Category: Stories & Essays

Backworlds we’ll go: Paul D’Amour on the Origins of Lusk’s Free Mars

Alicia Berbenick is a writer and musician from Brooklyn. She has an unnatural obsession for weird shit that she constantly needs to get down on paper. Here’s a story of one of those obsessions.

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It was April of 1998. I was at the tail end of my middle school years and all I cared about was music—new music in particular. One night I couldn’t sleep, so I snuck downstairs to the living room to watch MTV (which was outlawed in my home). 12 Angry Viewers was on, a show that only lasted two years but sought to introduce people to more subversive music. It was there in the early hours of the morning that my pre-teen self fell in love with a track named “Backworlds” by the supergroup Lusk. The video juxtaposed childhood innocence and nostalgia with blood-sucking, explosive violence. The song was equally jarring, luring me in with a poppy keyboard loop of an earworm, then exploding into this beautiful psychedelic chorus before it corrodes into uncomfortable, repetitive shouting. I’d never heard anything like it. The record was called Free Mars, a title that really spoke to the fiery, weird parts of me that felt suffocated by the world. I saved up, bought it at The Wall, and put it on repeat for the next 20 years.

It is a collage work of sounds pieced together by two brilliant musicians with the help of so many of their talented friends. To fans, Free Mars is one of the most underrated and overlooked records of the ’90s; yet there is little-to-no information out there about how the record was made. I wanted to see if I could get at the root of why it was so life-changing for some and passed up by too many, so I reached out to Paul D’Amour. D’Amour is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer and producer. Most fans probably remember him for his writing and signature bass sound on Tool’s Undertow. At the start of our conversation he mentioned more than once that “no one ever wants to talk about [Free Mars].” But beneath those comments, I thought I could hear the sound of a proud parent.

“Backworlds” won high ratings on MTV’s short-lived jury style show 12 Angry Viewers, giving it heavier rotation on the channel.

 

Let’s take it back to 1993. Tool was on tour promoting Undertow with Failure as an opening act. D’Amour became friends with their front-of-house soundman, Chris Pitman, as well as Failure’s bassist, Greg Edwards. The three (plus Ken Andrews of Failure) would mess around by playing pop songs during their down time, which led them to produce a covers record under the name Replicants. It gave D’Amour a taste of what it was like to explore other musical avenues and, during the writing stage of Ænima, D’Amour quit Tool. “I really just wanted to have some fun and not have rules, you know?” D’Amour said. “Playing in Tool, as far as [being] creative, there were too many rules in that band. The guitar player did the guitar player thing and the bass player did the bass player thing.” As great as the band was, having creative freedom was more important to him.

Fortunately the head of Volcano (Tool’s label at the time) recognized D’Amour’s talent and allotted him a budget to create something new. D’Amour wasn’t sure what it would look, feel or sound like yet, but he knew it would be a complete departure from Tool—something experimental and really out there. “Replicants kind of spurred the creative connections between [me, Chris and Greg]. I wanted to bring in another person, so I brought in Brad Laner from Medicine. He’s a great rhythmist and his guitar sound is pretty unique as well.” The four of them began jamming together, switching instruments and conjuring strange melodies. “Originally I kind of wanted to do more like a loopy, more arty thing. Not necessarily even songs” says D’Amour. “I just thought we were going to jam and make some loops and  turn it into [something] a little more loose and psychedelic; like some of those early PiL records.“ The one thing that was clear: this record would be made with zero rules—from committing to first takes down to the harpist’s wild laugh, lingering after a track.

In the beginning, the four would meet and lay down tracks at the famed Alley Studios in North Hollywood; a place known for its early ’70s connections to artists like Three Dog Night and Jackson Browne and would later host musicians like Tom Petty and Kurt Cobain. “We were living around the corner [from Alley], so we just popped in one day and sorta got friendly with them. All the walls are just padded with blue jeans ,” he laughs. “And there’s layers of resin on the walls. It’s one of those places where you know shit went down in there.” But as Edwards and Laner became busier with other projects, D’Amour and Pitman gradually took the reigns as co-producers. “We started bringing in some other people, like Danny [Carey] from Tool, and Kellii Scott from Failure [to play drums]. We brought in a friend of Chris’s, [Dana Wollard], who was an amazing cellist and we had a harp player, [Patti Hood]. [Chris and I] basically took the ball and ran with it with what originally started in the Alley.” The two set up their own mini recording studios and, using more affordable ADAT machines, were able to finish the record.

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As far as influences go, D’Amour drew from a few places. It’s been said that this record was a concept album revolving around Iain Banks’ novel The Wasp Factory. This isn’t completely true. “I don’t think, as we were creating, that we were thinking about that book,” he says. “It just sort of made the rounds in my circle at the time. It was dark and transitory. Certainly, the imagery was really powerful.” If anything, the “Backworlds” video (directed by Len E. Burge III and D’Amour) is loosely based on a traumatic scene from the novel. In addition, D’Amour was heavily into reading old paperback sci-fi novels, so much of his lyrics would revolve around that brand of futuristic otherworldliness. In terms of influences, he was listening to a lot of Richard Davies’ work—particularly the Cardinal’s 1994 self-titled record. In both records you can also catch the influence of Beach Boys’ harmonies (another of D’Amour’s mentions). But where both of those influences were lighter, almost positive in contrast, Free Mars is an unpredictable carnival ride, bordering on the horrific, filled with dark corners of discovery and technological mystique.

As far as writing sessions went, whoever was available would get together and jam. A melody would bubble up to to surface and they’d write around that, usually with Pitman and D’Amour left to build off of what was recorded in The Alley. “We spent quite a bit of time with our harpist and the cellist,” he says. “So there’s a lot of great layers in there with them.” We’re talking about the kinds of layers that sometimes you only catch on your 86th listen, where a new sound will seem more present than before—a guitar solo floats over the top of that melody you’d previously focused on or some old haunting operatic sample peeps out from underneath rollicking keys. When asked which song was his favorite, D’Amour named “Mindray”.  “I wrote all the lyrics and really put some thought into that [song]. I think that one was like, all right, we’re done with this whole ‘jamming’ thing—let’s just actually focus and get real.” One listen to the track and you’ll hear its reverberations through the rest of the album. A sluggish drum shuffle takes you on a meandering journey through sweeping harp, layered orchestral keys and wailing guitars. The vocals capitalize on that Beach Boys harmonic influence, but are turned strange through an oscillating pedal effect.

