Episode 126: Rory Cooper / Simon & Garfunkel
3:11:25Introducing the Band:Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are joined by guest Rory Cooper. He’s a partner at Purple Strategies, a corporate reputation and advocacy agency in Alexandria, Va., a former George W. Bush and Eric Cantor aide, and a longtime Republican strategist. He’s on Twitter at @rorycooper.Rory’s Music Pick: Simon & GarfunkelIf you enjoyed Political Beats’ episode on the solo career of Paul Simon with Rory Cooper from a year and half ago, then kick right back after the Labor Day weekend and start feelin’ groovy while listening the epic George Lucas/Peter Jackson prequel extravaganza that is our discussion of Simon & Garfunkel! Yes, Rory has returned to discuss a pop duo formerly known as “Tom & Jerry,” whose music dominated both American and U.K. airwaves in the late Sixties. With three #1 hits, nine more top 20 singles, two #1 albums, and their names attached to one of the decade’s most beloved films, we think it likely that you’re already somewhat familiar with Simon & Garfunkel. But this, like our Paul Simon episode, is the rare episode in which neither of your two esteemed hosts were actually deeply familiar with the albums (as opposed to the radio hits). How could this have happened? All is explained while we are rejoined by Rory Cooper, a guy who knows all the stories and loves Paul Simon’s music so much he named his kid after one of these songs. In this episode, we explore the origins of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel as schooldays choirboy friends in Queens, their brief “teen idol” phase as Tom & Jerry, and their -- rather awkward -- rebirth in the early Sixties as folkies on a Greenwich Village scene that resolutely disdained them for purported inauthenticity. Simon & Garfunkel’s 1964 debut album flopped so badly that Simon went to England and Garfunkel simply went back to school, until a Columbia producer desperate for a hit overdubbed electric backing onto a forgotten song from that debut called “The Sound of Silence.”And the rest is history. Simon & Garfunkel’s career resumed in a haste as “Sound of Silence” hit the top of the charts in January 1966, and what followed was a series of increasingly assured acoustic folk/pop/rock hits that culminated by the late Sixties in immortal and gnomic songs like “Mrs. Robinson,” “America,” and “The Boxer.” From being a pale imitator of Bob Dylan’s “intelligent folk” music, Simon & Garfunkel had evolved into a different, singular sound, anchored around Garfunkel’s peerlessly pitch-perfect high tenor voice and Simon’s insistently rhythmic sense of guitar-work and arrangement.Although the pairing did not -- and could not, for many reasons -- last long, it ended in a supreme achievement: Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970), a record whose commercial dominance and omnipresence in its day has been exceeded only by its subsequent critical reputation. And that was it; Garfunkel left for an acting career, and Simon for a solo one. (A brief reunion in the early Eighties went nowhere.) And that was for the best: They will forever be remembered for going out on the highest possible note. What happened next has already been discussed, but for now, enjoy the groovy Sixties and Paul Simon’s orthogonal, acutely self-conscious place within them as we count the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, all gone to look for America.
Episode 125: Matt Murray / Nick Lowe
3:31:11Introducing the Band:Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are with guest Matt Murray. Matt is the recently departed editor of the Wall Street Journal, now on assignment for its parent company, News Corp. Check him out on Twitter at @murraymatt.Matt’s Music Pick: Nick LoweOkay, it says “Nick Lowe” right there above this line, but we need to be straight with you -- there’s a lot of other stuff happening in this show. Nick Lowe-adjacent acts are featured prominently, too. That means talk about Brinsley Schwarz, Rockpile, Dave Edmunds, and many, many more (even Huey Lewis!). There's a really simple way to summarize this episode: Here's a 3.5-hour love letter to Nick Lowe. That's pretty much the plot, people. Three hosts with a deep, abiding adoration for the music and production contributions of one of the biggest missing names from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.Now, I imagine there are some people who are saying, "Nick who?" After all, Lowe's career is the definition of a technical one-hit wonder -- a single top-40 song (“Cruel To Be Kind”) and that's it in terms of true chart success. First of all, everyone is in for a treat, from longtime fans to newbies. Albums such as Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust are among the very best released in the 1970s. Second, Nick Lowe's musical influence and work as a producer certainly will be familiar to you.The term “Pub Rock” describes an entire wave of U.K. acts, and Nick was at the center of most of them. This means Brinsley Schwarz and Dave Edmunds for sure, but also acts such as Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, and The Damned. This was a back-to-basics movement and a reaction to the bloat of progressive rock and the flash of glam. These artists instead looked to the rock and R&B of the '50s and '60s as guideposts.This is such a fun story to tell because the music is undeniable. The melodies are unimpeachable. And Nick Lowe's "second act" in his career has been so creatively satisfying. Starting with The Impossible Bird, he builds an entirely new sound and feel that is just as rewarding as the early work.He’s Nick Lowe and Political Beats is here to make the case that, although he’s not a household name, he certainly should be.
