Thursday, December 31, 2009

All is quiet...

Not that any of you sluggards will be around to get this for the next couple of days, but I hope you have a happy and a healthy 2010...and rock on!

And now, the obvious.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Random Release: Up Their Plaid Sleeves

One of the “positive” results of grunge hitting the big time in the early 90s, and subsequently dragging alternative music into the mainstream, is that a lot of hardworking acts who had teetered on the fringes of success touring the “college rock” circuit finally got enough exposure to have a bit of a payday. A few that come to mind would include Sonic Youth, the Connells, Juliana Hatfield, Dinosaur Jr., (possibly) the Breeders and others, but the one that stands out most to me is the Lemonheads, led by indie heartthrob party boy, Evan Dando.

Deny those eyes...I dare you!

A lot of my friends in college really, really hearted the Lemonheads. I mean a lot. I liked a couple of songs here and there, but mainly spent a lot of time making fun of the Lemonheads ‘cos I was sort of a jerk and I had nothing else better to do. But when I got older and a bit bored with what I was listening to, I gave their “breakthrough” album, It’s a Shame About Ray, another go and decided it's not half bad -- in fact it's quite good. I then explored the remainder of their catalog only to discover that aside from a handful of songs (the ones I’d liked previously), the Lemonheads are pretty bleh up until Ray. (There J-Mower, I said it.)

However, I’m not really here to talk about It’s a Shame About Ray, but their 1993 follow up (really, 1993???), Come On Feel the Lemonheads. The difference between Ray and Come On Feel is in ways marginal and yet noticeable. I mean at the end of the day, this is a Lemonheads album, but while Ray feels like a slew of songs written during a rush of (dare I say) divine inspiration, Come On Feel is a more grounded, thought out, even mature album. Evan had a bit o’ brass in pocket and so the time on his hands necessary to further develop ideas. Not to say that anything on Ray is what I would consider half baked (drug reference intended) or fragmented, but many of the songs are rather short and abrupt, while Come On Feel, though in no way “epic” like a Rush or a Genesis, is somewhat broader in scope, richer in tone, more filled out around the edges. What’s more, while Ray maintains a consistent tone, picking up, taking off and landing in just under 30 minutes, Come on Feel dabbles and meanders for close to an hour (which, granted, does include wading through a bit of dead space for a bonus track), exploring power pop, country rock and acoustic balladry that, while producing some fine moments throughout, leaves the listener a touch unsettled by the closing notes of the rambling (and rather pointless) The Jello Fund.

Evan, again, wears his heart on his sleeve for the majority of this album, weaving tales of love and infatuation and rather sordid times (drugs, fame, etc) into 2-3 minute pop ditties. Though never quite as confessional or true-to-life “gritty” as some of the darker, more memorable moments of Ray, Come On Feel still maintains a sense of “been there,” as if Dando is writing at least from observation if not experience. This enables quirky and/or potentially awkward tracks like Style (or its counterpart Rick James Style), Big Gay Heart (one of a couple songs featuring Sneaky Pete of the Flying Burrito Brothers on slide guitar) and Being Around a passable sincerity that may have been lost coming from anywhere other than Dando’s sleepy baritone croon. Of course the “standout” track is the straightforward, ballad-rocker Into Your Arms, which I can remember hearing for the first time while riding around in the back of the parenthetically aforementioned J-Mower’s car (and rolling my eyes) and which I know made it onto dozens, nay hundreds upon hundreds of mix tapes between 1993 and, oh, let’s say mid 1995. Ironically, this song wasn’t penned by Dando or anyone else in the band, and isn’t even one of the better tracks on the album, as I’ll take The Great Big No or Favorite T any day.

The important thing about Come On Feel is that it proves The Lemonheads had more than one album’s worth of good tunes up their plaid sleeves. And even though the album has its difficulties, it’s still a worthy follow up to the slightly more accessible Ray. Unfortunately Evan and crew sorta derailed in the wake of Come on Feel, and though 1996’s Car Button Cloth (1996, really???) had its moments, the boat had sailed, the momentum was lost and nobody really cared about the Lemonheads any more (which is what I’d been saying in the first place). As a result, there was nothing but a best of and a Dando solo album to hold fans over until 2006’s self-titled “return to form” – as in hearkening back to their Hate Your Friends/Creator days…but that’s for another post.

Friday, December 4, 2009

There's Only One Volume 1

I got this idea a bit ago from chatting with JT about a list of the Top 30 punk albums of all time as decided by Guitar World. I won’t go off (yet again) on the ridiculousness of that. Plus, with all irony aside, some of the write-ups sounded like they halfway knew what they were talking about (as if I do), but that is not the point at all.

At all.

During our discussion about which albums should have been higher, lower, on there, not on there, JT commented that Never Mind the Bullocks was better than London Calling. I didn’t disagree simply ‘cos while I don’t overly care for Bullocks, I’m not a big enough admirer of London Calling to put up any resistance (even if it is obvious which one is the better album). JT then made the funny-because-it’s-true comment that the Clash are the Radiohead of the 70s. Take that Strummer and Yorke respectively! And from there he argued that if I thought about it, Minor Threat’s Complete Discography album is probably the most influential and important punk album for me (and him), and the one I’ve listened to the most out of any punk album out there. He’s probably right, but even that isn’t the point.

You see, what I was really thinking about during our exchange is that the Clash’s debut really is all that, I mean really it is – even if I did sorta give it a wanky once over in an earlier post. And if I had to scale down my CD collection (and maybe I should), and could only keep one album by each band, that would be the one I chose for the Clash. Hands down, no mistake, no second-guessing.

So the idea with this series is that I’m going through my collection alphabetically and of the artists I have all of, the bulk of or the key-important albums of, I’m going to pick one as my “desert island” or “scaled down for the economy” or “whatever” disc.

Oh, and so these posts aren’t overly long, I’m only doing five at a time (so you’re welcome, Greg).