“I think Mindray is probably my favorite…that one definitely set the tone for a few other [songs].” – Paul D’Amour

 

Other tracks borrow in one way or another from this loopy underwater vibe, both soothing in effect and paranoia-inducing in its darkness. The record runs the genre-bending gamut of sounds; from soaring epics like “Free Mars” and “Doctor” to the infectious pop found on “Backworlds” to a heavier kind of art rock on “Kill the King”. Yet a strong thread of addictive melodies prevents this record from ever feeling disjointed.

The title Free Mars and CD’s artwork and Digipak® design, too, borrowed from D’Amour’s interest in Sci-Fi paperbacks. “I had a huge box of them. I tried to mock some of those early print styles and some of the ways they used those old illustrations.” Free Mars would be nominated in 1998 for a Grammy for Best Recording Package (alongside Ænima). Both lost to Titanic: Music as heard on the Fateful Voyage, which, it’s worth mentioning, used a similar illustrative design to Free Mars.

Lusk would go on to do a short tour in small clubs, complete with Patti Hood on harp and Chris Wyse on upright bass. Unfortunately, this is where Lusk would come to an end. “Some rich dude bought our record label and he just drove the whole company into the ground in a matter of months. We’d had huge tours booked but we couldn’t do that without more support. Other labels were possibly interested, but [the head of Volcano] wouldn’t return anyone’s phone calls. [Chris and I] couldn’t do anything. It took the wind out of the sails of the project.” Though funding couldn’t save Lusk, we at least are left with a record that was born out of complete creative freedom and a rebellion from over-production. A record like this simply could not happen again…maybe that’s why its fans still obsess over it.

Today Free Mars isn’t on Spotify and, during this interview, D’Amour mentioned he had to make a few calls to fix the listing in iTunes. Fans can still find CDs on Discogs as well as a few LP pressings out there.* And the album lingers in our minds in other ways—like the recent report that another mine appeared in the Seattle Bay area, close to where D’Amour and Burge filmed the video for “Backworlds.” He laughs and confesses, “The mine from that video? We just left on the beach and it caused all kinds of trouble.” The mine that was found this past August was apparently from a 2005 Naval exercise and, though it was inert, still caused a little scare for the locals. Talk about resurfacing. As for what’s next, D’Amour and Pitman are currently working on a new project. It won’t be like Lusk, he says, but it will be something completely new and heavier. You can watch for it, along with all his score compositions for upcoming projects, on D’Amour’s website.

*Ed. Note: If you want the complete record, including “My Good Fishwife” and the secret track “Blaire’s Spiders”, you have to buy the CD or digital version. Those two tracks are not on the LP.

 

“That’s Their Pet Sounds” : Rick Springfield “Working Class Dog” (1981)

Mission statement:

No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we fuckin’ delivered the goods.

Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds” our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight, and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be, or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.

*“That’s Their Pet Sounds” is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.

And with that here’s an artist frequently dismissed as a teen idol who defied odds and opinions to make a truly seminal power pop album…
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Rick Springfield’s BEST ALBUM : 1981’s “Working Class Dog”

Background: By the late seventies Rick Springfield was in a state of desperation. At this point he’s released 3 studio albums of okay pop rock with middling success and is maybe a teen idol past his prime. Even though music is his passion, bills have to be paid, so he auditions for an acting role on “General Hospital”, the soap of the time ( pathetic anecdote break : I rushed home from school every day for this thing and somehow disciplined myself to not start my daily school persecution crying session until 4 pm, when the show was over, that’s how invested I was ). He gets the job. Meanwhile he signs with RCA and starts making another record in earnest, newly inspired by the power pop guitar crunch pervading the LA clubs at the time, particularly from bands like the Knack. Yes, you are witnessing the phenomenon known as stars aligning.
Okay so in 1981, a lot of shit happens. Rick is starring on the still top-rated “General Hospital”, and his new album, “Working Class Dog” , is officially out in the world. If that weren’t enough,   “Jessie’s Girl”, a truly rockin’ piece of ear candy off the album has begun picking up steam on the radio, and it’s corresponding video is soon all over MTV. The song ultimately hits #1 on the Billboard chart. Now as great as “Jessie” is, and lord it is, there’s no reason to believe Rick is anything but a one hit wonder, another teen idol from the factory. At that point, pop history was littered with similar scenarios. People that, while yeah they made records, they were also TV stars, and were thereby automatically not regarded as credible musicians ( David Cassidy being the prime example). Didn’t matter that Rick was musician first and an actor “just because”, he automatically got tarred with that brush…but something weird happened and turned that whole notion on it’s ear. See, “Working Class Dog” turned out to be good, like really good, as in one of the finer power pop albums ever made. Seriously. Something that could hold it’s head up next to Badfinger’s “No Dice” and “Straight Up” or anything from Cheap Trick’s 1977-79 golden era. Why wasn’t he mentioned in the same breath as those guys at the time ? Well, Rick was a teen idol, a branded man, and all the nerdy, pseudo cool, music know it all guys who liked the aforementioned bands couldn’t bring themselves to like something all the girls were crazy for, because it had to be shiz if girls liked it. Yes. Ironic considering power pop’s roots in the Fab Four but there you go. Beatles. Stones. Same scenario. Girls loved and recognized them first and at some inevitable point, their amazing-ness couldn’t be denied. As of 2018, I can honestly say the most knowledgable and passionate male power pop heads I know, the ones that worship Big Star, The Raspberries and Flamin’ Groovies all think “Working Class Dog” kicks ass.

