Monday, July 11, 2005

MMM Hall of Fame: The Reality of My Surroundings

Rather than wait for Spin to come down from the mountain with its Top 50, I'm embarking on a new regular feature -- the Mostly Modern Music Hall of Fame. I'll focus mostly on albums, giving them proper due before the art form fades, but I'll mention the occasional single or catch-all band entry.

(Speaking of albums: I heard on a BBC program today that, in the U.K., sales of CD singles have dropped. No surprise in the age of downloads. But vinyl sales are up. Yes, vinyl.)

I'll try to distinguish between albums that are truly great and those that just caught me at the right time.

So let's start ..

In college, I lived in a happy dorm full of people who didn't mind spending Saturday nights watching Saturday Night Live together. And so we watched as Jeremy Irons introduced a band known to most of us only by reputation -- Fishbone.

My dormmates, bless their hearts, got one glimpse of Angelo Moore in his striped suit and cane, and that was enough for them. I was pretty much on my own in watching it, vaguely aware that everyone else had tuned out. Didn't matter to me. I was genuinely stunned.

They were a little much to take for some people, I suppose. Some people aren't as amused as I am by the tendency of ska-influenced bands to have one guy roaming around the stage with no apparent role in the band other than to shout the backup vocals on occasion and perhaps play trumpet. Angelo belted out the chorus to Sunless Saturday, yelled "Special K" to introduce Kendall Jones for the guitar solo, and did a front flip. Well, three-quarters of a flip. He landed smack on his back. Hope he had some padding in that suit.

But these guys weren't doing antics for antics' sake. They had something to say. I was so willing to listen that I ran out and bought the CD.

Fourteen years later, I'm still not disappointed.

Fishbone takes the Nuke Laloosh approach -- they announce their presence with authority. Fight the Youth starts with a swirling guitar lick quickly joined by the band in the best funk-metal groove this side of Motley Crue's Dr. Feelgood. Then the singer -- in this case, I think it's keyboardist Chris Dowd -- gets it started:

And now another story of stolen faith and tragic glory
They claim to be your friends but all the while they taunt you with lies ...

And back to the guitars to build us back up to the chorus, which is a clever interlocking of different voices singing slogans ... "Fight the youth - the youth with poisoned minds," "Ignite the truth," "Restore sight to the blind."

It's a masterful whirlwind. And that's just the first song of 18.

Some of the "songs" aren't fully developed -- they're mere interludes. There are four separate takes called If I Were a ... I'd ..., and there are a couple of brief instrumentals called Asswhippin' and Deathmarch.

The album title fits. It's a complex, intermittently funny and devastating look at the world around the guys in the band. So Many Millions gives them the album title and shows the frustration: "I cannot get over legitimately the reality of my surroundings ... I cannot grow up to be the president where only drug dealers own Mercedes Benz." Housework has the subtext of life with a single parent who works, but it's a merry romp through the oppression of daily chores.

Things get a little more menacing with Behavior Control Technician, which concludes "sheltering will restrict your baby's mind." Pressure is where the merry-go-round goes out of control into a masterpiece of controlled chaos.

In the middle is a two-parter that won't make your iPod playlist for work or driving but is strong artistically. Junkies Prayer is a creepy spoken-word duet with Angelo mimicking an addict and someone else sounding like a preacher laying the smack down -- they both start with "My pusher, who art in the crack house / Hallowed be thy bitches and hos," but they eventually take their own pathes before seguing into the ironically light Pray to the Junkiemaker.

The uplifting single Everyday Sunshine, which has the requisite shoutouts to God, lifts the mood a bit shortly before the two sex songs, Naz-tee May'en and Babyhead. The latter two are probably the weakest songs on the album, but I understand why they wanted to flesh out the picture a bit -- the neighborhood may be frustrating, but it has its charms.

Those Days Are Gone is the most introspective song on the album, and I've found that it sticks in my head even if it isn't a flat-out rock anthem like most of the other songs. It's almost a blues song, lamenting the way jealousy and envy have torn things apart.

And finally, it's Sunless Saturday, a blistering reminder that things are supposed to be better than this.

It sounds angry and dark, and it does indeed offer a bit of primal scream therapy for those of us who occasionally need it. But I think the underlying theme is power. "Look at us -- we're seven guys with different interests who sometimes sound like we're playing different songs. But we can come together to make these great songs. So what can YOU do?"

It's inspiring. And perhaps that's why I wish it had a bigger audience. My dormmates missed the message. I've also heard from people who hear the word "Fishbone" and have a knee-jerk reaction: "Ska? I can't listen to that?"

Fishbone also failed to stick around to follow up their masterpiece. (See the Wikipedia history.) Kendall Jones made one of most mysterious band departures in music history -- maybe he was in a cult, maybe not, but the attempt at deprogramming went horribly awry (various other links suggest duct tape, a stun gun and other legal action were involved). Chris Dowd, whose bright spirit seemed to put him as the McCartney of the band, was next to leave. Then the drummer known as "Fish" left. (No, the band didn't drop "Fish" from the name to continue as "Bone," though this does raise the Beavis and Butthead question: "How do you fire Van Halen from Van Halen?") They're still around, and I'm sure they're great live. But it's a shame they're not still intact to revel in this one.

1 comment:

Michael said...

There has never been, and there never will be, an better album title than "Chim Chim's Bad Ass Revenge."