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Mainstream Rock: Eric Clapton, “Pretending” (1989)

Will: I’ve always felt like this song was the point where Clapton finally began to escape from the “we need a pop song as the first single” era and entered the “do whatever you want, you’re too old for MTV anyway” era. It’s much more like the classic Clapton sound of the ’70s, and I always enjoy hearing it.

Py Korry: Although I heard Clapton’s music on the radio when I was but a lad, I really didn’t start to actively listen to him until the mid-’80s, when I had some cash to buy albums. Unfortunately, I started with an album that wasn’t all that great Á¢€” Money and Cigarettes Á¢€” and wondered what all the hubbub was about.

Clapton’s output in the ’80s was, to me, really unremarkable. And I’m basing that on what was played on the radio and not some buried gem on this or that album. “Pretending” is a good example of Slowhand going through the motions, and if it wasn’t for the horn punches in the song it wouldn’t have had enough ear candy to be a single. But let me bracket all that for a moment and say this: I’d listen to “Pretending” over and over for days if it meant I would never have to listen to “Change the World” or “My Father’s Eyes” again.

Zack: Tell me truthfully: if you didn’t know this was Clapton, wouldn’t you associate the first 20 seconds of “Pretending” with the start of an “action sequence” in a late-night Cinemax movie? I’m probably much more inclined to gripe about Clapton’s popularity than some of the other folks here (I’ve had it in for him since I found out his version of “I Shot the Sheriff” stole the thunder from the Wailers’ original in the U.S.), but I don’t mind “Pretending” all that much. It seems like the sort of formulaic, overproduced, pseudo-blues song that was typical of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was a sort of forerunner of the genre.

Jason: This song makes me think of beer. There’s a reason for that, right? Is it because this song shares its production values with that “After Midnight” cover Clapton did for Michelob?

Dunphy: It wasn’t like Clapton was “gone,” per se, having done a song for the Color of Money soundtrack in ’86 and having released albums throughout the decade, but the Journeyman record did seem like a return of sorts. That said, “Pretending” really is one of the weaker tunes off the thing. I much prefer the guitar workout on “Bad Love” and the soul-blues of “Old Love.”

David: The “God is back” buzz was strong with Journeyman, but “Pretending” didn’t do it for me. Like Dr. Dunphy, however, after thinking for years that Clapton was the most overrated guitarist in music, his work on “Bad Love” changed my mind permanently.

Scott: This album came out right after Clapton’s career-defining/resurrecting box set, Crossroads. Suddenly, he was a guitar god again and not just some aging rocker (deservedly so). Journeyman is a decent album, living up to its name with a variety of styles. I think “Hound Dog” and “Before You Accuse Me” are better songs than “Pretending,” but I understand that this one was more radio friendly. Unfortunately, Journeyman also marked the beginning of Clapton’s slick, generic studio sound. In the studio Clapton may have been hot while moving his fingers across the frets, but on record everything sounded a little cold and mechanical. EC has always been a better live performer, which may be why the unplugged version of “Tears in Heaven” is a revelation compared to the studio cut.

Michael: This is dead right. I always referred to the period between the Michelob version of “After Midnight” and the Unplugged album as EC’s “Rack of Doom” phase. I remember one of the guitar mags did an interview with someone who had toured with Clapton as a second guitarist, and when they asked him the gear question, which is the lifeblood of all such magazines, he said he used two Fender amps and some old stomp boxes but Eric had two gigantic, refrigerator-sized racks of signal-processing gear. He then said he really didn’t think much of EC’s sound at the time and wished he would go back to plugging straight into the Marshall like he did on Wheels of Fire.

Digital stuff has come a long way, but back then it totally sterilized everything. That’s why all EC singles from that period make Jason want a smooth, refreshing Michelob.

Jeff: You know what? I’ve always liked “Pretending.” Matter of fact, I prefer it to “Old Love” or “Bad Love.” Then again, I grew up in the era of “Forever Man”/”It’s in the Way That You Use It” Clapton, so when “Pretending” hit the airwaves it was a marked improvement. I’ve always liked “No Alibis,” too.

Vrabel: Friends, I think I must admit to subscribing to the Clapton Law of Backdating Diminishing Returns, which states that the aggressive blowitude of confectioner’s sugar like “My Father’s Eyes” must make one revisit the whole of Clapton’s recent catalog, and as such, “Pretending” is pretty weak, although I’m with whoever said it makes them want to have a beer. Although most songs make me want to have a beer. In fact, the sunrise makes me want to have a beer. Don’t you people judge me.

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Modern Rock: Everlast, “What It’s Like” (1998)

Vrabel: Hey, watch what I’m gonna do here: bash Clapton and defend Everlast. Now, I came of CD age in the glory days of Kris Kross, Hammer pants, and House of Pain, so my history with Everlast goes back all the way to 1991, when, if I remember right, at least some of the members of this panel were fetuses. And yeah, he sings like he’s got a groundhog stuck in there, but I sort of respected Á¢€” nay, admired Á¢€” the way he went from “Shamrocks and Shenanigans (Boom Shalock Lock Boom)” to at least a respectable stab at something else. So huzzah, Everlast. Glad that heart attack didn’t fell you. (Incidentally, “Boom Shalock Lock Boom” f—ing ROCKS.)

One time I went with my dad to an Everlast concert. Long story. Actually, it’s a short story: I went with my dad to an Everlast concert. He was wearing an argyle sweater. My dad, that is, not Everlast. The security guards kept calling him “Argyle.” My dad, that is, not Everlast. They called him “Everlast.”

David: Which horse was this song, exactly? Was it Famine, Pestilence, Death, or the other one?

Jeff: Well, it sure wasn’t Famine. I’ll take Pestilence.

Will: Given how rarely I champion rap, hip-hop, or anything that falls into those genres, it may surprise the handful of people who’ve been paying attention that I actually have this CD Á¢€” and, perhaps more surprisingly, I actually enjoy it. The Neil Young of rap? It’s a comparison I read elsewhere rather than one I came up with myself, but I can buy into it pretty easily, especially after listening to “What It’s Like” again.

Jason: For about a year and a half it was impossible to walk into the acoustic guitar section of Guitar Center and not hear some douchebag attempting that opening riff. Oh, how I longed to hear “Stairway to Heaven.”

Py Korry: Honestly, I think this is the first time I’ve heard this song without all the little sound effects radio stations used to mask the naughty bits when it was a hit. It’s not a bad song, but I can totally see 13-year-old aspiring guitarists at Guitar Center grabbing the acoustic and thinking they’re the only ones who can manage a Dm-to-F chord change.

Dunphy: This is a weird song. Everlast’s delivery is kinda flat and the street-correspondent lyrics read badly off the page, but when it’s rolled together with the acoustic guitar and that hip-hop beat, the whole thing comes to life. I dare anyone to hear it and not have it in their head hours later.

Scott: “What It’s Like” was a nice diversion in ’98, when radio had essentially lost its way. I still can’t believe this is the same guy who kicked the shit out of “Jump Around.” That heart attack really mellowed Everlast. The rest of the album was good, too. Alas, this song was so overplayed that he fell into the category of one-hit wonder.

Zack: The Willie Nelson cameo is cool. Curiously, I like this song far more now than I did when it first hit the airwaves, mainly because I associated Everlast with House of Pain and I was sick of all the pimp posturing by the middle-class white kids in my suburban high school. Given that there are already bands/artists named after the brands Everlast and Everclear, I’m wondering what’s next. A trance-house DJ called Eveready? A Slipknot tribute band called Everquest?

Robert: I remember seeing Everlast for the first time in 1990, on the Jukebox Channel, singing a song called “I Got the Knack.” Then I saw him in House of Pain’s “Jump” video two years later, except I didn’t recognize him. Somebody had to point out to me that he was the “I Got the Knack” guy. Then when “What It’s Like” came out six years after that, I had to clean my glasses once again. I expect he’ll be doing a duets album with Alison Krauss soon.

Didn’t Everlast and Eminem have some beef back in 1999 or 2000? I remember footage of Eminem’s posse rushing the stage at an Everlast concert without warning; Everlast exited stage left, Snagglepuss style, as fast as he could. MTV asked him why he bolted Á¢€” his answer was something along the lines of “It was a security issue,” i.e. the security of everyone at the venue rather than the security of Everlast’s face. I would’ve bolted, too, but I’m glad I wasn’t the one caught on camera. And where was Eminem during that concert?

Vrabel: Check here. Aside from being mind-bogglingly, infuriatingly overrated, Eminem has this obsession with getting into beefs with irrelevant MCs like Everlast, Fred Durst, and ICP. As if he can be the only white arrested-development perpetual teenager with a mike.

