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All Killer No Filler: Valley Girl OST

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 19, 2009

OK fine, for sure, for sure

valley-girl-soundtrack

I never really got why Valley Girl isn’t better remembered than it is. OK, there are some weird sub-plots (hippie parents, some MILF-y affair between two supporting characters that I can barely even remember but which predates the “Stacy’s Mom” video by 20 years), and some parts of it haven’t dated so well (unlike, say, every other teen movie ever made, especially those of the 1980s). But it’s got everything that a teen movie of its period should need to put it up there with the Fast Times and Breakfast Clubs of the era–zeitgeist-defining cultural cachet (the title, if nothing else), great before-they-were-stars performances (Nicolas Cage, but also That Guy Michael Bowen, whose asshole boyfriend here is somehow only like the 17th most despicable character he’s ever played), charmingly dated dialogue (Cage’s assertion of “That techno-rock you guys listen to is GUTLESS!!!” remaining a personal favorite) and an impressively sweet different-worlds love story between Cage and the unfortunately time-forgotten Deborah Foreman. To me, it’s pretty much the Clueless of the 80s–except not quite as good, of course, because nothing is quite as good as Clueless.

Perhaps the best credit to Valley Girl‘s resume, though, is its soundtrack–about as good a single-disc document of the new wave era as exists in non-retrospective form. A number of the genre’s classic radio standards are included–Men At Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?,” the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” and Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” the last of which the movie was largely responsible for popularizing. You know these songs, you love these songs, they’re great. But beyond those songs you already know, the Valley Girl OST’s appeal comes from being a soundtrack that’s totally inextricable from the movie it comes from–one that not only reminds you of specific scenes from the movie, but also has the same feeling of the movie in general–as irresistibly romantic, irrepressibly quirky, and as generally young and naive and all heart. (Strangely, the bizarro Frank Zappa hit of the same name is nowhere to be found, in movie or soundtrack).

The key songs to the soundtrack are the ones a tier below those standards-to-be in popularity. Several of them come courtesy of the two artists that actually appear in the movie–The Plimsouls, the power-pop group from punk Cage’s corner of the world, and Josie Cotton, the chirpy new-waver who plays at Foreman’s prom. Of course, in a slightly more realistic picture, The Plimsouls would likely have been replaced with the Circle Jerks or The Urinals or some such, but one imagines that “I’m a Bug” wouldn’t have been quite as wistful a love theme as the Souls’ “A Million Miles Away,” one of the great chimey heartsick love songs of the decade. It became a minor genre hit as a result of the movie and still gets played on New Wave weekends on alt-rock stations, as does Cotton’s “Johnny, Are You Queer?” a song that would sound unbearably obnoxious if released today, but seems more like an innocent update of a Shangri-Las-type girl group song here, and sounds surprisingly sincere about it’s un-PC subject matter (Cotton does not judge, rather, she just wants to know if she should find a new date to prom).

For my money, though, two slightly lesser known songs by both artists are the soundtrack’s real gems. The Plimsouls’ positively aching “Oldest Story in the World” takes them out of Big Star or Raspberries-type territory and puts them more in league with the drunken-3AM sound of Replacements ballads like “Unsatisfied” and “If Only You Were Lonely,” whose bleary-eyed forthcomingness should’ve been the golden standard for just about any heartfelt rock/pop band of the early/mid-80s. Likewise, Josie Cotton’s “He Could Be The One” (actually the bigger pop hit of the two) is the more enduring of her contributions, not as too-cute as “Johnny” and with a fantastic, timeless-sounding organ hook and chorus.
Best of all, even, is a song not by any of these guys–The Payola$, an almost completely era-lost group of Canadian New Wavers, who at least approached US cult success with the stunning “Eyes of a Stranger.” The song’s vaguely dubby beat, vastly atmospheric production and mystery-courting lyrics make it sound like the great lost Police single–like “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” if Sting was capable of writing an exotic love song without using the words “Mephistopheles” and “alabaster”. I can’t get enough of it, personally.

But as this post title suggests, it’s just about all good. Oddities like Sparks’s “Angst in My Pants,” solid little rockers like Pat Travers’ “I La La La Love You,” whatever Felony’s “The Fanatic” is–the more forgotten numbers just help further craft the disc’s personality. You don’t see Valley Girl OST listed on essential New Wave discographies much, but that’s largely attributable to the fact that it was out of print for a decade before Rhino’s merciful 1994 re-issue–at which point, they also saw fit to release More Music from the Valley Girl Soundtrack, which looks nice enough, despite the fact that I really don’t remember any of it being in the movie. More notable is the compilation’s AMG write-up, penned by dear friend of IITS Richie Unterberger, not exactly known for his passion for the genre or time period. “It’s unlikely that there will ever be a groundswell of nostalgia for that peculiar hybrid of new wave and bubblegum pop that came into vogue in the early 1980s,” Richie writes. “The Jam’s ‘Town Without Malice’ [sic] provides a much-needed blast of credibility.” Oh well.

