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

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