Best tunes of 1990: #21 Concrete Blonde “Joey”

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The cassette single, or “cassingle”, was the magnetic cassette tape equivalent to the vinyl 45, the format it was meant to replace back in the mid to late 80s and into the 90s. However, it never did gain the traction that the record companies had hoped it would. And why would it, really? A cassette with a song on each side, or in some cases, both songs repeated on both sides, packaged in a flimsy cardboard sleeve. It was hardly worth shelling out the dough and definitely not worth inserting into your Sony Sports Walkman if you made the miscalculation of purchasing it. Nonetheless, anyone who listened to music back in those days likely remembers having one or two cassingles in their collection and indeed, I’m sure some of you even still have one or two of these relics gathering dust somewheres.

I definitely had one or two at the time and remember exchanging and sharing these two song wonders between friends. I mention this long defunct format today because the first time I ever heard Concrete Blonde’s “Joey” was when a girl I was “seeing” for a very brief time in high school loaned me her copy of the cassette single. And also, the very fact that this song was released in this format illustrates that it enjoyed a modest modicum of commercial success, one the few songs by the band that did.

Concrete Blonde was an American alternative rock band led by the intense vocals of Johnette Napolitano and whose name was suggested to the band by friend and fellow IRS labelmate Michael Stipe. In their early days, the band played to an almost exclusive college radio crowd, right up until the release of “Bloodletting”, which exposed them to wider commercial audience, mostly thanks to this track, “Joey”. The interesting thing is that this is the album that saw the band move away from their more pedestrian, hard rock roots towards a darker, more gothic rock sound.

“Joey” was the final track recorded for the album because the lyrics were emotionally difficult for Napolitano to lay down. She has since confirmed early suspicions that the song is about an alcoholic (a stretch, I know), and specifically, about her relationship with Wall of Voodoo guitarist, Marc Moreland. Even without knowing any of this, you can hear the pain in Napolitano’s voice as it flips between the soothing and sad verses to the rage and the pleading in her chorus.

But if I seem to be confused
I didn’t mean to be with you.
And when you said I scared you
Well, I guess you scared me too.

The song is quite beautiful in its melancholy, and not just in the lyrics and the way she sings them, but also in the solemnity of the simple drum line and fills and the aching guitar solos. This is a song that I’ve played on repeat numerous times in the past and have also done a few times this week. Enjoy.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2010: #25 Library Voices “Drinking games”

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Like P.S. I Love You, who started this particular list off at the number thirty spot, I discovered Library Voices through seeing them live at Ottawa Bluesfest in 2011. But unlike the former, I didn’t listen to any of Library Voices recordings in advance and so my first real introduction to their music was their live set.

They made quite the first impression as all eight of them filed on to the stage and the way they performed, all passionate and chaotic, trading instruments and jumping into the admittedly sparse crowd at different points, led me to describe them to a friend later as a poor man’s Arcade Fire. It’s a description I immediately regretted saying out loud but the similarities in their live show sensibilities were too obvious to ignore. And when I later purchased and listened to their debut full-length, “Denim on denim”, I was able to add another Canadian indie rock band as a comparison point: The New Pornographers. If you like either of these two bands, Library Voices might just be worth a look for you.

Library Voices banging the drum in the middle of the crowd (Bluesfest 2011)

They were formed in 2008 in Regina, Saskatchewan by a group of musician friends and there were 10 of them at the beginning! They have since released a couple of EPs and three LPs in total, the latest of which, last year’s “Lovish”, saw the band drop all the madness, pare down their personnel, and focus more on the power pop. It’s a good sound for them but I still hold a soft spot for their early tunes, the big sound, the blue eyed innocence, and the pure joy, though I must say the one constant in all their material are the smart and literary lyrics.

“Drinking games” starts off “Denim on denim”, an album of party ready numbers, with a tune about a party girl, who’s “not one for love but sure loves the chase”. The singer is quite aware of who she is and what she’s like but despite his claim that he’s “too old for these drinking games”, you can tell that he’s fallen for her just the same. It starts of with a capella harmonies that sound funnelled through an AM radio. After two go rounds of the chorus, the bass line and handclaps join the house party. Eventually, the whole crew joins in, sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting, sometimes banging loudly on the tambourine. They are digging through crates of records, spilling red wine on the new couches, vomiting in the kitchen sink, and pretty much drinking every last beer in the fridge. Library Voices are definitely not the quietest friends at your party.

But often these are good friends to have.

(And oh yeah, if I haven’t sold you yet and you haven’t pressed play on the above video, there’s a lovely little nod tossed in near the end of the tune for all of you Cure fans. Cheers!)

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1990: #22 Bad Religion “21st century (digital boy)”

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I’m sure a great many of you know and love this Bad Religion track. But did you know that it was originally released in 1990, as part of their fifth studio album “Against the grain”? And that it was only released as a single in 1994 after being re-recorded for their first major label album “Stranger than fiction”? I certainly didn’t know all of this back in ’94 when I was busy getting hooked on the song through regular airplay on Toronto’s CFNY. But it’s all true.

“21st century (digital boy)” was written by guitarist Brent Gurewitz and this fine American punk rock band had been performing it during their legendary live sets as early as 1989, becoming a fan favourite in the process. Depending on who you believe, the song was re-recorded for “Stranger than fiction” either because Gurewitz felt that the band was performing it better in 1994 than when it was originally recorded or because their new label, Atlantic, wanted a single for the album that wasn’t yet there. Regardless, the song did become Bad Religion’s biggest hit and their most easily identifiable track.

By the time that I sat down to put together this list, I was more familiar with the history of the track and I momentarily hesitated to include it. Should it be considered a 1990 track because that was when it was originally written? Or does it belong with the best of 1994 because the re-recorded version is the one that everyone (including me) knows and is more familiar with? In the end, it obviously found a place in this series because it’s too great a track not to rave about, right here and right now. (I’ve got both versions below so that you can enjoy the version of your choice.)

Bad Religion has been a going concern since 1979 with a fluid roster whose only static member has been lead vocalist Greg Gaffin. The band toiled in the punk underground for years but started to gain traction in the late 80s and amassed a following on the back of their electrifying live shows. It was here they attracted the attention of the majors and signed with Atlantic during the gold rush of alt-rock band label signings post-Nirvana. The aforementioned “Stranger than fiction” long player is their best selling album, attaining gold status in both Canada and the US, and featuring a number of fan favourites, including this one and the thundering title track. The band is still quite active, touring with Pennywise and The Offspring as recently as 2014.

“21st century (digital boy)”, like many of Bad Religion’s tracks, has plenty of raging guitars, hammering percussion and angry sounding, three-pronged vocals. With its apparent diss at all things technological and commercial, and all the toys that we can dream of, it is as relevant today as it was twenty five years ago. And yes, I smile knowingly at this as I listen to this track and jot down these very ideas on my Apple iPad.

Original version from 1990’s “Against the grain”:

Re-recorded version from 1994 (including a music video):

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.