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Out of My Mind

Oh, Neil! So young and already lamenting your celebrity fate. Because if there’s one thing celebrities love to do, it’s lamenting the hardship of their lives. We get it, rock star life is pretty surreal. Typical song matter. What I actually find interesting about this song is, as someone recently pointed out, it’s an example of the insecure young Young attempting to sing ‘better’. Young has one of the most recognizable voices in the pantheon; it’s hard to imagine that he was once considered a lousy singer. But as he recounts in his autobiography, what was meant to be the debut single of one of his early bands (The Squires? The Mynah Birds? I forget) was released as an instrumental because management deemed his singing subpar. Young was understandably a little traumatized, and spent the next few years trying to sing deeper, or allowing his bandmates to sing over him, or even going so far as to have his vocals mixed down on his own solo album. Here, he seems to be trying to stay in a lower register, and the backup vocals are a little too forefront. Of course, today Neil Young is notorious for giving no fucks and doing just what he wants with no regard for expectations, so it’s really kind of endearing to remember that he used to be too shy to shine on his own songs.

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Out of My League

Duran Duran won’t be around forever. Fitz and the Tantrums are warming up for when they’re not. You’ve probably heard this on the radio, or one of their other hits. This is straight-outta-1983 synthpop, and I love it. Fitz and company would have been MTV giants if they’d been born a little sooner. As it is, they have to content themselves with merely dominating the Alternative charts and Indie radio. The aggressive catchiness of their music may soon help them bust all the way into the mainstream though, and then you can say you were a fan way back when.

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Out of Mind, Out of Sight

While we’re in a country music mood, let’s drink to Kris Kristofferson. You all know that I have a pretty low tolerance for twang, overall. It’s hard for me to get past the hokey in the honky tonk. Kristofferson is one artist with a lot of twang who transcends the limitations of his accent. He became a master of classic country, and he moved the genre forward. Though he can write some of the best drunk’n’heartachin’ ballads, his writing went beyond the usual tropes. This song is in the classic vein, however. It’s the universal, ever-relevant lament of the touring musician. The camaraderie of life of on the road and the joy of the music just barely redeems the tedium and exhaustion. Everyone knows that living out of a suitcase and eating in roadside diners ain’t that grand, but we insist on seeing glamour in it. The fact is that songwriters both great and not-so keep writing about it, and we want to keep hearing about it. Grimy reality and glamorous illusion are the cornerstones of show business; we can’t get enough of either. Kris Kristofferson knows this, and he’ll give you the figure of the drunk and weary road warrior. It’s a cliche because it’s true, and  no one knows that better than Nashville’s highest educated road dog.

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Out of Line

Shout out to some local boys. A few years late and a dollar short, but still. Sons of Fathers no longer play together, a development I didn’t know about until just now, but you could still buy their album, which is pretty great. One of the great joys of living in Austin is serendipitously discovering great bands, and that’s what happened; “Hey, these guys are playing.” “Never heard of them.” “Let’s go!” That was a few years ago, like three or four, and they were playing bar’n’grill type places. In 2014 they played SXSW, sharing a bill with Hurray for the Riff Raff and Lucinda Williams. They made one album, also named Sons of Fathers, and got some attention from Rolling Stone and NPR. Then they broke up, I guess. It looks like lead singer and songwriter Paul Cauthen is having some solo success, with a nationwide tour in progress, so that’s good. Anyway, if you enjoy roots country with a touch of blues, you’ll dig this record, and try to see Cauthen on tour.

No video for this song, but you can hear it on NPR’s World Cafe.

Photo by me.

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Out of Focus

One of life’s great, simple pleasures is Mick Jagger’s singing. Jagger has more classic songs under his belt than most. The downside of that is over-familiarity. The unwavering ubiquity of The Rolling Stones in pop culture has, inevitably, dulled our appreciation. Of their collective and individual musicianship, of the Jagger and Richards songwriting partnership, and of Jagger himself, especially as a vocal stylist. Say what you will about Jagger’s solo contributions (pale in comparison to the famous hits, I know, I know) but as a fan, you have to appreciate his enthusiasm for tackling unfamiliar material and branching in unexpected directions. This song, from Wandering Spirit (his most acclaimed and successful solo album,) sounds like a long lost classic of 70’s soul, reminiscent of The Stones’ spirited Temptations covers from that era. It is, however, an original, a perfectly on-point homage, and a great example of Jagger’s ability to absorb musical styles. One of the things that have made The Rolling Stones so great has been the way they transformed from a blues cover band into a band that writes their own blues, as authentic as five English boys could hope to be. So it’s no stretch for Mick Jagger to write his own Motown style soul music when he tires of covering other people’s.

