Saturday, December 12, 2009

All Along the Watchtower - All Hell for a Basement

Here come the "All"s.

All Along The Watchtower.
Bob Dylan.
From 1967's "John Wesley Harding".
There is a lot that can, and has been said about this song. Perhaps the Jimi Hendrix Experience cover is more famous now, but I like the Dylan original better. I am not a huge Dylan fan (I suspect this is the only type of Dylan fan), but I really enjoy this song. The reason for this may be due to the fact that "All Along the Watchtower" is about as accessible as Dylan gets. It is a "normal" length for a rock song, and the images conjured up are not as esoteric. That being said, the lyrics are beautiful and can be interpreted in many different ways.
"All Along the Watchtower" was the most prominent song on Dylan's "return to acoustic" album "John Wesley Harding", an album which eventually went to No. 2 on the album charts in the states, and number one in Britain. At the time of its writing, Dylan was recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, and began to read the Bible frequently. The influence of this reading is evident on many songs on the album, and can maybe be seen in "All Along the Watchtower". Certainly the song sounds mystic and apocalyptic. This is partially due to its odd lyrical structure, in that it seems like the last verse should be the first. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the lyrics is the "timelessness" of the narrative. Dylan's story could be set in any period of time, due to his use of archetype characters such as "the joker", "the thief", "princes". What that story means is wide open to interpretation.
What I enjoy most about this song is that it can be enjoyed as a simple pleasure for the seemingly simple story it tells and its pared down background music. Or conversely it can be enjoyed in depth as an intriguing message from a powerful artist.

Credit for first listen: Had known the Jimi Hendrix song since time immemorial, which is probably when I was around 12 years old. I heard the Dylan version while listening to my brother's folder of music on our old computer.
What this song is probably not about: Movement "along" a watchtower, which doesn't make a lot of sense, as a watchtower isn't really something you can move along, maybe within, or on top of, but its not a wall.
What this song is probably about: Dylan's own realization about society and his role in it. For this interpretation, the role of "the Joker" will be played by Bob Dylan, with the thief as a follow outsider of society who sympathizes with the Joker's "confusion" over "worth". "Princes", "women" and "servants" represent the rest of society.
Essential lyric: "None of them along the line know what any of it is worth"
Arbitrary rating: 79 out of 100.

All Falls Down.
Kanye West.
From 2004's "The College Dropout"
Recordings for West's debut album had been going on since 1999, and when the album finally came out 5 years, it almost singlehandedly made hip-hop relevant again by repopularizing "alternative hip-hop" in the face of hardcore, gangster and party rap. "All Falls Down" did a lot towards that end. Perhaps West's greatest contribution was the dismantling of the "gangster" mythos which had been prevalent in hip-hop since the deaths of B.I.G. and Tupac. "All Falls Down" did the most towards exposing the self-consciousness and materialism what Kanye saw in both the black and hip-hop communities. The song uses lyrics from Lauryn Hill's "Mystery of Iniquity", sung by Syleena Johnson. "All Falls Down" was West's biggest single to date, and crossed him over into mainstream success. The success of this song would ultimately set the stage for West's massive "Jesus Walks". The success of West and the album can be seen in the various accolades it received: Time magazine named it as one of the best 100 albums of all time.

Credit for first listen: The radio.
What this song is probably not about: The levees collapsing in New Orleans.
What this song is probably about: The dominance of image, and the disconnect between image and reality.
Essential lyric: "I got a problem with spending before I get it/We all self conscious I'm just the first to admit it"
Arbitrary rating: 67 out of 100

All Good Things Come to an End (Unreleased Version)
Nelly Furtado ft. Chris Martin. Not released, but sort of from 2006's "Loose".

Co-written by Furtado, Martin and Timbaland, "All Good Things" was released as a single in 2006. Martin was originally to be featured prominently in the song, but in the final released version he was only featured harmonizing the chorus. This was a tragedy, because the "official" version is an entirely forgettable song, though it does stand out compared to most Nelly Furtado songs. The original, unreleased version however is very good.
Of the funny stories related to this song and the controversy over whether to release it or not, two stand out for me. The first of which is that Chris(t) Martin
was initially intimidated by Timbaland because the producer kept referring to him as "Coldplay". Martin was unsure apparently whether Timbaland knew he wasn't Coldplay, or whether he was trying to make him uncomfortable. Apparently they got over this initial awkwardness, because at the beginning of this version Martin can be heard cheekily asking Timbaland to give him "a sick beat", who agrees.
The next story concerns why the song wasn't released. Apparently Martin's label's executives didn't want a song released were the singer sounded "rocky". This is ironic because his voice on this track sounds exactly the same as it did on all of Coldplay's previous recordings. ALSO, its ironic because Coldplay's next album, "Viva la Vida or Death and All of His Friends" took a decided turn towards the "rocky", and awesome.
Anyway, to sum it up, if you only ever listen to one Nelly Furtado song again, you've made the right choice. Also, it should be this one. Even if it is all a little melancholy.

