The Ronda Kaye Collection

As a hardcore music fanatic, one is always seeking a fresh angle with which to appraise the landscape of all that has come before. Recent circumstances brought just such an opportunity into my lap, in the form of a community wide yard sale sweeping across some tiny country town some thirty minutes north of here. Though stumbling along aimlessly past many a tent and table, traipsing without success across lawn after lawn, my eyes eventually land on an otherwise innocuous CD case, which might as well be glowing gold with the promise it suddenly represents.

Blue and grey are the actual colors of the case, though, upon which is written the name Ronda Kaye in black magic marker, followed by, presumably at some later date, a last name in red ink. We might pontificate at great length about the hopes and dreams embodied by the last name in red ink, but this is not the occasion for such measures. Were I a poet it seems likely a connection might also be forged here between the hopes and dreams embodied by my desires for what this case should hold, and that suggested by the last name in red ink. It could make for a beautiful passage, but, again, this is neither the time nor the place.

It would also be disingenuous to suggest such poetic leaps were occurring to this author while caught up in the moment. Nothing so lofty would transpire this glorious day. The reality is I observe a $5 sticker slapped onto the front of this CD case, and rifle through it once, swiftly, a flip-book-type motion that eats up approximately 1.7 seconds, and instantly raise my hand to flag down the dude pacing back and forth behind the picnic table, as I then nod repeatedly and grin and point at this object of my wanton desires. Clearly not clued in as to the magnitude of this bounty he possesses, this oblivious gatekeeper doesn’t even bother to get off the cell phone he is busy chatting into, he merely snatches up my five spot and keeps on marching.

How have so many folks, hundreds if not thousands of them, drifted by the table this weekend and failed to snag this item? I can’t even begin to speculate. At a glance, the case not only features maybe a couple dozen compact discs, but also an absolute slew of movies on DVD, a smattering of video games, and even some workout videos. But of course, even if they’re not the most valuable items on evidence, it’s the music which interests me most of all, and that which we shall be considering here. They are also what leads me to describing this find in as extravagant terms as I can muster. Hence, the official word is that I “acquired the Ronda Kaye collection,” and furthermore that this purchase was made “at auction,” where I emerged victorious by “placing a five dollar bid.”

So let us now consider The Ronda Kaye Collection, the first of what is surely countless academic pieces to come analyzing this crucial historic find. Feverishly, for about the next three weeks which followed securing this collection, I listened to these offerings in the order I came across them, sequentially, while driving around town in my truck. They will be presented in that same order here. It’s also interesting to note that, while all of these artists are name brand acts, with one exception I had never listened to any of these albums all the way through before:

Heavy Metal – official movie soundtrack

The Cult – High Octane Cult

Radiohead – Hail To The Thief 

Christina Aguilera – Stripped

Buckcherry – Time Bomb

Seether – Disclaimer

Korn – Korn

Marilyn Manson – Mechanical Animals 

Fall Out Boy – Take This To Your Grave

Johnny Cash – The Legend of Johnny Cash

Def Leppard – Pyromania

John Mayer – Any Given Thursday disc 2

Metallica – S & M disc 1 

Collective Soul – Hints, Allegations, & Things Left Unsaid 

Jason Mraz – Waiting For My Rocket To Come

Matchbox Twenty – More Than You Think You Are

Rage Against The Machine – Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium 

A picture is beginning to take shape of ol’ Ronda Kaye here. The available evidence would seem to suggest a metal chick, liked to do a little bit of partying, nothing too extreme. And then – of course, one would have to consider the possibly inadmissable DVD portion of the collection to conclude such – she eventually settled down with some kids. Lost interest for the most part in the music of her early 20s, hence this fire sale. Without further dithering, however, let us begin to analyze this find:

1. Heavy Metal official movie soundtrack

Though the disc itself proves too scratched up to properly review, it turns out that when ripping this collection for posterity, the songs play fine on my desktop PC. This would seem a strange scientific phenomenon, if beyond the scope of this piece. At any rate, it doesn’t much matter as half of these songs are already quite familiar to me. The Devo tune is a nice find, although the Cheap Trick and Blue Oyster Cult offerings are worse than expected. The Trick cut in particular sounds like some cobbled together studio scraps, with the intro being the best part of the song. 

