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The Fatal Flaw

Metroland writers gripe about the nagging blemishes in otherwise perfect songs

As a great songwriter-philosopher once observed, “Every rose has its thorn.” There are countless recordings that are almost perfect, except . . . one tiny little thing is wrong. And, similar to that sluglike critter Khan puts into Chekov’s ear in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the one tiny thing slithers in your ear, gnaws at your brain and makes you crazy. Like the Rolling Stone critic who was mightily perplexed by Paul Simon referring to “The Boxer” as a “bloke” in a line—when the character was clearly American, not British—our writers have been struck dumb by gaffes by everyone from Pete Townshend to Mark Bolan.

The Who

“Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Who’s Next is arguably the Who’s most defining album—no less than six of its nine tracks remain in continuous rotation on classic-rock radio today. Of these, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” contained the most devastating scream ever put to vinyl, best embraced the incorporation of prerecorded synthesizer tracks into the band’s sound, and was the apex of Keith Moon’s explosive, unpredictable drumming capabilities.

The song conveys a timeless dissatisfaction with the human role in change on a wide scale, citing the recurring mistakes of civilization throughout history. Despite being used by Kiss to this day as a live intro and stolen by George W. as an appendage to a botched-press-conference axiom, it remains the perfect rock anthem . . . with one small exception: Moon, who delivers a flawless performance for eight-plus minutes, blows the finale by missing a key cymbal crash with four notes left in the song. Kills me every time.

—Bill Ketzer

My Bloody Valentine

“Only Shallow”

True story: I still have the receipt (from 1991) for this CD tucked inside the sleeve. The reason for that act of posterity is simply that I thought something was terribly wrong with my CD when I first bought it and listened to the opening track, “Only Shallow.” On the one hand, this is a very powerful, densely layered wall of sound that perfectly represents the shoegazing madness of the early ’90s United Kingdom. On the other hand, the track (the whole album, in fact) is disorienting and . . . hurtful. It sounds warped. It messes with my inner ear and induces a state much like carsickness. (Plus, there is a moaning in the background that sounds like whales undergoing a surprise cavity search.) Leader Kevin Shields has built a Brian Wilson-like mythology out of his endless studio tinkering and that “great, lost” (yet never heard) My Bloody Valentine album. I would respond that there are simpler ways for me to get carsick, like reading Newsweek in a moving vehicle. But you know what? I still listen to the whole album (Loveless) at least once a year to confirm its genius.

—Erik Hage

Billie Holiday

“God Bless the Child”

Holiday recorded this a few times, but it’s the 1950 Decca version that’s sublime. Well, almost. The glory’s all on Lady Day, as the arrangement’s so cheesy the shellac must have smelled like Velveeta. Gordon Jenkins, who later wrote excellent string-drenched settings for Sinatra, put Holiday with the whitest faux-gospel choir in the history of Western music. If you make it through the horrendous choral intro, however, the power of Holiday’s rueful, soulful reading is stark and moving. That’s why it was always nice to play this on one of the old Palais Royale jukeboxes; for some reason, the needle always dropped on the record after the choir.

—Shawn Stone

Poco

“And Settlin’ Down”

Time has never been kind to Poco, the band formed out of the ashes of Buffalo Springfield by Richie Furay and Jim Messina. They watched former bandmates make truckloads of money, and even Poco members would leave to make it big. Though Poco were poised for success throughout their career, the passage of nearly four decades has done little to alter perceptions. The fact is, Poco’s country stylings, cut loose from the context of their era, sound nakedly lightweight. Surprisingly, when they emphasized the rock and just flavored it with country, they ended up with a few songs that fare better now. “And Settlin’ Down” has an undeniable kick to it. It has a 25-second intro that serves to crank up the engine. Sadly, at the 10-second mark, as drums and chordal riffs are staking out their territory, Furay lets loose with a cry of “Boogie!” With his church-boy clarity, he should never have emitted such a plea. It sounds sufficiently wrong for me to feel embarrassed for him now, all these years later.

