Thursday, November 26, 2009

Monthly Mailbag (Thanksgiving Edition)

The Monthly Mailbag is back!

This time, it's got a decidedly Thanksgiving-ish flavor. The readers have turkey on the brain, methinks. This Mailbag's a veritable Greatest Hits:
--Big Star
--Otis Redding
--Arbitrary List-Making

***And a List of Things I'm Thankful For (scroll to the bottom for that).

As always, these are actual emails from actual readers--if you'd like to be in a future Mailbag, drop me a line!

Here we go...

Listening to the song "Alex Chilton" by the Replacements raised in me two mailbag questions. I present each so that you may choose either or neither. 1. What is your take on the Replacements? I always read about them as being an Influential Band, but I did not try out their catalog until recently. It seems like they have a lot of connections to the music you write about (Big Star, 96X). 2. What are your top ten songs involving Memphis? As criteria, I would say songs involving Memphis can either be songs by artists associated with Memphis ("Blue Suede Shoes", "Green Onions"), songs which mention Memphis briefly in a verse ("Proud Mary"), or songs which mention Memphis in the chorus ("Sequestered in Memphis"). As a side note, the Rock n' Soul Museum claims that Memphis has been mentioned in song more times than any other city (link here).

Thanks for the writings,
Seth, Illinois

Great questions. I'll take them both!

The Replacements: I'm theoretically a fan, but I rarely listen to them.

I love your capitalization of "Influential Band," because there is a subset of artists generally mentioned as "Influential" first, as if to distinguish between importance-through-influence and importance-through-popularity. These are often the bands people mention in "overrated/underrated" discussions. There's usually a disparity between a band's perceived influence and their actual impact on the masses during their career arc. The Replacements, among others, occupy this weird chapter in the book of pop history.

For example, the Smiths were very popular in their time, but their legacy today is more one of "Influential Band" than "Pantheon Pop Band." People consider their influence on pop culture and the subsequent generation of artists bigger than their actual commercial success. In a way, the Ramones are the ultimate exemplars of this phenomenon: everyone recognizes their influence, everyone knows individual songs from their catalog, yet they never approximated "pop star" status during their career (no Billboard chart hits, etc.). It's often said of the Velvet Underground that every initial fan they had started a band, and those bands became famous. They typify this phenomenon, and are perennially mentioned as an underrated, yet massively Influential Band. And, of course, there's Big Star. The list goes on...

Which brings us to the Replacements, Paul Westerberg's seminal rock project before his successful solo career. The Replacements were critically acclaimed and popular in their time--seminal to the 80's "alt-rock" movement that brought us The Smiths, REM, and U2 (to a degree), among many others--but not as commercially successful. As you say, they're regarded now as an "Influential Band" more than "Lasting Pop Success." So, what's the influence?

Anyone seeking Big Star comparisons can find ample fodder: earnest lyricism, intensely vulnerable songwriting, and a penchant for the happy-sounding-sad-song device Big Star pioneered and perfected. But while Big Star was a 70's powerpop band, the Replacements took that influence in an 80's alt-rock direction: they don't sound like a punk band, but they often feel like one. They're more aggressive percussively, rawer vocally, less polished production, etc. That ethos especially carried their reputation as a live band: Replacements shows were frequently self-destructive performance art pieces, frequently an hour-long descent into drunken dissolution that the crowd participated in, and cheered on.

(Hence, another Memphis band, Lucero, earned Replacements comparisons early in their career for their live antics.)

It's easy to see why the Replacements were so influential on alt-rock bands in the 90's. Their combination of vulnerable lyricism with sonic aggression helped defined the music of GenX. You can hear their impact on everyone from the Gin Blossoms to Soul Asylum, good bands of the 90's and bad. Paul Westerberg's decidedly more pop-friendly solo material also impacted 90's songwriters like Matthew Sweet and Adam Duritz, to name a few.

While I don't love the Replacements entire catalog (I admire it, I just don't always enjoy listening to it), there are some standout songs I'd recommend to anyone wanting a sampler.

"Skyway" is a gentle and generous love letter, a simple, pretty melody borrowing wisely from Big Star. You can hear "Skyway" in everyone from REM to Son Volt.

My favorite Replacements song, however, is arguably their most popular: "Unsatisfied." It's a 4-minute nugget of pop-rock outrage; anyone who's ever felt misunderstood will automatically relate to Westerberg's bewildered outcry: "Look me in the eye and tell me that I'm satisfied." With every repeated refrain, it becomes more desperate, and the singer sounds more alone, and more in awe of his isolation--what should be evident to everyone is understood by no one. It's a wonderfully brave song, and one of their best melodies.

Because there is no way for me to ever sort through the 900+ songs with "Memphis" in the title or lyric, I'll list ten of my favorite songs by Memphis artists that I think characterize what I love about the city. For fun, though, here are a few personal favorites of the first category:

Gin Blossoms - "Memphis Time"
The Hold Steady - "Sequestered in Memphis" (although I'm ambivalent about that refrain)
Chuck Berry - "Back to Memphis"
Paul Simon - "Graceland"
Lyle Lovett - "I've Been to Memphis"
John Hiatt - "Memphis in the Meantime"
Cory Branan - "Prettiest Waitress in Memphis"

And my all-time favorite with Memphis in the title:
Bob Dylan - "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again"

But now, let's get down to business...

Here are eleven of my favorite songs by Memphis recording artists that characterize some aspect of the city. Some I just have a strong memory of, or visceral connection to; some lyrically crystallize a part of the town; some sonically sound like the city, or a piece of its past. They're all indispensable, and they're as different and varied and weird and powerful as the city that's inspired them. Here they are, in no particular order...

1) Elvis, "Jailhouse Rock"
It's easy to forget in 2009--because that blues riff is standard now--but it wasn't then. Today's pop cliches were actually invented once, and "Jailhouse Rock" is one of rock's most influential song structures. But beyond its rockabilly skeleton, and its lyrical kitsch, it's Young Elvis's vocal that remains essential. It's this vocal--the impossibly controlled scream, the raw tone, its wild fluctuations, its boundless energy--that inspired so many after it. You can hear it in John Lennon's "Twist and Shout" and Daltrey's "Won't Get Fooled Again." When Cory Branan wants to "take a good swing at him/and turn and scream into the wind" in "Greenstreet Lullabye," this is what that feeling literally sounds like. It seems incapable of holding back, yet somehow does--a vocal that somehow coasts on its breaking point. It typifies the infectious, manic energy of so many Delta-based singers of the last century--blues, rock, pop, and folk alike.

2) B.B. King, "Every Day I Have the Blues"
Prototypical Memphis-blues in the Beale Street tradition. One of a million songs I could've picked, but a personal favorite. Like so many great blues standards, it celebrates feeling low.

3) North Mississippi All-Stars, "Shake Em On Down"
From the (relatively) old school to the (relatively) new: NMAS' take on a classic. At once faithful to each song's lineage and refreshingly innovative, the All-Stars can sound like a purist blues outfit and a hip-hop-infused hybrid within minutes. A 21st Century musical mish-mash of the Delta's best influences--performed with exuberance, innovation, and jaw-dropping musicianship.

4) Sam & Dave, "Hold On! I'm Comin'"
There's nothing that sounds more like the city of Memphis than the soul classics of Stax. "Hold On! I'm Comin'" is my personal favorite--it's a blistering, gorgeous tornado.

5) Booker T & the MG's, "Green Onions"
No list of Memphis's finest would be complete without the greatest house band in history: Booker T & the MG's. If Elvis personifies excitement, and B.B. is the truth, and Sam & Dave are the heart and soul, then "Green Onions" is effortless, wordless Cool. Try to remember a #1 hit since that was entirely instrumental, and try to think of another slice of pop music that communicated more without saying a word.

6) Otis Redding, "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)"
My God, the parenthetical of the title. I mean, this song gets a mention for that parenthetical alone--it's a better line of poetry than anything Sufjan Stevens will ever write (please note: I've nothing against Sufjan Stevens...just making a point about what can, or should, be considered "deep" in pop music). Seriously, take out the capitalization and that's an e.e. cummings poem.

Anyway, of the million gifts Otis gave us, perhaps one of my favorites--and one of the most influential on Memphis artists since--is that a singer can be a bigger man by showing vulnerability. Which brings me to...

7) Lucero, "Sweet Little Thing"
I remember the first time I heard this song. Friends back home had told me that Memphis had their own nascent alt-country band, and their second album was a quiet tour de force. They passed along "Nights Like These" and "Sweet Little Thing," and I was sold within seconds. "Sweet Little Thing" was remarkable for its immediate placement in the alt-country canon, yet its refusal to wear its influences on its sleeve. Unlike Wilco, Son Volt, Whiskeytown, and Memphis-labelmates Pawtuckets, Lucero simultaneously sounded familiar, yet not explicitly derivative. Sonically, they were both more muscular than their peers, yet way, way sadder. All of these characteristics were on full display in "Sweet Little Thing," a perfect nugget of songwriting, made sadder by its brave face, and pushed over the top by Cory Branan's incomparable background vocals.

Seriously, Cory never sang a better three words in his life (which is saying something). They're dripping with angst, the perfect counterpoint to Nichols' false front of stoicism.

This song made me incredibly excited about the next generation of Memphis musicians, and was my introduction to two artists that would influence my own songwriting over the next several years.

8) Pawtuckets, "Broken Heart"
Cause no girls take longer to get over than the girls back home. Cause it's a perfect alt-country powerballad, in songwriting, in performance, and for its haunting lyricism: "This broken heart is fixed on you." When the singer needs a "familiar sound" to lift his spirits, the piano plays a Beale-street-infused barroom melody--a wonderful nod to Memphis's musical heritage, and an admission that no one can live in the past.

9) Three 6 Mafia, "Who Runnit"
Quintessential Memphis rap for the last decade: raw, squarely rhythmic, call-and-response vocals, combined with visceral, brassy, incredibly powerful production. In the mold of Stax soul classics and original rockabilly, it's impossible to hear Three 6's club anthems and not move. (And yes, this is the video where they hit the baby carriage with an Escalade.)

10) Big Star, "The Ballad of el Goodo"
I've written tomes about Big Star, and this song specifically. Nothing to more to add, except that it's the perfect pop anthem for the city: nothing this sad has ever sounded this happy. It goes down swinging heroically.

11) Cory Branan, "Greenstreet Lullabye"
I could've picked twenty different songs here--no hometown artist has meant more to me in my relationship with Memphis than Cory Branan. Like Edwin Arlington Robinson's Tarrytown, or Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, or even the unreal London of Dickens, much of Branan's lyrics occupy, explore, illustrate, and eventually define a specific place. Usually , that place is Memphis. Perhaps no other Branan song is more firmly entrenched in this world, or is more lyrically successful in characterizing it:

"The copperheads fill all the ditches
The kudzu chokes the trees
Mosquitos hum like window units
But you gotta move if you want a breeze"

It places our narrator squarely in the Memphis of his--and our--youth. There's a local music scene that's at once exciting and alienating. There's a collection of people and places that are familiar but oppressive. There's a "dark, sad song stuck in the throat of this town," but it's too painful to ever sing out loud. Then, balancing a hopeful refrain ("there's always tomorrow") with a crucial rejoinder ("there's always...this dark, sad song"), the song erupts into the very cacophony it describes: guitars shriek, percussion explodes, sounds scratch and scrape against each other as Branan finally gives a musical voice to the "dark, sad song" he lyrically defined. It's a wonderful, multi-dimensional moment, and it characterizes a wonderful, multi-dimensional city. Sometimes, the beauty's in the noise.

"Hey Chris!

What are you doing for Thanksgiving? Will you be in New York? And what are you thankful for?

Happy Thanksgiving,

Megan, Chicago"

Hey Megan! Thanks for writing, and Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

I've taken some heat lately for implying that Thanksgiving might be overrated. I actually really enjoy Thanksgiving, and still think it's overrated. November's Fan of the Month, for example, loves Thanksgiving, and thinks it's underrated by its proximity to Christmas. I think that Thanksgiving is overrated by its proximity to Christmas. Here's a basic schedule for a standard Thanksgiving (leaving out each family's individual traditions):

--Wake up
--Watch a parade on television, which is a fancy way of saying "a ton of middle school bands from Ohio"
--Fall asleep while watching the Detroit Lions lose
--Eat again
--Wake up the next day and realize it's Christmas season

Without the last bullet, this is a wildly anticlimactic holiday. If you put the same agenda in February, it would probably depress people. And sure, I really enjoy Thanksgiving, and get why other people do: it's time to spend with people you love, it's time off from work, it's fall's swan song, the food's good, there's football, and it's generally a snuggly time (thanks, Dr. Benway).

But Thanksgiving's best characteristic is that it ushers in the Holiday Season. You enjoy it because you know it's only the beginning of good, fun, holiday festivities. You know Starbucks is breaking out the red cups. You know all girls look good in sweaters. You know lights will go up. You know parties will abound. Merriment and frivolity will ensue. Peoples' hearts will double in size.

Thanksgiving is great because it's an awesome, yet distinct, prologue to the entire holiday season. Without the next chapter, though, that prologue is just a bunch of words.

All this to say...

I'm stoked about this year's Thanksgiving. I'm spending it in New York, which means it's my first away from home. As much as I'll miss my family and all the traditions and familiarity and shared experience that come with spending Thanksgiving at home, I'm excited to spend it with friends, and spend it in a new place. Thanksgiving is great, but it's not Christmas; it's meaningful, but it's not sacred. I'm coming home for Christmas, I'm always coming home for Christmas, and that's not open for discussion. With Thanksgiving, I'm open to change.

Some friends in Brooklyn host a Thanksgiving dinner every year, and invited me. So, that's how I'll spend Thursday. Eating an awesome meal hosted by three gracious hostesses and probably watching a ton of Christmas movies and doing none of the things I usually do, but kind of all the things I usually do.

I'm bringing the Fruit Roll-Ups.

And I'll take the last part last! As much as I've waxed poetic about what Thanksgiving means to me, I've overlooked its basic premise: it's a time to appreciate the good things in life. And I've got a lot to be thankful for this year. Here's a sampling...

What I'm Thankful For (a randomized litany by Chris Milam)

I'm thankful for Fruit Roll-Ups.

I'm thankful for my Thanksgiving hostesses. I'm thankful for people who can make any place feel like home. I'm thankful for that, because home can be a hard thing to find.

I'm thankful for the updates I get from Jack Daniels on Facebook.

I'm thankful for direct flights to Nashville. And Little Rock. And Los Angeles. I'm thankful that I'll be seeing all of you sooner than you think.

I'm thankful for Ray Rice. I'm thankful for Steven Jackson. I'm thankful for Brett Favre. I'm thankful for DeSean Jackson. I'm thankful for all of them, and the things they do. And I'll continue to be thankful through Week 16, please. Thank you.

I'm thankful that being an Alabama fan in 2009 is easy. Cause it usually isn't.

I'm thankful for Mark Ingram.

I'm thankful for Elixir Phosphor Bronze guitar strings. I'm thankful to have three unopened packages of them. There are few little things that make me happier than a new pack of strings, and what they do for Rose.

I'm thankful for healthy family, and healthy friends. Every day I can say that is a little miracle.

I'm thankful for wood to knock on.

I'm thankful for the last three episodes of Mad Men's Season 3. I'm thankful for anything in pop culture that continues to surpass expectations, anything that's so great you feel embarrassed for doubting it. Those things are rare.

I'm thankful for the kosher bakery across the street and the woman behind the counter. I'm thankful that she considers it her personal responsibility to feed me well. She always knows what I want, especially when I don't.

I'm thankful for ramen noodles, the antithesis of the kosher bakery across the street. I'm thankful for the bunch of nothing they are.

I'm thankful for sweaters that work.

I'm thankful for girls in sweaters that probably don't work.

I'm thankful for the trampoline I'm getting this Christmas. Fingers crossed.

I'm thankful for Christmas, a most wonderful time of the year. I'm thankful for Christmas music, and Christmas parties, and Christmas lights. I'm thankful for all the other holidays, too, if they'll have me.

I'm thankful for Christmas movies.

I'm thankful for Love Actually, which I only watch in December, but every December. I'm thankful for the condensed brilliance of Alan Rickman. I'm thankful for "Mmm...would we call her chubby?" I'm thankful for what that movie makes me want to do every time I see it. Which is become a terrific moron and call everyone in my phonebook, especially the people I normally wouldn't call. I'm thankful for the reminder that it's always a good time to tell someone "I miss you," or "I thought about you," or "I love you," or "I like you."

I'm thankful for Better Than Ezra. Way more than I should be.

I'm thankful for any music that's generous. Any music that gives without asking for anything return. This is the season for that music. I'm thankful for REM, and Big Star, and the Beach Boys, and so much Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Pearl Jam, Gram Parsons, and so many more. And I'm thankful for Tom Petty, who's typically great, never The Best, but is always perfect.

I'm thankful for the guy at the corner store. I'm thankful for him carding me by saying, "how old are you," but refusing to look at my actual ID. He wants an answer, not a license.

I'm thankful for the morning smells of Thanksgiving. Turkey, and fresh bread, and three different pies. I'm thankful for the parade sounds buzzing from Mom's television in the kitchen. Thankful for the pots and pans waking me up. I'm thankful to be missing them.

I'm thankful for a new record, Up. I'm thankful for iTunes. I'm thankful for December 1, which is when these three things meet your ears, I hope.

I'm thankful for Steve Martin, his studio, and his immeasurable, indefatigable talents. I'm thankful for his belief in this record, these songs, and his commitment to them.

I'm thankful for you, listening, reading, and generally supporting. I'm incredibly thankful that I get to do this for a living. I don't know what I did right in a past life, but I'm thankful for that. I'm already thankful for 2010. It's going to be great.

I'm thankful for my family. Much more than I can say.

I'm thankful for my friends. Much more than I would say.

And I'm thankful for Fruit Roll-Ups.


What are you thankful for? Hit up the comments and let me know!

And Happy Thanksgiving...have a great, safe holiday!

1 comment:

Sarah said...

i am thankful for family, friends, music, green bean bundles,Bing Crosby and football.

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