Paul Heinz

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20 More Albums I Can't Live Without

A quick recap from my last entry: this list of albums I can’t live without is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen. So far, I’ve chosen 10 albums, in no particular order:

Kean - Hopes and Fears
Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
Innocence Mission - Umbrella
Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
Lyle Lovett - The Road to Ensenada
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 1 and 2)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 3 and 4)
Radiohead - The Bends
Company of Thieves - Ordinary Riches
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (sides 1 and 2)

Without further ado, here are my next twenty picks in detail:

The Pursuit of Happiness – Love Junk (1988).  Probably not a perfect choice in the midst of the #MeToo movement, as much of this album could be categorized as misogynistic or at the very least demeaning to women, but for fun, angry and edgy melodic power-pop, you can’t get much better that this gem of a debut album by this Canadian power pop group led by Moe Berg.  Pop songs like “She’s So Young” are countered nicely with the bitterness of “Hard to Laugh” and playful “I’m an Adult Now.”  Solid throughout, and a perfect selection when you’re feeling angry or joyful alike, as long as you don’t practice what the lyrics preach.

Big Country – Peace in our Time (1988).  Another release from ’88, this album produced by Peter Wolf of J. Geils fame was regarded negatively at the time.  True, the opening track “King of Emotion,” with its heavy cowbell and a cheesy chorus, has Wolf’s fingerprints all over it, but it’s still fun, and there’s plenty of deeper, socially-conscious songs that one expects from this Scottish quartet, and the musicianship is impeccable.  With sharp, clean production – as opposed to, say, the muddied sound of their sophomore effort, Steeltown – this release still sounds in the present.  The song “In this Place” absolutely kills me.

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 1 and 2 (1979).

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 3 and 4 (1979).  Funny, because I know Pink Floyd fans who shell out big money to see The Australian Pink Floyd who could take or leave The Wall.  For me, it is quite simply the greatest achievement in rock and roll history.  Yeah, you heard me.  More universal than Tommy or Quadrophenia, with its theme of isolation even more relevant today than when it was first released, it’s a moving, heart-wrenching journey.  Favorite track: “Mother” in addition to the seminal “Comfortably Numb.” Among my biggest regrets is not seeing Roger Waters’s initial arena tour of The Wall in 2010 (I also failed to see the stadium tour, but with less regret).  That’s another release 1979.  There are more to come.

Randy Newman – Little Criminals (1977).

Randy Newman – Bad Love (1999).  When reviewing top albums lists by various publications, three other Newman albums are often mentioned: 12 Songs, Sail Away and Good Old Boys, but I think the best of Newman was still to come when those early 70s albums – as good as they might be – made a splash with critics and fans alike.  Newman’s Bad Love is his masterpiece, a perfect blend of sardonic, witty, funny, poignant and heartbreaking songs (“I Miss You” absolutely kills me).  You simply can’t do better.  Likewise, Little Criminals has it all, (and even has Newman’s one and only hit, “Short People”) and sounds fresher and more urgent that his preceding albums of more notoriety.

Bad Examples – Kisses 50¢ (1995).  This Chicago band led by Ralph Covert, who later went on to quite a successful career writing music for kids, is one of those unsung power pop bands that recorded in the wrong decade, as grunge was in full-force in the 90s, when subtlety in composing and production wasn’t exactly in vogue.  The band’s second album is a great listen, full of melody, wit, changing moods and excellent guitar work.  My favorite moment is the second half of the chorus for “Trying to Prove that the Earth is Flat,” when the energy picks up a touch with a fabulous double octave guitar line, but the whole album is solid, with “Every Poet Wants to Murder Shakespeare” and “The Mask of Mona Lisa” standout tracks.

