Big Weekend Beats: Tom Waits is “Big in Japan”

Big things poppin’ over the weekend, y’all, but for now here is a song, “Big in Japan,” from one of my favorite Tom Waits albums, Mule Variations (1999). Just an awesome basket of songs. I’ve become a bigger fan of Waits’s albums from the 1980s, but this one introduced me to his music in high school. Thanks, 120 Minutes.

Perhaps the title nods to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or Glenn Gould’s version of those. Probably, right?  Dunno. I’m not going to Google it. I’m going to pretend that these are still the pristine pre-Internet years, the years when print ruled, and just send you over to YouTube:

I love me a text with rhetorical patterns, even obsessive ones. Have a good weekend.

Weekend Beats: Five Years from Now

As various histories of hip-hop are written over the next few decades, Mike Jones (whose Wikipedia page is worth preserving mainly because it is so badly written) may not go down as a gimmick, but he will be a minor figure. The Houston MC’s goofy, monotonous flow is forgettable, and his fondness for rapping about pre-wealth difficulties with women and blurting his actual phone number into tracks doesn’t make him seem very cool either. The best work he ever did was carried along by Slim Thug’s grumbling presence and got even better when Diplo (whose work was surfacing nationally in 2004/2005) took hold of it for a remix to which, unfortunately, I can’t legally construct a link.

But like Mike Jones would say, MIKE JONES! MIKE JONES! Dude left me with several songs I keep on the iPod for exercise, including this 2005 single, “5 Years From Now,” which features a vanished background singer named Lil’ Bran. Affable and earnest, Jones’s flow on the track tip-toes a simple beat with tidy couplets; my favorite part starts around 2:50, when the keyboards disappear, the beat seems to hitch, and MJ contemplates fatherhood, prison, mortality, and fame.

I don’t mean “favorite” ironically. Even if Jones is a mid-2000s half-paragraph, this track is fun, kind-hearted, and urgent, which aren’t the worst qualities in the world.

Sliding into the Weekend

It is almost official spring up here in the Northern Hemisphere, and in southern California we are getting some hearty, sustained, weekend rain, the long kind that makes green things go crazy and washes hard down in the north-LA foothills, but buys California some time time, even if in the long run it doesn’t ease our terrifying drought.

Los Angeles is a city built to nestle under some vicious mountains. When it rains, the rain pours down a serious incline into a metropolis, often in the form of otherwordly mudslides. The Control of Nature, master-journalist John McPhee’s book (1989), has a fantastic chapter (“Los Angeles Against the Mountains”) about this. In ecological, geological, and architectural terms, the LA region is fascinatingly complex; pace a dumb but persistent narrative, “SoCal” is not pH-balanced sunshine. Lucky for us a gifted writer got hold of the truth. Maybe you can buy this book. Maybe you can find it some other way that I don’t know about. Who knows, in this modern digital world? I think it’s McPhee’s best. Plus the cover is great.

But we know you guys back East and in the Midwest and in the South are mostly fucking freezing, so the Reader is going to find something hot. Hang on. Have as much tea as you want.

[leaves room]

[some times passes; let’s say 10 minutes]

OH SHIT HEY. We found it.

Let your tape rock till your tape pop, y’all.

Hot Links to Hot Weekend Beats

This weekend’s jam was huge when I was in high school and college, so you best believe I spent lots of time trying to dance/dance up on girls while it played. (“Eww, you like rap?”) I speak of Ginuwine’s “Pony,” from his 1996 debut Ginuwine…the Bachelor. It’s big, stupid, corny American pop; by the time I got to college, it was a grotesquely overplayed single that almost everyone without a heart of stone still loved to hear, kind of like “Satisfaction” or “Beat It.” But the video! I saw this a few times back in the day, but I didn’t remember much until it came across my digital radar yesterday. The video! I like the song at least twice as much now.

To recap, through the power of jeans, dance, song, and a tectonically catchy Timbaland beat (Virginia represent), son turns a roadside honky tonk into a multiracial sex party. A lot is going on here. Historically loaded encounters between older white men and black bar patrons. Ginuwine’s hair. The hat situation. People who aren’t villains are smoking cigarettes!

Enjoy. Pop music that stays pop is a form of high art. I believe some people have said this.

Weekend Beats: Wealthiest Gentlemen Only

I’m at home on this Saturday night watching the Warriors-Pelicans game and working on a few writing projects that just don’t want to get done. Maybe that’s someone’s version of the American Dream, but as an Angeleno, I often feel like I’m letting the city down on nights like these. I’m supposed to be out getting bottle service at some art gallery opening, or discovering a terrifyingly authentic taco joint in a sketchy corner of Echo Park run by tatted teenagers, right? But no, I am making breakfast burritos and cursing at the Warriors’s bench as it appears determined to blow a 10-point lead.

And that’s fine. I’m still a young man in America. “Indeed there will be time” for partaaaaying. Or there won’t be, and my halcyon days are behind me (or never were). In any case, the Internet can bring at least a piece of the hip life to my modestly appointed (read: mostly second-hand furniture, books as a decorating scheme, too many unframed posters on the walls) apartment. Classixx have long been one of my favorite DJ teams, and I’ve had the good fortune of seeing them perform a couple different times when I wasn’t expecting it. Their music is, simply, cool. It doesn’t try too hard to convince you that the dudes making it are virtuosos with record collections built to intimidate regular people. It realizes that people go to the party to have a good time, not worship the DJs.

And yet these guys are damn good. Few DJ acts hold up over the course of a whole album, but Classixx’s first full studio release, 2013’s Hanging Gardens, does. So if you’re at home dreaming of your misspent disco youth, I offer you Hanging Gardens and the song that first made me a Classixx fan, their Miami Vice-sleaze remix of Phoenix’s “Lisztomania.” Hell, maybe it’ll even inspire you (or me?) to go out into the night and stir it up!

Weekend Beats: Another Gentleman Loser

Steely Dan might be the weirdest rock band ever. Their music isn’t prog rock; it’s not precisely jazz rock; and it’s definitely not rock rock. It’s telling that no hipster band sounds much like them. I doubt anyone with the technical chops to do so also possesses the literate weirdness to write some of Fagen and Becker’s lyrics, like these from my favorite Steely Dan song, “Deacon Blues”:

My back to the wall
A victim of laughing chance
This is for me
The essence of true romance
Sharing the things we know and love
With those of my kind
That stagger the mind

I crawl like a viper
Through these suburban streets
Make love to these women
Languid and bittersweet
I’ll rise when the sun goes down
Cover every game in town
A world of my own
I’ll make it my home sweet home

And here’e where we come back to Ryan’s previous post about bachelor television. Steely Dan’s music is some of the most technically polished and esoteric in rock history, while their lyrics often reveal anxieties about aging, not being able to really connect with the people around you (especially women), and driving for the sake of driving. It’s rock that stinks of bach, but not the professional kind Hefner was selling in Chicago, or the suntan oil crisped kind he hawked after moving his operation to the westside of Los Angeles. Instead, it’s inebriated insecurity where you can never really cut loose. You’re drunk but know it, and think everyone is laughing at your shirt that doesn’t really fit well, your cheap haircut, your bookishness. There’s so little swagger in a chorus like this:

Tell me where are you driving
Midnight cruiser
Where is your bounty
Of fortune and fame
I am another
Gentlemen loser
Drive me to Harlem
Or somewhere the same

That’s bach that disappears into the night assuming it won’t end in glory. It’s a perpetual motion machine that spins in circles, gaining more momentum in its death spiral. And yet it’s funny as hell. It knows enough to be in on the joke, to in fact make it before anyone else can, a central philosophical point in perhaps the greatest bachelor novel ever written, Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human.* I’d never claim Steely Dan as my favorite band, but damn if they don’t make a ton of sense. So enjoy their first album on me.


*I hope to write a longer post about this incredible novel in the near future.

Weekend Beats: Never Get Out of This World Alive

Say “country music” to most Americans, especially ones under 40, and the majority will think of the fulsome garbage disgorged by Nashville’s contemporary legion of fake-accented bimbos and hunky cornballs in $500 t-shirts: they’ll think of people like <shudder> Keith Urban. That, or xenophobic losers like Toby Keith.

This is an ironic shame, because, at least in your humble critic’s opinion, American music’s finest lyric achievements come primarily from two genres: hip-hop and classic country. On the latter, think Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash (at least he’s still hip even with people who couldn’t name more than two of his songs), Willie Nelson (just try not getting obsessed with The Red-Headed Stranger), Townes Van Zandt, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Gram Parsons. While modern Nashville industrial country has appropriated many of the outward themes (loneliness, boozing, heartbreak, wandering), it fails to produce the tonal affect of the old masters, the existential grime and grind. Modern country is all surface; the classic stuff is almost literary.

And there is nothing—nothing—without a man I didn’t mention above, Hank Williams. (No, not his idiot Monday Night Football son or lame “punk” grandson.) Williams is rightfully remembered as a sort of hillybilly poète maudit, dead at 29 in the backseat of a car he didn’t own, flush with a cocktail of liquor, chloryl hydrate, and morphine, and leaving behind a slim but astonishing catalog of stone-cold masterpieces. But melancholy as most of his work is, Williams also has a sense of irony. Most country masters do: see, for example, George Jones’s duet with Merle Haggard, “Must’ve Been Drunk (When We Said We’d Stop Drinking).” In “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” the last single he released during his life, which hit #1 on the Billboard Country charts just after his death, Williams plays up the voice of the sad-sack, woman-haunted loser.

However, the ironic humor does not make the song any less chilling. Williams’s irony is not the poisonous, cynical, seen-it-all posture that American culture has assumed over the past few decades, the loathsome “wit” of shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Family Guy. Rather, the irony marks an individual’s desire to find some modest humor in a genuinely terrible situation. It is irony that is heartfelt and naked and human.

So whether or not your fishin’ pole’s broke, the creek is full of sand, and your woman run off with another man, enjoy it. I’ll take Williams over a third of the hacks (cough, Ezra Pound, cough) who get taught in English classes.

Weekend’s End Beats: Night Skies

It always baffles me that a band can write a song that’s absolutely perfect, only to never even come close to doing so again. This phenomenon happens across other art forms too, but there’s something special about the musical one-hit wonder. Maybe it’s that these singular songs stick around on radio stations for years and get incorporated into television broadcasts and interwebs clips. A song just kind of hangs out (and on) in ways films and novels can’t. It can be perfect for three minutes and then slip out the back door, only to come in the front again when you need it but don’t expect it to show up.

So below you’ll find one of my favorite one-offs. These guys made other songs, I know, but nothing approaching this gem that’s everything U2 could have been if Bono had an ounce of shame. Please share some of your favorites with us on Twitter (@general_reader) or in the comments section.