Useful Noise #9
You want Billy Joel? Oh, I'll give you Billy Joel.
While I’m waiting for my former employer to launch its long-promised online City Pages archive (hey, anything’s possible, right?), I’ve decided to start reprinting some of my old CP work here so it’s not completely lost, beginning this week with a 2017 concert review that looks at Olivia Rodrigo’s favorite Boomer. And, as always, there’s also GO SLOW NO, The Uselist, and 7 Things.
From the Vaults: Billy Joel @ Target Field 7/28/17
When you think about it, Axl Rose and Billy Joel are perfect for each other.
Not that I ever thought about it. Not till Friday night, when Rose joined Joel onstage at Target Field, belting “Highway to Hell” while the star of the show, in dark suit and tie, happily power-chorded in support like the luckiest dad at Rock Camp. Axl returned during the encore for the head-slappingly obvious (again, when you think about it) “Big Shot”—hardly a stretch to imagine Rose contemptuously haranguing some hungover social-climbing loudmouth, even if the sax break's not really his thing.
When Rose was still a young Gun writhing his way to security-hassling, venom-spewing, larynx-noduling Valhalla, Joel was already a Ray-Ban-concealed elder squiring Christie Brinkley to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame soirees. But even then a similar raw nerve of insecurity, aggravated by perceived disrespect, throbbed at the center of each man's art, leading both to play against type. Rose flaunted his sensitivity via piano ballads to prove he wasn't just a lowlife scuzz, while Joel indulged a compulsion to rock out, as though condemned his whole life to prove to the schoolyard bullies he wasn't a wuss. And, of course, both were notorious for bouts of onstage petulance.
But Joel, now 68, seemed wistful and content on this summer’s eve, his onetime orneriness now reserved for the mosquitoes he persistently battled with a canary yellow flyswatter. (“I'm worried about swallowing one of the little bastards.”) He sat at the piano, portly and bald, our obliging host, repeatedly tossing out two possible songs, then playing whichever got the loudest cheer. “I could do a bunch of new songs for you,” joked the guy who's recorded exactly two of them in the past 24 years, before all but sighing with self-deprecation about what he had to offer instead: “Same old shit.”
Joel reminisced about his earliest shows in town, at the Marigold Ballroom (formerly on Nicollet and Grant), a venue more suited, he said, to Lawrence Welk, before the obligatory winter weather quips led into a Minneapolis-acknowledging instrumental jaunt through “Love Is All Around.” In its way, this show was as sepia-toned as any wunnerful Welk showcase. There were bits of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” “You May Be Right” veered into Led Zeppelin's “Rock and Roll.” “River of Dreams” flowed into Motown for a bit of “Heat Wave.” Joel even perfectly recreated the Beatles' “A Day in the Life” in its entirety for some reason.
From metal to doo-wop to soul, all these songs had in common was that they were old, and Joel wove them into his own with seamless incoherence, like we were hearing a chronologically jumbled lost verse to “We Didn't Start the Fire”: Lawrence Welk, Axl Rose, Sergeant Pepper, Wimomeh/ Motown, Zeppelin, AC/DC, Mary Tyler Moore.
And yes, he did play that unranked listicle of an earworm (“119 factoids only '60s kids will get inexplicably defensive about”), which, in the age of the algorithm, feels prescient in its remorseless flattening of history into a stream of disconnected news items. With Bernie Goetz now as distant a memory as Georgy Malenkov was when Joel's novelty hit topped the charts, that song summoned up an earlier age, just as the self-conscious street-corner harmony throwbacks Joel performed, “The Longest Time” and “Uptown Girl,” were meant to when he released them. Each song Joel played felt like a memento of the 20th century tucked inside a time capsule, and the 20th century seemed like a very long time ago indeed.
The core of Joel's own catalog had once felt firmly rooted in its moment, that era between Watergate and the '84 Olympics when he channelled the frustrations of the average young "white ethnic" American guy with uncanny accuracy and occasional insight, when underneath each indelible tune lurked a cranky dissatisfaction with the promises of post-war affluence and the tricky new rules for romance women's lib established. If the standard '70s singer-songwriter murmured diary entries, Joel lectured— you could add “and another thing” to the beginning of a whole lot of Billy Joel verses and it'd sound right at home.
Some Joel lectures blast and mock, other tease and cajole, but all undercut prudes and phonies with “common sense,” that term we use for faulty assumptions so consistently unquestioned they have the weight of truth. Friday night we got a lecture about how you shouldn't live life so fast (“Vienna”), a lecture about how you should live life faster ‘cause Billy’s got a boner (“Only the Good Die Young”), and, of course, a lecture about how you need to stop lecturing him (“My Life”).
