Toilet Shuffle

Tonight as I knelt before the porcelain god and cleaned the toilet (and the rest of the bathroom, too) I experienced a particularly satisfying series of songs shuffling through my iPod. With my headphones on, my bottle of Fantastik Orange spray in my hand, and my feet tapping along, I heard these songs in this order:

I really like all of Aimee Mann’s work, but lately I’m really appreciating her initial band, ‘Til Tuesday. In fact, while using iTunes on the computer, they’re the band I see most often because that apostrophe in their name sets them up as the first band alphabetically, even before the next artist (also before the actual alphabet), 3rd Matinee. I loved this song when it was brand new, and I’ve always loved it. In fact, I arranged the song myself on acoustic guitar and played it a lot at my own coffeehouse shows in Oregon when I began my career in the early ‘90s. I saw Aimee play it in concert only once Park West in Chicago when she toured with her husband Michael Penn with their Acoustic Vaudeville show. Seeing the song performed live by its writer reminded me how strange and wonderful the song is, chordally, structurally, etc. It’s a shame Aimee is so sick of it, or embarrassed by it, or whatever, ‘cause it’s truly a classic.

“BALCONY” by DOLLY VARDEN (acoustic version from the Duets album)
This Chicago band became familiar to me because I was friends with their bass player Mike Bradburn. When I moved to Chicago in 1996 I got to know the whole group, and played many gigs and did many recordings with members of the band, and WOW, they never fail to awe me. This song is one of my all-time favorite Varden songs, and the mysterious lyrics leave me breathless every time...especially the line “right through that screen door / there was a concrete face / showing slides of the Grand Coulee Dam.” Oh, to have written that line, regardless of what the heck it means! Steve Dawson’s vocals, melody, and chords are enough to make me stop cleaning the toilet, and just sit there cross-legged on the bathroom floor in a pile of crumpled orange paper towels, eyes closed, my brain completely off in the song someplace.

A rare, almost lost Sam song, appearing only on her little known Zero Zero Zero album: a strange “Greatest Hits” type of CD, probably released to fill out her record contract. This one really is a sonic bridge between her more straight up pop/rock tunes of her major label era, and her more torch-song Nonesuch Records era. I got to hear and meet Sam last month in LA, and it was a thrill to spend a few minutes with her. I think she’s honestly a genius, and I’ve learned much about melody, chords, and arrangement from listing to her albums. The thing I’ve grabbed most from her, however, his her rhythm acoustic guitar playing. I remember seeing her in 1995 (or so) on the Martinis and Bikinis album tour, and watching her right hand strum her guitar: she only moved her wrist, her elbow was immobile. And she hit it hard and perfectly rocking. Up to this point I had strummed my instrument like Sammy from the BoDeans or something...a total bash from the shoulder on down...of course, with no groove, no control, no accuracy. Since then I’ve really worked on playing rhythm guitar (tracking the Sound Theology album all alone taught me a lot, too), and since then I’ve become a strummaster. Drummer Troy Alexander always mentions how easy it is to play drums in my band because he can lock in with my right hand strumming, and I take that compliment and owe it to Sam Phillips. It’s often those seemingly simple things that are the most difficult things to perfect.

It’s not often that Cockburn will play (much less record) a cover song, but here’s a great one. Written by underground songwriting legend Mark Heard, this lovely and deep song is perfect for Cockburn because it sounds exactly like a song he would’ve written himself. Heard, who died too young in the early ‘90s, toured with Sam Phillips (above), produced Vigilantes of Love, and lurked in the background of many of my favorite artists.

From Walter’s first solo album Largartija in the late ‘80s, as sort of a quick break from his work with The Silos. This is a cover tune (I don’t even know who wrote it), but Walter has championed this brilliant bit of proto-indie-rock for ages. When I used to see The Silos in Chicago ten years ago they were still playing it regularly (and adding other women’s names to the verses like “Penelope”). The song is kinda cute and funny, but it’s total coolness rises it high above novelty. Walter’s playing drums here and most other instruments, too, there are perfect female harmony vocals. This is a textbook case of “deceptively simple.” There are only two chords on the verses, but they’re played in a totally fresh way that you’ve never really heard before, and when the bridge comes along it sneaks in some very unusual moves that give a great little zap of delight to the listener. It’s really a masterpiece of garagey pop with a Lou Reed twist or something. Somewhere here in my basement I have a cassette containing a solo acoustic version of this song that I recorded for Dawn while I was a senior in high school....I should dig that out and give it a listen. The more I think about it, the more I realize what a big song this was in my own development as a songwriter.

