Left of the Dial: “Swimming In A Fishbowl”
Written by Chris-R on May 26, 2019
Welcome back to Left of the Dial, playing deep cuts from the classic age of vinyl and beyond! Radio host Chris-R is back with all the best songs worth your time, you certainly don’t want to miss out.
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Less talk more rock!
Suede‘s lasting legacy has been cemented in the history books as probably being the true pioneers of the genre that came to become Britpop: a force of nature that was ever-prevalent in the mid-90’s. Their debut album Suede may not have been the first to use the Britpop formula for success, but it was the first to introduce this sound to a worldwide audience and toppled the UK charts, turning both them and the Britpop genre at large into instant sensations. The music of Suede’s debut record shows the clear progression that brought us from the Madchester scene (also known as Baggy music) that flooded British music in the earlier part of the decade to the mammoth Britpop sound that we all know and love today.
To put it simply, the time was just right for Britpop to break through: just across the pond, us Americans were all preoccupied with the Grunge doom n’ gloom from our new Alt Rock overlords and this wasn’t really a common enough sentiment for the Brits to quite get behind. They didn’t have much of any interest in glorifying this mopey attitude; the 1990’s were a time of little strife for them; the cultural zeitgeist was miles apart. They were happy! They wanted to make music that celebrates life, they want songs that have soaring anthems in major keys, not the kind of slog that’s dragged down by downtrodden Marcy Playground wannabes. When the genre broke big, it felt like an inevitability at that point and was most certainly a breath of fresh air by the time it reached over to the colonies.
“The Drowners” is an attitude-fueled rocker, bracing its power from the sheer intensity of the guitar chords and good ole fashioned rock cattiness. The vocals make zero effort of masking the Brit accent and instead use it as a decoration to fit atop the band’s brutishness. The music is triumphant in a very non-descript way, surely doing something different for most people who’d listened to it. It builds off of the success found from the band’s hit singles “Metal Mickey” and “Animal Nitrate”, further adding fuel to the on-set Britpop fires.
The band Suede is also notable to many for releasing one of the most infamous sophomore slumps in history, maybe only rivaled by their fellow peers in The Stone Roses and their much maligned but (more-so just forgotten) followup to their smash debut record; Second Coming. Suede’s followup record was the controversial Dog Man Star, a perplexing album experience that notoriously traded in their bright and punchy aesthetic for a sound that’s much darker and full of torment, leaving most fans scratching their heads and alienating most everybody in the process. Yep, they came back with a “difficult” album, an album that acted as one of the most heinous acts of career suicide a U.K. band had ever seen. For what it’s worth, many many years later critics and devoted fans came around to the record and now appraise it as being a daring masterpiece and quite possibly the crown jewel of the band’s discography, a sentiment that I agree with. And their followup to the failed follow-up, Coming Up, was a much more welcomed return to form, even if it did feel a bit “paint-by-numbers” in its assembly.
And so, it’s a shame that Suede’s star fell so far by the time that the Battle of Britpop truly began just a few years later with the band sitting on the sidelines as the genre was at its peak of relevancy. Suede fell off so that band like Blur, Pulp, and Oasis could run (. . . and then subsequently fall down)
“Baby That’s Backatcha”
A Quiet Storm -1975
The sounds of a synthetically born gust of wind ushers in the next phase of Funk and R&B as we knew it in 1975, boldly presenting the new genre: Quiet Storm. With its mechanically defiant grooves and slickly produced compositions, the music of the aptly titled “A Quiet Storm” album provided a bold premonition of R&B to come.
Smokey Robinson is the man. Smokey had left his fingerprints on just about anything and everything important to Soul music since Motown’s inception onward, veering into integral parts of beloved artists career paths and leaving his mark wherever it may be. That being said, the further expansion of Soul music in the 1970’s was a doldrum leave of absence for Smokey. After sitting out some of the decade, his revitalization on A Quiet Storm seemed like such a bold reinvention of many of the genre’s beloved, –albeit tired, tropes… much of which Smokey himself was directly responsible for. Instead, this was a measured and matured sound, and a clear step away from the teenybopper songs of yesteryear.
