This Week’s Contest: Commercials

Somehow in America, the biggest outlet for creative voices making short films seems to have become the commercial.  So, the upside is that we get to see all sorts of awesome short films, and the downside is that we have these subliminal urges to like, buy all sorts of worthless shit.  But commercials are also a delivery vehicle for music, and some songs seem inextricably bound to the commercials that introduced them.  So this week, let’s see what sort of sales pitches our intrepid cleffers can make about the jingly, jangly sounds of the commercial.

Rich Bunnell is a headline jockey from Oakland, California. He digs cornmeal pizza and the Gilded Age, and can name the eight RobotMasters in Mega Man 2 in less than four two seconds.

C. Shaw is a logician from DC who is known by his fiancee’s friends as the guy who went to a big-budget country show and repeatedly complained that Rodney Atkins was singing out of tune. He hopes the fact that he Tivos Iron Chef every week will help him crush the competition here.

Vishal Trivedi is 26 years old and a newly minted civil servant, working for and residing in the City and County of San Francisco. He dabbles in synths and guitars, and is a sucker for a catchy melody and a clever drum fill. Vishal disdains pretense but also gravitates towards complexity.


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Results: Prison

Lisa Xu

Silver Jews – Candy Jail

Avoiding rap music, for better or worse, has led me to accumulate a lifetime’s deficit of knowledge about prison, although this oversight is being partially remedied by the second season of The Wire. The Silver Jews’ “Candy Jail”, from their new album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, however, is unlikely to help in that regard. Dave Berman, for example, sings of such amenities as “peppermint bars”, “peanut brittle bunk beds”, and “marshmallow walls”, as well as a warden who “keeps the data on your favorite brands.” With The Wire serving as a trusty point of reference to what it’s really like to be on the inside, “Candy Jail” might be interpreted instead as an homage to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and other traditional land o’plenty fantasies.

Whimsy in a Berman lyric, however, tends to be more thought-provoking than your usual brand of whimsy. In Big Rock Candy Mountain, as everyone knows, the jails are made of tin (so that you can walk right out of them as soon, in fact, as you’re in)—a hobo’s dream. It gets even better in Candy Jail, where one’s surroundings could presumably be licked away. It would be the most delectable escape plan ever concocted, just like, actually, how it would be the most delectable jail sentence. But in that case, why would you ever want to escape? I think Berman sets it up, in the most poetical of possible terms, as a cost-benefit analysis. He notes, “Pain works on a sliding scale/So does pleasure in a candy jail.” So on the one hand, you’re in a jail made out of candy (with “made out of candy” being the operative modifier). On the other hand, however, “true love doesn’t come around any more than fate allows on a Monday in Fort Lauderdale.” Those odds aren’t good, but at least they’re probably better than they are in Baltimore.

Chandra Linnell

Merle Haggard – Mama Tried

I have never been to prison. I have heard a story or two involving baby oil, chocolate pudding and blanket parties from a very special former resident of the Iowa State Penitentiary, but that and attending a public high school are about as close as I’ve ever gotten to “the joint.”

If I ever went to prison, in between trying to make wine out of packets of grape jelly, I think that I would be singing the song “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard on repeat for the first year or so. It’s a short song, the words are easy to memorize, and it tells a beautifully simple story of a young man who finds himself in prison (ironically) because of his lifelong desire to be free. Haggard also alludes to the possibility that a life without a father may have contributed to his becoming an outlaw at such a tender age. However, the central theme of the song is the narrator’s assertion that despite how many chances he had, and all the Sunday learnin’ he was given, he still came to be 21 in prison doin’ life without parole.
Mama did, indeed try. There were lots of versions of this song on youtube. I chose the one that had the most dirt bikes and chainsaws.

On the subject of prison, I can’t pass up the chance to tip my hat to another related subject – the chain gang. The best kind of chain gang song for me is the one that makes me hear the rhythm while I’m out busting rocks and serving my time (and by “busting rocks” I mean e-mailing and doing admin, and “serving my time” refers of course to Americorps). The only song that really does this for me is Nina Simone’s “Work Song.” Of course, there’s a lot more style here, and i’ve never seen a chang gang with a kickass horn section, though I have seen one help get a playground built…go chain gangs! This one is a great version of Simone’s classic, the video is a tribute to boxer Sonny Liston.

Adam Gutterman

Out of Time!

All felons are restricted from voting.


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This Week’s Contest: Prison

The criminal justice system, for all its flaws, definitely has more than its fair share of tunes. Maybe it’s the poetic allure of the good boy gone bad, or the easily extensible metaphor to all of our lives (e.g., high school), but for whatever reason the jailhouse has got plenty of rock. Hopefully these cleffers don’t have to do much hands on research to find this week’s awesome prison songs.

