Thursday, October 28, 2010

It's Like Halloween Time...Part 8

Slightly derailed by a 24-hour bug deal, we are back with more Misfits action. This time it's a live take on one of their signature numbers, Horror Business. This is definitely the version from Evilive and though the footage is lined up almost perfectly, I'm about 100% certain it's not the same show. Regardless, it's awesome to see the boys in action and the threat between the first and second verse is one of my favorite Misfits moments. Also, around the 2:00 mark, it's worth seeing the roadie (I guess) pick a fan up over his head and toss him into the crowd.

Per usual I'm not sure what all Danzig is talking about here - perhaps a serial killer at large, or just wilding to the extreme - but I do know that you do NOT go into the bathroom with him.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

It's Like Halloween Time...Part 7

Misfits fun continues with the first song by the band I can remember hearing, Skulls. A hands down fan favorite, Skulls is one of their more melodic and straightforward numbers, though lyrically it fits along nicely with the overall theme of the Misfits, describing the obsessions of a headhunter or, more accurately, a skull collector. Back in the early 90s, Evan Dando stripped this ditty down to its roots and proved there was true beauty in such horrific images (and the fan-made vid is...well…something).

When I found that vid I found another rendition, this time done by a gal on a ukulele. Forgive the mistakes, this might be the best version out there.

And then as an additional bonus, the boys doing it live and undead back in the day.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It's Like Halloween Time...Part 6

Well, it’s Halloween week, which means I’m going to be listening to a lot of the Misfits at ridiculous volumes, and of course there’s always plenty of that love to go around. Today’s pick is Hybrid Moments. What this song is about is anyone’s guess – Transmutation? Demon possession? Night creatures running amok? Yes! – but the lyrical imagery is scary enough and this fan-made video culled from some old school band footage and even older school horror flicks (Psycho, the 1925 Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, etc) is the icing on the cake.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Stuff - Fran Healy

Fran Healy – Wreckorder: As the lead singer and principle songwriter for Travis you would expect Fran Healy’s first solo album to sound very Travisy. And it does, but also not really. It does in the sense that these are Fran Healy songs, and over the years he has developed a very distinct voice despite the various “moods” of every Travis album that has come out for the past fifteen years. Of course what this means is you get bunch of warm, heartfelt, extremely well-written tunes that are openly personal but not explicitly apologetic, i.e. Fran lets you see things from his perspective though not necessarily through his eyes, allowing the moment, the feeling and the content of the song to be not just projected to but shared by the listener. It’s a very sincere and personable experience without getting too squeamishly personal (which long time readers know can kill it for me...Ben Gibbard).

But other than that one major characteristic, the Fran factor, Wreckorder is really nothing like a Travis album at all. The difference is in the approach. To put it simply, it’s the difference between the development of a song as a band/group effort versus a solo artist coming up with everything on his own and probably as he goes along in the studio. This does not make the music stifled or sterile like a lot of solo outings where some good songs by a great writer are lost to a lack of direction and development. Fran seems to know exactly what he’s doing, and instead of focusing on an album as a collective whole (as many Travis albums seem to be "themed" as it were) he’s letting each song speak for itself, with a life and a personality all its own. The end results are an album that discovers a new gem in a different vein with each strike of the pick (please, someone stop me with these metaphors) and yet at the same time remains amiably familiar because, as mentioned previously, these are Fran Healy songs.

If I had to compare Wreckorder to a Travis album it would be their last outing, 2008’s Ode to J. Smith, in the sense of a certain darker mood (which in itself was reminiscent of 12 Memories from 2003) and even a “non Travisy” approach. But really, I only make this comparison to segue into how non Travisy Wreckorder is. A big distinction is the instrumentation. Travis is a rock band - guitars, bass, drums...RAWK! - and while keys or strings are present, they simply enhance certain tracks, a production technique that when missing in a live setting does not damage the integrity of the song. But keys and strings dominate Wreckorder in that they carry many of these numbers, with piano being the focal instrument on several occasions (In the Morning, Shadow Boxing) and strings at other times (Anything), giving these songs a flair of the dramatic without sounding hokey or over the top. A couple others (Sing Me to Sleep – featuring Neko Case, Moonshine) possess a more lo-fi, home recorded demo feel with simple drum machine beats and processed synths, yet this doesn’t detract from the quality of these songs but rather enhances their somewhat brooding temperament. Still, having said all this, Wreckorder is not just a product of the studio, as any or all of these tunes would sound just fine with nothing but Fran and his acoustic. Again, as always, it's the songwriting first and everything else is just gravy.

Aside from Neko Case, other notable guest appearances are Travis alum and pal Andy Dunlop on Holiday (the song most like Travis because of this fact) and Paul McCartney (for whom Fran and fam went vegetarian) playing bass on As It Comes. What this also means is that Wreckorder is more than just a simple solo outing, but a collaboration with friends and colleagues, which accounts for the collectively relaxed vibe on this album. And while I have made a bit of an effort to point out that this does not sound like Travis, fans of the band will certainly love it and even casual listeners who only own The Man Who, maybe the Invisible Band and the Singles collection will certainly find much to enjoy. Bottom line, this is just good music done well, so why not give it a listen?

