THE BEST KIND OF COMPLICATED: James McMurtry’s latest, Complicated Game, a worthy listen

We grew up hard and our children don’t know what that means
We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens
Through a series of Chevy’s and Fords
And the occasional spin ’round the floor at the Copper Canteen

Nobody paints a lyrical picture of modern American life better than James McMurtry, who has the balls to open his first album in six years with the positively brilliant lyric “Honey, don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun; I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done.” This is the man who wrote the searingly honest “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” about the “WalMart”ification of American life, as well as the beautiful “Ruby and Carlos” off Just Us Kids, the perfect love song about the honest love most people experience rather than the Hallmark-style tripe we’re frequently force-fed.

According to a great interview in Rolling Stone Country, McMurty still takes his work seriously enough that he regrets how most fans misinterpreted his song “Cheney’s Toy”:

“People thought that I was saying that the soldiers were Cheney’s toys — I was saying Bush was Cheney’s toy. There were clues like Cheney saying, ‘You’re the man,’ to Bush to pump up his ego, so he’d go out and sell his politics, which I read in the New York Times. Not everybody reads the New York Times it turns out.”

Willing to admit that he erred in making such a polarizing song anchor the album as a single, he’s chosen to focus Complicated Game, his latest album, on songs tied to real people living real lives. And he’s taken on vocal coaching, apparently, which has given his road-weary vocals even more power.

I’m still digging into the album, but so far I hear no reason to suspect McMurtry’s voice is anywhere near wearing out, nor that his lyrics risk losing relevance. Check out “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” below — his latest single echoes back to the frantic vocal percussion of the fan-favorite “Chocktaw Bingo” in its lyrical Molotov cocktail of American experience.

Three decades into a career with no limits, McMurtry’s proving yet again that he’s the best kind of complicated. And Complicated Game is well worth making an appointment to play.

NEVER SAY NEVER: Ian McLagan (1945-2014)

I’ve been listening to an angel’s cry
I can dream if you hang around
I can do anything
With you by my side
Never loved anyone
I never loved anybody
But you baby
Never been lucky babe
I’ve never backed winners
But I’ll never say never again

Rock music lost a legend today, but the music won’t be going anywhere. I could listen to Ian McLagan play on a non-stop loop and never be disappointed. If I disappear for a few days it’ll be because I’m digging up any Faces clips I can find and watching them on repeat. Here’s a personal fave from his later years, off Letterman, who was clearly a huge fan. And Patty Griffin on harmonies … just wonderful.

FOR #MichaelBrown: “Standing In The Breach”

I know he wrote the song about the earthquake in Haiti, but tonight as I try to fathom the situation in Ferguson from a civil rights perspective, I have kept playing Jackson Browne’s stunningly evocative “Standing in the Breach.” Applying the songwriter’s words to the Brown family’s pleas for peace in spite of an agonizing situation I can only imagine, it is hard not to hear these words with renewed import:

And though the earth may tremble and the oceans pitch and rise
We will all assemble and we will lift our eyes
To the tasks that we know lie before us
And the power our prayers beseech
And cast our souls into the heavens, standing in the breach

You don’t know why it’s such a far cry
From the world this world could be
You don’t know why but you still try
For the world you wish to see
You don’t know how it’s going to happen now
After all that’s come undone
And you know the world you’re waiting for may not come
No it may not come
But you know the change the world needs now
Is there, in everyone

I have no stronger words.

 

 

ARMED THROUGH TRUTH: Calle 13’s “Multi-Viral” a call-to-arms in a disinformation age

Not every band has the balls of Puerto Rico’s Calle 13. Most bands don’t come close.

But it takes a special brand of righteous courage to get out there with a message this intense, packaging an ear-catching blend of incendiary rock with a message of moral certainty in an age where we often can’t trust anyone, particularly media gatekeepers. Yet they don’t stop there. The song is built around multiple languages, featuring Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Palestinian singer Kamilya Jubran, and even with barely a rudimentary understanding of the Spanish language (and no understanding of Palestinian) the underlying message comes through loud and clear.

From NPR:

Speaking to the group’s lead singer, Rene Perez Joglar, on the phone recently, he told me the goal of the song was to discuss how “media is controlling everything, even people’s minds, everything. Here in the U.S. it’s worse, it’s like a bubble … It’s important to have the right information, and you are not going to get that from one newspaper or one TV show. You have to look for that. In order to get the full picture, you have to read a lot and look for yourself. Otherwise you’ll find yourself in a war that you think is a good idea, but it’s not for a good reason.”

If you’re still hiding within that media-protected bubble prior to listening to “Multi-Viral,” prepare to have it burst spectacularly.

