Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Another Third...

Tim Buckley was an artist who was always in a state of flux. Even in his folk-balladeer early days he was a bit scattered and all over the place, a wandering troubadour one moment, a wailing and forlorn lover the next. But it all seemed to fit in place, and even when it seemed a tad forced, each song was stamped with that “Tim Buckley sound.” Little did folks know that he had many more sounds up his sleeve, as his third album, Happy Sad, finds him stepping almost completely away from the singer/songwriter spotlight to explore the less confined fields of jazz.

Always willing to open his heart in song, the themes of love and loss and regret are familiar, but here Tim really begins to bare his soul, using his fantastic voice (a full five octaves) to draw the listener in, not just to understand but to also feel his pain. He’s crooning here, stretching his lyrics to fit the draw of the music, taking things down to a somewhat lower register from the lady-sweet sighs and cat-scratch callings of his first two albums, and this fits him well, making his gut-groans believable and his pleas for forgiveness easily granted. Here, on Gypsy Woman particularly, we see the first true example of Buckley using his voice as an “instrument” if you will, performing a visceral, almost animalistic warm up for the vocal acrobatics that would both highlight and distract from later works like Lorca and Starsailor.

Yet there are certain familiarities present, and none more important than his right hand man and secret weapon Lee Underwood on lead guitar, creating runs and counter melodies that not only push these loose, free-flowing songs to their fullest potential, but also keep them reeled in and structured.

This was a highly personal album for Tim, especially on the song Dream Letter, which acts as an open apology to his ex wife and their son Jeff (maybe you’ve heard of him), whom he never knew and only met once (sometime after this song was recorded). And while sadness is the pervading feeling of Happy Sad, it’s not depression, for interwoven amongst the tears are strands of hope and the idea that tomorrow promises to be a better day.

I’ll close this one out with a live take on the closer from the album, Sing a Song for You, which is less like the bulk of Happy Sad and more like his earlier work, and yet the sentiment remains.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Only in Threes...

I just got back from vacation and the musical theme this year was “third albums” by a certain artist. What I found was that in several cases, these were the most well-known or popular albums with both fans and the public in general. And I’m not going to get into a bunch of thoughts as to why and wherefore, but what it means ultimately is that the past week was filled with some pretty great and varied music.

With that in mind, here are three that stood out to me…

Aerosmith – Toys in the Attic: Back in the days when it only took 8 to 10 songs for a band to make their point and leave the listener smoked, Aerosmith lifted themselves from bar band to arena status with a set of dirty rockers worthy of the reputation that has become a glossed over mockery of itself the past 20 or so years. As always there is an ample amount of fun and slightly dangerous tongue (among other things) in cheek sleaze, not only on rock staple hits (Walk This Way, Sweet Emotion), but album tracks (Adam’s Apple, Big Ten Inch Record), as well as the other side of that coin with the pre-Janie’s Got a Gun creepiness of Uncle Salty. Basically, if you like to rock and you’re not a prude, this album is for you. Stylistically things are about what you’d expect, and want, from Boston’s bad boys in those days, with a couple of exceptions being the ultra heavy (by many a hard rock band’s standards) Round and Round and the Wings era McCartney-esque (complete with wall of sound) You See Me Crying, the latter unfortunately pointing to where things would be headed in their 90s, etc commercial comeback. Sadly, Toys in the Attic is about as good as it ever got with Aerosmith, with the possible exception of Rocks, as drugs and egos would break the cycle, and when they finally put it back together, everything was more a cliché than anything else.

Boston – Third Stage: After the mind blowing, record breaking success (and deservedly so, Bill) of their debut and a not-too-shabby reception to their “rushed” (by Tom Scholz standards) 1978 follow up, Boston didn’t get the aptly titled Third Stage out to the public until 1986. Sometimes good things really do come to those who wait, and this was certainly the case here. Though Third Stage isn’t quite on par with the debut or Don’t Look Back, it’s certainly playing on the same course (golf metaphors…oh brother...), the best songs are up to speed with the better on the first two (if not quite the best) and the only reason it gets a little bit of a dismissal is because it doesn’t rock quite as hard as it should…which I’m blaming on 80s production, most obvious in the rather embarrassing electronic drums (or maybe they’re just so compressed they don’t sound real any more). While Boston has never been a stranger to love and heartbreak, those two themes come up more readily than anything else, with tunes about partyin’ and rockin’ and tokin’ a fat one all but fallen by the wayside. What this means is that you don’t want to pull out Third Stage when you’re ready to boogie – though on certain cuts (We’re Ready, Cool the Engines) you surely can – but when you’re in a more pensive, self-doubting, down and out mood, especially when flipping things over to side two, with some of Sholz’s finest hooks (Can’tcha Say) and sing-a-long melodies (I Think I Like It) and some of Delp’s most moving vocal performances (Hollyann). For a long time Third Stage was simply something I owned for nostalgic purposes, representing a time in my life when I started discovering different types of music, experiencing new feelings, and finding other worlds to explore. All of that is still true, but now that affection is tempered by true admiration for these songs, and I think this disc (or record when I’m in the mood) will get many more plays in the future than it may have otherwise.

