“A cheap holiday in other people’s misery” [punk’s not dead?]

August 30th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the tenth, a milestone number that I am going to completely fail to celebrate. I’ve been experimenting with punk music lately, and I think I might have something interesting to say about The Clash and the Sex Pistols, or, more specifically, their albums London Calling and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. I don’t know anything about punk, so both albums were eye-opening.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes, on songs about places, Mellowhype’s Blackendwhite

Another giveaway! Tell me something I need to know about punk in the comments (meaning: tell me something you like that I probably don’t know and will probably like), and you’ll get a free copy of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here (mp3s, obviously). It’s old man music, the sort of album you listen to while chilling on a recliner or on a porch somewhere. The upbeat stuff is when your grandkids come around for playtime and you stand up, stretch your back, and then you show them youngins how to do some pushups. It’s good, yo.

I don’t even really know what punk music is, man. Not properly. Most of my punk knowledge comes from the periphery of punk culture. I know of cyberpunk and steampunk, though I couldn’t tell you if they’re called that because of the music or because somebody came up with “cyberpunk” and now “-punk” is the new hotness. I owned a Sex Pistols shirt before I ever listened to a Sex Pistols album because I liked how it looked. I’m pretty sure what I thought was punk rock before I actually sat down and asked a friend where I should start with punk was in fact, black metal. Something really aggressive, dark clothes, piercings, and a dude with weird hair growling into the microphone. I thought it was this, from Brian Azzarello and Guy Davis’s Hellblazer:

Yeah. I mean, real talk, full disclosure, confession time: I figured punk was basically just NWA for white people. For headbangers, not head nodders, basically. Who knew?

Anyway, enough faux guilt over having ignored an entire genre of music that people apparently like a whole lot. January 28, 2011: the day I purchased London Calling. I was heavy into the Beatles and it seemed like a good idea because… I don’t remember, I think I asked Ron Richards of iFanboy because he knows this stuff. I bought it, downloaded, and listened and was caught completely flat-footed.

London Calling didn’t sound at all like I expected. I was expecting something with some sharp snares, or something about anarchists and antichrists. Something growly and mean, the sort of music I could scare my neighbors with or disappoint my parents (in this scenario, it is also 197something). Instead, it just sorta sounds like a regular rock album. More than that–it sounds like a radio-friendly rock album. This feels like music people ride drive around to and sing with, you know?

Not to say that I don’t like it–I actually like London Calling quite a bit. I was just surprised by the diversity of the music on the album. “Brand New Cadillac” is Elvis-y, “Jimmy Jazz” is jazzy, there’s some really reggae songs on here, and then there’s stuff like “London Calling” or “The Guns of Brixton”, which I don’t really have the vocabulary to describe yet. “The Guns of Brixton” sounds a little like talking to a distant drunk, with the strange over-enunciation and the sproings around 1:15 in.

I think my favorite track on the album is actually “London Calling,” though the reasons why are still a bit unclear. I like the phrase “London Calling,” particularly how it punctuates (or maybe just punctures) the song. It’s ever-present, and sorta menacing with the backing vocals layered in on it. (I had to look up the “I live by the river” bit to see if it was about being homeless). I like how this feels post/mid-apocalyptic, like the world’s gone all wrong and it’s too late to stop. It’s the last concert before the end of the world. Am I reading too deep into the song? I don’t think so, it’s sorta right there.

I like “Lover’s Rock” a whole lot, too. That first fifteen seconds leading into the vocals is pretty great, and the vocals just elevate how good this song makes me feel (setting aside the lyrics). It feels and sounds like summertime music. This album doesn’t feel like the ’70s to me. Its style isn’t modern, of course, but it doesn’t feel that dated. It feels sorta timeless.

Amazon tells me that I bought Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols on July 18th. Makes sense–I think I played it a lot while I was in San Diego. (I also got Public Image Ltd’s album on the same day.) The Sex Pistols are closer to what I thought punk was. It’s as raw as an open wound, with a lot of speedy guitar riffs (licks?). It’s great music to work out to because it’s all so high energy.

I really, really like how Johnny Rotten isn’t much of a singer at all on this album. He croaks his way through “God Save The Queen” like somebody at karaoke, yeah? But his swagger is so strong that the rough vocals don’t matter at all. This stuff is catchy. It feels like rebel music, even if that rebellion was a billion years ago. It’s pleasingly political in a way that really isn’t that political at all. It’s not a call to action. It’s just telling us something we already know. Political comfort food. I love the “No future!” chant toward the end, especially the way its drawn out “Noooooooooo fewcha” plays against the fast music. There’s also this hitch in there around 2:46, like the vocals don’t come all the way in. It feels like a slippery, slamming song.

I like the popular songs from this one, I guess. “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK” are tops. “Anarchy in the UK” is even rawer. Is it just me or is Rotten’s voice mixed super high on this song? While he sorta fades into “God Save the Queen” and blends with the music, on “Anarchy in the UK” he practically rides on top of the song. It’s all about the wobble in his voice and that whine he uses to cap off “know how to get it.” It doesn’t sound good, but it sounds great.

Does that make sense? I just love how much energy and style Rotten has on this album. All of the music sounds really great and well put together, with interesting solos and solid beats, and then Rotten comes in and freaks out all over the record. I don’t know that I can verbalize why this is so entertaining to me, but it’s sort of like how I’ll listen to a really great rap song and then hear that moment when the artist breathes in because he just finished a Jenga tower of a verse and his breath control ran out. It’s like the seams are showing beneath the music, and being able to see or hazard a guess as to how it’s put together is a good feeling.

This feels a little like history class, or maybe some type of innocent voyeurism. I’m observing this from somewhere else, far from who it was for and what it represents. I’m pretty much entirely divorced from the punk era and its ethos. Actually, that’s not entirely true–I don’t know enough to know whether or not its ethos still applies. Is that even a conversation I need to be having? Would that make me like the music more than I do? I just like how these albums sound, and not being a part of the culture doesn’t harm that enjoyment, I don’t think. I came away pretty impressed with both of these albums (they’re particularly good to write to, I’ve found, and easy to mindlessly sing along with, especially the end of “Problems”), and they definitely sparked further interest in the genre and the people involved.

The two albums either up-ended or confirmed the stereotypes I had about punk, and I think that’s what I like most about them. Punk is and isn’t exactly what I thought it is, right?

I know somebody out there is well-versed in punk. I’m taking suggestions, preferably full albums rather than singles, but if someone’s a one-hit wonder with a hot song, c’est la guerre. I’ll take it. The best suggestion gets a free copy of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here.

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“my swagger is natural flavor, then citric acid” [MellowHype – Blackendwhite]

August 16th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the ninth, where I talk out why Hodgy Beats of MellowHype is ill and how he interacts with Left Brain’s beats.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes, on songs about places

I liked Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin, but I think MellowHype’s Blackendwhite is a better album overall. I’ve got a free giveaway code for the entire album, too, so if you want it, leave a comment on this post (using your real email address, obviously) telling me your favorite rap song, favorite rap album, and why for both.

MellowHype is lyricist Hodgy Beats and producer (mostly) Left Brain. It’s not really in the same vein as Tyler’s aggressively transgressive lyrics at all, though Hodgy isn’t afraid to… go dark? Is that the best word for it? But nah, Hodgy puts me in mind of Fabolous, in terms of being lyrical, and AZ or The Lox or Nature, cats with real ill flows and a variety of styles. It’s funny that my brain goes directly to New York when trying to draw a comparison for Hodgy, but I can’t really think of any LA cats who spit similarly. Hodgy feels a little like 1997-2002 NYC to me, you know?

I think it’s because of how he spits. He’s a clever dude, with a strong grasp of wordplay and flow. His voice is real distinct, maybe a little on the high side, which gives his rhymes a certain flavor. Something like “F666 The Police” feels like Los Angeles to me, with that real aggressive Ice Cube “fuck the police” stance, but his flow skips all over the beat, and almost setting the pace for the beat, instead of vice versa. His first verse speeds up, too, and then slips back down a gear when the hi-hats (I think?) drop out. He’s not just killing time over a beat–he’s genuinely part of the song.

(Tyler’s verse on “F666 The Police” is great, too–crude, evil, and hilarious. “Well, that’s not happening, captain/ Not this time nigga, BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP!/ ‘Houston, we have a nigger down/ And the nigger that did it loves them gun sounds'” never fails to slay me.)

