Slow Leak

Because Pitchfork released 200 Best Albums of the 1980s and I view such things as a personal challenge.  

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Never heard of them.  Galaxie 500.  While I was listening to this album I got bored quite a few times and thought: “ffs, this is only the second random selection out of 200 and you’re bored already?  How are you going to get out of this?”  Which reminded me that there is nothing to get out of because it’s just a stupid thing on a blog.  Which then made me think that maybe I should be doing pairs of albums anyway because: (1) when I listen to things now they always remind me of other things, and (2) Pitchfork’s list is far too American, and “cool” and therefore has the whiff of boring about it.

All of which means that I am now talking about On Fire by Galaxie 500 and Daddy’s Highway by The Bats because Galaxie 500 reminds me of The Bats.

Which takes me here as a starting point:

Which reminded me of the time I flicked through an old photo album and thought: “photo albums slowly fill up with dead people.”

Standing in my (Mis)Understanding Religion class on Friday we watched a video of Stephen Fry explaining the meaning of life on behalf of Humanism.uk and I said something like:

He just described my world view perfectly except I cannot accept that once you die that’s it because it seems to overshadow everything.

It’s been a lovely week though.  The weather.  The air in the morning and the early evening is what I would actually describe as delicious.  It is just on the line between cool and warm; in the morning it has the dew in it, in the evening the warmth of pavements, and through it all the sweet note of blossom.

Which is a long way of saying: good and bad are often inseparable and simultaneous and revelation exists in the most quotidian of actions.

So, Galaxie 500 and their album On Fire.

It’s fine.  I guess.  But it reminded me of The Bats.  As I said.

Before I saw Marlon Williams, The Bats were the best band I saw live.  They played at Orientation when I was at uni in the 90s and I went.  I don’t know why.  I’d never really listened to The Bats.  What I knew was Made Up In Blue because Dick Driver played it once on Radio With Pictures.  I loved that song.  I suppose that’s why I went.

They were brilliant.

People who know more about these things say that Daddy’s Highway is one of their best albums.  Objectively I think you could say that The Bats are a bit shit.  Perhaps the stand out points in this argument might be the lead singer’s voice, and the wobbly bass playing.  The thing is that one of the stand out features of hearing them live was the freakin’ great bass lines.  So there’s that.  But the voice is, well – it is a limited instrument.  Like a guitar that’s had a few strings taken off and has had its neck truncated.  It is a constraint, but the whole band feels like it is sincerely, and creatively exploring those constraints not being, well… constrained by them.  Anyway.  Bob Dylan.

In the book I am using to find my New Zealand albums (Soundtrack, by Grant Smithies) Richard Langston says of The Bats, “they’re easy to underestimate”.  Which is true.  They sound like you imagine your cousin’s band might sound playing in a school hall.  Except they’re (not) obviously much better.  A song like Sir Queen.  The synthesizer does a wonderful, mournful job as the bass bobs about, and the singer sings rather sadly, rather sweetly before drifting into the chorus: “you live, you love again.”

Which is nothing like a Galaxie 500 song.  Snowstorm.  It’s the song I like first on their album.  Grander and more polished than anything from Flying Nun in the 80s, with a wider range of drum sounds.  There’s nothing off.  Nothing like the notes that slip out of tune on Miss These Things.

The lyrics on Strange by Galaxie 500 are pretty awesome:

Why’s everybody actin’ funny? Why’s everybody look so strange? Why’s everybody look so nasty? What do I want with all these things?

I went alone down to the drugstore, I went in back and took a Coke, I stood in line and ate my Twinkies, I stood in line, I had to wait.

Probably that’s a more sustained lyrical turn than The Bats manage, but the strength of The Bats’ lyrics actually kind of comes from the singer’s wavering, and naive sounding voice.  When he sings:

And I’ve been here, waiting in the wings
Like a little lost soul, trying on your things

It sounds sweeter for the unpolished delivery.

The Bats have more ideas.  Fewer tools, but more ideas.  Something like Decomposing Trees by Galaxie 500 has the heavy strumming guitar of a Bats song, and a solo early on that also seems in that vein, but they build up and give us a lot of saxophone and drama.  To me, though, it seems less interesting than a Bats song.  A song like Had to Be You briskly goes about its riffs, and lets the bass take on a major melodic line, as the guitar maintains a nice rhythmic off beat upstroke.

Take me away… I know not where.

I liked growing up listening to New Zealand music.  Even though New Zealand music in the 80s was good most people regarded it as bad.  If anything the non top 20 New Zealand music sounds even better with age.  Unsaturated in technology; messily, and crudely played by human hands.  Little riffs laboured over in bedrooms, on the edge of beds, for the pleasure of the pleasure of it.  Thank the atheist gods for it.

No One Can Do it Better

Because Pitchfork released 200 Best Albums of the 1980s and I view such things as a personal challenge.

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I never wanted to be a rapper.  Prince, yes.  Leroy from Fame, yes.  Run DMC, no.  I think I know why.  I prefer dance, poetry or fantasy to macho, swag and confrontation.  Well, I did in the 80s that’s for sure.  Like most people my age in my country of my skin colour, rap didn’t exist one week and then it did the next when Walk This Way was suddenly number one on RTR Countdown.  Aside from Run DMC and The Beastie Boys I didn’t really engage with rap and hip hop until much, much later.  My trajectory was 80s pop, Guns and Roses, grunge.  If I did hear rap I definitely did not hear people like NWA.  The D.O.C. was a kind-of-member of NWA.

I feel like the thing to know about D.O.C. is that he released this album and then crashed his car and had to have a variety of surgeries on his throat that left him with a rasp rather than a voice.  So this album and what came later sound far, far apart.

No One Can Do It Better has some great tracks on it, and The D.O.C. has fantastic flow.  The fastest tracks are the best ones; the ones where he seems to be skating across the top of the beats landing with them and ducking between them.  All that music behind him is from Dr Dre. and I guess I understood something for the first time listening to Whirlwind Pyramid: making the backdrop to the rap is a skill.  I have no idea what a Whirlwind Pyramid is but the track underneath it is constructed out of the break beat from Yellow Sunshine’s track Yellow Sunshine, and the hook from Parliament’s Gettin’ to Know You.  Those two things, manipulated, with a little growling note and some other effects is a great backing track for The D.O.C..  I think I never noticed that behind every great rap or hip hop track is a music nerd.

And then, on The Grand Finale, where a bunch of people from NWA take turns rapping a verse on The D.O.C.’s album I thought: is this like when jazz artists take turns doing solos?  It is.  Except, sadly, they use words instead of notes and their words are often lame juvenile fantasies or tirades.  In fact, lyrically most of the album is on the theme of “why I – D.O.C. – am the GREATEST”.  Which is, alright, but a bit repetitive.

The late 80s were a truly terrible time for pop.  The D.O.C.’s album came out in August of 1989 and the singles on the top 20 countdown in New Zealand included things like: Milli Vanilli, New Kids on the Block, Edelweiss, Toy Soldiers, Bros, Jason Donovan….  Also, one of my top ten most hated: Wind Beneath My Wings.

And so there are inevitably a few things that haven’t aged well on this album which are all hallmarks of a late 80s sound.  No One Can Do It Better’s  nods to the late 80s include:

  1. The wikka wikka wikka of someone scratching a record.  I understand why it’s there – a shout out to the origins of the music – but it sure is irritating.
  2. Editing someone’s voice so it repeats a word over and over: “rock-rock-rock-rock-rock me Amadeus”.  I mean, it is kind of cool, but… yeah, we get it.
  3. Sampling spoken word audio.  There’s a funky drum break that stops suddenly and a plutely older male voice says: “and now it’s time to get down”.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  A risky move.
  4. Eazy E.  “Loving the bitches and the hoes boo hooing / Why ’cause they’re addicted to my dick.”
  5. Rock guitar in a rap song.  This is Run DMC’s fault.  Walk This Way is a brilliant track.  It works.  Run DMC thought it wouldn’t work.  In fact they thought the person who suggested it to them was trying to ruin their career.  You can get away with this.  At the same time as this album was out I was enjoying Funky Cold Medina which is built out of samples from KISS and the Rolling Stones.  I think the rule is – you can get away with it if the riff is super tight and clipped.  For example, Back in Black by AC/DC is almost a rap track in itself; the riff is so tight and the vocals so clipped on the first verse that it would work effortlessly.  When you break that rule (let’s call it the rock riff rap rule) then you’re into dangerous territory.  Beautiful but Deadly is the worst track on The D.O.C.’s album mostly because the guitar is the opposite of tight and riffy.  It’s all big chords and masturbatory soloing.

Listening to Funky Cold Medina again I wondered: is this a trans-phobic song about date rape drugs?  The bit where Sheena has an Oscar Meyer weiner leads to this thought from Mr. Tone: “This is the 80’s, and I’m down with the ladies / Ya know?”  But in the 70s you were down with the dudes? I’m not sure what you’re saying, but the weiner image is arresting.  For a New Zealand version of this song I think he might be saying that Sheena was a man with a penis the size of a cheerio.  There are levels here, but the main one is that Tone is real man who doesn’t sleep with men but if he did they would be well hung.  Or am I getting this wrong?

Which leads us to the gallows of New Zealand’s highest charting local artist in the week that The D.O.C.’s album was released: Double J and Twice the T’s She’s A Mod.  It’s hard for me to talk about this.  About how this is essentially New Zealand’s riposte to Walk This Way.  Or about how their next single was a team up with the Auckland Regional Council’s water conservation mascot Robert D Frogg.

Dark times.  Dark, dark times.