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.

SotD: Todd Rundgren, “Something To Fall Back On”

In which a few strands from relatively recent posts intermingle…

In response to Saturday’s musings on Todd Rundgren, kblumenau pointed me (via Tweet) to two sweet early TR pieces: “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” and “Be Nice To Me.” While I haven’t exactly been on a Rundgren jag since then, it has made me recognize that he’s another of the artists that has popped up in a variety of spots in my musical firmament.

Which leads to the realization that…

My piece last month on albums I purchased early in my time in Champaign-Urbana failed to include Rundgren’s A Cappella (the album of his with which I have greatest familiarity). I don’t know you can say it’s cheating if you run your voice through a synthesizer, but all the sounds on that release come, one way or another, from Todd’s larynx/diaphragm. There are several cuts I enjoy plenty, including “Hodja” and a cover of the Spinners’ “Mighty Love” (the odd “Lockjaw” is worth hearing once, I suppose).

My favorite on that album, though, was the nominal single “Something To Fall Back On.” Super-catchy and fun, I feel certain I heard on the radio when it first came out toward the end of 85, but I have WPGU to thank for putting it back in my head with some frequency a year later.

Trawling around YouTube this morning, I found this artifact from a visit Rundgren made to Notre Dame a couple of years ago. He spent ten days there as an artist-in-residence and gave a concert as part of the deal. Since I’ve also had a cappella groups that got their start on college campuses in mind lately, it seems reasonable to share this performance of “Something To Fall Back On,” where Todd receives backup help from about a dozen ND students. As a commenter on the video notes, it’s cool that the new generation is gaining exposure to Rundgren’s oeuvre.

SotD: Patty Smyth, “Never Enough”

I got a small television as a Christmas gift from my parents in 86, halfway through my first year at Illinois. Sherman Hall had cable jacks and free access, so I spent a number of hours in the first half of 87 watching stuff, often MTV, in that closet of a dorm room. By that time, MTV was going through its initial round of VJ replacements (hello, Downtown Julie Brown!), but since they were still playing videos pretty much 24/7, I tuned in plenty. One clip that caught both eye (high energy, engaging performance vid) and ear (catchiness out the wazoo) in the spring semester of 87 was Patty Smyth’s “Never Enough;” before long I was shuffling down to Record Service to buy the 45. I’d been a big fan of Smyth’s work with Scandal, even though they broke through to the Top 40 only with “The Warrior.” [Side note: IMO they have a strong stable of singles that missed: “Goodbye To You” (#65), “Love’s Got a Line on You” (#59), “Hands Tied” (#41), and “Beat of a Heart” (also #41).]  Somehow, someway, “Never Enough” suffered a similar fate, reaching only #61 in April–I have to confess that I don’t get it. And while I don’t care nearly as much for her big 92 #2 hit duet with Don Henley, “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough,” I’m happy enough that she had another taste of real success.

When I first threw “Never Enough” on the turntable, I noticed that Smyth shared songwriting credit with Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian of the Hooters, along with a couple other guys. One was Smyth’s producer Rick Chertoff, who was long-time buds with Hyman and Bazilian and had produced their 85 LP Nervous Night. This all made sense, as I certainly got a chunk of a Hooters vibe from listening to it. But it wasn’t until I dialed Patty up on YouTube recently and read through some comments that I learned there’s a version of “Never Enough,” with completely different lyrics, from ten years earlier. Hyman and Bazilian were then members of the Philadelphia-area band Baby Grand, and they’d written this song with Chertoff and David Kagan, the group’s vocalist. Its lyrics are moderately clever, I suppose, but I’d call Smyth’s efforts, while not earth-shaking, an improvement.  And the original definitely lacks the punch and drive of the later version.

You may be familiar with Baby Grand, but I’ll put the two takes side by side in case you aren’t and want to compare.

 

SotD: The Pursuit of Happiness, “I’m an Adult Now”

Ben turns 18 today (as of 11:13am, I suppose). Any number of changes in the eyes of the law have arrived: among them, he now gets to register for the Selective Service (seems like yesterday that I was doing that myself), and he’ll be voting on Tuesday. Those first few days of his life feel so near in time–Martha beginning labor soon after trick-or-treating was over, holding this tiny, wrinkly thing in my arms, trying to settle on a name (Ben had been a serious contender for a while, but we didn’t make a final decision for more than 24 hours post-delivery), videoing Martha walking into our house with him for the first time.

And these days? He’s in the middle of applying to colleges; November 1 turns out to be the deadline for “early action” on applications at a few places he’s considering (he did get the bulk of things submitted over this past weekend). A couple of places are asking that Ben do an interview as part of the application process, so there’ll be that to address in the coming weeks. I’m curious to see how it all shakes out.

