Monday, October 6, 2008

Solo Albums Week (mainly ex-Big Starz)

I Am The Cosmos - Chris Bell

Nathaniel, Imaginary Reader of this Blog - Whaaat, he says Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert is better than this album! The fuck! Sherbert sounds like it was recorded in less time it take to listen to it, and Bell spent years perfecting Cosmos - he wasn't even done when he wrapped his car around a telephone poll...

Bartholomew, Imaginary Reader of this Blog - Have you ever heard the expression, "you can't polish a turd?"

Nathaniel - Excuse me? This was his life's work! Bell's last years were a tragedy - he poured everything he had into his music, only to find disappointment and failure at every turn. Those beautiful, magestic pop opuses are the only testament to what could have been after #1 Record.

Bartholomew - Well, not only is #1 Record my least favorite Big Star album, I find Bell's confessional songwriting maudlin at times and Beatles-aping at best. While I retract my "lipstick on a pig"-style insult, I maintain that this record simply isn't as good as Chilton's 1979 mess. It's not as fun. Chilton remains a man who follows his own star regardless of critical backlash, but he's happy and among the living. Bell is dead and made one critically acclaimed (still not commercially successful, just like Big Star, cheese!) album - released after he died. You tell me which one you'd rather.

Nate - If I wanted my favorite musical acts happy, I'd be spinning Weezer's Make Believe and Weezer (3rd edition) all fucking day.

I can't review this album, because I can't listen to it. Even after I listened to Pink Floyd for three years and even went so far as to attempt to like The Final Cut; even after Joy Division dominated my every waking breath for a year in high school; even after Forever Changes by Love became one of my top 10 of all time; even though I currently love driving around to Tonight's The Night; I know I can say this with full confidence:

It's too depressing.

Perhaps if I wasn't so into rock history, this wouldn't be the case, and this album would just seem like a maudlin mediocre Beatles-esque exercise in wrist-slashing. But because I know that Bell was a struggling young singer/songwriter who lived with his parents most of his life and never found any of the success he had so sought after, his songs are lent a deeper meaning that for me, a 20-something musician currently living with his parents, makes this album impossible to listen to. In case you don't know the story, his brother penned most of the saga, involving drug problems, a drain on family funds and various attempts at rehabilitation through recording in exotic European locales, just so you can get the whole picture.

But even at that, I mean, come on! The tempos are at a crawl, too many of the songs have that G-chord drone thing that Big Star always does ad nauseum, everything's compressed from here to Abbey Road and then I have to endure lyrics like "I know you're mine/He treats you nice/It's suicide/I know, I tried it twice" before Bell starts manically proselytizing. Where's the fucking gun, you know? First time I cut it off at that track - "Better Save Yourself," on which the music almost props up the clinical depression of the lyrics. Today I got to track 4, whatever it's called. Bell co-wrote some of my favorite Big Star songs - "O My Soul" and "Back of a Car" spring to mind (although, mysteriously he remains uncredited) - but as for this album, if there is a great song in there, it's buried under broken dreams. I definitely don't listen to "happy music" all the time, but I Am The Cosmos has got me saying "Choose life!"

Like Flies on Sherbert - Alex Chilton

All-Music gave this a rare one-star review. Wanna see?

"On the strength of his Big Star releases from the early 1970s and a host of live performances he gave during the latter half of the 1970s, Alex Chilton had rightly become a rock connoisseur's darling and an inspiration to independent-label bands throughout the United States. Despite all this favorable attention, he would not return to the studio until 1980. Sadly, this release is a dreadful disappointment. Production values are among the worst this reviewer has ever heard: sound quality is terrible, instrumental balances are careless and haphazard, and some selections even begin with recording start-up sound. Chilton's false-start vocal on "Boogie Shoes" is simply left in without correction. Many of the songs here stop dead or fall apart rather than ending properly. Instrumental playing is universally slipshod and boorish, and vocals are sloppy and lackluster. A cover of the Lonnie Mack hit "I've Had It" contains vocals that, without exaggeration, sound like a group of tavern inebriates trying to sing. An attempt to burlesque Elvis Presley's vocal excesses in "Girl After Girl" misfires badly. A few of Chilton's songs here, such as "My Rival" and "Hook or Crook," aren't bad in their own right and would have been listenable had they been performed and produced better. Regrettably, this album cannot be recommended under any circumstances."

Don't you love it when All-Music has a strong negative opinion on something? Sadly, it's often misplaced. Case in point: the original one-star rating they gave to Los Lobos' Colossal Head, which was actually one of the band's best and most inventive records, where they said that it was impossible to tell if the songs were any good - again, due to the production. Or their panning (two stars) of Beck's Midnite Vultures, claiming that everything after "Hollywood Freaks" sounded like a parody, because the aforementioned track sounded too much like a parody of gangsta rap. The question begs, why not just skip the fucking song and see how the rest of the album sounds without it? Both ratings have since been inflated to three stars. Yes, I do read All-Music that often.

Like Flies On Sherbert is indeed a mess, but it's a fun, drunken mess that suggests a white There's a Riot Goin' On vibe, and precludes the fun, drunken mess GBV would make ten years later (Before it seems like I made too grand a statement, I'm pretty sure this album is not as good as Riot.). A full spin from the cold perfectionism of Big Star's records, here, rhythm guitars are mixed too high, vocals are forgotten, abrasive or just plain weird and synthesizers inflict pain. Also, the drummer is fucking gone....Hey, and the songs are pretty great - check the psycho-killer stomp of "My Rival," the completely pedophile evil of "Hey! Little Child" or the Dixie-flavored Eno-imitation of "I've Had It." This album is sonically, musically and lyrically fucked - on purpose. The brazen "fuck you" that the record gives off is, I'm guessing, a big reason why it still sounds pretty fresh to these ears. Remember, Chilton did produce the Cramps. This sounds nothing like the Cramps, but rather an old dog doing new tricks. Much like Fleetwood Mac's best song ever, "The Ledge," I would guess this is Alex Chilton's interpretation of "new wave" or "punk." It still sounds like rootsy, rockabilly and New Orleans-influenced rock but with a more aggressive, abrasive edge that's fairly irresistible for someone like me. Highly recommended if you like records that surprise you.

Feudalist Tarts-No Sex - Alex Chilton

I like artists that do their own thing. Alex Chilton seems to do that. Critics have marred him for "wasting his talent," which basically means "Why didn't you keep making Big Star records, even after Big Star broke up?" Of course, once he reformed Big Star they got mixed reviews. The guy can write great songs, it's true. But does he always feel like it? No - I read an interview where he said he maybe had five new songs ready to record a week before he was to enter a studio to make his next album. In the same interview he professed to enjoy his life, and went about doing so by spending half a year making enough money to take the rest of the year off. This is not your burning-loins, innovative songwriter type. He is, in the words of Douglas Adams, "just this guy, you know?" Or as Chilton has put it, a "musical performer."

And Feudalist Tarts sounds like an album made by someone like that. By which I mean it's lazy, uninventive, and boring. Flaccid R & B tune follows limp excuse for boogie and so on. Opener "Tee Ne Nee Ni Noo" is playful and fun, most likely on the merits of being first on the album before the trick wears out - which, believe me, is pretty quick. AIDS-paranoia number "No Sex," in addition to being the most interesting title on the album's back cover, is the album's best tune, if for nothing else, the opportunity to hear Chilton spout, "Come on baby/Fuck me and die." The sound is monochromatic and free of things like dynamics or brilliance. Horns fart in and out - who gives a shit? Hell, I like R & B - good R & B, like the kind my friend Sam just made me a compilation from. The kind that has soul and effort going into it. This sounds like a quick grab at one of those European paychecks handed to the artist in recognition of past achievements. I played this one from start to finish at work and apologized to my co-worker afterwards. This is the one I wouldn't recommend unless you really don't have anything better to do. But you do.

Tom Verlaine - Tom Verlaine

I bought this album with much enthusiasm. I even bought it new, because Amoeba didn't have a used copy. As soon as I walked out the door, however, I realized, "Oh shit - I don't even like the second half of Adventure that much, what was I thinking?"

What I was thinking was that this album has the song "Kingdom Come." Heard it? You probably did, because Bowie did an amazing cover of it for Scary Monsters. Verlaine was supposed to be the lead guitar player on that record but - I believe, due to some personality conflict - this was not to be, and instead Robert Fripp came in and (once again) poured awesome over everything. One day I listened to that track four times in a row. "Why don't I have that first Tom Verlaine solo album?" I thought. "I love Television. And I fucking love this song."

Well, this might come as a big shock, but the album's not as good as anything Television did in the 70s. I would say ever, but I don't own 1992's Television and I fucking hated the one song I heard off of it, the Burroughs-invoking "Call Mr. Lee." But I still like Tom Verlaine. There's something comforting about it, and it goes down like applesauce. At the same time, there's also nothing too inventive, envelope-pushing, or urgent about the affair. But that's okay. It feels good to hear Verlaine's goat-bleating voice coming through as quirkily as ever over rock struts that recall Stax/Volt and the Velvet Underground at the same time. Yeah, just like Television, but what do you want? He wrote almost all the songs himself.

(Reminds me a bit of a story I heard about Stephen Malkmus' first solo album. He was trying to get it to "not sound like Pavement," using a complete different set of musicians, production and songwriting techniques, but realized this was impossible at the album's completion. No shit, man! If you write and sing all the songs and then play almost all the instruments yourself, it's going to be fairly impossible to make your solo album sound different from your "band"'s records. BTC reissue next month yeah!)

"Kingdom Come" is, obviously, a standout, but Veraline plays it far cooler than Bowie's operatic performance, for better or worse. "Yonki Time" is kind of incomprehensible but harmless fun. "Last Night" is gorgeous and "Breaking in My Heart" is plenty of fun to hear the interplay between Verlaine and guitarist Ricky Wilson (of the B-52s). Wish they could have made a whole album with Wilson as the guitar foil. The whole album has an especially autumnal aura, and I have a feeling this will be one I return to and discover more from the next time I'm ill in bed.

Naturally, this is only a dent in what I've actually purchased over the past month. In fact, I'm a bit ashamed at the volume of additions to my already impossible-to-move collection here, but when you give up cigarettes and coffee, you need to indulge your remaining addictions more thoroughly. It's science. More later.

I listen to these songs a lot lately:
"Roll Another Number," "Albuquerque" - Neil Young & Crazy Horse
"100,000 Fireflies," "Desert Island" - the Magnetic Fields
"Looking for Love (in the Hall of Mirrors)" - the 6ths
"Nagasaki" - Django Reinhardt
"Brainstorm" - Hawkwind
"Hold On To the Rail" - the Great Unwashed

and they'll fuck you up

1 comment:

Michael said...

You gave up coffee too?! Damn, son. I'm impressed. Also, great post! Still need to dig into Chilton's solo daze myself...