SotD: Sarah McLachlan, “Vox”

Last week I noted the oddity of Tanita Tikaram doing her best work before she was 20, despite having multiple opportunities afterward to grow and flourish. Today, it’s another artist who started quite young, with a significantly weaker initial effort, but who went on to fulfill her promise, and then some.

Sarah McLachlan’s first album, Touch, came out in her native Canada in October 88 and was released in the US a few months later, around the time she was turning 21. Somewhere over the course of the year, “Vox” got decent play on VH-1—it seems like that might have been late summer or early fall? (So even though it was already out as a single in early 89, yes, maybe I should be posting this in six months or so—them’s the breaks.)  I remember the video because of the sheer piece of fabric McLachlan uses as a prop, and the song for its bouncy synth and the lines, “They start to limply flail their bodies in a twisted mime/And I’m lost inside this tangled web in which I’m lain entwined.” Not great poetry by any means, but it definitely succeeded in getting lodged in my brain.

I didn’t buy Touch, but did eventually check the CD out from the Urbana Free Library; my officemate Paul dubbed it onto a cassette for me, along with Julia Fordham’s Porcelain (speaking of songs I know because of late 80s VH-1, I hadn’t thought about “Happy Ever After,” a very fine track from Fordham’s self-titled 88 debut, in a long while until digging through my cassette stash). Can’t say I listened to that tape much, alas.

So, yeah, “Vox” is not super-special, but it got me to file McLachlan’s name away in my head. I was absolutely floored when I started hearing “Into the Fire” from Solace on the radio in the spring of 92. Such a huge leap of maturity and confidence—one of my favorites from that year. It wasn’t as big a commercial breakthrough as it was artistic, though; it took her third album, Funblling Toward Ecstasy, released two years later, to make people worldwide really notice.

Forgotten Albums: Tanita Tikaram, Ancient Heart

Well, it’s taking a little while for the 1989 project to get to music actually released that year. Pretty soon we’ll pivot toward that, but—quelle surprise—at the beginning of the year I was listening to a lot of stuff I’d bought toward the end of 88.

One of the more rewarding disks I was playing frequently in early 89 was the debut album from a 19-year old of Fijian and Malaysian parents, born in Münster and who moved to London about the time she became a teenager. Ancient Heart is an apt title for the album; Tanita Tikaram displays via both songwriting and singing a wisdom that she couldn’t possibly have gained through experience. Her voice—I see the words “husky” and “smoky” used to describe it in the reviews I’ve looked up in recent days—sounded like nothing else going on at the time. The lyrics are often oblique but never alienating. The album was co-produced by Rod Argent (Zombies and, of course, Argent) and Peter Van Hooke (Mike and the Mechanics). You get a tiny bit of late-80s synth vibe from it, but on the whole they managed to avoid doing things in the production that would make it sound dated.

For some reason, it’s been years since I broke Ancient Heart out for a listen. That changed last week.  I’d forgotten just how good it is, and I suspect it’ll go into occasional rotation again now.  Let’s take a listen to five of my favorite tracks.

The lead-off song (and first single) is “Good Tradition.”  It was Tikaram’s only top 10 hit in the UK (it also went top 10 in Ireland and Sweden). The video shows her with a verve and a perkiness we don’t see anywhere else:

 

The other upbeat track on offer today is “World Outside Your Window,” the fourth and final single.  This charted only in the UK, making #58, but it feels plenty radio-friendly to me.

 

If you’ve heard anything from Tikaram, it’s this one—it’s certainly how I came to know of her.  I saw the vid for “Twist in My Sobriety” (which was filmed in Bolivia) on VH-1 quite a bit in the fall of 88. It was by far her biggest hit worldwide, going top 10 in Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland. An absolutely arresting track with a killer oboe part.

 

One of my least favorite songs from my college years is Lionel Richie’s “Say You Say Me.” I guess I found it too saccharine, and I was utterly baffled by the insertion of an up-tempo section before things swell to the final chorus. “He Likes the Sun” pulls a similar stunt in terms of tempo, yet here I totally dig on it. I have no idea what “I’m tired of chip inside and playing bronze for cool” means, but Tikaram manages to make it sound almost profound.

 

My last selection is, without rival, the prettiest and most melancholy piece on the album. Just piano and strings and written in 3/4 time, “Valentine Heart” might be the cut I suggest you should listen to today if you’re only going to pick one of these to play (maybe my current somber mood is behind that recommendation, though).