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Episode 124: Dave Weigel / Pet Shop Boys
2:50:01Introducing the Band:Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are joined by guest Dave Weigel. Dave is a founding reporter at Semafor, where he covers the 2024 campaign and writes the Americana newsletter. Check his work out here and find him on Twitter at @daveweigel.Dave’s Music Pick: Pet Shop BoysOpportunities are knocking: I've got the brains, and you've got the looks, so let's make lots of money as we use the post–July 4 week to celebrate the United Kingdom's most famous '80s/'90s synthpop dance-music duo! Of course, Pet Shop Boys -- a two-man collaboration that began in 1981 when rock critic Neil Tennant ran into bedsit-room synths-and-sequencers muso Chris Lowe at a record shop -- are much more than that besides. They managed the trick of being one of the United Kingdom's most commercially dominant chart acts while also being one of its cleverest and most tasteful, the result being that their classic run of albums beginning with Please (1986) have not dated even as they helped create and define the sound of '80s and '90s pop, club, and dance music. Neil Tennant's knack for melody and endlessly clever lyrics relating stories of heartbreak, ennui, and urban adventure from a then still-hidden subculture (gay London of the '80s and '90s) matched perfectly with Lowe's preternatural ability to layer keyboards hooks and sequenced percussion into compulsive radio fodder: The Pet Shop Boys scored 22 top-ten singles in the U.K. and ten over here in the United States, and you'll be surprised how many of them you knew without realizing you did. So press play, get ready to dance, enjoy a real treat. By the end you may be asking yourself: "What have I done to deserve this?"
Episode 123: Dominic Green / The Jam
3:10:19Introducing the Band:Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are joined by guest Dominic Green. Dom is a historian and columnist, and he used to be a musician. He is a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for the Washington Examiner and Jewish Chronicle. Check him out on Twitter at @DrDominicGreen.Dominic’s Music Pick: The JamIn some ways, this is one of the most necessary episodes of Political Beats ever. In other ways, this is one of the most obscure episodes of Political Beats ever. So come on in, Smithers-Jones, take a seat and a weight off your feet, because I've some news to tell you: The Jam is the most important and consequential British rock group that nobody outside of music nerds and record store clerks in America even knew existed. Paul Weller (guitar, vocals, primary songwriting), Bruce Foxton (bass, vocals, secondary songwriting), and Rick Buckler (drums) formed the late Seventies U.K. punk era's greatest power trio by explicitly patterning themselves off of the "straight lines" musical attack of mid Sixties mod-era Pete Townshend and The Who. They then almost immediately began to develop an approach that, by the time of All Mod Cons (1978), had evolved into a unique musical and lyrical response to the massive societal upheaval and displacement of the early Thatcher era. Even as The Jam sought and achieved universal critical acclaim and commercial success in Great Britain -- Paul Weller would later be dubbed "The Modfather" by '90s U.K. Britpop bands such as Oasis, Blur, and Teenage Fanclub -- their legacy failed to translate nearly anywhere else, and particularly to the United States. It's no mystery as to why: The Jam's lyrics and themes (driven by Weller) were uniquely British in a way few other top-tier rock artists' had been since the heyday of Ray and Dave Davies with the Kinks in the late Sixties. But these themes are nevertheless emotionally universal and humane, and the music? Oh, the music, my friends. If you are a Brit or a Jam fan of long-standing, then prepare for a delightful stroll through one mind-blowing punk, power-pop, or even string-laden art-rock memory after another. If you are new to The Jam -- and we must assume that many of you are -- prepare to be mowed down by a youth explosion as one pop masterpiece after another is brought to your attention for the first time. Some people might get some pleasure out of hate but you? You've enough already on your plate with this episode. Click play, and soon you'll be going underground.
