Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.

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Album Assignments: Modern Vampires Of The City

The band may be called Vampire Weekend, and they may have titled their third album Modern Vampires Of The City, but just between us, I don’t think they’re really vampires. I can tell, because much of the album focuses on a couple of topics that vampires just can’t relate to: God and mortality.

I remember hearing an interview with Pete Townshend where he revealed that “Who Are You” was addressed not to his fans, or himself, but to God. Mind you, he’s said other things about it too, but this was the one that made an impression on me. I found it a pretty startling revelation, given that the song doesn’t exactly come across like a prayer. Similarly, U2’s “Mysterious Ways” could as easily be a love song as a religious paean, or perhaps the other way round.

Vampire Weekend pull off this trick a few times on Modern Vampires. “Worship You” gallops along at a frantic pace, with Ezra Koenig rattling off the verses as fast as humanly possible, addressing someone accustomed to having everything “only in the way you want it.” The chorus slows down enough to be understood, but the words are oblique enough that they could be about a deity or any elevated figure, or even a concept. Similarly, “Finger Back” tears off verse after verse about punishment and pain, but that could be relationship pain as easily as spiritual pain. The spoken aside about an Orthodox girl who “fell in love with the guy at the falafel shop” brings the two together — relationship pain caused by spiritual pain. Or perhaps the other way round.

Album cover for Modern Vampires of the City

“Ya Hey” gets a little more clear, and a lot more clever. Obviously, the title flip-flops Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”, but there’s more going on here than casual rearrangement. Check out this chorus:

Through the fire and through the flames (Ya Hey, Ya Hey)
You won’t even say your name (Ya Hey, Ya Hey)
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?

The fire, the flames, and the “I am that I am” refer pretty clearly to the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3, which means that “Ya Hey” isn’t just Outkast in reverse. It’s Yahweh, who when asked for his name, tells Moses: “I am that I am.”

And indeed, who could ever live that way? Who could be in a relationship with someone who won’t even tell you his name? “Ya Hey” takes shape as an “I’m just not that into you” song, giving a potential lover the brush-off, except this time the suitor is the Christian god. “Ya Hey” sums up Yahweh’s dilemma: “The faithless, they don’t love you / The zealous hearts don’t love you / And that’s not gonna change.”

“Unbelievers” presents the other side of this dilemma: a narrator who can’t believe, but longs to be saved nevertheless:

Got a little soul
The world is a cold, cold place to be
Want a little warmth but who’s gonna save a little warmth for me?

Believers can warm themselves with the fervent heat of faith, but agnostics and atheists are on their own. The narrator is clearly in a relationship, but with another unbeliever, and he predicts their fates with a paradox: “We know the fire awaits unbelievers.” Of course, unbelievers don’t think that any sort of fire awaits them, and the contradiction plays into a larger theme of questioning atheism. After all, half the world believes, and how does he know which half is right? If there’s even a drop of holy water to be had, maybe belief is worth it after all?

“You and I will die unbelievers” brings the album’s religious concerns together with its other prominent theme: mortality. In “Don’t Lie”, the narrator soberly notes that “God’s loves die young”, and that “there’s a headstone right in front of you / And everyone I know.” The ticking clock of that song shows back up in “Hudson”, which tells the story of another death, and proclaims “the clock is such a drag.”

“Diane Young”, like “Ya Hey”, covers its subject with the thinnest veneer of wordplay. The verses tell a story of an out-of-control friend who keeps courting death, so anybody listening to the song knows very well that “Diane Young” is really “Dying Young.” “It’s bad enough just getting old,” the song tells us, when nobody knows what the future holds, but surely dying young is even worse.

So Modern Vampires Of The City dives pretty deep lyrically, but on a musical level it stays fun, engaging, and refreshing. It sets up a tent somewhere on the road between The Shins’ melancholy grandeur and the effervescent joy of world-music-era Paul Simon. I especially love the piano, featured on “Young Lion”, and the classical-style organ that comes out in songs like “Step.”

I’m pretty firmly in the camp of unbelievers, but I’m also long way from making peace with mortality, and this assignment is a perfect example of why. I’d never listened to much Vampire Weekend before Robby assigned me this album, and now that I have, I need to hear the rest. So there’s yet another set of experiences I have to chase down before I die. Forget Diane Young — even Diane Old will never give me enough time to hear, read, play, and see everything I want to. The clock really is such a drag.

Album Assignments: Into The Woods

On December 3rd, 1989, Robby and I attended a concert together: The Call at the Glenn Miller Ballroom on the CU Boulder campus. Now, I have been to many a concert over the decades, but to this day I count that show as one of the Top 5 I’ve ever seen. I was already a fan of the band, based on local radio play for “Everywhere I Go” and “The Walls Came Down”, but nothing prepared me for the phenomenal energy pouring off that stage, ricocheting through the audience like chain lightning. The ballroom is not big — it holds maybe 1000 people — and The Call stuffed a stadium’s worth of power into it that night. I’ve never felt anything quite like it.

They were touring on their brand new release Let The Day Begin, whose title track became their most popular song, peaking at #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart (albeit only reaching #51 on the Hot 100), but I am here to declare that the pinnacle of The Call’s staggeringly underrated career is their 1987 album Into The Woods. It’s a breathtaking artistic achievement, with one of the all-time great album sides, suffused throughout with passion, thoughtfulness, intensity, and one spine-tingling moment after another.

Here’s the sonic palette of The Call in 1987:

  • Introspective electric guitar by Tom Ferrier
  • Driving, crashing drums by Scott Musick
  • Elegiac synths by Jim Goodwin
  • Virtuosic bass and astonishing vocals by Michael Been

Been, the group’s primary songwriter, started out on guitar, then shifted to bass a few albums into the group’s career. The result is an aggressive, melodic approach to bass playing that puts the instrument in the foreground, shuffling guitar further back into the mix. Like Sting, like Johnette Napolitano, Been’s facility with the bass gives his band an anchored, thrumming style that provides deep roots for the towering emotions within his compositions.

Album cover for Into The Woods

The alchemy of this mix finds its fullest expression in the opening song of the album, and the best song The Call ever made: “I Don’t Wanna.” The opening seconds hook us with contrast, pitting a high, keening synth sound against tentative bass. Then Been’s baritone comes in with what seem like the words to an anti-love song:

I ain’t here to hold you when you cry
I ain’t here to hold your shaking hand
I ain’t here to look you in the eye
Or beg for you to understand
I ain’t gonna walk you through your dreams
Walk you through this life that we all know
I ain’t here to listen while you speak
I ain’t here to heal your broken soul

Been takes a breath, then sings an anguished question that takes the song around a sharp corner: “Am I here at all?” Suddenly, the music leaps to life. Drums propel us forward, the bass quests outward, and guitar fills in the colors. We fly into another verse of resistance:

I ain’t here to tell you what you need
I ain’t gonna take a noble stand
I ain’t here to look you in the eye
Or beg for you to understand
I can only tell you what I’ve seen
I can only tell you how it felt
When my heart is crushed so bad inside
Till I felt the hate that slowly built
I don’t wanna

Now the song is in full swing, the guitar creeping higher atop the swirling bass and drums. What is this about? “I don’t wanna” what? What is the character fighting so hard against? Is it an “It Ain’t Me Babe” song, pushing back against somebody’s idealization of him? Maybe, but what about this crushed heart? This character isn’t just giving somebody the brush-off — he’s in anguish, as Been communicates exquisitely in his rendering of the lines. So what’s happening? Listen:

I ain’t gonna watch your every move
I ain’t gonna dog your every step
I ain’t here to shape your every mood
I ain’t here to keep your secrets kept
Oh but if I held you in my arms
If I could squeeze you till we cry
I don’t wanna lose this love I feel
I don’t wanna lose this fight tonight
I ain’t gonna

And here it is. Just as the instruments take flight after the first verse, Been’s voice leaps to another level on “Oh but if I held you in my arms,” as the character’s true emotion comes to light. He wants nothing more than to hold that shaking hand, to heal that broken soul, but there is something in his way. The overwhelming love and desire he feels is smashing him into that barrier, crushing him, and yet he refuses to let it go. The drums are pounding now, a cymbal crash plummeting into huge tom hits, the guitar skating across the surface into urgent solos, the synths reaching ever higher. And the relentless bass drives more, more, more struggle, repeating the inevitable and praying for the impossible:

I ain’t here to hold you when you cry
I ain’t here to hold your shaky hand
I ain’t here to look you in the eye
I don’t want you under my command
I can only hope you feel your tears
I can only wish you’d feel the hope
I can only hope that I can see
Out beyond this skin that covers me
Oh how I wish that you were here
If I could hold you in my arms
Oh how I wish that you were mine
I don’t wanna beg for you no more

Once again, Been ratchets up the passion on “how I wish that you were here”, and finally at the end of this verse, we hear “I don’t wanna” connect with its object: “I don’t wanna beg for you no more.” Those words contain all the contradictions of the song so far, because obviously the character is doing the very opposite of begging — he’s been fighting like mad to get away from his feelings, but that refusal is a skin that covers over his true emotions, a skin that he wants to remove but that is the only thing protecting him from unbearable pain. Been is nearly shouting at this point, but he reaches his true peak in the next lines:

I ain’t gonna tell you how I feel
I ain’t gonna tell you how I feel
I ain’t gonna pray for you to love me
Because I know you will

Right after “pray”, Musick hits two enormous cymbal crashes and plays a crackling fill over “I just know it”, where Been really is shouting. You can hear the character writhing in pain as the song reaches its climax, and then Ferrier’s guitar starts playing arpeggios as a denouement, slowly winding down until the synths can descend, as our heart rates return to normal after an unbelievably intense emotional journey.

