Monthly Archives: December 2010

“Sonic Cool”, Hard-Core, and the 80s

I just finished reading Sonic Cool: The Life and Death of Rock and Roll by Joe S. Harrington.  Overall, it was an interesting read.  Unlike a lot of other books about rock, Harrington is also a social critic.  He spends the first 30 pages discussing American-life post World War II, and how rock was a natural rebellion out of the McCarthy-era.  His basic premise of the whole book, was that in truest form rock and roll was about rebellion, and once we entered the 90s when everything became sanitized and mainstream, that part of rock and roll became dead.

I agree with Harrington to a certain extent, but that he means he into places way too much significance on hard-core music of the early 80s.  This is where he lost me – I found 75 pages of reading about Black Flag, Husker Du, and Anti-Seen extremely boring.  I suppose this style would have been interesting and significant if you were at the time.  But hard-core is not as rebellious as Harrington made it seem.  If anything, I find hard-core extremely fascist due its exclusiveness.  Because many of these bands refused to acknowledge much musical history before them, to me their attack and intent is failed from the beginning.  While The Clash may have bragged about “No Elvis, Beatles, and The Rolling Stones in 1977”, they also had sense to realize that playing three-chords loudly didn’t mean as much two years later, and they eventually branched out with London Calling.  Even the Ramones owed a huge debt to the pop-sensibilities of 1950s and early 1960s singles.

By placing this much emphasis on hard-core and Riot Grrl music for the last hundred pages, Harrington almost completely ignores groundbreaking work by Elvis Costello, The Talking Heads, R.E.M., The Smiths that was going on at the same time.  You could say that I’m biased, but I truly believe these artists are far more influential to a variety of bands than any hard-core band.  I doubt that many artists outside of the punk circle are influenced by hard-core (though I could be wrong.)  I know Ryan Adams is a big Black Flag fan, but I’ve yet to hear of Black Flag influence in his music.

On the flip-side I was impressed by Harrington’s analysis of the origins of gansta-rap.  As a white male who was only a kid when records by NWA and Public Enemy came out, it’s heard to truly comprehend and understand the impact these artists had.  Unlike hard-core, I’d say when it came out, rap was truly rebellious in every sense.  NWA and Public Enemy not only lashed out at the world as they saw it, but their sound was also groundbreaking.  Unfortunately for me, by the time I truly began to appreciate hip-hop as a teenager, MTV was blasting songs by Puff Daddy which was more pop-oriented and stale in comparison to NWA and Public Enemy.

For anyone looking for an interesting view of the history of rock and roll (and popular music) I’d suggest reading Sonic Cool.  But if you’re like me, maybe you should skip the parts about hard-core.

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Best Movies of the Year

So I know that Leading Us Absurd is a music blog, but it’s the end of the year, and this year was actually a pretty decent year for movies, I thought.   So here are my favorites for 2010.  (As of this writing, I have yet to see The Fighter, so maybe that would come on my list.   Looks pretty good.)

The Social Network

When I first heard about it, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  A movie about Facebook?  You can’t be serious!  Yet, with Aaron Sorkin’s script, The Social Network turned into one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time.  At the movies core is obsession, and what happens between friends when that obsession gets in the way.  History is defined by those who actually take chances, consequences be damned.  As Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg says, “If you guys wanted to invent Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.”  The Social Network tells us that sometimes narcissism is what catapults other people above the rest.

Black Swan

Another movie about obsession.  Black Swan is not your typical ballet movie, and with Darren Aronofsky at the helm, there’s no way it could be.  Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances on screen in a decade (I’ve been accused of being biased towards her) because like her character Nina, Portman digs deep.  She goes from shy and timid to hostile within seconds.  Nina desires to be perfect in her performance of Swan Lake, so she we see her physical and mental torment in ways which sometimes the lines are blurred.  As haunting and fucked up (for lack of a better phrase) as Black Swan is, it might also be Aronofsky’s most watchable movie, and that’s saying something.


Not only does James Franco look like Allen Ginsberg circa 1955, he also got a lot of Ginsberg’s mannerisms down.  Howl goes back and forth between animated sequences of Franco’s Ginsberg reading Howl, and the obscenity trials surrounding its publication.  Not all of it works, but Howl reminds us why free speech is so important.  Great art should not be compromised, and more than anything that’s the beauty of the poem, and the movie itself.


