About Ron

Rockabilly guitarist, writer, library technician, Ron fills the daylight hours with dreams of reading, well-behaved pets and the perfect dark beer. Reading interests range from humor to mystery, steampunk to travel writing, historical fiction to surrealism.

2017 Rock(ed) and Pop(ped)

I know what you want to know.

You want to know my favorite albums of 2017, what had me jitterbugging across the speakeasy floor. You want to know what made my toes tap, my elbows chortle, my left eyelid lambada.

You want to know what’s hip, hipster.

Well hip hip hooray, here’s what you want and ye shall want no more.

Under the broad umbrella of rock music we find a variety of fine albums coming out of 2017. The genres stretch from riot grrrl to classic rock to power pop, psychedelic and garage. But what they all have in common is, wait for it, I like them!

Group1

No Plan by David Bowie
Recorded at the same time as Blackstar, the songs found on this posthumous EP were written for Bowie’s Broadway musical Lazarus. The music is slow, intense and exceedingly lovely.

Live in Paris by Sleater-Kinney
The title explains this album fairly thoroughly. Sleater-Kinney, hailing from the great Pacific Northwest, is one of my favorite groups. This live show captures the intensity of the band exquisitely.

Near to the Wild Heart of Life by Japandroids
Straight from the wilds of Vancouver, BC, Japandroids deliver a unique blend of rock and punk with New Romantic vastness. Prepare to enjoy some anthemic goodness.

Group2

LA Divine by Cold War Kids
A bit more mainstream and ordinary than their earlier albums, LA Divine still manages to showcase high-quality songs with a soupçon of Arcade Fire in the mix.

Give More Love by Ringo Starr
Who’da thunk that Ringo would be the one still making high-quality albums some 50 years later? The first song is an explosion of energy that sets the tone for this classic rock album.

Fierce Mercy by Colin Hay
“You may know me as the lead singer for Men at Work,” is something that Colin Hay might tell you. Well-done pop/rock. An enjoyable spin.

Group3

Ty Segall by Ty Segall
Mr. Segall puts out some amazing psychedelic garage rock. He’s one of those artists you don’t hear that much about, but then you listen to his music and are blown away. Check this one out.

Robyn Hitchcock by Robyn Hitchcock
This twenty-first studio album from Mr. Hitchcock could have come straight out of hippie-laden California ca. 1968. Great stuff.

We’re All Right! by Cheap Trick
Churning out most excellent hard-edged power pop for 40 years, Cheap Trick scores another hit with their latest album. File this one under electroshock therapy.

The year’s best pop music stretches from dream pop to synthpop to chamber pop and beyond.

Group4
Hug of Thunder by Broken Social Scene
Unconventional group made up of 6-18 musicians with music reflecting the unique stylings of each member. Some dance rhythms, energetic music but laid back performances, huge yet quiet.

Pleasure by Feist
Delicate, sparse, including lots of little quirks that make the music quite interesting. A curious mix of pop and post-punk.

Okovi by Zola Jesus
Music pulled straight from a soundtrack, huge in scope, dreamy with a hint of goth. Strange and worth seeking out.

Group5
Dreamcar by Dreamcar
Songs that brings back those lazy, hazy days of new wave. Dreamcar has put out an entertaining album by channeling the Thompson Twins and Duran Duran and adding their own creative twists.

Crack-up by Fleet Foxes
Seattle’s own presents a unique blend of folksy post-rock. A change of direction, or perhaps a continued growth in the same direction, takes Fleet Foxes to new and intriguing places.

No Shape by Perfume Genius
Another denizen of the Northwest, Perfume Genius brings a level of, well, genius to his songwriting. Highly emotional, huge in sonic scope, filled with abundant variety. Music does not get much better than this.

The Queen of the Blues

One of my favorite albums of 2017 is, surprisingly, made up entirely of old blues covers. Typically, I’m attracted to artists who produce original music. However, as a performer, I love creating exciting arrangements of other people’s songs. If a cover is simply a faithful reproduction of the original, it holds little interest for me. But if it provides a new take, a different feel, startling insights… wellsir, that can make for some mighty fine music.

