Friday, August 28, 2009

The Pogues: Rum, Sodomy and The Lash

I used to work at a vintage guitar store, and I learned to be able to tell the difference between American made guitars and their Japanese and Chinese knock-offs. Sure the contours were the same, and the lacquer looked pretty similar, but there is something about a Gibson that sounds and feels very different from an Epiphone. The Pogues prove that music is the same way. They’re the kind of band whose roots show in everything they do. Not because they sing about their home, or because they use traditional Irish instrumentation, but because the emotion their music portrays sounds like the world they came out of.
In 1985 Ireland was almost twenty years deep into the Troubles. Constant protest and upheaval had made northern Ireland a battleground, and the whole country was suffering. The Pogues released Rum, Sodomy And the Lash amid this confusion and devastation, as an honest portrayal of how it felt to be in the Irish working class during all this. You can hear it in songs like “The Old Main Drag”, the story of a young man living on the street after moving to a cruel city, or it’s counterpart “Sally Maclennane”, which is about the people who stay at home. “Dirty Old Town” is about growing up and then dying in the same town, and the closeness between nostalgia and regret.
For the most part, the songs on Rum, Sodomy And The Lash can be divided into two categories, songs about home and songs about war. What could be more appropriate knowing Ireland’s political situation? Up-tempo romps like “Gentleman Soldier” or “Billy’s Bones” try to make horrible situations easier, by using humor, but by the last song all of the pleasantries are gone. “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, originally by Eric Bogle, starts with just a banjo and Shane McGowan’s despondent vocals. You begin to piece together the story of a young carefree man who’s drafted into the Australian army to fight in the Battle Of Gallipoli. After weeks in the trenches he’s hit by a Turkish shell and loses his legs. It’s not just a physical wound, however, his whole outlook is changed:

As our ship pulled into circular quay,
I looked at the place where my legs used to be,
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve and to mourn and to pity.

Time passes and the last image we have of him is as an old man, sitting on his porch watching the ANZAC parades:

I see the old men, all twisted and torn,
The forgotten heroes of a forgotten war,
And the young people ask me what are they marching for,
And I ask myself the same question

While Eric Bogle wrote the song to be about the veterans of the First World War, the Pogues have made it distinctly Irish. It’s impossible to hear this song without thinking of the Troubles, and the people who lived through them. So critics will say the lacquer is faded or the contours are off, but you can’t argue that this album isn’t authentic.

One Day As A Lion

Zack De la Rocha and Jon Theodore have made an album that’s so good it hurts. In fact let me rephrase that. They’ve made an album that’s good enough to hurt. You can feel the pain and anger in every note, every sound, every breath.

Sonically, One Day As A Lion is not a departure from Theodore or De La Rocha’s previous projects. Theodore’s drums could just as well fit into a later Mars Volta album and Zach De La Rocha sounds like he could still be singing for Rage Against the Machine. This is not a criticism, but rather a compliment. It’s an incredible feat that 8 years after Rage Against the Machine, Zack De La Rocha is still has the gift of being brutally truthful and genuinely angry. Theodore has managed to stay fresh conceptually and, if anything, has cultivated the driving energy of his earlier work. One factor that is brand new is De La Rocha’s synth playing. His long, sustained, distorted tones compliment his vocals perfectly, giving the record a foundation that makes Theodore’s syncopation and odd time signatures possible.

You’d think that One Day As A Lion would sound empty being only a two-piece and you’d be right. Not empty in the sense that it’s lacking anything, but empty in a way that feels desolate and bare. Like the veneer has been ripped off and all that’s left is the scarred and rotten wood underneath. The first three tracks of this EP sound like this. Like it’s all hopeless, they tell us the world is fucked and this is why. But In the last two tracks there’s a subtle change. They still don’t offer a path to reconciliation but they point at a method that could help. In “If You Fear Dying” Zack De La Rocha tells, or maybe threatens, us not to be afraid:

“Time is coming,
Rising like the dawn of a red sun,
If you fear dying then you’re already dead.”

This is a distinct departure, from the beginning of the record. He’s not letting us know what’s wrong he telling us we’ve got a part in it.

That’s why this album hurts. The first three tracks you simply agree with what De La Rocha is saying, basically that there are problems with our country and our system. However, by the fourth you understand that whatever you feel is wrong with this country isn’t just a condition, it’s a result of what we’re doing, and no one is innocent. So what can we do? Well, It’s written there in big block letters across the album cover, but in case you missed that it’s also one of the last lines on the record. “One Day, I say today, we live as a lion.”

