Covers Corner: “Sometimes Always” by Brakes

I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t written about this song, and particularly this cover, before. It’s really what started my obsession with the Mary Chain. I heard “Worry About It Later” by Brakes on an MTV show, then had Touchdown, its album, on repeat for months afterwards. From there, I dove into Brakes’ back catalogue. Give Blood isn’t my favorite of theirs, but “Sometimes Always” was the standout. I thought that it was an original until I did more research. And, well, the rest is history: I’m pretty much always listening to at least one Mary Chain song, I’ve been to three of their concerts, I know most of their releases, I’ve listened to interviews, etc., etc. As a friend of mine says, it’s on brand for me that my favorite band is an obscure indie rock outfit from the ’80s.

What’s interesting about the Brakes version is that it’s gender-flipped. The Pipettes provide Hope Sandoval’s vocals, but Eamon Hamilton is the main narrator. Instead of “you sure are lucky son/lucky son of a gun,” we get: “you sure are lucky girl/luckiest in the world.” That line spoke to me somehow when I was listening to this song over and over in my early college years. Although Brakes largely follows the acoustic sound of Stoned and Dethroned in their cover, they offer a punk-tinged edge on the bridge. There, the guitar is just a little bit louder and sharper. (All of Give Blood, really, is punk: see the short, blistering “Cheney” for an example. Eamon’s sneering accent is the perfect finishing touch.)

With these two songs, I can’t really pick a favorite. The cover is special to me for what it started; the original is special to me just because I love the Mary Chain. Below, as usual, are both.

Covers Corner: “Sledgehammer” by Harry Styles

I read a great article in Pitchfork about So by Peter Gabriel; they’ve been revisiting “significant albums of the past” recently. I’ve been listening “In Your Eyes” on repeat for the past several days, so the timing was perfect. Speaking of perfect timing: I’ve been itching to do another Covers Corner, and I’ve had this one on the list for a while.

The reason I wanted to, er, cover this cover is because I like “Sledgehammer” and I think that Harry Styles is a unique choice to do it. He’s been leaning into the artsy, gender bending side of music of late. “Sledgehammer” isn’t really that: it’s bluntly sexual and masculine. But Harry takes it on well. His voice actually sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel’s, which is impressive. Besides, the benefit of a cover is that oftentimes you can hear the lyrics more clearly. This is definitely the case here. Harry enunciates the lyrics without sounding forced or robotic. It helps me get more out of the song. Another aspect of Harry’s cover that I really like is that the backup singers stand out a lot more. They carry the chorus and call-and-response in a way that’s drowned out in the original.

What Harry maintains from the original is a sense of joy and even play. (I mean, as I mentioned in a previous Monthly Obsessions post, the metaphors in the lyrics can get a little ridiculous.) His voice is light and smooth; it’s like he’s singing with a straight face despite lines like “I will be your honey bee.” There’s seduction there. He manages to make the song subtle. It doesn’t hurt that the cover lacks the heavier drums that Peter Gabriel’s version has.

In terms of “which is better,” I’m leaning towards the original, actually: maybe that’s because it’s the one I heard first, or because I, too, enjoy silly come-ons made extra obvious. But as usual, I’m leaving both below; let me know which one you like! (I am, as usual, loathe to include YouTube links, but the Harry Styles version isn’t available on Spotify.)

Monthly Obsessions – July 2022

Welcome to another retrospective! “Good Intentions” was on repeat for me a lot early in the pandemic. Listening to it now feels like a weird sort of reclaiming. It’s like I’m taping over the old memories. Same for “Worried About You” – I can’t remember when I last had this on repeat; it might’ve been early in the pandemic as well. Either way, the new listening has taken on a different context. I really like how it starts out so softly: we see a different part of Mick’s range, especially on the “go up in smoke” line. The “kuh” stands out.

“On the Wall” is probably pretty obvious. When am I not listening to the Mary Chain? I discussed this song in one of my Covers Corner posts. I haven’t listened to the cover version in a while. I’m just really diving into the original. The synthesizers are a hallmark of the Darklands and Automatic era.

A recurring theme this month was isolated drum tracks. Unfortunately, none of them are on Spotify that I can find, so you’ll have to settle for one of the originals that I was listening to. “Fool in the Rain” is a favorite of mine in the Led Zeppelin catalogue. The line “Well there’s a light in your eye that keeps shining/Like a star that can’t wait for the night” is so lovely to me and gets stuck in my head a lot.

History Lesson: Surf Rock

One of the hallmarks of summer for me is listening to surf rock. I wasn’t exposed much to the genre as a child, unless you count the Beach Boys. Full disclosure: although they are often classified that way, I don’t entirely think of the Beach Boys as surf rock because their sound tends to be softer and veer into the pop realm.