Chandra Linnell is from Minnesota, but feels most at home on the road. She is the lead vocalist and occasional washboard player for Bob Ross and the TV art supplies, whose influences include Shaggy, Cody Chesney, Old Crow Medicine Show, Bob Marley, and New Orleans jazz. She is a professional volunteer, and lives in Davis Square.

Adam Gutterman is musician who hates to shave but does it anyway. His dog is known to howl along, joyously, to the sounds of his playing the mandolin. He currently resides in San Francisco, manipulating data in favor of his employer. For this he is given Pellegrino and much vacation time. He considers it a fair trade.

Lisa Xu is languishing away as a student at UC Berkeley, where she writes for the arts section of the Daily Cal and is an editor for the Berkeley Political Review. She spends her free time nursing, feeding, and otherwise sustaining an obsession with Radiohead.

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Results: The Comeback

Rob Baker

Player – Baby Come Back

Sugarblossom, what I’m trying to say is all men make mistakes.  We stay out late without calling, we forget important dates, we don’t take you out enough.  One time we set part of the couch on fire, which we apologized for as soon as you noticed.

The first time we forgot to pay the electricity bill, mmmm, yeah, turned that one around into an evening of romance.  By the fourth time the magic was gone, and you brought up that Sunday afternoon we came home with one less rear view mirror and blamed it on hoodlums.  You knew it wasn’t hoodlums, Honeypeaches, because we live in a district fortunate to have a low crime rate.  You always could see right through us, like the time you knew we weren’t sleeping in the fridge because “we didn’t want to wake you up.”

Listen, Giggleplum: we’ve figured out we can’t make it up by taking you out and letting you order something of equal or lesser value.  All the free breadsticks in the world can’t heal the hurt of explaining we taped over your period piece movie with Die Hard, Die Hard 2, and half a soft-core porno on Showtime.  We’re sorry, it was dark, it was 3AM, and light beer is delicious with the chicken salad you made for work.

And what guy hasn’t been here: She comes home from work, the door wide open, you lying in a puddle of Admiral Nelson Spiced Rum, which gave you the idea to tie her tiny dog to a plastic boat and set sail in the bathtub.  She asks how, if you don’t have time to find a job, you have time to craft a miniature pirate hat from an evening dress.  “‘Twas by the order of Captain BarkySnuggles,” but she ain’t having that.  No, sir.  She hates the sea and everytin’ in it.

Fellas, our ladies put up with a lot, but only so much.  So when things are at their worst, when the chips are down (literally, from losing $72 at the poker night you hosted and told her about 15 minutes before the guys showed up), there’s only one kind of comeback that matters.  When she’s leaving you, when your lady is walking out that door, you gotta say: “Baby, come back.”

Jake Mix

Arnel Pineda – Don’t Stop Believin’

For most people, the movies that stick in your head are the unlikely-but-true success stories of history. In Invincible, an average joe becomes a pro football player through perseverance alone.  In The Lord of the Rings, an unlikely young Hobbit defies an empire and saves all of Middle Earth against the odds. In Homeward Bound, a wayward pair of dogs and a cat traverse the American countryside and find their way back home to their owners. Then, in Homeward Bound II, they accomplish this unlikely feat yet again, defying the predictions of even the most theoretical statisticians.

But the greatest, most uplifting tale of success has yet to be captured on film: that of Arnel Pineda, Journey’s new lead singer. Originally part of Filipino cover band Zoo Band, Pineda is a vocal shapeshifter, channeling his energy into pitch perfect doppelgangers of the greatest classic rock frontmen history has to offer. Be it Don Henley, Freddie Mercury, or Robert Plant, Pineda can nail them all.

Journey, a shell of a band after Steve Perry broke his sacred pop music oath and quit, caught a video of Zoo Band’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” and called Pineda in for a two-day audition. And now, you know the rest of the story.

The best part of this amazing comeback is that Pineda is coming back to a place he’s never been before. To paraphrase renowned Ghostbuster Winston Zeddemore, when someone asks you if you’re a rock star, you say “yes.”

Noah Schaffer

Candi Staton – His Hands

In recent years a strange subgenre has developed in both the country music and R&B fields: comeback music.

Perhaps it started with Rick Rubin’s series of “American Recordings” for Johnny Cash, or maybe with the disc Arthur Alexander squeezed out right before his passing. The formula is by now a familiar one: take a once-heralded star who is long off the charts, give them a batch of songs by “young” songwriters they’re never heard of – Elvis Costello and Tom Waits will probably send some if you ask nice – and, presto, you’ve got an NPR feature.

On the country side, Charlie Louvin and Loretta Lynn have managed to attract fans who’ve never even heard of the Grand Ole Opry. The Anti label basically owns this genre thanks to their releases by Mavis Staples, Solomon Burke, Porter Wagoner and Merle Haggard. Soul singer Bettye Lavette is a much bigger star now she ever was in the 60’s. Sharon Jones has gone from guarding the Riker’s Island prison to filling large venues. Even folks people assumed were dead, like Betty Harris and Howard Tate, have made comeback discs.

The ones that work well – namely just about all the Anti releases, as well as Lavette’s two recent rock-leaning albums – do so because the producer takes the time to actually find songs that work well and mean something within the context of the singer’s stage in life.

In the weaker ones, the aging star comes off as little more than a puppet of the producer . Burke’s Don Was-produced “Make Do With What You’ve Got” just departed too radically from his strengths to work, and the Blind Boys of Alabama’s “Higher Ground” tried to get too cute with its idea that Stevie Wonder, Prince and George Clinton were appropriate for a group that had steadfastly refused to record secular music during its long-running existence. And why anyone thought Charlie Louvin, his voice severely weakened, should re-record Louvin Brothers songs with indie rockers is beyond me.

But the guy responsible for that mess, Mark Nevers of Lambchop, also was the mastermind behind one of the best comeback soul albums in recent years: “In His Hands” by Muscle Shoals vet-turned-disco diva-turned televangelist Candi Staton. I’m not sure why this album never got its due – perhaps Staton didn’t take enough time away from her TV ministry to properly promote it.

Staton had a soul hit with a cover of “Stand By Your Man” back in the day, so there was no question that she could master classic country tunes like Haggard’s “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go.”  “When Hearts Grow Cold,” a minor southern soul hit for Bobby Bland, gets a delivery that shows Staton knows what it feels like to look back on a failing relationship. (Perhaps she was channeling the pain of her marriage to Clarence Carter, or one of her other 3 ex-husbands.)

But the most devastating track comes from Will Oldham. It’s the title tune, a look at domestic violence no one would have dared write in the 60’s. At the end, as the narrator finds solace in her faith, there’s no doubt that Staton means every word she’s singing:

Did I say you could stop believing?


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This Week’s Contest: The Comeback

We all have our down times. We’re down by a five runs in the bottom of the ninth, we get cut from out record label, we shave our head and have pictures of our cooter plastered all over the internet. And yet, there’s alays a chance to make it all right again. Few situations are so dire that there’s no way to stage a comeback, and no art is better suited to the comeback than music. Let’s see what these cleffers have to come up with.

Noah Schaffer is a music addict living in Boston, the hometown of bluegrass great Joe Val, jazz legend Roy Haynes and rockabilly wildman/art thief Myles Connnor — not to mention the adopted land of R&B crooner Little Joe Cook and Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibb. By day he’s a legal news reporter. A story he wrote about the comeback of soul star Betty Harris can be read here.

Rob Baker is environmentally friendly. He is biodegradable, non-toxic, and 100% post-consumer content, made entirely out of older, recycled nerds. He rides Boston’s green line trains to work, which he likes to pretend is the green lion from Voltron.

Jake Mix is a cartoonist and illustrator trapped inside a lazy man’s body. His hovercycle skill is currently 70%, but he hopes to see that go up within the week, and he is a diligent downloader of new Rock Band songs.

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Results: Child Vocalists

Jeffrey Markowitz

The Shaggs – My Pal Foot Foot

I have a secret to tell you: my pal foot foot is sitting right next to me, and he would like to say “hello stranger, I will hug you, love you, and haunt your dreams and turn them to nightmares for the rest of your days.” He looks strange, like a foot fucked a tiger and someone slapped a googly eye on it. Isn’t he just the most precious thing you’ve ever seen? Don’t you think so, I mean for true? Someone gave foot foot to me, some strange person named Dot from some group called The Shaggs. She looks a bit homely and I think she wants to put my pet rabbit in a pot of boiling water, or maybe she just wants to watch the latest episode of Cop Rock with me, I can never tell these days. In any case, I have this little foot foot and this little tribute to this little foot foot that is just so wonderful in a not-so-little way.

When I play with foot foot I hear its feet go pit-pit-pit-pat-pat-pat in 57/128 time. You may not have heard 57/128 time before, maybe because you don’t have a foot foot of your own, idiot. Don’t dismay though, I have the perfect solution for your dilemma to the tune of a tune with a cartoon that has pictures of my lil’ foot foot pit-pat’ing to the bluesy 57/128 beat. Really, isn’t a pit-pat’ing foot foot in 57/128 the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen? No? Then may foot foot live in your dreams and nightmares for the rest of the days.


Chris Lucas

Notorious B.I.G. – The Sky’s the Limit

A child’s vocal ability lies in their ability to mimic the sounds of their parents. But a true child vocalist needs more than vocals – he or she needs skills. What Spike Jonze found and what you are watching is perhaps the most gifted child vocalist of our generation. Sure, we may not catch a single sound from this kid’s voice, but you hear this shit, don’t you. He is tapping a deeper level of mimicry – beyond sound – that recreates and taps the very soul of a (now dead) man. I concede that he’s got a bit of that child obesity that was going around in the late 90’s, but physical resemblance only goes so far. For example, the kid who plays Puffy looks a thousand times cooler than Puff. For authenticity’s sake, he should have been much douchier.

This video not only features the greatest child vocalist, it is a metaphor for the entire child vocalist experience – be a child entertainer but act like an adult to successfully operate in the adult world. The cruel irony is of course the adult world is playing a child’s game of make believe.

And for you parents out there, I made sure to find the censored version of this song. It’s got a positive feel, but we wouldn’t want our kids to learn any bad words or anything.

Th McCaffrey

Smoosh – Rad

Months ago, the Iron Clef lottery first tasked me with selecting a song about puberty. That was fine. In anyone’s personal cannon there is bound to be some musician performing some interpretation of that horridly embarrassing time zone of youth, right? But Child Vocalists? Since I do not even like children (save for family and friend’s kids), never mind not having any music in my library by children, I had no idea what to select. The song I finally picked is technically not even sung by a child (the singer, at the time, was 13), but is sufficiently childish enough to qualify.

Smoosh is, as far as I have read, beloved by many esteemed indie rockstars such as Kim Gordon and Cat Power (the latter of whom actually covered the song). “Rad,” from Smoosh’s second record, She Like Electric, is a song my roommates found a couple of years ago on a cable On Demand music channel. When I first heard it it was horrifying. I demanded its execution by remote control firing squad as soon as I saw one of the two punch the On Demand button. But despite my consternation, both roommates continued playing the song while I was in attendance. I don’t know if it was the “Uh huh, Uh huh / Yo, yo” vocals or the awkward lyrics about soccer practice and being able to “go anywhere,” but the song felt menacing to me.

That is when I realized it was my problem. Sure, the song is not written for my demographic (28, male, lush), and while there is nothing in me that recommends Smoosh during the morning commute, it is still somehow amazing. It remains a song I could never write, being too old. I have too many guards up, too many blinders, to write with abandon. Maybe that’s why so many established acts support them. In that youthful abandon lies potential for a future artist. All the years we spend growing up, there are areas where musicians don’t have to. They get to dance and swagger on about whatever it is they want while the rest of us grind along in the stuttered, banal requirements of life. We’re too entombed to do anything about anything ourselves. But the kids don’t give a shit. They haven’t lost interest. They’re alright.

Voting age? Hell no.


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This Week’s Contest: Child Vocalists

The best job Shirley Temple ever had, in her own words, was being the ambassador to Czechoslovakia. One might have thought that it was parading up and down a train crowded with strangers with candy singing about the good ship lollypop, but one would apparently be wrong. Nevertheless, her service to her country was more laudable as a child star during the Great Depression than sipping brews in Bratislava so many years later. Not every kid vocalist can claim Shirley Temple’s impact, but there is something special about kids singing. Good? Sometimes. Special? Always. Let’s see what sort of special this week’s cleffers can unearth.

Th McCaffrey is a writer living in Boston, Massachusetts. Most recently his work has appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Furnace Review. He is currently working on his manuscript.

Chris Lucas lives in Boston – the new City of Champions (suck it Pittsburgh). He plays a lot of different instruments above average, but none exceedingly well. It’s probably because he spends the majority of his time working as a lobbyist for a large non-profit, cooking, and writing for a trio of sports related websites – Your Fantasy Team Sucks, Hugging Harold Reynolds, and Epic Carnival. It’s either that or he’s just amazingly lazy. Yeah, that’s probably it.

Jeffrey Markowitz would like you to come down to Hawaii with him, so that you can participate in Firewalk 2008. The coals will scintillate the caluses of your feet and the movement of metaphysical molecules. Here, you will learn to best master your master system and unlock the successful soul within. Within you lies dormant the CEO, CTO or CFO you truly want to be. Earn money and have babies–be the superhuman being you always wanted to be! Don’t get the wrong idea though, Jeff is not a motivator; rather, he is a mastervator. Buy his new self help book, “Mastervating with the Self Within” for five easy installments of three creds today!

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