Bandamax World

I’m at a local eatery that The Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas and I have dubbed “The Office”. Mexican food and plenty of it; great quality for not much money. On the TV in front of me, inaudible, is a show called Bandamax. It is a music video show. Almost all the videos are date-night stories — heartfelt songs (judging by the facial expressions of the singers) where regular-guy men with unbelievable singing skills work out relationships with super-hot women.

They are romance stories, songs of regret, revenge, and remorse. Men with hearts on sleeve, women with bare arms and ample cleavage. And sousaphones. Sousaphones where you would never expect to see a sousaphone — on the beach, on a deserted island, at a late-night motorcycle rally. Bandamax world is a wonderful world, as long as you like sousaphones.

2

Looking for the Joke with a Microscope

I was thinking about the movie Repo Man the other day, and a song got stuck in my head. I mean, really wedged in there.

“It could be worse,” I hear you all say. “The soundtrack to Repo Man is epic.” And it is. I could have “TV Party” running circles in my brain, or “Pablo Picasso”. But no, the song that keeps popping back up in my head is not on the soundtrack, even though it is an integral part of one scene. Someone even gets beat up for singing it.

Yep, I’m Feeling 7-up.

Foreigner Live in Wendover

On one of my more recent road trips, I was a little saddened to pass a billboard proclaiming that the giant band Foreigner was playing in (I’m pretty sure) the border town of Wendover, NV. It seemed like a long way down from where they had been.

After some consideration, however, I realized that a group of guys still making a living doing what they love is in no way sad. Maybe they pulled all their retirement money up their noses, but I’d like to believe that even former superstars love their craft, and just want to play. They wouldn’t have reached the heights they did without that passion.

But then, after more consideration, I got a little sad again. When was the last time you heard a new Foreigner song? They’re out there, rockin’ the house, but creators have to create. Certainly the boys in the band have had new ideas in the last couple of decades, but nothing new has reached the masses. Have they ceased to be artists? Have they really been reduced to being a tribute band for themselves?

Open message to Foreigner’s agent (and the agents for countless other bands): Now is the time to strike. Let the showmen become artists again, and let them tell their story. I bet it’s a really good story.

1

Bowie Thoughts

Ziggy-Stardust-ziggy-stardust-8526918-497-584By now pretty much everything there is to be said about David Bowie has been, but sometimes sorrow, like wine, needs a little time to mature. David Bowie was never my favorite musician, and some of his songs don’t appeal to me much at all. Others, well…

I got Ziggy Stardust on cassette in the Safeway in Socorro, New Mexico, and while I’d heard plenty of Bowie before, and I’d even heard some of the songs on that album, I’d never immersed myself in his music the way I did as I played that tape at high volume while I drove across the desert. Big, buzzy guitars, lyrics that didn’t quite make sense in a poetic sort of way, all wrapped up in showmanship.

Many years later, I wrote a story that opens with a man in a spaceship, floating far above the world, a story I called “Tin Can.” Was I thinking of “Space Oddity” as I wrote it? Not really. But the song was there, part of my science fiction education, a story about loneliness as much as anything else. It’s a vibe that you can find in most of my favorite stories. There’s a little bit of Major Tom in all my favorite heroes.

My guilty pleasure: “China Girl”. I don’t hear that one mentioned in the eulogies that have sprouted up everywhere. Perhaps it just landed at the right time in my life, or perhaps I’m the only one on Earth with the taste and sophistication to appreciate it. That song’s kissin’ cousin, “Let’s Dance,” really doesn’t do much for me.

Recently, semi-accidentally, my sweetie and I watched Labyrinth. It’s… not very good. It sounds like all the dialog was re-recorded in the studio and without any regard for the environment the action was taking place in. Mr. Bowie, well, he does not succeed in rescuing the show. But I’m glad I watched. It was the last time I will experience David Bowie without the knowledge that he is gone, without wondering what he might do next.