2. The Cult – High Octane Cult

I remember when the surviving Doors were cobbling together a lame reunion tour in the early 2000s, and people were outraged that they’d chosen Ian Astbury here to replace ol’ Jim. At the time, I thought this was weird, and couldn’t understand why fans were up in arms about this particular selection. He seemed to have the pipes and the Cult were a perfectly respectable hard rock outfit during the 80s. They even had somewhat of a comeback hit song in like 2001 or something which I recall hearing often then, lending him at least as much relevance as they had at that moment.  

But now I think I understand. Listening to this album all the way through twice, I initially couldn’t figure out why it seemed to kind of suck, a lot more than expected. This is after all a compilation of all their singles up to that point. Finally I realized the problem is in fact Astbury. He sings every song in identical over the top fashion, with the same tone and intensity, a stunt which becomes a bit overbearing before long. You can only hear a word like “resurrection” stretched into approximately 18 syllables so many times before hitting the skip button. 

3. Radiohead – Hail To The Thief

This is the aforementioned lone exception of an album I’ve listened to already, albeit just once way back when it came out. For years I’ve been stating that this is their worst effort, although that’s probably not true. It’s a little better than I recall, and surely tops, for example, Pablo HoneyStill, though they wouldn’t admit it, this feels like a calculated retreat back into guitar rock, which many fans were demanding after their electronic curiosities Kid A and Amnesiac. The only problem is those albums had actual ideas, good or bad, while inspiration appears a bit lacking on this one. 

4. Christina Aguilera – Stripped

This has to be the surprise of the Collection, a set jam packed with a ton of good songs and plenty of variety, to boot. Two or three of these tunes I’ve heard on the radio, but don’t exactly listen to this kind of music, thus most of it is unfamiliar terrain. If this were a playoff tournament bracket or something, she would be squared up against Radiohead in the first round – is it possible that a stunning upset is in the cards already? That notion isn’t as ridiculous as you might think. 

5. Buckcherry – Time Bomb

From about 2000 to 2006, FM rock stations had a serious problem on their hands. These hard rock outfits would manage to launch major hit songs, often ones which would have crossover appeal, even, yet the groups in question were so anonymous you couldn’t keep them straight. You had no idea what any of these people looked like, the band names were so generic you instantly forgot them, and the singers all kind of sounded the same, too, as did the music.

Buckcherry, to their credit, did not suffer these problems quite to the extent their peers did. I saw them open for Kid Rock during this time period, and remember thinking at the time, you know, if nothing else this lead singer gets it. He looks the part of a rock n’ roll frontman and has memorized the moves. You would certainly remember having seen him and can even pick out his voice on the radio. I also happened to catch this character, Josh Todd, at a later date on some sort of tour documentary TV show, and it occurred to me then that this was basically a total dweeb who made a point of learning how to act like a rock star – which kind of makes my case, that many of his contemporaries should have done more to distinguish themselves, too. As it turns out, Time Bomb here is far less memorable than some of its fellow classmates who just so happen to find themselves in the Ronda Kaye collection. Yet you still have a more vivid mental picture of Buckcherry anyhow, which also makes my case.

6. Seether – Disclaimer

As chance would have it, up next in the collection is precisely one of these hard rock bands I’m talking about. Without question, this disc is about three times better than the Buckcherry offering above. But you’ve also already forgotten their name about three seconds after sliding this CD into your stereo. Even having a few hit songs hasn’t remedied the situation, and you can’t pick the singer out on the radio. For example I couldn’t have told you they were the ones responsible for that Broken duet with the chick from Evanescence. That song is on here twice, actually, once with and without her – the first person to guess which version is best can have my copy of this album. 

7. Korn – Korn

This was a fairly big deal at the time, when these guys burst onto the scene. Like them or not, they did kind of spearhead this new strain of metal, whatever you want to call it. And remained one of the few tolerable practitioners of it, as well. Actually, it’s somewhat difficult to believe this thing came out clear back in ‘94, an artifact buried years ahead of its time. Some of this stuff is catchier than you would have any right to expect. Unlike many of their offspring (or even that guy from The Offspring), Jonathan Davis occasionally proves he can actually sing, too. He is only screaming or growling the rest of the time for effect. Then again, listening to this makes me wonder if there isn’t such a thing as melodic screaming/growling, too, because he does seem even better at this than most of his contemporaries. His little crying jag near the end of Daddy is also an odd idea I don’t recall ever hearing before.

As for the band, there are some inventive pieces on here, although they are in general aiming for more of an industrial groove than sprawling solos or anything else showing off their chops. That whole tuning down thing too I think makes it kind of interesting at times to discern whether it’s a guitar or a bass playing something. And that studio chatter at the start of Clown is a nice change of pace, allowing their personalities to shine through a little bit. I suppose it does get slightly repetitive by the end, but overall, a very strong debut.