Check out the single Buttercups here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It's Like Halloween Time...Part 5

If any time over most of the past 20ish years you’d have asked me about The Gun Club I’d have been able to spit out about three general facts…

1) West Coast

2) “Blues Punk”

3) Dude is dead…

In more recent years I’ve gotten somewhat more familiar with them, enough to expand a bit on a couple of those things…

1) The Gun Club was from California, specifically Los Angeles.

2) “Blues Punk” (I mean it is what it is…)

3) “Dude” was lead singer Jeffery Lee Pierce and yes, he is dead.

These guys – along with X, the Cramps, Nick Cave, etc – helped break the punk and post punk genres into more than three chords and yelling about whatever made you mad. Their sound was raw, tribal and dead sexy, and while Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s lyrics may have focused a lot on sex, especially on their seminal debut Fire of Love, it was with a sinister wit that was so much more than your average “get with a girl” drivel, hashing out the real dirt and grime of making love in the early 80s and all the emotional ramifications that came along with it.

Anyway…to come more into focus on our theme, tonight’s entry is Ghost on the Highway from the aforementioned Fire of Love album. While this song deals more with the death of the heart from a woman who preys on men’s emotions, the imagery is dark and forbidding with talk of eyes like “black holes,” “blood and crying” on sheets and “trailing souls to the end,” and the music itself is an easy backdrop for the midnight, fog-laden country byroads of anywhere USA.

Monday, October 18, 2010

For a Quarter Part 1

The Great Escape, one of Nashville’s long-time used music + movies + comics + games stores has recently had .25 sidewalk sales at all of their locations and I managed to make it out to a couple of them. The end result was 13 CDs for under $5…not too shabby. In some ways sales of this kind are a collector’s paradise, enabling them to dig through mountains of veritable trash to get to that one sweet gem of a find. In both instances there wasn’t anything too mind blowing as in “they had no idea what they had, so just gave it away” ‘cos the kids at Great Escape usually know their stuff, know what is what and know when something is actually of value and when something is just a “pleasant throwaway.” Again, that’s all in the ear of the listener, and while I wouldn’t call any of my finds throwaways, I know I didn’t make a huge score either, though I certainly saved myself quite a bit of money on some albums that would normally be $4-$8 in the used market.

As is often the case, 75% of what I’d normally get was something I already owned, which is all part of the game. But it was also interesting to see, amongst so many artists that I’d never heard of, the deluge of albums that were huge a decade or so ago, but a saturation of people now being “over it” (oh, you fickle public) selling them for whatever they could get has caused the bins to overflow with those smirky faces once so hopeful. The standout from what I remember was Joan Osbourne’s big one with that annoying One of Us song on it. Apparently it was called Relish…and I’ll stay away from the hotdog jokes.

Of course it takes awhile to go through 13 discs of mostly new-to-me music (some discs were things I’d owned on cassette or vinyl years ago), so I’ll start nodding to the highlights as they make an impression, beginning with…

Cinnamon – The Courier (1997)

I honestly knew next to nothing about this band until I started researching a bit for this entry and have just learned they’re Swedish…and now everything makes complete sense!!

I remember this album was on the listening station at Blockbuster Music over on West End back when it first came out. I rarely paid much attention to those things unless it was an artist I was already familiar with, but something about the cover drew me in and I gave it a listen, enjoyed it but didn’t purchase it (money was tight in those days and I was getting something else). But a friend owned it and I would play it whenever I came over and so became familiar enough with the album to be interested in seeing them when they came to Nashville, but ended up not going last minute for reasons I can’t recall (actually I can, I’m just not going to say here), which is a shame ‘cos I bet it was a good show. And that was pretty much it for Cinnamon. I know they have had some releases since and as recently as a couple of years ago, but that’s about all I can find on the internet as there’s not even a Wiki article, just a brief overview on AllMusic. Sad.

Anyway, at some point I ended up with a burned copy of the album but I’m notoriously bad about not listening to burned copies (something about not having the full, physical deal with artwork and plastic case, etc makes it seem not real…which is sort of my problem with digital downloads as well), so it fell by the wayside and eventually the trash making room for something else or other in my life. So when I stumbled upon the Courier at the first .25 sidewalk sale it was my chance to redeem not picking it up the first time and catching up with these guys at least as far as the late 90s.

Of the first batch this one is my hands down favorite by far and listening to it again was like listening to it for the first time, partly because it sounded fresh and exciting, but also because I sadly had little to no memory of these songs, which is a silly shame but I have crammed my head with a bunch of stuff over the past decade or so. At any rate, the Courier first reminds me of a less heavy (and annoying) Garbage, a more straightforward Cardigans (again, the Swedish connection), an electro-spacey Sundays, so basically a nice blend of power pop delivered the way they could only do it in the 90s. But like all good bands there are tricks up every sleeve that set them apart from the rest, and with Cinnamon these are found in super catchy hooks, a jazzy flavor to many of the backbeats and a swirling production that cocoons these mainly acoustic-based songs in a Spector-like shell by accenting all the highlights (and there are many) without distracting from the overall flow of the album. From the straight rock drive of Hopeless Case to the dance-and-sing-along bounce of Missing Persons File to the so sweet it makes the heart ache of Me as Helen of Troy and the salsa-vibes-sway of either The Promenade or A Northwest Passage, the Courier has everything everyone who loves anything about pop music has to offer.