—David Greenberger

Counting Crows

August And Everything After

I am willfully botching this assignment by talking about an album, but hear me out. Counting Crows’ 1994 debut came on like a ton of familiar, and resonated with the music nation accordingly. It is a timeless recording: The songs are hopeful slices of American life, simultaneously sun-drenched and -damaged; the production is flawless, thanks to miracle worker T-Bone Burnett. The Crows would have been wise to ask Burnett back for subsequent releases: As time wore on, they sounded less like a rock band and more like a life raft for singer Adam Duritz’s bloated ego. But, for August’s 52 minutes, they were perfect—well, almost: Over the decaying ring of guitars at the end of “Rain King,” Duritz lets loose with a wailing “Yeeeeaaaahhhh!” What the fuck was that all about?

—John Brodeur

Procol Harum

“Pilgrim’s Progress”

Released in the summer of 1969, A Salty Dog was the last hurrah of Procol Harum’s original lineup. The originality of their sound owed much to them being a band of mismatched parts: an R&B singer, a psychedelic blues guitarist, a Who-worthy drummer and a classical organist. With success came competing desires. The biggest disappointment on this album is built into one of the finest songs of their career, the closing “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Organist Matthew Fisher composed it, but for reasons not made part of the public record, he also sang it. His thin voice makes it sound like a demo for the band’s real singer, Gary Brooker. Alas, as reissues have appeared, there is no alternate version sung by Brooker (though he did go on to sing it live in later years and in re-formed versions of the band).

—David Greenberger

Flatt and Scruggs

“Foggy Mountain Breakdown”

Among banjo tunes, perhaps only “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme from the 1960s TV series The Beverly Hillbillies, and “Dueling Banjos” from the 1972 movie Deliverance are better known than Flatt and Scruggs’ classic bluegrass instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The soundtrack of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde features it, and it also serves as the background music to other Hollywood rural car chases. The original 1949 version, which you can hear on the CD Bluegrass Legends, contains an atrocious-sounding clam, though: Every time Earl Scruggs picks the notes of the E-minor chord first heard in the fifth measure on his banjo, Lester Flatt plays an E-major chord on his guitar. What’s so bad about that? This mix of chords produces a clash of tones called a half-step dissonance, and although dissonance is common in music, it grates on the ear when wrongly used. That’s the case here. Thankfully, Flatt fixed the error by changing to an E-minor chord in later recordings of the piece.

—Glenn Weiser

The Who

“Who Are You?”

Why pick on an otherwise perfect song, you ask? Well, because the Who have so many utterly perfect songs. In this case, however, the imperfection comes in the form of one word: a blight upon the otherwise ultimate rock song. Pete Townshend wrote “Who Are You?” as a question about his own place in the scheme of things. Punk rock was taking over England, and this song, about a lost night in London (and about Townshend’s generally drunken lifestyle at the time), also questions—beyond the literal—whether Pete and company really matter anymore in light of punk’s newfound fury. (Answer: Yes. In retrospect, most punk-rock groups of the first wave were whimpers in comparison to the bludgeoning, jackhammer-like force of the Who at their best.) So what’s the flaw? It’s Roger Daltrey’s impassioned (and hopefully improvised) cry of “Who the fuck are you?” For one moment, a perfect song sloshes over the top into melodrama. Daltrey never needed to use the F-word—c’mon, it’s overkill, man! Townshend’s slashing, jagged chords are practically all the F-word we need. (If you thought this was going to be about CSI, then fuck you.)

—Erik Hage

T. Rex

“Baby Boomerang”

T. Rex’s The Slider is one of the best albums ever. (Just accept it and move on. We can argue about it online, or in the letters section.) But track five, “Baby Boomerang,” has always tripped me up. It’s a good song, don’t get me wrong. The guitars are bouncy, the backing vocals just as warm and exciting as on the rest of the album. It stands out as a piece of glam-rock perfection, but the song is sandwiched between two of the most sentimental and timeless tracks Mark Bolan has ever written. “Baby Boomerang,” the sleazy ode to a groupie who “never stopped the fussing/But you always banged the whole gang,” just sort of skeeves me out in what would otherwise be the most emotionally powerful moment of the album. Maybe I just can’t accept glam rock for all its excesses, but if the chorus had just been anything else. . . . Even the chorus from “Buick Mackane” from the same album would have cut it. “Slider, slider/You’re just a sexual guider.” Sooo Bolan, just a little bit less graphic.

—David KingC

 


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