Don’t Pass Me By: 5 Songs Sung By Someone Other Than the Lead Singer

It’s nice to see when a band can substitute in different elements while keeping their sound intact – they can swap instruments a la David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” or bring in another musician to liven things up a la The Beatles Let It Be with Nicky Hopkins on electric piano. Sometimes it just takes shoving a different guy from the back of the stage in front of the mic and into the spotlight. Hearing a new voice behind a familiar band can radically change of the feeling of the song or get you to notice a facet of the band that you had never noticed before, not to mention some long-hidden-away vocal talent that was just begging to come to the surface. Presented here are five instances of a different person taking the helm and letting ‘er rip:

1) R.E.M. – Superman

On the grounds that Michael Stipe thought the song was too silly for him to sing, bassist Michael Mills stepped up to allow the audience to hear a but of what happens when R.E.M. has a little fun with their material and covers an old favourite by Texas band The Clique. The melody bounces along in a way that R.E.M. songs rarely do and there’s a totally different, fun energy present with Mills’ rendition (though, admittedly, his singing voice is a lot like Stipe’s, if a little less polished). As the album closer to Lifes Rich Pageant, it adds a little levity to the proceedings, as the band does not do a whole lot of covers on their albums – it feels like a “let’s throw one more on there” and I’m glad they did! Apparently Stipe was not too embarrassed to do harmony vocals over top, so you end up with a very different sound overall as you get a glimpse of the music that was making them excited. Funnily enough, it ended up being one of the singles from the album and received a decent amount of air play.

2) The Clash – The Guns of Brixton

Paul Simonon’s songwriting and vocal debut for the band on their smash London Calling conjures images of rough lower-class resistance “when they kick at your front door”, not just in lyrics but also in the reggae feel of the music and the accent Simonon adopts to sing the song. The rough and angry timbre of his voice suits the sentiment perfectly as he muses on the heinous acts of the local police towards the immigrants there, issuing a warning to them that “you can crush us/you can bruise us/but you’ll have to answer to/the guns of Brixton”, which is fantastically ominous and a reminder that nothing is forgotten. The way the vocal falls to “the guns of Brixton” is where you can hear the narrowing of the eyes instead of producing a big loud chorus, as the whole song is very much uniquely suited to Simonon’s voice – had Mick Jones or Joe Strummer tackled it, it might not have stood out quite so much as the rebellious anthem it clearly is.

3) Pink Floyd – Have A Cigar

Not even in the band, but in the studio next door, British folk great Roy Harper sings vocals on this track about the emptiness of the music industry. Both Roger Waters and David Gilmour had tried to record the vocals (both separately and together), but were not satisfied with any of them. In a way, it’s perfect. The song is from the perspective of a record label exec or a manager who’s supposed to be addressing the band, so for the vocals to be by someone else, you really get that sense of someone interfering in the record – “You gotta get an album out/You owe it to the people”. He has just the right amount of sleaze in his voice to deliver the faux-fawning patter as he asks them “oh, by the way/which one’s Pink?” as you wonder who the hell this guy is and why he should be strutting in the middle of this Pink Floyd album to chum up to the band. He knows when to keep it conversational and when to stretch the notes out and sounds like a total natural fit. Had it been Waters or Gilmour, it might not have had that visceral, unexpected punch to it.

4) Queen – Good Company

While Brian May’s can be heard on virtually every Queen track – he is approximately a third of the harmonic assault at any given time – his vocals don’t get spotlighted that often, as he was in the same band as Freddie Mercury. On this track from A Night at the Opera, it’s pretty much just his show as, apart from creating an entire Dixieland jazz band from his guitar, he sings about a man gradually losing his friends and loved ones as he gets further and further into his work, providing lead and backing vocals both, which gives it a different feel from when Mercury and Roger Taylor are also in the vocal mix.  Unlike some bands where the vocalists seem to share a lot of similarities, the singers in Queen actually have quite diverse voices that blend well – the song still has that big ‘Queen’ feel, but May has a more nuanced and lower voice than the other two and is a perfect fit for this humble tale.

5) Genesis – More Fool Me

Back in 1973, it was unusual for Peter Gabriel to relinquish the microphone, but they took a chance on giving their young drummer a track or two to sing his song, that drummer’s name, of course, being Phil Collins. Yes, Collins would go on to front Genesis for longer than Gabriel did at the end of the day, but at the time, this was only the second song he’d sung lead vocals on and the first that was over two minutes, and the music being made scarcely resembled what the band would become later. The simple strummed acoustic guitar, along with Collins innocent vocals sound miles away from “Invisible Touch” or “I Can’t Dance”. You could tell right away, however, that the man knew a hook, as this song picks up quite nicely at the chorus and provides a sense of quietude on the sprawling Selling England By the Pound, in both instrumentation and subject matter. This was the initial flag-planting for Mr. Collins within the band that proved he’d be able to step out from behind the drum kit and take the mic (and sound a heckuva lot like Peter Gabriel, quite honestly).