Why it’s his Pet Sounds :

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“I just made a seminal power pop album girl”

Rick is one of those guys that has good songs on every album. You can trust him to give you at very least 1 or 2 within every release. He’s reliable like that. Unlike, and it kills me to say this, Neil Young and Paul McCartney who at this point just can’t be trusted. Fact is if you like Rick, and continue to buy his new albums, you will be rewarded in some way.
Out of all 17, and counting, of Rick’s studio albums, “Working Class Dog” is the deepest, the punchiest, the most consistent. It’s the one.
It goes something like this:
There are 10 songs on “Working Class Dog”and they are all good.
Every one has a killer hook and sounds like a single.
Every chorus in every song is impossibly sticky and cannot be removed once they’ve suctioned themselves to the inside of your head.
Also, every song is about girls.
Since the early seventies, bands overtly influenced by that early Beatles sound and song construction were filed directly into the category that came to be known as power pop. And oh man, music writers of a certain age, gender and genetic make up love them some power pop. It is a religion. Their irrational/earth shattering love for this sound is no different than that of the BTS fan army of today ( If you don’t know about BTS, go have a Google). The most obvious way this love manifested itself in the pre-internet era was in the consistent attention bestowed upon power poppers in the music press i.e.almost any band that made this kind of music got lauded and showered with good reviews and features back in the day, even though their overall popularity usually didn’t warrant the attention and they were all pretty much guaranteed to be cult bands forever. There was something about this particular sound that struck a chord with hardcore music nerds. It was pop, but self-referential and smart and clever, with guitars all over it. It was romantic music for boys.
“Working Class Dog” is the absolute epitome of great power pop and in a 2018 musical world where the concept of what’s cool and not cool no longer exists, where it’s just about loving songs as singular digital entities, no matter where they came from, all that old baggage about “it’s for girls” can finally go straight in the garbage where it always belonged.

The Songs:

  • Rick wrote 9 of the 10 tracks. There’s lots of talk about appeasing Daddy (hers and Rick himself) and “little girls” that are alternately dirty or scared “like you”.
  • The one track he didn’t write,“I’ve Done Everything For You”, is …well okay it’s a Sammy f-ing Hagar song from 1978…but in the same manner in which Aretha Franklin stole Otis Redding’s “Respect” and made it her own forever, Rick took complete possession of this song. As in his version completely crushes the original. (Disclaimer: I am in no way inferring that Sammy is like Otis, I am just referencing the circumstance. Otis is a God, while Sammy remains and will always be a man.)
  • This album is romantic in the same way hanging out in a suburban 7-11 parking lot late, late at night ( cheap pun alert) and cruising the main strip of road in town hoping by chance to see your unrequited love is romantic. It feels eternally young and single-minded and all emotions expressed within it are as urgent as a fire alarm. It runs all the lights and is very, very horny.
  • The first 8 tracks are hook laden pocket anthems and each one to the last features an  impossibly infectious chorus. Though the competition is fierce, gonna say the one in “Love Is Alright Tonite” rules the hardest. As a side note, “Love…” soundtracks the most manic and crazy scene in cult classic “Wet Hot American Summer” and is hard to detach from that once you’ve seen it but they really do take it to yet another level of greatness.
  • For years I thought Rick was singing “You can keep your cheddar” in “Daddy’s Pearl”. I reasoned “cheddar” was some kind of slang way to say cheap opinions/gossip which made sense in the context of the song. It sounded kind of clever and weird. Plus he rhymed it with “better”. Years later found out what he is saying is actually “chatter”and was disappointed. Listen for yourself and decide but I think “cheddar” is the way to go.

 

  • “Inside Silvia” is a lust ballad. It is 100 % literal. When Rick sings “there’s one harbor where I’m safe and warm”, the “harbor” to which he is referring is Silvia herself. All the metaphors are literal on this album. I swear that is not a contradiction.
  • There is also a straight up Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar solo that wandered in off the street and somehow got lost in “Red Hot and Blue Love”. It is phenomenally disconcerting but it works in what is the most “experimental” song on the album.
  • There’s really nothing left to be said in regards to “Jessie’s Girl” at this point. It’s a classic pop song, full stop, some people love it, some people are sick of it…but it lives and will continue to do so long after we are gone.

In Conclusion:

 37 years have passed since “Working Class Dog” was released. And Rick is still out there touring and recording like a truly driven man. This thing sold 3 million copies and had 3 top ten singles and will probably never be included on any of those “Greatest Albums of All-Time” lists…but who cares what the critics say. It’s an absolute diamond, it’s his Pet Sounds.

*One more thing ! While there have been an extraordinarily large number of crap rock memoirs thrust into the world over the years, Rick’s own  “Late, Late at Night” from 2010 is not one of them. The story does not resolve itself in the last 50 pages with descriptions of joyfully taking kids to school, cooking vegan feasts or daily one on one martial arts training sessions with an esteemed master guru like the kind that regularly surface in todays rock memoirs. Rick’s story is ongoing, unresolved and human. The book is one of the most compelling, dark, sexually charged, honest and self deprecating music autobiographies you’re ever gonna read and so highly encourage you to do so.

Hear it here:

or here:

Inglorious Results of a Misspent Youth: A True Life Story

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 Joan Jett has magical powers. Andy Moreno explains how the explosion of “Cherry Bomb” forced her to leave her hometown and find a way to ROCK forever…

I was going to call myself a late bloomer but the truth is I’m more like that old house plant you keep alive.  It never dies and you wouldn’t call it healthy or vibrant but you do give it props for defying natural laws.

