There’s a topic I’d actually like to talk about for a bit today, but first: the Xmas Bash! is Friday, which means it’s time for one last reminder…
The 5th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!
Dec. 8, 2017
5 pm Mountain / 7 pm Eastern
Just visit this very website at the appointed time, and you’re there!
I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago about this year’s Xmas Bash! It’s no secret that I look forward to this event every year, and my heart grows three sizes every time I hear from somebody else that they do, too. People often try to get me to reveal what I’m going to show ahead of time, or at least give them a hint, but I never do. I like surprises. And I think that’s at least part of the fun as a viewer, as well, whether that’s conscious or not. Unwrapping little gifts one by one…finding out what’s inside…it’s a rush. It’s never a thrill to unwrap something you knew was coming, even if it’s what you wanted. The surprise is part of the gift.
So I don’t say much when I’m asked. I’ll be cagey. It’s more fun that way.
But this time, when my friend asked what I was looking forward to most about the stream, I replied honestly and without much thought: “I’m excited about the music.”
Granted, I could probably say that any year…but this year I really am excited about the music. I’m thrilled about the music. I genuinely can’t wait to share it with everyone.
Music is an important part of my life. It always has been. And while I can’t say Christmas music in particular has ever been a favorite, I do remember writing to it when I was much younger. I’d turn on the radio on Christmas Eve — after all the commercials stopped playing and the DJs went home — and just write all night, listening to Christmas music, letting it inform my feelings and guide my hand.
I remember always being happy with what I wrote on Christmas Eve. Today, if I were able to read those pieces again, I’m sure I wouldn’t stand by any assessment of quality I might have made back then…but it felt good. It felt like it helped. And that was what mattered.
With the second Xmas Bash!!, I decided to give the event a charitable component. The holidays have always been difficult for me, as I struggle with depression in general and seasonal affective disorder specifically. And, y’know, all the deep and severe family issues that kept me writing alone on Christmas Eve instead of whatever you remember doing.
So with that stream, I tried to do some good. The holidays are hard for me, and it’s safe to say they always will be, but if I could make them easier for someone else…shouldn’t I?
I decided to solicit donations for The Trevor Project, and that felt right. (It still feels right.) With that decision, I started to think about format for the first time.
The inaugural Xmas Bash! was a simple affair. I’d stream shows directly from Hulu, and cut back to pre-recorded inserts of myself to hide the low-tech backend reality of me clicking around their website, loading up the next episode. Hulu inserted its own commercials automatically, so I suppose that was part of the format, but it wasn’t anything I decided ahead of time. We’d all watch these shows together and make fun of them in the chatroom, if we wanted to. (I wasn’t sure anyone would. I was pleasantly surprised.)
With the second Bash!!, knowing I’d have a charitable component, my thought went immediately to telethons. To the variety of performers and types of performances they’d employ while raising money for a good cause. It was corny, but that was part of the fun, I think. There was also the fact that you could tune in at any point during the event and see something unique. You didn’t have to stay tuned for the whole thing…you could pop in and out as you pleased. Indeed, my concept for the second Bash!! was to go all night, all the way through sunup the next day, so that folks everywhere could tune in whenever it worked for them, stay as long as they liked, and enjoy the event on their own terms.
I scrapped that aspect of it, because it was insane. And I’m glad I did, because keeping the event relatively compact means (largely) the same group of people are there from beginning to end. I get to weave a kind of flow and rhythm throughout the night, and they get to know each other, get to build upon each other’s jokes, get to make callbacks together. It’s more social. It’s more of a distinct event as opposed to a continuous hum throughout the night. Those old telethons didn’t have a social component. This did. That made it different, and I wanted to both respect and embrace that difference.
I kept the variety show aspect, though. And, in retrospect, I think the second Bash!! was the weakest one as a result. I blame myself entirely. Without knowing what would work in this context, I tried everything at once.
And so we had video game reviews. Original animations. Original (and sincere) songs from talented musicians. Long, digressive inserts that felt out of place in what should have been a much punchier event. All of that is on me, and all of that was scrapped as quickly as it was added.
But that’s the stuff that didn’t work. The rest of it did. Wes Iseli’s charming magic segments stuck around. Vintage commercials stuck around. My incredible, lovely cohost Amanda stuck around. Most significantly, though, the music stuck around.
When I say “the music,” I don’t mean Adam Lore’s incredible original Christmas songs we’ve gotten every year since. I mean the songs we play between shows. The strange music videos I keep managing to unearth each time. The stuff you will never, ever hear on the radio, no matter how late you stay up writing.
