The Rolling Stones – Between the Buttons

Between the Buttons

The Rolling StonesBetween the Buttons London PS 499 (1967) [US release]

Starry-eyed idealism worked wonders for The Beatles. The Kinks had nostalgia. For The Rolling Stones, the raw energy of rock and roll was their near constant source of inspiration. Early on, The Stones worked exclusively with the blues and R&B at the root of all rock music. That soon changed. It was a pair of albums they put out in 1967 that confounded any notion of the group being easily placed in one category of rock and pop music. Between The Buttons was the first of those. The album, and especially the U.S. version with the singles “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday,” has all the catchy pop hooks of a Beatles record plus all the ragged stylistic shredding of any other Stones record.

“Let’s Spend the Night Together” is joy. The simple pleading of a boy in love, Jagger encouraged to a desperate pace confirmed in the wordless ba-duh-bap-bap of his associates and the prodding of a relentless piano. Desire is so strong that doubt hasn’t room to breathe. This could be the most uninhibited song the group recorded. For purity of emotion, there is no equal. Pleading, pleading, pleading, with the moment ready to pass sweetly by, every attempt is made to realize the possibilities that could, at any time, collapse under the effort convince some exquisite being of something that words hardly convey, with another plea, and another, the beautiful possibility–excuses, apologies fail–for a wonderful night together. Trembling with confidence, there can only be success. The bass rambles by, undeterred by anything around it. The guitars drift in and out. They mirror the strongest melodies, making them practically invincible.

“Ruby Tuesday,” an exposition of simply the finest baroque chamber pop, matches its aristocratic etiquette only in its bittersweet delicacy. Its coarser sibling is “Yesterdays Paper’s,” whose treatment of a casual dismissal overflows with neglect.

In every odd turn the album takes, a surprise is waiting. “Connection” is a driving piece, full of energy. Less obvious are the textures loaded in every pulse. “She Smiled Sweetly” sways on the tones of an organ, with a romantic attachment to lingering memories and the instinctive desire to live them again. What makes the song unshakable is the plain and honest fact that the sweet smiles of those very occasional girls who put the world within reach can keep you alive for months. If she tells you not to worry, then days become a blur. The blur is the image of her blending bleeding into everything else. Having her in mind is happiness. All that comes in a song.

The Rolling Stones’ greatest ability was in absorbing the possibilities of every kind of pop music. In that way, Between the Buttons is exactly in stride with the path of a group who had already mastered their own heartfelt transformation of American blues. The focus simply moved to encompass the sweeter strains of pop. Even still, their music is open to anything. “Miss Amanda Jones” is a manic workout that looks forward to sound The Stones took up a few years later. The vaudevillian humor in “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” and elsewhere takes the eccentricities of the album the furthest. So carefree. Between the Buttons is wonderful nonsense, and one of the group’s best efforts.

Jonathan Richman – Action Packed: The Best of Jonathan Richman

Action Packed: The Best of Jonathan Richman

Jonathan RichmanAction Packed: The Best of Jonathan Richman Rounder 1166-11596-2 (2002)

If Buddy Holly had arrived in the punk era, he might have sounded something like Jonathan Richman.  The material collected here leans on bubblegum pop but with an ironic, half-serious delivery.  These are like children’s songs played in a way that has no appeal to children.  When it’s just Jonathan with a guitar, which is most of the time, the music could pass for that of some guy at an open mic night playing solo versions of old rock/pop songs and making up a few new ones as he goes too.  That might not sound all that interesting, but it all ends up being quite endearing because Richman is so convincing and earnest.  He doesn’t put across shy, introverted attitudes as better than anything else, just as something that belongs in the conversation with all sorts of other great music.  His songwriting PWNS that of Rivers Cuomo of Weezer (a band that is quite similar, if much less talented, with just the rock sound of The Feelies tacked on top of something that does kind of suggest a sort of superiority of the geeks).  A lot of people will just scratch their heads at this–even if they were intrigued by Jonathan’s appearance as a strolling troubadour in the film There’s Something About Mary.  But those with a soft spot for lovable losers and insecure geeks, or simply clever, quirky and goofy songwriting, welcome home…gabba gabba.

The Bad Plus – These Are the Vistas

These Are the Vistas

The Bad PlusThese Are the Vistas Columbia CK 87040 (2003)

A frequent comment about Bad Plus albums is that if you’ve heard one you’ve heard them all.  That’s mostly true.  But it’s also true that These Are the Vistas is head-and-shoulders above any of their other recordings.  The sound is often called “acoustic fusion”, which really means they play acoustic instruments with a traditional jazz style and sonic texture but focus on rock-oriented rhythms.  Think “Eighty-One” from E.S.P. by Miles Davis‘ second great quintet, when they were just starting to feel out how rock and jazz could meet.  The Bad Plus update what Davis’s group was doing considerably, by bringing to the table the sound of modern rock, as with covers of the likes of Nirvana and Blondie.  There is a more contemporary ironic touch to it all.  While it can sound a bit glib and formulaic elsewhere, the group probably never has and never will match what they documented here.

Atmosphere – God Loves Ugly

God Loves Ugly

AtmosphereGod Loes Loves Ugly Fat Beats 6591235001-2 (2002)

Basically these guys scale back the misogyny, homophobia, and other lame elements usually endemic to hip-hop.  They lessen those liabilities, but the problem is that they still employ all the usual styles.  Here, ANT and SLUG don’t recognize the tension between method and content the way they do elsewhere (When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold).

Louis Armstrong – Greatest Hits

Greatest Hits

Louis ArmstrongGreatest Hits RCA Victor (1996)

There is some good music on this disc, and some bad stuff.  It’s hard not to focus on the faults of this disc though.  When “Everybody’s Talkin’ (Echos)” started playing, I literally said out loud, “What the fuck? Why did he ever record this?”  But it kind of makes me wonder what he would have recorded if he lived into the 1980s…“Papa Don’t Preach”?  “Blame It On the Rain”?

Don’t get this album if you expect any kind of representative overview of Satchmo’s career.  This is really just a grab bag of RCA Victor-owned tracks thrown together in a maddening and inexplicable sequence.  Even the version of “What a Wonderful World” is not the one everyone knows and loves from the late 1960s single (and later popularized by the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack), but a cheeseball 1970s extended version.  There has to be a better entire career overview out there…



BADBADNOTGOODIII Innovative Leisure IL2019CD (2014)

Rock meets jazz, more in the sense of jazz-inflected prog rock (Zappa‘s Hot Rats) than rock-inflected jazz (MilesBitches Brew).  Though they can still play straight jazz to boot (“differently, still”).  But this is surely a group of musicians more steeped in math rock (Battles, Don Caballero), electronic music (DJ Shadow) and hip-hop (Prefuse 73) than the sorts of things first-generation jazz fusion artists were listening to.  These Canadian youngsters play well.  Mostly they go for a harmlessly aggressive, moody atmosphere.  They don’t try to shove technical prowess in your face, which is what makes this so listenable.

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