8. Marilyn Manson – Mechanical Animals

An enjoyable album with some pretty solid songwriting. Listening to this makes me wish the leader of this ensemble had focused more on music than he did publicity stunts over the ensuing years (Billy Corgan, no stranger to goofy shenanigans himself, apparently warned Manson about this, too, clear back in the late 90s). I’m sure in Brian Warner’s mind it has worked out better this way, but I would not agree with that assessment.

Two of the five original members from their debut album are already toast by the time this third LP comes out, but you can’t really say it matters much yet. I would consider this the group’s highwater mark, at least based on what I’ve heard from their catalog: the songs here are mostly memorable, the playing imaginative, the lyrics clever. But I don’t really hear much if any of this alleged “Bowie” vibe that every single magazine review mentioned back in the day. Some of the stuff, like Posthuman, sounds more like Rob Zombie could have pulled it off – and no, that’s not really much of a selling point. I Don’t Like The Drugs (But The Drugs Like Me) is not only jolly good fun and an amusing song title, it was a somewhat major hit at the time, which unfortunately everyone seems to have forgotten about (although it appears to still be a popular strip club selection) (not that I would know anything about that). Elsewhere, “I’m as fake as a wedding cake,” is a good example of Manson’s nimble wordsmith abilities. The chorus of User Friendly brings with it some compelling ambiguity, because you’re not sure how to interpret this bit about “someone better” coming along, if he’s speaking of himself or his partner. Fundamentally Loathsome features a simple jazzy groove you never would have expected, and is like a blast of fresh air at this point in the proceedings. Bonus trivia: that’s Manson himself playing drums on The Dope Show. 

9. Fall Out Boy – Take This To Your Grave

It’s safe to say they haven’t quite hit their stride yet on this early set. The main culprit here would seem to be repetition. Even hardcore fans surely listen to this for the first time, and for the initial handful of tracks, they’re nodding along to it, they’re thinking, hmm, okay, not bad, boys! But then you begin to realize that all of the choruses sound exactly the same, centered around some slight variation (and even this is charitable) of Patrick Stump belting “whoa oh…whoa ah oh ooo oh!” And meanwhile the music is also too similar from track to track to make up for any shortcomings in this department – amusing song titles and namechecking some dude named Chris can only take you so far. For the uninitiated, I would say sample tracks #2 and #3 and then move on.

10. Johnny Cash – The Legend Of Johnny Cash

Though I’ve never listened to this particular greatest hits batch, the songs assembled here are far more familiar than anything else in the collection. And even so, there are a few surprises. The standout track, which I’m familiar with but never studied in detail or anything, is possibly I’ve Been Everywhere. All you can think of listening to this is, holy Jesus, can you imagine trying to sing this thing? Although unless I’m missing something, he appears to have skipped North Carolina entirely. And if Dayton was his only ever Ohio pitstop, let’s just say he basically hasn’t seen that state, either. 

 

11. Def Leppard – Pyromania

Based on the comments I’ve heard throughout the years, the official “book” on this album, as well as the songs I’m familiar with, I’d always assumed this was more of a pure rock effort than their later studio concoctions. Except it turns out the whisper-shouting backup vocals and mechanical drum sound and, presumably, guitar chords built on the mixing board by stacking one note at a time were all already in place here. This was a Mutt Lange production, after all. Don’t get me wrong, though – none of this is necessarily bad. Opener Rock Rock (‘Til You Drop) does sound like a lame AC/DC reject, with plodding robo-drums before Rick Allen even lost his arm. But from here the effort gains serious steam, although I don’t agree with purists who lump this in with their early stuff and dismiss everything from Hysteria onward. These two albums are sonically similar, and while the classics on here are top shelf, taken as a whole I think Hysteria still has the slight edge. Die Hard The Hunter sucks for the most part whenever Joe Elliott is singing, though the instrumental stretches are cool. And of course Rock Of Ages is great and all, even as I’ve always wondered if it was really necessary to reiterate a Neil Young lyric just three years later.