At the end of the day this is a fun, upbeat album and the band sounds like they’re enjoying every minute of it. The only bummer is that nobody cared at all back in 1997, including me it seems, and I’m sad that I didn’t follow my inclination ten plus years ago so I could have had this pick me up for a rainy day all this time – but better late than never.

Findings are slim, but here's an acoustic performance (on Japanese television I believe) of Me as Helen of Troy. La, la lovely...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Final Albums

Closing statement or last gasp for air, the final release of an artist is in some ways the benchmark for everything else that has been achieved up to that point. Did they stay the course? Did they forge into new and unexpected territories? Did they slowly fizzle and fade into mediocrity and ho-hum obscurity? Ultimately it’s up to the listener to decide, so here are a few of my thoughts on some farewell efforts.

The Velvet Underground – Loaded (1970): With Lou Reed it was always about songwriting, the difference was in the approach. After turning the basic pop song on its ear with Nico and White Light/White Heat, the post-John Cale VU headed for a more straightforward but no less interesting form of rock, and Loaded, the final release with Reed, has been a blueprint to accessible-but-not-mainstream music for the past forty years. Despite inner tensions, the Velvets were never more focused, consciously structured or consistently melodic. Some of Reed’s best known tunes (Sweet Jane, Rock & Roll) are found here, but these are hardly the best moments of the album, with the bittersweet opener Who Loves the Sun, the grit-rocker Cool It Down, the majestic New Age and the straight up epic Oh! Sweet Nothing stealing the stage, the spotlight, the glory and the whole kit-n-caboodle. Lou certainly stepped out to go solo on a high note, though, with the possible exception of Transformer, he never hit such heights again.

Tim Buckley – Look At the Fool (1974): Tim Buckley’s career was a hodgepodge of musical exploits where lyrical themes rarely strayed far from matters of the heart and conscience in all forms, but where genres ranged from folk to rock to free jazz to avant-garde to white funk and Philly soul. Behind all of this was the weapon of his magnificent voice, an alleged five full octaves, that could coax the most haunting melodies imaginable from thin air or split the sky with shrieks of primal longing. In most if not all cases much of what he’d done musically had been tinkered with before, but if Buckley didn’t reinvent the wheel he certainly took it places and made it do things no one else ever had (and few have since). His vision was great, his scope was boundless and some groundbreaking albums were made (Goodbye and Hello, Happy Sad, Starsailor). Unfortunately, this ambition did very little to endear him to a public who mainly had no ear for animalistic jungle cries amidst a barrage of congas and frenetic guitar workouts and this, coupled with his substance abuse, soon found Buckley in the early 70s with a greatly dwindled audience from his late 60s heyday. The result of this realization was a retreat to more friendly territory, though instead of (going backwards and) re-embracing the melodic folk rock that first brought him notoriety he put out two albums of poorly received soul rock intended, so they say, to be little more than radio fodder. By his last album, Look at the Fool - which they also say was a title he fittingly coined for himself - he was basically out of ideas, material and direction. So they say. But I beg to differ. Perhaps some of these implications are true, but I believe as an artist Buckley was simply trying something new, and while Look at the Fool may not have the grandiose sway of Goodbye and Hello or the longing-eyed wonder of Happy Sad, it is a pleasant, often spirited offering of mid to up tempo songs intended to do nothing more than bring a tap to your foot, a hum to your lips and joy to your heart. And perhaps he was displeased with the results, perhaps he knew he was putting out a bunch of “uninspired filler” to a now indifferent crowd, but is the purpose of music to always blow our minds and show us undiscovered directions? No. Sometimes it’s just escapism, a feel good tune for a stressful day, which is what Look at the Fool delivers in spades, and which is what makes it a highly enjoyable, accessible and ultimately successful album. Yes, his voice is a bit worn and ragged (a big complaint from most all critics), but it’s no less impassioned, immediate or inspired, and he treats each number as if it were another Song to the Siren, from the expressive croon of the title track opener to the “Louie, Louie” beach party feel good of Wanda Lou. Sadly, Buckley died in 1975 of a supposed drug overdose, so we’ll never know if this was really it for such a masterful musician or if he was beginning to rally himself (his last concert in Dallas was sold out after all) for a stint of renewed reinvention and revelation. Many fans and critics wonder this fact and lament the low point finality of Look at the Fool. And that’s fine; each listener is entitled to their own opinion. But if you can get through Lorca (a respected but difficult release) without some form of a headache by the close of Nobody Walkin’, I’ll be surprised. However, with Look at the Fool you may not be blown away into new musical territories, but by the end there should be a smile on your face…and I bet you’ll play it again.

