When it comes to music, the Mitt Romney campaign has had a rough go of it. Artists like Silversun Pickups, Twisted Sister, K’Naan, and Al Green have already prohibited the Republican ticket from using their songs based on various reasons, mostly ideological. But Romney isn’t the only musical pariah in politics. Over the course of his two successful campaigns, George W. Bush faced lawsuits from artists such as Tom Petty, John Hall, and Sting while John McCain received backlash from the likes of John Cougar Mellenkamp, ABBA, Jackson Browne, and The Foo Fighters. In fact, the only Democrat to ever be asked not to use a song was Barrack Obama in 2008 when Sam Moore asked him to not use his song “Hold On, I’m Coming,” but even in that instance, Moore insisted he was excited about Obama’s campaign. The recent request made by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider to Paul Ryan had me asking a simple question: why do musicians hate the GOP?
As I watched Adele accept her Grammy for “Album of the Year,” I had a moment of surprise (the first shocker after three hours of predictable performances, winners, and speeches). There, behind the teary eyed songstress, stood a be-speckled gentlemen with a goofy smile on his face. Something about the guy felt strangely familiar…and then it hit me. Dan Wilson! (Or as you may know him, the lead singer from the 90s alterna-pop band Semisonic.) I’ve been a fan of the band since I was 17, back then jamming out to “The Great Divide” on what seemed like a daily basis. The instant I saw him, I knew exactly why he was there – he must have written music for Adele.
During SXSW this past spring, my friend Sewer asked me if I like Tom Petty. This question caught me off guard for two reasons:
1. Sewer was my punk rock compass growing up, and the idea of him liking Tom Petty seemed alien to me.
2. I’d never considered Tom Petty as a legitimately respected artist.
I mulled the question over: Do I like Tom Petty? I don’t dislike him and his merry band of Heartbreakers (side note: worst back-up band name ever). My mom played albums like “Full Moon Fever” and “Into the Great Wide Open” in the car when I was a kid, and I never protested. Now that I think about it, Petty’s “Refugee” was my favorite song on Alvin and the Chipmunk’s “Chipmunk Punk” album (an album completely devoid of anything that resembled punk – Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, and Queen?!).
Sewer’s question got me thinking. Petty is obviously a talented songwriter with hits like “Running Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin” under his belt, but does he belong in the same pantheon as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan? At the time of my conversation with Sewer, I didn’t think so, but recent albums have me questioning my petty treatment of Petty.
It all started with Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring for My Halo.” My obsession with this album has been well documented here at BDWPS. I’d heard Petty comparisons with Kurt Vile, yet I didn’t put much merit to them beyond the jangly guitars and vocal stylings. Petty’s lyrics have never delved into the morose terrain that is the region Vile traverses for over 45 minutes on “Halo.” Maybe that’s all Petty’s music is missing? Sure he can write catchy melodies like Neil Young and tell entertaining tales like Springsteen, but none of it means anything if it doesn’t have the same soul and honesty behind it. Am I going to far to lump Petty in with the rest of the music making machine?
Last week my indifference to Petty was challenged again upon first listen to The War On Drugs “Slave Ambient.” Not coincidentally, The War On Drugs happen to be Kurt Vile’s former band. Without Vile, the Philadelphia outfit doesn’t sound like it misses their frontman much (more than I can imagine The Heartbreakers could say for themselves). The absence of Vile is difficult to discern thanks to Adam Granduciel’s ability to pick up the reigns. Both these 2011 albums feature that distinct Petty sound, which ironically, I never found to be distinct before now. Yet there it is, the steadfast drum beats, the anthemic rock guitars, and of course, the crooning style that Tom Petty stole from Bob Dylan years ago. And maybe therein lies the true influence; legend has it that Vile and Graduciel met at a party a decade ago and hit it off due to their shared love of, not Petty, but Dylan. The entire driving force behind The War On Drugs was to create a modern interpretation of “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Acolytes of Dylan still keeping his influence alive on “Blackwater” (no relation to the Doobie Brothers):
If taking Dylan’s harmonica, narrative lyrics, and nasal vocals then adding a wall of reverb and krautrock synths results in something that sounds like Tom Petty, than I suppose the comparisons are merited. On the surface every song on “Slave Ambient” has that oh so familiar rock n’ roll pop song demeanor, but the lyrics and the wall of synthesizer drone constantly takes each song into a cozy, lush direction that is somehow, always unexpected. It sneaks up on you; enveloping you in a mist of disorienting proggy atmosphere. It sounds like such a simple pairing, yet I can’t think of another artist who has so masterfully taken these two unique colors and mixed them so subtly.