It’s that cleverness that really hooked me into Hodgy. I’m not a backpacker any more, but that sorta thing dies hard. You’ve gotta come with a lyrical spherical dirigible because of me your girl is hysterical that’s an empirical miracle at some point to really impress me. Smart dumb rhymes like that, dumb smart rhymes (Young Jeezy: “Big wheels, big straps, you know I like it super-sized/ Passenger’s a red bone, her weave look like some curly fries/ Inside’s fish sticks, outside’s tartar sauce/ Pocket full of celery, imagine what she telling me/ Blowing on asparagus/ the realest shit I ever smoked/ Ridin’ to that Trap or Die/ the realest shit I ever wrote/ They know I got that broccoli, so I keep that glock with me”), just give me something to make me grin and I’m good. And Hodgy does it on his first verse on the entire album:

Uh, it’s a Monday night, I’m comin’ home like it’s Friday
Live everyday high, burnin’ kush on the highway
On my way to Rico to make it final in the mornin’
Forgettin’ to study up for my final in the mornin’, fuck it
It’s only a final and plus it’s borin’, however
Tyler’s back hittin’ spinals when the chords end
Skeleton elephant golden elements bezelin’
We spit because we’re sick and irrelevant to your relevance
I’m comin’ down, but not from my high
I should live in a plane, shit I feel that fly

What I like is how he starts the verse like he’s dragging his way out of bed, and then starts hitting you with layered internal rhymes and rhythms (“Friday day” -> “day high” -> “the highway”), and then keeps stacking with the N sounds in the next few bars, and then doubling down on the whole affair with “skeleton elephant golden elements bezelin'”. And then one more line about how he raps (“sick and irrelevant to [you]”) that matches the flow of the previous bars and then he drops down a gear in complexity and pace.

This is good stuff, and “Primo” is a real weird song to begin an album on. It’s actually sort of like Bone Thugs’s “Mr. Ouija” in my head, but without the clear introduction that comes before it on Creepin on Ah Come Up. “Primo” (like “Mr. Ouija”) should theoretically be the song that sets the tone for the album. Sort of a “This is what you’re going to hear.”

But nah. It’s just something to ease you into tracks like “Gunsounds,” which is a hard hitter. Left Brain’s beat is all impact, with no softness or singsongy messing around. Hodgy rides the beat with hard breaks between most of his bars and then he pulls back from that and kicks another thick cloud raps before easing back again to the wide open bars.

I’m a big believer in the “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper” team-up. TI and Toomp, Common and NoID, Nas and Premo, David Banner and TI, Mannie Fresh and Juvie, The Clipse & the Neptunes, all of these cats work real well together. The beats match the rhymes, but are just off enough to pull out something great. The rapper has to work a little, and he shines. Left Brain and Hodgy Beats work together real well, and Hodgy gets to kick a number of different flows over the course of the album.

I’m a fan, man. At 11 tracks and a shade over half an hour, this is a lean album. I don’t want to skip any of the joints, but “Gunsounds,” “F666 the Police,” “64,” and “Deaddeputy” are songs that definitely stand out. If I’m just listening while I write (like I am right now) I might play them a few times in a row, but if I’m bumping the album as a whole, they give me something extra special to look forward to. And I can’t even front, I forgot about “Igotagun” every single time and get caught by surprised by that double time flow and then halting flow in verse two (“swag-me-the-fuck-out”)

Something cool: I copped the MP3s ages ago, bought the MP3 album this year, and then bought the vinyl because I like it that much. Turns out the vinyl pressing is transparent. I’ve got a white album (Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Leftfoot

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“new york is killing me”

July 7th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the eighth, which I thought would be about the different ways people make songs about places, but instead changes tracks partway through. C’est la vie.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes

I took a trip back home in May, and a near-lethal dose of melancholy and shattered nostalgia left me thinking about how we relate to places, whether literally or figuratively. Where’s home? Where’s far? Is it a state of mind or familiar wallpaper? The usual rigmarole.

Listen to this while you read.

I listen to a lot of music that’s based around being from somewhere. Ages ago, Havoc of Mobb Deep said “Fuck where you’re at kid, it’s where you’re from/ ’cause where I’m from niggas pack nothing but the big guns/ Around my way, niggas don’t got no remorse for out of towners/Come through fronting and get stuffed with the 3 pounder.” The message is plain: where I’m from made me who I am, and all loud mouth foreigners need to remain strangers for their own sake. Where you’re from is part of your identity, right? That’s why there was inter-borough beef in NYC rap, and then bi-coastal beef, and then Andre said “The south got something to say” and bam, the Dirty South began vocally demanding attention.

There’s a couple different ways to make songs about places, near as I can tell. You can do the literal thing, where you explain what the place is all about, who lives there, or why people should care. The other option is to make a song about what it’s like to be from somewhere. You’ve got to put your soul on wax for that one, I think.

Though now that I write that out, those two things are the same thing, aren’t they? I’ve been mulling this piece over for a few days now, and was going to make that division the heart of the post. But nah, talking about a place has to involve what it’s like to be from that place, consciously or otherwise. Body language, word choice, even what you choose to describe and leave out all build a certain mental image, and it isn’t an unbiased one. I’d describe Georgia in terms I wouldn’t use for San Francisco, due to how I feel about the city and how I feel about back home.

This was going to be about music, not me. Switching gears.

The sound people choose to use when making songs about places is always interesting. “Amarillo,” off Gorillaz’ The Fall, is this slow, melancholy tune, with a rushing wind and hollow sound. It’s the music that plays when you’re driving alone down a highway in the dark, and the lyrics are about being alone and broken. It’s sad, and a very specific type of sad. I’ve never been to Amarillo, TX, but maybe that’s what life is like down there. I imagine that’s how Albarn felt, or maybe how it struck him, at least.

Gil Scott-Heron’s “New York Is Killing Me”–I wrote something on this for Tucker a while back, here’s a quote:

“New York is Killing Me” is everything and nothing all at once. The beat is sparse, with a deep drum coming in over some rapid fire snaps and a brief acoustic guitar, but it’s incredible. Gil Scott-Heron is from an older tradition than rap, but tell me that this beat doesn’t sound like a descendent of The Neptunes’ sublime “Grindin.” Throw Gil Scott’s gravelly, aged voice on top of it and you’ve got something that sits in the blues range. And when the backing vocals come in for “Lord have mercy on me,” and you’re looking at gospel. The positively mournful “I need to be back home” toward the end? That’s soul. Add in the entire point of the song, which is that the city is an unfriendly, cruel place and sometimes you’ve gotta return to the country, and you’ve got a song that’s black history spread over the course of four minutes and thirty seconds.

This is a funked out blues song, like the story you tell about a break-up to your friends with a smile on your face. It’s been long enough to be a story you can tell at a party without it being a whole thing, but not quite long enough. It wavers, the smile does. That moan at the bottom of certain lines, the “I need to be back home,” all of that is regret. You’ve got to leave where you’re from because it’s the healthy thing to do.

I like the differences between Atmosphere’s “Los Angeles” and Tupac’s “To Live and Die In LA.” Slug’s vision of LA is a brief burst of sights and sounds. His “I love it” at the end is true, but it sounds a little hollow, like when people say they love a restaurant with a sandwich they like or something. He likes it, but he’s not afraid to mock it. Tupac’s feels different. He has the advantage of a smooth track on par with “Summertime in the LBC” (another good song about a city, and perfect for cookouts) backing him, and he takes you on a tour of LA and everything he loves and hates about the city. I sorta feel like there’s two LAs. I know a gang of people who hate LA, but the ones that live there seem to like it well enough. It’s one of my favorite places, and I try to visit at least once a year to see friends. Atmosphere’s “Los Angeles” seems like it’s about the LA that’s known for scandal and artifice, while Pac’s is more personal, like an insider dropping knowledge on someone new.

Black Star’s “Respiration” is theoretically about New York (BROOKLYN!) and Chicago, but it’s universal. It’s what I think of when I think of what cities are like. They’re claustrophobic and alive, and there’s no place better on Earth.

Big Boi’s “West Savannah” and Scarface’s “On My Block” fill the same niche in my head. Both of them hit you with rapid-fire details. “West Savannah” may be more biography than travelogue, but the picture it paints is vivid enough to create a picture of a young Antwan Andre Patton chilling on street corners as a kid. He breaks down the music, the spectacle, the gold teeth, even how folks drive their cars. Face’s “On My Block” hammers you with details over his three verses, and I like that he’s using the first person plural. It’s a song about a group of people, the people Scarface came up with and live in his city, instead of one person’s point of view. (Big Boi’s line “You might call us country, but we’s only Southern” is killer. There’s so much personality in that, both Big’s and the city’s, and really, Georgia’s.)

Anthony Hamilton’s “Comin’ From Where I’m From” isn’t about a specific place, exactly, but it is about this nebulous idea of home. It’s a sad song about starting in last place, basically, and never managing to catch up. Like, the “where I’m from” that Hamilton is talking about has gravity, and that gravity is inescapable. His father bounced early, but haunts his life, get it? Home isn’t just four walls and a bed. It’s a period of time, or a foundation for the future.

Maybe I’m just talking out loud since what I thought was a good point deflated itself as soon as I crystalized it into words, but there’s something about songs about places and, more specifically, home that I can’t get out of my head.

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“It’s a new way of thinkin’…” [On Vinyl]

May 31st, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the seventh, which is about how I listen to music, in a way.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Aww, Mr. Death To All Print Media is buying records now? What a hypocrite.

I regularly carry around a tiny device that lets me hold two thousand songs. My mp3 collection is over twenty-five thousand songs deep, and the distance between “thinking of an album” and “being able to listen to that album” is getting smaller and smaller each day. One side effect of the rise of MP3s as my preferred format for music is that music itself has been devalued, and any associated rituals eliminated.

If I want to play an album, I flick my thumb up and down a screen that’s probably an inch and a half wide and tall. On my computer, I have hundreds of albums that I can play one after the other in a random order, and if I let it play through, I wouldn’t hear the same song twice for weeks. iTunes is Jukebox Plus, a program that can hold every song ever made and play whatever I want, whenever I want.

Music used to be something you did, in addition to listened to. You had to fast-forward through cassette tapes to get to the song you wanted, or hope you put the tape in on the right side because the text was rubbed off. I used to have a bunch of unlabeled CDs in my car that were random mixtapes. I would shuffle through them in the morning, find the one that was the least scratched, and throw it in.

There was a ritual. You had to do something to make music go. Every album was a discrete unit, rather than being part of a mass.

So, when a friend offered me the Hanna soundtrack on vinyl, I thought about it and said, “Why not?” I grew up around records, though I rarely played them as a kid. They were around, but our needle broke at some point, so they never got played. I went out, picked up a cheap turntable, spent a few hours trying to get it to work with my computer the way I wanted, and then went out buying vinyl.

I set some ground rules for myself before I went on a mad shopping spree, though. If there is going to be a ritual to my music playing, then it’s going to be with music that’s worth it. No singles and no EPs. Anything I buy would have to be actual albums that I can bump from top to bottom, rather than anything I ‘sorta like.’ I’m only buying things I already own here, in whichever format, so the outlay of cash had to be worth it.

On top of that, I decided to buy a limited number of albums a month. I would allow one strong burst at the top to flesh out my collection, but after that, one or two albums a month, max. I don’t need to waste more space in my place. I figured that setting a foundation for a library and then building slowly would be a nice way to keep myself in check and only end up with things I enjoy.

After a couple weeks, I own Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Leftfoot, Blu’s Her Favorite Colo(u)r & Celln’Ls/ GurlFriend’ 7″ (free with HFC), Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night, Chemical Bros’ Hanna, Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis, David Banner’s Certified, Ghostface’s Fishscale, Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach, Little Dragon’s Machine Dreams, Michael Jackson Off the Wall & Thriller, Outkast’s Aquemini, P$C’s 25 to Life, Richard Pryor Wanted, Tupac’s Makaveli, and Young Jeezy’s The Recession. A few of these I found used for cheap, a few were new, and more than a few were at rock-bottom clearance prices.

I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got, and I’m pleased with how this experiment is working out. I have to consider albums as their own thing now, which is a little different than queuing up a playlist. Fast-forwarding is a pain, and while selecting individual tracks is possible, it isn’t an exact science. Vinyl makes me look at albums as one whole, rather than a selection of songs and skits.

Skit placement makes more sense now. They tend to come at the top of a side of a record, rather than randomly throughout a set of mp3s. They feel like something that will ease you back into the music or serve as a reintroduction, rather than something somebody thought was funny once. Bonus tracks are gone now, too.

Vinyl requires active listening. I’ve got a few double LPs (and one triple), and you’ve got to be paying attention so that you can switch sides and play more songs. It’s more interactive than my iPod, which I find really interesting. I’m always aware that vinyl is spinning, rather than the fire and forget way I approach iTunes.

I wake up an hour early so that I can work out every morning. As it turns out, records are a nice way to keep time. I was listening to music anyway, but now I have one album to go through a day (or 75% of an album, depending). Switching sides or records provides a nice break between sets, and playing an album lets me accurately judge my time, too.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a vinyl nut. I prefer the digital format entirely too much. But, for certain specific situations? Vinyl is very cool. Another new way of thinking.

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Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers): “Toad style is immensely strong, and immune to nearly any weapon.”

May 10th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the sixth. Chris Sims wanted me to write about Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang in fifteen minutes. With the exception of the quoted bit from my tumblr (which was relevant, and which I still like), I kept to the rules. I started with “Bring Da Ruckus” because it seemed appropriate. As I finished, “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber” was winding down and “Can It All Be So Simple” was spinning up. Maybe this was 16 minutes or so? Who knows/cares, I was in the middle of a thought I wanted to finish.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”

So when the Wu were chanting “Tiger Style!” on “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin To Fuck With,” it wasn’t just because it sounds good when you growl it. It’s because tigers were the top dog of all animals. Tiger Style, from what I’ve read, is all about offense and ending battles quickly, rather than evasion and misdirection. It’s direct, to the point, and deadly.

So “Tiger Style!” becomes a war chant and a warning. “The kings are here, everyone else fall back or catch a bad one.”

I love 36 Chambers.

It’s rough, and I think everyone that loves it recognizes that fact. Method Man hadn’t quite grown into his role as the Wu’s chief crossover king. Ghostface was just a regular rapper, with barely a hint of the style that made Supreme Clientele top 5. Rae wasn’t a kingpin yet, and RZA was just a voice, not a guru. GZA and Deck are more or less fully-formed here, with some incredible verses that stick to your ribs. U-God and Masta Killa are okay, but Ol Dirty Bastard was already settled into his role. It’s a matter of picking where to start.

Start with the first three tracks. “Bring Da Ruckus” starts off the album and sets the tone. “Ghostface! Catch the blast of a hype verse!” The next joint, “Shame on a Nigga,” begins, “Ol’ Dirty bastard, live and uncut/ Style’s unbreakable, shatterproof.” GZA on “Clan in da Front”: “The Wu is comin’ thru, the outcome is critical/ Fuckin’ wit my style, is sort of like a Miracle.”

This is what the Wu is: personality and skill. “This is me, and I’m about to rock you.” Rap is intensely personality driven, but the Wu managed to stand out even amongst their larger than life competition. Meth was playful and prone to smoking wet blunts. GZA is the scientist. ODB is wild, self-sabotage as lifestyle choice. RZA is the planner. Rae is Scarface, while Ghost is his abstract partner in crime. Every member has a role, and they all play it to the hilt.

All of that together is alchemical. The Wu is greater than the sum of its parts, and there’s still something magical about every time they get together. You want it to feel like this raw, poorly mastered release that got your blood pumping back in the day. This is Timberlands and camo jackets rap, almost actively anti-radio in sound and with a weird aesthetic. Kung fu movies? Where’d that come from?

But 36 Chambers, in spite of, or because of, its warts, is incredibly listenable. Every single song hits, and the album builds in emotional breaks between that raw rap. “Can It All Be So Simple” comes right after “7th Chamber,” and “TEARZ” comes right off the high-energy “Protect Ya Neck.” These are pauses for breath, something you have to do after chanting “WU! WU! WU! WU!” It brings you back down to earth, CNN of the streets style, and then you get built right back up.

“Da Mystery of Chessboxin” coming after “Can It Be” is incredible, because it’s just raw lyricism on display. The opening skit is pointed yet again, and sets up Toad Style as the style on display in the song. And everyone goes all the way in. U-God drops his first classic verse with his trademark growl (“Raw like cocaine straight from Bolivia” is hard body), Deck is typically clever, and while Rae isn’t using that juggernaut flow he perfected later, this shout-to-my-dawgs style is still compelling. And then Dirty comes in and crushes the building, coloring outside the lines and elevating the whole affair. Tony Starks brings some ultraviolence, and then Masta Killa’s first bar is insane.

The whole album–you can pull any song apart and look at its guts and be even more impressed. It sounds dirty and dusty, like some cats just got together with an old MPC and a rickety record player and put together an LP, but when you really listen to this album? When you look at the scaffolding that’s hidden behind the poorly mixed vocals, poorly acted skits (“fuck you mean is he fuckin dead”), random censoring, and scratchy kung fu samples?

It’s nigh-flawless. This whole thing, all 36 Chambers, they were constructed. It’s amazingly well put together.

The Wu’s a huge influence on my writing.

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Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”

April 4th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the fifth.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan)

Just a bit of fun.

The Roots feat. Common: “Act Too (Love of My Life)” (from Things Fall Apart)

Eric B. & Rakim – “I Know You Got Soul” (from Paid In Full)

Compare Thought, a top 5 dead or alive emcee and one of precious few in the running for GOAT lyricist:
“The anticipation arose as time froze/ I stared off the stage with my eyes closed/ and dove into the deep cosmos/ The impact pushed back the first five rows”

To Rakim, similarly top 5 dead or alive, and also in the running for GOAT:
“I start to think and then I sink/ Into the paper like I was ink/ When I’m writing, I’m trapped in between the lines/ I escape when I finish the rhyme… I got soul”

I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from rap for my writing. Any glance at my posts over the years is proof positive of that, and even the name of the site (“4thletter!”) is a direct reference to Rakim, the 18th Letter. Wordplay, structure, slanguage, whatever whatever. This is where I’m my most unfiltered (in public, anyway), and it bleeds out.

