How Low Can You Go?

Last fall, we started asking musicians, music critics and other folks in the biz about their favorite guilty pleasures, and this is the third article (and last for a while) in that series.

Well, what have we learned? Guilty pleasures are in the eye of the beholder. For a country music label honcho like Brad Turcotte, the Killers qualify, while a straight-up rock bassist like Rozz Zamorano cites other hip bands like the Cure and Blondie. All three of those groups would be proudly claimed by many a so-called hipster. We also learned that Neil Diamond -- who should just add "Frickin'" as his legal middle name -- is the king of guilty pleasures and that Hall & Oates and ABBA aren't far behind.

But without further ado, here's the last installment for a while, this time coming from a few Texas music critics.

Ellis, Greg (Press contributor and director of marketing for local folk/Americana label Blue Corn Music). Ellis, who is well known for his (to put it charitably) "extremely wide-ranging" taste, would like to preface his selections: "These are all genuine guilty pleasures. I listen to them all frequently in the privacy of my own home," he says.

REO Speedwagon tops his list. "Between Kevin Cronin's mannered vocals and Gary Richrath's morbidly obese guitar tone, REO set the bar for Midwestern melodic rock in the late '70s. Far better than the Journeys and Foreigners that followed in their wake." As do so many others in the guilty-pleasures project, Ellis digs Neil Diamond: "Very appropriate that Neil's first feature film should be The Jazz Singer, since his vocal style is best described as Jolson-esque. He was sort of the Brill Building version of John Fogerty. Plus, you gotta love a Jewish guy who has two Christmas albums!" Ellis is flummoxed by Diamond's run of hits in the '60s and '70s, which he calls "an amazing bullet-train journey from bubblegum to pretension. How the hell do you get from 'Cherry Cherry' to 'I Am…I Said' in just five years?"

Barry Manilow also gets some love: "Barry's mantra was three simple words: Modulation. Modulation. Modulation. I love all the hits, and it further shames me to say that I can also report that he is a dynamic live performer." As was another fave, Black Oak Arkansas: "The best live act of the early '70s. David Lee Roth stole Jim Dandy's act lock, stock and barrel. Keep the Faith is their masterpiece, from Dandy sittin' around the campfire tellin' the boys about a 'White Headed Woman' with 'long white hair hangin' down past her nip-piles' to the has-to-be-heard-to-be-believed 'Fever in My Mind.' Keep the Faith is the Abbey Road of Southern rock. Plus, their manager was the biggest financial backer of Bill Clinton's first campaign."

Gray, Christopher (music columnist, Austin Chronicle). Gray admits that even "the hipsters at Pitchfork and Austin's Club deVille fess up" to liking Avril Lavigne's "Complic8ed" these days, but he thinks her more recent hit "My Happy Ending" is even better. "It's all there," he says. "The wince-worthy lyric about 'your dumb friends,' the way she pronounces every last syllable of 'ev-er-y-thing,' the melody that sticks in your head like a popcorn kernel in your teeth. Ev-er-y-thing I want in a pop song, for sure." Like Ellis, Gray has a thing for REO Speedwagon, specifically "Take It On The Run." "The rumor mill as Sophoclean tragedy… Kevin Cronin sings 'Heard it from a friend who…heard it from a friend who' like he's still in denial, and the all-consuming AOR wash of guitars and keys the rest of the way still isn't enough to dull his pain."

Gray also manages to find a highlight in the mercifully dead nü-metal movement, and that was Disturbed's "Down with the Sickness." "Nü-metal's finest hour. Best moment is a tie between the simian scream that kicks it off and singer David Draiman's 'Mommy, don't hit me!' rant at the end. In between is enough rubber-band bass and furrowed-brow shredding to render the entire catalogs of Korn and Limp Bizkit obsolete. Wack-ack-ack-ack!" In further defense of the indefensible, Gray cottons to digging both Faith Hill's "Cry" ("Pass the Kleenex") and even Toby Keith's "The Angry American (Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue)." Insists Gray: "Putting a boot in the evildoers' collective ass is the American way, dadgummit!"

Lomax, John Nova (music editor, Houston Press). Back in 1994 my wife and I were doing the backpacker thing overseas. We spent six months doing odd jobs in Israel, and "What's Up?" by 4 Non Blondes was the anthem of the volunteers on Kibbutz Kfar Blum. At the end of each long week's work peeling potatoes for about 25 cents an hour, we'd all pile in a bus and hit some podunk club in the Galilee and get extremely shitfaced on paint-thinner-like vodka. Among us were Scandinavians, Brits, Israelis, Aussies, New Zealanders, Germans, Irish, Americans and South Africans. When the DJ would spin this masterpiece, we would hit the dance floor and throw our arms around one other and bellow Linda Perry's staccato words in vodka-sodden, cosmopolitan "harmony." It was stuff like "I take a deep breath and I get real high!" and "I say hey! What's going on?" Screw those smirking turds who ridicule this song on VH1's I Love the '90s specials. I say the world would be a better place if they all got drunk and stoned at the UN and bawled this tune together every Friday afternoon. Make the Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis in Iraq sing it together, the Crips and the Bloods, the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Israelis and Palestinians, the Tutsis and the Hutus…"What's Up?" is the key to world peace!

Morthland, John (author and current music critic/writer at large for Texas Monthly, formerly for Rolling Stone and Creem). Morthland shares Ellis's devotion to Black Oak Arkansas. "Before their mid-'70s peak, which ruined everything, Black Oak was the ultimate example of how a band could be pretentious and unpretentious, self-conscious and unself-conscious, at the same time," he says. "Maybe also Southern and un-Southern. Their debut album, produced by not one but two former Iron Butterfly members, yielded crunch by the bunch, climaxing with the final one-two punch of 'Lord Have Mercy on My Soul' and 'When Electricity Came to Arkansas.' "

Morthland says Black Oak is "in a class by itself" as a guilty pleasure; but on his second tier are ABBA ("I deeply regret that I never did get to see Mamma Mia!"), Hot Chocolate ("Heaven Is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac" says it all, though "You Sexy Thing" isn't far behind), Cat Stevens ("Tea for the Tillerman has great songwriting and idiosyncratic style. The early Stevens personified the idealism of that time without being overly precious, sentimental or any other form of drippy"), and Barry White. "He was so popular at the time that it's hard to see how something so mainstream can also be a guilty pleasure. But Barry was the exception to a lot of rules, so I'm gonna include him anyhow." Morthland also says Motörhead would make his list if they weren't so hip with today's younger set. "A decade after Lemmy dies -- if Lemmy ever dies -- when all his fans are grown up and kinda embarrassed that they ever liked him in the first place, he will qualify overwhelmingly as a guilty pleasure."

Ruggiero, Bob (frequent Press contributor). Despite his dislike of rap, Ruggiero has amore for his paesanos the Lordz of Brooklyn. The Italo-American rap crew's album All in the Family is, in Ruggiero's view, a "Goodfellas meets Saturday Night Fever" representation of "goombah pride," complete with "alternately cartoonish and dramatic soliloquies" that walk the line between the sacred ("love of family, honor") and the profane ("beating up people, crime, more beating up people"). "They do for Italians what House of Pain did for the Irish," Ruggiero says in sum.

Ruggiero also has a sensitive, lover-man side, as shown by his appreciation for what he calls "mellow gold '70s fuck songs," such as "Afternoon Delight," "Undercover Angel," "Do You Wanna Make Love?" "Imaginary Lover," "Angel in Your Arms" and "Tonight's the Night." "They are the sweetest songs about the most sensuous act," he adds, in full-blown Fabio mode. "As a preteen gassing up on hormones, when these tunes came on the radio, you just knew they were kind of dirty, and they made sex sound like the best thing you could ever do…which, I guess, turned out to be absolutely correct!"

Ruggiero also digs the "earnest melodrama" of Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and perennial guilty pleasure fave Neil Diamond and admits to having worn out the grooves on his LPs of both the Grease and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtracks, but it's when the name Billy Joel comes up that Ruggiero morphs from Fabio into Paulie Walnuts. "You think Billy Joel is a pussy?" he snarls. "You think 'Just the Way You Are' is the height of sappiness? Fuck you, hipsters!" Ruggiero allows that the "song about the Russian clown who made his daughter laugh" may not be up to par, he believes that Joel's legions of fans should ignore the critics and stay strong. "Though he hasn't released a rock record in over a decade and is known more recently for dabbling in classical music, alcoholism ('A bottle of red,' another bottle of red) and marrying a woman less than half his age, fans of the man who always told his audience 'Don't take any shit from anybody!' must come together! In fact, Billy Joel is actually not a guilty pleasure I hide in secret -- I'm fully out of the closet!"

Okay then…


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