JewellEilen Jewell, who created this album, is an amazing singer, with a sultry voice reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan or Madeline Peyroux. Her music is typically categorized as country, although it contains a variety of other influences. For her 2017 release, Down Hearted Blues, Jewell borrows songs from some of blues’ greatest artists: Lonnie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Little Walter and Otis Rush, among others. The result is both an enjoyable listen and a delightful lesson in music history.

The album opens with Charles Sheffield’s It’s Your Voodoo Working, a song that defies any attempts at listener immobility. This tune is a perfect match for Jewell’s seductive vocalizations. Not to be outdone, the instrumentalists provide some of the finest chops this side of Chesapeake Bay.

Alberta Hunter’s Down Hearted Blues is transformed into a Hank Williams Sr. soundalike, oozing those white country blues in treacly globules of gratification. Here the band is at its finest, making a seamless transition from blues to country. Of all the songs on the album, this title track is the least similar to the original.

Next up is Clarence Johnson and Betty James’ I’m a Little Mixed Up, here delivered as a mixture of bottleneck blues, rockabilly Travis-style picking and a Texas two-step. The original, performed by Betty James in 1961, sets up more of an early R&B feel, but this updating of the song is equally delicious.

For a different beast altogether, look no further than Don’t Leave Poor Me, originally sung by Big Maybelle in 1955. Here we find Latin-tinged percussion, strong vocals and killer distorted guitar. The band is once again impeccable, demonstrating a keen agility to move convincingly between styles.

Finally on today’s whirlwind tour, The Poor Girl’s Story is a song that was recorded by Moonshine Kate, one of the first female country performers to be recorded, in the early 1930s. Jewell and her band take this tune on an authentic old-timey acoustic ramble through America’s musical heartland, complete with unwashed men riding the rails and folks heading west to escape poverty and dust.

In short, Down Hearted Blues is one of the finest albums of 2017. Whether you like blues, country, folk or simply fine musicianship, this one is worth a spin. And don’t forget to check out the originals as well. Jewell said of this album, “We really love to uncover the past. It’s almost like digging for buried treasure.” And here she has already done the grunt work for you. So sit back and enjoy this treasure.

Surrender to Power Pop

Power pop lyrics, hewn from the same stone as the prose of Chekov’s plays or Dostoevsky’s novels.

What I like about you, you hold me tight
Tell me I’m the only one, gonna come over tonight

Okay, that one’s kind of simplistic. Perhaps another classic song will supply some erudite words.

Baby, please, go all the way
It feels so right (feels so right)
Being with you here tonight

 Hmm. That does not seem particularly… insightful. Perhaps a final example?

Mother told me, yes, she told me
That I’d meet girls like you
She also told me, “Stay away
You never know what you’ll catch”

Well, perhaps it’s all not as heady as I remember it to be. In fact, there seems to be an obsession with S-E-X. “Sex, sex, sex. That’s all they think about,” as Brian’s mum says in The Life of Brian. In this case, they refers to those prodigious purveyors of power pop, The Romantics, Raspberries and Cheap Trick.

Which leads to the question: What is power pop?

Most people could name examples of pop music: Pink, One Direction, Johnny Mathis… All are artists who perform popular music, even though there is a fair amount of diversity in the music they produce. Power pop is rooted in the catchy melodies and memorable choruses of pop, but its style is more aggressive: crunchy guitars, power chords and high energy.

In order to understand power pop characteristics, let’s take a look at Cheap Trick’s I Want You To Want Me (1978).

cheap trick

 

I want you to want me.
I need you to need me.
I’d love you to love me.
I’m beggin’ you to beg me.