Now, it won’t do to give every song this treatment, but I wanted to go in depth on “I Don’t Wanna” so that I can explain the tremendous power of this band. At their best, they could go toe-to-toe with U2, Springsteen, or anybody you care to name in the realm of passion, emotion, and intensity. They engage with big themes, and they bring big music to match.

In “It Could Have Been Me”, Been explores the existential quandary of arbitrary fate, the notion that it is mostly chance that separates the privileged from the homeless, the dead soldier from the living prisoner. Jungle drums strain against (somehow) jangling bass to underscore these divergent paths. “In The River” starts with a dynamite bass riff (where The Call has riffs, they’re bass riffs) and dramatizes contrasts in a new way, with Been and Musick trading vocal lines. Its story of a river encompasses baptism, loss, mortality, and a literal flood that symbolizes humanity’s basic lack of control in the face of overwhelming forces. “The Woods” brings all the instrumental pieces together to paint a vivid portrait of “the night of the soul”, the title woods standing in for depression and despair whose only antidote is “the right word, said from the heart.”

Those four songs together make up Side One of Into The Woods, and it is a flawless album side. “I Don’t Wanna” is peerless, but every other song on the side hits its mark perfectly, and the whole suite of music blends together into an artistic expression nothing short of superb. Side Two is one or two steps down from this level, which is of course still amazingly great — just not quite the triumph that Side One achieves. (And yes, I’m ignoring the CD experience, because this is one of those albums that splits very clearly into vinyl sides.)

So where Side One of the album is incomparable, Side Two suffers in comparison by being merely very good. But every song on that half of the album still has its moments, many of them brought about by Been’s extraordinary vocals. “Day Or Night” bristles with energy, cresting with Been’s “I wanna know your mind’s on me,” and whenever he hits the title in the chorus. “Too Many Tears” lets Been belt out a wonderful image: “I’ve poured myself out like an old bitter wine.” In “Expecting”, Been emotes his way through a different version of the “I Don’t Wanna” dilemma, in which he waits for his lover to finally come to him, and lets the music buoy him as he sings, “Words so often fail.”

Been’s voice is as deep as his lyrics, and almost every song on this album counterpoints this voice with Goodwin’s high synths, to great effect. The contrast gives The Call’s songs a wonderful tension, the feel of a soul straining at its bonds. The exception is the last song on the album: “Walk Walk.” Synths are nowhere to be heard, and the whole things has an entirely different feel from every other song on the album — a gentle rockabilly groove that struts through the song’s central image of walking and learning at the same time. Where so many of the songs on Into The Woods enact entrapment and helplessness, “Walk Walk” is hopeful and propulsive, pushing its narrator into the future. As satisfying as The Call’s anguish has been, the hope of this last track is a welcome harbinger of a path out of the woods, into the sunlight.

Album Assignments: Darkness On The Edge Of Town

The stakes are high in Darkness On The Edge Of Town. The characters aren’t always literally fighting for their lives, but they are absolutely fighting to protect their vitality, their joy, their life-force, from a world constantly encroaching on them. The stakes aren’t life or death, but they are life versus death.

“Badlands” lays out the thesis. Its narrator faces danger on every side — he’s caught in a crossfire, with trouble in the heartland looming, while he gets his back burned working in the fields, feeling a head-on collision smashing in his guts, man. All these forces combined make up the metaphorical Badlands in which he lives, constantly trying to grind him into meaninglessness. But his response is defiant — he reaches for love, faith, and hope, moves from fears to dreams, and embraces the notion that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

That’s the triumph of the life force, right there. Springsteen and his band imbue the sentiment with anthemic power — driving rock and a passionate vocal. “The Promised Land” extends “Badlands”‘s musical approach as well as its themes, with a narrator who is pretty much identical to the “Badlands” guy. He works all day, assailed by feelings of helplessness, pain, and despair. He sees himself facing down a tornado ready to blow away his dreams… except.

Except he keeps returning to his core, and it is a core of faith. Not religious faith (though some of it is cloaked in religious language), but the belief that things can get better. That the dreams that get blown away are in fact lies if they don’t have the faith to stand their ground. That those dreams and lies deserve to get blown away, because their falseness otherwise stands ready to break his heart. That despite the storm that threatens him, he can drive straight into it and survive, protected by his belief in a better life, and a better future — the promised land.

Album cover from Darkness on the Edge of Town

Every song on the album plays out some version of this battle — death vs. life, darkness vs. light. Sometimes it’s in a romantic context, as in the breathtaking “Candy’s Room”, where the darkness in her hall is the sadness in her face, but she finds hidden worlds alive inside when she’s with her boy. “Prove It All Night” is the companion to this song, in which the life force is decidedly erotic, and the narrator kisses his lover to seal their fates, taking them into the world where they can live… and die.

Sometimes the darkness gets the upper hand, as in “Something In the Night”, where the characters lose everything they love, and end up “running burned and blind.” Or “Factory”, which puts death in the eyes of its workers, sending them home to pass their pain along to somebody else. That pairs directly with “Adam Raised A Cain”, in which “Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain”, and his son finds himself having to rebel or die.

I seem to be finding a lot of pairings on this album, so let me suggest one more: the bookends of “Badlands” and “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.” “Badlands” feels like the beginning of a life, with a narrator full of hope and fire, but “Darkness” feels like the end, its narrator looking back with regret at the wife, the money, and the life he lost. The darkness keeps rising up, that anti-life that may even be a little seductive, and like many of the characters on this album, he’s ready to “pay the cost” for being seduced by it.

The most interesting, though, of all these, is “Racing In The Street,” in which both the stakes and the narrator change partway through the song. We start out with lyrics that feel like they could have been plucked from a Beach Boys record, but sung slowly and gravely. Bruce here is engaging with a long rock and roll tradition of fast cars as symbols of freedom and joy, but undercutting it with the tone of the song, much like Tracy Chapman would ten years later. Then he makes the comparison explicit by quoting Martha And The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” twice, but with a style that is diametrically opposed to Motown exuberance.

Once again, living and dying are on the line:

Some guys they just give up living
And start dying little by little piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up
Then go racin’ in the street

The narrator finds his joy and vitality in these street races, his pride in shutting up and shutting down his competitors. He even finds love in these races, winning his girl after winning a race against her date. But then we learn something unexpected. She cries herself to sleep at night now. She worries about his safety. She stares off alone into the night, deeply unhappy and alone while he goes out racing.

And when he finally figures this out, the narrator leaves behind his world of “shut-down strangers and hot rod angels” to focus on what really matters in his life: love. He puts the power of his engine into the service of taking the two of them somewhere they can find redemption and a fresh start. For all the exultation of songs like “The Promised Land” and “Prove It All Night”, I would argue that the greatest triumph of life on the album happens at the end of “Racing In The Street.”

I’ve been focused on the songwriting of this album, because that’s what I connect to the most, but before I close, let me just add one more page to my already extensive Roy Bittan fan book. Sure, the entire band is wonderful, and Bruce’s vocals are great, sometimes bordering on scary great. But for me the piano feels like the emotional core so often. Can you imagine the beginning of “Prove It All Night” without Bittan? Or “Badlands”? Or “Something In The Night”? Or “Candy’s Room”? I sure can’t. Even songs that don’t feature the piano so prominently, like “The Promised Land”, benefit hugely from the beautiful underpinning that The Professor provides. Springsteen’s lyrics are the star of this album, but they wouldn’t shine anywhere near as brightly without the brilliant Roy Bittan.

Album Assignments: Bare Trees

For its most recent tours, Fleetwood Mac replaced Lindsey Buckingham with a new singer (Neil Finn) and a new guitarist (Mike Campbell.) Now, I’ve seen Fleetwood Mac lots of times, in lots of configurations, and I’ve also seen Lindsey on his own, and with Christine McVie. If you lean in close, I’ll whisper something to you, something heretical among a lot of Fleetwood Mac fans: I’ve kind of had it with Lindsey.

Sure, I appreciate him as a guitarist, as a songwriter, and as a producer, especially on Rumours, Tusk, and Mirage. But I’ve also listened to his endless pontifications and solos from many a stage, and I’ve read numerous sources that detail his abusive, controlling behavior. In fact, the band’s excuses for dismissing him were so threadbare that I really wonder if his firing was actually connected to the #metoo movement, which happened to peak right around the time they made the announcement. In any case, for me it was really listening to and writing about Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie that crystallized my perception that he’s been standing on Fleetwood Mac’s neck for the last 20-odd years.

Well, seeing Fleetwood Mac without Lindsey Buckingham on these last tours was quite a revelation. Here’s what I wrote about it the night after the first Lindsey-less show I saw:

Have you ever gotten out of a toxic relationship and found pieces of yourself coming back to life, pieces you’d shut down, maybe without even fully realizing it? Like opening the windows of long-sealed rooms and letting the outside air in at last? That’s what it felt like to see Fleetwood Mac in concert without Lindsey Buckingham.

Apparently, without Lindsey in the mix, Fleetwood Mac can acknowledge that it existed before he arrived! Can Stevie sing “Black Magic Woman”? Sure, why not? Can Mike Campbell play and sing “Oh Well”? You bet! Can Fleetwood Mac play a Danny Kirwan song in 2018? HELL YES.

Album cover art for Bare Trees

And that brings us at last to Bare Trees. Fleetwood Mac released this album in 1972, back when they were just a working band rather than an international sensation and cultural juggernaut. The lineup, besides Mick and John, was Christine McVie, Danny Kirwan, and Bob Welch.

In a previous post, I called Welch “criminally underappreciated”, and I stand by that statement. Welch was a great musician and songwriter, and was responsible for some of the best Fleetwood Mac songs between the Green and Buck/Nicks eras. But for whatever reason, he gets consistently ignored in retrospectives of the band’s history, and was unconscionably snubbed when Fleetwood Mac was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Sadly, he died by suicide in 2012.

