The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 18 – A Real Rain

Hey, you. Yes, I’m talkin’ to you, because I want you to know that there are spoilers in here, both for Watchmen and for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. We’re talkin’ about Taxi Driver today because of one, who turns out to be named Christian Burnham. Burnham contributed to the v2.0 Watchmen Annotations, those annotations being a crowdsourced effort built atop Doug Atkinson’s original work. Burnham was the one who asserted way back in my first installment that “Edward Blake is obviously a reference to Blake Edwards,” and that “Rorschach’s methods of terrorism are all taken from Pink Panther movies.”

This time around, he claims that “Rorschach’s opener on page 1 issue 1 is a dead ringer for the dialogue of Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver.” Burnham has a tendency to overstate the case, and this time is no exception. While it’s true that both Rorschach and Bickle (Robert De Niro) keep a diary, and that their diary entries are provided in “voiceover” to give us insight into their minds, I wouldn’t call one a “dead ringer” for the other. There are definitely similarities, but also some important differences. Let’s compare styles.

Rorschach: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper ‘No.'”

Bickle: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain’ll come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

Both these excerpts begin with shocking language and images. Both indicate a loathing and revulsion for the urban environment. But Rorschach’s opening sentence imitates his speech patterns — clipped sentence fragments, with articles and pronouns extracted, an almost Tonto-ish way of talking. Moore in fact uses this pattern as a tool later on to indicate the psychological split between when Walter Kovacs simply wore a mask and when he became Rorschach, as well as the psychological shift in Malcolm Long.

Interestingly, the rest of the excerpt (and most of Rorschach’s diary) is much more discursive than his usual speech. He spins grandiose, almost biblical images, like this one in which he stands as the vengeful god to punish human sins. Elsewhere, he documents the city as he sees it, or takes notes on the murder case. He even tells a joke.

First 3 panels of Watchmen, with Rorschach's dialogue as quoted above

Travis, on the other hand, is much more prosaic and down-to-earth. He talks about what happens in his job, how much he makes, and recounts details like “I had black coffee and apple pie with a slice of melted yellow cheese.” His diction is slangy and vernacular (not to mention casually racist and homophobic), where Rorschach tends toward theatrical, elevated words. Travis would never say something like, “This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.” When his diary entries become introspective, they tend to be vulnerable and searching, as opposed to Rorschach’s judgmental pronouncements. Travis reviles the city, sure, but he also explicitly laments his loneliness, something Rorschach only barely approaches when he asks (without a trace of irony), “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”

However, just because Rorschach’s journal isn’t a “dead ringer” for Travis’s diary doesn’t mean that the comparison between Watchmen and Taxi Driver is pointless. On the contrary, I think it’s a very useful juxtaposition, one which illuminates them both.


Taxi Driver gets called a neo-noir film, a term which more or less means “a whole lot like film noir but made after 1958.” (See Hirsch and Schwartz, for example.) The notion of film noir itself has never enjoyed a stable, consensus definition, and in fact there is still contention over, for instance, whether it’s a style or a genre. But like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s relationship to pornography, critics know it when they see it.

Here are some film noir commonplaces:

  • A mood of pessimism, cynicism, and/or fatalism
  • Night scenes, especially night scenes in a city
  • Rain. Lots and lots of rain.
  • Also lots of smoke and smoking
  • Femmes fatales. As Roger Ebert puts it, “Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.”
  • An ordinary person drawn into crime, often based on some relationship with a femme fatale
  • A grim investigator unraveling a crime, an investigation which often reveals deep corruption
  • Odd or askew camera angles
  • Shadowy or high-contrast visual composition
  • Flashbacks, particularly telling the bulk of the movie in flashback, introduced by a frame story
  • First-person voiceover narration

A movie doesn’t have to have all of these to be considered noir, but the more of them that occur in one movie, the more noir it becomes. Once I started thinking about Taxi Driver as a noir movie, it became blindingly obvious to me that Watchmen is a noir comic book, or at the very least that Rorschach is a noir character, right down to his 1940s trenchcoat and fedora. While his narration differs from that of Travis, the presence of their narration serves the same set of functions. It sets the grim tenor of the story but makes it clear that the mood is filtered through one character’s mind, and that this character is himself unreliable and twisted in certain aspects.

The juxtaposition of narration and images allows us sometimes to see the story’s world as the character sees it, and other times to understand through ironic contrast where the character’s perceptions are limited, or where he may be lying to himself or others. And as both Taxi Driver and Watchmen postdate the classic film noir period, they are fully aware of noir conventions and use voiceover as a kind of combination homage and allegiance.

They have plenty in common with the noir sensibility besides the voiceover, too. Both have an overall sinister tone, and both end with a psychopathic character unexpectedly cast in a heroic light. Both stalk the rainy night city, Travis in his cab and Rorschach on foot. Smoke, too, figures into each story in different ways. None of the characters in Taxi Driver smoke, but mist and steam emanates from the streets themselves — the first several shots in the film include a taxi emerging from a cloud of smoke (along with the title itself), and that same smoke following Travis as he walks into the cab service to apply for a job.

Lots of characters smoke in Watchmen. In just the first two chapters, we see Detective Fine, Hollis Mason, various criminals, restaurant patrons, Laurie Juspeczyk, and Eddie Blake smoking various types of cigarettes or cigars. In addition to his stogie, Blake also shoots riot gas to smoke up the streets, and makes Captain Metropolis’ map go up in smoke as well. However, the smokiest thing about the book is easily Rorschach’s dialogue balloons. The character is never seen with a cigarette, but every time he talks or thinks, the edges of his words crinkle and curl, an ever-present noir vapor.

Shot from Taxi Driver with title emerging from smoke, next to panel from Watchmen showing Rorschach's smoky dialogue balloon

Femmes fatales, on the other hand, are noticeably missing from both works. I’ve already discussed the role of women overall in Watchmen: they mainly exist to demonstrate or alter male emotional states. That is somewhat true for the classic femme fatale as well, but in Watchmen the women are more victims than masterminds. No woman is calling the shots on anything in that story, but rather stumbling or being thrown from one mishap to another. Even Janey Slater, clearly embittered and smoking up a storm, turns out to have been Adrian’s pawn in her takedown of Dr. Manhattan.

Women in Taxi Driver are filtered through Travis’s consciousness, which will only allow for two categories: virgin and whore. He can hardly bear either one. He idolizes what he sees as the purity and elevation of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), and even manages to take her out on a date, only to make the site of their date a porno theater, as if he must taint that purity and expose the taintedness of his own inner self. Then he fixates upon a different mix of virgin and whore: the twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). Where he wanted to sully Betsy’s innocence, he wants to restore Iris’s, trying to convince her to go back home, and sending her $500 to help her leave her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). In neither case does he engage with the woman in question as a person, but rather interacts almost exclusively with his projections of them.

No, it isn’t a femme fatale who draws Travis into mass murder. Rather, it is his utter inability to connect with other human beings. Whether this disconnection is an aftereffect of service in Vietnam, or whether it is inherent to Travis himself, the film doesn’t make clear. However, his “loneliness has followed me all my life” voiceover suggests that while Vietnam may have stoked his inclination to violence, Travis’s fundamental alienation is his own.

De Niro does a masterful job of building upon screenwriter Paul Schrader’s script to demonstrate Travis’s utter lack of facility with simple personal interactions. He’s baffled by simple expressions like “moonlighting” or “how’s it hangin’?”. He’s culturally isolated — at various points he says he doesn’t know much about movies, much about music. He watches his television periodically, with a look of longing and confusion on his face; eventually he pushes that TV off its stand, destroying it. In a knowing twist on noir convention, Travis tries to kill the father figures of his various women, not at their urging, but as a sort of revenge for the relationships they have, which he is forever denied.