 

12. John Mayer – Any Given Thursday Disc 2

People with otherwise reliable musical tastes have been telling me for years that John Mayer is a surprisingly good guitar player. Yet, even though I will admit to liking a few of his singles, let’s just say evidence of that has not been forthcoming. And I’m not entirely convinced this set proves that case, either. While there are two guitarists listed, himself and some Michael Chaves character, any theoretical killer chops seem to be absent. It probably doesn’t help that this CD kicks off with an 8 minute version of Why Georgiaone of his more dreadful offerings, immediately followed by the even lamer Your Body Is A WonderlandA couple of unnecessary covers in some “1983” medley and way too long takes on everything else round out this underwhelming release. On closing track Neon, the band does at last generate genuine momentum, although it’s questionable whether you really want to hear drum and bass guitar solos at this point. Perhaps the missing first disc was better? Glancing at the track list online makes me doubt this, but who knows. Then again, the guy has made millions of dollars and slept with Katy Perry. So one of us has figured some things out in life, and isn’t me.

13. Metallica – S & M Disc 1

This pair of consecutive, half complete live sets makes me think there must be additional pieces in the Ronda Kaye Collection somewhere. Collectors the world over salivate at this prospect, surely.

But I think the larger question presented by acquiring a Metallica disc in this manner is: should I mail them a check? What is Metallica’s stance on fans purchasing used CDs? Though I’m pretty sure of the answer to this, and suspect we might find them in the same Occupy Retail camp as Garth Brooks (who once looked into banning secondhand record stores from selling his music, in case you forgot about that), I think it’s useful to sort situations like these with a bit of fantasy imagery.

So let’s say you are strolling through the woods one day and stumble upon S & M Disc 1 lying upon the path. What is the correct response to this find? At the Lars Ulrich end of the spectrum, you must absolutely pay for any musical listening whatsoever, possibly for even just thinking about music, and should therefore mail them a check before even playing it; at what we might call the Blackbeard end of the spectrum, hell no you are not paying for this, all music should be free.

I think it’s safe to say, though, that reality – and the best attitude for the musicians themselves to adopt – is somewhere in the middle. Of course they should try to pull in whatever revenue they can from existing channels, and of course you would go after the company behind a piracy site, the same as you would someone printing up, say, bogus copies of the Black Album. But suing the listeners themselves is idiotic. You should really think twice about discouraging your fans from telling everyone they know about your music, and spreading it by every means at their disposal.

You would think they learnt their lesson from the Napster debacle, but no, that cease & desist they sent to a Metallica tribute band a few years ago suggests otherwise. As such this debate continues to fester in ways that surely do them no favors, either monetarily, or the standing of their legacy, or the chances that people will actually listen this music 100 years from now. Is this why you don’t even really hear their classic old cuts on the radio anymore? Does it distract reviewers to the extent they tend to rant about the band itself, with the actual music sort of an afterthought at this point? And how would these scenarios be different than Ulrich selling $12 million worth of famous paintings? Shouldn’t the original artists get a cut of that?

Moving on to what I have of this live album, I mean, yeah, it’s pretty decent. This was the whole Metallica-with-an-orchestra project and you kind of know what to expect. No Leaf Clover, one of their last major hits, still holds up well.

14. Collective Soul – Hints, Allegations, & Things Left Unsaid

I do vaguely remember listening to Shine and a couple other tracks off of this one time way back in the day, riding around in somebody’s car. As this band surprised a lot of people, including the author of this piece, by sticking to the airwaves a while and launching numerous hits (surprising factoid: I remember reading once that they had the most top 10 rock singles from ‘94-’01), they did start to grow on me ever so slightly.

Even so, I mean, this impression did plateau somewhere around the time that they were last heard on the radio. Shine I have always considered the most annoying of their hits, and that ranking doesn’t change any after listening to their entire debut. But among the more shocking finds on here, I would have to say, is that there are some really strong ideas you wouldn’t associate with such a vanilla band, in particular the guitar parts. And of course they’ve always had a knack for catchy tunes. But the problems Collective Soul is facing were always evident and remain so: hokey, way too slick production, and a drummer so robotic you’re not entirely certain it’s human. Excessive creativity was never going to prove much of a burden for them, either. Also, this strategy to have Ed Roland half whisper all the time, while I suppose it made their sound distinct, I’m not convinced this was the best idea in the world if they hoped to seem a little less cheesy.

Actually, I tell you what this entire album sounds like. Imagine you went to the movies to see some middling romantic comedy in the mid 90s, and the main dude everyone was rooting for to get with the girl, he played in a band. This is what that band would have sounded like, the music playing in montages and lip-synched to in bar scenes.

15. Jason Mraz – Waiting On My Rocket To Come

Anyone who has ever heard You And I or The Remedy on their local bubblegum station would be surprised to learn what a weird album this is. Listening to this makes me want to lump him into basically the same category as Train, whose career I also think was ruined to some extent by having hit songs. You get the feeling – and there’s plenty of recorded evidence to support this – that they were some fairly “out there” and original folkies at one point, who were slowly commoditized and sterilized by major label meddling. Which they may not have entirely resisted, true.

As such, the weirdness that continues to peek through is somewhat all the more amazing. So, yeah, you have the top 40 treacle, catchy though it is. Then you’re kind of scooping your jaw off the floor to hear the line “just a worthless piece of shit” in a later cut. Sleep All Day we used to hear on the Muzak at one of my old jobs, and I’ve actually been a fan ever since, would consider this a truly gorgeous song. Elsewhere, you have a little bit of white boy rapping, some jazzier stretches, plenty of the bizarre folk I mentioned, and off the wall lyrics galore.

There’s also a funny story to relate concerning this CD, which has nothing to do with my review yet seems ripe for inclusion. Erin’s riding with me to the home improvement store one day when I happen to have this disc cued up in the player, listening to it for this piece. It’s playing the last song, which she tolerates, but then the disc flips over to You And I. 

“Ugh,” she groans.

“Well, it’s better than Jack Johnson, anyway,” I remark, which was one of my intended topics at the time (*original intended opening comments: With this debut album, Jason Mraz has already proven he is better than Jack Johnson – which is no small thing. Well, no, actually it is. It is a very small thing. But it’s a start, anyway). 

“Oh, I’m sure,” she says – but then hits the advance button to skip to the next album in the player regardless.

We’re in the home improvement store maybe 15 minutes later, and Jack Johnson comes on the Muzak overhead…followed two songs later by You And I!! This was basically the moment where I knew this piece definitely needed written. This is his first album and I have to say I really dig some of it, although doubt to the extreme he got any better from here.

16. Matchbox Twenty – More Than You Think You Are

And this would be the album which Erin skipped to after Mraz made her queasy. “What is this, Nickelback?” she half joked, upon hearing the introductory riff. But no, a far sight better than those Canadian cheese merchants, I’m brave enough to declare…and also, in a way, I feel maybe the exact opposite of a Mraz/Train, or at least a band who didn’t ride that doomed express to its termination.

Since their later hits and Rob Thomas’s solo offerings tended to be lightweight pop, it’s easy to forget that when Push came out, these guys were basically considered another mainstream alternative band. And fought to some extent to maintain that designation, hokey though the results might have occasionally proven. But I’ve seen these guys live and am not above declaring they’re very good, also that I like a lot of their stuff. Concerts are a great equalizer in that they tend to speed up the dreadful slower cuts, while at the same time sanding down some of the cheesier flourishes – both highly beneficial elements to a group like this. As far as this disc is concerned, singles Unwell and Disease, both of which received quite a bit of airplay, are one perfect example of each scenario, though I struggle to get through them in album form. Although it is still really strange to think that they actively collaborated with Mick Jagger on that latter cut.

Bright Lights has always been one of my favorites of theirs. All I Need is a new one for me but it’s easy to picture this was a smash hit in other universes. Downfall rocks out mightily until this unfortunate gospel singer breakdown erupts out of nowhere – I guess that part’s clever from a composing standpoint but nothing I actually want to listen to. It’s the kind of track which makes me want to play around with an editing program and snip out that section.

17. Rage Against The Machine – Live At The Grand Olympic Auditorium

Just about every time I hear Rage Against The Machine, I am reminded of this one conversation I had with Big Paul, riding around in his truck in the early 2000s. The radio station had just played one of their songs, and then the DJ came on and said his little piece, describing RTOM as “heavy metal.”

“Heavy metal? I wouldn’t call them heavy metal,” Big Paul scoffed, “I would call it…revolution rock!”

This has always stuck with me, mostly because it’s hilarious, although also because of another thought it calls into question further down the road. At one point it occurred to me – and I’m sure I can’t be alone in this regard – that while nodding along with and maybe even thinking or muttering something along the lines of hell yeah, dude! to whatever Zach happens to be spouting, I wouldn’t say I generally have the first clue what he’s actually talking about, nor have I ever been inspired enough to find out. Does this make me a mindless consumer, the kind of sheep he’s railing against? Possibly. But my real question is: how revolutionary can revolution rock be if nobody knows what you’re singing about?

Anyway, on to the topic at hand, I had never heard of this CD before it wound up in my hands thanks to this Collection. Despite being a fairly devoted Rage fan in the 90s, they did pretty much drop off my radar after that. But the thing is, and while I know mathematically there’s a 1/17 chance of this happening, it feels fairly mind-blowing to have gotten to this last, out of all the albums reviewed here, because it happens to be my favorite of the bunch.

I think this is an amazing set, and furthermore, would probably recommend this to someone as an introductory primer before any individual album, or a greatest hits package. As I write this, I have read some reviews online, and the general consensus seems to be that most reviewers found the audio quality deplorable. That isn’t my impression at all, having spun this disc three times now in my own truck. I think maybe these lofty reviewers for popular publications are listening to the disc on the most top of the line stereos available. But is it possible revolution rock isn’t meant to be heard on premium sound systems?

Conclusion

The lesson gleaned from listening to all of these CDs is you can never just assume you know how good or bad an album is. It’s a lesson we can never stop learning, in a way. No matter how many times I remind myself of this, it’s a habit that’s almost impossible to break.
I suppose it’s unnatural to think we can ever – or even attempt to –  stop having opinions without complete knowledge. But one major pact I was able to make with myself one year, and this is much more doable, was to at least stop talking about albums I’ve never even bothered to listen to. This too is much harder than it would seem, though with practice it does get a little easier. The problem is, and I don’t know why music appreciation is much more geared this way than, say, books or movies or TV shows, but with music we’ve gotten to this place where more value is placed on espousing the “correct” opinion than on actually knowing what you’re talking about.

I’ll give you an example of a specific debate I had with someone, right around the time that I decided I was going to stop talking about albums if I’d never actually listened to them. We were discussing the band Anthrax, and I happened to mention that I actually thought John Bush was a better singer than Joey Belladonna. Not even necessarily technically better, only that I liked him more. My friend did the whole bit of chuckling and looking about the room to gauge if anyone else heard what this joker said, then told me I was crazy. And of course, not that Anthrax were ever a big deal or anything, but liking Belladonna better is “supposed” to be the correct answer here. And not that I was ever a huge fan of theirs or anything, either, wouldn’t even dare to claim then that I’d heard all of the classic old material – and actually I wasn’t even necessarily saying the John Bush material was better per se – but I came away from this conversation thinking that while maybe I hadn’t heard all the Belladonna stuff, I was convinced he had heard zero of the John Bush stuff. He was just spouting the fashionably correct opinion. And yet anyone within earshot who knows or cares about these things I’m sure came away thinking, well, that guy is a true fan, and meanwhile I don’t know anything about music. So in this climate, it’s not surprising that people have prioritized memorizing a bunch of correct opinions over listening to the tunes and developing their own, or even admitting that they don’t know. And this is just one extremely minor example.

Maybe now that things are swinging back full circle to olden times, in the sense that bands release a flurry of singles now, and albums are becoming passe, maybe this trend too will change. Possibly actually listening to the albums will gain currency once more, whereas now, as has been the case for years, I can personally testify, this approach will earn you the label of “not knowing anything about music.” Either way, I’m keeping my eyes open for another exquisite find such as this – or better yet, the remainder of the Ronda Kaye Collection.

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The Tippytoes Teapots

Shortly before a recent performance by The Black Keys, for which my wife and I had tickets, we became aware that a certain indie band named St. Vincent was slated to open. I had heard one song of theirs on the radio a couple of times, and was less than impressed, but couldn’t remember any specifics about it and was determined not to let it color my opinion in either direction – seeing a band live has historically gone in both directions, negative and positive, regardless what my stance on them might have been going in.

It quickly became apparent that the impression carved out by this band in person was strong enough to put any notion of bias aside. To me, this band seems a clear example of someone having the preexisting idea of moving to New York City with the specific intent of making pretentious hipster art rock. And unfortunately for the rest of us,  critics and David Byrne apparently love the shtick.

The main problem I have with this outfit starts at its very foundation: there’s no discernible songwriting prowess to be found. Every song starts with some floaty keyboards, then the drummer drops in sort of jamming in space without any real connection to anything, followed by a guitar solo at the end. It’s almost a relief when the lead singer climbs up on this pink, wedding cake looking platform in back, and opens one song with some guitar strumming instead. Though otherwise it’s the same old tune, too.

She seems like she could have a good voice, the pipes are there, it’s just that she chooses to sing in an annoying and contrived fashion. Kind of like that guy you know who could be a good drummer but refuses to keep a steady beat, instead insists upon nonsensical splashes on the rivet cymbals and China boys, et cetera, all day long. And she keeps making these ridiculous, trying-too-hard-to-be-cool faces, also, looking bug eyed up at the ceiling with her mouth wide open as if spotting a ghost. I don’t begrudge anyone some genuine wacky inspiration, but this feels less like the muse calling than a calculated affectation. Like she’s been trying various kooky stage shenanigans for years and is now sticking with some that must have impressed certain important industry people.

“These people all look like they’re in their 50’s!” my wife, Erin, marvels of this foursome, then pulls up their Wikipedia page on their phone. After noting that the singer’s actually a year younger than she is (32), she turns that entry’s hilariously haggard main photo in my direction, one that finds the lead singer (okay, it seems she is St. Vincent, allegedly also her grandma’s middle name) rocking what I’m guessing must be the same ironically dyed grey hair she’s sporting today. “This is what drugs will do to ya, kid,” Erin announces, summarizing this fashion statement, accurately in my opinion, as “crazy meth head.”

Not that a band’s look ultimately matters much, or it shouldn’t, although it can lend you some indicative signposts, suggesting what these people think is cool and whether it’s likely you should waste your time as a result. Kind of like a coworker’s spouse met for the first time at an office party or something, the kind of jokes they tell and their religious or political viewpoints. Personally, I would spend less time rehearsing some of these surface trimmings and more time making the songwriting sharper.

On a positive note, the drummer is okay. Otherwise, the only thing I would even vaguely give a thumbs up to would be singer’s fade out guitar solos. On some songs she doesn’t play a single note until the solo, although these cuts often beg for more guitar, but whatever – these workouts are a somewhat memorable touch. They all seem to have the same distortion pedal sound, though, that of a teenage basement shredder, which makes her use of a hollow bodied guitar for exactly one of these solos baffling and amusing because it sounds identical. Yet the solos as a whole are decent.

But she and the Asian woman in front also perform these choreographed baby steps moves and “I’m a little teapot” gestures which ultimately undermine all of it, rendering them more novelty act than anything else by far. The two of them are on equal, eye to eye footing up front – with the drummer and other keyboardist in back – and the Asian girl does occasionally pull double duty a la The Edge from U2, where she’ll play the keys with a guitar strapped to her chest, sometimes alternating between the two during the same song. Other times, however, she steps away from the keyboard to rock out and this is where the synchronized moves come into play. Sometimes she and St. Vincent tippytoe together side by side to the back and then front of the stage, other times they alternate, passing one another mid route.

“Oh my god! This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen!” Erin gags, “it’s even worse than some shitty band from the Wienie Roast (summer Charlotte tradition, an all day fest with multiple acts on different stages) because there’s nowhere else to go! There’s no escaping!”

“What should they be called?” I wonder, “The Tippytoes? The Baby Steps?”

“The Tippytoes Teapots,” she immediately replies.

A girl I work with is also attending this show with her husband and arrives in time to see the last half of their final song. “You didn’t miss anything,” I will assure her later.

“I could tell they suck based on the crowd’s reaction,” she says, “usually even for the opening act they’re more enthusiastic. Instead it was (claps lightly), woo.”

Let this be a warning to you as well, dear reader. Support your local economy by sticking around for a couple more drinks at some bar near the arena, and save yourself the torture.

Have Mercy, Baby, On A Poor Girl Like Steve

Classic rock is officially now boring. It probably has been for quite some time, yet it occurred to me today, while flipping the FM dial past a perfectly acceptable Van Halen track that I always would have settled upon before, that all surprises have been bled from this music. This isn’t to suggest that the Led Zeppelins and Pink Floyds aren’t still gods in my eyes, only that the days of listening to this music 24/7 are long gone – and that the songs I’ve always hated are all the more excruciating now (seriously, how is it that I still hear ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down every goddamn day? Are this many people burning up the radio station hotlines to request it? Really?).

But don’t despair. These thoughts reminded me of a number of diversions my colleagues and I have developed over the years to make such music much more interesting, or at the very least tolerable. If nothing else, the following should renew your appreciation for these dinosaurs ye have forsaken, and make the next cookout where someone is rockin’ these rad tunes an altogether different occasion:

1. Lovin’

This beauty was discovered purely by accident one afternoon whilst Matt and I were still employed as meat cutters, cranking these gems on a tinny transistor in the back room where we brandished knives. Bachman Turner Overdrive, possibly the worst band ever, was at that moment infesting our eardrums with You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, the absolute nadir of their putrid catalog. During one spot where Randy B is warbling about this mysterious concept of “lovin,” I instead blurt out, “…any pussy is good pussy, mmm hmm, woo hoo…” and just like that, a fresh new pastime is born.