By 1982 Joan Jett was out of The Runaways and off making hits. I had one foot out of my home town and another knee deep in what I call Indiana girl muck.  In 70’s Midwest, by 20 years old, you should’ve been well on your way to marriage and kids. A small starter house was a part of most friends’ worlds… if they didn’t already die in a drunk driving or overdose accident that is. I was working as a full time dispensing optician at an Ophthalmologist’s office in one of those ugly one story office buildings off of Lake Avenue in Fort Wayne, Indiana. You know those places that are completely devoid of any type of cool in an area where it was blocks and blocks of the same.  I wore nurses whites and orthopedic shoes. On my break, I would sometimes run to Taco Bell with my boyfriend and, on occasion, suck back a beer or two before returning to finish my shift. But most times I’d drive solo forfeiting food to smoke cigarettes and blast my speakers making sure to put on the “power booster” to elevate the mood. I would drive in giant squares so that I could come back in time but long enough that I could feel the wind on my face and escape the debilitating monotony. What I’m describing is a lonely loner, early signs of a deep introvert. But even recluses get bored. In the “The French Song” Joan sings I know what I am, I am what I am. I might not have known what I was but I always knew what I wasn’t.  I remember one particular afternoon, coming back from my lunch break, now in my newly purchased used canary yellow TR7 that unbeknownst to me had cracked cylinder heads and was already showing signs of major distress after only two weeks.  I sat silently in that car as it bumped and rattled, unable to turn off, painfully acknowledging that I could no longer live this particular life. I couldn’t drive up to this building one more week to this job that I felt was pulling me into some unremarkable abyss.  I thought about the week before and all the weeks before that. The reason I got this car was because I allowed my boyfriend to total my Celica GT lift-back by slamming into a pole while we were all drunk in the passenger’s seats.  That was car wreck number 6 or 7 if I was counting. I was going to be 21, not 18. My nighttime shenanigans were becoming very worrisome to the sober adult me.  Unable to get replacement parts locally, that car became a permanent garage fixture and I was afraid of the same fate.

In the following days “Cherry Bomb” came on the radio as I was dropped off yet again to the gates of doom as I was now carless.  The music felt so alive blaring loudly from inside that vehicle. I didn’t want to step out knowing that life was stagnant on the other side of that door.  It suddenly occurred how late in the game it was for me. My boyfriend was speaking but I drifted off imagining being where Joan was, this magic place where a girl like me could play guitar and live a completely different type of life.  I left my body which I was prone to do. I was shaking my head and my hair starting flying around my face. I drank up every last ounce of that song. That moment unleashed some newfound freedom that I had felt rising up recently and caused it to erupt like an oil well.  I would leave town for LA to try to play in bands! That was it! I started making a real plan. I quit that job, I babysat for my sister and saved enough money for a ticket. I got my GED. I recruited a friend. We left about 3 months later.

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Andy in 1982: play it girl…

In hindsight I should have left about 3 years before I got on that plane to California if I wanted any chance to actually fly.  I wasted just enough time to pack on enough self doubt and guilt that it was very hard to get off the ground even with all the miles between me and the muck.  I drank when I was nervous and that was generally always. It doesn’t help matters to be drunk or timid but I could never decide which was worse. So I always erred on the inebriated side. Had I moved in 1979  I believe I may have become a real musician and possibly stuck to it to this day. I had the self discipline and desire but the few obstacles I ran into were enough to not only deter but stifle me entirely. Unlike all the determined strong folks you read about with all their dreams. It’s a shame too, because women artists were just about to pop, so the timing was right in the world for someone with limited talent like me to actually make it. That perhaps was my epiphany. I wanted to be Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck.  In other words, I wanted to be credible but was convinced early on that I didn’t have what it takes to become great.  And the alternative was becoming famous and mediocre. If I was anything I would be legitimate and authentic. Or nothing at all.

This is the bullshit I tell myself.  I had about 5 years of practicing the guitar before I left home.  I was getting better but it was already apparent I was not gifted.  After more lessons, being in working bands and a few #metoo stories later I just gave up.   

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Andy in 1985: it’s on…

But Joan Jett got me out of that office building and on that plane to California. That in and of itself was giant in my small world. Her voice, guitar, and  songs throughout the years got me into those band auditions. They put me in those record store jobs. Her chutzpah kept me in the mix of excitement, meeting songwriters and artists, mingling with creativity.  She got me to New York, where I always dreamed of living.

I have enough hangups to fill five tour buses but Joan continues to motivate and inspire me to push my mole ass further into the world each year and for that I’ll always be grateful.

 

Editors note : Everyone make sure to check out the new fist pumping/tear jerking Joan Jett documentary “Bad Reputation” asap: it’s awesome.

“That’s Their Pet Sounds” : Rickie Lee Jones “Pirates” (1981)

Mission statement:

No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we fuckin’ delivered the goods.

Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds” our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight, and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be, or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.

*“That’s Their Pet Sounds” is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.

And with that here’s an artist whom while she’s gotten her justified share of critical acclaim is still regarded as a “one hit wonder” in a lot of circles…which is pretty bullshit…

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Rickie Lee Jones’s BEST ALBUM : 1981’s “Pirates”

Background: Early in her career Rickie Lee Jones used to get compared to Joni Mitchell (a legend) a lot. Like a lot. People would often site her appearance, her singular instantly recognizable voice, her esoteric songwriting, and her jazz influences as Joni-esque which while in some respects wasn’t a reach, it was an undeniably lazy and easy comparison to make. After 16 studio albums (as of this writing) it’s clear from even the most cursory listen, Rickie was a lot weirder, more self-deprecating, unhinged and unpredictable vocally, plus unlike Joni, she was/is an unabashed resident of the wrong side of the tracks ( her earlier songs often featured losers in search of sure things, drugs and Rickie’s relationships with both ). By the way, choosing “Pirates” as her peak performance isn’t necessarily a cut and dried decision as Rickie’s first 3 studio albums are all pretty deep in the quality department ( ed.note : not counting ” Girl at Her Volcano”, her standards cover album that came between albums 2 and 3 which while off-kilter and cool is kind of an outlier in the discography)…but “Pirates” gets the edge as it completely encapsulates everything she is about, and, hyperbole alert (!) is perfectly succinct and beautiful in every way.