The thing is, it’s hard to appreciate Welch within the confines of a single Fleetwood Mac album. His best stuff was spread across the albums from his tenure — “Lay It All Down” and “Future Games” from Future Games, “Did You Ever Love Me” (with Christine) from Penguin, “Emerald Eyes” and the wonderful “Hypnotized” from Mystery To Me, “Silver Heels” and “Bermuda Triangle” off Heroes Are Hard To Find. But Bare Trees has one of his all-time classics, “Sentimental Lady”, a song he re-recorded and had a Top Ten hit with on his 1977 solo album French Kiss.

I confess to preferring the solo version, partly from childhood familiarity and partly because I love Christine singing “all I need is you” at the end of the chorus. But the Bare Trees version is charming too, with Christine singing an intriguing countermelody across the chorus. Lyrically, too, the Bare Trees version is superior, as it retains a full verse that got cut from the solo version — “we live in a time when paintings have no color, words don’t rhyme.”

Welch was pretty sentimental himself, given to emotional mysticism and spooky imagery, as in his other tune on Bare Trees, “The Ghost.” Where the wind in “Sentimental Lady” is gentle, it’s a “strange wind” that haunts this song. Where “Sentimental Lady” is about holding on to love in the face of threatening odds, “The Ghost” is about the threat of, well, nuclear holocaust. “And then the winds start to blow / And the fire comes scorching down / And then the sky disappears / In the cloud with an awful sound / And when you can’t hold out / Then you run to the underground.”

Compared to this, Christine McVie’s troubles seem pretty small, but they’d loom large in the future of the band. Even in 1972, she told us in “Homeward Bound” that she’d rather be at home in her rocking chair than traveling the world. It wasn’t until 1998 that she made good on that conviction, quitting Fleetwood Mac for about 15 years. “Spare Me A Little Of Your Love” is her highlight on this album, a sweet love song leavened with just enough of McVie’s trademark ambivalence.

In the end, though, this is Danny Kirwan’s album. He has more songs on it than Welch and McVie put together, including the title track. Kirwan’s another one whose best stuff is pretty well distributed across albums (really, they all are), including the tune performed by the band on its recent tours (“Tell Me All The Things You Do”, from Kiln House) and the excellent “Trinity”, which somehow never made its way into the light until the band’s 1992 box set. Bare Trees was his swan song with the band, though — he was destined for one of Fleetwood Mac’s many strange and sad endings, fired from the band for his excessive alcoholism and a violent backstage incident, and homeless for much of the 1980s and 90s.

His intensity and lyricism are in full flower on this album, as is his deft way with a melody. In fact, two of his five tunes are instrumentals, with “Sunny Side Of Heaven” being a particular knockout. Woven between them is the story of a full life. The album opens with “Child Of Mine”, a poignant declaration of love for his infant son. Eight songs later, Kirwan closes with “Dust”, an ode to death with lyrics from the first two stanzas of Rupert Brooke’s 1910 poem.

Kirwan’s stuff here is serious, but I’d never call it bleak. His melodies are too joyous, his playing too passionate, for such a label. Really, that applies to the whole album. Where John McVie’s cover photo depicts a world stripped of life, looking almost like a misty Dante-esque purgatory, Fleetwood Mac’s cascading synchrony of songwriting, vocals, guitars, and rhythm section feels more like the sunny side of heaven.

Album Assignments: Scarecrow

Lou Reed may have grabbed first dibs on the title Growing Up In Public, but John Mellencamp perfected the art of it. Once upon a time, John J Mellencamp of Seymour, Indiana had a rock and roll dream. In chasing it, he found himself rebranded as “Johnny Cougar.” After a few failed albums and a label change, he broke through with a song, “I Need A Lover”, and an eponymous album, where at least he managed to upgrade from “Johnny” to “John”.

There were a few more John Cougar albums, a few more hits, and a bigger breakthrough with “Hurts So Good”, “Jack and Diane”, and MTV. With some star power on his side, Mellencamp managed to reclaim his last name, appending it to his stage name to forge the awkward Frankenym “John Cougar Mellencamp”. 1983’s Uh-Huh was his first album under this name, and also the first album where he started to stake out the artistic identity that would provide the foundation for the rest of his career.

Album cover for Scarecrow

Now, I love those early John Cougar albums, especially the first two. (Never sought out the “Johnny” stuff, though.) And I dig American Fool and Uh-Huh, particularly the singles. But to me, Scarecrow is Mellencamp’s artistic peak. He did plenty of great work beforehand, and plenty of great work afterward, but Scarecrow captures a magic that stands above the rest, because it’s the album where he first fully owned all the aspects of himself that lend power to his art. It’s the album where the seeds planted on Uh-Huh fully ripen, and I like to think John would appreciate the agricultural metaphor. This album springs from fertile ground, both artistically and literally. Mellencamp’s childhood friend and frequent songwriting partner George M. Green described it this way:

The highway between John’s house and the studio where these songs were recorded cuts through a stretch of Indiana where the land is fertile and full of growth. It is from this land and its people that these songs are born, and though it is not necessary to know this to enjoy and appreciate them, it does lend a certain understanding for those who care to think about such things.

Which brings us to the first aspect of John Cougar Mellencamp that shines on this album: RURAL. Mellencamp had written plenty of songs set in rural America — witness the Tastee Freez in “Jack and Diane” — but “Pink Houses” from Uh-Huh was the first of his rural anthems. Scarecrow unleashes two more stunners in this genre, with “Rain On The Scarecrow” and “Smalltown”. In the former, he reminisces about his grandfather (to whom the album is dedicated), and rails at the way 1980s society has failed the family farm.

In the latter, he honors his rural identity, exulting in the small town where he can be himself, albeit in a way that’s clear-eyed about its shortcomings — such as how he was “taught to fear Jesus.” In between, he records his grandmother crooning the first two verses of an old folk tune, “In The Baggage Coach Ahead.” This is Mellencamp fully embracing his roots, the pieces of him underneath “John Cougar”, and while “Smalltown” is celebratory, “Rain” is angry, in a way we haven’t seen before from Johnny Cougar.

That blistering anger opens the album, announcing that this wouldn’t be just a typical roots-pop exercise. It also sheds light on another of Mellencamp’s traits: REBELLIOUS. Once again, Uh-Huh laid the groundwork with “Authority Song”, and to a lesser extent “Crumblin’ Down”. On Scarecrow he stopped singing about being a rebel and started singing in a more rebellious way, starting with “Rain On The Scarecrow.” The political tone from that song continued through “Justice And Independence ’85” and “The Face Of The Nation.”

Both of those tunes are allegorical and a bit clunky lyrically, but they are venturing a critique of contemporary America, which was new territory for Mellencamp. The guy who wasn’t even recording under his own name in the beginning of his career had found his way towards claiming a voice of protest. “You’ve Got To Stand For Somethin'” wasn’t really about this very much (ironically), but its title certainly sums up what Mellencamp seems to have concluded about his art.

Though he hadn’t fully matured this political voice, he more than made up for any deficiencies by being such a ROCKER. Where on Uh-Huh he sang about how he loved to “Play Guitar”, and made sure we knew that rock and roll was “Serious Business” for him, on Scarecrow he expanded out to the whole musical world with “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute To 60’s Rock)”. This song joyfully conjures the rock and soul dreams of a generation of musicians, in a deliberately inclusive way, name-checking black and white, male and female, solo and group, pop, rock, and soul. As fun as that salute is, Mellencamp still shows more than he tells when it comes to rocking, roaring through this album’s set with a crack group of musicians.

In particular, I have to bow to the prowess of drummer Kenny Aronoff, who is responsible for some of the most stirring moments on the album. The pounding, martial drumbeats of “Rain On The Scarecrow”, which get louder and louder until they crest with six powerful hits, provide a spine-tingling opener to the record, and Aronoff remains excellent throughout. He and rhythm guitarist Larry Crane rescue “Justice And Independence ’85” from what could be a bit of a wincer into an electrifying rock and roll song. And it’s Aronoff who propels the other big hit from Scarecrow, “Lonely Ol’ Night.”

That song finds Mellencamp in another space he’d touched on Uh-Huh, that of the ROMANTIC. Where “Golden Gates” on that album spoke of “promises made from the heart”, in “Lonely Ol’ Night” he paints the picture of a whole relationship, one of necessity and maybe a little love. But his romantic nature mostly isn’t about relationships, but rather the kind of artistic and literary Romanticism I talked about in the Making Movies post.

It’s a romantic figure who occupies “Rumbleseat”, somebody who moves from being a “pitiful sight” to being a dreamer “singin’ shotgun”, who’ll blow you a kiss as he goes by. The insistence that “You’ve Got To Stand For Somethin'” is pure Romanticism, as are the heroes described in “R.O.C.K.” — “pipe dreams in their heads and very little money in their hands.” In fact, I’d say he’s on surer ground here than when talking about relationships — the other relationship song is the closer and the one stinker on this album: “The Kind Of Fella I Am”, which seems to take pleasure in being toxic and controlling. It’s a bit reminiscent of how “Run For Your Life” leaves a foul taste at the end of Rubber Soul.

But as great as all these aspects are, by far my favorite side of John Cougar Mellencamp is when he turns RUMINATIVE, as he does in Scarecrow‘s two best tracks: “Minutes To Memories” and “Between A Laugh And A Tear.” The latter is a rueful meditation on life, with some great images — “smile in the mirror as you walk by” — and one of the best lines in Mellencamp’s entire oeuvre: “I know there’s a balance / I see it when I swing past.” Rickie Lee Jones provides wonderful harmony vocals, and the whole thing provides a lovely, uplifting message. Living between laughter and tears may be as good as it gets for us, but “there ain’t no reason to stop tryin’.”

“Minutes To Memories” pulls all the strands together. It’s the story of a Greyhound bus ride from Jamestown, Kentucky to Seymour, Indiana, sitting beside an old man telling the story of his life. It is rural as can be — “through the hills of Kentucky / Across the Ohio river”, with downhome aphorisms like “an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind.” Mellencamp’s narrator is a rebellious, romantic figure, whose credo is, “I do things my way, and I pay a high price.” The old man himself is romantic too, in his way — a fierce individualist who says, “I earned every dollar that passed through my hands,” and who will carry his family and friends home “through the eye of a needle.”

The lyrics ruminate on nothing less than the meaning of life, but ultimately what makes this song work is the rock. It starts out midtempo, a contemplative riff with support from Aronoff and bassist Toby Myers, and then it builds to the vivid, inspiring chorus, infused with rock and roll power:

Days turn to minutes, and minutes to memories
Life sweeps away the dreams that we have planned
You are young, and you are the future
So suck it up, tough it out, and be the best you can

Yeah, on paper I guess it sounds like platitudes, but between Mellencamp’s fantastically committed vocal and the incredible power of the band, it becomes, I think, the high water mark of John Cougar Mellencamp’s career. I get chills every time I hear it, and I’m filled with gratitude that Mellencamp managed to find his way to such a mature expression, and managed to fill it with the crazy rock potency of his youth.

Album Assignments: Pretenders II

I love Pretenders II. I mean, I love this album like loving a person. I’ve known it for over 30 years now. Whenever we get to spend time together, no matter how much, the time always feels too short. It was my companion through some of the most intense parts of my life, and every time I’ve revisited it over the years has been a pure pleasure. I listened to it so much during the writing of Earth And Sky 3 that I gave it a shout-out in a SPAG editorial. It was only a matter of time until I assigned it in this series, so that I could write a tribute to this album that’s meant so much to me.

What is it that’s so special about Pretenders II? That’s the question I was trying to answer as I listened this time, and this record, in its richness, offered up quite a few explanations. The first of these that comes to mind is Chrissie Hynde’s voice. This extraordinary instrument glides effortlessly through a dizzying variety of moods. She snarls on “Bad Boys Get Spanked”, and croons on “I Go To Sleep”. She’s frenetic in “Louie Louie”, nostalgic in “Birds Of Paradise”, and furious in “Pack It Up”. “Talk Of The Town” aches with unrequited desire, while “The Adultress” manages to exude contempt and compassion in equal measures.

Huge ranges of emotion are available even within a single song. In “Jealous Dogs”, for example, she moves from indignant (“Who do they think we are? / What do they think we do?”) to sardonic (“Mind your leg”) to downright goofy (“You’re not allowed on the couch! / Get down off the couch!”) and many points in between. No wonder I could connect with this album no matter what I happened to be feeling in my own life.

Album cover for Pretenders II

There’s a lot more here than just an amazing voice, though. Hynde and James Honeyman-Scott pack this record with fantastic riffs. “Message Of Love” is Exhibit A — a bouncing, slashing guitar hook that pulls us into the first verse and then amps up our excitement for the next one. “Day After Day” opens with a fusillade of eighth notes, underpinning the song’s warplane imagery. The guitar in “Pack It Up” is all punk-rock energy, propelling Hynde’s inner John McEnroe while she skewers inadequate men as “the pits of the world.” Meanwhile, “The Adultress” sports an absolutely filthy riff, and Honeyman-Scott adorns it with desperate solos befitting the song’s subject. That riff is so filled with disgust that Hynde later repurposed it for her Ohio gentrification kiss-off, “My City Was Gone.”

This would be Honeyman-Scott’s last album with The Pretenders, as both he and bassist Pete Farndon would die of drug overdoses after recording it. Farndon’s contribution shouldn’t be underestimated either. Menacing bass crawls at the feet of “Jealous Dogs”, slinking around and constantly threatening attack. It provides the melodic foundation for “Talk Of The Town”, an unsung hero complementing Hynde’s voice and providing emotional heft behind the drums. The pseudo-reggae of “Waste Not Want Not” lives entirely on Farndon’s striding bass figures.

So yeah, there’s great music here, and marvelous vocals, but it’s the songs themselves that make Pretenders II into such a close friend of mine. It’s far from a concept album, but there is a thread running through many of the songs, and that thread is the experiences of women. We jump into it right away with “The Adultress” — the character in this song is filled with shame, but nevertheless compelled by wretched loneliness to meet her married man, over and over again, her assignations carrying the mystery and power of ritual.

A very different woman rules “Bad Boys Get Spanked”, a dominatrix who brooks no bullshit. “You don’t listen, do you, asshole?” she asks, pure Dirty Harry ferocity. “Pack It Up” gives us a similar character, though she’s kicked those bad boys to the curb, fed up with their crap, their trousers, their insipid record collections, and their banal pornography. The narrator of “Jealous Dogs”, on the other hand, reserves her disdain for the other women who are sniffing around her lover, “always wanting more.”

The most complex and satisfying of these characters arrives in “The English Roses.” In it, Hynde keeps the distance of a storyteller, tying together themes that arose earlier in the album. The woman who paces around her room, looking to the sky for an answer, may well be the future version of the lovestruck and lonely character in “Talk Of The Town.” As she presses a rose into her hymnal, the ossification of her hopes and dreams, she’s a mirror image of the spinster in “The Adultress”, albeit one whose loneliness has not driven her to desperate extremes. This story, “of fruit cut from the vine / forgot and left to rot / long before its time”, is of a woman who heard the message of love, but spent day after day unable to find anyone but the pits of the world. She was looking for someone to hold, but ended up with a wish made on a star, and a thousand broken dates. Melancholy bass and guitar seal her fate, as Hynde sings her away.

Before I close, I want to talk about the song that moves me most on this album: “Birds Of Paradise.” For me, it’s the culmination of the band’s artistry on Pretenders II. Hynde evokes heart-piercing images of innocent love and girlish dreams, reaching a crescendo in these lyrics:

Once upon a time, my mind still there wanders
Back in your room, the things I remember
One time when we took off our clothes
But you were crying
You said, “Nothing lasts forever”
We were happy together

Have you ever been in a relationship that was doomed by forces beyond your control? If not, let me tell you: this is exactly how it feels to look back on that time. Hynde’s vocal performance is masterful, bringing together regret, nostalgia, resignation, and eternal fondness. I’m sure I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, especially since I listened to it on endless repeat at certain times of my life. And yet even now, decades later, it still moves me deeply. That’s the beauty of old friends — they knew you way back when, and can bring back your memories of long-lost selves, reconnecting you with the long line of your soul’s history. Thanks Chrissie.

Album Assignments: Pearl

Janis Joplin died on October 4, 1970, at age 27. The cause of death was a heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol. When she died, she was in the midst of recording Pearl. She hadn’t finished the sessions, but her survivors determined that there was enough material completed to release the album.

This is an absolutely magnificent album, but it cannot escape the long shadow of Joplin’s awful death. Though ironic and tragic echoes are everywhere, there’s one song that just screams loss, and that song is “Buried Alive In The Blues.” Joplin had been scheduled to lay down her vocals for this song on October 4, but she never arrived — her band’s road manager found her dead in her hotel room that morning. The track appears on Pearl as an instrumental only.

Listening to Pearl this time, I didn’t know the song’s history. It just seemed deeply weird that an album credited to Janis Joplin would feature an instrumental, given that her star attraction was her singing voice and style. Once I did the research to learn the story behind the song, I couldn’t hear it without a deep sadness about what might have been. The presence of a fantastic instrumental track, without Joplin’s vocals to complete it, strikes me as mournfully emblematic of a life cut short far too soon. Not to mention, its eerily apropos title seemed to describe her situation exactly, so much so that her publicist Myra Friedman appropriated it for the biography she wrote a few years later.

Album cover for Pearl

It’s not just “Buried Alive,” though. The context of Joplin’s death seeps into almost every song, recasting their meanings in melancholy tones. “Half Moon” joyfully extols a love that makes Joplin sing, “You fill me like the mountains / Fill me like the sea.” But this wasn’t her reality. She struggled with a constant sense of emptiness, which she tried to fill with men, with Southern Comfort, with heroin. “Your love brings life to me” is a heartrending line in light of her impending death.

The grief spreads outward like ripples in a pond, broadening in scope though lessening in obviousness as it goes. “My Baby” has much the same message as “Half Moon”, albeit expressed with less painfully apparent contrasts against Joplin’s reality. “Cry Baby” says “I’ll always be around if you ever want me.” “Mercedes Benz” jabs at the notion of finding happiness in material possessions or alcoholic revelry, but doesn’t identify where that happiness can really be found. “Trust Me” asks for more time, “A Woman Left Lonely” talks about how “the fevers of the night” can burn an unloved woman, and “Get It While You Can” forms its philosophy around the fact that “we may not be here tomorrow.”

Even “Move Over”, though it lacks any of the lyrical knifepoints that specifically cut to the catastrophe of Joplin’s overdose, still gets its meaning darkly clouded by historical circumstance. The song is forward-looking, demanding that an ex-lover stop hanging around, to make room for new paramours. As it turned out, it was Joplin herself who would no longer be hanging around.

Yet “Move Over”, like so many of the songs on Pearl, is absolutely bursting with life. Joplin’s band at the time was called Full Tilt Boogie, and they lived up to their name gloriously — a tight, swinging rhythm section surrounded by triple dervishes of piano, organ, and guitar. The organ in particular gives the music a gospel feel — when it comes in on “Move Over”, the song elevates to a new level, like hands thrown upwards to the heavens.

Then there are Joplin’s vocals. A critic in 1968 wrote that if she were presented in the proper context, “there would be no adjectives to describe her.” This is 100% accurate, and Pearl is that proper context. So I’m not going to ladle adjectives onto her prowess as a singer. Suffice it to say that her voice on this album embodies pure life force. More than any other aspect of the album, more than its lyrics, more than its music, it is this voice that hurts the most in light of the album’s history. Pearl captures Joplin at the highest artistic peak she would ever reach. What a sickening loss for all of us that she’d never get the chance to go higher.