For the rest of the day and many thereafter, we are obsessed with listening – not actively looking up online, say, which would be cheating – for any spot in any song where the word lovin’ is used as a noun. While when used as a verb, it doesn’t really make sense (think of the Scorps and Still Pussy You, for example), we discover countless examples where this simple switch fits perfectly and causes the song in question to shine with an altogether brighter light. It helps too, of course, that what these guys are actually singing about is pussy, not “lovin,” when you get right down to it.

Though many highlights are discovered, my personal two way tie for first place comes down to 38 Special lamenting “good pussy gone bad” and Huey Lewis boasting about “hot pussy every night.”

2. Crash

I can’t take credit for this gem. You need at least one great drinking game to go along with this music, and a long forgotten friend, some fifteen years ago, introduced the undisputed king into our lives one night while we were all knocking back sodas at a favorite neighborhood bar. The object is to take a drink of your beer every time a cymbal crash sounds out on the jukebox (or Muzak, or whatever happens to be playing), which seems much tamer in practice than it is in actuality. Somewhere around the 3rd or 4th song, let’s just say you start…questioning some things, to put it mildly. Particularly as, if your buddies are anything like mine, all parties involved are tripping over themselves to spin an ever more wicked cut.

Expert Tip: there is no more maniacal song to foist upon someone than CCR’s version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine. Don’t even bother searching for it. It doesn’t exist. For that reason alone, this game, while also known as Nice Job, Crash, it more commonly referred to as either Grapevine, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, or I’ll Bet You’re Wondering How I Knew ‘Bout Your Plans To Make Me Crash.

3. Moustaches Per Capita

More a companion piece ideal for when hanging out bored and/or half wasted, listening to classic rock while either everyone is huddled around a computer screen, trolling the internet, or sprawled around a couch, shouting out band names that one or more persons is pulling up on a smart phone. This baby in fact traces its roots yet again to a day on the job where Dan and I this time were flipping through some hilarious 1970s music guide, and he proposed we tried to figure out which group had a highest percentage of moustaches. Though it surely exists, in that particular book we found no evidence of a 100%, although the Doobs scored pretty damn high and helped us kill a good half hour.

4. Steve

Okay, one insight I’m taking away from writing this is that we clearly do more screwing around while on the job than I ever realized. But whatever the case, Steve, sort of the yin to Lovin’s yang, sits at the polar opposite from that particular pursuit, in that you will not be searching for opportunities to play; at some point, you will struggle in futility to shut down your mind from thinking about it.

Steve originated, once again in our meat cutting days, at the hands of this hapless idiot who manned the counter. He was never involved in the composition of these parodies, he was merely the subject. It began one day with Victor cranking up Pina Colada in the backroom and declaring, “…I was tired of my lady…so I went to Steve…,” which soon sparked a full blown phenomenon. Even our district merchandiser got in the mix. Unlike lovin, words that rhyme with Steve are found everywhere, and you soon discover that often merely the correct syllabic window allows you to make a make a perfectly hilarious and logical substitution.

Soon, the craze extends to all manner of song, not just classic rock. To cite some actual examples belted out over top of a buzzing bandsaw, Steve can magically transform Gary Puckett and the Union Gap into edgy performers again (“young Steve, get out of my mind….you’re much toooooooooooo young, Steve”), or make Lifehouse sound interesting and cryptic (“I can’t keep my eyes off of you…and Steve…and all other people…”), it can add another whole layer of sadness to Connie Francis’s ancient tearjerkers (“where the boys are…someone waits for Steve”). Occasionally, it can express a basic truism that perhaps we have not considered before, such as when Toto point out that Steve isn’t always on tieEEEahHAHAeeAYEEiHIhime.

Do with this information what you will. Perhaps reading this will spark up your own creative means for approaching these songs from a slightly different angle (such as my wife and I and our more scholarly – ahem – recent searches for tunes that include the word “perhaps,” without using it in the title. So Cake is eliminated, as far as we know, meaning thus far we’re stuck on Blues Traveler and the Thompson Twins). Now if someone could just figure out a way to make Bruce Springsteen palatable, we’d really be on a roll.