Watchmen takes the other noir plot — not the common man corrupted but the cynical detective whose astute investigations soon land him in trouble beyond his capacity to deal with. Moore begins the story as a standard murder mystery, and in fact for a moment we believe we might be following the police investigation of Eddie Blake’s death. Soon enough we are following Rorschach, but even then, the pattern of introducing a series of characters and providing background on the deceased is a familiar one to mystery readers. Watchmen turns out to have a lot more on its mind than just solving a crime, but at least from Rorschach’s point of view, his trajectory is not all that different from that of the classic Phillip Marlowe or J.J. Gittes type, the private eye whose own investigation devastates and undoes him.

As for visual style, both Watchmen and Taxi Driver employ enough shadows and unsettling angles to easily qualify as neo-noir. Taxi Driver gives us shots of Travis’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, framed by blackness. It shows us fetishized close-ups of the taxi itself, driving through the rain, with garish Times Square movie marquees and porn store signs in the background. There’s a motif of high-angle shots straight down on a tableau – the personnel officer’s desk, the porn theater counter, the gun suitcase, Betsy’s desk. These culminate in a magnificent high-angle shot of the mass murder scene, moving slowly past the heads of stunned policemen, down the hallway and out into the street.

High angle shot from Taxi Driver of the murder scene

That same high angle appears in Watchmen‘s very first set of panels, the ones with the narration that started us down this road. The camera looks down at the bloodstained street, gradually pulling up, up, up to the site of Blake’s defenestration. Weird camera angles and shadowy composition abound especially (and not surprisingly) in the portions of Watchmen focused on Rorschach.

In Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry”, we get a recurring shot of the Rumrunner’s neon sign, reflected in a puddle, disturbed by Rorschach’s footstep. It’s a perfect noir shot, encompassing rain, darkness, the sinister city, and a sense of foreboding and destruction. Rorschach’s mask itself is the ultimate in high-contrast, its shadows always moving across his face. This effect is played up in “The Abyss Gazes Also”, whose penultimate panel is in fact nothing but blackness.

Finally, there are the flashbacks. Taxi Driver has none — it refuses to explain Travis by exploring his past, and it almost exclusively sticks to his point of view, denying us the capacity of understanding his world beyond his perception of it. Watchmen, on the other hand, is flashback-crazy. Whole chapters take us into the backstory of various characters, and previous chapters get called back by later chapters. Even single panels sometimes quickly throw us back to the past before returning to the scene at hand. Both, in their way, subvert the traditional noir mode of a frame story taking us into the past, either by sticking zenlike in the present or jumping around through time all the time.

Still, while neither Watchmen nor Taxi Driver ticks every box on the film noir checklist, there is more than enough evidence to call them both noir stories. But there’s something more: they’re also both superhero stories.


There are many ways to interpret the plot of Taxi Driver. Here’s one. An ordinary man, Travis Bickle, takes a blue-collar job after returning from war. This job brings him in contact with the worst parts of New York City. He sees firsthand the violence, the constant menace, the routine attacks upon innocent people, including attacks upon Travis himself. He witnesses the sleaze and degradation occurring in the city at night, and it becomes clear to him that the establishment police and politicians are fundamentally unable to stem its tide. He even connects with a heartbreaking victim of the city’s evil: a twelve-year-old girl named Iris, forced into prostitution by a pimp named Sport. That pimp pays Travis $20 to look the other way.

This $20 bill becomes a totem to Travis. He carries it with him, plagued by his guilt about not saving Iris from her dangerous situation. Finally, he makes up his mind to make a difference. “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time,” he writes in his diary. “True force.” He embarks on an intense regimen of physical training, honing his body until every muscle is tight, and he is nearly impervious to pain. He purchases an arsenal of weaponry, and rigs up ways to attach those weapons to his body, deploying them quickly when needed. He puts together a uniform which allows him to conceal the equipment he carries. “Here is a man who would not take it anymore,” he writes.

Shot from Taxi Driver of the device Travis rigs up to hide a gun in his sleeve and slide it out when he wants to use it.

He uses the $20 bill to pay for Iris’ time, in a failed attempt to get her to leave Sport of her own volition. But he finally realizes: he is the one who must rescue her, and save the innocence of the city itself. He creates a new persona and guise, one which will strike fear into the hearts of those he hunts. At first, he tries to bring down the corrupt system by targeting a political demagogue, but he soon realizes that he must go into the underworld directly. Armed with his equipment and his frightening appearance, he defeats Sport and two of Sport’s henchmen. He returns Iris to her parents, and is hailed by them and by the media in general as a hero. Some time later, he has returned to his job in his ordinary identity, but we know that he is ready to confront evil again, whenever he encounters it.

Sounds an awful lot like a superhero origin story, doesn’t it? In a certain light, Travis doesn’t look so different from Bruce Wayne, or Tony Stark, or Frank Castle: men without superhuman powers, but who nonetheless deploy muscles, weapons, and a frightening appearance to fight the crime in their societies. For that matter, he’s even closer to a character like Rorschach, who shares all those qualities with Travis, and a few more as well.

Rorschach’s own origin story touches a lot of those same points. Walter Kovacs comes from a traumatic past and enters a blue-collar job. In the course of that job, he encounters a woman who later becomes the victim of a horrifying crime. Kovacs sees not only the ineffectiveness of standard social structures, but also the impassive detachment of people in general to the evil that surrounds them. He trains his body for strength and endurance, and acquires a set of equipment, a uniform, and a countenance to frighten the criminals he’s chosen to fight. He records his thoughts in a journal, in which he repeats his philosophy to himself. His culminating trip over the edge happens in response to the victimization of a child — his personality finds its fullest cohesion by murdering the victimizer.

Taxi Driver wasn’t meant to serve as a commentary on superhero stories, but it certainly was aware of its cinematic precursors, urban vigilante films like Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, and Death Wish. In those films, a man suffers tragedy and/or witnesses evil, and decides it’s time to work outside the law. He arms himself and slaughters the criminal(s) responsible.

The difference is that in the preceding films, the vigilante is lionized and held as the moral center, in contrast to corrupt or incompetent law enforcement. Schrader applies a corrective to this narrative with Taxi Driver, showing us that the man who kills criminals is himself violently disturbed. In fact, in Taxi Driver Travis simply wants to kill the father figure to one of his women, and tries first to kill the presidential candidate. It’s only because he fails, and ends up killing the pimp, that he is hailed as a hero. Watchmen, too, deeply problematizes the notion of vigilante heroism, in response to a similar romanticization of it in superhero comics. It shows Rorschach, like Travis, to be a deeply lonely man, one who has become insane and dangerous based on his experiences and his disconnection.

Travis Bickle does not understand other human beings. He sees them as objects — threats, idols, barriers. His movies are porn movies, whose entire job is to turn people into objects. Porn lets you project yourself, explicitly, into a sexual interaction. It’s the closest Travis comes to a connection. Rorschach, too, does not relate to other people, and tends to see them as objects, pawns on a board. Moreover, the traditional superhero genre has a hard time understanding human beings as well. It objectifies them into projection screen, threat, barrier, or prize. Watchmen surrounds Rorschach with humans, rather than objects, and by doing so reveals the absurdity of his Objectivism.

Film noir was never concerned with heroism. Its subject was the darker sides of humanity, and how the naive man can be inadvertently drawn into them. Both the urban vigilante film and the superhero genre, however, take heroism as a central theme and trope. By mixing noir into these genres, Taxi Driver and Watchmen leave us questioning those tropes, and understanding that sometimes our cultural perception of good is no more valid than our perception of evil. Travis Bickle looks in the mirror and says, “You talkin’ to me?” But he’s only talking to himself. It’s Scorsese, Schrader, Moore, and Gibbons who are talking to us.