Why it’s her Pet Sounds :

It features 3 of the  absolute greatest songs of her 40 year career, in a row, to start the freakin’ album. The LP as a whole sounds like a stream of consciousness story, and it’s stars are Rickie’s patently deluded boho romantic lost souls, and their plans that never work out or end badly yet everyone keeps on dreaming, and trying to “be alive” so to speak. “Pirates” is a soulful popped out spin on Springsteen’s very particular brand of misguided mortals like he’d been offering at around the same time (late 70’s, early 80’s), the kind of wishful thinkers depicted in his “Backstreets”, “Meeting Across the River”,and “Racing in the Streets”…but Rickie’s souls are surrounded not with meat, potatoes, glockenspiel and sax, they’re swathed in swirling orchestration, piano flourishes, and unpredictable hooks. “Pirates” is full of arcs and crescendos, like some hallucinatory broadway musical. Add to that her own warm, sinewy and otherworldly voice. To put it simply, it can get dark inside these songs but they are full of color.

The Songs:

The 2 lead tracks are Rickie at her finest: “We Belong Together” is a breathless and  desperate movie scene that builds and builds with a tripping chorus and some kick ass power drums while  “Living It Up” is all resignation, delusion, sex, and desperation. These 2 songs feel inextricably locked together, like non-identical twins born a mere minute apart and honestly I can’t even listen to one without playing the other immediately after.

“Skeletons” is ridiculously prescient and gripping ( it’s police story, will leave it at that, check it out ) with a delicate and oddly optimistic melody belying the innate sadness at it’s core. And sweet pop is alive in both the title track,“Pirates…” and “A Lucky Guy” ( about Rickie’s former paramour Tom Waits himself). Finally the ambitious, widescreen, fat jazz of “Traces of the Western Slopes”  features some of Rickie’s most compelling vocal keening, and “The Returns” sets the wistful credits rolling.

Anything sub-standard ?

Out of the 8 featured tracks there’s really only 1 that could be considered straight up filler, the overly perky “Woody and Dutch”, which yeah, I always skip.

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Here’s Rickie after winning the cursed “Best New Artist” Grammy in 1980, deservedly beating the likes of Dire Straits, The Blues Brothers, The Knack and Robin Williams which is easily the nerdiest white guy age 13-30 in 1980 wet dream list ever. Go girl …

 

In Conclusion:

As meandering ( in a good way) and epic ( 4 of the 8 tracks are over 5 minutes) as “Pirates” contents are, make no mistake, this is a pop album and very easy to latch onto i.e. it’s melodic to the core. It’s been 37 years since the initial release of “Pirates” and Rickie is still touring like a maniac…and she still justifiably features a lot of the “Pirates” tracks in her setlists. Highly recommend the multitude of acoustic and live versions of all the aforementioned tracks which can be easily found on YouTube, on Rickie’s website, plus on her official live album from 1995 “Naked Songs” because in a lot of cases they are transcendently good, as in a lot of them rival the original studio versions. That’s the thing about Rickie, even stripped down the songs are as elastic, melodic, and wondrous as the fully clothed versions. And go see her, for real, she’s really unpredictable and she’ll take you there…but visit “Pirates” now, right now, headphones, train, car, it’s her Pet Sounds.

Hear it here:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/2E3jRFNrWjqTBJEPrfIDzl

or here:

“That’s Their Pet Sounds” : Barry Manilow “Even Now” (1978)

Mission statement:

No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we fuckin’ delivered the goods.

Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds” our latest semi-regular feature where we will endeavor to spotlight, and celebrate a heretofore uncool, sometimes mocked, occasionally underrated, polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be,  “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.

*”That’s Their Pet Sounds” is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.

And who better to start with than one of the most maligned and popular artists ever….

 

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Barry Manilow’s BEST ALBUM : 1978’s “Even Now”

Background: “Even Now” was Barry’s 5th official studio album and went on to sell 3 million freakin’ copies. He remained so fond of it, and of that time in his career, that in 1996 he released an album of his favorite pop songs from 1978 or thereabouts by other artists and called it, wait for it, “the Summer of ’78”. He even went so far as to write a song with that same title swooning over what a great year it was. Make no mistake, Barry was really, really into 1978. Yup, even Barry knew that “Even Now” was the one.
It is important to note that all Manilow albums during his seventies heyday were essentially collections of potential singles or at least sounded like them…which means the only cohesive theme tying them together as LP’s were the fact that all the songs were performed by Barry. He was an unabashed pop artist who made singles for the radio. That’s what he did. That was his job.

Why it’s his Pet Sounds :

Okay, before we begin have to attach a disclaimer to this : at this stage in life, I absolutely detest “Copacabana”, it’s just, I fuckin’ can’t… but that wasn’t always the case, which is to say as a kid, sigh, I thought it was pretty cool. I did….but reason I bring it up is because many people will write this album off straight away because of “Copacabana’s” presence i.e. it’s the opening damn track. And look, there is a liberal coating of schmaltz on a good portion of the album ( it’ll inevitably get all over your hands…or ears, case in point “Can’t Smile Without You”, that one really oozes) …but cast your cynicism aside, because once you get past those guys and go deep, you’ll discover that “Even Now” is Barry at his melodic, lovelorn best. Yes, sentimentally over the top but also kind of dark, dazed and lost and, it goes without saying, ridiculously tuneful.

Every track is sung with complete earnestness and nearly always features a dramatic key change around the last chorus or so ( you know those award show performances where all of a sudden a gospel choir or gaggle of harmonizing children rise from beneath the stage to join in on that final chorus and take things completely over the top, well it’s like that except it’s just Barry singing).

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Okay, elephant in the room officially acknowledged, onward… 

 

The Songs: 

Want a song about not appreciating someone until it’s too late ? That’s the lush “A Linda Song”.

How about some loss, loneliness and regret ? Well the whole latter half of the record does a u-turn from corned out “joy” of “Copacabana “ and “Can’t Smile”. “Where Do I Go From Here”, “Even Now”, “I Just Want To Be the One” and  “Sunrise” supply plenty of emotional question marks.

