Mix Review: Songs for an Alright Day
Assembled by Cosmic Ben Marlin
For Christmas of 2003, I was lucky enough to receive in the mail this mix CD from my friend and colleague Ben Marlin, better known as CosmicBen, the big green record reviewer. As those of you who are familiar with both our sites are probably aware, my musical taste and Ben's taste do not often intersect. He's more of a classic rock/straightforwardly tuneful/whatever-I-can-purchase-cheap kind of a guy, whereas I'm more of an indie-rock/odd noises/if-no-one-has-ever-heard-of-it-then-it-must-be-good kind of a guy. So this mix was Ben's attempt to introduce me to a lot of stuff that I might otherwise never bother to check out, and it's great! Again, inspired by Steve Knowlton's track-by-track review of the mix his wife made for him, I thought it'd be fun to do a similar thing here. And also for my own amusement, I've included the detailed and typically insightful liner notes that Ben typed up to accompany the disc, so you can contrast my comments (in red) with Ben's (in green, naturally). Wow! It's a rare collaborative effort between two WRC critics! Like that time both Leatherhead and Casey Jones were featured on a single episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! It's really not like that at all, is it? Bah.
I should also point out that these songs are all juxtaposed with hilarious .WAV file sound clips from Simpsons, Dumb and Dumber, and ZAZ movies, in a wonderful nod to the time when everyone's computer started up to the sound of Homer saying, "Mmmmm... 64 slices of American cheese..."
1. Stone Roses: "Mersey Paradise" The B-side to "She Bangs the Drums" and one of my favorite Roses songs. The combination of the jangle and the lyrics is just so refreshing. From The Complete Stone Roses. The Stone Roses are one of those bands on which Ben and I are in complete agreement- they've got an upbeat mood to them (at least on their first record, the magnificently painful "I Wanna Be Adored" notwithstanding) that's hard to beat among Britpop bands. I have trouble making out the lyrics, but this is a great intro track all the same. Very sunny!
2. Neil Young: "Love is a Rose" Just a happy little country-rocker that was never released on any album or single. The country formula is easy but somehow Neil wrings a unique melody and a lot of emotion out of it. From Decade. Was the love-as-rose metaphor ever original, even among cavemen poets? I can't hear it without thinking of "My Heart is a Flower" by King Missile... but my jaded perception aside, it's nice to hear Neil in his sweet mode. And like Ben said, it's a pretty standard country arrangement (check out the one-note harmonica part!), but the song is so brief and heartfelt that it really works well. I dig it.
3. Guster: "So Long" I'm not sure if you're a Guster fan. This song is from a CD that's very lightweight but catchy. I picked "So Long," which is for me the most emotionally resonant and powerful track. Hope you like. If you don't, I hope you feel really bad about it. From Lost and Gone Forever. I'm glad Guster dumped the wussy bongo player they had on Parachutes for an actual drummer (especially one who does such interesting things with a three-step beat as this guy does), but it's still hard for me to like the band. It's a nice melody- memorable if generic- but the band's sensitive-guy arrangement doesn't even have the modest bite of someone like Deep Blue Something or the lyrical intelligence of the Actual Tigers. For some reason, I have trouble with it. I do feel really bad about it, however.
4. The Stone Roses: "Going Down" The B-side to "Made of Stone" and another one of my favorite Roses songs. I've noticed that the chorus sounds a lot like "Elephant Stone" but there's such a lush, calming feel to the track. It's very understated, which is rare for the Roses but they do it well. From The Complete Stone Roses. Yeah, the Roses do tend to use the same descending-melody construction in a lot of their choruses (even "Mersey Paradise" above!), but it's hard to care when they're so very shimmery! I like the way the bass sort of subtly takes over in the second verse, doing colorful little runs, but without disrupting the easygoing flow of the track. How did these guys get so weak by Second Coming? They could've just done another album of variations on this style and I would've been happy.
5. Neil Young: "Country Home" Just to wake you up some. This is a long track but lots of fun, with a great lead riff, pounding rhythm section, and memorable chorus. Neil gets a lot of mileage out of his "angry old redneck" voice. From someone who hates most country music, I've picked a lot of country songs on here. I guess that shows that it's one of my favorite musical forms when done with some taste and originality, allowing for simplicity and maximum emotional impact. From Ragged Glory. Nice point about country music. The genre has grown on me a little bit- as far as artists like Hank Williams or Gram Parsons or Commander Cody go, anyway, who somehow manage to find a unique voice within a fairly rigid style of composition. (I have yet to appreciate similar things within the blues genre.) This is a fun song! I really like the slightly wavery effect on the lead guitar, and Neil's thick harmonies are always a joy. I always enjoy Neil's big, sweaty rock songs just as much as his more personal stuff, and when his guitar lurches into full-on fuzz mode around the five-minute mark, it's a killer moment. Maybe a little overlong, but not enough to bother me.