Shots from Watchmen and Taxi Driver of sleazy Times Square

Previous Entry: The Superhuman Crew

Album Assignments: Black Sheets Of Rain

Bob Mould’s 1990 album Black Sheets Of Rain was quite a shock to my system when I first heard it. See, I was never dialed into Hüsker Dü in my teens, so my first exposure to Mould was through his gorgeous, extraordinary album Workbook in 1989. That album blew me away — it was so beautiful, so passionate, and so perfect for what I was going through in my life back then. So I was very eager for Black Sheets Of Rain — I bought it the day it came out, and couldn’t wait to hear it.

Then I heard it. Whoa. I emerged 55 minutes later, bludgeoned and dazed, not quite sure what had happened to me. People, this album is heavy. Layers and layers of buzzing guitar in an intense wall of noise, a sludgy bottom end, and drums like punches to the face. Over all this come Mould’s tortured vocals. A throaty singer even in his tenderest moments, here he was more often than not ragged and hoarse, screaming about sacrifice, betrayal, depression, disappointment.

The one exception is “The Last Night”, which recalls the acoustic sound of Workbook. Everywhere else that acoustic guitars dare to appear on Black Sheets Of Rain, they function as curtains to be swept aside by the electric assault, as in the opening bars of “Hanging Tree”. On “The Last Night”, Mould layers his voice to harmonize with himself, and while he employs that technique throughout the album, everywhere else he uses it to turn his voice into power chords. And where in “The Last Night” he is calmly resolute, most everywhere else he’s either despairing or really, really pissed.

Black Sheets Of Rain album cover

Here’s the thing, though. While I’ll probably always love Workbook more, I find Black Sheets Of Rain an incredibly powerful album, and listening to it 25 years later, it now strikes me as pretty much the perfect album to kick off the 1990s. More than a year before the radio waves got completely Nirvana’d and Pearl Jammed, this album announced the alternative future. Everything about it is grungy, right down to the cover. It bails on the Hüsker Dü hyperactive punk thrash, changing it out for grim marches through forests turning black. It’s got these enormous riffs, surrounding Mould’s voice like canyons, and his words ring through them. Those words are just as angsty as anything Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder ever thought of:

Slag heap keeps growing higher
Every morning the sky, it’s on fire
Is there an upside to every downside?
Keep it inside, it’s a downward slide of broken glass
Keeps building in piles
And I don’t know
I don’t know if the sun ever smiles

There’s another dimension to the record, too — hidden in the slag heaps are some amazing pop tunes. “It’s Too Late” even got a fair amount of play on modern rock stations, and with good reason, but there are even better rockers on here. “Out Of Your Life” wouldn’t sound out of place on a P!nk album, and “Hear Me Calling” is both moving and catchy as hell, especially the repeated “you win again” over the fadeout.

But the best track of all is “Stop Your Crying”, an absolutely killer composition delivered with shocking power. The lyrics are excellent, the chorus towering, and Mould’s vocal delivery is revelatory, or perhaps apocalyptic. The verses are fierce but controlled — it’s between them that the action really intensifies. As guitars swoop and swirl in massive phalanxes, Mould groans, screams, bellows his fury and frustration. He’s like a wounded animal in the ending vamp, shouting incoherently over lunatic soloing, before the riff triumphantly returns to close out the track. Everybody should have been rocking out to this song in 1990 — what a pity they weren’t quite ready.

Album Assignments: Cass County

I grew up in the golden age of solo Don Henley work. I was 14 when he released “The Boys Of Summer”, one of the best songs of the 1980s. Just 2 years earlier, “Dirty Laundry” had been all over the radio, just at the time I was starting to pay serious attention to both the top 40 and to political messages in songs. That song and all of Building The Perfect Beast wound through my high school days, and then in the summer after my freshman year of college, he released The End Of The Innocence, another excellent collection of thoughtful and incisive rock songs. Robby and I were both such devoted fans that for his 21st birthday I made him a set of “Don Henley A-Z” cassettes, every solo Henley song in alphabetical order, mixed in with all the Eagles songs he sings lead on, and various collaborations with other artists, many of them in that Eagles California cohort — Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, etc. (In fact, Robby had made me a Stevie Nicks A-Z for my 18th birthday, so this was fair payback.)

More recently, though, something has felt a little off with Don. I guess it started with his 1994 Eagles song “Get Over It,” which I found absolutely, insufferably arrogant. The idea of this rich, privileged, white rock star sneering at other people’s pain, and spitting vitriol like “I’d like to find your inner child and kick its little ass”, was repellent to me, especially when it was paired with the tour in which the band broke new ground in exploting its fans, charging unprecedented amounts of money for even the “cheap” seats. His 2000 album Inside Job was better, but it still had a number of massive-ego moments, not to mention the hypocrisy of bemoaning “” and “nobody else in the world but you” self-centeredness after year upon year of Eagles cash grabs. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to hear the 2007 Eagles album Long Road Out Of Eden.

It’s been 15 years since the last solo Henley album, and now he’s got a new record out, called Cass County, which Robby assigned to me last week. What quickly becomes clear is that Cass County is kind of a departure from Henley’s previous solo work, in that it’s a straight-up country album. Certainly the Eagles were always country-inflected rock, and Henley has always had a considerable country influence, showing up strongly in songs like “You’re Not Drinking Enough” and “A Month Of Sundays.” But this album pretty much throws rock and roll out the window, opening the door instead for tons of steel guitar, smalltown imagery, and songs whose entire meaning hangs on a pun. Exhibit A, a song about aging: “It’s the cost of living, and everyone pays.”

Cass County album cover

For that matter, I’d say a majority of the album’s songs tackle the topic of aging in one way or another. It’s apropos — Henley is now 68 years old. Thus, he reminisces in the deeply moving “Train In The Distance,” in which the train serves as a metaphor of the future to the kid, of escape to the adult, and of death to the old man. There’s “Take A Picture Of This,” which again travels through time from early triumphs to midlife domesticity to a late-life disintegration and a determination think about tomorrow rather than yesterday, a sentiment echoed in “No, Thank You” as “I respectfully decline / to spend my future living in the past.”

But, really? The album is named after Henley’s childhood home county, and the entire tone of the album seems to be a very intentional return to pre-Eagles roots. The time-travel songs and the “seen it all before” attitude don’t really suggest somebody who’s leaving the past behind. Not that he should, but his claims to the contrary are questionable. In “A Younger Man,” he disavows his former beliefs in “better days ahead” and “faith and hope and charity,” a cynicism that is disappointing but not terribly surprising from somebody who’s displayed the kind of bitterness Henley has shown from time to time over the years. On the other hand, “Where I Am Now” has a much brighter outlook, and really does look forward rather than back.

I think I’m coming off harsh on this album, but really, I enjoyed it. I grew up with kind of an allergy to country music, but I’m mostly over it, and I can enjoy a Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton duet on its own terms. In fact, probably my favorite song on the album (after “Train In The Distance”) is a Martina McBride duet called “That Old Flame” — then again, it’s probably the rockiest song on the album too. There’s great songwriting on display in several places here, and if moving from rock to country takes Henley from the arrogance of “Get Over It” to the compassion of a song like “Waiting Tables,” then I say yee-haw!