Calle 13 has proved through the last decade to be the most daring Puerto Rican band of its generation in any genre, and this single proves they’ve got no plans to give up the fight. From the assassination of Puerto Rican independence activist Filiberto Ojeda Rios by the FBI to their vitriol toward the Vatican, nothing’s off limits. Still, there’s always the understanding that there’s more to the band than simply pushing limits. As Alejandro A. Riera writes on his blog culturebodega:

You could tell there was something special about Calle 13. Here was a lyricist/vocalist (René Pérez Joglar “Residente”) who could actually rhyme (unlike so many reggaetón stars) and could use the tools of poetry to create vivid images in the listener’s imagination, and a musician (Eduardo Cabra “Visitante”) who is as much a musical omnivore as David Byrne.

Yes, the band has graduated well beyond the shock-rap which built their reputation early (see “Atrevete Te Te”) and picked up the mantle of righteous indignation laid down years ago by Zach de la Rocha. And those who appreciate protest music where the message and the music are equally worth hearing — and sharing — would be remiss if they ignore the music of Calle 13.

Indeed “Multi-Viral” deserves to become precisely that.

AMERICAN APPROPRIATORS: “Best Day Of My Life” shamelessly duplicates Imagine Dragons’ hook and no one cares

For the last two months I’ve been having a sense of musical deja vu, from the moment I first heard American Authors’ “Best Day Of My Life” and started wondering how it is that the hook which the song is built upon sounds so much like Imagine Dragons.

Not in the sense that it’s “hey, here’s the new Imagine Dragons!” or something of that ilk, something the band could hang its hat on as a badge of “honor.”

No, I’m hearing almost carbon copy similarities between the hook of Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” and the breakthrough of American Authors. The former has been a hit since mid-2012 and has spawned more than 55 million YouTube views, while also becoming the most sampled track for movie soundtracks and Hulu Plus advertisements. The latter came out in October and hasn’t built up nearly the same level of ubiquity, though it also seems set to live on in advertisements for years to come thanks to spots for Lowes and Hyundai.

 

 

“It’s Time” was produced by Alex da Kid and Brandon Darner, while I cannot find definitive production information for “Best Day Of My Life” for comparison. So I cannot be certain that this was a situation similar to when Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson were provided the same beat with minor edits by Ryan Tedder. Still,when so many specious arguments are made regarding potential plagiarism (“One Direction” sampling the opener to “Baba O’Riley” anyone?) it’s disheartening that two songs so similar can be released within the space of eighteen months and no one seems to be pointing out just how derivative this track by American Authors truly is.

If it’s not an outright ripoff, it at the very least signifies the band can’t separate its influences from its own sound. And it doesn’t bode well for the state of radio in 2014 if we’re willing to play along.

ALL YOU EVER DID WAS WRECK ME: Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” as an examination of teenage hypersexuality

So, in the wake of the VMAs and Miley Cyrus’s unfortunate Twitter-bait bomb which was Twerking It 2013, you think she’s undeserving of any pop respect. And on first glance the video for “Wrecking Ball” stands to reiterate that. But give it a second look / listen. What, I have to wonder, is wrong with a teen sensation growing up and taking creative and artistic risks, even if it means perhaps alienating her from today’s crop of tween pop followers? Bear in mind Cyrus came to instant fame years ago and has aged alongside her audience — is there not room for a young woman to make her own moves in a male-dominated industry?

Here Miley pushes to take control of her own body, claiming her sexuality as her own as a backdrop to a song which, lyrically, crushes her beneath the memories of a relationship left in ruin. And while you may object to the video’s seemingly casual nudity and the often awkward sexual juxtapositions as Miley sings of taking to love like a wrecking ball only to be wrecked by the very love she so desires, bear in mind — she doesn’t owe you anything. Beyond giving pop fans a hook-filled melody, which this song does repeatedly and with gusto, her job as an artist in this pop era is to produce hits. And “Wrecking Ball” is a hit to anyone with ears. Whether her personal life is a mess, or her decisions as a young woman violate your personal sense of “shame,” I say resoundingly“So what?” In that case she’s probably not singing this song in your direction anyway.

All that should and does matter is the song itself. Imagine getting this single sent to your inbox without a name attached, without the baggage of the video, and listen. Better yet, load the video and then turn your screen off, then press play.

Walk around the room and listen to that plaintive opening verse, a hook unto itself. Then the chorus hits, taking the song from plaintive pop to full-on anthem. “I came in like a wrecking ball / I never hit so hard in love / all I wanted was to break your walls / all you ever did was wre-eh-ehck me! You wre-eh-ehck me!” This is everything Lady Gaga still wishes she could put out there, every inch of what Katy Perry’s “Roar” can’t reach.

