Monthly Archives: December 2009

There’s a Heaven Above You Baby

It seems that some of the best songs occur on my I-Pod shuffle. I was lazily waiting for the bus the other day when “Don’t Cry” by Guns ‘N Roses came on & it took every ounce of strength within me to not start doing the Axl Rose sway. Listening over & over again led me to the conclusion that “Don’t Cry” is the best unassumingly great guitar song & also the best thing Shannon Hoon could do to secure some semblance of a musical legacy besides ODing after an all night coke binge. What I mean by unassumingly great guitar song is that it starts off as a ballad & then sometime after the second chorus Slash erupts into a masterful guitar solo that completely takes you by surprise. Just as soon as it hits, though, it’s gone.

It exemplifies the last vestige of the hair band ’80′s style that GNR perfected. I heard a discussion on the radio the other day about how in the ’80′s everyone just assumed Van Halen would be around forever, but no one thought  Bon Jovi would last much past the ’80′s. That’s how I felt about GNR & Metallica. I never thought Metallica was worth a damn (still don’t). They, to me, were the white trash version of GNR, but nowhere near as musically talented. Slash is the best guitar player of our generation. I’m not even sure anyone could argue otherwise. What Metallica was to Midwest Metalheads, GNR was to the excess driven Sunset Strip. Metallica may still be together, but they don’t stand the test of time the way GNR does.

My Morning Jacket has traces of  GNR in songs like “One Big Holiday” but the only bands that aspire to be Metallica are the bands that cover their faces with ridiculous masks & make a mockery of quality music. Sure, GNR were loud, but loud music has nothing to do with quality of musicianship. Matt Sorum, Duff Mckagan, Axl Rose & Slash are infinitely better musicians than James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, the number of bassists they ran through & Kirk Hammet (though he was a very good guitarist). Axl Rose’s range alone showed that they were more than just a long haired ’80′s act. So when the argument inevitably comes up & you’re asked who was a better band or who stands the test of time better without a doubt you must answer Guns ‘N Roses. They are without a doubt the great act to come out of the hair ’80′s.

I have included 3 versions of the song for your consumption.

Don’t Cry – Use Your Illusion I

Don’t Cry – Use Your Illusion II

Don’t Cry – Live

The One Big Soul That Belongs To Everybody

Bob Dylan once wrote a song to Woody Guthrie (A Song to Woody was the official title) while Guthrie, increasingly unable to control his muscle movements due to Huntington’s Disease, was hospitalized at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. It’s addressed to Woody, but also meant for all the old folk singers that were losing touch with the new modern world. A world that was increasingly forgetting about them. Woody Guthrie sung of the Depression mainly the Dust Bowl Refugees that had come to California seeking work only to be turned away.

I’ve referred to what I think is the greatest novel ever written many times on this blog recently, The Grapes of Wrath & how it correlates with today’s new economic climate. I don’t have a cable television, mainly because I have an addictive personality & I would indeed watch all the time, but I do keep up with the news voraciously & I love to read. Today, people are no longer coming to California for work, they are leaving.

There are so many scapegoats that it would take weeks to list them on this blog, so I won’t go into huge detail about all. However, there is one main culprit I have in my sites today & that is Unemployment. This is one of the worst, most unconscionable Government Organizations around.  While in theory it is there to help people, it is run by people who’s main goal is not to help you find work, not to help you while you are unemployed but to find ways not to pay you. I have witnessed this first hand with many members of my family.

It is corrupt & even though this is hyperbolic & slightly biased, evil. They interview people over the phone to see if they are eligible first off, but their line of questioning & tone is, more often than not, accusatory & on the blaming you side. Meaning you lose your job, they question why you wouldn’t do everything to keep it up to & including grabbing your ankles. It is not their goal or desire to help those that desperately want to work. They seek not to help get you work with their CALJOBS site (which is an absolute joke). What they seek is reason to delay, deny & discourage those that can’t find work.

I am not speaking of those that consider being unemployed, funemployed. People who sponge off the system or defraud it are deplorable. No, I speak of the needy in this state that need a sympathetic ear when times are tough. Whatever happened to courtesy? What happened to core ideals like caring for your fellow man? Where did we go wrong as a people that simple compassion & understanding have gone the way of the dodo only to be replaced by apathy & outright disdain?