Michael: Since no one else took the opportunity, and since it’s doubtful Everlast will ever resurface on Chartburn, let me say that “I’ll serve your ass like John McEnroe / If your girl steps up I’m smackin’ the ho” is my second-favorite ridiculous rap lyric of all time, trailing only “I float like gravity / Never had a cavity / Got more rhymes than the Winans got family,” from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Buggin’ Out.”

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AC: Engelbert Humperdinck, “This Moment in Time” (1979)

Zack: Must I? Oh, all right. Humperdinck undoubtedly could sell out a hall in Vegas every night for a year, crooning a few songs to aging mobile-home dwellers in 80-dollar seats. For the life of me, though, I can’t understand why someone would go crazy for this music. There’s nothing wrong with it except that when I hear it I feel like I should be telling Pat Sajak I’ll take the rest in a gift certificate.

Scott: Is this the original version of the song? Is that his original hair? I can’t believe this song was ever played on the radio.

Jeff: Not only was it played on the radio, it was the #1 adult contemporary song for all of 1979. And we think AC radio is bad now

Dunphy: The FDA allows a certain degree of rat hair, bug feces, and other nasties in the foods we buy and eat. It’s just a fact. Yeah, you bought that luscious five-pack of red velvet cupcakes, the ones with the butter creme frosting, oh yeah. Guess what? There may be some rodent dandruff floating around in that loveliness, to which the FDA says, “Oh, what the hell. It’s only a tiny bit.”

What does that have to do with “This Moment in Time”? Do I need to explain?

David: “Come and knock on our door, take a step that is new …” I’m sorry, what was the question?

Jason: That hair! Those sideburns! That mustache! Suck it, Tony Orlando. You smell what the Dinck is cookin’?

Jeff: Hahaha! The Dinck! Perfect! I just found out that his parents named him Arnold Dorsey, and he performed for years under the name Gerry Dorsey. He wasn’t selling records, so he changed his name to Engelbert Humperdinck, and it worked. Shit, maybe Carly Hennessy should’ve changed her name to Hector Berlioz.

Vrabel: I’m adopting the Engelbert Humperdinck name-changing policy. Effective immediately, I’d like you all to refer to me as Charlie Peligroso.

Py Korry: There’s no doubting the boy can sing, but I often wonder with acts like the Notorious D.I.N.C.K. if the smooth voice, the jazzy band, and the black-dress backup singers are there to fool us into thinking that we’re listening to good music. Looking at the video, it seems like the audience likes what it hears, but it could just be the booze and food making everyone feel good.

Will: C’mon, doesn’t everyone love an easy-listening pop song with a self-referencing spoken-word intro? I know I sure do, particularly one that cribs part of its melody from Bobby Sherman’s “Easy Come, Easy Go,” then features a finale that’d be perfect for a chorus of dancing girls to do a kicking routine alongside the Dinck. Last year I actually picked up his autobiography, What’s in a Name?, in a sale bin. It’s an enjoyable read, even if it didn’t make me want to run out and buy any of the man’s albums. Nope, not even a best-of.

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R&B/Hip-Hop: Aretha Franklin, “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” (1973)

David: So this is where Anita Baker stole the Rapture album from. Works for me.

Zack: I can’t say I’m all that inspired by this song, but I really can’t get over how Aretha Franklin makes singing brilliantly seem so effortless. Her vocal talents are on full display here, yet she barely seems to be breaking a sweat.

Py Korry: What I love about “Until You Come Back to Me” is Aretha’s delicate delivery, which, as you all know, she’s not known for. Lately it’s all bombast and vocal gymnastics from “the Queen of Soul,” but this song proves how refreshing it can be to hear a classic from one of the masters, who shows us why she’s a legend in popular music.

Dunphy: Say what you want about Aretha the celebrity, but Aretha the performer, from the late ’60s into the late ’70s, was unmatched. She sang this particular song beautifully, so much so that I tend to wince at a lot of her recent tunes and how she seems forced to “soul it up a little” to compete with the young, hysterical competition. Cryin’ out loud, Aretha Á¢€” you wrote the book. Why are you cribbing lines from your imitators?

Jeff: In my world Aretha can do no wrong. None. La Diva never happened. I’d still rather listen to “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” than nine-tenths of what leaks out of the record industry’s anus every week. Hail to the Queen.

Scott: I’m in agreement Á¢€” Aretha can do no wrong. And “Until You Come Back to Me” is from her peak. There were bad pop-soul songs in the ’70s and then there were songs that were of their time yet still timeless, like this one.

Damn, can that woman sing, or what?

Will: She’s the Queen of Soul, and even by ’73 she was still doing the kind of material that helped earn her the title. With all due respect, though Á¢€” and spoken as a man whose weight is also a bit higher than it ought to be Á¢€” she really needs to lose a few pounds, if only for her health. The last time I saw her she was downright gigantic, and that can’t be good for her heart.

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Hot 100: Gordon Lightfoot, “Sundown” (1974)

Michael: Love this song. The lyrics don’t make a lick of sense when taken as a whole, but they’re still somehow great lyrics. Neat trick.

Zack: Speaking of Engelbert Humperdinck, why didn’t Arnold George Dorsey change his name to Burt Sugarman? Did he not think he was swarthy enough? I really enjoy the harmonies in “Sundown.” It’s light and smooth. Even the guitar solo is simple and subdued.

Jeff: There’s an entire generation whose first exposure to this song happened courtesy of Elwood. I’m just saying.

Will: I’ve always liked this song, and on a related note, I’ve always felt like my CD collection was lacking without any Gordon Lightfoot. No, seriously. I mean, if Johnny Cash can take “If You Could Read My Mind” and bring a tear to my eye, there must be something to ol’ Gord’s work.

Py Korry: My mother loved loved loved Gordon Lightfoot’s music when I was growing up, so I’m pretty familiar with his work, but it’s tough for me to say anything bad about this song (or really any Gordon Lightfoot song) because I can’t risk pissing off my mom.

But how ’bout a story? My coworker was working for a radio station in Lake Tahoe back in 1977, and he was dating a woman who loved Gord’s Golden Tunes. She had some connections and was able to get a backstage pass to meet MC Lightfoot after a show at a casino. She thought he was going to be Sensitive, Caring Guy. He was anything but.

Apparently Gord likes to hit the sauce after a show, and when my coworker’s girlfriend met him he was loud, bawdy, and kind of dismissive. I just wish there was video, because I would love to see Lightfoot say to her something like “I got your Edmund Fitzgerald right here, lady” while killing the last of his Canadian Club.

Dunphy: Jason will back me up when I say that ol’ Gord has perpetrated some heinous Mellow Gold in his day. But he has something that his contemporaries don’t: two songs that hold up on their own 34 years later. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Sundown” both still have it, whatever “it” is. Maybe it’s because both songs reek of doom. In “Fitzgerald” the crew of the ship is going to drown and they all know it. In “Sundown” the protagonist has been wronged and someone’s gonna pay. And someone’s gonna get drunk.

Jason: Ah, another gem in Gord’s Gold. This is a great song, but not my favorite. I think “Early Morning Rain” is my favorite. I just find Gordon Lightfoot’s voice to be a big hug.

I’m such a pussy. There has never been a bigger pussy than me.

Dunphy: It’s okay. We forgive you. Go get me a sandwich.

Where’s my goddamn sandwich?!

Will: Dude, when I heard that Dan Fogelberg had died I immediately went to iTunes, downloaded “Leader of the Band,” and mournfully told my friend Donnie, “God, it’s like he was singing about himself, you know?” So you may still be the bigger pussy, Jason, but I’m working my way up the ladder.

Jason: I listened to “Leader of the Band” about 25 times that week. Come give me a hug.

David: Poor Gordon is probably teased more than the late Fogelfuck for being a ’70s pussy, but I still think “Sundown” is a jam. I’m surprised you didn’t go for the jugular and pick “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” for the sheer carnage factor, Jeff.

Jeff: I can never listen to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” without thinking of NRBQ playing it until they were booed off the stage … and then coming back and playing it for an encore.

Scott: Honestly, I always thought he was singing “Someday.” Of course, I never knew who sang this song until this morning. Like the Aretha tune, this one takes me back to my youth, growing up in Ohio and spending the summer driving around the country with my family. Artists like Lightfoot dominated the AM airwaves. I like this song in healthy doses.

He’s really saying “Sundown,” isn’t he? Far out.

And can I say how much I miss shows like The Midnight Special? And remember Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that used to air late on Saturday nights?

Vrabel: I think, for including the Dinck and Lightfoot in the same Chartburn, Jeff should give us matching plush terry-cloth robes and a lifetime supply of skin-softening lotions.

Dunphy: Ooh! Plush!

If you checked that YouTube video that was hotlinked to Shrinky Dinck, we should also win free STD screenings.

Zack: And mustache combs. We’ll need mustache combs.