Robert Frost it ain’t. But, that’s kind of the point. These are lyrics at their most banal, an embracing of the uber-vapidity that is pop music lyrics. And the music? Same as the lyrics, but with a twist! Cheap Trick created the ultimate exaggeration of a pop song and then made it heavy, crispy and punchy (a breakfast cereal slogan if ever I’ve heard one). And this is power pop!

badfinger

 

If you want it, here it is, come and get it
Mm mm mm mm, make your mind up fast
If you want it, any time, I can give it
But you’d better hurry ’cause it may not last

Badfinger’s Come and Get It, an even earlier example of power pop (1969), was written and produced by Paul McCartney. The song first appeared in The Magic Christian, a movie that highlights the extremes people will go to for money (If you want it, here it is, come and get it). While lacking the edginess of Cheap Trick, this early power pop classic is lathered in drippingly sweet harmonies, hooks that could catch a blue whale and fab Beatlesque production. Soon to be followed by Big Star (1971-1974), Raspberries (Go All The Way in 1972) and Sweet (Little Willy in 1972 and Ballroom Blitz in 1973), Badfinger opened the power pop floodgates for future generations and beyond!

Power pop never caught on hugely, but it continues to be purveyed by countless bands. In fact, you can find a variety of PNW power pop bands at Everett Public Library, including The New Pornographers, Nevada Bachelors, Visqueen, Hot Hot Heat and The Cute Lepers. Take some time to check out this fabulous music, but most of all remember:

Mommy’s all right,
Daddy’s all right,
They just seem a little weird.

Just Give Me New Wave (That’s What I Want)

New wave is an elusive musical term. As with many genres, it applies to clothing, hair and makeup as much as it does to a cohesive musical style. In fact, a case could be made that new wave is a time period.

But philosophical emulsifications aside, we can find a few characteristics that are common to most new wave music:

  • It’s dance friendly!
  • Synthesizers play an important role (and this is new in rock music).
  • The music is fairly poppy.
  • Some strange quality, be it flamboyant costumes or Flock-of-Seagulls hair, sets it apart from the mainstream pop music culture.

Group 1

Now, if you live in the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, you might not have time to review a myriad of albums to find out what the new wave is all about. But fear not! Here on a single album we have hit after hit after hit (after hit) from the late 70s and early 80s, a heaping helping of new wave music, all found on New Wave Gold.

Thrill to the tunes of Adam and the Ants, Berlin and The Flying Lizards (their cover of the iconic hit Money (That’s What I Want) is, by itself, worth the price of admission). Never Say Never to Romeo Void. Want some candy? Check out Bow Wow Wow. Wowsers!

Group2

But wait, there’s more! The bizarre vocalizations of Lene Lovich in Lucky Number, the irresistible poppiness of M’s Pop Muzik and that dance to end all dances, The Safety Dance. Not to mention Ian Dury’s most practical of suggestions, to Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.

Group3

Speaking of lyrics (well, someone must have been!), Missing Persons provides a reminder that nobody walks in LA, Tears for Fears suggests that when it’s all too late you can Change and The Vapors want a doctor to take your picture so they can look at you from inside as well in Turning Japanese (a song of questionable meaning). But most of all, I beg of you, relax, don’t do it!

Group4

The synth-pop of Ultravox, the silliness of The Waitresses and the teen soundtrack of The Psychedelic Furs. All very different yet all considered part of new wave. Truly, there’s more to this genre than music.

So find that perfect place, comfortable yet not sleep-inducing, perhaps filled with tasty snacks, toss New Wave Gold onto the figurative turntable and prepare to be enthralled to the music. Open ears and open minds required. Puffy shirts are optional.

Devo Was Their Name-O!

Q: I’ve got a rhyme that comes in a riddle. What’s round on the ends and high in the middle?
A: If you answered O-Hi-O, then you win a red energy dome (pictured below). Energy dome hat

 

Coming out of Akron, Ohio (where the rubber meets the road), Devo made a profound impact on the rock music world. Their first full-length album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, is a veritable smorgasbord of forays into the musical unknown. And while their later albums moved more towards the mainstream, the impact of Are We Not Men? continues to be immense.

But first, a little history. In 1924, B. H. Shadduck published a pamphlet on creationism called Jocko-Homo Heavenbound. This publication coined the term “D-Evolution”. It also contained text and ideas which turn up in the Devo canon. 50 years after its publication, a band of renegade youth in northern Ohio formed a band… Well, you can see where this is going.