I…kind of love them. We joke about the event including “bad” television and music, but, in my heart, I don’t hate any of it. I love bad things. I adore them. I’ve listened to bad songs more than I’ve listened to songs I know are great. I’ve watched awful films over and over again, whereas one that truly moves me might never find its way back into my rotation.
Bad stuff is good, and every year, I try very hard to find the right kind of bad stuff for the Xmas Bash! It’s not enough (or even desirable) that a song be unlistenable. Instead, it just needs to be misguided. A song that has its heart in the right place, but is poorly written (like “Excuse My Christmas”). A song that features bizarre subject matter (like “Roast Fowl”). A song that tries to be funny but isn’t, a song that is funny in a different way than intended, a song that is catchy but embarrassing, a song that is simply too strange to exist.
I also need the song to have some kind of visual component. There are plenty of awful Christmas songs, but very few of those have a music video. And while there are any number of untalented YouTubers attempting to warble through “O! Holy Night,” I don’t want to include them, because that just seems cruel. There’s a difference between someone recording a song in their bedroom because they think it’s fun and someone who writes an original and delivers it in some charmingly cheesy music video. (In fact, the one time I did feature the work of some singular YouTuber, I reached out to her to make sure she’d be okay with my using her song in this context. She agreed, and we’ve since become friends.)
This year, I think I’ve found my favorite batch of songs yet…which shocks me, because every year I’m convinced I won’t be able to find more. I’m picky. They need to flow. They need to be listenable. There needs to be something for the chatroom to latch on to. Every year I think I pretty much do fine with that, but this year I feel that I may have done it best.
And so I look forward to sharing them. I look forward to airing these odd little music videos you almost certainly have never seen before, and even more certainly will never see again. To go back to our Christmas present metaphor, these are the gag gifts. The ones I know won’t have staying power, but which make you laugh. Which give us all a chuckle. Which make the holiday feel fun.
I hope everyone enjoys everything I choose to air. Why wouldn’t I? But this year, it really is the music I’m most excited about. Even at their worst-chosen, the music videos provide a brief cleansing of palate between Christmas specials. But at their best, they lead to rapid, rowdy reactions of their own. When they catch fire, they’re the highlights of the night.
I can’t promise that will happen this year, or any year. But I am proud of what I found. And if I can make just one person wish they never heard any of these songs, I’ll know I’ve done my job.
Around this time last year, my girlfriend introduced me to the music of Carman. I’ve been…fascinated ever since. And, to be frank, I’m shocked that he hasn’t been pounced upon by the relentless mockery of the wider internet.
Let me be clear at the start: I’m not, by any means, suggesting that Carman Licciardello — who performs under the mononym Carman, the spelling of which makes him sound like a Mega Man villain — should be mocked. I’m certainly not calling upon people to gang up on him or anything along those lines. Period. But I am sort of surprised it hasn’t happened naturally.
Carman is a Christian musician. Not a musician who is Christian, but rather a Christian who preaches primarily through music. I’d be tempted to call him a Christian rocker or something, but the guy raps, funks, boogies, honky-tonks, and discos across so many genres that I feel I’d be doing the sheer variety of his output a disservice by calling it anything specific at all.
He’s also terrible.
No. I take that back. He’s not just bad. We’ve all heard bad musicians before. But Carman takes it further, because he doesn’t just record music; he records short films to go along with his music.
Here’s one in which he moseys into a wild west saloon and guns down Satan.
So…that happened. And this isn’t just some weird oddity of a music video from a strange point in his career. This is who Carman is. This is how he operates. Spiritual or not, you have to admit, this is terrible stuff. And yet…it’s kind of incredible.
I’m genuinely intrigued by Carman, and shocked that I’d never heard of him before. He’s exactly the blend of sincerity and absurdity that you’d think would have landed him on my radar at some point. Christ, this is exactly the sort of thing I look for every year when I curate material for the Xmas Bash!!!!!.
In fact, speaking of the Xmas Bash!!!!!, I was very tempted to include one of his specific videos this last time around. In the end I decided not to. Yeah, anything Jesus-y would fit, but if it’s not about the birth of Christ or Christmas in general, I tend to feel like it’s too much of a reach. So there was no Carman last year.
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you the video I would have shown, in which Carman parades around in lockstep and whacks on an incredibly sexy Satan with a big candy cane.
These are real. These are not supposed to be funny. And yet, when I watch them, I have to wonder if I’ve ever seen anything funnier in my life. In fact, they’re so funny that I try not to laugh, for fear of missing something even more incredible.
He’s creating these works of astounding comic genius without even realizing it. He’s the Jan Terri of Christian fundamentalism.