Love really is war, and when you lose you spend so much wasted time blaming yourself for the failings, to the point of self-destruction. That’s where the twisted sexual imagery of the video comes to bear. Yes it’s disjointed, creepy, desperate and disturbing, but it’s a view into what many of our young teenage women grow up thinking they have to do to win in love. Robin Thicke can put out a song like “Blurred Lines” which all but endorses the “I can treat you like an object because deep down you really like it” mentality, and yet we publicly scorn only the women who take part in the video, not the men who take credit for the song itself. Miley is a slut for twerking it onstage while Robin Thick plays the role of R&B referree.

And when our sisters, our daughters, fall in love and have their hearts broken, they’re left reeling, wondering what they didn’t do that could have kept the man in their life from wrecking them. Far from glorifying young women and open sexuality, as the Guardian obliquely opines, the video implies the opposite. The whole world tells me I should be this way, how could I be the only one who’s wrong?

I never meant to start a war
I just wanted you to let me in
And instead of using force
I guess I should have let you win

What message do we send when we trash the messenger — in this case an overly sexualized music video — when the message within is that in a world where everything’s hyper-sexualized, it’s okay coming from a man but when a woman claims even a touch of that sexual power, it’s off limits? I’m sure Miley Cyrus isn’t worried too deeply about this debate as she pushes “Wrecking Ball” toward what’s almost certain to be mega-hit status. But while she didn’t write the song, she uses the video to hint at the pain and hurt which lies below both the lyrics and the nudity in her video.

All of which warrants a second listen if you’ve chosen already to write the song off as meaningless … or worse, mere filth.

Bleed American: When Tragedy Strikes, Pop Matters

I remember September 11, 2001 starting out just like any other day. I’d overslept, just like on most days, so I’d taken a rushed shower and was trying to catch up on the news while toweling off, before I’d take my 1.5-mile trek across IU’s campus to class. I had CNN on mute, but recognized the World Trade Center with smoke coming from the tower. Mute was quickly removed as I saw footage of the second plane hitting, and I immediately had to call my mother to see if she was watching.

An hour later I sat in the front row of my massive Criminology lecture, crying openly along with my classmates as we watched developments on the classroom’s gigantic video screen. None of us knew how to process this, developments seeming so far away on a sunny September morning, yet still right there on top of us nonetheless. I recall stumbling through the rest of my classes that morning (including Calculus, wherein the heartless teacher made us continue working even as one girl nearly had a breakdown — her father was a NYC fireman) wondering just what our world was coming to.

I couldn’t continue to watch the news and become numb to developments. I saw that happening to friends of mine in the dorms, watching the news with their red eyes, jaws clenched, minds reeling. I had to get out and walk. I walked that afternoon to the local record store, where several like-minded students browsed the aisles with equally impenetrable stares. We had to find something we could listen to which would pull us out of the mess current events had sucked us into. I recall picking up a copy of Ben Folds’ Rocking The Suburbs, an album I’d already pilfered via Napster, as well as one by a band I’d never heard, Jimmy Eat World.

Bleed American, the title read.

Months later that album would simply be Jimmy Eat World, since the band feared people weren’t understanding that the title was not an attack on America but rather a claim of ownership. We, as Americans, needed to take on that identity and bleed American through and through, celebrating our lives in all their craziness and absurdity. “I’m not alone, ’cause the TV’s on …” the album opened, before encouraging us to clear our thoughts with Speyside, something I wished fervently at the moment that I could do. Forget what was happening now and just let music take over. Even for a few minutes.

I caught a lot of flack in the coming weeks from students who thought I wasn’t taking the events of September 11th seriously. I was among the vocal few on campus encouraging people to fight the terrorists by getting back into our routines, bleeding American in the best way we could at the time, by simply living our lives and telling the terrorists we wouldn’t be destroyed by them. I caught grief for protesting against the “banned songs” list Clear Channel put forward to protect us from music that wasn’t “patriotic” enough. Many felt I was wrong when I suggested turning off the news and living again.

But I stick by my belief that, when tragedy strikes, the music you love matters. The things in your life which give you hope matter more than watching tragedy unfold via 24/7 instant news. And when our soldiers went to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight for our country and to prevent, hopefully, another attack like this from ever happening, they too took solace in music and culture, the very American identity they’d sworn to protect.

So as you remember the fallen from September 11th, twelve short years ago, please also remember to celebrate the good things we have in life that those who died would surely die again for, those things we so very often take for granted.