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All Killer No Filler: Portishead – Third (2008)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 14, 2008

It’s been so long that I can’t be sure

It seems almost perverse to me that Portishead are just covering their third album Third. I’ve been waiting for the new P-Head album since I started listening to them in 2002, and that was a full half-decade after they released their second, and until recently, final LP. With every passing year of false rumors of productivity, the third Portishead album seemed more and more unlikely to ever materialize, becoming a sort of Chinese Democracy for fans of black-lit, down-tempo drama. And now after 11 years, it’s finally here, and it’s just called Third. Hey, as long as that’s what it actually is, we’re in no position to complain.

OK, so maybe not everyone was as into Portishead as I was in High School, so let’s sum up the band’s somewhat brief history for the uninitiated. Portishead materialized in Bristol, UK (also home to peers Massive Attack) in the early 90s, a group succinctly summed up by Rolling Stone as a love triangle between a man (Producer Geoff Barrow), a woman (eternally tormented vocalist Beth Gibbons) and a sampler (old blues and soul songs, John Barry and Bernard Herrman type movie scores and hip-hop). They released their debut album Dummy in 1994, which quickly became one of the key pop albums of the decade, a soundtrack for coffeehouses and boutiques nationwide, and one that made the future success of moody, slow-rolling artists like Everything But the Girl, Sneaker Pimps and Morcheeba possible. It even spawned a surprise MTV hit with “Sour Times (Nobody Loves Me).” They released their second, self-titled, album three years later, to less acclaim and less commercial success, but to an eventual cult rep with fans who dug its spookier vibe and darker material. And then for 11 years, nothing.

But the weird thing is, the wait might have actually ended up working in the Bristol stompers’ favor. Not only had fans convinced themselves that it might never be coming, it had been long enough that they convinced themselves that even if it did ever come to fruition, it’d probably be largely irrelevant. And that has to do with a very dirty word that you’ll notice I’ve cleverly managed to avoid saying until now. You know the one, but just in case you don’t, I’ll put it by itself in italics in the next line to properly emphasize it.

Trip-Hop.

It’s hard to think of a genre that put up less of an effort to survive the turn of the millenium than this one. It’s up there with Big Beat as being the definitive electronic genre in US popular 90s music, and by definitive I mean “couldn’t possibly have happened any other time”. The mere mention of the word brings up images of Gap commercials, Urb Magazine and MTV’s AMP, and you can pretty well guarantee that no PR guy in their right mind would include the word in a band’s press release in this day and age. And indeed, Dummy doesn’t exactly sound like it could’ve been recorded yesterday, though one listen to the other most commonly cited definitive trip-hop album (Massive Attack’s Blue Lines) will put even that in perspective. But needless to say, after a second album that was different in tone but not that different altogether, I doubt anyone was much expecting Beth, Geoff and Adrian to reinvent the wheel on this one.

Much to my surprise, though, Third doesn’t sound anything like a comeback album, and it definitely doesn’t sound anything like a Trip-Hop album. Most of the instrumentation sounds live, samples are sparse and far less obviously sourced, and the Barrow scratching that so brilliantly punctuated songs like “Cowboys,” “Roads” and “Only You” has vanished altogether. What we have instead is a jazz-kraut-surf-pop album that sounds like it was recorded by manic depressives inside a haunted house. It’s raw, it’s beautiful, and it’s utterly terrifying.

It’s hard to explain just how nutty this album sounded to me the first time I listened to it–the short-out that ends “Silence,” the backwards-sucking drum fills that make up the main beat to “Plastic” (which somehow constitutes the closest thing to TH on the album), the ukelele-ballad interlude of “Deep Water,” those terrifying fake ending (horn? string? synth?) blasts to close “Threads” and the album…nothing about this made sense to me. What’s more, Gibbons’ crooning no longer weaved into the songs like a tango, it just sort of hovered over them, providing no comfort whatsoever. It sounded like a band losing their minds.

And that’s what makes it so ingenious, I think. This was definitely the direction Portishead had been going in with their second album, which started to eschew the lush romanticism of Dummy‘s more traditionally lovelorn balladry for a far more restless sort of soulfulnes, the aural equivalent of the switch between spending the night boozing in a lonely lounge bar and stepping out alone into the dark, empty alley. They were bound to get to this point of no return eventually, but it’s surprising to see them make such a jump in one album–it’s like the album that should be their sixth or so, just without a third, fourth of fifth to show the stages of transition.

