“slug” – passengers (1995)

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Life is vast and full of contradictions. We all experience emotional complications that contrast with what is going on around us. It can be a feeling of isolation while out with friends, or laughing during a tragic moment. We cannot control how we feel. Though, I believe we can control how we react to things. However, I have a hard time accepting that as an absolute truth sometimes. There are two reactions to every feeling: one we feel inside and one we show the world.

“Slug” by Passengers was inspired by the brightly lit Tokyo cityscape when the sun goes down. Within that city, there are millions of people living there lives. In a city that is a live with hearts beating and electricity flowing, some live in desolation. It is interesting to think how surreal it must be to walk through all of those flashing lights with a feeling of disconnection. In such a sprawling megalopolis like Tokyo, it must be easy to have complete anonymity and isolate yourself from the west of the world.

Passengers served as a one-time side project for U2 and Brian Eno. During the mid-1990s, the music charts were dominated by singles from movies. Eno proposed the idea to create a soundtrack compilation of songs and music for films that never existed elsewhere outside of Eno’s imagination. U2 were then brought on to collaborate when they were pitched this album would serve not as a ploy for radio airplay, but rather as a spoof.

Written about a desolate soul existing among celebration, “Slug” is a musical treat with the potential to enhance visual storytelling within the mind’s eye. “Slug” is an excellent example of visual music. Leading the production, Eno crafts a deep mosaic of melancholy and awe. The music comes together offer flashes of neon light and darkness as you trek the damp, city streets looking for refuge. The sounds fluctuate and breathe as they move around you leading you to the unknown. The pulsating rhythms are hypnotic with subtle pitch changes that draw you in further.

Bono’s singing is subdued and pained throughout. There is a struggle in the lyrics. Feelings of loneliness and regret emanate from the words as our song’s lead falls further into the urban void; an orgy of light and sound that has the power to enlighten as well as dehumanize. The lyrics are repetitive as though they are trying to convince the listener, or even the singer, that everything is alright. The denial and meandering truth engulf the whole piece within a mystery. This city has its secrets and you’ll never know where to find them without losing yourself.

While the concept of the album was to create a collection of songs for fake movies, three of the tracks did become featured as centerpieces for soundtracks (i.e. “Miss Sarajevo”). “Original Soundtracks 1” is an entrancing nighttime record. It is dark and brief shimmery glimpses of life beyond the blackness. An admitted contradiction of life within a void.

“piss up a rope” – ween (1996)

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Humor is incredibly important to me, so I try to find it everywhere I can. That is how part of me deals with negative situations a lot of the time. I may worry about certain aspects of what is going on around me, but I’ll always find a way make some fun of it. Humor is an incredible coping mechanism.

Ween’s 1996 classic “Piss Up a Rope” is quite a stupid song. And I love it. A single from their country concept album “12 Golden Country Greats,” “Piss Up a Rope” serves as a stellar parody of style and thematic elements in country western music. Loss, grief, and anger are all subjects prevalent in country western music. In these songs, the singer loses their wife, dog, truck, or whatever, but they move on with little to no emotional baggage. How do they do it? By just brushing it off with a smirk and some colorful way of telling someone to take a hike. Dean Ween says the inspiration for the expression “piss up a rope” came from his dad saying “aw, go shit in your hat;” a nonsensical way of saying “whatever.”

The main focus of the track is the songwriting. While the music adds to the concept Ween is developing, it isn’t anything really exciting. Besides a distorted guitar solo, the music arrangement is fairly generic. It serves its purpose, though. The key to the song is authenticity if it is going to live up to the western theme. With vocals led by Gene Ween, “Piss Up a Rope” is a story of a man who has had enough of his loud, abusive wife. Gene has had enough of her shit and is ready to give her the ol’ one finger salute and end this terrible marriage in the most hilarious way possible; stupid lyrics colloquialisms.