And while it’s tempting to assume he’s in on the joke, or at least being a bit tongue in cheek, he’s not. He’s deadly serious. He truly believes he’s saving souls, and that’s important to him. His website and any bit of promotional material I’ve seen ascribes specific figures to the number of souls he’s saved. (No clue how you’d tabulate that, personally…) The marketing materials all speak of his intensity. His passion. The great work he’s doing for God.
Not one of them ever mentions the guy’s sense of humor. Here’s why, I’m sure: he doesn’t have one.
This is just who Carman is.
Even when he accidentally channels the scene in which Homer brings Bart to a gay steel mill:
This is real life. I need you to remember that. This is real life. (Though I’ll give him credit for the groove in that one; it’s by far his best, and it deserves a much better song sitting on top of it.)
Carman’s first album was released in 1980. Since then, he’s released twenty-two more. The guy can’t stop.
And we watch.
And we shake our heads.
And we laugh.
But that’s not the extent of my fascination. Sure, some guy writes awful songs and films vanity music videos, and that’s a hoot.
That isn’t all, though. Because my girlfriend was there. And remembers this music from when it was released.
She wasn’t laughing. She was terrified.
She even got dragged to a live Carman concert. (And if you’ve ever wondered if there could be a Hell, please refer to the fact that I was able to string together the words “live Carman concert.”) It was horrifying. The imagery wasn’t silly or campy to a girl that age; it was frightening.
Looking back on it, she sees that it’s all a bit ropey. But at the time, it was scary stuff. She was young and impressionable. Carman had her ear. And he didn’t use it to speak of Christ’s love or God’s plan or eternal redemption.
No. He used it to speak of Satanists, evil, demons, witchcraft, torture, torment. As he does here, in what I can assure you is the least infectious song ever written:
Is that scary? Probably not. But to a child or young adult who has been primed to fear for the safety of his or her soul, Carman’s defiant adventure in the Satanist’s dayroom feels like it has real stakes. Listeners are made to feel like they’ll need to fight every day of their lives. It suggests that conversations with people who think or believe differently than you should be confrontations.
Carman knew, and knows, that. He embraces that. You and I can watch these and laugh, but he’s not making them for us. We’re lost, as far as he’s concerned, and good riddance to us. He makes these songs, these videos, these harrowing concert experiences for those who are already scared. He taps into those insecurities, and tells his listeners that they’re right to feel insecure. Carman ministers terror. He’s inept enough that you and I think he’s a harmless clown. But to those who don’t know better, he’s a source of spiritual anguish and actual nightmares.
That’s interesting to me. Carman is far from the only person to preach a gospel of fear, but he is the only one whose methods resemble a fantasy episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. See, for instance, this video, the CGI in which makes Rapsittie Street Kids look like Finding Nemo:
Legitimate kudos for the literal reading of “God is my co-pilot,” though.
Part of me wonders how spiritual Carman actually feels. Certainly Christianity is important to him, at the very least because it gave him a career and a platform for his awful, awful talents.
But then you learn that he sold his house to self-finance a film that he wrote, in which he plays a retired boxer who ministers to children.
I’m not kidding:
That’s all lovely. Then you actually watch the film, and see that there’s almost no ministry or even spirituality in it at all; it’s just Carman showing off his muscles, seducing a much younger Latina, and at one point blowing up a truck full of would-be assassins. It’s Carman the action hero, when he promised his audience Carman the man of God.
Of course, that’s just ancillary material. My girlfriend and I did watch that film — it’s called The Champion, if you hate yourself — and had a good laugh at just how accidentally immoral (and often non-sensical) it turned out to be. But Carman isn’t a filmmaker; he’s a musician. If you’re going to understand the contents of his heart, his music is what you’ll need to focus on.
And, even there, something about Carman just rings false. No, I don’t enjoy his tunes, but at the same time they don’t feel…genuine.
I think I’ve figured out why. There’s something missing: there’s no humility.
When you think of godly people or godly characters or even the godly humans you encounter in the Bible, you see humility. You see other things, of course, but humility is a pretty big aspect. It’s a bit of a running theme. Hell, it’s an example.
But Carman isn’t humble. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this in the songs embedded above, but God and Jesus get some basic lip-service now and then. It’s Satan who really interests him. It’s Satan who keeps making cameos. It’s Satan who seems to inspire Carman more than God does. God gets a “yeah, thanks” every so often; Satan gets six verses and a chorus.