Maybe it’s just that, as Stevie says, “I’m getting older too,” but I find I can’t look up to Henley the way I did in my teens and twenties. He lost me with his greed and his sanctimony, and something I found out about this record pissed me off all over again. See, when Robby gave me the assignment, I went out and bought the CD from Amazon that evening, since they offer the awesome capability of immediately getting the MP3s even before the disc is in the mail. After listening a couple of times, I went out to Wikipedia to get a little background, only to find that the 12 tracks I bought are significantly different from the canonical version of the CD. Three songs are removed, and three others (from something called “Deluxe edition bonus tracks”) are added. Not only that, there’s apparently another version available exclusively at Target, with two more songs, one of which is a duet with Stevie goddamned Nicks! So while there are 18 Cass County songs, I only got 12 of them when I bought the record. I find these sorts of shenanigans absolutely infuriating. Nothing makes me want to pirate music more than buying an album and finding out later that I only really bought two thirds of it, and even over on his website he’s only selling 16 tracks worth. No, thank you — I don’t think so.

Album Assignments: Egyptology

World Party is neither a world, nor a party. Discuss. No, wait, don’t discuss — I have more to say. In fact, World Party isn’t even a band. World Party is pretty much one guy: musical polymath Karl Wallinger. Aside from the occasional guest musician, Wallinger writes, produces, sings, and plays every instrument on every World Party album. He burst on the scene with the excellent 1986 album Private Revolution, and followed it up with the even better Goodbye Jumbo in 1990 and Bang! in 1993.

I became a big fan pretty much the moment I heard “Ship Of Fools” on the radio in 1986, and have listened to all three albums regularly since they came out. They’re dazzling records, especially the first two. Not only is Wallinger great at writing every song and playing every instrument, he’s also great at expressing every genre, or at least every genre along the pop/rock/funk/R&B axis. He’ll go from a brilliant Beatles pastiche to a perfect Prince homage to beautiful Beach Boys harmonies. Even better, at least for the trivia-minded, is the way he has a tendency to slyly quote bits from some classic song, even as he reworks them into a World Party song, giving you lots of moments of recognition. “Hey, isn’t that the melody line from the bridge of The Who’s ‘Getting In Tune?'”. All that stuff makes those albums feel like treasure troves.

For various reasons, World Party kind of fell off my radar after Bang!, but I knew he’d done another couple of albums since, and every time he came up on the iPod shuffle I would think, “Damn this guy is great. I have got to get those other albums.” This year, I finally got partway there by acquiring 1997’s Egyptology. It’s tough to live up to expectations that have built for so long, and Egyptology doesn’t. It’s a fine, solid alt-pop record, but unlike Wallinger’s previous work, it is not dazzling, and it is not stuffed full of fun surprises. In fact, on parts of it he sounds downright weary.

Witness “Hercules”, which can’t even stir itself to be a full song, instead stringing together some halfhearted non sequiturs, and repeating the line, “You gotta be Hercules” amid long, aimless guitar solos. The first two lines of that song are, “You get up / you get down,” and Wallinger employs that trick of throwing together opposites over and over again throughout the album. In fact, pretty much the entire first track (“It Is Time”) consists of variations on that — “It is time to remember / It is time to forget / It is time to be dry / It is time to be wet,” and on and on. In “She’s The One,” “I was her / She was me.” In “Piece Of Mind,” “It’s not in heaven / It’s not the trees… It’s not the ocean / It’s not the air.” Et cetera.

Album cover from World Party's Egyptology

However, even considering those complaints, Egyptology offers plenty of pleasures too. Wallinger can’t help but write catchy melodies, and he’s still a very very good producer and musician, so the tracks themselves tend to sound great even if their lyrics (and occasionally, their vocals) don’t always go the distance. There are also flashes of the old World Party playfulness, such as a crazy piano bit in the middle of “Call Me Up”, whose words are “Whatever happened to those bits in the middle / You know, those crazy piano bits?” The harmonies and instrumentation on “Vanity Fair” (one of the album’s strongest tunes) do a great job of evoking a 1960s Young Rascals-ish feel.

Best of all, though, is the head-and-shoulders standout track, and the only thing that really relates to the album title: “Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb.” Its start isn’t promising, throwing out yet another casual pair of opposites: “Do you find yourself in darkness? / Do you find yourself in light?” From there, though, it quickly delves into the real darkness, blossoming into a prodigious seven-verse epic in the Dylan mode. Each verse has 11 lines, followed by some variation on the title. These verses take us through an extended metaphor, and while I don’t have Karl Wallinger right here to ask what the metaphor means, for my money the Mummy’s tomb is the subconscious, the curse is the way that unresolved issues in the subconscious can steer us into dysfunctional behaviors, and the exploration of that tomb and exorcism of that curse is what happens in the process of therapy.

Consider: in the first verse he describes the questions that haunt him, struggles with his conscience, and says “There’s so much that I forget / Is that the curse of the Mummy’s tomb?” He’s in that initial stage, trying to figure out what’s going on in his mind, and realizing that he may have forgotten (or repressed) some key information. Then in the second verse he declares that “We’re all the bold explorer… asking for directions / To the house that knows no pain,” and shows us a character watching children play and wonders “who led us all astray?” He’s pondering the mysterious process in which children become encased in adulthood, and how very often the strategies we devise as children for coping with our situations no longer serve us well as adults, causing us to suffer and seek a way out.

The third verse starts to describe the descent, and the dangers inherent therein. There are demons, traps, and spies (echoing Dickinson’s line “The Soul unto itself / Is an imperial friend — / or the most agonizing Spy — / An Enemy — could send –“), ready to “seize the fool” who explores these inner recesses. Wallinger brings up the conscience again, and says “I’m too busy with my gloom,” highlighting the way depression can itself be a block to therapy. But at the same time, he longs to be rid of “the fever that’s the curse of the Mummy’s tomb.” In verse 4, he looks at how the “curse” can isolate you from others, and gives the most explicit link yet between the metaphor and the emotional concepts it maps: “And our vanity betrays us / And our nerve it disappears / After crossing the dark threshold / Into loneliness and tears.”

Verse 5 sees him deep in the process, confronting early experiences of family and parents. He depicts those parents as the king and queen of the family, but it’s also no accident that “mummy” is British slang for “mother” — Freudian machinery is certainly at work here, as he visits “a time so long forgotten / But it seems like yesterday / When the queen was in her palace / And the king was on his way / To the bosom of his family / To the holy golden womb / What was that love?” Notice that besides the royalty metaphors, Wallinger explicitly invokes the female body, specifically in a maternal sense. In the penultimate verse, he gives a great description of both how difficult and how rewarding therapy can be. It is a process of untangling and decoding the self, and the understanding thereby gained can lift an enormous burden from your life. “There are strange signs and ornaments / That’ll really tell you all / But they’re easy to misunderstand.” He ends the verse (before the one-line chorus) with “It’s up to you now,” which is the realization we all reach at some point when we’re grappling with ourselves.

That sentiment gets picked up again immediately in the first line of the final verse: “Nobody there to help you.” It’s the climax of the song, and in it the protagonist confronts a deep sense of loss, perhaps even the literal death of “mummy” — Wallinger refers to “life without the queen.” But in the end his soul becomes integrated, and hope returns with the realization that “There’s no curse… / Just a Mummy’s tomb.” When we come to peace with ourselves, when we really understand ourselves, we need no longer be trapped in self-destructive behaviors with mysterious origins.

Interestingly, the key realization Wallinger highlights is, “This life is but a dream.” I interpret that as the understanding that what I experience as my life is really the product of my senses interacting with my mind, which uses its pattern-matching prowess to attempt to impose some meaning on all the input it gets. Yet I have more control over this construction of meaning than I might think, and I have control over some of the input too. Though my mind is always at work constructing a narrative, I can step into the authorship role as new understanding shatters old assumptions, and as I make choices that determine (to a limited extent) what the nature of my experiences will be.

I’m not making the case for this to be the correct or the only interpretation of that song, but it is my interpretation. I think it’s a phenomenal work, and even though the rest of Egyptology might fall short of World Party’s previous oeuvre, “Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb” is one of their best songs ever, and well worth the album’s price on its own.