Joel's band was skilled but lumbering, and booming even for a stadium gig, though despite the worrying one-two start of a glacial “Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)” into a plodding “Pressure,” the show eventually got airborne. “My Life” began with a full-band romp through the “Ode to Joy” (is there a word for the kind of chutzpah that's just a little too on the nose?) and a backup singer gave us a little Puccini later in the night. Both pop-classical moments might have seemed pretentious in the singer's younger days, but now he just came across as a guy knows a good tune when he hears one.
Inevitably, there was “Piano Man.” Once upon a time the uncharitable could read a smug irony into the song—a slumming artiste pissing away his talent by entertaining a roomful of drunken losers. But Joel has been soundtracking boozy, woozy crowd sway-alongs with that number now for so long that his good faith is unquestionable. As with everything he played, “Piano Man” felt less performed or interpreted than lovingly recreated onstage for the crowd to sing back to him.
Typing each of these song titles now summons melodies to me unbidden. Some I love, some I hate, some I never need to hear again regardless of whether I love or hate them. But they're all so familiar it seems as dumb to ask “Are these great songs?” as it would be to ask the same of “Happy Birthday.” Rankling over the years at middling reviews from supposed snobs like me, Billy Joel has sometimes acted as though his popularity placed him above criticism. But after all these years, his affection for his audience may well have placed him beyond it.
GO SLOW NO
Generations are bunk, and I don’t like to borrow reflected glory from my more accomplished contemporaries. But I’ll say it: Some representatives of my age cohort are holding up pretty damn well artistically. So this week’s GO SLOW NO is all green lights, all over-fifties (except for two late-40s rockers whose longevity as a partnership makes them honorary coots), all negotiating relationships with producers, bandmates, and other collaborators rather than soldiering into midlife alone. All of that matters. You’ll see. [Crooks wizened finger at the youth]. You’ll see!
Liz Phair: Soberish (Chrysalis)
The spiritual godmother of so many youngish indie-pop guitar femmes sounds even braver admitting her insecurity about middle-aged dating and relationships than the artsy suburban goofball did pruning her postgrad bedroom tapes 30 years ago to sculpt the persona of avenging scenester babe that made her an icon. Working with producer Brad Wood for the first time since the ’90s to fashion those distinctly Phairian chord changes into pop-approximate shapes so unflaggingly pleasant you might not even notice how weird they are, she weighs the challenges and rewards of acting like a grown-up around other grown-ups you will, did, or want to wake up next to. And if you think that kind of maturity comes naturally to your elders, you underestimate how you never outgrow what Phair calls the “many ways to fuck up a life.” Breakups still disorient. Flirting still embarrasses. Regrets still accumulate. “Why do we keep dicking around?” you still ask. Sure, Phair also taunts Lou Reed and says guess what about her guess what on “Bad Kitty.” But the men she sings to here seem more like potentially compatible humans than guyvillains whose ways she has to outwit to survive, because either Liz Phair the person has learned how to pick ’em better or Liz Phair the artist now cares less about what makes men tick than about what makes her happy.
Dylan Hicks: Accidental Birds (Soft Launch)
Look, I had tacos at the guy’s house a few weeks back. We’re friends. But I’ve got plenty of friends whose art I’ll only praise hesitantly, equivocally, or under duress, so I’m grateful that this pal is four great albums into a mid-life renaissance I can only hope lasts till he checks out at 89, his estimated life expectancy per the beautifully depression-weathering “2059.” He’s a word guy, sure: spurious maxims (“If you dream of walnuts/Your bike will be stolen”), idiosyncratic rhymes (“old bar towel’/“old barn owl”), and elaborately quippy details (“a drawerful of misanthropic t-shirts,” “Jamie Farr reaching for his gong”) sketch out scenarios or narratives that often smuggle in a sneaky sentimental undertow. Easygoing yet durable melodies are also a given. But the balance of pandemic home-tinkering and (chiefly remote) contributions from musicians whose names will draw approving recognition from astute Twin Cities locals is the real draw here. While the electronics may tug your ear first—the synths that bounce-bounce-bounce through “Twyla Tharp” and crackles that glitch JT Bates’ actual drums on “Drunk from Work”—each track offers some musical pleasure that words and tunes alone wouldn’t have delivered: lopes and twitches of studio-funk guitar, unheralded horn smatterings, and Michelle Kinney’s accompanying-not-just-adorning cello, which seems to fit most every mood.
