Friday, March 12, 2010

The Fall make another album

Prompting the exasperation of record store clerks worldwide, 34-year-old British band The Fall have made another record called Our Future, Your Clutter. It is unknown precisely which record it is in their canon. Counting only "official" studio releases only, it's their 28th? 29th? album, but counting the countless live LPs, rarities, A and B-side comps, etc, we must be somewhere in the hundreds. This is a Fall album among many. It's about 50 minutes long, but it only has 9 tracks, with typically enigmatic titles like "Cowboy George," "Chino," "Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor." Many elements of it are very Fall-esque, much like the elements of the last seven Fall albums.

There is something different about Our Future, however, in that it is the first time in many years that Mark E. Smith and his current musicians have made a Very Important Work. The kind of thing that is the reason Mr. Smith is called a Genius and his band a British Institution without bullshit hype or extra publicity of Smith's 'eccentric' behavior (which has often been attributed to a long-standing amphetamine and alcohol habit).

Just to clarify: I have no predisposed reason to uphold this record. I love The Fall, and will buy any albums they make simply because they make them, but I don't even really like the current lineup of the Fall all that much. They are, on the whole, faceless, but perhaps that's the way MES wants them to be. Pete Greenaway is generally an adept, if not particularly remarkable, guitarist; bass player Dave Spurr obviously got his start in nu-metal, and sounded better as the dinging top-end to Rob Barbato's Big Muff-ed out bass growl in the 2006-2007 band; and drummer Keiron Melling - well, at least he knows how to hit those drums really hard. This is their second go-round as official members (Spurr and Greenaway appeared on Reformation Post TLC), and Imperial Wax Solvent, their first, while full of great moments, was perhaps the most disappointing Fall record of the 2000's - one that seemed better on first listen than it revealed itself to be with repeat visits (the opposite trend of a Typical Fall Album). Smith seemed content to coast on cult-of-personality-inspired goofy gibberish through much of the record, manipulating the tapes of his band behind him into loops and interrupted song structures, the most obvious example being "50-Year Old Man," an 11-minute homage to himself. The end product often felt half-written, with the would-be classics of "Tommy Shooter" and "Senior Twilight Stock Replacer" getting a half-hearted treatment from the lead man that squandered their potential. In fact, some of the best and most inventive songs on the album were those obviously dashed off at the last minute, the Sesame Street-like "Latch Key Kid" and the noisily jarring "Exploding Chimney." Like all Fall albums, it has too many great moments to be called "bad," but to this listener, it often seemed like the companion piece to Smith's ridiculous autobiography, Renegade; a chance for him to take a loaf break, even the score with a few old enemies and, basically, "talk a lot of wind."

Stranger still, to me, half of this album isn't really worth making much of a fuss about. In fact, the album's first five songs are a hair's breadth away from being the better produced, more British counterpart to Reformation (recorded with Smith's one and only American backing band) - extended jams with goofy nonsequitors sprinkled here and there by a seemingly aloof Smith. Opener "O.F.Y.C. Showcase" hangs on one chord while Smith shouts inside of a cupboard or some such enclosed space. Melling pounds his drums while MES raises his voice higher and higher, with further psychotic indignation, but the end product seems tantamount to vigorously jacking off a limp dick; the enthusiasm is there, but the idea simply isn't. "Bury Pts. 1, 2, and 3" starts off promisingly, with the entire band filtered through a fuzz pedal, but its counterparts trail off into forgettableness. "Mexico Wax Solvent" is typical Smith absurdity over a predictable backing; it's as if this band is eternally stuck on two or three grooves - which is just when "Cowboy George" comes in, proving them capable of a dynamic range. An amphetamine spaghetti-Western rockabilly track, it sees the band finally bring their A-game - and Smith responds, throwing in his ever so off-key sense of melody and interrupting the proceedings with, of all things, a tape recording of Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." But then "Hot Cake" takes it back to the same garage riffs we've heard make up most of the last three Fall albums, and it doesn't really go anywhere.

However, the let-down of the first half seems like a deliberate fluke once you get to "Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor." Accompanied by only Spurr and Melling at the beginning, Smith starts throwing counter-rhythms back at his band with his voice - grooving, almost, while a clanky bass overdub throws off your concentration. But then at the 2 minute mark, the proceedings are completely overthrown for the first truly hypnotic Fall riff this incarnation of the band has been able to muster - one that recalls the days of Scanlon, Riley, Hanley, etc. This time, the energy is truly there for all involved, and Smith is stepping over himself in overdubs to match the magic his band's whipped up. And at the end, we are treated to a full 90 seconds of strange addendums, again courtesy of Smith's infamous portable tape recorder - a country outro taped at a practice with Smith intoning "One cigarette's gonna do it....," a drum pattern beaten out onto pant legs, and an ethereal phone message from a man who, as The Quietus revealed in their in-depth review, is an arthritis specialist. For the first time in a long time, this Fall album reveals itself as truly ominous - not just the typical handiwork of some minor, quirky, British celebrity.

Follow-up "Chino" is the album's "Blindness," but this time, we are given a far more personal, autobiographical rant. Over an abrasive introduction, Smith informs us that "This is an actual account of the operational proceedings." Here, wife Eleni Poulou's stamp is all over the track, her modern Allen Ravenstine squeals creating a fuzzy atmosphere for Smith to wrestle with himself: "How can I leave this trench alone? My darling is waiting," he says. Talk of hospitals, hell and war loop throughout the 5 minutes. The Quietus speculated that this is Smith's contemplation of retirement, after over 30 years of service to the music industry, but who knows? One thing is for certain - with talk of a "slippy floor," the voice of an arthritis specialist on his answering machine, and pondering how to "get out of this hospital," Smith's mind seems to be on his physical well being, and, perhaps, his mortality. The album's darkest moment so far is immediately countered with its most light-hearted, a cover of rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love," the best cover on a Fall album since Are You Are Missing Winner's revamping of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Town." But in a way, it plays into "Chino"'s talk of a lover the singer compulsively returns to, and thematically anticipates the album's closing theme of loss of control - "My mind is a blank, my head is spinning around and around in the funnel of love."

And then, closer "Weather Report 2" changes everything. The entire album. It is, in fact, the greatest song the Fall have written in 10 years. It makes much of the past 10 years of the Fall seem a bit silly. Beginning with some honest guitar harmonics - perhaps a Fall first - it opens with a vulnerable, melodic backing that sounds like the more uneasy counterpart to early 90s tracks "Bill is Dead" and "Rose," but something is horribly amiss. Smith is attempting to croon. "Hello, how are you today? I thought the vitamins worked, changed my life." Soon, he is returning to a line, echoed by a lower-pitched, darker overdub. "No one has called me 'sir' in my entire life. You gave me the best years of my life." We are firmly in "Bill is Dead" territory now, where Smith sarcastically sang, "These are the finest times of my life." But now, things seem a bit more final. The first 2 minutes have the feeling of a lament, the number at the end of a Citizen Kane-type musical about the Fall: has it all been worth it? In a career of calling the worst things that could ever happen to a bandleader (onstage punchups, abandoned tours, a phalanx of untrustworthy record contracts) "the best thing that ever happened," here we are shown that maintaining Mark E. Smith, the persona maybe hasn't been so easy for Mark E. Smith, the human. And it's a sobering experience, especially after the British media circus that's surrounded the group and Smith since the mid-2000s. It made Smith into an unforgettable media kook and his band finally got some of the recognition they deserved. But to celebrate the band as an institution and its leader as a charming weirdo stunts their art's credibility, and perhaps even affected the product itself, if Imperial Wax Solvent can be held up as an example. And one must return to what Grant Showbiz said about Mark's destruction of the 80s lineup of the Fall: "Just as it was going really well, I think Mark just went, 'I'm not really what you're saying I am. I am not this thing, I am Mark E. Smith. I am not your pet.'"