Paul Simon – Surprise (2006).  When looking back on Simon’s consistently strong output, I kept coming back to one of his lesser-known albums, Surprise, a project that gave Simon a reinvigorated sound thanks to the sonic landscapes created by Brian Eno.  This album sounds fresh, exciting and fun, and there’s so much going on here lyrically that it warrants repeated listens.  I find much of Simon’s earlier output to sounds tired these days.  Even Graceland lacks the energy I’d expected to hear upon revisiting it recently, and aside from the title track, none of the lyrics speak to me.  Simon is one of those rare artists who’s managed to put out high quality recordings even into his 70s, though I find his last two studio albums of original material to be good, not great.  If I have to pick only one Paul Simon album to listen to these days, it’s Surprise.

Off Broadway – On (1979).  Another entry from 1979, this may be the best power pop album ever, fulfilling all the requirements of the genre: captivating melodies, tight arrangements, heightened energy, crunching guitar and slick harmonies and production.  The B section of “New Little Girl,” the chorus of “Bad Indication,” the verse of “Money’s No Good,” the unique voice of Cliff Johnson (except when he channels Buddy Holly) – it’s pure pop perfection.

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark (1974).  I like a lot of Joni Mitchell’s output between 1968 and 1976 or so.  After that, she loses me, but I know people who feel that’s when her music gets really interesting.  For me, that middle period when she became a little less folky and a little more jazzy and bluesy is the sweet spot, and Court and Spark is a perfect melding of those genres, with her lyrics still self-reflective but more universal: who hasn’t been at a party feeling a little insecure?  Who hasn’t wondered whether the rat race in the U.S. is too much and who longed for an easy life in Paris?  Side one of this album is spectacular; side two gets a little bogged down, but not enough not to choose this as my favorite Mitchell album.

Lloyd Cole – Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991).  I had no clue who Lloyd Cole was when I found this cutout at Musicland, and although I’ve investigated his music before and since this release, nothing else reaches the heights of this album.  Divided into two parts – a rock side and a more romantic, melodramatic side (with orchestral parts arranged by Paul Buckmaster) – track after track offers great grooves with Cole’s infectious baritone cooing acerbic wit and melancholy, and Blair Cowan’s tasty organ parts really stand out.  My favorite track is “Pay for It,” whose riff is so simple but oh so irresistible, I could listen to this one happily for hours on end.  The intro and outro of “Half of Everything” also stand out, a beautiful blending of rock and orchestra.

Phil Collins – Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982).  Yeah, I know.  I suspect that of all the albums I pick this will be the one I get the most flack for.  This album is notable for being the very first album I ever heard on CD.  My brother set up the player in our basement in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and we watched the CD spin through the semi-transparent door with hints of a green laser reflecting off the mirrored surface, and soon began the opening tom rhythm of “I Don’t Care Anymore.”  Fantastic.  It’s this track and two other dark songs that really make the album work for me: “Do You Know, Do You Care?” and, especially, “Thru These Walls” which highlights an angry and creepy side that’s fun to explore in music as long as it’s not overbearing.  Collins does a nice job of intermixing moods, whether sinister, fun or sappy.  Yes, “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning” goes a bit over the top with its schmaltz, but it’s a well-crafted song, and I especially like “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away.”  Cheesy?  You bet!  But I’ve always been a fan of cheese, as long as it’s good.

The Who – Quadrophenia, sides 1 and 2 (1973).  This is without a doubt The Who’s magnum opus, their musicality and storytelling reaching new heights, with all four band members making stunning contributions.  The first two sides are pure perfection, with the title track and “The Punk and the Godfather” my favorites.  The second two sides never held together quite as well for me, though they certainly have their high points, but when I’m being (self) forced to limit my selections, that disc has to go.

Gabriel Kahane – Where are the Arms (2011).  A short Sunday morning segment on NPR clued me into Kahane, and it was a lovely bit of happenstance for me, because this album is utterly captivating.  Not unlike Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters and Rufus Wainwright’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, this album builds off the heritage of classical song, but unlike Costello and Wainright (and Kahane’s more recent efforts), this collection infuses more modern elements into the songwriting and production, including some kick-ass guitar and drum performances that keep the album from getting bogged down under its own weight.  The upshot is a song cycle of moving, complicated and mysterious tunes with beautiful melodies and infection grooves.  The brass breakdown on “Calabash & Catamaran,” alternating between 7/8 and 4/4 is absolutely brilliant.

