Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Friday Request Line: “Moonlight Over Vermont,” “Be My Baby,” “Kerosene,” “Shaved Head”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 23, 2010

Reader Brent writes:

And my four…

Captain Beefheart “Moonlight on Vermont”
The Ronettes “Be My Baby”
Big Black “Kerosene”
Rheostatics “Shaved Head”

Digging the four-song requests, people. The diversity is also appreciated.

My primary memory of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica is probably the same as a good deal of other burgeoning young music crit-types–the first album that I ever willingly talked myself into liking. Well, maybe that’s not completely accurate–I definitely remember having to convince myself that Loveless and Velvet Underground and Nico were worth sticking with despite my initially puzzled reactions to them. But those albums quickly became normative for me, and shortly thereafter, loving them was an easy and ultimately reflexive reaction. Trout Mask Replica was more like “Wow, this is pretty cool, right? Look, I’ve actually made it through all 79 minutes of it…twice!” Within a couple months, though, the only times I would ever touch the CD was when I moved it down a slot in my CD binder to make room for an album that came before it alphabetically. (Yes, I did this every time I got a new CD, which is the reason why 75% of them eventually got scratched beyond the point of playability).

Not to be too much of a hater about Mr. Vliet. I certainly understand why Trout is held in the regard that it is–it’s certainly well ahead of its time, and probably less obnoxious (though also significantly less pop-savvy) then his good friend Frank Zappa. There are interesting moments here and there throughout almost every song, but for the same reasons I was never able to read more than the first twenty-five pages of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, even though I read those first twenty-five pages three or four times and actually thought they were pretty neat, I doubt I could ever make it through the entirety of TMR today without constantly congratulating myself on my self-discipline.

All that said, there were two songs that I remember being more across-the-board listenable than the rest of the album, and “Moonlight on Vermont” was one of them. (The other is “China Pig,” because it’s just a nice little blues song and the White Stripes covered it once I think). The drum intro is great, the screaming guitar hook on the chorus is piercing without being as punishing as much of the album’s noodling, and the song itself just feels like more of a…song than the rest of the album. I wouldn’t kick it out of bed, anyway.

I dunno. I do like a good meandering quality in my art, but I guess I prefer it when it stops significantly short of total free-association. I never really liked This Heat either.

Speaking of drum intros. It’s close to pointless to try to compliment a song as obviously right and good as “Be My Baby”–the song is basically one of the pillars on which the last 47 years of pop music has been built (and a lot of the really good stuff, too), so to even contemplate speaking ill of it would just feel  ungrateful. Everything about it is perfect or close enough, and even though it probably doesn’t quite register as my favorite Ronettes song (“Walking in the Rain” is a little more cinematic), it’s still good enough in its own right that if I heard it for the first time tonight I’d probably end up messaging all my pop-fan friends about it asking if they’d heard this song before. Put it this way: If I met someone who said they didn’t like “Be My Baby,” it’d make me squint at them. Like, hard.

For the record, my ten favorite songs that use the “Be My Baby” intro somewhere–and if you want a full list, hit up friend of the blog Mitchell Stirling for his well-kept database:

10. Concrete Blonde – “Joey
9. Manic Street Preachers – “Everything Must Go
8. Gaslight Anthem – “Great Expectations” (Not an exact replication, but a clear quotation–especially considering the reference to the “Humming a song from 1962” line from “Night Moves,” which Seger has admitted was about “Be My Baby”)
7. Meat Loaf – “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth
6. Bat for Lashes – “What’s a Girl to Do?
5. Eddie Money f/ Ronnie Spector – “Take Me Home Tonight” (Cheating a little I know, but c’mon)
4. The Jesus and Mary Chain – “Just Like Honey
3. Gliss – “Morning Light” (If you haven’t heard, you really gotta)
2. Bruce Springsteen – “Thunder Road” (Oh, it’s there. Just have to wait five minutes or so to get to it.)
1. Berlin – “Take My Breath Away

I can’t think of another musical trope as purely joyful–and as rarely inappropriate–as this one. Put one in every song on …And Justice for All and nobody would complain.

I was always a little surprised by how much I loved this song. For as much as Steve Albini gets a reputation for being willfully difficult–you don’t become the go-to guy for commercial rock artists who want their sound to be less appealing to more people by accident, seemingly–I found a lot of his music to be fairly accessible. I mean, I know a lot of his stuff in and apart from Big Black is more brutal than this, and “Kerosene” isn’t exactly for the faint of heart either. But damned if this whole thing, scrapy guitars, tinny drums, growled vocals and inflammatory lyrics (no pun intended) isn’t also one of the funkiest songs ever made by a bunch of pissed-off white dudes with glasses.

First off, there is absolutely no fucking with the guitars in this song. They’re about halfway between the ethereal shimmer of a Cocteau Twins song, and the streamlined crunch of a nine inch nails song, and to all you aspiring pseudo-industrial/nu-gaze guitarists out there, trust me, that is a good place to be. The intro is really one of the most immaculate-sounding pieces of fretwork to be found in the 1980s (though it is rivaled by the main hook of Big Black’s own “Passing Complexion“–why is it that I’ve never bothered to ever listen to all of Atomizer, again?), absolutely incendiary in tone and feel (ugh, sorry with all the fire puns, but then again, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?) HEALTH’s “Die Slow” was one of my favorite singles of last year, and the way its main hook was so obviously reminiscent of “Kerosene” probably had a lot to do with it. (Though listening to it again now, I realize it also sounds a lot like Stabbing Westward’s “Save Yourself,” which is a somewhat less-glamorous comparison).

