Category Archives: soul

Vol.26: Wolf Like Me

howlin' forever

There are no wolves on this sleeve.

TV on the Radio – Wolf Like Me (2006, 4AD)

Why It’s Perfect: Blast this song on a good sound system and I doubt anyone could make it through even the opening fourteen seconds without wide eyes and a pounding pulse. It’s a mammoth beat this song rides, and Kyp Malone’s bass buzzes and thrums like Interpol on amphetamines; alone, these elements would be enough for a runner to disappear in, a dancer to sweat through. It’s a foundation for any number of things; gleaming, Bloc Party-ish buzzsaw guitars, or maybe a sort of rockist club banger. Yet as much as the song is a galvanizing, nostril-flaring experience, it also a weirdly thick, work-as-assemblage bit of genrefuck.

What do you call this noise? It starts simply enough, with that drum and bass barrelling forward, gradually layering on new elements until it’s built enough momentum that the weight of those additional sounds becomes not a burden, but a battering ram. It’s this genius build-up that makes Wolf Like Me not merely exciting but overwhelming, intoxicating, consuming. It starts with producer Dave Sitek’s guitar. Realizing that simply doubling up Malone’s bass would be redundant (it’s just such a fat fucking sound he’s got), he instead begins squalling out textures and these piercing tremolo riffs, filling out the high end of the production and providing a useful contrast to all of the rumble and lurch below. To this, you can add the thick, unsourced electrical hum that Sitek loves to coat his productions with.

But it’s Tunde Adebimpe’s unmistakable, ever-so-slightly whiny wail that makes Wolf Like Me one of the greatest singles of its era. He seems to lope over the beat, agile, graceful, precise in his phrasing and pitch, yet toothy and slavering, right at your heels and gaining. It’s a hell of a lyric too; Baby doll I recognize that you’re a hideous thing inside / If ever there was a lucky kind it’s you you you you. The whole thing is this churned up mix of sex and violence, blood and milk, something a lot more like passion than, say, Love the Way You Lie (one of the most bullshit songs ever, by the way).

And then, right as it seems like the whole song is going to explode, it turns in on itself. The bridge is a cloud passing over the moon, all of the weird soul and ambient and sound collage stuff that’d been buried under the punk bombast coming out to say hi; shimmering, clinking metal noises and undulating waves of oooohing vocals and undulating synths and then it’s allllll moving quickly again and Tunde’s going nuts and Kyp Malone is chiming in with crazy howling harmonies and there are horns and teeth and you’re writhing in your riding hood and Wolf Like Me has run its course right through your ears and veins, and you’ve no choice but to let your sweat cool on your skin, or hit play again, when ready, and do it one more time.

Defining Moment: Here comes the moon so let it show you, shooooww youuuuu noooowww… BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM

Other Great Songs by TV on the Radio: Sometime after dropping Dear Science (didn’t that record useta have a comma?) to near universal acclaim, TV on the Radio went from one of indiedom’s most dick-rode (dick-ridden?) bands to one of its most commonly dissed and dismissed, and I’ve never been quite sure why. I mean, and I don’t think I’m overstating this, they’re like the only indie rock band with black guys that sounds like it has black guys in it. I’m not advocating some kind of bullshit rockist affirmative action here; if there were a black band of deadringers for mid-period Belle & Sebastian or Death Cab, I wouldn’t give a damn about their skin and neither would you. But TV on the Radio have got singers in Tunde and Kyp who can draw from the rich histories of black popular music without sounding like daytripping crackers ransacking Otis Redding’s plane. And you can feel that history being referenced, reintroduced and productively fucked with in TVotR’s best songs, a short list of which would include the entire Young Liars EP, King Eternal, The Wrong Way, Dreams, Ambulance, Province, Blues from Down Here, I Was a Lover, Crying, DLZ and Will Do.



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Filed under 2000s, alternative, indie, post-punk, soul

Vol.18: Glory Box


Portishead – Glory Box (1994, Go! Discs)

Why It’s Perfect: Most female songs about desire tend to be about the fun side, the playful blushing got-you-in-my-sights-ness of crushing; they don’t speak to reality so much as the basic pleasure of wanting or being wanted. Portishead’s Glory Box is about the weariness of love as much as anything, the painful honesty and intensity emotions take on well after the pubs have closed for the evening. It yearns. It’s kinda like Etta James’ At Last turned in on itself, dilated with the same all-consuming emotion but more cautious, fearful of being hurt, willing to give in to love again, but conscious of the consequences. The lyrics, which tell of a (supposedly) former wild woman looking to settle into a life of monogamy, sketch out some of the emotional space I’ve been describing here, but much of the nuance and characterization stems from singer Beth Gibbons’ performance. Her voice is beautiful and clear, but it has a touch of the cigarette smoke she constantly puffs, a slightly imperfect rasp that lends credibility to her story. On the verses she embodies the teasing self-confidence of a girl who knows what she’s got and how it effects a man; listen to the way she coos “Move over, and give us some room.” But each time the chorus hits she lets her guard slip, and the result is almost uncomfortably naked, this sense of an aging woman belatedly trying to settle into a more permanent love; “give me a reason to love you. / Give me a reason to be a woman.” It’s a pitch to a man certainly, but also to herself; she’s wants this man to be the right one so badly that he need only give commitment and she’ll do the rest.

Aside from Gibbons, the other star of the track is guitarist Adrian Utley. While Gibbons is more than capable of conveying complex emotion on her own, it’s Utley’s clanging, overdriven guitar that gives the Glory Box its captivating intensity. That melody he plays during the chorus is quite conventional save for the way he phrases it, just wrenching the notes out of the guitar somehow, creating this angular howl that contracts itself into a series of escalating climaxes. His solo is a gorgeous piece of work too, taking his time and letting you taste the metallic richness of the sound. It tears through the crackling vintage 45 production of the track, making very clear that for all it’s beautiful vocalization and haunting string arrangements, this isn’t some distant old soul record; Portishead have seen and felt too much since that simpler pop era to create such a comforting novelty.

Defining Moment: Towards the end of the song Gibbons cries “This is the beginning of forever… and ever…” It’s a strange, obsessive conclusion that doesn’t seem to be borne out by the rest of the lyrics, one of those decisions where someone wants something so bad they force it. As if responding to this, Gibbons’ voice becomes unexpectedly processed and distorted, as the soundtrack collapses into a huge, hollow trip-hop beat. It’s a twist you don’t see coming so late in a track, and effect is disorienting yet exhilarating for that very reason.

Other Great Songs by Portishead: While Glory Box is not especially indicative of the inventive programming and experimental nature of Portishead’s work, its cinematic (sorry to use that word again, but it fits) scope, bittersweet emotional tone and hypnotic sound are hallmarks of the band. All three of Portishead’s studio records, as well as their 1998 Roseland NYC Live document (which features a superb version of Glory Box), are classics in their genre and come highly recommended. For those seeking a wider sampling of their songs before diving in, Mysterons, Sour Times, All Mine, Over and Machine Gun are all magnetic wonders.

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Filed under 1990s, soul, trip-hop

Perfect Pop Singles Vol.10: Come on Eileen

Dungarees by OshKosh B'Gosh

Dungarees by OshKosh B'Gosh

Dexys Midnight Runners – Come on Eileen (1982, Mercury Records)

Why It’s Perfect: In the great history of pop songs pleading for pussy, and it is a great history, few can match the sheer delight that is Come on Eileen (and what a loaded title…). This track conforms to how I imagine your average Irishman picks up a tourist:

1. He opens by playing on the womanly wooziness which is the usual result of exposure to his adorable accent, here represented by that irresistibly Celtic fiddling (though the actual fiddlin’ comes later in this narrative).
2. He behaves affably with a side of light hell-raising rakishness, which makes fucking him seem like it will be both an unmissably amusing experience and one which will prove a great way of sticking it to her father, who is probably of British ancestry and will therefore be horrified. In the song, this is represented by the goofy-grin banjo riff, “us against those boring squares” lyric and that redheaded accordion wheeze.
3. Finally, he begs for it (chorus).

Now, while most Irish blokes are at best probably about 50% successful, Come on Eileen is an absolute sure-shot. Maybe that’s because lead Runner Kevin Rowland is actually from Wolverhampton, but probably it’s because this group combine a Pogues-y feel for poppy Celtic folk with sublime melodic arrangements owing to the best ‘60s American soul. The Irish and American blacks, perhaps due to their turbulent histories, have spawned some of the most joyous and energetic musical forms of the 20th century, and the way the Dexys mix them is impressive; this song is strong enough to be a Motown hit, but its instrumentation instantly recalls every mug-emptying memory you’ve ever had of jigging (even if you’ve only ever seen a jig on TV). Far better than the novelty albatross hung round its neck would suggest, Come on Eileen is one of those tunes that just inspires you to have a good time making bad decisions. Oh Eileen please, indeed.

Defining Moment: Tough. On one hand, you’ve got some of the best call-and-response vocals of the ‘80s, particularly during the chorus: “Ah, come on Eileen, oh I swear, (what he means is), ah come on let’s take off everything / That pretty red dress Eileen… (tell him yes!)” It’s like making out in a back room with someone you met at a party, and then having a bunch of your dopey friends stick their heads out from the window/door/closet to shout encouragement. But it’s hard to get away from the pinpoint precision of the deceptively loose arrangement, the way it speeds up during the bridge and you start to wonder how in the hell this Eileen chick hasn’t been won over yet. I mean, you know she will be. What girl could resist a faux Irishman in dungarees?

Other Great Songs by Dexys Midnight Runners: In spite of their one-hit wonder reputation Stateside, DMR had a run of fetchingly competent records in the early ‘80s, of which Searching for the Young Soul Rebels and Too-Rye-Ay are generally considered the best. The band’s other #1 UK single, Geno, is an amusing, brass-led New Wave staple, and they do a smashing cover of Van Morrison’s Jackie Wilson Said.

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Filed under 1980s, dungarees, folk rock, new wave, soul