And the guitar riff in “Leaving in the Morning” sounds like a slowed down version of the heavenly opening chord of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and as such is totally bitchin’.

The defining track on the album is the aforementioned darkly optimistic (really) and mournful “Sunrise”. In fact the cover of the album is literally a photograph of the song. It’s a world weary ballad about resigning yourself to this thing called life and trying to hang in there whilst contemplating your place in the universe and features a pretty gorgeous piano line that perfectly captures “the sad”.

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“I can be dark too bitches”

Anything sub-standard ? Well yeah, “Losing Touch” is unpleasant and the kitsch of “I Was a Fool” can grate but those are tiny gripes.

In Conclusion:

“Even Now” is Barry at his most consistent and has more top notch tracks per capita than any of his other 30 (!) studio albums. And for an album of singles really, it hangs together exceptionally well. It’s vintage AM radio gold. It’s perfectly calibrated lush, and melodic pop music. It’s his Pet Sounds.

Hear it here:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/1ILknbSc8Ll0TqA8oJKkNV

 

 

 

When You Hear This Song: “Pack it Up” by Pretenders (1981)

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Andrew Gerhan of classic pop purveyors & satanic majesties Nevada Nevada exalts his number # 1 song for looking in the rear view mirror and screaming “Burn Baby Burn” : “Pack It Up” by Pretenders

I first became aware of the Pretenders “Pack It Up” through Jawbreaker. Now I had probably heard the Pretenders version already, at least spilling out from under the bedroom door of an older sibling in the 80’s (mine were cool), but “Pack It Up” wasn’t one of the radio singles so I didn’t become truly acquainted with the song until Jawbreaker sort of covered it. It was on their “Chesterfield King” EP which I bought from the band at their merch table after a show at ABC No Rio in the the dawn of the 90’s. I then spent the rest of the night and following day trying not to bend the record as I stayed up wandering NYC before heading back home upstate. I say that Jawbreaker only sort of covered “Pack It Up” because in place of the original lyrics, they sang the words “don’t play…” followed by a list of their own song titles. At this point in time I didn’t know the original lyrics, but I saw the songwriting credited to “Chrissie Hynde”, which seemed odd as Jawbreaker were tiny then and she probably wasn’t writing her songs about their songs.

Skip ahead several years and I live in Oakland and am working as a bike messenger in San Francisco. On the weekend my friend Dominic and I would go to Amoeba Records in Berkeley and sift through the used vinyl. It was the mid-late 90’s and at this point in time people were busy buying cds and jettisoning vinyl collections so it was easy to snap up entire artist’s catalogue for 99 cents per LP. I bought all kinds of great stuff this way : most of Springsteen, CCR, Byrds, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris and… The Pretenders. This is how I ultimately closed the loop and solved the riddle of just what the hell “Pack it Up” actually was: a track on side 2 of “Pretenders II” from 1981, a “deep cut”. For me though, it is the zenith of the album.

 

 

It begins with a great mid-tempo chorus riff and just seconds into it, Chrissie Hynde belts “You guys are the PITS OF THE WORLD !”. Whoever the “guys” are have already been leveled, and she hasn’t even started to sing yet…guns are blazing. She then claims “this is no place for me…” and begins to indict a person or perhaps a series of people, seemingly men, seemingly lovers, but it could really be anyone who is crappy with their influence or authority. They are of the party/industry set with all the usual trappings : jacuzzis, suntans, Porsches. Perhaps record executives luring artists into bad deals with fake promises ?

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She ends the first verse by fuming “But I know my place…where’s my suitcase?”, then the chorus hits and she rails “Pack it up or throw it away, what I can’t carry, BURY !”. This gets me to the core of my own motion-loving soul. 

I love travel, touring, and nomaderie of all kinds and under strife my instincts usually try to point me out the door and away from whatever is getting under my skin. In real life I don’t do this nearly as much as I want to, still the temptation to “pack it up” is strong sometimes.

If this was the whole song I would still love it but what really gets me is that she goes on to claim a portion of dignity while packing her meager scraps and stomping out : “When you pass me in your Porsche, please don’t offer me a ride, I may be a skunk, but YOU’RE a piece of junk!”. Then she says “And furthermore…”and reads off litany of ills starting small with “I don’t like your trousers” and zooming out to “all you scumbags around the world, you’re the pits of the world!”. And with that the song comes full circle, the narrator has left, and a smoldering crater is all that remains. Here is the recognition that you may just be a dirtbag rock n’ roll urchin, but you can still claim dignity and agency. You can still pack it up.

Check out Nevada Nevada’s new EP “Wild and Glowing” right here. Pack it up y’all:

When You Hear This Song : “Never Forget You” by Noisettes (2009)

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Ed Zed speaks on the song that completely shreds his soul, brings the rain, and lives eternally in his heart : “Never Forget You” by Noisettes

Pop music. The gasoline in our veins. The cobra in our hips. The tears lying in wait so close behind those misty, unreliable eyes.

The first time I heard ‘Never Forget You’ by Noisettes, a great tear was rent in my emotional fabric that I knew could never be repaired. Nor would I want it to be.
As that taut, muted bassline is joined by the achingly gorgeous, soul-kissed voice of frontwoman Shingai Shoniwa intoning ‘Whatcha drinkin’? Rum or whiskey? Wontcha have a double with me?’ I can already feel the tears gathering.

I love ambiguity in pop music, particularly when a seemingly ambiguous song has the power to stir with such profundity it’s almost painful. ‘Never Forget You’ could be a paean to a former lover, friend, fling, bandmate, none of the above, but it is very definitely imbued with a yearning for those fragile human connections consumed by the inexorable march of time.

But despite its nostalgic pathos, ‘Never Forget You’ is also undeniably jaunty, perhaps even hinting at some bold future whilst reveling in the bittersweet present. That it at once sounds so utterly timeless and like the greatest Motown song you’ve never heard seems very fitting indeed.

