Posts Tagged ‘Lemonheads’

A change would do you good

October 14, 2010

Recently I’ve been reading Rock And Roll Cage Match (ed. Sean Manning), a collection of jovial essays in which the writer is asked to invent or describe a rivalry between two bands, and then pick a winner. Perhaps inevitably, it’s largely composed of self-confessed false dichotomies where half the fun comes from the ludicrous reasons as to why each artist should be at odds. It probably says something about the WHTB mindset that I love a good debate, so what better than a collection of intelligent-but-ludicrous arguments?

My favourite imaginary rucks thus far have come courtesy of Richard Hell (Rolling Stones vs Velvet Underground), Elizabeth Goodman (Guided By Voices vs Pavement) and Tom Breihan (Jay-Z vs Nas). The part that’s intrigued me most, however,  has come not from an actual debate, but rather an aside. Surprisingly, it’s part of Whitney Pastorek‘s sublimely daft bout between Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston that’s really set the cogs whirring.

Discussing what you’ll recognise as Houston’s all-time classic/omnipresent saccharine cackfest (delete as appropriate), Pastorek provides a winning argument for the power of an oft-used musical device:

The Catharsis: the glorious boom of a key change that occurs three quarters of the way through I Will Always Love You, anchoring what is, with apologies to The White Stripes, the best Dolly Parton cover in history. The Catharsis is in effect elsewhere throughout Houston’s career… but the modulation she pulls off in I Will Always Love You is perfection embodied.

That’s exactly what a good key change should do. Admittedly I wasn’t even thinking about key changes when I’d started reading the piece, but by this stage I was sat bolt upright, nodding, with stern features and a fist raised triumphantly. You’re darn right to use the word ‘catharsis’, Whitney Pastorek. Switching key at any point during a song, and pulling it off, is a tricky feat… but save it for a chorus (particularly the final chorus) and you’re onto a surefire winner. Even fucking Westlife knew that, for fuck’s sake. It’s a useful weapon in the pop arsenal. And like it or not, that Whitney H number’s a pretty fucking good example of how to wield it.

Pastorek goes on so enthusiastically that it seems pointless to paraphrase:

I fail to find a way to break this down scientifically, or even articulately; all I can hope is that you have experienced a great key change at some point in your life and you know the rush, the transcendent ping that goes off in your brain and brings emotions you barely knew you had rushing to the surface and spilling out all over the place for no good reason whatsoever. A good key change can save your life.

As someone who has been close to spontaneously breaking into tears on hearing a great key change at a live show, I know exactly what she means (YES, beer was involved. NO, I don’t think that matters). So with that in mind, here’s some of WHTB’s favourite key changes in pop. Nothing so crass as a top five… just some good ‘uns (okay, five), avoiding yer Hey Judes and soforth.

Feel free to suggest your faves.

1. Dance, Dance, Dance – The Beach Boys

A barnstorming classic from the non-surfing surf faves. Dig the way the song suddenly lurches into a higher key halfway through the final verse – and in a song that’s barely got time for verses, that’s a special way of preparing you for one last extra-fun take on the hook. On the dancefloor, that’s the bit that gets your toes from twitching to out and out tapping.

2. Crazy Crazy Nights – KISS / Town Bike

KISS opt for a stranger tactic – after the second chorus, just before the solo, there’s suddenly a brief burst of chorus in a higher key. Why? No-one knows. It’s fucking awesome though. And as a special treat, I’ve linked Town Bike’s free download version, which is so darn good that I now struggle to listen to the original.  Get on it.

3. Summerteeth – Wilco

After two lovely verses of cryptic, countrified pop, Wilco switch key for a mellotron solo that seems to have wandered in from another band. Once that’s over, we’re still in this new key for a final, breezily- plaintive verse and a gorgeous “oo-ooh, aa-aah” backing vocal. Which is frankly ruined by attempting to spell it. Just go and have a listen; you owe it to your ears.

4. Alison’s Starting To Happen – The Lemonheads

Despite the perky pace of the tune, Evan still uses a sleepy drawl to tell us of an unexpected crush on a friend, and all’s good. But for one final verse, as he finally gets his head around the nonsense of the situation, the song lifts in time for the exclamation “this world is topsy-turvy!” From thereon in things get rather more frantic – and yeh, pretty fun too.

5. Bright Yellow Gun – Throwing Muses

Kristin Hersh specialises in fragmented poetry and creepy melodies, even on full-pelt alt rockers like this. The change is superbly effective; suddenly the tension’s cranked up and a pretty-fucking-vital-already song suddenly becomes essential. Ace.

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Smudge: The Majesty Of Tom Morgan

May 25, 2010

“It’s not the tracks, it’s where they’re leading” – Tenderfoot by Tom Morgan

We all know life’s a bitch, and it can be enough of a drag struggling through from day to day. Music’s much the same. How much time do you spend subjected to other people’s tastes and wondering to yourself, ‘when will this shite end?’ But every now and again, both life and music throw you a bone. It might not be much, but that bone can still taste like manna from the gods.

WHTB is usually skeptical of events like Liverpool’s Sound City festival – essentially a week of hip-but-not-necessarily-exciting bands coming here who might not otherwise – but this year it came with a delightful bonus in the form of Australian indie-pop-punkers Smudge.

Now, you may not have heard of Smudge, and there’s no reason to feel like you should have done either. They never attained an especially significant degree of fame, and if they were influential at all, it was barely outside of their own back yard. Their only modicum of celebrity comes from singer Tom Morgan‘s songwriting partner and de facto foil. Anyone familiar with the works of Evan Dando?

