Boy, I haven’t listened to or thought about Built to Spill in a while. Like, not in years. I guess they’re not very active anymore, though I know there was a low key new album last year and a tour. It’s hard to maintain a profile for a 90’s band that was never popular enough to come back on the nostalgia circuit, I suppose. It still boggles my mind that there would be a nostalgia circuit for 90’s bands, but I guess I’d better get used to thinking about the music of my lifetime in a broader historical context (and face getting old.) Anyhow, in a broader historical context, Built to Spill made three moderately essential albums between 1997 and 2001, putting them at the forefront of the indie rock movement that dominated the 2000’s. So give these guys credit for doing their part in making popular music not suck in the new millennium.
Duran Duran won’t be around forever, but in the meantime, they’re still around and they haven’t changed much. 1987, 1997, 2017 probably. Honestly, if you’re not a die hard, you can skip pretty much skip the 90’s; the 90’s were for 80’s music what the 80’s were for 60’s music. That is, everyone was left scrambling to stay relevant, experimenting with ill-advised trends and wondering where the hordes of screaming teens disappeared to. (Blockheads, they grew up!) So it was that Duran Duran experienced poor sales, bad reviews, lineup changes, record label drama, the indignity of trying to find more with-it hairstyles. I still enjoy their work from the time, though, obviously, not as much as their classic work or their most recent. Frankly, my main thing to point to with this track is the video; it’s very very intensely 1997 high-fashion. Clearly someone was paying close attention to the runways (that someone was Simon Le Bon, husband of Yasmin) and saturated themselves in the heady post-new-romantic-new-romantic aesthetics of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. I also think that it’s a great aesthetic for Duran Duran and it suits them really well and it’s really too bad that they were at their least relevant at that point and nobody rewarded them for looking so good. Late 90’s fashion is dear to my heart! Bear with me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.