Song 276: Handsome Boy Modeling School, “Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)” (1999)

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Things that seem to be hard to do when creating hip-hop: 1) Being funny. 2) Collaborating with many people without overcrowding the music. Somehow, Handsome Boy Modeling School accomplished both these things masterfully.

Handsome Boy Modeling School (whose name was a reference to an episode of “Get a Life”) featured producers Dan the Automator and Prince Paul in the guises of Nathaniel Merriweather and Chest Rockwell, two wealthy and sophisticated socialites. The record skewers music industry greed and general snobbery, and it’s full of ridiculous touches.

Prince Paul, one of hip-hop’s primary architects and producer (among many, many other records) of De La Soul’s seminal first three albums. He’s also one of the originators of the hip-hop skit, that terrible trend that doesn’t seem to go away. On Handsome Boy Modeling School’s debut So… How’s Your Girl?, however, the touches of humor are evenly distributed and add some surrealism to their collection of songs.

“Holy Calamity (Bear Witness II)” is a sequel to Dr. Octagon’s track “Bear Witness,” and it features Dan, Paul, DJ Shadow, and DJ Quest. Despite this dense pedigree, “Holy Calamity” never sounds too full, or like there’s too many cooks in the kitchen. The track is bottom-heavy but fleet-footed, and it never lets up.


Song 215: Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, “Pilgrim” (1999)

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I wasn’t going to write about my dad today; I’ve already done that more on this blog than I expected to. But I had my iPod on shuffle yesterday, which I don’t do very often, and this song, one of 4,742, came on. So here we go.

My dad died nine years ago today, which seems both too short and too long a time. Every year around this time, I’m reminded of that hot, miserable summer, with its Massachusetts humidity that makes everything feel like swimming, and seemingly endless drives from Cambridge to Burlington, Burlington to Cambridge. I never liked August to begin with, and I’m weirdly grateful that one of my favorite times of year wasn’t ruined instead.

Shortly after he died, Lizzie put together a slideshow of photos of my dad, ranging from childhood to his fifties. It was an amazing slideshow and an even more amazing effort, one that involved digging through photo albums, scanning pictures, and arranging them into a narrative that totally nailed the guy that Chuck Brusie was. We eventually settled on Steve Earle’s “Pilgrim” to accompany the slideshow, a song that, to my knowledge, my dad never heard.

So why “Pilgrim”? It’s gorgeous, for one, but it just sounds like my dad: the humble view of one’s role in the world, the cowboy tone of the lyrics, and the lightly funny ending (“put a word in for you if I can”). I think he’d like this one, and I know for a fact that he’d like The Mountain, a bluegrass record that Earle made with the Del McCoury Band. Earle and co-vocalist Emmylou Harris have never sounded better.

I’m glad I’ll have this song to play when I’m missing my dad, because it makes me think of him, and it makes me feel better. It’s as simple as that. Thank you, Chuck, and thank you, Steve Earle.


Song 211: The Promise Ring, “Happy Hour” (1999)

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In 2000 sometime, my friend Mark passed me a copy of Very Emergency, the third album by The Promise Ring. “You might like this,” he said.

I was intimidated by indie rock for a long time before I heard it, thinking it was the bastion of people much cooler than me. To an extent, this is (and was) true. But for all its rampant hipsterism, it’s also a music for outcasts and vagabonds, for people who aren’t sure what they like, but they like how guitars sound when they don’t sound quite right. When there’s just enough distortion to sound mysterious but not obscure a song’s central idea (even when that central idea is chaos).

When I first heard Very Emergency, I thought, “This? This is what I’ve been scared of?” It sounded like Weezer, or Harvey Danger, or Fountains of Wayne, or, for chrissakes, Foo Fighters, or a handful of other “mainstream” bands I’d been listening to since high school. Granted, the power-pop clap-alongs of Very Emergency are pretty clean for indie rock (and, it turns out, for The Promise Ring), but I didn’t know that yet. I also didn’t know that it would be the gateway drug for other addictions, like Pavement, Modest Mouse, Superchunk, and Built to Spill.

Very Emergency was my midterm-studying soundtrack for sophomore year of college, which seems like an odd choice, given its insistence on getting your attention. But it’s also a record with a unified sound, an organized fuzziness that blends into the background if you want it to. “Happy Hour” is the record’s catchiest track, and I love it because it has one of those moments when it all stands still to let you hear the gears at work. It’s around 2:25 in the video below, when, just for one chorus, the guitars and drums play alone while Davy von Bohlen’s distinctive voice does what it does.

It’s when it all clicked for me, once and for all.


Song 149: Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Scar Tissue” (1999)

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I’m not sure why I love “Scar Tissue,” but it has something to do with main guitar phrase that starts the song. Red Hot Chili Peppers are, in my opnion, underrated as songwriters. It’s true that Anthony Keidis’s lyrics are often, to put it lightly, inane, their melodies and arrangements are often very well done.

The band’s fortunes, critically if not commercially, seemed to follow the path of its sometime guitarist John Frusciante. When Frusciante was in the fold (for such highs as Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Californication, and By the Way), the results were often pretty amazing. When he was out for drug-related reasons (for lows like One Hot Minute), the results were lackluster. Frusciante’s Hendrix-like playing is the thoughtful heart that counterbalances Keidis’s impulsive-sounding vocals, and it works beautifully with Flea’s typically effortless bass.

In the case of “Scar Tissue,” Frusciante’s playing is reminiscent of Hendrix’s exceptional, and underappreciated, work on slow songs and ballads. The man could rip it up, for sure, but the way he played on “Little Wing,” for example, is truly amazing; the notes flow as easily as water through a stream. Frusciante emulates Hendrix’s playing in the sense that it doesn’t sound like playing. It doesn’t sound like fingers on frets, it sounds like notes appearing out of thin air.

Okay, so there’s all that. Why else do I love “Scar Tissue”? Hearing the Chili Peppers in quiet mode somehow produces more tension than, say, “Give It Away.” On quiet songs, they’re so tightly wound that you expect them to jump out of the box with socks on their crotches. It helps that the songs themselves are often pretty great.


Song 128: Built to Spill, “Center of the Universe” (1999)

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There’s something about Built to Spill that seems like quintessential indie rock. I’m not sure what it is—the crunch of the guitars, or maybe the elastic vocals. Whatever it is, I love it.

I didn’t hear Built to Spill into pretty late, when Keep It Like a Secret came out. I later explored their back catalog, including the excellent There’s Nothing Wrong With Love and the classic Perfect From Now On, but Keep It Like a Secret is my favorite. The songs are catchy but weird, as if notes are being bent, Dali-style, by an outside force. I’ve had the pleasure to see Built to Spill in concert, and Doug Martsch’s guitar playing is an amazing thing to watch. He just never stops, and it’s always interesting. His hero seems to be Neil Young, and the comparison is apt.

As for “Center of the Universe,” I’m in love with its melody. It winds around like a snake, in and out of corners that you didn’t know were there. There’s a classical kind of feel to it, especially the melody of the verses, the way it meanders and ends up back at the note that is the song’s key. There’s a symmetry to it, a kind of neatness that pops up in other Martsch songs, like “Conventional Wisdom” and the vastly underrated “Life’s A Dream.”

Built to Spill is labelmates with Flaming Lips–that is, they’re both on Warner Bros. I think that’s amazing: one of the most major of major labels, onetime home to Tom Petty and Paul Simon, houses two weird-ass bands. The term “major label” becomes less understood by the day, as sales fluctuate wildly and companies merge or sink altogether, but I still think it’s amazing that both bands ended up there (in the “alternative” feeding frenzy in the nineties), and that they’re still there.


Song 108: Ben Folds Five, “Don’t Change Your Plans” (1999)

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As a kid who was obsessed with Billy Joel and Elton John, I was amazed and delighted when Ben Folds Five broke big. A guy playing piano is all over MTV! I am cool!

Ben Folds once called his band “punk rock for sissies,” which explains why I was able to get on board. Even their harder-edged tracks, like “Song For the Dumped,” have a pop melody that contrasts with the fuzzed-out bass.

I loved their first two albums, but it was their third record, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, that I listened to most. It’s kind of a weird record, with spoken-word interludes and flugelhorns, but in a lot of ways, it’s as accessible as anything else the band did. “Don’t Change Your Plans” is as catchy as catchy songs get, and I’ve always been amazed that it wasn’t more popular. And lines like “You have made me smile again/In fact I might be sore from it/It’s been a while” resonated with me when a tough year was finally getting easier. Spring had officially arrived, and along with it came my college’s month-long short semester, which I spent taking a jazz guitar class and starting my college radio career with a 2-5 a.m. shift. I was having a great time.

Of course, like many of the songs on Reinhold Messner, “Don’t Change Your Plans” doesn’t end well, but that didn’t bother me. All I wanted was a little sweetness, a little glimpse of sunshine after a harsh Maine winter. The kids rocked out to “Army” (and rightly so), but this song was what I wanted.


Song 45: The Magnetic Fields, “The Book of Love” (1999)

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I first heard The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs while backpacking around Europe, a sentence that makes me sound like a giant asshole. But it’s true, and it was an amazing way to experience it. I remember lying on the floor of a hostel in Paris called the Young and Happy (which is apparently still there), looking out the window in the middle of the night, and listening to this song. Young, happy, in Paris and hearing “The Book of Love” for the first time. Not bad.

This is one of the most beautiful songs I know, and also one of the funniest. How Stephin Merritt pulled that off without one taking away from the other, I’ll never know. The song’s initial appeal is the production, with reverb that makes it sound like it’s being performed in a church. To hear someone sing “some of it is just really dumb” in that context is not only funny, but it makes the song sound that much more accurate. Some of this is sentimental bullshit, and some of it is sentimental and real. The church sound, after all, the real, lasts the entire song, as if sentimentality and emotion win out in the end.

69 Love Songs employs the tension between the real and the bullshit across its three discs, and this song uses it most succinctly; Merritt’s voice, low and (seemingly) deadly serious, is the perfect instrument to convey it. The line that gets me the most is “things we’re all too young to know.” Despite everything we do for each other, the dancing, the heart-shaped boxes, and yes, the love songs, we don’t know what we’re doing. Which is what makes the many, many rewards so rewarding.