Thursday, March 18, 2010

RIP: Alex Chilton

Alex Chilton 1950-2010

As I’m sure most of you know, Good-Music-Wouldn’t-Be-Where-It-Is-Today-Without-Him legend Alex Chilton passed away yesterday from a heart attack, age 59. I admit I’m not much of a Big Star fan, though I do own two of their three seminal albums and one of the reunion outings from a few years back, and I certainly recognize his/their worth and importance even if I have to be in the mood for the music. But today as I spun my two-for-one disc of #1 Record and Radio City, I realized it’s sometimes hard to justify the necessity or importance of an artist in the grand scheme of things. Would we have gotten to punk without the Stooges, to Minor Threat without the Sex Pistols, to Creed without Nirvana? Possibly, though perhaps not in the same way with the same result. Influence is an interesting deal…it’s much more than the millions of records sold or dollars made, how many times you’ve been on the cover of Rolling Stone, whether or not you can or ever could sell out an arena. A lot of that stuff is a flash in the pan, part of the fickle nature of the media and the public and more often than not we simply get watered down copycats of those artists clogging up the airwaves more than anything else. I think influence trickles in slowly, takes its time, a few people here and there in various parts of the country/world who when they come together realize they’ve got something secret and special in common and create something new as a result. And while oftentimes the end product is bigger and grander, at least from a visible/commercial standpoint, it in no way diminishes the value of the common source that helped create it. This is the case with Big Star and, to a lesser extent, Alex Chilton as a solo artist. Big Star, among others, basically created the power pop genre of rock music, the bridge from the classic rock of the Beatles and the Kinks, etc that led to artists like REM, Teenage Fanclub, the dB’s and, of course, the Replacements – with Paul Westerberg’s ode to his idol, the blatantly titled Alex Chilton, summing up nicely in both music and lyric everything that the man, his band and his music meant to so many people. Unfortunately Chilton’s most well known song today is the Cheap Trick covered In the Street as the theme song for That 70’s Show, which is fine as Robin and the boys, who I assume were influenced by Big Star, do it justice with a loose-feeling and reverent performance. But the money version, the one you need to hear, is from 1972’s #1 Record, along with about three dozen other songs. Like so many obscure but important artists before him, Alex Chilton is one whose influence is certainly traceable and yet as equally incalculable. Music would not be the same without him and while without him we'd have never known the difference, I'm glad that difference was made. So rest in peace Alex, you’re leaving too soon but you’ve certainly earned your rest.

Check out a few tunes here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bands I Should Have Been In… Volume 1

One of the first to crest the retro (new) wave of the early 00s, Interpol borrowed heavily (and obviously) from many post punk superstars like Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen and The Chamelons (the latter of which is just flat out awesome ‘cos those boys get no respect). Heavy without being harsh, deep without being bassy, their melodic, two-guitar attack and crypto-emotive vocals hit a mainer that shot straight to my heart and made me lament the fact that I couldn’t find three more like-minded individuals to form a group with (though granted I didn’t look very hard). Their debut, Turn On the Bright Lights, spun my CD player so many times I could just show the volume knob the case and the speakers would automatically start up the opening track without me inserting the disc. Had I the alibi and wherewithal, I’d have mickied the bassist during their second show, dumped him behind the drum risers and slipped into his position without missing a note. Say hello to the angels indeed, bucko!

Your days were numbered, buddy...

Obstacle 1

Say Hello to the Angels


A Time to Be Small

Friday, March 12, 2010

Continuous Transitions...

It’s a pretty safe statement that REM has always been a band in transition. While they certainly do have a “classic REM sound,” that sound can be stretched and pulled into so many different directions that albums like Murmur, Fables of the Reconstruction and Document can be immediately REM and yet absolutely and only of themselves. If there were a “formula” it would simply be their “basic” guitar-bass-drums-vocals approach to music, and their ability to write fantastic pop songs from a unique and intriguing vantage point. This was certainly the case with their IRS years, albums one through five. Yet I find it interesting that when they went directly to a major label, their current home of Warner Bros, for Green, that they decided to start mixing things up a bit, swapping instruments, adding instruments (mandolin, accordion), trying their hand at a more sparse and minimalist sound on a certain tracks, as well as focusing more on possible radio airplay (everybody stand in the place where you...ugh). And yet there were enough jangle anthems and low E guitar licks to still keep Green within the same mindset if not completely the same feel as say a Reckoning or a Life’s Rich Pageant. It wasn’t until their second Warner Bros outing, Out of Time, that REM really began to stretch out, searching for a connection in every direction possible, from western twang (Country Feedback), to bubblegum pop (Near Wild Heaven), to lo-fi balladry (Low), to rap collaborations (Radio Song), to top 40 (Shiny Happy People) and even out of nowhere, borderline experimentation (Belong). The result is a very mixed bag that misses as often as it hits, though you have to give the boys full points for bravery. And it’s not that any of these songs are really bad (ok, Belong totally stinks), some of them are brilliant (Country Feedback), but this scattershot approach makes Out of Time an album that is wholly inconsistent not only in style, but in mood and atmosphere – something they’d been able to create with every album previous, developing a personality so apparent that after three or four listens you can literally pick up the album, look at the cover and feel the music. I’m not being cheesy, I’m dead serious. But when I pick up Out of Time I feel like a schizophrenic, I feel no connection, I feel nervous, and so I put it back down, reaching for any other album (besides Monster). This record is at its best when the band is doing what, to me, seems natural – plugging in their instruments and playing. This is most evident in the “classic REM” sounding Texarkana and Me in Honey, not to mention Losing My Religion, which, though radio slick and slightly over the top, is at heart a true and fantastic REM song. What Out of Time did for REM was completely open them up to a wider audience, catapulting (yes, I get it) them from college playlist darlings to near household names, and from there they were capable of going just about anywhere they wanted…and they did – and pretty much lost that “classic REM sound” in the bargain.

