Up On Me): After Burke’s passing, I picked up a compliation of his classic singles and got an even fuller understanding of why some consider him the best soul singer of all-time. His mix of smoothness and grit and how he, nearly as much as Ray Charles, brought the sounds of the African-American church into pop music, and his incredible phrasing made him a true original. Yet as great as those songs are, this Grammy winning comeback album, in my opinion, stands as Solomon’s best work, as the songs were all terrific and he kept becoming a better singer, knowing when and how to deploy his many gifts. This is a passionate song sung passionately.
Dusty Springfield — Just One Smile (Dusty In Memphis): Speaking of soul, Dusty Springfield did a great job of mixing it in with more standard Bacharach style pop. Her voice is pure but has a slight roughness in it that gives her readings of songs a lot of feeling. This song, with its strings, is very cosomopolitan, and Dusty makes it more than just a pop song, investing her all into it.
Jacques Dutronc — Les Metamorphoses (Et Moi Et Moi Et Moi): This ’60s French pop star got a lot of mileage out of loping, jangly songs sung with a bit of Dylan-ish phrasing. This song makes a good use of reverb on the guitar and even some reverb on Dutronc’s vocals in the refrain (a la Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”).
The dB’s — Espionage (Stands For Decibels): If you want to hear the influence of Big Star’s Radio City album on a power pop tune, this dB’s classic is a great example. Chris Stamey takes inspiration from the odd time signatures and shifts and comes up with a song whose melody drawls as much as Stamey’s North Carolina accent. Using a telegraph keyboard line and Will Rigby’s on the verge of falling apart drumming with some spy movie guitar, the band monkeys around with these simple pieces, while not neglecting a rousing chorus. Incredible song.
Nada Surf — Inside Of Love (Let’s Go): Nada Surf kind of fits into the wealth of bands who took a lot of notes while spinning Radiohead’s The Bends. But instead of taking the Coldplay route and simplifying the approach and upping the bombast, Nada Surf dive into the emotional center of the sound, finding a midpoint between Radiohead of that era and bands like Death Cab For Cutie. This is a typically heartfelt and memorable tune.
John Lennon — Borrowed Time (Lennon Legend): One of the last tracks Lennon recorded. This has a slight reggae feel to it. It’s pretty consistent with the other songs he made in the end of his life, as the composition is pretty simple but, of course, the song is certainly catchy. Not a classic by any means.
Mission Of Burma — The Mute Speaks Out (The Obliterati): This is my favorite of the three MoB reunion albums, as the songs are grounded in the foundation of their classic sound, but they aren’t hemmed into it. This instrumental has some lovely guitar work from Roger Miller, while Clint Conley’s bass manages to both support the guitar work melodically while also adding a harder edge to the repeating guitar figures. Peter Prescott does a great job of pushing this song, which keeps building and building, while not overshadowing the dominant elements of the track. I think there are very few bands who I enjoy hear playing more than Burma, and this song is a great example of why, as all of the members play their roles perfectly.
XTC — Knights In Shining Karma (Apple Venus, Volume 1): This album contains so many swelling and dramatic songs, this restrained Andy Partridge number is lost in the shuffle (but not this shuffle!). It’s not a classic, but it is a pretty and haunting song, whose sparse instrumentation gives it a sad beauty that pulls at the heartstrings. And it’s a nice respite from the more orchestral songs on the album.
Elliot Smith — Bled White (XO): I could add Elliot Smith to the comparisons I made above with Nada Surf. Elliot Smith mixed folk with splendid melodies that ranked up there with folks like Paul McCartney and Harry Nilsson. XO is my fave Smith album, because the quality of the production is just right, making every song as full as it needs to be.
Superchunk — Tiny Bombs (Come Pick Me Up): Remember when Superchunk was referred to by some folks as emo? I think it’s slower numbers like this that led to such a designation, which no one uses any more. As welcome as Superchunk’s most recet album was, with them rocking out on every track, one of the things that made Superchunk beloved was how they weren’t content just to bash out the three-chord winners, adding so much depth and dimension to their sound. This song is so basic, with the bass and drums carrying, with simple lead guitar ornamentation while Mac emotes like only he can, in that awkward warble.
In the year 2000, Kerthy Fix, co-director and producer of Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields, joined Gail O’hara in documenting live performances, rehearsals, and interviewing the band. A decade later, Fix would finally be able to premiere the documentary at South By Southwest Film Festival 2010. This started an international screening schedule, and Chicago will finally get two chances to see the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center on January 15th and 20th.
Fix, obviously a big fan, says that following the band for 10 years revealed many layers of Merritt’s process and interpersonal relationships. A large portion of the film’s focus is on the relationship between Merritt and friend, band-manager and creative muse Claudia Gonson.
“Claudia helps bring him to his audience,” she says. “It’s her creative-management genius and friendship with him that allows his music to reach his audience. I felt like they were really working in tandem and their relationship itself was so fascinating – I haven’t seen this type of ‘gay man/ fag hag’ 20-year friendship profiled anywhere.”