Apparently I don’t have anything in the As that fits the criteria…hmmm…

The Bats – Fear of God (1991): The New Zealand jangle-pop darlings that you’ve probably never heard of, it’s somewhat true that in a lot of ways one album sounds about the same as another since Robert Scott and team never stray far from their shambling, plaintive and melancholic (though darn catchy) sound. And while most folks hold up their debut, Daddy’s Highway, as their masterpiece, I’ve never really been able to get into that album. I can remember seeing the cover for Fear of God in Camelot Music (or whatever it was by then) in the PC mall when I was in high school and feeling somewhat draw to it, even though I had no idea who or what it was all about. All these years later, now that I do know the who and the what, it’s the album that for me, for what they do (and do so well), is the most immediate, flowing and ultimately fulfilling.

Favored Tracks: Dancing as the Boat Goes Down, Straight Image

The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964): I’m not even going to argue the merit, worth or overall impact of one Beatles’ album over another. I mean the fact that their hip “misspell” of the word beetle is recognized as legit by the spell checker in Microsoft Word pretty much solidifies their ultimate cultural influence. While I certainly see the worth in many parts of most every album (Magical Mystery Tour, you will always be a big, steamy pile), it’s impossible to pick one that easily identifies, sums up or defines the Beatles’ sound. So what it all boils down to is which album, if any, floats your boat the most. For me it is, has been and always will be A Hard Day’s Night. This is the album that made me seriously listen to the Beatles in the first place, the one that made me consider them as something more than an overrated, overhyped bag of wind, and capable of writing more than two songs that I thought were worth a glass onion. (Until around 1998 I only liked I Want to Hold Your Hand and We Can Work It Out.) But simply put, AHD’sN makes me happy. These songs make me want to dance across the room, to jump in the air, to shout out loud, to fall in love and get my heartbroken all at the same time. In short, AHD’sN reminds me that music can be good and serious but also a lot of fun – not only to listen to but also to make. I hear a lot of joy in this album, and that includes secret smiles behind the tears in heartache numbers like I’ll Cry Instead and Things We Said Today, not to mention the go-go pop anthems like the title track and Can’t Buy Me Love. Bill has pointed out that there are a few clunkers, and maybe he’s right, but by the end of the album you’re glad you took the time and you’ll likely take it again.

Favored Tracks: I’m Happy Just to Dance with You, Tell Me Why

Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996): Sometimes the popular choice is the obvious choice…and who am I to buck the popular choice? While every B&S album has at least half a dozen songs of absolute genius, IYFS is the only one where from start to finish they consistently build one song on top of the other to create 40+ minutes of lo-fi, twee-pop confection (not to mention perfection). From the less than a whisper beginnings of Stars of Track and Field to the anthem-like sing-a-long of Judy and the Dream of Horses, there are no filler tracks, there are no lulls, there are no mindless rants about dreaming you went to Mars with your dad and your sister (geesh, I hate that song). B&S were never again so innocently quirky, so confident in their insecurity, so strong in their fragility. These are songs that speak to the heart from the heart, without posturing or preaching…and they all carry a nice tune as well.

Favored Tracks: Me and the Major, The Fox in the Snow

David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972): This was actually a pretty tough choice for me. I almost said Low for all the Eno-obvious reasons, I almost said Lodger for the same reasons plus pop-tastic danceability and I almost said Diamond Dogs ‘cos that truly is a spook-tacular chill ride of dark, post-cabaret/pre-disco swoon. But in the end I had to go with, perhaps, another obvious choice. Why? Well, that’s rather difficult to define and sum up as well, ‘cos Bowie is an originator of the stylistic chameleon and over the years has dabbled in just about every type of music out there from folk to industrial. So, as with the Beatles, much of it falls to personal preference and maybe in this case current mood. And while I could just as easily have picked any of those other albums (like and yet unlike the aforementioned B&S entry), from beginning to end Ziggy Stardust builds upon itself, rockin’ and crooning its way through Bowie’s vision of earth’s last days. But concept originality aside, a lot of his most well known, accessible and notoriously great songs are tucked among a slew of lesser known cuts just as worthwhile.

Favored Tracks: Five Years, Lady Stardust

Billy Bragg – Back to the Basics (1987): While Don’t Try This at Home is officially my favorite album, I felt compelled to land on Back to the Basics. This album is actually a collection of earlier material released between 1983 and 1985, so perhaps technically it shouldn’t qualify for this series. However, A) I did not specify that in the rules B) they’re my rules anyway and I’ll do as I please and C) it works quite fantastically as an album in its own right. (In fact, I didn’t even know it was a compilation of previously released material until I’d owned it for a few years.) But to me, this is the definitive B-Bragg sound, the pining of the wandering, electric troubadour. While Back to the Basics doesn’t run like a “greatest hits” as some albums do (many of his best songs didn’t come until later), a handful of these songs – and really you could grab them at random – represent everything Billy was about then as well as now. Religion, love, war, death and of course politics -- it’s all right here, neatly packaged in 21 two to four minute post punk anthems, with usually nothing more than Billy’s voice, guitar and message, but just as raw, visceral and powerful as any full band explosion you’d ever wish to hear.

Favored Tracks: The Milkman of Human Kindness, St. Swithin’s Day

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Kill Your Television

I suppose we can thank MTV for the obligatory music video, which was really something back when they actually played them, though today I don’t think anyone really cares about videos any more except for maybe PR folks, rabid collectors and teenyboppers. At this point in my life I have zero interest in seeing any new music videos, even from favorite bands and albums. And while there are lots of innovative things going on that “push the envelope” of the medium (Bjork for example always comes up with something interesting and forward thinking), I just don’t care. And I think for the most part, past a certain age, most solid fans of music could take or leave a music video. Now I admit when I was a kid I thought they were just as important as the song itself and equally as memorable. For example, I can’t hear either Welcome to the Jungle or Sweet Child O’ Mine without seeing Axl’s giant red hair or bandana-shades get up respectively…they’re equally as ingrained and ingratiating as the opening guitar licks for both songs. But really, at the end of the day, when you wanna rock solid, and you wanna be able to step about and groove if the mood should strike you, being obliged to keep your eyes glued to the TV/computer screen isn’t gonna help you shake yer biscuits.

