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 Anything I hear on that outdated shit first, I have to hear in that format to enjoy.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.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Jonathan Richman's Repressed Sexuality

The song "Someone I Care About" has always been a standout track for me from The Modern Lovers' self-titled collection. With only two defiantly strummed chords, the tune is one of the Lovers' (and therefore, Richman's) rawest and punkiest efforts, made all the more effective by the unconventional nature of the song's message. While rock music of the time was increasingly focused on unbridled sexuality, expanding rock's underlying hip-shake that had begun with its origins in folk and blues, Richman's songs on The Modern Lovers almost always (with the possible exception of "Modern World") focused instead on monogamy - finding the right one and staying with her, no matter what. We find this in the song's opening lines:

I don't want just a girl to fool around with
I don't want just a girl to ball
What I want is a girl that I
Care about, alright
Or I want nothing at all

Fair enough. Richman spends more time during the song's verses de-glamorizing the swinger's life than talking about the alternative, and, in his defense, it's a fairly sizable cliché to deflate. But most interesting is one of the song's later verses:

I'm don't want some cocaine-sniffing triumph in the bar
I don't want a triumph in the car
I don't want to make a rich girl crawl

Richman cracks himself up during the first line, but is it out of derision or fear of what he's about to say? The above three lines are the most brazen and sexually-charged found on the album, the moment where he drops goody-goody pretense to really let his id shine through. And honestly, the verse wouldn't stick out as much were it not for its last line. "Make a rich girl crawl"? The line is fascinating, not just for the very distinct, very raunchy image it conjures up, but the glimpse into Richman's psyche we are treated to for these brief ten seconds. Sure, he doesn't want to do it, but by presenting us with this uninhibited, sexist - and classist, for that matter - fantasy of absolute male domination in a sexual setting, he's proven to us that he has indeed considered it, perhaps even idly daydreamed about it in a masturbatory way.

From there, you have to reconsider the previous two images, if not the whole song. Suddenly, these fantasy women have become triumphs, not even girls anymore. In fact, the idea of the fantastic vacuous sexuality has gone past the idea of qualifying the females in question as human, but rather the gateways on the way to climactic achievement. Perhaps, in this world, the sex might not even be as important as the notch on the male ego belt. And we all know where we'll find these automaton-like creatures - either in the bar getting loaded, or the car fucking shortly thereafter. Unless they're rich, in which get the idea.

Like the extreme right vilifying pornography and sodomy, Richman slips in his renunciation of loose sex and polygamy in "Someone I Care About" to reveal that the same fantasies and desires have crossed his mind just like any other slob's - or rock musician's. But rather than simply calling him out on it, I mean to hold this song up as one of the man's better songs, laden with pathos in a way only a truly great songwriter can pull off.

Next installment: an in-depth exploration of the sublimation exhibited in "I'm A Little Dinosaur."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Dear Doctor Doom: Beck as Apocalyptic Prophet on "Modern Guilt"

Something horrible has happened to Beck, or so it would seem. Maybe it's the vintage '94 Kurt Cobain look he's got going, or the all-black clothing. Maybe it's his inability to hold a normal conversation during radio interviews or his recently lethargic concerts, which, as he told Spin, he doesn't want to play anymore. Or his disowning the ADD masterpiece Midnite Vultures, refusing to play many of the songs in concert any longer. I've already read a couple reviews that point this out, but this guy used to have fun playing music.

Beck is probably this generation's answer to David Bowie, regardless of how you feel about his music. In fact, I'd argue Beck shares Bowie's same hate-to-love-him appeal and incorrigible habit of co-opting underground musical trends (rap, hip-hop, "anti-"folk, noise, bossanova) into listener-friendly-genre-blending showoffy records. And, like Bowie, Beck's great at playing parts: the detached "slacker" who made Mellow Gold and Odelay, the folkie who comfortably made K Records his home on One Foot in the Grave, the funk sex god who jizzed out Midnite Vultures, and later, the broken-hearted country troubadour who weeped his way through breakup record Sea Change. Reviews at the time applauded Sea Change for eliminating the detachment that runs through much of Mr. Hansen's work, instilling it with immediate and direct honesty instead - apparently oblivious to the fact that the songs were two years old and the singer was already engaged to another woman by the time it was released.

