Priest Picks #12: Our Weekly Top 10
Welcome to week #12 of Priest Picks. As we head toward Quarantine: The Sequel we’re really going to need some interesting things to occupy our time. So, here’s our weekly list detailing our last seven days in captivity. I’ve had very little free time in the last week (hence my Monday post comes on a Tuesday), so hang with me if this seems a little scatterbrained. Or, realistically, business as usual.
1. EMITT RHODES / “Live” & “Live Til You Die”
Eulogy Alert! Emitt Rhodes died at the age of 70 on July 19, 2020. You are forgiven if his name escapes you, but for many he’s a much beloved cult icon from the early 1970s who produced what some have claimed, with tongue-in-cheek, to be one of the best Beatles solo albums—that being his self-titled debut from 1970. To further that notion, a 2009 documentary about his life was titled The One Man Beatles and it wasn’t a Monty Python sketch, it was a bona-fide rockumentary. On first listen to the album, you’ll be able to see why people made such sacrilegious claims to begin with. Emitt’s voice leaned toward McCartney, but had some Lennon mixed in for good measure. His songs were strong enough to last, had some of them been recorded by a solo Beatle. Otherwise, they were doomed to semi-obscurity. But fate wasn’t kind to lil’ Emitt and his recording career inexplicably got lost in the shuffle and disappeared into the ether like the work of so many other talented artists. If it wasn’t for a small cadre of evangelistic power-pop aficionados (like me) he might’ve been forgotten forever, but there are people out there who treat Emitt as a deity and steadfastly keep his music and influence alive. There’s no doubt he deserved better, but at least he left a legacy that means something to somebody 50 years later. He even had the courtesy to write a couple songs for his own memorial service along the way. “Live” was originally recorded by his band The Merry-Go-Round in 1967 and contains lines that have gained power over time like, “If you gotta go, you better live your life before you pass away/Don’t waste a day.” He was only 17 when he wrote that line. I was popping pimples at that age. Even better is “Live Til You Die” which is likely his best solo song with the possible exception of regional hit “Fresh As a Daisy.” “You must live till you die, you must fight to survive/You must live till you die/You must feel to be alive” goes the chorus and although he never got the breaks he richly deserved, he’ll go down with power-pop fanatics as one of the OPPs (Original Power-Poppers).
2. ALMOST FAMOUS REUNION / Origins Podcast
I was asked a month or so ago to list my favorite movies of all-time and Almost Famous was at the top of my list. It’s kind of a no-brainer really. It’s not only a great rock & roll movie, it’s also the only movie I can think of that is told from the perspective of a rock and roll writer. I don’t anoint movies exclusively because they cater to my proclivities—it’s not that easy to get me on board—but this film just happens to deserve my top honor based on its own artistic merits. Simply, Almost Famous succeeds as a movie because of its authenticity. It was written based on director Cameron Crowe’s life and adventures as a teenage journalist (15 when he started!) for Rolling Stone magazine. Crowe was there on the front lines with wide eyes and he remembers everything down to the most minute detail. He interviewed Zeppelin and toured with the Allman Brothers by the time he was 16, so he knows how it went down back then. The movie chronicles a time when rock & roll was itself a teenager—wild, awkward, restless, and unpredictable. The adventure hadn’t been bleached out of it yet. We’re so used to that feeling being marketed to us these days we forget there was a time when a musician could stand on the roof of a house and proclaim “I’m a golden god!” and get away with it. Nobody would know about it unless a journalist (“the enemy”) was trailing close behind. He’d be crucified as a douche and sent packing by the internet before he even got started these days. The era chronicled in Almost Famous simply won’t happen again and it makes one yearn to go back and recapture that feeling one more time. Despite Lester Bangs’ claims to Crowe’s avatar “William Miller” that “It’s just a shame you missed out on rock and roll….It’s over,” we know that wasn’t the case, but somewhere in there is the theme of the whole
movie. It chronicles a time when rock and roll still had pockets of integrity and innocence even though it had already become big business, complete with its own ecosystem of groupies and parasites. While some “love a band so much it hurts,” there are other who latch on because “they’re just after the money.” And any true rock & roll fan wants to be on the right side of that equation. That’s why we come back over and over. But if that’s all Almost Famous was about, it might not be the special movie it is. Instead, it’s a gloriously woven tapestry of rock and roll, adolescence, friendship, passion, and most importantly, family. You almost don’t realize you’re watching a movie after a while it's so captivating. I’ve watched it so many times I’ve lost count and I never want it to end. I don’t want to come back to William’s house. I want to stay on the road forever with Stillwater and see what happens in the next town. If “It’s all happening!” I want to be there for it. Which is why this movie, one that lost quite a bit of money when released, is now being celebrated by a multi-part reunion podcast (by Origins) complete with almost all the key players (from casting agents to production personnel to actors) and every one of them speaks of the movie as a life-changing and career-making experience. Most never found something anywhere close to that feeling for the rest of their professional careers. The podcast is packed with great stories about the writing, casting, filming, and long-term impact of the movie, but I’m not going to tell you any of them. That’s for you to hear yourself, assuming you’re as passionate about the movie as me (and if you’re not, it’s still an amazing story). Somehow, someway the creators of the podcast have managed to bring the same pure spirit and emotional complexity of the movie to the podcast itself. There’s a reason the movie has become more and more beloved as the years pass and this five-part series gets right to the heart of the reason why.