 

Tikaram released three more albums before I left grad school in 92; I picked them all up at the time but none made an impression anything akin to that of Ancient Heart (I’ve kept only the sophomore effort, The Sweet Keeper). You’d think that a 19-year capable of stuff like this wouldn’t be peaking then, but here we are. She’s continued to record sporadically through the years, even to this day, and had low-charting singles in the UK through the 90s. Tikaram is still a Londoner (perhaps even rich with complaint), and will be turning 50 on August 12.

 

 

SotD: Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle”

I spent a good chunk of Labor Day weekend 1988 visiting my college friends Mark and Lana, who live in suburban St. Louis. We spent the early part of Sunday afternoon watching their former hometown NFL team play their first regular-season game as the Phoenix Cardinals, who just happened to be going up against my team, the Cincinnati Bengals. The game’s outcome was uncertain until a goal-line stand in the final minute secured a 21-14 victory for the Bengals. It turned out to be the beginning of a magical season for the team with stripes on its helmets.

There was no great reason to think going in to the 88 season that Cincy would do well. They were coming off a desultory 4-11 effort in the strike-afflicted 87 campaign; I can recall seeing a piece on the local news at that season’s end (guess while I was home for Christmas in 87?) announcing that Sam Wyche was being retained. They did have a quality QB in Boomer Esiason, though, as well as a solid offensive line, James Brooks at RB, and a good set of DBs; maybe I shouldn’t have been so pessimistic?

The Bengals started off 6-0, and along the way they discovered a new weapon to spark a fearsome rushing attack within their innovative-at-the-time no-huddle offense: Elbert “Ickey” Woods, a fullback taken out of UNLV in the second round of the draft. Over the final thirteen games of the season, he scored 15 TDs, ran for over 1000 yards, and became an overnight sensation with his goofy touchdown celebration dance, the “Ickey Shuffle.” (Perhaps just as importantly, his not-so-smooth moves led to the beginning of the NFL’s crackdown on endzone celebrations.)

Very early in the fall, before anyone could tell that the Bengals would actually be good, Dad mentioned to me that they were playing at home Thanksgiving weekend. When he asked if I’d be interested in going, I quickly said yes—I’d attended a few Bengals games over the years, but it’d been a little while since I’d seen one. Little did we know at the time that game would be the one to determine home field advantage in the AFC.

The opponent was the other surprise team in the conference, the Buffalo Bills. On that chilly late November afternoon, Buffalo was riding high at 11-1 (the Bengals had fallen back a little bit from their hot start and were 9-3). Dad, Amy, and I were in the upper deck of Riverfront Stadium (the “red seats”), in section 331. That’d be right field if we were there for a Reds game, but I’m visualizing it as a corner of one endzone in its football configuration.  There were a number of Bills fans around us, and we learned about their cheer, “Let’s Go Buffalo.”

The home team won pretty easily that day, 35-21—Ickey got to shuffle three times—and I drove back to Urbana that evening a happy camper (as an aside, it turned out to be the last time saw an NFL game in person). In the remaining three games on the docket, Cincy went 2-1, the Bills 1-2; the road to the Super Bowl would go through Riverfront. Buffalo came back for the AFC title game, and went home losers again (it was just the beginning of a great run of sorts for the Bills, though—they went to, but lost, the next four Super Bowls). Seven years after their first visit, the Bengals were back in the big game…

…and facing the same team they had in Super Bowl XVI, the San Francisco 49ers. That game had taken place during my senior year in high school, and while the final score was respectable (26-21), it hadn’t been a close affair. Would the rematch be different?

I took Super Bowl XXIII in at a party hosted by one of my fellow math grad students, Ken, and his girlfriend Laura. It was a competitive but low-scoring game; the Bengals led 13-6 at the end of three quarters and took a 16-13 lead on a FG with under three-and-a-half minutes to go. I dared to hope.

But of course Joe Frickin’ Montana was under center for the ‘Niners. He engineered a 92-yard drive, hitting John Taylor for a TD with under forty seconds to go. For the remainder of the game and a couple of minutes afterward, I stared blankly at the TV. “Dammit….dammit,” was about all I could say or think.

That game took place thirty years ago today. The Bengals have been somewhere between horrible and occasionally better than okay pretty much ever since. Their last playoff win came in January 91, against the Houston Oilers(!).  More than half of that time they’ve been coached by the recently-fired Marvin Lewis, who certainly wasn’t bad but was kept on at least a couple of years too long. I’m curious to see how a new set of coaches will do, even though I’m much less invested in the NFL than I used to be.

At some point in that season, GNR’s “Welcome to the Jungle” became a theme song of sorts for the Bengals, and “The Jungle” became the nickname for their stadium. My recollection is that one of the radio guys in town came up with the idea—Bengals live in the jungle, right?  It’s stuck through the years—when they moved in 2000 from Riverfront to their new digs just down the river, Paul Brown Stadium, the moniker came along with them (though it’s hardly been a fear-inspiring venue for the most part).