So stunning is it that this album isn’t just not totally pointless, but actually kind of awesome, that I’ve heard some people talk about this album being their best one yet. And I’m not even entirely positive that they’re wrong. The year’s young, but even if we get an album better than this one, I seriously doubt we’ll get one as pleasantly surprising.

(Also–does any band have a cooler logo than that one?)

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All Killer No Filler: U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 8, 2007

Cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice

This is what I like more than anything about re-issues of big albums. Not the bonus tracks–the surfeit of b-sides, outtakes, alternate versions and live tracks. Not the liner notes–the sprawling essays giving the album’s background information, historical context, and explanations of greatness. Hell, not even the packaging–the inexplicably giddy thrill of poring over the shiny casing, opening and closing it far more times than necessary. I mean, all of these things are necessary to justify a $29 price tag, but they’re still not the best part.

The best part is getting to listen to these albums fresh, the closest thing you’ll ever get to listening to it for the first time again. I’m not even sure what it is about the deluxe re-issue that makes this possible–the fact that the artifact of the album now looks and feels different, the fact that you’re buying it all over again (and occasionally for the first time, in case of albums I’ve only had burned copies of), and the fact that often it’s been a long-ass time since you last heard it all probably have something to do with it. But it allows you to listen to albums with a totally clean-slated perspective. And it’s a beautiful thing.

The Joshua Tree is of course the reason I’m writing about this, recently given the two-disc deluxe re-issue treatment. I haven’t listend to Joshua in ages–lately I’ve been more into their weirder stuff, like The Unforgettable Fire, and of course, their two mid-90s oddities, Zooropa and Pop. And in any event, I always thought Achtung Baby was by far the superior album anyway. Joshua was too top-heavy, too self-righteous, and not nearly as interesting or experimental as most of their other great albums.

So, let’s take these three complaints one by one, now that I’ve spent a little time with it once more. Too top-heavy? Absofuckinglutely. But then again, you’re dealing with maybe the greatest A side of any album, ever–three of the best and best-loved rock singles of the whole decade (“Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You”), and two emotionally searing and deservedly enduring concert staples (“Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Running to Stand Still”). And “Red Hill Mining Town”…well, it’s not exactly on the same level, but close enough. Six great songs, perfectly paced, no two even remotely similar. There isn’t a B side in rock history that could measure up to this.

And yeah, Joshua‘s B doesn’t really even seem to be vying to do so–do we really need both “In God’s Country” and “One Tree Hill”? And what the hell is “Trip Through Your Wires” doing there? Still, it’s a lot stronger than I remembered–“In God’s Country” is far more of a chest-beater than I remembered (or at least, until I saw it used brilliantly at the end of Three Kings a few months ago), and “Exit” has revealed itself to be one of the key tracks of the albums. And “Trip Through Your Wires”…well, I still don’t really get it’s place on the album, but it kinda rocks anyway.

Too self-righteous? Well, maybe when compared to their post-irony period of self-consciousness, but not really. “Mothers of the Disappeared” used to be the subject of one of my main grievances about the album–I thought it was a nothing closer, just more Bono guilt tripping with poor musicality to back it up. But I think I get it now–the way the drum beat sort of pulses through the song, accenting the “feel their heartbeat” line of the chorus, and the way the song never really rises to the crescendo you expect it to, it’s sort of the perfect way to end the album. And I realize now that whenever Joshua tended to get a little preachy, they always have the music there to back it up–the other perfect example is “Bullet the Blue Sky,” a song occasionally villified for its heavy-handedness, but one whose instrumental backing is heavy enough (that bass rumble! that guitar shrapnel! that FUCKING DRUM BEAT!!) that any subject matter less weighty would’ve just felt woefully insubstantial.

Not nearly as interesting or experimental? This one I was just plain wrong about. I never realized what an unbelievably textured and complex album this was. Check the way “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” layers four or five guitar lines in a way that you never even relaly notice, or the way songs like “Exit” or “With or Without You” subtly crescendo for basically the whole song, building momentum and intensity until they’re practically unbearable, or the way songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “Running to Stand Still” are structured palandromically, gradually adding elements one by one at the beginning and then removing them one by one in the reverse order at the end. Even a song as simple as “Trip Through Your Wires” still has such care and thought put into its production that it still makes a fascinating headphone listen–this is an Eno co-production, after all.