Album Assignments: London Calling

How to write about London Calling? It’s an enormous album, an enormous experience, really, one that feels different to me practically every time I listen. It would take a book to write comprehensively about this album, not a blog post. So I’m not going to even try to make some kind of definitive statement. Instead, I’ll just pluck a few of the threads that felt especially vivid to me during this week’s encounter with one of the all-time greatest double albums in rock.

The passion: With only one exception (the meandering “Jimmy Jazz”), every single song on this album has an incredible energy, a driving power which just charges me up. It makes me sit up straighter, head thrown back, fist clenched, muscles tight, arms akimbo, foot banging out the beat. It makes me want to dance, it makes me want to shout. There’s a lot that goes into this power. The rhythm section plays a big part – Paul Simonon’s bass and Topper Headon’s drums are always charging forward, just a tiny bit ahead of the beat, making you feel like the song is blasting headlong into the beyond. The vocals, too, are just so intense and deeply felt. Joe Strummer has the greatest yawp in every tune he sing-shouts, and Mick Jones brings this desperate quality to his leads — we really feel his abandonment in “Train In Vain”, his despair in “Lost In The Supermarket.” Those vocals work perfectly with the lyrics, which are often tremendously powerful poems in themselves, and get embodied with incredible emotion when married with those singers. All these factors come together in a song like “Death Or Glory”, probably my favorite from this time around. Fantastic riff, electrifying chord progression, propulsive beat, excellent singing, and just mind-blowing lyrics. I know I’m spending superlatives like a hyperbole millionaire, but man, it’s just an amazing song on an album that absolutely fucking ROCKS.

The humor: Leavening that passion, though, is the fact that The Clash very frequently has a sense of humor about itself, and about its subjects. Even amidst the intensity of “Death Or Glory”, there’s a lyric like “But I believe in this and it’s been tested by research / He who fucks nuns will later join the church.” I love the irreverent way that image gets across the song’s message of everybody’s eventual capitulation. Then there’s “Koka Kola,” which smirkingly declares, “I get good advice from the advertising world,” for example, “Your snakeskin suit and your alligator boot / You won’t need a laundrette, you can take it to the vet!” We get the audacious rhyming of “reckless”, “feckless”, “speckless”, and “breakfast” in “Rudie Can’t Fail,” not to mention that the breakfast consists of beer. Finally, probably the funniest song is “Revolution Rock,” in which Strummer declares “I’m so pilled up that I rattle,” remarks “There’s that old cheese grater, rubbing me down” over the scraping sound of (something like) a cabasa, and extols the availability of “El Clash Combo”, paid fifteen dollars a day for “weddings, parties, anything / and bongo jazz a speciality.”

Album cover for London Calling

The rebellion: As great as they are when they’re funny, I love The Clash best when they’re fierce, and god damn do they get fierce on this album. For as funny as “Koka Kola” is, its barbed heart is a sharp satire of reckless capitalism, with reptilian ad executives stalking the corridors of power, buzzing on cocaine and dreaming up new ways to “add life where there isn’t any” by creating a sense of need where there wasn’t any. Amid the insouciance of “Rudie Can’t Fail” is the line “I went to the market to realize my soul,” a theme that gets fully developed in the devastating “Lost In The Supermarket,” a brilliant and biting rock commentary on consumer culture. In its story of a boy from the suburbs, ignored all his life, surrounded by chaos and desperately shopping for a personality, the song perfectly captures the whirling dance of postmodern alienation with ubiquitous pop culture and products. We create identities out of what we choose to buy, what we choose to listen to, what we choose to watch, what we choose to wear, and hope that those purchases are enough to constitute a connection with other human beings in this lonely and fragmented world. How much for that Clash t-shirt?

The fury reaches its peak on “Clampdown”, which absolutely eviscerates both the seduction and the destruction of human power structures. The pleasure afforded by having “someone to boss around / It makes you feel big now” makes itself manifest through institutionalized racism, violence, brainwashing, oppression. The singer would rather go to jail than join that structure, and stubbornly declares that “no man born with a living soul” could join it either. That clampdown might be a government, it might be a church, but more broadly it is a system, in which some class of people brutally rules another class of people with a spectrum of powers ranging from economic to political to social to cultural to violent suppression. In shining a light on that evil, The Clash urges us to let fury have the hour, so we can kick over that wall.

The broader palette: It’s an utterly punk rock attitude that’s on display in “Clampdown,” but the song’s music differs significantly from traditional punk rock. It is urgent, but not frenetic. It is angry, but it isn’t screaming or spitting. Compare it to something like “White Riot” or “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.” from the debut Clash album, and the difference is clear. That difference becomes even more stark throughout London Calling, as it skates into reggae, ska, rockabilly, R&B, and beyond. Clearly, at this point The Clash had granted themselves permission to journey far beyond a narrowly defined punk aesthetic, and the result is an embarrassment of musical riches. Hell, there’s even a frickin’ horn section all over this album, played with expert musicianship that’s light years away from the bang ‘n’ grind DIY 1977 sound. What a difference three years makes.

In subject matter, too, this album embraces topics like the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (“Spanish Bombs”), 50’s fast cars (“Brand New Cadillac”), a movie star’s career tailspin (“The Right Profile”), and police brutality in a depressed London district (“The Guns of Brixton”). There’s a noir portrait of a failed gambler shot by his creditors, elevated to epic, tragic grandeur by by echoing horns, piano, and poetry (“The Card Cheat”). We even get a contraception anthem with “Lover’s Rock” and a fantastic frustrated love song with “Train In Vain.” Essentially, The Clash decided that punk means freedom, not conformity, so why the hell should they have to conform to what the London punk scene said and how it sounded? The choice on London Calling to embrace a huge panorama of styles and subjects is just about the most punk rock choice the band could have made, and I love them for it.

The broader perspective: “The Right Profile” isn’t just daring subject matter for a punk band, it’s a clear-eyed look at what can happen at the end of the celebrity ride. Montgomery Clift was a huge movie star in the 1950s, a peer to Marlon Brando and James Dean. But after a few brilliant performances, he was badly injured in a car accident from which he never fully recovered, either physically or emotionally. The next 10 years traced a long, painful decline into alcohol and painkiller abuse, until he finally died from prolonged ill health. The Clash’s compassionate (albeit unsparing) portrait of this human wreck shows a point of view that looks beyond the peaks and well into the valleys of human lives. You grow up, and you calm down, and if you’re not careful, things can really go wrong. But at the same time, decline is an inevitable part of our lives, and one with which we must make our peace. That could be the decline of a neighborhood, as in “The Guns Of Brixton,” personal destruction as in “Hateful” and “The Card Cheat”, or even the end of the world as we know it, as in “London Calling.” I have to return to “Death Or Glory”, the perfect summation of this thesis. The most militant battle cry must eventually be softened, either by the crier’s fatigue or the crier’s end. That’s just the beat of time. 35 years later, that beat goes on, as it must, and while the members of The Clash have long since diminished or died, London Calling itself remains just as powerful as ever.

Album Assignments: Play Deep

It starts with a clean, bright guitar, playing a simple pattern. Then in come the drums. HUGE drums, drums that sound like mountains look. Then a rhythm guitar and a high, sweet wail, leading into thick vocal harmonies that take you for a ride through the rest of the song. Sometimes the bottom drops out, as tones get stripped away, only to have them come surging back stronger than before. Dynamics play a big role here — the reliable trick of jumping into a cue with both feet to give the tune a jolt. A single voice with low tones and a quiet guitar suddenly slams into power chords and those dense harmonies. Throw in a catchy chorus and you’ve got “Say It Isn’t So,” the lead track from the 1985 album Play Deep, by The Outfield.

