The Listening Post: October 2010

California dreaming in the October chill.

  • Gene ClarkGene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. This 1967 effort can best be described as the best album the Byrds didn’t record. The former Byrds singer is in fine voice throughout, and Byrds/Beatles-style harmonies are provided by former Chris Hillman band mates the Gosdin Brothers, while the frequently sublime guitar playing is shared by all-stars like Clarence White and Doug Dillard. There are strong traces of pop, rock, and country on nearly every song, making this one of the earliest examples of country rock. Clark was a great songwriter (to my mind the Byrds never recorded a better song than Clark’s “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”) and he had been the best singer in that band of great harmony vocalists. The highs here may not match the heights on the Byrds albums, but you can make a case that this is a more consistently good album than most of the efforts of his previous band, many of which featured at least one or two strong clunkers.
    Grade: B+
  • Teenage HeadThe Flamin’ Groovies. The rumor/legend is that Mick Jagger claimed that Teenage Head was a better album than Sticky Fingers, and that the Groovies had done a better job of creating a modern blues/roots record than the Stones. I wouldn’t go that far, since I think Sticky Fingers is one of the greatest rock albums ever made. However, Teenage Head is a stellar effort, an intense blending of garage rock (“Have You Seen My Baby?”, “Teenage Head”), blues (“High Flyin’ Baby,” “32-20,” “City Lights”), rockabilly (“Evil Hearted Ada,” “Doctor Boogie”), and sublime pop (“Yesterday’s Numbers,” “Whiskey Woman”). “Evil Hearted Ada” crosses the line into pastiche, if not parody, but the rest of the album seamlessly skips between many of the elements that went into rock and roll in the first place. This is a brilliant album for the quality of performance and passion if not actual songwriting.
    Grade: A
  • Crown Of CreationJefferson Airplane. One of the lesser-known Great Moments In Psychedelic Rock comes at 1:50 into “Share A Little Joke.” In an otherwise unremarkable but good song, Marty Balin shouts “Hey!” as if he had suddenly been shoved off a cliff and Jorma Kaukonen follows with a guitar solo that puts the “surge” in Lysergic. That moment lifts the entire song. The Airplane’s fourth studio album, Crown Of Creation, is the bridge between the acid-tinged folk of their second and third, Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing At Baxter’s, and the full-on acid rock of their fifth, Volunteers. The folk aspect of the original Airplane is here on tracks like “Lather” and “Triad” while other songs are a full-on sonic assault on the senses (“House On Pooneil Corner,” “Greasy Heart”). What makes the Airplane worth listening to long after psychedelic rock became a quaint memory is the arsenal they bring to the table. Marty Balin and Grace Slick are great singers apart (“If You Feel” is one of Balin’s best vocals ever); singing together they’re simply ferocious, leaving behind a scorched earth. Jorma’s guitar is synonymous with the guitar sound of psychedelia and acid-rock…go ahead and try to imagine what a psychedelic guitar solo sounds like and my guess is that it will sound a lot like the bent notes, sustain, and wah-wah that Jorma practically trademarks. Perhaps best of all is the mighty Jack Casady, whose rubbery, lyrical bass is prominent throughout this album. Casady is not given enough credit for his playing. He stands with John Entwistle as one of the great bassists of the rock era. Like most of their peers, the Airplane was subject to a fair amount of noodling (“Chushingura”), but their intensity and hard rock attack make them so much more interesting than bands like the Grateful Dead.
    Grade: A