Supertramp – Crisis?  What Crisis? (1975).

Supertramp – Breakfast in America (1979).  I can’t overstate how important this band was to the young version of me, insecure and creative, the youngest child of separated parents.  Hodgson’s lyrics were the empathetic voice I craved, though I can’t say for sure that I understood them all at the time.  Listening to Supertramp nearly forty years on, the band’s output still holds up.  I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of Davies’s and Hodgson’s respective oeuvres, one cynical and cranky, one spiritual and nurturing, and together they were greater than the sum of their parts.  Crime of the Century might be their most revered album, but weak production, overexposure and a so-so second side keep this out of the top for me (for today, at least).  Crisis? What Crisis? still excites me.  Back in the day I learned the piano solo to “Another Man’s Woman” note for note, and “A Soapbox Opera” and “The Meaning” are Hodgson at his best.  Davies only has four songs on the album, but they provide just enough edge to keep the album from sounding overly saccharine.  As for Breakfast in America, Davies raises the stakes to match his writing partner’s output note for note.  “Gone Hollywood” is the perfect opener, “Child of Vision” the perfect closer, and just about everything in between reaches the same level.  Another fantastic album from 1979.

R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992).  One year after their enormous Out of Time, the band wisely changed directions again, releasing a quirky yet moving collection of melodic tunes with lush string arrangements provided by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.  Like other semi-experimental albums such as The White Album and Tusk, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” and “Star Me Kitten” may not be brilliant, but in the context of the album they work effectively. Then you add some dark, intriguing songs like “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Try Not to Breathe“ and some truly exceptional tracks like “Nightswimming,” Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon,” and, well, you’ve got yourself a gem. R.E.M.’s best.

Yes – Close to the Edge (1972).  This is where things get a bit tricky, because I could easily add five Yes albums to my list, but I probably have to limit it to two.  I’ll continue to struggle to determine what else cracks my top albums list, but one I know that has to be on there is the band’s fifth studio album, the last with drummer Bill Bruford and the second effort with Rick Wakeman on keys.  Close to the Edge probably gets my vote for the best prog-rock album ever.  From the side-long title track with distinct movements, to the bombastic climax of “And You and I” and the blistering “Siberian Khatru,” you just can’t get any better.

Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971).

Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975).  Elton holds a special place in my memory, his music lingering in the background for much of my childhood.  When I was twelve I finally purchased his greatest hits album and a piano book of his music, and they were both life-altering, allowing me to finally start enjoying playing the piano instead of trudging through yet another Michael Aaron book.  Elton John could do little wrong from 1970 to 1976, but there are two albums that stand out.  Although I’m really tired of “Tiny Dancer,” Madman Across the Water is an excellent LP, consistent, with not a bad track to be found.  Even songs titled “Razor Face” and “Rotten Peaches” hit the mark, and the closing song, “Goodbye,” is so marvelously melancholy, it’s rivaled only by the bittersweet finale of what I consider to be Elton John’s best album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.  The highs on this album are very high – “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Tower of Babel” – and even the lesser tracks are excellent.  My only gripe about this autobiographical album is the insanely overpowering drum track with slap-back echo on “Better Off Dead,” an otherwise great track.  I have no idea what producer Gus Dudgeon was thinking. The last song, “Curtains,” is tear-inducing and happened to finish off season one of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Whoever chose that song for the series deserves a medal.

That’s it for now! Next week I’ll add twenty more selections.

Albums I Can't Live Without (part 1)

Ever since Rolling Stone began compiling various “best of” musical accomplishments, I’ve often thought of my artistic affinities in terms of lists, much like Nick Hornby’s character Rob in High Fidelity.  Lists are in some ways the stupidest things imaginable, but they can also be really helpful; it’s nice upon being asked about your favorite bands/albums/songs/movies/books to actually have an answer.  Yes, lists may be a bit contrived (who’s to say what my favorites will be next week), but they provide a lot better answer than “Um…I don’t know, I like a lot of stuff.” 