Back in 1991, the Lemonheads were touring their fourth album Lovey (also their major label debut, and their first lp not to feature founder member/frontman Ben Deily) in Australia. Dando and Morgan were introduced to each other by Nic Dalton, founder of Sydney’s Half A Cow Records, and the pair hit it off immediately. The next time they met, several months later, they began tossing musical and lyrical phrases back at each other. Eventually they wrote a song called It’s A Shame About Ray.

Dando and Morgan would also collaborate on Bit Part for the Lemonheads’ fifth album, before going on to co-write at least half of its follow-up (the under-appreciated Come On Feel The Lemonheads). Morgan speaks fondly of the process, describing it thus in 2005:

“It was never like a business arrangement, it was a product of hanging out together. We always have one guitar, we never have two guitars because people get caught up in your own little thing. So, you have to have one guitar and you hand it back and forth… Otherwise you’re playing over the top of each other, there’s no focus”

It’s strange to imagine one of the 90s’ most famously loopy rock stars forming such a disciplined partnership, especially with someone on the other side of the world, but even now the pair continue to write together or for each other (albeit sporadically).

So that’s why you might have heard Tom Morgan’s work before. He was never invited to join the Lemonheads, however, because Dando knew that Smudge was already a going concern. Indeed, by the time Come On Feel… was released, Smudge had released a series of EPs and were preparing to release their first long-player Manilow on Half A Cow.

This, and the three albums that followed, demonstrate that Morgan was more than just a source of material for his famous friend. The sound may be scruffier and the delivery scrappier, but Smudge’s heart is firmly on its sleeve – passion and sheer glee plainly audible for all to hear, and perfectly encapsulated within two-and-a-half-minute pop songs. It’s easy to see why they were much beloved of the slacker congnoscenti, since their songs fizz with the same guitar buzz that powered the likes of Superchunk, Eric’s Trip or Guided By Voices. For those bands, the sound is part of the selling tool – the lo-fi hiss that defined a generation of American indie rockers. But in the hands of this Australian trio, it merely helps to propel songs that are by turns funny, upbeat and (occasionally) resigned to their fate. There’s a warmth and… well, yeh, a humanity in their snappy, crackled pop that you rarely find in any band. Some days it’s positively reassuring to know there are folks out there who ever made records like these.

So it was great to see them turn up in Liverpool, at a free Saturday afternoon show with a BBQ. WHTB geeked out sufficiently to earn some personal dedications (and a worrying sense of fanboydom… but hey, that’s what this blog’s all about, so best quit worrying about it, eh?).

Smudge on an uncharacteristically sunny day in Liverpool

They were utterly wonderful, from the opening breeze of Ingrown to their tribute to one of “Australia’s greatest bands” (their take on You Am I’s Berlin Chair). Tom is still chirpy and sweet, Adam’s melodic basslines still brighten up even the perkiest of pop songs, and Alison is still simultaneously the sweetest of presences and a joy to watch behind the kit. In short, Smudge are still great.

They were going to play Divan, but I asked for Don't Want To Be Grant McLennan. GAH!

Fire Records has recently reissued two Smudge albums, including the classic Manilow. You’re well advised to start there. Then investigate Tom’s work with Nic Dalton in Sneeze, as well as the various other great bands the pair have been involved with over the years.

Peace out. x

When Time Is Poetry

January 29, 2010

It’s supposed to be a sure sign that you’re getting old when your favourite bands start to reform.  When WHTB was a younger, more foolhardy soul with fire in his belly and a neatly-copped ‘tude, he wascompletely opposed to nostalgia reunion tours, and very nearly missed the Pixies due to punker-than-thou skepticism (not that they turned out to be especially amazing in the flesh. They fucked up Gigantic as well, the bad meffs).

But within the last few years, I’ve been to see sets by Dinosaur Jr, Mission Of Burma, the Lemonheads and Sebadoh. And there’s a chalet bed reserved for a considerably drunker version of myself when Pavement pull in to headline ATP in May.

the reunited, somewhat crinklier Mission Of Burma

For this huge selling-out of my core values, i offer the following (rubbish) excuses:

1. Most of my favourite bands were long-gone or approaching the end of their careers by the time i’d hit 16. Never let it be said that I’m a man of my time.

2. Back then I also decreed that all bands over the age of 30 “should be taken outside and shot”. Whereas these days, and as I hurtle ever-nearer to that magic figure myself, I feel like I’m right on the cutting edge of all artistic endeavour if i manage to enjoy a band under said age.

In any case, who cares? I considered posting a lengthy musing on why people bear such malice towards reunions, but it would be fucking boring. So let’s just skip to the conclusion of that bit, eh? Everyone clings to the myth that rocknroll is young people’s music – after all, they’re angrier, sassier and sexier than their ‘maturing’ counterparts. And older generations certainly have a tendency to forego the ‘LETSDOITNOWBEFOREWELEARNHOW-WUNTWOTHREEFOWAH’ spirit in favour of tasteful ballads and profficient playing. But hell, the whole genre is 60 years old now. How can it possibly just belong to young people? Dinosaur Jr’s new records and live sets are louder and harder-rockin’ than any number of crappy Top Man indie bands. Age is subjective. I’m in favour of young people labelling me an old bastard for saying as much – after all, I’ve started rambling now – but now that I’m not so young any more, I needn’t concern myself with such frilly nonsense. I’d rather know whether it’s rockin’, excitin’ or just any damn good.

And now I’ve got a ticket for reunited emo legends Sunny Day Real Estate, at their first ever UK show in London in April. To say i’m excited would be an understatement, but then again i was 12 when the original line-up split first time round. Again, never let it be said that I’m a man of my time.

Here’s the reunited SDRE on Fallon.

Peace x