Rakim’s bars from “I Know You Got Soul” are things I’ve had running through my head probably ever since I first put pen to paper. The writing process there is something magical, isn’t it? Starting to think being the trigger that brings on ego death (or ego imprisonment, more properly), and then you accomplish a task (I almost said “must accomplish a task,” but that’s not what Rakim Allah is saying at all) and you escape. And then, at the end, an affirmation: “I got soul.” Soul is what makes us go. You got it or you don’t.

As a burgeoning writer, this was hugely important in how I saw the craft. It’s bigger than him, bigger than me, and the only way to do it right is to get lost in it. It happens almost on automatic, like you just can’t help it. It’s God speaking through you. You’re his bullet, he’s your gun. This quote was a source of–what, strength? That’s not quite the right word. I’d think of it when I was having trouble writing, like a mantra, until it became true for me.

I like Thought’s bars, too. It speaks to the same idea, though in this case, it’s hip-hop that’s bigger than everything. Right before the show starts, in that pregnant pause between the speakers coming to life and the emcee doing his thing, and time freezes, compresses down into one moment. And then, when he lets go, when he dives into space, the impact is huge. Metaphorically speaking, right? I love this metaphor, the idea of just completely shutting everything else out and embracing this huge, unknowable thing, and it having some type of effect.

When I think about writing, I tend to think about rap, first. As much as I enjoy books, it’s this stuff that made me want to do it. I wasn’t going to write this post, but Things Fall Apart came up on iTunes while I was thinking about starting a Stan Sakai post. The comparison shot into my head fully-formed–“This is Thought’s take on being trapped in between the lines. It’s so obvious now.”

For this post, I was trapped in between the lines for about 20 minutes, including sourcing links and chatting on Twitter. Sometimes it just spills out of you.

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Blur’s Think Tank: “You’re my jelly bean.”

March 10th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the fourth, where Graeme McMillan (Techland, Spinoff Online) joins me to talk about Blur’s Think Tank. We broke it down track by track for you, so follow along on your mp3 player or listen to the embedded music videos.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan)

Blur – Think Tank

1. Ambulance

Graeme: There’s something about this song that really makes me feel like it’s 13 done right – It’s got the same droning, mumbling, incantation thing going on, but there’s a sharpness and clarity to the noise, at the same time, if that makes sense? Also, it’s only 5 minutes, and really doesn’t outstay its welcome (It also changes things up enough so that it almost feels like a couple of songs in one – I really love the bassline that comes in around 3:30). Lyrically, there’s something to be said about the first line of an album being “No, I ain’t got nothing to be scared of, no,” after the break-up depression and drama of 13. It’s the sound of someone who’s found a new confidence in himself, and wants you to know.

David: I bought Think Tank off Amazon, and it comes with a hidden track first, which is actually just the first 6:45 of the twelve-minute first track. It’s the talking guy from “Parklife” yapping about something over droning and pulsing kind of backing music. The music part is okay, but it’s called “Me, White Noise” and it’s easy to see why. There are some good bits in it (especially around 2:18 or so when it goes really dancey), but it pretty much instantly overstays its welcome, and then goes on for a full six minutes.

Graeme: God, I’d entirely forgotten about “Me, White Noise.” It’s like the uglier brother of “Parklife,” with the jangly guitars grown into squelchy noises and everything sounding like a hangover. It really reminds me of “Essex Dogs” from Blur, but a very bad take on the same idea – It’s different, yes, but so different that I didn’t really have any desire to listen to it again after the second listen or so.

David: Other than that though, “Ambulance”? I like how it sets the stage for the rest of the album. It’s typically Blur subject matter, a kinda melancholy love song thing about your own personal shortcomings, but the music feels newer. It doesn’t sound like “Tender” or “Boys & Girls” or “For Tomorrow.” The rising action that kicks a little before the end is great, too, and it sounds like an orchestra rising up behind the singer looks.

You’re right on the significance of the first line, too. I thought this record was much, much less mopey (as much as I like moping) than 13. Albarn’s singing on “Ambulance” reminds me of “Beetlebum.” You’ve seen the video, right? Where he’s essentially fellating a microphone? The delivery there reminds me of the delivery here.

Graeme: I can see that, but the video it reminds me of is “No Distance Left To Run.” This is Damon still a little sleepy, waking up and everything better after a good night’s sleep.

2. Out Of Time

Graeme: Another beautifully sad song, and again, there’s a clarity to the noise that makes everything feel new after 13. But there’s also the… counter-programming, perhaps, of the Moroccan instrumentation that really adds something to the way it all sounds, and makes it feel as large as the lyrics demand. “And you’ve been so busy lately/That you haven’t found the time/To open up your mind/And watch the world spinning/Gently out of time,” sings Damon, and it’s like he’s gone from snarky observer (Modern Life Is Rubbish/Parklife/The Great Escape) to introvert (Blur/13) to… what, enlightened observer? But there’s such melancholy in the way that he sings it that it doesn’t come across as impartial. Am I making sense?

David: “And you’ve been so busy lately/ That you haven’t found the time/ To open up your mind/ And watch the world spinning/ Gently out of time” is exactly what drew me to this song, actually. It paints a fantastically detailed picture of a world where all is lost, but not really, because there is still something pretty. We just have to slow down to see the beauty and finally notice the decay.

This is an easy one to relate to. It reminds me of Atmosphere’s “Modern Man’s Hustle,” from God Loves Ugly. The chorus (which is infinitely catchy) is “I will show you all you need to know/ You must hold on to anyone that wants you/ And I will love you through simple and the struggle/ But girl, you got to understand the modern man must hustle.” Like, yeah, I love you, BUUUUUUUT surviving has to come first. Priorities. (and if you want to talk about albums that are autobiographical for the listener, I couldn’t listen to God Loves Ugly for like three years.)

Being too busy to take the time to do nice things is pretty much the dictionary definition of modern life, innit? Turns out modern life is rubbish (sorry).

Graeme: Interesting… I’d always taken it as Damon being someone who’s almost reprimanding – albeit very, very gently – the listener/whoever he’s singing to for being too busy. As in “This is who you’ve been, but you have to change, or you’ll never get better.” Are you saying that you hear it as Damon just being sad that that’s the way life is now?

David: I’ve been listening and re-listening to it while replying to you, and the song definitely isn’t partial. He’s singing about the way things are, but pushing for the way things should be. I think you’re right about Albarn admonishing the listener, but it’s also told from the first person plural at certain points, which says to me that he shares some of the blame. “Where’s the love song to set us free?”, right? It feels sort of like resignation, whether from him (“I can’t quite make the leap to this kind of love”) or about her (“You need to slow down, life could be really nice for us.”). The Atmosphere reference isn’t quite as close as I’d thought, on further reflection.

But basically, this one is saying to me, “We/you/I ain’t perfect, and we make do, but it’d be nice if we could do better.”

3. Crazy Beat

Graeme: Maybe it’s just me, but this sounds like posturing, like they’re trying to do something like “BLUREMI” or earlier, punkier music, and it just doesn’t convince – Again, there’s something about the production that doesn’t work for me, it’s muddy and feels small in the same way that a lot of 13 did. It feels out of place in the album, as if they were told by the record company to come up with an upbeat single and half-assed this.

David: I like this one more than you do for sure, in part because it’s basically in the vein of “I Love Rock & Roll” (in subject matter, at least, and in execution with the “I love that crazy beat” part) set over something I’d want to dance to. It’s light, though, and I don’t even think it’s single worthy. Like, maybe in the ’90s, but this feels like a throwback, save for the talkbox. This is just okay.

Of course, after I say “this doesn’t feel like it’s single worthy,” I google and find that it was a single. Well.

4. Good Song

Graeme: The first of many songs on this album that feel as if they could’ve come from a Gorillaz project. I’m not sure what the differentiator is for me, but maybe it’s the drums and the finger-picked acoustic guitar sounding like a loop? It’s a very slight song, but nice enough. Maybe it needed a guest-star, a la Gorillaz.

David: Hands down best part of the song is “And you seem very beautiful to me” and that lead-in to the instrumental break. The last verse is no good, though. The falsetto doesn’t work, the trailing off… it feels like he’s trying too hard. You’re right that it’s slight, and I think what it needed was a female vocalist, someone to go back and forth with Albarn.

Graeme: Yes! Bring in Little Dragon. I still think “To Binge” from Plastic Beach is the best Albarn song in years. Or maybe just the most complete.

David: “To Binge” is great, but c’mon… it’s gotta be “Broken”.

“You seem very beautiful to me” is great, though. Seem is one of those words that I think is a little wishy-washy, like you use it when you don’t want to make a firm statement. That, then, raises the question of just how sincere this song is supposed to be. Is it just an attempt at an escape? I dunno, but this track needed more to make me dig it.

5. On The Way To The Club

Graeme: This one just kind of leaves me flat. I don’t DISLIKE it, I just don’t particularly like it, either. It’s just there, and not very interesting to me. Again, parts of it – everything post 2:05, in particular – really sound like an unfinished Gorillaz song to me.

David: Man, yeah, I have hardly any opinion on this song at all. I get it, it’s about longing and not really being able to do much about it, but it feels like half a song. I don’t buy it. I keep forgetting its on this album, too. It just comes and goes. Post-2:05 sounds a little Demon Days-y, but only in sound, not in focus. The wailing and noises there felt like they had a point, while here… it just feels like dead air.

6. Brothers and Sisters

Graeme: I love this song; I love the guitar, and the way it sounds like it’s going to be a totally different song until the bass comes in. I love Damon’s attempts at rapping, I love the moaning background vocals, and the way the song twists and turns into something completely different by the time it finishes, especially the really dated-sounding keyboards. One of my favorite songs on the album.

David: Setting aside my obvious attraction to anything named “brothers,” you’re right here. The slant rhymes, the chorus, all of it is great. Do you hear him slurring his vocals on the chorus? “Gi’ us somethin’ toniiiight…” I love drug songs, and while this isn’t as teeter-totteringly clever as, say, Aesop Rock’s “Greatest Pac-Man Victory In History”, it’s still great just for its sheer straightforwardness.

I love how he flirts with the word “sobriety” at the end, too. Albarn goes “Librium for anxiety/ Drinking is our society/ Guessing out of tirety” and that’s great, because you KNOW the next rhyme HAS to be sobriety, but, no the song’s over. No sobriety for you.

7. Caravan

Graeme: This sounds like a cousin to “Battle” on 13 somehow, but again, much cleaner and… more melodic, perhaps? Again, I love this song, especially the arrangement (The guitar? keyboard? that comes in behind the singing at 1:15 really makes the song for me) and the distortion on Damon’s voice. The laziness to the “la lala la la la la”s as well, it feels effortless, intimate. There’s something very… disconnected, in a good way, about a lot of the sounds on this album, very spacey but in a different way to 13 – I really like it.

David: The distortion is what makes this one. It’s like Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, where a robot voice is playing this very melancholy role and hitting melancholy notes. This is another one of those rainy day songs, where really all the video has to be is a camera looking in a window from the rain while the band plays. That’s the exact picture this paints in my head. Intimate is a good word, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. There’s definitely something at least slightly masking his emotions–in this case the distortion.

I do like how the song reverses course in the second verse, though. First verse: “I’m a screw-up.” Second verse: “No, wait, I have family.” And “Sometimes everything is easy” feels like it has an unspoken “but not this time” sitting there in the shadows.

8. We’ve Got A File On You

Graeme: See, THIS is what I wanted “Crazy Beat” to sound like. This feels like an upbeat, shouty song that actually BELONGS on the album, and done in just over a minute! This is the kind of punk I want.

David: The first what, twenty seconds of this song? Flawless. It’s something that should be in one of Tarantino’s soundtracks. The rest of the song is great, sure, but that wind-up before the pitch is great. I think “Crazy Beat” is too different in tone for it to work as being a really shouty piece, though.

Graeme: I first heard this song when the album leaked online, and it was missing the last “ON YOU!” Weirdly enough, I think it was better that way. It just… stopped. Seriously, play it back and stop it right there. You’ll hear what I mean.

9. Moroccan People’s Revolutionary Bowls Club

Graeme: This is really a bass-heavy album, compared with all the other Blur albums, isn’t it? Alex really takes a massive role on this one, and really grounds the songs in a way that he’s never really had to before. Case in point: For everything that’s going on in this song, it’s all about that bass line, and it’s the bass line – and probably Dave’s drums – that make it feel so loose and light. This is another one that feels like, with different vocals, it could be a Gorillaz song.

David: You know, I couldn’t tell you what a bass guitar sounds like if I tried. If someone pointed out the differences, sure, I probably could, but right now? No idea. You’re absolutely right in that the music carries this one, but I really dig the way that the vocals come in as a track of their own two minutes in, with the ’80s (or at least what I associate the ’80s as being like) vocal distortion feeling more like music than actual vocals. I really like the drums here, too, but can’t quite articulate why. They sound sort of like the boom-bap from some of the indie hip-hop I was into in high school.

10. Sweet Song

Graeme: Definitely my favorite song on the album, it’s another Albarn song that just feels honest and open and effortless, and again, he’s being melancholy. It’s something that he does really well: Not SAD songs, necessarily, but melancholy ones, ones completely infused with sadness, but also some kind of optimism that keeps it from being a complete downer (“But I hope I see the good in you come back again/I just believed in you” is the kind of beautifully heartbreaking line, all filled with regret and hope that I love Elliott Smith for, even though everyone else in the known world seems to think he’s only about the depression). I like that the song ends, but the track continues with that long fade that sounds like something moving further away, for another few seconds, too.

David: This sounds like it could have easily been on 13, or even Plastic Beach, when I think about it. This feels like “On Melancholy Hill”‘s lyrics mixed with the music from “Broken.” “I deceive I deceive I deceive I deceive ’cause I’m not that strong/ hope you feel the same” is a little bit brilliant, too, the kind of line you want to chew over for a while.

I can’t quite decide what the song’s actually about, though, in part because of that line. Did he hurt his girl, was she not open to him trying to do good, what what what? “I hope I see the good in you come back again” sounds like she went sour, not him. It’s just a little ambiguous, isn’t it?

Graeme: All the best melancholy songs are ambiguous, I think; all the better for you to think “He/She’s singing ABOUT MY LIFE.” I know there are multiple Albarn sad songs that I feel completely possessive about, and it’s all because of the very specific readings I give them.

11. Jets

Graeme: Another could-be-a-Gorillaz-song-in-an-alternate-universe track, but it feels unfinished and a bit throwaway in a way that earlier instrumentals hadn’t. Also, by the time the saxophone comes in, just being a bit jazz-wanky, I’ve pretty much lost interest.

David: I actually really, really dig this one. It sounds like a Saul Williams song, from Albarn’s voice down to the heavy, messy drums. I like how it has a few specific modes, too: the part where Albarn’s lyrics fade in and then fade out (which is the heavy part), the plinky-plink part before and after that, and then the oppressive bit after that, before flipping back to plinks. This is good writing music and a real head-nodder. The sax was a bit much, though, especially around 6:05.

12. Gene By Gene

Graeme: This always makes me think it’s a really simple love song (“You’re my jelly bean” strikes me as such a lovelily goofy expression, and completely unexpected by this point in the album) done very elaborately, based around what sounds like samples of random noise? But I love it, completely, it’s just… happy, or at least it sounds happy enough that I find myself ignoring the lyrics and just listening to the noises, something I do to a lot of songs that just make me smile. For all I know, this is a really depressing song if you listen to the lyrics, but I don’t care. Someone (his daughter?) is Damon’s jelly bean, and that’s all I need to know.

David: Is this song depressing? Even looking at the lyrics I can’t quite tell, and the song being so incredibly upbeat muddies the waters even more. “Gotta get to know you, gene by gene” is good stuff. It feels like a song that’s straight up autobiographical, too. “Got a radio hit in mind…” This is another song that demands you nod your head along with the music, especially with around a minute to go and the vocals begin wrapping in on each other. The outro is weird, though, more horror movie than pop song.

“Get out the shower and I’m four fifty?” Google says “Force 15” but that makes even less sense.

Graeme: No, wait, that makes sense: Force 15, like a hurricane. Is that a British thing?

David: Ah, no, that makes sense. Wikipedia says that it only goes up to Force 12, but that still makes much more sense.

And on the point of it maybe being about his daughter–“jellybean” is such a daughter-y nickname.

13. Battery In My Leg

Graeme: It’s Blur-fan-heresy, I know, but this song – the only one on the album to feature Graham Coxon, who fell out with the rest of the band and left during recording – is just… I don’t know, overblown and bland in a way that the rest of the album isn’t, and I’m very glad that the rest of the album isn’t anything like it. Everything else feels more alive, whereas this feels uncertain and uncomfortable. You can hear the tension inside it, and it’s a relief when it’s done.

David: This song’s a drag, through and through. Even the piano keys taking the song out bore me to tears. The lyrics are okay, I guess, but it feels like a Blur song that’s intentionally Blur-y–“Here is what we do, so let’s go ahead and get it over with.” It’s like 2/3 of the songs on Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 in that way. “This is what people expect.” Bleah. Pass.

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Blur’s 13: “I’m a country boy, I got no soul”

March 1st, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the third, where Graeme McMillan (Techland, Spinoff Online) joins me to talk about Blur’s 13. These are raw track by track opinions, generally written over the course of the song we’re discussing. I’d have embedded music videos so you could listen while you read, but Parlophone doesn’t let you do that. Instead, open youtube in another tab and listen along.

1. “Tender”

David: My first thought was, “Wow, a seven minute introductory song?” For some reason that struck me as an awful idea, like maybe they should have eased into this one or used it as the last song simply due to the length. But no, actually, this is really good. The “oh my baby, oh my baby, oh why, oh my” bit is scary catchy, and the “Tender is the touch of someone that you love too much” is pretty great, emotionally. It’s interesting that the song is essentially two identical halves, and I’m not sure what that means just yet, but as far as a song about wanting to be in love goes, this is pretty great. It’s the kinda song you want to do in Rock Band (I really like going “Oh whyyy… oh myyyy…”)

Graeme: The first single from the album, and one of those songs that just hits you at the right time so that it sounds like a message from some higher power as much as it does just a song. The first time I heard this, I was maybe a week at most after being dumped by a girlfriend of a year or so, on-and-off, and it was as if Damon was singing to me. Because of that, maybe, this always sounds much bigger than it might do to other people, something I can’t just take as a song because it also feels like a hug, or a friend telling you that you’re going to be okay. Come on, come on, come on, get through it.

Random fun fact: This has the worst edit in any modern pop song I can think of. Listen closely at 4:00 and you’ll hear Damon go “Tuh” because they didn’t properly cut out what was, presumably, him doing the final verse before they added in the solo and chorus.

2. “Bugman”

David: Puts me in mind of “White Light” from Demon Days and “Punk” from Gorillaz, but less successful than either. I like when the “na na na na” comes in about 60 seconds in and then the song goes crazy twenty seconds after that, but overall, this is like 75% noise to me. Is this about drug dealers? “I know the nodding dogs,” with doing heroin being “on the nod,” the city being portrayed as dangerous… This song is like two minutes too long, though. There’s this huge outro that I’m not into at all. Neat in theory, ehhh in execution. It’s very Gorillaz in sound, though.

Graeme: This is… fun enough, I guess, but pretty much a muddy mess overall. I think this is a really muddy album in general, in terms of production – It lacks the sharpness and clarity of the Britpoppy stuff, adding more reverb and distortion but forgetting to make anything really stand out. You’re right in saying that it’s two minutes too long – This was the album where, in interviews, they said things like “We’ve learned to keep all the noodling in, instead of just cutting it out,” but for all of that “Yeah, we’re being true to the way we are in the studio” posturing, it misses the point that the songs were better when there was more of an editing process. Maybe that should add to the wallowing aspect of the whole thing, that Damon post-break-up is lazy and messy musically where the rest of us are emotionally?

3. “Coffee & TV”

David: Reminds me of my limited exposure to REM’s catalog for some reason–the soft vocals and twangy guitar put me in mind of “Orange Crush” and “Losing My Religion,” though not for any specific reason or hard connection. Just a weird “Oh, is this like that?” I like it, though. This song feels very conversational, rather than being a tour de force of singing prowess. I really like the way the vocals feel soft, and the drumbeat is good, too. This one is about… being rescued via love? I don’t know. I don’t know about the squeaky guitar solo, either.

Graeme: “Do you feel like a chainstore/Practically floored” is one of my favorite opening lyrics to anything ever, it has to be said. This has very little Damon on it – He didn’t write it (It’s Graham Coxon, who also sings lead – He did “You’re So Great” on “Blur,” as well), and only does chorus lead vocals/background vocals and the keyboard at the end – but it’s one of the most pure moments on the album, for me (This, “Tender,” “Mellow Song” and “No Distance Left To Run” feel like they’ve come from a different album, in terms of sound). Maybe because of the way that Graham sings – quietly, mumbly – it feels really intimate, so I can totally see where you’re getting the conversational thing.

4. “Swamp Song”

David: I like the “I want to be with you” part of the chorus, but overall? Not really digging it.

Graeme: It’s got a great opening riff, and there’s something I kind of like in a “singing along when I hear it, but not listening to it intentionally” way, but yeah; this isn’t really the greatest song. Like “Bugman,” “BLUREMI,” and “Caramel,” it feels more like a half-finished song that should be a B-Side or something, if that makes sense. In particular, this song really, REALLY doesn’t have an ending.

If you’re following lyrical themes through the album, though: “Gimme space brain” harkens back to “Space is the place” at the end of “Bugman,” weirdly enough. Wonder if that means anything?

5. “1992”

David: This is about being dumped and hoping that the dumper feels bad, right? It took a while, but I came around to liking this one. I like the way the song builds and peaks toward the middle with loud noises and uneven volume around the third minute before just completely devolving into something else–a thunderstorm?–and then cutting out a few seconds before the track ends.

Graeme: My Britpop memory is off, but I’d be very surprised if 1992 isn’t the year that Damon met Justine, the girlfriend that most of this album is about. This really reminds me of the shoegazery music that Blur did for the first album, and again, it doesn’t have an ending, it just gets louder and stops, which… doesn’t count.

6. “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.”

David: This sounds almost like it should be the theme song to a sitcom, but I like it a lot. Is this a punk influenced song or is there some history to this sound? I really dig the vocoded/sped up B-L-U-R-E-M-I laid over Albarn’s normal vocals. Wait–is this about history? “Group using a loop of another pop group, completing the cycle, until the teenage maniacs, they bring it all back?” Music moves in cycles, what’s old becomes new, and Blur is on a 70 year old record label… The piano outro is interesting, but I’m not sure what it represents.

Graeme: It’s “Bugman” part two, but with an annoying ducklike vocoder moment! THIS is the one that really sounds like “Punk” to me, if only the annoying “BLUREMI” duck voice wasn’t there. One of the things that this song really underscores for me is how much I like lyrics in this album when I dislike the songs – I really, really like the “group using the loop/of another pop group/completing the cycle” take on pop music that Albarn is showing off here (Also, maybe it’s him getting his head around non-Britpoppy music, in a way, preparing for Gorillaz?), but musically…? This just doesn’t work for me.

7. “Battle”

David: I like it. It sounds like outer space. I didn’t get the lyrics at first because of how he’s pronouncing battle–I hear “Batou,” like the guy from Ghost in the Shell. (I noticed that on “Song 2,” as well. I’ve never heard anyone say “jum-bo jet” like that before.) This one feels really noodley, like they were fooling around in the studio and improving or something. I like when the heavy guitar comes in at around 2:30 and then transforms into another sound in time for the next verse. I like this one a lot, and his singing feels… not quite melancholy, but maybe so. It’s a song for a rainy day, when things aren’t bad, but you just kinda want to relax and re-center. Maybe a little Pink Floyd-y.

Graeme: A song that really, really grew on me, back when I was first listening to the album – I didn’t like it at first, but the more I heard it, the more things jumped out at me… The way the drums just push the whole thing forward (Dave doesn’t get enough credit for his drums in Blur, I don’t think; something like “Song 2” or this is just awesome work), and you’re right, yeah, it sounds very spacey – There’s a great UNKLE remix of this that came out as a B-Side that turns it into a something much sleeker and dancefloory, but there’s really something about the… unpredictability of this version, and the way that it holds together nonetheless, that I have ended up loving a lot. It sounds fucking GREAT on headphones, as well, with all the panning between left and right.

8. “Mellow Song”

David: I like this one a whole lot. Maybe I just like the sad stuff more. It’s clearly about a breakup, and “giving away time to Casio” is brilliant. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite on the album, but I definitely like it a whole lot.

Graeme: God, I love this song so much. I love almost everything about it, especially the lazy, quiet way it starts – the ghostlike keyboards that come in on the second verse, the murmured vocals, the “Is this where I’m going to…? We’ll see… We’ll see. We’ll see” in the chorus. I’m with you on liking the sad songs more – I think almost all of my favorite Albarn songs are the sad ones, he does melancholy really well, I think.

9. “Trailerpark”

David: I don’t much like the “Freestyle! Forty five!” part, but the “I’m a Country boy, I got no Soul” verse (bridge?) is pretty great. This one kind of overstays its welcome, though. There’s this weird piano loop in the background that sounds like Final Fantasy VII music, too, or at least reminds me of it. This, in fact, but less… jubilant. But that rising and falling action–that’s it. That’s what I hear.

Graeme: I’ll give you the “Freestyle – 45!” thing, which just feels like a pose, this inauthentic thing in the middle of a great song that I otherwise love. In a weird way, this song feels like the heart of the album to me, the one place where the honesty and hurt of “Tender” and “No Distance” and “Mellow Song” meets the over-produced weirdness of everything else, and again, it’s all in the vocal and the lyrics – The underperformed way Albarn offers up “I’m a country boy, I got no soul, I don’t sleep at night, the world’s growing old” and the repeated “I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones.” I said in an earlier email my theory that losing his girl to the Rolling Stones is an allusion to Justine (allegedly, seeing as I don’t want to get sued) falling into the rock and roll lifestyle of heroin following the first Elastica album, right? I’ve always thought that since the first time I heard this song, and it makes it so much sadder, somehow, as if Albarn is actually just repeating his flaws and the cliche that he’s lost his girlfriend to without being able to do anything about it.