As long as you approach them as temporary, fickle things, then creating lists can be a healthy and enjoyable endeavor.  They may encourage you to reinvestigate that album that you remember loving, having claimed for years that you loved, but upon further review doesn’t speak to you the way it did twenty years ago.  Just recently I put on the Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes, and although I remembered it being one of my favorites, it didn’t rise to the level I expected it to.  Back in 1991 it really grabbed me; now it just calls out politely for my attention.  Paul Simon’s Graceland is another one that no longer excites me the way it once did.  Some art sounds old when it’s old.  Some art never ages. On the flip side, making lists might inspire you to recall an album you’d forgotten about.  In preparation for this blog, I became reacquainted with K.D. Lang’s fabulous 1992 album, Ingénue, and I’ve once again enjoyed listening to her caressing croon.

A few months back I decided to make a list of one hundred albums I can’t live without, but I quickly realized that picking a hundred albums was a bit too easy, allowing me to choose that 1984 Elton John release that really has no business being on anybody’s top anything, but I still kinda dig.  Ten or twenty albums would be far too restrictive, so I settled on fifty, a nice compromise that would allow me to listen and reevaluate each selection without feeling overwhelmed, yet still include a bunch of albums beyond the usual suspects.  But then I struggled with that, so I’m probably going to end up with something like seventy albums. I know, I’m failing at my own self-induced endeavor!

When compiling lists I like to abide by various rules to narrow things down and really home in on what’s important.  Here are mine for the top albums I can’t live without:

1)     I have to listen to all the albums I choose to confirm their inclusion.

2)     I’m sticking with rock and pop. Jazz and classical would be included on my all-time desert island list of records, but I don’t want to go down those rabbit holes right now. It’s hard enough just sifting through my rock records.

3)     No compilation albums of any kind are allowed unless they contain mostly previously unreleased material, which therefore excludes all greatest hits albums and most live albums.

4)     Double albums count for two picks with the following exception: I can choose only two sides if I’d like, allowing me to get dinged for only one selection. The rule is a little silly, because many single CDs released over the past thirty years are long enough to qualify as a double album (say, Rush’s Snakes & Arrows), but I’m sticking with the rule: if it was originally released as a double album, it’s a double; if it was originally released as a single CD, it’s a single.

As I go through my selections, I acknowledge the following:

1)     I’m afraid that my choices are going to be mostly male and almost exclusively white.  What can I say except that this is the narrow lens through which I’ve come to know pop music.

2)     I’m going to seek out variety to accompany me on my desert island.  So, for instance, I’m going to want to have a few angry, edgy albums, a few emotional, weepy albums, a few fun, poppy albums, etc.  I could easily pick five albums each by Yes, Genesis, Ben Folds, Elton John, Randy Newman and Joe Jackson and kinda call it a day, but what fun would that be?

3)     There are many exceptional albums that I acknowledge are among the best ever recorded, but I simply don’t need to hear anymore.  You’ll get no argument from me that Rumours, Purple Rain, Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin’s fourth are great albums.  I just never want to hear them again.  Like, ever. 

4)     There’s also a bit of a recency effect going on, where albums I was only just turned onto – even if they’re old – sound fresh and exciting to me, though they may one day sound old and stale.  Such is the capricious nature of musical taste.

So there you are.  To get the ball rolling, here are my first ten selections, in no particular order:

Keane – Hopes and Fears (2004).  Wow, what a great pickup at the used CD store.  I’d heard the track “Somewhere Only We Know” on XRT in Chicago several times and liked it, and spying the CD in the “new arrivals” rack for $5 made this purchase a no-brainer.  The album is amazing, with melody overdrive, rich production, and flawless vocals by Tom Chaplin.  The band’s second album, Under the Iron Sea, is terrific too, but the debut still wins the prize for me.  Hard to pick favorites on this one, but “She Has No Time” and “Bedshaped” are among the best.

