Wussy songs — the lazy approach

Rather than go through AOL’s 111 Wussiest Songs of All Time myself, I’m just going to respond to Down With Snark’s excellent take on it.

SONGS I LIKE

109. Sixpence None the Richer, Kiss Me. There’s a difference between “wussy” and “pretty.” This is the latter.

96. 10CC, I’m Not in Love. A classic ’70s tune. There’s a great Cardigans song called For What It’s Worth that could be considered an answer from a female perspective — she sings about how she’s in love with the dude in her bed, then denies it to calm him down, then comes back with “Guess what? I actually am.” It’s a really clever song.

62. Jim Croce, Time in a Bottle. If the lyrics here were cliche, this would be wussy. They aren’t. This one’s beautiful.

60. Kajagoogoo, Too Shy. Wussy? No song with a bass line that funky could be wussy.

48. Billy Joel, Just the Way You Are. I’ll have to disagree with DWS here. I love the chord progression, which I played a little back in my piano-playing days. And it’s self-effacing, too — he doesn’t want clever conversation because “I never want to work that hard.”

30. Katrina and the Waves, Walking on Sunshine. Wussy? It’s a cute pop song. Anyone who thinks that’s “wussy” might be feeling a little insecure in his masculinity.

25. Five for Fighting, Superman (It’s Not Easy). The histrionics aren’t as grating in this one as they are in some other FFF efforts, and it’s a unique take on heroism.

10. Coldplay, Fix You. Yes, I know people don’t need to be “fixed,” and yes, the falsetto is a bit much. I’m sorry. If your hair doesn’t stand on end when they build to the break at the end, then you and I just don’t appreciate music the same way.

8. Culture Club, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me. I’m going to argue here that gay men are tougher than straight men. To dress the way Boy George did and to sing something like this — well, at the very least, that’s brave. This one happens to have a better beat that most songs of its lyrical ilk.

6. Dan Fogelberg, Longer. I played this on guitar at a school assembly as accompaniment for a “chorus” of three girls, one of whom I had a massive crush on. So maybe I appreciate this song more than most people. But maybe we’d all be better off with a few more acoustic guitar ballads.

SONGS I DON’T

100. Cutting Crew, I Just Died (in Your Arms) Tonight. I’ve intentionally misplaced the parentheses to underscore the muddled sentiment of this piffle.

83. Chicago, You’re the Inspiration. These mid-’80s Chicago ballads killed me. Great horn section, good guitarist, good rep for jazz-rock, and they’re standing around fingering bland chords on cheap keyboards.

76. Mr. Big, To Be With You. The perfunctory we-wrote-this-so-eighth-graders-can-get-laid ballad.

72. Boyz II Men, I’ll Make Love to You. The nadir of the Farley-Sandler year on SNL was when the guys in the cast sang this to the women with no apparent joke. Maybe I’m remembering this incorrectly. I hope so.

64. Stevie Wonder, I Just Called to Say I Love You. Geez, those cheesy keyboard sounds. Remember when they were the wave of the future? I’ll point out here that Overjoyed is one of the best freaking ballads ever written, and I love the fact that MMM Jr. is already a fan.

55. Bryan Adams, Everything I Do, I Do It for You. Oh, Bryan, you shouldn’t have. Seriously.

35. Patrick Swayze, She’s Like the Wind. Who let him do this?

33. Celine Dion, My Heart Will Go On. Puke.

27. Extreme, More Than Words. I like DWS’ distillation of the lyrics. One of the highlights of this band’s train-wreck appearance on Bands Reunited (they declined) was Gary Cherone’s attempt to explain this song as something other than a crass demand for sex.

13. Neil Diamond & Barbra Streisand, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. Can someone explain Streisand’s appeal? I don’t know anyone who likes her singing. I don’t know anyone who likes her politics — she’s the classic case of someone whose backing most people seem to avoid. Was she good in films? I’m genuinely curious.

2. Dan Hill, Sometimes When We Touch. No comment.

AMBIVALENT

104. Bruuuuuuuce, Dancing in the Dark. Not a great song, not a bad song. How is it wussy? If it’s the keyboards, then Glory Days is wussier, as is most of the music released in the ’80s.