But having said that, there are a handful of videos worth taking the three to four minutes to chill out and appreciate for various reasons. Here are a few of them in a special edition of the Willie Awards…

All Time Favorite Video: Billy Bragg – Greetings to the New Brunette: Simply put, there’s a definite ironic sweetness to this montage of old footage from the 50s, 60s, etc over Bragg’s ode/lament to love and marriage…and the bits with the famous Shirleys are especially nice.

What Every Video Should Be: At the Drive In – One Armed Scissors: I remember seeing this video on some weird expanded cable channel at someone else’s house very early in the morning and being blown away. All I caught was the title of the song and couldn’t track it down anywhere. A few months later At the Drive In exploded (and promptly imploded) upon the indie scene and this was the song/video that basically made it all happen. A montage of brief, energetic live clips reminiscent of a lot of 80s metal acts, this showcases the band at the peak of their hype and powers respectively. If every artist was required to put out at least one video in their career along these lines, we’d finally start seeing who was the what and how.

Most Universally Memorable: A-ha – Take On Me: If you don’t remember this pulp comic book video from 1985, just click the link and you’ll say ‘Oh yeah…’ Not to take away from the merit of this song (or the entire Hunting High and Low album), but A-ha shot to fame based solely on the unique and instant recognition of this video. The story told within the frames touches my romantic soul ever time, but what is really cool is that the mix of the song itself is different from the album and instead of a fade out, we get a nice little alternate and natural ending.

Most Rockin': Def Leppard – Photograph: With Pyromania, Def Leppard became the coolest and best hard rock act of 1983 (if not most of the rest of the decade). This video with fast licks and cool tricks, shared microphone vocals and spinning drum sticks (no, I will NOT make a two-armed drumming joke here…wait, maybe I just did), not to mention Marilyn Monroe shtick, summed up everything Def Leppard and rock music were supposed to be about. I can’t hear this song or see this video without getting a little nostalgic with butterflies in the pit of my stomach.

Most Romantic: The Cure – Just Like Heaven: Simply one of the most “dreamy” pop-love songs ever written, the video pretty much matches it frame for note, with Robert Smith and company bedecked in black upon a lonely sea cliff, while the man himself spins on that dizzy edge and sings to the waves crashing on the rocks below. Throw in the dream-dance sequence during the piano solo and you’ve got teenage love angst personified.

Most Life-Changing: The Church – Under the Milky Way: I think I’ve told this story before, but back in 8th grade, for about a week to ten days, I used to hit the ground running from the bus in order to make it home in time to catch a handful of videos on MTV that for some reason were always played around the same time and in the same order. This was my favorite of the lot. There was something about the nonsensical yet poignant imagery of this video, interwoven with a very understated, penetrating performance from the band, that struck me in a way I couldn’t quite understand, but readily related to. Coupled with the fact that this is a sensational song (on a sensational album from a sensational band), and you’ve got real magic in the making. Near the end of this stint (which was a Thursday) when MTV switched out this video for the Church’s next one, Reptile, I was sold, and promptly bought the Starfish album the following evening. From there my life in pursuit of "alternative" music truly began.

Best Live Video: U2 – Sunday Bloody Sunday: I’m going to say it again: In 1983, U2 was the greatest band in the world (I love you, Murmur). When I was a kid I was absolutely enthralled by this performance video. The energy, the emotion, I was wrapped up in the message without fully understanding the meaning, such being the beauty and the fear of music, and can’t help but compare every videoed live performance I see even now to this one. They all fall short.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Alas, it’s true…I’ve let the Twitter dust and blog gossip settle for a few days and it seems that the solid facts have presented themselves…Steven Tyler has left Aerosmith. The why and the wherefore are irrelevant considering the Bad Boys from Boston have been nothing more than a well-oiled, solid-rockin’ corporate machine for the better part of two decades now. And yet because at one time they rocked the face off the planet, and because S-Tyler is such an enigmatic front man, it needs to be noted that this is the end of a rock era…or so one would think. Apparently Joe Perry and the other three Bad Boys are gonna carry on without ol’ Steven at the helm. The question is…who to replace him? I mean this isn’t INXS trying to make a comeback and be a real band again ten years after their supposed death, or Queen tacking on Paul Rodgers for a bit of classic rock nostalgia, or Journey recruiting some look alike/sound alike guy named Steve to replace Steve Perry and do a bunch of greatest hits tours, or even Van Halen essentially recreating themselves between DLR and Sammy Hagar. This is Aerosmith purportedly pretending to be Aerosmith as if the public (and these guys have been so huge for so long I mean THE public) isn’t going to realize that the elf’s daddy isn’t up there sucking up the first six rows with those massive lips (see Exhibit A).

And ok, fine, I can live with that.

Exhibit A

So…who to replace him? Sure, there are dozens, nay hundreds, of guys (and gals…wouldn’t that be awesome) who can hold up the vocal parts and even do a little of the mic stand molestation. But in my opinion, which is both valid and worthless, it doesn’t need to be an unknown or even a partially known (to say music geeks). It would need to be somebody equally or almost as recognizable as Steven himself, able to carry the band instead of being supported by them, to capture the true spirit of Aerosmith and yet not mimic, making each song their own. Basically, it needs to be a gimmick. Someone like Sammy Hagar pretty much fits that bill, but I don’t know that he would do it. I mean I don’t really know Sammy, dig? I just drink his tequila and share his belief that Eddie Van Halen is a douche (ok, only one of those is true).


