Today, we honor someone who recently passed a way, a giant in the world of comix, Harvey Pekar. Pekar’s personal stories, illustrated by some of the greats of underground comics, such as R. Crumb, showed the capability for depth in a medium that was originally targeted for kids. Of course, Pekar was also one of the all-time great David Letterman guests and the movie based on his life, American Splendor, is a classic. To celebrate Harvey’s birthday, why don’t you grab your iPod or MP3 player, hit shuffle and share the first 10 tunes, and if some vintage jazz comes up, all the better.
Adam Franklin & Bolts of Melody — She’s Closer Than I’ve Ever Been (I Could Sleep For A Thousand Years): This is a mellow track from the latest from the frontman of Swervedriver. This is his best solo project yet, as some songs conjure up the hard shoegazing rock of his former band, while other songs are simply lovely pop, such as this one. This has a nice swirling guitar bed that makes this song feel like it’s floating.
The Syn — 14 Hour Technicolour Dream (Nuggets II): A piece of psych-pop from a band that featured some future members of Yes. The Syn actually got back together a few years ago and toured. This is alright, nothing exceptional. It’s really more notable for who is in the band rather than the quality of the song.
Bob Seger — Rock And Roll Never Forgets (Night Moves): Bob Seger seems pretty reviled by a lot of people with self-proclaimed good taste. There certainly are songs that deserve utter contempt (such as “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll”). But Seger, who has a great weathered voice, is unfairly maligned, in my opinion. For years, his music mixed a love for rock and R & B basics with some more singer-songwriter elements. This is why he was sometimes lumped with Springsteen. He was not nearly as ambitious as Bruce. But on Night Moves, everything crystallized, and he had a batch of great songs. This is the album opener, a passionate call to arms. The Hold Steady should cover this.
Sparks — Pulling Rabbits Out a Hat (Plagiarism): Leave it to Sparks to take over their own tribute album. The band redoes a bunch of their old songs, sometimes with guests (such as Faith No More, Erasure and Jimmy Sommerville), but most of this album has them recontextualizing old songs either as dance music or with orchestration. The latter songs are much more interesting. Producer Tony Visconti arranged these numbers to great effect. This song, which was a somewhat sterile synth-pop number in its original release (on the 1984 album of the same name) becomes baroque drama with an aggressive orchestra backing Russell Mael.
The Boo Radleys — I’ve Lost the Reason (Giant Steps): A powerful tune from another band that dipped a toe into the shoegazer movement, though they blended that with some great ’60s baroque influences (everything from Love to The Beach Boys). This is a true ’90s song, in that it leans heavy on dynamics, with pretty orchestrated verses that ramp up into fuzz guitar percussive choruses.
The Housemartins — Think For A Minute (London 4 Hull 0): This British band mixed the jangly indie rock that was typical of that portion of the ’80s with a genuine soulfulness, which is manifested in the aching voice of Paul Heaton. Moreover, their lyrics were often thoughtful political commentary that was somehow not at odds with the poppy music. That really holds true on this intent ballad which could be compared favorably to a Curtis Mayfield protest song, though with less of an R & B base.
Gil Scott-Heron — I’m New Here (I’m New Here): My only beef with Scott-Heron’s new album is how short it is. Some of these songs pair his still authoritative voice with electronic backing, which works extremely world. Other songs are on the other end of the spectrum, pairing Scott-Heron with minimal backing. This is a simple rhythmic folk-guitar backing, as Scott-Heron half narrates, half sings this tune. At times his voice is surprisingly gruff, yet when he hits the refrain it smooths out. It’s different than his usual declamatory style (which comes through on other tunes), but it’s just as effective. He is now a voice of experience and there’s no doubt how much he’s feeling the words he is singing.
The Gaslight Anthem — The ’59 Sound (The ’59 Sound): If there’s one song this band should be known for, this is it. In the tradition of everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Social Distortion, the Anthem romanticizes working class life and rock and roll. I think there’s is little that’s really original about their sound. But they invest their songs with scads of passion and plenty of personality. There is always a need for this music that is empathetic and kick ass at the same time. Their latest album is more mature and an acceptable refinement, but I think they should take a step back on the next one and make a bid to play arenas, which they deserve.
Foghat — Take It Or Leave It (The Best of Foghat): Maybe putting this mellow mid-tempo Foghat tune on my iPod was not such a good idea. This plays to none of their (limited) strengths. This actually has more in common with Steely Dan than one might expect from these bluesy rockers.
Crowded House — She Goes On (Woodface): Woodface is a beloved album amongst Crowded House fans, chock full of some of the band’s best known songs. This is not one of those songs. Yet it is one of the dozens upon dozens of superbly constructed songs from the pen of Neil Finn. It has a light Latin inflection and a neat horn and string instrumental break. But the heart of the tune is the simple melody and the indelible chorus. This is why Finn can be mentioned in the same breath as writers like Paul McCartney and Andy Partridge.