Geek Bowl XIII answer recap

Here now, the Geek Bowl XIII answers!

Geek Bowl XIII question recap

Vivaaaaaa Geek Bowl! Though it started out in Denver (and returned there for its tenth anniversary), the Geek Bowl has bounced all over the nation since 2012, and this year it landed in fabulous Las Vegas. It was a great location — plenty of fun stuff to do and an excellent venue in The Joint, which is the theater attached to the Hard Rock Hotel. Travel and lodging there are also pretty cheap, unlike last year in Boston, which was equally fun but a much more expensive destination.

I’m a little startled to notice that this year was my own 10th anniversary of Geek Bowling. I keep coming back because Geeks Who Drink puts on a fantastic event, and I somehow have found myself on an incredible trivia team. We won Geek Bowl VIII in 2014 as “How I Met Your Mothra”, and have stuck with variations on the Mothra theme ever since. This year we were “A Mothra Day In Paradise”, because (trivia!) much of what we call “Las Vegas” is actually located in the town of Paradise, Nevada. Plus, the Hard Rock Hotel itself is located on Paradise Road.

Mothra had a phenomenal run of success a few years ago, placing first, second, and second in three consecutive Geek Bowls. We had (for us) a bad year after that, coming in 15th, then battled back in Boston to claim 6th place. No cash prize for that one (money only gets awarded to the top four places), but still a showing to be proud of. This year we had seven great rounds and one really rough one, and still managed to place 7th! On the one hand, it’s frustrating, because we were within a question or two of cash. On the other hand, 7th out of 240 teams is astonishing, especially when you consider the competition.

Concentrated Brainpower

See, Geek Bowl has become a premier, elite event, and that means that it attracts the cream of the trivia world — people who run their own trivia companies, people who construct puzzles for a living, people who’ve had legendary runs on game shows like Jeopardy! and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. I stayed at the Hard Rock and the guy who checked me in said, “Yeah, right before you I checked in the first woman to win the million dollar prize on Millionaire.” There was a video that surfaced from the weekend (taken by a member of the winning team, as it turned out), of a crowd gathered in a bar watching the Jeopardy! All-Star Tournament. In the crowd: many of the same faces from the tournament itself. In fact, Geek Bowl has gathered such momentum that there are now supplementary, unaffiliated trivia events attached to it, such as America’s Quizzing Championships (AQC) and the Toutant Trivia Tournament. The Geeks have recognized this trend by instituting the “amateur prize” — cash for the highest-placing team that includes no previous Geek Bowl winners and nobody who has won more than $10,000 on a game show. This year, the team that won that prize came in ninth overall.

To me, this gathering of trivia royalty has become a very cool side benefit of the annual weekend — a chance to hang with some of the best of the best, and sometimes get creamed competing with them in buzzer games, should the chance present itself. That in fact happened in Vegas, and contrary to the rules I’m going to take it out of Vegas by posting it here, but not just yet. First, I would like to give it up for some of the smartest, funniest, and friendliest teammates ever to grace a trivia table. Ladies and gentlemen, A Mothra Day In Paradise:

Team photo of A Mothra Day In Paradise

From left, that’s me, Don, Jonathan, George, Larry, and Brian. As is our habit, we spent some pleasant time together prior to the Geek Bowl, quizzing each other with warmup questions — some rounds we wrote, some name-that-tune, and some prefab trivia cards. Five of us got together Friday night (Don wouldn’t arrive til Saturday morning), along with Brian and George’s wives, and ate at Block 16 in the Cosmopolitan, where one of podcaster Brian’s listeners very graciously comped our dinners. Woo, just got to Vegas and winning already!

Then Larry, Jonathan, and I headed to the Toutant Trivia Tournament, which turned out to be many rounds of five-person simulated Jeopardy!, thanks to Bill Schantz and his marvelous J! Simulator, as well as the many excellent writers who submitted questions for the event. At the Tournament (which was really more like a Basement Bowl) were some of those trivia celebrities, either famous from TV or just famous to me because they’re some of the best in the nation and I see them ply their craft on LearnedLeague and elsewhere. So much fun getting to play against a crowd like that, and I have to say I did okay, considering.

Saturday was lunch at the Wicked Spoon Buffet, again in the Cosmopolitan, which involved standing in line for 45 minutes so that you could get in the 30 minute line, but once inside the food was ah-MAZING. So many things, so unbelievably good. Just fantastic. (Also, winning $100 on the Simpsons slot machine just before lunch was pretty sweet too.) That time there were still five of us (plus spouses) — we’d gained Don but lost Jonathan to the AQC, which took place all morning and afternoon on Saturday.

After noshing all the nosh we could possibly nosh, we headed to a quiet back room in the Hofbräuhaus, a German-style beer hall across the street from the Hard Rock. The staff there was reasonably gracious about the fact that we were drinking but not really eating anything, because we couldn’t possibly. (We left ’em a nice tip.) We did a lot of audio and question warmups, joined by Jonathan once he was done AQC-ing for the day, and then headed over to enter the Geek Bowl!

Mothra’s Rules of Pub Trivia

We found our table, which had the unexpected bonus of being draped with flags honoring our two championships. (Larry, George, Brian, and I were on a team that won Geek Bowl V.) Also on the table was this plate of cheese and crackers:

A plate of crackers with various cheeses. And, uh, the crackers are shaped like penises.

Oh, Geeks. Dick-shaped crackers. Maybe couldn’t afford the vegetables for a crudités platter, so went for a crudity platter instead? Though no doubt such “specialty” crackers don’t come cheap either — pretty sure the Masterpiece Cakeshop gave ’em a hard pass. (As it were.)

No, I knew what it was about — this was a punny edible tribute to the night’s musical headliners, Richard Cheese and Lounge Against The Machine. These guys are a comedy/music act, crooning various popular songs Sinatra-style, especially songs from the worlds of hard rock and explicit rap. Imagine the lyrics to Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” sung by Bill Murray’s Nick The Lounge Singer character, except backed by a full band playing well, and you’ve pretty much got the gag. It’s fun. A bit repetitive, but fun.

Anyway, once we were at the table, it was time for the annual reading of Team Mothra’s trivia rules, though it turned out to have been a tactical error to have waited, because the music in there was really fucking loud. Nevertheless, we persisted, with me belting ’em out to the back row:

  1. Read/listen to the damn question.
    1. Read it again.
    2. Pay attention to the category.
  2. Don’t interrupt the question/audio; let it finish before guessing out loud.
  3. If you think of an answer, say it/write it.
    1. Make sure at least two other teammates hear/see it.
    2. If you heard a teammate suggest a good possible answer that’s not being discussed, throw it out there again.
  4. Everyone look over each answer sheet before turning it in.
  5. If the answer is a name and surnames are enough, we don’t need to write the first name.
  6. If spelling doesn’t count, don’t sweat it. Likewise for punctuation.
  7. If an answer is used once in a quiz, nothing prevents that answer from being used later in the same quiz (the Quincy Jones Rule).
  8. Avoid facetious answers (the Ernie Banks Rule – so named after we got a question wrong in a practice round when somebody jokingly said that Ernie Banks, aka “Mr. Cub”, was “obviously from the Mets,” and then our non-sporty scribe dutifully wrote down “Mets.” Heh.)
  9. Put an answer for each question, even if the whole team believes it’s probably/certainly wrong. You can object to that bad answer, but have a better answer at the ready.
  10. If you are 100% sure that your answer is right, say so.
    1. For that matter, try to indicate your confidence level on all answers.
    2. Focus discussion on answers that aren’t “locked”.

That last rule is a new one, meant to help address a weak spot from last year, where we didn’t realize that one of our answers needed more discussion. Geek Bowl rounds are high-pressure, with only two short minutes from the time the last question is read to the time when all answers are due. These rules give us our best shot at quickly sifting through our thoughts on the questions, putting our heads together in the most efficient and effective way possible.

With the rules freshly read, we were ready to Bowl! And for those of you uncertain as to what that means…

The Geek Bowl Format

This is the part where I copy and paste the same explanations and disclaimers I include in this post every year, with a few alterations as appropriate. If you already know the drill, feel free to skip down to Tiebreaker.

As I’ve done in previous years, I’m going to recap the questions and answers here. A few caveats about this, though. First, the Geeks are pretty careful about their intellectual property, and the agreement we’ve worked out is that I won’t post these recaps until at least a week has elapsed since the Geek Bowl. (Though all things considered I’d have a hard time getting this together in less time anyway!)

Second, I consider these recaps a tribute to the excellent question writers of the Geek Bowl, and an advertisement for a really fun event, but I am in no way officially associated with Geeks Who Drink. However, thanks to Geeks editor-in-chief Christopher Short, I have been supplied with question material this year! Prior to Geek Bowl 12, these recaps were based off notes, memories, and photos of question slides, and in fact many of my descriptions will still suffer from this circumstance, but at least the wording of the questions will be correct. Huge thanks to Christopher for the help, and anything remaining that sucks is my fault, not the Geeks’.

The GWD question material leans heavy on pop-culture and light (though not zero) on sports. In between, there is plenty of academic trivia: history, geography, science, and so forth. There’s also generally a certain amount of edgy (or sophomoric, depending on your point of view) content each year — witness the dick-shaped crackers. However, they’ve moved beyond the place where this feels like an obligatory part of the evening, and are moving towards a tone where (most) anything goes, but there isn’t a raunch quota they always have to meet. I heartily approve of this direction. I don’t have a problem with filth and profanity, or else I wouldn’t have kept coming back, but it’s lovely to feel like they’re no longer a compulsory part of the brand.

