'Round the Dial
Wednesday 04 June @ 11:54:45
by Tom Hallett
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “People are just too superconscious of every creative move to do anything anymore that’s outside of all contexts or just a simple expression of something with no real ramifications, at least none that the creator consciously put there...”
SONG OF THE WEEK: “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City”
Greetings, class, and welcome to my summer course on How To Enjoy A Great Pop Album Without Feeling Self-Conscious And Inadequate. My name is Professor T., and I’ll be taking you through the first steps today. First, let’s make sure we’ve checked the following items at the door: (1) Your jaded, post-’90s attitudes. (2) Your preconceptions of pop music as a genre that’s simply a corporate vehicle to sell product. (3) Any copies of so-called “pop” albums that’ve sold more than 50,000 copies in the last six months. And finally, (4) Your shoes. After all, you won’t need to be constantly gazing down at them for the record we’re going to discuss today.
OK—all set? Wait a minnit—you, over there! Yes, you, in the glasses with the buzz-cut and that dog-eared copy of The Indie Rock Bible sticking out of your backpack! OUT! OUT! OUT! We’ll have none of that snotty, self-righteous, myopic faux-DIY bullshit in this class. That’s right, slink on out the door and head back to your “neighborhood” coffee shop, where you can sit on your ass all day deriding those little toadies you call friends for not liking the latest CMJ-recommended “next big thing” until they agree that it’s “not bad,” and then skewering them for being into something that’s “So over, y’know...” Ugh.
We’re here today to discuss the glory that is a perfect pop record, kids. We’re here to point out that “pop” ceased to mean “popular” and began to refer to great heartbreak music right around the time Alex Chilton and Big Star started writing better songs than (solo) Lennon and McCartney were. When people who listened to music outside the box of American corporate radio realized that weirdos like The Velvet Underground, grungy alcoholics like Harry Nilsson, and hopelessly depressed English singer/songwriters like Nick Drake were writing and performing drop-dead gorgeous pop songs right under their noses.
Songs like The Velvet’s “Sunday Morning,” Nilsson’s “Without Her,” and Drake’s “Pink Moon” may not have strictly adhered to pop radio’s constricting format (Nico’s German accent, Nilsson’s use of strings and woodwinds, and Drake’s decidedly less-than-upbeat musical approach), but they’ve certainly stood the test of time over songs that actually were popular in their era: Cher’s “Half-Breed,” Bo Donaldson And The Heywoods’ “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero,” anything by The Eagles or The Doobie Brothers. Yes, kids, there’s a special place in hell for radio programmers (and critics) who chose to champion the bland, soul-numbing works of Don Henley and Glen Frey over that of (young) Lou Reed, Harry, and Nick. And you’ve got them to thank for the safe-as-milk, tasteless, emotionless claptrap that your friendly corporate demographers shovel your way like so much reeking bovine dung today. Don’t be shy—send ‘em an e-mail or a postcard, and let ‘em know you really appreciate them fucking music up so bad that you’re forced to endure exposure to performers like Dido, Dave Matthews, and those empty-eyed, soulless little bastards from American Idol.
Soul? Who needs soul? We’re bigtime record company execs, punk. We’ve got expense accounts, free drugs, and all the juicy young wannabes we can handle, man. We’re not in this business to promote “good” music, man. We’re not here to support true art, real artists, or the future of music. We’re here to sell product, to find a couple million suckers to buy into our latest trend, to launch a thousand crappy movie and TV careers from one piece of shit radio single. We’re here to buy off politicians so we can not only control who makes up today’s plastic soundtrack to life, but OWN every radio and TV station, every music rag, every ticket outlet, every venue, every fucking billboard that you see. It’s all about the Benjamins, baby. That’s all we care about, and if we so much as smell a whiff of actual talent, imagination or heart in an artist, we’ll either coopt the motherfuckers or make damn sure that they never see a recording contract worth the paper it’s written on. That’s why it’s all so shallow, that’s why you don’t get the same kick from what’s called “pop” music today as past generations have. That’s why you always feel so blah, so old before your time, so used, abused, rode hard and put away wet. That’s why you feel betrayed. Because YOU HAVE BEEN!
The King of France's Steve Salad in a romantic mood.