When this one came up on shuffle I was tempted to skip over it, until I got to the strange and fresh chorus. Good for you, Jay. Jay Farrar is guilty of singing the same melodies and phrases over and over on every single song, but this one finally offers up a new idea on the chorus. Here’s another annoyance, though: I don’t think the word “vitamins” is anywhere in this song. The chorus goes something like “mad at the world,” and in my opinion, he should have just called it that. Recently I had a discussion with an excellent songwriter who has started titling his songs with words/phrases that don’t appear in the lyrics because he feels like “the title is a part of the artistic expression, too.” Well, that’s a very grand idea, I suppose, but practically speaking, when audience members want to buy that Jay Farrar song called “Mad at the World” but can’t find it on any CDs (cause the song has the title “Vitamins”), then all the artistic expression in the world adds up to not much.

Now here’s an example of brilliant song titling. The name of this song is pronounced “E Feels Good,” and it refers to the lead singer, whose name is “E.” The brilliant part is this: the song title is “Dog’s Life” spelled backwards, and “Dog’s Life” is the name of a different Eels song! I wonder if maybe “Efil’s God” contains a backwards sample from the “Dog’s Life” song. Hmm...whatever the case, it’s a great song from a brilliant album, Electro Shock Blues, one of the main inspirations for my own Sound Theology album.

This song never made the cut for a normal Brox album, so it appeared on their album of leftovers, called Leftovers. The CD put a bookend on the first and best chapter of the band’s history, when all the original members of the group were still present and perfect producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel was at the board. After this era the band members changed around, they got a new label and new producers, and since then I’ve had a tough time staying interested. Thankfully though, this tune has the old magic as well as an outro guitar solo bordering on ridiculous, but still totally smokin’ and wonderful and fun and twangariffic. I got to see them in concert a couple times in this incarnation and they rocked so hard it about knocked you out.

A B-Side from the “You Still Touch Me” single, this song dates back to Stingster’s mid-90s Mercury Falling album, which I love. The album however, was one of his biggest bombs (if not his biggest). Too many slow moody song were included on the why on earth did they leave this one off? This is a nice song, happy, up-tempo (although in 7/8 time, which gets a little tricky and tedious), and cheery. Some of his ‘90s era B-sides are way better than the album tunes. I can’t figure out why some songs make it onto albums and others don’t. Hopefully this Summer’s Police reunion will remind Sting that he can rock, and have fun, and write songs that energize and uplift the audience. Man, I’ve become a rabid pop apologist lately!

Along with the aforementioned Walter Salas-Humara of The Silos, Bob Walkenhorst of The Rainmakers is up there in my Top-2 most influential songwriter list. This song is from Bob’s only solo release from a few years ago, and it’s a light, basic, and fun tune that borrows liberally from CCR’s “Travelin’ Band,” which Bob is totally aware of and happily intentional about, I suspect. It’s an innocent song about seeing a local band perform (a topic Bob has touched on before in other songs), and it makes me think of my own youthful pilgrimages to Marquette, MI on Thursday nights to see local folk duo Jim & Ray sing classic rock tunes at Vango’s Pizza Place.

I owe much of my musical life to the 1985-1989 era of Mellencamp. Those records from those years were huge professors in my own school of rock, and the key to the whole experience was the drumming of long-time Mellencamp percussionist Kenny Aronoff. By the mid-90s Kenny was out of the Mellencamp band (along with my other instrumental inspiration, Lisa Germano), and the Mellencamp records lost some steam for me. When JM’s self-titled album on a new label came out in the late-90s I got the press kit on it (I was writing for a music paper in Chicago at the time), but it didn’t do much for me...not even the single called “Your Life Is Now.” BUT, somewhere on the back end of the album came a song that jumped out of the stereo at me, containing that zip and zing I loved about Mellencamp’s Golden Age. I checked the liner notes, and sure enough, “Miss Missy” was a song completed from recordings made from old tapes, featuring Kenny’s drumming and Lisa’s instrumentation, recorded years before! Proof to me that some artists are undeniably boosted by specific backing musicians. After listening to Mellencamp’s newest album Freedom’s Road from earlier this year (or was is last?) I can only say “How I wish Kenny and Lisa were back in the band!”

I saw Brion’s weekly show at Largo in LA a couple years ago, and this was the only song from his album that he performed that night. A very sophisticated and swingy crunchy-pop song, this one schools the listener on distorto-guitar solos and honkeytonk piano, complete with hysterically R-rated harmony vocals, and trademark Brion sonic flourishes. Delicious!

After all these songs my toilet and surrounding WC was sparkling, and my brain was happy. Thank the Lord for the iPod on shuffle, and for Fantastik Orange.


nate said…
really not mad at anyone just mad at the world
that's one of my all time favorite jay lines and for the longest time i had to skip song by song through the cd 'cause i couldn't remember the title.
RevDrum said…
that must be a big bathroom ... or else you got distracted by the good tunes ... or maybe I'm just a quick-cleaner due to my dislike for the chore.


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