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.