Gallo Del Cielo

A couple years ago I saw Joe Ely play at a tiny little club called “The Turning Point” in the town I grew up in. The Turning Point is hardly even a venue, more like three or four closets held together with Scotch tape. I went out to see him mostly as a tribute, figuring he’d be like Bobby “Blue” Bland or Les Paul, great players and great presences, but shadows of what they used to be. He’s played literally thousands of shows since he started touring in 1963 and to much bigger crowds than he could expect (or fit) in my little town. But he came down the steps (no backstage), hopped up under the lights, and played a show that was truly impressive.

By the time he got to my little town Joe Ely he had been playing about a hundred shows a year for 30 years. He’d toured the entire continental United States and most of Europe, with everyone from John Prine to The Clash. He’d released 17 albums under his own name and many more with the other bands he’d been in. Even after all of this Ely has never had what you could call mainstream success. Indifferent record labels are mostly to blame for this, not releasing some records, and hardly promoting the majority of them. But despite, or maybe because of this, Ely’s performances have gotten better and better. Every second of the night is a full commitment, a truly heartfelt statement, whether he’s playing his own songs or one of the many covers he’s refined over the years.

The strongest of these covers is a song called “Gallo Del Cielo” originally written by Tom Russell, another unrecognized performer, in the same school as Ely. It’s is a song about a man named Carlos Saragosa who steals a rooster named Gallo del Cielo to bet money on him in cockfights. He wagers his sisters locket, the only thing he has of any value, trying desperately to muster up the money to buy back the land stolen from his father. Saragosa travels from town to town, bidding every penny he has again and again on the strength of the rooster. Eventually his luck runs out as the rooster’s beak breaks and Gallo Del Cielo falls in the dust, dead. Saragosa is crushed, and winds up a broken, defeated man.

It’s a tough song, a real heartbreaking story of faith meeting reality and after the show was over I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The song is meant to be about Saragosa, his struggle and his defeat, but when Ely sings it you can tell that he’s not relating the protagonist. How could he relate to someone who is crushed after only one defeat? No, Ely isn’t Saragosa. He’s the rooster, Gallo Del Cielo. You won’t see him giving up, he’ll fight until he no longer can, and whether it’s his heart that gives out or his fingers, it sure as hell won’t be his spirit.

Jerry Williams: Gone

It’s funny how much an album cover matters. In the world of the digital download, the cover of an old LP found at a junk store can make an enormous impact. I stumbled across a record like this a couple years ago, a gorgeous Pedro Bell style album cover with a giant purple hand on the front with a spider’s face replacing the middle finger and doodles of everything from helicopters to rhinoceroses on the back. I dug deep into my pockets and coughed up the 50 cents that the storeowner was asking and promptly dumped the LP in one of the many milk crates that litter my apartment.

Months later organizing my records (It’s not habit-forming, I promise, I can quit anytime I want.) I found that same record and put it on the platter for the same reason that I bought it. Bracing myself for disappointment, I watched robot arm of the needle hit the wax and was immediately captivated. Tighter than tight drums punch in a funky groove and a bass that could only be played by Ed Watkins sounds so purposeful it’s hard to listen to anything else. And those horns. Those fucking horns come in like Memphis in 1965. Meanwhile, the singer sounds like Stevie Wonder would have if the eighties had never hit, he’s got all that controlled openness and generosity of emotion that so many people try and fail to imitate.

Turns out the record is called Gone and it’s by a guy named Jerry Williams. A quick background search shows that Williams had been playing for a long time before Gone came out. At the tender age of sixteen He began his career by playing rhythm guitar for Little Richard, where the lead guitar player, one Jimmy James (who would soon change his last name to Hendrix) served as a mentor and advisor. After the authorities found out about his age Williams was forced to leave the Little Richard tour and found his own band, the Top Beats. When the Top Beats were less than successful and a solo record failed, Williams spent a few years working at a dairy farm. It would be almost half a decade before he tried again.

In 1979 he released Gone and it is aptly named. Serious disagreements with Warner Brothers immediately after its release meant that it would never be as widely accepted as Williams had hoped. Today Gone is virtually unknown. Even so, one glance at the credits and it’s obvious that the cuts were made in the promotion, not the production. The liner notes could serve as a who’s who of late seventies session musicians, not to mention the historic figures. It’s the only album that both of the great pioneers of electric bass, James Jamerson and Donald “Duck” Dunn, appear on together. But even with all of these big names, Gone still sounds like one voice. There’s a continuity that flows between all of the songs, even the ones not penned by Williams himself. It’s about as close to perfect as you can get and still have enough flaws to be human.

Records like this one are what make those milk crates in my apartment important. That urge to search junk stores can’t be just a twisted obsession if discoveries like Gone can come from it. And I can honestly say that just this once, I’m glad that I judged a book by its cover.

More Hope for Rock and Roll

About twice a year someone says that there’s a new band that’s gonna save Rock and Roll. Some trendsetter decides that leather jackets and guitars are cool again, and critics old and young praise them for “saving” Rock, like it’s some feeble old man on his deathbed. Well, The Gaslight Anthem has given us proof that Rock and Roll doesn’t need any saving, it’s alive and well and it’s living in central Jersey.
The Gaslight Anthem emerged out of the New Brunswick, New Jersey hardcore scene in 2005 with their first album Sink Or Swim, an unpolished highly energetic LP that laid the groundwork for their future material. In between the dates of their daunting tour schedule they wrote and recorded their second album, an EP called Senor and the Queen, which was considerably stronger and more focused than their first attempt. The ’59 Sound continues to build on the formula of their previous efforts, finally showing what the Gaslight Anthem is really capable of.
This album is not a technical masterpiece. Pat Metheny fans should probably stop reading this review right about now. No single musician stands out as a virtuoso, and very similar chord patterns are used in almost every song. What’s great about this album is that it sounds like a real band recorded it. Brain Fallon’s voice is comfortable and confident while still sounding urgent, and his band supports him without stepping on his toes. In every track you can hear endless hours of basement practices and months upon months of touring.
The ‘59 Sound is full of images. Each song paints a picture of the social and physical landscape that it came out of. Diners and Ferris Wheels populate a landscape entirely constructed of beaches and highways. The characters aren’t glamorous, but they’re immediately recognizable. Who doesn’t know someone Sandy and Johnny in “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”, a couple who grew up and lost their exuberance? Or Anna in “Here’s Looking At you, Kid” the girl who moved out of a small town and lost herself in the city? The characters and places in this album are what make it genuine, like it came to life by itself and this album is merely a record of it.
The masterpiece on this album is the very last song “The Backseat”, a gut-wrenching tribute to the pain of adolescence. In every line you can hear the frustration of someone who doesn’t know where he’s going, how he’s getting there, or why he’s even trying. It’s a battle cry for the confused and vulnerable. Anyone who has ever been a teenager knows what Fallon means when he sings, “In the back seat we just tried to find some room for our knees/In the backseat we just tried to find some room to breathe”.
So thanks a lot but Rock and Roll doesn’t need any help. You can keep your sunglasses and you can keep your prop guitars. You can keep your savior, as long as we’ve got The Gaslight Anthem.

There Ain't Much To Country Living: The Drive By Truckers And The Fine Print

A few years ago I heard about a band that was doing a kind of updated country-rock thing and went to seem them play Irving Plaza. They played for about an hour and half, dazzling what would otherwise have been a jaded New York crowd with their proud, aggressive songs and the brutal realism of their lyrics. After the last chord was struck and the world started spinning again I went over to their merch booth to pick up as many of their records as I could fit in my pockets.

The Drive-By Truckers have been touring and recording for about thirteen years. They’ve put out seven studio albums and a couple live sides, gently modifying their sound with each new release while staying true to the gritty subject matter they’ve chosen to depict. But no matter how much they tweak the arrangements they never give up the three guitars that decorate these records. The counter melodies these guitars contribute ebb and flow from left to right, supporting and complimenting the vocal part while never getting in its way. The rhythm section is equally restrained. They tend to choose just what’s right for the song whether they’re playing one of their famous “molasses in an igloo” dirges or an up tempo country punk rocker.

At the beginning of next month they release a collection of outtakes and previously unreleased material called The Fine Print. Most people tend to be skeptical of records like this because the songs on these musical grab bags weren’t released for a reason. However, the tracks that grace this compilation are the kind that most artists would build an album around. It’s hard to imagine why a tune like “When The Well Runs Dry” would ever hit the cutting room floor. This bleak portrayal of the people who we leave behind is exquisitely painful and is made even more so by the foundation laid by a churning, vibrato soaked organ. It’s a song that makes it mighty difficult to avoid hitting the repeat button.

This record also showcases Patterson Hood’s talent as an interpreter of other people’s material. It’s the first time they’ve released any covers on a full album and each one is better than the last. Like his take on Tom Petty’s “Rebels”. It’s full of that mix of tragic southern pride and bittersweet recklessness which has been such a landmark in Hood’s emotional range. Or there’s his interpretation of Warron Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long” which talks about the low points of country life. In this tune they make a bold statement by contradicting Lynyrd Skynyrd. After three verses of visceral descriptions of the shame and agony which is ever present in poor southern life Hood growls Zevon’s words as if they were written just for him:

There Ain’t much to country Livin’,
Sweat, Piss, Jizz, Blood,
Sweet Home Alabama play that dead man’s song,
Turn them speakers up full blast,
Play it all Night long.

Also present on the album is a version of “Like a Rolling Stone” and a heartbreaking Tom. T. Hall story-song about a Vietnam vet coming home in a wheelchair called “Mama Bake a Pie”. Hood not only makes each song his own, but molds them to fit into the vision DBT follows.

The most convincing reason as to why The Drive-By Truckers, and more specifically this record, are special; is their fearlessness towards paradox. Songs on this collection have a tendency to tell both sides of the story, often all but directly contradicting each other. Like on the third and fourth tracks where Mike Cooley talks about Wilson Dam flooding the holler where a man spent his life. The loss of his home and the way he grew accustomed to living eventually drives him to suicide. The very next track is Jason Isbell thanking the Tennessee Valley Authority (The organization which built the dam) for giving his family opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Both songwriters make each argument sound so convincing that it’s hard to know who to believe.

It’s not that they aren’t making a clear statement. Hood, Cooley, and Isbell are full of strong, often subversive, positions not just on the south but on life in general. It just so happens that these perspectives don’t always agree with each other. As the last chord rings and the world starts spinning again, you end up thinking about the problem in a way that makes a lot less sense, and so ultimately is a lot more realistic.

You Must Take The A Train

One of the best parts of the New York City public transit system is that stretch of the “A” train that passes between 125th street in Harlem and 59th street. When it’s running express it means 64 blocks of uninterrupted movement. Sure, it’s nice for napping or catching up on some reading, but what’s really great about this leg of the Blue Line is that it gives the subway performers a much longer span of time to perform. Acrobatic dance groups can stretch their routines another five minutes, street preachers can add a little extra depth to their sermons and the musicians are free to blow those extra 16 bars that the conductor and the sliding doors would otherwise have censored.

It’s probably unrealistic, but whenever I see a Tenor player riding the rails I think of King Curtis coming to New York in the early fifties and doing the same thing. Before he tore through that famous “Yakety Yak” solo, and much before “Soul Twist” bounced and prodded its way to the top of the R&B charts, I picture him as an eighteen year old kid from Mansfield, Texas with a beat up horn and a soulful, syncopated sound riding back and forth between Columbus Circle and 125th street. You can almost see him in a wide lapel with his meticulously maintained hair tightly slicked back. His church shoes, bright with the glare from the fluorescent subway lights, stand out against the dirty floor as he shares the sounds that would decorate records by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Buddy Holly. A train ride like that would be worth any MTA fare increase.

Unfortunately we can’t catch him entertaining strap-hangers anymore. All we have to go on are those divine records that he released. Classic instrumental cuts like his version of “Tennesse Waltz” or his take on “Ain’t That Good News” are enough to make even the most cynical wallflower tap their foot while slow dance tunes like “Bill Bailey” croon and plead with the utmost confidence. More than his chops or his tone, what’s really unique about King Curtis is his restraint. Like in “Tanya”, a mid-tempo feel-good groove originally penned by Joe Liggins. It’s just slow enough that most horn players wouldn’t be able to resist filling every phrase with their favorite fills, but Curtis lets the silence become a band member, comping him and providing a muted answer to his melodies.

