Poets Problem

Ahh, the poet’s age old quandary; to do a line or not to. Heh, heh. Pretty clever. Otherwise, though, it’s kind of a sad song. There’s something inherently sad about telephone numbers that never get used, calls that are never answered. It could’ve been something great but it didn’t happen, because apathy. The poet, being too busy doing lines (in all the senses of the word), misses out on whatever it is normal happy people who answer the telephone are out doing. And, the singer being Debbie Harry, she’s probably going to go out later and follow some guy around in the supermarket. But for now, she’s not taking phone calls.

Platinum Blonde

Why on earth was this not Blondie’s debut single? Too meta for the times, I guess. It didn’t even make the album, initially. It’s obviously a great song, so it wasn’t a quality thing. I imagine Debbie Harry might have wanted to deflect the kind of attention that would prevent the band being taken seriously, and comparing herself to “Marilyn and Jean, Jayne, Mae and Marlene” would not have been the way to do that. It’s a tough call, striking a balance between owning your status as a sex symbol, and being governed by it. Harry has kept that balance with remarkable grace over the years. For the most part, she’s had fun playing with gender tropes, winking at both the femme fatale and the wilting wallflower. But it can’t have been easy, and I understand her reluctance, as a fledgling in the music industry, to release a song that appears to invite being viewed – and judged – as a fantasy figure in a long line of fantasy figures. Now, of course, it’s a clever mission statement from a woman who’s redefined what it means to be a platinum blonde. Platinum blonde isn’t just a fashion; it’s a concept of womanhood, one that doesn’t necessarily benefit the woman wearing it. Or, if it benefits her, it does so at the implied expense of other women. Debbie Harry has been one of the few blonde icons whose blonde identity isn’t inexorably entwined with tragic victimhood. Her image wasn’t forced on her by a male Svengali. It wasn’t a facade to cover crippling self hate, or a disguise in which to escape from a horrible life. It wasn’t a survival strategy, used to float more or less unharmed across the hostile waters of systematic patriarchy. No, Harry would be blonde, and she would be sexy, but she wouldn’t accept that it’s a woman’s burden to suffer willingly or be punished. If blondes are supposed to have more fun, Debbie Harry is going to have more fun.

Picture This

“Picture this, a sky full of thunder/Picture this, my telephone number”

Even in the  most tender love song, Debbie Harry shows her craziness. She wants to sit and watch her man shower; she teases him for working in a garage. Those aren’t particularly weird things, but those are weird things to put in a love song. It’s a tone markedly different from the established one. It may not even be a love song, really. She wants him but she may not even like him. She certainly doesn’t look up to him, or need him. She’s a girl who sets the pace and knows what she wants. She’s the kind of a woman who walks up to men in bars, I bet. She’s the type who  throws your number away and never explains why. In short, Debbie Harry is the kind of a woman who really doesn’t care about roles and boundaries, even when she cares a lot about people.

Out in the Streets

I love hearing Deborah Harry pay homage to one of her biggest influences. She does such a great – and straight faced – job reinterpreting The Shangri-Las’ classic single. In fact, Blondie blows the original away. Girl group tropes delivered with a nudge and a wink have always been the basis of the Blondie sound, but this tribute is totally heartfelt, and therefor far less campy than the original. The Shangri-Las’ mildly naughty bad-girl image was the thing that set them apart from all of the other girl groups in the sixties, but their singing was never quite on par with the Motown groups. They weren’t exactly risque, but their songs were deliberately melodramatic in the spirit of pulp comic books and other teen-based entertainment of the time. Harry puts a more adult spin on the material and finds some real heart in it.

One Way or Another

Apparently Debbie Harry wrote this after having a stalker of her very own, but most people don’t know that. Since she wrote it in the first person, it sounds like she is the creepy one. And it’s not the only time. I’ve noticed before that stalking is, in fact, a favorite theme for Debbie. Obviously, being who she is and being on the receiving end of unwanted attention, she would know all about it, but she never takes the tone of a victim – not one smidge. She seems to identify more with the creepy side of the equation. Clearly, being creepy and obsessed knows no boundaries, and even rock’n’roll’s greatest bombshell sometimes feels that she has to follow some guy downtown just to see what he’s up to. Of course, it’s all in fun, and you can take it as a winky-eyed commentary on whiny passive-girl song tropes. It’s a commentary on romantic song tropes in general, and gender roles, and double standards, and all of those weighty things (if you want it to be.) Or it may be a lesson that if someone ignores you, you should definitely follow them downtown. Or it’s a joke, the punchline being, this woman was stalked by a former lover and wrote a hit song about it and now she never has to take the E Train again.

