Author Archive: altrockchick

James Brown & The Famous Flames – Live at the Apollo – Classic Music Review

I hate to call bullshit on a respected historical institution, but the JFK Library’s chronology of the Cuban Missile Crisis is missing important and vital information that would help the public put the crisis in perspective. I’m specifically referring to the entry for October 24, 1962:

Chairman Khrushchev replies indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter stating in part:

“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”

The astute historian will likely find this single entry woefully inadequate, and correct the oversight as follows:

1. Chairman Khrushchev replies indignantly to President Kennedy’s October 23 letter stating in part:

“You, Mr. President, are not declaring a quarantine, but rather are setting forth an ultimatum and threatening that if we do not give in to your demands you will use force. Consider what you are saying! And you want to persuade me to agree to this! What would it mean to agree to these demands? It would mean guiding oneself in one’s relations with other countries not by reason, but by submitting to arbitrariness. You are no longer appealing to reason, but wish to intimidate us.”
2. James Brown and The Famous Flames performed at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem on the night of October 24; the recording of the performance would prove to be a major factor in establishing the commercial viability of live recordings and a significant development in the history of soul music.

Yes, while Khruschev and Kennedy were wagging their dicks at each other, James Brown was busy triggering orgasms in an audience of 1500 people.

Those who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis (like my parents) invariably spice their stories by describing a world paralyzed by the fear of imminent nuclear armageddon. They give us the impression that every ear in the whole wide world was glued to their transistor radios or vacuum tube TV’s, terrified that at any moment they would receive word that the missiles were on their way. The JFK Library reinforces this narrative by titling their section on the crisis “The World on the Brink.”

Did James Brown, The Famous Flames, the staff at the Apollo and the 1500 concert-goers live in some kind of bubble that shielded them from the daily news? Why weren’t they hiding in fallout shelters or crawling under their beds like everyone else?

Through diligent research and my extraordinary ability to put two and two together, I have managed to solve the mystery. One of the anecdotes often cited in histories of the crisis describes how an American U-2 drifted into Soviet air space on October 27, when tensions were at the breaking point. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara heard the news and rushed out of a meeting shouting, “This means war with the Soviet Union!” In full Paul Revere mode, McNamara immediately called the President, who, according to the accepted mythology, received the news with unruffled detachment: “There’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.”

The push-button-activated taping system in the White House confirms that JFK did indeed utter that bit of folklore wisdom, but in one of the many attempts to burnish his legacy, the record was deliberately tampered with to make JFK appear cool and calm in the midst of the crisis. The real conversation featuring that phrase took place in the Oval Office two days before, on the morning of October 25th while Jack was having breakfast with brother Bobby:

BOBBY: Hey! Did you hear James Brown played to a packed house at the Apollo last night? Here we are facing imminent worldwide destruction and the guy decides the show must go on? Either he’s a nut or one of the most dedicated performers alive.

JACK: Well, there’s always some son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t get the word.

James Brown was the son-of-a-bitch who didn’t get the word! As for the 1500 fans who filled the Apollo, they were obviously the smartest people alive at the time. Shit, if you think you’re going to be vaporized any second and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it, you might as well go out partying!

*****

James Brown can be forgiven for not keeping up with the news at that particular juncture in his career. Though he had consistently hit the Top 10 on the R&B charts, he had yet to reach the Billboard Top 30. And while he was widely known as a must-see live act, his performances were still limited to the Chitlin’ Circuit (since refashioned to “Urban Theater Circuit”), making it difficult to reach mainstream (translation: white) audiences. Brown strongly believed he had to try something different and proposed a live album to his masters at King Records. Displaying insight similar to the MLB executives who fought television every step of the way and allowed football to supplant baseball as the American pastime, head man Syd Nathan squashed the idea, arguing that a live recording would discourage fans from attending Brown’s performances.

Imbued with the entrepreneurial spirit most Americans admire, Brown decided to fund the enterprise himself, forking over a lot of his hard-earned dough to pay for the recording equipment, theater rental and tuxedos for the Famous Flames. Even after Brown submitted the finished product, King Records dragged its feet on the release (the album wouldn’t hit the shelves until May 1963). According to James Maycock’s superb retrospective on the album from The Guardian:

As owner of the recordings, Brown forced Nathan to buy the tapes from him. But Nathan wasn’t impressed. Brown: “He didn’t like the way we went from one tune to another without stopping . . . I guess he was expecting exact copies of our earlier records, but with people politely applauding in between.” Once Nathan finally agreed to press 5,000 copies of the album, both men argued about the promotional single. James Brown: “Mr Nathan was waiting to see which tune the radio stations were going to play from the album, and then he would shoot it out as a single. I said, ‘We’re not going to take any singles off it. Sell it the way it is.'”

James Brown’s instincts were balls-on. Live at the Apollo shot to #2 on the Billboard LP charts and stayed on the charts for over a year. The album that blocked its path to the top spot was Andy Williams’ The Days of Wine and Roses.

That, my friends, is the epitome of the term, “polar opposites.”

Though the album opened the door to concerts in mainstream venues, it would take a couple of years for Brown to come up with a Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 single (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, Part 1”) and none of his future studio albums came close to reaching the top. A second live album released a year later (Pure Dynamite – Live at the Royal) reached #10, but the more salient fact is that James Brown holds the record for having the most singles to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 without any of them reaching #1. While he sold lots of records and will be long remembered for his influence on the development of soul and funk, James Brown was first and foremost a live performer, a showman with an extraordinary ability to capture, mesmerize and engage his audience.

And that’s what you hear on Live at the Apollo.

*****

When I’m really, really horny, I hate wasting my time on foreplay. Just pull the damn thing out, and don’t stop until you’ve given me everything you got and then some!

That’s also what you get with Live at the Apollo: nonstop action for twenty-nine minutes and fifty-seven seconds (add another 1:49 if you include Fats’ Gonder’s introduction, and another nine or so minutes if you add the alternative mixes on the deluxe version). Live at the Apollo is the polar opposite (not quite as strong as the James Brown-Andy Williams polarization, but close enough) of a Grateful Dead concert. The Dead take their sweet time moving from one song or jam to another and play as long as they feel like it, usually for multiple hours. Live at the Apollo is bereft of spaces, thank yous and idle chatter. Brown and the Flames never let up, not for a second. Though their appearance was fairly brief in terms of linear time, the sonic record leaves no doubt that they left it all on the field.

As did The Dead, consistently. Sometimes hard and fast is great, sometimes slow and elongated hits the sweet spot. When I say, “Give me everything you’ve got,” I want something more than an automatic thrusting dildo sex machine (available on Amazon) set to the highest speed. I want variation and style!

James Brown understood that variation is as important to music as it is to sex. If you’re someone who has never heard Live at the Apollo, do not assume that the pedal-to-the-floor pace of the show results in a performance that resembles the frantic speed of the guy who explains the dozens of dangerous side effects towards the end of American pharmaceutical commercials. A good chunk of Live at the Apollo is devoted to slow dance numbers, so the minutes don’t exactly fly by. James Brown was pretty good with upbeat material but saved his most dramatic performances for the slow stuff, where often he seems to make time stand still, squeezing every last drop from the musical moment.

*****

Fats Gonder’s job as emcee was to raise the level of the crowd’s anticipation to pre-orgasmic status, an assignment he accomplished with professionalism and aplomb. After sharing the first of several James Brown epithets (“The Hardest Workingman in Show Business”), he runs through a list of Brown’s hits, each followed by an ascending huzzah from the brass-heavy band and each occasioning a noticeable rise in crowd reaction—particularly from the women in the crowd. By the time Fats works his way up the hit list to “Lost Someone,” the screams are reminiscent of the shrieks the American public would hear on February 9, 1964, when The Beatles made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. As Maycock noted in his retrospective, we can thank an uncredited African-American woman for serving as catalyst:

The recording of that Wednesday’s shows was not without its obstacles though. In one of the early performances an elderly woman, just below a microphone, repeatedly screamed: “Sing it, motherfucker!” Debating this dilemma between performances, the band realised she was actually an asset, encouraging the rest of the audience to shriek louder. So King’s vice-president, Hal Neely, bribed her with popcorn into attending the other shows, although he discreetly moved the microphone out of cussing range. Bobby Byrd: “She brought the house down, she was a big part of the album.”

After wrapping up the list by mentioning Brown’s latest release (“Night Train”), Fats throws in two more epithets (“Mr. Dynamite” and “The Amazing Mr. Please Please Himself”) before announcing “The star of the show, James Brown and the Famous Flames!”

The band takes the cue and jumps out of the gate with a high-speed blues interlude. What stands out most prominently is the Al Caiola-Duane Eddy style guitar, dishing out a riff eerily similar to the theme song of the Batman television series. Since that series wouldn’t air for another three years, you can hold your shouts of “Holy ripoff, Batman!” and just revel in the fun. At the start of the third go-round, the screams from the audience tell you that the star performer and his entourage have made what was no doubt a dramatic entrance.

“You know I feel alright!” (Yeah!) “You know I feel alright!” (Yeah!!) “I feel aaaaawwwwlllllllrigh—–ight!” Brown’s welcome is followed by a crunchy, descending vamp on electric guitar that introduces a seriously uptempo riff in 6/4 time that ends with a tight closing flourish from the brass. The tempo shifts to a nice, hip-grinding mid-tempo beat as the singer launches into “I’ll Go Crazy” with doo-wop style support from the Famous Flames. The pre-chorus and chorus are filled with sharply-executed stop-time moments designed to get the adrenaline pumping. Brown’s vocal in this opening piece is delivered with disciplined ease, more concerned with phrasing in sync with groove than lyrical articulation, though he and the Flames tighten up the pronunciation a bit when they sing the key line, “You’ve got to live for yourself/Yourself and nobody else.” As the verses depict a man about to go crazy if his baby leaves him, that key line forms a primitive version of self-affirmation technique.

I don’t want to spend any time imagining James Brown as a self-help guru, so I’m very thankful that the next number starts immediately.

The applause hasn’t run itself out before Brown opens “Try Me,” and those two little words elicit intense screams spiced with swoons. The call-and-response and background vocals from The Famous Flames are outstanding, more than worthy of the few moments of rapt, silent attention they elicit. Sporadic screams do fill the air during the piece, but only in the breaks, never in the verses. This song is directed at two parts of the body—the heart and the clitoris (sorry, guys)—and the performers are right on target. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I’ll say it forever—there’s nothing quite as hot as a man showing a hint of vulnerability. Although James Brown could definitely play the part of drama queen, he also had a remarkable knack for vocal understatement, and here his tone and delivery reflect a man at the lowest of all low points.

After a brief vamp played at hyperspeed, we get “Think,” a hyperspeed version of the version James and the Flames recorded in 1960. It’s such a shocking shift from the slow grind of “Try Me” that the crowd has a hard time getting into the groove; as such, it stands out as the track featuring the least intense audience reaction. The single was definitely uptempo but still danceable; the Apollo version is so fast you might wind up snapping tendons and ligaments trying to keep up. Brown would re-record the song many times over the course of his career, a curious obsession with a rather “meh” song.

This time the vamp leads to a brief guitar lead-in and the welcoming downtempo rhythm of “I Don’t Mind.” Here The Flames’ harmonies take on more of a sweet gospel feel that is a delight to the ear. As with “Try Me,” there are plenty of moments of elongated stop time to raise anticipation, and James Brown’s vocal runs the gamut from low-register notes delivered with emotional restraint and high-pitched howls that display how difficult is for the narrator to maintain that restraint (he’s leaving his baby rather than the other way around, and the wavering emotion tempers the general tone of gloating). The truth is he does mind—and that’s what drives the extremes in Brown’s magnificent vocal.

The original November 1961 release of “Lost Someone,” is a fairly standard slow dance piece distinguished by James Brown’s intense, melodramatic vocal. It touched a sufficient number of hearts to hit #2 on the R&B charts, and you can easily imagine its potential as the closing number in a live set, leaving the crowd begging for an encore. From a purely logical perspective, however (she says, channeling her inner Spock), it’s hard to imagine it as a crowd participation number. I mean, who wants to admit they just got their sorry ass dumped in front of an audience? “Yeah, James, that’s me, I’m a fucking loser! Sing it, man! Bring it on home!”

Still clinging to the illogic of it all, my inner Spock reminds me that human beings are irrational creatures governed by their emotions, encourages me to get over it and give James Brown a helluva lot of credit for pulling off the impossible.

Refusing to let any marketing opportunity go to waste, Brown opens the performance with a brief advertisement for some of his hits:

I said if you leave me I go crazy
‘Cause I know it’s true now
You’ve got the power, and I want you to try me
‘Cause I don’t mind
Don’t leave me bewildered
‘Cause this old heart can’t stand no more

Kudos to J. B. for his marketing prowess, and thank your lucky stars he didn’t remind the audience of the merch table. The brief commercial break is followed by four repetitions of “there’s only one thing I can do/say,” a signal to the sharper pencils in the audience to anticipate a full performance of another James Brown hit. The audience has only one second to shout out or telepathically send their wishes his way, but everyone probably knew it simply had to be either “Please, Please, Please” or “Lost Someone.” The screaming, swooning crowd reaction tells us he made the right call, especially for the women in the audience.

Brown plays it close to the recording for the first few verses, teasing occasional responses from his hypnotized audience. He confirms their location in the palm of his hand through the classic, “Let me hear you say yeah” trope, building it up with “Let me hear you say it a little bit louder.” Soon you hear him move away from the mike, a brilliant little trick that forces the audience to listen even more intently. He conclusively proves the audience will follow him anywhere when, in his distant, near off-mike voice, he screams out “I’ll lo-OOOVE you tomorrow” and the audience rewards him with the most passionate screams on the album. As he continues to float in the distance during the repetition of “I’m so weak,” you wonder if he’s going to do the bit where he feigns utter exhaustion, a signal to one of the Flames to cover his shoulders in a wrap or cape and start to lead him offstage when WHAM! Brown taps into his reserve tank, rips off the covering and explodes in a fit of passion to cap his performance. Alas, it’s just a teaser; Brown returns to full mike and another run-through of “Lost Somebody.” During this phase, he wanders away from the written lyrics and starts playing with the crowd again. My favorite part is when he sings, “I want to hear you scream” and tries to get them to loosen up (“Don’t just say “aah,” say OWWWW!”). Like a good preacher, he tells them that if they let loose, “I believe that my work will be done.” I hope he meant that his work was to make everyone permanently horny so we would spend all our time fucking and never go to war with one another again.

Although early rock/R&B/soul critic and author Peter Guralnick has a tendency to go hyperbolic at times, his description of this performance is fairly grounded in reality:

Here, in a single, multilayered track … you have embodied the whole history of soul music, the teaching, the preaching, the endless assortment of gospel effects, above all the groove that was at the music’s core. “Don’t go to strangers,” James pleads in his abrasively vulnerable fashion. “Come on home to me . . . Gee whiz I love you . . . I’m so weak . . .” Over and over he repeats the simple phrases, insists “I’ll love you tomorrow” until the music is rocking with a steady pulse, until the music grabs you in the pit of the stomach and James knows he’s got you. Then he works the audience as he works the song, teasing, tantalizing, drawing closer, dancing away, until finally at the end of Side I that voice breaks through the crowd noise and dissipates the tension as it calls out, “James, you’re an asshole.” “I believe someone out there loves someone,” declares James with cruel disingenuousness. “Yeah, you,” replies a girl’s voice with unabashed fervor. “I feel so good I want to scream,” says James, testing the limits yet again. “Scream!” cries a voice. And the record listener responds, too, we are drawn in by the same tricks, so transparent in the daylight but put across with the same unabashed fervor with which the girl in the audience offers up her love.

Guralnick, P. (1986). Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, 236-237. New York: Back Bay Books.

I don’t buy “the whole history of soul music bit,” or the “steady rocking bit” but the description of the milieu feels right. You may notice the phrase “Gee whiz” is mentioned, and yes, it is part of the song. More shocking (and not in the original lyrics) is the moment James Brown says, “Shucks,” a word I only associate with one Opie Taylor, inhabitant of the fictional realm known as Mayberry.

There is NO break—not even a nanosecond of space—between “Lost Someone” and the medley, which opens with the first verse of “Please, Please, Please.” This is the worst tease on the album—one lousy verse of “Please, Please, Please” where J. B. sings only the opening line and then we’re off to the races to “You’ve Got the Power” (twelve seconds of it), then to “I Found Someone,” and then . . . five more excerpts before the “Please, Please, Please” reprise, stream after stream of premature ejaculation. In case you haven’t figured it out, I consider the medley the weakest part of the performance, a highlight reel of questionable musical value. I can’t believe there weren’t fans in the audience who didn’t feel a little more than annoyed with these selected shorts. To my ears, the crowd response is fleeting, the cheers and screams fade quickly and my guess is more than a few people took the opportunity presented by this half-assed collage to hit the head. Sadly, I’m not all that impressed with the closing number, “Night Train,” but the crowd seems to be having a good time. I guess I’m not into geography songs.

As it is impossible for a live performance to come out flawless, don’t take my assessment of its few defects as a thumbs-down vote for the album as a whole. With Live at the Apollo, the whole is better than its parts. It’s a damned exciting record, and I think the concert would have been an absolute knockout live-and-in-person.

While later in life his aggressive core would turn nasty and result in several complaints of domestic violence, Live at the Apollo is the culmination of a mid-20th Century Horatio Alger story. James Brown faced more obstacles than most people reading this review will ever face. Through a combination of guts, willpower, talent and a commitment to his craft, he climbed to the top of his profession and made a whole lot of people happy as they grooved to his music. Live at the Apollo is a celebration of his talent and his pluck, and is more than worth the modest price of admission.

I do have to point out that for all his foresight and despite the impressive breadth of his marketing campaign, James Brown didn’t think of filming Live at the Apollo. Fortunately for history, we can catch his performance at the 1964 T. A. M. I. show (Teenage Awards Music International or Teen Age Music International). The lineup was pretty damned impressive—The Beach Boys, The Supremes, Jan & Dean, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Lesley Gore and a host of others—but there is no question that James Brown stole the show. Here you’ll see the physical nature of his performance, the precise choreography and not one, not two, not three but FOUR fits of feigned exhaustion. Even if you don’t give a hoot for James Brown’s music, you have to smile at his audacity, his discipline and his off-the-charts kinetic energy.

Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous – Classic Music Review

I’ve had this sucker near the top of my to-do list for years. Every time my eyes lighted upon More Adventurous, my first reaction was “Oh yeah, gotta do that one.” What stopped me was my second response: “Ugh.”

The “ugh” reaction has nothing to do with my opinion of the album, which is actually quite favorable. The “ugh” comes from the happenstance that More Adventurous came out in 2004, during a period in my life that I’d rather forget. I should note here that none of the other albums I picked up that year trigger the “ugh” reaction. Not Underachievers Please Try Harder. Not Franz Ferdinand. Not Half Smiles of the Decomposed.

American Idiot definitely triggers the “ugh” reaction, but I didn’t buy that record. I think Green Day sucks.

And the “ugh” reaction to that highly overrated album is different than the one sparked by More Adventurous. This “ugh” is accompanied by a sinking feeling in my stomach because the album forces me to remember just how fucked-up a human being I was during that period.

Baby, I was bad news personified.

Rilo Kiley began life as one of the many indie bands that popped up around the turn of the century, freely following their musical instincts and hoping to make enough money to get by. Their early music might be described as a triangulation of twee, rock and country with greater instrumental diversity than your typical indie band, accompanied by irreverent, uncensored lyrics in accordance with looser millennial norms. They released an EP and two independently labeled and marketed albums. Each subsequent release showed more promise than its predecessor, but the challenges inherent in independent distribution (limited marketing resources, mainly) restricted their access to a broader audience.

For More Adventurous, the band decided to try something different: publish the album under their own imprint and cut a deal with Warner Brothers to handle the distribution. This provided the band with the opportunity to reach a larger audience, but other indie artists have had similar opportunities and wound up blowing it with a compromise product that offended the original fan base and failed to catch the fancy of any recognizable segment of the mainstream.

That did not happen with More Adventurous. The soundscape still features the diverse instrumentation and stylistic shifts that marked their earlier efforts, but the sound is brighter and the presentation feels more focused. Most importantly, Jenny Lewis fully embraced the lead role, bringing more confidence, command and nuance to her vocals. Her songwriting skills (with several assists from lead guitarist and ex-partner Blake Sennett) rose several notches without losing the no-bullshit emotional honesty that made you pay close attention whenever she stepped up to the mike. More Adventurous is a remarkable creation that successfully balances pathos with witty observations about the state of humankind in the year 2004 A. D.

Chris Dahlen of Pitchfork would violently disagree with that assessment. “Unfortunately, the songs (and especially the lyrics) don’t give Lewis the support she deserves. More Adventurous opens with its weakest number, ‘It’s a Hit’, whose painfully awful lyrics criticize the President by comparing him to a monkey that throws its own feces.” Robert Christgau, on the other hand, placed “It’s a Hit” eighth on his list of the top songs of the decade.

Classic Pitchfork: spend thirty seconds on a song, reach all sorts of erroneous conclusions and call it a wrap. Though I have my issues with Christgau and I don’t care much for ranking systems, I share his sentiments. “It’s a Hit” is a multi-faceted, acerbic and insightful look at the more obscene tendencies of the human race.

Here’s the “controversial” opening verse:

Any chimp can play human for a day
Use his opposable thumbs to iron his uniform
And run for office on election day
Fancy himself a real decision-maker
And deploy more troops than salt shakers
But it’s a jungle when war is made
And you’ll panic and throw your own shit at the enemy
The camera pulls back to reveal your true identity
Look, it’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing
A smoking gun holding ape

Abridged version for dummies: “The existence of war proves that on a very fundamental level, the human race has not progressed beyond the territorial tendencies of our evolutionary ancestors.” Though Bush II comes to mind in the context of the times, he’s just one of many politicians elected in part because they “served our country” (even if the service was a bullshit National Guard assignment). And all politicians, regardless of party affiliation, throw shit at their enemies when they’re caught in the act of doing something insidious and vile. Dahlen completely missed the larger issues raised by the verse . . . and completely ignored verses two through four, which further broaden the scope of the song.

The second verse deals with the pathetic urge of the dominant male to impress others by collecting and displaying various possessions that communicate his “identity” (“Any asshole can open a museum/Put all the things he loves on display so everyone can see ’em”). “Possessions” include “the house, a car, a thoughtful wife,” in keeping with the masculine nature of American society. The third verse describes the tendency of the populace to fall in love with the shiny new thing, with the latest craze, or, in this case, the preppie author whose first release dazzled the audience and is under pressure to produce another masterpiece . . . or else:

But it’s a sin when success complains
And your writer’s block, it don’t mean shit
Just throw it against the wall and see what sticks
Got to write a hit
I think this is it
It’s a hit

And if it’s not
Then it’s a holiday for hanging

Jenny closes her panorama of a dysfunctional society by capturing its need to make its collective bloodlust appear civilized through the establishment of legal procedures, allowing those responsible for executions to claim they were only following orders while justifying their misdeeds through the trappings of Christianity. But instead of attacking the system, Jenny wisely chose to confront the individual conscience:

Any fool can play executioner for a day
And say with fingers pointed in both directions
“He went thataway”
It’s only a switch or syringe
Exempt from eternal sins
But you still wear a cross
And you think you’re going to get in
Ah, but the pardons never come from upstairs
They’re always a moment too late
But it’s entertainment
Keep the crowd on their toes
It’s justice, we’re safe
It’s not a hit, it’s a holiday
Shoo bop, shoo bop, my baby
It’s a holiday for hanging, yeah 

The insertion of “Shoo bop, shoo bop, my baby” may appear superfluous, but it underscores our shoulder-shrugging tendency when (as another Bush once said about mass killings) “shit happens.” The music supporting “It’s a Hit” is ironically on the light and cheery side to emphasize the façade, with a brass band and sweet counterpoint guitar from Blake Sennett highlighting the mix. The arrangement clears out sufficient space for the listener to hear the lyrics without a cheat sheet, and Jenny’s delivery, mingling “tired conversational” and “girl group lead singer plaintiveness,” curiously manages to hit the mark.

The best analysis of “Does He Loves You?” can be found in a more-than-worthy essay on American Songwriter:

“Does He Love You?” would be noteworthy if only for the clever way the story is structured. The narrator is speaking to her pregnant, married friend who lives across the country and is questioning whether the domestic life is the right choice for her. The narrator, on the other hand, is having an affair with a married man. Only in the song’s climax is it revealed that they are both talking about the same guy, as Lewis belts out the bittersweet closing lines: “And your husband will never leave you/He will never leave you for me.”

Yet the song could easily have come off as contrived if the emotions and motivations of the characters weren’t rendered so expertly. Both the narrator and her friend regret the fact that their happiness is tied to another person, both feeling “flawed” that they are “not free.” Lewis’ vocal performance also assures that the song won’t feel like a bad soap opera, as she rises from a gentle, contemplative tone in the early verses to an anguished wail as the song closes out. The music undergoes a similar transformation, with the carnival-like keyboards in the opening verses giving way to squalling guitars and soaring strings in the denouement.

I love it when critics actually bother to study the work they’re reviewing. Kudos to Jim Beviglia!

I do admire the craft that went into the song’s creation, but I don’t share Mr. Beviglia’s fondness of the arrangement—I think the “anguished wail” would have been better served by a quieter background that doesn’t compete for attention with Jenny’s vocal. I fully agree that “Does He Love You?” is a superbly constructed song, one that exposes the layers of self-and-other deception that enter into so many allegedly intimate relationships. And like all women, I can relate easily to the cultural push to find a partner (preferably a male partner) before you’re past your physical prime, a self-denying motivation guaranteed to poison the relationship from the get-go.

But I relate much more easily to “Portions for Foxes,” unfortunately. Don’t get me wrong—it’s one of my all-time favorite songs. I’ve spent hours attempting to master Blake Sennett’s guitar parts with limited success (I think his tones are absolutely beautiful). I’ve never even thought of attempting Jenny Lewis’ vocal, which I consider one of the greatest rock vocals ever recorded. The song is a masterpiece of effective variation in dynamics, the quieter parts serving to make the syncopated guitar-bass-drum thrusts shockingly explosive. Pierre de Reeder’s bass part is subtly phenomenal and Jason Boesel is in full command of the syncopated punctuation demanded by the song. I fell in love with “Portions for Foxes” the first time I heard it and love it with the same intensity today.

But once I really absorbed the lyrics, I felt embarrassed and humiliated. If you can be embarrassed and humiliated and accept that it’s good for you, that’s a growth experience par excellence. It took me years to accept it, though—habits are habits, routines are hard to break, and shit, I was twenty-three.

I was in the “young adult stage,” according to the psychologists. Erik Erikson (the man who invented the term “identity crisis”) described this phase of life thusly: “The young adult, emerging from the search for and insistence on identity, is eager and willing to fuse their identity with others. He [or she] is ready for intimacy, that is, the capacity to commit . . . to concrete affiliations and partnerships.” True for some, not true for me and not true for the narrator in “Portions for Foxes.”

In verse one, the narrator berates herself for “talking trash,” but she’s not talking about dissing someone: she’s talking about the suggestive, smart-ass bullshit that comes out of the mouth of a young woman attempting to establish a relationship on her own terms without being particularly clear about what the terms are. Displaying attitude is a classic method for hiding one’s vulnerability, and playing hard to get still remains an effective means of raising a prospective partner’s testosterone levels:

There’s blood in my mouth
Because I’ve been biting my tongue all week
I keep on talking trash but I never say anything
And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left

And it’s bad news
Baby, I’m bad news
I’m just bad news, bad news, bad news

The narrator lives in the era of “friends with benefits,” a handy new term that sanctions what has been going on behind the tattered curtains of motel rooms for decades: sex without commitment. Though I usually didn’t have much of a problem getting laid during this period of my life, there were times when I’d hit one of Mick Jagger’s losing streaks. I’d spend the night tossing, turning and fingering, suffering from horniness-driven insomnia, trying to resist the urge to reach out to one of my FWB’s. I wasn’t really close to any of them; they were transactional relationships similar to taking out a loan or getting my teeth cleaned. I remember how embarrassing it was to make that call, and how I knew deep down in my soul that the benefits received would barely scratch the itch . . . but fuck it:

I know I’m alone if I’m with or without you
But just being around you offers me another form of relief
When the loneliness leads to bad dreams
And the bad dreams lead me to calling you
And I call you and say, “C’MERE!” 

Jenny’s delivery of that “C’MERE!” is the sound of the archetypal bitch in heat: burning with desire, ashamed of the vulnerability. Gives me the fucking chills every time.

The rocking arrangement vanishes for the bridge, where the pizzicato guitar establishes a mood of fragility, like tiptoeing across thin ice. The cold reality of the FWB relationship comes to the fore in Jenny’s hopeless tone and bleak lyrics, leading her to consult Psalm 63 for an analogy:

Because you’re just damage control
For a walking corpse like me
Like you 

Because we’ll all be
Portions for foxes (2)

The lines in the psalm read as follows:

Because thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice.

8 My soul followeth hard after thee: thy right hand upholdeth me.

9 But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth.

10 They shall fall by the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes.

I’ve never been able to resolve the many contradictions between the often gruesome Old Testament and the non-violent nature of the gospels, but I don’t think Jenny is giving us a theology lesson here. I think she’s using the analogy to highlight the soul-draining experience of commitment-less relationships while acknowledging some residue of religion-induced guilt.

But in the end, she says “fuck it” and accepts the relationship as yet another imperfect human experience:

There’s a pretty young thing in front of you
And she’s real pretty and she’s real into you
And then she’s sleeping inside of you (heavy breathing)
And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left 

And it’s bad news
I don’t blame you
I do the same thing
I get lonely too

Don’t we all. I look back at that period and want to beat myself up for using others before I realize, “Hey, they were using me, too!” Not the prettiest picture, but we’re talking about real life here, and real life can get pretty messy.

“Ripchord” is Blake Sennett’s elegy for Elliott Smith, who died around the time More Adventurous was recorded. The lo-fi enhanced acoustic presentation reflects Smith’s earlier work as opposed to the (slightly) more elaborate productions that followed his Oscar nomination for “Miss Misery” (featured in Good Will Hunting). The stark simplicity of the music reflects the emotional honesty of the song, one that humanizes Smith rather than trying to idealize him:

And even fancy things have finally lost their charm
Wine and diamond rings they never get you anymore
And you’re sleeping again alone
Because nobody loves you 

And they should have seen you
Should have known you
Should have known what it was like to be you 

“Should have known what it was like to be you” is one powerful line when you realize that despite his artistic achievements and broad recognition, the real Elliott Smith struggled with mental illness and addiction for years. Like Phil Ochs, who battled similar demons in his too-brief life, Smith died in his mid-30’s. Some say it was suicide, some suspect homicide, but Blake Sennett knew the guy and his more ambivalent response sounds more true to the mark:

So come on kid
Look at what you did
I don’t know if you meant it but you did yourself in
And I was even having a good day when we found out we lost you

“Ripchord” is a very moving piece, placed perfectly in the track order between two high-intensity Jenny Lewis vocals to highlight its unique qualities.

One reviewer claimed that Jenny was channeling Dusty Springfield when she did the vocal on “I Never,” a claim supported by a New York Times piece that noted Jenny’s admiration for Dusty and Loretta Lynn. To my ears, her vocal falls somewhere in between Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. Another claim verified by the participant herself features Jenny recording the vocal sans vêtements in the studio. That’s an image designed to spark many a fantasy, but regardless of whom she was trying to emulate or whether she was stripped to the gills or bundled in furs, the only thing that matters is the finished product.

Well, as Jenny once sang, “And sometimes when you’re on, you’re really fucking on,” and she is seriously fucking on in “I Never.”

The whiny guy at Pitchfork (wait, let me scroll up and get his name) . . . Oh yes, Chris Dahlen . . . didn’t think much of the song and berated Jenny for repeating the word “never” 27 times. Dude! Leave the math behind and connect with your emotional intelligence! Those repetitions are the best part of the song! Everyone who has ever been truly in love knows that words are completely inadequate when it comes to describing the depth and enormity of the F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E. (thank you, Jarvis Cocker). The tonal variations in those twenty-seven renditions communicate a multitude of feelings—tenderness, delight, anxiety, commitment, satisfaction, regret, resolve, insecurity, appreciation—jeez maneez, dude! “The song runs out of words” my ass!

Harrumph!

“The Absence of God” highlights a quality you’ll find often in Rilo Kiley’s music: light music applied to heavy topics. Here the music is dominated by a sweet acoustic guitar duet while the narrator struggles with the existence/nonexistence of god and the consequences thereof. As noted in an excellent article on by Kristin Rawls on Bitch Media, Jenny has written frequently on the topic of religion, firmly condemning religious hypocrisy while expressing ambivalence about the value of religious belief. This particular vignette features a narrator frustrated with the lack of forward movement in her relationship, musing over possibilities to kickstart the romance. “The absence of god will bring you comfort, baby,” she assures her lover, then follows that statement in classic existential style with a series of choices they could make when free from the grip of religion. After all, if there is no god, human beings are free to make their own choices and live/learn from the consequences . . . with the inconvenient complication that flawed human beings often make flawed choices:

We could be daytime drunks if we wanted
We’d never get anything done that way, baby
And we’d still be ruled by our dueling perspectives
And I’m not my perspective
Or the lies I’ll tell you every time

As we learn more about the narrator and her disaster movie mindset coupled with self-destructive tendencies (“And I say there’s trouble when everything is fine/The need to destroy things creeps up on me every time”), we realize that she is motivated primarily by desperation—pretty shaky grounds for either accepting or rejecting god. I love the ambivalence and multiple layers of meaning in the song, allowing the listener to reach their own conclusions.

“Accidntel Deth” (the spelling reflects producer Jimmy Tamborello’s fetish with unnecessary vowels) offers the intriguing concept that the “victim” may have inadvertently contributed to their “accidental death” but falls short of supporting the concept with more concrete examples. Next up is the title track, with its country feel accentuated by pedal steel guitar and harmonica. It’s a sweet piece of work that essentially defines “more adventurous” as “becoming more open to the beautiful possibilities inherent in true love.”

And if you banish me from your profits
And if I get banished from the kingdom up above
I’d sacrifice money and heaven all for love
Let me be loved
Let me be loved

Underscoring the rejection of conventional means of sacrament and legal procedure, the last verse focuses on what is most important:

For me to be saved and you to be brave
We don’t have to walk down that isle
Because if marriage ain’t enough well
At least we’ll be loved

Jenny employs many different voicings on the album, but I think “More Adventurous” is her sweetest and most grounded performance.

We get back to kicking some ass with “Love and War (11/11/46),” a fascinating composition with two distinct narratives. The first, contained within the first three verses, describes the collapse of morality that accompanies every war. Jenny wisely avoids the raping-and-pillaging part, focusing instead on the looser environment occasioned by the feeling of impending doom. “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE SOON SO LET’S FUCK OUR BRAINS OUT.” Cultural norms often pressured couples guilty of pre-marital sex to make things official, but really, that was then, this is now, and what the hell are we doing standing at this altar?

Why must you try to ruin my peace of mind?
And they were only words and I never meant them
I never loved you
Even in my weakness
You were fuel for the fire – cannon fodder

The second narrative introduces us to a WWII vet viewed by those responsible for his care as an alien from a planet no one ever heard of:

And my grandpa drank, fell, and broke his face in two
When the cops arrived, he exclaimed, “I fought in World War II”
And then carried him to darkened hospital room
And said, “No modern person here remembers you
And we can’t identify the enemy
And it could be you so it’ll cost you”
And it only cost me my wife
And my job
Now what?

The final verse features the narrator and her mom going to the hospital to identify the body (though mom made her wait outside) and going to the cemetery . . . all over a stop-time rock beat punctuated with Beatle-like handclaps. The energetic arrangement completely demolishes the natural expectation that a military funeral would be marked by solemnity, and her mother’s parting words form a defense of the looser morality of the war years:

“Love and war, in heaven and in hell
You get what you deserve
You’d better spend it well
All is fair in love and war and love
A civil war like this it always sells itself”

You can interpret “civil war” in two ways—an ironic comment about a world that establishes rules of engagement covering acceptable ways to kill people or the belief that we are all one human race and therefore all wars are civil wars.

“A Man/Me/Then Jim” is written in nonlinear narrative form with Jenny appearing in multiple roles, so when you’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on, keep in mind Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion that “a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.” For those who may feel frustrated with the jumble, let me remind you that linear order is something we impose on reality and not reality itself. The truth does not always come packaged with step-by-step instructions.

The three verses are structured as follows:

  1. The funeral of a guy named Jim who committed suicide. The narrator is an unknown man, a friend of Jim who attends the funeral. This is the ending.
  2. An interaction with a salesperson who happens to be Jim’s wife. The narrator is “me” (it really doesn’t matter who “me” is). The wife divulges that Jim’s “a-leaving,” so we can safely assume that Jim is still alive at this point. This is the beginning.
  3. The narrator of the last verse is Jim himself, who has by this time left his wife and is attempting reconciliation. This is the middle.

The interesting twist in all this is the miscommunication between Jim and his wife that eventually leads to Jim’s death. The wife claims “Well, my husband, he’s a-leaving/And I can’t convince him to stay,” while Jim believes with all his heart that she threw his ass out.

I was driving south from Melrose
I happened upon my old lover’s old house
I found myself staring at the closed-up door
Like the day she threw me out
“Diana, Diana, Diana, I would die for you
I’m in love with you completely
I’m afraid that’s all I can do”
She said, “You can sleep upon my doorstep
You can promise me indifference, Jim
But my mind is made up
And I’ll never let you in again”

No wonder Jim’s suicide note turns out to be a big fuck you to the missus: “If living is the problem/Well, that’s just baffling.” The wife grudgingly admitted in her conversation with “me” that “I’m sorry I’m hard to live with/Living is the problem for me.” What really killed Jim was “the slow fade of love,” described as the realization that once the glow of marital bliss has faded, you find yourself living a lie:

For the slow fade of love
It might hit you from below
It’s your gradual descent into a life you never meant
It’s the slow fade of love

The music has the feel of Jimmy Buffett-style decadence with its acoustic guitar and bongoes, with faint organ serving as a subconscious reminder of mortality. I love good stories, and “A Man/Me/Then Jim” is a good story told well—one that makes me wish that the Lewis-Sennett songwriting team would have held it together longer than they did.

The album ends with Jenny’s take on Elliott Smith’s death, “It Just Is.” In contrasting the two elegies, Blake’s is stronger in terms of emotional impact while Jenny’s reminder “That it just is/That everybody dies” is more uncomfortable. The human race goes to great lengths to avoid the simple truth that life has an ending.

One would naturally expect that an album featuring three different producers would result in a disjointed mess, but the production values on More Adventurous are remarkably consistent. The diversity of the musical content is refreshing rather than confusing, and the album is loaded with great stories and superb performances. Though it was a difficult journey for me to circle back and reconnect with More Adventurous some fifteen years later, I’m glad I made the trip—it’s always nice to find out that an album you thought was the bees’ knees turns out to be better than you remembered.

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