The Go-Betweens – Spring Hill Fair: I think most Go-Bs fans would agree that during their initial 80s run every album they released saw them in a transition phase until they finally reached the pop bliss of 16 Lovers Lane…and then quietly disbanded – only to pick up again 10+ years later with a string of critically acclaimed (and even commercially successful!) albums solidifying that pop bliss with a less dated production, as well as confirming that the McLennan/Forster songwriting team had only become stronger with the years. Unfortunately, that all ended with Grant McLennan’s untimely death in 2006. However, on 1984’s Spring Hill Fair the only song that really points to that future is lead track/second single Bachelor Kisses, and from there things take a more “logical” move away from the angular pop of Before Hollywood. Those angles are still there, especially in tracks like Five Words and Draining the Pool for You, but they’ve been broadened out and smoothed over a bit, especially by McLennan with Slow Slow Music and Unkind & Unwise, and, to a lesser extent, Forster’s vicious heart-break-up song, Man O’ Sand to Girl O’ Sea. Part of the evening out process was the addition of bassist Robert Vickers, allowing McLennan to move over to second guitar and further flesh out the delicate beauty of the band’s earlier sound, making them less vulnerable but no less approachable. What Spring Hill Fair does is act like a bridge from the obvious post punk bravado of the first two albums to the more polished, verse-chorus-verse of later fan favorites like Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, yet it does so without awkwardness or a sense of no direction. It’s clear that Grant and Robert knew exactly where they were going, they were just taking their time getting there…and unfortunately most of the world is yet to catch up.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

B-Sides - What They're Good For

B-sides…a true music collector loves them, but what are they good for? Well, lots of things… If it’s a standalone single that’s not part of any proper album (and these are the best kinds of singles), then the B-side(s) is as important as the lead track, ‘cos everything on there you want to be the best representation of what the artist you’re purchasing is about. And then there are artists who utilize the B-side for songs they don’t know what else to do with, songs that stand aside from the feel of the album sessions from which they came, and why waste a good song just ‘cos it’s an oddball? I read somewhere once that the Police used B-sides for their more experimental songs, which is saying something considering the fact that all five of their albums have some pretty out there tracks. So, for every A there is a B, right? Actually, no, not really…I mean there’s a flip side to every single release (speaking from a vinyl perspective), but often as not, and especially with major labels, the B-side is an album track or a live version of a previous single, which to me isn’t catering much to the music fan, but to some one-off purchaser whom they’re trying to lure in to buying a bit more than Unskinny Bop or whatever (take that, Poison). Alas, so it goes for the true music lover...and yet there are still plenty of loose odds and ends out there from most bands for collectors to enjoy their happy hunting and find everything. But the intent of this post is not stray obscurities from movie soundtracks, charity compilations or Japanese only releases, but true, honest to goodness, turn it over and listen to side B offerings. These are a few, though certainly not all, of my favorites (in alphabetical order by artist)…

· Belle & Sebastian – Winter Wooskie (Legal Man): One of the things I loved about B&S was their non-album single/EP aesthetic, something they held onto religiously through the “classic era” of their career. For me the standout amongst the many B-sides is the quaint and charming Winter Wooskie. I believe the lead vocal here is taken by Stevie Jackson (please correct me if I’m wrong), and it’s a sweet and simple little jingle about a mystery girl out in the snow. The real charm of this song is the frank openness of the lyrics, an innocent admiration for a girl he does not know and can’t even really see since she’s all bundled up in winter garb, and yet he allows himself to project his ideal love on this otherwise blank canvas of a figure. Perhaps I’m letting my own imagination run away with me, but that’s my right as the listener and it’s the vibe I feel when I hear this song (which I do fairly often).

· The Cure – Harold & Joe (Never Enough): Back in their pre-Disintegration “heyday,” the Cure weren’t overly known for their B-sides. Sure, there are some lost gems here and there, but mostly those songs are just leftovers that didn’t mesh with the sound of whatever album they hailed from, or were obviously just studio tinkering and half baked throwaways. With the Big D, B-sides and album track culminated into one boiling juggernaut of awesome…and then something strange happened - the B-sides beginning with Wish were not only better than most of the album tracks, but sometimes more so than the singles they backed. I won’t get into the why and the wherefore (it’s all speculative rot anyway). But I will say that post-Big D and pre-Wish, the horrific Mixed Up came out and produced one of the most obnoxious songs in rock history, Never Enough, which doesn’t fit on anything Cure related or any album by any band worth a shake. However, as appalling as this single is, its proper B-side (not counting the “Why did they do that remix of Just Like Heaven?” debacle), Harold & Joe, is one of the most whimsical, lighthearted and enjoyable bits of mellow rock ever produced. Though with different production it could have fit along rather easily with some of the more upbeat moments of the Japanese Whispers era (for those of you tuning in from the US), it’s really too much of an anomaly to fit in anywhere other than where it does…which is a shame because the result leaves it forgotten and woebegone – though it does redeem the purchase of an otherwise ridiculous piece of non-rock, non-pop flutter.

· Duran Duran – Secret Oktober (Union of the Snake): One of the many casualties of mainstream (and 80s) success, Duran Duran’s timeless (and time-defining) singles overshadow the brilliance of their original era albums and even more so, the B-sides backing many of the aforementioned singles. I could click off several here…Late Bar, Khanda, Like an Angel, not to mention a fantastic live version of Steve Harley’s Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), that are all as good as most everything you’ll find on the band’s first three “classic era” albums. But the one that stands out most to me, if my DD-lore memory serves me, is simply Simon and Nick doing a little one off deal in the studio. Coming from the mindset that produced the most over the top, and arguably least creative, of the original Fab Fives’ three albums, Secret Oktober is a low key, brooding number, mindful of what these two boys would deliver a couple of years later with Arcadia, with Simon at his lyrical best crooning, “Holding your arm in a battered car, all night parties, cocktail bars and smile when the butterfly escapes the killing jaws.” I don’t know what it means, and it hardly matters, but that line has haunted me for a very long time, ever since I purchased the Union of the Snake 12” more years ago than I’m going to admit (ok, roughly 23). Though equally as dark and obscure, it’s the juxtaposition in every other way of the slinky, dance-worthy A-side it supports, and at the end of the day, or rather era, holds up much, much better.

· New Order – 1963 (True Faith): New Order was certainly a band known for their singles, especially in their 80s heyday. And while there’s loads of confusion (on my end at least) as to what were A-sides verses B-sides based on how they appeared on vinyl versus the Substance collection, one that I’m pretty sure I’ve got straight is 1963 from the True Faith single. This is Bernard Sumners take on the JFK assassination, the idea that Jack (or as the song calls him, Johnny) was in love with Marilyn Monroe and hired Jack Ruby/Lee Harvey Oswald to kill Jackie-O in what looked like an attempt on his own life. If this is true there are several flaws from the get go, two glaring ones being A) JFK was killed in November 1963, not January, and B) Marilyn Monroe had died over a year earlier on August 5, 1962. (Also, did you see what I did with the A/B thing there?) Be that as it may, it’s a neat concept and an even greater pop song, full of catchy hooks and a totally emotive chorus, rivaling if not quite surpassing its A-side counterpart. Honestly, the best version of this song is a remix by I believe Shep Pettibone, which can be found on the Best of New Order compilation album.

· The Old 97s – The Villain (Nineteen): Our favorite boys from TX are more known for solid albums than a slew of chart topping singles (though in my universe they should certainly be known for both). Even more scarce are B-sides or many stray tracks at all, but an exception is The Villain, backing their 1999 pop breakthrough, Nineteen. While the A-side does tend to wander from the alt-country feel these guys helped pioneer, as well as the ramshackle grace of Fight Songs, The Villain embraces a very Marty Robbins-esque feel with its whimsical, two-step swing, which ironically (or not) still wouldn’t have fit well with the album (which is a much more moody affair). Still, this is a misplaced gem that should have been reworked and/or rerecorded for a later album (thus giving it the notice it deserves), with Rhett playfully lamenting yet another wrecked romance, and the boys at his back delivering a lively performance on par with…well, everything they put pick and stick to. I want to say that this song is on their best of compilation from a few years back, which is a nice rundown of what the Old 97s have to offer, and the Villain is a high profile bonus.

