Buried Treasure: Grant-Lee Buffalo, Mighty Joe Moon

Mighty Joe Moon by Grant Lee Buffalo

In the autumn of 1994, alternative rock was still very much the dominant sound on modern rock radio. It was the year of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Nine Inch Nails’s Downward Spiral, and Alice in Chains’s Jar Of Flies. R.E.M. embraced crushing distortion on Monster, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Rollins Band, and Meat Puppets released popular discs, and Nirvana exited the stage to the elegiac strains of unplugged guitars. So-called “Britpop” blew up with the début album from Oasis and Blur’s Parklife. Thanks to a mud-caked appearance at Woodstock ’94, Green Day became the tip of the pop-punk spear that would soon become very popular.

Completely unobserved amid the crashing guitars, a trio named Grant Lee Buffalo released their second album, Mighty Joe Moon. Their first, Fuzzy, had been a hit with critics and other musicians. R.E.M. in particular were huge, and vocal, fans. Because of this, and thanks to being given the opening slot on R.E.M.’s worldwide, and jinxed, Monster tour, Mighty Joe Moon became the band’s most successful album. Their (not very good) video for “Mockingbird” was played on MTV a handful of times (Beavis and Butthead critiqued it at one point), and there were the occasional late night TV appearances. But calling it their most successful album is faint praise. In the public consciousness, the album came and went without a trace.

Mighty Joe Moon was too different from the musical zeitgeist. A lush, densely layered, largely acoustic album, enriched with Dobros, pedal steel, mellotron, banjo, all manner of percussion instruments, and even a pump organ was a far cry from the Who-like storm of Pearl Jam or the psychedelic metal of Soundgarden. To be sure, there were moments of alternative rock fury, most notably on the bruising “Lone Star Song”, where singer/songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips deftly mingles the stories of Kennedy’s assassination and the more recent fiasco at David Koresh’s compound in Waco. But even here, riding atop the slabs of guitar chords, the musical hook comes from a harmonica…not exactly the most commonly heard instrument at the time outside of the confines of a Blues Traveler song.

Over twelve more songs, Phillips, bassist Paul Kimble, and drummer Joey Peters travel the back roads of America. They sing of eating trout in the Cumberland Gap (“Mighty Joe Moon”), of Johnny Cash singing for pills (“Demon Called Deception”), of the airplanes flying high above Tecumseh’s grave (“The Last Days of Tecumseh”), and of the devastating aftermath of the 1994 earthquake in California (“Mockingbirds”). American icons like Evel Knievel and Muhammed Ali show up alongside villains like John Wayne Gacy (“Sing Along”) and characters from myths and folktales (“Lady Godiva and Me”), before the album closes with a beautiful, heartfelt prayer and plea for forgiveness (“Rock Of Ages”). The music is folk and rock, country and alternative. Nobody was calling it “Americana” back then, but that’s exactly what it is, and it puts the biggest names in the genre to shame. This is what an alternative rock version of The Band would sound like, with Phillips’s magnificent tenor and sweeping falsetto (Rolling Stone‘s Annual Critics Poll named him Best Male Vocalist in 1994) replacing Levon Helm’s down-home grit and Richard Manuel’s keening heartbreak.

The album sold a bit more than 100,000 copies, roughly equal to the total sold by Grant Lee Buffalo’s three other, excellent, albums combined. Those sales numbers don’t reflect quality, and Mighty Joe Moon stands as one of the best albums of the decade that spawned it.

Grade: A+

Advertisements

The Beatles: Abbey Road

Abbey Road

After the tension-filled sessions that created the White Album, the Beatles went back into the studio with a film crew in tow. The idea was to film a documentary about the making of the next album, provisionally called Get Back. It was a move to fulfill their old contractual obligation to make movies, but the timing couldn’t have been worse.

The concept was to go into the studio and “get back” to their roots as a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band. Lennon, especially, wanted to avoid what he saw as the overproduction on albums like Sgt. Pepper.

The result was a disaster.

The rehearsals for the sessions were not done in their home base of EMI Studios, but in Twickenham Film Studios. Lennon, deeply in thrall to his new partner Yoko Ono, refusing ever to be apart from her, addicted to heroin, and creatively empty, was looking to break from the Beatles and was, at best, disinterested in the recording. Harrison was blossoming as a songwriter, turning out many of the best songs he ever wrote, and was frustrated that Lennon and McCartney were still treating him as an inferior. At one point he briefly quit the band. Ringo, too, felt apart from the band. McCartney was the only member who could still be called a Beatles fan. He tried desperately to rally the group into making a great album, but by taking over in the studio he became insufferable. Arguments abounded. Brian Epstein was dead and the band had no direction or focus. Even George Martin, their guiding light in the studio, was out of sorts when Paul brought in the producer Glyn Johns as an engineer. All of it was caught on film.

There was a brief bright spot. On the roof of EMI Studios, on a cold January day, the Beatles played one last live show. They only got through a few songs before the police shut them down, but for that brief period they were a band again: locked in, happy, and functioning as a single unit.

That moment was not enough. The music they had recorded in the studio was, as Lennon rightfully described it, “the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever”.

Shortly after the rooftop concert, the band gave up and went their separate ways.

It was, of course, McCartney who reached out to the others, including George Martin, and got them to agree to give it one more try. Martin agreed on one condition: “We go in and do it like we used to.” The Beatles agreed.

The result was a triumph.

