Friday, June 22, 2012

Formulas



Though 2012 was a bit slow initially, I have tried to pick up on my new music purchases in recent months. The month of May alone saw three releases by three of my favorite gals (or gal fronted groups) in the biz, and so I was quick to snatch those up as soon as they were available.

Unfortunately, 2012 seems to be the year of the formula, as all three of these talented artists have put out pleasant but predictable albums, which stand up nicely against the rest of their catalog, but do little to broaden their artistic scope. For most fans that’s just fine. As I’ve said often in the past, you can’t reinvent the wheel every time, and yet in the realm of “alternative” music, one does tend to expect a bit of progression from the artists they follow. And I don’t say that with judgment, condemnation or even disappointment, because all of these are enjoyable releases, they’re just not a release to knock your socks off and, again, that’s completely understandable, acceptable and marketable.

So let’s dive in…


Best Coast – The Only Place: Of the three, this was the one I anticipated the most, and as a result has been my biggest let down. And I’m not going to blame my anticipation so much as I am Bethany Cosentino’s lyrics, which to put it evenly, are stupid. Yes, they were simplistic bordering childish on Crazy for You, but coupled with the lo-fi-retro fuzz that covered much of that album, and the youthful exuberance in the performance of the songs, it was mostly endearing, sometimes touching (and yeah, sometimes just dumb). But on The Only Place, with indie-wunderkind Jon Brion on production, the musical upgrade, sounding more professional (for better and worse), sounding more mature (ditto), begs for the same in the lyrics department. I mean Jon, ultimately you’re in charge, so what the heck, man? It’s like George Lucas trying to cover up bad acting with eye-popping special FX. Wrong again. Anyway, through much of The Only Place, Cosentino seems to be whining about this and that, from boys (of course) to her newfound popularity to life in general. And again, two years ago that was awesome, but now it’s simply played, something for the last record and, as I said above, independent music begs a bit of progression with each release. And musically that’s certainly the case. The fuzz is harnessed and corralled for more aesthetic appeal, the jangle is enhanced and brought to the forefront, the bass and drums are crisp, the vocals are pristine and lovely – it’s just too bad they don’t have anything worth saying. And ultimately, that’s not a deal breaker for The Only Place, because melodies are easy to hum, but it is a disappointing distraction.


Beach House – Bloom: Saying “to have one Beach House album is to have them all” may be a bit of an overstatement, but it’s not completely without validation. From their 2006 debut to the recent Bloom, low key, dreamy music and rich, wistful vocals have been a signature sound that came out of the gate fully formed and has only been improved upon as songwriting skills have developed. This means that any one of their four albums could easily be “the one” depending on which set of songs you consider the strongest. At this point in the game, for my money, that batch came with 2010’s Teen Dream, but Bloom is nothing to sneeze at, and repeat listens (per always with these guys) will unveil more hidden beauty that wasn’t obvious at the last spin. In truth, Bloom is a bit of a grower, and it’s the similarity that hampers the immediacy; which isn’t to say that this is Teen Dream 2.0, because it isn’t, as Bloom stands on its own with enough flourishes here and there to prove that this record is of another time, but the formulaic feel cannot be denied. So if you’re a fan listen to it, and if it doesn’t grab you, put it down for a bit, and pick it up again – you’ll be blown away, because Bloom is another shimmering masterpiece, with everything to love that Beach House has brought us before.


Regina Spektor – What We Saw from the Cheap Seats: Four or five years ago, I’d have eaten glass for Regina. And that means I can refer to her on a first name basis. I of course came on board with most of the rest of the world with 2006’s Begin to Hope, and while I don’t love every bit of that album, the songs I do love make up for my more indifference to the rest, and were enough to make me explore her previous output and, at one point, become a bit borderline obsessive. As an artist, Regina has certainly developed in terms of production quality and accessibility of material, whereas 2004’s Soviet Kitsch was nothing short of piano punk, 2009’s Far found her dabbling not only in more full-band outings, but in electronic sounds and dead up pop posturing. What was never lost in this transition was her ability to put every day, or more accurately, dirty, starkly realistic, even disturbing life situations, to beautiful, though playfully quirky music. What We Saw from the Cheap Seats maintains that level of “this really is reality,” and Best Coast’s Cosentino could learn a thing or two from Regina about how to tell your tale in an authentic yet poetic way. Musically, Cheap Seats is a bit of a step back, and I don’t mean melody or performance-wise, but a bit more minimalist, while still retaining elements of the progressions she made on the past two albums. So there are full-band arrangements, electronic noodling and studio manipulations that make this an album difficult to reproduce in a live setting (unlike most all of her early output). The problem, if one can consider it that, is that Regina falls back to a few past tricks that longtime fans will find familiar, perhaps endearing. Her vocal drum fills are certainly fun and the guttural manipulations (that’s really the best term I can come up with) on songs like Open have become a bit of her trademark, but at the end of the record, there are no memorable moments. Every song is lovely, every song is perfectly written, every song is moving and touches you somewhere on an emotional level. But none of them bowl you over, rip your heart out and kiss you full on the mouth at the same time like on previous efforts. And ok, another Samson would be trite, I get it, but one can’t help but want to be assaulted in that way again (though Far’s Laughing With came super close), and while Cheap Seats does deliver some wonderful moments, none of them go to bed with you. Perhaps another listen at another time will reveal what I’m hoping for, but for now, What We Saw from the Cheap Seats maintains Regina’s status as an excellent pianist, vocalist and songwriter, but she didn’t break my heart in the process.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Quarterly JT Part 2 - 1992