Credit for first listen:
Don't remember the exact circumstance, but I read about a Timbaland/Martin collaboration and looked it up. Was originally disappointed til I found the unreleased version.
What this song is probably not about: Furtado's selling out, and deciding to make terrible music.
What this song is probably about: Melancholy, depression, nothingness. I am guessssssing its about losing love.
Essential lyric: "Pain sets in and I don't cry/I only feel gravity and wonder why"
Arbitrary rating: 68 out of 100

All Hell for a Basement
Big Sugar. From 2001's "Brothers and Sisters, Are You Ready?"

Big Sugar is a Canadian blues-rock band who achieved relative success in the '90s and were well-regarded as a live band. Like many Canadian bands, in particular The Tragically Hip and Barenaked Ladies they were unable to cross over to the US or any other markets, often seen as "too Canadian". Which is too bad, for the bands and for the other countries of the world, but doesn't bother me too much. The band broke up in 2004, and the song "All Hell for a Basement" was actually a big reason for the break up.
The songs name refers to Medicine Hat, Alberta, a place which Rudyard Kipling famously described as having "all Hell for a basement", due to the city sitting atop a vast natural gas reserve. The juxtaposition of "Heaven in Alberta" and "Hell for a basement" in the lyrics captures the feeling towards Alberta's oil industry's booms and busts. The fact that at many times since the 1970s Alberta has had more jobs than people as resulted in it being seen as Heaven to Canadians living elsewhere, where unemployment is high. This song deals with the redemptive qualities of this Heaven, and what one has to give up in order to reach it.
Having experienced my own heavenly experience in Alberta, Banff in particular, this song has always resonated with me. I remember once being told it wasn't "about" anything, but I disagree and believe the lyrics are quite poignant. Not to mention the drum and guitar work on this song just rocks, and I'd probably listen to it even if it were an instrumental.

As for the band's break-up, it was reportedly as a result of frontman Gordie Johnson's frustration with radio programmers who said the song was "too Canadian". Johnson is apparently a staunch nationalist, and didn't understand why that was a negative thing. I don't either.

Credit for first listen:
Someone had Big Sugar's greatest hits album at a cottage one year, heard this song and listened to it incessantly from then on.
What this song is probably not about: Sinners in Alberta.
What this song is probably about: East coasters packing up and looking for work in Alberta, particularly the oil fields.
Essential lyric: "I'm a workin' man/But I ain't worked for a while"
Arbitrary rating: 73 out of 100

Monday, December 7, 2009

Age of Consent - Albion

When I started this blog, I really should have accounted for my laziness. I didn't. Once a day was too ambitious.

"Age of Consent"
New Order/Neverending White Lights. From 1983's "Power, Corruption & Lies."

I have both the New Order original and the Neverending White Lights cover on my iPod and I love them both. So I am going to talk about them both at once. Similar to "Against All Odds", I heard the cover version first, then heard the New Order version. And similarly, I prefer the original.
New Order were born out of the ashes of Joy Division, formed by JD's remaining members following lead singer Ian Curtis' suicide. Adopting a new name, the band slowly began to harness a different sound than that of Joy Division. "Age of Consent" was the first song on their second album, and seems to combine all of the elements which makes New Order great, and also sets them apart from Joy Division. The sound of the song was/is completely unique, and is an example of why New Order was so hard to classify by "genre". The band retained some of the post-punk tendencies from Joy Division, while also employing synthesizers and melody to great effect. New Order has been variably labeled New Wave, post-Punk, alternative dance, New Wave and Alternative Rock. And that is on wikipedia alone. And over the course of their career, they have covered all these genres, while never fully fitting into any of them. "Age of Consent" is a great example of this, as it maintains a melodic bass line, while the drums sound fit for a dance song. The introspective lyrics are a carryover from the band's post-punk roots. There are long periods of instrumentation within the song, all of which help add to its very unique sound. Of particular brilliance is the one minute plus right in the middle of the song, which is simply beautiful, complex and unique music. "Age of Consent" help New Order define their own unique sound and showed off their talent for creating something new. This would carry over to their albums and songs for years to come, in particular favourites such as "Bizarre Love Triangle", "Blue Monday" and "True Faith".
Just a small word about the Neverending White Lights cover. The NWL project is an interesting one. It is essentially a one-man band, except always featuring guest singers. The one man is Canadian Daniel Victor. The most famous example of this concept was his collaboration with Dallas Green, "The Grace". For "Age of Consent", Victor features Nick Hexum on vocals. Hexum is known as the vocalist for the band 311. Hexum's melodic voice fits perfectly on this song, and offers a different twist than the boyish/plaintive vocals of the original. The cover is interesting as it maintains the overall synthesized feel of the original, but without as much nuance. This pared-down version forces focus on the lyrics, which seem to tell a story of missed connections.