And so we move on, flying through space, looking for something, not sure what, that was here a minute ago but doesn’t seem to be where we left it. That’s the hole we didn’t even know David Bowie was filling. He’s still here, of course, but everything he did is now tinged a little blue.

2

The Letter I Just Sent to emusic

The following is what I wrote at the end of the “why did you cancel your account?” survey at emusic:

I’ve been with emusic for a long, long time, and frankly I think things got worse as you succeeded in getting deals with major record labels. Prices kept going up, and the new pricing structure is frustrating. Necessary for getting the big labels, but then I discovered that I don’t much like the music the big labels are putting out. And when ’80’s arena rock bands show up in the ‘alternative’ section, you know that keyword pollution is starting to cause real problems.

So it has become harder to find actual good music (editorials are a huge help, so keep that up), and more expensive to experiment. I can’t take the risks I used to; downloading an album by a band I didn’t know is much more costly these days. So I’m not making as many happy discoveries as I did years ago.

emusic may still be the best online music service, but at this point the commitment to spend a set amount each month is just not justified.

Still, thanks for all the great tunes I’ve downloaded over the last decade-plus of membership.

A Message to Target

Tonight I discovered myself humming a Christmas song. ‘Tis not the season, but sometimes these songs get up in there. Notably, this was not a traditional Christmas song, but one that was on a Target ad a year ago. I’ve mentioned it before, but I really liked the album and I thought it was exploitation of artists done right. I was saddened that Target had not continued the tradition this year.

I’ve told a lot of people that, but it occurred to me that I hadn’t told Target. So tonight I set out to do that.

I’m pretty sure this message will not find the intended recipient. After a shit-ton of clicks, wading through a system that assumes that if I want to sent a message to the corporate monster it’s because I have a problem with a particular transaction, I thought I’d found the place for general observations. I left the following message (wretched capitalization preserved):

Man! Tough to get here. I just wanted to say that your 2011 Christmas album was awesome in a jar and I was bummed this year that you didn’t do it again. I sang the praises of the Target christmas on my blog last year, and when my sweetie played the songs this year I knew that the season was upon us. I’d be oh so grateful if next year you brought us another batch of fresh and clean christmas songs. I’m not blowing smoke to say that it could be part of a new christmas tradition. macy’s has the parade, Target has the christmas album.

In that context, Target wins. C’mon Santa, bring me the music!

I submitted the message and the reassuring message came back: Thank you. Your email regarding help with Store Email has been submitted successfully.

Huh.

Apparently I had not found the right department after all. So now I say it here, as loudly as I can: Target, you have a shot at a really great holiday tradition with your name all over it. Don’t be afraid. Bring us the Christmas songs that would never be written otherwise. After a couple of the bands you feature go big, people will start wondering who’s going to be on the Target album this year. Buzz like that is magical, to you and to the musicians. Put your ads on them, but cover the musical spectrum, even more fearlessly than you did the first time. And have fun. Like you did before. Fun shows.

1

In Search of Ruby Tuesday

A couple of days ago I wrote a slightly-alcohol-inspired lament that there weren’t any good covers of the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, one of my favorites from the Stones, back before they turned into zombies and continued to shamble through the music scene for eternity. I had intended to do a little more research before that episode went live, but then I forgot about it completely, and out it came.

This morning I fired up eMusic and drifted through covers of Ruby Tuesday, and I learned a little bit; I now have a musing or two to share about music in general and covers in particular. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

It turns out there are a lot of covers of the song. It’s just that most of them suck. In my lament I asked where the guitar/folkie covers were, and I have since found the answer: “Right where they belong”. There are quite a few of these, and while some of them don’t suck, none that I found were particularly good. Overdone, overwrought, over-engineered. And while I applaud artists who change the original material to put their own identity into the music (fundamentally that’s the appeal of covers), those changes still have to make some sort of sense. Singing “When you change with every new day stillI’mgonnamissyou” with the last phrase crammed into the tightest space possible is jarring and doesn’t reflect the emotion of the song. Amazing how many times I heard this.