“Baby That’s Backatcha” boasts an absolutely untouchable instrumental, dripping with sass and some divine inventiveness in its configuration. Mixing in Jazz flutes with double-stopped guitars amongst others was a great way to present this song, and Smokey’s iconic falsetto gently guides the music along with the greatest of ease. It’s simultaneously weightless and has a strongly felt importance inside its own scope: a very calculated brushstroke from the creator.
On here, Robinson sings a quaint tune of relational back-and-forths over a knowingly coy vocal melody.
“Baby, that’s backatcha
Baby, that’s the same thing you do for me
Baby, that’s backatcha
Oh, baby, that’s tit for tat
I’m givin’ you this for that”
While many others could have stumbled into this new sound and risk leaving behind a meandering piece of claptrap of uninspired Soul music, the music of “A Quiet Storm” takes its time and genuinely wants you to enjoy the ride.
“It Never Rains In Southern California”
It Never Rains In Southern California -1972
This quaint tune has one of the great statements of Pop music;
“It never rains in Southern California
But when it pours, man . . . it pours.”
Classic. Throw that on a decorative pillow and slap it onto Grandma’s couch, it’s hard to get much better than that. The song is a very pleasing excursion into 70’s soft rock radio-land, working the most of that Wonderbread™ sound that the decade was rife with and surely fitting itself onto the airwaves nicely alongside the likes of Carole King, Charlene, and Sonny and Cher.
These might sound like negative attributes to many, but I mean them with the utmost fondness, there’s of course going to be a winning formula to make a song of this caliber that works instead of simply falling flat on its proverbial face. Suffice it to say, recording artist Albert Hammond strikes a fine balance here. The piano is light and played with determination alongside the backing vocals that add a wonderful color to the track, making the piece all flow together very naturally.
It’s a song that travels light and doesn’t succumb to its own temptations of bombast.
“Kiss Me Again”
This song has been a long time coming for the “Left of the Dial” program. Ever since the beginning of this show, I’d hoped to one day include the sprawling leviathan “Kiss Me Again” into the lineup, but its long-standing absence from all streaming services and lengthy runtime made it a difficult one to include in good consciousness. But finally, after much waiting, the song is finally back on Spotify and we can spin this tune in all its glory.
It’s (hopefully) no secret that “Disco” is not a dirty word to me, there’s plenty of love to give the genre and the strong roots that comprise Disco make the genre too important to simply brush off. Plus, calling something “Disco” can oftentimes just be a blanket statement we make in retrospect, for when the Funk movement truly started to splinter off and a burgeoning demand for Dance music happened to collide with the earliest gasps of life from Electronica music (looking at you: Kraftwerk.) There’s no logical reason to expect the Disco brandishing to be any indicator of quality is what I’m trying to get at.
To put it blunt, “Kiss Me Again” is a journey.. one that still wants to hold you by the hand but will take any and all risks along the way necessary to evolve the song into daring territory, shaking off all the rust along the way. For anyone wondering why you’d never heard of this Dinosaur band before, there’s a perfect reason for it: it’s a fake band. A disposable Trojan horse shell of a band who never really existed. Y’see, Dinosaur is a One Song Wonder. Read: not a one HIT wonder, but the band existed to record this one sole song and the name was never used again. The mastermind behind the song was Arthur Russell, an absolute visionary and influential tech mogul who is behind many famous Disco cuts and could be placed on a similar pedestal as Giorgio Moroder for what they’d done for the genre.
Something else of note is that the track features a very, very early appearance on rhythm guitar from Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne. Byrne’s rhythm guitar skills have long since been a secret weapon for the group as far as I’m concerned, his right hand funky strumming technique is outta this world sometimes and can always be expected to give his songs a unique pulse. So throwing him onto this song for clunky funk rhythms is a match made in literal heaven, his colorful playing elevates the song even further. This ain’t no disco indeed…
The work of Mike Oldfield is going to be most well known by two devoted cult fanbases: Prog-Rock snobs, and Horror film aficionados. His gift to the world of music is in his enduring megawork: Tubular Bells, a sprawling gold standard to the Prog-Rock genre in which he played every instrument on the record. And believe me, there are a LOT of different instruments on that album. His other aforementioned claim to fame is the bizarre addition of “Tubular Bells” to the Academy Award winning film The Exorcist, acting as its theme music. The sample taken from Tubular Bells works surprisingly well in a Horror setting, the bells have a chilling timbre and the off-meter time signature provides a steady sense of uneasiness that permeates the film. A similar technique would be used by John Carpenter for his Halloween theme in 7/8 time. A strange step in Oldfield’s career path surely, but this kind of exposure proved to work very well for him as newer doors began to open up for the artist.
Surely a through-composed leviathan like this should lead to an arduous discography with long-winded slogs to trawl through, right? Well, no… much of the magic of Tubular Bells was that it was a compositionists’ dream come true, he utilized a lot of Pop songwriting finesse and sharpened his toolset even further on subsequent releases, getting tighter and more refined in each passing work. Take “Moonlight Shadow”, a lovely song that’s self-assured and takes risks in the more subtle manners of which a thoroughly accomplished songwriter can achieve. The song has a noticeable smack of Country flair to its sound, and the singer that Mike Oldfield recruited for the song brings a fitting energy to help tie this song together.
The progression the song undergoes is subtle but very heavily felt. By the time the song is on its last section, the production has kicked into high octane and the song is elevated much further than most other writers would take a song of this caliber. It is all very much appreciated of course, as it is the Poptimist’s joy of having a cake and being able to eat it too.
American Thighs -1994
The all-female Indie/Punk/Alt band Veruca Salt was heralded as a bright spot in the pre-Riot Grrrl movement, providing 90’s FM transistor sets with moments of levity between its mandatory airings of Dishwalla or whatever mediocrity Candlebox had just pumped out. The band remained in the public consciousness long enough for their sleeper hit “Seether” to enter rotation, a promising enough song whose charm is heavily indebted to the Power-Pop genre and sadly may have gotten too much traction just for the pure novelty of girls playing rock music in a man’s man’s man’s world.
That’s where the feminism ideals of these bands can get tricky: while it can still be empowering that women can attain success because of their gender, it can just as easily be a means to offhandedly shun the band and knock them down a few pegs. But let it be known that their music mostly stands its own outside of the norms of 90’s culture and when placed into the larger spectrum of Female identifying rock acts, Veruca Salt stands tall enough among the competition under this scrutiny. Although you could argue that they are triumphant simply in that they just beat out a weak field, the point still stands that we still remember their name and not Letters to Cleo instead. Personally, I’d take a Veruca Salt over an L7, and ESPECIALLY over anything from Bikini Kill, and yes I will die on this lonely hill.
The band takes their name from the 1974 Willy Wonka film, surely riling up mental imagery of big blueberry girls with ill-fitted guitars around their waistbands. The name seems fitting, as they oftentimes seem like they’re playing “dress-up” with their music, coyly insinuating that they should be some other band that they’re clearly not. They rock hard but still have unmistakeable femininity to them. They sound squarely of the times for 90’s Alt-Rock but choose to slip in obscure(ish) references to The Beatles. Maybe these tendencies mark them closer to being disposable Pop-Rock outfits, but that’s all up for debate.
“Wolf” is a standout from the band, coming equipped with willowy Shoegaze reminiscent vocals that float above some very crunched out guitars playing a basic, non-distracting power chord progression. What the band lacks in technicality is made up for with the larger than life sound of their instruments, thanks to the production crew behind the band. A similar effect can be heard on the equally marvelous “Spiderman ’79” from the same album.
The album title American Thighs might be somewhat integral to understanding their game too, as the title obviously lampshades the monstrous AC/DC jock jam “You Shook Me All Night Long”, a no frills Rock n’ Roll number with little window dressing to it. In 1994, this was the NEW rock n’ roll and Veruca was just giving their take on the music scene at large while still being a direct byproduct of it.
My initial reaction to the band was unceremonious, I think it was a simple remark of “…this is just a watered down version of The Breeders“. Which is ironic enough, the cultural footprint of the Pixies music was inescapable for the entire 90’s, so I suppose it only makes sense that their spinoff band should amass a similar reach of influence as well. And as it stands, I don’t mind having more bands that sound like The Breeders! There’s plenty of worse bands to rip-ff, and I have virtually 0 qualms with more music like The Breeders existing in the world, so the band gets a pass from me.
And Veruca Salt does a bang-up job too, they are surprisingly tight for a band and they work very well inside of this albums’ overall production. The cracks in the bands foundation start to become much more glaring on their glitzy followup album, Eight Arms To Hold You… and its lead single “Volcano Girls”, perhaps best summed up by its video in which the very stilted band can clearly be seen as out of their element and comes off as awkward and at times visibly uncomfortable.
But alas, on American Thighs you could really see a semblance of an actual working rock band here and the history books should try to remember that.
“L’Orient Est Rouge”
L’Orient Est Rouge -1998
A little more variety for ya, “L’orient Est Rouge” is an infectiously catchy song from several countries away! The charm of “L’orient Est Rouge” is unavoidable and the melody to it is inescapable, it is surely a tune that you’ll be humming to yourself all day once it enters your eardrums. The lineup of this song brings in some vastly different instruments than we may be accustomed to hearing in our Western world of music, as the track prominently features the likes of tubas, clarinet, and off-kilter percussion sectionals.
For the small but devoted crowd who was fawning over the 2018 record from Sons of Kemet, Your Queen Is A Reptile, this is a very clear and logical extension of that sound. And if you haven’t listened to the Jazz tinged Afrobea of Sons of Kemet, then what are you waiting for!? Naughty naughty, tsk tsk.
The music is extravagant and larger than life at times, leaving an immediate impression wherever it goes. Yes, the band is expounding a universal sound that aims to spellbind any listener caught in its wake.
“Dead On Time”
The rip roarin’ “Dead On Time” is what you’re gonna get when you take your usual Queen fare and kick it into maximum overdrive: A Queen song for the Metal fans, let’s say. Very least, it’s a tune that’s sure to satisfy any and all speed freaks out there, brushing up right besides “Stone Cold Crazy” and “Ogre Battle”. The impossibly fast tempo of “Dead on Time” gives the band no choice but to flex their awe-inspiring musicianship and place their bravado on full display.
Brian May’s guitar zooms by so fast that it’s hard to pin down what’s even going on in that crazy guitar riff he’s laying down. And further props are necessary for the band returning to riff oriented songwriting again. Roger Taylor’s drum work is frenetic and explodes into each new section, often alternating between complete halts and spontaneous smashes.
The 3:24 runtime seems a bit bewildering too, as so much material happens in the space of this song that even ending at a cool 2:00 would seem like a fully realized product. But of course, Queen always wants to give you everything they have to offer, they never forgot the gandeur “. . . and the kitchen sink” approach of their Glam Rock roots.
And of course, Freddie’s pipes are unparalleled. The song ends with thunder striking the earth and Mr. Mercury stealing the show with an explosive cry of “YOU’RE DEAD!!” and the listener very well could have been knocked dead by the time this romp is over.
Heart Shaped World -1989
Chris Isaak strikes hard on the track “Nothing’s Changed”. As the golden throated crooner himself, Chris Isaak had successfully made his name in the 80’s for kicking against the decade’s norms and taking his cues from a music that had passed and gone decades prior, but clearly not forgotten. His 1989 record Heart Shaped World made ripples in the music world; most notably due to the unbelievable traction brought on by its’ lead single “Wicked Game”. Just an aside, but I think there’s a legitimate case that could be made for “Wicked Game” being just about the most covered song ever. Just go to any Bar karaoke or any two-bit Open Mike sesh and you’ll see what I mean.
There are still a handful of other delights to be found on the LP however, including the amorphous stylings of “Nothing’s Changed”. A whispered instrumental carries the song along and peruses a unique emotion felt in this instruments, further amplified by the bleeding-heart singing from Isaak himself. His guitar playing shouldn’t go unnoticed either, as he has a very distinctively fat tone that he navigates through his songs. His guitar sounds near percussive at times, echoing a Mark Knopfler tinged experience.
As the song wraps up, it becomes near meditative for a rock song –eschewing any type of “Big Rock Ending” that his peers may’ve been tempted to tack on. No, Chris Isaak wants to be known as more of an artist of subtle tricks and it certainly pays off.
“Who Knows Where The Time Goes?”
Like An Old Fashioned Waltz -1974
Sometimes a song can possess a magic quality to it, a certain something that puts the wind in its sails and guides it along the night skies when played. It is hard to articulate what makes this rendition of the song “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” such a captivating affair, but just know that anything caught within its path will stand still to the shimmering wonderment brought on by this song. To me, this is an absolutely stunning song that has been tailormade for any dark, rainy night.
This song came from one Sandy Denny, formerly of beloved sunshine Folk group Fairport Convention. Sandy Denny has made a pretty distinctive career path of her own after her dismissal from the group, collaborating with other acoustic Folk artists and releasing a respectable string of solo albums. For what it’s worth, Fairport Convention was basically the real life equivalent of “The New Main Street Singers” band from the parody film A Mighty Wind, a toothless, blind aping of what more serious and successful Folk acts were accomplishing at the time. For what the group was playing, I think it’d be preferable to jump ship over to what Pentangle was doing, or to check out the excellent Folk guitar acrobatics/Fleetwood Mac-lite of Richard & Linda Thompson after Richard left Fairport Convention as well.
Anyway, Sandy left and founded a new group Fotheringay as a rebound, recording a single album before entirely dissolving. So, solo it is then –and “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” sounds definitively like a solo affair. Carried by just her voice and acoustic guitar, it somehow immediately grabs the listener to peer into her muted world. The sounds she sculpts from her open tuning are wonderfully barren and set the scene of dusted nights rife with a calm magic and a sleeping city awaiting its swan song.
If you’re looking for a song to spin instead of going back to Nick Drake‘s Pink Moon, than I think this one is worth your time.
“So In Love”
There’s No Place Like America Today -1975
With no exaggeration, this is one of my favorite songs ever made: like top 10 status for me. A stunning Soul ballad from the masterclass songwriter Curtis Mayfield, he brought together gorgeous instrumental and vocal showcase that’s worthy of any loving couple’s first slow-dance as a partnership, Enchantment Under The Sea style or otherwise.
For starters, much of the heart of the song is brought through in the warm and earthy 70’s production sounds, the band has their specific space in this sonic arrangement and the crispness of it all serves as an underlying comfort to the song. The choice of instruments is perfect as well, particularly the way the Hammond organ and the large brass section play off each other. Curtis brings in his vocals with his usual level of tenderness and emotivity, hovering around in his low falsetto for the majority of the song.
And like other music blog writers who dabble in their own pretentiousness, I’ll even throw in the hackneyed mantra of “it’s about the notes they don’t play” for this recording. There’s a lot of intentional space and near-emptiness at times on the song, but it’s impossible to think of anything that could have been added there that could benefit the song, it stands perfect as it is.
“So In Love” is a truly captivating song that encompasses an absolute love for music itself. A must listen track.
Also: here’s a Spotify playlist featuring every song that’s ever been on Left of the Dial!