Here’s the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. (Except for a few teams who ended up in fixed seats. As always, I salute you, fixed seat teams!) Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens throughout the venue. One rounds is all-video, meaning that rather than anyone reading questions, the whole round is encapsulated in a video presentation on the screens. Once all the questions in a round have been asked, a two minute timer starts, by the end of which you must have turned in your answer sheet to one of the roaming quizmasters.

The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions — usually, each question is worth one point, so there’s a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points — for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s usually only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, Round 3 also offered 16 possible points. (Actually, the pre-printed answer sheets made it look like there were going to be five 16-point rounds, but this turned out to be an error.)

Finally, a team can choose one round to “joker”, meaning that it earns double points for that round. Obviously, you’d want that to be one of the 16-point rounds, unless you really believed you wouldn’t score above 8 in any of them, which is highly unlikely. We discussed our jokering strategy ahead of time, and decided on thresholds. Our threshold for the music round was 14, and our Round 3 threshold was 13. Failing either of those, we knew we’d have no choice but to joker Round 8.


Usually Geek Bowl opens with a big splashy number, but this year the first thing that happened (after a video warning everybody not to cheat) was related to the Bowl’s charitable partner, Opportunity Village. For the last few years, Geek Bowl has been a “Quiz For A Cause”, with some proceeds going to a local charity. Opportunity Village’s mission is to serve people with intellectual and other disabilities, creating opportunities for them to participate in society at large to the fullest extent possible. In that spirit, a few of the Village’s beneficiaries were invited to read the official Geek Bowl XIII tiebreaker question.

The format for this question is to take a few questions, all of which have numerical answers, and combine them into a formula. Some of these questions are nearly impossible to know exactly, so you have to approximate. The Geeks then use these answers to determine placement among teams whose overall scores are identical — the closer you get to the correct final number (on either side), the better.

This year’s tiebreaker had a bit of Vegas flavor, and since I’m about to report it, I guess the question recap has officially begun! As always, I’ll describe our team’s experiences inside [square brackets], and provide the answers in a separate post.

Take the year that Haiti declared independence from France. Add to that the number of Foot Locker stores in the world. Now multiply that sum by the number of legal brothels in Nevada. Now divide that product by the number of human figures in the MySpace logo. Or, to put it a bit more formulaically:

[(H + F) x B] / M

Where H = year of Haiti’s independence, F = worldwide Foot Locker stores, B = legal brothels in Nevada, and M = human figures in the MySpace logo.

See the answers

Now it was time for the big number, and out came Richard Cheese, who in turn introduced our host for the evening, Fort Collins quizmaster Jenna Riedi. The two of them did a funny song parodying everything about Las Vegas. The whole thing wound up with the full Vegas treatment, including a parade of featherheaded ladies dancing behind the performers. (Well, maybe not the full Vegas treatment, but at least a PG version thereof.)

Soon enough, it was time for…

Round One: You Just Ate This Round

[Now, this was a proud moment for me. Remember how I said that the Mothrans were quizzing each other with homemade warmup rounds? One of the things we try to do in those is to pretend that we’re Geek Bowl writers and anticipate what sorts of rounds may be written. Somebody wrote a round with all 13-related answers, for Geek Bowl 13. Somebody wrote a round in which all the questions related to different Vegas casinos. And I wrote a round in which every question mentioned a different kind of cheese, in honor of the musical guest. Well, I was pretty damn close.]

1. Suburban housewife, junior college student, and Zoya the Destroya. That’s on the TV résumé of what adorable star?
2. The multi-culti cartoon dog Ren Hoëk has a Dutch-ish name, but belongs to what breed that descends from Toltec times?
3. The rhyming nickname for Martina Hingis, and a shitty hot chocolate brand that’s not even from the Alps. What name refers to both?
4. Kumail Nanjiani culture-clashed in The Big Sick when he met his sorta-ex-girlfriend’s parents, played by Holly Hunter and what whitest man ever?
5. A company started by Muhammad Ali’s wife, an L.L. Cool J album, and a bunch of obnoxious Tom Brady fans have all used what acronym?
6. Some 5,000 miles west of the Netherlands, you’ll find what 1940s structure that Woody Guthrie once sang about for the Bonneville Power Administration?
7. Narrated by the daughter of intergalactic refugees Alana and Marko, an Eisner-winning comic series by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples goes by what generic-ass title? [All three comicbook geeks at our table (me, Brian, and George) locked in on this one.]
8. Barely ten weeks after the whole black-guy arrest thing last spring, another Starbucks employee got fired for mocking a customer’s speech impediment, in what East Coast shithole town?

[Also, I guess it turns out that the cheeses on the plate were the 8 cheeses named in this round. In any case, we aced it. Great start!]
See the answers

Round 2: You Win Some, You Lose Some

In the pub version of Geeks Who Drink, Round 2 is always a music round, asked via mp3 clips. Sometimes the recordings are a little askew (e.g. lullaby versions of songs, or slowed-down versions of songs, or 8-bit versions of songs, etc.), and sometimes the theme is a little different (e.g. name the song and then figure out what chemical element abbreviation is made by the artist’s initials), but one way or another, there are 8 questions worth 2 points each, requiring some music knowledge, and Geek Bowl is no different. This means that Geeks Who Drink in general selects pretty distinctly for geeks with popular music knowledge, and generally our team is quite strong in this category. But tonight, hoo boy, tonight was a different story.

We really struggled in Round 2 this year, and I think it comes down to a few different factors. First among these was the musical act itself. Now, Geek Bowl has been doing a live music round for as long as I’ve been attending it. For a while there it was a different band/act for every single question in the round (whew!), and for the last few years it’s settled into one headlining act doing the whole round. That’s how it was this year, but having Richard Cheese be that act added a new dimension of challenge to the music round. See, we’ve had crazy acts before (a mariachi band, a heavy metal mariachi band, The Dan Band, etc.), but all of those acts have more or less kept the musical portions of their covers intact from the original, albeit reinterpreted. Cheese, on the other hand, throws out a lot of the instrumentation and melody of the original song when he does a cover, replacing the tune with crooning or talk-singing, and taking the arrangements in wildly different directions. This is great for fun and originality, but it tends to turn name-that-tune into something more like identify-these-lyrics. That cuts out the strength of a couple of our music stalwarts.

Secondly, unlike many previous years, Cheese only did each song once, which made the lyric thing even more challenging as we’re trying madly to scribble down words we know we won’t get a chance to revisit, in clips that often felt very short indeed. Not to mention, the house lights were turned way down, so we could barely see the words we scribbled. Finally, the songs chosen just hit a bunch of weak genre/era areas for us. And that’s nobody’s fault but ours.

The Geeks have now posted video of this round, but the Cheese slices (sorry) are right up against the answers, which makes it hard to quiz yourself. So here’s what I’m gonna do. The video will go in the answers post, but here you just get my lyric transcriptions. (Which are now much better for having seen the video.) I swear listening to Cheese himself doesn’t give you much more information. Watch the video and see if you don’t agree.

This was allegedly a round about winning and losing, but in our experience (and really, based on the songs too), it was mostly about losing.

1. Snap back to reality, ope there goes gravity, ope
There goes Rabbit, he choked, he’s so mad but he won’t
Give up that easy, no, he won’t have it, he knows
His whole back’s to these ropes, it don’t matter, he’s dope
[“Hey, this won’t be so hard.”]

2. Consider this, consider this
The hint of the century
Consider this the slip
That brought me to my knees, failed
What if all these fantasies come flailing around?
Now I’ve said too much
[“Awesome! We are going to kill this round.”]

3. Hit me!
I put it right there made it easy for you to get to
Now you act like you don’t know what to do
After I done done everything that you asked me
Grabbed you
Grind you
Liked you
Tried you
Move so fast
Baby now I can’t find you
[Annnnnd here’s where it all started to fall apart.]

4. I just fell, I don’t know why
Something’s there we can’t deny…
And when I first knew
Was when I first looked at you

5. A day late, a buck short, I’m writing the report
On losing and failing, when I move I’m flailing now

6. Got so much to lose
Got so much to prove
God don’t let me lose my mind

7. We belong together
And you know that I am right
Why do you play with my heart?
Why do you play with my mind?
Said we’d be forever
Said it’d never die
How could you love me and leave me
And never say good-bye?

8. I was in my room and just staring at the wall
Thinking about everything
But then again I was thinking about nothing at all
“Mom, just get me a Pepsi, please? All I want is a Pepsi”
And she wouldn’t give it to me
Just one Pepsi
[This one we knew, at least. Not sure how it relates to the theme, but whatever.]

[Eee-yikes. That’d be 6 points, out of a possible 16. Not good. Combined with our previous 8, we now had 14 points.]
See the answers

Round 3: Don’t Be A Buster

Round 3 at Geek Bowl (and in Geeks Who Drink broadly) is usually some kind of gimmick round — true/false, this or that, speed round, etc. The past few years at Geek Bowl, it’s been 7 true/false questions and an 8-point speed round on the final question, for a total of 15.

This year, we could see it was going to be different. The answer sheets marked it as a 16-point round, with 8 questions, each of which had a pre-printed “A”, “B”, and “C” on it.

It turned out to be a blackjack-themed round, and the second-cleverest concept from this year’s Geek Bowl. Here’s the Geeks’ explanation:

We’ll give you three questions with numeric answers. Two of those will add up to 21. If you hit 21 on the dot, you get TWO points. If you’re under, you get ONE point. If you’re over — or if you don’t circle exactly two choices — you get NOTHING.

A. The age of Shirley Temple when she signed her first film contract.
B. The age of Barron Trump right now.
C. The legal smoking age in Nevada.

Shirley Temple was 3 when she got her first contract. Barron Trump is 12 today. The legal smoking age in Nevada is 18. Thus, A and C are the two-point answer. A and B would be a 1-point answer. B and C, or any other answer, is worth zero.

We loved the concept of this round, though it turned out to be a very intense experience, with basically triple the usual number of questions to answer.