There’s only slightly less fucking with Albini’s singing in “Kerosene,” either. When it comes to teen suburban angst in rock music, I’m generally of the more-is-more approach, and I greatly respect Albini’s general lack of subtlety in the song’s lyrics–which, quite explicitly, are about extreme boredom leading directly to self-immolation. Albini also does one of my favorite musical tricks in this song–that of the vocal-triggered hook. After endless muttering about “Kerosene around / We’ll find something to do” (really, where were you on this one, Henry Rollins?) over the song’s chugging beat, he cuts to the chase by screaming “SET ME ON FIII-RE!!!,” at which point the guitars kick into chorus-gear and shit gets real. If you don’t get chills sent down your spine from that, then you were probably listening to the Go-Betweens or some crap back in 1986. (Who I’m sure were a couple of very nice, mild-mannered Australian gentlemen, but nobody was ever making endless unintentional arson puns about 16 Lovers Lane.)

Really, I don’t think this song gets nearly the credit it deserves for being one of the benchmark underground rock songs of the last quarter-century.  Maybe if the dude didn’t seem like such an asshole all the time.

Pleading ignorance on this one–had never heard of either song or artist before this. Just goes to show you what a weird and beautiful alternate universe it is up north of the border, where the Rheostatics are apparently considered one of the pivotal bands of the 1990s. At least, if their Wikipedia entry is to be believed: “[The Rheostatics] were simultaneously one of Canada’s most influential and unconventional rock bands, a band whose eclectic take on pop and rock music has been described both as iconic and iconoclastic. In particular, two of the band’s albums, Whale Music and Melville have been cited in numerous critical and listener polls as among the best Canadian albums ever recorded.” Go figure. I guess I was too busy listening to Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple to notice.

Anyway, after a couple of listens ot this song, the best insight I can come up with is that it sounds exactly like a song that a lot of right-minded people would have taken far too seriously in the early-mid 90s. It’s like a combination of The The’s Dusk, Jeff Buckley’s Grace, and the jazz poetry read by Mike Myers’s character in  So I Married an Axe Murderer. If that doesn’t sound much like a compliment, that’s because it’s probably not. It’s portentous, it’s histrionic, and it is very, very lacking in a sense of humor. (Though apparently the Barenaked Ladies show up on this album somewhere, so perhaps that last part’s not entirely their fault). I turned to their crossover top 40 hit “Claire” (not a cover of the Gilbert O’Sullivan classic, though I was probably unreasonable to even hope, especially considering that he spells it without the second “e”) for another perspective, but I can’t say I was much more impressed. “Purify me / Clarify me, Claire”? Meh. There’s a good chance that if I had grown up with this that I’d be defending it to the death, but as is, it sounds like watered-down Crowded House.

Would be curious about the explanation for this one, obviously. Is this what Live’s “Lightning Crashes” sounds like to Canadian people?


6 Responses to “Friday Request Line: “Moonlight Over Vermont,” “Be My Baby,” “Kerosene,” “Shaved Head””

  1. Brent said

    I can’t speak for my countrymen, but my problem with “Lightning Crashes is that there are at least 10 better songs than it on Throwing Copper yet it’s become sort of the Live watershed song that “I Alone” clearly deserves to be.

    But yeah, I’ll agree that “Shaved Head” is pretty much a Canadian thing, but it’s also much more of a song I feel than one I listen to if that makes sense…it’s about the subtle things that the band are doing throughout, especially at the end when that fragile guitar solo comes in, more than liking it as a powerhouse of emotion or anything. But yeah, if you grew up with it you’d feel differently.

    And I hate to take the party line on TMR, but it definitely needs more than a couple of listens to fully “get” it. Took me a half dozen or so, spread over about 4 years, to get my head around it but now it’s my no hesitation pick for favorite album of all time.

  2. Garret said

    Oh, boy. You actually did a writeup on the Beefheart song. I did not see that coming. And the first/last This Heat mention in IiTS history, most likely. Just a spoil of riches today.

    Anyways, request time. I just watched “Beeswax,” the predictably very good new Andrew Bujalski film that starting making the rounds last year and became available on DVD a few weeks ago. I know you’re a fan of this guy and understand why his films are treasures of American independent cinema. What I’m getting at is that the Intensities tribute to Andrew Bujalski’s filmography is long overdue. Consider it.

  3. Kevin said

    Hey, longtime reader here. Following up a reference in a previous “Request Line”, how about four songs of the same name:

    Bob Marley “Is This Love”
    Whitesnake “Is This Love”
    Survivor “Is This Love”
    Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! “Is This Love?”

  4. MBI said

    I actually listened to Survivor’s “Is This Love” just the other day! For a low-rent Journey, they weren’t a completely terrible band.

  5. I love what I’ve started! 4 songs 4evaaaa!

  6. As a Canadian who never got into the Rheostatics, yeah, you pretty much had to grow up on them.

    Here’s my four songs request:

    The Go-Betweens – “Rock and Roll Friend”
    Sam Amidon – “Relief” (it’s an R. Kelly cover, by the way)
    The National – “Mr. November”
    Vistoso Bosses – “Delirious”

    (I can provide MP3s if necessary, email me)

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