· The Smiths – Wonderful Woman (This Charming Man): If nothing else, the Smiths were a singles band front to back, and I’m sure most Smiths enthusiasts would shake their heads and say “No, no, no, no, no…” at my choice of B-side to single out (ha, ha “single out”). Not that they don’t enjoy this simplistic and rather overlooked little ditty, but it hardly reaches the majestic heights of Is It Really So Strange?, Half a Person or London. Right? Well, I beg to differ. With Wonderful Woman you have everything that was integral to the early sound of the Smiths – ringing guitars, understated drumming, Moz’s lovelorn croon – and it really all comes together quite nicely. Perhaps it is a bit under developed, but that’s all part of its charm, as we get to see the band in an embryonic, pre-glory state, without all the production tricks – stripped and open and honest. If you can’t close your eyes, listen to this song and pictures a sepia toned, bob-haired teenager moping through a cemetery (for those of you inclined to such things), then you need to have your daydream glasses checked.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Jerry Garcia

Fifteen years ago today, or probably yesterday or so by the time you read this, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead passed away after a long battle with diabetes. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the news…in the break room eating lunch at Speedy Car Wash in Panama City, FL where I worked summers, etc between 1990 and 1995. My reaction upon hearing this news was a burst of laughter. Terrible, I know. But that was me as a 21 year old kid, and to a certain extent even now, to scoff in the grief of those mourning the passing of a rock icon and an all around super nice guy. And yes, I was certainly aware of the former, but back then it was cool for all us alterno-indie kids to hate hippies and classic rock…you know, the whole kill your idols deal. But even before then, when Led Zeppelin was the greatest band ever and I even sorta liked hippies, I was “taught” that the Grateful Dead were a horrific band and only complete idiots liked them. And I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of being a Deadhead (sticker on a Cadillac), but I will say that 15 years and a few less musical prejudices later, I can not only respect the Grateful Dead for who they were and what they did, but I can even get into a bit of their music.

Doing so was a conscious effort on my part, starting back 10ish plus years ago when I realized that Keith Richards is about 1000 times more punk than Sid Vicious (suck on that, JT) and was re-embracing classic rock – picking up again all the old Zeppelin albums I’d spurned at age 18, realizing the Stones actually wrote some fantastic tunes before becoming parodies of themselves, and taking the plunge into the Beatle hype simply because I felt like I should. (FYI, I never shunned the Doors, not even for a second.) Around the same time I discovered Love, the C. A. Quintet and a host of other obscure 60s bands, I decided I’d at least read up on the Dead and see if I couldn’t find a couple of albums to give a listen. What I came up with was Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, two of their heavy folk albums that many folks will argue are their greatest, and which certainly contain many of their best known songs. I won’t argue the former simply because I’ve hardly explored much beyond these two albums, but I will say that both were good enough for me to realize that there was much more to these guys than endless jam sessions and doped up hippies stumbling all over each other. But it still didn’t make me think they were worth all the legendary hubbub.

Next, about two or so years ago, Damn Fine Day had the Cream Puff War as their song of the day and I said, “Yes sir, this indeed is very much what it’s all about,” ‘cos that song is a prime example of 60s psychedelia at its tip top best. After that I decided that I was going to pick up their first album and give it an honest listen. In a word, brilliant - and dare I add, a blueprint of psychedelic music both then and for retro revivalists over the next four decades. And I realize that while this album garners loads of great reviews and is considered a classic, it’s not what most fans would nod to as the Grateful Dead’s most important era. And that’s fair enough, because I’m still not a Dead fan, but I can certainly tell you that I not only acknowledge and appreciate what they did, but I thoroughly enjoy it whenever I get around to giving an album a listen (which admittedly isn’t often enough). And so looking back 15 years, I’m thankful that I remember where I was when I heard about the passing of a true music innovator (and I realize here that I’ve not really talked about Jerry Garcia at all, just my own experience with his band), who was so much more than a trippy guru or psychedelic shaman, but one who explored and cultivated several genres from folk to blues to jazz to country, with a unique style and vision that cared for nothing more than creating art through music and sharing it with anyone who cared to listen.

