Disc 1 track 2

And then, after two minutes of quiet rumination with a banjo, the entire band takes the stage and the amps are turned on. The expectation that this was going to be a quiet, folky album gets tossed on its ass. These guys are here to rock.

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Disc 1 Track 1

The Bottle Rockets’ eponymous first album kicks off modestly, almost seeming like a direct continuation of Brian Henneman’s work on Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992. Henneman had served as an all-purpose utility string player on that album (which was engineered and mixed by John Keane); he opens up this album (engineered and produced by John Keane) with a quiet song consisting of nothing more than a Tupeloid banjo part and a solo vocal. It’s a one-man piece fronting a full-band album.

The tenor of the album will change shortly, but this quiet moment is enjoyable on its own merits and a nice marriage of form and content in a song, musing about how much it sucks to get up early. An ongoing question with Henneman’s first-person songs will be which ones are being voiced by a character and which are direct statements of his own feelings; to me, this one feels straight from the heart (this might be because I *also* hate getting up early, and am looking for kindred spirits). The sensory details are immediate, for one thing. For another, the lines about knowing dark and night and neon lights certainly sound like the lived experience of a touring musician. Anyway, why bother inventing a character just to gripe about.

Several ongoing Bottle Rockets themes present themselves already here at the beginning: coffee, rural signifiers (there’s a rooster crowing before the first line is even over). Henneman’s Missouri accent, which will eventually step directly onstage for discussion in “Idiot’s Revenge,” adds to the country atmosphere; he leans into this with his idiosyncratic rendering of “early” as “err-lie.”

Over the course of We’ve Been Had, Chad and I have marveled consistently at how well Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar sequenced songs on Uncle Tupelo’s albums. Their high-water mark for this came with 1993’s Anodyne, which starts out sounding like a quiet country follow-up to March 16-20, 1992 before morphing into a squalling guitar attack. The similar trick pulled with the first few songs of The Bottle Rockets (also recorded in 1993, and featuring cameos by both Tweedy and Farrar) leads one to think that Henneman was paying a lot of attention to what worked while he was serving as Tupelo’s guitar tech. 

Project Announcement, Scope, General Throat-Clearing

Disc 0 Track 0

WHO ARE THE BOTTLE ROCKETS, AND WHY DO WE CARE?

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but my friend Chad and I do a podcast. Specifically, a podcast that examines the band Uncle Tupelo by taking a close-ish somewhat-researched look at each of their songs. It’s a hoot (you should listen), and it’s led me to reconnect with a band that was once very important to me but I had drifted away from.

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DRINKIN’ CHAMPAGNE | DEAN MARTIN | THE ESSENTIAL DEAN MARTIN

In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.

A few years ago, I read DINO, Nick Tosches’ book about Dean Martin, and honestly, it affected me more than just about any other music book I’ve read (and I read a lot of music books). In Tosches’ portrayal, Dean Martin came across as the most terrifyingly empty nihilist I’ve ever come across. No ambition to speak of, no thoughts, really, just appetites to be filled and a happenstance career that allowed it all to happen. Any narrative where you come out thinking that Frank Sinatra looks like a principled stand-up guy by comparison is a dire one.

But in that stretch, I did listen to a bunch of Dean Martin, and I can’t say that I don’t like some of it. I don’t think he was a guy who put any effort into his art, but sometimes Martin’s natural abilities couldn’t help but make great things.

“Drinkin’ Champagne” is not one of those cases. This song is a dog. The production manages to be both antiseptic and saccharine, with perfectly-balanced awful, bloodless instruments making a bead for terrible strings and the lamest possible background singers to lay in. Maybe I’m not being fair, maybe I’m allowing my own musical baggage to carry too much weight, but the sound of the instrumentation here is just a series of signifiers pointing to a file in my head labelled “THE TYPE OF MUSIC I HATE.” And central to it all is Dino’s voice, which just isn’t good here. He slurs and stumbles and sounds like he doesn’t give a shit. Nihilism aside, he made some great songs before he decided to just coast and crank some shit out here and there. This song is pretty clearly afterwards.

INVITATION | NELS CLINE | LOVERS
In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9nUbBeNE_Y
I popped this album into my Spotify collection at the urging of my most guitarphiliac friend; I’ve said at great lengths that Wilco stopped being a band that had any interest for me when their dominant sound started being Nels Cline‘s flawless but bloodless guitar noodling. “I get that,” my friend said, “but try Cline’s solo albums! They’re great guitar jazz!”
So I tried, and, I dunno, man. I like jazz, but in terms of actual appreciation, with Jazz I’m about where I was with rock when I was in the 10th grade. I like some things, I don’t like some other things, and I don’t really have the systematic understanding or vocabulary to really lay out exactly why. On one level, that’s a good place to be with a type of music–it means you’re reactng with your heart more than your head, and sometimes I feel like my head-reactions have taken some of the fun out of rock for me–but on the other hand, it makes it tough to articulate why you don’t like something.
All I can say is this: Cline’s “Invitation” here, all meandering and slow and light, sounds like incidental music from a period-piece movie. It’s not awful, but as Mari Kondo would say, it sparks no joy. Nels Cline is a much better guitarist than I’ll ever be, but I think I prefer people with less skill and more propensity to get into a life-or-death fight with their instrument.
POWDERFINGER (Live) | NEIL YOUNG | LIVE RUST

In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.

Oh boy. Lots here.

1. MUSICAL

I love Neil Young, and this is one of my favorite of his songs. The way his voice floats over the dustcloud of distorted guitar. The way that dustcloud periodically resolves from big rusty sheets of noise into clear, discrete lines and then dissolves again. The way the live version swings (in a leaden, Neil Young-y sort of way) much better than the studio version. The way the lyrics tell a story that’s kind of ridiculous (when I played this song a lot on my undergrad radio show, my friend and cohost Megan once just said flatly, “you know, this isn’t really a song that speaks to my experience or lifestyle.”) but still makes it sound urgent and compelling. Those lines “red means run, son / numbers add up to nothing.” If you’re buying what Neil Young’s selling, this is the primo shit.

2. AUTOBIO (a)

I spent my 20s playing bass in a country-punk band, and I insisted that we learn Powderfinger and play it as often as possible. I’m not sure, but there’s a good chance this was our most-played cover. This is one of the handfuls of songs from those days that, if needed, I could grab a bass and go onstage and play now with zero fear about not remembering the chords (the song also was front and center for me as I switched from bass to guitar, and was one of the songs I learned guitar on; so I could probably step up and cover the guitar part, although I might want to run through some of the lead sections backstage). I insisted on singing it, too, which was kind of a bold choice given that my vocal range has no overlap with Young’s and my attempt to get there made me sound like Wayne Coyne huffing helium while being fed through a meat grinder.

3. AUTOBIO (b)

But this was also one of my father’s favorite songs; that’s how I learned about it. We’d gotten a tape deck for one of our cars, and my mother got my father a copy of Live Rust on tape, and we were driving around listening to it, and when “Powderfinger” came up, my mother turned around and said, “this is your dad’s favorite song.” She later told me that he particularly related to the line, “just think of me as one you’d never figure.” My father’s life was a slow-build exercise in deferred choices leading to frustration, leading to rage, leading to the white-hot destruction of most of his personal relationships, including the one with me; our last communication was an email from him offering to pay for me to change my last name to anything but “Pille.” For the sake of my own mental health, I try not to think about him much. But if I do, I generally think of him as one you’d never figure.

When that thinking does happen, it’s usually when I’m playing that song on guitar. And if I’m playing it, it’s usually on the telecaster that my parents got me when I finished undergrad, the guitar I used to write my chunk of the songs for that country-punk band. I recently thought about getting rid of that Telecaster and trading it in for a better guitar that better suited the way I play now. But I couldn’t pull the trigger on doing that, since this guitar’s my last physical link to my parents.. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on it, but the numbers added up to nothing.

GUESS WHO | THE ALABAMA SHAKES | SOUND & COLOR

The thing that jumps out at me about this song is the weirdness of its production. Not in a bad way! But it’s unusual! This doesn’t start out sounding like a song that’s going to chirp along over a drum machine all the way through, but that’s absolutely what it does, clicking and chirping its merry way along.

It’s full of other weird production decisions- some strings pop in! The vocals pop in and out of distortion! The entire thing seems kind of jammed into a pretty narrow sonic range. I don’t mean this in any way as an attack on the song, but the strong feeling I get is a bunch of people just idly farting around with a groove in a studio and seeing what happens as they fuss with it; and then, liking what they’d come up with, laying down a vocal over it that evokes Marvin Gaye. No clue if that’s actually how this song came to be; maybe it was actually written and carefully fussed over. But it sounds effortless and light, and that’s pleasant.

Probably because of the drum machine and the farting-around feel, this song also weirdly reminds me of the Replacements’ “Within Your Reach,” which was just Paul Westerberg and a drum machine. In that case, that song is the way it is because he was worried the other Replacements would make fun of the “sensitive” song. I don’t know too much about the internal dynamics of the Alabama Shakes, but I really doubt that’s what’s going on here.

THE GENERAL LEE | JOHNNY CASH | THE DUKES OF HAZZARD

In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.

When I decided to start this project, I don’t think I could have hoped for an easier layup to start things off.

I’ve loved this song since the late 90s, since my peak of Johnny Cash superfandom. This song is the kind of ridiculous shit that only Johnny Cash could make cool- from a cash-in album put together to capitalize on the success of The Dukes of Hazzard, this song is written from the point of view of a muscle car, describing its thirst for fun and adventure in tones that make it sound like a kid’s loyal dog. The arrangement’s nuts in a very early-80s way, with way too many backup singers oohing and ahhing and a piano part that sounds like it came out of an old-west saloon.

But turning kitsch into gold was always a Cash long suit, and he does it here (it helps that the tick-tocky guitar parts on this thing chug along righteously; and note that, despite the video above, I’m pretty sure that’s not Waylon Jennings playing guitar). Goddamned if this thing doesn’t sound like an anthem of some kind. It’s the magic of Johnny Cash’s voice that he can make lines like “I’m the best pal the Duke Boys ever had / I’m thunder on the highway lookin’ bad, bad, bad” sound, well, if not cool at least vaguely serious and fun.

There’s a vague reference to the flag waving proudly, and that’s a little squicky given that the roof of the car has a Confederate battle flag, but I think this is the kind of thing you have to just shrug and consign to being from the past. Having read a bunch about Johnny Cash, I actually think there’s a decent chance he’d be on the right side of the Confederate monuments debate. That’s unknowable, of course, but that’s my read. Anyway, this is a really fun song that revels in its own dumbness, despite that weird little extra contextual thing. The ending is more of the same: cheesy bad car engine sound effects, and a problematic-but-atavistically-fun sounding of the General Lee’s “Dixie” horn.

Wherein I rail against a specific podcast in order to make some bigger points about music, criticism, gatekeeping, and cultural bullying.
  1. A TALE OF TWO PODCASTS

I am an enthusiastic person. I get excited about cultural objects (books, musicians, painters, movies, you name it) and then go on recommendation sprees. If you are even casually acquainted with me, I have probably breathlessly tried to convince you to watch or read something at some point (if I breathlessly recommended Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest to you, I am sorry; it started out a lot better than it ended).

In late 2017, I went on a recommendation spree for Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast about the history of country music, Cocaine and Rhinestones. It had sprung up out of nowhere as this fully-formed, beautiful thing. At the moment I became aware of the show, the most current episode was a close read of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” wherein Coe went deep on both the lyrical content and Haggard’s wider biography and public statements to determine just how literally the song was intended to be taken (a subject near and dear to me, since the a fight over the sincerity level of Hag’s culture-war songs once nearly broke up a band I was in). I love (older) country music and well-researched cultural history; the whole thing could have been cooked up in a lab by scientists working from extensive notes on how to craft the most enticing possible podcast for me.

There are several specific things about Coe’s approach to Cocaine and Rhinestones that I admire and enjoy. One of them is his methodology; every episode features direct engagement with primary sources (the music itself, public statements by the artists and their families, police records, and so on), along with an admirably up-front assessment of the reliability of given sources (not all of Charlie Louvin’s stories hang together).

More than that, though, the show is built around a fantastic generosity of spirit. When the country music industry has been shitty to people on gender or ethnic lines, Coe calls the industry out. When a received story about a person has unfairly gained currency, Coe pushes back- for instance, his careful arguments against the idea that Buck Owens habitually screwed people over in business dealings, or that Wynnona Judd was a talentless puppet of producers. The podcast succeeds because, over and over, Coe meets artists where they are, taking their work in the spirit it was offered up. One of the defining features of country music is gatekeeping over the issue of authenticity, which Coe dynamites as a bullshit excuse to marginalize artists for no real reason. The very agreeable impression one gets from the show is of a very knowledgeable, passionate guy who loves music with an open mind and wants to tell you about it; when Coe announced a Patreon program to support the show because he wanted to make it his life’s work, it was a pretty easy sell. What music lover wouldn’t want to support this work?

I want to make this plain: in light of everything I’m about to say, I remain an all-in fan of Cocaine and Rhinestones. But it turns out that Coe has another podcast. The other one is a joint project with a guy named Mark Mosley; the show is called Your Favorite Band Sucks. The format is pretty much what you’d expect: each episode, the two of them pick a band and rail for 45 minutes or so about how and why the band sucks. Episode one was the Beatles. Episode two was the Rolling Stones. At this writing, they’ve just dropped one attacking the Beastie Boys. Previous targets have included U2, the Police, Sublime, Nirvana, Steely Dan, and Radiohead.

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Hank Fuckin’ Williams

It’s hard to admit, but I don’t really have a lot of good memories of my mother, or much of a sense that I got any great legacy from her (except for being alive, which I guess, yeah, that does count for something). Mostly, I remember her needing stuff from me – a lot of going to the kitchen to fetch her drinks or cigarettes when I was younger; writing her resume, engaging in one of her ritual “debates” about the Kennedy assassination, or lending her money as I got older. And emotional validation all the way through.

On the cultural front, not much. She introduced me to Herman Wouk’s books about World War II, and that’s something that’s paid off in a bunch of ways throughout my life. So that’s a definite plus. Otherwise, almost nothing.

Except: my mother loved country music. Not the country music that was current when I was a kid – this was the 80s and early 90s, so I guess the current stuff at that point would have been Randy Travis and Garth Brooks – but the country music of her parents’ generation. We had this enormous 70s-vintage console stereo (turntable, radio tuner, and yes, an 8-track) and when my father wasn’t around she’d often put a Hank Williams or Johnny Horton record on and crank the fuck out of it. And the giant console stereo had giant console speakers, so when it cranked, it really kicked out the jams. And, like punk, classic country is music that really, really benefits from volume. Hank Williams and Johnny Horton (along with Roger Miller and sometimes Johnny Cash, and I’m sure a bunch of others) do this thing where they’re singing out at the very edge of what their voice can handle, and you can hear their vocal chords distort just like an overdriven guitar amp and it’s fucking glorious at extreme volume. And Hank’s wonderfully spare arrangements sound great when they can fill up a room with sound.

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