The Listening Post: January 2011

A freezing, snowy January…which can only mean it’s time for Mark Lanegan.

  • The Winding SheetMark Lanegan. The undeniable highlight of this first solo album by Screaming Trees singer Lanegan is a harrowing version of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Later, Nirvana would take Lanegan’s arrangement almost note-for-note and give a goosebump-raising performance on MTV’s Unplugged. In fact, Kurt Cobain sings a very prominent backing vocal on Lanegan’s version, his cracked and tormented voice beautifully underpinning Lanegan’s doomy baritone. Nothing else on this album is on a par with this performance (though the opener, “Mockingbirds” and the other Lanegan/Cobain duet “Down In The Dark” come close), but there are more than enough gems to make the album a solid listen. It’s not Lanegan’s best solo album, undermined by several so-so tunes in the middle of the album (“Woe,” “Eyes Of A Child,” “The Winding Sheet”) and a crackhead junkie nightmare worthy of William S. Burroughs near the end (the mercifully short, but terrifying, “Juarez”). The sound of solo Lanegan is here in full on The Winding Sheet, very different from his work with Screaming Trees. The sound here, as on all his solo efforts, is intimate, dark, and scary. Lanegan is combining the feel and groove of blues with the sound of rock music and creating music that sounds like both and neither. It’s potent stuff, even if the songwriting chops run a little short on this album.
    Grade: B
  • The Fire Of LoveThe Gun Club. So this is what the White Stripes might have sounded like with a bass player in 1981. This isn’t punk rock, it’s not blues, it’s not rockabilly. It’s all these things. Long before Jack White took blues music and grafted it to a punk attack, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Gun Club were playing a version of Robert Johnson’s “Preaching The Blues” that sounded like Billy Lee Riley And His Little Green Men on a cocktail of amphetamines and Red Bull. Pierce howls his way through eleven tracks that range from very good (“Promise Me,” “Cool Drink Water”) to brilliant (“Sex Beat,” “Ghost On The Highway,” “Jack On Fire,” “Black Train”). Fire Of Love is an encyclopedia of Southern music: blues, country, hillbilly, rock. It also is deeply ingrained with that Flannery O’Connor-ish Gothic darkness that is a hallmark of the South. Just listen to “For The Love of Ivy,” when Pierce sings of his plans when the girl he loves rejects him: “Gonna buy me a graveyard of my own/Kill everyone who ever done me wrong” before concluding “I was all dressed up like Elvis from Hell.” That’s brutal stuff, and Fire Of Love is not a feel-good album. The body count on the album is as high as you’ll find on the most violent gangsta rap album, but here the tales of sex and murder are downright chilling, not cartoonish braggadocio. Compare Snoop’s rhymes about putting a cap in someone with “You slaughtered your loving man/Killed him in his sleep/The blood and crying of his murder/Simply stains your sheets/Now you’re a ghost on the highway…” It’s like hearing songs written by Charles Starkweather. It is masterfully recorded, avoiding all the 1980s production techniques that instantly carbon dates so many songs from that era. It is a triumph of performance, sound, and writing.
    Grade: A
  • ZumaNeil Young & Crazy Horse. For awhile there in the 1970s, it must have seemed like Neil Young could do nothing wrong. Starting with 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and running right up until 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, Young was amazingly good. Sure there were a few missteps here and there but his career during that decade was a model of consistently good songwriting and recording, a stark contrast to the incoherence and largely dreadful work he did in the 1980s. Zuma emerged in 1975, hot on the heels of the tortured Tonight’s The Night (which had been recorded two years earlier, but released just five months before Zuma). This is a much more accessible and easy-to-like album, filled with huge chords, an open production, and solid melodies. Crazy Horse is in fine form, and “Cortez The Killer” gives Neil an excuse for a guitar workout, even if the lyrics praising the bloodthirsty Aztecs are unforgivable (while it’s not a perfect parallel, imagine if he’d written a song saying that the Germans knew no war before the invasion of Normandy and you’ll get an idea of the historical idiocy of the lyrics). There are some nice acoustic numbers, notably the lovely “Pardon My Heart” and “Through My Sails,” a song rescued from an aborted album with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The withering putdown of “Stupid Girl” drags a bit, but otherwise Zuma is an excellent collection. “Don’t Cry No Tears,” “Looking For A Love” and “Cortez The Killer” are among the best songs of Young’s best period.
    Grade: A
  • Zero Hour EP and …PlusThe Plimsouls. Rounding out the month are two brief offerings from L.A.’s Plimsouls. Zero Hour is an outstanding 5-song EP released in conjunction with their first album. Featuring a slightly different version of the LP’s “Zero Hour” plus four other tracks, it’s a beautiful listen, opening with the gem “Great Big World” and closing with an rip-roaring live version of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” That the EP also has the brilliant “Hypnotized” and the raveup “How Long Will It Take?” is just icing on the cake. …Plus is four songs that were released as bonus songs on the CD of their first album (as was the Zero Hour EP). The outtake “Memory” is excellent, and there are bloodcurdling live versions of “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Hush Hush” along with a good, but unremarkable instrumental called “When You Find Out.” The live tracks bear out the reputation of the Plimsouls as being one of the very best live bands of their time. This is raw, exciting rock ‘n’ roll, not to be missed. Garage rock at its finest.
    Grade: A


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