84. Dave Matthews Band, Crash. I’m glad DWS brought this up. I actually thought this song was offensive. (“Hike up your skirt a little more and show your world to me”? Ewwww. I’d expect that in the Pamela-and-Tommy sex tape.) Mrs. MMM did not. We mentioned our dispute to another couple we know, and they correctly guessed that the woman of the household loved the song and the man did not. I wonder if Chris Rock put it best. If Denzel Washington (or, in this case, Dave Matthews) is saying it, it’s sweet. If Random Ugly Guy is saying it, get out the mace.

23. John Mayer, Your Body is a Wonderland. Some nice guitar work, but I’m not sure about “bubblegum tongues” or the non-specific “I use my hands.”

4. James Blunt, You’re Beautiful. I seem to recall that Blunt has been dating a succession of impossibly beautiful women, so the whole sad-sack routine doesn’t really work. Neither does his falsetto. Great hook, though.

1. R.E.M., Shiny Happy People. It is a little wussy, but what’s sadder to me is that what many people think “R.E.M.,” they think of this rather than all the great songs from their first six or seven albums.

I’ll agree that “wussy” is badly defined here. For me, a “wussy” song is some lyrical treacle spewed by a singer dragging each syllable out to about 15 notes over an electric piano being played by a heavily sedated accompanist.

One person I’ll pick on — Bonnie Raitt, for I Can’t Make You Love Me. Not only do I not like the lyrics, but I have never been able to make any instruments being played behind her voice. It’s as if someone is planting the chord changes on some subliminal level. And when you have a woman who plays a mean slide guitar like Bonnie, that’s unforgivable.

SNL: Changes in the works

We knew Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch were moving on, and we knew budget cuts meant more changes were coming.

Now the word is starting to leak out, and most sources say four people are gone. Most sources say Chris Parnell and Horatio Sanz are two of those four. It’s hard to argue with either of those. Parnell has been a reliable mainstay for years, but after six or seven years, you either have to become a cornerstone (Kevin Nealon, Phil Hartman) or a good guy to keep around in a transitional period (Tim Meadows). Parnell is neither of those. And neither is Sanz, who has had a few good characters but wears thin the more you see him. According to Wikipedia’s count, both of those guys have been around since September 1998, though Parnell was briefly out of the cast.

The one that I can only hope is incorrect — Kenan Thompson. The first SNL cast member born after the show’s 1975 debut (no, not Jimmy Fallon, who was born in ’74) is the best young talent in the current cast. Yes, better than Andy Samberg, who was great in Lazy Sunday but hasn’t done much else of note. Thompson has been busy in films, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he left on his own. But SNL can keep him, they should.

I’ve only seen Thompson’s name from one source (LATimes, linked above). Same goes for Will Forte, named at mediabistro.com. I’d have mixed feelings on Forte. I’m not sure how many times they can do “The Falconer,” and I’ve never quite bought his Bush impression. Granted, it’s unfair to judge the guy who had to follow Will Ferrell.

The LATimes also says Darrell Hammond’s status is unclear. Hammond holds the longevity record at 11 years unless you count Al Franken’s sporadic appearances. That’s a tough call. It’s hard to picture the cast without him. SNL relies on having someone on hand who can fill a lot of roles, particularly impressions. That was Hartman for years, then Ferrell and then Hammond. If they could develop someone else in that role — Bill Hader is the best bet — then I’d feel better about letting Hammond call it a day.

If they are indeed cutting four in addition to Fey and Dratch, then at least one of those three would be sticking around.

I’m surprised in a way that Maya Rudolph hasn’t been mentioned. She has had a terrific run, but she didn’t really get back in the swing of things after her maternity break, and I wondered if she was ready to move on. If Hammond and Parnell leave, Rudolph will be the elder stateswoman of the cast.

They could use a smaller cast. I’m not sure anyone develops by sitting around in a 15-person cast and spending a week hoping to get into one sketch. But Thompson, and maybe Hammond, would be tough losses.

What could be worse than Mr. Zero knowing?

I’ll always know where I was when I found out Bruno Kirby died. Not because it’s one of those life-changing historical moments like the Challenger explosion (in living room in childhood home), Reagan being shot (being picked up from middle school) or Husker Du breaking up (freshman dorm room), though I did admire his work.

It’s because I happened to be IN the venue for one of his most memorable scenes, and I’d even been thinking of that scene as I drove up earlier that evening, completely unaware of his passing.

“So I’m going to the door, and there are moving men there. Now I start to get suspicious. I say, ‘Helen, when did you call these movers?’ And she doesn’t say anything, so I ask the movers, ‘When did this woman book you for this gig?’ and they’re just standing there, three huge guys, one of them wearing a T-shirt that says, ‘Don’t fuck with Mister Zero.’ So I said, ‘Helen, when did you make this arrangement?’ She says, ‘A week ago.’ I said, ‘You’ve known for a week, and you didn’t tell me?’ And she says, ‘I didn’t want to ruin your birthday.'”

(The wave comes around.)

“You’re saying Mister Zero knew you were getting a divorce a week before you did?”

“Mister Zero knew.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“I haven’t told you the bad part yet.”

“What could be worse than Mister Zero knowing?”

That’s from the published screenplay of When Harry Met Sally. Specifically, the scene in Giants Stadium, when Harry (Billy Crystal) is telling Jess (Bruno Kirby) that his marriage has just ended. And Giants Stadium is where I happened to be Wednesday night when I found out that Bruno Kirby had died.

Of course, I bet I didn’t need to explain it to anyone. You can walk up to an awful lot of people and say “What could be worse than Mister Zero knowing?” and you’ll end up at the last line, after Jess has made the pitch that infidelity is only a symptom of trouble. “Really? Well, that symptom is fucking my wife.”

They don’t make movies like that anymore, and that’s one reason why I think Bruno has gone to a better place. One where they don’t cut about 75 percent of his contributions to This is Spinal Tap.

Guster essentials

Haven’t posted in a while, and it might be a few days before I post again, so I figured I’d knock out an easy one — or at least the one that’s been knocking around in my head.

If I were to explain Guster to someone who had not heard them, which songs would I pick, bearing in mind that I don’t actually have their sporadically distributed debut and have not yet picked up the new one (it’s in the mail)?

Here goes, in chronological order (links are to an unofficial site):

1. Fall in Two. The only song I have — and the only song I know — from Parachute. It’s more blustery than typical Guster these days, with Adam Gardner handling lead vocals and sounding more gruff (no, not the crime dog) than he does later on. It’s a fun song and a good starting point — less sophisticated than their later efforts. I should get Parachute, though, in part because it was produced by Mike Denneen, ace Boston producer and Jennifer Trynin’s husband.

2. Great Escape. I’m limiting myself to two from Goldfly, which means I’ll need to omit the gorgeous Demons. This one is driven by a quirky guitar riff that resolves into a chorus that begs you to sing along. Brian Rosenworcel’s percussion, still very much in the “look, ma, no sticks” phase, sounds like he’s using three or four hands. I’d say it’s overdubbing, but I’ve seen him do it live. (Not this past time, though — I believe the only Goldfly songs were Demon and …)

3. Airport Song. A menacing guitar riff, then Adam’s matter-of-fact delivery welcoming the listener … to a cult. Not conventional territory here. In a sense, Adam and Ryan Miller play bad cop-good cop here, with Ryan delivering all the comforting promises — “I will keep you warm and safe / you’ll be better off this way.” The guitars and bongos pound out 16th notes like they’re auditioning for Motorhead. It’s a classic, one they’re not likely to remove from the set list anytime soon.

Incidentally — between the examination of evil in Demons, the cult saga of Airport Song and several songs that could be taken as calls for spiritual renewal and positive thinking, there arose an interesting rumor about Guster. The response on their site is classic:

Q: Are you guys a Christian band?

A:Rather than answer this one with a simple yes/no, we suggest you check the following sources for clues: 1) Brian’s last name — “Rosenworcel.” 2) Any photo of Ryan where you can see his profile. 3) The Guster Backstage Contract Rider, where we stipify that “the dressing room must be furnished with plenty of borscht, noodle kugels, potato latkes, gefilte fish and homemade rugulah for dessert.”

4. What You Wish For. The first song on Lost and Gone Forever, a contender for best album of the past 10 years. The title is deceiving. This is a relatively happy Guster. Even at their most morose, they don’t wallow in despair — they’re more likely to urge someone to rise above it or adopt a defiant stance in bad circumstances, an attitude that sets them apart from the whiners who came to dominate alternative radio around this time. What You Wish For is a classic song of optimism, not necessarily offering a fairy-tale ending but suggesting than anything’s possible if you just open the curtains and look outside.

5. Barrel of A Gun. The creepy celebrity stalker song, set to a barrage of Brian’s bongos, congas and cymbals (he tapes his hands and hits with abandon) behind some triplet riffs from both guitars. Possibly the peak of what’s possible in the original Guster sound — two guitars, Brian’s battering and friendly harmony from Ryan and Adam.

6. Fa Fa. Not one of the most straightforward Guster lyrics. It seems to be addressed to someone who’s dealing with a recent tragedy, but it’s hard to tell what type or what scope. A breakup caused by some careless words? A blow to the self-esteem? Something worse? Hard to tell. The lyrics by themselves could easily be turned into a festival of pity by some lesser band, but Ryan conveys some sympathy in his vocals. Besides, what pityfests have such cool horn breaks? (Live, they just thrash it out with the guitars. This was another one I don’t think they played this time.)

7. Center of Attention. I’m torn between this and Happier, a pleasant-sounding song that raises the question of whether you’re really better off ditching those friends you think are dragging you down. This one always struck me as a “hit,” and yet they didn’t play it this time. It has one of their most memorable guitar riffs, and it’s a fun singalong. The lyrics apply to almost any toddler and, sadly, a few adults.

8. Careful. The heart and soul of Keep it Together, which came along a few years after L&LF and had a more traditional indie-pop feel with more musical complexity. This one is a gentle reminder to keep an eye out for all the things that can hurt you. The swirling guitars are terrific.

9. Amsterdam. Best breakup song ever, built on a neat harmonics-driven riff (which, I didn’t realize until seeing them live, was played on bass rather than guitar). It’s not really mean, just matter-of-fact. It’s perhaps the most conventional “rock” song they’ve ever played, but it’s still uniquely Guster. (Incidentally, the lyrics in that link are a little off. I’m guessing much of Guster’s audience is too young to have heard of The Shaggs.)

10. Come Downstairs and Say Hello. This may be controversial. I’m leaving off Keep it Together‘s excellent titletrack, a simple and eloquent plea for a post-9/11 world. I’m omitting Backyard, which uses overgrown grass and weeds as a metaphor for losing interest. (And I try to avoid singing it every time I pull weeds.) But this one is too good, a song that shifts tempo, mood and instrumentation to portray a pothead who’s trying to snap out of it and get back to normal life. The opening lines alone beautifully paint the image: “Dorothy moves to click her ruby shoes / right in tune with Dark Side of the Moon.” (I’ve always wanted to try that, but who has the time? And I really don’t like the film.

So that’s it — 10 songs to introduce you to Guster if you’re over 25 and haven’t heard of them. Then you’ll be ready for the new one.

Concert review

Yes, I said “concert.” As in getting out of the house and going to a venue to see a live band — or three! — perform in person.

It actually doesn’t take arm-twisting to get me to see Guster, even if there’s a soccer game I wanted to see scheduled on the same night. This is my third time seeing them, and they simply do not disappoint. They’re my favorite post-college band — it’s unfair comparing bands of the past 15 years with the bands that got me through high school and college, when I had time to memorize Yes’ complicated history and things like that.

They’re getting more and more comfortable as an established act now, with five terrific albums to draw from. (OK, I’m assuming the fifth is terrific. I haven’t bought it yet, though the new songs they played tonight sounded fine to me.) Ryan Miller is a charismatic frontman — funny with just the right dose of snark (that is, minimal). Brian Rosenworcel has added a traditional drum kit to much of Guster’s recent output, but he still spends half of the set in a whirlwind behind an array of hand drums. The ever-smiling Adam Gardner has a voice that blends perfectly with Miller’s and stands out on its own, and they’ve expanded from three to four with the versatile Joe Pisapia.