Krautrock, meet Dylan. Dylan, meet Krautrock- “Your Love Is Calling My Name”:
In the end, I suppose critics are either giving Petty too much credit by calling him an influence on these guys, or maybe they haven’t given Petty enough credit over the years due simply to his ability to make one hit song after another. Whatever the case, I have to admit that I’m in love with “Slave Ambient,” an album that sounds eerily like something Tom Petty would have done 3o years ago if he had the creative fortitude to venture into darker territories, and of course, if he had just a smidgen of soul.
Last weekend a few friends and I took a three-day canoe trip down the Des Moines River in Iowa, starting in Estherville and ending up in Rutland. Since this experience, I can’t get the river off my mind (I have water on the brain). The journey packed a jambalaya of emotions: fear, exhilaration, calm, joy, and enlightenment. Many around Iowa look at the Des Moines River as a dirty cesspool of cow dung and pesticides, but they’ve obviously never gotten to know those murky brown waters. Now, I can’t help but feel a connection to the river.
Realizing I need to post a blog before BDWPS.com dries up like a riverbed, I contemplated different albums I could review. Nothing excited me though, and without passion, my writing sits as lifeless as a dead fish on the banks. Instead, I followed my recent enthusiasm from my river experience and decided to write a list of the “Top 20 River Songs.” As I started compiling the list I began to realize that rivers have been the subject of many, many, many songs. And it isn’t any wonder: rivers are mysterious old souls that can look serene and inviting while hiding beneath their vast power and unpredictability. They are both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
“Lazy River” Louie Armstrong
“Green River” CCR
“Yes, the River Knows” The Doors
“The River” Dutchess and the Duke
“Roll On Columbia” Woody Guthrie
“How Deep is that River” Mason Jennings
“River of Deceit” Mad Season
“All the Gifted Children” Lou Reed
“Mississippi River” Muddy Waters
20. “Proud Mary” Creedence Clearwater Revival
I hate this song (probably because it has been so over-played), but I felt compelled to include it on the list. If you asked the average person to name five river songs, this song would undoubtedly come up. If I left it off the list I would be deceiving the readers based solely on my bias. I prefer the CCR version over Tina Turner’s. Then again, that’s like saying I prefer liver and onions over a Spam sandwich. Regardless, you made the list CCR. Take your #20 ranking and roll with it.
19. “River, Stay ‘Way From the Door” Frank Sinatra
“River, Stay Away From the Door” is a plea to flood waters to stay away from the narrator’s cabin. The song takes on a double meaning as a plea to an ex-wife or girlfriend, asking her to stay away and leave him with the few items that he still has: his bed and a fire. And really, that’s all a man needs, right?
18. “Dam that River” Alice in Chains
As with 90% of Alice in Chains songs, “Dam that River” is about heroin addiction. In it, Layne Staley sings of someone trying to dam the river (stop his addiction), but despite their efforts, the river still washed him away. Damn.
17. “Down in the River to Pray” Alison Krauss
There has always been a connection between rivers and religion, one that goes beyond baptism. With “Down in the River to Pray” Allison Krauss sings about going to the banks to speak to God. And why wouldn’t she? Just like God, the river is deep and mystifying, cleansing and strong, ceaseless and never-ending. It makes you wonder why anyone who lives within 20 miles of a river goes to church to pray.
16. “Ballad of Easy Rider” Byrds
On the “Ballad of Easy Rider,” the Byrds draw a connection between riding a motorcycle and riding a river, and I guess it makes sense. During our trip down the Des Moines last weekend, we often didn’t know where we were or where the curving waters would take us next, but we never really cared just as long as we kept moving. I imagine this is the same experience those roving bikers felt in “Easy Rider,” letting the journey lead their way toward freedom. The only difference being (spoiler alert) we didn’t have a bad acid trip or get murdered by hillbillies. (Side note: Bob Dylan helped write this song)
15. “River of Sorrow” Antony and the Johnsons
No other voice could pull this song off quite like Antony. His croon always captures the spirit of a desperate soul. On “River of Sorrow” he begs the endless river to stop swallowing many things: sorrow, love, and time. Now if only he’d tell the river not to swallow my cell phone and wallet (which it did!).