So Jerry, wherever you are hanging with Jimi and B-Jones and Mama C, I hope they let you bring your guitar and that your long, strange trip is just beginning.

Also, here's a You Tube clip of the song that made the light bulb click on.

BTW, I like hippies even less than I did 15 years ago. Exponentially less.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Stains On a Decade: An ’02 Amendment

Well, I goofed, as I often do, and inadvertently left off an album from the 2002 list that was key for me in more ways than one – the Church’s After Everything Now This. Honestly, it’s not that I forgot about it, only that I thought it came out in 2003, so…there goes a bit more of my memory. However, I do remember picking this one up at Grimey’s at their original location not long after getting married, out with the Mrs. for a Saturday spending spree, and there it was sitting there all subdued and forlorn as if to say “Well, there you are at last.” I’d had no idea it even existed (I’m really very terrible at keeping up with what’s new in music, even amongst my favorite artists), and ironically this was a pre-release copy, so I was inadvertently ahead of the game. Go me.

I admit I was skeptical of this album, as I had been of all albums from the Church since 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix. Why? Well, as I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, after that album they began the second phase of their career, pealing away the jangle-tastic immediacy that had endeared them to me for so many years, and beginning the long, drawn out process of mining the earthy goodness of music that can’t be properly delved in a 3.5 minute standard pop tune. And while I had faithfully picked up each album as it came out, I listened to them out of obligation instead of interest and always went back to Of Skins and Heart or Séance or Starfish for my proper Church fix. Even 1998’s Hologram of Baal – a “return to form” as well as the official return of wayward guitarist Peter Koppes – did little to endear me to the Church in the “modern era” so to speak.

So, here I was with a promotional copy of After Everything Now This…and I thought it a befitting title considering the time, devotion and coin I’d shelled out on these Aussie wunderkinds, and with much to be personally doubtful of, I gave it a spin. Wow (that is to say W-O-W). I was literally blown away. It’s not that after a few albums of texture-noodling these guys finally got it right (and yes, efforts like Sometime Anywhere are a bit transitional), it’s that I finally caught up, ignored my pop prejudices and embraced this album and the new era of the Church with open arms. Ironically, this isn’t even one of their better albums of the second and most rewarding leg of their career, but it’s still a stellar example of what a bunch of gifted musicians can do once they never mind the mainstream and just make music that they enjoy and believe in.

The single and lead track, Numbers, is one of those undeniably instantaneous songs, an immediate toe-tapper under the table, restrained yet driven, as S-Kilbey weaves images in his ever-cryptic way, open to interpretation, or perhaps obvious to those with the right mindset. The title track is a sprawling epic (among so many), reminding one of why rock n roll can and should be stretched to its fullest potential, with strength in understatement and vibrancy in subtlety. Song for the Asking strips away the Kilbey mystery and bares all, delving in the loss and disillusion found in heartbreak. The shimmering Chromium is one of Marty Willson-Piper’s greatest non-solo tunes since Starfish’s Spark (and equally as engaging in its stripped down counterpart on the acoustic album, El Momento Descuidado). Radiance evokes a landscape, much like the album cover, that is simply otherworldly. Night Friends delivers everything a title of that nature implies, complete with a descending guitar lick that takes you straight down to the dregs of the matter. And last but not least, Invisible carries it all home (or wherever you care to go) in a faux chant murmur that could go on forever and you’d never notice - and wouldn’t mind if you did.

So prolific was this time period that they released a double album of alternate versions, mixes and various outtakes not long after, expanding the vision of After Everything Now This to the point of almost literal endlessness…though I will say that you truly have to have time on your hands to get through it all.

Ultimately what After Everything Now This did for me was open my mind to what the Church had been doing throughout most of the 90s (and continues to do to even greater success to this day), particularly albums like Sometime Anywhere and Magician Among the Spirits, helping me rediscover what I had right in front of me but had taken for granted.

So, I hope I’ve made up for my blunder, and if I were going to rank this along with the others, which I am, then I would put this album snuggly and deservedly in the #3 slot, between Interpol and Neil Halstead (and further proof that the old guys can still kick it up with the new, I mean young, I mean…).

And don’t worry, Forget Yourself…you’re on my ’03 radar.