So the question is, who? I’d like to hear from you people. Tell me who you think it should/could be. Ridiculous answers are of course welcome.

And for fun, I asked a few of my friends their opinion of the break up:

  • Brian: Aerosmith is still together?
  • Paul: Is that happening?
  • Bill: Stupid. I think he's off the wagon again. The band can't tour w/o him. That would be terrible.
  • Effrin: Whoa, I didn’t know he was doing that.
  • Bob: Death to Aerosmith, finally?

Also, here are a few of my favorite Aerosmith songs from back when they truly rocked, thus making this post at least somewhat legit.

Kings and Queens
Toys in the Attic (live)
Mama Kin (live)
Last Child
Angel (This one doesn't necessarily rock, but it doesn't necessarily suck either, and has a special place in my heart.)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Obscuro Vol 2: A Melancholy Favor

I admittedly don’t know much about the late Lee Hazlewood. Sure, I’ve read the Wiki bio and I could spout out a few facts, but that’s just regurgitation…it’s nothing I know, as in what is a part of me. What I do know has more to do with the “you-go-grrrl” hit that he wrote and produced for Nancy Sinatra, These Boots are Made for Walkin’ and, more obscurely, their duet Some Velvet Morning as covered by Slowdive. But that limited knowledge base doesn’t mean Brother Lee can’t speak to me, because I assure you he can – and does.

The album in question here is his 1971 effort, Requiem for an Almost Lady…a scathing title and quite befitting the 10 songs/25 minutes, 26 seconds (give or take) of music it represents. If there were a contest for ultimate break up album, this one would definitely be a heavy contender. Essentially, it tells the story of a romance (or perhaps several) after the fact…the good, the bad, the inevitable. Throughout he’s blaming her and himself and just about everything but the kitchen sink, yet not out of bitterness but with a clear, humorous, almost philosophical understanding of “sometimes thems the breaks, partner.” He’s happy for the time he’s spent and glad he was given the opportunity in the first place, no matter how far the fall or how hard he hit in the end.

Musically, Requiem for an Almost Lady is a blend of tumbleweed western and flower child folk – and its one of the sparsest albums I’ve ever heard. Each song is comprised of nothing more than acoustic guitar, bass, vocals (maybe two) and sometimes a lead guitar; but no percussion (the bass amply accommodates that roll as well as providing the occasional counter-melody), no strings, no tickled ivories – essentially, no filler. Two guys could have recorded most of this album with a tape recorder between them, and indeed, it’s both that raw and intimate. Lee sings with a gruff but sympathetic sweetness, never harsh or agitated, though sometimes mildly threatening, he's mainly reminiscing, relaxed, going through the details of a plight that can no longer harm him. And really, for me, the icing on this nostalgic cake is that each song begins with a spoken word summary, his balladeer’s heart coming through his vest, and one of the greatest lines in popular music can be found in the song I’ll Live Yesterdays when he muses, “Seems we’re always doing something to hurt each other. But you know, you never really hurt me until the fourth verse of this song…” Classic.

So if you like to wallow in other folk’s misery -- or have some of your own that needs a soundtrack -- do yourself a melancholy favor and pick up Lee Hazlewood’s Requiem for an Almost Lady.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Q3-09 Update

Yes, it’s here again…the end of another fiscal quarter and so time to recap what all I’ve been up to musically the past three months.

Unfortunately I’ve been woefully negligent with new releases this year and there are several that I still need to pick up, including the latest by the Church (I know…), the Bats (I KNOW!) and Mission of Burma (I KNOW!!!). Plus, the Feelies reissued their first two albums (I KNOW!!!!!!!) and I should be beaten for not having snagged those already.

However, while I have slacked with new music, I’ve been exploring a few things that are new to me, as well as reacquainting myself with some old favorites and reconfirming why I loved them then as well as now.

But first, the one new album I picked up (finally) is the latest from PJ Harvey – in this instance her second collaboration with John Parish, A Woman a Man Walked By. If a title is any indication as to what the music it represents will contain (and really kids, it should be), then I figured I was in for a bizarre treat. I was not wrong. Let me just go ahead and say that the title track (officially called A Woman A Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go) is just about one of the most terrifying songs I’ve ever heard. You just have to hear it for yourself. The rest of the album is essentially a louder, sometimes rockier, though no less sinister pick up of where 2007’s White Chalk left off. And though John Parish was all over that album, he gets a collaboration/cover credit now because he not only performed on AWAMWB, but also wrote all the music, while Polly simply provides lyrics/vocals. Things start of straightforward enough with the nearly pop catchy Black Hearted Love. After that it’s pretty much a mixed bag of dark, twangy folk (The Soldier), demented cabaret (Leaving California), off kilter dance (The Chair) and of course the “regular” post deconstructionist stylings we’ve come to love PJ for in the past (Pig Will Not). Honestly, this album is all over the place, and that’s sort of a distraction. Polly’s better albums are the ones that pick a sound/feel (no matter how bizarre) and stick with it throughout. That’s not to say there’s not some worthwhile magic to be had and some truly interesting goings on with AWAMWB, but the cohesion is simply not there and as a result, the album does not beg to be re-listened to no matter what worth may be contained within.

Even though this album came out last year, Glasvegas is just now getting exposure, etc (well, as far as I know) around these parts. I saw them on Craig Ferguson a couple or so months back and really enjoyed them, so went out and got their self-titled debut. I guess it goes to show you that playing on late night TV sometimes pays off. Anyway, these guys are like nothing I’ve ever heard. Talk about fusion. Basically, if Clash-esque punk rockers who secretly like Morrissey took 50s rock with a 60s backbeat, slowed it down and drenched everything in shoegaze guitar (got all that), it would sound exactly like this. And I totally dig it. There’s not a lot of variation from song to song, but each song flows effortlessly one into another, like a 41-minute suite complete with crescendos and diminuendos and all those other fancy I-talian words I can’t remember from my piano lesson days. (Actually, the song S.A.D. Light is a spoken word performance over Moonlight Sonata, so….) Several songs, if approached differently, could sound like just about anything beneath the “punk” banner, from Blink 182 (or at least what I assume they sound like) to rockabilly to the more pop-tastic moments of the aforementioned Clash. And I don’t make these references in order to shame or discredit Glasvegas (the band, the album), but simply to point out that it’s all about approach, even with the same roots, and their approach is quite inventive and ultimately rewarding, making repeat listens a must, as new layers and textures are discovered with each spin. Rarely does this album move beyond a mid-tempo chug. The drums (or more like percussion) accent the music as often as provide a driving force, and several times drums, bass and anything else “solid” drop out completely as a wash of FX laden distortion provides the only backdrop for the vocal melody. In short, it’s relaxingly catchy, you’ll sing along (with a Scottish lilt) in your car, but you won’t feel compelled to drive very fast.

Key Tracks: Geraldine, Lonesome Swan, Daddy’s Gone

Say/think what you want about Sting (and I will given the chance), his time in the Police was (mostly) well spent. Of their five albums, four are spectacular and the other one (you know) produced two great singles and another really good one. I just got off a rather lengthy kick of listening to their first three albums – Outlandos d’Amour (1978), Reggatta de Blanc (1979) and Zenyatta Mondatta (1980) – exclusively in the car, windows down, volume knob cranked, my (then) 8 month old in the back hitting the high notes that I can’t. What a treat. Forerunners and then banner boys of the New Wave movement, it’s interesting to hear how these three diverse players and personalities not only meshed but developed over a span of just three years. This is especially true for Sting and Stewart Copeland. Though extremely talented musicians, they still bashed out their parts on Outlandos d’Amour with a reckless “all or nothing” determination that Andy Summers (ten years older and with those years plus musical experience) adapted to simply because he could. By Reggatta de Blanc, the boys began to settle into a working groove. These are no longer four-chord rants, but deeper, more mature songs with complex parts and melodies, and yet often just as immediate, fun and gritty as the debut. By the time they got to Zenyatta Mondatta, all the rough edges were polished off and the band was ready for the super stardom status that would especially come three years later with Synchronicity. But the one thing that threads these albums together (and to be honest, all of them) is a sense of quirky experimentation. For every straightforward pop rocker (Roxanne, Message in a Bottle, De Do Do Do De Da Da Da), there’s some punk-reggae-jazz infected ditty (Hole in My Life, Does Everyone Stare, Bombs Away) that proves these guys were interested in creating a mood and not just a string of hits. Heck, some of the songs that were hits (Walking On the Moon, Don’t Stand So Close to Me) were hardly standard radio fair, and proof that just before the “anything goes” 80s, people could appreciate a good tune even if you couldn’t necessarily dance or rock out to it.

Ever since my 1989 post and the shout out I gave to Vain’s debut, No Respect, I’ve been revisiting a lot of glam/metal/hair bands I enjoyed from back in the day, and even discovered a couple along the way.

Of all my nostalgic spandex reruns, reacquainting myself with Europe’s The Final Countdown has been a real delight. Though the iconic title track is never far from mind, and of course instantly recognizable to anyone between the ages of say six and 135 (except of course my mother), I was reminded of just how great that entire outing was (rather is) when hanging with friends and the casual viewing of the Andy Sandburg vehicle Hotrod proved to have not one, not two, but EIGHT (8) of the ten songs from this 1986 release. And I shouldn’t call them songs but anthems. These are true epics in a time when to go over the top was the eye rolling norm, and yet these guys did it with such sincerity, style, grace and a true love for the spirit of rock n roll that they shouldn’t be questioned even for a moment. Yes, singing about space travel, ninjas, Cherokees, rockin’ the night and (ugh) girls is super duper cheesy, but it’s just as much fun as well, and honestly, with rock n roll there are no rules or boundaries. Besides, when you’ve got a guitarist like John Norum shredding riffs and solos like a flaming sword of justice through the hearts of unbelievers, well… Ok, I got a little carried (ha, Carrie) away there, but for the genre and times, this really is a sensational album that has held up well and should be in the collection of anyone interested in a good rock.

One thing I often find fun and refreshing about “metal” (in all of its shapes and sizes) is that instead of a lot of the woe is me posturing that’s such a mainstay with a lot of music out there (at least what I listen to), serious hard rockers spend a good portion of their time talking about how bad azz they are. For a full dose of that sort of gumption, look no further than Tygers of Pan Tang and their 1982 sophomore album, Spellbound. I stumbled upon these guys after a discussion about Whitesnake with my token metal head friend Justin. Threading the long, twisting trails of Wiki, I found that this was a pre-Whitesnake band of guitarist John Sykes…and this album is about a thousand times better than anything those Tawny Kitaen bangin’ dopes (yes, I’m implying she slept with all of them) ever thought of putting out. With the jugular threat of Judas Priest, the hot lick solos of Iron Maiden and the melodic sense of both, Tygers of Pan Tang rocked harder and faster than most bands at the time and should have been huge, but were shamefully disregarded by their record label (MCA) and so destined to languish in a somewhat cult status even to the present day (after about a billion line up changes, including losing Sykes). Still, all the ingredients for fist waving arena rock are right here – heavy riffs, catchy hooks and choruses that will have you on your feet in no time. And did I mention the solos? Well, they could seriously give the aforementioned John Norum’s flaming sword a battle axe to smash up against. Seriously, if you’re a fan of the genre at all, this album is an absolute must.

Key tracks: Gangland, Take It, Hellbound

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Obscuro Vol 1: Renaissance Man

Alexander “Skip” Spence (1946-1999) is most famously known, forty years ago, as a member of such seminal 60s psychedelic outfits as Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape. A veritable Renaissance man, he covered everything from drums to guitar to vocal duties (and more) in these groups. More infamously, he is referred to as the “American Syd Barrett,” for his tale was one of mental illness and drug addiction that made his considerable talents moot and his musical output rather limited. But, like Barrett, he left one shimmering, if murky, testament of his genius – the darkly surreal and, to my mind, aptly titled Oar.

I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never heard anything quite like this album, and if you have -- this is the original. A collection of low-key folk rock compositions delivered in a sparse, ramshackle style and interwoven with Spence’s sleepy baritone croon, the momentum of Oar is essentially one of laidback urgency. Spence’s vision isn’t so much his view of a private world, but the unique reading of the world he shared with everyone else – the same hopes and fears, a desire for love and acceptance and success, the random, the trivial and the mundane ins and outs of life. Some of these songs are little more than snippets, seeming to start and end in mid thought, as if at the time of recording Spence knew exactly where he was, but neither where he was going nor even where he was coming from. And yet others have a clear and concise purpose, like Weighted Down (The Prison Song), about the premeditated murder of a wayward lover, or (original) album closer Grey/Afro, concerning his lack of ability to communicate with, presumably, a lover, and yet likely anyone and everyone with whom he came into contact. Often Spence says so much by saying very little, as in the heartbreak ballad Diana, or can say most anything by saying seemingly nothing at all, as in the somewhat apocalyptic Books of Moses.


A weighty doom hangs over Oar and, if this could be considered a musical self-portrait, did as well over Spence’s own life. Recorded solo in Nashville in 1969 (after spending six months in a mental hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia), recurring themes of death, seclusion, alienation and a sense of loss permeate these songs. Yet there is a certain strength as well, a confidence and an aptitude that exist in the creation of such a beautifully unassuming and yet starkly profound album, despite the fragile state of mind Spence was in at the time. It’s not so much that he has a message for the world, but a statement he would like to make (very softly), and if you would care to listen, he’s happy to oblige. The end result is that you are left feeling down but not entirely unhappy, because Spence speaks to and for the quiet places in your mind where even you are afraid to go.

At left with Moby Grape

Unfortunately, Spence never really got it together again after this album. He contributed a few songs or recorded tracks for various Moby Grape releases, but never functioned fully as a musician. He spent most of the next 30 years either destitute, living off the charity of friends or as a ward of the state of California. And yet his legacy has certainly not been forgotten. Oar has influenced countless artists, from Tom Waits to Beck, and has been rereleased a couple of times, most recently and fully on the Sundazed label, which includes ten bonus tracks of rough song fragments and demos, each revealing another piece of Spence’s mind, all as intriguing and worthwhile as the original album.

News Flash: Proud Papa!

So we all know I’m pretty big into music…I mean obviously. And most of us know that I have a 9mo son named Fox. (Say hello, Fox. “Goo.”) Well, heretofore he hasn’t really expressed a lot of interest or even much of a reaction to music (with the exception of being sung to). But when I feed him during the day we usually listen to music, everything from Vince Guaraldi to Iron Maiden, and he really couldn’t give a rat’s patootie.

Until today.

Today he was in his little play area in the living room and I was doing a few things in the kitchen. Of course I had the music going, a run through of the Misfits box set from ten or so years back, and during the song Bullet I happened to check in and Fox was up against the side of his baby corral, both hands holding tight and shaking the bars like an inmate with the jail on fire. When the song was done, he stopped and grinned at me. It was one minute and thirty-eight seconds of pure toddler mayhem and my only regret is that I didn’t catch it on video.

So it looks like daddy’s got a little punk rocker, and he couldn’t be more proud.

Would you like to shake the bars of your jail cell as well? Then check out this (I believe fan-made) video clip of Bullet by the Misfits.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Over-Under: U2

Ok, sidebar, tell my why this is funny...

I completely got the idea for this post from some other blog that I don’t even read, but Bill will send me a link now and then. Essentially this guy picks an artist and gives his opinion of their five most overrated and underrated songs…often with comical results (at least for the overrated ones). Because I have a tendency to be longwinded (thank you everyone for pointing that out), I’ve decided to limit my version to three songs. Also, for artists with enough of a catalog, I’ve got a couple of ideas for albums as well (i.e. look out Uncle Bob).

So, without further ado…

U2. Man, these guys… Picking a batch of overrated songs is for me both extremely easy and also difficult to do. Easy because everything starting with Pop and into the present day is pretty much junk – I’ll make no bones about that. Yet in the early days they were dead on, and even when they started to slide (see Joshua Tree), I think folks pretty much recognized which tunes were the cream and which were the dregs (unless your name is Clay Satterfield, in which case your opinion in this matter is null and void). And since I despise everything post Zooropa, I’ll be limiting my opinions to songs released between 1980 and 1993.

So, without further, further ado…

Under… Mostly my idea of an underrated song is a brilliant track that even major fans of the band don’t recognize. I mean a hit single is a hit single regardless of it’s worth (which is where the “Over” comes in), so I’m essentially gonna sing the praises of those lost, forgotten tracks disregarded not only by the fans, but in some cases by the band as well. And in this instance, I could almost argue the entire October album, but I’ll stick with individual tracks.

Like A Song… -- War (1983): One of the only real rockers on War, this song not only sums up the theme of the album, but contains one of Bono’s most heartfelt deliveries and one of the Edge’s best solos. Why it was never played live is not only a mystery and a tragedy, but an early discredit to Ireland’s Fab Four. (And yes, I’m waiting for an apology.)

In God’s Country – The Joshua Tree (1987): A single in some places, this oft-overlooked track is a breath of fresh air in the latter half of an album burdened beneath the weight of its own importance. Yet having said that, there’s an emotive charm that, much like the aforementioned Like a Song…, sums up what the Joshua Tree was all about (though the solo isn’t quite as good).

Lemon – Zooropa (1993): Yeah, this song is super goofy and Bono sings and croons like a fop…but that’s what I love about it. For once he’s not taking himself quite so seriously. This song is the reason I gave Zooropa even partial consideration back in the day and is the undisputed (go ahead and try) highlight of the album (with The Wanderer being a close second). Plus, when you learn it’s about Bono’s childhood-departed mother and an old film he saw of her in a lemon yellow dress, it adds an extra dimension to an otherwise (seemingly) throw away pop ditty.

Over… Sometimes a song just gets played to death, but if it’s REALLY that great, you should in theory never get tired of it. More often than not, a band can get so hyped on the fumes of their own BS, that at times anything they release is pretty much lauded by fans (and critics) as something to be plated in gold and set up in a place of honor. Often it’s further proof that the general public has no idea what a good song should sound like. Here are the clunkers that U2 has made it big on.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – The Joshua Tree (1987): Gospel my Aunt Tillie. As a Christian, this song basically cheeses me off because Bono (who once waved the banner high) is not only rambling about his “spiritual yearning,” but he’s clearly blowing his own horn (what Bone-o does best), acting ungrateful and at times seems to be equating himself with Christ. Bad form. But personal convictions aside – this song just doesn’t go anywhere. It’s four and a half minutes of mid-tempo chugging that starts up, meanders for a bit and then is over. Big deal. There’s some nice guitar work (‘cos the Edge rules), but other than that it’s about as bland and pedestrian as anything you’ll hear on Lightning 100 today (oh yes I did).

Desire – Rattle and Hum (1988): What a shameless and lame attempt at a Stooges riff (sorry, Dave). And that stupid “Yeah” at the beginning means I’m supposed to get excited about what? Nothing but Bono caterwauling about some pointless “she” for longer than I want to know, ‘cos that’s time in my life wasted. Rattle & Hum was always a knock off album to me. It wasn’t so much a cash in as it was a “look how awesome we are.” I should almost not allow myself to include songs from this album for this entry (‘cos there are some other stinkers). However, since there are moments of brilliance, it frustrates me that at such a “creative peak” a turkey like this one not only became a single, but a hit as it's fair game. BLAM-O!

Even Better Than the Real Thing – Achtung Baby (1991): In a word…boring. It’s just so much fluff and filler amongst a slew of tunes that range from interesting to sensational (most of the latter being album tracks tucked away in the latter half). And yeah, Bono is giving it his all, and the Edge never sounded more inspired, but it’s all for naught. You take me higher? No, you take me nowhere. And yet I still find myself singing along. Feh! More fool me. Plus, the obnoxious video gives me puke inducing vertigo.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Year that Was 1970

While paying for dinner awhile back, the total came up to be $19.70 and I thought, “Cha-ching, there was some good music to be had in 1970.” And, upon doing a touch of research, was I ever right.

For example, I’ll name a handful of (should be) world-recognized classics:

The Beatles – Let it Be
Jimi Hendrix – Band of Gypsys
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
Led Zeppelin – III
George Harrison – All Things Must Pass

Not only that, several key artists were releasing not only one, but two notable albums in that year:

Bob Dylan – New Morning & Self Portrait (Yeah, I’m not even gonna touch that one.)
Grateful Dead – American Beauty & Workingman’s Dead
Elton John – s/t & Tumbleweeds Connection
Black Sabbath – s/t & Paranoid

Below are a few others that are a bit nearer and dearer to my heart. (Sorry, Ozzy, I do love me some Sabbath, but I just wasn’t feeling it…I’ll make it up to you sometime with a stellar review of Never Say Die.)

Neil Young – After the Gold Rush: If you only own one Neil Young album, it needs to be this one. A mixed bag of country tinged folk and solo laden hard rock, it touches everything Young was about in the early part of his solo career, with an accessible perfection that makes repeat play a must. Sympathetic, plaintive, angry, sometimes preachy, this album lulls and soars, weaving in and out of peaks and valleys like an exploratory bird in flight, yet never dulling or waning in interest or texture.

Key Tracks: Tell Me Why, After the Gold Rush, Southern Man

Stooges – Fun House: Nearly ten years before “punk” there was garage rock in all of its vagaries and variations. Of the dozens, likely hundreds, of bands you never heard of in this vein, the Stooges is the one you maybe have – or at least their enigmatic front man, Iggy Pop. Their three albums are a holy trinity amongst rock purists, yet to me they didn’t really start getting it fully together until their second effort, Fun House. Iggy squeals, hollers, yelps and moans about sex, drugs and nighttime antics, over a bed of methodic, cranky and dirty rock n roll. Essentially recorded live in the studio, this is the Stooges at their purest, bringing the noise to the people the only way they know how – raw and wriggling. For a more polished pop accessibility, check out Raw Power, but for a barely contained adrenaline rush straight to hell, nothing surpasses Fun House.

Key Tracks: TV Eye, Dirt, 1970

Van Morrison – His Band and the Street Choir: I never much cared for Van Morrison (‘cos Brown Eyed Girl is a super lame song) until I heard I’ll Be Your Lover, Too on the Moonlight Mile soundtrack. That was enough to get me interested in picking up His Band and the Street Choir, and from there it was pretty much on. As anyone can tell you, there’s no other voice on the planet like Van’s. Distinctive, emotive, commanding, he carries his point across the airwaves and drives it straight into your heart with a gentle but confident thrust. Whether belting out his lungs to an up tempo rocker, or spilling out his soul with tales of a broken heart, you’ll be convinced of his sincerity from beginning to end.

