Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Scrabble Value Letters (Q): Question

Old 97’s: Question [purchase]  

Rhett Miller: Question [purchase]

The song that I chose gives me a couple of things to write about, neither of which is really about the song, although we will get to that eventually.

First, as someone who loves to listen to music, it is important to me that my family also loves to listen to music, and that turned out to be the case. My wife has often said that she knew that we were truly a couple when we alphabetized our albums (vinyl!) together. As I have previously pointed out, our musical tastes are somewhat different, but the overlap in our Venn diagram (called the “intersection,” according to Wikipedia) is big enough that we rarely fight about music. I do complain sometimes about getting snared in the sticky trap of my wife’s favorite Sirius XM’s “The Bridge” soft-rock station, and she complains about some of the harder edged things I like, and some of the jazz, and some of the prog, but we have a nice sweet spot of common likes.

When we had kids, we heard horror stories of parents being “forced” to listen to children’s music in the car, and in reaction, I created mixtapes that included the occasional kidsong along with good grownup stuff. And when our children became old enough to have their own tastes, we tried hard to be supportive. I never told my kids that something they liked was crap; instead, I tried hard to say what I liked and what I didn’t, and I think that helped. Both of my kids have turned me on to bands that I truly like, and in some cases I introduced them to artists that I liked, and they loved, which led me to appreciate them more.

The Old 97’s is a band that everyone in my family likes, and for good reason—they are great. We’ve seen them live and enjoy their great mix of Texas twang, power pop, clever lyrics and tight playing. I’ve previously written about how and why we became fans, so I won’t belabor the point, except to reiterate how great it is to share the love of music with your wife and children.

The second thing I wanted to discuss is what I will call the self remake, for lack of a better term, where an artist releases a different version of one of their own songs. I’m not talking about a live version, but when an artist takes a song and releases it changed in some way. The Rolling Stones, for example, released “Country Honk,” which completely reimagined “Honky Tonk Women” in an interesting way. Other times though, doing this leads to failure. The Police decided to re-record the perfectly fine, if creepy, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” for a greatest hits compilation, and the newer version is just not good. Not only that, according to drummer Stewart Copeland, his fight with Sting over what synthesized drums to use on the track (the right answer would have been “none”) was the last straw in breaking up the band. Other artists have remade their own songs for copyright reasons and/or to just revisit older work with the perspective of a long career, such as John Prine or Loudon Wainwright III.

The original version of “Question” was released in 2001 on an Old 97’s album, Satellite Rides, in a very stripped down version with just Miller’s voice and acoustic guitar. The simplicity of the music fits well with the straightforward message of the song—that there is a time to say yes to love. The question at issue is a proposal, and this version was used in the TV show Scrubs when Carla says yes to Turk. People even propose on stage at Old 97’s shows when the song is played.

Personally, I like the original version, and despite my love of covers, I really see no reason why Miller needed to do a new version of the song on his 2006 solo album, The Believer (along with a new version of “Singular Girl,” a Satellite Rides bonus track). It isn’t bad, but it adds a wholly unnecessary keyboard part, and other additional production that doesn’t add to the song. I suspect that if I hadn’t heard the original, I’d love the remake, but I have, and the remake is kind of superfluous. When the whole band plays the song live, they still keep it simple, but sometimes Rhett gets fancy and sings some of the song in French, which I guess is the language of romance, but kind of makes Miller look like a show off.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Scrabble Value Letters (Z): Zawinul/Lava

Brian Eno: "Zawinul/Lava"

Brian Eno has been an influence on me since before I even knew who he was. As an extremely amateur high school hard rock musician, I sought early exposure through the freshly founded (which later licensed its name to Apple for use on recording software). At that time, one feature the site offered musicians was to have uploads critiqued by professional musicians. During the registration process, users scrolled through an extensive list of names to choose from. Being the ignorant, malleable ball of brain clay that I was at the time, I only recognized one name on the list, and I couldn't quite put my finger on where I had heard it before: Brian Eno.

That was the name I picked, and it went absolutely nowhere. In truth, I couldn't tell you if I even ever got around to uploading any music for Eno to theoretically review. If that had happened, who knows what interests I would have taken in music. My grunge-inspired teen angst would certainly not have been received well by the god of ambient music. And negative feedback at that volatile time in my life could have instilled in me a permanent aversion to Eno's snooty sounds.

Thankfully, nothing went down that way. My tastes in music have continually evolved, and my appreciation for John Cage's aleatoric music and Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies methodologies have rooted my endless fascination with new sounds. The ambient and minimalist compositions of Eno, Harold Budd, Erik Satie, Moby, Steve Roach, and Klaus Schulze are now the regnant (though often unnoticeable) backdrops to my daily activities.

By the time he released Another Green World in 1975, Eno had already established himself as a musician through Roxy Music and two other solo albums, but with each album, he further explored the ideas of ambient music. This single song, appearing near the end of side two of the record, was a landmark experimentation in minimalist soundscape, standing distinct from the other upbeat, funky riffs surrounding it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Scrabble Value Letters (Q): Questions 67 & 68

Chicago: Questions 67 & 68

I actually bought this album when it first came out. I was in a boarding school just north of Philly in the early 70s, and my friends and I would ride the train into Philadelphia and .. buy records and stuff. It's a long time back, but my recollection is that there was this place called Tower Records, not far from the train station downtown, and LP costs were something like $7.99, $8.99 ...

Chicago Transit Authority came into being during that period in American history when youth protest was almost the norm (was it only me and my friends? Is the thought of acceptable protest worth a pause in your view of history?). For various reasons, their message and sound mellowed relatively quickly. They ran into legal issues related to their use of the Chicago train system's name, and their musical sound turned more towards their harmonied horns than piercing guitar solos. However, more than one of their original songs made the "Top" lists (and obviously enough money to keep the brand name running to this day.)

There are better versions of the song out there, but I wanted one that was close to the original: "Chicago" is still touring - in one iteration or another, but it isnt the same. At least not to me.

In the linked clip above, we've got the original band including lead guitar by Terry Kath, who sadly died quite early and - if I am not mistaken - Peter Cetera doing the vocals. If the YouTube credit info is accurate, it is from their earlier days: the dancing in front of the stage as well as the costumes seem to support the time stamp!

This wouldn't normally be my first choice for a Chicago tune, but it fits the Scrabble Theme running for the next two weeks: starts with Q.