I struggled for a while to find a song about endings. I could think of many good candidates, but they were mostly by artists I’ve already written about; I’ve come this far without repeating an artist, and I wasn’t about to start on the last post. Then it came to me. Of course the right choice is “End of the Road.” It always was.
We all know this song, even if we don’t think we do. I actually didn’t think I knew it all too well, but when I listened to it the other day, everything came back to me: the bittersweet lyrics, the catchy melody, the melisma. I’m an unabashed Boyz II Men fan—”Motown Philly” was one of my first introductions to contemporary pop music—but I didn’t think I liked “End of the Road” very much. I was wrong. Of course I was.
Here’s what always set Boyz II Men apart from their genre counterparts: talent. Even detractors of BIIM (did I just make that up? I hope so) have to admit that these dudes can sing. And they can sing the hell out of a song like “End of the Road,” which sounds tailormade for their brand of modern soul. Sure, the spoken intro is maybe the corniest thing in the world (“I have no time for you to be playing with my heart like this”), but then we’re off to the races: “How could you love me and leave me and never say goodbye?” is sung with such passion and conviction that I ask myself the same question. How, you terrible person, how??
One more thing about this song: the inclusion of the word “unnatural” in the chorus (the chorus!) is a very strange choice, but it totally works. The way they sing the phrase—”isss un-natch-ur-ahl”—is, um, unnatural, but it somehow makes the thing more honest. If these guys were bullshitting about wanting you back, wouldn’t they have scripted this so they pronounced the word correctly? This is a spontaneous exclamation. A radio-friendly, immaculately produced spontaneous exclamation.
Songs about endings are probably hard to write, but the guys who wrote “End of the Road”—Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, and Daryl Simmons—did it exactly right. We all mourn this breakup, even though we don’t know anybody involved. That’s pretty impressive.
Uncle Tupelo gets lots of well-deserved credit for fusing country music with punk and post-punk aesthetics. I get that, and I get why their debut, No Depression, was such a big deal when it came out. It was a game-changer, plain and simple, a real landmark in the timeline of rock and country music.
But my favorite Uncle Tupelo record will always be March 16-20, 1992, an album whose simplicity matches its title: this is the sound of a bunch of guys in a room for five days. The band sounded amazing when they were their bombastic, chaotic selves, but I love this side of Uncle Tueplo, the side that was interested in singing quiet songs about people and places. It’s that versatility that made the band so impressive.
“Black Eye” is not only my favorite Uncle Tupelo song, but one of my favorites by Jeff Tweedy. Though it certainly seems like it could be autobiographical, something about the song seems like a character sketch. Lines like “He had a black eye that he was proud of” and “He almost always forgot what he was gonna say” sound straight out of a Raymond Carver story, in the way their bluntness and directness somehow hint at endless meaning.
Peter Buck produced March 16-20, and though I can definitely hear his influence, it sounds like he was a pretty unobtrusive producer. He brought the subtlety that you can hear on R.E.M.’s best work, especially their acoustic songs, to a band whose subtlety was a secret weapon. He did what any producer should do: make an artist sound like themselves, only better.
I run hot and cold on Peter Gabriel. I always respect him, but songs like “Games Without Frontiers” and “Shock the Monkey” really don’t do much for me. I’m even not so sure about “Sledge Hammer,” a song I desperately want to like but just can’t get into.
But then there are Peter Gabriel songs that are so warm, full, and inviting that there’s no way I couldn’t love them. “Come Talk to Me” is one of those songs. Fittingly, this infectious song is begging you to come closer, to engage, to not only listen but talk. The song is a Daniel Lanois production, so as much as the thumping, snapping drums provide clarity, the overall sound is hazy and unclear, like Gabriel is yelling through the ether.
“Come Talk to Me” is reportedly about Gabriel’s estrangement from his wife and daughter, which makes his pleading all the more intense. He tries his damnedest, especially on the chorus, when the skies open up and the song feels airy and light. I’d talk to him in a second.
The students are back. Allston Christmas is over, so now we’re left with the people. They’re everywhere, these denizens of Harvard, M.I.T., B.U., B.C., and schools we didn’t even know existed. They’re clogging streets, slowing us down on sidewalks, and not following T-riding protocol (wait until all passengers get off, and then get on the train with your standup bass).
So goes the circle of life in Boston. They descend like locusts in September, they leave briefly in December, and they’re gone for a beautiful three months starting in June. But at all other times of the year, they (and their visiting parents) make the city a pain in the ass. It was apparently not much better 21 years ago, when the Mighty Mighty Bosstones recorded “They Came to Boston.” “I was here before they came,” rants Dickie Barrett, “I’ll be here long after. Don’t wanna swear but it seems clear that I’m gonna hafta.” Everybody now, as that Camry with the Connecticut plates drifts into your lane in the B.U. Bridge rotary: Awwww fuck.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones sound dated in all kinds of ways, but they sound timeless in many others: the combination of heavy distortion and peppy horns still hasn’t lost its novelty, and the band’s wry, biting lyrics are still funny. And you can’t deny, listening to “They Came to Boston,” the Bosstones’ musicianship, from that faux-metal solo at the beginning to the “a-dub-a-dub-a-dub-a-dub” breakdown. Then there’s “Rented a car to see the sights, but they found the Hub confusing. Looked for the swan boats in Mattapan, well, I find that real amusing.” That’s some Oscar Wilde shit.
Merry Allston Christmas!
As a freelance writer, I’ve had the tremendous privilege to talk to some of my favorite musicians about their songs. These artists have included Aimee Mann, Carl Newman, and Mike Mills (who was extremely patient as I struggled to find a spot at Target Corporation’s headquarters where I could get a decent signal). The most meaningful conversation I had was with Lyle Lovett.