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Loud Crowds & Forgotten Lyrics: A Live Album Round-Up

I have been acquiring a lot of live albums lately!  I guess that once you’ve gotten well-acclimated to an artist or at least the portion of the artist’s discography you’re comfortable with, live albums offer an extra bit of material to hear from them – most of the tracks you will be familiar with, but a performance of a little-known B-side or a radically different take on an old classic might be all you need to invigorate your enthusiasm for that artist once again. Or, if you’re enjoying an artist’s current run, a live album allows you to sort of bask in the glow of current fantastic material. Live is a whole different ballgame, apart from studio tricks (for the most part) – it can often give a better idea of the state of the band.

Enjoying the heck of out Push the Sky Away, I had to keep the good times rolling with Nick Cave’s latest output, Live at KCRW. As it is promoting the recent album, 4 of the 10 tracks here are from Push the Sky Away, and the rest sort of even-handedly comb through the Cave discography, which produces interesting results. The Bad Seeds are a drastically different line-up than they have been for a majority of their album-making career, with Warren Ellis being Cave’s right-hand man after the (somewhat) recent departure of Blixa Bargeld. As such, a lot of the performances of older songs have taken a slower and more sombre tone  (with the exception of the rowdy rendition of “Jack the Ripper” at the close of the album), most notably the formerly raucous live favourite “The Mercy Seat”. Where the songs remain relatively unchanged are the instances where the original songs were already slow and mournful – the setlist has been carefully chosen (“Eventually you’ll say one of the songs on this very short list” quips Cave after a few seconds of people shouting requests at home). Everything feels a part, though, as the performances blend each of the songs into the style of the recent album – if you were a newcomer to the band, you wouldn’t bat an eye. It feels like a statement from Cave about how he wishes to proceed or at the very least his headspace during this time – rock has been more or less left in the dust and he’s now looking for that arrangement, that melody, that loop. Push the Sky Away made very much the same statement, but putting that stamp on prior tracks feels like a manifesto.

With slight trepidation, I picked up Before the Flood by Bob Dylan & The Band. My trepidation was thus: I remember hearing the 60s concerts Dylan did in England (of “Judas!” fame) where The Band hadn’t made a name for themselves and were just his backing band. I remember being absolutely gobsmacked by the performances and wanting to experience a little of that magic. How does that equal trepidation? I didn’t trust my mind, first of all. This was quite some time ago and I felt I might have been romanticizing the whole thing and would end up disappointed. Secondly, the performances I remember were circa 1966, whereas this album was from 1974, far beyond my reach of Dylan knowledge (for whatever reason, I’ve expanded little beyond Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. No, not even Blood on the Tracks, which I realize would have set me up much more nicely to experience this one). I did, however, have faith and I wanted to find a way to get into The Band, so I figured this was a good stopgap.

The setlist is culled from both acts, though leaning a little more on Dylan’s side. The first thing I noticed was that it took me awhile to recognize Dylan’s voice, which seems to have dropped or at least changed style quite a bit – his trademark sneer is toned down quite a bit, and the cadence and placing of his words seems very deliberately off-kilter from the well-familiar version (something I’ve heard from people who have gone to see him these days). The now-classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”* sounds relatively unchanged (having been released the year before), but others didn’t fare as well. Maybe the rambling style of his earlier songs was something he felt shouldn’t be duplicated – to hear an attempt to recreate something like “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”* sounds strange, as there’s so much to it and it just feels like a strangely intimate open letter society rather than a proper song/stadium rocker. The Band, for their part, sounded in fine form (and recognizable), adding a little energy to their classics I do know – “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – while impressing me with the ones I didn’t, which will be getting some re-listening as I try to figure out where I wanna drop in with The Band (probably the Brown Album, but still).