14. “Ol’ Man River” Beach Boys
You knew “Ol’ Man River” would make the list. It’s a staple of the river song catalog and has been performed by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Ray Charles, but my favorite version comes from the Beach Boys off their album “Friends/20/20.” It’s probably inappropriate to like their version the best considering it originated as a slave song with lyrics like “let me go away from the white man boss.” Oh well, I’m a sucker for Bryan Wilson harmonies. I guess I would draw the Beach-Boys-slave-song-line at “Strange Fruit” (although I imagine it would even be pretty incredible).
13. “Pissing in a River” Patti Smith
I first discovered this song when I read Nick Hornby’s Songbook. In the chapter on “Pissing in a River” he recounts an incredible show he caught of Patti Smith and how her performance of this song still remains in his mind. Hornby says it best: “…the song was called ‘Pissing a River’; and it was played on guitars, and it lasted four or five minutes, and its emotional effects depended entirely on its chords and its chorus and its attitude. It’s a pop song, in other words, and like a lot of other pop songs, it’s capable of just about anything.”
12. “River Euphrates” Pixies
In “River Euphrates” the narrator finds himself stranded, out of gas, on the Gaza Strip. I used to think his solution was to ride a tire down the Euphrates river, which would be pretty sweet, but doing research for this blog I discovered that he actually says “Ride the tiger down the River Euphrates!” Riding a tiger down a river?! And I thought riding a tire was bad ass.
11. “Five Feet High and Rising” Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash has several river based songs (“Big River,” “Run Softly Blue River”) but the one I like the best is “Five Feet High and Rising.” I love how the song goes up a key each verse, a subtle touch that adds to the narrative. Plus, Cash somehow makes a disaster like a five foot flood sound fun.
10. “Watching the River Flow” Bob Dylan
When I started compiling this list, Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow” was one of the first songs to come to mind, but when I searched through my i-Pod for the song, it was nowhere to be found. “What album was it on?” I wondered, searching one album after another. Then I realized I first heard it on his second edition of greatest hits, which I didn’t load to iTunes for redundancy reasons. With all of Dylan’s bootlegs and rarity albums you’d think there would be another place to find this great song, but it has only be seen on that one greatest hits compilation. It’s a testament to Dylan’s songwriting talents; an awesome song like “Watching the River Flow” is just a leftover.
9. “Shenandoah” Pete Seeger
A song about as old as America’s rivers themselves, “Shenandoah” once served as a shanty for river men and has changed over time as people from across our great nation changed and added lyrics to fit their region. Over the years, the name “Shenandoah” in the song has represented a plethora of things: a river, an Indian chief’s daughter, and a small Iowa town. Pete Seeger’s version is my favorite. While others spruce their recording up with orchestra swells and back-up choirs, Seeger captures the folk soul of the song simply with his voice and a guitar (there’s also a live version with a banjo – yes, a banjo).
8. “Black Water” Doobie Brothers
“Black Water” has an upbeat, blue grass feel that captures the sensation of rolling down the river with friends, taking the experience all in. It also hearkens back to Huck Finn’s journey down the Mississippi on a raft and how those black waters led his way. Some have suggested that the black water represents anything from bong water to moon shine, but I tend to believe it is simply about the Mississippi River. And if it is about drugs or alcohol, why are they riding on a raft? Does that symbolize a bean bag? And are the catfish pot brownies?
7. “Whiskey River” Willie Nelson
I don’t think there is an actual Whiskey River, but the metaphor is pretty obvious. With a broken heart, Willie turns to whiskey to wash away his pain and take his mind off of his problems for just a while. The river makes for a great whiskey analogy because while riding the Des Moines we were disconnected from the real world of responsibilities. It was just us and that amber current (Note to self: bring a bottle of Jack next year).
6. “River Guard” Smog
This song always reminds me of “Shawshank Redemption.” Not that there are any rivers in the film, but Bill Callahan’s story of these prisoners being free for just a moment conjures up the image of Andy Dufresne and his gang drinking beers on the rooftop, finding joy and freedom for an instant. The river serves that same purpose in “River Guard,” giving these criminals a chance to be “unburdened and relaxed.”