But the thing that really smacked me over the head listening to this album again was how really, it feels like a post-rock album. Check out the intros to some of these songs, and how they correspond to nearly every major post-rock artist of the last twenty years–“One Tree Hill” is a dead ringer for a Durutti Column track, “Where the Streets Have No Name” practically invented the Disco Inferno guitar sound, “Running to Stand Still” could easily begin a Tortoise track and the creeping bass that begins “Exit” is a song lead-in of which Mogwai would be proud. The fact that The Joshua Tree probably still sells more every year than any of these bands have in their entire career shows just what a brilliant album this is–they were able to use this experimental, nearly outre production techniques and fashion anthemic, emotional songs around them that mainstream listeners could understand just as well as underground ones.

Hope that all the U2 albums get this treatment eventually. I feel like maybe I’ve been giving War and Rattle & Hum the short shrift recently.

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All Killer No Filler: The Pretenders – S/T (1980)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 1, 2007

I shot my mouth off and you showed me what that hole was for

My brother hates The Pretenders. Hates them. Makes fun of them whenever they come on the radio, can’t stand the Yeah Yeah Yeahs due to the similarity, the whole deal. I do not hate The Pretenders, in fact, I imagine what my brother hates about them so much are the same factors that made me love their hits so much–the chiming guitars and gorgeous melodies, the vulnerable lyrics and wounded vocals, the stately grooves. It pisses off my brother for the same reasons I think he hates The Clash–because there are those that consider The Pretenders to be Punk, and these are not the qualities of a Punk band.

Would he reverse his stance on the group if he heard The Pretenders’ self-titled debut album? Probably not–at the very least, there’s still Chrissie Hynde’s vocals and lyrics, which even at their most grand-standing and aggressive still belie a compassion and sensuality that (arguably, anyway) have no place in legit punk. Not that my bro is such a punk afficianado, but he tends to dislike it when bands of whatever genre don’t live up to their genre’s conventions, and The Pretenders were certainly no X-Ray Spex, or even just X.

But I still wish I could explain to him that The Pretenders’ singles, amazing though they are, only tell half the story, and on their debut album, only roughly about 25%. The overwhelming majority of The Pretenders’ best known songs are the least punk of them–of their dozen or so biggest hits, really only “Middle of the Road” (from ’84’s Learning to Crawl) demonstrates the sort of energy critics tend to rave about The Pretenders having. The rest are just these awesome, but rather staid (or at the most, breezy) pop songs. If the band didn’t have such acclaim, and if Chrissie didn’t try so hard to look like a badass, I’m not sure I’d really have had any reason to consider the group any different from, say, The Motels or Quarterflash.

But yeah, the dudes can rock. Once again, not in that X-y sort of way, but in a way that I personally find much cooler. The thing that becomes immediately apparent listening to their debut is that in those early days, the band was just as much the vision of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott’s as it was the far more, uh, personable Hynde’s. Over Hynde’s rhythm guitar, Honeyman-Scott would invent these ridiculously cool, twisty guitar lines that were like nothing you’ve really heard in music before–the stop-and-start riff to “The Wait,” the 15/8 time Diddley-skank of “Tattoed Love Boys,” the screeching chorus runs of “Precious“…it’s just this amazing, warped, unforgettable stuff, even before Chrissie enters into it. Not that the band would be half as awesome without her–one of the greatest frontmen (frontpeople?) in rock, no doubt, but if you only know stuff like “Back on the Chain Gang” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” you could get the idea that the band was always just a vehicle for her songwriting, and that’s clearly not the case.

There are signs as to the direction the band would eventually take, however, which would become practically inevitable after Honeyman-Scott OD’ed in ’82. There are three straight pop songs on The Pretenders, the Spectorian cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” the graceful, low-key “Kid,” and the speaks-for-itself “Brass in Pocket“. The first two are quite nice, and the latter…well, let’s just say that it deserves its own blog entry, which it will inevitably receive in the next year or two, if I ever get moving with the rest of my 100 Years, 100 Songs series. Their pop perfection jars a bit in comparison to the relatively gritty rest of the album (especially because they all appear in the same stretch of the album), but the songs are so good that it doesn’t really matter.

For my money, though, “Up the Neck” is the album’s unsung gem. Infectious, chugging groove met with Honeyman-Scott’s “Public Image” guitars and one of Hynde’s sultriest (or sultrier, at least) vocals. Makes me ridiculously excited to worm my way through the rest of the band’s catalogue, though I have a feeling it doesn’t get too much better than this. I’m sure my brother would agree, sort of.

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All Killer No Filler: Rush – Moving Pictures (1981)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 6, 2007

Albums are good too.