I cannot listen to ‘Never Forget You’ without crying. Crying for the past, for the present and the future. Crying for the beauty that radiates from its every note. Crying with sheer joy at the canon of incredible pop music to which it belongs, and of which it is so vital a component. At this point I cannot even think about it without crying, which is presumably why people keep glancing at me uncomfortably as I sit here writing this on the subway. May it always, always be so.

The Soul that saved me…thankfully

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“These are BABY records”

So declared my 11 year old step brother to my 10 year old self as he thumbed through my meagre record collection in my blue shag carpeted bedroom many years ago. And he had a point I suppose. My favorite albums at the time were most certainly the soundtracks to Disney’s “Bedknobs & Broomsticks” and “the Aristocats” with “Free to be You and Me” running a close third. I was instantly humiliated and taken aback. “Well what records do you have ?” I quickly asked, trying to take the focus off me, now officially the baby. “Chicago and Elton John…” he smugly declared.  I ingeniously/pathetically followed up with “Oh…so uh what’s your favorite song? “. He sneered and said “Butterflies are Free“. Okay. What he’d meant to say was “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” ( Elton John). That “butterflies” line is just a repeated refrain in the song that, even with my limited knowledge of pop music at the time, was well known to me, since it was always on the radio … but I didn’t have the guts to correct him since I’d already lost the larger battle ( I will now: it’s called “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” asshole, duh). He then laugh snorted defiantly as he spotted my worn and obviously played to death Sesame Street “Original Cast” lp. Great.

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“This is the greatest album of all-time” -direct quote from a 10 year baby

That little interaction made a huge impression on me (in a bad way) but it changed nothing. I liked what I liked and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t fight it. While I listened to the radio and was aware of pop music names and songs ( see Elton reference above !), my knowledge was gleaned solely from being a passenger in my Mom’s car and just being captive to whatever she had on. And sadly I gravitated toward the questionable : Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man” is the first song I ever remember loving and…I still love it. Leave me alone.

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I swear this record was sprinkled with love and made the world taste good…

To the modern youth of today it would appear I was in a state of arrested development, 10 years old and the top records in my rotation and consciousness were, okay one more time, baby records. That was true…but the tide was about to turn. There was something stirring in my blood just waiting to be woken up. And it did suddenly and unexpectedly in the aforementioned back seat of the car on the way to the supermarket which is when I first heard “Nothing from Nothing” by Billy Preston. Billy Preston was a child piano prodigy, whose skills and reputation grew as he did, to the point where he was backing everyone from Little Richard to Sam Cooke, and led to his becoming, literally, the fifth Beatle during their tumultuous latter years of existence ( that’s him on the keys in “Let It Be” and “Get Back”). I knew none of this at the time and it wouldn’t have meant a damn thing to me even if I had. All I knew was “Nothing from Nothing” ruled. I liked the banging piano riff, the chorus, the bounce of the whole thing. Here it is ( song starts at 2:27):

And so began my first step into musical adulthood : “Mom, can you get me the Billy Preston album with “Nothing From Nothing” on it ” ? And so on my birthday, she did ( you rule too Mom), and I finally came of musical age.

First impressions  : That cover ( see at top ). Billy’s laughing face. His glowing ring. The mysterious paper he’s looking at. The peace loving kids. Honestly it’s still one of my favorite sleeves of all-time. As for the record itself well,uh… it was slick and funky and fun but if I’m being honest it was really home to only one killer (“Nothing”) and a whole lotta filler. Plus there was one song on it that gave me the genuine creeps. It was called “John the Baptist” and joyfully mentioned Jesus and baptism and I felt as a Jewish kid ( albeit only in name as we weren’t practicing in fact we may have been un-practicing if there is such a thing) that I had no business listening to it. Religious things scared me and this John the Baptist guy seemed like some kind of boogeyman who was trying to get me and if I played the song, he ultimately wouldI would run to the turntable to skip it every time it came on. I wish I could explain this, but like some imaginary monster in the closet, there was no logical reasoning that could be applied.

Still, once Billy entered my life, the baby record years ended. Billy had thrown a ladder down to me and I climbed up and never looked back (well mostly, like I mentioned, I still love “Candy Man” and it’s something I just have to live with). AM radio, Soul Train, Creem Magazine, Casey Kasem’s Top 40 and the Beatles, well Billy kind of took my hand and led me down that thrilling pop hallway.

As for the man himself, after the “Kids” album, he remained in demand as a session musician, most prominently with the Stones, while continuing to pursue a solo career. He went on to have a huge hit in 1979 with Syreeta called “With You I’m Born Again” which as love ballads go is oddly mournful but remains an unerringly lovely thing.

Sadly Billy passed away in 2006 at the too young age of 59 ( as did beautiful Syreeta, his duet partner on “Born” and a wonderful artist in her own right, in 2004 at 57). He had some well-documented troubles and personal challenges but I’m not going to recount all that here, just know the deeper story is out there if you are interested in knowing more about his life.

“Nothing from Nothing” is still a fun and funky song but I rarely put it on. And though I’d like to say “Kids” is one of my favorite albums of all-time, it’s not….but then neither are “The Aristocats” or “Bedknobs”, or “Free to Be”. Still, Billy will always have a special place in my heart: he ushered me into the pop/soul/everything musical universe and yeah, truth be told, helped my ears to finally grow up….and so eternal thanks Billy, gonna end this with a little fire…

 

 

How you doin’ tonight Tallahassee ?!

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My brother plays in a cover band in Florida. I had questions. Lots of questions. 

A 4 piece whose arsenal features songs from the 60’s through now, my brother’s band covers the Florida coastline bar circuit literally and figuratively. This was a dream come true for me because my eternal cover band questions could finally be answered. Here we go !

Have you been surprised by the reaction to certain songs ?

We were playing “Heart-Shaped Box” at a smoky country bar…the smoke was so thick you could lean on it. Some bald hill-jack grabbed the mic from the lead singer and sang the song in a very spirited and angry way, probably reflecting  on mommy issues or something… the surprising part was he did not turn to face the cowboy hats bobbing into their Budweiser’s at the bar, nope, he sang directly into the face of our lead singer. It might have been a country bar but that is totally fucking punk rock (and a little obnoxious).

