Saturday, January 24, 2009

5. The Long Winters vs. Pixies vs. Stone Temple Pilots

vs. vs.
by The Long Winters
from When I Pretend to Fall
by Pixies
from Complete 'B' Sides
  "Interstate Love Song"
by Stone Temple Pilots
from Purple

"Stupid" (13 plays at, tied for #101): Listening through these songs, it's becoming clear I have a thing for little opening flourishes, whether they're loud and brash or lush and pretty like the one that opens this song. Like most of the Long Winters' terrific catalog, this tune combines a nice, simple chord progression with great poetic lyrics and a wonderfully bright vocal line from frontman John Roderick. On top of that it's some of the best vocal harmonies of any of their songs and an interlude of what sounds like (but probably isn't) two-part lap steel. Then there's the little stutter-step false start near the end, which I can't help suddenly thrash about to -- a great cap to a really strongly constructed song.

"Winterlong" (2 plays, unranked): Another great opening bit, as a quick run up a scale sets up a great duet between Kim Deal and Frank Black's not-quite-falsetto. Their voices, and the band's guitar sensibility, is what really makes the track work for me -- I really can't get into the Neil Young original, even though I've given it a valiant try (though I wonder if Young had re-recorded it around the time the Pixies did, if it wouldn't sound much the same as theirs). The ability of the Pixies to both display and reinterpret their influences like this is one of the things that really separates them from many of their peers and followers -- this is a perfect companion to "Here Comes Your Man," for instance, but it's also a perfect homage.

"Interstate Love Song" (2 plays, unranked): I probably should've been a major label executive. I had an impressive string of predicting songs that would become hit singles back in the early and mid 90's, and this was one of them. I bought Purple largely on the strength of Core, and when this track first came up I was blown away. It's a step away from the 1992-era grunge that STP was otherwise soaking in at the time, sounding really nothing at all like, say, the Pearl Jam catalog to that point. The riffs are great, and the subtle bass line does way more work than it has an right to. The way the verses move forward is so well aligned that it's hard to believe the band didn't pop champagne as soon as they finished the last take. Unfortunately, they never really took this sound anywhere, which is pretty much true of every good song they ever had. A schizo band if there ever was one, I certainly hope this is something they can recapture if they ever record again.

VERDICT: There's a lot of perfection in these three songs, to be sure; it's probably the strongest group of three so far. I think the win has to go to "Stupid" on the basis of visceral love -- it's a song I still turn up when it shuffles to the top, while the other two have shifted somewhat into historical love territory.

Friday, January 16, 2009

4. Cowboy Junkies vs. Taxpayer vs. nine inch nails

vs. vs.
"Sweet Jane"
by Cowboy Junkies
from The Trinity Session
  "When They Were Young"
by Taxpayer
from Bones & Lungs
by nine inch nails
from broken

"Sweet Jane" (1 play at, unranked): This track is from an early Cowboy Junkies album, but really it's from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. It's in many ways the processional for Mickey and Mallory's impromptu bridge-top wedding, and I'd say it reimagines the original Velvet Underground version at least as significantly as Jeff Buckley reimagined John Cale's reimagining of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Margo Timmins' voice and style bring a totally different flavor to the song than the downtown wink-and-sneer maleness of Lou Reed. That such a simple song could be so changed is one of the things I like best about music.

"When They Were Young" (10 plays, tied for #218): I discovered this band when I learned about the Boston Phoenix's music blog, a site from which I subsequently never found anything else good. The song came out a year before the Killers' "When You Were Young," and coincidentally is not dissimilar to that song's style. The difference is that Taxpayer's song is wickedly catchy, with much livelier vocals and more interesting lyrics. The band in general is pretty good, though this is by far their best song; if they'd gotten any exposure outside the northeast I suspect they'd've hit it big by now.

"wish" (4 plays, unranked): When I got into the NIN back catalog around the time I was 16 and deep into the downward spiral, this song sounded like a clear pivot point for Trent Reznor. Nothing on pretty hate machine was this full or loud or aggressive, and much of it actually sounds pretty thin compared to subsequent NIN material (maybe down to late 80's mastering style, but I don't think so). This song (and broken as a whole) came through on the Reznor's clear promise, apparently at the expense of all kinds of personal damage. It's a great metal song and a great live experience, and it's too bad that so few of the bands influenced by this NIN era seem to get how it works.

VERDICT: It's a tough call. "Sweet Jane" is too slight compared to the other two tracks. As great and historically important as "wish" is, "When They Were Young" is one of a handful of tracks that I often feel compelling to listen to, even when I'm in the middle of listening to something else, so it moves on to the next round.