This band had the perfect sound for their time and place, and it paid off in triple platinum sales. They even caught the mood of the times with their name and album title, fitting in perfectly with other all-American pastime themes like John Fogerty’s Centerfield and Huey Lewis’s Sports, not to mention movies like The Natural and Vision Quest. They also came along at the perfect time for me — I was 15 years old, and just beginning to really embrace music as a core piece of my identity. There was no denying the pleasure in these tracks, awesome for blasting in the car or buoying the mood at high school parties. Everybody liked this music (well, almost everybody), and when we listened to it together, I belonged to that. I bought the LP, taped it, and played them both constantly.

Album cover from Play Deep

Listening to it now, there’s still a huge amount of fun in that sugary pop/rock sound. But I can’t help notice that lyrically, this album is kind of a mess. Its most popular and iconic song, “Your Love”, depicts a despicable person without a trace of self-awareness or irony. See, Josie’s on a vacation, far away, and you’re a little bit younger than I normally like my girls, so I’m just gonna use your love tonight, if you know what I mean. Stay the night, but keep it undercover, and on your way out, please, would you close the door? Following immediately on the heels of “Say It Isn’t So,” in which the singer is freaking out about his girlfriend’s fidelity, bemoaning the fact that “when you’re out of my sight / I’m out of your mind,” it can’t help but feel more than a little hypocritical. Then comes “I Don’t Need Her,” in which the singer is so relieved to finally detach from his girlfriend emotionally, but still won’t be leaving her tonight. Kind of makes it hard to believe that he’s going to be sending his girl all the love in the world and then turning out the light to sleep all alone.

That’s another thing. Moral judgments aside, boy are there some trite rhymes in these songs. “All the love in the world / I’ll be sending you, girl.” “I cry just a little bit, die just a little bit.” “Since we first met, you were the only one / Sometimes I forget – I’m still the lonely one.” They also had the album formula down pat — a bright and peppy single, followed by their strongest track, then an anthem, and then a slow dance ballad with gooey lyrics for the teenage girls. I’ve written before about what I call “Raymond Chandler syndrome”, in which something original (like Raymond Chandler) sounds like a cliché, because you’re reading it after having heard a million and one pastiches of it. My experience with Play Deep was kind of the opposite — I heard it before I’d listened to very much music at all, so all its clichés sounded original to me.

But still, those drums! That voice! Those harmonies! I cannot help but sing along, joyfully, because this is one of those cases where the words don’t matter anywhere near as much as the sound, and the feeling it brings to me. No doubt that feeling is wrapped up with 15-year-old me, with his odd flat cap and his jacket full of Ghostbusters and SNL pins. For every time he thrilled, I thrill just a little bit more.

Album Assignments: My Aim Is True

Quoth Robby, last Monday:

Your new assignment for the week is…….
Elvis Costello’s brilliant album from 1977, “My Aim Is True.” I try not to editorialize when I introduce the albums so as not to bias anything, but I can’t help myself with this one. I love this album!

And he’s right, this is a brilliant album. For one thing, it’s just bursting with clever lyrics, starting from the very beginning: “Now that your picture’s in the paper being rhythmically admired…” has to be the best masturbation euphemism in rock. (A more crowded field than you might think — just ask Peter Green or Pete Townshend or Cyndi Lauper.) There’s plenty more, too. How about “I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I’m still mystified / I can’t do it anymore and I’m not satisfied” from “Mystery Dance”, or for that matter the entire song’s frustrated evocation of teenage naievete about sex? From “Alison”, “I don’t know if you’ve been loving some body / I only know it isn’t mine” is totally unforgettable. And of course, “I used to be disgusted / but now I try to be amused” is one of the greatest and most quotable lyrics ever.

There’s a Costello-shaped hole in my musical knowledge, due to a quirk of my history. I had a pretty negative experience (in certain ways) my freshman year of college, including a dismal roommate situation with a guy who LOOOOVED Elvis Costello and Squeeze. So for years I unfairly associcated those two artists with misery and depression. Even now, they remain only greatest hits bands for me, and I’m very grateful to Robby for specifically prompting me to pay a little closer attention to this phenomenal debut. I was struck by how much it reminds me of one of my all-time favorite debuts, an album I’ve played hundreds of times: Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp!. Not only do these two albums have a point of view and musical attack in common, the artists are at least spiritual cousins, restless and prodigious composers who’ve had long careers of hopping from one style to another, mastering them all and frequently pairing them all with biting and/or poignant lyrics.

Jackson and Costello were labeled “angry young men”, to their mutual disgust, but there’s something to the label, at least for these early albums. So what is Costello angry about? Well, women, for one thing. In song after song, he spits venomous words about some girl or another. In “No Dancing”, “she has made a fool of him / like girls have done so many nights before / time and time again.” In “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”, he says “I’m so happy I could die,” to which she replies, “Drop dead.” In “Miracle Man”, he sneers, “Everybody loves you so much girl / I just don’t know how you stand the strain.” His anger is most obvious, ironically, on the song “I’m Not Angry.” This is a classic emotion-denial song, right in line with 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and John Waite’s “Missing You” — the word “angry”, in a sinister whisper close to the mic, makes it obvious just how angry he really is, despite all protestations to the contrary.

Album cover of "My Aim Is True"

In fact, denying what he really feels (while at the same time completely revealing it) is the primary hallmark of this album. He seems to be angry at women, but look a little closer and it becomes pretty clear that what’s at stake here is injured male pride, vulnerable and badly hidden. Being made a fool of, being rejected, being a loser among competing suitors — every tenderhearted boy’s fear is right here, along with their blustering defenses. If you are or have ever been a boy who struggles with your own ego, emotions, and desires, this is the album for you, because it understands not only the pain, but how you cover it up. Costello has a tough-guy front going on in his punky singing style, and in his claims to be waiting for the end of the world. Everything means less than zero, he tells us, but the evidence is everywhere that everything means quite a bit more to him. He shows us noir femmes fatales in “Watching The Detectives”, their icy indifference highlighted in a shot-by-shot description of a tragic ending for some poor doomed sucker in love: “She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.” Those detectives, he says, can’t be wounded because they’ve got no hearts, but he knows the truth: they, and he, and everybody this album speaks to, are nothing but heart underneath.

It’s all there in “Sneaky Feelings”, where he nobly suppresses his desires for fear of “breakin’ up somebody else’s home.” It comes out more poetically in the album’s masterpiece, “Alison.” “I’m not gonna get too sentimental,” he claims, but moments later is achingly declaring, “I know this world is killing you.” She has a husband, but he sees her suffer, and can’t stand it. Calling up echoes of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”, he wishes that somebody would “put out the big light / cause I can’t stand to see you this way.”

What he really wants her to know, though, what he says over and over so much that it sums up the whole album is: my aim is true. What does that mean? It’s an emotional authenticity, surely: “I speak the truth.” But look at all the cover-ups, all the misdirections, all the denials. I think Costello shows us an irony within that earnest declaration. “My aim is true,” claims the narrator of “Alison”, even as he contradicts himself, even has he teeters on the precipice of letting all those sneaky feelings show. “My aim is true” might mean, “I’m better for you than anyone else”, but that’s just male pride again, lining up once more to get shot down. I think what it really means, at bottom, is something pretty simple: my emotions are intense, I crave connection, I’m vulnerable, and I’m scared. In other words, the human condition in general, and the teens/twenties sensitive male condition in particular. Usually the best we can do is try to be amused.