Unlike most of the other great sax players of fifties and sixties Curtis was playing to the mainstream. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane were breaking down boundaries and creating new harmonic ideas in their own fields, but their sounds never had the layman appeal that seemed so natural to King Curtis. Maybe that’s why I don’t picture Coltrane on the A train, blowing “A Love Supreme” or Bird running up and down his Be Bop scales. Instead I see Curtis in his church shoes, playing for a car full of smiling faces

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Attack Attack: Music Theory 101

Maybe it's because the world is fucked up. Maybe life is more confusing now than it was fifty years ago. If you use music as a litmus test for the world around us this certainly seems to be the case. Don't even think about lyrics for a second, just listen to the notes. Tensions aren't always released, melodies only resolve part of the time, and one of the most important parts of our modern vocabulary is dissonance, when two notes don't match or harmonize in a conventional way.
You can hear it on Someday Came Suddenly, the most recent release from the Ohio-based Screamo band Attack Attack. A kick drum fires off like D-Day under a bed of growling synths. Detuned guitars don't so much punctuate as puncture the foundation laid by an impossibly low bass and the thrash of jagged cymbals. Way up in the front of the mix is a voice that alternates between sickly sweet hooks and distorted screeches.
But all of this is just timbre. When I say dissonance I mean that moment in their lead single "Stick Stickly" where the bottom drops out of the verse and the notes stop making sense. That riff in "Shred, White and Blue" that sounds like Mozart's nightmares. These choices aren't random. They're intentionally, purposefully discordant. It's a sonic landscape that is based in confusion, the kind of confusion that comes out a society as complicated and disordered as ours.
And the most prominent dissonance on this record isn't in the notes, it's in the lyrics. After a few listens it becomes apparent that the "you" being referred to isn't a girl, or even a human. In this case the "you" is God. And they're not talking about God as an adversary like most hardcore and punk songs. No, this is the same "you" that they talk about on Sundays and Easter, the same "you" that Mahalia Jackson was talking about.
There's nothing sordid or treacherous about this. The point of music is to communicate in as many different ways as possible. God is just another subject, another concept to discuss. The great thing about music is the breadth of ideas it covers, and God is certainly an important idea for many people. There's a long-standing tradition of gospel and vocal harmony groups singing about God and while it's not mainstream, it's a completely viable way to discuss religion.
It's another thing entirely to talk about God over heavy music. For most people this kind of presentation would appear to be a contradiction. Distortion pedals aren't traditionally seen in church, and you seldom hear someone screaming God's praises. God and aggressive music is the kind of pairing that people say doesn't work. It's kind of like sand in the baby powder, kind of like mixing oil and water. Kind of like two notes that don't match.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why Led Zeppelin Doesn't Fly

Sometimes rediscovering an old favorite can be a rewarding experience. All of the hidden corners that you explored in the past show themselves in a different light, and ideas that were confusing or unclear are plain as day. Unfortunately as I put a copy of Led Zeppelin I on my turntable and watched the track names dance in circles, I was horrified to discover that I felt nothing. 
So I went through the other albums that I hold up as classics. Appetite for Destruction is just as monstrously frightening, Belle is as tender and jubilant as the first time I heard it and The Battle Of Los Angeles still scares the piss out of me. But something was wrong with that Zeppelin record. 
It starts out alright. Two big snare hits that show how tight this band can be, even on the first track of their first record. A two beat overture to describe what's coming. This is a band out to prove something and they're all great players, obviously in touch with their instruments. John Paul Jones bobs and weaves like Sugar Ray Robinson, and the Gatling gun that Bonham has hooked up to his bass drum seems to be firing smoothly. Paige squeals and moans, moving from one idea to the next, and Plant is hitting notes that only dogs can hear. These kinds of sounds coming out of a quiet suburban Hi-Fi in 1969 must have scared a lot of people.
But 45 minutes, nine tracks, and nine million notes later, I don't feel any different than I did before those two big snare hits. Everyone is listening to themselves, making sure their runs are cool enough, that their fills show just how much time they've spent practicing. The problem with this kind of introspective attitude is that it leaves no room to listen to the other musicians, let alone the song itself. 
If this was the only problem with Led Zeppelin I it would still be a great record. It's understandable to want to prove yourself on your first time, and even though it detracts from the depth of the album it's hard to hold it against them. The real problem with this LP is the swagger. It's not that Jackie Wilson type of swagger that is more endearing than arrogant. It's that hair band swagger, that Tom Wolfe swagger, that 2004 Oval Office swagger. It's the kind of arrogance that lets you know they're trying to cover up something they're missing. Something that you can't hide with guitar solo's or drum fills. And 45 minutes, nine tracks and nine million notes later I figured out what it was. Underneath all of the talent, all of the chops, there's nothing human about this record.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cee-Lo Green, Selling Soul