But three years and one conversion to Scientology later, Beck was playing a part that defied expectation: old Beck. 2005's Guero was a valiant attempt to not only genre-blend but Beck-blend. The Dust Brothers were back, so more Odelay-style beaty tunes with anthemic choruses were in order, like "E-Pro" and "Girl." People seem to love it when he raps, so Beck spat out the completely recycled crowd pleaser "Hell Yes" and kitschy Spanglish track "Que Onda Guero." If you liked Beck's turn for the moody on the last album - and some must have, judging by its five-star rating in Rolling Stone - he gave you the overwrought "Broken Drum" and plodding drug downer "Farewell Ride." Going after the "Cut Your Hair" formula of having catchy, semi-wordless choruses, songs featured refrains that shed Beck's Dadaist wordplay in favor of crackers like "Na-na, na na na na naaaa," "Yeah, yeah, yeah" and "Heyyyy, my summmah gahhhhl." A good deal of the other songs' choruses were the repetition of the song's title - perhaps an homage to Wesley Willis?

I liked Guero a lot when it came out, spinning the disc throughout the summer. But wasn't there something a little disheartening about somebody like Beck so obviously resting on his laurels? When I saw him play that summer (with the girl who may or may not have been the Heather mentioned in "Mixed Bizness" - no shit), there seemed to be something calculated about his every move, including him ruining "Loser" with a shitty drum solo. "Those were some Home Depot beats," he told us, in a vague accent. Suddenly, you couldn't see him without his trusty old black Silvertone guitar, his new signature axe, apparently. He played harmonium in the middle of the show, wore vintage clothing, talked with a bit of recent slang, and he played Beck. Hey, it's Beck! He wears funky old clothes, plays old guitars and a bunch of other instruments, makes sly jokes and sort of pretends to be black every one in a while. You know him, you love him, and he sells lots of records.

On the following year's The Information it seemed obvious from the previews, singles and iTunes snippets that that year he'd be playing "old rapping Beck produced by Nigel Godrich," so I gave that one a miss completely. I gave up on old new Beck. Or new old Beck. Even though it seemed like a lot of time and effort went into those records, they still seemed like they were skirting on the edge of self-parody, and most definitely entrenched in the world of self-plagiarism.

So it was with little enthusiasm I received the announcement of last year's Modern Guilt. The fact that he was collaborating with Danger Mouse seemed cheap to me, and the title sounded condescending. Was this going to be some stab at addressing socio-political issues and widespread paranoia from his mansion on the hill? Who gives a shit? I wondered.

For once, the radio convinced me otherwise. The second part of summer in Los Angeles typically involves darker, muggier weather and requires music in the same vein, and boy, did "Gamma Ray" ever do the trick. Sure, it had that agitated surf beat kicking it off, but it quickly moved into doomsday territory, with Beck intoning a descending minor scale raga-like melody again and again, lyrics giving a hint to the fear of nuclear annihliation metropolitain populations try to ignore. It is the first Beck song that one could call great in some time. And for once, I heard something in his music that had never quite been there before: genuine despair. Or so I thought. Intrigued, I snapped up the album.

From the beginning Modern Guilt is one elongated sigh. Lead track "Orphans" features a hook that Beck must be too out of it to realize is a soft-sung interpolation of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," and a virtually inaudible Cat Power backing vocal. The song is at its most naked when Beck breaks rhyme schemes to interject lines like "I'll stand beside myself so I'm not alone," which on record and lyric sheet alike stick out like a sore thumb. Within the first verse we get the line "If we can learn how to freeze ourselves alive/We could learn to leave these burdens to burn," essentially pointing this certain attitude Beck maintains throught the album: that in a world nearing apocalypse that we're already alienated from, the solution is further alienation. Or something like that.