Sleater-Kinney: Path of Wellness (Mom + Pop)
Nevermind chops—what left with Janet Weiss is the air of righteous unity that elevated them above their flaws. Even after I relaxed and learned to shoulder-groove to the Sleater-Kaedis jive patter of “Worry With You,” its pledge of loyalty felt overstated, and the seams in their first person plurals couldn’t help but show in declarations like “We can’t imagine what we will lose” or “Were we hoping to find it in a song?” But bracket justifiable frets about who all these “we”s and “you”s might be, and you (we?) might just recognize the personal, political, and professional dilemmas that Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein face here without ever quite overcoming. Like every Sleater-Kinney album, this sounds different than its predecessors: Brownstein continues to wrench new tones and capabilities from her guitar, Tucker seeks a mature voice in echoes of Patti Smith without succumbing to literary mysticism, and if filling out their sound with keyboards and bass admits their limitations it also expands their range. They’re still learning how to consistently generate the intensity that youthful inspiration, stamina, and camaraderie once delivered routinely, a task they’d have faced eventually even as a trio—nobody gets to be the world’s greatest rock band forever, after all. But the world could always use more really good ones.
The Mountain Goats: Dark in Here (Merge)
OK, now he’s just showing off. Recorded on the cusp of the pandemic at Muscle Shoals’s FAME studios, John Darnielle’s third release in under a year is slightly sharper than 2020’s solid Getting Into Knives, cut a month earlier in Memphis. Take the album title literally: These seekers muse about Jonah’s fate, retreat to the Paris sewers, and tunnel to Hell via the Kola Superdeep Borehole (an inverse Tower of Babel? or does Darnielle just spawn biblical thoughts in me?). Convening in the shadows, they “speak in gestures only we can understand,“ pledging “we will know who kept his word,” aware that “the safe way isn’t the only way to go.” Two key guests illuminate the nooks: Spooner Oldham organ licks drift with uncanny precision into spaces that didn’t seem empty till he filled them, while Will McFarlane’s guitar flurries on “Mobile” sparkle like pinwheels. But these contributions don’t upstage the quartet the Mountain Goats became four years ago, which grooves, thunders, or ruminates to suggest materially whatever the lyrics allude to or leave unspoken. I cannot wait to be in the same room as Jon Wurster wreaks terrible violence upon his snare and Matt Douglas competes with pounding Cecil Taylor piano clusters in the race to the climax of “Lizard Suit.”
Too Much Joy: Mistakes Were Made (People Suck Music)
They really don’t make ’em like this anymore. The big beat, whompy guitars, clearly articulated sarcasm, and brisk but not breakneck tempos that once got these smartasses with even smarter brains a toehold on pre-alternative Modern Rock radio may have outlived their commercial utility as much as the compact disc itself. But they still sound great, and though “Pong” whips through the ’70s like a Gen X “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (“We were trading baseball cards/While DDT rained in our yard”) and “Shouting Across the Ocean” lauds St. Joe Strummer, Tim Quirk’s lyrics generally square off against the current moment. And a poisonous moment it is: It can’t be accidental that the bitter, abusive family friend of “Uncle Watson Wants to Think” whose “one unquestioned skill/Is making others just like him” brings to mind the former president who gives Quirk “Something to Drink About.” These are hard times for old punks who “once believed we were bound by ideals”—Quirk can’t even joke about the decapitation of a 17th century British Archbishop without being confronted by his own mortality. But just before the bonus track shout out to the “Modern Day Medici” who funded this Patreon effort comes a hopeful glimmer: “Just around the bend/I'll do what I want/You do what you want, too.” P.S. Proceed next to the moar raw bonus release Moar Mistakes, especially “Ready” (“Will you murder me now or will we just have sex?”) or the one that goes “I wanna change the world/But I can’t even change myself” (called, of course, “Death Ray Machine”).
This running playlist of the year’s best songs, along with a few sentences that try to get at what makes ’em work, is called The Uselist, because it has to be called something, and if you can’t go high, go as low as you can.
Colleen Green, “I Wanna Be a Dog”
With even-paced alt-pop verses giving her just a long enough leash, Green chases her borrowed Stooges metaphor wherever it strays, from “Never met any man that I could call my best friend” to “I get so bored when no one’s playing with me.” She knows you’re always looking at her tail anyway.
NNAMDÏ, “Lonely Weekend”
The Chicago genre-befuddler I keep telling you to listen to jazzes Kacey Musgraves’s wistful FOMO tune with shifting tempos, discordant and chromatic runs, and smooth vocal octave flips, complexificating a simple tune without flattening its spirit, and maybe even expanding its emotional range in the process.
Soccer Mommy, “Kissing in the Rain”
More tuneful longing and reconfigured ’90s alt guitar from an artist who heard Avril before she heard Liz Phair, which may be why she slides easily into the craft her elders backed into or swerved away from without coming across as slick.
Vince Staples, “Law of Averages”
Though Staples’s rhymes can undersell the personality and humor that saturate his Twitter feed and interviews, the antisocial, paranoid menace with which he threatens to “put you on a shirt” pairs well with Kenny Beats’ spooky track, which centers on what sounds like Justin Vernon hooking up with a ghost on a creaky bed three rooms down.