No Exit

Debbie Harry returns to claim her Hippest White Girl crown. Lest we forget, it was Blondie who first injected hip hop into the pop mainstream, with the gloriously silly but at the time edgy hit Rapture. It’s a time-honored and in no way dead tradition that the cultural innovations made by black people cannot enter the mainstream unless Trojan-horsed by someone blonde, sexy and nonthreatening. It was true in the 80’s and it’s true now, though it’s become more and more uncomfortable. Debbie Harry was never a particularly great rapper, but she had attitude and she had cred. You could believe she was hanging out with the edgiest people, discovering new music before the rest of the world had an inkling of it. And in 1999, Blondie had to show that those things were still true. They’d been on hiatus, but they were still a hip band with their feet on the street. Therefore, guest raps by Coolio and some of the minor members of Wu-Tang. That wasn’t a groundbreaking or even newsworthy move, and the question was, could Blondie still rock? Of course they could. They could and they still are.

2014 Albums of the Year

2014 was a year of extremes. It was, in terms of world events, rather extravagantly bad, marked by violence and unrest. If there was any piece of music that could sum it all up, it would be Merry Clayton wailing out a warning of rape and murder for The Rolling Stones. That was many years ago, but the storm is threatening darker than ever. For myself…it was a year of extremes, ranging from about as good as it gets, to close to as bad. Most of the defining moments of the year are things I’d rather not talk about publicly. Let’s just say that there was more drug use and anonymous bathroom sex than usual. Fortunately, there was also a lot of good music. So without further ado, the year’s best albums.

1. Lazaretto – Jack White

You knew this would happen. Of course Jack White would take the top spot. I’ve been a fan of pretty much everything Jack does, and he doesn’t disappoint. The whole thing feels tight and angry, fierce and confident. He’s really become a master at what he does, and Lazaretto is exactly everything you would want from a Jack White album. And, of course, it all comes with the usual visual delights; Jack never shorts us on imagery and artistry. The videos make me wish he’d go ahead and make a movie. The songs range from wordless to heartbreaking. Once again, Jack White presents the total package.

High Ball Stepper

Lazaretto

Would You Fight For My Love?

2. Popular Problems – Leonard Cohen

I had marked Cohen’s previous album as good, but this one is better than good. It’s his best since The Future, and it’s been a long time. Cohen is a sprightly 80 years old now, and somehow he sounds livelier than he has in years. It helps than the songs here are more catchy than somber, and the poet’s graveyard wit is still about him. The favored themes of love and desire and death and life are all lined up, along with darkly comic commentary on the bleakness of the world. “There’s torture, and there’s killing, and there’s all my bad reviews…”

Almost Like the Blues

Did I Ever Love You

Slow

3. This Is All Yours – Alt-J

Congratulation to Alt-J for avoiding the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ that affects so many people’s second albums. They escaped the twin pitfalls of either repeating their debut note for note or abruptly reinventing themselves to better suit their newfound fame. They’ve remained satisfyingly weird and clever, while also growing into their sound. It’s great to see a band keeping psychedelic weirdness alive – and being successful while at it! (Also 10,000 bonus points for taking Miley Cyrus’s boneheaded affirmation of Confederate pride and making it into something awesome and actually empowering.)

Hunger Of the Pine

Left Hand Free

Every Other Freckle

4. Ghosts of Download – Blondie

Blondie has consistently produced good albums since their late 90’s comeback, so it’s no surprise they’ve made another good one. However, this one feels particularly timely. Right now, Blondie’s euphoric New Wave pop sound is really having a moment, with so many new bands striving to emulate their energy and sass. So it’s right on cue that the original punk princess returns. The new record is unabashedly high on hooks and dance-floor ready. I first heard many of these songs live in concert, just about a year ago, and the new material stood well beside the classics. It’s like the 80’s never ended.