3. THE ROLLING STONES / “Scarlet”
I despise the anniversary culture we’ve created in rock and roll. Happy 10th birthday to Tame Impala’s InnerSpeaker! (Why?!) Big dilemma, people. How are we going to commemorate the 20th birthday of At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command? Should we throw a big party? What about Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood’s 35th? I don’t care what we do as long as there’s a deluxe 2 CD, 4 LP, velvet-lined box-set to celebrate with, complete with outtakes, art print, fish-flavored vinyl, a 200-page leather-bound book with new, never before seen, band photographs, with a limited run of 10,000 hand-numbered copies, signed by the band. We have created a world where we are pre-justifying a regular cash outlay every 5 years for eternity and the music business is jerking-off at the thought of your pathetic loyalty. If I was the commissioner of rock & roll, and they need one, I’d limit special anniversary editions to 25-year increments at most. Which means a sanctioned reissue of the Rolling Stones’ underrated Goats Head Soup would be approaching its 50th anniversary reissue exemption in 2023. Cue the bilking of loyal fans, cue the custom lithograph, cue the free
goat head with the first 1,000 copies. I look forward to the shameless price tag as well. Well, for some reason, they’re jumping the gun on that anniversary by three years (thanks to no regulatory oversight) and releasing a deluxe edition of the album this year instead. You can’t stop progress so happy 47th anniversary Goats Head Soup! You can decide if you want to invest $149.98 in the whole package or merely download this really good, long overdue Stones song complete with a guest appearance by Jimmy Page in his Led Zep prime for a buck-29. “Scarlet” was born thanks to the old recording studio hook-up story where Led Zep was leaving the studio and the Stones were just rolling in, but this time we get a nasty number with Keith and Jimmy both strutting their stuff in a glorious guitar riffapallooza that again demonstrates how great a simple rock & roll girl song can be in the right hands. This might be one of my favorite, if not thee favorite, aftermarket Stones track ever.
4. JARV IS… / “Save the Whale” and “Must I Evolve”
The name of Jarvis Cocker’s new project is inexplicable and stupid, but we got beyond it eventually while attempting to digest his new record, Beyond the Pale, which is only seven songs deep, with each averaging an attention span-challenging 6-minutes. Predictably, some of the songs don’t deserve their length even though Cocker is never uninteresting. His droll demeanor has made him a beloved eccentric in the UK and it doesn’t always translate this time, but when it does, like on the captioned tracks, it justifies the band’s existence. But make no mistake, we’d all rather have another Pulp record instead, wouldn’t we? Yes we would. Jarv Is… (painful) brings a little minimalist dance vibe to this record, referencing Chicago House legend Frankie Knuckles on “Must I Evolve” and later on album track “House Music All Night Long,” but don’t expect any of these tracks to be packing dancefloors in London, let alone Chicago. “Save the Whale” is the most Pulp-ish of the tracks, which is probably why I like it so much. Cocker has always had a dry English wit and there’s several good lines throughout, like “While the world got technically infatuated/I was busy gettin’ saturated,” and “Me and you, we’ve gone and founded a new civilization/How much are we gonna charge people for admission?” The chorus, thanks to Cocker’s deep voice, reminds of recent Leonard Cohen at times, which is a good thing. “Must I Evolve” is basically Jarvis asking a series of questions to his background singers like “Must I change?” “Must I develop” “Must I grow up?” all of which are answered with enthusiastic “Yes, Yes Yes, Yes” responses—with the exception of “Can I stay the same?” where he seems to try to catch them off guard, but the savvy singers weren’t born yesterday. The answer of course is, “No, No, No, No” this time. You can fool a background singer some of the time, but not all of the time.