1992 – What a crazy year. Grunge was still in full swing, alternative music was officially mainstream, hair metal was barely hanging on by its glitter painted fingernails, new school R&B was flooding the charts and country music had established itself as the most popular genre in the, er, country.

In my world, a field day was being had by artists who had spent the previous decade teetering on the brink between obscure poverty and rock star glory, as gawky, awkward “freaks” were now on big time magazine covers, mentioned on the news and even brought up by my parents (my dad, “You like this Stipe character?”). Meanwhile, I was having my own personal identity crisis over it, because the music that had been “mine” (shared of course with a few “knowing” others) was now out there for everyone to fondle, abuse and then throw back onto the rubbish pile.

I still haven’t quite recovered.

Also, this was a big year for me because I graduated high school, moved from Florida to Nashville/started college and never looked back. Twenty years later I’m back from Nashville, I’ve lived a lifetime of ups and downs, and tons of the music I took with me at the time has stayed with me, including many albums that I’m not naming here because JT and I agreed to only five. But look up a list of albums of 1992 and you’ll see the best of the best, the biggest of the best and the best of the biggest. Something like that…

Here are JT's thoughts on the year that was 1992...

Disclaimer- 1991/92 were the years when I first REALLY started listening to music. I had always been a fan and went through many phases (New Edition or Hair Metal, anyone?), but if I had to lock down one period when I came into my own musically, this would be the time...so having said that, my initial list of from 1992 was nearly twenty albums long, so what I decided to do was list the albums that I still listen to on a regular basis...no disrespect to so many albums that meant so much to me (and still do), but we set this up as a list of five albums and I’m sticking with that theme...so here goes nothing....

~THE LIST~

Lemonheads- It’s A Shame About Ray
As previously stated, I am a fan of pop music and this album is one of the, if not the, best pop albums ever recorded. Coming in under 30 minutes, there isn’t a wasted second anywhere to be found as Evan Dando and company tear through 12 songs (13 if you were unlucky enough to have a copy that included their boring cover of Mrs. Robinson) of frantic, beautiful and perfect pop songs.

Morrissey- Your Arsenal
Thanks to the brilliance of some of Morrissey’s wittiest lyrics and the fantastic Alain Whyte composed music, what sounds like a complete trainwreck (Morrissey + Rockabilly Band) turned out to be one of the finest moments of Morrissey’s post-Smiths career.   

Dr. Dre- The Chronic
Even the brilliance of Dre’s work with NWA couldn’t have prepared anyone for the onslaught that was The Chronic. This album changed the direction of rap music from the likes of Kris Kross & Vanilla Ice and helped pave the way for gangsta rap to break into the mainstream. Mother-effer, he’s Dre...and after this album no one would forget it. 

The Judybats- Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow
Southern boys doing British inspired pop music...what’s not to love? (See previous blog post on the Judybats entire catalog for more information: http://guesswhatimlisteningto.blogspot.com/2011/05/judybatin-with-jt.html)

Tori Amos- Little Earthquakes
In 1992 I was listening to a lot of punk music...the Sex Pistols, Minor Threat, Buzzcocks, The Ramones...and while on the surface a ‘pretty’ piano based album seems super far removed from that, Little Earthquakes is lyrically one of the best punk albums to come out in the 1990s. Tori was pissed and wasn’t afraid to tell us all about it. Opening with the beautiful “Crucify,” Tori tells us, ”Every finger in the room is pointing at me I wanna spit in their faces,” and doesn’t let up until she’s ‘laughing in the faces of kings...never afraid to burn” on the album closer “Little Earthquakes.” How’s that for punk? 

And now for my five picks, again, so many to choose from, but there can only be five in the end...