  • Red OctopusJefferson Starship. And then there’s Jefferson Starship. Originally a joke name for a Paul Kantner solo album (1970’s Blows Against The Empire), Jefferson Starship became an actual band in the mid-70s. Gone from the Airplane was Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. But after making a guest appearance on their first album Dragon Fly, Marty Balin was back in the fold with Grace Slick and Paul Kantner for their second album Red Octopus. The heyday of psychedelia was long gone and the slick Seventies were well underway. Marty Balin contributed the lovely (if surprisingly raunchy) ballad “Miracles,” a song so good and so successful as a single that he spent the rest of his career trying to match it. “Miracles” is a breathtakingly pretty song, and Grace Slick’s “Play On Love” was another powerhouse single. Unfortunately, Jefferson Starship’s strong reputation as a 70s hit-making machine was forever destroyed by the horror of Mickey Thomas and the godawful dreck they released in the 1980s, including that terrible Song That Shall Not Be Named. But Red Octopus captures the band at their peak, before Balin succumbed completely to endless balladry. Both Balin and Slick sound as good as ever, and the songs are the best this association had done since Volunteers. There is some tough rock (“Fast Buck Freddie,” “Sweeter Than Honey,” “Play On Love,” “I Want To See Another World”), and gorgeous ballads (“Miracles,” “Al Garimasu,” “Tumblin'”). This a very 70s album, but an excellent one whose reputation has unfairly been harmed by what came later.
    Grade: B+
  • Los AngelesX. I’m hesitant to call the dĂ©but album by X a “punk” album which is how it’s generally classified. I have no hesitation in calling it a slam-bang rock ‘n’ roll album, however. Unlike many in the punk scene, X refused to disavow the bands that came before the Stooges and New York Dolls. Los Angeles is in some ways a blending of the two brightest musical stars in late-60s California rock. John Doe and Exene Cervenka use a vocal attack that is nearly identical to the aforementioned Marty Balin and Grace Slick while the lyrical view of the dark side of L.A. is cribbed straight from The Doors (Ray Manzarek produced the album and plays prominent keyboards on several songs). At the same time, guitarist Billy Zoom whips out revved up Chuck Berry licks to add an even older element to the music. For the sake of argument, let’s call it punk. If that’s the case, Los Angeles stands with the very best punk albums, from the Clash to the Ramones. X’s musical knowledge is deep, the lyrics excellent vignettes of a city lost in decadence. The album portrays the titular city as a desperate void where people are lost in isolation (“The Unheard Music,” “Your Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not”) and look to fill the emptiness of their lives with sex (“Sex and Dying in High Society”), intoxicants (“Nausea”), and violence (“Johnny Hit And Run Paulene”). In the end, none of it matters and the only option is escape (“Los Angeles,” the souped-up cover of “Soul Kitchen”). This is a far bleaker vision of the City of Angels than anything even the Doors released, and makes the Eagles’ “Hotel California” sound like Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” But bleakness aside, what makes this album so good—and it’s a great album—are the tunes. Yes, the subject matter is coal-black, but the music—driving, propulsive, pounding—suggests a way out. Or at least a way to cope with the madness around you.
    Grade: A
  • Sailin’ ShoesLittle Feat. From the ashes of Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention came Little Feat, with Mothers guitarist/singer Lowell George and bassist Roy Estrada. There’s a quirky undercurrent to a lot of this that reflects their time spent with Zappa (“Tripe Face Boogie”???), but this is much more straightforward musically. The leadoff track “Easy To Slip” could have been, and should have been, a huge hit single, something Zappa could never do without the song being branded a novelty track. The eleven songs on Sailin’ Shoes are largely the template for what would be called the “California sound” in the 1970s. Everyone from Jackson Browne to Warren Zevon to Linda Ronstadt spent a lot of time absorbing the sound of this album, though only Zevon could rock as hard as this without sounding uncomfortable. The album is diverse, ranging from the lovely acoustic “Willin'” to the punishing rock of “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” with side trips to swampy blues (“A Apolitical Blues”) and white-boy pop funk (the excellent “Got No Shadow”). The real triumph of the album belongs to Lowell George, a brilliant singer and guitar player who brought a lot of heart and soul to this album, adding enough oddball quirks (like the piano-driven instrumental break in “Texas Rose Cafe”) to keep the music fresh, exciting, and interesting nearly forty years later.
    Grade: A

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