10,000 Maniacs – Our Time In Eden (1992): Though the band continued on to more minor success, the classic Natalie Merchant-lead line up of 10,000 Maniacs’ last album, Our Time In Eden, is the culmination of 10 years slogging through the scene and finely honing their jangle pop into a sleek, effortless sheen that befits the pomposity (in a “good” way) of Merchant’s presence both lyrically and vocally, without losing all of the “punk” edginess of earlier days. Though two years earlier she’d already decided to leave the band around this time, Merchant couldn’t have picked a better opportunity to launch a solo career, as not only commercially but creatively Our Time In Eden contains 10K M’s greatest and most enduring songs, unmarred by 80s production, and showcasing the band’s pop sensibilities that appealed not only to the college-somethings that helped get them there, but also garnered the praise of an older adult alternative audience due to a mature sophistication tempering the social awareness of Merchant’s lyrics and general presence. But with all of that aside, Our Time in Eden is simply a fantastic album, springing forth almost of its own accord (the jump forward from 1989’s rather stifled Blind Man’s Zoo is astounding), opening up your heart, soul and mind with an urgent yearning that’s thrilling, beautiful and frightening due to the sheer power of these songs. With the exception of the tedious throwaway Circle Dream, this is a flawless album from the moody, understated piano intro of Noah’s Dove to the echoing lilt of I’m Not the Man, bringing an album of emotional peaks and valleys to a circular, poignant and sobering close that tapers off into fresh, if never as successful (creatively), beginnings for all involved.

The Smiths – Strangeways, Here We Comes (1987): Every Smiths album is the same, however, every Smiths album is distinctly different – the same because it’s the ever-brilliant songwriting of Morrissey/Marr but different in the way they, along with Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce, approached their craft. Strangeways, Here We Come was not intended to be a farewell at the time of its inception, but a (rush and a) push in a new direction. And yet once one learns the inside scoop, in some ways it’s obvious that the band was saying their good-byes. Throughout there are “hints” of an ending, of a death, of an afterlife or at least an after-state. From the opening lines of “I am the ghost of troubled Joe…” to the closing thoughts of “I’ll see you sometime, darling…” the idea of separation is prevalent and many of the songs in between – I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard this One Before, Paint a Vulgar Picture – help to somewhat fill in the gaps. In other instances it’s just Morrissey at his morbidly clever best (Girlfriend in a Coma, Unhappy Birthday) and Marr & Co are in top form as always, delivering flawless performances on previously “non-Smithsish” but equally staple tracks like the melancholy majesty of Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me and the slinky creep found on Death of a Disco Dancer. With these themes of closure in mind (and hindsight) it’s a fine finale, tying up the sentiments of all parties to a crooked T; but musically it’s a bit of a cliffhanger, and one wonders what could and should have come next, as Strangeways points into a distant destination that was not (and will never be) reached…at least as a cohesive unit. Future projects post-Smiths, of course, are a different matter and one can’t help but wonder what early-Morrissey standouts like Suedehead or Everyday is Like Sunday would have been like with Marr and the boys behind him…or would they have even existed at all? Hmmm, probably best not to speculate.

The Doors – L.A. Woman (1971): The final Morrison-era Doors album comes around full circle (pun reference intended) to the blues infused rock of their debut, yet L.A. Woman is also an effort far removed from the sentiments of Light My Fire and the Crystal Ship, and especially the psychedelic posturing of Break On Through and The End, with even the swagger of Soul Kitchen and blues standard Back Door Man looking pale against the earthy grit of the Lizard King’s last offering (in this lifetime) to the world. Part of this is due to Bruce Botnick’s rough n ready production, but even more, a distinct weariness bleeds through in the songs themselves, especially in Morrison’s gravel shod vocals and Krieger’s thick, growling guitar play. After years of touring, excessive living and the more recent tribulations of legal woes, this was a band that for all intents and purposes had had it, and it shows. But that doesn’t mean the music is half-hearted or uninspired, in fact quite the opposite. L.A. Woman shows a band tired but looking to reignite themselves (by going back to their roots) and showcases some of the Doors’ finest moments from the rollicking Love Her Madly to the beautiful – even ironically poetic as a JM swansong – Riders On the Storm. A smash hit then and an undisputed classic now, L.A. Woman stands as a credit to creating art not despite of but because of turmoil and uncertainty, with the idea that the end could have actually been the beginning in a new era of the Doors. Of course we’ll never know.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Past Loves

Twenty years ago my favorite band was not one but two who were essentially one. You follow? Descendents were one of the seminal West Coast punk bands of the 80s who represented the disaffected youth not just because of their feisty frustrations with society, but because they sang about it with a more realistic approach, focusing less on politics and more on immediate foes like the expectations of social constraints, the lack of understanding from parents, the responsibilities of adulthood in general and, of course, girls. They also loved singing about coffee, food, fishing and taking a crap. I can’t say I (publically) celebrated all of these things, but I could certainly tap into a lot of the more emotional aspects of their lyrical and musical output, especially when it came to the fiendish ways of the opposite sex.

Several line up changes on guitar and bass expanded their sound from surf rock to punk to power pop to a more progressive and integrated style that culminated in their magnum opus, All, which not only brought every previous theme to a head but introduced the always present but behind the scenes concept of ALL. Essentially, go for ALL and ALL will set you free.

The central figure was, naturally, lead singer Milo Aukerman, and though he was not the principle songwriter for the band, his final departure to become a biochemist effectively ended things for Descendents once and for all. (Ha, ha, get it…seriously, there are a million of them.)

And yet that’s not quite the case… As legend has it (and I’ve not checked Wiki for accuracy), East Coast punk Dave Smalley of Dag Nasty fame approached the remaining members and said “Hey, you’ve got a good thing going on here,” and with Dave on vocals they reunited under the All moniker.

All’s sound essentially picked up where the final Descendents album left off – a quirky, mathy, off-kilter pop – yet they still maintained many of the basic elements and themes from the Descendents, as well as playing those old songs liberally in their live sets. Smalley stayed for one EP and one album before splitting but the rest of the band has stayed intact over the years with at least two other singers.

Way back then, I think All won out my ultimate affections simply because they were still around and putting out music and because while it might not be Milo up there, they were keeping the glory of the Descendents alive at the same time. For about two years I spent a lot of time listening to these guys, soaking myself in the good tunes, the great tunes and even the ones that just flat out sucked. My girlfriend at the time hated them because she felt they were juvenile (which they were) but also because she was an idiot. My parents hated them because I played them too loud and too often and they as well thought they were juvenile (and my parents are old).

It’s funny how music gives strength to breaking one out of their shell. Fueled by Descendents/All, I first found courage to dye my hair, wear make up in public and feel like it was ok to want to beat the hell out of anyone who couldn’t accept someone striving to be an individual. The fact that someone else out there not only identifies with you but has written a song to prove it – therefore giving one not only solidarity but a catchy rhythm to tap your feet to – is all a 17-year-old kid needs to make it through any rough spot to the next patch of green grass and sunshine.
As the years wore on, however, All certainly fell by the way side. This was partly because my tastes shifted in other directions, but also because they started putting out albums that I felt were inferior to their early material and I just stopped caring. Likewise, when Descendents got back together in 1996 I didn’t much pay attention (but eventually got into that first reunion album a bit). I’d moved on, happy to revisit the old buzz on occasion but no longer part of the (hurtin’) crew.

Today I still enjoy most of the Descendents albums and listen to them quite frequently. However, I only own the Dave Smalley stuff and the one immediately following his departure from All, and really don’t listen to those very often. But when I hear certain songs, it’s easy to get caught up in the old feelings and whisked back to a simpler time when girls or grades were the only thing keeping me from truly being happy and the next smile was achieved at the beginning of the next song.

Here are a few standouts from All…

Just Perfect - Any guy who’s been young and infatuated, especially with someone unobtainable, can relate to the sentiments found in this tight pop number. You just flat know you can make that girl happy if she’d only give you the chance. Of course even if you do you’re wrong, which leads to the next song…

She’s My Ex - One of the greatest break up songs of all time, She’s My Ex doesn’t focus so much on the mushy heartbreak of a split as on the reality, the bare bones facts as they are, with a humorous melancholy that realizes that sometimes thems the breaks and yet one truth remains – she’ll always be my ex.

Scary Sad - I love how music reflects art. I knew a girl exactly like this…I mean EX-ACT-LY. If Bill Stevenson had told me he’d gone a few years into the future, observed this girl’s self-imposed train wreck of a life and gone back to 1989 to write this song, I’d completely believe it. Those of you looking for the gory details just click the link.

It's Like Halloween Time...Part 4

One of those iconic bands that I know more of than know, the Mekons have been around for well over three decades and have touched upon and created seminal albums for several genres ranging from punk to post punk to straight up alternative and even tapped the country vein a bit. Attempts for me to fully “get it” have thus far failed, which doesn’t mean I don’t recognize their worth but that I’m still too thick in the ears to understand their brilliance. Having said that, I am capable of honing in on a flat out great song when I hear it and today’s Halloween themed entry is Ghosts of American Astronauts from 1988’s So Good It Hurts.

Truth be told this slice of dreamy pop is more political than supernatural in theme, but there is an ethereal beauty in this song that certainly conjures up spirits of one kind or another, and the video, an understated performance in washed lavenders, is the perfect visual companion piece.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

It’s like Halloween Time...Part 3

Vampires are the continued theme for this entry – or at least tributes to the actor who played the most well known version of the most well known vampire. So yes, you’ve guessed correctly, it’s the Gothic Rock Anthem, none other than Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead, their first single from 1979. This song is not only significant as the “first gothic rock song” ever released, but also for its extreme approach to deconstructed, minimalistic rock. At over nine and a half minutes it’s an epic that never really goes anywhere and this unchanging fluidity is what gives this song so much power, with the purpose not to create form or melody but an emotional response. In this instance it’s something akin to dread, or at the very least anxiety, conjuring images of moonless nights, church yards and bared fangs with each drawn out bass note. The fact that this one song did so much by doing so very little is a true testament to the persuasive abilities of music.