Episode 122: Eric Garcia / Black Sabbath
3:02:18Introducing the Band:Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are joined by guest Eric Garcia. Eric is senior Washington writer for the Independent and a columnist at MSNBC. Check him out on Twitter at @EricMGarcia.Eric’s Music Pick: Black SabbathThe storm is upon you; can you hear the peals of thunder in the background, and the bleak clang of the church bell in the sleeping village? Well then break out the most appropriate tritone you can think of as the gang discusses Ozzy, Tony, Geezer, Bill (and yes, Ronnie James as well) and the groundbreaking music of Black Sabbath. Sabbath are famed as the inventors -- with their self-titled 1970 debut album -- of what would come to be known as "heavy metal." As such, they've long been worshipped by surly teenagers and metalheads alike, and derided by parents and critics in equal proportion. What we will take great pleasure in explaining to you during this episode is that the kids and metalheads got this one right. The critics and your parents whiffed. Sabbath was an incredibly intelligent band that may have begun as a demonstratively sludgy blues-rock (hence the birth of "heavy metal") but almost instantly evolved into a progressive group afterwards under guidance of guitarist Tony Iommi's compulsive riff-writing abilities and the secret jazz predilections of bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward. And then there's good ol' Ozzy Osbourne -- the bloke from down at the pub made good, singing his head off as best he can and finding surprising depths in his everyman voice.Sabbath's posthumous reputation is dictated largely by the ubiquitous popularity of their first two albums -- if you have heard them on the radio, it's probably a song like "Iron Man" or "War Pigs" -- but as far as the gang is concerned, that's actually where it gets really interesting for a band whose ability to combine piledriving riffage with shockingly unexpected moments of beauty and soulfulness marked them out during the next seven years as not just the most important heavy-metal bands to exist, but (secretly, don't tell your mom) also one of the finest art-rock groups of its era. Click play and join us this week as we boldly head Into the Void.
Episode 121: Adam Wollner / My Morning Jacket
2:53:12Introducing the Band:Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are with guest Adam Wollner. Adam is a Washington-based journalist who has covered national politics for CNN, McClatchy, and National Journal. Check him out on Twitter at @adamwollner.Adam’s Music Pick: My Morning JacketA reverb-laden, indie-country band? Roots rock? Electro-funk? Jam band? All that and much more could be said to describe My Morning Jacket at various stages of their career. The constant has been solid-to-great albums and a dynamic live show that harnesses the power of the studio tracks and unleashes it upon the audience.Led by songwriter and lead vocalist Jim James, My Morning Jacket's music is most closely tied to the Americana folk scene, drawing comparisons, especially early on, with The Band and Neil Young. MMJ slowly adopted some of the moods and styles of the late '60s psychedelic/folk movement, as well. What results is a unique amalgam of genres, songs that seem to pick up new tricks and ideas from across a wide musical spectrum. MMJ has been around for 25 years but, if you're not in the right musical circles, you might not have heard of them before now. Which is, of course, a shame. As Scot explains in the episode, this is not music you need to work hard to love or enjoy. MMJ comes to you, arms open, holding a fluffy blanket. There are numerous ways to enter the world of this band. From there, wonder awaits.
Episode 120: Mark Hemingway / Big Star
2:06:17Introducing the Band:Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are joined by guest Mark Hemingway. Mark is a writer at RealClearInvestigations and RealClearPolitics and an occasional contributor at The Federalist. Check him out on Twitter at @heminator.Mark’s Music Pick: Big StarHow do you merit an episode of Political Beats when you've released only a handful of albums in your career? When two happen to be among the best pop/rock records ever recorded and a third is a fascinating “"lost masterpiece” that’s never had a real, official release and is steeped in so much mystery no one is even sure what the correct track order might be. That, and much more, is the story of Big Star.In actuality, there's a rich story behind the music of Big Star, from bad luck to poor distribution to bad timing to, much later, acknowledgement of the stellar work that was done. The songs they recorded form the rock solid foundation of power pop, influencing bands decades into the future. Some of your favorite artists likely learned numerous tricks from Big Star, bands like The Posies, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Gin Blossoms, Wilco, Matthew Sweet, The Replacements, and many more.Only a few thousand copies of Big Star’s records sold upon release, both a comment of the prevailing tastes of the early 1970s and an indictment of the distribution strategy (or lack thereof) of the band’s labels. We try to explain the genius of both Alex Chilton and Chris Bell and come to praise the contributions of Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens to the arrangements. If you don’t know Big Star, this is a perfect introduction.As a side note, Mark Hemingway becomes our very first three-time guest on the show, opening the door for others to return again in the future. He’s been anointed “King of the Short Discography” after tackling The Replacements, Nirvana, and now Big Star on the show.
