Friday, January 22, 2010

Bobby's songs #7 and #8: Rob Jungklas and Son House

This entry is a twofer. The first song led me to the other and I think the second song is necessary to fully explain the first. So, I present both of them.

Tennessee-based Rob Jungklas scored a pair of very modest rock hits in the late 1980s. "Make it Mean Something" (which I've never heard and cannot find on the Internet) reached #87 on the Billboard Hot 100 and "Boystown" got some MTV airplay because it ripped of a previous Wang Chung video. See for yourself. He recorded 2 poorly selling albums and then seemingly hung it up in 1989. He left the music industry and went on to get a college degree, get married, and become a high school teacher.

The point is, you've probably never heard of him and neither had I. A buddy of mine who used to frequent the mini-mall where I worked for the first half of the 00's brought Arkadelphia by one day and insisted I listen to it.

Overall, I wasn't very impressed. The dirty-South white guy blues rock wasn't a revelation and the music and songwriting, while occasionally engaging, did little to hold my attention. Something about his music seemed too cerebral -- and the one thing you can NOT do is think when playing the blues.

The first song on the album, however, immediately struck me as a gem. "Drunk Like Son House" is head and shoulders above the other tracks on the album. The riffs are catchy, the vocals are convincing, and the lyrics contain one of the best poetic turns of phrase I've ever heard: "Sometimes God will mumble but the Devil always annunciates." What a wonderful and horribly true observation.

Drunk Like Son House by Rob Jungklas

i don't wanna be a poisonin' the water
i don't wanna be the light that shone
i don't wanna to be the voice in the darkness
all i want is a heaven of my own

i don't wanna be a holy roller
i don't wanna be doubtin' trancendence
i don't want to hate the men i talk to
i don't want to love the women that kiss me

i'm drunk like son house

i don't care what the good book promise
i don't care what the preacher man say
i'mma move when the spirit move me
with the whiskey and the women to help me to pray

i'm drunk like son house

i come here

stay away from Itta Bena
stay away from the Stovall place
sometimes God will mumble
but the devil always annunciates

I think it is important to be familiar with Son House and his life story in order to full appreciate this song. (Perhaps some of you already know his work without knowing that you know it. The White Stripes covered his "Death Letter" on De Stijl (2003).) It was a happy coincidence that my boss had recently purchased a Son House CD and had been playing it regularly in the store -- otherwise I would not have known a thing about Son House.

Son House was a performing Mississippi delta blues musician in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. He was a contemporary of better-known blues icons Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. Before his career as a juke-joint musician House was a man of the cloth. He had been a Baptist preacher since the age of 15. By his mid-20s he experienced a paradigm shift. He left the church, bought a guitar, and began teaching it to himself. The first surviving record of House playing his music is from a 1930s acetate. The sound quality is terrible and some of you may not be able to listen to this song the whole way through. For those of you who do, pay attention to how the youthful, former Baptist preacher, mocks his former passion with an almost demonic exuberance. You can certainly tell he was a preacher. He was 28 here and in the midst of his pulling away from all he had been.

Preachin' the Blues (1930) by Son House

The title, "Preachin' the Blues" encapsulates House's internal struggle that he would continue to struggle with: living among the holy ("Preachin') or living among the profane ("Blues", being the music that was played disreputable establishments and usually involved liquor).

Oh, I'm gonna get me a religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist Church
Oh, I'm gonna get me a religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist Church
I'm gonna be a Baptist preacher, and I sure won't have to work

Oh, I'm a-preach these blues, and I, I want everybody to shout
I want everybody to shout
I'm gonna do like a prisoner, I'm gonna roll my time on out

Oh, I went in my room, I bowed down to pray
Oh, I went in my room, I bowed down to pray
Till the blues come along, and they blowed my spirit away

Oh, I'd-a had religion, Lord, this every day
Oh, I'd-a had religion, Lord, this every day
But the womens and whiskey, well, they would not set me free

Oh, I wish I had me a heaven of my own
(spoken: Great God almighty!)
Hey, a heaven of my own
Till I'd give all my women a long, long, happy home

hey, I love my baby, just like I love myself
Oh, just like I love myself
Well, if she don't have me, she won't have nobody else

Most of the lyrics to "Drunk Like Son House" are inspired from those in this song. One line, in particular, is lifted completely: "All I want is a heaven of my own." Why must I choose between preaching or bluesing? Couldn't there be some 3rd alternative?

Jungklas paints an image of how House might have felt in the middle of that spiritual tug of war by evoking images of both religion ("light that shone") and lust ("I don't want to love the women that kiss me"). He even cleverly mixes the two impulses by mixing Son House's own lyrics up ("whiskey and women to help me to pray") and thereby illustrating how the dichotomy of vice and faith may reside in the same soul.

