Tag Archives: best songs

Lowell Fulson, “Tollin’ Bells”

Before Otis Redding, there was a brief period in the mid-1950s where blues guitarist Lowell Fulson experimented with a soulful singing style. The Tulsa, Okla.-born musician in the 1950s worked with Chess Records’ musician/songwriter Willie Dixon, who is to rock ‘n’ roll what Alfred Hitchcock is to suspense.

Dixon wrote or performed on nearly every classic by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf — songs that would later be refurbished by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and the Stones. Case in point is the lesser-known Dixon-penned tune, “Tollin’ Bells,” from 1956. It’s a dirgy, reckless tune, the protagonist having just learned that his baby is not coming back — just a slow piano rag, weeping horns and a big pile of woozy despair belching forth from Fulson’s lungs. The song would later be covered by Paul Butterfield and Robert Cray.

(A note about the video below. It says Willie Dixon, but it is in fact Lowell Fulson singing.)

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The Twilight Sad, “Nil (Liars remix)”

I’m not really a fan of remixes and/or extended mixes, just as I’m not generally a fan of sequels (unless you tell me Al Pacino is the villain in an upcoming Stan Lee joint). Remixes by nature are just filler to keep you on the dance floor longer, even if we’re talking about a goth remix — which should be an oxymoron — and said club-goer is just going to be holding up the walls all night in some dark corner.

I’m, of course, referring to the “goth” culture before it had a name and was then promptly sold to Disney, before people tweeted misery to other antisocial “nonconformists” who also dress up like Tim Burton characters. Does anybody remember The Cure’s abomination, “Mixed Up,” a collection of its hits in New and Improved 30 Percent Larger Fun Pack versions? On “Lullaby” alone, listeners are left stuck — like a spider’s meal — in a hepped-up groove somewhere near the beginning of the song for nearly eight torturous minutes. It’s embarrassing to say it now, but there was a time when Robert Smith could do no wrong, and I listened to “Mixed Up” as faithfully as all the rest of his output, even side project The Glove.

But I digress. My point here is that the Liars’ remix of The Twilight Sad’s “Nil,” (off the latter’s third full-length, “No One Can Ever Know”) is one of the best remixes I’ve heard. I’ll admit that I am perhaps just flogging a dead horse, as in the evolving climate, the line between remixes, sampling and covers is quite blurry. In any case, the only peers to this remix that spring to mind are a few entries off 2012’s “Dross Glop,” reinterpreting The Battles’ “Gloss Drop,” such as The Alchemist’s remix of “Futura.”

Ultimately, I think a good remix is able to give the original new appeal, which is what happened in the case of “Nil.” I’d sort of passed by The Twilight Sad’s catalog with barely a glance before hearing the gussied-up Liars mix. Now, I know better.


SEE ALSO: EARGGH! reviews Liars, “Loose Nuts on the Veladrome”

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Skinny Puppy, “God’s Gift (Maggot)”

MTV’s once golden empire has long been reduced to a mere polished yellowing turd. Which isn’t much in the way of a revelation, but it’s my clever way of introducing the review. It started off so promising back in 1981, when nobody really knew what they were doing, but more than made up for any misreads with unbridled enthusiasm. And thanks to a college circuit that was beginning to churn out the bucks, they had a lot of good music to share, which gave you insta-cred back in the dark pre-Napster era.

But all good things must come to an end, by which I mean that all creative output eventually gets filtered through The Corporation, often re-emerging as something mostly inhuman (Lady Gaga, Nicky Minaj, Ke$ha, Adam Lambert), little happening beneath the surface other than botox poisoning and cow-tissue injections — but also because corporations AREN’T REALLY PEOPLE.

But hell, the United States limped its way into the 1970s before the American Dream completely came out of the closet as fiction, propped up by little more than Richard Nixon and “Mr. Ed” reruns. Then Dickhead packed up his angoras and tape recorders, and headed back to Oz, leaving Gerald Ford to sign the ownership papers over to the People’s Republic of China.