I suspect that one musician decided on this musical tic and then a host of others copied that cover, without referring to the original source material as well. So there was a lot of Band B covering Band A covering the Rolling Stones. It would be interesting (but not interesting enough to actually do it) to trace the family tree of the song based on mutations introduced along the way.

And thinking of songs going through generations and mutating, it would stand to reason that later mutations would be more fit to survive in the new market conditions. Darwin should totally work, here. As musical tastes and economics changes, the covers literally evolve with them, and songs diversify into different niches. Ruby Tuesday has certainly done that.

Take country music, for instance. A cat name Don Williams has put out several albums with his take on the song. It’s… OK, but it lacked a little something. Then I listened to a performance he did with Dolly Parton, and it was massively improved. It wasn’t necessarily that Parton was putting in the performance of a lifetime, but I realized at this point that vocal harmony on the chorus makes an incredible difference. You hardly notice it’s there in the original, but you would definitely notice if it wasn’t there. Without the harmony, it takes a great arrangement or a voice more versatile than any I sampled to pull off the cover of this deceptively simple song.

One of the tricky parts, and one that the Stones don’t do that well either, is handling how different the verses and the chorus are. Most of the guitar/folkies tried to manage that by adding a bunch of annoying stylisms. Yes, I’m talking to you, Jade Leonard.

On I searched. There were the inevitable elevator-jazz instrumentals and Philharmonic “do arrangements of pop songs to pay the bills” renditions. Lullaby versions so boomer parents (and grandparents) can indoctrinate further generations into “their” music. Single-synthesizer efforts programmed by some kid in his basement. Massive electronic efforts that sounded just like the one the kid in his basement did. There was one I was tempted to buy just for comedic value – I’d bet my favorite molar that it’s by the same guy who arranged William Shatner’s Mr. Tambourine Man, only on this one there’s no vocal and it’s 13 minutes long.

I heard a lot of vinyl pops while searching.

The first cover I liked enough to pay for was one of those impulse buys I’ll likely regret later. Sheena and the Rokkets is a classic bad-singer-in-front-of-reasonable-band outfit, with the added bonus that they are Japanese and Sheena has a tough time with a lot of English words. Words like, for instance, “Ruby”.

I came across a Scorpions cover that has its moments, and fits the definition of a “good cover” — there’s no doubt the Scorpions are performing, they do it their way, but they maintain the essence of the original that motivated the cover in the first place.

Momentum improved. I came across Don and Dolly as described above, and surprisingly, Twiggy, closer to the original but nicely done. Then the inevitable lounge versions started coming in, vapid and vacant. A modern-punk song called Jack Ruby Tuesday came up, and I simply could not tell if it was a cover or not, since I couldn’t make out a single word (or note, even) in the solid wall of fuzz.

After downloading the Don and Dolly version, I went back and listened to the whole thing. Ouch! Someone shoot the arranger and get the trumpets the hell out of there. Wow, what a difference between the 30-second preview and the entire song. There are times I really don’t miss the ’70’s.

Lars Brygdén did a reasonable country-ish cover on an album called “Songs I wrote”, which seems deceptive – I hope in the song data it gives proper credit to the actual writer.

Then there’s Melanie. She’s taken more than one crack at this tune, and one of them isn’t bad. Toward the bottom of the search list is the album “Pan Pipes Play Rod Stewart” in which we have the inevitable Peruvian interpretation, and the [email protected] Chorus wheeze out a version in which the lead singer sounds like she has loose dentures. (Yes, that is mean to say, but it’s also true.)

No Hip-Hop. No Riot Grrl. A few that were labeled ‘alternative’ but really weren’t — this seems like excellent emo/shoegazer material, but none was represented. I despaired of finding a punk cover until Thee S.T.P. cranked out a definitive version that is two minutes of pure fun. We have a winner!

Ultimately, I have to conclude that maybe this is a tough song to cover, despite its surface simplicity (or because of it?). Bands with more instruments and voices seemed to do better, along with bands who are able to turn their amps up (and then turn them back down).