Homeboy Sandman, “Go Hard”
Prolific-bordering-on-workaholic underground rap vet hops atop a stop-and-go cymbal ‘n’ guitar track from Aesop Rock, his partner in the great occasional duo Lice, and spits Bo Diddley-worthy boasts like “I’m like Fred Hampton chewing on rattlesnake plantain.”
Named for a song from back when Miley Cyrus was good, 7 Things is a grab bag where I dump uncategorizable thoughts too long for a tweet and too short for an essay. (Though unlike Miley I don’t hate ’em. Well, not all of them.)
Make the Golf Course a Public Sex Forest
The golf course in question is the Hiawatha, just up the road from me, the fate of which local environmentalists and golfers have debated for years. But really, why shouldn’t the slogan apply more broadly to whatever course you’ve fantasized about swinging some wood in? The Hiawatha gets awful swampy, and I’m not an outdoorsy type myself (the reason we own beds is because they’re comfortable) but I appreciate the sense of adventure and the queer tradition behind this concept. Besides, the phrase “public sex forest” has a daffy, fantastical ring to it, like a mix of Situationalism and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.
Comedy loosens the reins of realism: The stylistic goofing Janicza Bravo gets up to in her retelling of Aziah King’s celebrated Twitter story—joke subtitles, dueling voice-overs, phone camera hand-offs, aerial toilet shots—allows her to drift unobtrusively into artsier reveries, those moments where our stripper-heroine recreates herself through dancing. As the cool center of a road trip to Florida gone wrong and wrong again, Taylour Page’s Zola provides a running commentary with her eyes: the core of the film, in fact, is how she and her negative image, Riley Keough’s blaccented deceiver Stefani, look at (and see or mis-see) each other. Funny as hell—except when it isn’t. (And maybe even then.)
TV Sign-Off Compilation - from 1976 to 1982
I’m old enough to remember a time when there wasn’t TV. Not a time before TV, but a time after TV, when for mass media, like everyone else, the day ended. As a kid, it felt like an achievement to see channels go off the air each night, like you’d watched everything there was to watch. This interminable compilation of ritualistic nightly sign-off messages, each individualized and slightly idiosyncratic in its pro forma way, is a calming artifact from a not-better and not-simpler past, just a moment when place and time were experienced differently.
Gift of Gab
In the ’90s, the NorCal SoleSides crew (later evolving into Quannum Projects) helped redefine a certain corner of the rap underground: quasi-collegiate but not bookish, as obsessed with skills as its rock counterparts were with amateurism but never letting mere virtuosity get in the way of a good time. The most skilled of the pack, Tim Parker was half of Blackalicious but not just that, regularly sprinkling brilliance on his comrades’ tracks, not to mention his solo joints. Now he’s dead at 50 of kidney-related “natural causes,” joining DMX, MF Doom, and Shock G in the recent past alone as the latest Black rapper claimed by illness in middle-age. Racism is a health crisis.
People Magazine’s “Celebs Who Embrace Punk Rock Style”
It was hard to tell how much of the online outrage over this quickie gallery, captioned with trollish don’t-look-back expedience, was genuine, how much performative, how much performative disguised as genuine, and how much genuine disguised as performative. (Just like punk itself, right?) Travis Barker is “the godfather of punk.” Machine Gun Kelly with a neck tattoo is “synonymous with punk rock.” Kourtney Kardashian and Megan Fox prove that it's never too late to become punk if you find the right boyfriend. Greil Marcus must be rolling in Lester Bangs’s grave. Hopefully with laughter.
No Sudden Move
Retired filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s latest caper flick has plenty of style (the ’50s! sharp suits! big cars!), substance (the criminal past of the auto industry), plot (of the “send in two guys with guns” variety), and characters (often as visually memorable as Dick Tracy crooks, with Brendan Fraser’s dazed, plump-necked middleman a standout). For all its excess though, and despite Don Cheadle’s quasi-moral center, No Sudden Move feels slight, a diverting exercise in moviemaking. And that’s fine. As diversions go, this offers the expedient entertainment blockbusters are often now too self-important to deliver. I might never think about this movie again, and that’s a compliment.
DJ KaySlay, “Rolling 110 Deep”
I couldn’t justify adding this to The Uselist—how often will you re-listen to a 40-minute posse cut, no matter how significant its roster or how many moments of brilliance it’s packing? But this, yes, 110-rapper parade of skills deserves (and rewards) at least one concentrated listen, and it’s worth bookmarking for a return engagement or maybe flipping through later like a reference book. Favorite moments include Inspectah Deck (“only time you been sick is when the Covid hit”) upstaging his more celebrated Wu pals, and the originator Coke La Rock getting his shine. I don’t know or care if this is “what hip-hop is really all about” or share the general disdain here for “culture vultures” and modern rap, but I get why these often-under-compensated artists feel that way. Someone more obsessive than me should rank all 110 performances.