Archive for April, 2009

“Coming Up Close” ‘Til Tuesday

April 28, 2009

til_tuesdayMany people know that Aimee Mann – who made a name for herself in the 90’s through sharp, acerbic, eloquently flat songs of personal disgust – got her start as lead singer of ‘Til Tuesday, the 80’s New Wave band best known for their hit “Voices Carry” (that’s Mann’s stern features under that shocking blonde hair, above).  Even knowing it, how strange is it to think of those two songs coming from the same mind?  Even liking both ‘Til Tuesday as an 80’s group and Mann as an artist, the idea has never meshed.  “Coming Up Close” is ‘Til Tuesday’s best song, without a doubt.  It’s easy to miss, and I think the problem is how sincere it was – a beautiful, achingly simple tale of lovers driving in a borrowed car in Iowa, and Mann (singing) feeling that “anything I could have said/ I felt somehow you already knew.”  Maybe this is a sensation lovers often feel in moments of closeness, but the music also gives us something Mann could have said if we hadn’t already known – that things weren’t going to end well.  As the tale ends with the simple observation of a man who “got back in his car and drove away,” you didn’t just sense the heartbreak, you sensed the fleeting wonder of the moment that took place, too.  I find this song so moving that it fits with Mann’s later, colder and more sardonic work – it so nakedly displays the heartbreak that led to Mann being such an ice queen.


Sonic Youth, Evol

April 25, 2009


I don’t have my physical copy of Sonic Youth’s Evol with me anymore, not in one place.  I left my home state of Colorado in a Subaru with my father towards Seattle, and a cd wallet with all my cd’s made it out here – not many liner notes, and no cases.  This is not unusual now, but for quite a while – we’ll say, ages 17-20 – I treasured my physical copy of Evol, and I’d say this was, beyond the music, beyond the great scribbled-over shriek of a cover, for the fascinating liner notes from the 1993 reissue, written by Lisa Crystal Carver (now available online at

Carver recounts a story of moving to LA as a 17-year-old drop out and finding a copy.  She saw herself drawn to Evol’s opening song, “Tom Violence,” by the word violence.  17-year-olds, after all, enjoy violence, right?  She said followed by that, “Shadow of a Doubt,” the second track on the album, did not need the word violence because “it was violence.”  Finally, she wound up discovering this was the album that spoke for her transformation from a New Hampshire teenager to an Los Angelino having a life.

I don’t want to call her becoming an adult, I want to say a “young adult” but hopefully free myself of the middle school library connotation.  Because she hits the nail on the head with Evol – it’s an album of beginnings.  Violent, furious, exciting, romantic, programmatically bold beginnings.  As I mentioned in discussing Bad Moon Rising, Sonic Youth, with that record, entered into a 10 year period of astonishing productivity and the core of their legacy of musicians is contained in that 1985-1995 period.  Evol, from 1986, is the album that speaks to opening that journey.  1995’s Washing Machine – an album of closure and finality – marks that journey’s end in extraordinary bookmark fashion.  I ask any music fan to get to know Evol, then 1987’s Sister, 1988’s Daydream Nation, 1990’s Goo, 1992’s Dirty, 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, and then Washing Machine now and not find a band in extraordinarily sustained creative command.  It’s not for nothing I consider Sonic Youth the greatest band in the world – this ten year period featured one defiant, off-key, time-defining noisy masterpiece after another.

What Evol creates, though, that the others stray further and further away from – perhaps appropriately – is a sense of youth, and a sense of idealism and possibility.  “Tom Violence” seems sludgy and remote, but with its cry of “I left home for experience/ carved ‘suk for honesty’ on my chest” (sic), you begin to glimpse the dream forming out of the mess.  It’s a description of a man setting out to quest for experience.  It’s followed in enticing, sensual off key strumming with “Shadow of a Doubt,” which, yes, is violence.  A tale of strangers on a train colluding in a whisper to kill… well, someone… the song speaks to a desire to alchemize rage and create something.  Even the loud, stalker piece “Star Power” that follows seems to find some raging freedom in off kilter obsession, represented by Kim Gordon’s most on point out-of-wack voice, a punk holdover that, in retrospect, Gordon did better than anyone.

