FRIDAY 5 ACROSS THE LIPS: Five bands we wish would get back together

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1.  LCD Soundsystem

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Years active: 2001-2011
Number of albums: 9 (including three EPs)

While I try to keep an open mind to all genres, I’m not a fan of what is generally known as “dance music.”  It might be because it seems like there isn’t much of a creative process in making it.  It might be because the lyrics to most dance songs seem vapid at best.  Or it might be because I have no coordination and can’t dance my way out of an open burlap sack with all the sides removed.  Regardless, it’s just not for me…unless that dance music is coming from LCD Soundsystem.

I’ll admit that I haven’t been a long-time fan.  I can’t go into the nuances of their music or tell you the different stages of their decade-long career.  I came to the LCD Soundsystem game late, perhaps two or three years before the breakup.  I became hooked to their clever, humorous approach to dance, which made it more appealing. What’s more fun than moving your hips to “Losing My Edge” while watching frontman James Murphy getting his face slapped repeatedly to the beat for four minutes and 27 seconds?  Or the thought of “Daft Punk is Playing at My House,” where you can “Dance Yrself Clean (with Kermit and the Muppets)” with lots of “Drunk Girls“?

Yep, that was one dance party I wish never ended.

2.  The Smiths

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Years active: 1982-1987
Number of albums: 16 (including 10 compilations and one EP)

For some reason, Morrissey recently declared in a Billboard magazine interview that “I don’t know a single person who wants a Smiths reunion.”

Seriously?

I’m here to declare I’m that single person who really wants a Smiths reunion.  I’ll sit in the audience by myself if I have to.

I first heard the Smiths during my DJ days at the University of Denver’s student-run radio station, KAOS, from 1983-86.  It was a far cry from what I was used to during my high school days in central Michigan, where we were fed a regular diet of Bob Seger, Journey, and Billy Joel.  The most alternative thing we listened to at the time was maybe Cheap Trick (Patti Smith didn’t count because the only tune we heard her sing was actually a Bruce Springsteen song).

There was something off about the Smiths, but I loved it.  Morrissey’s velvety smooth voice interlaced with Johnny Marr’s dirty guitar work created an incredibly complex and gorgeous tapestry of juxtaposing sounds.  Couple that with the irony of Morrissey’s lyrics dripping with sadness, depression, and defeat against a wall of Marr’s joyously upbeat chords and you had something offbeat, fun, and as addictive as heroin-laced Dove chocolates.  I didn’t really know what to make of the Smiths at the time, but I knew I could never go home again.  And I was very good with that proposition.

3.  Das Racist

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Years active: 2008-2011
Number of albums: One studio album, two mixtapes

Remember when hip hop was clever and fun?  Yeah, I barely remember that either.  The likes of Sugar Hill Gang, Beastie Boys, and NWA are long gone and have been replaced by rappers slurring lazy rhymes with no irony, sense of humor, or any purpose.

Then along came Das Racist, three apparent slackers from Brooklyn with degrees from  Wesleyan University who employed humor, academic references, foreign allusions, and unconventional style of rap that hasn’t been heard in years.  Taking their name from the short-lived MTV show  Wonder Showzen in which a character constantly yelled “That’s Racist!” between skits, the trio intentionally or unintentionally set out to make rap fun again, which included songs about trying to find your buddy at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, a tribunal led by Michael Jackson, and the finer points of stalking.  Some saw them as a joke, others saw them as an important milestone in modern hip hop.

Incidentally, while the name was meant to be a clever homage to Wonder Showzen and how a serious accusation had become little more than a quip, it backfired as some thought the group was comprised of white supremacists, which is not the case.  All three are men of color who are definately not racists.

4. Sonic Youth

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Years active: 1981-2011
Number of albums: 30 (including four compilations and eight EPs)

I pretty much grew up with Sonic Youth, so I took the news rather hard when I found out they disbanded following the separation and subsequent divorce of guitarist Thurston Moore and his wife/bandmate, bassist Kim Gordon.  It was like losing someone you love who was also taking all her cool stuff with her.  It was devastating.

Sonic Youth is arguably most influential band of the modern rock era.  They did things with guitars that had never been thought of before, such as alternative tuning and playing the instruments with screwdrivers and drum sticks to create vast walls of dissonant sound.  They championed other indie bands, such as Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, and Cell, after signing with Geffen’s DCG label.  They came out with 30 great albums in 30 years (not counting singles and bootlegs), nary a clunker among them.  They are the greatest band of all time.

Their fifth album Daydream Nation was enshrined in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2005 for being “…culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”  The Registry describes the album:

“Pioneer members of New York City’s clangorous early 1980s No Wave scene, Sonic Youth are renowned for a glorious form of noise-based chaos. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo had previously performed with Glenn Branca’s large guitar ensembles, and their alternative guitar tunings and ringing harmonies attest to this apprenticeship. On Daydream Nation, their breakthrough album, the group’s forays into outright noise always return to melodic songs that employ hypnotic arpeggios, driving punk rock rhythmic figures and furious gales of guitar-based noise. Bassist Kim Gordon’s haunting vocals and edgy lyrics add additional depth to the numbers she sings.”

And now they’re no more.  Given three decades of unfettered brilliance, we’re fortunate to have such an in-depth collection of incredible avante-garde musical art from which to draw because they’re gone for good.  The world is worse for it.  One more show wouldn’t deaden the pain, but it might alleviate it a bit.

5.  Cell

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Years active: 1990-1995
Number of albums: 2

Cell had so much potential, but was a victim of being in the right place at the wrong time.  I first heard them when they opened up for Sonic Youth at Tuxedo Junction in Danbury, Conn., on July 2, 1992, to promote their first album, Slo-Blo.  That was about a year into the grunge era which, unfortunately, would only last a few more years as Kurt Cobain’s suicide on April 5, 1994, marked the decline of the genre.  As grunge went, so did Cell.  By 1994 they released their second and final album, Living Room, then they faded into oblivion.  During their short career, they produced some powerful guitar rock that was just as much on their albums as it was live.

FRIDAY 5 ACROSS THE LIPS: 180-Degree Covers

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This week Friday 5 Across the Lips looks at five original songs and the covers of those tunes that took a lot of artistic license.  

1. “Enter Sandman”  

Enter Sandman,” Metallica’s classic wall of sound from their self-titled 1991 album, is a dark, brooding, and slightly disturbing song about the childhood horrors of drifting to slumber; however, it becomes an ebullient big-band extravaganza in the hands of the squeaky clean Pat Boone.  You can almost see Metallica plotting with the monsters under the bed in the original; in the cover, you know Boone is leading them in a big, splashy dance number.

Original by Metallica (1991)

Cover by Pat Boone (1997)

2. “Black Diamond”

Recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Kiss has built a four-decade career on face paint, pyrotechnics, and straight-forward hard rock songs that has influenced a few generations of rockers worldwide to pick up guitars and follow suit.  The band has had a strong following in Japan since its early days that included a young musician named  Yoshiki Hayashi whom Kiss inspired to start his own metal band, X Japan.  Gene Simmons tapped Yoshiki to cover the song “I” from the universally ridiculed 1981 concept album Music From The Elder for the 1995 Kiss tribute album Kiss My Ass.  Yoshiki wisely distanced himself from that groaner and instead created a hauntingly beautiful classical arrangement of “Black Diamond” from Kiss’ 1974 debut album for the American Symphony Orchestra.  The resulting collaboration has been the only memorable contribution to the otherwise forgotten tribute album.

Original by Kiss (1974)

Cover by Yoshiki Hayashi and the American Symphony Orchestra (1995)

3. “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

Blues rocker Rod Stewart was another disco casualty in the late ’70s as the dance genre infected the airwaves with its predictable beats and cliched sexually-charged themes when he released “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” on his 1978 album Blondes Have More Fun. In an effort to salvage Stewart’s rock cred, co-writer Duane Hitchings defended the song by claiming Stewart was actually spoofing the disco lifestyle.  Legions of disco fans might say otherwise as the disco classic hit number one on many dance lists and stayed there for many weeks.  A true spoof of the song’s disco lifestyle came 15 years later when the industrial supergroup Revolting Cocks came up with a much seedier version.  Its ironically blase hardcore delivery of Chris Connelly’s monotone vocals over Al Jorgensen’s grinding synth work sleazed up Stewart’s notion of a one-night stand being sweet, innocent disco fun.

Original by Rod Stewart (1978)

Cover by Revolting Cocks (1993)

4. “Hurt”

Cover songs rarely eclipse the original, but it happened with Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails exceptional song “Hurt.”  Cash was nearing the end of his life when he recorded the song and he knew it; his once mighty bass-baritone voice that made us believe he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die now strained with age, uncertainty, and loneliness.  Those he loved and the world he once ruled were gone.  All that was left was a vulnerable elderly man ruminating about a life that went way too fast.

Songwriter and NIN frontman Trent Reznor himself was moved by the cover.  In a 2004 article in Alternative Press, Reznor said, “I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”

Original by Nine Inch Nails (1994)

Cover by Johnny Cash (2002)

5. “Superstar”

The biggest hit of the Carpenters‘ career was actually itself a cover, which many erroneously believe was originally recorded by the brother/sister duo.  Written in 1969 by Bonnie BramlettLeon Russell and Delaney Bramlett, it was given the working title “The Groupie Song,” before being renamed “Groupie (Superstar)” when recorded by Delaney & Bonnie and Friends Featuring Eric Clapton.  The somewhat creepy story of star obsession didn’t catch on even when it was later covered by acts such as Joe Cocker, Bette Midler, Cher, and Vicki Carr. It wasn’t until Karen Carpenter’s sweet, innocent voice brought to life the tragedy of the naive groupie’s empty, unrequited love.

The Carpenters had a legion of fans for several decades, but the most unlike were the art-noise indie icons Sonic Youth.  They recorded a gripping post-punk dirge for the late-Karen Carpenter, “Tunic (A Song for Karen)” on their 1990 album Goo that caught the attention of producers of the 1994 tribute album If I Were A Carpenter.  Most of the covers in the album featured top alternative rock bands of the day presenting rather straightforward renditions of Carpenters hits; however, the Sonic Youth contribution stood out with the group’s signature feedback guitar work and Thurston Moore’s throaty, whispering vocals that underscored a feeling of defeat and desperation.

While indie fans loved this version of the song that was later used in the soundtrack for the 2007 movie Juno, Richard Carpenter didn’t share the enthusiasm.  In a 2009 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Carpenter said, “At least when it comes to something like this, I will say I don’t care for it but I don’t understand it. So, I’m not going to say it’s good or it’s bad. I’m just going to say I don’t care for it.”

The Carpenters version (1971)

Cover by Sonic Youth (1994)

Thurston Moore’s dalliance with black metal

With the possible exception of former Sonic Youth bandmate Lee Renaldo, no one does art-noise guitar better than Thurston Moore.  Moore learned at the feet of master Glenn Branca in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and Branca’s influence has lasted with Moore through three decades of the most original, brilliant, and influential no-wave.  He continues on with music somewhat similar to Sonic Youth in his new band Chelsea Light Moving, but takes a much darker, heavier turn as the guitarist/vocalist of black metal band Twilight.  What is at first blush an odd combination is actually a logical step for Moore’s grinding feedback-laden ax work.

While Twilight broke up several months ago, they are still moving forward with the March 18 release of III: Beneath Trident’s Tombwhich includes the track “Swarming Funeral Mass”: