The Listening Post: May 2012

A remarkably good month for listening.

  • BlunderbussJack White. It’s as simple as this: Jack White’s first solo album is so good we should all buy him a gift this Christmas. The leadoff single, “Love Interruption”, was so uncharacteristic of White’s career that questions were immediately raised about what the sound of a White solo album would be. Despite that he was the guiding power of the White Stripes, that was clearly a sound that contained him. It was a punk version of blues, and Meg White’s primitive drumming was as much a part of the sound as White’s guitar. The Raconteurs, with their neo-classic rock leanings, allowed White to embrace the pure rock/pop side of his career. The Dead Weather were different yet again: industrial, Goth, techno blues rock. Will the real Jack White please stand up? On Blunderbuss, he does, and the result is the best album I’ve heard since 2008’s Consolers Of The Lonely, or maybe even 2003’s landmark Elephant…both of which featured two different sides of Jack White. As rock performers go in the 21st century, there’s Jack White and everybody else. Nowhere is this more clear than on Blunderbuss, which is White’s Revolver. That’s a comparison I don’t make lightly and it deserves some explanation. Like Revolver, Blunderbuss touches on many styles: the Stripes-ish guitar skronk of “Sixteen Saltines”, the acoustic loveliness that underpins the devastating lyrics of “Love Interruption”, the melancholy dirge of “On And On And On”, souped up R&B in the Little Willie John cover “I’m Shakin'” (which also gives a quick glimpse into White’s humor as he squeals “I’m noy-vous!”), the swirling country-tilted lullaby of the title track, the multi-layered, multi-faceted gem of “Take Me With You When You Go.” Yet also like Revolver, the album holds together as the coherent vision of a singular artist.

    Much is made of the lyrical content of the album, with comparisons to Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. White divorced singer and model Karen Elson last year, and the lyrics on Blunderbuss could easily be seen as emanating from the broken-hearted aftermath of a marriage gone wrong. That may be too simple. If true, then Karen Elson gets the Good Sportmanship of the Year award for singing backup on the album. Whatever her singing talents are, it is simply impossible to imagine Sara Dylan singing backup vocals on “Idiot Wind”. Of course, breakups happen in other ways, too, and the other relationship of White’s that ended last year is the White Stripes. In some ways, it’s easier to see Blunderbuss as an embittered reaction to the ending of that relationship: “you betray your dead brother with another hypocritical kiss,” “black hat, white shoes, and I’m red all over”, “and you’ll be watching me, girl/taking over the world/let the stripes unfurl” all could tie back to the myths and image of the White Stripes. At the end of the day, though, it’s not that important. What is important is that the words are good, and the music is restlessly inventive and creative. For a Jack White record, what is possibly the strangest thing is that the main instrument is Brooke Waggoner’s gorgeously cascading, tinkling piano runs. Waggoner eschews the traditional rock piano sound of banging chords or Jerry Lee Lewis-style freneticism in favor of elegant runs. Also of note is drummer Carla Azar who plays everything with a wild, shuffling sound. Even on the heavier, rockier songs Azar provides a groove that simply will not quit. Her drumming is astounding throughout as she, as Waggoner does on piano, avoids rock music drumming clichĂ©s. Where almost any drummer would pound, Azar glides effortlessly. Waggoner and Azar, as much as White, make the sound of the album, and their refusal to play in the way a million rock pianists and drummers before them have played, makes Blunderbuss prime material for multiple listens. It’s difficult to imagine a better album than this coming out this year, or maybe this decade. Blunderbuss towers over its competition. The rich, subtle, and powerful instrumentation, the timeless lyrical concerns, the stubborn refusal to sound like any other rock album within earshot make this one a modern classic that will most likely stand the test of time. You know…like Revolver.
    Grade: A+
  • What Kind Of WorldBrendan Benson. Sometimes it’s difficult not to feel bad for Brendan Benson. His solo career has never risen past the small cult status, and the band in which he’s an equal partner (the mighty Raconteurs) is routinely referred to as a “Jack White side project” as if Benson didn’t write and sing half the songs. Now he’s released one of his best albums and it comes out the same day as…well, there’s that Jack White fella again, hogging the spotlight. But Benson has no reason to hang his head. What Kind Of World is an excellent album. As is typical of Benson albums, there are a couple of songs could have been better. “Keep Me” is a good little ditty that never rises past faint praise. “Bad For Me” swings perilously close to late 70s MOR and isn’t helped by a lackluster vocal and occasionally clumsy lyrics (“she sucks my soul”? Really?). But as downers go, both of these songs are pretty darn good. They’re just not up to the standard of the rest of the album, where Benson lets his hard-charging power pop flag fly. The album has more hooks than a tackle box, and Benson’s great achievement is remembering that “power pop” is supposed to have “power”. So in between the hooks are plenty of charging guitars, slinky bass grooves, and raucous vocals. Benson’s tunes are as catchy as the Spanish flu, but he never fails to remind you that he’s a rocker to the core. What keeps the album interesting are the brief detours like the country-flavored album closer “On The Fence” or the synth textures on the twisted tone poem “Pretty Baby”. Elsewhere, songs like “Here In The Deadlights”, “Met Your Match”, and “Come On” are more than ample evidence that Benson is a performer to be reckoned with and it is his sound and vision that the “Jack White side project” most closely emulates.
    Grade: A
  • Medium RareFoo Fighters. This is a largely unknown collection from Dave Grohl and company. It was released as a vinyl album in 2011 to celebrate Record Store Day, and it was a CD for subscribers to Britain’s Q magazine. This is a collection of cover songs that, with three exceptions, have all been released as single B-sides, soundtrack songs, and random non-Foo compilations. It shows the depth of the influences that run through the Foo Fighters. Kurt Cobain, despite his admitted Beatle fixation, would probably be appalled at Grohl’s choices here, but then Kurt sadly never took the opportunity to mature out of his indie/punk credibility issues. Grohl, however, has always been less shy about acknowledging his debt to rockers of the past. On Medium Rare he tips his hat to classic rock (Paul McCartney’s “Band On The Run”, Thin Lizzy’s “Bad Reputation”, Cream’s “I Feel Free”, Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”, a beautiful acoustic version of the Zombies’s deep cut “This Will Be Our Year”, and Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar”), 80s New Wave (Gary Numan’s “Down In The Park”), early MTV (Joe Walsh’s “Life Of Illusion”), funk (Prince’s salacious “Darling Nikki”), old school punk (“Danny Says” from the Ramones), and both the melodic (Husker Du’s “Never Talking To You Again”) and blistering (“Gas Chamber” by the Bad Brains) sides of hardcore punk. There’s also a sloppy but reverent live version of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues” that the band did for VH1 Rock Honors The Who. Of the tracks, only “Darling Nikki” misfires. The band plays it well, trading in Prince’s funk for Foos rock, but Grohl’s vocal—especially his throat-shredding screams of “Nikki!!!”—don’t serve the R-rated humor of the lyrics. Otherwise, these are all excellent covers. Drummer Taylor Hawkins sings “I Feel Free”, “Life Of Illusion”, and “Have A Cigar” and it’s a shame that the Foos don’t use him to sing one or two tracks per album. Vocally he could be the Keef to Grohl’s Mick. There’s really nothing mind-blowing on Medium Rare, and yet this is one of the most consistently good albums in the band’s repertoire. There is nothing that will make you reach for the “skip” button, either. The best of these performances are, no surprise, the best songs. “Band On The Run” is heavier than McCartney’s original, but Grohl wisely allows the arrangement to remain unaltered, and while “Baker Street” misses that justifiably famous saxophone hook, the guitar that takes its place does no harm. The songs are great and well-chosen, the performances are rock solid. What’s not to like?
    Grade: A-