Keeping musician's hours unfortunately means a lot of late-night TV. One of the most troubling aspects of this lifestyle is the infomercial. Those endless sales pitches voiced by mannequins with greased hair and polyester suits, triumphing the virtues of a product so poorly made that it will almost certainly break in the mail. They must work for some people, but for me the more they extol the virtues of their gadget the more obvious its flaws become. If it's so good, why do you have to prove it?
    Cee Lo Green is the P-funk of this generation. He has those grooves that sound like they're transmitting from a planet much funkier than ours, that verbose insight in his lyrics that George Clinton was so good at, and he follows the dictum of "Free your mind and your ass will follow" to the letter. While he's most often recognized as the vocal half of Gnarls Barkley, he got his start as a member of the Atlanta quartet Goodie MOB, a hugely influential (if somewhat unrecognized) southern rap group. After leaving them he struck out on a solo career with Arista Records, releasing two stellar solo albums: Cee-Lo Green & His Perfect Imperfections, and Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine.
    Released in 2004, The Soul Machine is almost unbearably funky. A bouncy rhythm section is augmented by huge, tight horn lines and deliciously discordant piano sounds. There is hardly time to listen to these niceties however, because Cee-Lo's voice sits on top of these arrangements like a king on his throne. He's incredibly flexible, one song he's Al Green, the next he's Ghostface Killa, then falling back to the tone of a modern Arthur Alexander. But he certainly doesn't need me to tell him this, he knows it, as he says himself:

How could possibly I possibly be inconspicuous,
When my flow is so fucking ridiculous?

His album is full of lyrical gems like this. His braggadocio is all-consuming on some songs, like "Childz Play" with Ludacris, where he says:
Yes I can sing, and I can rap
And I can act, and I can dance
And I can dress, sign of the best
So is my guest, man I'm impressed
Hurry hurry hurry hurry, come and see
This is just like child's play to me.

From anyone who couldn't back this up it would be come off as patronizing and arrogant, but Cee-Lo is so obviously all of these things that you find yourself agreeing with him.
    In the spoken word rap "Selling Soul", he talks about how no matter how noble your aspirations are, every artist is eventually doing just that, selling soul. Even someone as proud and strong as Cee-Lo says that "rapping sometimes feels like tapping to make a cracker happy". He's very much a salesman, he's offering himself on a little plastic disc. It's this kind of honesty that is the difference between a sales pitch and a boast. While my late night infomercials are bragging in order to sell something, what Cee-Lo is selling are the boasts themselves, because this braggadocio is who he really is.

36 Chambers and The River

It sounds like the beginning of a joke. "What do Bruce Springsteen and The Wu-Tang Clan have in common?" At first glance, ripped blue jeans don't look much like Du-Rags and it's certainly hard to confuse black and white, but when I hear The River next to 36 Chambers I can't help but think that they have more similarities than differences. 
Lets get real historical for a second. Springsteen has always been very straightforward about who influenced his music. 50's Rock and Roll, 60's Soul and Phil Spector Girl Groups all helped inform his sound, and The River is a great tribute to these styles. Listen to Sherry Darling and you'll hear a very deliberate nod to Gary U.S. Bonds and the style of music he created. 36 Chambers doesn't hide it's influences either. Listen to the samples that RZA used and you can hear what they were listening to, Syl Johnson on "Shame on a Nigga", Gladys Night on "Can It All Be So Simple", and the Charmels on "C.R.E.A.M.". Girl Groups and 60's Soul. These aren't just coincidences, Springsteen and RZA admire many of the same artists, and model their respective sounds after them. 
They also share the same audience. They both wrote music for the poor and disenfranchised in their neighborhood. Springsteen's songs were originally for the working class kids in southern New Jersey, a historically downtrodden part of America, and Wu Tang's songs were a shout-out to the poor ghetto kids in Staten Island, a historically downtrodden part of New York City. The uniforms are different and the era is different, but if you look closely the only thing that separates the two audiences is the color of their skin.
 Most importantly Springsteen and Wu-Tang are talking about the same thing. Both The River and 36 Chambers are records about the culture that surrounds the lower classes. Songs like the title track of The River or Wu Tang's "Can It Be All So Simple" capture the sadness in the world that these artists come from.  They're both frightening records, because they truthfully convey the desperation that comes with these lifestyles, but they're also joyous. Braggadocio is present in both albums, listen to Springsteen's "Out In The Street" next to "Ain't Nothin' Ta Fuck Wit". They're songs about being strong and proud from the perspective of a person from the streets. 
So if it's a joke it's got to have a punchline right? You have to know why the chicken crossed the road, or why the Rabbi and the Priest are in a bar together. I guess the payoff for this one, is: "Everything".  

Parliament's Punchline

Back in high school my English teacher told me about a guy named Aristotle, who divided literature into two categories, comedy and tragedy.  Maybe I misunderstood what he was talking about, because I have a very hard time finding the tipping point. Look at Comic Slop by Funkadelic, if you can classify that album you're not thinking hard enough. 
Funkadelic, the sister group of Parliament, was born from the backing band for George Clinton's Doo-Wop group, The Parliaments. Clinton had a knack for finding the most interesting and bizarre musicians, and a reputation for losing them as quickly as he found them. But in 1973, when Cosmic Slop was released, the line-up was impeccable. The chemistry between "Tiki" Fulwood's drums and "Boogie" Mosson's bass is undeniable, at their worst they're tighter than most other rhythm sections, and when they gel, they're a force to be reckoned with. The straight man of the group was Bernie Worrel, whose arrangements kept Funkadelic's otherworldly sounds grounded in reality. The combination makes it hard to decide whether to dance or genuflect.  
Cosmic Slop is ahead of it's time in the subject matter it covers. Since the advent of hip hop, visceral descriptions of ghetto living are commonplace, but in 1973 most songs used a much lighter touch when describing poverty. Funkadelic goes against this grain in the title track, where a mother asks god for forgiveness for having to prostitute herself to feed her children. It comes from the perspective of her son, who hears her "calling out to god" when she brings her johns home. It's the kind of song that really cuts deep, it doesn't offer any advice, it just makes it clear that there is a problem. What's confusing about the song is the funky, uptempo pace. It's talking about a tragic situation, but still compelling you to tap your foot and shake your ass. 
The same goes for "Trash A-Go-Go", another song about prostitution, this one from the perspective of a pimp, who is standing before his conscience anthropomorphized in the form of a judge and jury. Their verdict?

They say exploiting your lady,
Just for a payday is a sin, 
And you will pay,

But when getting over is high above your head,
And getting high can get you dead,
What are you supposed to do?

It's another song that doesn't have a solution. The situation is so fucked up, that it's hard to blame anyone for their trespasses. The beat this time is more militant, almost a death march, heavy eighth notes on the bass drum and an unrelenting snare make dancing feel less like a choice and more like the only option. 
It's desperation at its most desperate, but it's also a good time, an unavoidable groove. This is why I have a hard time finding the line that Aristotle drew. The sadness and despair is the problem and the way out is provided, in the grooves of the record. People can't suffer exclusively, the tragedy forces the comedy.  

The Lovin' Spoonful Growing Up

A reputation is a hard thing to break, ask anyone who went through middle school. Nicknames last forever and facts are't as important as impressions. In a lot of ways the world of Rock and Roll is a lot like middle school. Just ask the Lovin' Spoonful, still mislabeled as a pop sensation forty years after they proved they were more than just a pretty melody.

   Between 1965 and 1968 the Lovin' Spoonful released a barrage of unforgettable albums, the best of which being Everything Playing. It was the last album with John Sebastian as frontman and their first album with Jerry Yester, their new lead guitar player. Rock critics didn't like it. The trend at the time was big psychedelic constructions, music for acid trips, not three minute pop songs. It was pegged as obsolete and the reputation stuck.

   Unfortunately for the critics, here I sit 40 years later listening to a near perfect record. It's painfully honest, it's more precognitive than Nostradamus and it takes on fresh subject matter. Look at the challenge posed by "Try a Little Bit", a slow, dirty 6/8 gospel ballad, asking not for relentless struggle or total commitment, but instead just to even make an attempt. Or listen to "Money", an almost childishly simple interpretation of how finance works, that belittles the entire capitalist system, while using as typewriter as a percussion instrument.

    But there are two songs on Everything Playing that make the album really special, one about growing up and the other about growing old. "Younger Generation" is about maturing and trying to understand your kids. Sebastian writes from the perspective of a new dad about the lessons that elders try to teach their children, and while the song sympathizes with the father, it actually sides with the son, who is obviously more adjusted to a world that his father will never truly accept. The other song that stands out is "Old Folks" a bittersweet, understated description of an old man who lives entirely in the past, and the country that he used to love moving on without him.

When I started writing this article I didn't understand why Everything Playing was so harshly judged by the critics. A record this good should have competed with Sgt. Peppers, if not eclipsed it, but now it's obvious what the problem with this record was. Rock and Roll was still stuck in middle school, and the Lovin' Spoonful had grown up.     

The Open Door EP

I've got this room mate who spends about eight hours a day watching movies. Nothing counterculture or avant garde, just big budget mainstream comedies. The story arc is always the same: Character development, love interest, conflict, happy ending. But this is standard for hollywood, it would be unrealistic to expect anything else. What's really unsettling is that the jokes within this structure follow a few basic patterns, never deviating. It's like a formula where the same numbers are plugged in everytime.  
Death Cab for Cutie recently released a pop EP. The Open Door has everything that you need to be widely accepted, big hooks, big vocals, loud drums and catchy melodies. Ben Gibbard's voice sounds strong and confident, even at it's most vulnerable. The push and pull between a laid back drummer and insistent bass player makes for an intriguing band dynamic without distacting from the more poppy aspects of the songs. Chris Walla's guitar is the most avant garde contribution. It sounds dangerous, loose and frightening in a very powerful way. 
Death Cab for Cutie's newest EP has loads of mainstream appeal. They discuss familiar themes, songs about how hard it is to find and keep love, about the pitfalls and misunderstandings of commitment; certainly not new subject matter. Any of the topics that Gibbard writes and sings about can be heard on a plethora of previous recordings. In fact, turn on the radio and chances are you'll hear somebody talking about something pretty similar.
But like I said, it's only halfway mainstream. In my roomate's case the jokes all follow a formula and the punchlines are fairly predictable, so that you know just when to add your own laughtrack. Death Cab does not conform to this particular aspect of the mainstream. The punchlines are surprises and the jokes are unfamiliar. Like in "Little Bribes" where Gibbard describes a slot machine as "a robot amputee waving hello", or in "I Was Once a Loyal Lover", a self-effacing assault, where he describes himself as someone "Who thinks that that life with a nice girl/Is like waiting for a bus to work." Lines as descriptive and unanticipated as these are what seperates Death Cab's music from the people on the radio, and what distances it from the mainstream.
It might seem repetitive to write songs about topics that have been covered before. There are so many new ideas to discuss and so much new ground to cover. But as much as Death Cab's songs are about familiar topics, the way they communicate them is entirely unexpected. The funny thing about old ideas is that an unfamilar description can change them. A new perspective is just as good as a new thought.  

Jerry Lee's Eulogy

I guess I'm just a contrary motherfucker. This would explain why a two star review of a Jerry Lee Lewis record is an incentive to me to buy it. 
A decade after his big hits for Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis released an album called There Must Be More to Love Than This. He was freshly divorced from his cousin and had fallen out of favor with the mainstream, due to his aggressive self destructive nature. He was a punk musician before America knew what to do with one. 
in 1971 Lewis's new label Mercury had a fresh sound for him, with big background vocals, loud upright bass and tight arrangements. High production value and better recording techniques make this records feel more like Nashville than Memphis, but the Killer's voice reminds you that nothing's changed.
Maybe it is a two-star album, there are certainly a few clunkers on it. I think it's more likely however, that that the critic didn't listen through to the end. Hidden at the tail end of the record is a tune written by Jerry Chestnut called "Home Away From Home". It's a kind of monologue from the point of view of a unfaithful man talking to his mistress. He tells her he knows what he's doing is supposed to be wrong, but every instinct tells him that this affair is much more real than his wife at home. 
It's a painful song and Lewis doesn't let his natural showmanship interfere with its fragile nature. It's a lot like Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come", where Cooke avoids his old tricks and instead relies on the song and his voice. Jerry Lee doesn't do his signature vocal trills, his right hand hardly touches the piano, and there is no boast in his voice. He's being so honest that theres no room for swagger.
With "A Change Is Gonna Come" you can tell why the song is so important to the singer, the civil rights movement and hundreds of years of oppression are readily apparent in every note, but at first it seems strange that the Killer cares so much about "Home Away From Home". He's sung plenty of songs about infidelity before, why does should this one feel so special?
The easy answer is his recent divorce. After 13 years his third marriage had finally fallen apart, and you can hear some of that in his voice. But that doesn't feel likw the whole story, it doesn't feel like a song about loss. 
It feels like his eulogy.
By right I guess I've been doing everything wrong
And it may not be the proper thing to do
But I can't find this kind of peace of mind when I'm around her
I'm more at home away from home with you

It sounds a lot like the life Jerry Lee chose for himself; One that isn't supported by society, that's bound to make people angry. It's a description of how it feels to go against the grain, to live the life of a contrary motherfucker.