Curiouser and curiouser is the title track, imbued with more subdued paranoia and withdrawl against a mid-60s British invasion stomp. Consider the chorus:

Modern guilt, I'm stranded with nothing
Modern guilt, I'm under lock and key
Misapprehension turning into convention
Don't know what I've done
But I feel ashamed

I originally wanted to tie this review in with any possible, erm, side effects Mr. Hansen could be experiencing due to his life in the Church of Scientology, but scrapped the idea due to fear of failing to make any real connections and harassment from Scientologists. You can draw whatever conclusion you want from the lyrics, I suppose. Regardless, "Modern Guilt" seems to come from a genuine place of extreme fear, a cry behind some impenetrable wall. And Beck has no trouble laying it on thick: "These people talk about impossible things/And I'm falling out of the conversation/And I'm a pawn piece in a human shield."

Unsurprsingly, the album suffers when Beck retreats back into old Beck mode and techniques. "Chemtrails" is amped-up Sea Change material, with more than a slight nod to those '67 Beatles records felt in the "Strawberry Fields"-like false ending. Its cousin on the record, closer "Volcano," is slightly more effective, all suspected Xenu allusions aside, but I really think Beck would do good to ditch those David Campbell string arrangements. I mean, sure, "Paper Tiger" was rad, ripping off Histoire de Melody Nelson and all, but....whoops, he's Beck's father.

Luckily, tracks like "Youthless" and "Profanity Prayers" really pick up the slack. "Youthless" is an unembarassing funk workout that finds Beck again easing into his new role as Mr. Doom 'n Gloom, repeating "helpless...nothing...nothing...youthless...nothing...." "Profanity Prayers," involving the most surrealism and metaphor-laden words of the whole affair actually brings the riffs, but with the same chilling, detatched veneer you find throught the album's cobwebs of increasingly inscrutable despair and unfortunate premonitions. I wonder at times if we're entering Beck's Station to Station phase, where televisions eat girlfriends and it would not be out of place for him to look out the window mid-interview to fearfully exclaim, "They're coming."

But perhaps by taking the sentiment of the music at face value, the joke's already on me. Former bandmate, Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne said, "When you hear [Beck's] songs, you think he must really have some tender feelings, but then you find out it's a made-up thing." One must remember with an artist who prides himself on being somewhat impenetrable, all commercial success aside, any seemingly personal move can always be a red herring (see Dylan, Stephin Merritt). On the song "Modern Guilt," Beck offered:
"I'd recorded about 10 or 15 songs and then I did the song 'Modern Guilt' and I remember my engineer [Drew Brown] and Danger Mouse just lighting up. It was the first time I got a reaction on anything we were working on. It just felt that there was something in that song that rang true for everyone around and what we were doing and it felt like it was definitely a point where it was like, 'OK, now we're on to something, this is what it's about.' After that, I started just getting rid of all the songs that sounded like they could be something that could be on Midnite Vultures or Guero, things that were a bit more playful or humourous or however you want to qualify it, and kind of pursuing just the feeling that that song had....So that's the song that really shaped the record."
Somewhere in the Modern Guilt booklet, you can see a picture of Beck, large black hat shielding his eyes, with a ghostly shadow of his profile superimposed on the side. No picture could better sum up the last seven years of the man's career: he's here but not, you can see different sides of him but it's always obscured and in the end you've gained nothing from the experience - at least, nothing you can put your finger on. He's kinda down but it might be a total act. He means it but he doesn't really mean it. And his eyes either avoid your gaze or are fixed firmly on the "EXIT" sign depicted on the back cover of his latest album.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Undulating Uuvulas


I was going to review the albums I received for Christmas before I realized that if I said something disparaging about any of them it would be rude and inconsiderate towards those who bought them, some of whom read this. Since no one gave me Faith Evans' Greatest Hits or anything of the ilk, there wasn't too much to complain about anyway.


Main Offender
- Keith Richards

It's Deerhoof's fault that I bought this album (based on a recommendation list penned by drummer Greg Saunier). And the Amazements, they're always in awe of Keith. When I told Liam I was really enjoying this he said I was the only person under 40 besides him that expressed a liking for it. Ho hum!

Freed from the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards makes music that unsurprisingly sounds like the Stones with a lot less singing on it. He actually has a much better, tar and whiskey-ravaged voice circa 1991 than he did on his debut singing lead on 1966's "Something Happened to Me Yesterday" (and that song sucked anyway). But he uses it to color and comment upon, rather than dominate, any given song - unlike a certain someone (whose solo records aren't as good as this).

Strong tracks include single "Wicked as it Seems" (the requisite "It's over, fuck you" song) which has one of those great male rock-survivor backup singer refrains typical for the early 90s (for more examples of this, check out the sole Little Village album, starring John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner). Then my personal favorite, "Eileen," which approaches (Exile on Main Street track) "Happy"-type territory with drummer Steve Jordan doing a spot-on Charlie Watts impression at the kit. "Hate it When You Leave" is a rather obvious Motown tribute - check out the horn refrains and fake flute sounds - but charming rather than contempt-provoking. And shit, even the extended island exploration "Words of Wonder" (par for the course on Rolling Stones albums starting around the mid-70s) is pretty fucking good too, although I'm still scratching my head over how Keith fashions himself to be a reggae artist one song per album. Switching out bourbon for "herb" for a day?

Black and Blue - The Rolling Stones

This took a while to grow on me. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that I left the actual disc in the store's CD player in which I was testing it out. And didn't come back to get it for three weeks, increasingly afraid it wouldn't be there as time bore on.

Much has been said about Black and Blue being lackluster, half-assed, "the first meaningless Stones album" (Bangs) but over thirty years later, when the Stones are as cartoonish as they come with their increasingly melted-looking visages and incessant selling-out, the blow has been softened to the point of irrelevance. Besides, who in their right mind could consider Goat's Head Soup or It's Only Rock and Roll deep artistic statements?

Sonically, this is one of the absolute best-sounding Stones albums there is. Chronologically, it's right on the border between the Stones' obsession with capturing a great live sound and then sacrificing their music to whatever production trend is hip at the time (see Dirty Work, the Dust Brothers-produced Bridges to Babylon or the simply miserable-sounding A Bigger Bang). Which enables vacous songs like disco-chant opener "Hot Stuff" ("Can't get enough") and rawkin' stompin' chantin' closer "Crazy Mama" ("You're crazy, mama") to still be engaging and enjoyable free of illicited disgust from the listener.

The ballads come embued with a certain creepiness this time. At over 7 minutes, "Memory Motel" is a bit hard to digest - don't mistake its length for ambition - and its tale of empty on-the-road romance may offend at first before the overall statement of alienation and melancholy (reflected in much of the album in the first place) rings true, becoming a strength rather than a cheap ploy. "Hand of Fate" is one of the best most known-unknown Stones tracks there is, and pretty much the only time they offer up a fantastic rock song free of pretense on the album. Then, "Melody" finds the band apparently in smoky jazz-club mode, brushed snares, soulful harmonies and Billy Preson (who probably wrote the song, in all honesty) trading lines with Mick putting on most overdone impression of someone-or-other. Completely ridiculous. Check out his own Jamaica Man stylings on mandatory island exploration (cover) "Cherry Oh Baby" (one of the best tracks on the album to boot, with Keith yelling "IRIE!" about halfway through).

Look, the album's a fucking joke now, but an enjoyable and really good-sounding joke. It's a good album, one that reinforces the cliche the Stones have become to most people with style - well, many different styles, anyway.

Offend Maggie - Deerhoof

On first pass, I hate every new Deerhoof album. Well, so far. When "+81" came out as a sneak peek for Friend Opportunity I thought it was childish and stupid and vowed not to buy the album, which I ended up buying the day it came out. (I still consider it to be my favorite Deerhoof album so far.) Flash forward to a couple months later when I sat in my friend's car stoned on hash, silently attributing all these deep, morbid meanings behind the single's extremely minimal lyrics, even trying to connect it to Egyptian mythology, which I know next to nothing about.

So it should have been no surprise that I absoutely loathed "Tears and Music of Love" and "Fresh Born" upon hearing both of them. (They just seemed too cutesy.) But instead I was sent into an existential funk. Did Deerhoof go from amazing to suck in one year? Or was it me? I didn't buy the album the day it came out. I didn't even think about seeing them at the Avalon in October, assuming I wouldn't be into it.

And then, of course, I broke down and bought the fucker at Amoeba used a couple months later, days before my brother could manage to give it to me for Christmas.

Offend Maggie is a return to the "band" record-sound the band put forth on The Runners Four, as opposed to the more ambitious productions found on Friend or Milk Man - and with all the recording knocked out in three days, one would expect so. Sure, weird sounds creep out on "This is God Speaking" and maybe a blast of noise here and there - but essentially this album finds the Hoof getting back to four-piece rawking, now that they have guitarist Ed Rodriguez in the band.

"Tears and Music of Love" won me over upon second listening, what with its endearing ripoff of Free's "All Right Now" in its first 30 seconds, before being followed up by the almost Rundgren-esque "Chandalier Searchlight," one of Deerhoof's all-time best songs; sounds like they know it, too. Other highlights include the title track, featuring John Deiterich's ornate acoustic fingerpicking and irresistible harmonies between lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki and drummer/husband Greg Saunier; and the absolutely gorgeous and stately "My Purple Past."

More than anything, this album reinforces the fact that Deerhoof gets away with a lot of shit that other bands wouldn't. Some of this can be attributed to Satomi's voice, a love it or hate it naive soprano which transforms material from pretentious or archetypically indie into a new breed of weirdness, almost like deranged Children's TV themes. Or Greg Saunier's spastic drumming, inserting extra beats and weird time signatures into four-on-the-floor rock beats. Or the guitarists' weave through songs in and out of dissonance to assonance within measures. The songs are fantastic but it is the performances that make them so with Deerhoof - every time. Don't try singing this shit at your next campfire, it won't come off. Stick to Sublime.

Bottom line - can't wait to hate, and then ultimately love, the next Deerhoof album....

Climate of Hunter - Scott Walker

That Scott Walker is one gloomy fella. He does these outerwordly harmonies with his low-singin' self. On this album, 80s reverb abounds but doesn't destroy his impressionistic and almost unclassifiable songs. At the end he covers a song by Tennessee Williams...

But that's about all I can say about it right now. I think it sounds good. I'm not sure why. When I find out, I'll let you know.

Some songs for yu:

"The Losing End (When You're On)" - Neil Young & Crazy Horse
"St. Elmo's Fire" - Brian Eno
"No Sex" - Alex Chilton
"'Til The End of the Day," "She's A Mover" - Big Star
"Je Suis Un Rock Star" - Bill Wyman
"Sunny Side of the Street" - The Pogues
"Late Night" - Syd Barrett

Friday, January 30, 2009



Can't wait to read about this one in Chronicles Volume 69

Friday, January 23, 2009

Not very new music at the Fuhrerbunker

NOTE: These reviews got started almost two months ago. I need to get them out so I can review other things I've bought since then.

Brand New by Tomorrow
- Money Mark

I think Money Mark is very responsive to whichever musical environment he happens to be in at the time. Example: in the mid-90s, he's hanging out with the Beastie Boys every day, shooting hoops and helping them make some of the best music they ever released. At night, he goes home to make Mark's Keyboard Repair, which, next to Bee Thousand, is the best "lo-fi" home-recorded album of that decade - funky, playful, funny, and fun; it still sounds just as fresh and exciting today as the day I bought it.

Flash forward to the mid-aughts, when he's hanging out with Jack Johnson, signed to his label...yeah, "Bubble Toes" or whatever it is...and then he goes home to demo (twice) Brand New by Tomorrow. Sadly, it sounds a bit like his current label boss' work.

I guess I shouldn't go too hard on Mssr. Johnson - he did co-write the album's strongest track, "Pick Up The Pieces." In fact, the biggest problem here is Mark's continued reliance on chutzpah and a general vibe to carry his music through. He's never been the most ingenious songwriter (in fact he's just kind of an endearing softee) or producer, even though he is a fantastic musician. Trouble is, on Brand New, the vibe just isn't there most of the time. True, his passion for music and old records is still evident with the occasional flash of an inspired sound, such as the sterling session work of legends Carol Kaye and Jim Keltner or the blast of one of Mark's famous McGyver-esque feedback loops. Less frequently, Mark can throw himself into the material to make it just charming enough to warrant another listen, like on opener "Color of Your Blues." But more often than not, he's just churning out pedestrian, same-y songwriting with one foot in the 70s and another one in drek; ironically, at its worst, Brand New comes off sounding like a bad demo. No instrumentals this time - he keeps that separate now (see 2001's so-so collection Change is Coming), so the album's that less diverse and engaging. Sad to see that someone who once opened the possibilities of what an "album" could be as late as the 90's has since opted to just make "pleasant" sounding music. (EDIT: Sold back to store w/o uploading songs)

Earthquake Glue - Guided by Voices

I'm thinking that one of these days, I need to put up a "GBV in review" post. Perhaps after I purchase Isolation Drills.

Yes folks, Earthquake Glue is the penultimate step to me owning every single fucking Guided by Voices album - shucks, I don't have Forever Since Breakfast, but it's an EP so I won't sweat it. Yet. How did it happen? Sometimes things just get away from you, I guess. Plus, I own the "Director's Cut" of Bee Thousand, which swallowed up the Grand Hour and I Am A Scientist EPs on disc 3 with even MORE bonus tracks. I rule.

The matter on hand. Earthquake Glue. That fucking Jim Greer wrote that goddamn fucking really good book Hunting Accidents on GBV that I've reread (pointlessly) about three times because I wish it was 1000 pages long. UGH! Anyway, somewhere near the book's end he declares the band's last three albums to be "quite possibly the best the band ever recorded." I believe that with Universal Cycles; that album is years and years ahead of its time. Half Smiles, though, for all its wonderful opening tracks, is pretty mediocre (I'll be willing to expand this review in my GBV survey, stay tuned). So Jimmy's 1 for 2.

It's too early for me to call Earthquake Glue. Strange? Nah, many of the best GBV albums take a lot of listens to make their intended impact, such as Propeller (especially side 2), Vampire on Titus, Under the Bushes and even Do the Collapse (don't let anyone tell you otherwise, there are some amazing tracks beneath that compressed murk Ric Ocasek buried the band under). More and more toward the end of GBV, Pollard's non-single writing got increasingly chunky, taking his version of the super-compressed pop song into new realms. In Bobworld, simple songs often seem more complex than they ever were and vice versa; he probably doesn't even know how he does it due to the breakneck speed with which he writes. One almost feels they have to pull the song apart to enjoy fully. But this is part of the beauty of Bob/GBV/whatever - it really is thinking people's music as much as it is drinking people's music - you can just as easily chug a beer to this stuff.

One thing I can say is that Earthquake Glue isn't short on standout tracks. Highlights include the see-saw melody of "Beat Your Wings," the jerky prog of "Dead Cloud" (most likely the album's best song) and cheeky rock album closer "Of Mites and Men" plus the album's two singles, "Best of Jill Hives" (which is orgasmically sublime) and "My Kind of Soldier," which you already knew were great if you bought greatest hits collection Human Amusement at Hourly Rates like I did in 2003.

But GBV is a very serious addiction. Albums like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are just gateway drugs. You get the jones for more Bob, so you fill out the albums. Then you get the EPs. All of 'em. Then it's on to the solo albums and side projects. Don't forget Toby's stuff. Or Doug's. Once you've bought your first Acid Ranch record or something you know you've reached the point of no return. When Pollard dies, I fear that a couple thousand people around the world might pass away with him from withdrawal symptoms. (By the way, I'm thinking about buying that new Boston Spaceships album, like, every day. This is not good.) (EDIT: Purchased, see below)

Brown Submarine - Boston Spaceships

Forgive the perhaps over-excited nature with which I mentioned this album earlier.

Robert Pollard has been failing to deliver on promises he made before GBV officially split in 2004, which is, basically, to return to a more raw, ragged, fun way of making music. I was especially concerned for the future of his music when I read a recent Chickfactor article in which he seemed overwhelmingly complacent with his current method of making records, which is basically to send demos to others (80% of the time producer Todd Tobias), let them record all the music, come in and do vocals. Ironic, as right before the split, Pollard had lamented how he had become "too complacent" in the studio, needed to be more involved, perhaps play some more guitar.

No snippet of anything I'd heard since the breakup really measured up to what I know Pollard is capable of, and frankly, the man is often satisfied with very forced-sounding songwriting. I love GBV and defend quite a lot of his work, but I was willing to give following his career a rest around 2005 and find out if I was wrong later, even though I was sure he was still writing great songs and putting them...somewhere. In the infamous suitcase, maybe.

Consider Brown Submarine, then, to be a step in the right direction. The album's opening defies anybody who has written Pollard off with basically, three perfect songs. "Winston's Atomic Bird" reintroduces Bob's Who obsession with an epic that clocks, naturally, under 2 minutes. Stretching out genre-wise, the acoustic title track follows, which is about as beautiful and dark Pollard can get, with multi-instrumentalist (and former GBV bassist) Chris Slusarenko supplying plaintive strings in the song's last 10 seconds. Arguably one of his best ever, it's ironic the song's name is a dumb shit joke - which, by the way, plays no part in the song's actual content. Then there's "You Satisfy Me," where any GBV fan will officially stand up and cheer. Pollard pulls out all the stops and just lets the melodic hooks sink in. It still sounds like him, which means it sounds like GBV, but Submarine's opening suggest a more relaxed, perhaps even mature form of adolescent rocking. If such a thing is possible.

From there, it's hit or miss. Generally, Pollard sounds engaged and the backing is in fine form, enabling Bob's Beatle dreams with the occasional horn or string section. Not too much envelope-pushing comes into play, however, and either some of the later tracks are devoid of the melodic brilliance I'm listening for and expecting, or they require further examination.

EDIT: This is a frivolous record that uses its frivolity as a strength. Really, a good 75% of the material is very strong, but mostly slight. And I can't say I love Chris Slusarenko's clean channel power-chord-happy playing, but I can live with it.

Goodbye Silver Jews

David Berman narrowly missed my "People We Don't Have to Pay Attention to in 2009" list, despite the fact that Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea was not a patch on anything the man had released beforehand. Not even piss-take "Old New York." Or the adolescent cover of "Cocksucker Blues." Or what was previously considered the Jews' worst album, the drug-addled Bright Flight, which, in addition to being a great album anyway, is a classic compared to last year's efforts. Which to me, were insultingly bad.

Surprisingly, his sessions at Juan's Basement proved the album's songwriting, although somewhat lackluster, still had some redeeming qualities; thus leaving the age-old scapegoat of "the production" to receive the blame. Interviews also displayed Berman's wit to be in tact as ever, and although live shows were reportedly as disappointing as the album, I figured the band would soldier on, with Berman still high on the excitement of gigging out and promoting the Jews just like real bands do. And Judaism. Has anyone seen him breaking down in tears in front of the Western Wall? Undoubtably one of the most surreal things I've ever seen...

How shocking today, then, to find he has unexpectedly broken the band/himself up and revealed his right-wing "son of a bitch" (his words, not mine) father to be the primary cause for the breakup. Describing his life as "Ibsenian" (YIKES!), he seems to have lived his life pitted against his father's efforts to break unions, keep the minimum wage low, and spread lies about organizations for the lower classes.

You just can't make this stuff up! I can't even pass comment on this publicly....Suffice to say it only seems to be part of the melodrama of the Silver Jews that began in 2005, ironically around the time Berman sought public salvation following his equally bizarre suicide attempt! The band might have done better to remain completely enimgatic!

I suppose if you feel like eulogizing the band, put on American Water. Myself, I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to listen to a song by David Berman the same way again. Bye!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

RIP Ron Asheton of the Stooges

Last week I was naming off my favorite guitarists to a friend of mine: Pat Smear, Brendan Morrison, J Mascis, Syd Barrett. There was one really important one I forgot: Ron Asheton. He passed away suddenly a few days ago, only to be discovered yesterday at his home in Ann Arbor.

When you read anything about punk music, there's always one band everyone can agree on, whether in LA, New York, or the UK: The Stooges. And now the Stooges are over. Ron wrote the music to "1969," "1970," "No Fun," and "I Wanna Be Your Dog," among others, and without these tunes, The Stooges wouldn't have been the amazing iconoclastic band they were, and punk music basically never would have happened. Which means most of the other music we listen today would never have happened. The man was a musical giant, largely unrecognized throughout his lifetime but given the due he had deserved all along in his last years - which makes it all the more tragic that his time was cut short. I hope everyone will join me in listening to The Stooges and Fun House back-to-back this evening in salute to one of the few people who actually changed music.