And that’s why bands like King Of France (Steve Salad, guitar/vocals; Tom Siler, keyboards; Michael Azerrad, drums) are so important now. Formed in New York City in early 2002 by transplanted Minnesotans (and ex-Deformo members) Salad and Siler, along with East Coast author/journalist drummer Azerrad, the deliciously pop-py trio combines their various influences (Ray Davies, The Pixies, Nilsson, The Faces, early punk, ’80s heartbreak beats) to create a sublime pastiche of sound and substance. Salad’s smooth-as-silk, Nick Cave-meets-Ric Ocasek vocals, which he delivers with a sly softness, stand in sharp contrast to the razor-edged lyrics he sings on KOF’s debut release, Salad Days (2003 Egret Records). Though the band has reportedly amassed a significant number of new tracks (including three posted on the band’s Web site, http://www.kingoffranceband.com) over the past year, they’re currently officially on tour to promote this collection of early Salad cuts, and by all accounts are wending their way into the hearts of even the most jaded critics and club owners across the country.
That’s really no suprise, considering the almost overwhelming stew of talent roiling about in this band—Salad and Siler (who’s also one-half of Twin Cities-to-New York cabaret rockers Tulip Sweet) broke new ground in Deformo and The Odd, combining wicked rock riffs with emotionally charged waves of keyboard and powerhouse rhythms, and Azerrad (author of “Our Band Could Be Your Life”) is a longtime member of post-punk outfit Utensil. All of those disparate roads come together in the songs that make up Salad Days (engineered by Mike Wisti and recorded at Albatross Studio here in the Cities), an album that’s chock full of songs that don’t sound exactly like every other song on the record, and that’s full of songs that don’t sound exactly like every other song on the radio these days.
Kicking off with “Lover Don’t Cry,” a wistful, dreamy ballad that recalls both the Velvets and the Psychedelic Furs, Salad immediately establishes that, although he knows the depths of true pain, he isn’t about to lie down and die over it—or even sit and gaze in self-pity at his shoes: “There’s no doubt/I’m secretly turned on/I’m allowed to take what I want...” But wait! It’s not REALLY a love song, after all. Noooo...that would be far too easy for this crew. Salad is really revealing that he’s just like your average Joe—willing to be a shoulder for the object of his desire to cry upon, but with a price: “I am not your man/If you think that I am in such demand/Oh, that was just a dream/That I might wake/And not be frail, where we make people ache/Another link, a chip off the food chain...” Siler adds washes of caustic keyboards, while the bass and drums positively throb with unrequited lust. You find yourself thinking maybe Salad deserves a little compensation, if only for sticking around as his sad little chippie lies “on the couch...with her shoes off...” and “...drinks down a Smirnoff...”
“Days Go By” eases out with the same loping charm as the first track, casual brushes over guitar strings behind that charm-oozing voice, but deals with a different brand of heartache: “Are you sick?” he asks, “Have you been covered/By the hands/Of another/Was it your friend/Was she bein’ kind?/Cuz you’ve been bent, yeah you’ve been blind...” Then, shrugging, he blows all of those heavy questions away: “And the days go by/And we sleep on the side/And this time, I can’t try/Everyday, everyday...” More dark-night-of-the-soul keys from Siler, burbling bass riffs, and then the song fizzles away just like the relationship Salad’s describing surely did.
“That’s Why” pokes its nose out of the speakers with a space-rock vibe, super-pop licks, and teasing, cocksure lines like: “Set your heels in the sides of my body/Cuz we got soul, got soul, soul/I’m afraid the missionary’s chants have made me fall asleep...That’s why, that’s why....” Salad finally breaks out of his dire vocal pattern here and lets his voice go, out-signaling Radiohead’s Thom Yorke with a wild, primal cry, as the music builds to an orgasmic swirl, keys wheedling, drums crashing: “Maid Marian, she’s my friend...” he belts, connecting through the years to the snap/crackle pop of Squeeze’s “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Smart, heartfelt, memorable pop. The exact opposite of EVERYTHING you hear on today’s commercial radio waves.
“Been So Long” finds the outfit loosening up, with half-lazy guitar riffs butting up against a marshal snare crack and urgent keyboard pounding: “So if you see some corner where we stood...it’s been so long, it’s been so long...” Salad croons, as the warm, hypnotic groove careens over your back and pulls you inside like a soft, wet memory. “Persephone” namechecks that mythical femme, bringing a modern update to the classic Greek tale of kidnapping, forced marriage, and angry reprisals from the gods with gentle but firm persuasion and lyrics like: “She’s alone with another man/Take this pain in your hand...” Sweet, girly backing vocals add just the right dollop of feminine sway, then, like the songs before it, it simply slips away.
