Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Music Month Kicks Off

Good people, it's time to come back from the beach and head back to school. It's time to set aside the smooth sounds of oceanside lite rock stations and cruise down the dial to something a little less Bobby McFerrin (not that there's anything wrong with it) and a little more rock and rollish.

It's time to shelve the Party Playa♫ (as seen at right) by Hasbro or Ronco that seemed like a terrific idea (weatherproof iPod player for the beach) but fell short of expectations as low fidelity and volumes precluded real enjoyment of the music.

It's time for Music Month, our annual September pilgrimage into the world of audio utopia. In addition to the various information and insight the writers at G:TB will be bringing you on topics as diverse as college football and . . . college basketball, we'll also shed a little light on the sounds that are flowing out of our subwoofers and through our noggins. There will be reviews and recommendations, silly games and puff pieces, Teejay (not Rob) filler, and maybe even a long-awaited conclusion to the Cauc Hop tournament. Hell, we might even post a review of Chinese Democracy.

Because nothing says "fresh, exciting and new" like a retread of a post written in 2007, that's what we're launching Music Month with today. At Rob's suggestion, we're re-printing (with permission) a piece from Misery Loves Company in February of that year. (Some of the individual references are therefore dated, but it shouldn't diminish the point too much.)

As baseball season rounds third and heads for home, here's a little tip of the cap to folks from George Martin to Billy Martin, from Branch Rickey to Ricky Rubin. Enjoy the month . . .


The thought that goes into the assembling of a baseball lineup is not unlike the compilation of music tracks into an album, and I refer to the entire gamut of “albums” – from calculated, professional releases on major labels to the personal touches of a burned disc for a fellow music appreciator. If you subscribe to a few time-worn tenets, you’ll be constructing playoff-contending recordings every time.

1. Lead-Off: In baseball, getting the lead-off man on base is an obviously enormous factor in offensive success. It’s no less a given that any LP, 8-track, cassette, CD, or playlist absolutely needs some fire from Track 1. The tone-setters, the top spot holders may not be the very best in the lineup, but they must present a positive portent of things to come. “Runnin’ with the Devil” comes to mind right off the bat. Speed and power? Even better. Think “Safe European Home” off The Clash’s second album or Pearl Jam’s “Go.” “Thunder Road,” “Begin the Begin,” “Peter Piper,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Lust for Life,” “Rain on the Scarecrow,” and especially “Blitzkrieg Bop” are vintage intros. Less mainstream first hitters include Spoon’s “Everything Hits at Once,” the DBT’s “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” and my all-time favorite: “Jagged,” by the Old 97’s.

The lead-off spot should certainly make something of a statement. Just ask Lenny Dykstra about leading off Game 3 of the Series. “Wild Flower” was stronger noise about The Cult’s new sound than calling the album Electric even was, and “Hells Bells” was a brilliant, eye-opening salve to fans lamenting Bon Scott’s loss. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? The Rickey Henderson of album openers. If you’re constructing your own record, you know what to do here.

2. The Two-Spot: Not quite the pressure-packed position that lead-off is, it’s nearly as integral a slot, one that can quickly undo a bit of good after a decent start if you’re not careful. (See GIDP-worthy tunes like the Chilis’ “Aeroplane,” Bruce’s “Soul Driver,” the Stones’ “Fight,” or Jimmy’s “Baby’s Gone Shoppin’” for Robby Alomar-ish examples of highly disappointed epiphanies that occur moments into Track 2, marking a decidedly downward turn for the whole lineup.) Conversely, a strong second hitter can duplicate or even outdo the spark of its predecessor. It can segue between the initial hit and the real meat of the order like a Mark Bellhorn or Peter Gabriel’s “No Self Control,” or it can be a focal point like Derek Jeter, “Paranoid Android,” “Ma & Pa,” “Alex Chilton,” or “Remedy.” The sublime “Shake Your Rump” is a de facto lead-off, kicking off Paul’s Boutique after the messin’-about opener; one of the great second tracks of all time. Whether you’re scripting a starting nine or a songlist, remember: this spot can be the calm before the storm, but you can’t hide a sub-par entity here. Continuity is the key. No letdowns.

And for some bizarre reason, Ween’s second song from their masterpiece Chocolate & Cheese, “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)” – a creepy, disturbingly mesmerizing tune from an otherwise enjoyable collection – reminds me a whole lot of Mickey Morandini.

3. The Third Hitter: In baseball and especially men’s league softball, the 3-spot in the lineup is considered the place for the best hitter on the team. From Ruth to Musial to Mays to Clemente to Yaz to Papi to Beltr — uh, Pujols. (See, Carlos, this is why you should want to bat third.) A combination of pure skill and big-time pop, it’s a great place to look to get a bead on how the whole collection performs. The 2003 Mets’ third hitters posted a combined OPS of .733, while the same year’s Braves’ 3-men put up a 1.010 mark. There you go.

When Edgardo Alfonzo was thrown into the third spot in 2000, the formerly prototypical 2-hitter put up serious 3-spot numbers (.324/.425/.542) and was no small factor in helping propel the Mets to the World Series. When injuries and slumps plagued him the following season (.243/.322/.403), he slid back to the second spot – leaving this critical space to be occupied by an assortment of otherwise suited hitters (Piazza, Ventura, even a Shinjo or Agbayani). The dynamic was lost, and the team lost a dozen more games in ’01.

Track 3 stand-outs represent some of the best songs on some of the best releases in rock & roll history: “So. Cent. Rain,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “With or Without You,” “Hey Joe,” “Breaking the Girl,” “Roxanne,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Alive,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Wave of Mutilation,” “Love Me Two Times,” “Sugar Magnolia” . . . and it goes on seemingly indefinitely. Records from the past decade or two don’t disappoint in their 3-slot either, with “A Shot in the Arm,” “Brick,” “Crash into Me,” “Fell On Black Days,” “Float On,” “Take Me Out,” “Wonderwall,” and “Last Goodbye” among the many examples. If you’re compiling your own music for a release, put the tune you’re most proud of in the 3-hole. If you’re making a mix, find the super-solid single that defines the collection best, your .300/30/120 guy, and chuck it in this spot.

4. Clean-Up: Cue the Wood-a-been: “Let me tell you what Melba Toast is packing right here.” Anybody who knows anything about baseball knows all about the clean-up hitter and what his job is. Pummel the horsehide, drive in runs. Dial 9. And so the fourth spots of box scores throughout baseball history are rife with big, burly beasts with names like Greenberg, Killebrew, Robinson, McCovey, Jackson, Murray, and, say, Carlos Delgado and Manny Ramirez. You may not know too much about Home Run Baker, but you don’t have to ask where his manager put him in the lineup.

It may not be as obvious that rock & roll records do much the same thing with their own clean-up spots. The 4-hole is very frequently the post for the big punch; if your album intends to kick any sort of ass, you’ll want a three-song build-up and a knockout punch on Track 4. It doesn’t always have to be a thunderous musical blitz of a song (though it often is), but it definitely needs an eyebrow-raising, palpable wallop of lyrical, musical or any kind of force. Observe: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Walk This Way,” “Iron Man,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Simple Man,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Southern Man,” “Pump It Up,” “Jump in the Fire,” “Peace Frog,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Zero,” “Little T&A,” “You Can’t Put Your Finger On It,” “Rock the Casbah.” We’re talkin’ some fuckin’ muscle.

Clean-up isn’t always going to compete with the 3-hole for absolute best, but it should deliver the goods. Louder, stronger, and bigger are recurrent descriptors. “Breed” isn’t the best song on Nevermind, quite obviously, but it may rock the hardest. “You Got Lucky” is a cooler tune, but Petty cranks up his gee-tar on “Change of Heart” in perfect Song 4 style. “Blister In the Sun” has more angst, but “Add It Up” is the frenzied, f-word rocker that will knock you for a loop more readily. Even albums featuring less of a hard edge kick it up for the clean-up track; “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Buddy Holly” are about as rowdy as geek rock gets, and Dave Matthews’ “Rhyme & Reason” is significantly tougher than much of his other work (part of which makes it one of my DMB favorites). The Pogues have done harder and louder songs than “Fairytale of New York,” but few anthems have as much grit and venom. If you have a rocker, and not everyone does (James Taylor has historically had no hits with the fourth track, and that’s no slag, but no coincidence), this is clearly where it goes.

5. The 5-Hole: After turning the corner at #4, there’s less structure from here on out, but there are still more guidelines to the five-hole than there are later in the order. A big RBI guy, some pop, the player you can’t quite justify putting at 3 or 4. That’s not to say the talent wanes considerably: Darryl Strawberry and Don Baylor both excelled in this spot in 1986; Carlton Fisk batted fifth more than any other place in the lineup; the Township’s greatest American hero manned the 5-post throughout this past season. Similarly, don’t let your recording suffer after knocking their socks off with 1-4. “Been Caught Stealing,” “The Weight,” “Higher Ground,” “Welcome to Paradise,” “Mr. Brownstone,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Clocks,” and “Born to Run” are greatest-hits quality tunes that someone decided to hold off on until the fifth place in the order.

6. Sixth and Beyond: Here’s where it starts to become far more of a grey area for baseball managers and record producers. Spots six through nine in the batting order are places for the less prolific batsmen, and there’s less strategy to go along with less skill. On the musical side of things, it gets even fuzzier; over the course of the last few decades, the evolution of musical media (LP’s to tapes to CD’s to mp3’s) meant a lifting of the size restrictions that have shaped album structures, so what was important in 1978 (putting “Can’t Stand Losing You” as the #6 track so it’d be the first song on Side B) is lost in the modern configuration. Now, in fact, you can have a 25-song CD that could mirror an entire roster (a rainy day post of the future?) and an even longer mp3 playlist. If you’re creating something on your own, this is where it starts to be less formulaic and more personal; it’s not to say that your own touches shouldn’t grace the early portion of the collection, but sticking to the general rules of thumb above may well take your creation it to another level of enjoyment. There’s one last rule, though . . .

7. Last in the Order: Every batting order could use a steady sort in the last spot (the last spot before the pitcher in the National League) to keep things rolling along: a Butch Hobson, a Scott Brosius, a Mark Lemke, and other people who’ve been cursed in this space. While it can be a place to hide defensive whizzes with weak bats (God knows guys like Pokey Reese and Rafael Santana weren’t in there for their plate work), a little something down there can mean a lot. The ’05 White Sox got significantly more production out of their #9 spot than they did out of their 7 and 8 hitters – you say bad managing, I say World Series title.

In music, however, it’s a little different – it’s more like a closer role. The last track on a record should be memorable, even if it’s in a weird way. Sgt. Pepper’s is considered by many a classic among classics, but if it ended with “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” instead of “A Day in the Life,” it wouldn’t do itself much justice, now would it? It can be a gentle fade-out after a riveting set (“Good Feeling” or “Here Comes a Regular”); a seven-minute intrigue (“Biko” or “Riders on the Storm”); a scratchy feast of guitar-driven psychedilia (“Are You Experienced?”); a rare cover (“Superman”); a hidden pop single after an hour of punk genius (“Train in Vain”); it an even be a ridiculously lyricked, volume-tinkered end to it all (“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”). As long as there’s some kind of hook, something to stand out as a final stamp on the album, you’re good to go.

Make it count, as folks did with cuts like “Purple Rain,” “The Ocean,” “American Girl,” “Who Are You,” “Fools Gold,” “Four Leaf Clover,” “40,” “Rock and Roll All Nite,” “Jungleland,” “Wendell Gee,” “Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Road to Nowhere,” “Tin Cup Chalice,” and plenty more. Elvis Costello used to really know how to end an album – consider that “Watching the Detectives,” “Radio, Radio,” and “Peace, Love & Understanding” closed his first three records. It’s just a little bit of marketing to let the last notes lingering in the listener’s head be among the most lasting.

So there you go. The last thing I’ll add is an example of what I feel is a perfectly cast album of the quasi-modern era in this vein. In my mind, Social Distortion’s self-titled major label debut incorporates all of the elements that I mentioned. Let’s take a gander.

Social Distortion: Social Distortion
1. So Far Away
2. Let It Be Me
3. Story of My Life
4. Sick Boys
5. Ring Of Fire
6. Ball and Chain
7. It Coulda Been Me
8. She's a Knockout
9. Place in My Heart
10. Drug Train

A killer opener – one of the sharpest in all of punk rock. Not a bit of letdown with Track 2. #3 brilliance; I think Rolling Stone called it the anti-“My Way” song. Something powerful in the clean-up hole – not quite the most furious of their tunes, but one of their all-timers . . . followed up by one of the hardest and greatest Johnny Cash covers ever done.

“Ball & Chain” at the six-spot might seem out of place, considering that it was the single/video, but I think it’s about right. It’s always solid, but maybe it’s lost some pop over the years for me (especially because I think it’s a slight re-working of their earlier tune “Prison Bound”). It’s certainly closer to Cliff Floyd than Ray Knight, to be sure. 7-9 aren’t filler, not at all, but they’re well-placed. The closer, “Drug Train,” is a driving, bluesy number with a different feel than the rest of the album, and a fine send-off after one of the most spectacular albums of . . . Rob’s and my Strat-o-matic, 40-ouncers, and rock & roll filled summer in Williamsburg, Virginia – if not all time.


rob said...

that's what i'm talking about, whit

TR said...

Unfortunately, track numbers will be (are already?) a thing of the past. 8-tracks, cassettes and (for the most part) albums were the real culprits in forcing us to stick to the order and quantity of songs the artist intended.

The flip side is that we are no longer hostages to Ice T's "Fried Chicken" track from his OG album, or to Tim Dog's "MC Ren Beat Down" track from his Penicillin to the Wax album.

Just a thought from a man who once bought the cassingle to Life is Highway.

zoltan said...

TR: You should always download the entire album.

Whit: Did you write that cold or did you have to look up the track numbers?

Whitney said...

Wow, cassingles... I remember them well. And TR, you took the bait. Elsewhere in the Music Month we'll have something that talks about the digital age and its impact on the musicians who actually believe themselves "artistes."

And Zoltan, it was about 50-50, maybe 60-40 knowing-looking.

Mark said...

You don't have to download the entire album if you have supported the artist by attending lives shows and buying merch. At least that's what I tell myself when I steal albums online.

Whitney said...

I tend to weigh how successful the artist is in determining whether to pay full price for the album in CD/iTunes form, getting it at a discounted rate from eMusic or somewhere else, or getting a free copy online or from friends.

The bands who are clearly struggling to make a living this way can get the full purchase, but I think the Boss -- and his record company -- has enough of my money to last me several lifetimes already.

Whitney said...

Social Distortion is back on tour this fall (in places outside of southern CA). They'll be in Norfolk on Sun Oct 18 and in Richmond on Tues Oct 20, and I plan to make one or both. They put on a great show; sometimes short on duration (90 mins) but never short on energy.

Their full tour schedule from the always helpful website Pollstar is here.

zoltan said...

You should sign up with tourfiler.com. I met the guy who runs the site. He's your typical fixed-gear bicycle-riding urban hipster programmer. But he's cool and the site is free.

Michael said...

my apologies for going off-topic, but I only know about two of those songs. anyway, I just want to say "Suck It" to all of the Fulham supporters out there after the Aston Villa beatdown over the weekend.

thanks for humoring me. back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Michael said...

Can we get a list of only music that has been made in the 21st century?

zoltan said...

I guarantee you know Runnin' With the Devil, Thunder Road, and Lust for Life. I guarantee you'd recognize Gimme Shelter and Peter Piper if you heard them. And those are just from track 1.

mayhugh said...

Whit, I have made 4 mix CD's in my lifetime, and Running with the Devil bats lead off on 2 of them. Any CD that is not exclusively some other genre that you intend to listen to in the car should start with that song.

Dave said...

the last time i made a mixed tape, it was for our road trip to daytona beach. i started it off with "thunder road." then, i must have gotten drunk and forgotten what song i put first, because song number two on the tape, to my chagrin, was "thunder road." not the most auspicious beginning to our trip . . .

Whitney said...

That was actually our fall break trip to Richmond/DC/Baltimore/NYC that you did that. And we got on Donahue, so it's odd that we didn't make you do that for every trip thereafter.

Geoff said...

Good lord you fucks are old. After Donahue did you go catch the Milton Berle Show?

Mark said...

Sally Jesse Raphael, actually.

Shlara said...

Did you guys see the piece about Jimmye Laycock in the WaPo today? I think the Tribe has a chance on beating UVA this weekend.

rob said...

i don't, but the piece was good.

Mark said...

She said lay cock....

Whitney said...

What? Donahue was still on the air when you were in college. Although it was all downhill after the apex of our appearance -- particularly the words of wisdom I offered.

Whitney said...

And your unhealthy obsession with Milton Berle and his appendage are going to get Mark talking again.

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