Abbey Road, the final album the Beatles recorded and thus their true swan song, is not without some flaws but it is a far more cohesive album than its all-white predecessor. It begins with John Lennon’s last famous Beatles song. “Come Together” started life as a campaign song for LSD-guru Timothy Leary’s brief attempt to become the governor of California with the slogan “Come together, join the party”, but Lennon was never able to get past the “come together” phrase. When Leary’s run ended as the result of a drug bust, Lennon scrapped the idea, kept the slogan, and crafted the song as we know it today. Beginning, and laced throughout, with John whispering the now creepily ironic line “Shoot me”, the lyrics are a hodgepodge of non sequiturs though there is speculation that each verse has cryptic allusions to the members of the band. The third verse clearly is about Lennon: “Bag Productions“, “walrus gumboot”, “Ono sideboard” can all easily be seen as self-referencing, but the theory falls apart when it gets to the other Beatles. Non sequiturs or not, it’s the music and the tagline (“Come together/Right now/Over me”) that make the song. Originally meant to be faster, it was McCartney who suggested they slow it down and add a swampy, bluesy feel to the track. Propelled by McCartney’s extraordinary bass line, and Lennon’s sublime vocal, it’s a devastating salvo to lead off the album. As wildly eclectic as the White Album was, there was nothing like “Come Together” in the band’s canon. The true tragedy of the song is that Lennon decided to nick a lyric from “You Can’t Catch Me” by Chuck Berry: “Here come a flat top/He was movin’ up with me” was modified into “Here come old flat top/He come groovin’ up with me.” Lennon was sued by Berry’s publisher and, as part of the setttlement, ended up being forced to record his sloppy, cocaine-fueled, largely uninspired solo album of covers, Rock ‘n’ Roll, in 1975.

As good as Lennon’s song was, it was immediately outclassed in every way by the song that followed. “Something” was George Harrison’s finest moment as a Beatle (though all votes for “Here Comes The Sun” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” will be counted). Upon hearing it none other than the Chairman of the Board (and no fan of rock music), Frank Sinatra, dubbed it “the greatest love song of the past 50 years” (though for years he gave the songwriting credit to Lennon and McCartney). Ironically, George also stole a key lyric, though he wasn’t sued. James Taylor, then a new recording artist signed to Apple Records, had a song on his fairly obscure first album called “Something In The Way She Moves” from which George blatantly, and admittedly, lifted his opening line. From there the songs parted. Taylor’s mid-tempo ballad, with a terribly cheesy harpsichord introduction, sounds like something Simon and Garfunkel might have done as album filler (though Taylor’s guitar playing shines far brighter than Simon’s ever did). Harrison’s “Something”, with its elegant guitar (bent strings, not a slide as many people think) and rocked up bridge, are immediately recognizable and timeless. Indeed, “Something” was so strong that even Lennon and McCartney conceded that it should be the A-side of their next single, a first for a George Harrison song. Lennon called it “the best on the album” and McCartney thought it the best song Harrison had written to that point. The song also contains one of the very best performances on a Beatles record from both Ringo, whose cascading rolls and fills both punctuate and push the ballad into rockier territory, and, especially, McCartney, whose wildly intricate bass line is one of the best he’s ever done.

McCartney takes the lead on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, another of his English music hall pastiche songs, a sort of psychopathic cousin to “When I’m Sixty-Four”. It’s as cute as any other song about bludgeoning people to death, maybe even cuter, with some nice guitar fills from George and excellent piano from Paul. There’s also a Moog synthesizer solo that never should have been recorded (generally true for all Moog synthesizer solos). The earworm chorus, complete with a hammer striking an anvil (for Richard Starkey of Liverpool, opportunity clanks!), makes the song instantly memorable even though it’s really very lightweight. Far better is “Oh! Darling”, which follows. It’s also something of a pastiche, but this time it hearkens back to the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll the Beatles loved so much, and features a larynx-shredding vocal from Paul. Lennon had made a pitch that he should sing it, since it fit his raw vocal style better, but there’s simply no denying the visceral thrill of McCartney employing almost every weapon in his arsenal.

Ringo marks his presence with “Octopus’s Garden”, a quirky song that was inspired by a conversation with a boat captain, but also a comment on Ringo’s wish to get away from the tension that came with being a Beatle in 1969. In some ways it can be seen as a companion piece to Ringo’s other nautical adventure, “Yellow Submarine”, with underwater sound affects, but also employs some of the country music sound from “Don’t Pass Me By”, especially on the chorus and George’s superb guitar solo. It’s the best song Ringo wrote as a Beatle (granted, there’s only “Don’t Pass” for competition), and it’s quite charming, but it’s also a light piece of fluff. A perfect Ringo song.

Side one ends with one of the rare “love it or hate it” songs in the Beatles canon. While it’s nowhere near as controversial as something like “Revolution 9”, many fans are divided on the merits of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. The lyrics are simple: “I want you/I want you so bad/It’s driving me mad” and “She’s so heavy” are pretty much the total of the words, but the song clocks in at nearly eight minutes. The critics say the lyrics are too simple, the music too repetitive, the song too unlike any other Beatles song. Put me in the “love it” side of the argument. Yes, the words are simple but Lennon wasn’t trying to intellectualize his feelings for Yoko Ono, he was simply howling his raw, unbridled, lust. The music is a circular motif that borders on heavy metal, slathered in washes of synthesizer and Paul McCartney’s astounding lead bass playing. Layered guitars make the song sound impossibly big, and the repetition makes the listener feel like he’s being sucked into a maelström. The effect is hypnotic and the ending, a sudden cut to silence that is impossible to accurately time even with repeated listens, is as shocking as the piano chord that ends “A Day In The Life”.

The swirling darkness and Lennon’s primal vocal on “I Want You” offer a stark contrast to “Here Comes The Sun”, which kicks off side two of the album with a gorgeous, gentle guitar lick. This is George’s second song on the album, and stiff competition for his first, and the title of “best George Beatle song”. Written in Eric Clapton’s garden on a beautiful sunny day, the theme actually mirrors “Octopus’s Garden”. It’s George’s sigh of relief that he is, at least for that moment, away from the crushing pressure of the Beatles. It’s unfortunate that Lennon, recovering from a car accident, doesn’t appear on the song. Musically, it’s George, Paul, and Ringo at their best. The gentle, but insistent, guitar from Harrrison is given a great deal of urgency by Ringo’s sterling drumming and McCartney’s melodic bass line. It’s also one of George’s best vocal performances ever. With some subtle touches of synthesizer, strings, and woodwinds, it’s a perfect song to capture that feeling of springtime breaking through the cold clutches of Old Man Winter.