I’ve been a Lovett fan since high school, due to the influence of my then-friend (and now wife) Lizzie, who had been a fan for a few years. When I asked her last fall if she had any questions for Lyle, she said to tell him that he had more to do with getting us together than anybody else. And it’s true: the music of Lyle Lovett, with its beauty, surprises, and (above all) humor, drew us together. I think it’s safe to say that there aren’t many teenaged Lyle Lovett fans, and it was exciting to be a fan club of two.
I don’t understand why everybody isn’t a Lyle Lovett fan. Most people think of his music as “country,” which it certainly is, but it’s also jazz, folk, rock … the best adjective may simply be “American,” as Lovett’s songs are all stories about what it’s like to live here, using the musical vocabularies of this country.
Nobody being interviewed by a guy in a conference room (or in Lovett’s case, a guy stuck in his house during Hurricane Sandy) has an obligation to be polite, which makes Lyle Lovett’s congeniality all the more impressive. He seemed genuinely excited to be talking about his work, and when I passed on Lizzie’s message, he was sincerely touched and proceeded to ask about my family. To call Lyle Lovett a nice guy is an understatement.
Though outside the topic of the record he was promoting, Lovett generously tolerated my fanboy questions about his songs. In the case of “Family Reserve,” I only mentioned how much I loved it before he started talking about its lyrics, which are essentially a list of family members and their causes of death. He said all the lyrics are true, with the exception of his Uncle Eugene’s date of death, the year of which was changed to accommodate the number of syllables needed for the verse.
Lovett is a very funny but very economical writer; “Family Reserve” doesn’t use more words than necessary to outline an elaborate familial history (using what Jay-Z calls the “minor mythologies that every family has”). Knowing that poor, drunk Brian Temple and Calloway (who was done in by a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich) really died the way Lovett describes makes me uncomfortable laughing about their respective demises, but something tells me that was Lovett’s goal all along. He loves making people laugh, but any artist worth his or her salt will make the listener question their role in the art. Lyle Lovett does this with nearly every song.
R.E.M. is my favorite band. Which, given the amount of music that I’m crazy about, is kind of an amazing thing. I like them more than the Stones? Bob Dylan? The goddamn Beatles? Yes, yes, yes.
Why? Well, that’s where things get complicated. I’m not sure why. I know what I like about R.E.M.—those beautiful choruses that snake around and reach up, up, up; Peter Buck’s warm but aggressive guitar; Mike Mills’s cry-in-the-wilderness harmonies—but generally speaking, I can’t really explain why I like them more than everybody else. I don’t even think they’re better than the Beatles, they just connect with me more.
I didn’t know about R.E.M. in their college-rock heyday; I became aware of them just as the rest of the world made them superstars. “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People”, which are rightly derided as two of R.E.M.’s weakest songs (an assessment that the band generally shared), are what made me notice them when I was 11 years old. From that moment, I followed them everywhere, from the peak of Automatic For The People to the valley of Around The Sun, through the awkward post-Bill Berry period and their various “comeback” records. In a way–to use a cliché that I know I’ll only use once here–I feel like we grew up together.
Automatic For The People is arguably the album that cemented R.E.M.’s place in the canon, the one that confirmed that the band’s 1988 contract with Warner Brothers was probably a good investment for both parties (the contract was renewed in 1996 for a reported $80 million, which…does not happen anymore). It’s also my favorite R.E.M. record, and, depending on the day, my favorite record in general. It’s got a combination of darkness and hope that I can relate to, with gorgeous songs that seem to have emerge fully formed.
R.E.M. has never been great at track order (Up was especially botched in this regard), but “Find The River” follows “Man on the Moon” and “Nightswimming” to perfectly close out Automatic. It’s a song about finding one’s path in the face of adversity, which, after 11 songs with equal parts death and hope, is something of a summing up. Water is one of Michael Stipe’s favorite lyrical images, from the rainstorms and harborcoats of Reckoning (whose spine featured the cheeky recommendation “File under water”) to the band’s final single, “We All Go Back To Where We Belong,” a song that, like “Find The River,” uses tides and currents as metaphors for birth, death, and everything in between. It’s not the most original image in the book, but it’s an effective one.
That this song is even the most beautiful track on Automatic For The People–a record that features “Try Not To Breathe,” “Sweetness Follows” and the incredible “Nightswimming”–is an accomplishment, but I think it’s the best work that R.E.M. ever did. Melodically, harmonically, lyrically, arrangement-wise, production-wise, the chorus sums up R.E.M. for me. I know others are more attached to the band’s more “rock-oriented” sound, and don’t get me wrong, Murmur, Reckoning, Monster and New Adventures In Hi-Fi are all great. But this is the R.E.M. that I know best.
Commercially and critically, Automatic For The People was the beginning of the end, even though the band didn’t break up for another 19 years. Excluding their two live albums and two greatest-hits compilations (and including their debut EP), the record marks the exact midpoint in R.E.M.’s career, with eight albums on either side. A lot of great music followed, but it never got better than this.
There’s a running joke between my friend Sam and me that I like any hip-hop song featuring a piano. It’s basically true, and whatever it is that I like about the piano-beats combination is also what I like about “Walking On Broken Glass”, a song that features some synthetic drums and tinkly piano.
This is a song that I always forget I love until it comes on the radio. I don’t remember where I first heard it–probably MTV on a Saturday afternoon–but it’s stuck with me since then, albeit in the back of my mind. I think what makes it work so well is the contrast between Annie Lennox’s low voice and the high pitch of the piano and the strings. Not to mention the fact that it is catchy, punchy, and, like the Eurythmics’s best work, very well-produced.