The Listening Post: January 2010

A new year, and new (to me) tunes:

  • Whiskey For The Holy GhostMark Lanegan. The solo albums of Mark Lanegan make for great winter listening. After last month’s rehab album, Scraps At Midnight, this month I turned to his full-scale addiction album. Whiskey For The Holy Ghost is, like the rest of Lanegan’s solo oeuvre, a dark and scary listen. When your sound is as identifiable as Lanegan’s, your success depends entirely on the quality of the songs and this is where Whiskey resonates. There are several moments of absolute brilliance on this album: “The River Rise” with it’s haunting vocals and acoustic guitar, the brutal hard rock of “Borracho,” “Carnival,” which sounds like a Hell-bound version of the Fisherman’s Blues-era Waterboys, the gorgeous “House A Home” and “Sunrise,” the elegiac “Judas Touch.” Only “Riding The Nightingale” and “Beggar’s Blues” fail to rise to the top. They are both dirges, and long dirges at that. They aren’t awful, and sound of a piece with the rest of the album, but don’t match the exceedingly high levels of quality that Lanegan has for the rest of the disc. Grade: A
  • I Am The CosmosChris Bell. There’s a tendency to think of this album, compiled posthumously by the singer’s brother, as being some type of great, lost Big Star album. Bell was the founder and guiding spirit behind that great, great band, but dropped out of the lineup after one album. While this is not a great, lost Big Star album it is clear that all of the elements are there for what might have been. Many of the recordings are rough, some sounding like no more than demos, and as a result there’s a certain low-fidelity to the album as a whole and some of the songs sound unfinished. What’s here is largely great. The title track (released as a single in 1978) and “You And Your Sister” are stunning, as good as the best work of Big Star. “Get Away,” “There Was A Light” and “I Don’t Know” also could easily have been standout tracks on #1 Record. Unlike the first Big Star album, there are tracks on here that don’t really go anywhere. “Make A Scene” is a decent little rocker, but never quite crosses the finish line. “Speed Of Sound” has a lovely sound, but is wrapped in inertia. “Fight At The Table” is a by-the-numbers rocker. While there’s nothing that’s actually bad on the album, these songs prevent the album from reaching the levels of brilliance that Bell manifested with Big Star. Having said that, the bulk of the material that is good is very good, and much of it is great. That makes for a fine album. For Big Star fans and lovers of prime power pop, this is essential listening. Grade: B+
  • Five Leaves LeftNick Drake. The English folk singer Nick Drake is one of those music legends that many people have heard of, but few have actually heard. Kind of like an English folk version of the Velvet Underground. Like the Velvets, he is now a cult figure and that’s no surprise. Good looking, melancholy, talented, and died young…all the elements of a cult figure in the making. His debut album, Five Leaves Later, is impressive but I’m not entirely sure I get it. The album kicks off with the beautiful gem “Time Has Told Me,” but the rest of the album never quite hits that level. There is much on this album that is very good. For starters, the playing throughout is absolutely exquisite with jaw-dropping bass from Danny Thompson on much of the album. Richard Thompson, another English folk legend/cult figure also appears on “Time Has Told Me.” There are also some nice string sections created for a few of the songs, and the acoustic guitar playing is excellent throughout. Drake’s got a magnificent voice and is a very good guitar player, but after hearing so much about the man I expected much more than a somewhat dour version of Donovan. The problem with rating the album is that the individual songs are quite good but listening to the album makes me feel lethargic. Much of this sounds like a good Richard Thompson album, but falls short of sounding like a great Richard Thompson album, while “Day Is Done” is vaguely reminiscent of the softer, acoustic sections Jethro Tull’s “We Used To Know” (at least, that’s the song that pops into my head whenever “Day Is Done” comes on). It’s a good album for a quiet night, I suppose, but it fell short of expectations. Grade: B
  • thickfreaknessThe Black Keys. You gotta love these guys. More traditional than the White Stripes, the Black Keys mine the same territory as a bluesy guitar/drums duo. The advantage they have over the Stripes is a better drummer, but they lack the brilliant vision of Jack White. The Keys play their blues pretty straight throughout, but it’s a nasty, distorted blues. There are none of the clean single note solos of an Eric Clapton, nor do they have the volcanic intensity of a Stevie Ray Vaughan. Instead there is a thick, fuzzy tone that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early ZZ Top album. The Keys, like the Stripes, are minimalists, preferring thick chords, short soloing, and letting the songs speak for themselves. From the opening note of “Thickfreakness” through the staccato distortion of “Hard Row” to the heavy fuzz of “Have Love, Will Travel,” the Keys know how to make the blues sound fresh. Only “Everywhere I Go” falls flat, while “No Trust” and “If You See Me” are too static. Otherwise, this is an album full of rough diamonds. Along with the Stripes, the Black Keys are doing an invaluable service of updating the blues while keeping the spirit alive. Grade: A
  • LibertadVelvet Revolver. The sophomore effort from the Guns ‘N Roses/Nine Inch Nails/Stone Temple Pilots “supergroup” is a nicely organic “band” effort. Despite the fact that they imploded in a maelstrom of egos and addictions shortly after the album was released, Velvet Revolver sounds more like an actual band than Audioslave ever did, or Blind Faith for that matter. Much of that is due to the fact that the lead guitarist (Slash) and rhythm section (Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum) do have a long history as a band, but they were smart enough to let singer Scott Weiland’s unerring sense of melody run on top of the riffs. There are great things on this album, like the bruising opener, “Let It Roll,” the ballad “The Last Fight” and even the cover version of the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head.” There are also a couple of lumpen riff rockers like “Get Out The Door,” but overall this is a solid collection of hard rock songs that combine the best elements of Guns (the scorching lead guitar) and Stone Temple Pilots (Weiland’s formidable voice and melodies). There’s nothing really to rival the absolute best of either Guns or the Pilots, but much of what here stands alongside what those bands did on a good day. Grade: B+

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