The timing of the song’s chart run was pretty much perfect for the Bengals’ season: “Welcome to the Jungle” was released as a single in October, peaked at #7 at the end of the calendar year/football season, and was just about to fall off the Top 40 on Super Bowl Sunday (although maybe that was a sign of some kind…)

While I’m not a huge fan of Axl, Slash, Izzy, and the rest (though I readily admit “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is legit great), what other song can I play today?  Thinking back on that day from 30 years ago, all I can say it’d be mighty fine to see the Bengals finally win the big one, just once.

SotD: Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, “Love Like We Do”

Even though I had bought a CD player in the spring of 88, I kept on purchasing vinyl on occasion through the rest of the year. One of those last-gasp LPs was Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, from Texas folk-rock band Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. Yes, I was charmed by “What I Am” (which was just hitting the Top 40 thirty years ago); I can get why some folks found it annoying and/or not… too deep, but I’m still plenty good with lines like “Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box,” maybe particularly because it’s a part of a rhyme across verses. I spent the winter of 88/89 listening to the album over and again—it’s one that reminds me oh-so-well of that prelim prep period—and found a number of its tracks entirely satisfying, including “Little Miss S,” “Air of December,” “The Wheel,” “Beat the Time,” and “Nothing.” It feels like Brickell was one of the first artists younger than I (excluding teen sensations) to have a hit record.

The best song (IMHO) on Rubberbands was the fifth cut on side one, a jaunty, feel-good number called “Love Like We Do.” (Though I suppose it does have one of those lines of Brickell’s that some folks find too precious: “I don’t believe in hatred anymore/I hate to think of how I felt before.”would have picked it as the follow-up to “What I Am,” but the suits at Geffen elected to make it the fourth single instead. It never charted, though I saw its pretty cool video, which includes animations based on Brickell’s cute doodles, a few times later in the year.

I’m also a fan of their second release, 1990’s Ghost of a Dog. I’ve got a song from it I might feature someday…

SotD: Go-Betweens, “Was There Anything I Could Do?”

This is a significant modification and expansion of a Facebook post that originally appeared October 14, 2016. Oh, and that’s the French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange above. One of the results attributed to him played a pivotal role once upon a time almost thirty years ago.

Soon after Christmas 1988, I left KY to go back to Urbana. It was the midpoint of my third year of grad school, and time for what one could reasonably call trial by fire. At the end of January, I would be enduring a series of four one-hour oral exams (we called them prelims) over the course of two Saturday mornings. I had to pass all of them within the coming year to remain in good standing (that is to say, to keep my assistantship) and advance to the dissertation phase of my graduate career. Two of the exams had to cover foundational material; I had chosen algebra and analysis.  The rest of my dance card consisted of analytical number theory and an advanced algebraic area, representation theory.

There were about three weeks to spend on preparation before classes began. I had the apartment to myself at first, as John was up in Chicago.  My friends Will and Kate were off visiting family, and I had volunteered to look in on their cats (Martha, Tiger, and Chessie) upon my return. So there I was, as 88 turned over into 89, spending hours upon hours alone, poring over notes, reviewing important theorems and their proofs, trying to better understand what I’d experienced over the past five semesters. It was a lonely, stressful, emotional time; tears might have been shed a few times. I don’t know that I was doubting my choice of path at that point, but I sure didn’t feel overly confident about my prospects of success.  My friends had told me I could stay over at their house if I wished, and I took them up on that a few times. It was good to have a little company, even if it was feline. I’d cook Progresso soup on their stove for dinner. Over a couple of study breaks I used Will’s stereo to record a mix tape for James. (In the late 80s, James and I had a running joke that every act had to demo “All Along the Watchtower” in order to land their contract, and it was de rigueur at the time to include someone’s version on my tapes to him. This one got U2’s, from Rattle and Hum. The tape might have even been entitled All Along the Stufftower, which is a double joke, as “stuff” appeared in the titles of the tapes I made for him.)

It went on like this for at least ten days, I’d guess—as time for classes to resume approached, folks of course began returning to town. It seems like none of my officemates were doing prelims on that go-round, so I didn’t exactly have ready-access study partners (plus, they’d all pursued a course of study on the topological side of mathematics, so there wouldn’t have been that much overlap in our exams, anyway).

My first two exams were analysis and algebra, in that order. This was a little unfortunate, since the material covered in the second weekend’s exams was the stuff I felt I knew better. Analysis was definitely the subject I understood least well—I had managed to just eke out a B in the course the second time I tried it (we’ll not talk about my first attempt right now).  And sure enough, I got the thumbs down from the pair of professors who’d been assigned to quiz me. This raised the pressure, as one needed to pass at least two of the four to get credit for any of them. An hour later, I went up before the algebraists.

It’s a blur now, what happened during those sixty minutes, with one important exception. Algebra was an area I definitely liked and was decent at, but at the beginning I was at best stumbling through. Maybe about twenty minutes in, Professor Joseph Rotman, well-known and well-respected in the field, posed a question that initially stumped me. He prodded, gently, for the reasons behind the solution of a given problem, and suddenly inspiration struck. I needed to invoke Lagrange’s Theorem. (Lagrange’s theorem says that the number of elements in a subgroup of a finite group must be a divisor of the number of elements in the group. Sorry for the technical jargon, any and all non-math types out there—click this hyperlink if you want to know what a group is.)  I received a satisfied affirmation from Prof. Rotman, and suddenly my confidence swelled. The last portion of the exam went much better, and I liked my chances of getting a passing mark as I walked out of the room.

I was right, and I now felt in control of the process.  I knew I would pass the number theory prelim and thought I had a more than decent shot at the representation theory, as one of my examiners would be the professor who had taught the classes. I made it through both the following Saturday, and squeaked by on the analysis retake four months later. But at that moment—either January 28 or February 4, 1989—while I was in good shape with respect to the, well, preliminary requirements of progress toward a PhD, I honestly had no real idea about a dissertation topic or even an advisor. It was generally expected that you would build on something from one of your prelim areas, but I wasn’t especially enthused about any of those options. I was in the process of taking a reading course from a professor in algebraic number theory, as well as attending his weekly seminar, but it wasn’t clear that was going to work either (it’s a beautiful subject and I do wish I understood it better now).  It would be mid-April before the path forward would make itself known. Come on back in a little over three months, why don’t you, to learn more?

One song I distinctly remember hearing on WPGU while shuttling back and forth between my friends’ house and the apartment at the very beginning of 89 was the Go-Betweens’ “Was There Anything I Could Do?” It was a decent-sized modern rock hit at the time, and I recall liking it pretty well then. Around a year later, I met Greg, who would later be best man at my wedding. It wouldn’t be long before loaned me his copy of 16 Lovers Lane, an album I’ve promoted repeatedly here, and the one that contains “WTAICD.” While it’s not the best track on the disk, it is fantastic, and the song retains a special place in my personal pantheon of songs just for being the first one I heard from the album. Kinda funny, though, that the screenshot below features all but Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, the band’s co-leaders. (Edited to add: that link became dead.)

 

Postscript: Coincidentally, Professor Rotman passed away two days after the original, two-paragraph edition of this post appeared (though at the time it didn’t address my experiences in the algebra prelim). To my regret, I never took a class from him, but I’m forever grateful for the boost he gave me that morning.

Destination 89

Casey Kasem’s first run as host of American Top 40 began in July 70 and ended in August 88; rebroadcasts of those eighteen years of shows have regularly served as jumping-off points for reflections and recollections (flawed as they may be) in any number of posts here. Sometime back in the summer, it dawned on me that one artifact of this arrangement is that overall 1989 has gotten short shrift on my blog. 2019 is going to be the year to remedy that.

Over the next twelve months, I’ll be looking thirty years into the past, occasionally for stuff that happened in the world and to me then (there were a few memorable events) but more often for music—I’m anticipating having a roughly weekly feature that highlights a cool tune from 89.

Not too long after I began sketching out my plans for Destination 89, I noticed that Dan Seeger at Coffee for Two was (and still is) using a “30 years ago” theme in his One for Friday series (I really enjoy those posts and highly recommend them if the college radio/alternative scene of the 80s and 90s is your thing). Even though I’ll be veering over into pop with some frequency as the year rolls on, I am curious to see how often we target the same artists or even songs (as it happens, a couple of weeks ago he picked off a song I’ll be featuring next week).  [Edited to add: One day after I posted this, Mr. Seeger announced that he is ending One for Friday after a ten-year run. His archives remain well worth one’s time.]

Destination 89 is far from the only thing I’ll be doing here this coming year, but it will be a focus. I’m looking forward to giving a theme a try.

Guess I’ll kick things off in what feels like an appropriate (though perhaps entirely predictable/pedestrian) manner. R.E.M. had released Green on Election Day of 88, and no doubt it was in my hands very soon afterward. As 89 dawned, “Stand” was getting lots of airplay and would soon be climbing the charts, becoming R.E.M.’s second Top 10 hit. But Green’s leadoff song (and third single—it reached #86 in June) seems like the right tune to play today.