Shiny happy it up, Stipe...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Further Transitions...

I used to have a coworker named Tim who said when he was in high school working at a record store they would always throw Tom Waits in the CD player (or likely on the record player, Tim was pretty old) whenever they wanted to run people out of the store at closing time (yes, reference intended). That always makes me laugh. It’s true that Tom is an acquired taste all the way back to his third album when he truly began to shed his piano balladeer sentiments and started spewing his tales of hookers and hustlers in a jazz scat style that soon had him adapting his already gravelly voice to a Louis Armstrong gargling battery acid growl. But that change seemed natural and ever imminent. The real gearshift in his artistic direction came about with 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, a heavier, full band effort and about as close as he’s ever come to making a “straightforward” rock album. Playing with time signatures and rhythms, he continues to sing about the life and times of the down and out and maintains much of the jazzy-bluesy roots of previous outings, and yet this album is basically the foundation where he would build and develop the sonic-experimental sounds that gave us one of a kind classics like Swordfishtrombones, Bone Machine and Mule Variations. Further still, four of the nine songs are piano-with-strings ballads and some of the most tender and sentimental of his career, rivaling even the likes of debut heartbreakers like Ol’ 55, Martha and Grapefruit Moon. The glorious thing about this album, and Waits in general, is his ability to find a silver lining in every gutter dog situation, the beauty of his music, which truly exists beneath the grit and the grrr, making even the most sordid of lives seem charming, even ideal. Growl on.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More transitions...

I am not a Beatles fan.

And because of this I never feel right talking about a Beatles album even though I own them all and listen to several of them on a regular basis. So it goes. But while we’re talking about transitions this week, we may as well throw possibly the most famous band of rock n roll in the mix as well. In my opinion the big Beatles transition album is not one record but two, which is to say the back to back, one-two punch action of Rubber Soul and Revolver. In my mind this is the Beatles’ “mid period,” between the fun, straightforward but sometimes silly pop n roll of their early days, and the studio heavy, anything goes, often overindulgence of their later career, that not only kept them in the charts, but put them on the map as a) a pinnacle for their peers to reach for but never attain (sorry B-Wilson) and b) solidified them with a ginormous golden star in the annuls of rock history for like…ever. Whatever. (I am not a Beatles fan.) But while they were still touring and playing out, that is to say still a band, and not just a collection of musicians sitting around making noise, they put out the two ambitious, groundbreaking, yet highly accessible albums mentioned above. In a word, they started to take their songwriting more seriously, shedding a lot of the la-la love you do-wah-ditty silliness that had the young girls screaming and crying to beat the band (I mean literally, the fans were so loud the boys couldn’t even hear themselves onstage) and replacing it with a deeper, more mature, more moving sentiment akin to realizing the difference between school boy crush and adult love (or the loss there of). Plus, they became more introspective on other subjects such as isolation, loneliness and various forms of social prejudice. Seriously, I’ve got two words for you: Eleanor Rigby. That one right there is a barn hanger. Many fans hold one or both of these albums as among the best, if not the best, that the Beatles had to offer, when they were still accessibly pop-tastic and grounded enough in their subject matter for folks to identify with what they were saying, before they left the planet for strawberry fields and penny lanes. (I am not a Beatles fan.) And even though these two albums aren’t usually my first choice when in a Beatles mood, what I enjoy about them is that they’re still very much rock n roll…more sophisticated than Please, Please Me but with the same energy, less pretentious than Sgt. Peppers but equally as inspired.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Transition albums are always difficult…shedding the old, embracing the new, trying to find a fresh direction while not completely losing touch with where you came from, it happens to most any band who sticks around for more than half a dozen years. From their very first album in 1964, the Rolling Stones were able to put out a slew of consecutively great to spectacular (and one bizarrely interesting) albums that hit a superbly sweet spot between 1968 and 1972 with the quadruple threat of Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street – and they did so while losing guitarist/auxiliary musician Brian Jones and incorporating guitar wunderkind Mick Taylor, a seemingly effortless transition in which they never missed a beat or a lick (ha, ha, get it?). But when Mick Taylor left, things started to get a little shaky. Sure, he was onboard when their slight decline began in 1973 with Goats Head Soup, but was long gone when the band started trying out guitarists while simultaneously recording 1976’s Black and Blue. And while Ronnie Wood eventually got the slot and has been there ever since, he only appears on a handful of tracks on that album, as the rest are filled in by other possible hopefuls. Recorded sporadically over a period of several months, I think it’s safe to say that the resulting album from any band under these circumstances would be patchy at best. There definitely seemed to be a lack of focus from the group, and that’s also understandable considering a) this was their thirteenth album in as many years and b) the plethora of amazing material they were able to churn out in that amount of time (while also indulging in a now legendary rock n roll lifestyle). In my opinion, Black and Blue is an overlooked gem. I won’t quite call it a lost classic because it in no way compares to the “fantastic four” or even some of the stronger efforts from their early period, but for what it is, which is a band looking to stay together and possibly rediscover themselves, it’s quite strong. With styles covering reggae, jazz, funk and, of course, rock n roll, Black and Blue is very smooth listen. And honestly, this might be part of the problem, for where many of the great-great-great Stones albums challenge the listener with song after song that not only cover a variety of styles but create attitudes and personalities all their own, Black and Blue catches a groove in a slick and seamless fashion that is in every way unobtrusive, so just as you’re starting to shake yer biznezz with Hot Stuff, the next thing you know it’s 40 odd minutes later and Crazy Mama is shutting it all down for you. Essentially, once the needle hits the wax, it’s very easy for this album to just slip into the background and it really takes repeat and concentrated listens to catch hold of true standouts (some of which are in the lower tiers of the best of the Stones) like Hand of Fate, Memory Motel and Melody (which features a fantastic organ and counter vocal from Billy Preston). Though a commercial success (it went to #1 in the US), Black and Blue effectively transitioned the Rolling Stones into their final and current stage (unless you wanna consider the departure of Bill Wyman as another phase), replacing a lot of the rough grime and grit, both musically and lyrically, that had made them infamous with a glossy sheen that became more tongue in cheek chic, a formulaic parody of themselves, than the threat from the dark underbelly of rock music. Also, this is where their true artistic decline begins (though they followed up this album with Some Girls, which many fans consider to be on par with their dead level best), as they started to morph into the cash machine that would eventually end up on the cover of Forbes. But all of that aside, we really can’t fault or overlook the music, which has merit, even if it’s a touch pedestrian, jaded and ultimately uninspired. Black and Blue presents its case of Stones longevity well, showcasing a set of musicians still capable of putting out a listenable tune and a formidable, if not earth shattering, record -- and they were able to keep up that lesser momentum at least into the early 80s (right Bill?).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

When You’ve Got It All Over Him…

There are many faces to Stephin Merritt: grumpy queen, disgruntled queen, bemused queen, ornery queen and, my favorite, bitchy queen. This is quite fitting ‘cos the man knows about a million ways to break a heart, from both the giving and receiving ends, and has told us all about it in song for close to two decades. Of his multiple monikers the most infamous is the Magnetic Fields, a truly dynamic group whose many albums have ranged from minimalist pop (Distant Plastic Trees), to lo-fi dance pop (Get Lost), to indie chamber pop (i), to noise pop (Distortion) and most recently to folk…you thought I was gonna say pop (Realism). And let us not forget the triple album magnum opus, 69 Love Songs, that covers most all those styles plus country, doo-wop, a cappella, jazz and “punk” to name a few. And if all of that weren’t enough, and it’s not, Merritt fronts even more groups - the self-praising and collaborative 6ths, the bubblegum brood of the Gothic Archies and the discothèque Future Bible Heroes - which allow him to push his magic envelope even further, and, finally, an impressive solo output that includes forays into show tunes. Merritt’s wit is truly unparalleled and he can turn a phrase that makes you grin even as it socks you in the stomach as easily as the average man can turn a corner. But what makes this choleric queen so downright irresistible is how absolutely effortless all his songs seem. He uses the same basic chords that the rest of us mortal musicians use, and yet the melodies drawn from them make the angels weep on a daily basis. Even when it’s not his plaintively low baritone bemoaning yet another love catastrophe, other vocalists who take the mic cannot hide the fact that this song is distinctly Merritt and his aloof shadow still lingers within the spotlight of attention.

The Magnetic Fields

The Magnetic Fields – All the Umbrellas in London

The 6ths - As You Turn to Go

The Gothic Archies - The Abandoned Castle of My Soul

The Future Bible Heroes - I'm a Vampire

Stephin Merritt - Sorry, Wrong Show

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

When You've Still Got It...


Few bands have stayed together for so long and remained as consistently worthwhile and enjoyable as The Church. From their jangle-rock beginnings to their psychedelic pop (commercial) heyday to the sweeping landscapes and textures they've explored for the past twenty years, they have never put out a bad album, from 1981's Of Skins and Heart to 2009's Untitled #23, and each release has at least one or two (or ten) tracks that could easily be about the best song the band has ever written. In the middle of it all is vocalist/bassist Steve Kilbey, who in the early days penned nearly every song and even now is the focal force of their more free form oriented material, his mellow baritone croon cutting through even the most intricate of layered guitar flutterings and thundering tom barrages as clearly and smoothly as a knife passing through water, giving extra weight to the tone of each song he sings with a rich almost prophetic clarity. And if 23 albums plus a handful of collected b-sides, outtakes and rarities with The Church weren't enough, he's released seven solo albums and worked on close to a dozen (or more) collaborative efforts, including my favorite Jack Frost with the late Go-Betweens singer/guitarist Grant McLennan. Everything Steve Kilbey has put his hand and voice to over the past 30 years is worth checking out, from atmospheric noodlings to pure pop perfection, he is a veritable Renaissance Man of sensational underground music (plus he writes poetry, short stories and Lord knows what else).

The Church - Reptile (1988)

The Church - Numbers (2002)

Steve Kilbey - Other Time (1986)

Steve Kilbey - Wolfe (2008)

...and now, with The Church...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

When You've Got It Too...

My longtime readers (all three (3) of you) will know that a couple or so times I have lauded Rhett Miller of the Old 97's as "the 2nd Greatest Songwriter of Our Generation." But have I ever mentioned the first? Yes? No? I can't remember, but here he is...Neil Halstead. Who? Yeah, I know. Unless you were falling all over shoegaze in the first half of the 90s you probably never caught note one of his absolutely unparalleled group within that self-celebrating scene, Slowdive. The music that band created was essentially a long and plaintive sigh, a splendid wave of melancholy that, to quote them, "just soothes my pain away." And if you never caught Slowdive, you likely never caught the band that followed straight on the heels of their demise, the folk-twang flavored Mojave 3, who have put out some of the finest laid back strum-along music found on either side of the pond. And if that weren't enough, he's even tried his hand solo, producing two widely diverse yet distinctly Halstead albums that both spun the laser dull on my CD player. In the Slowdive days Neil's lyrics, though descriptive, generally set a mood to fit the song and were as cryptic and open to interpretation as the music that swirled around and half buried them. Beginning with Mojave 3, a more straightforward affair, he truly began his "singer/songwriter" stage and the word-pictures he painted followed suit, stepping from the haze of a dream and projecting a roadside, field-wide, surf-ride image as clear and sharp as if the memory were your own. The best vibe to sum up Neil's work across all three of these outings is "mellow," because even at Slowdive's noisiest or Mojave 3's most upbeat (which really didn't come along until their fifth album), they are lead by the gentle spirit of a man who can carve a sweet barrel as smoothly as he can lull you into a state of absolute dreaminess. Please do not operate heavy machinery while listening.


Slowdive - Waves

Mojave 3 - Who Do You Love?

Neil Halstead - Sailing Man

Mojave 3

Monday, March 1, 2010

When You've Got It...

Ain't she sweet?

Few outside the indie/twee pop world of the 90s will know the name Rose Melberg. That's a shame, 'cos with a voice to melt a heart of titanium she fronted several of indie rock's best and most beloved bands. From the cutesy snarl of Tiger Trap, to the jangle bounce of Go Sailor, to the dreamy strum of The Softies (where Rose and I were first introduced), she has been a cult-fan-fave and a critical darling on par with, well...very few to be honest, 'cos her output is that consistently good. While most of these projects were relatively short-lived with limited output, the quality of music from each is so great that it seems as if no one group or set of musicians could quite contain Rose's wide and varied visions, and yet each bears a stamp that is distinctly hers, and if you're a fan of one, you're bound to be a fan of all the rest (which includes Gaze where she played drums). I guess when you've got it, you've got it. So if you're not familiar with Rose Melberg or any of her outfits, give 'em a'll be glad you stopped by. And if you are familiar, you've already skipped this paragraph and gone straight to the music. Oh yeah!

Tiger Trap - My Broken Heart

Go Sailor - I'm Still Crying

Gaze - Detail Queen

The Softies - Sleep Away Your Troubles

Rose Melberg - Moon Singer

The Softies