Ride – Going Blank Again: While Nowhere may be their “greatest” album and the “second greatest” of the shoegaze genre, for me Going Blank Again is the money. It’s meatier, edgier and rougher than Nowhere, ultimately completely different, replacing fragile beauty with a brash, open-faced swagger that still manages to evoke an exact tenderness, especially on tunes like Time Machine and the sweeping Cool Your Boots. And then there are the rockers, virtually every other song, that kick and punch with an angsty exuberance, though not with intent of violence or mayhem, simply calling attention to a thought or a situation, which gives the fragmented, sometimes misplaced sounding lyrics more weight. This makes Going Blank Again an immediate and fun listen, an excellent background sing-a-long and toe-tapper, and has been a road companion of mine for over fifteen years. This album was largely overlooked in the States, and I didn’t chance upon it until about 3 or 4 years later, but catching up on lost time has been well worth the (non) effort.

Judybats – Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow: Well, JT and I both covered this album awhile back, but I again can’t express enough the importance of this band and album on my late teen life, from connecting with fellow J-Bat fans-becoming-friends to the fantastic music itself. Here the JBs toned down the overt British leanings of Native Son, leaving just enough to give their more fully embraced Americana jangle a little extra slink and groove. The melodies are infectious, the performances are exciting and the lyrics flat out brilliant – tender, sarcastic and sometimes so clever they’re borderline stand up comedy. Certainly the highpoint of their catalog, I still can’t help but wonder if this was the best that the Judybats could offer or, if label circumstances hadn’t pushed them into an adult contemporary quandary, merely the hint at something better yet to come. I like to think the latter, even if that frustrates and depresses me, and yet Down in the Shacks remains a stellar release from an underrated band coming from unlikely and overlooked source…the heart of Tennessee.

Sonic Youth – Dirty: Though not their “big time” debut, Dirty is a deserved breakthrough record. Since EVOL or so they had already been cultivating their scattered noise into something more pop melodic, if not straightforward accessible, and this is the payoff – a blend of feedback, song craft and “proper studio” clarity that brings all the best things about SY to the fore. We get menace (Swimsuit Issue), demented fun (100%) and eerie beauty (Wish Fulfillment) all in the first half of the record, and those ideas repeat throughout, making Dirty a very cohesive and focused listen. While not as maligned as Goo (which is ridiculous, because there are loads of classics to be found on that one), Dirty still has its set of detractors, but I maintain that if you listen to just about anything else that came out in 1992, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything at all like Dirty, and those albums that do (I’m not naming names) were already reading from the Sonic Youth notebook. Raucously-slick, chaotically-controlled, punky-pop, all these polar reactions mesh well together and give Sonic Youth a real classic, one that I prefer over any and every other SY album, which is probably 25% nostalgia, but the rest is good, wholesome rock, the way Uncle Thurston and Mama Kim (and cousins Lee and Steve) intended it.

Morrissey – Your Arsenal: This album (along with Sonic Youth’s Dirty and Shudder to Think’s Get Your Goat) defines the summer of 1992, my summer between high school and college, spending every second I could with friends before heading off to TN. We listened to this album daily. Constantly. The irony? While I was a rabid Smiths fan, I detested Morrissey solo. And there’s a whole saga in there between myself and JT, but now is not the time to delve into that. At any rate, the fact that this album was able to rise above my disdain and be “the one I like” when I would listen to no other, I guess shows a bit of merit. And truly, this is a fantastic set of songs, some of Moz’s best melodies and lyrics, tackling all the social, political and relationship topics that he was known and adored for with both wit and wisdom – even if some of it was over our US-oriented heads (National Front Disco). This is Morrissey’s first album with longtime writing partner Alain Whyte, and the first to have a truly “modern” sound in the sense that all the telling 80s production was fully stripped away by producer Mick Ronson, whose barebones rock’n’roll approach incorporates folkly balladry, glam stomp and a bit of rockabilly flare; something not completely unheard of in his Smiths days, but lacking in his initial solo output. But while the music provides a certain urgency, Morrissey is extremely comfortable, leading the rampage with relaxed finesse, spewing his venom with grace and style and not an ounce of spittle, letting the melodies and words and his excellent voice do the work in a smooth, effortless flow that, when pulsing through the speakers, is positively breathtaking.


