Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Besides the B-Sides in Two Parts

The Pans

Like many ideas I have, the nugget of an inkling of a notion of a thought behind this review was exceedingly stupid and only would come to the kind of sleep-deprived, coffee-driven brain that had spent most of the day listening to “See an Elephant Fly” at the request of a two-year-old for whom the song never lost one jot or tittle of amusement. Kids are like that. If something is good once, it will be good one million times.

B-side collections used to be a serious preoccupation of mine. If I liked a certain band or scollections inger, I would track down every single I could and make my own B-side mix tapes, reveling not only in songs that were by definition not overplayed but enjoying a homemade album that had its own coolness cache. Your level of familiarity with these songs was a good litmus test to measure you on my music snob index. So, when at the library website I typed in “B-sides” in order to find the Damien Rice CD of that name, I was surprised how many collections were out there with that exact title or some very close variation on the same. Why not get all that my library offered and review them as a set?

Be forewarned, then. Someone will probably be offended by something in this review. If my luck holds out, I might just offend every single reader on some point. Most of the bands I’m unfamiliar with their A-side stuff, so I can’t really be taken as that great a judge.

First off U2. There are apparently a great number of people who love U2. Why this should be so, I really can’t say. There is only microscopically more than zero about the band that has even the slightest appeal to me. If I had to put a snotty guess on it, I’d say it has a lot to do with being political early on and becoming famous right around the time most of my contemporaries were in high school and/or college, when achingly earnest political songs (see Clash, The) reaches its zenith. There’s something off-puttingly studied about Bono’s sincerity, not quite a pose, but at the very least it’s sincerity with baby spotlights fixed squarely on it so we can see how drawn all this rich genuineness makes Bono truly feel. It’s like listening to a more earnest, slightly more intelligent Bon Jovi. There is just something about his style of singing that my mind won’t take to and I quickly lose the lyrical thread of whatever he’s talking about; it’s all those sudden falsetto rises and screeching. What is he going on about all the time?

At any rate, the Irish lads do put out the highest quality CD packaging of the lot. Two-disc sets, one disc being the singles and the other the B-sides, arranged chronologically, with lavish photo booklets. The first of the two collections The Best of 1980-1990 features real B-sides; that is, distinctly new songs, covers, and album also-rans. The cover of the deadly cornball Righteous Brothers’ megahit “Unchained Melody” is a perfect example of Bono simply aching his way through what is (face it) schlocky material. The last track “Trash, Trampoline And The Party Girl” is the most unlike anything I’ve heard from U2 before, drum machine beats, whispery keyboards, barely a peep for “the Edge” on his guitar, mandolins, very curious. It’s oddly satisfying when you consider how overrated the band became in the 90s.

The second collection, The Best of 1990-2000, is a bunch of remix crap, not to put too fine a point on it — B-sides of essentially no value or interest to anyone save DJs and the most obsessive of fans. It is by no means complete, as I can personally attest to having once bought a U2 cassingle for the B-side cover of “Paint It Black” which is not included. What is here is a Beck-sound rip off cover of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” in which Bono essentially raps the lyrics save the chorus, sounding as beat allergic as the Beck man himself but with no sense of humor whatsoever. This decade found the band making music about being famous, about making music, as rock gods, and for that reason it lacks the kind of concerned seriousness the 80s albums had, which actually makes them even worse. U2 has the ubiquity of most high grade muzak as in you’d have to be deaf and in a sensory deprivation chamber and most likely dead on top of it all to not have heard at least some of their music in the last twenty years. The last ten years found them making indistinguishable sound dollops of something or other.

For those with a keen hankering for brain damage there’s always the Dropkick Murphys another band of Irish extraction, focused on the kind of testosterone hyped punk that seemed relevant about twenty years ago and now sounds like just another commodified box of shit. Which means exactly what you expect. Really, once we’ve had five punk bands total, what is the point of any more at all? Screaming, grinding guitars that could have been cut and pasted off any other minor label four man punk band, mixed with the novelty of the occasional bagpipes solo and what you’ve got is just a successful version of the youth bands on display at every Irish Festival in every city during every summer in America. Within Singles Collection, Vol. 2: B-sides, Covers, Comps & Other Crap there are covers and, not surprisingly, a bunch of other crap. It’s a testament to how iconic is the sound of AC/DC that within the first few riffs of the intro to “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock’n’ Roll)”, I could name the band even while being completely unfamiliar with the actual song. Even Creedence comes in for the treatment. Then there are punk standards to uphold, but is it strictly necessary to chant “Oi oi oi” at some point to establish your bona fides?