Credit for first listen:
John Barr had me listen to the Neverending White Lights version, and I really liked it. Then I had a New Order phase and found the song was originally one of theirs.
What this song is probably not about: Waiting for someone to reach the age of consent.
What this song is probably about:
When I first heard the song, I thought it was about getting over the person you shared your first sexual experience with. Now I sort of think it is about the little differences which can derail relationships.
Essential lyric:
"Do you find this happens all the time/ Crucial point one day becomes a crime"
Arbitrary rating:
74 out of 100

"Ahead by a Century"
The Tragically Hip. From 1996's Trouble at the Henhouse.

Never is Gord Downie as enigmatic or as poetic as "Ahead by a Century". The Hip have famously, and effectively, alternated between rollickin rock songs and mellower tracks their entire career. Many of their more famous songs are in the former category (hits such as "Blow at High Dough", "Vaccination Scar" and "New Orleans is Sinking"); yet I've always preferred the quieter poignancy of songs such as "Bobcaygeon", "Fiddler's Green" and "Ahead by a Century". What this song is about is truly up for interpretation, like many of The Hip's songs. When I was 9 or 10 and first heard it, I always thought of my brother when I heard it. He was 5 years older than me, and that seemed like a vast difference at the time, and it was. That was based more on the "feel" of the song, and the sound. As I've grown older I realize I know no better what Downie is talking about, but now the song reminds me of my deceased grandfathers, and just the inability to ever really get to know them. I guess what these two anecdotes illustrate is that the song has the ability to be intensely, without being overtly, personal. Which is part of Downie's genius.
The video for the song is one of the first I truly remember watching, and liking. Having just rewatched it, I still love the way it amplifies the style and substance of the song. The story seems to be about childhood love grown up. The images and direction in the video are really nice, and seems to tie the themes of love and nostalgia together.
Credit for first listen: I believe I saw the video on MuchMusic, which was probably my introduction to The Hip themselves.
What this song is probably not about: Whatever this guy thought it was about.
What this song is probably about: I seriously have no real answer. You'll know what its about based on what you feel when you hear it.
Essential lyric: "No dress rehearsal, this is our life"
Arbitrary rating: 71 out of 100

Babyshambles. From 2005's "Down in Albion"

This is the first song ever written by Pete Doherty, who is one of the most famous artists in Great Britain, but completely obscure on this side of the pond. Doherty's life and career are constant tabloid fodder, and his two bands "The Libertines" and "Babyshambles" are both incredibly popular. Doherty was ousted from The Libertines due to excessive drug use and run ins with the law, and thus formed Babyshambles. The inclusion of "Albion" on Babyshambles' first album was controversial, since it had long been a staple of Libertines' shows, though never included on an official album.
The song is essentially Doherty's vision of what "England" would be like if it were a song. Albion is the former name of England, and all the images conjured up in the lyrics are quintessentially English. The images cover everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, the beautiful to the depressing. The slang used is British (perhaps a reason as to why Doherty's bands have not crossed over), and the theme is emphasized by the naming of places in England.
Credit for first listen: If I ever describe something as "quintessentially English", I guarantee I first heard it because of John. He was always born on the wrong side of the Atlantic.
What this song is probably not about: The poorly-named, yet highly successful, invasion of Estonia by Germany 1917. Surprisingly, overcoming the strong Estonians was not the tide-turner the Germans probably sought.
What this song is probably about: Great Britain/England.
Essential lyric: "More gin in teacups/And leaves on the lawn/Violence in dole queues/And the pale thin girl/Behind the checkout"
Arbitrary rating: 69 out of 100.

Sorry for the brevity. Just a quick one, while he's away.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Across the Sea - Against All Odds

Sorry for the delay, I am nothing if not inconsistent (triple negatives are fun).

"Across the Sea"
Weezer. From 1996's Pinkerton.

It is hard to say anything new about this song that isn't expressed wonderfully here. What I can say is that this is one of my very favourite Weezer songs. "Across the Sea" was written at a time when Rivers Cuomo was depressed at Harvard as a response to a letter he received from a girl in Japan. Like many of Weezer's early songs, it has been labeled as "Emo" because of the very personal lyrics and emotions Cuomo conveys. Allmusic describes the song as having a "touching vulnerability". However, the powerful guitar work, especially the solo in the middle of the song, prevent the song from ever being considered "sappy".
When I was 18 I visited Japan for just over two weeks. This song helped me get past the homesickness of missing my girlfriend at the time. This seems ironic because the lyrics would seem to amplify that homesickness. But it comforted me to hear my feelings represented in song. Or what I thought my feelings were.

