Category: Hot Topics

Certain Songs #175: The Cars – “Just What I Needed”

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Album: The Cars.

Year: 1978.

Has there ever been anything more precise than “Just What I Needed”?? From the guitar & drum crashes on the opening, to how the instruments build during the first verse, and then the introduction of Greg Hawkes’ synthesiser hook where you would expect the chorus to be.

It’s that synth hook, of course, that grabs you. Once it enters your head, it never goes away, and it shows up during the back half of the rest of the verses just to remind you who the boss of the song is.

It’s all so precise – with every single note exactly where its supposed to be – that you almost fail to notice how weird it all is. I mean why would they put that synth hook in between verses? Why did the archetypal new wave vocalist have what sounded like Queen singing backing vocals on the big hard rock chorus? Why did the drummer do a secret double-time during the last verse? “Wasting all my time time?”

It was a mystery. How could something that was made so precisely from such familiar materials feel so strange?  “Just What I Needed” was like a UFO made from Mercedes-Benz parts. 

In early 1978, I’d been reading about “Punk Rock” and its immediate record-company-sanctioned twin the “New Wave,” in Rolling Stone and Creem, but precious little of it had made the Fresno airwaves. Maybe a stray Talking Heads song, possibly even a Ramones tune. But nothing had penetrated my thick, white, suburban classic rock skull.

Until “Just What I Needed.”  It was cool and mysterious and new and not too threatening all at the same time. For the first time in my life, I heard a New Wave song on the radio and thought: maybe I should find out what the rest of the album sounds like.

Next time on Certain Songs: 15-year-old Boy Decides to Buy The Cars, and You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next!!

Fan-made video for “Just What I Needed”

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Certain Songs #174: Carly Simon – “You’re So Vain”

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Album: No Secrets.

Year: 1972.

Decades before Taylor Swift got criticized for writing songs about her ex-boyfriends, Carly Simon did the same damn thing, and has been playing hide-and-seek with the truth ever since. Warren Beatty? Mick Jagger? David Geffen? In the end, it really doesn’t matter, because “You’re So Vain” is a textbook pop single.

First off: the production, spearheaded by 1970s uber-producer Richard Perry. At least until the strings come in at the end, “You’re So Vain” is kinda sparse and surprisingly swampy, allowing you really hear the sly internal rhymes (”yacht,” “apricot” “gavotte” is genius) in each verse.  

Even better is how each the drums in each verse drop out at the end for just a measure or so before building into the chorus. 

About that chorus. It’s just brilliant, isn’t it? It’s one of the all-time great “fuck yous” to be sure, but there’s also a bit of a wistful sigh that undercuts the nastiness.

You’re so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You’re so vain, you’re so vain
I’ll bet you think this song is about you
Don’t you?
Don’t you?
                

Oh, and from the second verse on, that other voice doubling Carly Simon’s? Mick fucking Jagger, doing some of the best harmony singing of his life. If you listen for it, you can totally here his unmistakable cadence on the “Don’chews,” but he’s also not dominating. I’m guessing that there are people who have gone their entire lives not knowing that he sang on this song.

It all added up to a song that sound amazing on the AM radio – just fucking huge to my pre-teen ears – and was not only a huge smash at the time, but has become a pop culture staple.

Video for “You’re So Vain”

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Certain Songs #173: Caitlin Rose – “Only A Clown”

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Album: The Stand-In.

Year: 2013.

One of my favorite pop music trends of the past few years is the plethora of dynamite post-Taylor Swift (or post Miranda Lambert) female singer-songwriters coming out of – or at least associated with – country music. Or alt-country. Or Americana, whatever. If you think that modern country music is all bro-country that gets the headlines, then you’re not paying attention.

Folks who have been paying attention probably know about Kacey Musgraves and (maybe) Lydia Loveless, but there are tons and tons more – people like Nikki Lane and Pistols Annies’ Angeleena Presley & Ashley Monroe come to mind – and I’m positive that I’m missing half of them myself.

And right now, Caitlin Rose’s “Only A Clown”  might be my favorite recent song to come from any of them. A simple story of going to a party by yourself, it’s also highlighted by an arrangement that pits a pedal steel guitar in one speaker with a jangly guitar that wouldn’t be lost on Reckoning in the other.

 But that’s not so uncommon, of course, but when she sings:

Put your record on
Let the band play a song
All about love and believing
Good for you
Cause if that’s true
Then it’s only a clown that’s leaving

It’s her big sad voice – that reminds me a lot of Kathleen Edwards, speaking of alt-country – over a big sad melody over a big sad lyric that puts it over. 

Video for “Only a Clown”

Certain Songs #172: Camper Van Beethoven – “All Her Favorite Fruit”

Album: Key Lime Pie.

Year: 1989.

The most serious – i.e. the only serious – album that Camper Van Beethoven made, for the first side, Key Lime Pie is also the best album they ever made. While their trademark psychedelic absurdity remained, it found itself serving songs with actual specific politics – left-wing, thereby surprising no one – attached.  Though, naturally, Camper Van Beethoven couldn’t be bothered to write their anti-Reagan song (a staple of the 1980s indie scene) until after he left office.

Sadly, side two of Key Lime Pie didn’t hold up, and even the Status Quo cover that topped that alt-rock charts that year just left me cold. That said, smack dab in the middle of a sea of songs I haven’t played on purpose in 25 years stands “All Her Favorite Fruit,” which is my favorite Camper Van Beethoven song.

Slow, majestic and brooding, “All Her Favorite Fruit” was a twisted love song featuring a gorgeous guitar hook (that kinda reminded me of early U2 at the time) snaking around a soaring violin, as well as one of my favorite Lowery lines:

And I’d like to take her there, rather than this train

Thinking about it now, it’s not early U2 that “All Her Favorite Fruit” reminds me of, it’s Pavement circa Wowee Zowee, where the tempos have slowed, but the guitar hooks you can sing along with still remain. If you think hard enough, you could hear “All Her Favorite Fruit” easily share space with “Grounded” or “Father To A Sister of Thought”

Of course, in 1989, Pavement was in about the same place in their development that Camper Van Beethoven were during the Telephone Free Landslide Victory, but I now wonder if  Camper Van’s later days was any kind of example for their fellow Californians. 

“All Her Favorite Fruit” performed live in 2010

Fan-made video for “All Her Favorite Fruit”

Certain Songs #171: Camper Van Beethoven – “Life is Grand”

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Album: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.

Year: 1988.

It’s entirely possible that there were more unlikely major-label signings in the late-1980s than Camper Van Beethoven, but none come to mind. And not that I cared: my philosophy is that an artist can make great music just as easily for a major label as they can for an indie, and I’ve heard as many tales of artists getting fiscally screwed by indies as I have of artists getting screwed by majors.

And yeah, there’s always the “meddling record company” aspect, but it seems to me that any artist who lets a record company fuck that much with their music probably wasn’t fully committed to it in the first place, and it’s entirely possible that I might not have liked them on an indie anyways.

And in 2015, with the major record labels essentially hollowed-out husks of what they once were, I’m guessing that it’s a distinction without a difference to a lot of young people – maybe even for the hipsters who buy the vinyl where you can still see the actual physical manifestations of the labels.

Anyways, this is a roundabout way of saying that there was definitely an effect of recording with a major-label producer: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart definitely sounds better than the earlier CVB records.  But luckily – with its twisty songs about acid-eating cowboys, Patti Hearst and Death – it remained uniquely weird. It still sounded like no one else in the universe.

And I loved the bouncy “Life is Grand,” which confronted our generational cynicism head-on with a perfect combination of bouncy music and optimistic lyrics:

And life is grand
And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor
With those of you who have appointed yourselves
To expect us to say something darker

And love is real
And though I realize this is not a deep observation
To those of you who find it necessary
To conceal love or obscure it, as is the fashion

Coming out during the onset of what I still consider the worst summer of my life, I didn’t particularly believe “Life is Grand”  – especially that verse about love – but I was sure glad that it existed. Even in the existentially dark mood I was in, I could appreciate what Camper Van Beethoven was trying to say, and actually hoped that I would eventually agree with it. Which, of course, I do.

Official Video for “Life is Grand”

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