So, what does it mean to be "drunk like Son House"? Having not read his biography, I cannot say when his trouble with alcoholism began, but it would be safe to say it was with him throughout his blues career. The man drank whiskey. A lot of it. All the time. It is likely that House turned to the bottle in order to drown out the conflicting feelings he had about his life. Or, perhaps it was only when he was drunk that he felt he could confront theses big issues. Maybe it was both. Either way, if you are drunk like Son House, you are deeply unhappy and conflicted. You drunkenly wonder why it's so hard to be good yet so easy to fall from grace: "Sometimes God will mumble but the Devil always annunciates." You are also very, very drunk.

So, well done, Rob Jungklas. You win on this song. (Even if you did it by standing on the shoulders of a blues giant.)

For those who have gotten this far, I invite you to listen to Son House performing "Preachin' the Blues" some 35 years later. Note the difference in the lyrics. Also, note how age has quieted the fire that roared in him as a young man. Listen to his delivery, though. Has this 63 year old man resolved his spiritual schism? These new lyrics suggest that he has chosen neither good nor evil but has decided to express and experience both through his music, judgement be damned. "I'm gonna preach these blues and gonna choose my seat and sit down."

Preachin' the Blues (1965) by Son House

Yes, I'm gonna get me religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist Church
Yes, I'm gonna get me religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist Church
You know I wanna be a Baptist preacher, just so I won't have to work

One deacon jumped up, and he began to grin
One deacon jumped up, and he began to grin
You know he said, "One thing, elder. I believe I'll go back to barrelhousin' again"

One sister jumped up, and she began to shout
One sister jumped up, and she began to shout
"You know I'm glad this corn liquor's goin out"

Another deacon jumped up and said, "Why don't ya hush?"
Another deacon jumped up and said, "Why don't ya hush?"
"You know you drink corn liquor and your lie's a horrible stink"

One sister jumped up and she began to shout
One sister jumped up and she began to shout
"I believe I can tell ya'll what it's all about"

Another sister jumped up, she said, "Why don't ya hush?"
Another sister jumped up, she said, "Why don't ya hush?"
"You know he's abandoned, and you outta hush your fuss"

I was in the pulpit, I's jumpin up and down
I was in the pulpit, I's jumpin up and down
My sisters in the corner, they're hollerin Alabama bound

Grabbed up my suitcase and I took off down the road
Grabbed up my suitcase and I took off down the road
I said, "Farewell church, may the good Lord bless your soul"

You know I wish I had a heaven of my own
You know I wish I had a heaven of my own
I'd give all my women a good ol' happy home

I'm gonna preach these blues and I'm gonna choose my seat and sit down
I'm gonna preach these blues and I'm gonna choose my seat and sit down
But, when the Spirit comes, I want you to jump straight up and down

You know I's in the pulpit, I was jumpin straight up and down
You know I was in the pulpit, I was jumpin straight up and down
You know the sisters in the corner, they were hollerin' Alabama bound

This audio clip from later in his life has Son House explaining himself and his struggle. "You can't hold God's hand and the Devil the other." "You can't straddle the fence." "This is how I made peace with myself."

Think about where Jungklas was in 2003. He was over a decade removed from participating in the music industry where he had been a commercial flop. He had been living a safer life by settling down with a wife and a steady, respectable job. Yet, the call to write and record music had stayed with him. How fitting that "Drunk Like Son House" be the first track on his "comeback" album. Certainly he had struggled over the past decade with the desire to write and record music while juggling the new responsibilities of family and adult life. Perhaps Arkadelphia was an attempt to, like Son House, find a way to make peace with both worlds. And, like Son House, let judgment be damned.

Further reading:

This interview with Rob Jungklas is particularly enlightening.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Marky's song #22: Edgard Varèse – “Ionisation”

Hey, don’t think I’m not cognizant of the order I’m doing these. The “twenty-one, only son” gag was an unexpected neat trick, but I’m looking for balance in my entries. I don’t want to overload the system with one or two styles of music – even if that presents an extra challenge since there are certain genres I listen to a lot more than others. I don’t want to be flattered with claims that I listen to everything. For that matter, I don’t want to be challenged on it, either. Stone cold fact: I don’t... mainly because I don’t have enough time. If I'd allow myself to get away with it, I would have made this one #21.5 (based on this piece.) But I simply couldn’t sacrifice my integrity that way – yes, I can hear you laughing – so we move on as expected.