5. “River” Joni Mitchell
I find it strange that Joni Mitchell’s “River” has become a Christmas song. It was never intended as such. Sure, it speaks of decorations and songs of peace, but the message is anything but joyful. Joni wrote “River” about the remorse she felt when thinking back on the daughter she gave up for adoption. Instead of most songs on this list that speak of flowing waters, Joni wants a frozen river to “skate away on.” That’s a Canadian for ya.
4. “Down By the Water” PJ Harvey
What happened under the bridge is still in question, but there is no doubt that innocence was lost. Whether it was the narrator who lost her childhood to sexual abuse or her actual daughter, she stands on the banks of the river and begs the fish (Christ) to bring back her purity. The fact that many think this is just another riverside murder song shows just how much depth there is in PJ Harvey’s songwriting.
3. “Take Me to the River” Talking Heads
This is originally an Al Green song, and as much as I respect Mr. Green, I prefer what the Talking Heads did with it. The Green version was based in religion with him turning to the waters to wash away his sins. In a genius move, David Byrne took these lyrics and tweaked them to be about a lover who the narrator can’t resist. He’s willing to give up everything just for her to “dip (him) in the water.” Leave it to Byrne to make baptism sound racy.
2. “Down by the River” Neil Young
One of Neil Young’s most mysterious songs, “Down By the River” has a chorus of “Down by the river, I shot my baby.” This would suggest that this is another song about a riverside murder, but the rest of the trippy lyrics speak of “taking a ride” and being dragged “over a river.” While Young has stayed pretty mum on the subject of the song, some have suggested that the river represents heroin (a motif discussed earlier with “Dam the River”) and he’s shooting himself up in order to take the ride. Again, it’s probably just about a river, but it’s fun to think about. Whatever the case, it’s a damn catchy song with distinctive guitar break-downs throughout. Just like a river, Young’s guitar solos are always erratic, fierce, and unrelenting.
1. “The River” Bruce Springsteen
As with most Springsteen songs, “The River” tells the story of the struggles of adulthood. This particular song tells the story of a couple who has been together since high school, spending their youth down at the river swimming and sunning. As the song progresses both the river and their lives change with time. By the end, the river that once tied them together and brought them joy is gone. It’s hard to imagine a river dying; about as hard as it is to see teenage dreams dry up.
This past week the world commemorated the death of John Lennon 30 years ago, which has never really made sense to me. Why are we celebrating the day he was mercilessly killed by a selfish douche? Why aren’t we celebrating his birth?
To capitalize on the memorial of this tragedy, Rolling Stone magazine decided to finally release the audio of an interview from three days prior to his death. The clips are definitely refreshing with Lennon talking down the delusions of youth and ripping into his fans saying, “What they want is dead heroes, like Sid Vicious and James Dean. I’m not interested in being a dead fucking hero.” Touché.
He also talks about punk rock, Bruce Springsteen, and even quotes Elvis Costello, all of which is strange for me because I forget that he was alive during this fertile, innovative time in music. I guess we’ll always be left wondering what Lennon’s post-punk album would have sounded like.
Ever since I heard Santana’s “Supernatural” I’ve held a deep hatred for the collaboration album. You know, the album where an artist features a different guest on each track, creating an album that resembles a soda-pop-suicide? I just can’t fathom the true creativity involved when an artist pops into the studio for an afternoon and is gone the next. After seeing “The Promise”, a documentary on the year long toil and turmoil that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band endured while recording “Darkness On the Edge of Town”, I can’t imagine the same commitment in the buffet style approach to the art form we hold dear to our hearts here at BDWPS: the album.
These guest appearance albums are common in hip-hop, where I guess they are more likely to work since the rap tradition has always grown out of family tradition of helping up-and-coming lyricists and supporting those that have your back. But even this can be a downfall at times. For example, Big Boi’s 2010 release is 70% incredible and 30% mediocre due simply to the likes of Jamie Foxx, Sleepy Brown, and Janelle Monae breaking up the high-energy romp that General Patton has frolicking through most of the tracks. Two other recent albums from 2010 show the collaboration album at both its best and its worst.
Maximum Balloon“S/T”[DGC, 2010]
Last year TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone released a solo album under the moniker Rain Machine and the results were sometimes intriguing, but more commonly hum-drum and lacking. As discussed in my review of the album, it’s difficult to match up to the magnitude found in the works of TV On the Radio.