6. The Vines: "Homesick" Probably not the most obscure track on here but one of my favorites. Most reviews don't even mention it, which shows that most reviewers are a bunch of morons (considering how mediocre the rest of the CD is). I just think they really hit on something great here. From Not Worth Buying...er, Highly Evolved. Aren't these guys from Belgium or somewhere? Who am I thinking of? This song really benefits from being removed from the draining context of its source album. It's a great, piano/acoustic track (with a stellar distort-o-guitar that comes in later) whose Beach Boys-style harmonies and up/down melody soar in exactly the way that Guster track doesn't. It's really downright beautiful. It really should stop at the false ending, though, instead of going on for another uneventful minute and a half. (I'm really not as impatient as my quibbling about song lengths might make me seem, I promise. It's just that years of Ramones and Guided By Voices records have left me addicted to brevity.)
7. Phil Ochs: "Draft Dodger Rag" Not a very emotional track but a lot of fun. Reading the lyrics to this song led me to check out Ochs in the first place. After seeing Full Metal Jacket I want to be like the narrator. From There But for Fortune (a compilation). This song made me laugh out loud in my car, probably appearing crazy to the SUV-driving suburban moms around me. Though some of the more specific references (Castro, Senator Dodd) are dated, Ochs's peacenik message is probably as timely as ever. If the draft ever does come back around, and I don't manage to get to Canada in time, I plan to learn to recite this song verbatim, just in case. Catchy song, too- this might be my favorite on here.
8. The Beach Boys: "We're Together Again" I know, I know, it's the fuckin' Beach Boys. No cars or surfing, though! Actually, I'm not sure if Brian Wilson even wrote this (it's credited to an "R. Wilson"). I just find it to be a great example of their harmonies, set to a simple, effective melody. Gets me every time. Bonus track on the Friends/20/20 two-fer. Yeah, the Beach Boys style of harmonizing really is something special, and one of their music's elements that I am able to instantly appreciate. This is one of their better songs, that I've heard, too. I doubt I'll ever be ga-ga for their good-timey vibe, since I usually find it a little too simplistic- especially when I could listen to someone who's both insanely happy and utterly bizarre like Of Montreal- but this song is more modest, and that I enjoy. Not quite a throwaway, it just sounds like all the pieces came together really quickly; that it was written and recorded maybe five minutes of pure inspiration. It's nice.
9. Mike Viola & the Candy Butchers: "Falling Into Place" I'm not crazy about Viola but I think this is an inspired track. The chorus is very calming and in that context I think his scratchy voice contrasts very well with it. From Falling Into Place. This is a great single. I agree about the contrast between his somewhat gruff voice and the pop bliss of the piano in the chorus; it's a great mix of flavors, and it's a tune that sticks with you. Can't say it makes me want to hear more of him, but it does make me want to pull out an Odds record to hear more of this style. (Something about the tune strikes me as being a little calculated, and I think that would wear me out, especially considering how unimpressed Ben was with the rest of the record.)
10. The Hollies: "On a Carousel" I get the distinct feeling that you can't stand the Hollies and usually neither can I. But this is my favorite Hollies song- just a big shot of fun, with huge vocals and lots of interesting little sections. From The Hollies' Greatest Hits. It's that song! I love that song! This sort of early British Invasion rock doesn't cross my path very often, but I've heard this song enough times, in random venues, to know it's fantastic. Great, flowery verses and a chorus that's great to shout along to... wow. I'm glad this song is finally in my collection. Didn't know I was missing it till I had it. I don't know if I like the Hollies' other work or not- are these the same guys that did that song from the love montage in Dumb and Dumber?
11. Stevie Wonder: "Please Don't Go" This is a weird mix of happy music and sad lyrics and vocals. I'm not sure what you'll think of it. I think he just hits some incredible notes throughout the song. From Fulfillingness' First Finale, which is a very slow, sad album that you might like- one of my all-time favorites. Like the Beach Boys, I'll probably never be much of a Stevie Wonder fan because happy music really isn't up my dank little alley. Just a personal preference. This song has some interesting bits, though. I'm particularly fond of the somewhat scratchy bass tone, and Stevie really does seem strangely jaunty about his lover taking off... He's obviously a really talented singer, but I don't know about this one. Doesn't really do much for me, but I'm prepared to think that's my own fault.
