Shut Up, Put Down the Mic, and Play
I’m not always good at music without vocals. I don’t mean I don’t appreciate instrumentals — I do, really. I have a respectable jazz collection (as the lovely Boo can attest to, based on our conversations), though I’ve never really delved into classical music. But instrumental music is harder to get into, probably because I grew up in a singing family. Sure, my dad introduced me to Quincy Jones, to Miles, Mingus, Hawkins and Coltrane, but I was raised on Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Al Green and Stevie Wonder.
So really appreciating instrumental music came to me later on, and I didn’t develop a full-on understanding for it until I really started to learn about music. But one of my favorite things is when a band, a band usually known for having vocals, takes a chance on an instrumental piece. I’m not talking about 15 minute-long concert jams, though those have their time and place. I’m talking about a band that just decides that now is the time to put down the microphone, to see if they can connect with their listener without singing or rapping or screaming or whatever. Oh, and before people start to bitch, I’m deliberately avoiding the likes of The Allman Brothers (though Jessica is an all-time great), Jimi Hendrix, etc., mainly because they’re already quite well known.
So here we go, my favorite instrumental tracks by bands that usually sing.
“Cecilia Ann,” The Pixies: Let’s get the cover out of the way first. The Pixies, instead of creating a Metallica-like dirge or a soft little ditty, instead borrowed a surf-rock punk piece of ass kickery originally performed by The Surftones. Cecilia Ann has it all — crashing cymbals, guitars that feel like they’re flying around the room, and a really bitchin’ crescendo. Two minutes and five seconds of bliss.
“Sandusky,” Uncle Tupelo: Here’s where Uncle Tupelo found a way to break my heart all over again, without uttering a word. It’s a poignant little soul-scratcher of a ditty, with just enough high notes to convey a sense of wistfulness that, if you’ve ever actually been to Sandusky, Ohio, is the perfect compliment to driving through there on a day when the sun is shining and a cool breeze is blowing. It’s a simple little song that I have, on occasion, found myself listening to on repeat, again and again, until I start to tremble a little.
I don’t know shit about this video — who cares. Just listen.
“(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”, Metallica: The classic bit of Cliff Burton mastery, a four plus minute bass solo by the greatest metal bassist of all time. The title is perfect, because that’s what it is — the sound he generates, you can feel it rattle your fillings, feel it in the back of your throat. Using a pick and a bass, Burton was able to do amazing things with an electric bass guitar — you’re not likely to hear anything like this ever again. The version he plays in their live video Cliff ‘Em All, the tribute to the now-deceased bassist, is incredible — it’s crappy footage shot at The Stone in San Francisco, but the sound is phenomenal. My favorite part is shortly after it picks up speed, after the drums kick in, and it just explodes into the next track on the album, “Whiplash.” It’s a moment of metal nirvana. And here it is, for your pleasure.
“You’ll Find A Way,” Dead Prez: This song floored me the first time I heard it. Absolutely floored me. Buried in the middle of Let’s Get Free, their gripping, seething him hop album full of riot, rebellion, race and radicalism, is this little gem. A simple drum beat, a swooping, grooving bassline, and an absolutely fucking spectacular bit of trumpetry. The horn winds and meanders it’s way around a soft, mesmerizing piano melody. I don’t know where the inspiration came from, how it found it’s way into their minds and onto the album — the musicians are mostly no-names, but it feels like an a moment of peace in the midst of a revolution.
“Skull Game Number 3, Take 3,” Big Chief: One of the most underrated, unknown bands out there, Detroit’s Big Chief was a typical victim of the industry. Their power-funk sound should have been immensely popular, but they just never found the outlet for it. A dirty funk/rock band with a love of blaxsploitation flicks and wah-wah pedals, their pièce de résistance was 1993’s Mack Avenue Skull Game, a fictional soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist. In reality, it’s basically an homage to blaxsploitation, telling through music of the trials and tribulations of a pimp named Mack. “Skull Game Number 3, Take 3” is his intro, and you will shake your ass while listening to it.
“Meeting In The Aisle,” Radiohead: “Meeting In The Aisle” is, on the surface, a relatively unremarkable song. But, like many Radiohead songs, you just need to dig deeper. That’s Radiohead though — sometimes they just blow you away right off the bat, and sometimes you need to settle into your chair, put your book down, and concentrate. It’s a beautifully layered song, a combination of instruments and electronic production that’s almost meditative. Eyes shut in a darkened room, and you’ll go into a trance. And then you’ll find it, that thing that makes those arty, pretentious bastards such goddamn geniuses.
“Pretty Little Ditty,” Red Hot Chili Peppers: Aw, man. Remember the Chili Peppers before they became annoying and old and irrelevant? I admit, I near-despise the Chili Peppers now, possibly because I’m so far removed from who I was when I loved them. But in 1990-1993, they were my gods. I saw them in concert six times, including one monster of a concert in 1991 with them, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam at the Boston University hockey arena. And in the middle of their set, they killed the lights, waited until the crowd settled, and then Flea and Frusciante just eased into this sweet little song. It’s title describes it perfectly. Interesting fun fact — John Frusciante was hired after an audition jam session spontaneously produced this very song.
“Ricky’s Theme,” Beastie Boys: The Beastie Boys have a plethora of instrumentals to pick from — so many that they compiled them into a single album, The In Sound From The Way Out!. This one, off of 1994’s Ill Communication, is a smooth, jazzy little bit of lounge. It feels like it belongs in the bar scene in Out of Sight, full of hi-hat, subtle bass and guitar. It’s a song where you want to just pour yourself a cocktail, sit back and watch the room simmer. And it’s the perfect way to cap this little list.
Hope you’ve enjoyed. We’ll play sing-along another day, OK?
TK can often be found staggering around his back yard, wishing for a zombie attack and shouting at leaves. He studies the dark arts of cheeseburger-making and cultivating the Merciless Pepper of Quetzlzacatenango. He wastes valuable time at Uncooked Meat.