Despite this, fellow bandmate Dave Sitek tried his hand at a solo album a month ago using the name Maximum Balloon. The project allowed Sitek to expand the layers within his sound and let loose, creating a synth-pop jog that lends its self to the sounds of 80s artists like Prince and Talking Heads. You can tell that Sitek is having fun, free from the pressure that goes with being in a world power band like TVOTR and having to follow-up classics like “Return to Cookie Mountain” and “Dear Science”.
Yet, I can’t help but feel that Sitek may have felt TOO liberated with his music. Instead of holding his own, each track features a new vocalist ranging from Karen O to David Byrne, and even inviting his band mates Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe in to sing on a few tracks. The result is a wide range of sound without a real focus guiding it forward. Sitek’s backing tracks aren’t signature enough to make this sound like one single artist known as Maximum Balloon; it resembles a movie soundtrack more than anything. Sitek is the DJ at a high school dance, standing to the side providing the background music to a sea of prepubescent make-out sessions, none of which who are taking note of the “killer mix” on the speakers.
When his bandmates step in to sing, it sounds like a TV On the Radio song. When Karen O steps up to the mic it sounds like a Yeah Yeah Yeah’s song. But even these songs aren’t strong enough to stand-alone and would likely be consider b-sides for a TVOTR or YYY album.
Kyp Malone on “Shakedown”, a real crowd pleaser…..:
There are a couple high-points on the album, including the Aku assisted opening-track “Tiger”, and “Apartment Wrestling” – the best song due to David Byrne putting Sitek’s music in a full-nelson and making it his bitch. While other artists on the album seem tentative and bored, Byrne does what he does best and dominates the final track. If only he’d gone all 10 rounds and saved Sitek from a less than stellar showing.
Does anybody else wish Byrne would join TVOTR in the same way legend Johnny Marr joined Modest Mouse?:
The Roots “How I Got Over”[Def Jam, 2010]
I worried that Jimmy Fallon had ruined The Roots like he’s done over the years to so many SNL skits and movies. When I first heard they would be the house band for a show that features more awkward interviews than Magic Johnson’s talk show, I was confused. How did this help The Roots? What did they get out of being on late, late night? Even playing at ten o’clock for Conan would be a stretch simply because I don’t see how any steady gig like this would help their music or their cred in the rap community.
Then I heard their 2010 release “How I Got Over” and it all made sense. By playing nightly within the confines of a show that no one watches, the band was able to continue honing their craft through a medium that also provided them with the chance to meet a variety of artists (somehow Fallon’s show has had an absurd list of artists coming through the studio including a performance by Bruce Springsteen AND Neil Young together).
These two elements are evident on “How I Got Over”, where track after track features another guest appearance to go alongside the bands compelling jams. The difference with The Roots approach to the collective-style album is that there is never a question who’s album this is: the band firmly has its fingerprints deeply pressed into every nook and cranny of “How I Got Over”. When The Monsters of Folk softly sing an opening prayer on “Dear God 2.0”, ?uest Love’s pin-point drumming responds like a voice from beyond; when John Legend soulfully croons on “The Fire”, Kamal Gray’s constant pulse on the piano is the fuel that keeps the flame burning; when the sample of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right On” appears on “Right On”, Black Thought plays the perfect anti-thesis to her distinctive voice, punctuating his point right on cue.
Instead of letting their guests over-stay their welcome, they seem more like accents to The Roots live sound, now featuring much less of the sampling seen in past works. The band’s nightly practice sessions on live television have obviously assisted within track after track of tight instrumentation.
Beyond the fact that this is an album of guest appearances, it’s also a pretty extraordinary work as a whole. While many of the band’s past albums have focused on the ills of the world, this is an album of triumph and optimism. “How I Got Over” is exactly what the title says: a narrative of getting over the set-backs and adversity that one will face in a lifetime. Instead of wallowing on the negative, the album continues with a constant from song to song: keep your head up and move forward. This many seem like a corn-ball, inspirational poster in music form, but The Roots handle it like true craftsmen, building the story from the bottom up. Each song leads into the next with the narrator rising up throughout, starting at the bottom where it delves into the hardships of growing up to the ghetto, and eventually elevating from one song to the next toward an adulation that arrives near the end with songs like “The Fire” and “Tunnel Vision”. Now if only the band could rise up from the evil clutches of Jimmy Fallon.
This is what happens when you hang around Jimmy Fallon too long: