A little break from politics – some music.
Those of you who follow my musical interests will know that my tastes run in two seemingly contradictory directions. Half the time I like extremely harsh, visceral music – squonking jazz like Ornette Coleman, aleatory compositions like John Cage, Frank Zappa’s orchestral music, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Edgard Varese, Boulez, Howlin’ Wolf, Sun Ra and all that good stuff.
But the other half of the time I like extremely melodic stuff, in very conventional song structures, with interesting chord changes and vocal harmonies and witty lyrics – the Beach Boys, the Zombies, the Move, Elvis Costello, the Kinks, the Beatles, ELO and so on.
For much of the last decade or more, music in that second category has been pretty much absent from the pop charts, at least as far as I’ve been able to tell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not been being made. I’ve listened to far more ‘new music’ from the last decade or so than I did in the 90s, but almost none of it has made any impact outside a very small group of people. So I’ve put together this playlist of some of my favourite Californian music (a lot of this stuff comes from California, for some reason).
Unlike many of my other playlists, this is on 8tracks.com , which means my foreign friends will be able to listen to it. This is because 8tracks allows you to upload MP3s to create your playlists, and a lot of this music isn’t on Spotify. It also means you won’t need any special software (other than a web browser with a Flash plugin) to listen.
Devil May Care by Kristian Hoffman & Russel Mael is from Hoffman’s &, an extraordinary album of duets with everyone from Van Dyke Parks to Pee Wee Herman by way of Lydia Lunch and El Vez (the Mexican Elvis) along with many of the other people in this playlist. Here he reworks the Give Me Some Loving riff with the lead singer of Sparks, with an extraordinarily witty and literate lyric, the two singers one-upping each other for who can do the silliest falsetto while singing lines like “Gonna put the ‘ooh’ in the human condition”. Not many lyricists would dare to write a glam-pop song with lines like “Some postulate reward if you should mortify the flesh”. The lyric is almost Cole Porter good…
Clever Things by Blake Jones & The Trike Shop is by a friend of mine (Blake guested on the most recent National Pep EP on vocals, theremin and melodica) but it’s also a favourite of mine anyway. I was privileged to see Blake live a couple of years ago in Bradford, doing a fifty-minute set to an audience of ten people (only two of whom were paying customers – I know, Tilt and I promoted the gig), but it was still one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. I am frankly in awe of Blake’s talent, and he’s a lovely bloke as well. Buy his records and make him rich.
Tracy Hide by the Wondermints is from their first album, which was essentially just a release of their four-track demos. How come *MY* four-track demos never sounded this good? Oh yes, because I’m not a group of incredibly talented musicians who can all play about a dozen instruments as well as singing wonderfully. The Wondermints have since become the core of Brian Wilson’s backing band, and while I’m eternally grateful for the music that’s brought us, they haven’t recorded a new album as themselves in eight years, which is *MUCH* too long.
Ken by The Negro Problem is a touching song about the difficulties of being a gay Ken doll. Stew, the lead singer/songwriter of TNP, is also here as a solo artist, and to my mind is the greatest songwriter of the last twenty years. (He also wrote the song for my wedding, which I also think is one of his best songs). This is hilarious and heartbreaking – “Some day soon I’ll be in your child’s room/I’ll be forced to kiss Barbie’s plastic tits/And I will hate myself but what’s more I’ll hate you/For not allowing me to love as I wish to”.
Hey Ann Margaret by Cosmo Topper is just perfect pop – “Hey Ann Margaret do you wanna dance?/Elvis has left the building, maybe I got a chance”, with one of the best piano parts I’ve ever heard.
Silly Place by Chewy Marble was originally a track Brian Kassan, Chewy Marble’s leader, wrote as the B-side to the Wondermints’ single Proto-Pretty, before he left to form his own band. Chewy Marble are by far the most commercial-sounding of the bands on this playlist, and I’m astonished that they’ve never had a hit.
Man In A Dress by Stew is one of two songs here from his first solo album, Guest Host, which for some reason is not on Spotify yet. This one has some of the best backing vocal lines ever – “I hated Titanic, you see”, “I don’t even like chicken soup” and especially “some cake and ice cream by the way”, which made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it.
Proto-Pretty by the Wondermints is what early Elvis Costello records would sound like if he sang more about trilobites and DNA.
Rehab by Stew manages to be both hilarious and sad, and to use the word ‘very’ ninety-six times in four minutes and forty-three seconds and have that be a good thing.
Virginia Woolf by Blake Jones & The Trike Shop is the emotional centrepiece of Pop Songs & Kyries, their most consistent album. It loses something out of context, not getting the repeated themes of that album, but it’s still an astonishing song.
Shrink by Carolyn Edwards is a soft-pop Bacharach-esque song about being uncomfortable with someone coming on to you far too strongly.
Cross-Hatched World by Chewy Marble is a melodic, staccato song along the lines of some of the best Beach Boys or Kinks songs.
MacArthur Park by The Negro Problem is an absolutely straight cover of the first part of MacArthur Park, except for one crucial word change…
And Scarecrow by Kristian Hoffman & Rufus Wainwright is one of the most beautiful, upsetting songs I’ve ever heard, about the homophobic murder of Mathew Shephard in Wyoming:
What penalty must we perform
for craving someone warm, somewhere upon this chilly planet?
A rifle butt against the head,
because we’d heard it said
that only God can make a man. It’s true.
But only man can make a scarecrow out of you.
And only man can make a God who might approve.
OK, so it’s not *all* completely apolitical…