Jocko

Starting in the late 1960s, rock music became increasingly slick and, in the minds of some, soulless. Rebellion against this aesthetic is largely what punk and its related genres were all about. Punk, post-punk, new wave, no wave… all looked for ways to take the music back to the people, to make creating music an activity open to one and all. Devo was one of the earliest groups to make the plunge into a new aesthetic.

Enter Are We Not Men?.

Are We

They tell us that we lost our tails
Evolving up from little snails
I say it’s all just wind in sails
Are we not men? We are Devo!

People who talk about music like to use the words tension and release to describe how tonal music moves forward. Tension is created, and then a resolution of that tension creates a moment of peace and relaxation. Devo, however, frequently leaves out the resolution part. Take for example the song Jocko Homo. Most popular music has four beats per measure, so of course Jocko Homo has seven.

Q: But surely the drums, those bastions of stability, provide a measure of comfort?
A: Well, no.

Q: How about if I focus on the vocals, something I can certainly relate to?
A: The lead vocals are hyper-dramatized and the background vocals are robotic, unemotional.

Q: What about those cute synthesizer sounds, seldom used in rock music pre-Devo?
A: The synthesizer brings an even higher level of disturbance to the listener’s comfort.

Q: Are you trying to tell me that there are no resting points, no moments of contentment?
A: Yes. This is what I’m telling you.

I’ll leave this song with my favorite lyric, from a passage that promotes evolution:

God made man but a monkey supplied the glue

Gut Feeling is another song that creates tension through odd numbers, in this case five-measure phrases (four-measure phrases are by far the most common in rock music). A five-chord sequence repeats over and over, each time feeling like it’s one chord too many. There is no respite from this brutal asymmetry.

Something about the way you taste
Makes me want to clear my throat
There’s a method to your movements
That really gets my goat
I looked for silver linings
But you’re rotten to the core
I’ve had just about all I can take
You know I can’t take it no more
I’ve got a gut feeling

At least the guitar and drums behave normally in this song. However, the five-chord pattern goes on forever (so it seems) before vocals enter. And when they do enter, they are once again rather weird. And as the song progresses it becomes more and more chaotic until it breaks into the next song.

Tension.

gut-feeling

Coming in at #442 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, this one is worth checking out. Oh yes. So throw away your preconceptions and postconceptions, relax, and whatever you do, do not Shrivel Up.

X Marks the Spot

LosAngeles

Music is filled with infinite possibilities but musicians use few of them. Hence, a whole lot of music sounds like a whole lot of other music. In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing; listeners take comfort in the familiar. On the other hand, BORING!

But not all composers and performers are boring. Thankfully. Witness if you will the Los Angeles band known only as X. Formed in 1977, one of the first wave of American punk bands, X has forged a unique sound that has yet to be imitated.

For me, the trademark X sound is defined by the harmonies between John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Punk rock generally does not use harmony, and pop/rock in general doesn’t use the semi-dissonant croonings that are part and parcel of X. Take for example the song The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Kiss off of the band’s brilliant debut, Los Angeles. Doe and Cervenka careen between expected and unexpected pitch combinations, creating an extra level of tension that fits the lyrics quite nicely:

No one is united
And all things are untied
Perhaps we’re boiling over inside
They’ve been telling lies
Who’s been telling lies?
There are no angels
There are devils in many ways
Take it like a man

Another piece of the puzzle that is X is found in Billy Zoom, guitarist extraordinaire. You can always find Billy standing on the stage with legs planted far apart, smiling at the audience whilst playing rockabilly-tinged leads effortlessly. Once again, not so much a punk thing. Zoom, whose father played woodwinds in big bands, was 29 when the band formed. He definitely had a different point of view than your average 16-year-old who’d never touched an instrument but wanted to start a punk band. If you want to hear a good example of Billy’s rockabilly roots in the music of X, check out the intro, verse and solo in Johnny Hit and Run Paulene.

Producer and keyboardist Ray Manzarek, formerly of the Doors (yes, those Doors), is also fundamental to X’s sound on Los Angeles. For those not familiar with the Doors, their music doesn’t share much in common with the punk world. Hippy organ fills and aggressive stripped-down rock just do not seem like a match made in rockstar heaven. But the result is fabulous, as can be heard on X’s hyperactive cover of the Door’s Soul Kitchen as well as the relentless punk anthem Nausea:

Today, you’re gonna be sick, so sick
You’ll prop your forehead on the sink,
Say, “Oh Christ, oh Jesus Christ,
My head’s gonna crack like a bank.”

