Monday, March 26, 2012

Downtown



During the mid 80s, as a young teen, I used to daydream about what my life would be like as an adult out in the world on my own. Most of these visions seemed to involve me living in some sort of high-rise apartment in the middle of a downtown metropolis and my pad would be adorned with things like black leather furniture, bare brick walls, white carpeting and neon lights for art and the only available light source. I would be near all of the coolest night clubs and, of course, all the pretty ladies would love me. In my future world, pretty much everything would still be like it was in the mid-80s, because all of that shit was forever in my mind. The only difference is that reality would start to mirror more of the movie and music video landscape of the time. In other words, things would be stuck in a post-apocalyptic retro/future scenario – some sort of Streets of Fire world. In retrospect, I often wonder what was going on with that. Maybe it was the Reagan regime’s push for a return to simpler times (i.e. the 50s, where dissenting voices were more easily quashed), while at the same time smashing us under the thumb of fear and paranoia of constant nuclear threat (again, see the 50s). How this manifested itself in movies and music videos is beyond me, but it clearly did. Just watch a music video from the 80s and you’ll see lots of leather jackets, plain white t-shirts, Levi’s, motorcycles, old phones, and appliances shot in black and white, yet adorned with brightly colored highlights and other modern touches in a setting of an abandoned cityscape strewn with blowing debris. This is pretty much how I thought the near future would be and I that I would somehow thrive in such an environment. As I reached adulthood, this vision faded into something closer to reality. Instead, I simply wanted to find a place of my own, no matter the squalor, as long as I could afford ramen, macaroni & cheese and the occasional new music purchase or show, I’d be pretty happy and very disgruntled in a punk rock sort of way. It was a more realistic version of life, but still framed within a vision where I would be cool. Isn’t that what most of us wanted as teenagers?


It was just after spring break in 1990 on a Sunday evening, the first truly warm evening of the year, when I first heard a song named “Downtown” on Q105’s New Music Hour. It was then, while lying down on my bed/couch thing in the decrepit dorm room of Clark Hall at Pacific University, my old daydreams of high-rise dominance came flooding back to me like a beacon of hope. At first, I thought this slick mildly bluesy city song over piano taps was a new The The song, which seems crazy to me now, since Matt Johnson would never release a new album within a year of the previous one, and since the style is pretty far afield from the madness of much of his work. Instead the song turned out to be a new Lloyd Cole song from his first solo album (someone just recently mistook The The’s “Uncertain Smile” as an old Lloyd Cole song, so I feel a bit vindicated). I first heard Lloyd Cole in 1987 with his song “My Bag,” which I remember touting a bit to my friends when I bought the 12” single, but I never went any further. This new song, however, had me very energized. The opening lines are so cool and so fitting of the world I thought I wanted to live in: “I want to take you down underside of the city / where the sun doesn’t shine and the moon isn’t pretty / and the slow train crawls in the nights and the days are as one as the smoke and the heat haze / yes, it’s neon here twenty four hours of the day / and you’re sure looking pretty when it’s hitting on your face.” It’s full of some dark underbelly dealings, but so damn slick, chic and smooth. It made me want to race down to Jay Jacobs at the barely breathing Galleria and buy that $99 black suit that they had in the display window for about five years straight, so I could wander around town with my tie partly undone, the suit a little wrinkled and smelling of day old cologne and booze. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as handsome Cole, nor would I ever be, so I could never pull off the walk of triumph, but only the walk of shame. If none of this makes any sense, you’ve probably read too far.





It wasn’t until early in the summer break that I purchased the self-titled solo debut and like any 19 year old, I played “Downtown” over and over and pretty much ignored the rest of the album. Then I saw the video for “No Blue Skies” and that became my new anthem. This down tempo number with huge atmospheric keyboard washes over a steady beat, grinding bass and magical guitar fills sent me into a warm world of beautiful melancholy and reflection. With lines like “Looking for something when there’s nothing there to be found / make it easy on yourself / go out and find your body someone else / or tear the stars out of the sky” never had I enjoyed heartbreak so much. Little by little, the album grew on me. Along the lines of “No Blue Skies,” my other early favorites mined a similar slower and sadder vein. The album opens after all with “Don’t Look Back” and maybe loneliest lines on the album: “When you’re nothing to no one / and you’re less to your kin / and you’re looking for someone / who won’t cling to anything,” and finally concluding that “life seems never ending when you’re young.” The next one to beat me into submission is the aptly titled “Loveless.” This destitute song opens and closes with what sounds like an empty can (of beer maybe?) clanking on the ground as Cole takes us vividly down the road of a breaking relationship and the sheer pain of it all (“you lie and you cheat your own mind to believing / that you don’t need anything or anyone / so why do you say you love me when you don’t?”).

This album is not all darkness. The string and horn-laden “A Long Way Down” finds Cole warning of the dangers of narcissism and too high of a self-esteem (“walking that tall your head is going to trip your feet”). The song, at first, verges on camp, but instead turns out to be a catchy timeless tune. The more upbeat numbers are equally up to par. “What Do You Know About Love?,” “Sweetheart,” and “I Hate to See You Baby Doing that Stuff” are all hook-filled numbers that wind their way into ones music subconscious for endless replays. There are also the classic lust-filled numbers that should dot any classic rock-n-roll album and Cole finds a way to pull it off with intelligence in “Ice Cream Girl” (“I feel like a shady politician / trying to sell a broken down car / to a sleeping virgin princess / you know that’s not what you are / do I have to feel this small / before you’ll play ball?”) and the bouncy “Undressed,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The LP ends with the gritty “Mercy Killing,” which assumes that “there must be more to life than this / or we’d be mercy killing us.” It’s a sentiment that I’m sure many of us have felt a time or two.

The music and performances on this album are immaculate. The co-producer, Fred Maher, also fills in with his muscular and classic drumming style (also featured on Lou Reed’s excellent 1989 album New York), while the late Robert Quine, of the late-70s punk originals Richard Hell and the Voidoids plays his bluesy and crystalline leads throughout. Matthew Sweet also adds his rich, full-sounding bass, before borrowing most of this same line-up (including Cole) for his 1991 breakthrough pop rock classic album Girlfriend. The best part about this album is that it continues to grow better with age. It never made any of my best of the year album lists, but I could easily put it into my all-time top 10 or 20 favorite albums of all time. It comes highly recommended.

Now that I’m 40 and listening to this album as I type this, I may need to re-think my vision of the future.  A part of me still wants that high-rise apartment, but I still don’t think I can pull off the cool.






Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Welcome to the Beautiful South



I don’t know why, but I often have a solid memory of when and especially where I purchased the music that I have added to my collection. In the past, a lot of these purchases were made during days filled with other exciting and memorable activities. Growing up, record shopping excursions normally involved a trip to Portland, a two hour drive from the coast, so these trips were often combined with concerts or some such adventure. An especially memorable trip was one on a sunny spring day where Matt and I skipped school in May of 1989 to go to a New Order concert, but along the way I picked up just released CDs like The Cure’s Disintegration, Swans’ Burning World, The Replacements Don’t Tell A Soul, and New Model Army’s Thunder and Consolation. The day was fun, the show was great, but these four albums are ones that I still love and listen to.

Less than a year later, after a snowy Friday evening in January of 1990 I found myself feeling trapped in the Frosty Grave (Forest Grove, OR) in a dull college dorm room wondering if I was truly willing to make the two hour trek via bus into Portland just to get out of the bleak environs I found myself in. Yes, I wanted to get away, but I didn’t have a lot of money and the journey was a brutal one. Luckily, I ran into two of my friends who had just started to date. One had a car and was indeed planning on driving into Portland, if I didn’t mind stopping off at Planned Parenthood along the way. I shrugged and went along. I never asked any details about why we went to Planned Parenthood, because it was none of my business, but it didn’t stop me from playing with the bowl of condoms in the waiting room and making a scene that ended with a different colored condom unwrapped and placed on each of my fingers while adopting a Smokey the Bear voice. I think it was some sort of impromptu PSA that only made my friend and everyone else in the waiting area uncomfortable. Speaking of uncomfortable, the overnight snow had by this time turned into a massive slush puddle everywhere, and the only shoes I took to college with me for my freshman year were leather and filled with holes in the soles and rips at the seams.

Anyway, our destination downtown was the old block on Park Avenue where one could find Crocodile Records, Rock-n-Roll Fashion, and around the corner on Taylor, Hamburger Mary’s. I say “old block,” because none of these shops are currently there. In fact, that entire city block was demolished and rebuilt as the Fox Tower several years ago. Clearly, I headed into Crocodile Records. It was a small, mostly used music shop that was best for finding new promo CDs for cheap. I perused the vinyl and drooled over a copy of Joy Division’s “Transmission” 12” single that was in pristine condition, but didn’t have the 7 or 8 bucks needed to buy it. So, I was stuck with looking through the $1 CD bin on the counter near the register. This proved fruitless as well, except for a radio promo for a song named “You Keep it All In” by The Beautiful South. I had never heard the band before, nor did I know anything about them. However, I had seen their album in the shops and ads for it in magazines I regularly read. It stuck in my mind, because I loved the cover. It depicted two old timey looking sepia toned photographs. The left side found a married woman in a white blouse and gardening styled hat about to swallow the business end of a revolver, while the right half had a picture of a shirtless and shaved headed man lighting a cigarette. For whatever reason, the cover intrigued me, and I had always had good luck buying records based solely on cover art. In this case, I could spend a buck and sample their sound, so I made the purchase and headed next door to find the other two checking out all of those rock-n-roll fashion.

By the time I finally listened to the song back in my dorm room, while I removed my cold and wet socks and slapped them down against the tile floor, I was not sure what to make of it. Even though the promo included no cover, the music didn’t seem to fit what my memory of the album cover had been. During those days, I was nearing the height of my short-lived love of industrial music, so when I heard flutes opening the short snappy song, I was a bit thrown. The song is snappy and includes actual snapping! It is the ultimate sound of adult contemporary from that time. The instrumentation is smooth and flawless and has a tinge of the 80s Euro soul of Sade, Danny Wilson (“Mary’s Prayer”), Johnny Hates Jazz, Black, Curiosity Killed the Cat, and the like from that era. It also eventually reminded me of the few Housemartins songs I had heard, as I found myself examining the song over and over. It was definitely catchy, but it was still a mystery to me. The lyrics, like that album cover, did not fit the music. The opening verse, after the flutes and snapping, is sung with perfection by a woman who sounded to me a bit like Natalie Merchant when she sang “Like the Weather.” The second verse comes in with a male vocalist who reminded me of the guy from the Housemartins (which it is!) and that’s where I noticed things going a bit off. He sings: “That’s right / the conversation we had last night / when all I wanted to do was / knife you in the heart” and it was these words that appealed to my still teenage world of acerbic wit and cynicism. It didn’t take long for me to love this song, but I was a bit afraid to share it with my new friends. I suppose it had become a guilty pleasure.





I didn’t wind up actually buying the full album until school was out for the summer and I was able to put some money together from a job and start buying CDs again. There was that album cover welcoming us to their dark world with a polished sheen. One could say that this is a musical version of a David Lynch-ian world where one’s seemingly perfect and nice neighbors may be bearing horrific secrets behind closed doors. The aforementioned “You Keep it All In” depicts a fighting couple who seem to have a murderous past, while their child “sleeps alone with the light.” Another horror show is found in the “Woman in the Wall” where we find a man who has killed his wife and left her corpse in their home’s wall, where he can be found declaring his love for her and speaking to her at night until “the rotting wall began to drip.” Not every song is filled with killing and death, but nearly every song is filled with a dark edge that belies the jaunty smooth pop of the music. Every song is adorned with flawless percussion, brass arrangements and stellar piano playing, while the two main vocalists Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway (also from the Housemartins) croon impeccably throughout. Briana Corrigan ads her sweet voice occasionally (she later joined the group full time for their next two albums) to add a foil for these argumentative songs. Two songs that delve closest to the Housemartins’ roots would be two of the poppier numbers – “From Under the Covers” and “Oh Blackpool.” The latter attacks the snobbery within the copy cat fleeting world of fashion, while the former depicts a man who simply cannot get out of bed to join the corporate rat race over the top of an energetic gliding soundtrack that closes with fantastic vocal harmonies and a sparkling trumpet refrain. “Have You Ever Been Away?” tackles some politics and includes the following fighting words sung in a soulful falsetto: “I’m afraid your Rule Britannia mania doesn’t ring so true / if I was captain of the waves I’d turn the gun on you / any last requests before you join the dead? / I’ll crap into your Union Jack and wrap it round your head.” There are three epic songs here that all question the motives of love and all clearly land somewhere in the cynical side of things. The album opens with “Song for Whoever,” which is a genius pop song about writing love songs based on a series of soulless relationships. Paul Heaton sings prettily “I love you in the songs I write and sing….I wrote so many songs about you I forget your name,” but by the end the used women get their revenge. Later in “Love Is” we find Heaton once again questioning the motivation behind relationships. In this case he’s wondering if fame, power and money outweigh anything else when it comes to love and it all comes to a frantic end with the Heaton belting out the stolen Beatles line “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” repeatedly before turning it into “I love me yeah yeah yeah.” The album finishes with the nicely titled “I Love You (But You’re Boring).” The song opens with this verse: “Birds are singing in the trees / as we rise up on a beautiful morning / but I can’t hear / that beautiful sound / because I’m permanently yawning,” but makes one wonder which one in the couple is boring, because the one being sung about is constantly distracted and uninvolved. Along the way they also cover “Girlfriend” as made popular by US R&B artist Pebbles, which I had forgotten about. It seems like an odd choice at first, but it acts as the other side of the coin for the rest of the love songs within (“girlfriend, how could you let him treat you so bad”).

This album didn’t turn out to be my favorite from The Beautiful South, but it certainly launched a love affair I had with them for the next 16 years. The best are their first three albums, of which I lean towards their third, 1992’s 0898 with their second, 1990’s Choke being a close second. Once Brianna Corrigan left (partially, and not surprisingly, over the content of their sinister lyrics), they lost some of their spark. And even though they did find chart success in their homeland, I am amazed at how little of an impact they made here in the States. I highly recommend their work and long ago stopped feeling guilty about it.




(I wonder sometimes if I would've given this band a fair shake if I had seen this video first.)