“The Beggars And The Christians” sets out as a call to task of both TV evangelists (Jim Baker- you need this tune on your mp3 player, buddy) and the fools who help build their fortunes, then bleeds into a personal confessional that’s far more divine than anything happening in the halls of the money changers: “In the church where the preacher wore white/When the skies and your eyes were grey/We strung ourselves too tight/We rung our bells away/I’m drawin’ from the deepest well, and waitin’ for my Southern belle/And I can tell, I can tell...” Salad’s voice finds a higher plane here, as well, stretching towards those grey skies as he implores/demands the appearance of his “Southern belle,” and once again we’re left with a ringing in our ears and a thirst for more; perfect, since all the characters in his songs are apparently suffering the same fate.
The whistling-through-the-graveyard ditty “Dreaming On The Edge” is lyrically more Nick Cave than Nick Drake, musically more recent Wilco than Velvet Underground, bouncing along over a carefree rhythm section as Salad intones: “I can be your mother/I can be your friend/Wear a mask made of teeth/Made of skin/See my eyes/They’re downcast/I speak my lines/The way a beggar asks/And all my life/I never did look back...” Suddenly, George Harrisson-esque slide guitar wends its way softly through the song, weeping and wah-wah’ing along with a fading chorus of “uh huh huh/uh huh huh...” This song is a perfect example of why the band describes their sound as filled with “dread and wonder.” Picture-perfect pop music, never quite satisfied with itself, but self-assured enough to turn its back and walk away when its piece is said.
“Father Lied” rings out like a recent Vic Chesnutt track; grand, heavenly Southwestern horn sounds blasting from the keys, choppy, giddy drum beats, and sizzling cymbals driving the song like a runaway street car, racing towards its conclusion with an almost palpable urgency. “Moving Up The Valley,” the album closer, bounces along with a happy gait, offset by dirge-ish axe-licks droning behind swishing keys and jumpy beats as Salad cries: “If tonight’s the last/Just before we crash/We can’t just wait for it to pass/Because I’m never coming back...” A trippy, yet fitting, end to a record filled with perfect hooks, deep lyrics, dark intentions, lust-clouded observations, and odes to love in an age when love is hidden deeper underground than real pop music is.
Every greedy record company exec in the country should be tied to their padded swivel chairs, gagged, and forced to listen to KOF for 72 hours straight, or until they realize what fools they’d be to not sign ‘em to at least a three album deal. Yeah, that’s what we need, less fundamental terrorism, and more (nonviolent, of course) corporate terrorism in the name of art. After all, they’ve been terrorizing us for thirty years now with acts like Bobby Goldsboro, Vanity Fare, Whitney Houston, Kenny G. and Paula Abdul. It’s time for POP RETRIBUTION, baby. Let’s force ‘em to hear just as many good albums as they’ve forced us to listen to bad ones. Let’s cover their logos with beautiful paintings and carve timeless statues from their cold granite edifices. Let’s make ‘em watch concerts in a small, dark bar. Let’s put a face on the numbers we’ve become...
So what’s the lesson, kids? Simple. You don’t need college courses in music theory, expensive lessons on expensive instruments, or huge collections of lame indie rock to write, record, and perform great pop music. You simply need to get out and LIVE. Get your heart broken a couple a dozen times. Break a couple dozen more. Burn the past, light the night with the fire in your guts, sweep out them ashes in the morning. Throw away your preconceptions, tell your well-meaning, dorky friends to mind their own business, your parents that you don’t need schoolin’, baby I’m not foolin’, your co-workers with perfect lawns and death in their eyes, that you’re not gonna just sit around and gab about life as it passes you by. You’re gonna throw caution to the wind, break every rule you’ve ever been taught, and live hard enough to glimpse the edge of destruction before you pull back and WRITE ABOUT IT.
Now get out of those hard-assed seats, run outside, throw your music theory books in the nearest dust bin, and find a heart to break—or one to break yours. Either way, it’ll be one step closer to the day when you’re able to create a perfect pop/rock album like KOF’s Salad Days; one step closer to the day you’ll understand that the only path to true enlightenment of the heart is to experience, and survive, pain, betrayal and misery; one step closer to the day when you just might help save the future of pop music with your own songs. Good luck.
Oh, and one other thing—if you run into that kid with the buzzcut and glasses I threw out at the beginning of class today, tell him if he’s smart he’ll realize that he actually took the first step toward his own soul freedom today when he left that dog-eared copy of the Indie Rock Bible lying in his empty seat. And give him a copy of KOF’s album—I have a hunch he’s gonna need it. King Of France plays their Minnesota CD Release Party at The Turf Club on Fri., June 6, with Vinnie And The Stardusters. 10 p.m., 21+, call 651-647-0486 for more info. Until next time—make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events that you’d like to see listed in this column, or you’d just like to angrily demand a refund for having to endure today’s pop sermon, send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com.