Sunday, May 01, 2011

it's still warm; it still moves; they're still here

no-one wants to pay me for my broken heart

In dickhead mode, when I can't keep myself from arguing tastes with people, I occasionally have said "I could make you a Dramarama mix tape that would make you forget about the Replacements.".

That's probably false. I probably can't make you that tape. But I can claim that Dramarama has been more important to me than the Replacements, and that for my money, the two bands' top and second tiers are comparable.

Unfortunately, this Rhino/Elektra Traditions comp on my lap is doing a fairly shitty of bolstering my second claim. Sure, there's the world-beating single "anything, anything", now so well-established as great that it probably bores most people who were around when it was fresh. There's the late semi-hit "last cigarette", which is probably when I climbed on board, full of knowing that side two of Tim and most of Pleased to Meet Me were about as good as songs got. (Seriously: in 1987, it was not uncommon for me to lie on the shitty carpet on my bedroom in front of my tiny boom box, singing along to "here comes a regular" and nearing tears. In 1987, I was 13, and not terribly acquainted with the growing-old-in-a-bar scene described in that tune.)

And there's are a couple other songs here on 18 Big Ones that were frankly revelatory for me. Since I'd never succumbed to my completist fetish with Dramarama, I'd only known "scenario" from youtubing it at work the last 2 years, and I'd never heard the essentially perfect moved-to-California lament "it's still warm", which is my favorite song about me in close to 10 years. Having those tunes to hand justifies the purchase entirely for me; if you like good things, they might justify the purchase for you, too.

I picked up Stuck in Wonderamaland and fell in love with it when it was new. 1989. It doesn't excerpt as well as I'd like. The album is a start-to-finish kind of piece. A little moody, a little diffuse, but that's a frame I fit in well anyways. On the comp, though, it's represented only by "wonderamaland", "no regrets" and "last cigarette", the more-or-less hits, the mid-tempo rockers I guess you'd call 'em. These are good songs. Their selection helps the compilation. I bitterly miss the cover of "I wish I was your mother", though, and the pitch-perfect "'70s TV". (Maybe the Platonic ideal of the B-side.) And while Dramarama could well be accused of a degree of over-consistency, inclusion of a couple of the fragments off of this record (onepart ballad slivers like "pumps on a hill" or "stuck in wonderamaland") would have helped fill out the diversity quotient a little bit.

Vinyl was even more important to me, a few years later, and was in my headphones the day I first got fired. It's criminally underrepresented here, with only the long and dull "train going backwards" and the lovely catchy singalong screed "classic rot" to back up the two singles, which (a) aren't as great as the band's other singles and (b) aren't as good as the other songs on the record. Want to know why Vinyl wasn't a hit album? Because the best songs on it are things like the bouncy, ebullient "until the next time" and the stingingly specific "ain't it the truth", which weren't singles and didn't make the cut onto this comp.

One of the great skills of Dramarama is their ability to do pointed portraits of suburban life--particularly of women's experiences in suburban life--that contain but never succumb to sentimentality and condescension. "No regrets" and "scenario" hit those notes on this comp, but Vinyl's "in quiet rooms" really needed to be here alongside them. Missing are the untouchably great Stones rarity "memo from Turner", psychedelic-Who nod "I've got spies" and, again, variety-contributing "(I'd like to) volunteer please".

If you care to, you can spend a lot--like, a lot--of time with Dramarama playing Spot the Reference. A band of fans, collector/historian types, they context artists in a way, blending in snippets and snatches and swathes of what they liked, loved, grew up on. I spend more time with John Easdale's lyrics, though, than with the band-as-collage. And that's a maneuver that gives with one hand and takes with another, I'm afraid. Don't get me wrong: Easdale is one of my favorite lyricists of all time, and I will defend him against anyone you care to name.

But that defense will require me occasionally to acknowledge a filler rhyme that made it wax (Easdale's Achilles heel). Personally, I think they work (and nobody bitches when Dylan does it, for hell's sake) and I prefer them to the slightly over-common "yeah yeah yeah"s that waft across the soundscape, but, yeah: what I am literally saying is that one of rock and roll's best lyricists started off one of his best songs:

hey hey it's been so long since I have written with a pen
and though it's sharper than a saber, I don't feel like Errol Flynn
got no computer, I can't type the letter "m"
you're not responding right, I guess I better start again

I see I've been mostly critical of this record, and of the band. That was not exactly my intention. Dramarama is one of my most reliable musical pleasures, and has been for long enough to buy a beer anywhere in America. John Easdale is, again, maybe straight rock's most underrated songwriter, and one of the rock dudes I'd most like to say "thank you for making stuff that made my life better" to. His work touches greatness often, and in uncommon ways: he may be better with specific-detail-creating-universally-shared-emotion lines than anybody else. If you have room only for one Dramarama record, I'd suggest one the ones before Hi-Fi Sci-Fi. You'll miss some songs, but, then, if you only buy one record, you're going to anyway, right? If you want just all the ones you heard twice on shitty pre-alt-radio, 18 Big Ones will do that for you, and will throw in one or two you missed along the way, like the strangely affecting "work for food". I just wish it better represented the tunes that were, in some better world, big enough hits for these guys to retire on. Fully paid for their broken hearts.

Like the band, this comp comes really close to greatness and blows it. I like it: I'm glad I bought it. But I love this band, and a much, much better case for them could have been made.

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