Have we really gone so far as to becoming a country where the haves seek to eliminate the have-nots? It is a telling example that the unemployment is understaffed & now open on Saturdays to help with the utter saturation of calls they receive. Are they cycling people from the DMV into the Unemployment offices now? I am not complaining for the sake of complaining I want change. Our Governor checked out a long time ago. When you elect Rich Men who could care less about poor people this is what you get.

I watched parts of the “Jobs Summit” that the President held the other day with Corporate execs & I heard a recurring theme especially from Disney Chairman Robert Iger & that was reduce the Corporate tax. For what? They won’t employ more people, they’ll just line their own pockets. The economic system is so inherently flawed that it is destined to reoccur in the not too distant future. The people that are trying to help aren’t listened to or labeled as crazy & the people that shit on the poor are regarded as heroes. We are in serious need of our Tom Joad. Someone who will fight for the cause of the poor. Perhaps, The Grapes of Wrath was a call to socialism as many have intimated. If true then so be it, the system we have now is no longer working.

Tom Joad: I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…
Ma Joad: Oh, Tommy, they’d drag you out and cut you down just like they done to Casy.
Tom Joad: They’d drag me anyways. Sooner or later they’d get me for one thing if not for another. Until then…
Ma Joad: Tommy, you’re not aimin’ to kill nobody.
Tom Joad: No, Ma, not that. That ain’t it. It’s just, well as long as I’m an outlaw anyways… maybe I can do somethin’… maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if they ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear, Ma. I can’t. I don’t know enough.
Ma Joad: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?
Tom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…
Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?
Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.
Ma Joad: I don’t understand it, Tom.
Tom Joad: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.

Ghost of Tom Joad – Bruce Springsteen

Song to Woody – Bob Dylan

The Bourgeois Blues – Lead Belly

Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise – The Avett Brothers

The Soundtrack of Life

I think I’m a pretty nostalgic person. Not to the point of being one of those people that thinks everything was better when I was a kid, but I do have a strong regard for my youth. It seems like everything is so much simpler when you’re growing up as you don’t realize the struggles your parents go through to get you things like my first walk man for instance. I loved that little Christmas gift. The problem was being relegated to the 30-45 minutes, depending on the type of tape you bought. It really cut into the type of mix-tape you can make & often times a song would be cut in half from one side to the other.

Then came along the Discman onto the scene & it was supposed to supplant the Walkman. It never really caught on. Sure a lot of people had them but they didn’t seem as prevalent. I was watching Beverly Hills Cop II the other day & noticed the obligatory ’80′s girl in a leotard, with leggings, on roller skates & a walk man covering her ears. You never saw that in the ’90′s. It was bulky & discs skipped with any bump & the batteries died almost instantly.

Now, however, as technology has advanced at a rapid, almost otherworldly clip, so have ways of listening to music. The I-pod has literally turned life into a movie with an endless soundtrack. Living in Hollywood & not having a car (by choice) was tortuous without one. I walked or biked around in a toxic environment of city sounds which becomes monotonous & leads to a jaded perspective of L.A.

Recently, I made the investment, if you will, into an I-Pod that could hold all my music. A vast array of different genres that bring immense joy. I begin taking long bike rides, going to the gym more, walking more as my life became a soundtrack. Watching people argue over a car accident while the Seeds play “Pushing Too Hard” in my ears created a dramatic tension to real life. It created a surreal perspective on everyday nuances that may seem passe to the unplugged ears. By simply listening while watching I became more interested & aware of my surroundings as I tried to fit life to a song.

While a much needed rain fell this week I felt it necessary to ride my bike in the light rain as Okkervill River’s The Stand In’s album played. It was a surreal experience that showcased raindrops as if they were musical notes falling from the sky. Whimsical extensions of my care-free windswept ethereal feelings. The I-Pod has not only created a better way to listen to music longer, but it has unintentionally become the soundtrack of our lives & because of that life has never been more enjoyable.

Top 15 Cover Songs of the Decade

It’s come to that time of the year/decade where innumerable lists will come out touting writer’s knowledge of music by saying what the best album, songs or artists of the decade/year are. Some are interesting reads, others are banal wastes of time & yet others are pretentious attempts at musical superiority while showing you have little knowledge about “real” music. It is this final category that Paste Magazine’s 30 best covers of the decade falls into.

