Sky Ferreira and the Dubious Math of the Sexiest Man Alive

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I am listening to Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time album right now and trying to figure the math around Adam Levine being voted the Sexiest Man Alive. I didn’t even get to vote and nobody else I know voted either. I’m no statistician, but it seems to me to be pretty fucking unlikely that, of all the men alive on the planet, the sexiest one alive would be American, let alone white, let alone (again) famous, let alone (once more with feeling) Adam Levine. I mean, what are the odds? Ms. Ferreira opens her album by opining that boys are a dime a dozen, which is how I tend to feel about frat-pop hucksters like Adam Levine but I’m still baffled by his ascension to the sexiest man throne. One would almost begin to think the exercise of choosing the sexiest man alive is as pointless as, well, reading People magazine.

Almost.

Why am I thinking about Adam Levine anyway? Someone mentioned him over the holiday weekend and I got all irritated because I found myself wishing they’d mentioned Curtis Mayfield instead. Every time I get to the end of a Curtis Mayfield album, I just want to listen to another Mayfield album. Or the same one again. I say it all the time and I will continue to do so until everyone agrees: Curtis Mayfield was a goddamn genius and your kids should be taught about him in school. If People wrote more about people like Curtis Mayfield than it does about people like Adam Levine, the world would be a better place.

So but anyway, this Sky Ferreira album is pretty good. It’s a shame she’s stuck opening for Miley Cyrus’s Minstrel Show (I mean, um, tour). Questionable taste in tour mates aside, Ferreira has a clear knack for 80s pop and rock; Night Time, My Time makes the obvious nods to Madonna, but you also get a whiff of the Runaways and the Pixies throughout. The melodies are catchy and the songs don’t hang around any longer than they should. I have no idea how this album is doing on the charts (do we still have charts? If so, why?) but it is worth hearing.

For some reason, Night Time, My Time reminds me a bit of EMA’s album Past Life Martyred Saintsespecially on the title track with its lumbering beat and dour atmosphere. Both Erika Anderson and Sky Ferreira share a sense of adventure musically – they’re not afraid to be a little dissonant here and there and yet you can’t find one of their songs that lacks a hook. And both Ferreira & Anderson demonstrate a skillful synthesis of their record collections into music that is at once familiar without being hack work. I was gonna make a Miley Cyrus joke there, but she’s transcended your usual hack shit and gone on to brazen racist appropriation (and if you think it’s impossible to be racist just because you’re trying to be flattering or nice, you need to understand that impact matters more than intent, Brad Paisley). I’m probably gonna talk about that more later (I think it intertwines with the lie, especially popular among white fans of Led Zeppelin, that all music is theft of some kind and so it’s okay for white musicians to steal from musicians of color and get rich doing so) but for now (I have to get up in 5.5 hours!) I’ll leave you with the thought that Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time is lovely and it only makes sense for her to open for Miley Cyrus in the sort of irrational universe where Adam Levine is considered the sexiest man alive.

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Best Albums of My Life #22: Combat Rock

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I’ve realized two things recently: 1) I’ve been neglecting my sporadic countdown of the 29 best albums released in my lifetime. I’ll be 30 in a couple months, so I should probably wrap this up before then; 2) Combat Rock, the last real Clash album, is fucking awesome (I know, I know: Bernie Rhodes pushed through Cut the Crap after the band ousted Mick Jones, but if you think that’s a real Clash record, we’re gonna have words. Fighting words).

After being one of the first punk bands to actually say stuff with their music (I sometimes think “White Riot,” “Career Opportunities,” and “White Man at Hammersmith Palais” say it all), the Clash headed out into new territory, whipping up delightful mixtures of their influences (one such recipe became London Calling, the best album ever. Of course, one of them also became Sandanista!, an album that has its moments but is about three times longer than it needs to be. Yes, like Shakespeare before them, the Clash were capable of cranking out the rare bad work) and serving them up as piping hot records of rock, reggae, punk, and even early hip-hop. In the process, they went from Best Punk Band Ever to one of the best bands ever in any genre.

Even as Mick Jones’s ego and Topper Headon’s drug use (and, to be fair, the ego and drug use of the rest of the band too – to quote Joe Strummer, “We were always a drug band. Always.” If you read Return of the Last Gang in Town, you’ll find that he wasn’t too proud of that fact) began to tear the Clash apart, they managed to cobble together (not without some internal strife) Combat Rock, which would feature two of their biggest commercial hits (“Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” which – I’ve read – Mick Jones wrote about Ellen Foley, a.k.a. the girl who sang on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Apparently, Mick enjoyed a romantic affair with Foley and even produced her solo debut, which tanked like a Kevin Costner movie with a score by Steven Seagall’s country band) and a host of other awesome songs. In fact, here’s a little history lesson for you kids who heard “Paper Planes” on the Slumdog Millionaire trailers last year: “Paper Planes” actually samples “Straight to Hell” from Combat Rock. So if you’re diving into M.I.A.’s catalog because of that song, do yourself a favor and listen to the Clash while you’re at it. In fact, I don’t care if you have no idea what I’m talking about right now – listen to the Clash.

Combat Rock is the Clash’s poppiest album, but that’s hardly a bad thing. In fact, it only proves that, had they stuck together longer (an impossibility which will discuss further in a minute), the Clash would’ve dominated the 80s with awesome pop goodness. Combat Rock also points to where Strummer and Jones would eventually end up post-Clash: “Overpowered by Funk” and “Red Angel Dragnet” point toward the work Mick Jones would do with Big Audio Dynamite, “Death is a Star,” and “Straight to Hell” indicate the direction that Joe Strummer would explore with the Mescaleros. Of course, Strummer’s death in 2002 (at the tender age of 50) means that we’ll never really know the impact he could’ve made with his second great band (have you heard Streetcore? It’s awesome). Jones is still running around producing various albums (including the first Libertines record, which owes a not-tiny debt to the Clash) and even recently collaborated with Topper Headon on a re-recording of “Jail Guitar Doors” for a prison charity in the U.K..

Originally titled Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg, Combat Rock had a long struggle to even see the light of day. It was originally 15 tracks, 65 minutes, and growing. Mick Jones was happy with this situation, Joe Strummer was furious with it, and from there, you can see that this was a band not long for the world. In a 1984 interview with Creem, Joe Strummer pointed out, “I don’t believe anyone is that great they don’t write crap sometimes.” In Strummer’s opinion, the album that would be Combat Rock was in bad need of an editor and an outside producer – things I think would have benefited Sandanista!. When CBS heard the Rat Patrol tapes, they were not happy and suggested Glyn Johns to mix the record. Johns hacked the album down to twelve tracks with a decidedly pop bent (Strummer was on a mission to make a pop album that wasn’t all “Stuff ‘er on the bed and shove it to her” in an ambitious attempt to lure meat-heads away from the burgeoning hair metal scene), a move that led Jones to abandon the sessions, apart from re-recording his vocal on “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”  Clash biographer Marcus Gray (author of the aforementioned Return of the Last Gang in Town, a must-read for fans of the band) accuses Strummer of perhaps going too far toward a mainstream sound on Combat Rock, but Strummer biographer Chris Salewicz (whose Redemption Song is also a must-read; taken together, Gray’s book and Redemption Song paint portraits of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones as two very gifted men with strong wills, strong egos, and maybe an even stronger need to be loved by a wide audience) points out that Strummer kind of stuck his neck out, “having seized the reins” for the album, and was understandably nervous about how it would be received.

Combat Rock was, of course, adored both in the U.S. and in the U.K., but that would not be enough to keep the Clash together. Topper Headon was out of the band before they went on tour in 1982 and Jones was kicked out at the end of the tour. On its musical merits alone, Combat Rock is easily one of the best albums of the 1980s and it holds up well to this day. And, if we’re being honest, we must admit that its musical greatness is due to the talents of all four members of the Clash: from Give ‘Em Enough Rope to Combat Rock, Topper Headon, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones, and Joe Strummer matured together as musicians and made some of the best rock music ever recorded.

Incidentally, the “countdown” (it’s not really a countdown, since I do it in the order of my choosing whenever I feel like adding an album to the list) is not even half way over. If you want to catch up, you can find the entire list right here. I’ll try to update it more regularly, since I was supposed to have this all done by the end of 2009.

Avoiding the Q-Word

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I have a confession to make: I watched the first couple seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. It started out kinda interesting, kinda funny, kinda offbeat. I thought it was gonna fall between Ally McBeal and Boston Legal before numerous shark-jumps propelled the series really far up its own ass and into a morass of melodrama. Also, Grey’s has perpetrated the worst inaccuracy in the history of televsion. I know, plenty of medical shows are inaccurate (House would never be able to keep a job in a real hospital, but who cares? That show is fucking awesome) but none besides Grey’s Anatomy has committed the crime of having one of its whiniest, pussiest characters say that The Clash is his favorite band. Unlikely, Patrick Dempsey. No one who loves The Clash could be such a snivelling weiner.

I bring up your girlfriend’s favorite TV show because one of the things that began to piss me off as the show got worse was that they still would feature really good music. I’ve heard TV on the Radio, Band of Horses, and Regina Spektor (a couple of times) on that show, in episodes that were subpar to say the least. I’m not sure how much having a lot of Begin to Hope featured on ABC’s biggest show (is it still their biggest? I don’t care; they cancelled Pushing Daisies so they can go fuck themselves) pushed Regina Spektor into the national spotlight, but I also don’t care. Regina Spektor deserves to be successful and if having her music featured on the shlockiest show ever helps, that’s  all right with me.

She’s successful enough now that the Pitchfork people have decided to stop liking her, though they used to find her… (I’m not going to use the q-word, because everyone does to describe Spektor’s music and it’s just lazy at this point) eccentric, Pitchfork has decided to find her new album, Far, annoying. Incidentally, if you’re ever arguing with a Pitchfork staffer, I think a good thing to say when they turn their nose up at something you like (and they will) is, “You like Wavves.” That should pretty much invalidate whatever they’re about to say. (Am I saying Wavves is objectively terrible? I guess so. And also, I’m glad that dumb fucking kid had a massive meltdown at that festival. Maybe now that “band” can go the fuck away.)

Their loss. Spektor’s lyrics are whimsical as ever, her particular gift being the ability to go from childlike innocence to a world-weary absence of innocence in the same song (kinda how life goes, yeah?). Far really isn’t much of a departure from Begin to Hope, which might turn off some people, but I find that it’s just a really catchy, well-crafted pop album. Spektor isn’t afraid to sound a little silly, and she has a penchant for taking syllables of lyrics and turning them into tiny refrains (“Eet” is a good example of this) which are infectious and goofy. God forbid the woman have fun while she’s performing.

The strength in any Regina Spektor song is her voice, an instrument that goes from low dolphin impersonations (on “Folding Chair,” she impersonates a dolphin. It’s just barely not-annoying) to lilting high notes (like on the album opener “The Calculation,” where, for some reason, she kinda reminds me of a young David Bowie) on a whim. It’s not enough to call Spektor “quirky,” (that’s the only time I’m using the q-word), especially because the people who do it seem to be doing it in place of calling her “good.” As if they want to look at Spektor and say, “Aw, isn’t the little girl with the piano cute?” It strikes me as an almost dismissive term. Yes, Regina Spektor plays with syntax and plays with her voice to a degree that many singers do not (by the way, Pitchfork loved Fever Ray’s album, and that chick manipulates the fuck out of her voice. How come that‘s not q-riffic?) and she chews up syllables and laughs and sputters her way through songs, but rather than focusing on the unusualness of all of that, why not talk about the musicality? Like all good singers, Spektor uses her voice as an instrument and any instrument used well is going to have a wide range of sounds.

There are several really choice cuts on Far, perhaps the best of which is “Dance Anthem of the 80s,” which features all the things that Pitchfork hates about Regina Spektor. It’s a little repetitive, but it’s fun and I like any song that talks about boys and girls at “a meat market down the street.” “Dance Anthem” indulges all of Spektor’s musical weirdness, with stops and starts and those syllable-refrains, and it all manages to work because Spektor’s voice is so compelling, singing in the middle of the tune, “I am one of your people,” and showcasing one Spektor’s other talents: finding the beautiful in the middle of the silly, the sad underneath the happy, the… oh fuck, I’m running out of comparisons. Point is, Spektor’s songs are all wonderfully human, often encompassing everything that can mean in one song. The q-word just doesn’t do for stuff like that. (By the way, earlier Spektor tunes that are examples of what I’m talking about: “Us” and “Poor Little Rich Boy” from Soviet Kitsch and “Samson” from Begin to Hope.)

The first single from Far, “Laughing With,” is probably my least favorite song on the album. It’s not a bad song, but it strikes me as a little too easy. Spektor says, “No one’s laughing at God in a hospital” and I get what she’s going for, but I should like to point out that some of us aren’t thinking about God at all in a hospital. The last time I was in a hospital, God was the furthest thing from my mind (in fact, God is usually the furthest thing from my mind, despite which fact, I’m a very happy person whose life is quite meaningful, okay-thanks-g’bye). A lot of people will dig the sentiment of the song (it ends on the line, “We’re all laughing with God”) and I bet you it makes it onto an episode of Grey’s Anatomy this season, but it’s far less fascinating to me than album closer “Man of a Thousand Faces” which shares its title with a biopic about Lon Chaney Sr. but – because I didn’t Google the title until this morning and an not familiar with Oscar-nominated pictures from 1957- the subject matter of the song reminds me of Joseph Campbell (author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, one of the best books ever written – I literally read it once a year) because it talks about a guy going to a place, “that no religion/ has a found a path to or a likeness” and looking at the moon “like he knows her.” Even if the song is not about Joe Campbell (I don’t think it is, but it’s not impossible), it always makes me smile when one awesome thing reminds me of another awesome thing – in this case, I can listen to Regina Spektor and read Joseph Campbell and not have to bottle either of them up into boxes labeled with single words that don’t really do justice to their respective talents.

In summary, some instructions for good living: read Joseph Campbell. Listen to Regina Spektor. Don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy. Do listen to The Clash. That should just about do it.

Oh, and, whatever you do, don’t listen to Wavves.