Thursday, May 17, 2007

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: [Who the Hell is] Tim Pierce?

I've been a student of the guitar for about 25 years now (a length of time which shocks me as I write it down), and a student of most forms of western music a little longer than that. While trying to pin down a moment or two that suckered me into being more of a participant (the former) and less of a spectator (the latter), I realized something about myself:

A great deal of the music that made me want to actually play an instrument was, well, shitty.

For every Van Halen's Mean Street, there was an Alan Parsons Project's Eye in the Sky, or that horrible Abracadabra. Even so, it's not that there weren't some phenomenal axemen in heavy Top-40 rotation from the late 70's to the early 90's; there just weren't a lot of songs hitting the radio (and the radio was pretty much music source #1 on a list that numbered, uh, one) that weren't flatlined and bloodless. And that's what this regular feature's about, that roughness not quite buffed out of the polished diamond. Those wolves in sheep's clothing.

Tim Pierce (though I didn't learn his name until years later) first appeared on my 13-year old guitar radar with some tasty but restrained guitar licks on I Get Excited, 80’s demigod Rick Springfield’s attempt to re-release his monster hit Jessie’s Girl with different lyrics.[1] As Pierce's role grew to that of contributor/collaborator on subsequent albums, he began to sneak some edge back into material otherwise dulled in the technological "breakthroughs" of the day.

Despite its not-so-macho title, Springfield's 1983 release Living In Oz caught my novice ears in a big way. On the Top 10 first single "Affair of the Heart" some wince-inducing overproduction and overuse of electro-everything[2] (keys, drums, vocals) can’t stop the Pierce Train: he bides his time by nicking the galloping main riff from "Barracuda" until he gets to let loose(at the 2:38 mark). He milks one tense, sustained note until a rippling trip up the fretboard (similar thematically to his later turn on Bon Jovi's "Runaway", and just as deceptively tricky). While Oz' title track didn’t age quite as badly as "Affair", its Flashdance-"Maniac" dynamic is still a little off-putting. The payoff here is Pierce’s more uninhibited digit-stretching beast of a solo (2:40). I think he knew this track wasn’t destined for radio.

Though Rick Springfield began an involuntary hibernation at the Dawn of Grunge, Pierce kept busy, if not selective, playing up a storm with noise-merchants like Celine Dion, Michael Damian and John Tesh. Form my part, I’ll downplay those indiscretions in favor of his stellar (and 180 degrees apart) turns on Bon Jovi’s debut single "Runaway" and Crowded House’s "Something So Strong". Bon Jovi's debut single boasts a succinct flurry that’s actually a fuck-ton harder to play than it sounds (And believe me, I tried. A lot.). His leslie-speaker drenched break on Crowded House's bland early alt-pop is a graceful “serve the song” effort, keeping you in the moment while singer Neil Finn’s building up some energy to belt out that chorus one last time. Measuring out equal parts flash and texture, sprucing up simple pop songs without overpowering them or taking them in directions pop songs shouldn’t go, that was Tim Pierce’s stamp on the 80’s.
[1] Ironically, Pierce didn’t play the wicked solo on Springfield's masterpiece—the guy behind that is a Wolf for another day.

[2]This deficiency is typical of most songs you’ll see examined in this space.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Maybe Next Time YOU'LL Think Before He Cheats.

The Academy of Country Music (not to be confused with the Country Music Association, Country Music Television, or the National Aeronautics and Space Association) will present their awards tonight (not to be confused with the Nobel Prize), live from Las Vegas.

My wife is all about the country music, specifically the brand being celebrated tonight.[1] So, being a great husband with an impeccable sense of timing, I'm picking today as the day to ridicule my wife's preferred musical entertainment.

American Idol
champ Carrie Underwood might leave the ceremony tonight with five statues (or plaques or medals or live badgers--how the hell would I know?), primarily for her huge hit "Before He Cheats". If you know me, or have read my posts here and elsewhere, that's your cue that I'm about to rip this song a new one. And you'll think to yourself, "but Tim, it's a country song about cheating, which you must know is one of the six acceptable topics in a country song[2]. How can you find fault with "Before He Cheats"?" To you, hypothetical nay-sayer, I ask: "Have you actually listened to the song?"

The premise of "Cheats" is appealing enough: a bar-hopping, pool-playing, no-goodnik has two-timed our heroine, and now he's about to face the consequences. Fine. I'm on board so far. I'm no fan of cheaters, and I appreciate any cheatee that confronts theirs. Too bad the lyrics don't actually strive for anything resembling that kind of satisfaction. Basically, it just sounds like Carrie's following/stalking her boyfriend around, but rather than exposing the scoundrel to The Other Woman, she just stays outside and imagines who this floozy is and what her fella's doing with her inside[3]. Oh, and this is after she vandalizes his "souped up 4-wheel drive" by keying it, carving her name into his leather seats, busting out both headlights and slashing the tires. Yep, that's what any Dixie Chick would've done.

But I guess I should tip my hat to the two authors of this disaster, Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear. They've managed to camouflage an ironclad alibi for snaky dudes everywhere as some kind of sympathetic ode to wronged girlfriends and wives everywhere. Imagine the scene outside Temptation Island when Dirty Bastard walks out to his truck with Gullible Floozy:

"Oh my god! What happened to your truck?! And who's Carrie?"

"My crazy ex-girlfriend. I can't believe she did all this instead of just talking to me face to face. I guess you can see why I'm going to break up with... I mean, why I broke up with her tonight, huh?"

"Wow, you must really be special if she's that nuts because she doesn't have you anymore. Let's just take my car back to my place. I'll screw her name right out of your head and then make you pancakes."

Aw, hell. I take it all back. "Before He Cheats" is genius!
[1]Her idea of good country music: Toby Keith, Sugarland, Bon Jovi with the singer from Sugarland, Willie Nelson with Toby Keith, and various one-hit males. My idea of good country music: Not that, and Dwight Yoakam, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Waylon with Willie.

[2]Cheating, Drinking, Prison, Trains, Trucks, and Living in the Country. Feel free to submit your own. I'm not a card-carrying member of the Academy or the Association anyway.

[3]And what comes next totally derails all the momentum of the narrator's fantastic guess that "right now, he's probably dabbing on three dollars' worth of that bathroom Polo."

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Friday, May 04, 2007

I Actually Have to Buy Records To Review:

Kings of Leon - Because Of The Times

I won't automatically praise an artist for trying something different. For me, change is something that has to be evaluated on a case by case basis, because bands will throw a monkeywrench out there for the wrong reasons some of the time, such as: "Hey, look at our shiny monkeywrench, different than any monkeywrench that's ever existed. And we didn't tell you it was coming until after we got 10-15 bucks from you." That said, I also won't automatically roll my eyes at a band who'll risk pissing off some longtime fans because they've got some evolution to express. Because Of The Times is such an expression, valid and proper. The more immediate, garaged raunchy-tonk of their past might never come this way again.

It'd be easy to attribute the Kings' growth and Times' heightened sense of atmosphere (specifically a cavernous sheen of reverb that permeates it) to the band's recent stint opening gigantic U2 shows, but if there's any of that influence, it's from the mid-80's model. The brilliant opening gambit, "Knocked Up", is predictable fare in title only; that trailer slang is only a cover for a seven minute-plus opus that melds a vintage Johnny Cash locomotive riff with some whistling guitar touches nicked from the Edge (circa "Bad") punctuated with bursts of power chord punch. The band's reach is impressive and admirable, kicking off their New Deal with this spooky and arresting epic moan.

They don't lay off challenging the listener, either. The demented, unsettling grunge redux "Charmer" (with singer Caleb Followill groaning, "She stole my karma, oh no. Sold it to the farmer, oh no." I didn't know whether to consider it Dr. Seuss silliness, or search out some mental help for the man.) is followed by the chugging, ready-for-Madison Square Garden dynamos "On Call" and "McFearless". Even a more relaxed middle section stands out for the breathing room that would've seemed out of place on their earlier work. And by the time the "classic" King of Leon sound resurfaces with closers "Camaro", "Arizona", and "My Third House", the perception of what the band's about and what it can do is colored by the 11 songs that precede it.

Overall, Times shows a band trying to build a different type of relationship with its audience. It's an interesting approach they use, too; an arena-rock sound that invites more fans to join the party, while at the same time putting a little distance between them and the larger crowds.

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