They remind me a little bit of Barenaked Ladies, the headliner when I first saw them play. They have a sense of humor, clearly evident in their songs and on their site (they may be the masters of Internet-era band-building), and yet they come across as sincere on a variety of serious topics not necessarily derived from romantic relationships. Pisapia is now Guster’s answer to BNL’s Kevin Hearn — the “new guy” who can really play both guitar and keyboards. They don’t break into improv comedy like BNL’s Ed and Steve, but they’re funny and easygoing.

I usually have good luck with opening acts — Guster with BNL, Primus with Rush, Blue Oyster Cult with Rush, Cheap Trick completely blowing away Robert Plant, 10,000 Maniacs with R.E.M. Guster had two openers this time, and it was an up-and-down experience.

First up was a young band called Rogue Wave, which was basically straightforward indie rock with an ambient edge. (Yes, I know that’s an oxymoron, but bear with me.) The drummer is a little enamored of his floor tom, which got a little repetitive, but the overall sound was great. They’re ambitious, with all four guys breaking into interlocking vocals amid some occasionally intricate riffs. I couldn’t quite make out the lyrics in the mix, so I can’t give a complete review of the songs, but they at least rate as “promising,” possibly better.

Next up: Ray LaMontagne. With the name, I was expecting a New Orleans piano player. Wow, was I wrong. He’s a folk singer who appeared to be heavily medicated. Interesting voice, and the few lyrics I could make out sounded intriguing. But musically, this wasn’t much. He had a good guitar player who spent most of the set at a pedal steel, but that wasn’t enough.

He apparently has a fan base in this area. Several songs drew an ovation from the first few notes, prompting me to ask Mrs. MMM how anyone can tell these songs apart. They’re mostly medium-tempo waltz-time country-blues occasional-unexpected-chord compound-modifier-requiring-many-hyphens-but-still-dull songs.

The good guitarist was the only band member who looked comfortable. The female bass player kept scrunching her face as if she had just bitten into a lemon. The drummer — well, first of all, he looked like Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees. Not the young, skinny Mickey Dolenz — the post-1980s reunion Mickey Dolenz. He jutted out his arms at odd angles and occasionally paused to fiddle with bits of the drum set that seemed faulty. Not surprising, considering the whole thing looked like it was about to fall apart — an old wooden tambourine mounted to a giant bass drum that looked like it was reclaimed from a 1940s marching band. It was as if he were saying, “Dang it, how can this set be falling apart? I spent 10 dollars on it!”

It was a great triple bill for drummers — Rogue Wave’s tom-tom heavy sound, LaMontagne’s low-tech approach and Rosenworcel’s conga assault. (Now THAT’S a band name.) Three unique styles, and yet the first two used tympani mallets. Different thicknesses, though. (I know, no one but DWS will care about that.)

So if you’re going to see this triple bill, get there in time for Rogue Wave, then grab some food, then return for Guster.

MTV at 25: Generational mood swing

As MTV gradually spread among cable systems in the early ’80s, it was a wonderland for kids of my generation. The variety far surpassed anything available on radio at the time — you could see Eurhythmics, Dio, Rod Stewart and Rush in the same hour. The VJs were easygoing and likable, and they made you feel like part of the community. The videos, often shot on a budget that might not buy you the gold on display in three frames of a typical video today, were quirky and fun. Late-night weekend fare included concerts, 120 Minutes and eventually The Young Ones.

As MTV celebrates its 25th — or doesn’t, since such nostalgia might remind viewers that the network is older than they are — the channel has changed. The old joke is that they no longer play music, as told in a song that shouldn’t be popular by MTV’s logic, Bowling for Soup’s 1985.

Beneath the surface is a change that I find sadder. Gone are the comfortable days of Martha Quinn casually chatting with a musician in a cozy studio that looked like a fun hangout. Today, it’s mostly reality TV, which is pretty much the opposite of a friendly face talking about music. (No, I don’t watch it much, but I can read a TV schedule.)

I can’t blame MTV for wanting to stay young, I suppose, though I never minded seeing J.J. Jackson on the air even though he easily had 30-40 years on me. But does young necessarily mean snarky and self-absorbed?