5. THE JAYHAWKS / XOXO
We’ve been taking the Jayhawks for granted for too long, which is not a good thing. If you have, you’ve missed some great music. Their last true album,* Paging Mr. Proust, was their most ambitious ever and challenged their fans to hang with them as they moved in a more experimental direction with the band’s trademark sound. It proved that the band was not interested in resting on its laurels when they easily could have done just that. Enter the new XOXO and again the band is taking a risk; this time by allowing long-time members to write and perform their own songs instead of placing all the weight on bandleader and acclaimed songwriter Gary Louris. I admit, when I first heard the news I raised a concerned brow. Despite the fact that bassist Marc Perlman, keyboardist Karen Grotberg, and drummer Tim O’Reagan have been crucial members of the band for a long time, it’s rarely a good thing to cave to your bandmates’ creative trouser yanking. That’s what side-projects are for! If you want your own sandbox, fine, just not on my time. (Even Lennon & McCartney had difficulties in spreading the songwriting real estate to other members and one of them was George Harrison!) But I’m happy to report Louris has made a savvy decision, for this is easily the most diverse Jayhawks album to date and it genuinely benefits from the wider scope of styles, sounds, and vocalists. If anything, it might actually increase the band’s profile and they seem to relish the opportunity to take their own songs and hear them in the context of the classic Jayhawks formula. While “Down to the Farm,” Perlman’s contribution, is the least successful, Grotberg and O’Reagan both shine in their new spotlight. Grotberg’s “Ruby” and “Across My Field” are both stellar and will fit perfectly into the nightly set list and her voice will provide a nice contrast. But it’s O’Reagan who defies the “the drummer plays the drums” edict smartly imposed by most bands and proves he’s a vital new creative force in the band. His “Dogtown Days” is front-loaded on the album for a reason—it sounds like the Jayhawks playing with Big Star. You heard me. And the crafty “Society Pages” surely guarantees his continued songwriting presence from this point forward. He’s a guy who can infuse a little rock into the usual mix, which is a nice alternative to Louris’s timeless Midwestern laments. O’Reagan isn’t a one-trick-pony though. Even the sweet “Looking Up Your Number” is a late album gem. And, of course, Louris is still right in the middle of the fray; his “This Forgotten Town” and “Homecoming” are vintage Jayhawks and the absolutely fabulous and all-purpose Coronavirus/modern politics anthem “Living in a Bubble” again shows he always was the “poppier” of the two original songwriters in the band. I’m going to make a point to check out this tour, which should be a great showcase for the now more democratic Jayhawks.
*I’m conveniently not counting their last record, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, since it was kind of a hodge podge collection of co-writes Louris engaged in for other artists like the (Dixie) Chicks, Wild Feathers, Tonic, Jakob Dylan, and some other semi-notables over the years.
6. THE PSYCHEDLIC FURS / "Come All Ye Faithful”
Proving I haven’t changed one bit throughout my life, when I was a kid I was always on the lookout for a new song I liked, even when my parents dragged me to church every Sunday. The first thing I did when I sat down is check out the day’s hymns hoping to hear some of my favorites.* One of those songs was, of course, “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” which is what initially drew my attention to the new Psych Furs single from Made of Rain, their first album since 1991 (seriously, boys, what else are you doing with your time?). I was doubtful that they’d attempt a straight cover of the 1751 chestnut, but it did prompt me to give the song a listen out of curiosity. I wasn’t expecting much to be honest, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised at how good the song was and how fantastic Richard Butler still sounds as well. I also liked that the lyrics were much deeper and darker than expected (I was not a huge fan of the band back in the day, but I do remember seeing them on the Mirror Moves tour and mildly enjoying the show). “Come All Ye Faithful” begins with Butler asking “you holy rollers” to “shine a light on me” and immediately I’m wondering if the band’s second coming has an ulterior motive involving a conversion message. Thankfully the next line provides relief, “When I said I loved you, well I lied.” For good measure, he does the same thing with the “playboys and sinners” in the next verse only to come back with the same refrain. To sum up: He doesn’t love anybody and he’s been laughing at you all the time! Now this is a song I can get behind and not only because the Furs are following my website’s “Records As Religion” mantra. But it doesn’t hurt.
*A short list: “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” and “Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow (Armand Van Helden remix).” I was, in retrospect, pleased my parents were Lutherans, because Martin Luther was a noted music buff and clearly would’ve had his own blog if born five centuries later. Perhaps he would’ve nailed his Top 95 songs of the year on the church door each December as well.