Now that his story has practically become tantamount to a modern British folktale, Smith bares the scars behind the madness. "No one has ever called me 'sir' in my entire life," he says, sounding more rueful, more resigned and bitter each time. When he says "You gave me the best years of my life," is he talking to us? to his wife? Does he mean it? Meanwhile, an apocalypse is on the horizon, signaled by the off-key synth growl and the talk of 'weather reports' and expanding whirlpools, until the entire track is superceded by Poulou's bass synth and Smith's voice of God/doom. Three terrifying minutes follow. This time, Smith has captured all the bullshit of the doomsday culture we live in today, and he's made it all real. He's thrown it back at us. He's destroyed his band again, but he sees a greater destruction ahead. "Weather reports. It's like an ice rink....I miss my family in Oxford....The whirlpools cascade over the smoking tents." The whirlpools widen and Poulou gets louder until that too washes away for one final, unaccompanied, whispered stanza: "Never mind Jackson/What about Saxon's/recording of lost London? You don't deserve rock and roll." It is, by far, the best closing to Fall album, ever, not to mention one of Smith's most accomplished set of lyrics, and perhaps his most effective and terrifying use of sound collage.

I have been changed by "Weather Report 2." The song has followed me around ever since I heard it. It haunts me. I've listened to it 10 times in the past two days. True, many Fall records end in a peculiar way. Reformation ended with the band playing one note over and over, as if to say, "we'll be back." Imperial Wax Solvent ended with the words, "Believe me kids, I've been through it all." Are You Are Missing Winner ended, like many albums before it (Code: Selfish, The Light User Syndrome) with a farce. Levitate ended with Smith fading into the background chanting, "Everybody But Myself," while audience members pretended to be him, temporarily succumbing to the 'slow, subtle lost of identity' he later described on his solo album. But only the end of Our Future, Your Clutter sounds like "goodbye."

Monday, March 1, 2010

End of year list 2009 (2 months late)

This year I challenged a lot of my preconceived notions regarding music, and more often than not I was richly rewarded. Hence, I started liking at least one Replacements record (so now I can't claim to "hate" them), I fell for Alex Chilton's solo career wholeheartedly, I discovered legends I had previously written off, and I fell in love with the Zappa music I hadn't fully digested yet. This was not a year of epiphanies. It wasn't even a year where I listened to much new (read: present-day) music. But it was a year where I expanded upon the material in my record collection that I already on....

Best albums I bought/acquired:

Destiny Street - Richard Hell & The Voidoids
This one's tough to find, especially since Mr. Hell just "revised" this 1982 classic with new guitar work from Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. But these classy fucks couldn't possibly reproduce the ugly beauty of 10 tracks of Robert Quine clashing against a competing number of rhythm guitarist Naux's in the swirling mess that serves as the backdrop for Destiny Street. Had Hell died after this album's release it would have been his In Utero - with desperate cries in the anti-drug "Ignore That Door," hypnotic depression in the chugging "Staring in Her Eyes," retrospective insight in the timeless "Time," and, oh yeah, the cover of the Bob Dylan song about suicide ("Going Going Gone"), it often has the tone of a farewell. Instead, we get a postcard from the edge that doesn't leave us - or its creator - cold when it's over.

Live at The Star Club - Jerry Lee Lewis
There is nothing to be said about this album that has not already been said. If you haven't heard it and you like rock music, you are doing yourself a disservice.

A Grown-Ass Man - Dump
Dump's four-track offerings can be hit or miss, although all have a well-worn charm that brings me back for repeated listenings time and again. But Grown-Ass Man, McNew's first fully-digital recording, is also his best, most realized album. Not only does the sound bring out the true brilliance in his often simple yet memorable songwriting, the songs themselves are jaw-dropping almost across the board, such as the exhilarating "The History Of Love," the Rentals-esque "Basic Cable," and the furiously epic (clocking in at just under 8 minutes) "Daily Affirmation." Good choice of covers too ("Mr. Too Damn Good," Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song")

Sticky Rubies - The Amazements
OK, I produced a song on this record ("Watch Your Step"), paid for the mastering of it - and I also don't feel it's the best representation of the band. But this is the most official thing we've got, or will ever get - RIP. It was a great ride guys - now let's hear it for the Real Noriegas in 2010!

Dim Stars - Dim Stars
Post-Voidoids Hell joins two Sonic Youth members and one producer for sloppy, ridiculous and overlong record. The result has some of his finest songs of all time ("She Wants To Die," "All My Witches Come True," "Monkey," "Baby Huey" (the latter featured in the movie Airheads!!!)) and some ridiculous jamming and noise experiments. Bravo for taking a chance and having fun. This record is often panned and misunderstood, but in fact is quite brilliant, and can sound even profound given the correct mental, physical and chemical settings.

Tear Down The Walls - Molesters
The dynamic Sam Lubicz/Liam Morrison duo have yielded some great music the last couple years, namely Sex-S and the 333 Boyz, but for my money, Tear Down The Walls is their bona fide masterpiece, recorded under the "cover name" Molesters. Classic songs include the near-instrumental "Doodoo Rock," the grunge-apathy anthem "Twins" and the samba-esque "Like A Virus." Recorded mostly through an iMac's internal mic onto GarageBand, lo-fi wishes it was this good, or this lo-fi.

Songs From The Pink Death - Kramer
Kramer's solo records follow an interesting pattern of looping jams with endlessly ranting lyrics stacked high with Kramer's self-harmonizations. And I love them. They are my thing, and there's brilliance anyone can latch onto, especially in this record, with the anti-romantic yet achingly beautiful "The Funny Scene," with the pro-atheist anthem "The Hot Dog Song," and the just plain irritatingly catchy "Don't Come Around."

American Primitive, Vol. 1
"You hear the best part of humanity, people expressing their connection to eternity or whatever." - R. Crumb, on "old records"
Gospel used to be the best music America had to offer. It was rock and roll, soul, avant-garde, blues and God in one package before this pangaea was woefully destroyed by time. Luckily John Fahey and Harry Smith were around to pick up the pieces before eternity took them away too. This is essential, as essential if not more than (dare I say) the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Cloudland - Pere Ubu
Pennsylvania - Pere Ubu
St. Arkansas - Pere Ubu
Why I Hate Women - Pere Ubu
Modern Dance - Pere Ubu
To quell any nagging doubts, yes I got into Pere Ubu this year. This is why:

Previously, I had felt, more or less without much justification, that Pere Ubu were a fairly pretentious unit, high on their own peculiarities but low on musical content. But "Breath" - has there been a more appropriate title in pop history? - moved me, changed me and made me an Ubu fan on the spot in front of the laptop. Pere Ubu, as it turns out, is pure American rock music. Quirky, angular, spazzy - all these words are thrown at them but skillfully dodged by the band's adept skill at following their radical whims into a shockingly consistent body of work. OK, so last year's Long Live Pere Ubu verged on unlistenable - but regardless, I admire David Thomas & co. for having the guts to make such a jarringly offensive (and deliberately so) piece of work so seemingly "late" in their career. (Plus there were still some great songs on the album anyway) All the above mentioned albums are ones I've had a deeply personal relationship with - Pennsylvania and Modern Dance helped me survive Washington D.C., Cloudland narrated the urban alienation of San Francisco and Boston, but St. Arkansas is still the one to listen to when terror twilight falls. All are essential, as far as I'm concerned.

Oar - Alexander "Skip" Spence
If you're open and ready to the bare folk and broken "psychedelia" of Skip Spence, this album resonates from opener to closer. It's an acquired taste, but for those ready for it, one you immediately ease into and hold onto for listen after listen. This music isn't hip, it isn't confessional, and it isn't even all that weird-sounding today. It's just raw and moving, and free of pretention. And a classic.

Main Offender - Keith Richards
Pleased to Meet Me - The Replacements
The Grand Wazoo - Frank Zappa
Barrett/The Madcap Laughs - Syd Barrett

Anything by John Fahey
Yet another giant (literally) American I woefully underestimated and ignored for years. For YEARS, I said to myself, "I don't hear anything special about that guitar picking. I'll go listen to the Crumb soundtrack instead." OK, the Crumb soundtrack is still great (one of my all-time favorites) but Fahey has a whole other thing going on, where the history of music gets re-routed through his head and generally, crammed through one guitar. His weird so-called "noise" material is just as good (as far as I'm concerned) as his early so-called "folk" stuff. His writing, collected on How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life and Vampire Vultures, is equally brilliant. Did I mention his abstract paintings? (They're great too.) A man that succeeded at all artistic ventures, I consume his work with the same voraciousness with which he ate junk food.

Sign of the 3-Eyed Men - 13th Floor Elevators
The 13th Floor Elevators' discography is so essential to any accurate perception of the impact of the 1960s "musical revolution" that it's a crying shame these albums weren't given the same royal treatment as may other, lesser bands that get much more attention. Never mind them. All the albums are now collected in one place, and they sound amazing, and yes, all the outtakes and shit are fucking great too. I'm not going to bother to "review every disc" like I said I would, for fear of cheapening it - this is one of the greatest band ever's full discography we're talking about, right?


A Man Called Destruction - Alex Chilton
Alex Chilton takes so much shit for his solo career. Hell, I panned Feudalist Tarts/No Sex. But you know what? I love that record now, and listen to it all the time. Chilton has odd, perhaps sarcastic, but always discernable charisma across all his solo efforts post-Like Flies. True, the latter record was probably the last masterpiece the man can muster, but A Man Called Destruction proves he's still capable of an amusing, endlessly listenable record. Mainly covers (that's the way most of 'em go) graced with Chilton's evermore-sterling guitar tone and smirking vocal stylings, and in brilliant hi-fi, for once. If you want Big Star, buy a ticket for one of the two reunion shows this year (yes I'd like to see them too).

Incomplete list of favorite songs:

"Let Me Get Close To You," "Bangkok," "What's Your Sign, Girl?," "Lies" - Alex Chilton
"Soul Deep," "The Letter" - Box Tops/Chilton
"SAD.TXT," "Non-Alignment Pact," "Horses," "Monday Night," "Bus Called Happiness," "Caroleen," "Beach Boys," "Street Waves," "Drive," "Silver Spring," "Breath" - Pere Ubu
"Lovely Day," "Oh My Golly" - The Pixies
"Hop on One Foot/Hop On the Other" - Squatter's Temple
"Sun Gonna Shine in My Back Door Someday Blues," "Sligo River Blues," "When the Springtime Comes Again," "Fanfare," "Fare Forward Voyagers," "Red Lion" - John Fahey
"Life Goes On," "I Ain't Mad At Cha," "Changes" - 2Pac
"Chandelier Searchlight," "My Purple Past" - Deerhoof
"Livin' On," "Barnyard Blues," "It's You" - 13th Floor Elevators
"Do Something Real," "It Is Divine" - Robert Pollard
"Betrayed (live)" - Lou Reed
"She Got That Come Back Pussy" - Dickey Williams
"Mind Playing Tricks On Me" - Geto Boys
"Sex Machine," "Please Please Please (live)" - James Brown
"Seat in the Kingdom" - Crumb Brothers
"Fairest of All" - The Red Krayola
"Nothing Man" - The Deviants
"What is a Dollar?," "Reparations," "Deathbed Confession" - Chain & The Gang
"Oh Death" - Charlie Patton
"Words of Wonder," "Eileen," "Hate it When You Leave" - Keith Richards
"Everything You Did" - Steely Dan
"Down On Me" - Eddie Head and his Family
"The Funny Scene" - Kramer
"Locomotive" - Thelonious Monk
"Ruins Song," "Millennium" - The Amazements
"Don't Leave Me Alone With Her," "At Home, At Work, At Play," "Beat the Clock," "Reinforcements" - Sparks
"Mysterious," "Sorry" - The Splinters
"Doodoo Rock" - Molesters
"Part of Me" - LAKE
"Waving My Arms in the Air," "Octopus," "Late Night" - Syd Barrett
"Little Hands," "Cripple Creek," "Broken Heart," "Dixie Peach Promenade" - Alexander 'Skip' Spence
"Leroy," "I Am Stealth" - The Airplanes
"We Are Mean" - Vic Chesnutt (RIP) and Elf Power
"Addicted to Love" - Robert Palmer
"Centerfold" - J. Geils Band
"'Til The End of the Day," "She's A Mover," "Back of a Car" - Big Star
"Money (live)" - Jerry Lee Lewis
"Lonesome Cowboy Jim (Swaggert version)," "The Grand Wazoo," "Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy," "Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus" - Frank Zappa
"Reverend Black Grape" - Black Grape
"Letter From Anne Marie," "Nobody Rides For Free" - Grant Hart
"Lie To Me," "Walk Away" - Tom Waits
"Fly Into The Mystery," "Ice Cream Man" - Jonathan Richman
"Je Suis Un Rock Star" - Bill Wyman
"Nicotine Need," "Eenque Pen," "Teen Routines" - R. Stevie Moore

Monday, November 9, 2009

A brief meditation: SF Bargain Buys from the summer

I wrote this over the summer but somehow didn't manage to publish it. Enjoy:

Record buying season is slow in the Bay and if I had felt like snapping up vinyl now would be the perfect time. One day at Amoeba Berkeley I saw all the first five Pere Ubu vinyls, originals, on sale. As well as June 1, 1974. All decently priced. During the school year, forget about seeing that. Oh yeah, also, the economy's continuing to fail. Well, if you have the money, take charge; these things can be long-term investments and you won't see them forever.