Credit for first listen: Brother Geordie and sister Kate were big Weezer fans in the mid-90s, and I heard Weezer's first two albums due to them.
What this song is probably not about: Cuomo's reported, and disputed, "affinity for Asian women.
What this song is probably about: Love, isolation and the idealization that comes with distance.
Essential lyric: "So you send me your love/ from all around the world/ As if I could live on words and dreams and a million screams/ oh, how I need a hand in mine to feel"
Arbitrary rating: 74 out of 100

Toto. From 1982's "Toto IV"

Easily Toto's most well-known, and for most only known, song, "Africa" is one of the most widely heard songs on modern radio. It is also featured on a ridiculous number of albums. It went to number 1 on the Billboard chart upon its release. Its popularity and renown is remarkable when considering the band nearly didn't include the song on "Toto IV", because they didn't think it sounded like a Toto song, and they were tired of hearing it after all the production that went into it.
Written by the band's pianist and drummer, the song has a "world music" feel, which of course fits the subject matter. The percussion instruments alone on the song include bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, two congas, a cowbell, a shaker, bongos, jingle sticks and sleigh bells. Its initial popularity can be partly attributed to its status as a "power ballad", one of the most popular (and regrettable) forms of song in the early 80s. For the most part, these songs are guilty pleasures, with soaring instrumentation combined with emotional lyrics of love. "Africa" certainly fits the bill there, but stands apart from the more formulaic power balleds (such as Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is"), because of its unique lyrics and beat, as well as its vague, and intriguing, lyrics. The song will live on through its many covers, and unfortunately also through the modern medium of sampling, which Karl Wolf's "Africa" reminded us is usually terrible.
Credit for first listen: The radio. Thankfully not Wolf's version, which would have ruined the song permanently.
What this song is probably not about: Accurately depicting the continent of Africa.
What this song is probably about: A white guy trying to imagine what it would be like to connect with Africa. No, seriously.
Essential lyric: I bless the rains down in Africa/ Gonna take some time to do the things we never have
Arbitrary rating: 65 out of 100.

"After Hours"
We Are Scientists. From 2008's "Brain Thrust Mastery".

My first encounter with We Are Scientist was somebody asking me to listen to their single "Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt". And I hated it. Just did not like the song at all. Two years later, I heard that Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords had directed a music video for the W.A.S. song "After Hours". Despite my previous bad experience, I really wanted to see the video. It did not disappoint. It was hilarious, and had the very hot Katrina Bowden in it. Best of all, I thoroughly enjoyed the song as all. Later I found it was on the "Nick and Norah's Inifinite Playlist" soundtrack, which is too bad cause that movie was awful. But the song remains the same.
In the face of this incredibly harsh review, I believe this song is a pretty sweet for a mellow, hipster chic dance party, and its pretty fun/easy to sing in the car. I wish I could tell you a little more about this band, but this is really the only song of theirs I know that I like. It does get my feet tapping every time though.
Credit for first listen: See blurb.
What this song is probably not about: Partying after closing time.
What this song is probably about: Death or dying, or maybe not since a "citation needed" is affixed to this info in the wikipedia entry for this song.
Essential lyric: "As always at this hour, time means nothing"
Arbitrary rating: 72 out of 100.

"Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)"
Phil Collins. From 1984's original soundtrack for "Against All Odds".

This song was recorded at the request of the movie of the same name's director Taylor Hackford. It went number one for three weeks in 1984 and also won Collins a grammy, and has been, somewhat, famously covered by Mariah Carey, as well as Postal Service. Written and recorded while Collins was still fronting Genesis, the song would be the turning point for Collins' career. Starting with this song, Collins would release 7 number one singles between 1984 and 1990, while Genesis' fortunes would go in the opposite direction.
The thing I like the most about this song is Collins' reaction to it at the 1985 Oscars. He was nominated for Best Original Song, yet was not asked to sing it, instead something named Ann Reinking sang it, and evidently Collins didn't care for her version. There used to be a video of it on youtube, which I can no longer find. Collins just looks really pissed and awkward and its awesome. If someone finds this, please let me know. Other than that, Collins voice sounds nice as always and the drum work is solid (as can be expected from the 34th-best drummer ever).

Credit for first listen: In first year I downloaded every Postal Service song, and heard their cover of this song. Eventually listened to the Collins original, which I preferred.
What this song is probably not about: Retelling the plot of this movie. Which is good, cause apparently the movie is not very good.
What this song is probably about: Collins' failing marriage to Canadian Andrea Bertorelli.
Essential lyric: "And there's nothing left here to remind me, just the memory of your face"
Arbitrary rating: 59 out of 100.