And Nausea finds the organ playing an important role, creating primitive atonal flourishes as the lead-in to verses. Everyone else simply hammers away incessantly, as if to give a pounding headache to the purveyor of the lyrics.

40 years later X continues to tour. Billy is now 69, a cancer survivor, still smiling. John Doe and Exene, married when the group formed, are long since divorced. But the band’s high-octane energy and love for the music still comes through during performances. And if you can’t see them live, check out the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization for a thorough education in the late 70s Los Angeles punk lifestyle.

And be sure to say, “Hi!” to Billy.

It Slices, It Dices, It’s Shonen Knife!

Let's Knife

It’s time to enter the garage. Via Japan.

But first, let me tell you a little story. The year is 1981. In the megalopolis of Osaka, known worldwide for its sake, three young women start a band that’s different from the typical J-pop group. Combining influences from 60s girl groups, garage and punk rock, the trio create a poppy yet punky sound that is unusual in their home country. In less than 10 years they will be hailed by Kurt Cobain and other leaders of the alternative rock scene.

Now it’s 36 years later. And the band plays on.

Osaka Ramones

Shonen Knife is an unusual creature, not really fitting into any convenient niche. Although they are most closely associated with a Ramones-like sound, their poppy and somewhat frail vocals immediately put them in a different category altogether.

(EVERYONE: THEIR POPPY AND SOMEWHAT FRAIL VOCALS IMMEDIATELY PUT THEM IN A DIFFERENT CATEGORY.)

 Er, yes.

Powerpuff

Throughout their career Shonen Knife has delivered their own take on punk, garage rock and 60s pop, creating a unique amalgam. In fact, if there is a Shonen Knife sound, it would be poppy vocals over heavy music. The term pop punk, most often applied to bands that sound like Green Day, is not what I’m talking about here. Pop punk is fast, catchy music with a bit of an edge to the guitars. It’s homogeneous. Shonen Knife combines two sounds that really don’t fit together that well. But, and this is the important bit, they make it work. Recent albums focus on heavy metal (Super Group from 2010, Free Time from 2011), punk (Tribute to the Ramones from 2011), 60s pop (Pop Tunes from 2012) and 70s hard rock (Overdrive from 2014 and Adventure from 2015). Yet they all sound like Shonen Knife.

Lyric content definitely provides some continuity for the group. From early on, songs have focused on food (Sushi Bar, Wasabi, Fortune Cookie), animals (Parrot Polynesia, Bear Up Bison, Like a Cat) and science fiction (Planet X, Riding on the Rocket, Robot from Hell). In fact, it’s safe to say that SK’s lyrics are pretty weak in general. And this is not a criticism! Pop music is built on inane lyrics (There’ll be rainbows reachin’ cross the sky and we’ll both be so happy we will cry from The Monkees song The Day We Fall In Love). It’s practically required that pop music lyrics be absurd!

Overdrive

The 2014 album Overdrive (which was part of the EPL collection until recently) is a good place to start your acquaintance with these ladies. Filled with great hard rock riffs (Green Tea, Shopping), jangly dream rock (Fortune Cookie) and that “typical” Shonen Knife sound (Jet Shot), Overdrive gives an overview (clever wordplay alert!) of the band’s oeuvre. Why, Robot from Hell, a most excellent hard rock tune, is in itself worth the price of checking the album out!

Thirty-six years is a mighty long time for a rock band to successfully exist. Band members have left, been replaced, returned, had babies, quit, got a haircut and returned. They have toured extensively and released 20 albums. And still the music pours out of them.

So if you need a little spring in your step, a little cheer in your soul, get thee behind Shonen Knife. And as you go out into the world today, keep these lyrics from Bad Luck Song close to your heart:

The bad luck song might be my good luck song
This is the best way of thinking
Let’s take it easy
Change the way you’re thinking