Semi-New Music: Metric – “Help, I’m Alive”

June 29, 2009

I received a text message from my friend Mike in LA the other night.  It was short, sweet, and to the point:

My new favorite song: “Help, I’m Alive” by Metric.

I have a slightly rocky history with Metric.  I have frequently been told that they are the next big thing, and it was this sentiment that caused me to finally check them out right after the release of 2005’s Live It Out.  It was an okay album, but the overwhelming feeling I got from Live It Out was that it was very mechanical.  The cold precision of the music, the weird tinny production, and something in lead singer Emily Haines’s voice (despite the fact that I love her work with Broken Social Scene) gave me the inescapable impression of a bunch of 80’s era robots hopelessly stuck on the New Wave setting.   In all, despite a couple of bright moments here and there, I was largely unimpressed, and I had no motivation to check out any of their earlier albums or to anticipate any future releases.

So then comes this text message.  I generally but not always agree with Mike’s taste in music, so unless his text message was dripping with sarcasm not easily conveyed through the written word, I believe this was a pretty glowing review.  Also, I’m never one to completely count a band out, even after a pretty decisive first impression, so I figured I would give them a second chance and Youtube “Help, I’m Alive.”

After some predictably robotic percussion leading things off, Haines’s echo-effect voice breaks in along with some low synths in the background.  The somewhat familiar New Wave vibe is still there, but there’s a new life in Haines’s voice and **gasp** something resembling emotion!  I was a bit concerned after the swelling synths come in at about 0:35, but the second time around,  the synths break completely and make way for some crunchy guitar chords, and Haines goes up an octave or so to create an instantly hooky chorus.  Less than halfway through the song, I notice my foot tapping, and I realize that this is by far the best Metric song I’ve ever heard, and I think I may be inspired to check out their latest record, Fantasies.

Thanks for the text, Mike!

Metric – “Help, I’m Alive”


Skyward: Sky Saxon of the Seeds, RIP

June 27, 2009

A second highly-influential musician left us on June 25th, 2009. That musician was Sky Saxon, frontman of the legendary ’60s garage band, the Seeds.

Three chords and the truth? Hell, Sky and the Seeds didn’t even need that many, as they demonstrated on their best-known song, the almighty “Pushin’ Too Hard.” Keyboards? “[Keyboardist Daryl Hooper’s] idea of a creative solo was to play the same riff over and over at varying octaves.”* That was also the general concept behind many of the lead guitar lines.

I own a lot of Nuggets and Pebbles type stuff (for those not familiar, those are compilations of ’60s garage-rock songs). It’s happened several times to me where I hear a song that’s just awesome, and spend some money, sometimes a lot, to find more of the band’s work. Almost inevitably, I just wasted my money, because everything else the band did was completely horrible.

Not so with the Seeds. I don’t own everything they did, and I won’t, but they put out five albums (one under the moniker “The Sky Saxon Blues Band”) and I have their first two. There is a lot of bad stuff on them, but loads of good stuff too.

Probably the best way to go is a compilation. There are several out there, and I can’t tell you which is the best, but the one I have is called Evil Hoodoo and it’s well worth your time and your money. It contains such classics as:

  • “The March of the Flower Children” (“Somewhere, the children are out there playing, so happy, in their own flower garden.”)
  • “Mr. Farmer” (“Mr. Farmer, let me watch your crops. Mr. Farmer, let me water your crops. Mr. Farmer, let me harvest your crops.”)
  • “Rollin’ Machine” (“Everybody, do you hear me out there? Wanna take you ridin’ on my rollin’ machine.”)
  • “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” (“You fly around like a bee, hurtin’ everything you see.”)

Shit, maybe I do need the rest of their albums.

My sad postscript to this piece: Sky Saxon played a gig at Red’s Scoot Inn here in Austin just a few weeks ago. I wanted to go but for one reason or another I didn’t end up making it. See the artists you love when you can, because you never know.

Rest in peace, Sky Saxon.

The Seeds – “Pushin’ Too Hard”

The Seeds – “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” (Sound quality is not the best, but I couldn’t resist this great American Bandstand archival footage, and sound quality isn’t so important with garage rock anyway. You can hear the studio version here.)

The Seeds – “The March of the Flower Children”

*The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, which also notes that “Sky Saxon’s world view was limited to two subjects–sex and drugs.” Based on his music, that’s only a slight exaggeration.

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Michael Jackson’s musical legacy, or, what if Thriller hadn’t sold?

June 26, 2009

What if Thriller had only sold moderately? And what if Michael Jackson had then retired?

Why do I ask these questions? Because one thing that has disappointed me about the coverage of Michael Jackson’s death to date is that I haven’t heard anyone seriously discuss his musical legacy as music. The undercurrent (and often the overcurrent) of the coverage is that the grief is because of Michael Jackson’s huge cultural impact. That’s no doubt true, but people are also mourning the loss of a brilliant artist.

In this piece, I hope to demonstrate that Michael Jackson’s music was respected as much more than just catchy pop songs before Michael Jackson, the kid from the Jackson 5 gone solo, became Michael Jackson, the cultural icon. In doing so, I want to show that he would have had a significant legacy among music lovers even without all the trappings.

To make my case, I draw on some outside sources from before Thriller became the biggest-selling album of all time. My sources are The New Rolling Stone Record Guide from 1983 (Thriller was released at the tail end of 1982), and critic Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, who has most of his original reviews posted at his website.

The Jackson 5

The Jackson 5 were on Motown records, and, with few exceptions, Motown albums were made with a hits-and-filler approach, so the anthologies are what are important here.

Rolling Stone gives both anthologies available in 1983 five stars, its highest rating. Robert Christgau isn’t quite as impressed, grading one, Anthology, a B+, and the other, Greatest Hits, an A-. Nevertheless, he singles out “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save,” as “three of the greatest radio ups ever,” and calls “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “I’ll Be There” “good ones [ballads].”

Five stars? Three of the greatest ever? A pretty good start, there.

The Jacksons

After leaving Motown, the Jackson 5 (minus Jermaine) moved to Epic Records as the Jacksons. After a shaky start, the Jacksons released two critically-acclaimed albums, Destiny (1978) and Triumph (1980), which bookended MJ’s Off the Wall (1979).

Rolling Stone gives both albums four stars. Robert Christgau grades Destiny a B+ and Triumph an A-.

Not bad for a transitional stage.

Michael Jackson

About Off the Wall, critic Dave Marsh (Rolling Stone’s reviewer) writes:

Nothing, not even his groundbreaking work with his family, quite prepared the world for Off the Wall, a masterpiece of modern record making. Jackson’s voice–adolescent breathiness crowding maturity–was the perfect vehicle for music that broke down stylistic and conceptual barriers with casual cool. Off the Wall features disco beat and rock guitar, soul intensity and good-time jive, a triumphant merger of the mechanical and the spiritual…Off the Wall is unquestionably one of the most important records of the past decade.

Robert Christgau grades Off the Wall an A, and calls it “the dance groove of the year.”

Well, what about Thriller? Rolling Stone again rates it five stars, and Dave Marsh writes, “Jackson topped himself–or came close–with Thriller,” and remarks that it is “compulsively listenable and seems destined to be as popular and influential as Off the Wall.” Well, you were close on that last one!

And to top it all off? “[Michael Jackson] is now in the very top rank of rock artists measured from the beginning.”

(Christgau’s review of Thriller was written after the album was already huge, so it doesn’t count for the purposes of this piece. For the record, he also grades it an A.)

So there you have it–a journey back in time, and a look at what Michael Jackson’s musical legacy would have been had Thriller sold moderately and MJ then retired. To wit:

  • Many classic singles with the Jackson 5.
  • Two respected transitional albums with the Jacksons.
  • Two solo albums hailed as classics not in retrospect but upon release.

A fine legacy indeed, even without superstardom.

The groundbreaking videos, smashing MTV’s color barrier, the dance moves, the posters, the hysteria induced among fans, the stage shows–these are all important elements of Michael Jackson’s legacy, and I share in them to some degree.

But to me, Michael Jackson’s legacy is his music. And it would have been a brilliant and beautiful legacy even if the rest had never happened.

The Jacksons – “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”

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Michael Jackson – “Ben”

June 26, 2009

I’m really glad I found this video on Youtube.  Someone has posted the vocal track only of a young Michael Jackson performing “Ben,” a touching song about a boy and his pet rat.  Without the music, it becomes incredibly apparent how vocally gifted Jackson was even as a boy.  If you can listen to this today without getting a tear in your eye (especially right around the two minute mark), you just may have no soul. 

Michael Jackson – “Smooth Criminal”

June 26, 2009

I will argue that this song is the absolute best post-Thriller song that Michael Jackson ever wrote.  Discuss.

The Jackson 5 – “I’ll Be There”

June 25, 2009

The first in what will be a series of posts (assuming the record companies allow these videos to stay up) in tribute to the biggest celebrity that this world has ever known, the late Michael Jackson.  He’s one of the very few artists in the world whose musical legacy will always outshine any of the sad, horrible, and insane aspects of his much-discussed private life.  The man, and the boy, was a musical god who changed the landscape of popular music forever, and nothing will ever erase that.  RIP, Michael.  Your music will live on forever.

Fellow On Deaf Ears bloggers:  Please feel free to contribute your favorite Jackson songs.

Michael Jackson is Dead

June 25, 2009

After a few sketchy reports within the last 45 minutes. It’s being confirmed by multiple reports that Michael Jackson, The King of Pop is dead at age 50 after being rushed to UCLA Medical Center in a deep coma as a result of sudden cardiac arrest. As of right now, the most extensive information is being updated by the LA Times.

Update (GW): We have an in-person report from the memorial service here. We also have a look back at MJ’s musical legacy.