In fact, there’s a lot of Christian virtue that just isn’t…there. Like, all of it. Yes, we’ve seen that you’re willing to bitchslap Satan six ways from Sunday, Carman, but where are you helping the needy? Being there for someone in need? Standing up for the oppressed? Loving the neighbor who wronged you? Donating your time and money and energy to fight for the rights of your fellow man?
Why isn’t that stuff in these Christian songs? Why wouldn’t that stuff be in Christian songs?
I find this all to be both amusing and unnerving. Carman’s method of spreading the word of God is done in a way that honestly seems better suited to delivering the message of Satan. It’s prideful, defiant, unwilling to listen or engage, self-concerned, brutal. It’s all swagger and bravado and bluster. It’s full of spite and anger. It’s self-righteous. It’s mean.
I don’t know. I’ve never met the guy. I have nothing against him, and I find his output deeply funny. I hope you do, too.
But I also think of him a pretty amazing character. One I’d be proud of having written. Mainly because I think he’d make for a perfect protagonist in a cautionary tale.
Hello! It sure has been a while since I’ve done this. Forgive me; I’m still getting used to being able to write about things I like again. And, hey, A Picture of Nectar is a thing I like!
My previous installments about Junta and Lawn Boy involved a lot of hesitation to embrace the albums completely, but here, for the first time in Phish’s studio history, the balance tips. For my money, A Picture of Nectar contains more to recommend it than to detract from it, and it’s the first sustained evidence that they could function as an effective studio band. (Their legacy as a live band was never in question.)
Having said that, it’s also their most scattershot album to date. The band tried everything they could to find their studio footing once and for all…and it’s an exercise under which you can feel the album straining. As such, there are a lot of skippable tracks, but when the band hit upon something that worked — which it did quite often here — it really worked, and a few of these tracks are among the best they’ve ever recorded.
A Picture of Nectar is also the first time that the band’s playfulness was captured for the home listening audience, and it’s more successful for it. When the band has fun, we have fun, and A Picture of Nectar is absolutely a portrait of a band having fun.
We’re still a couple of albums away from Phish truly delivering a thorough studio masterpiece, but with this album they learn both how to do it, and how not to do it. It’s an experiment that’s thrilling and frustrating, but moreso the former, and if you don’t mind trimming a few of the lesser tracks from your playlist, A Picture of Nectar gets even stronger.
Speaking of lesser tracks!
…okay, okay, “Llama” isn’t really that bad. But compared to A Picture of Nectar‘s true accomplishments, “Llama” feels like filler.
Choose not to compare it and you end up with a pretty fun — if shallow — rocker with some incredible percussion and a great, swirling synth to carry it along. The lyrics are deliberately impenetrable (people debate to this day what the chorus even is), and putting this at the very front of the album feels like a promise of incoherence to come. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if it’s not your thing, you may want to skip ahead a few years and pick up a different Phish album.
The band is experimenting, and figuring out what works is neither an easy process nor, necessarily, a crowd-pleasing one. “Llama” lets listeners know that whatever’s to come may be fun, and may be catchy, but it won’t necessarily be polished. In a live setting, “Llama” is an energetic palate cleanser. On disc, it’s practically a dare to keep listening.
…which is what makes it odd that it’s followed up immediately by the quiet, pretty instrumental “Eliza.” In fact, “Eliza” is the second part of the mission statement of A Picture of Nectar. If “Llama” disarmed you, “Eliza” tries to convince you that it’s worth pushing through the rougher patches. You just might find something beautiful, wedged between two monsters.
And it’s right; there’s a lot of beauty to find here. But I do have to admit that “Eliza” is kind of empty. It sounds pretty, and yet also sounds like nothing at all. It’s there…an airy coda to its rampaging predecessor, but it doesn’t register to me the way some of Phish’s other “pretty” interludes do (see “Bliss” or “The Inlaw Josie Wales”).
It’s there. It’s fine. And it lets you know that the whole album isn’t “Llama.” Mission accomplished.
“Cavern” is one of those Phish songs that all of the fans know and seem to love, but which never really clicked with me. It’s not awful, and I can appreciate a lot of things about it (read on!), but its popularity and frequency of appearances in setlists always confused me.
Wait, have I been down on all of these songs so far? I really am a miserable human being, aren’t I?
So, okay, fine, it doesn’t work for me on the whole. Ignore that small detail, though, and I appreciate how well it manages to take nonsense lyrics and weave what feels like an actual story. It’s a bit of an illusion, admittedly, as it relies on the instrumentation to build the atmosphere, set the pacing, suggest narrative climax where — strictly speaking — there is none, but that’s sort of the point of songwriting in general, so it’s no kind of cheat.
The plodding rhythm, the echoing drums, the repetitive grind of the groove…everything serves to underscore an idea, an atmosphere, a setting. And, largely, it works. “Cavern” is a journey I’d have a hard time summarizing, but it’s one I can feel.
Interestingly, “Cavern” isn’t the only song on the album that does this; “Stash” also spins a tale of nonsense that seems important in a way that transcends — or at least has nothing to do with — words as we understand them. But we’ll come to that soon enough.
The other thing the song does well is its triumphant concluding verse — from which the album takes its name — repeated with increasing enthusiasm as long as it takes to really sell the infectiousness. It’s a great conclusion to an otherwise fairly pedestrian track, and it’s why the song works so well (and so often) as a set closer.
On a live note, a horn section enhanced the rave-up swirl at the end of the song several times throughout the band’s live history, and that’s a nice variant to seek out if you’re interested. Personally I do think the brass adds something to the excitement, but the vocals do a good enough job of selling the triumph on their own, so it’s not a make/break situation; it’s just a pretty cool thing to hear after you’ve experienced the hornless version so many times.
A simple bluegrass ditty by bassist Mike Gordon about somebody swiping his tape recorder. It’s…man, I am not doing a good job of selling you on this album yet, am I?
It’s not bad. It’s fun. It’s a bit of a one-note experiment, but it’s brief and toe-tapping enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
But…well, that’s it. It’s just sort of there, and it’s nowhere near Mike Gordon’s best composition or the band’s best dalliance with bluegrass. (See the next album’s “Fast Enough for You” for that honor.)
Now we’re talking. Honestly, don’t the opening notes convince you enough of that on their own?
“Stash” is just…man.
Just…just listen to it. “Stash” is fun. “Stash” is dark. “Stash” is silly and urgent and an incredible meld of composition and musicianship. “Stash” is Phish. And while I’m sure others would point to something like “You Enjoy Myself” as their singular example of what the band is, I think I’d have to point to “Stash.”
It’s an absolutely perfect listening experience. And, yes, it’s a song that takes on new life again and again on stage, with long jams teased out of it unexpectedly or just fiery straight versions played to audiences lucky enough to be there and feed off of it, but its studio version, I think, merits attention.
This is a chance to appreciate the song’s twisting melodies, its tense stop/starts, its masterful interplay between instruments which seem to having important conversations of their own — certainly more important than anything the lyrics have to say.
And yet the lyrics feel like they are saying something important. The story they weave — whatever it’s about, whatever happens in it — has a sense of significance, of weight, of value. And while the lyrics on paper, with all their talk of tunic yankings and solar garlic, seem frivolous, in performance they’re anything but. I couldn’t tell you what anything here is supposed to mean, but I could sure tell you how much it feels like they have meaning.
It’s evocative. What you don’t understand, you still experience. Trey’s guitar work in particular is thrilling. It evokes an endless rush of panic. Near misses. Narrow escapes. The sense that you reach the end of each bar alive by the skin of your teeth.
It’s just all around great, and I think it says something that a song best experienced live is still so solid in the studio, without the energy of the crowd to bolster it, without the benefit of nightly surprise and experimentation, without the freedom of slipping into and out of other songs at will.
“Stash” is one of my favorite compositions, and one of my favorite examples of studio Phish. It doesn’t capture the band’s experimentation, but it does capture their raw, burning power when they’re at their cohesive best, and this one goes down in history books for me.
Here’s a great joke: a band well known for their inventive covers of other people’s work finally records a song they didn’t write (one by Dizzy Gillespie) and it’s just them repeating some nonsense that sounds vaguely like the original song.
The best song on the album, and one of Phish’s best ever.
Listening now I don’t know why I didn’t list this along with “Cavern” and “Stash” as a nonsense song that still tells a story. Maybe it feels less to me like a story than an evocative scene. Maybe it feels less like nonsense. Whatever the reason, “Guelah Papyrus” seems like a truly unique composition…one I’d have a lot of trouble finding direct comparison to.
It’s lovely. It’s gorgeous. It’s rocky and smooth. It’s got an incredibly addictive beat that often finds me playing the song several times in a row. And its instrumental section manages to feel like an organic part of the composition in a way that it actually isn’t. (It was originally an unrelated tune called “The Asse Festival.” So, yeah, the title “Guelah Papyrus” is a definite trade upward.)
It meanders and it drives. It lounges and it hurtles. It spouts nonsense and suggest profundity. It’s a truly great song, and one of the few that I’ve always wanted to hear in concert and never, so far, have been fortunate enough to catch. It’s also, along with “Stash,” evidence that Phish was finding out how to use the studio…how to enhance their compositions rather than distract from them, how to achieve a kind of musical precision they couldn’t rely on otherwise, with embellishments like the echo effect applied to the backing vocals filling out the song in ways that feel natural and not calculated.
I love “Guelah Papyrus.” If I were able to take only one studio Phish song to a desert island with me, it might well be this one. Which is fitting, as the lyrics seem to outline the spidering thoughts of some endlessly drifting, hopeless protagonist who crossed the wrathful, mysterious Guelah herself.
Who is she? What did she do? The chorus claims that “this is the work of Guelah Papyrus,” but what is her work?
It doesn’t matter. What matters is how it affects our singer.
And it affects me in ways that I’m almost glad I have trouble expressing; that means they stay specific to me.
Our first Page McConnell composition, and by no means his best. Page is my favorite member of Phish — his keys anchoring nearly all of my favorite songs and favorite jams — but there’s no denying that he was a bit uncertain of his talents for much of the band’s life.
Later compositions would be marked improvements, but it wasn’t until he embarked on a career outside of Phish (first with Vida Blue, then under his own name) that he really found his voice as a songwriter.
Still, “Magilla” is good. It’s a minor, jazzy interlude that doesn’t do anything wrong, but definitely fails to live up to the rest of the album. It’s also disappointing that the piano-heavy song by the band’s pianist is entirely bowled over by a far superior piano song that takes over as soon as this one ends.
As “Guelah Papyrus” contained “The Asse Festival,” “The Landlady” would go on to be absorbed by “Punch You in the Eye,” a live-only song that fairly gracelessly plopped this tune into its middle when it needed an interlude.
That’s kind of disappointing, as “The Landlady” feels to me like it deserves to be more than breathing room in a different song. On its own, here, in the studio, it’s a great, rollicking salsa that manages to feel like more of a successful genre experiment than “Poor Heart” or “Magilla” did.
Those songs achieved what they set out to do — chart some more sonic territory for the band — but “The Landlady” succeeds at being…sort of great. Not complex, not revolutionary, but great within its own tight boundaries. And it’s an excellent spotlight for both Page’s nimble fingers and Trey’s screaming fretwork. It’s chilly and fiery at once, and it’s one of my favorite studio instrumentals from the band.
Falling where it does on the album, right here in the rough middle, it’s easy to overlook but worth seeking out. It’s a chance to observe the band growing into itself, setting out to dabble and ending up mastering.
“The Landlady” isn’t just a rough Latin sketch…it’s a Phish song. And a good one. “Punch You in the Eye” may have long outlived it, but I really enjoy the evidence that it once had a life of its own.
“Glide” feels like a novelty song that happens to have some very impressive musicianship behind it, namely in Trey’s guitar line. There’s a nice musical evolution that unfolds behind the simple, repeated lyrics, depositing us in some unexpectedly dark places, but ultimately it’s a trifle. One of many experiments on A Picture of Nectar that you can’t fault the band for trying. But it’s also not something I’d recommend seeking out.
“Tweezer” is mainly an excuse to screw around with a genuinely irresistible hook. On stage, though, it’s massive. Hour-long versions are not uncommon, and it’s right up there with “You Enjoy Myself” and “Mike’s Song” for sheer unpredictability. You may recognize the opening notes, but there’s no chance you’ll predict the song’s journey from there.
And that’s both its biggest claim to fame and its curse. When “Tweezer” starts up live, you know you’re in it for the long haul. End up with a great, inventive version with some playful momentum to keep it going and you’ll probably be pretty happy. But end up with the band struggling to find its footing and you could find yourself listening for a huge chunk of the set to four musicians floundering for cohesion.
It’s a crapshoot, and it’s one I’m never willing to bet on. If I find a recording of a show with a forty-minute “Simple” or “Ghost” or “Split Open and Melt,” I get excited. If I find a recording of a show with a forty-minute “Tweezer,” I worry.
Sure, it could be great. And, let’s be frank here, it often is.
But at least as often, it’s stuck in neutral. And as “Tweezer” doesn’t understand the concept of brevity, it’ll be stuck there for a while.
“Tweezer” rarely kills a night, of course, but it does often, to me, feel like it’s taking up a lot of time that another song could put to better use. When you hear a great “Tweezer” you know it, and it’ll make everything I’m saying here sound more like hogwash than usual. But I don’t think it’s great often enough to claim as much real estate as it does.
The A Picture of Nectar version clocks in at around nine minutes…a hefty chunk of the disc. But this version, while, of course, lacking much room for freeform experimentation and reluctant to stray too far from its backbone, is pretty good. While I don’t seek it out I also never feel compelled to skip it. It’s a nice taste of the band loosening up a bit in the studio, without the structural demands of “Stash,” for instance, keeping them from surprising themselves.
So, no, the studio version of “Tweezer” is not revelatory. But it’s reliable, and I always know it will be worth listening to, which is more than I can say for “Tweezer” in general.
Sue me. I like it.
The Mango Song
Another story song? Maybe. As with “Guelah Papyrus” I can’t really decide, but it’s certainly another great example of how nonsense lyrics bring to life distinct (if not necessarily clear) images, situations, scenes.
The abundance of nonsense lyrics on A Picture of Nectar — and, indeed, in Phish’s general output from the time — can seem more wearying than it actually is; because the songs all sound and feel distinct, and behave in such different ways, and serve such different purposes, it doesn’t feel as though they’re using the same excuse too often. And, what with the deadly serious lyrical approach of the next album (on the whole…), perhaps they were unknowingly getting this out of their systems, making way for the more poetic, Tom Marshall-penned lyrics to come. Those would require respect. (A kind of respect.) Here they were free to be kids.
But I’m getting away from this album, so we’ll complete that thought next time.
“The Mango Song” feels less important than songs like “Stash” or “Guelah Papyrus.” It’s more obviously playful, with the lyrics spinning an obscure joke as opposed to an indistinct adventure. It’s cheery. It’s one long punchline. And it’s fun, like so much of A Picture of Nectar, while also being musically complex.
Vocals overlap to produce a kind of sidelong harmony with conflicting lyrics. Melodies chase each other around. Focus on any one instrument and it will sound like it’s working its own, independent magic, that just so happens to fit what the other instruments are doing around it.
It feels like a beautiful accident, and I mean that as a compliment. The studio version gets at least a few bonus points, as well, for the song’s comparative rarity in the live setting. If you want to hear “The Mango Song,” you’re best served by reaching for the CD. And you’ll be happy if you do, because the performance you’ll find there is pretty great.
Chalk Dust Torture
If you want to hear “Chalk Dust Torture,” though, for God’s sake, ignore this one at all costs. That’s easy to do, because the band’s played it frequently at pretty much every point in its life, leaping between blistering, punchier versions and longer, oddly moody, jammy versions…but even the worst live version is sure to be better than this disappointingly lifeless rendition.
That’s not to say it’s bad, but it sure feels limp. The band doesn’t seem all that engaged with it, really, and it feels like they’re more focused on on hitting their marks than playing with much feeling. But the worst part is Trey’s vocal, which is artificially deepened and/or slowed down for reasons I could not possibly try to explain.
It makes the song nigh unlistenable, and while I understand — and appreciate — the many avenues of studio experimentation A Picture of Nectar immortalizes, this version of “Chalk Dust Torture” is poorer for it. And that’s a shame, because I’d love to have a clean version of this great, bluesy rocker to dip into now and again. Instead we get one that answers the question of whether or not it would be a good use of studio time to make Trey sound like Cookie Monster. (THE ANSWER SOMEHOW IS NO.)
Again, it’s not horrible, but those vocals feel like a painful miscalculation.
But, hey, it’s not the last time we’ll hear “Chalk Dust Torture” on disc…
Drummer Jon Fishman wrote a song that’s exactly what you think a drummer picking loosely at an acoustic guitar would be. Evidently this was recorded as some kind of joke at the expense of new age music, or something. Needless to say, it’s hilarious.
It’s a waste of a track. That one.
Okay, yeah, the last stretch of songs on A Picture of Nectar isn’t really notable for anything beyond its willingness to experiment. But “Catapult” is something a little different. It’s only a few seconds long, and it’s just bassist Mike Gordon singing a brief little verse through what sounds like an office PA system, but it’s actually had an interesting journey through the band’s live shows.
Since the album version has no instrumentation behind it, Gordon is free to sing it wherever he pleases, overtop totally unrelated jams or other sonic stretches. And sometimes he does. (Or did. I’m not quite sure when its last appearance was, but it may have been some time ago.) Sometimes Trey does, too.
And so “Catapult” has often become a verse in other songs, just because its lack of anything but a few words to remember means it’s easy to launch into whenever the spirit moves somebody.
But…that’s about it for “Catapult.” Its studio version doesn’t even offer a chance to hear the lyrics more clearly, as the distortion renders it just about as intelligible as you’d be able to glean over crowd noise anyway. It’s kind of cool to experience it in its entirely unassuming, weightless original form, but it’s a novelty, and by no means an intriguing one.
But we end with something kind of cool! A much shorter reprise of “Tweezer,” with an adjusted and key-shifted riff that heralds a great — if predictable — album-ending cacophony. It’s a nice celebratory end to a collection of songs that deserves to be celebrated, even if many of the individual compositions don’t.
A Picture of Nectar found the band trying everything — with each member contributing something they wrote independently, which I don’t think would happen again until 2004’s Undermind — just to see what would work. The unspoken flipside of that is that they’d also see what didn’t work, and this album immortalizes as much of that stuff as it does the successes.
From here on out, they’d know what they were doing. And we’d get some truly great albums out of that knowledge. Our next entry, Rift, is a brave next step. And if it stumbles, it will be the kind of stumble you can only make after you figure out what you’re doing, and start trying to do it as well as possible.
I’ll see you there in 2029.
Oh, but, man, before I go, I have to say that “Tweezer Reprise” is a really great pun that I never see anyone acknowledge, so let me just acknowledge now that “Tweezer Reprise” is a really, really great pun.
I’ve made a playlist of every isolated musical moment we’ve ever featured in the Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!!!!, and I already know you’re crazy enough to enjoy it so stop fronting and go rock out to the Gummibar Xmas Mega Mix.
Longtime Bashers will remember that the first year didn’t feature any musical interludes, so this playlist collects all of the songs from Bashes 2-4. It’s a great opportunity to remind yourself that, yes, some lady actually did take the time to make a video for that song she wrote about her chicken dinner.
Personally, the musical moments are my favorite bits of these streams. Well, they are until you all start being funnier than me in the chatroom. But there’s something about Christmas music when it’s neither unlistenable nor any good that just melts my heart.
This is a small way to revisit some great moments from past streams, and I hope you enjoy doing so. I also hope that you play this at your work’s Christmas party, and get fired.
Just a heads up: this doesn’t include songs from the specials that we watch. It’s only the songs we enjoyed between specials. So, no you won’t hear The Monkees summoning a demon, or see the fiery dance moves of that stuck-up little brat from Rappsittie Street Kids. On the bright side, though, Adam Lore’s excellent originals are included. And those are brilliant.
Anyway, enjoy. Put it on shuffle for maximum chaos. And I’ll see you all next year.
Embedded, for her pleasure:
I’m a huge fan of David Byrne’s work as both the frontman for Talking Heads and as a solo artist. He’s an acquired taste, but one I’d say is worth acquiring. And as much as I love his music in general, Grown Backwards, I think, is his strongest album front to back. (It’s predecessor Look Into the Eyeball puts up a damned good fight, though.)
Seriously. It’s great. Go buy it. Listen to it for a few years. THEN FINISH READING THIS POST OK
Okay. So, there is one song on the album that leaves me wondering about something. It’s embedded below, and you should listen even if you don’t give a crap about helping me with my question, because it’s an excellent song with a pretty adorable guitar line.
It’s called “She Only Sleeps.” And that might be the clue to my answer right there, but I’m honestly not sure. See, the entire line in the chorus is “She only sleeps with me.”
And that can be interpreted two ways.
So, here’s my question: When Byrne says “she only sleeps with me,” does he mean…
a) He is the only man with whom she has intercourse, or
b) They literally slumber together, and that’s it.
They’re mutually exclusive possibilities, and I go back and forth on how I hear the song. Byrne’s dreamy, detached delivery doesn’t tip the scales for me either way. He could be loosely bragging, or just spinning a little story about unrequited love. (It’s unrequited in the verses, at least. But you may hear something a little more behind the music.)
And even if he is bragging…couldn’t he brag about either possibility? Either he alone is enjoying sex with this force of carnality…or he’s the only one that gets to know her in a non-sexual way.
Either is brag-worthy, but it’d be two very different kinds of people doing the bragging.
In reality I’d guess Byrne would be more fascinated with the other side of her life: the one that you can only see when she’s resting from a long night of topless dancing, hard drinking, car crashing…the life she lives when she’s quiet. Helpless. Stopped in her revelry by the most basic need of all…the need for rest.
But that doesn’t mean that that’s what his character is more fascinated with.
So, what are we hearing in “She Only Sleeps”? What do you hear?
Is it the self-satisfied croon of braggadocio, rubbing it in that he has what you want? That while she might light fires in your chest, his are the only ones she tends to?
Or is it a quieter, shyer singer, one whose electric guitar plays softly so as not to wake her, as he discovers in her sleeping form a woman that those who lust after her never get to know?
Does she only sleep with him? Or does she only sleep with him? The phrase gets emphasized both ways verbally…but how are we meant to take it emotionally?
Either way, the singer has some definite issues of female ownership to work through. But I’d be curious to know in which direction he needs to steer.