And a pickle on the side...

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been messing around with the idea of a side projects spiel since the earliest stages of this blog. Why it’s taken me so long to get around to it is hardly worth delving into (mainly ‘cos I don’t know).

I guess the definition of a side project is pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll set down a few “rules” just to keep me focused and because I’ve got nothing else better to do than discipline myself and waste your time (aka skip to the actual music part)…

1) Said musical side project must occur while any specific member(s) is still with their “day job” band…not on “hiatus,” which we all know is usually just a sneaky way of saying, “We’ve broken up but, just in case we get back together, don’t forget about us, aka lose hope, aka stop buying our records.”

2) Said musical side project should contain elements of any specific member(s)’ “day job” band but also bring in something a little new. (We’ll see how this one works out.)

3) Said musical side project should only have one release…or at least not take aforementioned specific member(s)’ away from aforementioned “day job” band…i.e. only records and/or tours sporadically.

4) Said musical side project should currently be defunct. (I don’t know why, just felt like that should be the case.)

5) Said musical side project is not a “spin off” band, i.e. a newly formed band after a previously existing/established band has broken up (e.g. Slowdive to Mojave 3, Black Tambourine to Velocity Girl, etc) or a new band from an ex member(s) of a previously existing/established band (Throwing Muses to Belly, House of Love to Levitation, etc). I’ll cover this later. Well, maybe, I dunno. Geesh, one entry at a time, kids!

Ok, this is already getting lengthy and I still feel obligated to Greg to keep ‘em short.

Arcadia – So Red the Rose (1985): I’m not the only person to have said this but I did say it before I read it elsewhere…this is the best album Duran Duran never made. In 1985 when the boys from DD took a much-needed break from themselves, they didn’t just sit around on their cool millions and bask in their worldwide awesomeness. No, instead they splintered off into two very distinct groups that both lifted certain elements from the parent band. The most popular of these was the Power Station – with Andy and John – focusing more on a straight up rock sound somewhat reminiscent of Duran Duran’s heavier numbers like Careless Memories or Hold Back the Rain, but much more barebones. Having said that, I never much cared for the Power Station outside of their hits and the song Murderess. But it’s all good, they don’t need my love. The other 3/5 of Duran Duran – Simon, Nick and Roger – formed Arcadia…and from there my love affair with DD truly began. My emotional attachment with their one album, So Red the Rose, runs so deep that it’s difficult to really form an objective opinion, but I will try. Of the two side groups Arcadia is the most like Duran Duran, being that it’s more pop than rock oriented though leans towards a darker, more atmospheric vibe, stretching the brooding strains from songs like Night Boat, The Chauffeur and Tiger Tiger to new levels (and depths) of creativity. Side one is the hits collection, the catchier tunes, but not in the bright, shiny, glamorous, bikini-clad way that had initially shot the boys to superstardom; but a deeper, richer, moodier (and grayer), more intelligent, arguably more melodic and ultimately more satisfying brand of pop. There are layers to songs like Election Day, Goodbye is Forever and Keep Me in the Dark. Yes, on the surface they’re dance-worthy in some macabre back alley club, but Simon’s imagery, always interesting, takes on an intense, more sinister twist and the videos accompanying several of these songs sported a gothic look that, while certainly delivered with a knowing wink, gave a certain sincerity that demanded respect. But more than just a pop band spin off, Arcadia was also in a sense a super group, and the boys used all their clout and favors to pull in some highly regarded musicians (of the time and even today) including Grace Jones, Herbie Hancock, David Gilmour, Andy Mackay and Sting (back before he really blew it). Several of these icons, especially to the boys at the time, are most widely dispersed on side two (though I now own it on CD, I can’t not think of this album from a vinyl perspective), which is easily the more artistically progressive side and the one that pushes So Red the Rose from really great to absolutely fantastic (and I’m really making an effort to understate my true feelings). Things start off quietly enough with the brief instrumental Rose Arcana, but the remaining three tracks showcase an ambition lyrically, musically and emotionally that blows the competing side one off the wax. There’s not just regret in The Promise but heartache, there’s not just passion in El Diablo but longing, and Lady Ice’s confessional hope ends the entire album not in a crush of despair but with a chiming gaze upwards to a breaking ray of light, as if this entire strange dream has been nothing more than that and you can always reach up for the sunrise (ok, bad joke/reference). So Red the Rose is a haunting masterpiece, removing all the MTV fluff to highlight the truly interesting bits about Duran Duran and enhancing them to the point of true art. This album has aged rather well, partially because while it certainly sounds 80s, it simultaneously contains an air of nonconformity, of creating its own set of rules and boundaries and the gooey gloss that can be so detrimental by today’s standards is now a finely honed luster. If you’re a Duran Duran fan, at least early on, of more than the hits, you must own this album – it’s a requirement. And if you’re one of those silly people who can’t get beyond the surface glam of what DD had to offer you should check this album out anyway, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised and I think it will help you discover a new found respect for my beloved Fab Five.