Aerosmith – Toys in the Attic (1975).  I listened to this album recently along with Rocks and Get Your Wings just to make sure my instincts were correct, and sure enough, the band’s 1975 release continues to be their best.  I like the hits off of Rocks better (“Back in the Saddle,” “Sick as a Dog” and “Last Child” vs. “Toys in the Attic,” “Walk this Way” and “Sweet Emotion”), but the deep cuts on Toys are so damn good, this album wins by a landslide.  What allowed Aerosmith to stand out from other rock bands in the 70s – Foghat, AC/DC, etc – was their willingness to compliment a great rock riff with a significant mood or harmony change.  Case in point: on the song “Uncle Salty,” the band offers a good mid-tempo shuffle with an exciting chorus.  All good.  And then they throw in a surprise – the “ooh, it’s a sunny day outside my window” section, a hypnotic half-time feel with a very interesting sharp 11 in the melody.  This makes all the difference.  There isn’t a bad track on the album, and “You’ve Seen me Crying,” – one of those songs I was too cool to admit liking back in middle school – is a beautiful, heart-wrenching closer.

Innocence Mission – Umbrella (1991).  I fell in love with this band after seeing them on Late Night with David Letterman and attending a concert a few weeks later at the Memorial Union at the UW-Madison, and their debut album accompanied a trip to the east coast and back with my friend Todd in March of 1990.  I was really taken with the vulnerable lyrics, the rich, subtle guitar work of Donald Peris, and of course the vocals of his wife, Karen.  When I first listened to their sophomore effort, Umbrella seemed to lack the energy of the band’s debut, but oh how the tracks on this album grab me now, twenty-five years later.  Among my favorite songs ever is “Now in this Hush.”  I listened to it on repeat maybe fifteen successive times while painting my son’s room five or six years ago, and I’ve never tired of it.  Lyrically, the band’s oft-repeating themes of embracing the simple joys of life and eschewing the pursuit of wealth and status speak to me now as much as they did nearly thirty years ago.

Jackson Browne – Standing in the Breach (2014).  Running on Empty may be his biggest seller and Late for the Sky may be the critics’ darling, but after reviewing his catalog once more just in case I was off my rocker, I stand by my decision to include Browne’s latest release in my top fifty albums.  I’ve written about this album before, a gem packed with solid melodies and superb musicianship, but what makes this collection of songs stand out are the lyrics, timely and moving, desperate yet hopeful, political yet transcending politics.  I’ve listened to this album more than any other in the past four years, and it will likely be the most recent album I include in my list.

Lyle Lovett – The Road to Ensenada (1996).  This Grammy Award winner for Best Country Album is a masterpiece, one of those rare instances where voters got it right.  The musicianship on this collection is so pristine and tasty – there’s not a note out of place – that the album could have ended up sounding contrived were it not for the songwriting craftsmanship, infused with wit, humor, heartbreak and resignation that gives it universal appeal.  The final song on the album, “The Girl in the Corner,” still gives me chills.

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk, sides 1 and 2 (1979).

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk, sides 3 and 4 (1979).  You won’t get me to claim that this is a better effort than Rumours, but Tusk provides a richer listening experience for me, partially due to it not being overplayed the way its predecessor was (and is), but also because of its unique and varied content. From the opening track, a very subdued and beautiful “Over and Over,” you know this isn’t doing to be Rumours 2, a wise decision by the dramatic quintet, though I recall seeing cutouts of the double album when it didn’t sell as well as Warner Bros. expected (it still sold 4 million copies).  I’ve often compared this album to the Beatles’ White Album in that it’s experimental and quirky with some terrific pop songs and a few rockers.  My favorite is McVie’s “Brown Eyes,” a hauntingly beautiful song that’s even more hypnotic than the band’s 1973 hit, “Hypnotized.”  This will not be the last album I choose from the amazing musical year of 1979.

Radiohead – The Bends (1995).  My buddy claims that 1995 was when music went bad, but how could this be with Ben Folds Five making their debut and Radiohead releasing this masterpiece?  Critics may worship the band’s subsequent effort, OK Computer, but for my taste it’s their sophomore effort that strikes gold.  I recall exercising on my NordicTrack in fall of 1995 listening to The Bends and being completely blown away with its melodic landscapes.  It still holds up, from the emphatic opening of “Planet Telex,” the spellbinding “Fake Plastic Trees,” to the aching “Black Star,” this album is a tour de force from start to finish, unlike OK Computer, which for me loses steam 2/3rds of the way through.