A. Lakers’ NBA titles.
B. Steelers’ Super Bowl titles.
C. Brazil’s FIFA World Cup titles.
[Thank you to sporty Mothrans Don, Larry, and Jonathan.]

2. Billboard Hot 100 #1 singles as a lead artist:
A. Madonna.
B. Rihanna. [Larry was very confident on this one, which gave us a great anchor.]
C. Katy Perry.

A. Number of TV seasons for Gunsmoke [Somehow I just knew this number. Not sure why.]
B. Number of TV seasons for Wonderfalls
C. Number of TV seasons for Numb3rs

A. Number of human pituitary glands.
B. Number of human baby teeth. [Jonathan had this cold.]
C. Pairs of human cranial nerves.

A. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels. [Don had a confident answer on this one, not locked but confident.]
B. Books in the main “Left Behind” series. [George had the same on this one. (Not the same answer — the same confidence level.)]
C. Books in the main “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. [Nope, nobody had this one.]

A. Number of Canadian provinces.
B. Number of Canadian teams in the NHL.
C. Total number of astronauts recruited by the Canadian Space Agency.
[We were very clear on the first two, which was all the guidance we needed.]

A. British Commonwealth nations in Africa.
B. African U.N. member states that start with Z. [Several people locked this part.]
C. African nations in the top 100 on the 2018 Human Freedom Index.

8. Including straight-to-video:
A. Hellraiser movies.
B. Land Before Time movies.
C. Police Academy movies.

[This round was super duper fun, and we loved the concept, but the time limit was very, very challenging. We were pushing hard to get our answers nailed down for all the questions within the two-minute window, and as the proctor came up to collect our answer sheet, I was shouting, “ARE WE JOKERING? ARE WE JOKERING?” We very quickly made the decision that we didn’t feel confident enough that we had 13, so we didn’t joker, meaning that we would definitely be jokering Round 8.

As it turned out, this would have been a great round for us to joker. Thanks to an outstanding team effort, Mothra ended up with a perfect score on this round, for a total of 30.]
See the answers

After Round 3, it was time for a scoring break, which meant that Richard Cheese came out to play some of the songs from his regular repertoire. Then he played some more. He seemed to play for an unusually long time. We started to feel the shades of much earlier Geek Bowls, in which scoring breaks stretched to crazy lengths. The Geeks seemed to have whipped this problem in recent years, so the extended Cheese-fest was feeling like a throwback. Not only that, it made the lack of repetition in Round 2 and the harsh time limit (considering the number of questions) in Round 3 feel a little more frustrating. If there’s any knock on this year’s Geek Bowl, it’s that there were pacing problems throughout — a lot of “hurry up and wait.”

One thing that ameliorated this, though, was the fact that the Geeks have really stepped up their PowerPoint joke game. For many years, the Geeks have had a PowerPoint slideshow playing before the Bowl, after the Bowl, and between rounds, generally with lots of gags relating to the host city, but this year there were both more jokes and funnier jokes, or so it seemed to me. A couple of my favorites:

A slide with the heading "Casino Confidential" and a body reading "Texas Hold 'Em is also now the motto of the Department of Homeland Security."

A slide with the heading "True Las Vegas Facts", and a body reading "Edge Of Seventeen is actually about Stevie Nicks' blackjack addiction."

There was also time to check out the incredible food spread. This year’s Geek Bowl was a giant leap forward in terms of the food provided, including mini-cupcakes with the Geek Bowl 13 logo on them. How cool is that? Anyway, the scores finally rolled. A Mothra Day In Paradise was in 45th place, out of 246 teams listed.

Round 4: Splitsville!

Vegas is the divorce capital of the world, so this round is called Splitsville!

1. Square peg Tris Prior is the main character in what oddly-best-selling young adult series? [Great team effort puzzling this one out. I think it was Don who finally hit upon the right answer.]
2. The very first atomic fission experiment karate-chopped uranium into what other, more enema-tastic alkaline earth metal?
3. Having peaced out in 1847, the Missouri Synod now ranks behind the ELCA as the second-largest U.S. body of what Protestant branch? [In a Slumdog Millionaire moment, this question related directly to Don’s childhood.]
4. Good look, guys: What 1896 Supreme Court case gave a judicial-branch imprimatur to “separate but equal” facilities?
5. Fred Martin may have created it, but Bruce Sutter definitely popularized what breaking pitch?
6. Tammy Wynette had a hit with “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” around the same time she split from Don Chapel and married what other country legend?
7. The breakup of Czechoslovakia was pretty amicable, but it did cause the resignation of what playwright-president with way too many V’s in his name?
8. Hanumanasana is the original Sanskrit name for what beastly yoga pose that’s literally just a split? [Jonathan, bless him, got this from the Sanskrit.]

[Another perfect round for us, taking our score to 38.]
See the answers

Round 5: FrankenBarry Manilow

Round 5 in typical Geeks Who Drink is a visual round, meaning a half-sheet of paper with some image-oriented challenge on it. Round 5 in Geek Bowl raises the bar up to video, and the Geeks’ video productions have been top-notch for a while.

Lucky for me, they’ve posted this video, so I don’t have to try to describe it. Fair warning, though, that the answers are interspersed throughout, so exercise that pause button if you want to try guessing them yourselves.

[7 out of 8 for us on this one — more details in the answers post. Anyway, our total now stood at 45 points.]
See the answers

Round 6: We’re Here, We’re Querying

The Geeks recognize that their core audience is a lot of white dudes, and so they’ll often try to add a little challenge (and maybe do a little education) with rounds on minority groups and topics. This time, it was a round on LGBTQ+ people in the sciences and humanities.

1. Before predicting a few election outcomes, Nate Silver worked with what 12-letter realm of baseball stats that have nothing to do with swords? [I usually know zilch about sports, but somehow I knew this. Perhaps from seeing the movie Moneyball? Like 3 other teammates were on it before I opened my mouth, but I was a little pleased with myself anyway.]
2. At the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes used repeated phrasing and syncopated rhythms to bring us what musically-inspired poetry form?
3. Cooked up by pathologist Louise Pearce in 1919, tryparsamide saved millions from what tsetse-borne disease?
4. Pearce’s roommate, medical researcher Sara Josephine Baker got her greatest claim to fame in 1907, helping to identify what famous Patient Zero?
5. Alexander von Humboldt is best known for a big 19th-century science treatise, which resurrected what ancient word for the whole ordered universe?
6. Sally Ride was famously the first American woman in space, duh. She went there on what shuttle named for a 19th-century British research vessel? [We started to go wrong on this but Jonathan steered us back to the correct course.]
7. Revelations is the signature work of what alphabetically advantaged New York dance icon, who once worked in a nightclub duo with Maya Angelou?
8. AIDS researcher Bruce Voeller set up a foundation whose name was what Spanish word for “butterfly,” that’s also Mexican slang for “gay”?

[Another 7 on this round, for a total of 52.]
See the answers

After this was a scoring break and more Richard Cheese. Quite a lot of Richard Cheese, which ended at some point, leaving Riedi to kind of helplessly vamp up on stage. Timely score tabulation was definitely an issue at this year’s Geek Bowl. They did throw in some “Jay Walking” style videos with Riedi on the street accosting passers by and asking them questions from previous Geek Bowls. Here’s an example.

They also did a lovely In Memoriam video. This is a Geek Bowl tradition — it starts out with various pop culture figures who’ve died in the past year, then moves on to fictional characters who died in the past year’s worth of TV shows and movies. Richard Cheese accompanied it with his version of Metallica’s “Fade To Black”. Here it is, but spoiler warnings for the following: Arrow, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Good Place, The Conners, Black Panther, A Star Is Born, and Avengers: Infinity War. If you’re spoiler-allergic, you can watch up to 3:28, then pick it up again at 4:09.

For those of you who didn’t watch it: this year’s video included a very touching tribute to Ed Toutant, a quizzing legend (and CU Trivia Bowl winner) who won $1.86 million on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in a remarkable comeback story. I met Ed a number of times at various trivia functions, and he couldn’t have been a nicer guy. He is very much missed, and I loved that the Geeks tipped their hats to him.

At last, the scores rolled once again. A Mothra Day In Paradise was at #21! Considering that we hadn’t jokered yet, we were very pleased to be ranked that highly.

Round 7: Street Theater

Remember how I said that Round 3 was the second-cleverest idea at this year’s Geek Bowl? Well, this was the best one. The Round 7 quizmasters started off by talking about the Fremont Street Experience in Downtown Vegas, and then explained that they were going to bring that experience into this year’s Geek Bowl. For those not in the know (which included me), this means street performers! Every question in this round was presented by a different street performer, each of whom did a little of their act, in a way that each time was a hint to the answer.

There is video of this round as well, but as with the Round 2 video, but the clips of the performers are a bit abbreviated, and the answers are in the video. Once again, you’ll find it in the answers post, and I’ll just leave my original descriptions here.

1. Three Elvis impersonators come out, one of whom is a little person. The larger two sit down to get to his level, then the three of them exchange this dialogue:
“You don’t even know what’s inside these bunkers, do you?”
“Rolexes are swell, but I’m talking about Kuwaiti bullion.”
“You mean the little cubes you put in hot water for soup?”
“No. Not the little cubes you put in hot water for soup.”
“Gold bricks.”
“5 kilos each, $50,000 in today’s market.”
“For one gold brick?”
“I’m sure Mr. Hussein has divided his bricks into many different hiding places, but just one hiding place should be easy to take, and that would be enough to get us out of our day jobs.”

At this point, a slide comes up reading, “Name the 1999 movie.”

2. A guy sets up a bunch of overturned buckets, then plays an awesome drum solo on them. He is handed a mic, and reads:
“Drive a Shelby Mustang. Kiss the most beautiful girl in the world. Get a tattoo. Skydiving. Visit Stonehenge. Drive a motorcycle on the Great Wall Of China.”

Slide: “Name the 2007 movie.”

3. This was the most amazing one of all. There’s a safe — not a big one — on stage. Out comes a guy in a full-body suit with an alligator print on it. Turns out the guy is a contortionist. In some inexplicable, astounding way, he gets himself into the safe, reaching out through a little trapdoor to spin the wheel locking it from the outside. A Geek holds a mic up to the side of the safe, and out comes the guy’s voice:

Slide: “Name the 1995 movie.”

4. A magician makes things appear and disappear, including a wineglass, handkerchiefs, etc. While he’s doing this act, he says this:
“Rule number one, this is the, what can you touch and not touch. Can you touch this? Can you touch this? No no no no no no. Second touch. Can you touch this? Can you touch this? No no no no no no no. And finally, last one ladies, can you touch this? Can you ever touch this? Well that too the law says you cannot touch. But I think I see a lotta lawbreakers up in this house tonight.”

Slide: “Name the 2012 movie.”

5. Three women come out and do a jump rope act. During the act, they read the following lines:
“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

Slide: “Name the 2012 movie.”

6. A ventriloquist act. The ventriloquist and his dummy sing part of Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity.” Finally, the dummy says:
“Now that’s entertainment!”

Slide: “Name the 1989 movie.”

7. Three people in full-body animal costumes dance and sing to “Shout” by the Isley Brothers.

Slide: “Name the 1978 movie.”

8. Two more little people, this time dressed in quasi-Game Of Thrones garb. They fight, and dialogue:
“I want to know what’s going on. No one just gets as good as you do. Especially you. Start talking! Are you training with someone?”
“Uh, uh, training? I didn’t–”
“It better not involve this.”
“I, I know, this… looks really bad, but, you see, this is uh… Uh, you’re right! You’re right, you’re right. I, I’m through with the lies, I’ve been making… outfits! So, you got me. It’s time everyone knew. Drag me back, go ahead… here we go… OW! Why would you do that?”
“That’s for the lies! And that’s… for everything else!”

Slide: “Name the 2010 movie.”

[We really struggled on #6, but otherwise did well on this round. 7 out of 8, for a total of 59 points.]
See the answers and video

Round 8: Random Knowledge

Time at last for the final round, and our inevitable joker. Round 8 in Geeks Who Drink is always themeless, or rather I guess I should say each question has its own theme. In Geek Bowl, the questions in this round are always worth two points apiece.

1. a) “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” was a Mustafa-rific slogan for what personal-care brand? b) What big-ass company owns that brand?
2. a) A citrus fruit called the tumbo was the traditional fish-curing agent for what Peruvian national dish? b) And according to their creation myth, the Aztecs got chocolate from what feathered-serpent god? [I didn’t track who got part A of this question — I just had a moment of feeling very grateful for my team, because somebody had it locked.]
3. a) What robot-fighting game character bizarrely debuted as an air freshener in Sega’s 1991 arcade racer Rad Mobile? b) In 2018, Styx concerts finally included what operatic prison-break anthem? [Thank you Brian for being dialed into video game questions. George and I debated through the Styx part and did hit on the correct answer.]
4. a) In November 2016, Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh co-founded what yarn-based activist movement? b) And a main character bailed on an intervention and got 20 years for grand theft auto, in what 1908 kid-lit classic? [Jonathan nailed part B, and I came up with a reasonable guess for part A.]
5. Two Creed points: a) Long before The Office, Creed Bratton played on the #5 hit “Midnight Confessions” for what band? b) What do Christians call their still-repeated statement of orthodox faith against Arianism?
6. Since 2000, Jeff Bezos has founded a space tourism company and bought up a major newspaper. Name both ventures.
7. Two Ramsay TV questions: a) Did Hell’s Kitchen originally air in the United States or Britain? b) Actor Iwan Rheon starred in what failed Marvel show that’s also a fair description of his Game of Thrones character? [Part A was essentially a coin flip — we debated, voted, came up with the wrong answer. Oh well.]
8. I’ll name a sports tournament, you name the current reigning runners-up: a) FIFA World Cup? b) Stanley Cup Final?

[We had a very good Round 8 — 14 points, doubled by our joker to 28. We ended Geek Bowl XIII with 87 total points.]
See the answers

There was one last long, long scoring break, so long that Richard Cheese was cracking jokes about how many more songs he’d have to do. Brian, who has actually hired Cheese before for a podcast event, had no doubt that Cheese was charging them extra for the additional time. Oh well, it was more enjoyable than nonplussed quizmasters would have been. Also, I should mention here that various people approached me throughout the night to let me know that they enjoy these recaps, which was quite touching. They’re fun for me to do, and I love knowing that they provide a little entertainment to others as well.

At last, the final standings were ready, and Geek Bowl 10 winners Shiny & Chrome emerged victorious once again. Huge congratulations to those trivia titans, to everybody else who came out and played, and to Geeks Who Drink for putting on another extraordinary live trivia event. The final video let us all know that Geek Bowl XIV will take place in Chicago! See you then and there!

Album Assignments: Just Tell Me That You Want Me

When the Fleetwood Mac tribute album Just Tell Me That You Want Me came out almost seven (!) years ago, I saw it as vindicating and validating the value of Stevie Nicks. Of the seventeen songs on this CD, fully ten are Nicks songs, settling any question of whether Stevie was respected by the next generation of bands. (The distribution of the rest is: three Peter Green, two Lindsey Buckingham, one Christine McVie, one Bob Welch.)

Several of those Nicks covers had a beneficial effect on me back then, and listening to the album now, I still find most of them pretty beguiling. Bethany Cosentino’s voice on “Rhiannon” made me dive into the music of Best Coast, who became one of my favorite bands of the last ten years. A friend had already turned me on to Antony and the Johnsons, so Antony’s tender voice on “Landslide” wasn’t a surprise, but it was a delight. Then there’s Marianne Faithfull’s version of “Angel”. Nobody does “burned out and weary” like Faithfull, but that’s not a tone that Nicks ever brought to this song. Faithfull’s cover, slowed down and wistful, replaces the transcendent rock of the Tusk track with a very effective dark nostalgia.

Speaking of darkness, The Kills turn “Dreams” from gauzy recrimination to a sinister and distorted goth threat. By the climax of the song, Alison Mosshart’s voice shreds through any sentimentality the words might imply. Craig Wedren and St. Vincent take “Sisters Of The Moon” in a similar direction, albeit more synthy and less crunchy — less Siouxsie and the Banshees, more Joy Division. The spooky tone fits in more easily with this song, and it’s a brilliant move to put St. Vincent’s vocals on the introspective chorus.

Album cover for Just Tell Me That You Want Me

Some Nicks covers aren’t quite as effective. Beck’s production and musicianship can’t save Karen Elson’s “Gold Dust Woman” from being a pretty pedestrian exercise. Washed Out renders “Straight Back” in a way that really lives up to their name — thick waves of synth-pop and mumbly vocals diluting the power of Nicks’ words, which is a shame because I really love the Mirage original. Gardens & Villa do a little better with another Mirage classic, “Gypsy”, but again it’s a pretty sedate reading, lacking the passion and power that Stevie brings.

My favorite Stevie cover this listen, by far, is Lykke Li’s magnificent, echoing “Silver Springs.” Li sounds like she’s in the middle of a cathedral, and that it still can’t contain her emotions. I love the choices she makes to alter the melody, and the eerie harmonies behind her. As the song builds, it’s just a relentless drumbeat, harsh drone, and Li’s powerful vocals. Goosebumps all the way through.

For all that, though, what really captivated my attention this time around were the non-Stevie covers. Now, they aren’t all home runs — Tame Impala is kind of meh on “That’s All For Everyone”, and an instrumental like “Albatross” is never going to be a standout song for me no matter who’s doing it. Also, credit to MGMT for a) honoring the criminally underappreciated Bob Welch by covering “Future Games” and b) bringing a wildly creative approach to it with a really futuristic sound, robotic vocals and mechanical everything else, but nine minutes is a really long time for such an exercise to last.

On the other hand, The New Pornographers turn Christine McVie’s “Think About Me” into a fantastic burst of joy. The band puts its wonderful vocal blend to grand use here, shuffling between A.C. Newman’s solo vocals and various other harmonic combinations, almost from one line to the next. Crazy synthesizer laser-bursts make a charming substitute for a guitar solo, and sweet ooh-ooh-ohhs carry the song to its conclusion.

Fleetwood Mac’s founder Peter Green hasn’t been forgotten in this tribute. Besides the aforementioned “Albatross”, Trixie Whitley turns in a marvelously soulful “Before The Beginning”, hitting the peaks with hot, bluesy passion. Even better than that, probably my favorite track right now from this album, is Billy Gibbons and Co.’s “Oh Well.”

Now, “Oh Well” is my favorite Peter Green song, and has already been fabulously covered by a variety of artists, including Joe Jackson, Tom Petty, and the Buckingham-era Fleetwood Mac. Billy Gibbons seems like a bit of an odd choice to cover it, given that he’s swampy and the song is spiky, and I didn’t have high hopes when I heard sluggish pace of the first few notes. But damned if Gibbons and Co. don’t pull it off anyway. He takes away the frenetic pace of the original and replaces it with multi-layered guitars oozing funk. What’s neurotic in the original turns hypnotic in this version, and I can’t help moving to it, every time it plays.

In a year when Fleetwood Mac has affirmed the value of Stevie Nicks (by touring under its own name with Nicks included and Buckingham out, shortly after the other four Rumours-era members had recorded a different album and didn’t put the FM name on it) and embraced its past by playing Green and Kirwan songs on tour, this collection feels timely once again. It’s gratifying to see that the music of one of my favorite bands means a lot to many other musicians too, and to have some covers that reinvigorate the originals is pretty great as well.

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