Pink Floyd rounds out the list with a live recording from before the release of even their first album, titled London 1966/1967. When I saw this, I immediately thought it would be an interesting artifact to hear – the band really developing their chops at this point, albeit with original bandleader Syd Barrett, rather than David Gilmour with whom they’d go on to much greater fame. The album consists of two ten-minute plus psychedelic jams ““Interstellar Overdrive”, which does appear on their debut album, though in much shortened form. Here it’s made clear that it’s their live freak-out showcase, with very little in the way of structure – apart from a bit of a descending riff to start out – as the band ebbs and flows and Syd with his trusty echo effects attempts to play parts of his guitar which were not necessarily intended to be played as an introduction to the more anarchic sections here. The other track is entitled “Nick’s Boogie”, based on a little ditty played by Nick Mason on his toms at the start of the track and the jam builds up from nothing, as the band members peek their heads in further and further, coming in only very intermittently with very strange noises weaving in and out. It’s great to see all the ingredients of a freak out, but what you are seeing is really the clay with would form to become the songs on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Not an experience I will turn to often, but if I’m lying on the floor in a daze, it might be the perfect thing.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

“Jack the Ripper”

“The Mercy Seat”

Bob Dylan & The Band

*Being unable to find the versions of these songs from the album, I will give you more or less the original versions so you get some idea of where I’m goin’

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”

Pink Floyd

“Interstellar Overdrive”

 

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Panic! Attack, Part 1: A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out

Welcome to my non-consecutive (currently) five-part series taking a look at the discography of Panic! at the Disco (formerly ‘Panic at the Disco’, who was formerly ‘Panic! at the Disco’). At only four studio albums (and one live one), their oeuvre is not particularly daunting, and I’m particularly curious to see how they have evolved their sound. My only memory of them from when they broke out in 2005 is the one line from the chorus “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, but other than that particular vocal I remembered absolutely nothing. At this time, I was heading backwards into music’s history (I have a distinct memory of my friend Nik walking into my dorm room, handing me a huge shoe-box of CDs and saying “this is ‘A.'”), and was really selective about what I put in my ears, with much of my palette consisting of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Since that time, I hadn’t really given them a thought until my lovely girlfriend Chloe told me that they were one of her absolute favourite bands. Not even knowing that they were still producing music, and after a little chin-scratching, I decided the only thing for it was to see what was up with these guys. The prospect of widening my tastes and having more music to listen to is one I find terribly exciting!

The first thing that struck me listening to A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is that singer Brandon Urie is all over this album! He rarely stops to break, but that’s because he’s not just the singer of the band – he’s also the emcee. The album begins, appropriately, with “Introduction”, where someone’s clicking down the dial on a radio and looking for something that speaks to them before hearing “Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present a picturesque score of passing fancy”, everything very much muffled and distant before we delve into the meat of the album a few seconds later as we accept out invitation to this world.

“The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage” begins the album proper as an invocation and a pledge to the audience that they’re going to get a show if they only promise to pay attention (much like Queen’s “Let Me Entertain You” or The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) – “Swear to shake it up/if you swear to listen” rings the chorus. The song is all about establishing that relationship with the audience up front, as Urie and the band will be your guide through this world so you gotta know you can trust them going forward (“Don’t you see/I’m the narrator and this is just the prologue?”). Nowhere is this more evident than in the first few seconds of the song where it’s made clear that you are not just listen, but you are having a conversation – “Sit tight/I’m gonna need you to keep time/Come on just snap snap snap/your fingers for me”. All very well and good, audience participation is encouraged. It’s that the next line is “Good good/now we’re making some progress” that makes you take a step back and go ‘whoa, he’s paying attention’.

Not that it’s difficult to keep your ear on the beat. There’s a lot of straight ahead backbeating and guitar crunching with the amount of swagger appropriate to the theatricality of the show. The energy is so high here and things move at such a swift pace it’s easy to miss things as they go by – a few bars of out-and-out EDM spring fully formed out of the bridge and we whip by a quiet multi-faceted harmony before launching back into the chorus.

That first song is a great example of what makes the album such a joy to listen to – it’s clear that the band’s influences are legion and they’re eager to get as many of them into the proceedings as possible (hence the “passing fancy” of the introduction). They have thrown everything on this record, hung on the skeleton of the tried and true guitar-bass-drums punk rock format. “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” begins with a great overdriven synth riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Metric track; “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written By Machines” features a space reserved for a gain-drenched drum kit to pound around; “Intermission” is part-synthesizer disco track until the interruption and apology by our radio announcer friend before moving into a frilly classical-sounding piano piece.

Each track on the album is a little journey with all the parts with different instruments, tunes and beats that build up to the chorus – the unison section of “But It’s Better If You Do” is casual demonstration of the band’s skill while still keeping things terribly exciting before the refrain comes around again and everyone can relax (comparatively speaking). “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”, the album’s and possibly the band’s most popular single begins with a riff on a plucked cello with some bowed bass notes and a xylophone tinkling the rhythm away during the verses – another nod to the influence of classical music on the band – before launching into the straight-ahead thrashing of the chorus while nodding and adding “Seriously!” when Urie asks “haven’t you people ever heard of/closing the goddamned door?”

