There are strings on the first music to be heard from Tucker since Sleater-Kinney left itself behind in 2006; on “Riley,” which seems to dig down farther with every deep, slowly exhaling breath, all the strings do is emphasize. In moments you might hear Christine McVie in Fleetwood Mac—the clear voice of “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” and “Over My Head”—but the toughness you could miss with McVie remains the motor of Tucker’s music. The trouble can come at any time, and it does, over and over.
2. Elizabeth Cook, Welder (31 Tiger)
Country is not supposed to be this frankly salacious, whether about quaaludes or sex, or the difficulty of telling one from the other—but Cook was probably not raised to become the woman she is, writing and singing about “making love in the disco era,” which somehow summons up the specter of a single act of intercourse lasting at least five years and a joke the singer will be telling for the rest of her life. “My hands were in his mullet,” she laughs, at the time, the guy, and herself, but why not? She bends around the corners of her stories until her voice cracks, and her nostalgia is inseparable from her pride. That’s what anyone might most carry away from this record: you couldn’t find regret with a Geiger counter.
3. Carlene Carter, “Me and the Wildwood Rose”
Her grandmother Maybelle sang it with the Carter Family; her mother, June Carter, sang it. After wonderful records long in the past, a lost career, arrests for heroin, a marriage to Nick Lowe that must seem like someone else’s Hollywood movie, the death of her mother and her stepfather, Johnny Cash, Carlene Carter plays the song as if it’s the home where when you come back knocking it has to let you in.
4. John Mellencamp, No Better Than This (Rounder)
Mellencamp had a ridiculously precious idea: record a set of new songs in the Sun studio in Memphis, where Howlin’ Wolf and Elvis once walked the few square feet as if it were the earth; in the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, a stop on the Underground Railroad; and in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where in 1936 Robert Johnson faced a wall and sang “Cross Road Blues”—and not just put the thing out on CD and vinyl, but do it all in mono.
Slowly, tune by tune, and so imperceptibly that each time you play the album it might seem to shift at a different time, the muffled sound of the music begins to work on the ear as something not old, but looking back at the singer from a future he may not reach. Nothing is rushed; in “Save Some Time to Dream” (Memphis), “Thinking About You” (Savannah), and “The West End” (Memphis), Mellencamp’s voice sounds like something he had to scrape off the back of his throat. And then comes “Love at First Sight” (Savannah). The singer passes someone on the street, and glimpses their whole life together. It takes him four and a half minutes to tell you everything that happened, the music bouncing lightly up and down, back and forth, like hopscotch, but with every detail—a smile, a kiss, her getting pregnant, them getting married, her leaving him for another man—you never don’t know that the singer saw it all in an instant, and you know that on any given day, you could, too.
5. 15-60-75, a.k.a. the Numbers, “Matchbox Defined,” from The Inward City (Hearthan)
Formed as a blues band in Kent, Ohio, at the end of the ’60s, the Numbers have ground on ever since, as if searching for the end of time, or a solution to the mysteries of the songs they still can’t get out of their heads. Here the guitarist, Robert Kidney, who now uses a cane, takes up a song that made its way from Blind Lemon Jefferson in the ’20s to Carl Perkins in the ’50s to the Beatles in Hamburg in the early ’60s to, you can be certain, the Numbers not long after, and which, regardless of how many times Kidney has sung it, still makes no sense. So with a harmonica solo that could have come off of the first Cream album and a train-whistle guitar solo that summons up the Yardbirds at the Fillmore in 1968, Kidney takes up the tune as a philosophical investigation. It was a lifetime ago, he says, when an old blind man asked him if a matchbox could hold his clothes—“And I shook my fist and I said, old man, how could a matchbox hold my clothes?” But almost every word is its own line as Kidney relates the tale, Jefferson stepping out of the grave to taunt him—“The old/blind/man/asked me”—and the almost violent hesitations churn up drama. “And I/thought/about it/for/ten years”—you know he’s never going to get out of this. But then comes a hangover, when everything is slowed down, every thought the lifting of a house, and everything is clear. The singer sees his wife watching TV; he could walk out the door right now, “with nothing”—the nothing of her not even noticing he’s gone. Kidney tells the story as if he’s opened that door a thousand times and closed it and walked back into the kitchen for another beer just as many. But it doesn’t matter; he’s seen through his life, and now he can sing the song as if he owns it, instead of the other way around. If he ever could close that door behind himself, “And where you’re going nobody knows/Then a matchbox will hold your clothes.”
6. Eminem, Recovery (Aftermath)
What makes Eminem different is a sense of jeopardy: a bedrock conviction that whatever there is in life worth having, and whatever of that you might have, you don’t deserve it. Maybe in anyone else’s hands that would translate into self-pity, fake panic, hair-pulling desperation—but not here. In these songs, it translates into a kind of ethics, where the person speaking tries more than anything to see every possible point of view, every conceivable response, every missed chance, all at once.
