Neverending Randomplay is a feature in which I let my J-River Media Center choose what we get listen to. My collection currently stands at 23,652 titles. The lion’s share are rock of all genres, with a mix of pop, blues, country, pre-rock, jazz, reggae, soul, electronic, avant-garde, hip-hop, rap, bluegrass, trance, Afrobeat, J-Pop, trip-hop, lounge, worldbeat, commercial jingles, etc. filling it out. I don’t influence the track selection in any way; whatever comes up, comes up. Rated 1-5 stars.
351. Benny Goodman: King Porter Stomp *****
Along with Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman was one of the titans of swing, which was what a lot of young hepcats listened to, danced to, and made out to back in the prewar era. A revamped Jelly Roll Morton tune, “King Porter Stomp” is one of Goodman’s best numbers, recorded in 1935, just as Goodman was entering his 1935-1939 peak. Indeed, the clarinet-playing Goodman is often credited as the inventor of swing as it came to be known, stemming from a 1935 performance at the Palomar Ballroom near Los Angeles where the crowd went wild after Goodman had been met with lukewarm enthusiasm on the east coast. “King Porter Stomp” captures succinctly the jauntiness of the era, and you’d be making a mistake if you assumed there was anything square about it. While the whole orchestra shines, special credit goes to drummer extrordinaire Gene Krupa, who gives the song its extra punch. Swing eventually fell out of favor during World War II, to be replaced by bebop jazz, Chicago blues, and eventually rock ‘n’ roll as the favored youth music in the nation. Goodman disbanded his orchestra in 1944, but remained active as a musician, arranger, and radio host, and even toured the U.S.S.R. in 1962. He died in 1986.
352. Paul McCartney: Motor of Love ***
Flowers In The Dirt was McCartney’s attempt to get himself out of the rut he spent most of the 1980’s in. His stock had never fallen as far as it had by 1989; he endured a lot of spite following John Lennon’s death in 1980, broke up Wings in 1981, saw his hits dry up by mid-decade, released an embarrassment of a movie in 1984, Give My Regards To Broad Street, and was largely silent in the late 80’s. Perhaps signalling his desire to be taken seriously again, Flowers In The Dirt, from 1989, was his first album not to feature his photograph on the cover. More substantially, Elvis Costello was brought in to co-write a handful of songs, McCartney’s first heavyweight musical collaborator in songwriting since the sainted Lennon. The result was a semi-success; Flowers In the Dirt was the first McCartney album to have substance since the 1970’s, and sold fairly well. A supporting world tour, his first since 1976, was a huge success. “Motor of Love” isn’t one of the McCartney/McManus collaborations, but it’s an interesting tune nonetheless; a somewhat crackpot devotional from a secular Brit, it certainly isn’t authentic, but does demonstrate McCartney’s knack for tackling any idiom and making it his own. The drawbacks are what keeps the album from being truly fulfilling; cheesy 1980’s synths and drum machines that haven’t aged well. In the end, it was a step in the right direction, but only a step; McCartney wouldn’t see his image rehabilitated until the late 90’s, and even now he still gets dissed pretty often. Fans will like this, though.
353. Arctic Monkeys: From the Ritz to The Rubble ****
Arctic Monkeys, formed in Sheffield, U.K., envision themselves as a cross between the Clash and the Jam, with some Britpop conventions thrown in. This alone should inspire suspicion, but I am here to report that on “From the Ritz to The Rubble”, I’m buying what they’re selling. Punky on the surface, it also boasts the dense layered guitars of post alt-rock, and they’re edgy enough to provide nourishment. The song is aggressively uptempo, but more metallic than traditional punk; Alex Turner’s snotty rapidfire vocals exude attitude without coming across as a pose, rare enough these days to be noteworthy. The song is the penultimate one on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, their 2006 debut, which broke sales records when it was released in January. Not since Oasis has there been so much hype for a band across the Atlantic, and as with Oasis, it might be too much for any one band to live up to. But I’ll gladly play this again, no problem. All I can say is, thank God for the guitars, and hope they don’t fall prey to the almost inevitable sophomore swoon.
354. Mantovani Orchestra: Vaya Con Dios ***
For those who wonder what the Moody Blues really aspired to, it was something like this. Annunzio Paolo Mantovani was a conductor, composer, violinist, and pianist, and crafted lush sounding easy listening albums with string orchestras. “Vaya Con Dios” perhaps best known for the Les Paul/Mary Ford rendition, is typical of his material; he relied more on TV and movie themes than on original compostions. How is it? Well lush, pretty, and melodic. Perfect for dozing off to, and there’s the rub. When music becomes this innocuous, it ceases to stir any passions whatsoever, and becomes part of the wallpaper. There’s certainly nothing to complain about, Mantovani is certainly a competent arranger; he may well be the best easy listening arranger in history. But some things shouldn’t be too easy. Not sure of the date for this one; I’d guess it’s from 1953 or shortly after. Those who like vintage lounge music for the camp value might find this to their liking; those who like lounge music without irony will find this much too tame. Recommended to Justin Hayward and John Lodge.
355. Devo: Space Junk *****
Devo (short for ‘De-evolution’) was frequently derided as a one-joke band back in their heyday, and while that charge may be true, time has been kind to these Kent State art-rockers in disguise. In retrospect, their 1978 debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! is as much a piece of new wave history as the Talking Heads’ early albums, and the Brian Eno production makes the comparison less ridiculous than it may seem on the surface. Indeed, the chiming guitars are very Heads-like, and Mark Mothersbaugh’s vocals, full of goofy, hiccupy accents wrapped around a humanist message is very much in the style of David Byrne, for whom Eno produced More Songs About Buildings and Food the same year. In fact, nearly all of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! sounds less disposable now than it did when it was new, and would probably appeal to the power-pop fans who were afraid to try it back in the day. It’s art-rock all right, but at a brisk 2:13, it won’t wear out its welcome, and the playing is punchy. Accused by an out-of-it Rolling Stone of being Fascists, Devo’s campy conformity to their baked philosophy was ultimately a humanistic message at heart.