I’ve always believed that — like a one-two punch — MTV’s collapse began with the realization in 1993 that “The Real World” would last longer than one season; the follow-through coming a year later with Kurt Cobain’s suicide, exposing the grunge gravy train for the dog and pony show that it was, egg-faced network big wigs from that point on creating their own reality to eliminate the element of chance.

Which is a long way to get to my Skinny Puppy review. But relevant, because it was thanks to the MTV program, “120 Minutes,” that I saw a video for Puppy’s song, “Stairs and Flowers,” in late 1986. The network had launched the 2-hour late-night weekly program in March of that year, featuring songs that were doing well on the college charts. I can also thank the show for introducing me to the likes of Husker Du, The Replacements and Smashing Pumpkins before they became household names.

I quickly went out and bought the album with “Stairs and Flowers,” Puppy’s wonderfully titled, “Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse.” Living in my very Christian home at the time, it was the sort of album I could only listen to with headphones on, which made it MUCH MORE INTENSE. So intense, in fact, that by the time the second song, “God’s Gift (Maggot),” rolled around, I got scared and had to turn it off. I didn’t get the courage to listen to the album again until two years later, after I’d tried LSD. At which time, it became essential listening, and I quickly bought up the rest of the band’s catalog.

“God’s Gift” has been a favorite since my early-’90s industrial rock conversion. It’s also about as sludgy and provocative as electronic music ever got before Ministry opened the floodgates with “The Land of Rape and Honey” in 1988. By the way, many ecologists and health specialists probably do consider maggots to be a gift from our creator, but the fact that Puppy’s song contains references to eye sockets makes it a safe bet the band mates just happened to be watching a lot of old Vincent Price movies.

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Shabazz Palaces, “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum”

I was instantly enamored with Shabazz Palaces’ full-length debut, “Black Up,” when it came out in the summer of 2011. Instant gratification of that sort usually means I’d have lost interest within a year’s time, but not in the case of this Seattle hip-hop band — featuring “Butterfly” from Digable Planets — just as my admiration has not eroded for like-minded artists Bonobo, Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon, Gonjasufi, Kid Koala and THEESatisfaction, the latter of which makes an appearance on “Black Up.”

All of these artists have one thing in common: an affinity for tactility in sound. By that I mean that the music itself acts as poetry; no lyrics are necessary to convey the message. As Ishmael (“Butterfly”) Butler invokes on “Are You … Can You … Were You? (Felt)”:

“I can’t explain it in words, I have to do it.”

The only thing that’s happened in the interim is that, whereas my early favorite was opening track, “Free Press and Curl,” I now have trouble picking an overarching representative. I can’t complain about the Funkadelic-meets-‘Tron’-by-way-of-Gil-Scott-Heron tune, “An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum” — and as it happens to be the only track I’ve “starred” on Spotify, it’ll have to do, as I have more drinking to do.

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St. Vincent, “Neutered Fruit”

It took me about a year to warm up to “Strange Mercy.” It’s frankly the most dissonant study of harmonics I’ve ever ingested that didn’t inevitably rise back up the pipe. Brian Wilson’s “Smile” comes close, but it’s as whimsical as it is unnerving. If it isn’t apparent from the cover art, something menacing is afoot on “Mercy.”

Annie Clark — St. Vincent when she dons her cape — lets it all hang out on her third album, creating a world that feels ephemeral and claustrophobic at the same time (which would be a strange kind of mercy). Clark has said she wrote the album while embarking on a “loneliness experiment,” which could be another way of saying she was depressed.

Choirs mingle with nerdcore and marching drums; woodwinds are given wedgies by gaggles of guitar fuzz. “Mercy” is definitely a concept “album,” not just a collection of songs. It’s nice to see that in the year 2011, during the Age of Instantaneity, the long-play format still holds meaning.

While “Cruel” has been deemed the nougat center of “Mercy,” it was “Neutered Fruit” that I first fell in love with, and it remains the track I look forward to hearing the most. Coincidentally, the song opens with a Beach Boys-esque homage — it could also nearly be confused as an outtake from Dirty Projectors’ 2010 masterpiece, “Bitte Orca” — and carries through with a chamber funk melody that both slaps and tickles one’s eardrums and -hairs. The song, exhibiting paranoiac traits, appears to be about God’s disappointment with a bunny rabbit, containing this poetic gem:

“I ate flowers in the backyard
A finely neutered fruit
Shot a hundred arrows at a knoll
A hundred sparrows blue.”