10,000 Maniacs – Our Time in Eden: Once upon a time I loved a girl named Natalie… I think I’ve said here before that I’m over Natalie Merchant, which is partly a personal “grudge” and partly I’m just not digging her vibe these days. However, a good album is a good album, and when that album is Our Time in Eden, that means a great and nearly flawless album. All the potential that was evident on releases like In My Tribe and Blind Man’s Zoo, and songs like Eat for Two and Like the Weather, came to fruition here. This album was produced and primed to break 10KM into the heavens, and it pretty much did…if only the lower reaches. Honestly, it should have shot them into the stratosphere alongside Automatic for the People, Achtung Baby and other huge alt-albums of that time, because note for note and lyric for lyric, this is a fantastic set of moody, vibrant, heartfelt songs, delivered as only Natalie Merchant could (note, not can), with mumbled elegance, with modest grace and with a purposed aloofness that, surrounded in the swirling, dancing blur that was her stage persona, was the ultimate in early 90s alternative chic. And even if the radio-ready production is a bit glossy, and some of the arrangements a bit predictable and stiff (the Unplugged version of Jezebel blows the album’s verse-rock-verse set up out of the water), the songs themselves not only shine in spite, but as a result of this production, and track after track of undeniable winners make some of the more “telling” aspects of the times, plus a couple of weaker numbers (oh Circle Dream, why do you exist?), as forgivable as they are forgettable. Our Time in Eden was a perfect launching pad for Merchant’s solo career, and easily the high point of the band, which would have been likely even had she stayed on as lead vocalist, because lightning rarely strikes twice with this kind of precision. If you only purchase one 10,000 Maniacs album, make it Our Time in Eden; and if you purchase two, make the other the Campfire Songs compilation to get an idea of what brought them to their fullest potential.

These are simply our thoughts and opinions, so if you've got some faves or 92, shout 'em out! 




Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Lost Era



I’ve said here many times that I’m a fan of Fleetwood Mac and especially their era just before the Buckingham/Nicks led version of the band that made them a household name. The impetus of that era was singer-songwriter-guitarist Bob Welch, the first American to join the previously all-Brit Mac, and the catalyst that pushed them into the more pop oriented direction that eventually made their name.

Unfortunately, Welch took his own life today in Nashville, apparently suffering from medical issues, but still officially undisclosed. Regardless, this hits me at a level that is difficult to express because, along with the band Broadcast, I listen to at least one of the five Welch-era F’Mac albums at least once a week, and that’s certainly saying something.

Bob Welch, 1945-2012

I remember when I first bought an album featuring Welch. It was the late 90s and I was in Tullahoma, TN with Karla. We went to the mall and they had a bunch of cassettes that were dirt cheap. Bare Trees was one of them and checking out the year and knowing of a time between Peter Green and Buckingham/Nicks, I purchased it on a whim and never looked back.

Bare Trees was Welch’s second album with the band, and while his presence was established, he still had not taken official “control” as Danny Kirwan is especially present on this taut collection of lilting pop-scapes, which essentially draws together the languid offerings found on the previous effort, Future Games. Bare Trees contains one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, the Welch-penned Sentimental Lady, which is easily his best song, one of F’Mac’s most highly underrated and scandalously overlooked tracks and a tune that always brings me chills and a faint smile, and yet tonight nearly brought me to tears when I put Bare Trees in and gave it a spin.

Cover for the solo (hit) version of Sentimental Lady

Honestly, Welch’s entire tenure with the Mac is highly underrated and scandalously overlooked, for, as I’ve said previously, he steered the ship in the direction they needed to go and kept it afloat through several line up changes and frequent times of friction. Throughout it all, he stayed in focus with the music, and while he never quite touched the heights of Sentimental Lady (and few could), he was ever reliable in producing solid, sometimes quirky rockers and some memorable ballads that kept the Fleetwood Mac name compelling and enjoyable, even if they weren’t topping the charts. Honestly, I think his guitar playing complimented Christine McVie’s songs more than Buckingham did in later years, especially on the only other album pre-Buckingham/Nicks when the band had a single guitarist, the fantastic Heroes are Hard to Find, Welch’s last with the band, and a fitting swan song for his era.

And I’m just glossing over all of this, because for some time now I’ve meant to write up a proper post about this era, the best of which I would put toe to toe with all of 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, half of Rumors and a good chunk of Tusk too.

Seriously, it kills me to be talking about this amazing musician in the past tense and him not even 12 hours gone, because he’ll likely never get the recognition and credit he deserves – ever an afterthought in the juggernaut of those big albums we all know and love, or a footnote to the Peter Green days and the bluesy brilliance that was found there.

With the 1974 four-piece era of F'Mac

But I think it’s safe to say that without Bob Welch, who by the way went on to some considerable success with the band Paris and as a solo artist, Fleetwood Mac as we know them today would never have existed, if Fleetwood Mac would still be remembered at all. And while most folks would thank him for creating the bridge that led to Rhiannon and Go Your Own Way, I just want to say thanks Bob, for some truly great music, five of the best albums of the early 70s and an honest, unabashed way of presenting yourself that still strikes chords within my heart after a decade of steady listening, and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. 

+++

Miles Away live with Bob Weston, who passed earlier this year. 

Performing solo hit Ebony Eyes with Stevie. 

Pleased to see so many tributes already up on YouTube.