My initial interest in modern classical originally centered around three people: John Cage, Charles Ives and Edgard Varèse. Since then, I’ve pretty much lost all interest in Cage, mainly due to his experiments with chance music. Chance music, different from free improv, is dull to my ears because it takes the creative process away from not only the composer, but the performer as well. However, I still have a huge interest in Ives and Varèse. I’ve already done an entry about an Ives piece, now it’s Varèse’s turn. Varèse is probably known best for “Poème électronique”, my first exposure to electronic music as classical composition, but the majority of his works are for ‘acoustic’ ensembles.

For the record, “Ionisation” is not chance music, nor is it improvisation. No way, bro, this is straight up scored for 13 percussionists. I feel it’s necessary to point that out, given the sometimes well-deserved reputation avant-garde music has for disrespecting established rules - even something fundamental like 'notes go on staff paper.' I won’t give you a full list of instruments used, but they span both traditional and non-traditional orchestral instrumentation. All sorts of non-standard percussive sounds can be heard.

Also notable about this piece is that it’s cited by Frank Zappa as the initial inspiration for him to pursue music as a career. Zappa even convinced his mother to let him call Varèse as a fifteenth birthday present. Varèse was not at home and Zappa wound up talking to with Varèse's wife instead, but obviously that was no deterrent. Zappa albums such as Uncle Meat and even Jazz From Hell show a strong Varèse influence with regard to how sound is organized and the embracement of modern technology to enhance the composition process.

The editing of this video makes it fun to watch, though reading through the comments leads me to believe that some of the instruments are not exactly as Varèse intended. (Wait, why am I wasting time reading YouTube comments?)


The reference to a lack of time in paragraph one is prescient. Now that I'm in grad school, time becomes an ever-more-precious commodity. I will try to update regularly and keep adding new songs, but I ask for understanding should entries occur at a less frequent pace.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bobby's song #6: "I'm Free Now" by Morphine

The first thing that sticks out to those unfamiliar with the band Morphine is their odd make up: a crooning singer that plays a 2-string bass, a sax player, and a drummer. No guitars. Making rock music. Surprisingly, this unusual setup does not come off as a gimmick or an oddball novelty. In fact, once you immerse yourself in Morphine's music you discover that you never feel like anything is missing in the music. On the contrary, the lack of guitars opens the music up for a much richer coloration by the sax and allows the listener to focus on singer Mark Sandman's superb lyrics.

His lyrics were generally cynical, self-deprecating, and melancholy. They tended to deal with dark issues such as addiction, romantic betrayal, and low self-esteem. Despite this the music would often be somewhat upbeat which helped to cushion the blow of his words.

Morphine was formed in 1989 and released 4 albums in the 90s before disbanding in 1999 due to Mark Sandman's sudden death. He had a heart attack while performing on stage. (At least he died while doing something he loved.) A 5th album, The Night, was released posthumously in 2000.

Of all their albums, I love Cure For Pain (1993) the best. It was extremely difficult for me to pick one song from this album for a write-up. The whole album is 5-star gold from start to finish. In the end, I settled on "I'm Free Now" because that was the first Morphine song that I listened to on repeat when I first began listening to them. As noted in my previous entries, lyrics play a large part in how much I love a song. That being said, it certainly doesn't showcase the full range of the Morphine sound -- no one song could.

If you aren't familiar with Morphine and this song makes you want to hear more, it's not too difficult to find a number of other songs to check out. Even more interesting is listening to them live to see how they pull off their polished, overdubbed studio sound.

I'm Free Now by Morphine

Friday, January 8, 2010

Bobby's song #5: "Sixteen, Maybe Less" by Iron&Wine w/ Calexico

In 2005 Iron & Wine (singer-songwriter Sam Beam) and Calexico teamed up to record a 7-track EP called In The Reins. For those familiar with both artists it was exciting to hear how 2 extraordinary songwriters and musicians would sound together since Calexico had a distinct desert western sound and Beam (up to that point) was a one-man band whose sound was influenced by his rural South Carolina upbringing. The result was THE best EP of the decade. (Go ahead and argue with me. You're wrong.)

My favorite song on the EP is a bittersweet song about first-loves, time, and memory called "Sixteen, Maybe Less". Listen to how ethereal pedal steel on the edges of the song and the tremolo on the guitars give it a dreamy-like sound. Every detail of this song, the instrumentation, the intonation, the tempo, the whisper-gentle voice of Sam Beam... all of it fits perfectly with the lyrics. Lyrics that are full of yearning and honesty.

Beyond the ridge to the left you asked me what I want
Between the trees and cicadas singing round the pond

I spent an hour with you should I want anything else?