I want to dive into (heh) surf rock today with an abbreviated history lesson. It’s straight out of the culture of Southern California. That’s why you’ll often hear lyrics about surfing and sunny days, beach babes and boardwalks. Surf rock is also very heavy on the reverb. Think “Miserlou” by Dick Dale or “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris. That’s why, even though surf rock does still linger today, the genre feels very vintage to me. Reverb guitar was huge in the ’60s, which was when surf rock hit its peak.

Surf rock’s musical descendants include another California creation known as pop-punk. Like surf rock, pop-punk is enmeshed in a culture. This time, its origins overlap with California’s skateboarding scene. (More details about pop-punk and the wild vocals that live there can be found here.)

Grab your sunglasses and listen to some of my favorite surf rock songs below:

Throwback Thursday: “Bulletproof” by La Roux

Like many of the songs in my Throwback Thursday series, I think of this one as suspended in amber. I haven’t listened to it in years, and unlike other mid-’00s hits, it doesn’t seem to appear on nostalgia playlists.

Speaking of nostalgia playlists, the last time I remember hearing it is at an ’80s throwback party in a bar in 2015. Talk about suspended in amber. But it’s telling, too, because even though this song is obviously not from the ’80s, its beat echoes The Human League or Eurythmics with its tight, controlled electronics. This sound would later blur out into the static of bands like The Midnight and ~aesthetic YouTube channels.

Because I hadn’t listened to this song in so long, I actually had to look up the lyrics. “Bulletproof” is a neat kiss-off without complicated metaphors. I like the line “Do your dirty words/Come out to play when you are hurt?” It’s simple and direct: “All you do is fill me up with doubt.”

Sometimes simple is really all you need: no frills or fancy production tricks, just androgyny and self-confidence.

Monthly Obsessions – June 2022

This month was a blend of throwbacks and dance songs, looking forward and looking back. With “Rosanna” and “Inside Your Skin,” I visited the ’80s. I was looking up “obscure ’80s songs” for another project I’m working on, and that song by The Outfield came up. They’re best known for “Your Love,” of course, but I really like “Inside Your Skin.” It has a lovely echo and the lyrics are romantic and yearning. “Rosanna” is definitely not an obscure ’80s song; I just love the drums.

“Cold Heart” came out of the early days of the pandemic, but I didn’t discover it until recently. I think the samples of “Rocket Man” are so clever. “Always” is another dance song. It has the distorted pulse that appears in lots of songs from channels like MrSuicideSheep and Chill Nation.

I read about Arcade Fire’s new album WE in a magazine and, being the ’00s girl that I am, I had to check it out. “Age of Anxiety I” is the standout there for me. It captures the ennui that Arcade Fire has perfected.

Speaking of ennui, I closed out the month by listening to “The Freshmen” on repeat. I had that song on repeat when I was a freshmen, so it was interesting to revisit it. Now that enough time has passed, I really don’t feel the same angst that I was overwhelmed with when I first listened to it so often. I can appreciate the song for what it is, and it actually is a really good song. The blend of drums and rough guitar are an echo of Nirvana.

“Didn’t We Almost Have It All” Book Review

I! Love! Reading! About! Music! History! It’s just who I am as a person. And I especially love reading about music history when it’s done with as much warmth and sensitivity as Gerrick Kennedy’s biography of Whitney Houston, Didn’t We Almost Have it All. As soon as he started talking about his relationship to music (not just Houston’s), I knew I’d enjoy the book. I feel the exact same way: music can bring joy and an escape. And the book is extremely approachable, too; it’s written in a casual tone. (Sometimes too casual – there were moments when the repeated use of “shit” was jarring.)

I was particularly compelled to pick up Whitney’s story because it’s actually not one I know a lot about. I’m from the era just after her star, so brilliant, bright, and game-changing, had begun to fade. I do, of course, know her big songs – don’t we all? As Kennedy points out, it’s wild that just four songs made her a global superstar.

Kennedy writes, “Because Whitney was engineered for pop audiences there was this expectation that she needed to be all things to all people…” (p. 103) Trite as it may seem, it was this pressure that drove her to self-destruction. In Didn’t We Almost Have it All, Whitney emerges as both a cautionary tale and a tragic figure rather than the media punchline she became.

The reviews of Whitney’s early albums were fascinating to read (p. 91). They were called “disappointing” and over-produced. It reminded me of how Led Zeppelin was panned by Rolling Stone back in the day, and now they’re falling over themselves to label Jimmy Page the greatest guitarist of all time.

My rating? 4/5 stars. The book got repetitive after a while, and there were several sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, that were confusingly worded. That said, Kennedy deals with Whitney’s demons using the grace and delicacy that they deserve, and definitely didn’t get throughout her career. And the ending of the book made me tear up. In the moment, the media is so confident to cast public figures aside, only to “learn its lesson” years, or even several decades, after the fact. It’s a vicious cycle.

Monthly Obsessions – May 2022

This month features two of my all-time favorite songs: “Rolling Waves” by The Naked and Famous and “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash. The latter is definitely a summer song, so I tend to break it out around this time of year, but it also just gets me. Something about lookin’ for that woman girl and the line, “she is all that I have left, and music is her name.” For “Rolling Waves,” I can’t really explain what I love about it; maybe the lyrics, maybe the heart-pounding way the beat ultimately crests.

We’ve also got some dance music on the playlist. This speaks to my former life as a dancer, but also, in all honesty, it’s just great background music for while I’m working. (Sometimes that’s all you need in a monthly obsession; music serves a lot of different purposes.)

Meanwhile, “Red Red Wine” was a new discovery. Who knew that it’s actually a cover, and that the original was by Neil Diamond? Not me, that’s for sure. I may talk about it more in depth for a Covers Corner feature, but what I’ll say here is that Swamp Gold, Vol. 2 has delivered another gem.

Throwback Thursday: “1901” by Phoenix

This one’s been on my to-blog list for a while. It’s one of those songs that randomly runs through my head as I think about that particular time in my life. I think “1901” is another good example of hipster music; vocally, they’re very similar to Vampire Weekend, and have that crunchy, blistering sound that you’d also hear in, say, Passion Pit or Foster the People.

What I like about “1901” is the fizzy drop of it. Like Alka-Seltzer in water, the song opens with suspended guitar before descending into something stronger that’s bolstered by electronica. Very reminiscent of “Little Secrets.”

Usually with these posts, I talk about the lyrics, too, but honestly, I don’t think the lyrics are really the point of the song here. In hipster-ville, lyrics tend to be secondary. They’re either obscured by double or even triple meanings and intellectuallism, layered with references to the past or drama about the future. Often, too, they’re also just plain obscured by what’s going on technically, and that’s definitely the case with “1901.”

Another thing I like about “1901” is how danceable it is. In another life, I was a dancer, so I’m drawn to songs that urge you to move, especially if they’re unique like this one. In that way, “1901” reminds me of another indie song that has a great drop, “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem.

Now, if you need me, I’ll be lacing up my Converse and finding my American Apparel hoodie…

“Are We Not New Wave” Book Review

A fellow music blogger friend of mine recommended this book to me and I finally got around to reading it. When I checked the book out from the library, my roommate laughed at how “on brand” it is for me. What can I say, I love music history, and new wave is, admittedly, a genre/era that I don’t know much about.

I have to say, Are We Not New Wave is not immediately accessible. It’s written primarily for an academic audience, rather than the average reader. Yet it’s compelling: the book situates new wave in the context of both punk and disco, the era and genres that preceded it. New wave maintains punk’s disaffected sensibilities (see: The Cars), throws in some disco danceability (see: the B-52’s), and comes up with something new. The genre can also be seen as somewhat highbrow; Elvis Costello’s glasses and clever lyrics lends it some gravitas.

The book also encouraged me to reflect on my own relationship with new wave. Of the bands it discusses, the one that I’m most familiar with in terms of oeuvre is The Cars. I love their debut album, of course; it’s almost entirely composed of their greatest hits. Heartbeat City has the bouncy “You Might Think,” and Candy-O has “Let’s Go.” (As a music fan, I think there’s really nothing wrong with liking just one or two songs off an album, even [especially?] if they’re what was most heavily promoted or released as a single.) The Cars have a lot in common visually with punk; they have a similar wardrobe to the Ramones: sunglasses, leather jackets, limited color palette.

That was another aspect of new wave that I hadn’t thought of before reading this book: music can be defined as much by appearance as it is by sound. Aside from The Cars, the aesthetics of new wave were very plastic-y and forward-thinking; for example, the book begins with The Buggles’ seminal “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The song is an early glimpse of new wave, with its synths and high-pitched, slightly flat vocals, and futuristic vibe. It’s also a literal description of what was to come: the song was the first that MTV ever played, and new wave would dominate the channel for much of that decade.

I’d give Are We Not New Wave 3.5/5 stars. I enjoyed it, but there were times when it was a bit too dense, even for someone as obsessed with music history and trivia as I am.