“I thought that was an interesting thing to profile in pop music – what are the relationships and process in making this kind of work? He’s known Claudia since he was 14. Things happen in the film where you are not sure if their relationship is going to withstand the changes. He’s very reserved, and Claudia’s very outgoing and emotionally open and really funny. She kind of functions like the heart of the film because I think she’s the heart of the band.”
Having once interviewed Stephin Merritt myself, and eventually commiserating with my fellow journalists about what a hard time we had doing so, the concept of Merritt allowing someone to follow him around with a camera for ten years seems almost implausible. “He’s doesn’t plug in well to the 20 minute interview,” Fix says. “It’s sort of required as a musician – you put out a record, you go on tour (which Stephin doesn’t like to do) and you have to do a million interviews and answer the same questions over and over.”
“Stephin’s much better when you engage him on a topic. I remember the very first question for the very first interview I did with him, I was very nervous. And he has this habit of pausing for a really long time before he answers a question, but he’s actually formulating the answer to the question before he says it because he’s so thoughtful. So, I ask him what he’s reading, like as a warm up question. And he pauses for a long time and I’m getting more nervous, and he says ‘What can I say that I’m reading right now? Because I don’t want to tell you what I’m actually reading because I’m writing an opera about it.’ He pauses again and then says ‘Oh! I like your shoes.’”
“He knows that he’s making me nervous but he knows that complimenting my shoes will put me at ease and give him time to think. And we put that segment at the front of the film because it’s kind of symptomatic as to how he’s misread. He’s just not great for the quick sound-bite. He’s great if you want to hang out and talk about any kind of music or film or books. People in the press who interview him, what do you get? You get 20 minutes of this excruciating arrangement which will end badly. And so he gets this reputation of being difficult, which is not really justified. When you see the film, you’ll see a different side of him.”
Press materials for any of Stephin Merritt’s recordings usually contain the name “Cole Porter” and a statement about how in the future, Merritt’s catalogue will be revered as iconic, standard American pop music. But why not now? Why isn’t a new Magnetic Fields record greeted with reverence for a living legend in the same way that a new Bruce Springsteen record is?
“Yeah, he has an outsider status, I think,” Fix says. “He writes from different points of view. The album Distortion was written from the point of view of an overweight Midwestern housewife. He writes from these different perspectives, and as human beings, we all have that kind of shifting persona.”
“We are asked by our culture to lock down on a solid persona but the internal experience is much more complicated. As a straight white woman, I might feel like a gay man inside. Or someone who’s black and likes country music might not feel culturally comfortable with the Black Panther kids he grew up with in the ’70s and feel like an outsider.”
“There’s all kinds of different ways to feel like an outsider, and I think in that way, Stephin’s writing from different characters and different points of view is very much of our time. But in terms of mainstream success, are the most important artists the most popular? I don’t know if that’s a criteria. He makes a living off of his music – but it’s an artisanal craft like a fine wine or a fine cheese. Do you want to eat Kraft American Cheese? Probably not. I think he’s right where he wants to be situated. He’s influential without being popular.”
Kerthy Fix will be hosting a preview of the documentary at Stardust on Thursday, January 13th at Berlin Nightclub, 954 West Belmont Avenue. Co-presented by CHIRP Radio and featuring CHIRP DJ Erik Roldan and special guest DJ Kim Ann Foxman (of Hercules and Love Affair), the event goes from 9pm to 4am, $7 cover.
The Go-Go’s were a historic band. There had been other all-female bands, such as Fanny, The Joy Of Cooking and The Runaways, but none had ever had a real hit. The Go-Go’s changed that, managing to combine a fun persona with convincing rock music. Kathy Valentine was the last piece necessary before The Go-Go’s took off, her steady bass combining with Gina Schock’s energetic drumming to fuel the band’s classic songs. So in honor Kathy’s birthday (and The Go-Go’s in general), grab your iPod/MP3 player, hit shuffle and share the first 10 tunes that come up.
Neko Case — Rated X (The Tigers Have Spoken): This live album showcases, at times, the more purely country aspect of Case. And nothing could be more purely country than a cover of a Loretta Lynn classic. Case tears into it with gusto, showing off the same honky-tonk skills that came to the fore on her debut album, The Virginian.
The Hotrats — Damaged Goods (Turn Ons): This is Gaz and Danny of Supergrass, doing a bunch of covers. The album title is a bit of a tip of the hat to David Bowie’s all-covers album, Pin Ups. On almost every song, the Rats try a different arrangement. Sometimes, the rearrangement is a bit radical, other times it’s slight. It’s almost like they challenged themselves to tweak the songs without destroying what makes them special. That holds true for this Gang Of Four cover. Only at the end do they introduce the familiar jagged guitar, relying on the bass to provide a funk aspect, while accompanying it with an acoustic guitar. This remake eventually comes closer to the original and retains its catchiest elements, making for a nice reinvention.
They Might Be Giants — The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) (Apollo 18): Three covers in a row? Of course, They Might Be Giants reinvent the African song, giving it a faux ’70s R & B vibe and then changing the lyrics up. Moreover, there’s a subtle use of dynamics, with the verses horn fueled, contrasted with the quiet chorus, sung by special guest Laura Cantrell (who later became known for acclaimed alt-country records).