Last year on 11/1 I posted about his 7th birthday, one that was bowling-themed. For his 8th, we took a number of his classmates to a place in Lexington where one can jump/bounce/swing around on stuff and dive into a huge pool of foam pieces. I’ll spare you pix from that event, but will show off the cake that Martha made. It’s a scene many of you will recognize:

StarWarsCake2008

Of course, Halloween and the boy’s birthday are closely linked at our house. Last night, I shared on Facebook a photo of Ben from the night before he turned 8. It’s probably the coolest costume he had, made with love by his mother:

BRHLegoCostume08

Alas, he tripped and fell not long after starting out on trick-or-treating, damaging a number of the cups glued to the front. Nonetheless, that box is still stored in a big bag up in our attic.

Happy birthday, Ben, and welcome to your adulthood. I know you’re going to make mistakes along the way–we all do–but my wish for you today is that you commit fewer of them than I have and that you learn quickly and well from those you do make.

This song has been running through my head the last month or so (if only for the title and not its lyrical content), knowing that today was coming. James discovered it before I did; he told me about it during one of my trips back to Lexington in 88. “I’m an Adult Now” is not my favorite song on the decently-good Love Junk (that would be “She’s So Young”), but it’s the one that got this Toronto band noticed for a short while.

Gotta get up and take on that world/When you’re an adult it’s no cliché, it’s the truth.”

Word, Ben.

SotD: Shriekback, “Nemesis”

This one seems suitable enough for Halloween.

I first learned of the British band Shriekback when I saw their 88 release Go Bang! at Record Service in Champaign. Doubt I heard anything from it at the time (it does contain a remake of “Get Down Tonight,” for the interested), but the album’s cover was one to catch the eye in the store.

“Nemesis” is the song I really know from them; it comes from their 85 release Oil and Gold. I heard it multiple times in the early 90s on WOXY on trips back and forth between Urbana and home.  They get big bonus points for using the word “parthenogenesis” more or less appropriately in a dance tune, but give some of them back for the silly, low-tech masks and such in the vid.

SotD: Golden Palominos, “(Kind of) True”

In the spring of 87, my future officemate Will began doing me the occasional favor of putting LPs on cassettes for me (I’ve mentioned before that Paul, another officemate, did this sort of thing with CDs in later years).  We’d had a couple of classes together in the fall of 86, but it wasn’t until January, when I stumbled upon him, Paul, and John studying for prelims, that a friendship began. He grew up in West Virginia, had come to C-U after leaving a job in Atlanta, and was a few years older than I. As with many folks over the years, music was an initial common bond.

The cassettes were a mix of albums from both our collections; I had records that I wanted to listen to in the car, and he was more than happy to share things with me he really liked. He’s the one who introduced me to early REM, XTC’s English Settlement, and Dylan’s Infidels. And on the other side of the Dylan tape he put a band I’d never encountered before, the Golden Palominos, their 85 release Visions of Excess.

The Palominos wound up being a rotating mix of performers and singers across more than two decades, with the only constant in the end being founder/drummer Anton Fier.  Excess, their second release, was more or less the beginning of the carousel, and has a number of interesting performances. Mike Stipe sings the first three tracks, all of them pretty darn solid. John Lydon does pretty much what you might expect on “The Animal Speaks,” even opening with a belch.  Jack Bruce, of Cream fame, has his turn at the mic, too. It was a song featuring the one female vocalist, however, who stole this show as far as I’m concerned.

I had to ask Will who it was singing “(Kind of) True,” the cut that completely knocked me out. There was no reason to be familiar with Syd Straw, but I filed the name away. She popped up again in 89—I think I can remember talking about her debut disk Surprise with my agronomist friend Jon. Her career never took off (she sings backup on a few other disks in my stash, though), but this one performance is more than enough for a lasting spot in my pantheon of tunes.

Pretty certain this led off a mix tape I made for James, maybe the all-female-singer extravaganza I once assembled for him.  You have to crank the volume to hear it, but at the very beginning Straw says, “Oh, yes indeed,” right before the guitar kicks in. For a while I wrote a lyric from one of the included songs on the labels that went on each side of cassettes I made; those three words would have been a natural choice on that occasion.

SotD: Chris Isaak, “Dancin'”

Writing Sunday’s post about the 85 MTV Video Awards prodded me go to back and look on YouTube for the nominees for Best Experimental Video (whatever that means).  Art of Noise’s label, ZTT, has put up a copy of “Close (to the Edit),” but it’s hardly hi-def. Otherwise, we’re pretty much at the mercy of fans keeping things from going down the memory hole. I posted last October about “Ways to Be Wicked,” from Lone Justice, shortly after Petty’s death; that video was ripped from a VHS-promotional tape. I couldn’t find the original vid for Lindsey Buckingham’s “Slow Dancing” anywhere, and the only copy of “Go Insane” is something recorded from VH-1 Classic–the quality’s not there, either.  Come on, Lindsey–share with us!