One grin and wink like the neon on a liquor store
We were 16, maybe less, maybe a little more

I walked home smiling I finally had a story to tell

And though an autumn time lullaby sang our newborn love to sleep
My brother told me he saw you there in the woods on Christmas Eve


I met my wife at a party when I drank too much
My son is married and tells me we don't talk enough
Call it predictable yesterday my dream was of you

Beyond the ridge to the west the sun had left the sky

Between the trees and the pond you put your hand in mine
Said time has bridled us both but I remember you too

And though an autumn time lullaby sang our newborn love to sleep
My brother told me he saw you there in the woods on Christmas Eve


What a poetic notion - that a first-love should be sung to sleep by time and distance and youthful capriciousness.

The fact that Sam Beam grew up in South Carolina, mostly on a farm, shows up in these lyrics, too. Forests, ridges, and ponds. Time has "bridled" them both. This and the earnestness of his voice leads you to believe that this is a fairly auto-biographical song - that he really feels these. Much of Beam's music is like that. You find evidence of his roots in his music and his lyrics.

For Calexico, a band based in Tuscon, Arizona, to back Sam up with their distinctly southwestern sound, without pulling the listener out of the story of the song, is a testament to their musical talents and instincts.

Sadly, this one EP is all we have of this collaboration. Joey Burns (singer, guitar for Calexico) appeared on Iron & Wine's excellent 2007 album, The Shepherd's Dog, but I have heard of no other plans for a follow-up collaboration.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Marky's song #21 (only son): Metallica – “Disposable Heroes”

There is perhaps no other band on the planet that people would like to see go down in flames as much as Metallica. Mere mention of the band can send some into an apoplectic rage. Such visceral reactions seem to stem from a perceived abandonment of a segment of their fans by the band. Rarely does artistic license get taken so personally.

Nowadays, in the wake of St. Anger and Death Magnetic, it’s easy to ignore Metallica; after all, there’s plenty of other music out there. It doesn’t change the fact that at one point, Metallica were the kings of the metal underground. Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets are albums widely appreciated both within and outside the metal community. Even better, and fortunately for us, current violations do not negate prior triumphs. For once we can look back on the bad old days and truly claim that they were better.

Personally, I think Metallica gets treated a little too harshly (but only a little.) Some thoroughly oblivious (or thoroughly paid for) music journalists laughably claimed St. Anger was a return to earlier form. To which I can only sat that if you’re that incompetent or that financially compromised at your job, you should change your career path. If that album had been released by a band of four unknown scruffy urchins, the heralding of it as some new-nu-(gnu?)-metal tour de force might have had some miniscule amount of justification.

However, it wasn’t a bunch of know-nothing nobodies that released that album, it was Metallica. Yes, that Metallica. The one that said they would never do a video or bother with a live album. The one that said they didn’t want to waste money on extravagant stage shows. The one who’s drummer said to Congress that fans that did the modern-day equivalent of tape trading with their dreck of an album ought to be thrown in jail.

I have my own theories about why Lars Ulrich testified against Napster. We’ll probably never really know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Elektra threatened the band’s financial support in return for the testimony they wanted. You know, send Lars to bat for us in the record industry or else we’ll withhold your advance for the next album. To have an artist deliver the message would hold more credibility than if it had been some record executive greed-head. I don’t doubt a major label – any major label – would blackmail an artist in their stable like that.

But instead of bitching about that, let me get in the wayback machine and give you details about this song from 1986. Right from the opening guitar crunch, “Disposable Heroes” grabs you by the shirt collar and never lets go. In typical thrash form, the song has an intro that lasts for over a minute and a half before the first verse even begins, though the intro is really just another verse and chorus structure played without vocals.

However, the thing I like best about this track is the break, which might be the best one in the annals of thrash metal. The strongest part comes in at 4:45 – in the middle of Kirk Hammett’s guitar solo – with a rhythm that shifts back and forth between the original break theme and a completely new riff. That ringing two-chord pattern is liberating, a rare time when the band lets up on the chunky palm muted fast picking to give the listener a chance to breathe before pumping their fist back in the air.

James Hetfield is not a great lyricist by any yardstick, but “looking back I realize / nothing have I done / left to die with only friend / alone I clench my gun” is surprisingly humanizing an event that the musicians (and many of their listeners) could not have first hand knowledge of. It’s certainly more credible than Death’s “Left To Die.” Chalk it up to a happy accident. We’ll have to, because elsewhere he talks about having to get used to the sound of a ticking clock, which I can’t for the life of me figure out what that has to do with the horrors of war.

I almost feel dumb talking about this song in such a clinical manner. Anyone who is reading this or happens to stumble over here probably already knows this song quite well. This is my favorite Metallica song and a great example of all the virtues of the thrash metal genre. And in completely unrelated nonsense, this: