Tag Archives: Country music

Robin Zander’s Secret Country Album: COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.

I’ve been on a roll with the country-themed posts, so I decided to do one more.  I’ve been meaning to reviewing COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.,  Robin Zander’s long-gestating (country) solo album with a complicated release history.  The record was supposed to come out a few years ago but has been stalled for reasons no one seems to know.  Apparently it was for sale on the Zune music service for two days before the record label spontaneously removed it. Since this is 2012, I of course have a bootleg copy of the album which I have been enjoying…

Robin Zander, a real rhinestone cowboy.

So why the delays? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that, on paper at least, a country album from the lead singer of Cheap Trick would be a train-wreck–an utter mess of twang and vanity, fit only for the most fervent Cheap Trick/Zander fan.  I adore Cheap Trick and think Zander can (almost) do no wrong, but even I was skeptical when I first heard about COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.  But after giving it a few listens I can honestly say that it’s really good.

The key to COUNTRYSIDE BLVD. not being an epic pile of shite is this: the album isn’t really hard-core country.  It’s a rock album with country overtones and twangy guitars (and some fiddling).  Robin Zander did not record a Garth Brooks record by any stretch.  Like many solo albums of those involved in major bands, there are many songs that sound as though they could have easily fit onto the next Cheap Trick record.  If like me, you’re starved for Cheap Trick, then this is a very good thing.  If Cheap Trick ain’t your bag, then you’re probably not going to find much to like on COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.

The album opens with “Every Dog,” which sounds like a weaker Traveling Wilbury’s number.  It’s not quite rock, not quite country  and right away there are Hare Krishna references.  It’s a good song and pretty representative of what lies ahead: Wilburys-esque rockers with an eccentric-lyrical bent. I’m sure Zander’s vocals have been touched up, but damn does he still sound good.  Even if it is a special effect, one can’t help but admire how great he still sounds.  I especially was impressed with his cooing on “Love Comes*.”  It might seem like a silly thing, but I don’t think it’s easy for most singers to belt it out one minute then come all the way down to a gentle coo.

Standouts on the album include the gentle ballad “Heart of Glass” and the barn-burner “Say You Will.”  The former being a countrified version of the epic tender-jams Cheap Trick are famous (notorious?) for.  “Say You Will” is a solid rave-up that finds Zander wailing á la Little Richard.

The best song, though, on COUNTRYSIDE BLVD. is “Pamela Jean.”  However, the first time I heard it I thought that my iTunes had skipped, or that the album was over, and I was hearing Cheap Trick.  “Pamela Jean” really stands out as a great song, but it doesn’t have much in common with the more countrified-songs on the record.   So here I am, saying that the best song on the record is the one that seems to fit-in the least.  I guess that’s a crappy backhanded compliment to both the song and the record, and perhaps this is the fatal flaw that’s doomed COUNTRYSIDE BLVD. from ever being properly released.

And so, while COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.  is a mind-blowing revelation,  it’s by no means the terrible album many have inferred it to be.  Hell, with all the hoop-la surrounding the album’s release (or lack thereof), the fact that it’s not an embarrassment comes as a relief.  I think this would be an awesome album to take along on a long, moonlight drive.  It’s a shame we all cant’ go to the store/iTunes and buy COUNTRYSIDE BLVD.  but in the meantime take a listen to “Pamela Jean”.  Just don’t tell the label.

Zander and his two best friends: his dog Buddha and the hat that hides his receding hairline.

*Which, all you hard-core Cheap Trick fans know is from the band’s 1985 album STANDING ON THE EDGE.

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“3 Pears” by Dwight Yoakam

Inspiration, it is said,  can come from the most unlikely of sources.   Case-in-point: I heard an interesting interview with country-singer Dwight Yoakam today.  He was promoting his new album 3 PEARS, and he said that the title track was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s documentary about George Harrison.  There was footage in the documentary of John Lennon goofing-off and wearing three pairs of glasses.  It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of moment, a throw-away bit of footage that stuck with Yoakam and inspired him to write a song.

As a music geek, and a student of humanity, I find these little anecdotes to be priceless nuggets.

Uno. Dos. Tres.

Yoakam talked about the duality of Lennon–how much he loved to joke but how sad he was inside.  The three glasses make an almost-mask, covering his face, a perfect metaphor for how Lennon used comedy to hide.  Yoakam’s song, called “3 Pears,” a joke-title no doubt an homage to how Lennon’s band chose to spell it’s name, is really good.

The song is a fun bit of hippie-country, the kind that’s sadly in short supply these days.  I really dig how Yoakam lyrically invokes Lennon with a couple of pseudo-psychedelic phrases.

My favorite:

“That means where you are is where you at
When your head is cold, to ṗut on a hat”

“3 Pears” is a shiny-happy song that really surprised me, and I’ll bet it’ll surprise you too.  Check out the rest of 3 PEARS while you’re at it–it’s a damn fine album.

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On Genre and Space Cowboys

Prologue: Genre Sucks

Genre is pretty stupid thing if you think about it.  Trying to categorize music (or any art for that matter) into a neat little box is often an exercise in futility.  I think a lot of critics and fans alike miss the point when they try to put singers or bands into one specific category.  Worse still, people put themselves into a “genre,” telling themselves they only like one specific type of music.

My iTunes does not display “genres,” I switched them off because the iTunes database is ridiculously loaded with so many stupid (and hopelessly redundant) categories. The worst is offender being Alternative Rock which gets tagged as “Alternative,” “Alternative Rock,” “Alternative and Punk,” “Punk and Rock,” “Punk Rock” and so on and so forth.  If, like me, you’ve give up on genre and all the stupid baggage that goes along with it, you’ll find yourself descending into the rabbit hole of awesome music.

Case in point: I used to be a “no rap or country” guy until I realized how foolish and narrow-minded such a worldview was.  For one thing, rock music (which I love) has it’s roots firmly planted in country music–so much so that to deny a love of country would be hypocritical.  Rap music, on the other hand, is probably the only culturally relevant art form going right now, not like rap or denying it credibility would like people in the 1950’s ignoring TV.  I mean, to do so  (and many did) meant they missed an incredible cultural shift.

* * *

Part I: Space Cowboys

But enough philosophizing, this post is called “Space Cowboys” because Keith Richards got me to listen to some damn fine music. I read his epic tome LIFE when it came out, and one of the most interesting bits was his relationship with Gram Parsons. Parsons was Richards brother-in-arms during the late 1960’s.  Whereas Richards came from the RnB/blues  school, Parsons came from more of a country background.  Their friendship was pretty interesting and profound (influencing both Parsons and The Stones).   Keith liked Gram so much he let Gram record one of his greatest songs first (he let him record “Wild Horses” first, if  handing someone your greatest masterpiece isn’t bro-love, I don’t know what is).  In a way they became almost mirror images of each other, until Parsons tragically died of a drug overdose.  Anyway, Richards got me interested in his friend Gram (he spoke so highly of him) so I started digging around in his music.

Gram + Keef = BBF's 4 Eva

Turns out Gram Parsons pretty much invented Wilco.  Well, to be precise, he invited “Alt-Country” or whatever the hell the dipshits at Pitchfork.com are calling the music being created today that strattles the line between alternative rock and country music (drat! foiled again by descriptions of genre).  In 1969 he put out the first country-rock album…ever with his band The International Submarine Band.  After that he joined the floundering Byrds and convinced them to put out a country record (!).  That album, SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO, shouldn’t have surprised people (is there really much distance between folk and country?) but it kinda did.  It kinda blew everybody’s mind, and thanks to Parsons, the band put out one of their best records.  And all he did was rather than having the band make music influenced by country, Parsons had the Byrds doing country music. The stylistic jumble was basically country music, but not quite. Thus a genre was born.

But Parsons was a maverick and was soon out of The Byrds and forming The Flying Burrito Brothers.  I know what you’re thinking–incredibly stupid name, but I was blown away by this band. 1969 was a strange time, and the combination of psychedelic rock merged with country music bred a new kind of cowboy: the Space Cowboys.  These brave men were schooled in the popular Top 40 rock of the day but loved classic country music.  From these intrepid “astronauts” bands like Wilco, Old 97’s, The Jayhawks, The Wallflowers…hell even REM came into being.

Flying Burrito Brothers, not known for their fashion sense.

The first two Flying Burrito Brothers records, THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN and BURRITO DELUX, are two fantastic records from end to end.  Songs like “Wheels” exist somewhere in between psychedelic rock and country–in a place that I never knew existed (or was quite frankly, so fucking exquisite).  At first I found myself pulling away from the “country” aspects of Parsons creations and only admiring their “rock” elements.  But after awhile my prejudices/hangups fell by the wayside (mostly because “Sin City” is fucking righteous song) and I found myself enjoying music I would have otherwise dismissed outright.

* * *

Part II: What does it all Mean?

Delving deeper into this exciting genre of “Space Cowboys,” I happened upon a band with an even stranger name than The Flying Burrito Brothers (if you can believe that): The New Riders of The Purple Sage.  With a name like that, I’m sure you won’t be too terribly shocked when I tell you that famous Dead-Head Jerry Garcia was a member of the band.  More than just a “country side-project,” The New Riders are a ridiculously  awesome hybrid of rock and country.  Taking the next logical step from The Grateful Dead’s AMERICAN BEAUTY  album, THE NEW RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE turns down the stoner-folk and turns up the country.  Both the Parsons albums and The New Riders could be classified as straight “country”  or straight “folk” or straight “rock.”   That they could also be (and are) part of a new hybrid of existing genres should speak volumes for how awesome this music is.  That this movement of “Space Cowboys” happened at the end of the 1960’s/early 1970’s was no accident.  The 1970’s saw an explosion of country influenced rock (and vice versa rock influenced country).  Hell, the era’s biggest, most successful band, The Eagles (also known as “the fuckin’ Eagles, man”) was a country-infused rock band.

So what does all this mean? Well I think it’s important to realize that some really awesome stuff happens “in between” the boring, staid genres.  It’s like tectonic plates bumping and colliding, forming mountains–the best shit tends of happen at the spots where genres collide.  I’ve grown as a music fan/aficionado and now, instead of staring blankly into the middle of a particular genre (even if it’s one I love, like rock) I know go out of my way to explore the fringes of all the genres.  After all, today’s “cowboys” living on the fringe of art often become the next generations mainstream heroes (Wilco).

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Over-thinking Taylor Swift’s “Mean”

So that wacky country music has been getting under my skin again.  I’m still hearing “Red Solo Cup” about three times too many during my work-day, but that’s not what I’m going to complain about today.  Today I’m picking on Taylor Swift.  I don’t know why I like picking on country music, it’s like kicking a puppy–it’s easy to do but only psychopaths really get any pleasure out of it.

I guess I’m a psychopath.

I’ve heard “Mean” a few times (and seen the video) but it wasn’t until last week that I’d figured out why I loath this song.  You see, this song is pretty much the epitome of everything that is wrong with modern country music.  The song is Swift’s response to her critics (uh, like…who is that? Who is picking on Taylor Swift so much that she needs to write a song about it? Other than fat, nerdy bloggers, I mean).  Does she call them heartless bastards? Does she use an elaborate metaphor to cut them like a knife, while at the same time show them what a class act she is?

If only...

No. She calls them “mean.”  And even though that’s really stupid and childish, that’s not the problem that I have with this song*. No, my problem with this song is the line that says: “Someday I’ll be living in a big old city/And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.”  I cringe every single time she says that.  I sit, hunched over my desk at work and GRIND my teeth to dust with rage.  What a moron.  Does she understand what the hell she’s doing?  This song is a complete and utter slap to the face of all that is country.

Country music isn’t about how great the fucking city is.  It’s about horses, beer, wide-open spaces, and outlaws. It’s about lovin’ your woman and standing by your man.  People from the city are lost souls, lonely and out of touch with themselves and each other. The city is not a shining oasis, it’s a place to be despised.  At best, city dwellers should be pitied.  This, my friends, is what is wrong with country music today. Country music today is being made by city people.  For Taylor Swift, the city represents a way to escape some unnamed bully (who can’t “hit” her anymore) but that’s not how I see it.  I see it as yet another chapter in the war for the very soul of America.

It’s the Federalists vs. the Jeffersonians.  It’s agrarian vs. industrial.  It’s trees vs. paper money.  Country music used to be about THE country, it used to present an idealized version of rural America that appealed to people in both the city and the country**.  But today country music is nothing more than shitty rock with a twang.  It doesn’t speak to anyone or have anything unique to say.  Good country music, like good rap music, should seem to only speak to both a very specific segment of the population WHILE at the same time appeal to a wider audience because of it’s universal themes.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all country musicians should stay neatly packed into a box or preconceptions and cliches.  I think it’s fine to rebel and say “screw the country I’m gonna hit it big and move to the city,” but that’s not what Swift’s song is saying.  If you really listen, the message of “Mean” is “you are a mean asshole so all you’re ever going to do is live out in the country.”

But I ask you: what the hell is wrong with living in the country?  It pisses me off that a popular country audience has had so much success with a song that’s essential a big middle finger to a large portion of her audience.  I’m not really mad at Taylor Swift, I’m mad at her fans who are too stupid to see what a sham this song is.  It bums me out to think of little kids–living the country AND the city–listening to rich phonies like Taylor Swift.  What about the people being abused (or whatever the song is a bit vague) in the city? Is there a special ghetto in the cities for urban meanies? The message is confusing.

Ultimately when I hear this song at work it’s the words of the late, great poet Freddie Mercury that I turn to: “Now they say your folks are telling you/Be a super star/But I tell you just be satisfied/To stay right where you are.”

*Though I can’t imagine a 60 year-old Taylor Swift singing this song, it’s barely appropriate for a 20-something woman.
**which is actually a really dirty, bleak place with just as many problems as the cities.
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Terrible Country Songs: 5 Songs I Can’t Believe Were Hits

Can you believe I had to hear “Red Solo Cup” 5 times today at work?  I really don’t know what to say, I think it might be the end times, kids.  Except it’s not the end-times, is it?  No, we’ve seen days just as dark as these “Red Solo Cup” days.  I thought about it and there’s been a bunch of SUPER, laughably bad  country songs over the years.  Most of them, it turns out, were really big hits.  Here are my top 5 worst country songs of all time:

1.  “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus.  I really wish this 1992 turd of a song was the worst thing that Billy Ray ever produced, but we all know that ain’t true.  Still, this song is super-bad and is universally reviled now…but back when it came out it was a massive hit.  I remember this song spawning a bunch of news stories about the growing popularity of country line dancing.  Boy, we all know how that turned out.   For me the worst part of this song is (and this will be a common theme among all of these songs) the stupid lyrics.  I had a hell of a time typing “Achy Breaky.”  Those words just look wrong together.

Oh, this guys' cool...

2. “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” by Kenny Chesney.  This song is still popular (I heard it on the radio today) but boy is it awful.  The idea is okay I guess.  I mean it’s…um…sexy to be a farmer, right?.  The reality is: being a farmer is not sexy, Chesney’s grating voice is not sexy, and you’re an idiot.  This is one of those songs that every time I hear it I can’t believe someone had the balls to record and release it.  The amazing part is (of course) it was a huge hit. Real farmers are too damn tough to care about being sexy, but that’s not even what this song is really about, it’s about sexy FARMING EQUIPMENT. Oh, country music, never change.

I'm not into farm equipment, but I'd totally hit that.

3. “Goodbye Earl” by The Dixie Chicks.  Okay, this one is awful and funny as hell.  So these three chicks write a song about a woman who is abused.  Still with me? Nothing unusual about that, especially in a country song. She (shockingly) gets her revenge on him and kills him…by poisoning his black eyed peas(?).  I’m not sure if it’s possibly to be any more “hick” than that.  I remember seeing the music video when the song first came out, it was hilariously bad (Earl was played by Dennis Franz).  There’s a right way to handle delicate subject matter, such as spousal abuse…and this song is definitely not it.  “Hey Earl! Time to die!” Oh, I get it…he gave her a shiner so it’s okay that we’re killing him.  The ironic part is, the same soccer moms who sang along with this song were the SAME people giving 90s rappers a bunch of shit about killing cops and slapping hoes. I get it, it’s okay when you do it.

DO. NOT. EAT. THOSE. PEAS.

4.  “Grandma Got Ran Over By A Reindeer” by Elmo & Patsy.  So this the only song on this list (thus far) to be turned into a cartoon movie.  The song was inexplicably popular in the early 80s and remains in heavy rotation during the Christmas season.  But why? Why does a song about a grandma getting killed  by a reindeer get a special place in our collective hears? Probably because we’re both terribly mean and terribly stupid. To be fair, this song made me laugh when I was 11.  Now it just makes me shake my head.

Grammy's dead, Happy Christmas.

5.  “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (the Angry American)” by Toby Keith.  You know, I think of all the songs mentioned on this list, I hate this one the worst.  It’s utterly stupid on so many levels.  First off, I can’t stand the song’s jingoistic bullshit.  It really burns my ass that Keith put a song like this out after 9/11.  There didn’t seem to be very much of a musical reaction to 9/11 (other than one sleepy Springsteen album) so this song pretty much had to represent us as a nation.  That wouldn’t be so bad if the song wasn’t an almost parody of America–the violent, brutish oaf who blunders about the globe.   The song’s imagery is hilarious.  Really, Toby? The Statue of Liberty is going to shake her fist with anger? Way to turn a beacon of hope into a hateful monster, you piece of shit.  You do know she’s French, right? “Red Solo Cup” is embarrassing for Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” is embarrassing for America.

This song makes me want to hear "Red Solo Cup" again.

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Over-thinking Toby Keith’s crappy “Red Solo Cup”

This post is lovingly dedicated to my friend Becky.

I’m not one of these people who thinks that all music has to “say something” or be “serious art” all the time.  But I gotta say, I really hate novelty songs.  No matter how clever or funny you think a novelty song is, given enough time you’re gonna hate it.  Which is why even after 25+ years of making music, Weird Al si still on the fringes of  cultural acceptance.  Novelty songs are bubble-gum in the purest sense: it’s sugary and good for about two minutes before it turns nasty and you have to spit it out.

Last week I heard Toby Keith’s song “Red Solo Cup” for the first time at work.  I share an office now with an older woman who likes to listen to the radio while we work. Unlike a lot of people I don’t mind not getting to pick the radio station, sometimes I like hearing new things.  And besides, I’m at work, what am I gonna do?  It’s not like I have a choice…

So we were listening to the local country station and this song came on about fucking plastic cups.  Now I’m not a huge country fan but not all country is stupid hillbilly music. Johnny Cash was a badass and I like Gram Parsons. Anyway, one of the appeals of country music is the material, the idealized agrarian lifestyle, the yearning for simpler times, surviving a harsh world, bucking broncos,  and crying in one’s beer.  Modern country music isn’t about anything cool like that.  It’s basically about the same stuff as mainstream pop music is about.  But you know, with a twang.

This Toby Keith song, “Red Solo Cup” is basically a song about that ubiquitous party cup.  But if you think about it, the Red Solo Cup represents everything bad-ass outlaw Country dudes SHOULD be against.  The Red Solo Cup ain’t even from Texas, it’s from New York City….NEW YORK CITY!!!

Toby, are you saying I'm a loser for not liking your cup song?

Seriously, think about it: the Red Solo Cup is part of the  “disposable lifestyle” that of corporate America’s always shoving down our throats.  The idea that we should use a cup once and throw away is anti-artisan, anti-homemade, and anti-country. But hey, Toby’s just a good-time good ‘ole boy! He’s not here to THINK he’s here to DRINK. Okay, fine.  But how about the fact that this song is basically a spoken-word piece.  It’s not really sung so much as “read” by Toby Keith.  Which, again, is fine except the same red-neck idiots who giggle and guffaw at this bullshit have the nerve to turn around and say ignorant shit like “well rap ain’t music, that’s just talkin’.”

And anyway at the heart of the matter: it’s a stupid one-joke song.  It’s “Grandma Got Run-over by a Reindeer.” Except that song is slightly better because “Grandma Got Run-over by a Reindeer” is a Christmas song, and thus only played during the holidays which helps keep it away from me most of the time. The fact that this plastic cup song is #1 Country song on iTunes AND it’s played every hour-on-the-hour on the local Country radio station is both bleak and telling.  If I was flipping through the dial I might even think I’d stumbled upon a really long commercial.

Which reminds me., you know who’s happy about this song? Well, besides Toby Keith, who’s no doubt loving the fact that he’s enjoying some success again: the Solo Cup Company.  I bet they’re laughing all the way to bank.  In fact, I predict that in a few years we’ll see a Solo Cup ad or commercial that uses this song (you know, when it’s no longer culturally relevant and the licensing fees are more economical).

Bottom line: “Red Solo Cup” is going to be the answer to an obscure trivia question in about six months, just wait and see.

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