It’ll Never Fly, Orville
Records That Shouldn't Work, But Do

I’m a journalist in my regular life, so I’m used to being hated. But I’m not used to being the most hated guy in a room full of people, and that’s what happened to me this Friday at Andrea Gibson’s show in Chicago.

Let me start by saying I’ve known Andrea Gibson since 1995, when we met as students at St. Joseph’s College in Maine. Andrea’s from Calais, Maine, which is pretty much the northernmost point of the 48 contiguous United States. We met in Dr. Edward Reilly’s creative writing class, where she took her first tentative steps into poetry.

Me, I wrote a novella called God’s Not Dead, He’s In Bermuda, which I thought was all profound and stuff. And I also criticized everyone else’s work, to the degree that I hoped they would criticize mine. So when Andrea, who I later learned suffered from intense stage fright at the time, brought her poems into class, I would be the one to say, “I don’t think that works.” Only not as nicely.

Yeah, I was a jerk. But Andrea and I got along well, and struck up a fast friendship. She got me into Ani Difranco, and regaled me with tales of her backwoods upbringing in the wilds of the north. She was one of the most freeing people I’d ever been around – on our first “date,” which she arranged, she told me pretty early on that she had been wearing the same clothes for three days, and demanded that I tell her if, at any point during the evening, she had food stuck in her teeth. She just puts people at ease.

We lost touch a bit during the past eight years, but we’ve emailed and called and stayed abreast of each other’s careers. And what a career Andrea’s gone on to have. She’s a professional poet and activist now, performing throughout the country, and she’s written three books and recorded three CDs of her work. It’s awesome stuff, powerful and political and painful at times, and you really have to see her perform it to get the full effect.

Andrea emailed me about two months ago to let me know she’d be in Chicago in November, and asked if we could get together while she was there. I said sure, but then never heard from her, so I decided to crash her show at The Center on Halstead Friday night. I was an hour late, thanks to ridiculous traffic, but by sheer luck, I walked in about five minutes before Andrea took the stage. She was part of a team of poets promoting a new anthology called Word Warriors, compiled by acclaimed poet Alix Olson (who is goddamn brilliant, by the way), and I’d missed the first two performances, sadly.

I caught Andrea’s eye as she waited for her introduction, and she recognized me right off. So what did she do when she strolled to the mike? She opened with a story about that creative writing class in college, and about meeting me:

“There was this one annoying fucker,” she said. “Whenever I’d read a poem that I thought was pretty good, he’d raise his hand and go, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what that means.’ And I would think, you fucker!”

The audience was laughing pretty heartily at this point, but I knew what was coming. She pointed at me and said:

“I haven’t seen him in eight fucking years, but he just walked in. Andre Salles, the fucker from creative writing class!”

Everyone turned, everyone saw it was me. I laughed, and so did everyone else, but beneath the laughter, I could feel the audience saying to me, “How could you? You bastard! We all hate you!” That feeling was confirmed afterwards by a series of not-very-successful conversations with people, their eyes burning into my skull. A couple of them were cool about it, but some, you could tell, just wanted to hit me in the face. One woman even asked me why I showed up at all. It was just no good defending myself. I was the fucker from creative writing class.

Ah well. I did get to hang out with Andrea for a bit afterwards. I have to say this, too – she was always a terrific person, but she’s really become amazing. I feel honored to know her. And her performance was riveting. She did “Blue Blanket,” a harrowing statement about rape and its effects, and then she did “For Eli,” a scathing political powerhouse about the collateral damage of war.

Both poems are available to read and listen to at her site. A word of warning – her stuff is not safe for work, or for homophobes, or for Republicans, or for those who think America’s doing just fine. It is, however, compelling and powerful and true to herself. In short, she’s gotten a lot better since that creative writing class. I’m proud to call her my friend.

* * * * *

I love ideas that shouldn’t work.

Here’s a good one – take a harpist with the voice of a drunken six-year-old, let her write 10-minute songs about monkeys and bears, toss in the incongruous production styles of both Steve Albini and Van Dyke Parks, and name the whole shebang after a mythical city in France. That shouldn’t have worked, but the result was Joanna Newsom’s incredible second album, Ys – my favorite record of 2006.

It’s something of a maxim that most great ideas sound pretty daft at first. You don’t get anywhere interesting without taking a few risks, though, and that’s what I have on tap this week – three interesting records that sound, on first blush, like they’d be terrible. It helps that two of them are particular guilty pleasures of mine anyway, dating back to my misspent youth.

The first of those is Red Carpet Massacre, the new album from Duran Duran. The Durans are constant targets, due to their ridiculous image and their history as one of the most successful and most reviled bands of the 1980s. But people seem to forget that these guys are genuinely good musicians, and they’ve proven to have significant staying power, despite their trashy obsessions – Red Carpet Massacre is their 12th full-lengther since 1981, and it features most of their original lineup.

But that lineup is made up of middle-aged British men, and the charts now are populated by teenage sex queens and young American thugs. The Durans have been charmingly out of step with radio-ready pop for some time now, despite the occasional fluke hit like “Ordinary World,” and if they wanted to climb back to the top of that heap – a specious ambition at best – they had to change the molecular makeup of their music.

So they did. Red Carpet Massacre is a Duran Duran album unlike any other. It’s produced by Timbaland and Nate “Danja” Hills, it features rap cameos by Timbaland, and includes a collaboration with Justin Timberlake. Word is they wanted Britney Spears for the record, too, but she was unavailable. This sounds like a desperate attempt by an over-the-hill band to reclaim some of their faded glory, and early bets were that it would be godawful.