Album Assignments: The Art Of McCartney [Disc 2]

Disc 2 of The Art Of McCartney, like Disc 1, is kind of a mixed bag. Last time the buckets were a little more thematic, but this time I am straight-up grading them. What I noticed this time around is that McCartney’s output has a wide range of quality, and some songs give the artist a lot more to live up to than others. I’m not assigning scores or anything, but “degree of difficulty” definitely played into my evaluations — if you start with a bad song and end up pretty good, it’s extra impressive, and if you start with a great song and sound bad, it is terrible. Let’s go in descending order of quality:

Covers That Transcend The Original

  • Smokey Robinson – So Bad — How does it happen that people like Bob Dylan and Billy Joel sound kind of wrecked, but Smokey Robinson still sounds perfect? Whatever it is, I’m not complaining, because he turns this somewhat obscure track from the Pipes Of Peace album into the sweetest song. It’s the kind of song he was born to sing, and while Paul’s falsetto on the original is impressive, it’s not a patch on this.
  • The Airborne Toxic Event – No More Lonely Nights — I know nothing at all about The Airborne Toxic Event, besides that they have a memorable name, but I was quite impressed with their treatment of this song. The original isn’t great — a typical mid-80s McCartney schmaltz-fest — but TATE turns in a delicate acoustic treatment, stripping out the showmanship and replacing it with yearning.
  • Toots Hibbert with Sly & Robbie – Come And Get It — Nothing against Badfinger, but when I heard this reggae version of “Come And Get It”, I felt like I understood the song for the first time. Of course it’s a reggae song.
  • B.B. King – On The Way — B.B. King pulls off a rare and remarkable trick here, which is that he makes his version sound like it’s supposed to be the original. When I listen to this track, it makes McCartney’s weird, experimental approach on McCartney II sound like the avant-garde cover of a straight-ahead B.B. King song.

Covers That Live Up To The Original

  • Heart – Letting Go — Again, there’s very little difference musically between this version and the original. (I think producer Ralph Sall actually had McCartney’s touring band play a lot of the backing tracks.) But Ann and Nancy bring a vocal power that really suits this song, enlivening it enough to stand toe-to-toe with the Venus And Mars original.
  • Allen Touissant – Lady Madonna — Two things elevate this version: Touissant’s piano, and the way he sings a countermelody instead of the familiar Beatles’ tune.
  • Sammy Hagar – Birthday — C’mon, what’s not fun about Sammy Hagar singing “Birthday”? I love all his little rock-n-roll yelps. “Yeah! Come on! Woo! Uh-huh! Dig it!” It’s a party tune, and the Red Rocker party treatment is perfect for it.
  • Robert Smith – C Moon — I really, really dislike “C Moon.” Just by not saying, “Was that the intro? I should’ve been in! Uh-buh-buh-buhhhh…!”, Smith already scored big points with me. I still don’t like the song, but pull out the dopey approach, children’s chorus, and otherwise lethal levels of twee, and you end up with a much more tolerable song. I guess what I’m saying is it was a pretty damn low bar, and Smith jumped over it.
  • Peter, Bjorn, and John – Put It There — I think Flowers In The Dirt was one of Sir Paul’s best post-Beatles efforts, and I was glad to see it represented in this collection. This cover shows that PB&J get what was special about the original, and are able to update it without losing its spirit.

Inside cover of The Art Of McCartney -- fake signatures (i.e. a handwriting font) from the participating artists

Covers That Don’t Improve Or Detract From The Original

  • Billy Joel – Live And Let Die — He’s still doing the Billy Joel Armstrong thing here, but there are two saving graces. First, he does it less. Second, this song is a lot better suited to that full-throated gravelly thing, because it’s already kind of a kooky, over-the-top song to begin with, rather than “Maybe I’m Amazed”, which is meant to be tender. Thus, we end up with a perfectly serviceable cover of “Live And Let Die.”
  • Chrissie Hynde – Let It Be — I agonized over this one. On the one hand, I love “Let It Be” and I love Chrissie Hynde’s voice, so on paper this should be a slam dunk. But because I love the original “Let It Be” so much, it’s tough for any cover to measure up. Plus, Chrissie does this weird thing in her vocal, where she Buddy Holly hiccups over a number of words, putting a distinct break into words like “in”, “right”, and “be”. “Be” just sounds weird as a two-syllable word, and it’s distracting. Still, other than that, she sounds great, and she delivers the right level of emotion. So I ended up kind of in the middle – parts of it I love, and parts of it I wish she’d made a different choice.
  • Robin Zander And Rick Nielsen – Jet — A very literal cover. Fun, like the original. In fact, pretty much overall just like the original.
  • Perry Farrell – Got to Get You Into My Life — I am a stone-cold, confirmed, Jane’s Addiction HATER. So I approached this one with dread. Imagine my surprise to find that very little of anything I associate musically with Perry Farrell appears here at all. For other combinations of artist and song, that would be a disappointment, but here it is a huge relief. I enjoy this version a lot, probably because it sounds so much like the original.

Covers That Aren’t Quite Good

  • Joe Elliott – Hi Hi Hi — “Hi Hi Hi” is better than “C Moon” (they were a double-A-sided single in 1972), but that doesn’t make it good. Joe Elliott gives it a completely bland treatment which doesn’t help it out.
  • Owl City – Listen To What The Man Said — Did “Listen To What The Man Said” really need more wide-eyed enthusiasm?
  • Dion – Drive My Car — It’s neat that Dion is still singing and releasing new music. A 50’s-style treatment of “Drive My Car” could have been fun. This is not that. It’s a pretty straightforward cover, done in an idiosyncratic voice. Not bad, but not quite good either.
  • Alice Cooper – Eleanor Rigby — There’s nothing particularly Alice Cooper-ish about this cover of “Eleanor Rigby”, which I guess is good? But on the other hand, it feels like any reasonably competent singer could have made this version, which is to say, it’s not very interesting or exciting. Check out Joe Jackson’s version for a much cooler cover of this song.

Covers That Are Just Bad

  • Dr. John – Let ‘Em In — I have never understood the appeal of Dr. John. I mean, obviously the guy has had a long career. I just watched him in The Last Waltz, from 1979, and here he is on an album from 2014. But to me, he’s like a comedian who only knows one joke, and the joke is only mildly funny. He does everything the exact same way. So, it turns out it’s possible to make a somewhat irritating song like “Let ‘Em In” actually SUPER ANNOYING if you bring a mannered enough approach to it.
  • Steve Miller – Hey Jude — Oh, god. This is, by a pretty wide margin, the worst cover to appear on either CD. Remember how I said Steve Miller was perfectly cast to sing “Junior’s Farm”? Well, the same cannot be said for frickin’ “Hey Jude”. Steve Miller is great to have a goofy good time with, but he’s not your guy for an uplifting spiritual experience. They sound like a tired frat party band, as the evening is winding down and just a few stragglers are chatting on couches and hoping to get lucky. If you’ve ever hoped to hear a version of “Hey Jude” that feels both lazy and desperate, have I got a cover for you, and believe me, you can have it.

Album Assignments: Brothers

My assignment this week was the album Brothers, by The Black Keys. So: the first thing I notice about Brothers is the blaring, harsh production on the vocals and some instruments. I know next to nothing about audio engineering and mastering, but to me it sounds like they deliberately spiked the input levels on those things so that the waveforms got clipped. Either that or they had a dial labeled “BLARE” on the console, and they turned that one all the way up. Either way, I found it an offputting sound, especially at first. I kept feeling like I was on the edge of the stage, for a band whose speakers had just blown out, but who couldn’t afford to get new ones.

It has to be intentional. There’s no way a sound like that happens by accident, not for the length of an entire album. So I got to thinking, what effect are they after? The distorted, fuzzed-out vocals have a sinister, eerie feel, keeping us at arm’s length while the deformed guitars howl with intensity. And it turns out this casts a peculiar shadow on the songs. Because I wasn’t allowed to hear a naturalistic tone, I couldn’t conflate the song with the singer. The sound created a kind of split consciousness, with the character narrating some feeling or story, and the wall of distortion either calling that story into question or shrouding it in heavy atmosphere.