Ok, not sure how I’m gonna follow up that one, but I’ll try.

Electronic – Electronic (1990): While certainly a side project, (well, at least for half the principle members) Electronic was also a super group. Two of the biggest bands of the 80s, in the UK, were New Order and the Smiths, so a few years after the latter’s demise, when Bernard Sumner from NO got together with (the greatest) guitarist (in the world) Johnny Marr, it was a match made in Brit pop (in general, not the genre) heaven. (I’m really going to try and keep these parenthetical side thoughts to a minimum…starting now.) In addition, Electronic also included Neil and Chris from Pet Shop Boys helping out on a few tracks and the end result was…well, everything one would hope for and then some. In the end Electronic had three albums, but the one I’m going to focus on most is their self-titled debut. Overall this album feels most like Bernard’s bag as the electro-dance New Order helped create, complete with heavy beats and synths, dominates most of the tracks. This is in no way a bad thing because Bernard is in top form, delivering vocal melodies and keyboard counter-melodies to keep the heart racing throughout. Johnny is not so much a sideman as and embellisher, putting his signature guitar on most of these numbers (and one would assume keys where guitar is not present). On a few of occasions guitars provide the core basis of the song. Ironically, or not, these tend to be my least favorite of the set, especially the fan favorite and modest hit Get the Message, which to me is a bit of a tedious effort that is obviously good but in such a plodding way that it leans to the mundane side. But that’s about the only negative thing I can say about this album, as every other song is full of emotive moments designed to tug at the heartstrings connected to your tapping toes. Highlights include Tighten Up – a plea to individualism and a more standard rock effort with some excellent guitar work – the lovelorn Getting Away With It – full of pining, longing and broken-hearted imagery – the techno pulse of Gangster – an isolationist’s anthem – the epic keyboard workout Try All You Want – a joyous ode to a casual sex relationship complete with breakdowns and work ups galore – and my personal favorite, Some Distant Memory, which builds itself up from a funky bass and standard trap beat to a broad, even majestic swell of keyboards and one of the most melancholy endings in pop history. I think the key to this album’s success is spontaneity – these are two guys essentially enjoying making music together – and while this is a high tech/profile outing, there’s a certain rawness to these recordings that make even the more glossy numbers feel real and believable, removing the sterile electro-barrier that can often separate a synth band from the listener. Basically, Electronic is a dance pop band with a rock n roll heart, which is where the blending of these two powerhouses, coming from two such separately succinct and era-defining groups, can smooth out certain rough edges that may be found separately (say in a solo project called Boomslang). If they’d stopped here, all would have been right in the world. But they didn’t… The follow up to Electronic’s debut, Raise the Pressure from 1996, was a bit of a letdown. Leaning more towards pop rock than dance (more in line with New Order’s latest effort at the time, Republic), this may have been “more familiar” territory for Johnny Marr but the results are, initially, ho-hum, exchanging the excitement and flair of the first release for a more precise, calculated, even formulaic approach to their music. With time and distance away from the initial disappointment I’ve been able to enjoy this album quite a bit in recent years, and not from a nostalgic aspect but on the music’s own merit. Those great melodies are still there (mainly on the more dance oriented numbers), they’re just (somewhat) fewer and less immediate, and Raise the Pressure is a true sophomore slump while at the same time being a worthwhile album. In 1999 a third (and final?) album, Twisted Tenderness, was released and seemed to jump back to the more impulsive, dance influenced vibe of the debut. I own it but I’ve not really listened to it much, so maybe one day it will get its own proper shout out on these pages, but for now I don’t really have much to say besides “I like it.” So, with Electronic all you really need, especially for fans of New Order and/or dance pop in general, is the debut, which though turning 20 this year, has held up well, not only as a timepiece of sidebar musical history but as an infectious catchy pop album worthy to be remembered for, like, ever.