7. JENNY OWEN YOUNGS / “Fuck Was I”
I’ve been sitting on this song for fifteen years, but it’s always been in the back of my mind, lurking, waiting patiently. It wasn’t really on anyone’s radar when it was released back in 2005 from what I remember, had maybe a mild impact, but it got a new life when it was used to open an episode of Weeds back in 2006 (a show with consistently inspired music selections). I appreciate the general theme which is something we can all relate to (getting into a relationship too fast or staying in one too long), but that’s only a part of it. This song appeals to me on multiple levels, most of them aesthetic. One, the title could’ve easily been “What the Fuck Was I Thinking?” which is the songs oft-repeated refrain. But I like the way she plucked the “Fuck Was I” portion for the song title. I also like what I call “all purpose” songs—songs whose chorus can apply to a broad range of life’s fuck-ups. Insert fuck up and sing. So I do. I sing this song a lot to myself for varying reasons. I also like songs that use the word “fuck” with just the right amount of brio or disdain. That’s the way it should be said. It’s a versatile word, capable of working from under breath all the way to full-throttle traffic bird-flipping. But there are some artists who use the word with a particularly effective lustiness and the ironically initialed Jenny Owen Youngs is one of them. The song’s real good, too. A perfect example of early 20th century female angst lamenting love’s savage nature and the people who expect to carelessly enter into it unscathed.
8. MICHAEL STIPE & BIG RED MACHINE / “No Time For Love Like Now”
Michael Stipe’s latest single took a while to sneak up on me, but it eventually did just that. This collaboration with Aaron Dessner (The National) and Justin Vernon’s Big Red Machine* is a natural fit with Mike’s increasingly textured vocals. Stipe rarely comes out and says anything with perfect clarity, but I read this claustrophobic anthem as the rallying cry we all need right now.
*As a kid, oh how I worshiped the Cincinnati Reds of the early-to-mid 70s, aka “The Big Red Machine,” perhaps one of the finest teams ever assembled on a baseball diamond. The only fact that might betray that claim was their pitching depth, but who needs pitching when your team features Hall of Famers like Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and even Manager Sparky Anderson, not to mention the exiled Hit King Pete Rose and incredible sidemen like Ken Griffey, George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, and Dave Concepcion. Perhaps Dessner also named his main band The National because the Reds are in the National league. I haven't asked.
9. MICHAEL FRANTI & SPEARHEAD / “I Got You”
I admit I have referenced Michael Franti & Spearhead in jest over the years, and not in a flattering way. And I stand by it for the most part. But every once in a while he uncorks something so unabashedly hopeful, fun, and/or optimistic, that even I, junker of jam bands, slaughterer of space jams, killer of khakis, and trouncer of tie-die, have to admit to loving a song of his now and then. I imagine if I lived in a tropical climate, I might appreciate his music even more once immersed in his natural habitat. There’s an equal or better chance the insidious nature of such music would drive me to suicide, so perhaps I’m better off staying put. But for now, “I Got You” sounds like just the song we might need for these times to get us on our feet and dancing on our own. It ignores everything going on in favor of some basic universal truths—that there is often less to this life than we think. You have the option, if you dare, to make a lasting and drastic change to your life—to get away and start a new and improved existence. And it certainly helps if you have someone you love to share it with, of course. If you don’t, well, that’s not his concern. Perhaps there’s something to this jolly jam band stuff. Who knows, the next time you see me I might be standing next to you at a Johnny Clegg and Savuka concert. But don’t bet on it.
10. SCOOTERS IN ROCK & ROLL, PART 2
Welcome to the second installment of “Scooters in Rock & Roll,” where we celebrate the scooter, the ultimate form of rock & roll rebellion! This week, we’re checking in with Latin jazz artist Rene Grand and His Combo New York and their record, Exciting and Grand, from 1967. Yes, we know this may not technically qualify as rock & roll, but who cares? I certainly don’t feel we need to get genre fussy when we’re talking classic scooters. Rene Grand never made a huge splash during his relatively modest career, but you’d never know it by his expression on this album cover. He exudes an “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere” enthusiasm that people sometimes get caught up in when visiting the Big Apple. With his arms outstretched in triumph, a bright smile across his face, he’s clearly on top of the world—not to mention looking quite dapper in his snazzy tuxedo. Perhaps his excitement is partly due to the fact he’s been zipping around downtown Manhattan on a 1966 Honda Super Cub 50 in downtown Manhattan. Or maybe he’s just excited to still be alive after braving the notoriously dangerous streets of NYC with just 49 itty-bitty cc’s at his disposal. I know I wouldn’t touch Manhattan asphalt without at least triple that power at the very least. And driving without a helmet in a car is a risk in New York, let alone on cycle with a glorified Honda lawn mower engine as its power plant. We’re talking death trap or suicide rap depending on your mental state. The record, like the scooter, is a complete treat as well, loaded with mambos, cha chas, boleros, and merengues, all with tight arrangements and killer piano playing by the Grand master of scooters and sambas himself! Buy the ticket and take the ride, folks.
See you next Monday for our weekly service. Until then, gotta scoot!