Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Two for Tuesday

Well, if you can believe it, today marks the 80th birthday of the Red Headed Stranger, aka Willie Nelson. For those of you marveling that the country music icon has made it this long, I was half surprised he wasn’t 80 a good decade or so ago. But all joking aside, Willie really is the stuff of legends, a truly gifted writer and musician whose well-documented off-stage antics have nearly overshadowed, as well as derailed, his impressive career on more than one occasion.

Truth be told, even though culturally speaking he’s been on my radar since my earliest memories, I never really took Willie too seriously until about the past five or six years when I picked up Red Headed Stranger on a whim and never looked back. I mean at the end of the day, this is the guy who penned the seminal country standard Crazy, and while Patsy’s version may be the definitive (at least most well known), to hear the man himself deliver a rendition always garners two enthusiastic thumbs up.

I’m not as well versed in his catalog as many, he’s been highly prolific, and a lot of that early stuff is pretty hard to track down, but I’ve heard enough covering the past five decades to appreciate the fact that even some of his more light weight efforts (the 80s weren’t a good time for many 60s/70s artists, but Willie fared better than others) carry a good sense of musicianship and an enjoyable, hum-along melody that makes albums like Island in the Sea less a guilty pleasure and more an overlooked, lesser gem.

Still, the 70s are recognizably his more critically fertile period (all you Willie scholars feel free to shoot me down), at least to the public eye, with albums like Shotgun Willie and, of course, Red Headed Stranger, and bleeding over into the early 80s with On the Road Again, etc.

Today’s TfT are some lesser-known cuts. Are You Sure?, from the 60s, is one of Karla’s favorite Willie tunes, and very old school country. Meanwhile, Bloody Mary Morning, a reasonably (though now forgotten) successful single from the divorce story album, Phases and Stages.

Make your day a Willie day. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Two for Tuesday

Today marks what would have been the 53rd b’day of Steve “Steamin’” Clark, guitarist for Def Leppard. Even during my “too cool” years, I never fully denied Def Leppard’s first three albums, and Steve Clark’s gun slinger presence was always a big reason for that. He was just the ultimate in “guitar god,” from his loose look to the casual way he let his guitar hang basically down to his knees.

While he was technically a co-lead with Phil Collen (and Pete Willis), I saw him as more of a rhythm and riff man, which in DL’s early days was no chug-a-lug side job, but a real work of art. He expressed his nonchalance through his playing, which was both rock n roll chic and raw artistic talent.

Sadly, his excesses caught up with him and he died of a pill and alcohol overdose in 1991, age 30. But he was a major factor in Def Leppard’s best (and biggest) albums, three of which I would hold up against any album of the genre (and the other has Pour Some Sugar on Me).

Here are a couple of personal favorites: Bringin’ on theHeartbreak, just check out that smoldering gaze, and a blistering live take of Wasted from 1983. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Two for Tuesday

It's crazy to note when the idols of our youth are getting older. Today is the birthday of Ian McKaye of Dischord Records, Minor Threat, Fugazi and Evens fame, among others (which of course you knew). It's not a landmark, 'cos he turned 50 last year. This stuns me because it seems like just yesterday he had only served 19 years of his time for being white. Heck, when I was listening to those tunes on a regular basis (with at least two others of you reading this), they'd already been out a good decade, or close to it.

I've had my ups and downs with Ian over the years. In my youth he was, of course, the patron saint of disaffected youth, our model and spokesperson. Later on in my twenties I felt he was a bit of a ball-buster, as my well-jaded sensibilities just figured he was either relentlessly preaching to the choir or screaming at the wall of indifference that was most of the rest of the world. But about 10 years ago I was lucky enough to see him (with JT) give a lecture at one of the local colleges in the Nashville area, and even met him, and it was a truly enlightening experience. Long story short, Ian is a good guy, highly observant to the state of things, and able to deduce the good, bad and ugly from those observations to determine (and share) the positives from all of it. At the end of the day, he's the idyllic artist/celebrity who has been able to uncompromisingly produce what he wants to, how he wants to and still make a living out of it - with the end result being a bunch of music that, even if you don't care for all of it, is nothing short of sincere. And there's a real lack of that these days.

Here's are a couple pretty solid moments from his career - a show stopping version of Fugazi's Waiting Room and Cache is Empty from the Evens.

Man, Amy can play those drums! She about stole your candles, birthday boy!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Two for Tuesday

The Strokes are one of those bands that are sort of a guilty pleasure for me. Most of that is because while they appear(ed) to be the latest and greatest of the dregged out NYC punk scene 10+ years ago, they were really prep school boys, the sons of well-established industry just putting on a show. But the redeeming factor here is that their tunes are pretty dang great.

A big part of their sound, and what helps makes them so catchy, are the leads provided by guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., especially early on. In addition to his time with the Strokes, he also has a couple of solo albums that are pretty tasty. To celebrate his 32 birthday (really, that’s all…geesh…), here are a couple of personal standouts – the very Strokes-ish In Transit (complete with a pretty lame fan-made video) and the little bit less so, The Boss Americana

Let your hipster side shake a groove today. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Quaterly JT - 1983

Late, late, late…but I’m gonna give JT 76.29% fault on this one. I harassed him for weeks to get me his list and just last week he did. Then I got lazy with it, partly because I did a 1983 post as part of another series awhile back and thought I could wing it. My bad.

At any rate, there was a lot of great music coming out 30 years ago, some amazing debuts by bands who would later prove to be hugely influential in more than one genre (REM, Metallica), some last hurrahs (The Police, Yazoo), others that shoulda-woulda-coulda been more (Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears) and some that just held a place in the progression of the artist’s catalog, still working up for that masterpiece (Depeche Mode, The Church).

Strangely enough, JT and I have two of the same albums in our top five of the year, which is more surprising than you’d think. He had asked me if he could include a tie, and I had assumed a two-way for fifth, but he had a three-way for first, so I had to shout him down from that. Though I can’t really argue his logic with two of them. Let’s see what he had to say first…


1. (Tie) Violent Femmes- S/T

If not THE greatest debut of all time, this album is certainly in the top five. This album was out of step with nearly everything else going on in 1983 and because of that it still sounds just as fresh and original today, nearly 30 years later, as it did the day it came out. From the distinct acoustic intro to “Blister in the Sun” to the melancholy of “Good Feeling” this album is a classic, and if you don’t own it and know it front to back then you’re missing out. Unfortunately, the band would never come close to the meteoric heights of this album again.

1. (Tie) REM-Murmur

If not THE greatest debut of all time, this album is certainly in the top five. Yeah, I know, I already said that, but seriously, how both this album and the Femmes debut came out in the same year is beyond me. Arguably the best album that REM ever recorded, and that’s saying a lot! Following the dreaminess of this album, REM would begin their slow crawl from underground heroes to international pop/rock superstars.

2. U2- War

William hates this album. He also hates The Joshua Tree. William is wrong.

***William’s note – Hate is a strong word. Wait, is loathe stronger?

3. The The- Soul Mining

Probably the most critically and commercially underrated band of all time (in my opinion), The The’s Soul Mining was a movement from their early dark and cerebral material into the land of synth pop. The The would go on to record three of my all-time favorite albums (Mind Bomb, Dusk, and the amazing Hank Williams Sr cover album, Hanky Panky) and while this album isn’t quite as good as those, it’s still an astonishingly great bit of music from an amazing band.

4. The Cure- Japanese Whispers

I know, I know, this isn’t a proper album but a compilation of a few singles and their b-sides, but I would put it up against anything the Cure ever did (with a few obvious exceptions). Robert was playful at times (“The Love Cats”), dark and brooding at times (“Just One Kiss”) and downright depressing at others (“Lament), but the amazing thing is that despite the fact that these songs were never written to be cohesive album, the songs (and moods) flow naturally from one to the next in a way that only Robert Smith is capable of doing.


(I’m actually ranking mine for reals this time)

REM – Murmur: This is my favorite album of all time and has been for years. If REM had never recorded another note, they wouldn’t have made any money, but they’d have made a musical statement that comes from nowhere and goes anywhere. Ethereal, bouncy, jangly and cryptic, the attack of this album is raw and sincere, conjuring images of what could (and would) be and creating an atmosphere and a vibe that is both inviting and haunting. These are songs you feel like you’ve known since birth and yet always offer something new. REM never achieved this again, and wisely they didn’t even try.

Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes: I agree with JT that this could easily be a tie, and if it were any album other than Murmur, I’d go with it. The Femmes took the melody of folk, the heartbreak of the blues and the angst of punk and melded them together into something that is definitely all three and yet distinctly its own sound. For most everyone into “alternative” music, this album was a rites of passage. If you could get on board here, everything else would make sense. Hearts have been conquered and lost and eased and put back together again while scream-singing to these brutally honest, charmingly messy and unbelievably catchy anthems to the forlorn. Buy your favorite preteen a copy today.

The Chameleons – Script of the Bridge: These guys should have been so much more, especially then. Theirs is the story of rock n roll woes that’s been heard countless times. But despite all the tensions both internal and external, Mark Burgess and company were able to craft beautiful and poignant post-punk songs that were equally delicate and muscular, with a deep introspection in the lyrics, which commented more than complained, and a melodic interplay both vocally and with the dueling guitars of Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding (two of the most gifted and overlooked players of the decade). Script of the Bridge is a debut that finds the Chameleons fully formed and providing all the lush dynamics that would make them vital and yet frustratingly ignored for two more albums.

Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones: And then things just got weird. Really, for Tom, it’s not so much the song as the presentation. You run these tunes through a more conventional rock filter, and they’ll sell like hotcakes (er, well…). While 1980’s Heartattack and Vine was a transitional album from jazz-scat-ballad-crooner into an avant-garde a la Armstrong madman, Swordfishtrombones takes the latter and runs with it full tilt. Tom’s characters have gotten darker, weirder, more sinister, but his musical methods of bringing them to light are now following suit, and his throaty growling and howling over jerky rhythms, clanking percussion, demented horns and erratic musicianship will throw the casual listener for a loop. (“Turn this off. Now.” – my dad) But allow it to sink in and you’ll find structure and (gasp) even melody, because there’s no denying that 16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six is an unconventional rocker and that In the Neighborhood is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. And this is Tom’s brilliance, take the simple, make it twisted and then turn it inside out.

The Police – Synchronicity: I had a hard time deciding on my fifth one, and it could have easily gone to Def Leppard’s Pyromania or New Order’s Power Corruption and Lies. The tiebreaker is how often I listen to these albums, and Synchronicity wins out – if by a hair. Anyway…a swansong like no other. The story of the Police is one of the classic rock n roll sagas, from rags to riches to oblivion, three diverse talents focused on creating the greatest music possible and succeeding not only critically, but commercially as well. And while Sting is certainly known now for his easily accessible power radio slag, even the biggest hits of the Police contained elements of unorthodox song structure and lyrical weightiness – and with this being their biggest album, all of that follows. No, Every Breath You Take is not a sweet ballad, nor is King of Pain an anguished one, but instead a (before it was cool) statement on the environment; while yes, Synchronicity II is about mental and emotional breakdown and Wrapped Around Your Finger references literature that the kids back then maybe should have gotten, but the ones today almost definitely won’t. And all of it you can sing along to with pleasure (unless you’re JT). The rest of the album is even more delightfully diverse, from quirky jazz (Murder by Numbers), to world music (Walking in Your Footsteps), to flat out crazy (Mother). Plus, Miss Gradenko has one of my favorite Any Summers solos, so choppy and concise, it’s like a miniature song within the song. Bottom line, Synchronicity is proof that 30 years ago an album could be relevant, eccentric and top the charts (take that, Thriller) all at the same time. Too bad Sting lost his vision, while Andy and Stewart lost their sting.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Two for Tuesday

So, a couple of weeks ago Michael Nesmith, of Monkees fame, kicked off his fist solo tour in more than 20 years. Bill, my buddy in TN, was able to catch the show up his way and from the reviews I read and the clips he sent me (on the sly), it was really a fantastic event.

While vicariously prepping for that show through Bill (and since), I’ve been listening to a lot of Papa Nes over the past few weeks. He is truly a gifted artist, well grounded in his roots and influences, and yet always seeking inspiration on the coming horizon. And though it’s been awhile since his last release (Rays, 2006), I hope as he pushes into his 70s that he brings us more of his unique voice and vision.

And if he doesn’t, there are still loads of great tunes to fall back on from the past 40+ years. Here are a couple of my favorites…Joanne and Twilight on the Trail.