356. Sandie Shaw: Message Understood ***
Chris Andrews, Sandie Shaw’s chief songwriter, penned this charming little pop ditty, which sounds like Burt Bacharach writing for Mary Wells. It’s innocuous in the way that only 60’s British girl-pop could be, but therein lies its subtle charms, along with a brassy horn section that dates this recording to 1966. Along with Dusty Springfield and Lulu, Sandie Shaw was one of the bigger names of U.K. girl pop of the 60’s, although she never reached the heights in the U.S. the others did, and saw her career dry up first. That said, she had enough catchy pop hits written by good songwriters and arranged by big names to make her worth exploring once you’ve run out of British Invasion groups to explore. A little on the sweet side, which means you’ve got to have a thing for 60’s pop not to gag. Shaw later recorded in more of a cabaret sort of vein not unlike Mary Hopkin, and a minor personal scandal scuttled her squeaky-clean image, leading to her retirement in 1970; she re-emerged in the 1980’s when the Smiths’ Morrissey revealed himself to be a fan; she cut a single with the Smiths backing in 1986; she also worked with the Jesus and Mary Chain, of all people.
357. Concrete Blonde: Make Me Cry *****
This was a bit of a surprise when it came on today. Concrete Blonde were part of the mid-80’s L.A. post-punk circuit where they shared gigs with X, the Go-Go’s, and Wall of Voodoo. Their 1987 debut album Concrete Blonde, featured the anthem “Still in Hollywood”, a tough-as-nails statement of purpose. “Make Me Cry”, from the same album, sounds almost like the Cowboy Junkies; a tender, melodic, acoustic alt-country number featuring an unusually winsome and bittersweet vocal and harmony from Johnette Napolitano. While Napolitano sometimes came across as a more Goth Chrissie Hynde, here she’s convincingly country, even if I don’t quite buy the twang in her voice; the song’s windswept ambiance compliments the vocals nicely. The band, also led by guitarist Jim Mankey, originally was called Dream 6, but a suggestion from I.R.S. labelmate Michael Stipe resulted in a name-change just prior to this album’s release.
358. The Boo Radleys: Lazy Day ****
The Boo Radleys never quite settled on a musical identity, which has hurt them in the long run in the legacy sweepstakes. As labelmates with My Bloody Valentine at the shoegaze-oriented Creation records, they shared with them their love of noise; fuzz, pedals, studio trickery, introverted vocals were part of their bag, and all make their appearance here. However, they clearly didn’t want the shoegaze pigeonhole to apply to them; they had ambition. So unlike their fellow shoegazers, they favored linear, uptempo, jangle-pop derived tunes, as opposed to swirling, shimmery, noisefests. “Lazy Day” hurries right along, hanging its hook on its forward moving guitars; while there’s plenty of white noise and static to keep a shoegaze fan feeling at home, there’s anough of a tune here to please, say, an R.E.M. or dB’s fan as well. “Lazy Day” is from Everything’s Alright Forever, the band’s 1992 debut album, and first release for Creation. The band’s peak was in 1994-1995 when they released two excellent albums, Giant Steps and Wake Up Boo!, the latter reaching top-10 in the U.K. American audiences could never really figure them out, however, and by 1996 they had been dropped from their U.S. label, which eventually led to their 1998 breakup. Now mostly forgotten, they actually were one of the key early 90’s bands; a missing link between shoegaze, roots rock, and Britpop.
359. The Police: Walking In Your Footprints ***
Synchronicity, the 1983 album that was the fifth and final from the U.K. trio the Police, was at once their most ambitious recording and also their least cohesive. As was part of general Police policy since 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta, all of the world is fair game for the plundering of musical cues, and “Walking In Your Footsteps” is based almost entirely around a polyrhythm that undoubtedly had its genesis in some uncredited African tribe. Stewart Copeland’s drums, therefore, are the star of the show here, although Andy Summers manages to coax some remarkable jungle bird cries from his guitar. Sting is the weak link here; he sounds disinterested, and the lyrics, an ode to dinosaurs, is pretty silly. These days, it’s kind of hard to justify listening to stuff like this, with so much authentic worldbeat available, but the Police were one of the great synthesists of their age, and thus at no time does this not sound like the Police. The album was a mega #1, and nearly all of it turns up on the radio to this day. One of the few songs that seldom does is “Walking In Your Footprints”, which ultimately works better in the context of the album, where its cornier aspects benefit from similar company.
360. Bonnie Raitt: Women Be Wise ****
Bonnie Raitt’s biggest commercial triumphs came so late in her career (1989) that it’s sometimes easy to forget how far she goes back. “Women Be Wise” is from her 1971 debut, Bonnie Raitt, which cast her as more of a blues singer than anything else. “Woman Be Wise” sounds something like Geoff and Maria Muldaur’s blues excursions of the same era, although Raitt is a far more commanding singer than Muldaur ever was. The song is piano-based in a New Orleans sort of vein, but with a hint of laid-back California tucked away in there. Credited to John Beach/Sippie Wallace (Beach is the pianist), the song itself is homey and warm, although not especially memorable on its own merits; what stands out is Raitt’s vocal, which could have established her as a bona-fide blues singer, had than been the direction she had chosen. Instead, she pursued an eclectic path, which has turned into one of the longest careers by a woman in any genre of music.
Listen to Concrete Blonde: Make Me Cry (1987)