As an album written with a clear love of music in every corner and an equal love for all things proper and theatrical (“Please leave all overcoats, canes and top hats/with the doorman”, Urie requests in “There’s A Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought Of It Yet”), A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is one of those very rare debut albums that quite possibly gets out everything the band wants the public to know about it while maintaining a certain cohesion and boundless energy. 40 minutes from open to close, Panic! makes their statement without wearing out their welcome and having you itching to get back to that world at your earliest possible convenience.

“The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage”

“But It’s Better If You Do”

“I Write Sins Not Tragedies”

Happy Anniversary. 🙂

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Toxic Canadian Rock Syndrome: Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Fashionable People

It’s not all Nickelbacks, Dions and Biebers up here. It’s not even all Loverboys, Triumphs and Troopers (still a lot of Rush, though). We still have the rock, sometimes you just gotta look for it. Sometimes, it wins a Grammy and people are angry because they’ve never heard of the group before. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a band that has the best name based around a bandleader since “Blues Explosion.” Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Ashtray Rock brings the quirk, the rock, the jangly indie bits, the sweater vests and a concept album with a story as old as time: two dudes start a band, fall in love with the same girl and have a falling out. “Fashionable People” sets the scene at a party where the narrator has stars in his eyes and attempts to entice a girl away from all the other wannabes.

Immediately, the words of youth – “I feel foolish/I wanna drink too much”. As the narrator drinks, he attempts to talk up this girl he’s met, decrying all the other people at the party as he tries to make himself out to be the clear the prime candidate for attention: “I bet their parents/Are ridiculously loaded/Let’s get moving/Before I’m loaded.” The narrator uses the opportunity to talk about what’s on his mind, flaunting his newly-formed band, reciting the mantra “Fashionable people/Doing questionable things” to set his partying and recklessness up as a contribution to his future lifestyle instead of just being a drunk teenager. All the while, he attempts to be sly in getting with the girl he’s having the conversation with – “I like your boyfriend too/Do you think he’d understand?” – before the booze gets to his brain and he just says what he’s really thinking: “So ditch him/He’s no good for you…Switch him/Switch him up with me/Leave him in a ditch/And you can take a ride for free”. Plaskett’s relaxed delivery perfectly suits the tale as he delivers it with all the swaggering confidence he can muster.

The thing I will always take away from this song is the absolute insane drum sound when the chorus hits and Plaskett sings “the dancers need a dancefloor!”, very much carrying on from the sound used on David Bowie’s Low, but with much more feedback. The verses are light affairs with a heavily accented rhythm of drums, bass and light synth, with the guitar buried in the middle – none of which have any effects on them . This is what makes the chorus seem that much more boisterous when it comes around. The snare simply explodes with a few carefully-measured hits with a beautiful, overdriven raucous sound, as you bang you head and are ready to petition the government for more dancefloor space when you realize that you’re also hearing the guitar unleash for the first time. Drenched in gain but still crisp enough to whiff the fumes of those high notes on the guitar, the verse/chorus dynamic is done simply but very effectively. What makes it curiouser is the almost anti-chorus that follows the melee, as things tighten right back up and a small falsetto chorus chants “fashionable/fashionable/fashionable people” in the most delicate way possible with a little shaker in the background, which is silly but a great hook in its own right – more often than not, that’s the bit I’m singing after the song’s over!

There’s no getting around a solid song with a great hook, and for that, “Fashionable People” has earned many many relistens for me. It might be that I just like singing in falsetto a lot, too, but that certainly ain’t a strike against it!

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A Tale of Two Johns: They Might Be Giants in 10 Songs

They Might Be Giants have been around for so long now and are so prolific that there’s no way they weren’t going to engrain themselves into popular culture, regardless of whether people knew that they were there or not. From writing and composing the themes of The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle, to their songs being featured on Tiny Toons, to their collaboration with the Brothers Chaps at Homestar Runner, not to mention 16 studio albums to date, the two Johns from Brooklyn are seemingly inescapable in one small way or another.  These points are only the tip of the iceberg, however.

