0318: “Time Is Tight” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s

Booker T. & the M.G.’s were the house band for Stax Records, which meant that they played on records by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, and Albert King among many other gifted artists in Memphis in the ’60s. They were a group of four musical geniuses who helped to create, shape, and epitomize the Memphis sound to the point that everyone outside of Memphis was trying to do what they were doing. They are one of the most influential bands in all of modern American music. Their first hit single “Green Onions” reshaped R&B, soul, the instrumental, and the idea of what cool is. Though few of their albums are start-to-finish great, their place in canon of modern music is secure in the fact that their five best songs are some of the five greatest songs ever produced, up comfortably on the same shelf with The Beatles’ masterworks.

In a word association game when I think of jazz I think of precision. Even when jazz unhinges itself looking for new sounds, genres, and abstractions that attempt to transcend descriptors, I think of how precise and mathematical it is. Jazz is like poetry in that sense too: every word and note somehow seems more important than a pop song or work of fiction. And when precise notes like that embed itself into a pop song, then you really have something. That is what “Time Is Tight” is to me. Four musical geniuses hitting the exact perfect notes and the exact perfect tempo changes. This is jazz made concise and into pop. Exploring worlds of sound and pushing boundaries is legitimately exciting and awe-inspiring, but so too is a three minute instrumental pop song. Steve Cropper’s guitar on this track won’t blow you away by sheer virtuosity as compared to other guitar solos of the rock era, but within the framework of this song it is perfect. It is precise. It is one part of an engine that will make you move. The drum beat makes you move. The bass line makes you move. Booker T’s organ makes you move, and tickles your brain. All these things come together in perfect—precise—harmony. “Green Onions” is rightfully seen as the game-changing track to point to first, but “Time Is Tight” is right there. I’d put it up against just about any song from the ’60s. Here are four music geniuses just riffing. It shouldn’t be this easy.

0317: “Time For Livin'” by Beastie Boys

In 1986, as rap had begun moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan to mainstream America, the Beastie Boys landed on the scene with Licensed to Ill. It was fueled primarily by the rock-rap anthem “Fight For Your Right,” which encapsulated producer Rick Rubin’s musical worldview to a tee: a guy who was absorbed by rap and hip hop, and who also produced Slayer’s landmark debut album. “Fight For Your Right” was the perfect sophomoric track that could connect a white suburban audience with a black genre. On the surface it looked like the Beasties were going to be a white novelty trying to cash in on black art but three years later they teamed up with the Dust Brothers instead of Rubin and dropped the seminal album Paul’s Boutique, a sprawling masterpiece that expanded the boundaries of sampling, and added more sophomore humor peppered with random Hawthorne Wingo references. Hip hop icons such as Rakim and Chuck D were blown away by what these dudes were doing; these weren’t just three dorks with a hot video on MTV. Three years later the Beasties released Check Your Head which added a layer of heaviness (the West Coast sound was becoming mainstreamed too) but still kept the odd sampling and ironic prowess. Almost exactly in the middle of Check Your Head is a cover of Sly and The Family Stone’s “Time For Livin'”—the only cover they ever did on a studio album. Their version is half the time of the original and instead of trying to capture Sly’s soulfulness they, uh, went the polar opposite route and made it into a kind of garage thrash rendition. The biggest departure that Check Your Head represents from their previous two albums was that it included instrumental tracks and tracks where the Beasties are playing instruments instead of relying on sampling. Their version of “Time For Livin'” is unlike most of their catalog: raw, loud, and kinda punk. The Beasties had a little chameleon in them, which endeared them to the casual fan and the professionals, which made them more than just three white dudes trying to rap and get on MTV. “Time For Livin'” is one of the best rock songs of the ’90s.

0315: “Motoroller Scalatron” by Stereolab

Stereolab’s brand of Moog-powered Kraut rock lounge music(?) establishes a like/dislike demarcation point right off the bat. There’s really no kind of liking this band. Their sound, Laetitia Sadier’s French-accented and very poppy vocals, and their lyrics of a socialist bent force your hand into a quick decision. Stereolab, for all their gifts of making catchy, quirky little pop songs,[1] have never made one that broke through to even a brief mainstream flirtation. True, Stereolab tries to stay fiercely independent but even Sonic Youth had an accidental minor hit with “Bull In the Heather.” “Motoroller Scalatron” starts out like an old Kraftwerk track with its whizzing and oscillating murmurs, setting you up for an 8-bit bleep-bloop oddity. Instead, a full-bodied oddity arrives—a track that, in the wrong hands, would sound like it was pressed in a kitsch factory, but is in fact made by a group that is genuinely inspired by trying to modernize pop lounge music. It doesn’t always work but when it does it is some of the most entertainingly weird music, as you would expect from a group of avant-garde political theorists.

[1] Though they do indulge in longform explorations from time to time.

0314: “Dot/Eyes” by Tortoise

On Brian Eno’s 1975 seminal masterpiece Another Green World, the fourth track is a song called “In Dark Trees” which aims to make you feel like you are walking through a dark forest (but in a more cinematic way, rather than an ultra-realistic one; Eno was such a master of making a fictitious soundscape feel more real than expected that he basically created the ambient genre). Fast-forward about twenty years and a Chicago-based band named Tortoise modernized Eno’s ambient sound into what was packaged as post-rock, which was really just shorthand for combining instrumental, progressive, and experimental rock. Tortoise’s first two albums had a crisp and refined simplicity to them; its experimental qualities had more to do with the fact that their music existed. In a sea of the alternative rock of the mid ’90s something like their debut album stood out, but taken as it is years later it’s pretty standard progressive instrumental rock. Their later albums are where you find the experimental stuff and on their 2004 release It’s All Around You you will find “Dot/Eyes,” the sixth track, a visual representation of the album cover. The track explodes from the first second and evokes a surreal soundscape; it feels like walking in a strange world but the heavy beat anchors it in some form of reality (like the drawers or clocks that appear in Dali’s works). It’s dreamlike but also really vivid. It’s the logical advancement of Eno’s early artful masterworks, congruent with the technological advancements that have happened along the way.

0313: “54-46 Was My Number” by Toots & the Maytals

What separates Toots & the Maytals from almost all of the first generation of Jamaican ska, reggae, and rocksteady recording artists is Toots Hibbert. Set against a traditional sound is a man whose voice is so distinctly Jamaican while also sounding so thoroughly like an amalgam of Otis Redding and James Brown. Toots possesses a raw, full-throated, fiery preacher’s voice, which seems to go against the expected construction of how ska, reggae, and rocksteady should sound but he is more than capable of making it work because, like a small town preacher, he knows what notes to hit. If you’ve never heard a Maytals song (and there’s a good chance that you haven’t because they are criminally overlooked in the US for the most part), “54-46 Was My Number” is an excellent introduction to Toots’s voice and the band’s music. The song starts with Toots yelling “Stick it up, mister!” and some back-and-forth calling with other members Henry Gordon and Nathaniel Mathias. The melody that kicks in after this is some of the best reggae ever produced; this summer drinking and summer dancing, complete with the daydreams of being on a Jamaican beach kind of melody. Bob Marley may be the face of the reggae genre but bands that preceded him like The Maytals hold the raw, connective power to it. The Maytals are credited with naming the genre. This song is an excellent example of why they were ahead of their time.

0312: “Baby, I’m Bad Weather” by Toussaint Morrison

You have almost certainly heard this song. You have heard this song without knowing it. When you play this song, for the first twenty seconds you will probably say to yourself, “I have not heard this song before.” But trust me, you have heard it. After twenty seconds there is a guitar riff, and then you will say to yourself, “Wait, I have heard this song before.” I told you.

It’s always a little weird hearing the full version of the song that a company or a T.V. show uses—the small, twenty second clip in their advertisements is its existence. I had heard “Corona” long before it was used on Jackass but I always wondered what the full song was like for people who only knew it as an intro to a show. Garnier had a successful commercial campaign years ago that used “Diamonds and Guns” by The Transplants, the clip of which successfully hides the fact that it comes from a punk/rap group fronted by the former lead singer of Rancid. I didn’t see that coming either.

What’s crazy about Toussaint Morrison’s “Baby, I’m Bad Weather” is that the clip that Esurance uses for their ads hide the song’s stomping nature. This song can make you move. Morrison’s vocals have energy to them, enough to make him immune from some lyrics that would be seen as outright corny in others’ hands. This is a really catchy song; a song whose catchiness and airiness is perfect for the summer. It’s a fun song that deserves to be wholly listened to instead of relegated to a segment on a radio or TV ad. You’ve almost certainly heard this song. Now listen to it.