Key Tracks: Domino (And that’s all that’s available, so you’ll just have to take my word for it…)

Kris Kristofferson – Kristofferson: As particular as I am about my rock n roll, I’m even more so about my country. (To me that genre pretty much gave up the ghost somewhere around 1980.) For my money, Kris Kristofferson is where it’s at every time. Most folks don’t realize that he wrote several country as well as rock standards, and even fewer recognize that his versions of these classics are by far superior (so suck on that, Johnny Cash). But his 1970 debut is more than a couple of hits. There’s a lot of upbeat and downtrodden times to be had – life on the road, life with the bottle, life on your last leg, life as an outcast and a deadbeat, and all kinds of heavy stuff from a Rhodes Scholar who was sweeping the floors outside the studio doors while Blonde on Blonde was being recorded. One of the original gravel-voiced talk-singers, Kristofferson held on to the grit and the grime of those early years and produced an album (actually three) of dejected country (but not necessarily western) bliss that speaks to an entire legion of “I’ve been theres.”

Key Tracks: Me and Bobby McGee, Help Me Make It Through the Night, The Junkie and the Juicehead, Minus Me

The Velvet Underground – Loaded: By 1970, Lou Reed’s tether was about up with the Velvet Underground. Still, he managed to churn out ten (plus) sunshine pop and straightforward rock n roll ditties in the vein he’d begun exploring with their previous self-titled album. Though the band was frayed in nearly every sense, Loaded nonetheless showcases Reed at the top of his songwriting prowess and the group never sounded more immediate, vibrant or fresh. And while the end result may be “glossy” by VU standards, Reed’s wit, sarcasm, quirky love view and seedy, drug culture, low life references of earlier, more experimental efforts are still present. Loaded also contains the band’s most well known and arguably worst songs ever (you know which ones I mean), but that shouldn’t deter you from picking it up…or rather the Fully Loaded deluxe edition with tons of bonus tracks and an “alternate” version of the album.

Key Tracks: Who Loves the Sun, Head Held High, Train Round the Bend

John Cale – Vintage Violence: While his aforementioned and former band was falling apart, ex-Velvets bassist John Cale was busy launching a solo career. Though certainly the most avant-garde member of the Velvet Underground, Cale’s solo efforts were often as not more “standard” rock outings. His debut, Vintage Violence, kicked things off nicely. By his own admission these are basic songs, never intending to challenge the listener or the musical world (the VU’s Sister Ray, and his role in its creation, was enough of that and more). A classically trained multi-instrumentalist, Cale was only trying something that was different for him, and that was simple pop. The result is an even, seamless album of steady rockers and thoughtful ballads that doesn’t grab you as quickly as later releases, but after a few listens will definitely have you humming some random melody and realizing you’ve just got to put that wax on again.

Key Tracks: Gideon’s Bible, Adelaide, Please

Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs/Barrett: Want to hear a guy going insane via music? You don’t? Well then don’t listen to these two albums released in early and late 1970 respectively. And I know comments like that concerning Syd Barret are rather cliché, but if half of the legend is true, then The Madcap Laughs is the documented proof. A good three fourths or more of the album isn’t so bad. In fact, this is simply a looser, leaner, more delicate take on the same quirky sound Barrett fleshed out with Pink Floyd on their first album and surrounding singles. I mean who really knows what he’s talking about, but it’s clever and catchy and in the late 60s, who knew what anyone was talking about? And though Dark Globe has a certain despair, it could almost be passed off as breathless, drunken whimsy, fitting in nicely with a batch of songs that are odd, energetic and often fun. And then somewhere around Feel the good times sorta fall apart and you realize he’s serious about all of this, with lines like, “You feel me, away, far too empty, oh so alone…I want to go home.” And then there’s the mis-take/do over of If It’s in You when you actually hear his voice break and then the subsequent frustrated, embarrassed, apologetic explanation. It’s just too personal, too real for us to be checking in (Gilmour should be flogged for keeping, much less releasing that take). Meanwhile, Barrett, recorded sporadically over the year, is admittedly more polished (thanks to session musicians/studio magic), but even more obvious testament to Syd’s mental decline. And though there are a couple or so playful, "childhood innocence" outings that hearken back to the early days of his brilliance, for every upbeat smiler, there are two bleak rants (even if the music is laughing) where he’s admitting he’s off track and not even trying to scramble back on again. Syd realized his time was limited, but he was putting on a brave face nonetheless, trying to hold on to his vision even as things around him grew darker. For the most part he succeeded.

Key Tracks – The Madcap Laughs: No Good Trying, Here I Go, Octopus

Key Tracks – Barrett: Love Song, Gigilo Aunt, Waving My Arms in the Air

The Doors – Morrison Hotel: For the Doors this is a back to the basics as well as a back to roots album. So essentially, it’s blues heavy. And that’s a good thing, especially in contrast to their previous album, the “experimental” and extremely stiff Soft Parade. Like its predecessor, this album tends to get overlooked in the Doors cannon, especially when compared to the debut, the hits garnered from Strange Days and Waiting for the Sun and the posthumous overindulgence of L.A. Woman. But if an artist is around long enough (and the Doors just barely made it), there’s always one lost gem, and Morrison Hotel is just that. Simply stated, it rocks in a relentless way that a) insists that the band was ready for a comeback and b) proves they’d never really left in the first place (only taken a slight detour). From the motor rev kick start of Roadhouse Blues, the album churns and chugs along, rarely slowing down for a pit stop, and even then keeping the engine (that is to say the tension) idling and the foot never far from the gas pedal. Morrison is in good voice and his lyrics, though less bizarre, are just as descriptive as before. And of course the three-pronged juggernaut of Krieger, Manzarek and Densmore provide the muscled instrumentation necessary to carry the weighty vision (and ego) of the Lizard King. Perhaps not as classic as the debut or weirdly ambitious as Strange Days, Morrison Hotel catches the Doors in a more clear-cut, but no less creative, and therefore appealing, streak.

Key Tracks: Waiting for the Sun, You Make Me Real, Maggie M’Gill

***As a sidebar, an album I’ve been interested in hearing for years is Frank Sinatra’s 1970 concept album, Watertown. And the only person I know who’s heard it enough to comment is Greg. So how about it?