Elton John — I’m Still Standing (Jump Up!): Even as his star waned in the latter half of the ’70s, Elton John still had hit records, they just dwelt in the bottom part of the Top 40. Who would have thought that Elton John would benefit from MTV. While always a flamboyant performer, one would not think a pudgy heading to middle-age pianist could captivate viewers. But this song pretty much revived Elton as a commercial force, because of the dynamic video that managed to have lots of crazy visuals and still showed off the artist’s personality. And the song was pretty damned good too, and a perfect vehicle to launch a comeback.
Supergrass — Moving (Supergrass): The lead track off of the underrated third album from this great British pop band. This album showed the band further moving away from wise ass pop songs and showing a real maturity. Gaz Coombes’ melodies have always had a melancholy undercurrent and this really comes to the forefront. This song starts off pretty and then adds a spirited R & B middle eight, and then bounces from the lusher sounds to the more robust parts. Great track.
Masters Of Reality — Tilt-A-Whirl (Sunrise On The Sufferbus): For a brief period, it looked like Masters Of Reality were going to bring an old school hard rock sound back into vogue. On this second album, Goss signed on legendary drummer Ginger Baker, and this album is the next best thing to a Cream reunion (perhaps even better), with peppy blues based songs that mix a bit of heaviness with a deft touch. Goss has been a direct influence on Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age, who carried on the Masters’ mission of keeping a blues base and traditional ’70s elements in hard rock/heavy metal.
Bad Religion — 21st Century (Digital Boy) (Stranger Than Fiction): This is a mid-tempo rant (as opposed to the band’s usual speedy rants) that became an alternative radio hit in 1994. The song was a re-recording of a song that came out on a prior album. While I love this album (and a lot of Bad Religion fans think that this was the beginning of things going downhill), but think this is actual one of the lesser songs.
Adrian Belew — Laughing Man (Desire Of The Rhino King): This comes from a compilation of Belew’s initial solo records for Island. These albums showed off the three main sides of Belew the solo artist: 1) the guy who was in King Crimson, doing slightly more accessible takes on his work in that band, 2) a Beatles’ loving pop artist with a bit of a psychedelic jones, making memorable songs, and 3) a former Zappa sideman who liked to noodle around with cool guitar sounds. This song fits in Category 3, as it’s a sweet instrumental. The keyboard sound is very reminiscent of Todd Rundgren.
The Easybeats — Let Me Be (The Definitive Anthology): An early Easybeats tune, this is basic blues rock/pop. The song sort of chugs along with a solid vocal from Stevie Wright. This isn’t too far away from what the early Who was doing, but it’s much more subdued.
Generation X — Ready, Steady, Go (Perfect Hits 1975-1981): The band that gave Billy Idol his start seems to have been forgotten. And while they weren’t quite up to the level of Buzzcocks, The Boys and The Undertones, they had a bunch of great poppy punk songs. While Idol didn’t have a great voice, even early on he had the personality. This is nearly bubblegummy, nicking the title from the old UK pop performance show. Fun!
January is an exciting time for CHIRP Radio, as we recognize all the hard work we’ve done in our first year of growth as an online radio station. We’re so grateful to have received so much amazing support from our community in 2010 — so what better way to honor our anniversary and thank our community than with some parties? To celebrate, we’re hosting several events around Chicago this month — and the best part is, everything’s under 10 bucks!
To kick things off, we’re having a CHIRP Dance Party at Beauty Bar with DJ sets by Mad Decent’s Depressed Buttons (former members of The Faint) and CHIRP DJ Dustin Drase on Friday, January 14. The party starts at 10pm and cover is only $5 — come shake your groove thang for cheap!
The following Monday, January 17 marks the official date of our one-year anniversary of launching CHIRP Radio online, and we’ll be celebrating with our monthly benefit show at The Whistler with The Velcro Lewis Group and Rambos at 9:30pm. Entry is free, so there’s no reason to miss this one!
That Thursday, January 20 is CHIRP’s One-Year Anniversary Party at the Empty Bottle, with music from Campfires (Mexican Summer Records), Black Math (Permanent Records), and Cool Memories. The show starts at 9pm, and entry is $8.
One week later, Thursday, January 27, we’ll be having a benefit concert at The Hideout, starring Slushy (formerly Kramer versus Kramer), and more to be announced! Music starts at 9pm, and entry is $8.
And let’s not forget about Wednesday, January 26, as CHIRP continues its reading series, “The First Time.” For those uninitiated, The First Time is a series where local performers/writers/bloggers write and read original pieces around the “first time” theme; this month is “first car.” The piece will reference a song, which will be played immediately after the reading by Steve Frisbie/Liam Davis/Gerald Dowd. The show is $10; doors at 7:30 and festivities get underway at 8 p.m.
The lineup looks like this:
Susan Messing (Annoyance)
Josh Caterer (Smoking Popes)
Erin Shea (ejshea.com; and author of Tales From the Scale)
Matt Spiegel (Tributosaurus)
Please note, all events are 21+. Hope to see you at one or more of these parties this month!