Have there been any big singalongs ?

People don’t sing along to our stuff thoroughly. Most people are faking the words and stop once you make eye contact… I think it’s fucking awesome anytime someone is feeling the music, who gives a shit if the words they sing are right? I certainly don’t…

Have you ever done themed sets ?

No themed sets in the true sense. Rhythm guitarist trying his hardest to play the wrong chord, bass player staring at the wall and forgets the song the band is playing at that moment or the drummer playing 150 beats a minute on a ballad… if these are themed than yes, we play themed sets all of the time.

Any funny stories about audience reactions  ( as a group or specific people) ?

A lesbian wedding party ended up at this biker bar we were playing at…the ladies were wearing overalls and tiaras and wanted us to play a song they could dance to but couldn’t recommend anything… our drummer says, “let’s play Tennessee Whiskey”. Let’s be very clear, I am not a fan of that song. We played it, everybody danced, the newlyweds had the most enormous cartoon smiles during that song, extreme happiness. It was fucking awesome!

What are some weird requests you’ve gotten ?

Sometimes a guitar nerd will play “stump  the chump” and request some obscure thing… we don’t do requests  unless we can “deliver the goods” properly…songs that we already know.

Do you find that the Floridian taste is a little behind the times ?

I wouldn’t define Floridians a certain way since so many people are transplants trying to escape from somewhere else… have you ever watched “America’s Most Wanted”? “The suspect is armed and dangerous, police think she/he/they are on the run to Florida”.
I am always amazed at the songs people know. 60 year olds singing along with Sublime, a housewife shouting out Godsmack lyrics or some young hipster kid in skinny jeans singing along with a Joe Walsh song. A good band will always watch the crowd but you don’t want to judge. I just appreciate that people are there and listening… Does that make sense?

Is it hard to play songs you don’t like ?

Initially yes. Sometimes my dislike grows even more after we play them routinely. There is something amazing about playing anything with a band once everybody is in the groove and there is flow. And when the audience, even if it’s only one person, feels it, then nobody should give a fuck about what I think. It’s just as much for them as it is for the band…even if it is a  song I hate.

Talk about what you loved when you were young…

I loved the Ramones as a kid. The music was raw, loud, unrefined, not complicated and made me feel great. Joan Jett gave me the same feeling… I was a nervous and frail kid, definitely not an “in your face” kind of guy. The music filled some of that gap mentally.

Ironically my musical motivation comes from songs that all of us agree on. Many times we play songs that I have never fully listened to until I had to learn them. Afterward I say “damn, I heard that song when I was a kid and hated it, what happened , that song is amazing”!

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Soul Unhinged : The Art of “Melisma”

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At some point in the very late 80’s a vocal plague spread across R & B and pop music. The name of this affliction was “Melisma”. “Melisma” is of course defined as singing a single syllable of text while moving between several notes. And while Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, 2 outrageously gifted singers, were the initial purveyors, to these ears Boys II Men were the real starting point as far as spreading the plague, the true guilty party ( “Motownphilly” excepted, because shit, who doesn’t love “Motownphilly”). Anyway, they employed the technique on literally every track they released, and once they hit it big, that was it. It was the signal for every up and coming R & B group to feature ” the Melisma” on what felt like every single song on the radio. Screw economy and grace, gratuitous vocal runs became the norm. And people loved it. “I Will Always Love You”, “What A Girl Wants” and of course the Boyz/Mariah collaboration “One Sweet Day” ( and an interminable number of others) were all beyond massive hits. The standard was set forever. The pop delicacy of a Mary Wells vocal, like the kind you’d hear on “My Guy” was instantly an artifact from a bygone era.

The style reached it’s peak of manifestation on American Idol, and a little bit later, on The Voice, and continues to fester to this day, generally in the most predictable, immaculately produced, and technically manipulated ways. Now I know this all sounds very “get off my lawn” but I honestly don’t hate “Melisma”, it’s just that this slick, show-offy version of it feels like just that . The only thing I can liken it to is a painting that looks just like a photograph : it becomes all about technique and not so much about content, which makes the art feel kind of empty…the fact is “Melisma” coupled with unbridled, unrefined, imperfect emotion can make for some amazing, spiritual, mind blowing listening. Let’s go back in time for a minute….

Linda Jones was both Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight’s favorite singer. Linda’s recording career was short, running from 1964 to 1972, when she unexpectedly passed away at the far too young age of 27. Within that time, she achieved only middling success ( couple of hits on the R & B charts in the late sixties , the biggest being “Hypnotized”, which was also top 20 on the Billboard pop chart). While she never made what would be considered a classic album within that time, she did kick out some incredible singular songs that positively beggar belief. As in, the vocal performances were nuts. Listen to this insanity :

 

I know, that thing should come with a warning attached. In less than 4 minutes Linda has crushed the entire earth into a dust like powder. I’ll be honest, the first time I heard this, it made me laugh because it was just soooo over the top…but I immediately loved it, because it felt lived. You believe Linda. That’s “Melisma” in the hands of a master. That’s technique and content in one giant heart-shaped mass.

Then there’s this. McKinley Mitchell’s vocal on “Town I Live in” starts oh so sweetly, full of longing, and lonely love…but then about halfway through it turns into this raw, raspy, desperate monster and obliterates everything in it’s path. It happens so suddenly, and jarringly it’s like being woken up from a deep sleep by someone throwing cold water on your face.  This song was recorded in freakin’ 1962, and still sounds weird and off kilter in 2018: a perfect marriage of rough and smooth that transcends time. Check it out:

I know. It’s nuts right? 19-freakin-62.

Screw the visuals. These were records. And yes, in some way the relics of a bygone era…but lord, aren’t they beautiful ? Has anything on The Voice/Idol ever come near these ? Okay “East Coast Family”, as you were….