Myself, I can't really be arsed to collect vinyl anymore. I love vinyl. Anything I hear on that outdated shit first, I have to hear in that format to enjoy. But I am a mover and shaker and it's hard for me to wrap my head around the vinyl experience at all times. Or feel like I can make the time. I have a hard time committing to watching a TV show. I'm glad that this reactionary movement has stimulated the record-buying economy. It is good to own something "real." But for all you so-called analog purists, consider this: almost any vinyl record released after the mid-80s has been DIGITALLY MASTERED or, at the very least, the music was at one time dubbed onto a DAT - a DIGITAL AUDIO TAPE - for delivery to a pressing plant. So you might as well be listening to a CD dubbed onto a cassette, my friends. Notable exceptions, of records on analog from studio floor to your livingroom floor include those Jackpot! reissues which actually go to painstaking lenghts to master original analog tapes the analog way (like those awesome new Wipers reissues), The Breeders' Mountain Battles (mastered the old-fashioned way at Abbey Road)(which is such a good record anyway you should already own it in some form) and anything from The Microphones/Mount Eerie (not that his purism is doing anything for his self-centered, murky music these days).

Oh, by the way, Bee Thousand, the #1 four-track record of all time, was mastered and edited on ProTools.

And Nirvana's "Something in The Way," is built on a series of digital loops. Oops. I talked to the guy that did it at a guitar shop in Los Angeles.

And there is no Santa Claus.

Fuck Steve Albini:

Good News For Modern Man - Grant Hart

It can be safely said by now that Grant Hart has spent more of his career hating his former bandmate, Bob Mould, than he has making music. One can't really blame him - back when Hüsker Dü were really making great music, they did it at a rate that was essentially inhuman. I mean, New Day Rising, Flip Your Wig and Candy Apple Grey were recorded in a year and a half. (Not to mention the fact Zen Arcade, a double album, got recorded and mixed in three days.) No, you probably couldn't do that, no matter which drugs you were on. Following what by all accounts was a horrific breakup, I'd want a little break time myself. Hart has made a couple solo records and tried to get a new band, Nova Mob, off the ground - but the band was all but destroyed after a head-on collision with a reckless driver in Germany. Bob "Overachiever" Mould, instead, has made a bunch of records of varying quality by himself and with Sugar (who themselves were more or less ended by his unwelcome 'outing' in the mid-90s), and, by now, has comfortably settled down in the mediocrity of adult contemporary, if his latest effort is to be believed. And he blogs a lot.

Good News For Modern Man finds (or found, this was already 10 years ago and there hasn't been another album since) Mr. Hart taking a short break from putting Mould down in the press (for some good reasons, but with all the over-the-top spite of an ex-lover) to make some music that sounds not unlike his material with Hüsker Dü: poppy, wall-of-sound-like and graced with his bleating, occasionally effeminate vocal stylings. When he's on, it's well worth a listen. "Nobody Rides For Free" stands out as a true gem, although the ranting, monotonous verses bespeak of a somewhat frazzled Hart, bringing all the vulnerability of his early greats such as "Pink Turns to Blue" and "Chastity, Charity, Prudence and Hope" full-circle with a now well-honed world-weariness. "Teeny's Hair" is among the more "modern" sounding tracks, with an electronic wash of a background backing up some haunting block chords and especially literary lyrics - one sees Hart looking up to his old friend Burroughs here (whose picture appears, in tribute, on the album's liners). "A Letter From Anne-Marie" is so 90s-alternative-whatever I almost feel embarassed to like it, but it is a pretty great song, definitely one of the best of the bunch - even though, at 6 minutes, it runs a bit long for the idea presented. Later on, the surfy and bleepy "Let Rosemary Rock Him, Laura-Louise" stands as one of the few good rock instrumentals I've heard in some time.

So let it be known that Hart isn't just a bandmate-basher, all efforts of the previous ten years to the contrary. Flaky? Yes. Unproductive? Guess so...his remix of a Nova Mob album is now about eight years overdue, and his alleged collaboration with Godspeed You Black Emperor is also taking its sweet time to see the light of day. A bitter bastard? See for yourself. But a quick dive through the Husker Du bargain bin (I bought this for five bucks) will reveal his talents more or less in tact on Good News. And hell, it doesn't even sound like a bad carbon copy of his old band. Glory be!

'Em Are I - Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard

I like the idea of this artist, and this album, a lot better than I like the reality so far. I discovered Jeffrey Lewis after a long-winded interview with him appeared, somewhat bafflingly, on the Fall News website, which I check everyday without fail. At the interview's end, the writer quickly, and somewhat awkardly, opined that 'Em Are I was "much better than anything The Fall have done in years."

Well, I loved 2007's Reformation Post TLC (fuck the haters) and last year's Imperial Wax Solvent (which is actually one of the most innovative albums the band has ever put out), so, actually, that's a pretty high mark, for me. One that 'Em Are I did not surpass.

Jeffrey Lewis is a highly self-conscious writer, cartoonist and songwriter. Any artist involved in an autobiographical comic strip about his life (see Harvey Pekar, early Matt Groening, etc.) is bound to be a little more earth-bound than your average dreamer, and Lewis certainly fits the bill. So far, he's either been known as the guy that made all those Crass songs into twee indie delights, a Moldy Peaches associate (he did their album artwork), or the guy that wrote that funny song about Will Oldham raping him. It's a good song, actually.

He's been compared to Jonathan Richman, Lou Reed, and all kinds of other people he doesn't sound like, but what shines through to me is a pretty strong likeness to They Might Be Giants: wordy, cerebral and intelligent lyrics that tie into good old sing-along choruses and, frankly, not particularly challenging music. (I still love TMBG) This is not love-it-or-hate-it music, and, unlike these icons Lewis gets compared to, his music isn't extreme enough in any direction to inspire that kind of passion. So 'Em Are I tackles all kinds of neuroses and various real-life situations we often find ourselves contemplating (baldness, death, busy schedules) with some catchy melodies and passable indie-band playing. I still haven't listened to all of it. I don't love it and I don't hate it. Next time I have the inclination to concentrate on any of the lyrics (i.e. extremely ill) I'll give it another spin. Perhaps I'll change my mind. Perhaps not. I still admire him for his productivity and travel off the beaten path of the shitty indie music that gets all that high praise today.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

In Our Nation's Capital: 17.76 Songs That Make Me Proud to be an American

Pere Ubu - "Non-Alignment Pact"
A blast of ear-splitting synth noise followed by a bastardized Chuck Berry riff. Then a guy who sounds like a throatier Donald Duck starts bleating. That guy, David Thomas, has since said that rock-and-roll is America's folk music, and he would rather have an album of John Cougar Mellencamp outtakes on a desert island than a Smiths record....even though he now lives in "self-imposed-exile" in London.

They Might Be Giants - "James K. Polk"
Easily described as the synthesis of 80's Elvis Costello and Schoolhouse Rock, They Might Be Giants make music to supplement the cute yet intelligent, dorky jokes you make to girls. One of their more "history lesson" songs, (for more, see "Meet James Ensor," "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too") you get a fairly thorough assessment of our 11th president, "the Napoleon of the Stump." American mythology done right.

Van Dyke Parks - "FDR in Trinidad" (but basically anything in the man's catalog counts)
A 70s tribute to our longest-serving president with a calypso feel, this should have been a radio hit. Parks often out-Randy Newman's Randy Newman in his unapologetic embrace of all things American (and the culture of our surrounding islands), historical ephemera and folk literacy.

Velvet Underground - "What Goes On"
"They were wild like the USA
A mystery band in a New York way
Rock and roll, but not like the rest
And to me, America at it's best
How in the world were they making that sound?
Velvet Underground." - Jonathan Richman, "Velvet Underground." Speaking of him...

Modern Lovers - "Roadrunner"
Don't know about now, although he hasn't gone ex-pat, but the first ten years or so of Jonathan Richman's career involved a torrid love affair with the USA. Boiling down "Sister Ray" from three chords to two, Richman glorifies the radio, convenience stores, highways and rock and roll in three minutes. Still relevant today.

Roky Erickson - "I Pledge Allegiance," "Unforced Peace," "When You Get Delighted"
Roky Erickson's solo career more or less began with his quick descent into schizophrenia. Contrasting with the ornate complexity of his former group The 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson's solo work is often American folk of all varieties (soul, hillbilly, bar band rock) laid barren and twisted. Take for instance, the former tune, a haunted reading of the Pledge of Allegiance over block chords, recorded from within a Texas mental hospital. Or "Unforced Peace," a folk-punk post-hippie scrawl written while Erickson was assuming an "Abraham Lincoln" persona, often appearing as the former president live onstage. "When You Get Delighted" takes that G chord-drone that continues to nauseate with so many "alternative" tunes to this day, but subverts the traditional American love tune into a bizarre amalgamation that evokes an eternal open road: "Never broken hearted/Our love starts before it started/Everything you do is in the category of love and love is all you do."

Sly & The Family Stone - "Let Me Have It All"
I'm not going to bother trying to discuss the many sociopolitical songs this guy put out - we all know they're great, they've been discussed ad nauseum, and in general, I haven't uploaded those albums to my iTunes yet. But here's a Sunny Sunday tune if I've ever heard one, about an other who has "turned into a prayer," embracing simplicity, love and spontaneity in a constant groove. "You set up a barrier/Don't you know I'd marry ya/Let me have it all." There's something we can all tap into. (Plus it synthesizes rock and funk and soul and all that good stuff.)

Moondog - "Why Spend a Dark Night"
How's this for upward mobility? New York City street freak/performer becomes well-respected modern classical composer and legend, with essential records released by Prestige and Columbia. His music, a combination of 100% tonal Bachisms and Native American rhythms. Part folk song, part foot-stomping chant, part American classical, all brilliant.

Randy Newman - "Political Science"
Just because I dissed him to glorify his longtime friend doesn't mean I'm not an avid Randy fan. Most of his songs that mention our grand country typically make us feel slightly guilty about being American - "Sail Away," "Rednecks," and the humorously titled "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America." But can a guy that peppers almost every song with New Orleans motifs and slip note piano really be accused of being unpatriotic? This tune, done with tongue pressed firmly in cheek as a satirical look at the American condition, is practically proto-Bush Doctrine today: "We give them money/but are they grateful?/No, they're spiteful/and they're hateful/They don't respect us/so let's surprise them/Let's drop the big one/and pulverize 'em." I still don't understand why people hate irony.

George Jones - "White Lightning"
There's nothing more quintessentially American than making a catchy song about poisonously strong bootleg liquor and dodging the police. Nothing.

Holy Modal Rounders - "Mr. Spaceman," "Bound to Lose"
The Holy Modal Rounders borrowed, stole and bastardized every folk music motif ever (mainly from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music) and then made them funny and catchy unlike their relatively vanilla peers. You can sing these songs all day long wearing a stars and stripes shirt and you don't even have to be stoned to feel like it. God Bless.

The Crystals - "He's A Rebel"
We are a nation instinctively in love with rebels - after all, didn't rebels found the USA in the first place? Nowhere is this better expressed than this, my personal favorite Phil Spector production ("Be My Baby" is great too, but this is the first one I fell for). "Just because he doesn't do what everybody else does/That's no reason why I can't give him all my love." I got chills typing that. Just vague enough to be universal.

The Ramones - "I Want You Around"
Essentially a Phil Spector group devoid of good looks, an orchestra, "talent," and, End of the Century notwithstanding, Phil Spector, The Ramones are one of those many groups credited with "inventing punk." (I'd rather Americans get the glory than those fucking limeys....) But this song isn't particularly punk, just the most noncommital of love songs - and ergot, one of the most affecting. Haiku brevity lyrics repeat again and again over three or four chords.

The Stooges - "Louie, Louie" (from Metallic KO)
Really, one could choose any song the Stooges had actually written for this list that doesn't appear on The Weirdness, but this way I'm killing two birds with one stone. Best part comes after the band has ended the song, a farewell rap from Iggy to a hostile crowd, quite possibly his last completely unpretentious artistic statement: "Thank you very much to whoever threw this glass bottle at my head. You nearly killed me but you missed again."

John Fahey - "America"
This guy punched out Michael Antonioni, director of Blow Up and Zabriskie Point, for saying he hated the United States. After Antonioni paid him thousands to produce a piece of music that went, understandably, largely unused in the final cut of Zabriskie. Again, his whole discography makes the cut.

Note: Neil Young is NOT an American. Despite him invoking our fair nation in song and story, with titles such as "American Stars and Bars," "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," and "Let's Roll," he still retains Canadian citizenship. I am therefore unproud of him and his discography, even though I smell a deathbed conversion in his future. Wannabe.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I Haven't Abandoned Anybody, Or Cough Up The Bucks

You heard me.

I have been busy at work at a very long, important piece that hopefully will find publication.

In the meantime, enjoy these reviews, mostly written by me while sick. With an introduction I began about two months ago at the job I just quit:

At this point, the idea of me keeping up with my purchases has truly gone out the window. While I've slowed down, there are so many months I basically lost track of at the beginning of this year that every review for a while will be remember as remember can, essentially.

Additionally, look for an "I Was Wrong" post about all kinds of bullshit calls (some made only aloud, some on this blog) I made only to contradict myself thereafter. Soon.

Pleased to Meet Me - The Replacements

The decision to try The Replacements again did not come lightly. I bought Tim my freshman year of college and I liked one song: "Bastards of Young." I still think it's pretty great. I since listened to the album and decided that "Left of the Dial" and "Little Mascara" are OK, too, but I can still do without the rest of the album. The production sucks (thanks for nothin' Tommy Ramone) and the songs just aren't that good. Clichéd would be the word. Whether they became so after they were recorded makes no difference to me, I listen to music today, not the fuckin' 80s!

But due to my other listening tastes and the crowd I hang around, I frequently get the question put to me a few times a year: "You really don't like the Replacements?"

Well, fuckin' A. I don't know if they really warrant the comparison with the bands they were featured alongside in Azerrad's still essential, still endlessly readable Our Band Could Be Your Life. I feel like albums such as Sorry Ma and Hootenany ape the styles du jour (bar rock, hardcore, pop ballads) with Midwestern Heart but a lack of Transcendence over these genres. The blame of which has to be lain time and again at Paul "Problem Child" Westerberg's doorstep for not writing songs that were, well, that great. The albums were usually produced really fucking poorly (Sorry Ma just sounds like a bad garage band's demo to me, which it is, and not in a good way) But this year, I had to concede that yes, The Replacements made one Good Album: this one.

The Attraction came with its producer: Mr. Jim Dickinson of Big Star's Third, the-piano-on-the-Stones' "Wild Horses" fame. A gregarious fellow and great interview, he holds this record up in high regard in his, er, corpus. There are indeed a couple fantastic articles about the making of this album that might likewise intrigue you as it did me. Essentially, Dickinson 'n Co pulled the album out of the shambolic band, one engine down following the firing of wildman guitarist Bob Stinson. And even after recording on state-of-the-art equipment, editing vocal tracks into coherent statements and using unorthodox techniques to get the best out the group, you can still hear all kinds of fuckups in the final product. This time I mean this in the most affectionate way possible.

Yes, the production is as slick and sleek as 80s can get, but real soul beats beneath. As do, for once, great songs: "I.O.U." barely repeats a section but is among the most thrilling 3 minutes of real rock the band ever brought forth; "Alex Chilton" should have been a massive hit for the 80s record buying public, an angular, danceable tribute to the Big Star frontman; "Never Mind" and "Valentine" tug the Midwestern Give-It-All-You-Got feel into songs that really standup as anthems. Oh, I could go on. The only weak tune is really "Shooting Dirty Pool" which isn't quite as stupid as the coke innuendo "Dose of Thunder" but comes close. The corny barroom atmosphere sounds almost rescue it, however.

Bottomline: The Replacements were always a great, stupid bar band. Not "indie" or "college" or "edgy" or "punk." They sucked at pretending to be those things. In fact, by all reports, they just kind of sucked in general - perhaps what earned them underground recognition in the first place. The full realization of their true destiny, for me, is found on the so-major-label-sounding-it-hurts Pleased To Meet Me.

Of course, after the sessions, the band started sucking even more and broke up a couple years later. The End.

The Madcap Laughs/Barrett - Syd Barrett
Oh, dear readers. How much I haven't told you.

I think someone shot someone outside my home in the San Francisco Mission. How scary!

Oh, by the way: I moved to San Francisco. But this is all unneccessary.

When I was 20 I used to put on parts of this album that uploaded at the wrong bitrate on my computer. I was in a bad personal situation. Nothing about this album made it better.

In fact, it only amplified the vague, semi-hallucinogenic despair I was often operating under. I would tell people I felt it was "music to drool into a bucket to," a line I lifted from the Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary (he was, regrettably, referring to his own work, not Barrett's).

Let's go back. Go WayBack. Go WayOnWayBackWhen. Mythology is a bitch. It enhances musical experiences just as easily as it denigrates them, making the folklore often equally important to the music. Ian Curtis. Kurt Cobain. Syd Barrett. Tragedies all of great work cut all too short. Is there a soul out there who has listened to Closer without knowing about the lead singer suicide that immediately preceded its release? Raise your hand!

And as a Young Romantic Person it is easy to get swept up in this Bullshit. Ok, they're great stories, but check Tuli Kupferberg, who became a rockstar with the Fugs at age 42: "Better to be a live ogre than a dead saint." Wiser words are seldom spoken.

Consequently, I don't drown myself in pathos thinking about the artists I respect anymore. It's simply not worth it. Or relevant to the music, really. (see my scathing review of Chris Bell's I Am The Cosmos for more on this development)

So it was with a far clearer mind I approached these, the two Syd Barrett solo albums, which I snapped up at Amoeba as a two-fer for a mere $12. Yes, I can't un-learn of Barrett's craziness and the horseshit mythology propogated by his former band (who in my view never really made great records after he left, except for maybe Animals). But I can, as Jr. Critic, continue to approach music on its own merits, always. It didn't hurt that my personal life at the time was more or less tip-top.

Madcap Laughs:
It is my feeling that Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters (possibly in cahoots with guitarist David Gilmour) sabotaged this album. It is nowhere near coherent, nevermind finished-sounding, and the problem stems from the tracks this dynamic duo, er, "produced."

If you read other producer Malcolm Jones' occasionally enlightening but more often tedious memoir of the sessions, you'll find Waters and Gilmour more or less seized control of the album's production after it seemed to be going well with Jones at the helm. Years later Gilmour would complain about the lack of time EMI gave them to finish the work.

However, this guy - I'm talking about Syd here - was fired from his former band after he demonstrated a song called "Have You Got It Yet?" at practice which intentionally changed melody, key and feel enough times that his long-suffering mates would never be able to "get it." So why in Krishna's name would he feel like delivering good performances for the benefit of musical associates he couldn't get away fast enough from?

So counter-intuitive.

All this aside, this album kicks More's ass all over the street.

And Ummagumma.

And Atom Heart Mother.

Simply put, the Floyd - for years - couldn't write a truly great tune for years after Barrett's departure. There's plenty of amusing shit here and there, but it's so often marred by aimless experimentation and ingenious "innovation" that never really went anywhere.

Which brings me to my thesis: it was out of jealousy and exploitative voyeurism (more on this later) with which Waters left such raw, unpolished performances on the record. Simple.

Oh dear, here I am, creating my own mythology.

The record.

Nothing here is perfect. Barrett was well off in Sydland by the time the earliest track, the beautifully haunting love song "Late Night" was recorded. Backing bands don't know how to follow his guiding rhythm guitar and vocal tracks, especially since he refused to give them the key and often accepted first takes. In truth, Barrett was, intentionally or not, one of the most innovative songwriters of his time, and this is just speaking of his solo work. Impressionistic, he is unafraid to exploit cliches to a demented end, to add extra beats to verses (thus bringing the math rock), to engage readily and often in atonal, jarring chord sequences.

In fact, "rock music" has yet to come to its senses and not just treat this as a freak show but a valid, groundbreaking record. O, only Robyn Hitchcock knows the real story!

Psychedelic messes "No Good Trying" and silly fuck-off "Love You" capture Barrett against the Soft Machine struggling to keep up behind him. "Octopus" is a deteriorated, stream-of-consciousness single that never quite makes it - but validates multiple listens. Then there's the positively chilling "Golden Hair," a Joyce poem set to crystalline, ice-cold backing.

And then there's the Waters-Gilmour tracks. Well, what to say. "Dark Globe," a ballad of extreme alienation, is more or less their most successful effort, and has been heralded as a classic, a "devastating portrait of schizophrenia (which the artist was never successfully diagnosed with)", &c. But then "Feel" finds Barrett taking all too much time to begin a somewhat disjointed performance of a song he seems to be making up on the spot. Perhaps there were shades of "Have You Got It Yet"? Then there's the absolute embarassment of the introduction of "If It's In You," (the following performance of which is just kind of irritating) where, following a definite false start, Barrett blubbers his way incoherently through talking to the control room. And most of these fuckers have the same fucking flange effect on Barrett's voice you heard on Piper. We get it, it's the same guy!

Granted, the remaining tracks continue to paint the picture of a fragile mind, but why emphasize it so throughly with documentation of studio breakdowns? Why make this a cult record more than it already had to be? In my estimation Waters never dropped his fascination, affected or not, with his more talented partner's mental illness. Hence why he couldn't stop exploiting the story to his own narrative ends of tracks such as "Brain Damage," "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and much of The Wall. Hell, Syd's breakdown earned the guy a career and the spotlight. And more importantly, ol' Roger couldn't have his former lead singer vegetable man showing him up on record.

So fuck him.

The Madcap Laughs is a great album regardless. It is also an anthropological document of a twisted soul. But you probably knew that, so it'd be best that you listen to the album and tune out the Crazy Diamond legacy. And the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory I just brought up.

They're not as important.

This one often gets the short end of the proverbial stick. But it has songs that are arguably stronger than those on Madcap.

By this time, Syd couldn't even come up with songs out of thin air anymore. So production of this album was far more forced.

With only Gilmour at the helm, the entire record is far more polished and real-record-sounding. It can't hide the occasional lack of inspiration Barrett falls behind, but who cares? Some absolute classics round this one out: the herky-jerky "Baby Lemonade" (a song so good it inspired a band name, yes yes! They later became Love! Arthur Lee's Love! Another story for a different time) which has an undeniable groove beneath its angular exterior; the dark yet carefree (how does he do that) "Waving My Arms In The Air," a song so fucking great I wish I had written it ten times over; the rainy-day "Dominoes," and the pastoral, almost medieval "Wined And Dined."

This album is one you'd be more inclined to listen to for pleasure, despite its overall menacing vibe. Its truly an accomplished work - albeit not a perfect one - of a brilliant songwriter who'd already given his two-week's notice to the guild well before his crack production team could record one note. The sound of whimsical detachment, then.

I'm still sick. These reviews haven't cured me. Listen to this:
"Sorry" - The Splinters
"Fairest of All" - Red Krayola with Art & Language
"In The Street" - any version involving Alex Chilton. Preferably live and unhinged. See Live In London
"Sun Gonna Shine In My Backdoor Someday Blues," "Sligo River Blues," "Fare Forward Voyagers" - John Fahey
"Nothing Man" - the Deviants
"Barnyard Blues" - 13th Floor Elevators (I will review every disc of the boxset shortly)
"Like Janis" - Rodriguez

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Reacquaintance: Frank Zappa

I don't know how most children spend their pre-teen years, but mine were dominated by two intimidating fellows: Frank Zappa and his best friend Don Van Vliet, AKA Captain Beefheart. I lived them. I wanted to grow up and be just like them, make crazy shit and a lot of it and confound people. One Christmas, my parents, through a hook-up at Rykodisc, got me a copy of nearly every fucking Zappa album. Ever. (For free.) The feelings of joy and profound intimidation mingled equally in my prepubescent being at the sight of the stacks of those CDs.

Ten years later - I've found it hard to believe, but I can recall that I did indeed listen to almost every one of those fucking albums at least once. I guess most parents would feel weird about letting their child listen to music that was often so sexually charged - and most certainly obscenity-laden, but I suppose by the time the gift was given they figured it was too late. Not only that, I had no idea what most of that shit meant anyway. I just loved Frank.

Since then my taste has further expanded - not necessarily "matured," but definitely moved beyond these two giants. Big discoveries were made, like how overrated the fucking Beatles
are, and how great albums have been recorded in people's closets. But I've often thought to myself, "When am I gonna listen to those fucking Zappa albums again?" I uploaded a few to my iTunes before running off to college, sure, but they were the things I'd heard over and over, and it was kind of a courtesy nod to my past making the gesture in the first place.

At some point in the last month or so, the floodgates opened. Maybe because I haven't really felt like buying much lately (last purchase = TVT-Record-Store-Day-cash-in vinyl copy of GBV's Hold on Hope), maybe because I rewatched the Beefheart BBC doc, or maybe because it was just time. The box under the bed got opened, and the past weeks have been infiltrated by Zappa's idiosyncrasies once more. But what do I think of them after my taste has had so much time to "mature," one might ask? Well, one, lemme tell ya:

Bongo Fury (with Captain Beefheart)
When I first heard this I was epic-ly disappointed because I thought the songs were stupid. I liked Zappa's One Size Fits All (featuring most of the same players), I loved Beefheart but this album fell way flat except the obvious and hilarious "Muffin Man," which I'd heard before. Beefheart's poems sounded like the band was making fun of him and the songs Zappa had him sing were inane.

Ten years later I realize all the above is true and the album is fucking great, one of Zappa's best and an absolute triumph for Beefheart. Recorded at the end of a turbulent tour that saw the old best friends at odds (reportedly over Van Vliet's incessant Zappa portraiting on sketchpads), the set has some standout performances from Beefheart that bring out his ability to completely and wholeheartedly sell any song he put his mind to - check the deranged and unhinged delivery in the last two minutes of "Debra Kadabra." The poems are spinetingling despite - or perhaps because of? who knows - Zappa's derisive musical settings. Zappa on the other hand, while pursuing perhaps a more lowbrow direction in his own writing, does well with the incredible LA sunset groove and three-part harmonies of "Carolina Hard Core Ecstasy," which was on repeat in the car for a while; the aforementioned "Muffin Man"; and playful "Advance Romance" - the latter enhanced by the interplay of Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke, not to mention Beefheart's catcalls in the middle of solos. Even the dumb studio tracks ("200 Years Old," "Cucomonga") come out sounding OK on second review.

This is a underrated album - don't let the iffy reviews steer you wrong. It's a keeper.

200 Motels
Weird movie. Strange album. This is an album that's not quite all there - partly because it is indeed a soundtrack album - in some cases the backing to parts of the movie which were never made. Let me explain:

It is a somewhat mind-boggling concept that any part of 200 Motels got finished, and therefore, a true testament to Zappa's ungodly work ethic. The film featured performances by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who were often backing up The Mothers of Invention, live to tape - many of which were filmed as they were taped. OK. While the band - as "actors" - played parts in the movie alongside Thedore Bikel, Ringo Starr, and some other people that weren't actors at all. OK? The filmed enough for a 2-hour feature but ignored two-thirds of the original, very surreal, script. And this all took place in a week. Add to this madness the fact that the band's bassist Jeff Simmons quit a week before production and was replaced by Ringo Starr's chauffeur, Martin Lickert, who was not, in fact, a bass player in the true sense, and naturally did not know how to play any of the band's music. Shit, I feel tired just thinking about it.

Alright, alright, so about the fucking album. It's a combination (as you guessed) of Zappa's orchestral and band sides. The orchestral stuff is OK - nothing surpassing the work on Lumpy Gravy but some interesting themes here and there. The band shit is hit and miss. "Lonesome Cowboy Burt" is a Zappa classic, featuring original MOI drummer Jimmy Carl Black on redneck lead vocals, "Mystery Roach" is a pretty good early 70s boogie, "Daddy Daddy Daddy" is a pretty stellar groupie song. But then the heavier, plot driven stuff like "She Painted Up Her Face," "Penis Dimension," and "Dental Hygeine Dilemma" often get so self-referential I can feel myself turning inside out. It's alright. The only problem is I can recall my 12-year old self listening to this, thinking he understands it, and memorizing the fucking words. How embarrassing for my 22-year old self.

Chunga's Revenge
Aaa-ight. This is where the Flo and Eddie band enters the picture, but Zappa's still having too fun a time playing with competent musicians to fully kickstart phase 2 of the Mothers of Invention yet. Credit the guy for having the cajones to lead the set with the one-key instrumental vamp of "Transylvania Boogie." Who the fuck did stuff like that in 1970? Like most things released around this time, this is supposed to have conceptual continuity with 200 Motels. Well, not really - but songs like "Rudie Wants to Buy Yez A Drink" and "Sharleena" display the initial power of the Turtles-enhanced Zappa band; Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan definitely created their own desirable flavor of FZ-dom during their time with the band. The instrumental jams can be a bit much but often display ambition, the songs are pretty good. Like a Weasels Ripped My Flesh-lite. And that ain't bad.

Roxy & Elsewhere
I can't understand why I thought this album was good, even in a ten-year-old memory. It's just kind of lifeless and the songs aren't that good. "Dummy Up," which I guess I thought was funny, isn't. It gets "funky" but not so's you'd care. There are two drummers on this set, allegedly, but I can barely hear one. Zappa later said this ensemble was under-rehearsed. Go figure.

Playground Psychotics
Tapes 'n tapes (some hidden in hotel rooms, some recording the band onstage) of the 1970-1971 MOI featuring Flo and Eddie - but, conveniently, there's nothing mentioning Zappa's alleged underage mistress at the time. Bet those PMRC cunts wish they had had their hands on that closeted skeleton when FZ was stirring up so much trouble for them in the mid-80s.

Some inferior performances of songs that ended up on Just Another Band From L.A., along with, I won't lie, a pretty cool jam with John Lennon and Yoko Ono that got left off the Fillmore album. The impromptu dressing room tapes are pretty dumb but feature the band saying "man" a lot. Interesting "anthropological field document," not really meant to be a cohesive album so I can't judge it as such.

The Lost Episodes
The liner notes on this one are pretty damn good. Not fully immersed in Zappa ephemera any longer, I don't know how well I feel the music holds up. The Beefheart tracks "Alley Cat" and "Tiger Roach" are amusing paeans to, I suppose, metaphorical felines and definitely among the set's highlights. In fact, anything Beefheart's involved with on this set, including scratchy early blues jam "Lost In A Whirlpool," is great. It's amusing to hear "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" in that delicious lounge version. And the sea-shanties, performed by late 60s Mothers, are great. Other than that, I can't fully appreciate this one the way I used to. It's OK.

The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life
Never quite knew what to make of this one as a youngin. Only now do I realize how Zappa's self-destructing 1988 ensemble was one of the best he ever had, capable of lampooning anything FZ set his sights on, sprucing up the old songs and - shock of shocks - being a great cover band. Of sorts. This is the best set I've heard from them, even though Make A Jazz Noise Here (which I know too peripherally to say anything intelligent about) shows FZ & Co flexing their more musically ambitious muscle, with more debut compositions.

Check it out - no overdubs?! This is intricate, dense sound - theatrical, the kind the conjures up a real live band onstage. When they're having a good time, the feeling is infectious. Check out those Johnny Cash and Jimmy Swaggart jokes! Great players abound, including vocalist Ike Willis, guitarist/vocalist Mike Keneally and bassist Scott Thunes. The incessant reggae vamps, while not that funny, are actually effective in Zappa's music. Whodathunk? Recommended.

You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, Vol. 2: Helsinki
Are you getting tired yet? I can only really re-review disc 1 since I forgot to upload disc 2 of this set. Yes, it's a two-disc set. Great band on this one, as well, featuring Ruth Underwood (one of Zappa's few dork-hearthrobs, check her playing marimba in a bra in footage from KCET around this time), Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke. Brock and Duke make the set fun and play their asses off, and the whole band has gelled to the point of kicking up almost every
song up to double speed. Most of the Roxy & Elsewhere album tracks are here - sounding much better than they did on that album, as the band playing 'em has some fucking energy. When Brock gets to blather, like on the opener or "Room Service," things get funny. I'd say recommended - but only if you're really into Zappa already.

Zoot Allures
Sucks. Really, sucks. Opener "Wind Up Working In A Gas Station" is okay for having a bit of chutzpah despite how annoying it is, and instrumentals "Black Napkins" and the title track are enjoyable. But the rest is just Zappa double-tracking himself singing real low over tracks that are mainly him overdubbing himself. Sure, original MOI bassist Roy Estrada and Beefheart show up, peripherally, but this is mainly FZ dicking around in the studio. Proof positive that he needed interesting, strange people around him to make truly great work. "The Torture Never Stops" is appropriately titled and the orgasm noises on it are embarrassing. That song and another one on this set showed up in altered forms on the Thing Fish album eight years later; they sucked then too.

One Size Fits All
Bravo! This is probably the best album in the 70s Zappa came out with. Great band (same Helsinki personnel generally), and some amazing songwriting from FZ: "Inca Roads," "Florentine Pogen," and "San Ber'dino" spring to mind as fucking classics. The production is super-compressed and spot on, this time - not always the case with Zappa, who tended to incorporate the latest, biggest and bestest technology regardless of how shitty it might have actually sounded. This is the one you discover after digging a little deeper into the man's career, and it's definitely well-worth the trouble. The secret classic in the Zappa catalog.

Non-Zappa recommendations:
"Consolation Prizes," "Kill City" - Iggy Pop & James Williamson
"Doodoo Rock" - Molesters
"I Don't Ever Want To Come Down" - 13th Floor Elevators
"Calm Before The Storm" - The Bats
"Octopus," "Baby Lemonade," "Dominoes," "Waving My Arms In The Air" - Syd Barrett
"Valentine" - The Replacements

Top Pedophile Songs

Liking 'em young and rock and roll go hand-in-hand. Just look at Jimmy Page (check the B-Boys lyric from "The New Style" - "If I played guitar I'd be Jimmy Page/The girlies I like are underage/Shh, check it"), Rob Halford ("Breaking the Law" indeed), Jerry Lee Lewis (I shouldn't have to tell you). But it takes real talent to sing about it and get people to sing along. So here's the shortlist:

"Does Your Mother Know" - ABBA
"Little Girls" - Oingo Boingo
"Hey! Little Child" - Alex Chilton
"Where Have All The Children Gone?" - Retarded Muppit Farm
"Little Hands" - Skip Spence
"Je Suis Un Rock Star" - Bill Wyman

Comment your favorites.