The clip for Chris Isaak’s “Dancin’,” however, looks great. I don’t know now how familiar I was already with the song that September evening, but it couldn’t have been long after that I scored a promo copy of Silvertone from Cut Corner Records. I didn’t find anything else on it that grabbed me the same way, but over the years I’ve generally liked what I’ve heard from him: “You Owe Me Some Kind of Love,” “Don’t Make Me Dream About You,” a cover of “Solitary Man,” “Somebody’s Crying,” and “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” are always welcome on any playlist (“Wicked Game” was quite the victim of overplay, though).

Isaak clearly had a vision for his career, a retro sensibility, and didn’t appear to deviate from it.  In the end, he carved out a decent niche. In my case, it was the first encounter with his music that was the best.

(According to the comments, that’s Denise Crosby playing the femme fatale in the video.)

SotD: Suzanne Vega, “Neighborhood Girls”

My father subscribed to Stereo Review as far as back as I can remember; my guess is that originally he wanted to keep track of new classical releases and eventually inertia took over.  Somewhere around the age of 13, I began taking a serious interest in its Popular Music album reviews section (I tore out Peter Reilly’s full-page review of The Stranger from the January 78 issue–still have it, too). By the time I was in high school, it got to the point where I’d attack a new arrival as soon as it landed in our mailbox, anxious to seek out the Best of the Month and Recordings of Special Merit, figuring out which critics spoke to me more (Steve Simels–who is still active, blogging here–was the star, but if I had to do it over again, I’d pay much closer attention to what Alanna Nash wrote), and plotting potential future purchases on my limited budget. I recall their strong praise for Fear of Music and Argybargy, even though it’d be years before I obtained either. During the college years, I made a point to catch up on anything I’d missed in SR on my visits home. And that’s how I first learned about Suzanne Vega.

While it wasn’t selected as one of September 85’s Best, Suzanne Vega did get a featured review from Simels in that issue (I think reviewers took turns on Best picks, and it wasn’t his month). I took further note a few months later, in February 86, when SR chose it as one of its twelve Albums of the Year (besting another Simels favorite, Marshall Crenshaw’s Downtown). It’d be close to a year before I finally purchased SV at Record Service in Champaign, sometime between November 86 and January 87. I was immediately awestruck and wished I hadn’t waited so long to give it a spin.  I’d recalled the phrase “her songs insinuate themselves” from the SR write-up; that turned out to be completely accurate, particularly lyrically–similar snippets of language crop up in pairs of songs, and more than once.

It’s hard to pick a favorite on SV–“Freeze Tag,” “Small Blue Thing,” and “Undertow” would all be under consideration–but the honor may go to the final track, “Neighborhood Girls,” one of the few pieces on the album to feature (more or less) a full band. It’s a slinky thing, with an almost funky bass line. Just to prove the ‘insinuation’ point, “I’d like to hear a straight line to help me find my way” (almost) directly references the title of the last song (“Straight Lines”) on side one, though with an entirely different meaning to the term.

Over the next decade her stuff was must-buy and usually top-notch. There’s more I want to say about Suzy V (that’s what I called her back in 87; I was completely amused to find her Twitter handle is @suzyv), but that will wait for another day.  (In the meantime, I recommend checking out The Old Grey Cat’s recent overview of her second release, Solitude Standing.)

I don’t know when Dad let the Stereo Review subscription finally lapse, but it may not have been too long after I left for Illinois. I don’t seem to have any memories of pawing through it after I was done at Transy.

Mucho credit goes to americanradiohistory.com for helping me with dates for this post. I’m super excited to discover that a few months ago they began housing an awesome archive of Stereo Review!

SotD: Quincy Jones featuring James Ingram, “Just Once”

My sister, brother-in-law, and nephew came up from Florida this past Friday morning for for a long weekend visit. Amy and Jerry were here for her 35th high school reunion; Chance took the opportunity to come and teach us how to play some of his new favorite games. Their visit was too short, but it’s always good to see them. Learning about Above and Below and Mystic Vale was way fun, too!

From what I can see on Facebook, Amy joined about two dozen of her classmates at the Florence Elks Lodge on Saturday night—that’s darn close to half of them! I think it was a pretty low-key affair, but I know Sis had a good time catching up with some folks she hadn’t seen in quite a while.

Amy reminded me that the Walton-Verona Class of ’83 chose “Just Once,” from the fall of 81, as their class song.  If memory serves, “Make the Magic Last” was the theme those juniors picked for my senior prom. I imagine this aching ballad about two people who can’t seem to get out of each other’s way was the first time many of us heard James Ingram’s voice; for what it’s worth, it’s still the one of his I like best all these years later.

Whether you could make it this time or not, may the coming five years be kind to all of you in my sister’s class!