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The Yardbirds, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”

Half of the lineup that in two years’ time would be known as Led Zeppelin were on hand when The Yardbirds recorded “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” in 1966. It was Yardbirds’ first single to feature Jimmy Page, who began on bass but had just switched to lead guitar. John Paul Jones, filling in as a session man, took bass duties.

The pairing of Jeff Beck and Page as dueling guitar leads creates something almost impossible for that era, back before technology had even been envisioned to handle such a commotion. It’s safe to say that nothing quite like Page and Beck on “Happenings” had yet been laid down on wax. It foretold the likes of The Stooges, Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath — and informed noisier counterparts such as The Who and MC5 — at a time when most of the heavies were embarking on magic carpet rides.

The dream only lasted for three singles, as well as a spot playing a Who-like band in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film, “Blowup,” in which the Page/Beck Yardbirds performed “Stroll On,” an update to its earlier cover of jump-blues classic, “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” Beck was thrown out of the band just as the “Happenings” single was released, in October 1966, leaving Page to play both leads, a feat he was fully able to realize.

“A-Rollin'” also happens to be the first song Led Zeppelin played together when it formed in 1968. So everything does move in circles, just like Darby Crash used to say, which I’m pretty sure is why The Germs covered Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round.”

Another interesting tidbit, discovered years after the fact, is that Pink Floyd had wanted Beck to replace Syd Barrett after Mr. Madcap left the band in 1967, but according to Floyd drummer Nick Mason, “None of us had the nerve to ask him.” But those are stories for another time.

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Lene Lovich, “Lucky Number”

There are a number of songs now regarded as classics that began life as B-sides — a phenomenon laid to rest when vinyl fell out of favor with the charts. At first, this might seem surprising, but it makes some sense when you think about it.

Studio bosses tend not to be equipped with the same strain of gray matter as people who appreciate music. A head filled with dollar signs is not likely to cater to, say, the silken tones of a nimble bass line.┬áBut WHO CARES! I’M THE BOSS AND I’LL BE PICKING SIDE A, SO WHAT DO YOU KIDS HAVE THAT I CAN SNAP MY FINGERS TO?? What’s that, you have a song you’re really proud of? Oh, that’s cute. We’ll put it on the other side. (Nobody’ll even know it’s there!)

Which turned out not to be the case, as I’m generally referring to the 1960s and ’70s, back before Nintendo or Twitter, when there was literally nothing to do other than throw huge darts at one another in the backyard for hours at a time. So you know Junior was bound to discover that there was another side to that 45 — and then a) proceed to fall in love with his first band, or b) continue that self-absorbed, unchallenged slug trail toward executivedom.

Now on to our track for the day!!! Lene Lovich’s biggest hit and best song, “Lucky Number,” started out on the dark side of her first single, 1978’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a clunky, cheeky cover of the 1967 tune by Tommy James and the Shondells. The B-side was quickly rereleased and went to No. 3 in the U.K. It’s on “Number” that Lovich first showcases her startling vocal style, employing Betty Boop-like squeals and such, like a bubblier version of Nina Hagen. (Hagen, coincidentally was pals with Lovich and covered “Lucky Number” on her band’s second album, 1979’s “Unbehagen”).

Lovich and longtime cohort guitarist Les Chappell in the late ’70s were supping at the same trough as Talking Heads, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Devo and Siouxsie and the Banshees — and Lovich’s voice predated the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Toni “Hey Mickey” Basil. The good news that you might not know about is that Lovich did plenty of good work after this song, such as “Blue,” a bonus track (!) off 1979’s “Flex.”

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Nu Sensae, “Spit Gifting”

Photo by Daniel Ahrendt. Appropriated from http://www.ssgmusic.com.

There are definite shades of early Sonic Youth in the barrage whipped up by Nu Sensae on “Spit Gifting,” off its second album, 2012’s “Sundowning.” But the Vancouver band also harbors the ferocity of Nomeansno — also from British Columbia — backing Jello Biafra, or Babes in Toyland, known for singer Kat Bjelland’s signature unhinged taunts.

Singer/bassist Andrea Lukic (“I’m a nun / and I’m fun”) belts out her lines on “Spit” as if she’s forgotten she’s not in a thrash metal outfit, as drummer and other founding member Daniel Pitout lays down a hulking backbeat. At just more than 2 minutes, the ordeal is quickly over, but it’s sufficient time to leave welts. Given this description, you could say that Nu Sensae just sounds like the band Fucked Up (also from Canada), geared toward feminists. OK fine, be that way.

Regardless, Nu Sensae is obviously a band with a lot of energy and hunger — which is what it takes if you want to rise to the top, so that you can eventually launch product lines, get front-row seats to NBA games and travel the world as a humanitarian because you ran out of ideas. But that’s another story, for later. Seriously, this is a band to watch, currently in its prime.

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Lower Dens, “Holy Water”

Lower Dens harkens back to that breezy-but-a-bit-uneasy surf guitar sound whipped up by the likes of The Ventures and Dick Dale in the early 1960s — and more recently by space rockers Man or Astro-man? and the adorable Los Straitjackets, whom I refer to as Gwar for the Mai Tai set. Dens adds a dash of psychedelia and Slinty math rock to its wave sets, culminating in an unpredictable but glassy ride.

Especially on the 2010 debut, “Twin-Hand Movement,” by the Baltimore band — or, as Allmusic.com refers to Dens, “one of many side projects from singer/songwriter Jana Hunter.” And even more especially on the messily gleeful instrumental track, and my favorite, “Holy Water,” wherein Hunter whacks at her guitar like it’s a fire bell, forcing every last tortured breath out of it, as your ears and the rest of the band try to keep up.

For an idea of what “Holy Water” would sound like with vocals added and more breathing room, try “Hospice Gates,” also off “Twin-Hand.”

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Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, “Tupelo”

Nick Cave does a “Blue Steel” pose from “Zoolander”

I’ve never completely bought all the stuff people say about Bob Dylan, but I believe it about Nick Cave. The man is a lyrical maelstrom.

Sure, there’s that generation gap, as I’m much closer in age to Cave than Dylan, but there’s also the fact that the broody-browed Australian, himself no stranger to allusions, speaks to the common man, not just about the common man. But maybe it’s just that Cave barks out his lines like a ship’s master, leaving no room for argument, while Dylan kind of struggles to exhale his words, like there’s gristle mixed in with the meat.

I’m not really here to topple Zimmerman off his little pedestal. I bring up Dylan to elevate the talent of king Bad Seed, who still has a good 10 years to go before we find out whether he sells (re-sells?) his soul in a car commercial. Which I seriously doubt.

“Tupelo,” the opening track to The Bad Seeds’ second album, 1985’s “The Firstborn is Dead,” is a gritty, apocalyptic sermon served up tongue in cheek, but thoroughly deadpan. It’s an homage to the blues and to its holy host — Tupelo, Miss.-born Elvis Presley. It’s based on a real event, a tornado that Elvis survived as a tot in 1936, but took 216 other lives in Tupelo.

“Tupelo” is a tale of two Kings. The comparison of Elvis to Jesus (as well as “the Beast”) parodies the act of idolatry, be it via religion or celebrity worship. Cave skewers fame itself in the closing line: “You will reap just what you sow.” All of this nightmarish imagery — “they listen to the beating of their blood / The sandman’s mud!” — hurled by Cave at the microphone, as Mick Harvey sounds like he’s using flippers for drumsticks and Barry Adamson lays down a slick, darkwave bass groove.

The rest of the album’s killer, by the way, particularly the closing track, “Blind Lemon Jefferson,” in honor of the artist considered to be the father of Texas blues. “Firstborn” revels in the corpses of early bluesmen, just as it sneers at the cyborg dreamers with horse-show-hat-like hairstyles who were just then whoring it up on MTV.

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