The irony of punk bands, probably one of the most limited forms of popular music, is that screaming about revolution is lost on just about any band giving the three-chord verse-chorus-verse a beatdown these days. The likelihood of any kind of “revolution” is about nil and instead I just feel a kind of pity for the bands more than the fans; the fans can grow out of the music, but too often bands are trapped in doing the same old same old. Wouldn’t you have more respect for The Rolling Stones if they stopped trying to rock the house down and became a crusty old blues band like they kinda sorta seemed to want to be when they were young? Imagine being fifty years old and still having to chant oi oi oi and scream “I want vengeance and I want it now/I want vengeance, gonna get it somehow/I’m gonna hit him, I’m gonna kill him/I’m gonna really make him pay for what he’s done/I’m gonna hit him, I’m gonna kill him/The guy that spoiled my fun.” How much would that suck? And when the band sung “When there’s nowhere left to run/You’re a rebel,” and all the members chimed in on the last three words with such seriousness, I almost spit coffee on myself laughing.

Less Than Jake treads that middle ground between well crafted pop and neutered punk music only previously trodden by just shy of about six thousand and seventy three previous bands. The sound is somewhere between Green Day and Barenaked Ladies. If I’m sure of anything in this fine world, my ex-girlfriend’s older brother has every single album (including this one, B is for B-Sides) by Less Than Jake. What does that tell you? Not one damn thing, but it’s a FACT and should tell you all you might want to know about him. LTJ is quite clearly one of those overly loud bass and horns band that came to prominence during America’s seven-week love affair with ska-influenced dirtbags. Not that there is really much herein that one might confuse with ska. Any song here, pick a song, any song, say “Goodbye In Gasoline” or “Portrait Of A Cigarette Smoker At 19” might easily be the track playing during the credits at the end of any upbeat teen flick regardless of the plot. The best thing you can say about this band is the same as the best thing you can say about the Dropkick Murphys: if you don’t like a song, it’ll be over in about two and a half. Actually, unlike most of the other B-sides collections, this manages to somehow have the feel of an actual album with the two closing numbers having a summing up feeling. If that’s your collection’s strong point, you need to do something else with your life.

Like Less than Jake, No Doubt rode to fame on America’s fickle fancy for watered down radio friendly ska-ish sounds. Conveniently, No Doubt lasted just long enough to make its lead singer famous. Of course ego prompts many people to thrust themselves on stage in a way shouting “Look at me look at me” but nowhere is it more vacant than with Gwen Stefani’s vocals, lyrics, and general way of vamping for the camera. Her style of singing on Everything in Time and everywhere else can best be described as controlled shrill gasping with some cooing for variety as though she were some overheated sexpot. To be fair, Ms. Stefani has the brains and the body most blow-up sex dolls would kill for. However, to see all the band photos on this collection is enough to make you want to drive however many hours it might take and to deliver a mighty ass kicking to the blowdried douchebags and hipster assholes that made up this asinine quartet. For every song featuring some kind of horn section, such as the opening “Big Distraction” and the lame cover of “Oi To The World,” it is remarkable that not one of the four actually play these instruments and yet this obviously necessary part of their sound is just relegated to some non-celebritized members. The slight duet with Elvis Costello is going to make him feel like a dipwad about ten years from now. “New Friend” is about 4”30 minutes consisting of repetitive riffs and almost entirely the lyrics “in my head, it’s only in my head.” Oh, how I wish it had been.

This sort of break from book reviewing helps me recharge the batteries, kids, so enjoy the ride or not. Come back next week if you want to know about books. Music isn’t really my forte, much as I like it. And, later in this week, we’ll look at some B-side collections that weren’t best used as shiny, shiny drink coasters, some CDs with some actually decent songs. Won’t that be a treat?

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