At times it was hard to follow the plot, but Christopher Nolan has a touch for creating stirring action/thriller movies, and Inception is no exception (ha!).  Like The Dark Knight, Inception plays on the idea that our own worst enemies are those that play with our minds and torment us.  Distortion of dreams and reality pays a high price, and Domm Cobb knows this better than anybody, yet the farther down (literally in the movie) he goes the stakes get higher.  Inception was a rarity in movies these days – an action movie not only makes you think, but sticks with you.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Sure it’s just a teaser for Part 2, but the first half of the Deathly Hallows is the perhaps the most faithful Potter movie, and also the best.  The stakes are higher – Harry, Ron, and Hermione no longer have the safe haven of Hogwarts to fall back on.  While there is certainly a lot of action, it’s the quieter moments in the film that stick with you – Harry and Hermione’s visit to the Potter’s grave; Dobby dying in the hands of Harry – that really stick with you.


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Best Of The Year

Jesus, it’s been a while hasn’t it?  Sorry for the lack of updates, I’ve been kind of experiencing a bit of writer’s block lately.  Not sure why.  But since we’re at the end of the year, I thought I’d give out my picks for the best records of the year.  And here we go!  (Note: Re-issues, don’t count otherwise I would have had Dylan and Springsteen on my list.)


Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

“I’m living in the 21st century, doing something mean to it, do it better than anybody you ever seen do it,” He declares on “Power”.  Sure he might be boasting, but when you deliver songs like “Runaway” with its haunting piano there’s a reason to.   Sonically, the songs are all over the place – “All of the Lights” is rap/pop at its best, then there’s the slow-stoner burn of “Gorgeous” complete with a distorted guitars, and a song that uses a choir chanting endlessly in the background, plus a King Crimson sample should not work, but somehow “Power” does just that.  Kanye West may be everyone’s favorite whipping boy at the moment, but he’s moved onto the future and everybody has to play catch up.  As he says in “Monster”: “I’m living the future so the presence is my past.  My presence is a present kiss my ass.”

The New Pornographers – Together

I admit I was actually bored by the NP’s last album, Challengers. It seemed to be lacking something, and I could never pin it down.  Luckily, the band probably had the same idea, and discovered their love for power-pop with Together, while adding some new ideas into the mix with the Black Sabbath-esque riff of “Your Hands (Together)”.   The hooks are there again, and the harmonies between Carl Newman and Neko Case never sounded sweeter as they do on songs such as “Silver Jenny Dollar” and “Moves”.

Elvis Costello – National Ransom

While the last few efforts by Costello have been of high quality (Momufuku, Secret Profane & Sugarcane) with National Ransom, Costello digs deep and delivers one of his best albums in years.  Costello ever being the musical nerd (and this is a good thing) like Dylan in recent years draws on pre-rock influences – “My Lovely Jezebel” sounds it was written in the mid west, circa the late 1890s.  Bluegrass also seems to be an influence on many of the songs as well particularly “Dr. Watson, I Presume”.   Even the straight-up rock of the title track has an old-time feel to it.  Costello may not rock like he used during the hey-day of the Attractions, but with albums such as National Ransom it’s clear he hasn’t entirely mellowed out.

Matt & Kim – Sidewalks

My girlfriend introduced me to Matt & Kim last year and at first I was not sure what to make of them.  Was this mix of dance/punk serious or were they being ironic?  I couldn’t tell despite liking some of their songs.   But with this year’s Sidewalks, Matt & Kim have proved one thing: it’s okay to have poppy songs once in a while.  Just make sure it’s covered in enough noise and irony so that that the hipsters don’t cry “Sell outs!”

Cee-Lo Green: The Lady Killer

Leave it to Cee-Lo to bring the old school R&B sound back, with a twist.  “Fuck You” might be the album’s stand-out and quite possibly the best song of the year, but “Bright Lights, Bigger City” recalls 70s disco records.  Throughout the album, Cee-lo’s voice stands out, not only because he is one of the few male stars that can actually sing, but he has conviction.  Cee-Lo is believable in his updating of Motown, and that’s what makes it a success.


(Check tomorrow for best movies.  I know this is a music blog, but it’s the end of the year.)

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Christmas/Holiday Theme Week: “Fairytale of New York”

The Holiday season is a magical time, and for many New York City is one of the most magical places during this time of year.  It’s supposed to be a time of coming together.  A time of “gifts and giving”.  Naturally, The Pogues would be the ones to deconstruct their myth with their classic “Fairytale of New York”.  It’s a song about two ex-lovers (most likely immigrants) remembering the happy times they had in New York, only to see it blow up in their face.

The song weaves in and out of the past and present, each part of their relationship represented by events that occurred on Christmas Eve.    There’s MacGown lying drunk at the beginning on Christmas Eve sometime after their relationship failed.  He then remembers a past Christmas Eve which found the two lovers wandering around New York City, hand in hand.  At first it seems like McColl’s appearance in the song is a conversation between the two.  But it’s more likely that it is an internal monologue.  MacGowan is probably slipping in and out of consciousness reflecting on real conversations and events, and later what she would most likely tell him if she saw him lying in a drunk-tank.

Sometime before, the two lovers came to New York City in search of a better life.  The lure of New York City during Christmas had a profound effect on them.  MacGown promised that Broadway was waiting for her.  They listened to Sinatra, held hands and walked around Manhattan on Christmas Eve.  They built their dreams around each other, as many lovers do.  And then the fall-out happens.  He finds her overdosed “lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed.”  It’s likely that she threw him out calling him a “scumbag, a maggot”.  “Happy Christmas your arse!” She tells him.  “I pray God it’s our last!”

And it was most likely their last.  In the drunk-tank MacGowan is forced to reconcile with himself.  “I could have been someone,” He laments. Real or imaginary, McColl tells him, “well so could anyone.  You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.”  “I kept them with me babe,” He says, perhaps more to himself than to her.


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Christmas/Holiday Theme Week: Christmas In The Heart

Bob Dylan’s Christmas In the Heart might be the weirdest album in the entire genre of holiday albums despite the fact it is filled with traditional songs.  When it was announced last year that Dylan would release a Christmas album, many were left wondering what it would sound like.  Surely, Dylan would tap into the pre-rock blues or perhaps 1920s style that he’s been favoring in the past decade.  And it of course, Dylan would sprinkle the entire project with a wink and a nod.  After all, the idea of a Jew turned Born-Again Christian who is definitely not a Christian now, but may or may not be a Jew again, making a Christmas album is very absurd.  This irony, probably isn’t lost on Dylan.

Instead, Dylan delivered a Christmas album full of traditional Christmas songs – “O Come All Ye Faithful” even contains a verse sung in Latin – that had everyone who heard it shaking their heads wondering just what the hell Dylan was doing.  But, fans of Dylan should really know better.  Dylan has always had a penchant for turning people’s heads and doing the unexpected, whether it was going electric, or turning into a Christian.  In its own way, Christmas in the Heart is an ironic wink not to the perception of what a Bob Dylan Christmas album should sound like, and not the traditional view of a Christmas album as many people were expecting.

Because of the traditional and straight way in which the song are played (with the exception of “Must Be Santa” and “Christmas Island”) Christmas In The Heart comes off more as a novelty than game-changing.  Most of the songs are dominated by piano, instead of guitar. Of course, there is humor in Dylan in the album particularly on “Do You See What I See?”  Particularly when he  asks, “Do you hear what I hear?  Do you see what I see?”  No one sees or hears what Dylan can, and he knows it.  Similarly, when Dylan commands you to “listen to what I say” you wonder if he is throwing a punch at those who once viewed him a generation’s spokesman.  “Must Be Santa” is straight-up singalong polka that remains the album’s sole highlight.

Ultimately, Christmas In the Heart will never be considered a Christmas classic.  It’s also nothing something that will tarnish Dylan’s legacy either.  The only people who will listen to it, are people like me, who each year will put it out simply based on the fact that it is Dylan singing Christmas songs.





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Holiday/Christmas Theme Week: Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death.  With The Beatles, and with his solo works, Lennon remains one of my favorite rock artists. If Phil Spector totally changed the way in which Christmas songs could be heard, then Lennon changed the message of what a Christmas single could be with “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, which was also produced by Spector.

Both A Christmas Gift For You and Happy Xmas are tied together not just by Spector, but also the Vietnam War.  A Christmas Gift For You was in November 1963, right after President Kennedy’s assassination.  Though the US was already involved in the Vietnam War, by the end of of 1963, Lyndon Johnson reversed Kennedy’s decision to remove 1,000 troops from Vietnam and ended up expanding the war.   It’s little wonder that A Christmas Gift For You didn’t initially catch on under the circumstances.

Flash forward almost 6 years later to 1969, with the war at its height John Lennon and Yoko decided to rent billboards across several cities with the slogan “WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It).  Happy Christmas From John and Yoko”.   It would be two years later before “Happy Xmas” would be released, but the slogans served as the basis for the song.

Almost 40 years later it’s become passe to release Christmas singles or exploit the season for charity events.  But it can’t be denied that the concept came from this song. Lennon, ever the political, made sure that his sentiments came through with silver bells.  Here was a song designed to make the listeners think about what they’ve done over the past year.  “So this is Christmas,” Lennon begins as he strums his the guitar, “and what have you done?”

Lennon’s genius shines through by making a very adult oriented theme a form (the Christmas song) normally considered “jolly”.  To drive the point home, the background vocals provided by the Harlem Community Choir who sing the “war is over” slogan.  Children tend to be oblivious to politics, and often see things in gray that adults often do not.  By having the children’s choir singing that particular line, Lennon is making the point that war affects everybody, and not just the troops (and their families) who were fighting in Vietnam.  If Lennon had sung “war is over, if you want it” the song wouldn’t be nearly as convincing.  Cynics could easily raise their eyebrows at a famous rock star making flights of fancy about how to end the war.  (Which, right or wrong, has always been a criticism of “Imagine”, particularly the line about imagining no possesions.)

This time of year is about coming together and forgetting life’s troubles.  Lennon reversed that with “Happy Xmas”, and made us remember what was going on.  But the idea of coming together for peace and love is very in the vein of the Holiday season, and in that sense, “Happy Xmas” might be the best representation of those themes.





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Christmas/Holiday Theme Week: Have a Holly Jolly Christmas

According to Wikipedia, Burl Ives was a singer, stage actor, and voice personality.  As I’m sure you are aware, Wikipedia is not entirely reliable.  This video shows the real Burl Ives:

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Christmas/Holiday Theme Week – A Christmas Gift For You

Over a string-laden instrumental version of  “Silent Night”, Spector proclaims his vision of “something new and different for Christmas”.  In light of Spector’s murder charge, his statements come off as a bit creepy.  However, in November 1963 when A Chirstmas Gift For You was released, Spector wasn’t joking.  The album was so far ahead of its time in every way.  Christmas songs never sounded so sexy, and alive, thanks to powerful performances by The Ronettes, Darlene Love and the Crystals.  Elvis and Frank Sinatra may have recorded Christmas albums but those version were for sitting by the fire –  songs you could go to sleep to.  Spector’s versions went meant to be heard in bars and enjoyed by those who wander home with a random girl for Christmas-  just watch the Christmas scenes in “Goodfellas” for proof.

Unfortunately, Spector’s vision of Christmas as released at the wrong time. In November 1963, not many people were thinking about sexy girls singing about Santa Claus, and reindeer.   The album became a flop upon its initial release, and while it’s usually listed on a critic’s list of “the best holiday albums”, you’re more likely to find a Josh Grobin Christmas album or Mariah Carey one in the average person’s holiday collection.  U2 may have given a rebirth to the album’s sole original “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in the late 80’s.   I certainly enjoy U2’s version (and it’s the version I was familiar with first).  But U2’s version traded in the power of the original for schmaltz.

With a few exceptions, most holiday songs or records have been slightly cheesy.  But Spector’s album was anything but.  Even the silly “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is given a slightly naughty reading.  If the joke of the song is that Santa Claus is really daddy, Ronnie Spector makes it seem as if mommy is really cheating on daddy with Saint Nic.  Of course it could be this is the only version of the song I’m familiar with, and up until a week ago, I assumed in the song’s context, Santa Claus was real.

After years of listening to Spector’s album, his version of the songs have become definitive for me.  I usually can’t stand “Frosty the Snowman” (it didn’t help I cried as a kid when he melted into water at the end of the holiday special), but Ronnie Spector’s commanding voice and Hal Blaine’s pounding drums might just bring any pile of snow to life.  Usually, the narrator in “White Christmas” seems to long for his or her childhood – caught up in the past longing for something that may or may not come.  Darlene Love may also dream of the same “White Christmas” as Irving Berlin intended, but dammit she wants it this year.

With A Christmas Gift For You, Spector proved that Christmas music didn’t have to be for kids and their grandparents with fond memories of their childhoods.  It could be exciting, fun, and even sexy.  Almost 50 years after its initial release, A Christmas Gift For You remains the essential holiday pop album, because it dared to be a rock and roll/pop first instead of a Christmas album sung by rock artists.

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