Isidore- Isidore (2004) When I came up with the side projects idea an obvious choice for me was Jack Frost as this outfit, like Electronic, was another super group of great (and greatly unappreciated) Aussie rockers from the 80s, namely Steve Kilbey from the Church and Grant McLennan from the Go-Betweens. But then something happened, as it often does, to change my mind and instead I found myself focusing on one of Steve Kilbey’s (many) other side deals, the one-off effort Isidore. In this instance he teamed up with Jeffrey Cain of Remy Zero fame (“Somebody saaaaaaaaave me…”). The way I heard it was this…Jeffrey Cain, a longtime fan of the Church, sent SK an instrumental he had written for him as a thank you for all the years of inspiration. Pretty cool. Even cooler is this…Kilbey loved it so much he sent it back with vocals…and Isidore was born, with Cain writing and providing all instrumentations and Kilbey doing the same for all vocals. The results are exactly what you’d expect from any effort involving Steve Kilbey, nothing short of great. As a brief aside I should point out that most things SK is involved with naturally have elements of the Church as he’s the principle songwriter for the band, so his style and feel carries throughout no matter where he goes. So it’s interesting to me how Church-ish Isidore’s lone self-titled album sounds considering Cain provided all the musical input. But then again, the initial idea was a tribute to SK/the Church and so perhaps the end results aren’t too far off. But here’s something even more interesting (to me)…Isidore sounds more like the Church that was yet to come than the Church that had brought these two together in the first place. Dig? A big factor in this is the use of electronics, something SK and Marty Willson-Piper had dabbled with 10 years before as a duo with the Church album Sometimes Anywhere, but as a whole the Church had remained a standard bass/guitar/drums act with synths and the like only present to accent rather than carry a song. If Isidore is anything it’s electronics and keyboard heavy (in a very good way) and many of these songs would sound very much at home on any proper Church album with F/Xed guitar runs replacing most if not all synthetic ivories. Also present, of course, is Kilbey’s warm, earthy croon, never too subdued, never overly excited, delivering just the right pitch and thrust for an optimum experience with those flowing, makes-it-seem-so-easy melodies weaving in and out of the music like a silken thread. Though there are elements of dub and house scattered throughout, Isidore is essentially a dream pop album – textured, lush, exotic and slightly forbidding. Fans of the Church (are there any of you out there any more?) should already own and love this album, receiving exactly what they’d hoped for. Fans of Remy Zero will get a pleasant surprise. Wait, that came out wrong… Fans of Remy Zero will get something other than what they expected and will be happier as a result.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

It’s like Halloween Time… Part 2

Under a different set of circumstances Roky Erickson could have been Jim Morrison, or at least a Jim Morrison…and maybe in an alternate universe he is…but as it stands today, in our world, he’ll likely never rise above a respectable cult status as his stint fronting the legendarily-hip 13th Floor Elevators didn’t bring him nearly as much lasting notoriety and fame is it could/should have and, as is so often true in similar circumstances, his rather rapid descent into mental illness – complete with all the misunderstandings and medical mistreatments that went on in the late 60s, etc – is often what folks focus on more than the man’s musical output.

When he returned to the world and the music scene in the mid to late 70s it was as a different man with a different approach to his sound, shedding the genre-defining psychedelic strains that made him infamous and turning in a muscular standard rock that was energetic, catchy and…oh yeah, freaky as all get out. The first two albums are a bit of an overlap as far as material goes and the one I’ve got is aptly titled The Evil One. Songs like Two-Head Dog, I Think of Demons, Bloody Hammer and If You Have Ghosts deliver just about what you’d expect, and are chock-full of macabre imagery, sinister riffs and soul-splitting yelps just in case you’re not getting the full picture. Really, if you changed the lyrics to themes of love or politics or drugs or whatever brand of classic R&R fodder, you’d have a solid standard rock album; but these songs being what they are makes them not so much “far out man” as way out…of this world. And from the listener’s perspective it’s all spooky good fun – a non-abrasive Misfits, a more straightforward Cramps, a less theatrical Alice Cooper – yet, if legend is accurate, this was all too real for Mr. Erickson.

And I didn’t even get into all the stuff about aliens…

While most any of these songs would fit nicely in my little Halloween themed series, my pick of the litter is Night of the Vampire. Why? Well, several reasons, one being simply because vampires are my favorite horror creature, but also because this song rocks like a dirge, creeping slowly and methodically as Erickson delivers his barely contained shriek, focusing more on imagery than story, for example:


Musically things sort of pick up for a bit of a middle eight, but that’s only slight and very brief before the funeral procession starts up again and things are back in full wail. Phasers, murky organ and a snaky lead guitar accent the overall ominous mood and by the fade you’re feeling your neck for teeth marks.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t include this ’84 acoustic performance that showcases just how powerful this song is even in a more relaxed delivery.

Monday, October 4, 2010

It’s like Halloween Time… Part 1

In honor of my favorite holiday (well, can Halloween really be considered a “holy day”…?) I’m gonna try and throw up some appropriately “themed” stuff to (hopefully) sit alongside more proper entries. (I swear there are more coming, I’m just being lazy with the finishing touches.)

We’ll start things off with a little something from one of my favorite Bowie albums, Diamond Dogs. In the building swell of Bowie’s critical and creative '70s peak, this album is a somewhat regarded and yet lost gem tucked amongst the uber hype of Ziggy, Aladdin and the Berlin trio, etc (well, everyone overlooks Lodger too, but…). That’s a shame ‘cos Diamond Dogs, another concept album loosely based - due to legal hassles with the Orwell estate - on 1984, is a morbidly danceable (er, dance of the dead?) glam era romp into mankind’s very bleak future, with Ziggy being replaced by a similarly stylized Halloween Jack and Bowie’s croon reminiscent of his former self while pointing towards the Philly Soul and the Thin White Duke eras he would soon embrace.

Though most all the album oozes with post-world creepiness, the understated yet standout track for me is neatly tucked away in the middle of side two - the grimly titled but poignant We Are the Dead, depicting the inevitable and accepted demise of captive humanity through the eyes of the album’s hero (or at least that’s how I see it). This is a song that haunts in its simplistic chant of the title refrain and has me glancing over my shoulder into shadowed corners at every creak and squeak.