Covers are a delicate subject with me. A cover song must be at least similar to the original. Otherwise, you’re not covering another artist’s song you’re simply saying you think they did a shitty job the first time around instead of paying homage. Jimi Hendrix did not cover Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” he dissected it & made it better. Dylan provided the blueprint for Hendrix & Jimi ran with it. Dylan himself has said as much:

It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day…I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way…Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.

Paste has a reputation for thinking they’re better than everyone with obscure references to obscure songs & praising them from the mountain top as being immortal & themselves as fore bearers to the band’s success. Their list is full of songs that hold little relevancy to anyone except the artists themselves.

It’s a bit disgraceful to see a list of songs with The Polyphonic Spree at #7 with Nirvana’s “Lithium” or Calexico at #8 with Stereolab’s “Peng! 33″. What? Really? Stereolab was an obscure band from the ’90′s that never found success in part because they were bad at making music. The Polyphonic Spree is a band from today that suffers from the same problem. I’m all for opening eyes with new artists. I try to introduce new artists to the masses on this blog regularly, but to indiscriminately toss out labels like “best of the decade” is hyperbolic to the core.

There are a few I agree with on the list, but none above number 9 (they are 28, 20, 18 – which may be the best on their list, 10 & 9). In large part I think Paste is, once again, showing they’re rightly regarded as a magazine strictly for the arrogant hipster, who thinks he knows more about music than you. It’s like saying Sgt. Pepper is too commercial of an album to be the best of all time or the “Godfather” is too widely known to be the best film of all time. Everyone has their opinion & rightfully so, but when an opinion is there to show you how shitty your musical tastes are then it becomes a practice in musical bullying & I think it’s an abhorrent practice.

Music is there to spark conversation, to create unity, to educate, not belittle (unless you’re talking about Gangster Rap). Every time I give an opinion on this blog (or any other place I write) I try to give it context, not to dumb down my point, but to educate in one way or another. I happen to know a lot about music, mostly because I have no life, but also because it happens to be my passion. I do not claim to be the end all be all of musical critics. I’m simply a conduit to better understanding for those that have lives or seek some better form of musical knowledge.

So here is my list of the 15 best covers of the decade with short explanations as to why I enjoy them & why they’re great in my opinion:

#15 – Love Vigilantes – Voxtrot (originally: New Order)

A classic ’80′s song that is faithful to the original without being a complete replica. While expressing the emotion that many families are feeling, it is apropos of the moment in which we live.

#14 – Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie (Originally: Cyndi Lauper)

Another ’80′s song many consider trite pop, but Gibbard turns it into something much more. An anthem of parental & societal oppression. The audience laughs but if you really listen to the lyrics you realize that it is a plea to stop worrying about social mores that tend to pigeonhole people into groups that have no true bearing on who they really are. A beautiful interpretation.

#13 – You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere – Counting Crows (Originally: Bob Dylan)

Redone by many artists, this is faithful to the original from Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes version with The Band. Marketa Iglova & Glen Hansard do a fairly competent version on the I’m Not There Soundtrack, but it really doesn’t compare to Adam Duritz belting this classic out.

#12 – The Long Way Home – Norah Jones (Originally: Tom Waits)

Tom Waits has that writing quality that makes everyone want to redo his songs. Norah Jones is a phenomenal songwriter in her own right & has the perfect voice for this Waits composition. There’s something to be said for a steel guitar & a Tom Waits song that just reeks of awesomeness.

#11 – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam (Originally: Nina Simone)

While the Animals may have popularized this song, it was written for Nina Simone by Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell and Sol Marcus. The song correlates with Yusuf’s own struggles after he changed his name from Cat Stevens to Yusuf Islam & his subsequent inclusion on the Terrorist watch list in the early ’00′s.

#10 – Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want – She & Him (Originally: The Smiths)

Zooey Deschanel & M. Ward covered this song for the 500 Days of Summer Soundtrack perfectly. The echo behind Deschanel’s voice creates a haunting version while staying succinctly true to the original. You can almost hear the anguish in her voice as she desperately emotes Morrissey’s plea for a change in his luck.

