Category Archives: Pop

“I Don’t Want It”

ween
Ween
Quebec, 2003

I’ll open with a full disclosure, which will doubtless turn all true Ween fans away immediately: I came to Ween ridiculously late. Like full-on, post-official-breakup late. I also realized pretty quickly in my deep-dive into the holy core of Weendom (Chocolate and Cheese, The Mollusk, this record)—and here’s where I lose (or else satisfy) those fans still hanging around only to see what an ass I make of myself—that while plenty of tracks are downright great, others either pale in proximity or else annoy after repeated listens. This is the risk, after all, that novelty runs, is getting old. (Sidenote: The exception is The Mollusk, an absolute masterpiece of weird, eclectic, experimental joy, complete with things braised in sand, drunken-brogue sea shanties, and whales with polka-dot tails (the astute reader perceives a theme)). Setting that aside, I’ll reach back to my first exposure to Ween, about a decade ago at a Santa Cruz house party where Quebec was playing. Until that moment I’d always believed Ween to be responsible for “Teenage Dirtbag.” Anyway, years later, as cheesy, as pop-centric, as downright obvious as the song may be, “I Don’t Want It” still hits me harder than anything on The Mollusk. Many consider Ween a joke band, and I’m not sure I can fully argue with these people. Serious bro-humor indeed abounds, and I shudder to imagine the frat contingent at a Ween show circa 2004. “I Don’t Want It,” though, is Everyman’s Ween. It could even be (and here’s another shudder) your Dad’s Ween. There’s no dick jokes, no drugs, no weird sonic fuckery, no arcane references to midcentury Ethiopian emperors, no oh-by-the-way thrash-rock asides. Just verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo and we’re done. I mean, for all I know the whole thing could be an in-joke designed to root out the clueless idiots like myself—its luscious (banal?) McCartney background “ahhhhh”s and (put-on?) wistful lyrics are certainly suspect. But remember, we’re alone here; the true fans have all shuffled back to their darkened living rooms and their bongs, and, shit, you guys, here comes that guitar solo, and . . . ahh, yes. Yes, there we go.

My friends, you’re welcome.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/11%20I%20Don’t%20Want%20It.m4a]

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“Out of This World”

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The Cure
Bloodflowers, 2000

I love tracking down little-known gems from big-name, established artists. Bands only become “iconic” after they’ve put in the work; I’d guess it takes three or four records widely acknowledged as “great” before any group can qualify. Underground acts on par with Suicide or Shellac — to name two very random examples — are influential, but the sum of their respective outputs isn’t enough to justify elder-statesmen status. As it turns out though, icons are in no short supply. I don’t think anyone would dispute that The Cure are an iconic band and have been for decades, both for their distinctive sound and their fantastic run of classic-era material. In 2000 however, after the commercial air ball that was Wild Mood Swings (an album I still love), Robert Smith and company were invisible to all but the hardest of hardcore fans. Bloodflowers was conceived as the bookend to two earlier critical favorites, Pornography and Disintegration, both of which represent the band at its darkest. As you might expect from any product of equally hubristic conceit, Bloodflowers does not live up to its pedigree. But just try to tell me “Out of This World” isn’t wonderful. Tell me you can listen to all seven minutes without falling under the familiar morbid sway of all the band’s best material. Tell me the guitar lead doesn’t pluck heartstrings you forgot you had. Late-era treasures like this seem to arrive at exactly the moment their creators need them most. For fans, they serve as a reminder that greatness is not simply something that happens.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Out%20Of%20This%20World.mp3]

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“Become the Enemy”

lemon
The Lemonheads
The Lemonheads, 2006

Evan Dando strikes me as a guy who doesn’t know what to do with his own talent. He’s written some of the catchiest pop songs I’ve heard in my life, but nothing about the work seems effortless — for him or his fans. Following a run at the Boston punk scene, The Lemonheads morphed into a ‘90s alternative concern, and they landed a few radio hits back when those existed — “Into Your Arms,” “It’s a Shame About Ray,” a cover of “Mrs. Robinson.” There were a few more records and a healthy handful of songs I’ll take to my grave, and then they just kind of stopped. Dando had long been plagued by substance abuse rumors, and a scattered 2003 solo record did nothing to dispel them. The last time we heard original work was this self-titled record nine years ago. “Become The Enemy” — a catchy cut about relationship conflict — makes the most of its crack, this-album-only rhythm section (The Descendents’ Bill Stevenson and Karl Alvarez) and Dando’s smooth way with a melody. God knows how long it took him to write, or when we’ll hear from him again.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%20Become%20the%20Enemy.m4a]

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“Careless”