I’m pretty sure I used to dismiss Rush as something of a punchline band–not sure if it was because I didn’t like the music (though I know I used to actively dislike “Tom Sawyer“) or because I’d seen them used as punchlines in classic Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode “Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary” and the lyrics to Pavement’s hilarious 1997 single “Stereo“. They didn’t really fit into either my indie rock or pop phases of musical listening, I suppose, and so I didn’t really realize how much I liked them until “YYZ” was made playable for Guitar Hero II (arguably the best song in the game, since it’s equally fun and extremely challenging for both bass and guitar). Then I heard a whole bunch of their songs for the first time on the radio in Texas over Thanksgiving break, and I was hooked.

Moving Pictures is generally accepted, I believe, to be Rush’s best album, and it’s the first full-length of theirs that I’ve heard. Only seven tracks long, and I already knew three of ’em–“Sawyer,” “YYZ” and “Limelight“–I already knew and (recently) loved. The remaining tracks are no slouch, either, especially mega-epic “The Camera Eye” and closer “Vital Signs“. Good stuff, and it made me realize that I like Rush primarily for two reasons:

1. All three members (Geddy Lee = Vocals & Bass, Alex Lifeson = guitar, Neil Peart = drums) are obviously insanely fucking talented musicians, but that’s not what’s impressive–plenty of shitty bands have three insanely fucking talented musicians, but usually they’re too busy showing off to actually worry about writing quality songs and sounding good together and such. What’s impressive is that the three manage to fall into most of the pratfalls of bands with three heroic members–the songs are long, unfocused and jammy, and in almost every song on Moving Pictures there’s at least one section where it sounds like all three members are soloing at once–and they still manage to sound great doing it. In fact, those every-man-for-himself sections tend to be my favorite part of almost every Rush song. I would have said that this was a mathematical impossibility–either Rush are just that good, or they know something about songwriting that I definitely don’t.

2. Rush sound like absolutely no other band that has ever existed, or will ever exist. Sure, there are bands who clearly carried on Rush’s legacy in some respects, like Queensryche and Dream Theater (who even did a demo cover of “YYZ” in their early days), but when you get down to it, there’s no chance these bands will ever be confused with Rush. I know it’s dangerous to say things like thiis, but I feel reasonably confident in my assessment, also for two reasons.

One is that at heart, Rush’s sound is a blend of the two genres–Prog-Rock and Power-Pop–that have possibly the least in common of any sub-genres that could fall under the “Rock” heading. The prog-rock is immediately apparent–no two songs have the same time signatures, choruses are few and far between, songs have long instrumental intros and longer instrumental breaks, and lyrically, it would probably be harder to find a Rush song about love than about, say, Kafka’s Metamorphasis or the War of 1812. But the power-pop element, not a sound generally asosciated with Rush, I believe to be just as important–the songs are bursting with shiny guitars, righteous melodies, and Geddy Lee’s high-pitched, over-excited voice. Take a song like “Limelight,” trim about two minutes at either end, even out the time signature a bit and replace the Hamlet quotes with lyrics about being horny on a Friday night, and you’d have the best Undertones song ever written. It’s a hugely risky mix, and I figure there was only about a 1/374,000,000 chance that Rush would find a modicum of success with it, but they somewhow managed to find the right balance between the two, and conseuqently you get these ridiculously catchy, hooky and mind-busting seven-minute+ songs about the oppressed Working Man and the tragedy of modern living.

The other reason is that, great though they are, I can’t imagine why any other band would want to try to sound like Rush. Their success is so unlikely and hard to explain that to try to replicate their formula would be like trying to win the lottery for a second time (not to mention that I’m not sure how easy it is to determine exactly what Rush’s formula is, or to find three musicians talented and patient enough to try to recreate it). What’s more, I don’t think the world has any demand for a Rush-soundalike–Rush come so close to being grating on their own, that another Rush would surely seem like overkill. And this is why Rush have the fifth biggest streak of gold albums of any band in history (23, 14 of them going platinum)–because they remain a singular entity in the world of rock, one which never goes out of style because, as Chuck Klosterman once pointed out, they were never really in style to begin with. You can’t point to any music movement or moment in time which Rush is inextricably tied to, and so they are eternal.

Oh yeah, and thanks to the album’s Wikipedia page, for pointing out that the album cover is a double pun on the album’s title (the people are literally moving pictures, while people to the side are crying, indicating that those are some moving pictures). Then in the back cover, the band is making a movie, or moving picture, of the scene, officially making it a triple pun. If that doesn’t sell you on the album, nothing will.

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