#9 – Glory Days – The Avett Brothers (Originally: Bruce Springsteen)

The issue I’ve always had with this song is that instead of saying fastball at the beginning he says speedball. When I hear Bruce say “He could throw that Speedball right by you.” it always makes me cringe as a baseball fan & someone who had a lot of friends who did a lot of drugs. That’s my only complaint, though, I love the song & the Avett’s doing it with a banjo, a kick drum & a tambourine is magical.

#8 – The Weight - Gaslight Anthem (Originally: The Band)

The seminal song in the Band’s career is faithfully done by the Gaslight Anthem’s lead singer Brian Fallon. There’s a lot to be said for a man & his guitar. Fallon has that kind of voice that is suited for a song such as this. It’s a story song, almost in the same vein as The Beatles “A Day in the Life”.

#7 – Sunday Morning – Beck’s Record Club (Originally: Velvet Underground & Nico)

When Beck started his Record Club project it was considered a bit of a lark (especially when I read he considered doing Digital Underground’s album Sex Packets in it’s entirety), but when you hear this song you realize otherwise. I have never been a fan of Beck’s music. I’ve interviewed him a number of times, smoked out with him & find him to be a fascinating person, but musically I’m not evolved enough to enjoy what he does, though I do recognize his talent. Be that as it may I do love this cover so much. When stripped down Beck’s voice is incredible.

#6 – Dancing in the Dark – Pete Yorn (Originally: Bruce Springsteen)

Another Springsteen song covered by a talented musician. Pete Yorn’s first album spoke to me so much that I don’t think I listened to another album for a month after it came out. Yorn with a piano slowly singing this mournful song about escaping the everyday doldrums of life. It’s something we can all relate to, especially in this context.

#5 – I Don’t Wanna Grow Up – Cold War Kids (Originally: Tom Waits)

Hearing the Cold War Kids acoustically is a sound to behold. Hearing them sing Tom Waits’ song about having to accept responsibility as an adult & wanting to stay a child forever is a moment. It’s much like when the Beach Boys released A Beach Boys’ Party where they covered a few Beatles songs among others & made it a sing along. This recording, while much less hokey, has that feel to it.

#4 – The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Originally: Bob Dylan)

While not completely factual this song still does speak to the injustice that was still going on in 1960′s America. Lead Singer, Peter Hayes, expresses the difficulty in remembering all the lyrics before he starts actually singing noting it is a Bob Dylan song. He doesn’t sing it with tonal precision which makes it even that much better. What he does give it is slightly more melody than Dylan (as many often have). The harmonica in the Bridge is not overstated or too intense to overpower the audience.

#3 – My Oklahoma Home – Bruce Springsteen (Originally: Pete Seeger)

When Bruuuuuuce decided to make a tribute album with all Pete Seeger songs I never thought it would work. I love just about everything Springsteen touches, but even this seemed like a stretch to me. I was wrong. The true merit of an artist is the ability to reinvent oneself & make it work. Dylan did it, the Beatles did it & Springsteen did as well. This song about the Oklahoma Dust Bowl holds as much connotation in today’s current economic climate as it did 80 years ago. No one today speaks of the hardships of the blue collar society like Bruce & before him there was no one better than Pete Seeger & Woody Guthrie.

#2 – The Drugs Don’t Work – Ben Harper (Originally: The Verve)

Ben Harper has a way of making songs better as with this Verve song about as Richard Ashcroft put it:

There’s a new track I’ve just written [...] It goes ‘the drugs don’t work, they just make me worse, and I know I’ll see your face again’. That’s how I’m feeling at the moment. They make me worse, man. But I still take ‘em. Out of boredom and frustration you turn to something else to escape.

Harper brings a subtle vulnerability to this track as if he were actually speaking this to a loved one. The Verve version was a little more gruff, but beautiful nonetheless. Richard Ashcroft is a highly underrated lyricist & never was that made more evident than in this version.

#1 – Long, Long, Long – Jim James (Originally: The Beatles)

Earlier this year Jim James of My Morning Jacket, quietly released a 6 song EP under the moniker Yim Yames covering some of his favorite George Harrison songs. It went mostly unnoticed by critics as it was released primarily online, but it was perhaps the best thing recorded all year. This is one of my favorite Beatle songs from the White Album & James captures the essence of the track with the echoed brilliance of the vocals. If ever a cover song moved me I can not remember when one did it like this one. It is not merely faithful to the original, but luminous in it’s own right.