Clash The Truth by Beach Fossils
Beach Fossils
Clash the Truth, 2012

It’s raining in L.A. this week, and that’s news — it never rains in L.A. anymore. Something about this music sounds right in this weather, in this city. It’s Beach Fossils, after all — not Beach House, not Best Coast — the threat of drought is right there in the name. Wet music for a gloomy day, or perhaps no day at all — breezy, simple, memorable, melancholy. Shades of The Cure. Shades of DIIV (naturally). Shades of I don’t know what else, but some other band we all recognize. Best heard at night, through a windshield in the rain? Sure, that’ll do.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Beach%20Fossils%20-%20Careless%20%20(Clash%20The%20Truth).mp3]

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“Put Your Number in My Phone”

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Ariel Pink
Pom Pom, 2014

Ever since he decided to come out of the bedroom on 2010’s Before Today, there have been a handful of tracks on each Ariel Pink release that just about anyone can get into: that album’s “Can’t Hear My Eyes” and reworked “Round and Round”; “Only in My Dreams” and “Baby” from follow-up Mature Themes. And on the brand-new Pom Pom it’s “Put Your Number in My Phone.” Even without the scuzz and confusion of Pink’s defiantly weird early lo-fi, listeners must still contend with the glossier persona left on the table, and you could certainly forgive some for wanting to tap out. But then one of these songs comes on and it’s a reminder of just how good and — holy fuck — how universal Pink’s music can be. Whether or not “Phone” is a sincere come-on or a nasty taunt — the voice message on the bridge suggests the latter, which doesn’t do much for Pink’s reputation — it’s tunefulness is enough to satiate safe listeners and obscure-pop nerds alike.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/06%20Put%20Your%20Number%20In%20My%20Phone.m4a]

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“How Do You Do”

600full-david-grohl
Dave Grohl
Touch Soundtrack, 1997

Dave Grohl: your new music sucks, dude! You’re in classic-rock hell now: too much actual singing, too many boring ‘70s weak-ass riffs. The Colour and the Shape still holds up, man. I know, because I listened to it this week right after streaming the new one, Sonic Highways, which … the less said about that title (or album art) the better. Tom Petty’s latest is named Hypnotic Eye, for crying out loud — it’s like you guys switched bodies. Anyway, there was a stretch of time after Nirvana in the 90s — a span of several years in fact — where you ruled as a power-pop songwriter. It was like the perfect blend of kind-of-still-grunge-but-cleaner and kind-of-moving-into-radio-pop-but-not-quite-there-just-yet. And then the same year as Colour, you flipped the script and scored a Paul Schrader indie flick, based on a book by Elmore Leonard. I mean: that’s pretty edgy, dude! And you wrote a great song for that movie, a song which almost no one knows but I’m lucky to have stumbled across in my dorm room c. 1999 thanks to Napster. “How Do You Do” is everything that used to be good about Foo Fighters all in one song, and it proves once and for all that you were what was good about Foo Fighters because you recorded it on your own. It’s catchy, it’s high-energy, the drums kill and like the best pop songs — from The Beatles to yep, Nirvana — it never wears out its welcome. In Your Honor, I’m playing this one on loop today. Everyone still likes you here — how could we not?, you’re our Dave Grohl, the only one we’ve got! — and we’ll keep rooting for you until you decide to call it a day. But seriously, dude. Sonic Highways?

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/03%20How%20Do%20You%20Do.mp3]

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“Love Will Keep Us Alive”

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The Eagles
Hell Freezes Over, 1994

For some reason — okay wait, I know the reason: it’s because I just watched that three-hour Eagles doc on Netflix — “Love Will Keep Us Alive” has wormed its way into my skull this week. And I’m both deflated and surprised to report that this has been a mostly positive development. For while it sports all the radio-pap trappings its whitebread progenitors built their mansions upon, the fact alone is not enough to dismiss that bloody-minded acoustic guitar line, a hook so simple and so catchy that one listen is enough to remember it forever. Nor can I fight the nagging sensation that, well, maybe there’s a little more going on here than appears at first listen. As much as I’d like to dismiss a song that delivers the line “I would die for you/Climb the highest mountain” as if a thousand other pop songs hadn’t already beaten it to the punch, when taken in context, I’m actually quite touched by the expression. After all: “The world is changing/Right before your eyes,” suggesting that, shit, no matter who or where you are, the universe has the potential to be a dangerous and lonely place. Even (especially?) for rich white old dudes. Why walk that road alone? Why not turn to love in the face of so much uncertainty? Hell can be cool indeed.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%20Love%20Will%20Keep%20Us%20Alive.m4a]

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“Waiting”

rentals
The Rentals
Return of The Rentals, 1995

At this point, I guess I’m something of a Weezer “truther.” Several albums and more than a decade removed from the band’s distinctly underwhelming Green Album return, there’s no logic or benefit to arguing that Rivers Cuomo’s post-Pinkerton output stacks up to past glories, because It. Just. Doesn’t. Cuomo’s written plenty of good songs since, but something was lost in those intervening years that he’ll never get back, and who the fuck am I to complain when I can barely play three chords? One strong theory though: Weezer lost more than a bassist when Matt Sharp left. The Rentals’ debut, released shortly after The Blue Album, was lower-fi and more keyboard-heavy, but otherwise sounded a hell of a lot like the work of a guy who played (and possibly even co-wrote songs) for Weezer. Sharp’s distinct background vocals snuck onto those first two albums, and in live performances, he was the guy who kept the energy up. So maybe he’s the Man Behind the Curtain, maybe he’s not — see yesterday’s Song for proof that Cuomo can still hold his own when he feels like it. More likely though, in some unspeakable sense, Sharp contributed to the band dynamic in such a way that things could never be the same without him. Because they weren’t.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%20Waiting.mp3]

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“Bright Pavilions”

super
Superdrag
In the Valley of Dying Stars, 2000

Superdrag was one of those bands that just never got the timing down. Early on, when they were firing on all cylinders — the stretch from 1996 major-label debut Regretfully Yours to this album — the band could never quite drum up the attention needed to make a real splash, MTV’s embrace of the “Sucked Out” video aside. By the time they’d been around long enough to be missed they were already gone, and when they did finally come back with 2009’s Industry Giants, well, it was clear more than the industry had changed. I’ll posit that despite the tendency in later years to wear their influences on their sleeves, the band’s early sound was truly original: shoegaze guitars, Zombies-worthy songs, snarl on loan from God-knows-where and the inimitable vocals of John Davis. “Bright Pavilions” is one of the finest examples of the band’s craft, arriving late enough to know exactly what it’s doing and early enough to be truly great.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/07%20Bright%20Pavilions.m4a]

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“Closer at Hand”

field
Field Music
Tones of Town, 2007

Delightfully catchy, determinedly British and deceptively simple, Field Music are a band you don’t hear much about in the States. Whether or not the Northern England pop duo — whose supporting cast has included members of The Futureheads and Maximo Park — are still a going concern, they made a mark in their home country’s indie scene over the last decade. This is sophisticated pop music for listeners who still go for that sort of thing; if the Kinks had sprung up 40 years later they might’ve sounded something similar. “Closer at Hand” is a breezy, instantly memorable tune, simple and shiny enough that it takes a few spins to decode the melancholy hiding underneath. Like the album that surrounds it, repeated listens yield deep rewards.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/09%20Closer%20At%20Hand.m4a]

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“Intuition”

feist2
Feist
The Red Demos, 2001
The Reminder, 2007

Something a little different today: a look at Leslie Feist’s “Intuition,” from demo to completion. The original, pulled from 2001’s unreleased The Red Demos, is my favorite of all her recordings: a smoky, back-room lament whose plodding pace and spare instrumentation fit the defeated mood perfectly. Ironically, the final version — released on 2007’s breakout The Reminder — is even more sparse, stripped of everything but hometape-quality acoustic guitar and some light studio touches on the middle bridge and outro. The sad, subtle integrity of the song holds up no matter which version you’re listening to, a nice reminder of the artist’s skill as a balladeer.

Demo:

Studio:

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“About You”

teenage fanclub
Teenage Fanclub
Grand Prix, 2005

Epic, shiny, big-gesture power pop. There’s an art to this kind of thing, and as many have noted, Teenage Fanclub does it as well as anyone. The Scottish Big Star devotees continued to hone their craft after 1991’s Bandwagonesque, settling into a slower, more polished, more textured guitar sound. The intent remained, as ever, a pursuit of perfect pop song craft. “About You” opens Grand Prix with a simple, swinging hook and lush harmonies. The words might mean something or nothing at all, but they’re delivered with such conviction that you can’t help but agree. I love that fifty years after The Beatles, bands are still making music that feels this way.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20About%20You.mp3]

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“I Must Be in a Good Place Now”

bobby charles
Bobby Charles
Bobby Charles, 1972

“I saw a butterfly and I named it after you/Your name has such a pleasant sound.” That’s the sweetest line from a very, very sweet song by Bobby Charles (birth name Robert Charles Guidry), the Cajun swamp-pop pioneer mostly known for writing songs other singers made famous. “See You Later, Alligator,” “Walking to New Orleans,” and “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do” are all his. In the early seventies, Charles spent some time with The Band (yes, that one) and ended up with a low-key record packed with charmers like this one. Dripping with quiet soul, “I Must Be in a Good Place Now” conjures up memories of Southern days gone by that feel clear and true even if they were never yours to begin with. Best heard on vinyl, on a humid day.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/03%20I%20Must%20Be%20In%20a%20Good%20Place%20Now.m4a]

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