The themes of Evol are simple and repetitive – there’s love and violence, and both are part of the same breath, releasing a sense of possibility, and a sense of life.  Lee Ranaldo, SY’s beat poet guitarist, brought out his first real “Lee” song, “In The Kingdom #19,” a spoken-word tale of a man getting hit by a car and winning, and it still makes violence that is “inching towards truth,” as he describes.  And that thought segues into a very simple love song, “Green Light,” in which Thurston Moore sees “a green light,” and turns the raging off-key number into the heights of sweetness.  This is, of course, followed by “Death To Our Friends,” a loud instrumental track whose guitar riffs even seem violent.

I can’t imagine my love of Sonic Youth over the years without my love of Evol, without feeling it plunge itself right into my own desires for excitement and possibility.  The material, being so insistently violent, coaxes you right into finding the trademark dissonance in the guitar and rhythm of the tracks; it makes you love every antisocial impulse you’ve ever felt.  The album properly ended with “Madonna, Sean, and Me,” more commonly known as “Expressway to Yr Skull,” which is a little of both – a violent promise (“We’re gonna kill the California girls”) and an ode to learning how to be happy (“We’re gonna find the meaning of feeling good”) – trailing off in one descending guitar cord after another.  It’s perfection, but the reissue – which is the only Evol I’ve ever known – ends in another song, the Kim Gordon led “Bubblegum,” a passionately straightforward rock number.  Its chorus screams “Love is so much fun, life has just begun.”  I cannot imagine Evol being as perfect without “Bubblegum” bracketing “Tom Violence.”  These are songs that define, glorify, and exalt the wild rough edges of youth.  Falling in love with this record, you won’t think anything you feel is rough again.

“Sunday Morning” No Doubt

April 12, 2009

Maybe it was Gwen Stefani’s cute red dress and pumps on the cover, maybeno-doubt it was trite, sarcastic neo feminism (“I’m just a girl, oh little old me”), maybe it was the promise of ska packaged in a pop confection, but certainly something took hold for No Doubt in 1996, the year in which Tragic Kingdom sold 16 million copies worldwide.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can say pretty conclusively that Tragic Kingdom was one of the most successful albums of the decade – not just because it spawned mega-hits “Just A Girl,” “Spiderwebs,” and “Don’t Speak,” but because it launched an empire, brought ska into the mainstream, made Gwen Stefani a superstar, who, both in 1996 and onward, influenced fashion endlessly, and simply, defined that period of the 90’s – angry but still bubbly, wild and defiant… but not that wild.  I remember buying Tragic Kingdom at a Target in 1996, learning all the songs by heart… then just a few months later learning to despise the whole thing as too popular.

One thing that has never changed for me, though, is my love of its clean-up single “Sunday Morning.”  It came late in the album with an ever loudening march of snare drums, and opens onto a bass and organ ska melody.  Since this was a band who’d cut their teeth at ska shows but got popular making unobjectionable rock pop music, “Sunday Morning” remains the single reminding us of No Doubt’s good time roots.  Yet as time has wandered on for me, for the band, for Stefani, “Sunday Morning” also seems to me the song that they really got right, the best of all their worlds.  A breakup song of sorts, it’s a kiss-off to a lover who simply “changed since yesterday, without any warning,” but then dismisses the whole thing with a mighty, sly “Oh well.”  I hear this song and there’s no doubt (hah!) why the band, Stefani, and the type of music all did so well – so much giddy, sublime angst!  A bass and drum heavy party anthem to be pissed off to and dance (er, skank?) your cares away!  Some songs from the mid 90’s now remind me of my middle and high school years with gleeful nostalgia.  “Sunday Morning” is so much better – it makes me want to kick and jump around and experience those emotions all over again.