But it works. This is a beat-heavy record, to be sure, but it retains that Duran Duran sound, incorporating it into this new style. Opener “The Valley” starts with the thudding of drums, but it has a spectacularly Duran Duran chorus, and the title track is almost club-punk, Simon Le Bon spitting out the chorus at a breakneck speed. The Timbaland-produced “Nite-Runner” is absolutely ridiculous, but tons of fun, and Justin Timberlake actually adds the album’s soul with “Falling Down.” That tune is the latest in a series of epic ballads from the Durans, but this one has a trippy beat that works very well.

The quality remains high all the way through. Timbaland is all over “Skin Divers,” the clubbiest track here, and that’s the only one that sounds like the pendulum swung too far in one direction. Elsewhere, the Durans deliver their first instrumental track in ages, “Tricked Out,” and follow it up with one of the finest songs here, “Zoom In.” And the final trilogy finds Le Bon and his boys melding their style with Hills’ beats beautifully.

Red Carpet Massacre is a disposable hunk of pop trash, to be sure, but it’s an experiment that could have fallen flat, and it turned out to be enjoyable and fun. Duran Duran will never be accused of great artistry, but over the years, they’ve written something of a master class on how to become a long-running, well-respected pop band.

Also showing surprising longevity is Queensryche, another of my ‘80s obsessions. Last year, they released the sequel to their 1988 high water mark, Operation: Mindcrime, and it wasn’t half bad – which is good, since I was expecting it to be all bad. But since Tribe in 2003, they’ve been on a serious roll, returning to their roots as an operatic metal band with a brain.

But now here they are with the strangest idea they’ve ever had – a covers album, called Take Cover, featuring songs from some unexpected sources. Black Sabbath’s “Neon Knights” is the closest they come to a typical choice for a metal band covers record. The others are… well, here are a few of them: “For What It’s Worth,” by Buffalo Springfield. “Innuendo,” by Queen. “Synchronicity II,” by the Police. “Red Rain,” by Peter Gabriel. “Heaven on Their Minds,” from Jesus Christ Superstar. (Really.)

Intrigued yet? This sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Surprise, it’s pretty much awesome.

The album opens with Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine,” which suits Geoff Tate’s still-powerful voice very well. The version here is almost a tribute to Floyd’s original, with ambient keyboards and saxophones, and at this point, you may be worried that the ‘Ryche is going to deliver note-for-note covers. Not a chance. “Heaven on Their Minds” is next, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber tune is almost unrecognizable, drowned in blistering guitars. Tate is typically terrific on this more theatrical material, and this is one of the coolest covers here.

It’s got a lot of competition, though. The band slams through the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” centering it on THAT bass riff, and then they turn out a superb version of Queen’s “Innuendo.” It’s the title track from the last album Freddie Mercury made with the group, and is an overlooked dramatic masterpiece, especially that middle section. “Synchronicity II” sounds fantastic all rocked up, and “Red Rain” substitutes thick guitars for the pianos on Peter Gabriel’s 1986 original, to great effect.

The oddest of oddballs here is “Odiessa,” a segment of an opera by Carlo Marrale and Cheope, sung entirely in Italian. Tate is, of course, excellent, even though the music behind him is a bit cheeseball. But that’s the only low note. The disc ends with a breathtaking 10-minute live cover of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky,” with extemporaneous political commentary by Tate, and it’s a tour de force. If Mindcrime II was a mild disappointment, it was only because Queensryche, an atypically smart and adventurous band, didn’t push themselves enough. Take Cover rectifies that, and is a swell little disc to boot.

Here’s another idea that should be awful: a 45-minute song commissioned by Nike to accompany jogging workouts. That’s just gotta be crap, right? But luckily, some genius at Nike’s marketing department tapped James Murphy, better known as LCD Soundsystem, to whip this thing together. And while he could have half-assed it, he didn’t – the resulting track, “45:33,” is excellent, and it’s out now on an album of the same name.

Oddly, “45:33” is actually 46:05, although I understand it was named after the RPM speeds of records, or something like that. The song itself, broken up into six sections on the CD, is an enveloping techno affair that starts out slow, picks up speed, and ends up with a cool-down section, just like a good jog would. But as a piece of music, it goes some fascinating places, especially in its fourth section, colored effectively by live trumpets and trombones.

Murphy has made his name by bringing in bizarre, seemingly jarring influences to his four-on-the-floor dance music, including poetic lyrics and punky guitars and live string sections. His second LCD Soundsystem album, Sound of Silver, is very good, and deserves a review in this space at some point – one of its tracks, “Someone Great,” is taken from a section of “45:33.”

What’s amazing here is his ability to compose a 46-minute song with minimal vocals and make the whole thing enveloping and interesting, especially considering the commercial origins of this piece. It’s another idea that shouldn’t work, but does. The album also comes with three bonus tracks that exemplify Murphy’s style, particularly the horn-inflected “Freak Out/Starry Eyes.” If you’re into imaginative electronic music, Murphy’s a guy to watch. And if you’re into unlikely successes, try either of the other two records from this week.

Okay, I’m petering out now, so I think I’ll save my take on Pyramids of Mars for next week. We’re at the end of the year now, and there are precious few new records coming out – we have Nine Inch Nails’ remix album, Rufus Wainwright’s Judy Garland tribute, and… um… yeah. Nothing else until January. Next week I’ll talk about Sigur Ros (been saving that for a rainy day) and an early look at the top 10 list. Take care of yourselves until we talk again.

See you in line Tuesday morning.