Company of Thieves – Ordinary Riches (2009).  When I first heard ”Oscar Wilde” on XRT while driving down Roosevelt Avenue in Lombard, I was enthralled, and I was soon thrilled to learn that the rest of this Chicago-based band’s debut album was equally strong.  With Genevieve Schatz’s quirky and mesmerizing vocals and lyrics and Marc Walloch’s superbly tasteful guitar work – with just enough edge when warranted – their first effort really stands out.  I wasn’t the only one who took note of this band; Daryl Hall invited this relatively unknown act to appear on his show, Live from Daryl’s House, in 2009.  “Even in the Dark” gets my vote for the best track on the album.

Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life, sides 1 and 2 (1976).  Seeing Wonder in concert three years back, when he performed this album from start to finish, helped me appreciate a release that I’d forgotten about save for the amazing one-two punch of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.”  From the opening of choral “oohs,” the album is one of those gems that deftly switches moods without sounding disjointed.  You have Stevie doing is prog-rock fusion thing in “Contusion,” social commentary (and cool sparse arrangements) in “Village Ghetto Land,” a beautiful ballad in “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and – thanks to Coolio and, subsequently, Weird Al Yankovic – a timeless tune in “Pastime Paradise.”  The album loses steam on sides three and four, but those aren’t too shabby either.

So there you have it. Ten down, many more to go. I hope you give a some of these albums a listen, and of course, if you have any that you think I’m crazy not to include, send them my way and I’ll give them a concerted listen.

Rock and Roll Lyrics

Rock and roll lyrics run the gambit, from positively poetic to brazenly banal.  A friend of mine once made the claim that song lyrics are never poetry, which is a pretty bold statement and a pretty dumb one, I think, but there’s no denying that often song lyrics are embarrassingly bad:

Time to find the right way
It seems to take so long
When I find the right way
I know I will be strong

- Head East, “Lovin’ Me Along”

But it in the hands of a gifted lyricist, meaning and imagery jump from the speaker and grab you by the gut:

There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets

- Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”

Sometimes lyrics can reach us on a very personal level and describe us more succinctly than we could ever hope to achieve on our own.  A woman once gave me a hand-written copy of the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Code of Silence,” explaining that the words described her “to a T.”   I had already owned Joel’s album, The Bridge, but had never really studied the lyrics before, and upon reading the feminine script on a pink sheet of notepaper with no musical accompaniment, I was given insight into a human being who was clearly wrestling with a difficult past (I never found out what it was, but I can take a wild guess).

But you can’t talk about it
And isn’t that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you’ve really got a lot to say?

Many times lyrics – even good ones – are unimportant to me.  As a rule, as long as lyrics don’t overtly suck, then it’s the tune that matters.  So, for instance, the band Yes typical composes songs whose lyrics are so esoteric and so stream-of-conscious that they’re virtually meaningless.  Take the opening lyric for Yes’s “Going for the One”:

Get the idea cross around the track
Underneath the flank of thoroughbred racing chasers
Getting the feel as the river flows.
Would you like to go and shoot the mountain masses?

I don’t know exactly what goes on in Jon Anderson’s head, but I suspect it’s been aided by lots and lots of drugs.  But his lyrics lead to images that are malleable, subject to the listener’s own experience, so that as long as the words aren’t blatantly bad, to me it doesn’t really matter what they say.  But what if, for instance, the opening lines to “Going for the One” were the following:

Get the idea come and take me back
Underneath the sheets like thoroughbred racing chasers
Getting the feel as my love blood flows
I would like to go and shoot your mountain masses

Well, now, that would lead to a very different image, and it would suck!  There’d be nothing left to the imagination except an overwhelming desire for the song to finish as quickly as possible.  It doesn’t matter how good the tune is, the lyrics would make it completely unlistenable.  Ridiculous lyrics are the main reason why I could never get into the big-hair metal bands of the 80s; the words were so pitifully bad that I couldn’t possibly excuse them.