Cover of Brothers

That works for these songs, because these are songs of desperation and dread. Take a song like “The Go Getter” — the lyrics alone are a dark portrait of an L.A. loser, very reminiscent of something that might have appeared on David & David’s Boomtown. But where David & David would have sung it without a filter, The Black Keys make its voice and bass sound broken. Under that layer, its darkness deepens.

Then, on the other side, listen to “Everlasting Light.” Lyrically, it is a straightfoward declaration of devotion. But the distortion is so heavy, the falsetto driven to such a frantic extreme, that I can’t hear it as a “silly love song.” It has a quality of intense neediness instead, an almost stalker-ish sense of wrong.

With that frame in mind, and once I’d gotten past my crotchety irritation at being denied anything that sounded like a pure voice, I came to really enjoy this album. Some favorites:

  • “Next Girl” – This was probably my favorite track on the album. It has such a satisfying, rocky stomp, and I love the lyrics too. Though I couldn’t help being reminded of something Lindsey Buckingham once said about his song “Never Going Back Again”: “That’s a very naive song. Never going back again? Sure. [laughs]”. Oh, your next girl will be nothing at all like your ex-girl? You’ll never make those mistakes again? Sure.
  • “I’m Not The One” – A more direct, less merciful update of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”
  • “These Days” – One of the least distorted vocals on the album, which makes me think it’s one of the most sincere songs. I love the sense of yearning, and the lyric “These blood red eyes / Don’t see so good / But what’s worse is if they could.”
  • “Tighten Up” – I can see why this one was the single. Many of the best songs on this album have either a great riff or a great groove, and this song has both.
  • “Too Afraid To Love You” – That harpsichord! What an unexpected sound, but somehow it works perfectly in this fear-drenched song.

So thanks for this assignment, Robby! Getting to know this album made me a fan of it.

Album Assignments: The Art Of McCartney [Disc 1]

This time it was my turn to give Robby an assignment, and I chose the first CD of a Paul McCartney tribute album released late last year. (You can probably guess what his second assignment will be.) Like many tribute albums, it was a pretty mixed bag. As I listened, I found the songs fell into a few different buckets for me:

Legends Who Have Ruined Their Voices

  • Billy Joel – Maybe I’m Amazed – On Billy Joel’s first album, he sounded like he wanted so badly to be Paul McCartney, and sometimes he came pretty close. Thus, the idea of him singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” seemed perfect to me, and for the first two lines, it is. Then he dips down into this gravelly Louis Armstrong impression (Billy Joel Armstrong, perhaps?) and rides it out for the rest of the song. I would have loved to hear Cold Spring Harbor Billy Joel sing “Maybe I’m Amazed”, but this one? Less so. It still makes me happy, but I wish he hadn’t waited so long.
  • Bob Dylan – Things We Said Today – On the other hand, the cup of gravel Billy Joel drank doesn’t come close to comparing with the five-gallon vat Bob Dylan seems to have consumed. I’m a big Dylan fan, but I found this just painful to listen to.
  • Roger Daltrey – Helter Skelter – “I’ve got blisters on my larynx!” Who megafan Trrish tells me that Roger gets nodules on his vocal cords, and periodically he has to get surgery to have them removed. Time to head back to the doc, Roger.
  • (To a lesser extent) Brian Wilson – Wanderlust – Not only has Wilson lived some pretty hard years, he also made music in his youth that was just made of youth. Tough setup for aging. He doesn’t (and can’t) sound the way he once did, but his version of this obscure song is rather lovely.

Stars Who Still Sound Fine, But Make No Difference

  • Heart – Band On The Run – Ann and Nancy still sound great. This song, however, like a lot of the songs on this disc, is faithful to the point of karaoke. So while it’s fun to hear their voice in place of Paul and Linda’s, there’s not much more to it than that.
  • Paul Rodgers – Let Me Roll It – Same deal here. It’s a novelty to hear Rodgers on this vocal, but otherwise it is an extremely straight reading of the song.
  • Corinne Bailey Rae – Bluebird – Rae sounds lovely on this track, but again, there doesn’t seem to be much interpretation involved.
  • Def Leppard – Helen Wheels – Maybe there was a rule that if you were covering something from Band On The Run, no alterations were allowed? I’m a fan of early Def Leppard (they lost me permanently at “Let’s Get Rocked”), but here they sound like they could be any bar band.

Cover image for The Art Of McCartney

Artists Who Bring Something Special

  • Steve Miller – Junior’s Farm – Steve Miller is a perfect choice for “Junior’s Farm”, because “Junior’s Farm” might as well be a Steve Miller song already. The poker man, the Eskimo, the sea lion, “he bought a gee-gee” — they fit in perfectly with the pompatus of love, the midnight toker, the crate of papayas, and Billy Mack, who knows exactly what the facts is. It’s not that he sings it any differently, it’s just that he’s so well cast.
  • Kiss – Venus And Mars/Rock Show – Just having Kiss do this song takes it out of the bouncy realm of the original. It’s also a fun idea to have Simmons do the initial, slow part, and then have Stanley come in on the more rockin’ part. Despite the fact that the tempo, instrumentation, etc. are identical to the original, the silliness of Kiss feels qualitatively different from the silliness of McCartney on the silly parts, and they bring a lot more rock crunch to the rockin’ parts.
  • Jamie Cullum – Every Night – I had never heard of Cullum before, but I think I need to find out more. I was already a big fan of this song, but Cullum’s reading of it is terrific, especially the jazzy vocal improvisation at the end.

Poignant Songs About Change

  • Yusuf/Cat Stevens – The Long And Winding Road – McCartney wrote many of these songs in his twenties, and yet some of them have this remarkable melancholy quality, wistful about the passage of time over years and decades. That feeling gets amplified when older artists sing these songs, especially artists who have gone through a lot of changes themselves. Yusuf’s voice doesn’t sound identical to the Cat Stevens days, but it evokes that young man in the 70s who had such a long and winding road ahead of him. “You left me standing here, a long long time ago,” he sings, but really, it’s he who left us. I never thought I’d hear that sweet voice sing a secular song again. It’s good to have him back.
  • Willie Nelson – Yesterday – I’ve never been a Willie Nelson fan at all, but his worn, weathered voice brings a new tone to this song, a sense of regret that goes well beyond the day before. I also appreciated that he was willing to bring different instrumentation to the backing track — the harmonica is perfect.
  • Jeff Lynne – Junk – This is a tremendously underrated McCartney song to begin with, and Lynne does a masterful job at bringing out its quiet sense of loss.

Covers That Are Just Bad

  • Barry Gibb – When I’m 64 – Paul is cute and charming enough to pull off even a song this twee. Barry Gibb commands no such sway, at least not over me.
  • The Cure feat. James McCartney – Hello Goodbye – Boy, I like The Cure a lot, but I sure do not like this cover. I mean, I’m glad Robert Smith isn’t so down anymore, but his vocal tone is a terrible match for this song, he doesn’t sound all that committed to it, and I can’t hear James McCartney at all, not that I know it would help if I could. Also, changing the chant at the end to “aloha”… just stop. Sounds like Smith has gotten some great antidepressants on board and spent some time in Hawaii, but he’s not doing us any favors here.
  • Harry Connick, Jr. – My Love – Ugh, the worst of the worst. Connick sounds like he’s half-asleep, and the awake part isn’t helping either. His career is based on being a second-rate Sinatra in the first place, but here he sounds like Rick Moranis imitating Perry Como. On the other hand, he sure picked the right song.