“Because” is the sun fully arrived. Based loosely on the chords of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” played backwards, and with sparse instrumentation, it’s perhaps the best example of the three-part harmonies of which the Beatles were capable. Sung by John, Paul, and George in harmony, with the vocals later triple-tracked to give the impression of nine voices, over George Martin’s harpsichord and John’s matching guitar, and underpinned by Paul’s simple bass and Harrison’s Moog flourishes, “Because” is one of the loveliest songs the Beatles ever did.

“Because” ends on a sustained “ahhh” that trails off into the ether and segues into the understated piano chords that herald one of the greatest of all late-era Beatles songs. “You Never Give Me Your Money” is McCartney’s song about the tension of being in the Beatles, their legal and accounting issues, and the desire to get away from it all. “You never give me your money/You only give me your funny paper”, Paul sang directly to Allen Klein, the ruthless and corrupt manager that the other Beatles wanted to fill the void left by Brian Epstein’s death (they didn’t know he was ruthless and corrupt yet, only that he managed the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger had provided a very tepid endorsement). From this understated beginning, the song rapidly switches to Paul doing his best boogie-woogie piano (recorded at half-speed and then sped up) and Elvis voice, singing about the joys of the early days of the band, when the future stretched out in front of them. He’s singing about the beginnings of the band, hitting the road, all the money gone, with no idea of what the future might hold but knowing it was going to be great: “But oh, that magic feeling/Nowhere to go/Nowhere to go!”, followed by a wordless three-part harmony that leads into a quick, but ripping, guitar solo.

The third part of the song is Paul looking to recapture those early days, but this time with his new love, Linda Eastman, and with boatloads of money: “One sweet dream/Pack up the bags/Get in the limousine/Soon we’ll be away from here/Step on the gas and wipe that tear away.” While the third part of the song looks forward, it’s also somewhat sad as it’s Paul essentially acknowledging that his future does not lie with the Beatles. As the song ends in a firestorm of guitar and piano, Paul sings the childhood chant “1-2-3-4-5-6-7/All good children go to Heaven”. The song is a nice contrast to Starr’s and Harrison’s similarly themed songs. Ringo just wanted to get away from it all, and George was so happy to be away from it all, but “You Never Give Me Your Money” is shot through with nostalgia for the past, sadness for the present, and a wistful melancholy for the future. While George’s and Ringo’s songs were snapshots of a moment in time, of how they felt at the precise moment they were writing the song, McCartney’s was a survey of all his conflicting emotions during this incredibly difficult time.

What follows is one of the greatest sustained album sides ever recorded, made all the more remarkable because most of the songs aren’t particularly good. They might have been good, or even great, given more time and effort, but the rest of Abbey Road is a collection of half-formed ideas for songs. Standing alone, most of these songs would be considered lesser Beatle efforts, toss-offs, and outtakes. Only two of the remaining eight songs break the two-minute mark. Confronted with the need to fill the rest of the album, and not having enough full songs to do it, with their interest level waning, McCartney suggested that they take their ideas and stitch them together to form one long suite of short songs. It was a brilliant idea that paid off big. Sure the songs are half-baked, but the reckless pace of what became known as either the “Abbey Road Medley” or, as it was commonly referred, “Side Two of Abbey Road” sweeps the listener along. The individual parts of the medley are unimportant (at least until “The End”), but the medley carries a rhythm and flow that essentially turn these disparate elements into one long song.

The real start of the medley is “You Never Give Me Your Money”, but that song is rarely considered to be the start since it’s a standalone song with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Yet as it finally drifts away in a wash of chiming guitars, “Sun King” slides in underneath, connecting the two pieces. “Sun King” is very close to being a full song, though the lyrics are very simple and the last refrains are a combination of Spanish, Italian, English, and gibberish. Lennon once referred to it as “a piece of garbage I had laying around”. But even these words sound marvelous with the Beatle voices locked in harmony. It’s an understated, slow song that provides the perfect introduction for what follows. “Mean Mr. Mustard”, with Paul resurrecting the fuzz bass he last used on Rubber Soul‘s “Think For Yourself” and John giving a great delivery of nonsense lyrics about a nasty man who hid money in his nose, picks up the tempo before crashing into the fast rocker, “Polythene Pam”, another snippet Lennon had in his back pocket. It makes more sense than “Mean Mr. Mustard”, as a straightforward tribute to an “attractively built” girl, but at just over a minute long it sweeps by so quickly that it barely registers. “Polythene Pam” then segues seamlessly into McCartney’s “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”. It’s nearly two minutes long, and can rightly be seen as a standalone song (Joe Cocker covered it). It keeps up the pace of “Pam”, but is more structured and complete. It’s also lyrically more coherent, telling the tale of a fan who broke into Paul’s house and stole a picture.

There is the briefest of pauses (something I never understood) before “Golden Slumbers” begins with its quiet piano and soothing McCartney vocal, underpinned by George Harrison’s bass and a string section that swells and sighs behind the vocal melody with a melody all its own. The quiet interlude is brief, as McCartney starts belting out the chorus only to tone it down again for a repeat of the verse. Instead of the chorus repeating, “Carry That Weight” breaks in with a powerful horn flourish and a chorus of Beatle voices singing the lyrics as if the band members were a stadium full of soccer hooligans. Once again it’s McCartney commenting on the problems in the Beatles circle, evidenced by the return of the melody for “You Never Give My Your Money”, this time played by a horn section. The reprise of the earlier song crashes up against the main song’s climax before switching to the grand finale of “The End”.

The beginning of this finale is so much of a piece with “Carry That Weight” it could easily be seen as a continuation. Both songs are loud, bracing rockers; the anthemic “Boy, you gotta carry that weight a long time” vocal blends seamlessly into McCartney’s raw-throated “Oh yeah!/All right!/Are you gonna be in my dreams/Tonight?” that kicks off “The End” before sliding into the most unlikely thing one would expect on a Beatles album: a drum solo.