7. Leah Garchik, the San Francisco Chronicle (June 29)
Dep’t. of Lest We Forget: “I got my hands on that issue of Rolling Stone with the interview that caused the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the cover of which was particularly interesting because its main focus was on Lady Gaga with a pair of guns (borrowed, I assume) and a pair of buttocks (her own, but probably airbrushed). The story about ‘Obama’s General’ was mentioned in the smallest cover line of anything else, indicating the editors didn’t think it would cause much fuss.
“Surely all the trouble it did cause must have been the result of a simple mistake: an editing mix-up in interviews. Obviously, someone mistakenly put McChrystal’s lines in Lady Gaga’s mouth and vice versa.
“What McChrystal really said about the commander-in-chief: ‘I’ve really never loved anyone like I loved him. Or like I love him. That relationship really shaped me. It made me into a fighter.’ About his relationship to the soldiers: ‘I’m really good to the people around me… I’m not a diva, in any sense of the word.’ About the war in Afghanistan: ‘I committed myself to my heartbreak wholeheartedly. It’s something that I will never let go… As artists, we are eternally heartbroken.’
“What Lady Gaga really said about the obligations of being a star: ‘How’d I get screwed into going to this dinner?… I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner.’ About her social life: ‘All these men, I’d die for them. And they’d die for me.’ On dressing for the stage: ‘It’s shirts and skins, and we’ll kill all the shirts.’ And on current events: ‘Even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan.’”
8. Philip Kerr, If the Dead Rise Not (Putnam)
In Kerr’s now six-book Bernie Gunther series—following the onetime Berlin cop and private detective through the Nazi era, to postwar Vienna and Perónist Argentina, now bookending Berlin in 1934 and Havana twenty years later—the whodunit, or even the why-dunnit, has never been the point. The battle Gunther fights is against his own sense of oppression, miasma, nihilism. Here Kerr has his hard-boiled wisecrack machine revved up to high—“Don’t get me wrong,” Gunther says, in lines that bounce off the screaming faces at Tea Party rallies, “I just love Nazis. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that ninety-nine point nine percent of Nazis are giving the other point one percent an undeservedly bad reputation”—but as 1934 fades out in a horror of murder and blackmail, and 1954 takes shape as a game of love and blackmail Gunther can’t win, the wisecracks dry up. You want Gunther to end up with the woman he’s been in love with for twenty years as much as he does, but you don’t have to pay the price—until the last pages, which make the most depressing ending to any novel I’ve read in years.
9. Cabaret—The Adult Entertainment Magazine (August 1956)
A friend passed on this nightclub trade publication, devoted mainly to strippers; the headlines were, with unbelievably garish cover photo, “I TAUGHT JAYNE MANSFIELD ABOUT SEX” (inside comedown: “I taught her about sex as it is manufactured in Hollywood”) and “WHO THE HELL IS ELVIS PRESLEY?” (inside surprise: aside from a few obviously made-up quotes—“I’d like to study dramatical acting. I don’t care nothing whatsoever about singing in no movie”—a smart and accurate profile). But the most displacing tidbit came on the last page, in the “Backstage” column by one Arch Ayers, where you could find the real Jayne Mansfield: “PUBLICITY MAD” Jayne Mansfield will do anything to make the papers. Shortly after telling Winchell and three other columnists that she had broken off with her current flame, Robbie Robertson, she was heard on the phone telling her boyfriend: ‘But Robbie, you don’t believe all that stuff you read in the columns.’” Reached in New York, Robertson had this to say: “Don’t you just hate it when one of those bombshell chicks blows your cover. I was only twelve at the time, but I knew how to make a woman feel special.”
10. Elvis Presley, “Stranger in My Own Home Town”
In truth, “Who the hell is Elvis Presley?” is a question that has never been answered—or, as Nick Tosches once put it, “Elvis Presley will never be solved.” Here he is in 1970, spinning out songs in the studio, grabbing on to an old Percy Mayfield number, taking it slowly, languidly, until the pressure just barely increases, and suddenly you know you’re hearing the sort of plain truth Elvis almost never permitted himself: he knows the envy, the resentment, the hate behind every smiling face. The performance appeared only in 1995, on Walk a Mile in My Shoes: The Essential 70’s Masters, but with lines missing that you can now hear.
“I’m going back down to Memphis,” Elvis sings, though plainly that’s exactly where he already is. “I’m going to start driving that motherfucking truck again.” You hear a defiance inseparable from self-loathing: “All those cocksuckers stopped being friendly/But you can’t keep a hard prick down.” There’s no sense of obscenity or provocation as he sings. It’s plain speech, but with that last line he’s gone, off into a country only he can enter, into the utopia of his own gifts, where not even a song as good as this one can tell a fraction of what he knows. As he turns his back and walks away, he’s “just standin’ here wonderin,’” as he himself had to have sung out loud more than once, “if a matchbox would hold my clothes.”
Thanks to Doug Kroll, Nick Tosches, Jim Marshall
The Believer, October 2010