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Showing posts from September, 2016

Songs in the Key of Life: You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory

A brief programming note: This series was formerly known as The Essentials, but I never quite loved that name, probably because most of what I write about here consists of things I consider essential, so almost every post could fall under "The Essentials." So, cribbing the name of a killer Stevie Wonder album, I'm rechristening this series Songs in the Key of Life, which seems like an appropriate title for the songs I'm writing about here. They're life bringers, these songs.


Johnny Thunders was one of the more important figures in punk's formative years. His buzzsaw-like guitar sound was heavy, dangerous, and fast, plus a huge influence on the wave of punk rock guitarists that followed. What we call the "punk rock sound"—distorted, slashing guitars and sneering, nasally vocals combined with a rhythm section on the verge of falling apart at any minute—can be traced back to proto-punk bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Iggy Pop and the…

Songs in the Key of Life: Willin'

A brief programming note: This series was formerly known as The Essentials, but I never quite loved that name, probably because most of what I write about here consists of things I consider essential. So, cribbing the name of a killer Stevie Wonder album, I'm rechristening this series Songs in the Key of Life, which seems like an appropriate title for the songs I'm writing about here.

This is the first of what I hope will be semi-regular explorations of songs that move me in some way, that make me think or smile or feel instantly better when they come on. They're songs I can't get enough of, ever. We all have 'em, they're our essential songs, our jams. They make life that much sweeter for the few minutes we're listening to them. These songs also tend to have a connection to certain memories, people, or places in our lives, which helps make them so essential. These essays won't be done in any order, instead I'll just write about the songs I love as I…

The retro charm of Stranger Things

I wrote about Stranger Thingsthis week for Sequart. Go there to read my more thoughtful and nuanced ideas on the series, but stay here first to read me geeking out about it. And let's address the elephant in the room: Stranger Things is so last month, man. I know! But I just watched it (having young children gets in the way of binge watching shows as often as you'd imagine it would) and I need to talk about it, man. First of all, there were times it was like watching myself on screen. I've been in those basements, playing those games, reading those comic books, riding those bikes round and round the neighborhood, seemingly forever. The younger kids in Stranger Things were clearly meant to connect with people my age, and even the teens—especially Nancy and Jonathan—remind us of our teenage selves. I'm duly impressed with not only how much Stranger Things got right about the time and place—1983 in small town America—but also with the ways in which it nails being an adol…

Hail Hail the lucky ones

Twenty years ago this week, Pearl Jam performed for the first time on The Late Show with David Letterman. They played the new song, "Hail Hail" that night—the song that asks the question, "Are you woman enough to be my man?" and a personal favorite of mine. As Dave would say, they blew the roof off the dump. I sat gobsmacked at the awesomeness of this performance that night back in 1996, and I still feel the same amazement when viewing it today. Eddie, wearing a killer suit, in dynamic, yet controlled, command of the song; Stone bopping around while dressed like an Orange Creamsicle; Mike and Jeff looking like young pups while rocking; and Jack bashing away on the drums in the background. Definitely one of the best late night performances by a band ever, and truly a special moment during a very special period in the band's career. I swear I'll stop writing about No Code and the band during those years at some point, but this momentous anniversary deserves t…

Songs in the Key of Life: Stolen Car

"Stolen Car" by Bruce Springsteen and from his album The River is a song that haunts you, in my case for years now. I'm pasting in the lyrics in their entirety because they're so strong they can be read independently of the song and still be moving. But within the context of the song, they're extremely powerful because of the despair in Springsteen's vocals. He imbues the song with what feels like years of baggage that's accumulated inside the narrator's head to the point of making him sag and practically collapse under its weight.

I met a little girl and I settled down In a little house out on the edge of town We got married, and swore we'd never part Then little by little we drifted from each other's hearts
At first I thought it was just restlessness That would fade as time went by and our love grew deep In the end it was something more I guess That tore us apart and made us weep
And I'm driving a stolen car Down on Eldridge Avenue Each…

Writing Roundup: Ms. 45, Halloween III, and Candyman

My series of cult film reviews continues over at The After Movie Diner, a site that truly celebrates film in all its forms. First I looked at Ms. 45, Abel Ferrera's 1981 exploitation classic that I argue is also an overlooked feminist classic. The film has haunted me for years, as have most of Ferrara's work. Like Ferrara's other early career films, Ms. 45 is an unsettling look at life in New York City at a time before the Disneyification of midtown. The film features the late Zoe Tamerlis's star-making performance in the title role. She's unforgettable in it, which only makes me sadder that she died so young and never fully realized the promise of this movie. She did write Bad Lieutenant, though, and that's another Ferrara masterpiece. Still, she left far too soon.

I also took a lighter look at another cult classic, Halloween III: Season of the Witch. I don't want to spoil my take on it, but suffice it to say this film has seen an about-face in its critic…

Songs in the Key of Life: We Just Disagree

Am I going soft? My love for this song might indicate that I am indeed losing my edge. But I can still rant about inane music and presidential candidates alike with equal vim and vigor. So I don't think it's about going soft, but rather about life changing and me changing along with it. Since having kids, my wife and I have occasionally listened to a 1970s soft rock channel on Pandora during dinner. It helps keep things mellow when the kids are refusing food or playing with food or throwing food. One song that keeps cropping up is "We Just Disagree," written by Jim Krueger and a late 1970s hit for Traffic's original guitarist Dave Mason. Although I heard the song countless times on the radio as a kid, I didn't know who Dave Mason was until I discovered Traffic as a teenager. Traffic became one of the few psych-rock groups I still love today (Pink Floyd being another), while "We Just Disagree" sort of faded out of memory. But back in the 1980s the s…

Words seem out of place, or, where this blog got its name

This blog has existed for over a year now and it occurred to me that I've never mentioned what inspired the name. Words Seem Out of Place comes from the lyrics to an improvised Pearl Jam song played exactly once, on March 17, 1995 in Melbourne, Australia.  After writing about Pearl Jam's No Code turning twenty last month, it seems only appropriate to follow up with the story of the blog's title now, which is really the story of the improv that inspired it.

"Better Man" has long been a concert highlight, when the band segues into a portion of the English Beat's "Save It For Later" or an improv at the end of the song. At this particular show in Melbourne, the band improvised a delicately beautiful three-plus minute song at the end of "Better Man" that's been dubbed "Words Seem Out of Place." Eddie Vedder's vocals are full of wistful longing, with the song building slowly towards a cathartic, yet still controlled, denouemen…