12. Tom Waits: "Grapefruit Moon" To me, a perfect lullabye (part of it was later stolen for Elton John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"). Judging by his first album, Waits is an inconsistent songwriter.....but when he's on, it's incredible. From Closing Time. Waits is just now starting to grow on me, so it's nice to hear early stuff like this, when his voice was merely raspy as opposed to the aural equivalent of drinking a glass of tree bark that it has become. (Kind of like Leonard Cohen!) Beautiful, beautiful piano-and-strings arrangement on this song, too. It's a very evocative number, without being treacly. If I were in the mood, this could probably make me cry.
13. Neil Young: "Winterlong" You asked me the other night what my favorite Neil Young track is (I'm really dating these liner notes, eh?) and I think this is it. His vocal- screech doing a multitracked duet with regular- is perfect. The chorus is incredibly emotional. Even the ragged bar-band backing enhances the effect. The repeated coda at 2:45 always gets me. If you don't like this, you're just dead inside. Enjoy! From Decade. Hmmm... see, I can't get past the kind of generic bar-band backing, myself. It's a great vocal performance, no question, and it's got one of the saddest steel-guitar bits I've ever heard, but I wish the arrangement as a whole were more powerful. I bet this one would be an ass-kicker live, but this recording seems a little lackluster to me. I do enjoy the song, but I don't think I'd put it in my Neil Young top ten or anything. Thus far, I feel bad for not liking Guster and I'm also dead inside...
14. The Wonders: "All My Only Dreams" Well, I like it. It's prefabricated and sappy but I think it's expertly prefabricated and effectively sappy. I don't know why a fake sixties band is singing a fifties ballad. I have no idea who sings it but it's one of my favorite vocals. I can listen to this over and over again. From the That Thing You Do! soundtrack. I thought it was the Oneders! I agree- this is a song that doesn't suffer from being prefabricated. Kind of like the film it came from; there's no question that the naievete is a bit of a put-on, but I think the people behind it sincerely wish that they could get away with something as innocent as it's pretending to be, so it's easy to forgive. Does that make sense? Beautiful song, at any rate. It's nice to hear a fifties-style tune recorded with the production values of the nineties. Great singing from Johnathon Schaech or whoever- that high note at the end gave me chills.
15. The Posies: "Fall Apart With Me" Give the band another chance! I think this is one of the rare instances where their likeable warm harmonies and ragged instrumental backing actually combine with a catchy, emotional chorus. From Success. I recently saw a clip of the Posies in the documentary Hype, about the Seattle scene of the late '80s and early '90s, and it's hardly just bad editing that they were about the most boring band featured in the film (though not as irritating as, say, Some Velvet Sidewalk). The first couple of times I went through this song, I liked it alright, but by this point, I find it a bit annoying. There's really nothing to it; the guitarists whack away at a couple chords, and the chorus is just three huge notes that could've been spectactular if they were attached to a contrapuntal melody line or something, but nope! Just those three notes, over and over, and I quickly lose interest. I assume Ben will understand me not liking this one, however, since he largely agrees with me that the Posies are squaresville, Daddy-O.
16. The Beach Boys: "Farmer's Daughter" Give the band another chance! This is just a simple, effective track laced with gorgeous harmonies. It's not as intricate as their later stuff but for me it's more transcendent in its innocence (and vocals) (and lovely melody) (and I like it, dammit!!). From Surfin' USA. This might sound like I'm just shamelessly plugging one of my friends (or shamelessly shouting, "Look how indie I am!"), but the Beach Boys' version of this song has kind of been ruined for me by the fact that Joe Hinchcliffe recorded a tear-jerking slow version of it on his album Doesn't Mean Me. Seriously- I've grown to adore the melody, which really is pretty, but the Beach Boys' upbeat, ticking-clock arrangement doesn't work at all for me, since I've already developed such an attachment to Joe's personal, home-recorded version. Thanks a heap, Joe! Ruining everything by making it better!