10. “Caramel”

David: I like this one a lot. Melancholy, quiet, great vocals, great lyrics. I like how it spins up into something almost jazzy and frenetic, too. I think he’s chanting “Love, love… love” about 5:30 in? I’m digging it. Another good Rock Band song. I like that the outro sounds like an old record, but I still don’t get it.

Graeme: The sound of a man trying to pull himself of… what? A bad relationship? MOURNING a bad relationship? “I’ll love you forever…” but who is he saying that to? Another song that’s less a song than an incantation, repetition and rhythmic without falling into the verse-chorus-verse structure, and underscoring the feeling that this album is full of expression, even if it’s this weird stream-of-consciousness expression that could’ve done with some editing.

11. “Trimm Trabb”

David: I’m not sure what “Trimm Trabb” is, but I like how this one sounds. The layered vocals on the chorus are pretty cool, too. Just slightly different enough from each other to sound like a handful of vocalists. There’s a lot of vocals that I can’t quite pick up–the counting in the background, the robot voice–but I still dig this one. Not top 5 on the album, I’d say, but very listenable, even when it breaks down into yelling.

Graeme: Trimm Trabbs are – were? – sneakers. So “I got Trimm Trabb, like the flash boys have” is meant literally as “I have the cool shoes.” (Weird coincidence: “Killing of A Flash Boy” is a popular song by Suede, Blur rivals and the band Justine belonged to when Damon met her). Again, this starts nice and lazily, and builds up – that feels like the structure of a lot of these songs, sonically, or is it just me? – and has a very passive Damon working through his demons: Not only does he say “That’s just the way it is,” but also “I’ll sleep alone” is repeated over and over again.

12. “No Distance Left to Run”

David: The opening guitar makes it feel like a song that wouldn’t be out of place in a Western, though the vocals obviously don’t match. This is a monster break up song, too. It’s fantastic. Probably tops on the album?

Graeme: I’m convinced this album plays in reverse. This is clearly “set” before “Tender” – This is the actual break-up of the relationship that Damon’s recovering from in that song, right? It is completely and utterly heartbreaking, so open and honest and fearless in its emotion – Again, when I first heard this album, I was in the middle of this horrible breakup (that ended up lasting months as we’d continue to hook up and self-destruct and bring out really bad things from each other without meaning to), and so, a lot of what Damon says here was exactly how I was feeling, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. There’s something so amazingly heartbreaking about the “I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel that this life is the life/Who settles down, stays around, spends more time with you” part, especially… The idea of just surrendering to the idea that you are at fault, that the pain is on your shoulders, that you weren’t good enough. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song, and never fails to make me want to cry.

13. “Optigan 1”

David: Weird thought–this feels like an intro, doesn’t it? Like the prelude to the album? I wonder if it and “Tender” were switched in the sequence? Maybe I’m reading too deep/being too picky. This one sounds old, like hand cranked record player old. I like it. Weird placement on the album, I feel, but it also feels very final at the same time.

Graeme: Yeah, it does feel like an intro – and if this album is played in reverse, it WOULD BE (Dun dun dun). But it also feels like a farewell, like something that would be playing in a theater as you’re leaving following a show. It doesn’t feel quite there, either; too quiet, too old, too… not present. The sound of the past, fading out.

It’s funny – Listening to this again to write this, I realized that there’s more to this album that I liked than I’d remembered. I’m still not sure that it comes together or works as an album – It really doesn’t feel like a BLUR album to me, if feels too overproduced, if that makes sense? – but as some kind of side Albarn project, it’s more interesting than I’d thought.

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“I ain’t a killer, but don’t push me.”

January 18th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the second:

Let’s talk about The 7 Day Theory, even though everyone just calls it Makaveli. It’s twelve tracks long, just shy of a full hour, and his best record.

1) “Intro/Bomb First (My Second Reply)” – I learned recently that Tupac would record his vocals three times and layer all of those on the track. This was so that if he missed a word in one take, he’d probably get it on the second, and maybe do it better on the third. I don’t know the term for this (“wall of sound”?), but it makes Makaveli sound very full and very, very messy. It’s overflowing with Tupac, basically. You can sometimes hear the differing takes floating below the final track, like ghosts.

You can even hear it on this intro. The church bells, the news report, heartbeat, and the dense background noise all stack up. It’s intense, and what really blows my mind is the transition from introduction to the actual song around 1:20. Everything builds to a crescendo before dropping out in favor of the church bells, and then the song comes in. The heartbeat becomes part of the beat, becoming a more traditional drumbeat, and then a gunshot heralds the arrival of Makaveli the Don. Tupac’s flow is fast, but he puts so much emphasis on every word that you can’t help but keep up.

2) “Hail Mary” – The church bells make a return, providing continuity between “Bomb First” and “Hail Mary.” This time, they stick around, and are accompanied by light keys.

There aren’t many rap songs with a better first two bars than “Hail Mary.” “I ain’t a killer but don’t push me/ Revenge is like the sweetest joy next to gettin pussy” is top 5 dead or alive material, and when you consider that “Hail Mary” is about being damned, it takes on new meaning. This isn’t about killing your enemies and glorying in your victory. It’s about being hopeless because you stepped on a path and you couldn’t get off it if you tried. It’s not a prayer so much as a confessional, and the lines between traditional Catholicism and the black family twist and blur over the course of Tupac’s verses.

When he says, “Institutionalized, I lived my life a product made to crumble/ But too hardened for a smile, we’re too crazy to be humble, we balling” he’s talking about how playing a role can remove you from happiness. It’s the price of fame–you get what you want, but you can’t even enjoy it. You revel in it, and you ball out of control, but you can’t smile any more.

The Outlawz go in on this, but Young Noble almost steals the song. “Peep the whole scene and whatever’s goin on around me/ Brain kinda cloudy, smoked out feelin rowdy/ Ready to wet the party up, and whoever in that motherfucker” The flow is on point, and he’s just the personification of what Tupac is talking about. He’s lost and he knows it.

3) “Toss it Up” – Tupac took a sex song that was intended for a K-Ci & Jojo album, added another verse dissing Dr. Dre and an outro manhandling Puffy, and put it on Makaveli. That same trio had rocked “How Do U Want It” earlier, and what’s funny is that he did the same thing there. He dissed Bob Dole and C Delores Tucker in verse two and talked about his demons in verse three, and bam, out.

But really, that was Tupac. He could spit something grimy over a smooth beat, and it would all work. Something for the thugs and something for the ladies, all in one song. It shouldn’t work, but it’s that “understandable smooth shit that murderers move with.” You want to know where 50 and Ja Rule got their style from? This song right here.

4) “To Live & Die in L.A.” – This is one of four love songs on Makaveli, and the first of two dedicated to inanimate objects. But really, “To Live & Die In LA” is like Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince’s “Summertime.” It’s just a smooth joint you put on at a cookout or when chilling and reminisce. It’s about belonging somewhere, loving your people, and repping for your home.

What I like is that Tupac isn’t even from LA. He was born in Harlem, lived in Baltimore, moved to Marin City as a kid, repped the Bay Area for years, and then he made his way south as an adult. LA is his adopted home, but it’s clear he loves it anyway. That’s a good feeling, I think.

5) “Blasphemy” – There are a lot of references to God and religion throughout this album, from the provocative cover art down to “Hail Mary” and “Blasphemy.” It’s usually pitched from a position of mistrust or confusion. He constantly blurs the line between God and a father, absentee or present, and rather than being a comfort, religion is something that’s unknowable and scary.

Tupac often dealt with fatalist themes, and this song just might be the peak of it. If you turn this one up, you can hear Tupac harmonizing in the background, just below the bass. It sounds sad,

6) “Life of an Outlaw” – “The shit you heard ain’t do me justice–got a death wish, bitch!”

The reason why Tupac clicked with so many people probably comes down to a few things. He wasn’t the most lyrical rapper, and Biggie definitely wins on that front, but Tupac was a guy who used charisma, rhythm, and emotion to pull you in. Tupac understood the importance of playing a role and acting in rap music. He could mix something deeply personal with something that was straight up false, and it would still come off true.

It wasn’t about faking, or exploiting a lifestyle you didn’t belong to. It was more like he wanted to represent every aspect of black culture so that he could reach as many people as possible. So he had the songs dedicated to death obsession, screwing women, loving women, guns, and black power. He talked about pain and fame in equal parts, and it worked. Everybody loved him, “from the hood to the burbs.” Tupac, to an extent more than probably any other rapper, represented us. He ran up and down the spectrum of black experiences in his songs, and he did it in a way that everybody kept the volume knob turned all the way up.