The lyrics to Prince’s “Darling Nikki” were no doubt titillating to me when I first heard them as a sixteen-year-old:

I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine

Hearing it today, it may turn you on, it may turn you off, but there’s no denying what the lyrics are about.  There’s nothing left to the imagination, and really, there’s nothing to be moved by.  It’s just…there.

But then I consider a pop song like “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” by ELO, and I realize that even the worst words in the world can sometimes be rescued by a great melody:

I was searchin’ on a one-way street
I was hopin’ for a chance to meet
I was waitin’ for the operator on the line
She’s gone so long
What can I do?
Where could she be?
Don’t know what I’m gonna do
I gotta get back to you

Pretty soul-grabbling stuff, huh?  And yet, it’s a fun song!  Why can I overlook terrible lyrics in some instances but not in others?   What’s the secret?

And then, why can I overlook great lyrics in some cases but not in others?  Take “Limelight” from Rush, a fantastic tune whose lyrics I never really thought too hard about until I saw the documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.  Sure, I had known some of the words and I got the Shakespearean reference, but I never knew that the chorus had the word “seem” in it, as in:

Living in the limelight
The universal dream for those who wish to seem

Didn’t know it, never thought about it, didn’t care.  I just knew that Geddy Lee was singing Neil Peart’s lyrics, the music was unbelievable, and the message was something about fame or something.  It didn’t really matter to me.  And even now, the lyrics aren’t so important to me. I just know the song rocks and the lyrics don’t suck, and that’s enough for me in this case.

But then I look at another Rush song, ”Subdivisions,” whose lyrics are so strong and whose message of suburban conformity is so relatable to me, that they elevate the song to new heights:

Growing up, it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass-production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone

When I consider lyrics that have reached me over the years – songs like like “The Logical Song,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “Read Emotional Girl,” etc., – the words are simple, direct and heartfelt.  Take Elvis Costello, an undeniable wordsmith, but who often packs way too many words into a song, with too many syllables, too many metaphors, and stories that are too abstract to understand just what the hell he’s so pissed off about.  Ah, but then he offers us a respite in a song like “Painted from Memory,” co-written by Burt Bacharach, and you have – in my mind – lyric perfection: simple, meaningful, relatable:

Such a picture of loveliness
Didn’t you notice the resemblance?
Doesn’t it look like she could speak?
Those eyes I tried to capture
They are lost to me now forever
They smile for someone else

And that’s often what it takes: simplicity and directness, not only for the lyric, but for the tune.  Sometimes the simplest forms of human expression are the most pure and most effective.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and listen to my favorite power pop album, On by Off Broadway, and sing along to the deeply moving “Full Moon Turn My Head Around”:

We got a beat, we got a good good beat, we got a good beat.
We got a band, we got a good good band, we got a good band.

ELO in Chicago

An early morning email from a friend opened the door for me to attend Jeff Lynne’s ELO concert at the Allstate Arena in Chicago on Wednesday night, a show I’d toyed with going to until I saw the ticket prices, but leapt at the opportunity to attend last-minute for a more reasonable price.  ELO's music was a significant part of my childhood, and while I kept up with the band through the early 80s, I certainly can’t be labeled as anything other than a casual fan, unlike many of the thousands who attended last night’s show, which ran a little over an hour and a half.  The number of recognizable songs performed in such a short span was amazing.  Just when I thought, “I think that about covers it,” the band would break into yet another gem from the mid-70s.

Dressed in dark pants, a black shirt and grey blazer, 70-year-old Lynne masked his age with a beard, curly hair and sunglasses, and while his mid-range voice sounded strong and pure, he wisely relegated much of the higher vocals to his stellar backup singers, who added the animation that Lynne lacked and enabled the band to stick to the original keys for most (if not all?) the songs.  Twelve musicians joined Lynne on stage, including three string players and three keyboardists, one of whom spent the entire show doubling the string parts, allowing the arrangements to cut through the mix and sound much fuller than three strings could accomplish as a trio. 