Rounding about 30 years making music together, John Flansbergh and John Linnell are seemingly tireless with adapting to new styles, sending up existing ones, oftentimes trying the patience of the audience and always keeping things very silly. It always takes me awhile to parse a They Might Be Giants lyric, because they look at life from the most obtuse angles. “Ana Ng”, a potential love song to the one time Vietnamese smallest woman in the world begins with “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular/to the name of this town on a desktop globe/exit wound in a foreign nation/showing the home of the one this was written for”. To stay on the subject, in “Purple Toupee” they describe the Vietnam War as “Chinese people fighting in the park/We tried to help ’em fight – no one appreciated that.” Theoretically, many of the things described in the songs are things we all experience, but you have to tilt your head at a hell of an angle.

Here’s ten songs to act as sort of a broad primer to this quirky band, though there’s so much to uncover, it’s hard to know what to leave out!:

1) Don’t Let’s Start, They Might Be Giants (1986)

Described as being about “not let’s starting” by John Linnell, this was TMBG’s first single – their first cry into pop culture as they started to find their way. And what a cry it was. Ostensibly about a break-up, few songs contain the strange mix of absurdity and melancholy sent to an intermittent jangly guitar rhythm as this one does. The narrator keeps trying to cope with what’s going on, but spends the whole song talking around the subject.”Wake up! Smell the catfood/In your bank account” cries Linnell, after comparing the subject of the song to a cat for about a verse, while a minute later, shoegazing with the line “everybody dies frustrated inside/and that is beautiful”. It’s a peppy, energetic song and the combination of pop hook and sad lyric would serve them well throughout their career. The balls-out commitment and refusal to tone down any of the weirdness gives that “two against the world” feeling of a fresh new band trying to make their indelible and confusing mark (there were no band members other than the two Johns until 1994’s John Henry) The video contains what would remain hallmarks for quite a few of their videos – weird choreography, goofy faces, black and white, and giant cut-outs of the head of newspaper editor William Allen White.

2) They’ll Need A Crane, Lincoln (1988)

From one of my favourite albums of all time, this is the one. The poppiest, heartbreakingist track you’ll ever hear. Second album in and they nailed it. As is often the case, the title belies the true focus of the song – a relationship in just complete dissolution as they cling tighter to the architecture of it: “They’ll need a crane/to take the house he built for her apart”. The song is peppered with clever little stories and observations about our protagonists, Gal and Lad as they come apart – “Lad looks at other gals/Gal thinks Jim Beam is handsomer than Lad/He isn’t bad” – as the wobbly bassline (wobbly as in coming from an 80s synth, not as in dubstep) bops along underneath, displaying the poppiness of the track almost brazenly in the face of the destruction of the couple’s metaphorical home. Never has it been easier to sing along to something so devastating as Linnell and Flansbergh once again prove their knack for earworms.

3) Birdhouse in Your Soul, Flood (1990)

Stepping away from the theme of love, this is one of the Giants’ more popular songs, having been covered on Pushing Daisies by Kristen Chenoweth and steering just shy of psychedelia into silliness. Though the narrator of the song is stated outright at the beginning – “Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch/Who watches over you” – it’s a little hard to swallow that this is going to be a song from the perspective of a nightlight. The best moment comes when he realizes that if he were to the light in the lighthouse that steers Jason and the argonauts home, that he probably wouldn’t do a very good job, which makes things even stranger. Rather than being in a situation that is relatable, TMBG takes the perspective of something mundane and utterly nonhuman, and shows us its perspective – it just wants to be “the only bee in your bonnet” after all. It’s hard to deny it’s a charming song. The four-note trumpet solo in the middle sort of underlines the absurdity of the whole proceeding, though the song is actually a bit more nuanced than its predecessors, with a few distinct sections and a deft synth guiding us through the whole thing.

4) The Guitar, Apollo 18 (1992)

One of TMBG’s experiment at playing with convention, you leave “The Guitar” both frustrated and amused. After a funky bass intro, the titular instrument shows up and starts to jam only for a couple seconds before it’s found out and the introductory words of “Hey!/Who’s that playin’/Hey!/The guitar” set the tone. “Is it Jim?/I don’t know” serves as a pretty weak interrogation to get to the bottom of the mystery, but a much more interesting one makes itself known soon after. The tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” interrupts the song three times, each progressing a very strange story we get to see so frustratingly little of “In the spaceship/The silver spaceship/The Lion take control”, the first line ominously tells us, soon to be followed by “The Lion’s on the phone” and “The Lion waves goodbye”. What does the Lion want from us? It is unfortunately, never made clear, nor is the identity of the guitar player (though it’s probably John Flansbergh). Despite the guitar being the titular instrument, it’s really the saxophone that takes centre stage here, as it lays down the big riff during the chorus and peels away in the middle of the song, presumably out of frustration at not being able to figure who is playing the guitar.

5) Meet James Ensor, John Henry (1994)

“Meet James Ensor” would definitely go in the category of  one of the Johns’ ‘cute little songs.’ It clocks in at 1:33 and moves along at a rapid pace, providing sad detail about actual Belgian painter James Ensor, who lived “before there were junk stores/before there was junk” and seemed to be quite a tortured genius. Seeming to really be interested in people learning about him, in the chorus, TMBG asks you in a sort of morbid way to “dig him up and shake his hand”. They seem to have good intentions, but it’s difficult when you hear a gobsmackingly well-written and saddening stanza as “He lost all his friends/he didn’t need his friends/he lived with his mother/and repeated himself.” A little space is carved out in the last twenty seconds for a groovy low guitar riff to come in and get harmonized by accordion and bass, which seems like it might launch into another  song, but instead just ends with another appeal to “appreciate the man!”

6) Dr. Worm, Severe Tire Damage (1998)

Another biography here, this time of a fictional character who says he “is not a real doctor/but I am a real worm”. Whether this is metaphorical or literal is anyone’s guess, but it’s seems like he’s getting good at the drums (he’s studious – he’ll “leave the front unlocked ’cause [he] can’t hear the doorbell”), and he’s definitely in a band with bassist Rabbi O. As sort of a posturing move, he tries out his identity by saying “Good morning/how are you?/I’m Doctor Worm/I’m interested in things”, hoping that someone will “call me by my stage name”, so he’ll get the chance to put it into practice. Musically, the song is a front-loaded brass assault, with a few layers of brass introducing the song and giving it a ska feel as it toots into an appropriately energetic rhythm from the drums – this would foreshadow the expanding of the band’s instrumental repertoire as they get further and further out from the standard rock band set-up.

7) Older, Mink Car (2001)

There are few songs by the band that are more frustrating than “Older”. It crawls along at a snail’s pace, and the instruments provide just the bare minimum framework to cover Linnell’s quiet vocals, which are telling us “you’re older than you’ve ever been/and now you’re even older/and now you’re even older”, almost taunting in a fashion while being absolutely right. After a verse of this, John Flansbergh bursts in with a crescendo from the band to comment on the proceedings: “Time is marching on!” he cries, before a another blast from the band with a fairly assured “And time…is still marching on!” Dedicating a song to the maddening repetition displayed in this song is a hallmark of the band – they’re perfectly willing to hand an entire track over to this single concept and just let the people do what they will with it. My favourite? Certainly not. It makes a better story that they have a song like this than it does a song. But classic TMBG? Undoubtedly.

8) Stone Pony, Venue Songs (2004)

“Stone Pony” comes from the quest TMBG set upon in 2003/2004 to write a song for every venue that they played on the tour, on the day of their concert there. The result was Venue Songs, a collection of a short little ditties covering quite a variety of styles about the various clubs and bars dotting the USA (Venue Songs also gave John Hodgman the character he uses to this day – that of the Deranged Millionaire, who would unleash his marauding teams of baseball players on New York York unless the band kept using their magical talisman to keep writing songs). “Stone Pony” was the stop in New Jersey and has a very jazzy feel to it, with the walking bass and heavy ride action. The main beat is used to tell the short story in slightly increasing detail – a word or two added with each telling – about how the guy who stole that other’s guy beer just LOOKED like me. It’s a wonderful, strange little song and the fact that it was invented mere hours before its debut gives it a charm that it might not have had if it were overcooked in the studio.

9) Marty Beller Mask, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions (2011)

One of my absolute favourite little-known tracks by the band, “Marty Beller Mask” claims that Whitney Houston grew tired of all the stardom she was receiving put on the mask of TMBG’s drummer, and has been drumming ever since. Just hearing the concept affirmed over and over again has me rapt with attention for its two minute length, especially, when totally flat readings of Whitney Houston lyrics are added as a build up to the chorus as “proof” (“Don’t walk away from me/I will always love you”). The drums are quite low and supple, building the mood while the guitar spends the verses getting into a reggae groove in the offbeat and marking out time in the chorus. The whole thing has a bit of a grunge/lo-fi feel, but without being quite so noisy, with Linnell’s vocals sounding very matter-of-fact, if not outright just talking. Easily one of their most hilarious songs.

10) The Lady and the Tiger, Join Us (2011)

This song absolutely blew me away when I first heard it. 15 albums into their career, I was not expecting They Might Be Giants to pull out a track like this, ever, nor would I have blamed them for it. Their experimentation continues here, as a wandering melodic beat sets the tone for the mumbling, distracted vocal that sets the tale of the captive titular beings. The interlocking saxophones that serve as a bridge between the verses were totally out of left field for me. They’d used the sax to great effect before, but playing two different, but complimentary riffs that each seem to do their own thing, but still in harmony, made me gain a whole new respect for them as songwriters – not to mention, it’s hella catchy in its own way. The incessant, thesaurus-heavy rhyming scheme used is good ol’ TMBG by this point – “felines and dames in flames/will hardly serve my aims/do you surmise it’s wise/to have laser beams emitting from your eyes?” Every seemingly-disparate element clicks here and serves up a completely unique and compelling track.

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Toxic Canterbury Syndrome: Caravan’s Golf Girl

We’re practically awash in all manners of summer here in Southern Ontario, and summertime is when I reach for Caravan. Caravan is a part of that early 70s British prog scene, albeit a specific subgenre of which originated from one little area of the country. It basically started with one band – The Wilde Flowers, who eventually split up and whose members formed Soft Machine and Caravan. These would again split off and create new bands (Gong, Egg, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North), members would swap, and each new line-up needed a name – not to mention that other people heard what these guys were doing and wanted to imitate it as well. By that point, there were so many bands/projects/albums in that style that it was determined that it had to have a label, which ended up being the town of origin of the whole darn thing regardless of where the majority of the bands ended up coming from.

The actual Canterbury sound was not so interested in terror as King Crimson nor virtuoso performances like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It very much started out rooted in jazz, but with an appreciation for the stronger melodic content of a pop song and a preoccupation with absurd, silly lyrics. Caravan itself took a pastoral and slightly gentle approach, with the melody being the key. No more is this more evident than in “Golf Girl”, a prog pop song if there ever was one.

The song tells the tale of its narrator going out for a game of golf “dressed in PVC” and falling in love with the girl at the golf course selling tea (which is a lovely service for a golf course to provide). The trombone intro gives the song a little flash in straying from the standard rock instruments, as does the piccolo than can be heard throughout, but it plays a goofy little melody that perfectly sets the tone for what I can find no better term for than a light-hearted romp. You can hear the grin in Richard Sinclair’s voice as he documents the charming story, his voice warm and his accent pronounced – he’s not belting by any means, but simply relating – over top of the rest of the band marking the rhythm with some piano and acoustic guitar strums. There’s a bit of an organ solo and a bit more of a piccolo solo, but there’s no feeling that the band is having to prove something here, unlike some of the other prog bands of the time. They’re just trying to write a fun pop song, but the combination of the musicianship and their love of marijuana ensure that it comes out with a few frills going off here and there – each instrument gets its chance to work its way into a silly little corner before coming back into the main tune.

The song doesn’t have any one unbelievable characteristic, it just always puts a smile on my face every time I hear it. The story combined with the surrounding instrumentation is oh-so-English and paints a wonderful little picture of the time. Early 1970s Britain, as the post-Beatles rock explosion began, is one of my absolute favourite periods/places in music, so getting even a small idea of what it might have been like excites me. “Golf Girl” is downright pleasant and feels like summer – when I listen to it, I can feel the sun on my face, and the atrocious pants on my legs.

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List-O-Mania: 5 Songs That Are Pastiches of Other Artists

Bands going outside their comfort zone produces some interesting sounds. But bands deliberately imitating other bands makes the situation so much more interesting! Why exactly are they going lengths to ape someone else’s sound? Is it an homage, a rip-off or a send-up? More importantly, do they hit the mark or do they fall short?

The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” might serve as the most famous example, hitting both simultaneously: a loving homage to the Beach Boys right down to the lyrics, which of course substitute the  then-verboten USSR where otherwise would be the good ol’ US of A. Whether it was overtly political or they were just having a laugh at transplanting American music, it creates the interesting effect of hearing a band through someone else’s ears first, at which point it’s then handed over to you. It sometimes can offer a different perspective on an act you already thought you were intimately familiar with! Without further ado, five more examples:

1) R.E.M. – “The Wake-Up Bomb” (T-Rex) (1996)

One thing I don’t think people were except from R.E.M. in the 90s was a paean to glam rock, but then sprawling, hour-plus-long New Adventures in Hi-Fi surprised a lot of people. The lyrics recall in crystalline detail the experience of the young glam rocker of the early 70s who would “practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene”, complete with requisite descriptions of the garish outfits. Despite their staid image, there’s no way this song is emerging from anywhere but experience. Michael Stipe delivers his lyrics with an unusual sneer as he defiantly informs us that “I get high in my low-ass boot-cut jean/I like being seen”, very much expressing the all-too-familiar confidence and vanity of youth – a journey that the band takes right along with him. There’s no subtle textures or nuance to the track, just big swaggering chords and a good ol’ beat to swing around to, with an organ being slammed in the background for good measure. On an album full of introspective and ponderous songs, this one for the extroverts does its job admirably: sometimes you just wanna wear your “metallic sick wraparound blackout tease” and rock the hell out.

2) Simon & Garfunkel – “A Simple Desultory Philippic” (Bob Dylan) (1966)

While a cover of Bob’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” on their first album would suggest a reverence for the folk-rocker’s work, “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” perfectly captures Dylan’s new (at the time) electric sound, while lyrically sending him up. The song is stuffed with contemporary references at every line (even in the title), while in between them Simon blows tunelessly into his harmonica. “He’s so unhip, when you say ‘Dylan’, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was!” is perhaps the most telling line as Simon’s lyrics send their barbs at the ultra-hip of the time, whose dialogue is alive with current topics and a myriad of slang terms (“I smoke a pint of tea a day”), but really pay little heed to the intellectuals that preceded them, and are really just playing at intelligence by using obscenely clever words while getting high. The fact that that is followed up with “But’s alright Ma/Everybody must get stoned!” leaves little doubt at who the figurehead. Though it seemed to be a little too pointed to be a pure jest, the fact that his last harmonica solo is punctuated with a declarative “Folk rock!” followed by Simon dropping the the instrument and sullenly stating “I’ve lost my harmonica, Albert…” is enough to make it at least hilarious.

3) The Guess Who – “Friends of Mine” (The Doors) (1969)

It’s nice to know that musicians are listening to the same music that you are. One of Burton Cummings’ idols entering the rock world as a singer was Jim Morrison, and this track makes it very plain. The song runs an exhausting ten minutes, much of which is Cummings repeating “Buh-babe-buh-babe-buh-babe-buh-babe-ay!”, spouting lines of pop culture, personal anecdotes and vague psychedelia as the band vamps underneath on a couple of chords. Not long after that, the band becomes quieter, opening the door to show you Cummings channelling Morrison’s rambling soothsayer persona for the telling of a macabre story Though it doesn’t quite have the conviction of “The End”, I would argue that the climax is even better. In case you forgot of the band’s country of origin, and because they presumably gotta make the ten minutes, Cummings begins to recite In Flanders Fields before changing the lyrics – “To Flanders Field the hippies go!”, he spits. The affection for the Doors’ original material is clear, as the whole band sounds the part, right down to the deft organ work thoughout, the jazz-inflected drumming and even the seeming telepathy of the original band, as they ebb and flow with the vocals just as well. Any ten-minute-long parody song is going to have to be a labour of love.

4) The Beatles – “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” (John Lennon) (1968)

Paul McCartney’s attempt to do a basic blues song with a screaming sort of vocal a la Lennon (the genuine article of which can be found on the same album – “Yer Blues”) only contains the words in the title plus “No one will be watching us”, repeated over and over again. Apparently inspired by McCartney seeing two monkeys copulating in the middle of the road while on the Beatles’ Indian retreat, it’s his meditation on “how simple the act of procreation is”*, but might also be saying the same about Lennon’s songs. At under two minutes, the song was never going to have fantastic legs (he’d revisit the idea more fully a few songs later on “Helter Skelter”), but it makes its point and displays a sort of rawness that always seemed to come without hesitation to John and didn’t fit as well with Paul’s more orchestrated songs. Fitting, too, that it makes its home on the incredibly disjointed White Album as the portrait of the band fracturing (only Paul and Ringo recorded the track, at which John was miffed) – why not send up one of your own and try something silly if everyone’s recording in their own little corner?

5) Talking Heads – “The Overload” (Joy Division) (1980)

This one might be a little bit of a cheat, as no member of Talking Heads had ever heard the music of Joy Division before – “The Overload” was an attempt to emulate them as they had been described by music critics. They didn’t get it totally wrong. The song is all gloom and dourness, with a buzzing, impatient guitar in the background and David Byrne intermittently being roused from his sleep to deliver the vocals – you can feel the cold sweat and longest nights behind them (probably the closest the song gets to the actual sound of the band). What sound like submarine signals ping back and forth in the background as a heavy beat trudging a path through the whole proceeding. It’s gloomiest the band ever sounded, but is a welcome experiment to add to their oeuvre.

*Source: Wikipedia’s page on the song, quoted from the Barry Miles biography of Paul, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now

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