7) “Just Like Daddy” – Love song number two, and the only one that’s just a straight up traditional joint. This is Tupac and the Outlawz in a “Dear Mama” mode. It’s sweet and protective, but also apologetic. There’s this strain of guilt that runs through Tupac’s library, and it tends to go hand-in-hand with loyalty.

It’s about sticking by your people, especially through the rough times. It’s about knowing better, but falling short, and getting another chance to do things right. Tupac’s verse is about a woman sticking by her man while he’s in jail and him promising to stick by her.

The sweetness is all in the chorus. Do people still call into radio shows to dedicate songs to their girls? This is more “Summertime” music.

8) “Krazy” – One of the illest, and most true, lines on 36 Chambers came from Deck on “CREAM.” “Though I don’t know why I chose to smoke sess/ I guess that’s the time when I’m not depressed/ But I’m still depressed, and I ask what’s it worth?/ Ready to give up so I seek the Old Earth/ Who explained working hard may help you maintain/ to learn to overcome the heartaches and pain.”

It’s a verse that I think represents a lot of what I feel like it’s like to be black in America. Tupac’s “Krazy,” then, takes those six bars and blows them out into a full-blown song. Every single line is rings true, from trying to escape from real life with drugs or drink, trying to do right by your mom, and, no matter what, feeling like you don’t belong. Bad Azz drops the best verse of his career…

“Krazy” is one of the most melancholy songs I know. It’s just about getting by. Life goes on.

9) “White Man’z World” – Love song number three, this time to his people.

On “Bomb First,” Tupac talks about how he’s down to “murder motherfuckers lyrically, and I’m not gon’ cry.” When he’s talking about love, black people, or his family, he cries. He says, “Dear sister, got me twisted up in prison, I miss ya/ Cryin lookin at my niece’s and my newphew’s picture.” On “Krazy,” he mentions crying for weeks after getting a letter from his sister Sekyiwa.

Crying doesn’t really fit the media narrative of Tupac. You’d think he was Alpha Male Plus if you judged him by the papers. To them, he was the guy who came through and wrecked New York nearly singlehandedly, in between preying on women and running wild in the streets. But no, that really wasn’t it. This song alone puts the lie to it. Tupac was raised by Black Panthers. He knows what he’s talking about, and there’s been a strong pro-Black theme running through most of his albums.

This is another one of those songs that’s both universal and personal. That second verse is lethal.

“Proud to be black, but why we act like we don’t love ourselves?/ Don’t look around busta (you sucka) check yourselves!/ Know what it means to be black, whether a man or girl/ We still struggling, in this white man’s world.”

10) “Me and My Girlfriend” – Love song number four, this time to his pistol.

This one is just an eternal banger, from Lady of Rage to the hook to the concept.

This is where the layered vocals come back in a big way. If you turn this one up loud with some good earphones, you can hear the vocal tracks slipping and sliding up against each other, particularly on the chorus. You can hear these alternate Tupacs behind every line, sometimes synchronized, sometimes off just a little bit, and sometimes just emphasizing a single word.

It makes “Me and My Girlfriend” sound like a ghost story, like Tupac is haunting his own song. It makes a song that’s just dope into something that’s real, real creepy. There’s a reverb (or reverse?) effect around some of the lines and chorus, too, which only adds to the effect. Tupac’s earnest personification of the gun as the only girl he loves and the implications of the hold it has over him is powerful stuff.

What’s more is the fact that, alongside guilt, the idea of being trapped is something that has been deep inside Tupac’s lyrics, ever since the beginning.

11) “Hold Ya Head” – This pro-black joint is like “Krazy,” but even more obvious in its meaning. It’s also another price of fame song, as Tupac relates how going hard at all times and making money cost him friends and happiness. He knows that people would lock him up forever if they could, but he also knows that he couldn’t stop if he wanted to.

It’s as much an encouragement and advice to others as a message to himself. His advice at the end, about how no matter how hard it gets, you need to do whatever you need to do to hold your head, are all things he did himself.

12) “Against All Odds” – “Hit ‘Em Up” was nice, but “Against All Odds” is the nail in the coffin. Mobb Deep, Jay-Z, and everyone else are treated as less than potholes in Tupac’s path in “Against All Odds”. He’s left the buckshot blast of hate that was “Hit ‘Em Up” behind in favor of something new: “Plan, plot, strategize, and bomb first.” It’s an updating of his THUG LIFE (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody) and NIGGA (Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished) credos. You think it through first, and then you destroy whatever stands in your way.

This song puts every major figure in New York on blast in a such an amazing way that its only competition is “Ether” or “Takeover”, and those are a distant, distant second and third. This is just a straight up, no frills diss song–“this is why you’re wack.” He calls Nas out on biting Rakim’s style before dissing and dismissing Mobb Deep in two lines. He creates what is hands down the best line in a diss song ever when he says that De La Soul is “looking like Larry Holmes, flabby and sick.”

Makaveli began with church bells and ends with the sounds of war. There’s something meaningful lurking behind that, isn’t there? I don’t know.

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The Beatles: Eleanor Rigby & Cellar Door

January 3rd, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the first:

I’ve been learning The Beatles lately. I’m fairly unfamiliar with them, with only a passing knowledge of their catalog. I know “Come together! Right now! Over me!” from a pickup truck commercial (and it was probably the Aerosmith version), I believe, and bits from movies or karaoke. I started with Revolver, because that’s what people said was their best album, and listened to it about ten times over Christmas weekend.

What’s most surprising, I think, is how infinitely singable this record is. Something about a song like “Eleanor Rigby” demands that you sing along. It’s compelling, but not in terms of content. The lyrics and vocals aren’t that complicated, is what it is. They’re simple, especially when compared to the diva’d up songs (word to 0:40-1:00, can I get an amen?) that I usually need to sing along to. It’s pop, in the purest meaning of the word. It’s popular and appropriate for a mass audience. Paul McCartney’s singing voice is conversational, almost, and a little bit haunting. It’s a sad song, but a catchy one.

What’s more is what I tend to think of as the focal point of the song, the phrase “Eleanor Rigby,” is incredibly pleasing to the ear. It sits alone in the verse, separated from the rest of its line by a beat, and really draws my attention. Something about the name puts me in mind of the phrase “cellar door.” It’s intensely musical in and of itself and regardless of what it actually means. “El-ea-nor-rig-by” has a specific rhythm and a pleasing sound, even when spoken in plain language. The Rs flow into each other. “Father McKenzie” isn’t quite as musical, I think due to the hard K sounds in the last segment, but it still works after being setup by “Eleanor Rigby.”

(This ties into the rhythm, as well. Biggie’s “Super Nin-ten-do Sega Genesis” has much the same effect. It’s like hypnosis.)

My mental impression of “Eleanor Rigby,” the song, is partly abstracted. It’s a loose collection of pleasant sounds (“I look at all the lonely people” and then “Eleanor Rigby”) followed by coherent lyrics, and then bookended with more pleasing sounds. And you can’t not sing along with it for that very reason. It sounds good, a kind of good that demands homage. It works, and works hard.

There are a few other songs on the album I have this reaction to, though none as strong as “Eleanor Rigby.” “Taxman” is quite good, and I like the harmony (harmonial?) aspects of it (“Yeaaaaahyeah, I’m the Taxmaaaan,” “Ah-ah, Mis-ter Willll-son,” and that crazy verse from 0:55-1:12) and the way their accent alters the pronunciation of certain common words (“Don’t ask me what I want it for/if you don’t want to pay some more,” the “small/all” rhyme prior to that) makes for a very enjoyable tune. “She Said She Said” has a couple of great bits (“No no no you’re wrong” rising into “when I was a boy” before that line fades back to normal), too. “Good Day Sunshine” has the kind of chorus that I think of as superhero music. It feels like it’s rising, and is vibrant and catchy.

(I liked “I’m Only Sleeping” because it reminds me of Mark 5:22-43: “He went inside. Then he said to them, ‘Why all this confusion and sobbing? The child is not dead. She is only sleeping.'” It’s a facile connection, but a deep one that I can’t quite put out of my mind.)

This isn’t a new way to look at music for me. But it’s interesting that the songs on Revolver hit me like they did. My only other Britpop touchstone is Blur, which I do like to sing to. Do I like Blur and The Beatles for the same reasons? I’ve listened to Rubber Soul eight or nine times at this point, and I had a similar reaction to “Drive My Car,” which feels like a pounding Aretha Franklin joint and is super funky, and “Norwegian Wood,” which sounds like what I imagined Beatles songs sounded like before I started listening to them. “I once had a girl. Or should I say, she once had me.”

Long story short, though, I ordered The Beatles: Rock Band, even though it only has three joints from Revolver.

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