Episode 119: Noam Blum / Tool
2:20:55Introducing the Band:Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are joined by Noam Blum. Noam is Chief Technology Officer at Tablet Magazine and co-host of the Ambitious Crossover Attempt podcast and of All Crossed Out on the Callin app, both of which deal with pop culture, media, and politics. Find him on Twitter at @neontaster.Noam’s Music Pick: ToolSince Political Beats dealt with one of Gen Z's niche musical obsessions last episode in tackling The National, we've decided to double down in the new year and finally go after one of the Millennial generation's more beloved (and also, as we grant on the show, derided for their sincerity) bands with a discussion of Tool. Driven by the lyrical vision of Maynard James Keenan, the guitar geometrics/visualizations of Adam Jones, and the drumwork of Danny Carey, Tool was/is (though "is" is notional proposition, given that they've slowed their work pace to one album a decade) progressive heavy metal in their approach, a genre we haven't covered at all here on the show yet. We have dealt with many of their progenitors, particularly King Crimson (compositionally and musically) and Husker Du (lyrically and spiritually). And one day we'll get to Metallica, we promise. But Tool in many ways represents the final flowering of that line of intellectualized hard rock that began in the '70s, became unfashionable in the '80s, and then reemerged in the '90s. Their heavy sound and emotionally involuted lyrical obsessions would become endlessly imitated by many lesser groups seeking to recreate the intensity of their music, but those would be pale imitations. Here's the genuine article, a tool to use for yourself. Use wisely.
Episode 118: Phil Wegmann / The National
2:35:50Introducing the Band:Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are with guest Phil Wegmann. Phil is White House reporter for RealClearNews and RealClearPolitics. Check him out on Twitter at @PhilipWegmann.Phil’s Music Pick: The NationalLet us tell you, we have had *a bunch* of listeners ask us for an episode on The National, and we are nothing if not responsive to our fans. Neither one of your hosts previously was extremely familiar with the band, which is why we called in our ringer, Phil Wegmann, who earlier helped to lead our path through the Creedence Clearwater Revival show.Looking at Wiki's description of The National -- “The National has been compared to Joy Division, Leonard Cohen, Interpol, Wilco, Depeche Mode and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds” -- you could be forgiven for thinking this already was one of Jeff’s favorite bands. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact there’s a lot of Arcade Fire in this music, as well.Much of your opinion of The National could hinge on how you feel about lead singer/lyricist Matt Berninger and his classic baritone voice. There’s not a ton of vocal modulation on these tracks! That, of course, makes for a distinctive sound and separates the band from many of its peers.The band’s self-titled debut is a bit of an outlier – there are sounds there they never quite would return t0 – but after that, a fantastic string of albums begins with Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, one Scot argues actually is among their best. Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet make the case for The National becoming one of the most consistent acts of the decade while continuing to tweak their songwriting and performance at each stage. 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me ends up as a top choice of all three of your hosts.Maybe you’re new to the band, too! Don’t worry. Jump in and experience The National through the eyes of a superfan and two other hosts who were in the same position you’re in. And if you already love The National, well, there’s a decent chance our takes will somehow manage to irk each and every one of you in some way. We can’t all be “Mr. November,” after all.
Episode 117: Andrew Fink / Otis Redding
3:10:19Introducing the Band:Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) are joined by guest Andrew Fink. Andrew is a member of the Michigan House of Representative (District 35 -- Branch & Hillsdale Counties). Prior to that, he was the district director for Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewFinkMI.Andrew’s Music Pick: Otis ReddingLadies and gentlemens, we are so happy to be here with the Love Crowd tonight because we gotta gotta gotta gotta turn it loose about soul giant Otis Redding, a man whose recorded legacy looms large not just in the history of soul and R&B but in modern popular music as a whole. Redding is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest R&B vocalists of all time, and as a "soul giant," but what is far too less appreciated about him is that he was the first truly modern African-American popular musician, a man self-consciously carving out a sound, pushing sonic boundaries and the traditions of his genre, and working self-consciously to craft albums as complete statements at a time when absolutely no other black artist in the country outside of jazz was thinking along those lines.Redding's early singles established him, simply on their own terms, as an early Sixties soul great. ("Pain In My Heart," "Mr. Pitiful," "That's How Strong My Love Is," "I've Been Loving You Long," and "Security" are the sorts of timeless Redding soul belters that went immediately into the working books of countless English R&B bands, notably including The Rolling Stones.) His mid-Sixties albums demonstrated that he, alone among all major soul/R&B artists of his era -- long before Stevie or Marvin moved for their artistic freedom -- had a sound and vision that belonged to something more than a series of singles. And the music he was making before he suddenly died (in a December 1967 plane crash while flying between shows) was mutating both into chart-topping contemplative folk-pop ("(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay," his only #1 single) and forward-looking hard funk ("Hard To Handle"). Four albums of posthumous Redding material were released between 1968 and 1970. Much of it is great work. But one can only imagine where Otis would actually have been by 1970. He was growing so quickly as an artist.Join us this week, as we open with a long discussion of Stax/Volt and the nature of its "sound," and then engage in a celebration of one of the greatest popular musical artists of the Sixties -- and perhaps the most heartbreaking loss of modern musical history, in terms of what we likely missed when that plane went down on a cold winter's day in December 1967. Hail to The King of Soul.