17. Neil Young: "Campaigner" The crank returns. This is a song about Richard Nixon and a really interesting counterpoint to "Ohio"... but I love it because it's calming and pretty. People say Neil is just a sub-Dylan singer/songwriter but I've never heard a Dylan song that I enjoy as much as this. Lots of great imagery in the lyrics, too. Completing the Decade trilogy. I should mention that the "Ohio" thing is a reference to a conversation Ben and I had about the entertainingly angry CSNY song that I'd only just discovered. Like Ben, I'd rather listen to Neil than Bob any day of the week. (Except maybe "The Man In Me" Day.) I really love the bittersweet melody here; it's like Neil took a really generic country-based acoustic song and then spiced it up by inserting minor chords at strategic, unexpected moments. (That doesn't really sound like I'm giving Neil much credit for his songwriting, but that's the effect it has on me. It's a good effect!) And jokes about how uptight Nixon was always make me smile, for some reason, even though I was born six years after Nixon stopped being politically active. In all the footage I've seen, he just seems like he's totally out-of-it. This is a great one.
18. INXS: "Tiny Daggers" Give the band a chance! Any chance! Seriously, I think this is one of the best INXS songs and the one I figured you'd have the best chance of liking. Just a really fun pop-rock song with a real melodic chorus, none of that spoken-word crap. This is all song and no atmosphere. Hope you like. From Kick, which you will one day realize is one of the best albums of the '80s. Ummmmmm... no, not really. This song reminds me of Rick Springfield's "Walk of Life"- which I like, when I'm in an '80s rock mood- but not as memorable. Something about INXS gives me an instantaneous headache, and though this song is light years ahead of most of their songs on the "melody" scale, I don't think much of Michael Hutchence as a vocalist, even compared with the three-note range of someone like Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett. As you may have noticed, I am randomly biased.
19. Tom Waits: "Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards)" More country-rock. This is a great example of the genre, enhanced by one of my favorite melodies and Waits' ragged, nuanced voice. It sounds too simple to be great but I really think it is. From Closing Time. Can't really add much to Ben's comments. Waits hits upon that ineffable, unidentifiable element that can make a really basic song a winner on its own unpretentious terms. I really need to get some of his records.
20. Phil Ochs: "When I'm Gone" This kills the momentum of the album but I think it's very pretty. Just a mature statement set to an unforgettable melody. One of my favorite things about Ochs is that he wasn't a dumb hippie capitalizing on the "revolutionary" sixties. He was wise beyond his years and saw all sides of the issue (and wrote effective melodies to back it up). From There But for Fortune. From what little I've heard of Ochs, I agree with Ben that he was a much deeper and smarter political satirist during the Vietnam years than someone like the Smothers Brothers. I don't, however, agree that this song saps the momentum of this mix- it follows up Waits's small-rock very nicely, and the melody is so goshdurned beautiful I'm in awe. The fact that it sounds like a studio track until the very end when a crowd erupts into applause suggests that they were every bit as rapt in their attention to the song's sorrow as I was. Maybe I should get some of his records too.
21. Lindsay Buckingham: "Holiday Road" Are liner notes necessary for this one? Ha! There's not an element of this song that doesn't sound antiquated by now, from the stupid synth-bass to the ridiculous fake handclaps (and barking dogs!) to the silly echo on Buckingham's voice- and it's impossible not to smile through every second of it. I love this song! Don't eat the Truckster, Russ.
22. The Allman Brothers Band: "Little Martha" Don't be scared by the band name. This is a tiny instrumental and a perfect way to end the album. Written by Duane Allman, it's a duet between him and Dickey Betts. From Eat a Peach. I usually miss out on the first couple seconds of this song, because Ben preceded it with a sound clip of The Simpsons' Jasper saying, "Slow down! The sidewalk's for regular walkin', not for fancy walkin'!" causing me to laugh for a good half a minute. Actually, the Allmann Brothers have never disagreed with me, and this delicate twin-guitar instrumental is probably the best song of theirs I've heard. Well-placed harmonics, intricate picking, and a thoroughly cozy mood- what's not to like? Very pretty.
So that's it. Mix CDs aren't the sorts of things you give grades to, simply because they're put together out of friendship, and that would be tacky. But I've gotta say that, even with some of the nitpicky complaints I've made above, Songs for an Alright Day has given me hours of listening fun (and I expect it will continue to do so at least until it gets stolen out of my car or something), and if you have either a high-speed Internet connection or a lot of patience, I highly recommend you put together your own version of this disc. It's mostly upbeat, but in a relaxed, simmering way that's very effective for, well, middle-of-the-road days that are just going alright. Thanks, Ben!
Rich Bunnell writes: "Tiny Daggers"????????????
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