A Rose By Any Name

Sugar On the Side

I Want to Drag You Around

5. Hotel Valentine – Cibo Matto

I can’t believe I’ve never listened to Cibo Matto before! They’ve been flying just under the radar for years, and this album for some reason received more than the usual amount of publicity. Let me tell you, it was a case of instantly falling in love. Why would’t I love a concept album about a haunted hotel? Or a song with “Don’t throw the fucking oyster shell at me” as a chorus?  If the ghost in the hotel appears to be that of Yoko Ono, it’s no coincidence; Ono is a longtime friend and mentor. It’s nice to discover a band of serious eccentricity.

Mfn

Deja Vu 

10th Floor Ghost Girl

6. El Pintor – Interpol

*Belated discovery of the year*

Another band I’d never listened to before that really struck a chord this year. Interpol are just back from a hiatus, so the new record came with loud and serious buzz. Well earned, it turns out. Having done my research with all of their previous albums, I can safely say, this is awesome by their own and any other standards. It’s Mancunian New Wave reborn, in a different decade, as New York City grunge.

All the Rage Back Home

My Desire

Everything Is Wrong

7. Ultraviolence – Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey is a divisive artist, to say the least. She gets flak for her looks (plastic surgery or nah?), her stage presence (wooden), her public statements (dumb), her fanbase (hipsters), her everything basically. She’s both blessed and cursed for having arrived on the scene fully formed in the age of internet-based instant gratification, and she’s sparked some deep debate about image and authenticity. Right away she struck me as an interesting songwriter and an original voice, and she’s grown since then. On her  new album she’s more mature, less in love with her own sex kitten image, more emotional and more perceptive. And she’s ready to parody herself and her hipstery ilk as well.

West Coast

Shades of Cool

Ultraviolence

8. Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar – Robert Plant 

Robert Plant had some bad years as a solo artist, mostly in the 80’s. (Didn’t everyone?) In recent years he’s reinvented himself as something of a folksy man of the world, in the sense that the world is his inspiration. On his latest, he’s gathered musicians from all over the globe to form The Sensational Space Shifters, and they’ve all brought a piece of their home culture. It’s Plant’s liveliest and most diverse album, and it might actually be the most diverse album by anybody this year. And he still has the voice of a golden god. No wonder he’s ‘not bored enough’ to get the Led back on.

Rainbow

Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)

House of Love

9. Give My Love to London – Marianne Faithfull

I love it when Marianne Faithfull rocks out a little. Nobody does gloom and doom better than she, but high spirits become her too. She’s definitely in a spirited mood on this outing. And she brought friends! Nick Cave, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Mick Jones and Steve Earle all show up, and it seems that collaborating with the masters of morbid really brings out everyone’s cheery side. Some of the tracks sound like they’ve been piped in straight from the sixties, others like they’ve escaped from one of Cave’s own albums, all delivered with a hint of a wink. Faithfull sounds like she relishes digging her teeth into everything from Cave’s extravagantly morose Late Victorian Holocaust to classic Everly Brothers to standout late period Leonard Cohen.

Give My Love to London

Sparrows Will Sing

Going Home

10. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

St.Vincent has become quite the critics’ darling – and rightly so. She’s quirky enough to satisfy lovers of eccentricity, and yet (just barely) accessible enough to actually sell an album or two. She also has the David Byrne stamp of approval (not that she needs the validation); the two made an album and toured together. But Annie Clark is in no one’s shadow. She’s the thinking man’s new rock goddess.

Birth In Reverse

Digital Witness

Prince Johnny

11. Cheek to Cheek –  Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga 

All is forgiven, Lady Gaga! If Born This Way was all gigantic choruses, then Artpop was all drawn-out middle eights. It felt like Gaga, having concurred the world of pop, was treading water in search of a new direction. So she did the last thing anyone would ever expect. She made a jazz album. With Tony Bennett. Does it add something profound to the genre? Not really. Is it campy and bombastic at times? Yes, somewhat. But it’s been a long time since I’ve heard those old standards belted out with such joy and enthusiasm. Lady Gaga finally shows off her vocal chops, and she sounds swell. It’s plain to hear that Gaga and Bennett had an absolute ball working together. It’s a contagious feeling.

Anything Goes

I Can’t Give You Anything but Love

I Won’t Dance