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Out of Control

Watching videos of Bruce Springsteen in action the other day made me ponder the phenomenon of stadium rock. Props to Bruce and all, but nobody personifies the idea of a stadium band more than U2. Stadium rock is nothing more than music performed in a football stadium or other sports arena. It’s not exactly a genre; hypothetically, anybody could play stadium shows provided they have enough fans. But really, it’s a very specific kind of band that does well in stadiums. It takes a big sound, a big image and a bigger ego. The transposition of the musical concert from the intimacy of the theatre stage to the expanse of the football field is relatively recent, and it’s very much a rock and roll phenomenon. It’s not necessarily about booking the largest possible amount of space; Carnegie Hall is pretty dang big. It’s the idea that the energy of a rock concert is so explosive and primal it cannot be contained within anything as refined as a theatre, it has to happen in a space usually reserved for displays of ritualized violence.

When The Beatles pioneered playing in stadiums in the 60’s it was because the energy of their audiences was, literally, too explosive and primal to be contained. The Beatles hated playing stadium size shows and felt that their performance suffered. They were a club band and thrived on intimacy. Other bands who came up in small clubs were more happy to embrace stadiums. The Rolling Stones, most notably, evolved from an intimate club band into a stadium band, and have adjusted their sound and image accordingly. Throughout the 70’s more and more bands made that adjustment, until nearly everyone with any degree of a following was playing sports arenas.

A football stadium is not a venue for nuance. It calls for broad gestures, and playing to the cheap seats. In a stadium, the performance has to be calibrated so that it can be enjoyed by people seated so far away they can barely see the band, and the musicians have to adjust to the fact that no matter how well they play or how great their equipment is, the acoustics will be lousy. Not everyone can make that adjustment. Not everyone had to, though.

Because in the 80’s there came a new generation of musicians, who grew up with stadium shows. Bands like U2 here, who just came out of the gate ready to play stadiums. Watch that performance there below. It’s a song from their debut album, released in 1980. These guys may have started their career playing in clubs, but they were already writing for stadiums. They didn’t have to recalibrate anything, their music and image were designed to be huge in every way. From their anthemic choruses, to their aggressive guitar sound, to their slogan-ready political ideas, to their big dumb hair, everything about U2 is made to be seen from the nosebleed seats of the Superdome. They’re like some fantastical super-predator, genetically engineered to outrun, out-sing and out-sell the competition. Except that, after flourishing in the verdant jungles of the 80’s and 90’s, they and their kind are becoming endangered. The stadium phenomenon has been fading in the last decade; with ticket prices becoming extortionate, fewer fans are willing to drop several hundred dollars for a not-optimal concert experience, and not that many rock bands actually have enough fans to fill a stadium anymore. U2, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones will go on playing stadiums until they all drop dead, because it’s the only thing they know how to do anymore. But nobody is making music with the aim of playing to a crowd of 20,000 anymore.

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Out of Control

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In the mixed bag of late career Rolling Stones, this is a highlight. It has a sexy midtempo groove, great vocals and harmonica from Mick Jagger, and just the right amount of sleaze. The Stones have worn the grooves of their cock rock anthems into ruts, as critics are fond of reminding us. But between those ruts has been an undercurrent of existential angst. Mick Jagger isn’t entirely without self-awareness, though he may wear his persona like armour most of the time. Sometimes he does grapple with not being what he used to be. He’ll never be on the skids, but imagines himself – sometimes – as a faded, sleazy old man. It’s been a big theme in the later years, and maybe if he wasn’t yoked into this economically rewarding marriage of convenience, he would explore it more deeply.