Ween is famous for their strange, experimental style. They’re very consistent at being inconsistent. Some of their material is way out there, but all of it is rich in humor. There was a lot of material to choose from, but I’ve got a soft spot for “Piss Up a Rope.” It is a song that is committed in recreating an entire thematic experience. It is not a song for everybody and for obvious reasons. Music like this is really an acquired taste for its reality-numbing effects. And Ween doesn’t care. If you can’t cope, then piss up a rope.

“coming down” – dum dum girls (2011)

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Personal happiness is a luxury. We all face tragedies and problems that attempt to break our foundation. Some people experience more suffering than others, but it is ultimately pointless to compare ourselves with other people. It is true that you cannot change what happens to you, but you can surely change how you react to it. This is how you can have control over your life and how it affects others.

Substance abuse and drug addiction has been on my mind lately for three reasons: 1) I’m reading a journalistic expose on the failure of the drug war, 2) the third season of “Orange is the New Black” starts off in a heart-breaking fashion, and 3) I saw the trailer for the Amy Winehouse documentary this week. What all three of those things have in common is that they involve people and their pursuit of happiness. Happiness is something we all want and feel that we deserve. As a result, people will go to any lengths to get it and sometimes those lengths can be devastating. However, you are not just hurting yourself in those difficult times. You are also causing those around you pain.

“Coming Down” by Dum Dum Girls speaks to me as a song about drug abuse. I know that it is actually about a personal relationship breaking up and the aftermath of coming down from that love high, but I’m choosing to look at the context differently. I know my recent media consumption is affecting this altered view, but I don’t care.

Against a soft, droning beat similar to the album “The Trinity Sessions” by Cowboy Junkies or even Mazzy Star’s entire discography, Dum Dum Girls paints a melancholy landscape to set the stage for the song. It is moody and brimming with allusions of heartache from a sensory perspective. The lead singer starts things off without any delusion of why she is there. She’ll take anything she can get and when she closes her eyes to get closer to the object of her desire in her imagination, she is only left a faint taste in her mouth. From then, she tries to leave. She can’t. She wants this object of desire to pull her back strongly and keep her high. However, this object of desire proves to be heartless for the pain it inflicts on those who are around. I feel the lyrics paint a dramatic tale of substance abuse; the ultimate bad relationship where you feel powerless and without control.

I know my interpretation of the song may be a stretch, but I stand by it. It is fitting since relationships can come in all forms. And that is key element: relationships. When we cannot achieve the personal happiness that we think we deserve, it is isolating. It creates a lonely feeling coupled with paranoia; not only do people not care about you, but they are out to hurt you as well. Even the music video conveys this imagery as the singer’s dress is cut piece by piece by people around her.

Why is it that our happiness stems from our social interactions and relationships with people? Humans are social creatures, which is true. We may look inward and try to find the strength and confidence to make ourselves happy, but I believe that is impossible. That is why we look for happiness. That is why we pursue it in a needle, with a lover, in a book, or anywhere else. We cannot generate a significant level of happiness in complete isolation.

We all struggle to find our happiness. And if your path is leading you down a dark road, reach out. There are people who care. Love those around you and do not be hesitate to be happy.

“gangsters” – the specials (1979)

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At some point or another, we have all had a fast one pulled on us. For some people, it is not enough to find their own way in life. They feel the need to validate themselves by invalidating others. By lying, cheating, and stealing, these people will try to get what they want. However, you have two choices in life and one of them is not give in.

“Gangsters” by The Specials is a great track with a fantastic back story. I was reminded of the song this week after a conversation about Bernie Rhodes. Rhodes was the manager of The Specials as well as other great punk and new wave artists like The Clash and Dexys Midnight Runners. Rhodes was “hands-on” type of manager, and that is putting it nicely. Whenever any of his acts were getting taken advantage of, he often resorted to threats and violence to rectify the situation. When a French hotel refused to give The Specials their instruments back, Rhodes applied his unique management style to the situation. As a result, it inspired a timeless ska track.

It isn’t easy to pick one single song from The Specials’ debut album. With each track arranged by incredibly skilled musicians and the production chops of Elvis Costello, the entire album is worth listening to in one sitting. However, “Gangsters” was a non-album single that has since been included on later CD and vinyl pressings. And it would’ve been a gangster-style crime to exclude such an iconic track.

Beyond the great back story that inspired the single, “Gangsters” is a solid example of English 2 Tone. With a brooding keyboard rhythm, manic horn section, and echoed vocals, “Gangsters” creates a killer vibe seething with criminality. It is a total mood setter that creates the illusion of one getting a glimpse into the seedy underworld of 1970s London. It creates an uncomfortable backdrop, but keeps it cool and collected. Remember, Bernie Rhodes don’t argue.

Don’t be afraid to stand up for your rights against those who use law to commit crimes. A position of authority doesn’t always indicate strong morality or ethics. Most of the time it does, but corruption permeates through all classes. Remember that the next time you vote.

“think i’m coming down” – lee hazlewood (1973)

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Pop music is a reflection of our society and the songs we hear echo the issues of our day. Music is a great unifier. An artist can take what exists around them and craft an arrangement the carries a special message to all those willing to listen. What we hear is a commentary and simplified idea that is relatable to us as a society. It’s not a phenomenon that is exclusive to music. It is an inherent responsibility that is carried across all artistic mediums. In essence, art imitates life both when the times are good or bad.

There is a particular social stigma with rock/pop music of the late 1960s such as the Stones, Beatles, or Kinks. Sure, all of these groups are now considered ancient history, dad rock, or whatever descriptor we can apply that dates them. To a modern listener, these songs just aren’t edgy anymore. But, we tend to forget the underlying themes of many of the classic rock radio staples of yesteryear. This was a period that immortalized excessive drug abuse. What’s that you see up there? Oh, it’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds. What are you doing over there?   Oh, just waiting for the man. Though these things become exaggerated over time, it’s pretty much a safe bet to assume a song is about drugs. Can’t understand what Dylan is saying? Drugs. Simplistic, yes. But, not unreasonable. The culture was experimenting at that time and, of course, music was as well.

All contemporary music is a reflection of society. While 60s rock is characterized as being for the drug-addled hippies, let’s not forget country music. Country music tends to have the stereotype as being for the good ol’ boys; the conservative Christians. Good, down-home types who wouldn’t think twice about putting down their Bibles to pick up joint.

Pioneering cowboy psychedelia, Lee Hazlewood defies the stereotypes associated with country music artists. Hazlewood’s work during the 1960s and 70s were fueled by all the same creative juices flowing through contemporary rock/pop at the time. Conventional thinking was for the squares and it was time to open minds to strange, more psychedelic ways of thinking. Hazlewood’s rural saccharine sound was a great, and underappreciated, complement to the more popular hopheads on the radio.

However, all things must pass. With things like Vietnam, Altamont, and Charles Manson, the cultural high wasn’t going to last forever. The crash came and it came hard. “Think I’m Coming Down” is a great reactionary song to the music of the previous decade. Things weren’t groovy anymore as paranoia reigned supreme and went all the way up to The White House. Musically and thematically, this 1973 gem of a song reflects that perfectly. Thinly veiled as a song about lost love and drug abuse, Hazlewood’s baritone voice soberly deals with his own personal crash. He’s coming down. Backed by a female chorus that borders on gospel, the soothing angelic voices aid his fall back to Earth. Hazlewood is going to be ok, but he won’t be the same. No one is the same after a bad trip.

I had some fun with this song. As a child of the late 80s, I absolutely have no authority to speak on the culture and lifestyles of our parents and grandparents. But, it is a lot of fun, isn’t it? Time is a great equalizer. Problems of the past seem so far away as if we are reading them out of some great lost novel. And then there are the things we hold onto and idolize. Why are some things sacred and others are not? Who knows and who cares? Society cherry picks its history and we choose to romanticize the free-spiritedness and innovation that time brought us. Drugs or not, we all come down after riding that high. What may seem turbulent now won’t be in the future and what was cool then probably wasn’t. But, don’t worry about that. Just enjoy the trip.