The Listening Post: March 2010

Spring and more tunes are in the air:

  • Seconds Of PleasureRockpile. Not quite a forgotten classic, this is still an excellent album of old fashioned, 1950’s-style rock ‘n’ roll. Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe have always been rock and roll traditionalists, playing a brand of music that has clearly visible roots in rockabilly, Chuck Berry, and blues without sounding like they’re copying the style (a la The Stray Cats). The album opener “Teacher Teacher,” which was all over the airwaves when I was in high school, is the best moment on the album but there are gems aplenty, from “Heart” and “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time)” to “Wrong Again (Let’s Face It)” and “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine.” This is an album that may sound somewhat anachronistic today, but would still be a hit at any party. Not essential listening, but great fun from start to finish. Grade: B
  • Heaven TonightCheap Trick. The thing about Cheap Trick is that they’re a frustrating band. Blessed with talent, and capable of writing incredibly hooky power pop, they were also very inconsistent. Heaven Tonight is considered by many to be their best studio album and if that’s the case, it’s too bad. It’s not that the album isn’t good. In fact, overall it’s very good. But that’s only because the good material on it is great. There’s some not-so-hot material on the album, like the sub-“Kashmir” riffing of the title track, or the “Peter Gunn”-esque “On Top Of The World,” or the arena-ready posturing of “Auf Wiedersehen” or the annoying call-and-response vocals that mar the otherwise very good “On The Radio.” But this mediocre material (and it’s mediocre, not awful) is saved by the sheer brilliance of “Stiff Competition,” the cover of The Move’s “California Man” (complete with the sly incorporation of another Move song, “Brontosaurus”), the bouncy “How Are You?” and, most of all, by “Surrender,” one of the greatest of all 1970s rock songs. Grade: B
  • The Sound Is In YouThe Grip Weeds. Any band that names itself after John Lennon’s character in How I Won The War has got my attention. That’s way too cool a joke to ignore. But even without the name, 1998’s The Sound Is In You is a worthy listen. It’s a stellar album, filled with great musicianship and very strong songs. There is a very clear debt to the rock music of the 1960s, especially The Byrds and The Who. Much of this album sounds like a cross between those two bands. “Strange Bird” especially sounds like it was lifted completely off one of the first couple of Byrds albums. But from the real start of the album (not including a minute long “Intro”), “Every Minute,” to the fantastic closer “Inca,” there isn’t a disappointing note on the album. The band’s influences shine brightly throughout. In many ways you can play “Spot The Influence” on almost every track, from the blatantly obvious (“Strange Bird,” and their great take on the Buffalo Springfield rarity “Down To The Wire”) to the less obvious (the furious acoustic strumming that opens “What’s In Your Mind” harkens back to the Moody Blues’s “Question”, “Games” name checks the first Flying Burrito Brothers album), but the Grip Weeds manage to synthesize these influences and come out with a nicely updated take on 1960s garage rock. In that sense, they’re the garage rock equivalent to the more classic rock-oriented The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. The album rocks hard, but is never less than insanely tuneful and catchy. Fans of hard guitar rock, furious drumming, great harmony vocals, and hooks you could catch a whale with are well-advised to check this out. Grade: A
  • Bleach (Deluxe Edition)Nirvana. There’s really no escaping the fact that Bleach is an album that many people want to be great, but which simply isn’t all that fantastic. After the towering Nevermind and the blistering In Utero, many Nirvana fans sought out Bleach expecting an unheard classic. The inclusion of the brilliant “About A Girl” on MTV Unplugged only helped whet the appetite. But Bleach gives new meaning to the term “spotty.” About half of the album is great or at least very, very good. “Blew,” “School,” “Love Buzz,” “Negative Creep,” “Swap Meet,” “Scoff,” “Mr. Moustache,” and “Downer” are all prime slabs of early grunge music. As songs, they are somewhat lacking but they more than pass the audition based on sheer power and conviction. Here was a young band full of sound and fury and even at this early stage Kurt Cobain’s razor-ripped throat was enough to make a believer out of anyone. Best of all was “About A Girl,” one of the very few songs that could have easily fit on the later Nirvana albums, a true masterpiece that showed Kurt’s devotion to the Beatles. The rest of the album? Strictly mediocre riff-fests like “Floyd The Barber,” “Big Cheese,” “Paper Cuts,” and “Sifting” show a band that still hadn’t quite settled into a songwriting groove. But now the album has been re-released with a 12-track live concert from 1990 attached and it’s a stunner. The live show is recorded better than the actual album, and includes most of the highlights from Bleach as well as more well-known later tracks such as “Dive,” “Sappy,” “Molly’s Lips” and “Been A Son.” The performance is never less than ferocious. Sure, it’s a sloppy live show. Nirvana was a pretty sloppy live band, and while Chad Channing does a great job he’s no Dave Grohl. But for a band like Nirvana, sloppiness could be an asset. Because the performance is so frenetic and furious, it never sounds choreographed. The very realness of it leaks from every note, including the missed notes. The live show is not on a par with their recently released performance from the Reading festival, and it’s not as good as the bootlegged 1991 show from Halloween, but it still gives a great opportunity to hear the young band before they knocked the music world off its axis. Grade: B for the original album. Grade: A for the live tracks.
  • Sin & TonicMono Men. Lost in the Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Soundgarden/Alice In Chains tsunami that ushered alternative rock into the mainstream were Seattle’s Mono Men, who brought a more garage rock aesthetic to the punk/grunge movement. There’s no mistaking this album for any of the albums by Seattle’s first tier, but it’s a standout from the second tier, on a par with Flop’s Flop & The Fall Of The Mopsqueezer. Where Flop wrote power pop songs that placed equal emphasis on both the pop and the power, Mono Men dispense with the pop side of the equation and substitute a more roots-rock sound, even delving into quasi-surf instrumentals (“Monster”) and Blasters-meet-The-Clash rockabilly (“Waste O’ Time”). While there are only a few real standout tracks (“Mystery Girl,” “Hexed,” “Waste O’ Time”), the balance of the album is consistent in its excellence. Only the boring “Afterglow,” “Scotch,” and “No Way” drag the album down a bit and, of those three songs, only “No Way” goes nowhere. Grade: B+
  • ClairvoyanceScreaming Trees. One of the best bands from the Seattle “grunge” explosion was also one of the most overlooked. Sure, people knew “Nearly Lost You” because it was on the Singles soundtrack, but Screaming Trees had been a recording outfit since the mid-1980s and several of their albums, especially their later albums like Sweet Oblivion and Dust, were as great as anything that came out of the Northwest alt-rock scene. Clairvoyance is their debut album from 1986, and it only hints at how great the band would later become. The sound of the band was closer to the Los Angeles “Paisley Underground” sound than it was to Seattle grungers like Green River, and a very Doors-y keyboard is at least as prominent as the raging guitars. It’s also hard to believe that it’s Mark Lanegan on vocals…his voice on these early songs is very different than the whiskey-and-cigarettes vocals he would later use to such great effect. The highlights include “Orange Airplane,” “You Tell Me All These Things,” “Forever,” “Lonely Girl,” “The Turning,” and the title track. Unfortunately, none of these highlights are great, and much of the rest is very mediocre. The band had not yet figured out who they were at this point, and many of the songs are heavy on feel and light on actual songwriting. Tracks like “Standing On The Edge” and “Strange Out Here” sink like anchors, and while the remaining tracks are listenable they’re not particularly memorable. There’s promise here, but the Trees would do much, much better. Grade: B-
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