Archive for February, 2015

Born in the USA


“I am a patriot, and I love my country, because my country is all I know.” – S. Van Zandt

In the history of rock and roll, there have been countless instances of misinterpreted song lyrics.  For example, the soaring chorus of Pearl Jam’s “Alive” has led many a casual fan to believe the song is an inspirational, life-afirming Gen X anthem…except that when one listens closely to the verses, one discovers the song is actually about dead biological fathers, incestuous mothers, and a confused teenager who isn’t even sure he wants to be “alive” (although Edward Louis Severson III has admitted that the meaning has changed over the years due to the fans’ interpretation).  At any rate, misinterpreting a song is a common occurrence.  However, I still find it absolutely freaking hilarious that several republican politicians, including El Presidente Ronnie Donnie himself, attempted to use “Born in the U.S.A.” as a campaign song.  Similarly to “Alive”, “Born in the U.S.A.” has the anthemic chorus, but if you listen closely to the verses, it is clearly not a glory, glory, stars and stripes forever sort of song.  Quite the opposite, the song’s protagonist is shipped overseas to fight a war he doesn’t understand and when he comes home he can’t find a job.  Hmm, sounds familiar.  At any rate, the song was intended to be ironic, so I guess I can see how that went right over Ronnie Donnie’s head…

Actually, the entire album is pretty depressing lyrically while being fairly uplifting musically.  It’s certainly quite the contrast.  Bruce does his common man thing, making incendiary social commentaries through the eyes several characters who work long hours for low wages, who try hard to keep their girlfriends and families, and who every so often need a break in the local watering hole.  It’s the everyday reality of small town life, or as my students would say, “the struggle is real.”  Yet, despite the depressing subject matter, the music is mostly upbeat rock and roll, and I have fond memories of this album from the 80s.  I was a pretty young kid back then, and I remember most of the singles from this record having memorable videos on MTV.  I mean, who knew it was actually an actress (Courtney Cox, no less) placed in the front row for Bruce to pull up on stage in the “Dancing in the Dark” video?  Or that the men sitting around the bar in the “Glory Days” video would so closely resemble the Friday night exploits of this particular working class hero?  And despite the over-use of synthesizers (anyone else think that “Born in the U.S.A.” riff would have sounded even better on guitar?), this album has a timelessness to it that I think comes from the fact that it is so unapologetically real.

I guess this album strikes a chord with me because I grew up in a small town.  I got out when I was 18, and honestly, I would not have the life I have today if I had stayed.  So let me get up on my soap box for a moment and talk about the plight of the small town in America…there just is no opportunity for jobs with decent wages/salaries unless you move to the city (maybe this is why the final track on this album, “My Hometown” resonates with me) .  There are no factories in my hometown.  There are some farms, but they mostly hire migrant workers to save money, and really grapes are the only crop that are in demand.  In fact, the wine industry is about the only thing keeping Northeast Ohio afloat.  So what’s left are jobs in chain restaurants and big box stores…except those corporations drain the money out of the community.  How?  By sending their profits far away to their corporate headquarters while returning only minimum-wage salaries to their employees and blackmailing local governments by threatening to leave unless they receive big tax abatements.  So what’s the solution?  Buy local.  Support mom and pop restaurants.  Shop at your local farmer’s markets.  Know where your money goes and keep it in your community. I bought this album locally for $3.99 at the Half Price Books on Lane Avenue (ok, I realize that HPB is a Texas chain, but the Columbus stores at least support the local schools and teachers).  Kk.  Ima get off my soap box now.  Thanks for listening.

Other lists: “Born in the U.S.A.” is #280 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  This album is #6 on the RS list of the 100 Best Albums of the Eighties.

Ch-ch-changes: This album dropped one spot from its original position of #85 due to the addition of CCR’s Chronicle and the rise of Radiohead’s Kid A combined with the drop of the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle.  Interestingly, the Beatles’ Let It Be was the original #86, but somehow it dropped all the way to #392 on the 2012 edition!

My favorite track: “My Hometown”

Honorable mention: “Glory Days”

Quote: “Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores, seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more.  They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks, foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.”



Lady Soul

So Aretha Franklin performed at the Ohio State Fair this past year.  I was there a couple days before hand (on the day the Beach Boys were performing), and I thought about coming back for the Aretha show.  And if I had been this far in the blog, I probably would have.  But tickets were $35, and in the aftermath of the Great Recession it’s now been at least at least five years since we had a new teaching contract.  Money’s tight, and I pretty much only go to see cheap local and indie shows these days.  And it’s a shame, cause I feel like I missed out on a little bit of history by not seeing her performance.  The local paper, the Columbus Disgrace, gave it a good review.  But I also feel like its a shame that a living legend like Aretha (and I guess the Beach Boys too, although I think it’s pretty much just the Mike Love Circus Sideshow these days) has been relegated to the state fair circuit.  It just seems like someone of her stature should be featured at a classier venue, like the Ohio or the Palace Theater.  I realize that the music business is brutal, but come on, show some respect to the woman whose monster hit was about respect.

Oh well.  So this is the second straight Aretha album on this list.  I picked it up brand new on Amazon for $1.87 (plus shipping and handling).  It was recorded a year after I Never Loved a Man, and it’s just a bit funkier and a little bit poppier, but it’s still R&B/soul at heart.  Again, she mostly sings other people’s songs, but again, it’s Aretha making the definitive version of most of these songs, such as Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”.  Like the last album, Aretha plays piano and contributes to the arrangements, but this time she has little help from Bobby Womack on guitar.  Eric Clapton even plays guitar on one track, the Aretha Franklin orginal “Good to Me As I Am to You”.  Overall, it’s a nice package, and her artistry is on full display once again.

Other lists: “Chain of Fools” is #252 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  See entry #84 for Aretha’s other RS accolades.

Ch-ch-changes: This album fell one spot from its original position of #84 due to the addition of CCR’s Chronicle, the rise of Radiohead’s Kid A, and the fall of the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle.

My favorite track: “Chain of Fools”

Honorable mention: “Niki Hoeky”

Quote: “If you had a dollar and I had a dime, I wonder, could I borrow yours as easy as you could mine?”

I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Loved You

“No one sings like you anymore”C. Cornell

The major turning point in the 2006 movie Dreamgirls is when Curtis (Jamie Foxx), acting as producer and manager, removes Effie (Jennifer Hudson) from lead vocals and replaces her with Deena (Beyonce Knowles).  The reason he gives is that the big soul sound is on its way out in favor of a silky smooth pop sound.  Now the movie is of course fiction, but when I look at the development of the soul/R&B/pop style over the years, it certainly seems to parallel reality.  Actually, its a timeless arguement…back in the classical days the merits of the big, bold soprano voice were always contrasted with the lighter, lyric soprano sound, with the latter typically being relegated to chamber music and art song while the former got to sing arias on stage with a full orchestra.  But in this modern era of radio-friendly unit-shifters, the trend seems to have reversed and the lighter, smoother voice seems to win out over the bigger, soulful voice…even when the pop star in question can’t really sing at all.

So that brings me to Aretha.  Widely regarded as the greatest female singer of the modern era, her reputation is well deserved.  She has a big, powerful voice, but she also has moments that are extremely delicate and soft.  Her phrasing is flawless, and she feels that artistic moment of when to push her voice to the breaking point.  Like any talented gospel/soul/R&B singer, she embellishes the vocal lines, but she never goes over the top on crazy melismatic runs.  Basically, she combines talent, technique, and artistry into a nearly perfect package…and sadly, instead of inspiring a generation of amazing singers, the record industry has gone in completely the other direction, parading breathy, out-of-tune voices in music video after music video and making millions from it.  I’m probably being hash, but the current state of R&B/pop music is pretty dismal (as is the current state of mainstream rock and roll).  Sure, there have been a few decent female singers over the years (Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera come to mind), but for every one of those there seem to be ten one-named Madonna/Brandy/Brittney/Ashanti/Gaga clones who rely on auto-tuners and slick producers.  And even the ones who really can sing, Mariah Carey for instance, bury their vocal melodies with insane melismas.  Tonight is the Super Bowl, and someone will probably butcher “The Star-Spangled Banner” with melismas…(actually, I just looked it up and it’s Idina Menzel singing it tonight…she’ll probably be decent…I met her once in New York, got a picture with her, she’s cool).

So back to Aretha.  This is the first of two consecutive Aretha Franklin albums.  I was tempted to write about them together, but I want this blog to have 500 entries when I’m done, so I’ll tackle them one at a time.  In addition to her singing talent, she plays piano on most of the songs on this album too.  And while she didn’t actually write most of the songs on this record, she did contribute to most of the arrangements.  And even though there are a lot of covers, she makes them her own.  Take “Respect” for instance…probably her most famous song, but it was written by Otis Redding.  But even though Otis was pretty famous in his own right, I guarantee most people associate “Respect” with Aretha because her’s is the definitive version.  She almost accomplishes the same feat with “A Change Is Gonna Come”, Sam Cooke’s most famous song.  I picked this up brand new for the bargain basement price of $2.40 (plus shipping and handling) along with Lady Soul (soon to be entry #85) on Amazon.  It’s a Rhino reissue, but the remastered sound is still pretty good.

Other lists: “Respect” is #5, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” is #189, and “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” is #476 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time.  Aretha is ranked #1 on the list of the 100 Greatest Singers and #9 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists.

Ch-ch-changes: This album dropped one spot from its original position of #83.  This was due to the addition of CCR’s Chronicle and the rise of Radiohead’s Kid A combined with the drop of the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle.

My favorite track: “A Change is Gonna Come”

Honorable mention: “Respect”

Quote: “It’s been too hard livin’, but I’m afraid to die; I might not be if I knew what was up there beyond the sky…”