Ringo hated drum solos and had to be convinced to play one. Even here, given the chance to flail around like so many drummers do, Ringo chose to serve the song. The solo is brief, uncomplicated, musical, rock-solid, and unwavering. It’s the perfect Ringo vehicle, with none of the usual histrionics one expects from drum solos. As the solo ends, there’s a brief intercession with the band banging out chords and chanting “Love you!/Love you!” before segueing into the next least likely thing you’d expect to hear on a Beatles album arrives: a guitar duel. McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon (in that order) took two bars apiece, rotating three times, to cut heads one last time. Recorded live with the three of them playing and, according the the engineer Geoff Emerick, appearing ecstatically happy, the solos are perfect representations of their musicianship. McCartney’s solo is fluid and fast, complex, but musical. Harrison’s solo sounds more structured, but is equally facile. Lennon once said that as a guitarist he “wasn’t that good, but I can make it howl”, and he does so here. His chugging, distorted chording and triplets add just the right note of chaos to the structure. The solos build in intensity, a rock band firing on all cylinders before abruptly ending and giving way to a simple piano motif.

And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to
The love you make

It’s Paul sendoff to the band, and a last piece of advice for a tumultuous decade. The vocal, punctuated lightly with a three-note George guitar lick, ends with a huge buildup of strings and brass, McCartney’s breathy “Ahh”, and Harrison’s majestic guitar.

It’s really pretty amazing that collection of gestating song ideas, strung together, could provide a climax as cathartic as the final chord of “A Day in The Life”, but that is what happens here. Broken into their individual elements, only “The End” and, maybe, “Sun King” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” hold up as complete entities. Taken as a whole, the sum of the parts is gloriously transcendent. The parts swirl, ebb, flow, crash, live, and breathe as a unique organism, and the medley remains one of the greatest moments in the Beatles recorded history, and elevates Abbey Road from the level of merely excellent to being considered one of their best albums.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then…

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she doesn’t have a lot to say
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she changes from day to day
I wanna tell her that I love her a lot
But I gotta get a belly full of wine
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
Someday I’m gonna make her mine, oh yeah
Someday I’m gonna make her mine

Grade: A+

“Lonely and weary from this troubled task of trying…” Chris Cornell, RIP

When I first heard Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” it was before I knew who Chris Cornell was (though I’d heard of, but never heard, Soundgarden). I also didn’t know who Eddie Vedder or Pearl Jam was, as they were still many months away from releasing their first album. As far as I was concerned, Temple of the Dog was some new band. I was suitably impressed, remarking to a friend, “This band has two of the best singers I’ve ever heard.” I didn’t hear the song again for nearly a year, when the record company finally realized, in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten that it was failing to promote what was, essentially, a “grunge” supergroup.

Since then, Chris Cornell has always been there, the most powerful voice from a scene that included singers as visceral and exciting as Vedder and Mark Lanegan. His range was close to four octaves, and when he hit those higher registers he could strip the paint off your car.

In Soundgarden, Cornell brought out the heavy. Soundgarden’s stated intention was to be “Black Sabbath, minus the parts that suck”, and at first they were unsure of what that meant. Their early material is brutally heavy, crashing chords, searing leads, and Cornell’s glass-shattering wail riding on top. It was the songs he wrote for Temple of the Dog that showed the first indications of maturity. While “Hunger Strike” and “Wooden Jesus” were originally written for Soundgarden, Cornell held them back because they weren’t the right fit for the band. Yes, they were hard rock, but the lyrics were more personal, the melodies more refined, the instrumentation more diverse. The experience of working on these songs, and collaborating with three-fifths of Pearl Jam, was instructive and Cornell took the lessons back to Soundgarden. There’s an enormous leap of songwriting skill between 1990’s skull-crushing Louder Than Love and 1991’s still bruising but more eclectic Badmotorfinger. The latter wasn’t short of pummeling guitar on tracks like “Rusty Cage”, “Outshined”, and, especially, “Jesus Christ Pose”, but it was leavened with slower, denser songs like “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, which contained elements associated with genres like psychedelia.

That songwriting leap, and Cornell was not the only writer in the band though he was the most dominant, was matched in the years between Badmotorfinger and Soundgarden’s breakthrough album, Superunknown. In the summer of 1994, “Black Hole Sun” was ubiquitous, a magnificent combination of Cornell’s soaring vocals and swirling textures unlike any heard in rock or metal at that time, or since. It sounded like nothing else before it, and was miles apart from what was being played on the radio. The video, a surreal and disturbing glimpse of suburbia that made judicious use of the then fairly recent technology of morphing, was a breakout on MTV in the waning days of music on that channel. Soundgarden were suddenly alternative rock superstars, held in the same light as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Smashing Pumpkins, but they were always different. “Black Hole Sun” won the MTV Video Award for Best Metal Video, prompting guitarist Kim Thayil to say in their acceptance, “I thought we were ‘grunge’.” But truthfully, no label really fit. Their music was intricate and challenging, with oddball tunings and time signatures that were far removed from conventional rock music (one of their most famous songs, “Spoonman” alternates between standard rock 4/4 time and 7/4 time; “Limo Wreck” is in 15/8 time).

The band broke up after one more album, Down On The Upside, and Cornell went solo with 1999’s Euphoria Mourning, a grab-bag of styles that proved Cornell could sing anything from acoustic ballads (“Preaching the End of the World”, “Sweet Euphoria”) to sludgy hard rock (“Mission”) to alternative (“Can’t Change Me”, “Pillow Of Your Bones”). He was even adept at R&B; “When I’m Down” is a song that in a different life could have been a blues standard or, with only a slightly modified arrangement, sung by Frank Sinatra. On “Wave Goodbye”, his tribute to his late friend Jeff Buckley (another virtuoso singer with a multi-octave voice), Cornell’s voice drips with pathos and heartbreak until the bridge when he hits his upper register and does the most spot-on imitation of Buckley imaginable. For those few seconds, Cornell has brought his friend back to life, and the effect is both devastating and thrilling.

In the years since Cornell has released solo albums, broke out his heavy rock chops as the lead singer for Audioslave, reunited with both Soundgarden (for 2012’s excellent King Animal) and Temple of the Dog, and done solo acoustic tours. With the exception of one serious misstep, the beats-heavy techno pop album Scream, his career has been one of consistently high quality. Even his Casino Royale song, “You Know My Name”, was the best James Bond theme since “Live And Let Die”.

As he got older, his songwriting only got better. Higher Truth, his last solo album…unfortunately…was also his best, a stripped down, largely acoustic collection of songs that sounded like a gifted writer just hitting his prime. While his voice may have lost a few notes off the high end, he remained one of the most versatile and gifted vocalists rock music has ever produced. The fact that he could marry that voice to smart, sophisticated rock songs that never sacrificed an intensity best described as pulverizing, made Chris Cornell a rare and unusual talent.

In the end, the gifts he had and the adulation he received as one of the most successful musicians of the past thirty years were simply not enough. The demons that haunted him, that he tried to exorcise through his lyrics and his electrifying performances, convinced him that his troubles were permanent and that they required a permanent solution. It was a tragic and heartbreakingly sad end for a truly gifted man.

Buried Treasure: The Saints, All Fools Day

The Saints All Fools Day

When they first formed in the early 1970s, Aussie rockers The Saints proudly proclaimed themselves “The Most Primitive Band In The World”. By the time their first single, “(I’m) Stranded”, lit up England a few years later, they were one of the most incendiary punk rock bands on the circuit. Their first album was pure aggression, louder and faster than any of their more famous punk brothers. The change began on their masterful second album, Eternally Yours, with the addition of a horn section on some songs. The horns didn’t dilute their sound, they added power to it. The opening track, “Know Your Product”, is one of the greatest of all punk rock songs, though few have heard it. After “(I’m) Stranded” faded from the charts, The Saints began their march to obscurity despite releasing better music. After their third album, Prehistoric Sounds, guitarist Ed Kuepper left the band in the control of singer Chris Bailey.

By 1987, punk was relegated to back alleys and dive bars, and The Saints of All Fools Day sound almost nothing like the band that torched the scene in 1977. Chris Bailey’s bluesy wail, sounding like Van Morrison after chain smoking a few packs of Camels and drinking a few pints of whiskey, is the sole thread connecting the band to their earliest days. So as a point of order, All Fools Day is not a punk rock album. It is, however, a thrilling guitar rock album, with strings and horns punctuating several of the songs. As with their earlier material, the horns don’t swing so much as punch in short jabs, acting as punctuation and counterpoint to the wall of acoustic and electric guitars that drive the songs. The songs themselves, from the magnificent opener, “Just Like Fire Would” (later covered by Bruce Springsteen on his High Hopes album) to the elegiac closer “All Fools Day”, The Saints fire off one grand statement after another, slowing things down for the beautiful “Celtic Ballad”, the mournful “Blues On My Mind”, and the title track, but otherwise rocking with more conviction and more heart than the majority of their 1987 peers.

Of particular note are “The First Time” and “Temple of the Lord”, two hard-charging rock tunes swimming in hooks and melody. In many ways these are the definitive Saints songs from this era, when the punk rock kids inside them were still alive and well but had learned to temper their most aggressive and primitive instincts with genuine songcraft and thoughtfulness.

Grade: A+

“My, but that little country boy could play…” Chuck Berry, RIP

I first heard Chuck Berry when I was a child, unfortunately. The song came out of the radio constantly, hitting number one on the charts. But even as a child, I thought it was inane and stupid, a joke so bad and crude that it was below even those of us in second grade.

Astoundingly, “My Ding-A-Ling” was Chuck Berry’s only number one hit. Fortunately, it has now taken its rightful place as a freak novelty number better left in the dustbin of history.

My next exposure to Berry came via the soundtrack album to American Graffiti, the two record set (41 songs!) that sparked a great love of early rock ‘n’ roll for many people my age. “Almost Grown” and “Johnny B. Goode” immediately and forever banished the idea that the guy who sang that dopey dick joke song was a one-hit wonder.

ChuckberrysgoldendecadeIt was several years before I found a good compilation in a used record store. Released in 1967, Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade was the first comprehensive collection of Berry’s classic songs and the gold standard of Berry’s greatest hits until The Great Twenty-Eight was released in the early 1980s. It was missing several songs now acknowledged as classics (no “Carol”, no “Little Queenie” or “Sweet Little Rock ‘N’ Roller”, among others), but included some lesser known songs like the bluesy “Deep Feeling” and the boisterous “Too Pooped To Pop”.

Two things were immediately apparent on listening to Golden Decade. The first was that Chuck Berry was an extraordinary guitar player. The second that he was an equally amazing lyricist.

More than Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, the Everlys, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and even Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry was the definitive 1950s rock ‘n’ roller. He was the first “guitar hero”, and singlehandedly made the guitar the primary instrument of this new music. His showmanship, culled from guitarists like T-Bone Walker and Guitar Slim, set the standard for rock ‘n’ roll that is still in use today. His voice was smooth and clear, making even his made up vocabulary (“motorvatin'”, “botheration”, etc) easily understood. Chuck Berry was the defining sound of rock ‘n’ roll music, and every rock guitarist since then must pass through the School of Chuck.

Roll-Over-Beethoven-Chuck-Berry

The personification of rock ‘n’ roll

But as much as his music, what also set Berry apart were the lyrics. Already in his late-20s and early-30s when he had his greatest success, Berry was the poet laureate of the decade he helped define. Most of the early rock ‘n’ roll songs concentrated more on a good beat to get people on the dance floor; the words were strictly a secondary concern. But Berry’s lyrics were perfect encapsulations of the lives of his young audience. At a time when the subject matter of pop and rock songs was love and, well, more love, Berry was writing about life (including, of course, love). And importantly, he was writing about life in the 1950s. In the song “Me and the Devil”, Robert Johnson brought blues out of the cotton fields and into the 1930s by adding details like getting on “a Greyhound bus”. Berry did the same for rock ‘n’ roll, by writing about the culture of the 1950s: Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs on the highways, jet-propelled airplanes, televisions, drive-in movies, jukeboxes playing the really hot records, malt shops, high school, teenagers dancing on American Bandstand…all of it taking place in an America where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.

Compare the nonsense lyrics of so many early rock ‘n’ roll songs with any of Berry’s. The simple, practically cretinous, rhymes of “Be-Bop A-Lula”, the novelty nonsense lyrics of “Jailhouse Rock” or the sanitized versions of “Hound Dog” and “Tutti Frutti”, the raw lust of “Great Balls of Fire”…all of these are great songs. None of them can hold a candle to the lyricism here:

Runnin’ to and fro, hard workin’ at the mill
Never failed in the mail, yet come a rotten bill…

Salesman talking to me tryin’ to run me up a creek
Says you can buy it, go on try it, you can pay me next week…

Blonde haired, good lookin’ tryin’ to get me hooked
Wants me to marry, get a home, settle down, write a book…

Same thing every day, gettin’ up, goin’ to school
No need to be complainin’, my objections overruled…

Pay phone, somethin’ wrong, dime gone, will mail
I ought to sue the operator for tellin’ me a tale…

I been to Yokohama, been a fightin’ in the war
Army bunk, Army chow, Army clothes, Army car…

Workin’ in the fillin’ station, too many tasks
Wipe the windows, check the tires, check the oil, dollar gas

Each of these lines is punctuated with some exasperated version of “Ahhh” and the refrain of “too much monkey business for me to be involved in”. It’s a lyric that could be written today, with only a few details changed, describing life in a hectic world. The song is rooted firmly in the 1950s, however, not too far past World War II, where you spoke to operators via pay phones, and were helped by gas station attendants who wiped your windows, checked your tires, and pumped a dollar’s worth of gas into your car at a time when that could get you a few gallons. Berry is describing life at the time in a way that has more meaning to more people than the combined writings of Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg.

Berry’s music defined guitar rock for all time. His songs have been covered by everyone from the Beach Boys and Beatles to Green Day and The Killers. Berry’s lyrics notified the Dylans and Lennons of the world that you didn’t have to be tied down to moon/June/croon rhymes. His showmanship set the precedent for the Hendrixs and Townshends that came later. (You can even see Townshend imitating Berry’s famous “duck walk” a few times in the movie The Kids Are Alright, and Hendrix tearing through a jaw-droppingly ferocious “Johnny B. Goode” in Jimi Plays Berkeley.) The Rolling Stones, more than any other band, worshiped at the shrine of Chuck Berry; his “Come On” was their first single and they covered “Carol”, “Little Queenie”, “Confessin’ The Blues”, and “Down the Road Apiece” among others. The band’s most famous lyric, “I can’t get no satisfaction”, was a direct rip of Berry’s “I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge” in “Thirty Days”.

Elvis Presley is the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll. His style was utterly unique, not least because he was a white kid who sang like a black man. But Chuck Berry was the man who truly defined both the music and the decade. Elvis spawned hundreds of impersonators after he died; during his lifetime, Berry had tens of thousands of disciples who ran his music through the prism of their own experiences and lives, and took his timeless riffs and stagecraft from the shores of California and the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowl and Wembley Stadium.

There is no rock ‘n’ roll without him.

The Rolling Stones: Voodoo Lounge

VoodooLounge94The Steel Wheels tour (later dubbed the Urban Jungle Tour when it hit Europe) was a long, grueling exercise in money-making for the Rolling Stones. At the time it was the most lucrative tour ever done, grossing nearly $100 million dollars. But it was also a musically valid tour, with the Stones not only selling out arenas but rocking them with abandon. Yes, in some ways it was The Rolling Stones On Ice: lots of supplemental musicians and singers, fireworks, huge projection screens so the guys in Row ZZ could feel like they were there, and even two massive inflatable women that bounced and swayed while the band played “Honky Tonk Women”. It was also true that the band was very tight and in fine form.

After the tour Richards went back to the X-Pensive Winos and released a second solo album in 1992, Main Offender, which was a worthy successor to the excellent Talk Is Cheap. In 1993 Mick Jagger released his third solo album, Wandering Spirit, and, much to everyone’s surprise, it was as good as Keith’s efforts. But the Stones were also shocked after the tour when Bill Wyman announced that he was retiring, possibly to provide daycare for his wife. Wyman’s departure wasn’t announced until 1993, when the band reconvened to begin work on a followup to Steel Wheels. Partially as a reaction to the overproduction on their comeback, the Stones chose to go with producer Don Was, the guiding light behind the band Was (Not Was), whose own 1989 album What Up, Dog? was a bizarro funk/soul classic. Was wanted to bring the band back to their earlier sound, the sound of Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers, much to Jagger’s chagrin. The sessions were fraught with tension between the singer and the producer. Jagger’s always been obsessed with keeping the Stones contemporary, and this throwback to 1970s-style production was anathema to him. Richards, however, wanted the band to get back to basics with a stripped-down sound and raw production.

The result was Voodoo Lounge. The album has a more live, organic sound than Steel Wheels, but production isn’t everything. Overall, it’s a better album than its predecessor but it’s also bloated. At over an hour in length, it’s longer than any previous Stones album with the exception of Exile which makes Voodoo Lounge a de facto double album. Exile it’s not. The earlier album breezed by, an effortlessly enjoyable listening experience. By the time Voodoo Lounge reaches its conclusion, you’re exhausted. Had four or five songs been trimmed, Lounge might be talked about as the undisputed best Stones album since Some Girls, but the album’s excessive length and the mediocre quality of some of the songs ensure that the album remains a good, but lesser, effort in the band’s canon.

There is some material that comes close to greatness here, though. “Love Is Strong” opens the album with a superb groove and bluesy harmonica. The production is much cleaner but the song itself wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Exile. It was released as the first single, their strongest since “Miss You” in 1978, but flopped in the charts despite a lot of FM and MTV airplay. Jagger’s vocal is a sultry seducer’s voice and his harmonica playing is, as usual, excellent. New bassist Darryl Jones makes his presence felt immediately; he and Charlie Watts provide the groove that Keith and Ron Wood punctuate with short, stabbing leads and chunky chords. If there’s a flaw on the track it’s the too professional backing vocals, but it’s churlish to complain about a band sounding too good. Don Was’s production is perhaps best seen here: the separation between Richards and Wood is clear and every instrument can be heard clearly and cleanly, but without the plastic sheen of Steel Wheels or Dirty Work. Voodoo Lounge is the best produced Stones album since Some Girls.

“You Got Me Rocking” follows. It’s a by-the-numbers song that extols the joys of, you guessed it, rocking. It’s stadium-ready, with its “Hey! Hey!” hook, and has become something of a concert staple for the band since 1994, but it’s not a particularly interesting song. Jagger bellows sad sack lyrics about how miserable he was until [cue the big anthemic hook]. Richards and Wood play great guitar throughout, and once again Darryl Jones shines. He’s a better bass player than Wyman was (which shouldn’t be understood as a slam of Wyman, who could be extraordinary), and for the first time since Undercover the bass is actually clearly audible in the mix. But the song itself is still a bit flat, the Stones addressing the need for another “Start Me Up” for the forthcoming World Tour. “Sparks Will Fly” is better, with an actual melody in the chorus and bridge. It’s most reminiscent of the sound of Some Girls, and would have fit perfectly on that earlier album. Three songs in and it’s clear that Voodoo Lounge is classic Stones in sound and form, even if not in song quality.

This impression continues with the band’s return to country for the first time in many years. “The Worst” is a Keith Richards-sung country ballad with some exquisite pedal steel from Ron Wood and acoustic guitar from Keith. But it’s the following song that truly signals the band’s march back to their past. “New Faces” takes the band all the way back to 1966’s Aftermath. After a hushed count in, Jagger sings of a doomed love over a musical backing that mimics “Lady Jane”. Some very nice acoustic guitar work from Richards and Wood compete with the harpsichord. Jagger had gone this route on his Wandering Spirit solo album with the “Lady Jane” knockoff “Angel In My Heart”, but it works better here. Still, it’s an almost shocking anachronism in 1994: an Elizabethan ballad whose musical heft is borne by an instrument Bach would have recognized. It’s redeemed somewhat by those acoustic guitars, but it sounds like an obvious effort to regain that classic sound of the band in their peak years of 1966–1972. On Aftermath “Lady Jane” fits perfectly with the eclectic times; on Voodoo Lounge “New Faces” sticks out like a sore thumb.

Things get back to normal with “Moon Is Up”, a mid-tempo, mostly nondescript song that neither offends nor inspires, and the second single from the album, “Out Of Tears.” The single was another flop, despite some considerable airplay on FM radio. It’s a nice, piano-driven ballad and yet another broken heart lyric delivered by Jagger. Credit Don Was for getting the best vocal performance out of Jagger in years, especially noticeable here. Jagger’s mannerisms are most noticeable on the slow tracks, and here they’re kept to a minimum. Vocally it’s far from “Wild Horses” but it’s still effective. There’s also a lovely pedal steel guitar solo from Wood, but at five plus minutes it’s a song that drastically needs some pruning. The song’s got a nice melody on the chorus, but that’s not enough to save it from being somewhat boring. “Out Of Tears” is followed by “I Go Wild” which is an almost totally pro forma rocker. Charlie’s drums are good as always, but the guitars are repetitive and Jagger’s back to his debauchery in the lyrics. There’s also a stadium sing along ending that is pretty transparent in its effort to create a “moment” for the stage.

“Brand New Car” is more musically interesting, but lyrically it’s atrocious. The metaphor of a car for a woman and driving for sex is bad enough, but “nudge nudge wink wink” lyrics like “Give it some stick”, “Slinky like a panther you can hear her purr”, and “Fill it with juice” are cringe-worthy. Better is “Sweethearts Together”, a song that could have been done by Buddy Holly. There’s a nice Mariachi/country vibe to the music, complete with a subtle accordion, while Charlie shuffles along on the drums. Keith is heard singing harmonies on the chorus, rather than the usual complement of backup singers. It’s a quiet gem of a Stones ballad, with a good vocal from Mick.

The professional backup singers return to put a too-polished spin on “Suck On The Jugular”, which may just be the worst song title in Stones history. The song itself isn’t bad, a funky shuffle that once again lets Jagger show his skill as a harmonica player. Charlie’s drumming is, as usual, stellar, but his snares sound like they were airlifted from the Steel Wheels era. Daryl Jones provides a good bottom end, and little touches of wah-wah guitar, keyboards, and horns add to the retro-70s party feel of the song.

“Blinded By Rainbows” follows, a pretty ballad that has a smooth vocal from Jagger. Lyrically it’s a bleak assessment of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the violence described in the lyrics only serves to make the song more poignant..

Did you ever feel the blast
As the Semtex bomb goes off?
Do you ever hear the screams
As the limbs are all torn off….

You’re blinded by rainbows…

It’s a much heavier subject than the Stones usually embrace, seemingly coming down on the side of the English Protestants against the Catholic IRA.

Do you see the light?
Is the end in sight?
See the face of Christ
enter paradise?
I doubt it

As is usual for the Stones, their politics offer no solutions, just commentary. Still, it’s one of the best lyrics on the album, and one of Jagger’s best performances. Keith’s opening guitar licks wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Let It Bleed, and Charlie’s drums and Daryl Jones’s subtle bass kick the chorus into a higher gear before the song settles back down in the verses. There’s also a nice keyboard throughout, played by Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, and a distorted, bluesy guitar solo from Keith. “Blinded By Rainbows” is one of the highlights of the album.

The highlights continue with “Baby Break It Down”, a bluesy shuffle with a simple, but irresistible, chorus. Vocal hooks were never really the band’s strong suit; they tended to leave the catchy choruses to the Beatles. But even though it’s lyrically simple, the chorus is a nice earworm. There’s a really nice pedal steel solo from Ron Wood, and more than any other song on the album, “Baby Break It Down” catches the spirit of Exile on Main Street that Don Was seemed determined to recapture. If it had been rocked up a bit, with a sleazier production and Keith a little more prominent in his backing vocals, this track would have fit almost perfectly on side three or four of Exile.

Keith puts a ravaged vocal over the top of the torch song “Thru and Thru”. The electric guitar is a series of delicate, circular, licks, but it’s Keith’s vocal that carries the day. Only Keith, with his weathered, hoarse tones could get away with a verse like:

I only found out yesterday
I heard it on the news
What I heard really pissed me off
‘Cause now I got those fucking blues
I got those awesome blues
Babe I got those nothing blues

At around the four minute mark the rest of the band kicks in and brings no small degree of power to the finale. At just over six minutes, “Thru and Thru” is a tad long, but there’s enough tension in the music and vocals to get away with it.

“Thru and Thru” would have been a fine album closer, but the Stones rolled out one more rocker with “Mean Disposition.” It’s another Exile-style throwback with a great, jamming finale. As with the other tracks, it’s lacking the damp basement, raw, junkie blues vibe of Exile. It’s a fast rocker that would have been well-served by making it even faster, à la “Rip This Joint”. As it is, it’s a fine song, though not particularly memorable.

Voodoo Lounge was the sound of the Rolling Stones trying to sound like the classic, pre-Ron Wood version of the band. Unfortunately the technology of 1993 and 1994 was just too advanced. Don Was got a great sound from the band but, try as he might, the Stones caught lightning in a bottle in that era. The production matched the songs and the final albums were a part of a larger zeitgeist. Despite Mick Jagger’s later insistence that he wished Exile had “sounded better”, it was that grit that gave the album much of its power. Voodoo Lounge is what Exile would have sounded like if the production had been cleaner and clearer, but it’s an unfair comparison because the songs weren’t anywhere near the caliber of classics like “Rocks Off”, “Torn and Frayed”, or “Tumbling Dice”.

Still, this was a good effort. Trim some songs, cut some songs completely, and whittle down the album to forty minutes and it’s actually got a lot to recommend.

But not the album cover. The album cover is awful.

Grade: B

“Parties weren’t meant 2 last”: Prince, RIP

In 1973, the band Argent had a mild hit single called “God Gave Rock and Roll To You”. It seems that in 2016 God’s decided to take it back.

The death of Prince was as shocking and unexpected as that of Michael Jackson, and shook the musical landscape nearly as hard. For someone who was so outrageous on stage, who celebrated and struggled between carnality and spirituality, and whose appearance was so flamboyant, Prince was very circumspect about his life. Aside from the protégés he dated, he mainly avoided the gossip mill despite being one of the most successful musicians in the world. This, and his seeming devotion to being a Jehovah’s Witness, was why everybody bought the “flu” excuse his publicist made when Prince was treated for an “emergency” a few days before he died, even though it made no sense. It’s beginning to look more like the standard rock star death: opioids are the cause; whether it was an overdose or just a cumulative toll of addiction remains to be seen.

I’ll confess that I was never a big Prince fan. I wasn’t crazy about the synthesizer-heavy sound of many of his 80s hits, the length of his album cuts, and I thought the salacious lyrics of his songs bordered on cartoonish at times. But I’ve always respected Prince as one of the rock music immortals. He was a musical polymath, a virtuoso musician on any number of instruments. He wrote, recorded, and produced his albums mostly alone, playing the lion’s share of the instruments and bringing out a full band when live shows beckoned, but his music never sounded like the work of one man in a studio. There was a fresh, live intensity to his recordings even if it was Prince going from guitar to bass to drums to keyboards. It was the sound of a party, and Prince was the DJ.

prince

All respect for a virtuoso and complete original.

The first video I ever saw on MTV was Prince’s “1999”. I’d never heard of him. As I was flipping through channels I caught a glimpse of a black man wearing a bandanna around his head, holding a guitar, and singing into a microphone. “Was that Hendrix?” I clicked back to that channel and was confronted with Prince. I didn’t care for the song at first; it was too dance-oriented, too synthesized, and not a bit like Hendrix. But as the song took off I learned to like it, and eventually love it. Not as much as “Little Red Corvette”, the radio-friendly pop hit whose raunchy lyrics sailed over the heads of radio and MTV programmers. That song I loved right away; its chorus was irresistible. Prince eventually became a huge part of the soundtrack of my college years. Purple Rain was released as an album and a movie, and while the movie is pretty forgettable (Prince was no actor), the soundtrack is a modern rock classic, spinning a dizzying collection of sounds from the dance metal (?) of “Let’s Go Crazy” with its frenetic guitar solo ending to the weird, off-kilter hit “When Doves Cry” to the plaintive rock ballad of the title track. Only Prince could have pulled off something like “I Would Die 4 U”, a song about God set to a slinky retro-disco beat.

But while Purple Rain was likely his peak with tight, concise, focused, and powerful songs, for me his greatest statement was the song “Sign O’ The Times”, a percussion- and bass-heavy funk ballad that surveyed life in 1987 and saw the coming Apocalypse. It’s a thrilling song with an unusual semi-spoken lyric that proved there was more to Prince than an endless party. Commercially he trailed off after that, enjoying hits, but never again reaching the apogee of the Purple Rain era. He became known as an eccentric, writing the word “Slave” on his face and changing his name to a symbol, eventually becoming known as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince”. Few understood the bruising battle and lawsuits with his record company that led to these actions. To the outside observer it just seemed weird, and became the fodder for late night TV snark. But when the lawsuits were settled and the battle ended, he became Prince once again. Through it all, Prince was an original. He sounded like nobody else on the scene, and nobody could sound like him. He was influenced by everything he listened to, and filtered it all through his music. A disco beat, a New Wave synthesizer, a heavy metal guitar solo, gospel vocals on an X-rated lyric…sometimes all in the same song. He was as unpredictable and wild as his peer Madonna, but his skill as a musician made it all valid. His like will not pass this way again any time soon.