The nineteen-song set strayed none-too-far from ELO’s first greatest hits album, including nine of the eleven tracks from that LP and only one song post-1980, “When I was a Boy,” a 2015 recording whose strong melody and nostalgic lyrics fit in nicely among the evening’s other songs.  There were a few other surprises, including the debut song off the band’s first album, “10538 Overture,” and “Wild West Hero,” among my favorite tracks from Out of the Blue and one that I played incessantly thirty years ago.  One song that was surprisingly absent was "Fire on High," which surely would have brought the house down and to me would have been a far better opener than "Standin' in the Rain."

Lynne didn’t engage his audience with storytelling the way James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other aging rockers do, but he still gave off an appreciative vibe for the audience, thanking them several times in a way that appeared heartfelt.  Lynne's music director, Mike Stevens, took the reins to introduce the large cast of musicians.

During the performance of “Handle with Care” from the Traveling Wilburys, the crowd cheered during the second verse, and while I couldn’t see the screen from my vantage point, I knew that they were most likely reacting to a photo or video of the departed members of that band.  The last time I saw this song performed live was at the Vic Theatre in 2003, when Tom Petty dedicated it to those who had gone.  Though Roy Orbison had died a long while back, it had only been a year and half since the death of George Harrison and a still-raw two months since Petty’s long-time bass player, Howie Epstein, succumbed to heroin addiction.  Here we are a decade and a half later, and it’s comforting to see Lynne and Bob Dylan still standing and still playing music.

As fans of aging rockers, we need to embrace these moments while they last.  Last night at the Allstate Arena, the fans of ELO surely did.

Best Debut Songs

There’s nothing better than a new band hitting the airwaves and blowing you away.  It may happen far less frequently today than back in the 70s and 80s (though it does still happen), but I still have fond memories of hearing Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil” for the first time and knowing it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before.  It was a game changer, as was “Good Times Roll” by The Cars just a few months later.  The late 70s was an exciting time for rock and roll, and it just so happens that many of the standout tracks from that time were debut songs, the first track of the first side of an artist’s first album.

My old go-to station during my tenure in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s 88.5 WXPN, recently compiled a list of the best debut songs (they call them lead-off tracks).  These are the kind of lists my vinyl buddies and I thrive on, and over the years we’ve compiled and debated about our own favorite debuts.  A silly endeavor, to be sure, but a fun exercise and especially helpful when insomnia strikes.

The XPN list on-line includes many of the obvious choices most of my friends and I would have included (the aforementioned “Good Times Roll,” “Chuck E.’s In Love” by Rickie Lee Jones, “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, “I Will Follow” by U2, “Girls on Film” by Duran Duran), but also includes a host of interesting tracks that I probably wouldn’t have thought of and excludes several that should be in the running.  (Note: the link says 150 tracks, but the playlist only includes 100.)

Here are some of the more inspired choices on the list:

Edie Brickell & New Bohemians – What I Am
Living Colour – Cult of Personality
John Mayer – No Such Thing
Ben Folds Five – Jackson Cannery
Sheryl Crow – Run, Baby Run
Television – See No Evil
Aimee Mann – I Should’ve Known
The Shins – Caring is Creepy
Jeff Buckley – Mojo Pin
Elton John – Empty Sky (I love Elton but would never have thought to include this track.  It’s pretty damn good!)

Here are my choices of debut songs that were overlooked but should have been included:

Led Zeppelin – Good Times, Bad Times
Company of Thieves – Old Letters
Off Broadway – Stay in Time
The Knack – Let Me Out
INXS – On the Bus
Rush - Finding My Way
Joni Mitchell – I Had a King
Rufus Wainwright – Foolish Love
Van Halen – Running’ with the Devil
Tori Amos - Crucify
Joe Jackson – One More Time
Dido – Here With Me

That last track gets my vote for one of the best recordings ever made.  What about you?  Any songs you’d include that the XPN list and I both overlooked?  Send ‘em my way.  I’d love to hear them.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved