Friday, June 02, 2006

Roman Candle- not lovin' modern radio

Maybe there's some faulty beginner-level scribing class for rock critics, but many writers for some reason or another make their first essay a "why music sucks today" rant. Trust me, I've seen dozens of these. It's simple- you complain how soulless and stupid everything on the radio is and how much better music was when... you get the idea. The problem with an article like this is that the whole premise doesn't hold water. Think of this- when was there a time when there wasn't any bad music around? A: never. Good music is always out there, it's just a matter of finding it and not limiting yourself to one type of music.

But is it really possible to make a reasonable complaint about music today without sounding like an old fogey or out-of-touch cynic? Well, yes... but it ain't easy.

Roman Candle is a rootsy North Carolina band about to come out with a V2 album (The Wee Hours Revue) but sadly, it won't include their best, smartest song, "Why Modern Radio Is A-OK." As singer/guitarist Skip Matheny explains "we wrote this song in May of 2004, between the recording of our upcoming album (May 2003) and its release date (June '06) - (which was) two record labels later. It is going to be on a newer record we've written called 'Love Songs For An Empty Room.' Not sure when this record will come out."

In any case, the title is a ruse (they don't love today's radio) as the singer actually thinks just the opposite. But rather than just make the usual observation about the good old days, there's an interesting twist. In the song, Matheny and his buddy are actually glad that radio sucks today- that way, none of the songs will break his heart the way that the classics once did. We hear the song only with a voice and acoustic guitar, appropriately lonely as he recollects the way that he once was actually moved by the music he heard on the radio. Like some of the best country songs, "A-OK" finds both solace and heartache from the radio (wonder if there'll eventually be the same kind of songs written about online streams...).

And so, they name-check their favorites, including John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and... Radiohead? The last ain't exactly classic rock (though he does dig their earlier material, which is closer to it) and truth be known, neither is Ol' Blue Eyes but they're nice/interesting surprises to be included there though I gotta wonder why Ray Charles isn't on that list too. Also, not since Blondie's "Dreaming" can I remember such wonderfully hilarious rhyming wordplay: "Van Morrison" and "chorusing" (that Emo bands do) plus "John (not Johnny) Cash" and "trash" (again, sticking it to Emo) plus Radiohead's "The Bends" and "Sir Patrick Spens." The last one isn't something they pulled out of their hat- it's an old English folk ballad covered by Fairport Convention. Not the kind of thing you find in a rhyming dictionary and exactly the kind of thing that a true music-nut/record-geek would have in their vocabulary.

In their blog, the band provides the story behind the song but more than a mere explanation, the words speak for themselves:

I was down at my favorite watering hole
with a buddy of mine that was out on parole
and we were flipping through the jukebox,
talking how we'd been and how we are.

Well he'd got a library card and he'd pierced his tongue
And a buddy in prison had turned him onto Neil Young
And he thought it'’d be best to play some for the entire bar.

Now he didn't know it but while he was in Jail
I'd had my heart broke by a woman to wondrous to tell
And we'd fallen in love to half the songs that jukebox played

So when he flattened his dollar on the side of the machine
and I saw "comes a time" come on the karaoke screen
I'd realized there was a few things I had forgot to say:

Don't play Neil Young
Don't play Van Morrison
Just let some high school emo band start versing and chorusing
Because there's no way it will break my heart as far as I can see
And that's why modern radio is A OK with me.

(Over the sound of the bar noise my friend looked at me and said):

He said a pop song used to be a powerful thing,
you could turn on the am and John Lennon would sing
or Frank Sinatra would speak to all of the girls.

And you could think like a hawk or think like a dove
or think of a winter afternoon when you fell in love and
Ten songs on a record sounded like a string of pearls.

Now my buddy rattled on till an hour had passed
And I thought about shoving his head through the front door glass
And leaving him for dead, but a friend is a friend to stay.

So I listened to him talk about Johnny and June
And how true love goes from midnight to noon
I bought another round just in time to hear him say:

They don't play Sam Cooke
They don't play John Cash
They let some high school emo band play the prettiest trash
And there's no way it can break my heart as far as I can see
And that's why modern radio is a sack of monkeys to me.

He said it makes me so mad I want to get out and shout it
And I smiled and said I hadn't thought that much about it
and we walked out the street and parted ways

I might've gone to a movie, but my money was spent
so I went on home, the Lord knows where he went
and wrote and open letter to all modern dj's

Don't play Bob Dylan
Don't play the Bends
Don't play anybody that'’s ever heard Sir Patrick Spens
Because broken hearted people are looking for a little something to ignore
And that is why modern radio is better than ever before
And that is why modern radio is better than ever before

You can listen to "Why Modern Radio Is A-OK" on the band's MySpace page.

Until the band finally makes this tune widely available, you can be sure it'll be a concert favorite for now. This is one "why music sucks" tale that should be heard.


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