Friday, December 18, 2009

Marky's song #20: The Smiths – “Handsome Devil”

If you rounded up all the fans of the Smiths together, you’d have a lot of pretentious people all in the same spot chances are “Handsome Devil” would not be listed often as a favorite song of many. I’m not one for making lists like that (he says as he numbers each song he writes about), but if I were to sit down and ponder it, it probably wouldn’t be mine, either. It was never released as a single, and the only studio version of it that exists is a 1983 Peel Session that has appeared on various compilations.

The Smiths, as you probably know, were Morrissey on vocals, Johnny Marr on guitar, Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums (oh, excuse me, on the bass and the drums). They were also dynamite writers of guitar-centric pop. Sadly, they were also highly skilled at relegating their best songs to the b-sides of low run singles. According to various sources, it took an earnest plea from a Rough Trade executive to get “This Charming Man” released as a single (over “Reel Around The Fountain”). And of course, “How Soon Is Now?” was initially the b-side to “William, It Was Really Nothing” and wasn’t released as a single of its own until over half a year later, where previous band saturation caused the single to fall short of expectations.

All of the above has nothing to do with the song in question, but it does give you an immediate rejoinder when someone opines how the Smiths should have been bigger than they were and how unfair it was that such strong songwriting could have charted so poorly. They truly were their own worst enemies at some of the most inopportune times.

Anyway, cry me a river while wearing a hearing aid. The Smiths still wrote kick-ass songs even if they did go underappreciated. Me personally, I tend to like their faster songs (this post was almost about “Nowhere Fast”) better than their maudlin crawlers, and this one bristles with spiky punk energy.

Most people know this track through the compilation Hatful of Hollow. It’s not the best recording in the world – careful listeners will notice a pair of slight drop-offs in the source tape – but the rawness of the sound helps give it the snarl it needs and is a nice alternate to the slick production values that mark most Smiths songs. When Morrissey is at his lyrical best, it’s not because he’s providing great narrative or inventive wordplay, it’s because he drops wonderful and memorable sloganeering couplets. “Handsome Devil” is chock-a-block with them:

“I crack the whip and you skip / but you deserve it” – for those of you who are into that sort of thing, a little bit of sadomasochism. (There’s certainly more thrilling eroticism there than in a bitter middle-aged Canadian woman asking if your new girlfriend would go down on you in a theater.)

"A boy in the bush / is worth two in the hand / I think I can help you / get through your exams" – the crassness disqualifies it as being a come on, but it is the most sexually aggressive lyrics Morrissey has ever given us.

“Let me get my hands / on your mammary glands” – a unexpected gender flip that flummoxes the implicit homosexuality in... well, in pretty much everything Morrissey does.

And the final line, “there’s more to life than books, you know / but not much more” is pure platinum. There’s no way to tell whether it’s the tutor talking to the pupil, the pupil taking to the tutor, or just a throwaway line from the Moz as he steps out of the storyline. I guess ambiguity has always been a calling card for the Smiths.

Here's a live version (in a lower key) that accentuates the vocal and guitar lines better.


I believe this concludes my posting for the year 2009. I don't expect to have another one of these ready until after the new year. Have a safe Whatever You're Celebrating and see you all in Twenty-Ten.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Transmission Intermission.

Hey everyone, Marky Narc here. This is not a regular 500 Songs blog post, but a special gift from me to you. Instead of writing a "best of 2009" list, I decided to make you a mix of my favorite stuff in 2009 instead. Below is a link to a zip file that I spent the past week putting together. It should play in your mp3 player of choice, and included in the folder is a text file of the track listing just in case.

Astute folks might notice that there are a few songs on the list that technically aren't 2009. I give myself a little bit of leeway when it comes to stuff like this, mainly because I'm not a music journalist and I don't get any free promos. I have to obtain my music as a regular consumer like everyone else. And sometimes it takes a while to listen to what you've got. So forgive my creative license if a song or two don't actually qualify as '2009.'

I realize this mix is a bit lengthy - over 9000 ninety minutes of music - but take it in chunks if you need to. You like music, right? OF COURSE YOU DO! So download and enjoy.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Marky's song #19: DJ Spooky – "Optometry"

Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) really ought to go through his discography and put together an anthology. A double-CD package would be a great way to introduce him to newcomers as well as give fans an affordable condensed string of highlights. Actually, scratch that. Someone else should go through his discography and put together an anthology; I wouldn’t have faith in the artist himself to do it. As much as I love Spooky, he has not learned the fine art of how to self-edit.

Mind you, I have no reservations against recommending seeing him live. I once saw him put on a show in Cambridge, MA where he spun for almost three hours until they (literally) pulled the plug on him and turned on the venue lights. Take him out of the live setting, however, and he feels compelled to make the Big Artistic Statement and tends to get a little aimless piecing it all together.

Another example: I went to see his Rebirth of a Nation project, where he takes the film Birth of a Nation, chops it up into pieces and “remixes” it live with computer music backing. The music was great, but over two hours (never mind the original film is 190 minutes long) of seeing the same scenes over and over eventually lost its impact and I spent the last thirty minutes or so sitting there with my eyes closed.

This lack of focus becomes all the more maddening when he makes it click like this. “Optometry” comes from the album of the same name; it’s part of Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, an attempted merging of jazz and electronics. It’s kind of a typical Spooky-and-his-Rolodex affair, where the DJ brings in all sorts of musical guests to give him some raw material for him to remix and reshape. Unfortunately, sticking Daniel Bernard Roumain, Pauline Oliveros and William Parker in a room together to make music only winds up proving that Roumain, Oliveros and Parker don’t have enough common ground on which to make compelling music. But wait a minute – are they really in the room together? And does it matter? This isn’t meant to be a 'live in the studio' album, no matter how much they might try to market this as modern jazz. Perhaps I shouldn’t criticize based merely on preconceived notions of how certain types of music are supposed to be made. Spooky’s authenticity (whatever that’s worth) isn’t at risk here. Besides, when Spooky gives us tracks like this, it's easy to forgive all prior transgressions.

DJ Spooky - "Optometry"

So let’s get down with our analytical selves, shall we?

A funky opening bass line fades in and is greeted by a drum (Billy Martin) and violin (Roumain) improvisation. It sounds like they’re going to lose the groove right off the bat, but don’t worry, they stay on task. Martin shifts back into the beat and is joined by piano (Matthew Shipp) upright bass (Parker) and sax (Joe McPhee).

When Spooky drops the spoken sample: “We’re going to do, now, something that has nothing to do with an arranged piece of music,” he really begins to work his magic. Ambient effects and drum loops (played forwards and backwards) are the background for other members to solo over. Players weave in and out and Spooky even does a little record scratching here and there. But my favorite part is at the 8:43 mark – with everyone’s solo out of their system, a snare roll snaps it back to the opening beat and bass, which fades out almost as quickly as it was dropped in. I kind of wish he would let it play longer, but that simply ain’t the way DJ Spooky rolls. The last couple minutes are devoted to another Martin and Roumain improvisation.

Every DJ Spooky album is good for a handful of serendipitous moments like these. If you're willing to sift through them, any album is worth checking out. I don't ever expect him to have a moment of clarity and release a classic album with all the fat trimmed off; Spooky has his own M.O. and he's happy to plug away, testing his own theories. The rest of us are just spectators.