The Listening Post: April 2012

  • Electric DirtLevon Helm. No rock group did Americana music better than The Band. What makes this ironic is that they were all Canadian, with the exception of drummer Levon Helm. While Robbie Robertson wrote the majority of songs, the heart and soul of The Band was behind the drum kit. Aside from providing great drumming that was always sympathetic and never unnecessarily showy, Helm was one of The Band’s three great vocalists. His voice was never as pure and clean as Richard Manuel’s or Rick Danko’s, but it was an incredibly evocative instrument, full of grit, dirt, and Arkansas dust. When he was diagnosed with throat cancer, it was believed that he would never sing again and while it’s true that his voice is not as strong as it was in 1969, what’s striking on hearing this album is how good he does sound. Helm was 70 years old when he recorded Electric Dirt, and the album sounds like the dream release of a million Americana singers half his age. The songs on the album are built on the groove. This is music that sounds timeless, like one of the world’s best bar bands on their third set, a little drunk, maybe a little high, and playing their favorite songs, from Randy Newman’s swampy “Kingfish” to Muddy Waters’s “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had”. There’s even a Grateful Dead cover (“Tennessee Jed”) that proves once again that the Dead were better writers than performers. But there is a disconnect on the album as well. If you were sitting in Levon’s barn, watching Helm perform these songs on one of his Midnight Rambles, you’d be in heaven. Hearing an album of it reminds you that some music works better live than on tape. This is a fine album that would have been a fantastic live set for a great band, played in a small venue, with lots of drinks and a buzzing crowd. Take away the venue, the drinks, and the excitement of a crowd, and there’s simply something indefinable missing. The best moments on the album, “Move Along Train”, “Kingfish”, “Can’t Lose”, and “When I Go Away” transport the listener. The rest of the album, while very good, is like watching a concert film. The music is there, but the atmosphere is missing something.
    Grade: B+
    Shortly after I wrote this, word arrived that Levon Helm was in “the final stages” of cancer. He kept on rocking right up until the end. Godspeed, Levon Helm.
  • Unearthed III: Redemption SongsJohnny Cash. The third disc of outtakes from Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin-produced sessions is further proof that Cash’s best years were when he began and when he ended. Rubin had a great ear for picking material and sympathetic arrangements for Cash’s still powerful voice. Most of these songs are culled from the earlier years of their collaboration, when Cash’s voice was still a formidable weapon. The songs include covers of Bob Marley (a great duet with Joe Strummer on “Redemption Song”), Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Stephen Foster, and Jimmy Webb. Only an early pass at “The Man Comes Around” came from Cash’s pen. It’s an excellent version, though it lacks the apocalyptic tenor of the version that appeared on American IV. Still, many of these songs are outtakes for a reason. “Singer of Songs,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Wichita Lineman” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” never quite hit the target, and what might have been an excellent version of Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son” is not merely ruined, but absolutely destroyed by Fiona Apple, whose flat, emotionless harmony is only highlighted by how out of sync she is with Cash’s vocal. It almost sounds like she’s singing a different song, and the effect is to make this song almost unlistenable. More successful are the collaborations with Strummer, Nick Cave (on the traditional “Cindy”), and Glen Campbell (“Gentle On My Mind”). The best moments belong strictly to Cash and the man behind the scenes, Rick Rubin. Marty Robbins’s “Big Iron” is custom-made for Cash, “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” is another evocative train song from the man who once lamented the passing trains from Folsom Prison, and “You Are My Sunshine” gets a brief, heartbreaking reading.
    Grade: B
  • Sound AffectsThe Jam. The fifth album from The Jam is built around the devastating one-two punch of “Start!” and “That’s Entertainment” that crop up halfway through the album. Everything else both builds up to, and gradually descends from, that peak. Those tracks are so strong that, in some ways, they define the sound of the band: “Start!” is all angular bass riffing, choppy guitars, and Weller’s ability to craft a distinct pop melody over such un-pop instrumentation. “That’s Entertainment” is the flip of the band, the heavy acoustic guitar and Bruce Foxton’s pulsating bass underpinning Weller’s sharp eye for detail as he sings of life in 1980’s London. As always, the musical touchstone for the Jam is pre-Tommy Who and the Small Faces. It’s easy to forget that before the stadium-ready anthems the Who were once one of the greatest power pop bands, and it is this that the Jam emulates. “But I’m Different Now”, “Boy About Town”, and “Man In The Corner Shop” all hearken back to 1967 Pete Townshend and Steve Marriott/Ronnie Lane. There are a couple of misfires on Sound Affects. “Music For The Last Couple” spends a full third of its running time just starting, and the music isn’t all that interesting when it eventually does begin. Similarly, the closing “Scrape Away” is very dated, the sound locked into a 1980 time capsule. Most of Sound Affects is what the Jam does best: short, spiky songs with huge hooks, played with passion and intensity.
    Grade: B+
  • Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A RetrospectiveThe Brian Jonestown Massacre. One of the rock music documentaries that I consider essential viewing is Dig! It traces, over seven years, the friendship and rivalry between the cult bands the Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. It’s a fascinating story, and the reason is Jonestown singer and songwriter Anton Newcombe. He’s talented and volatile, acting as champion for both his own band and for the Warhols before disintegrating into an increasingly erratic, angry, and unreliable performer as the Warhols achieve some mild success. At times, I wondered whether Newcombe was bi-polar. He is the champion for his band, and his band’s worst saboteur. What would make the story transcendent is if the Massacre was the greatest band you’ve never heard, but the fact is that they’re not. They have a great sound, but the sound doesn’t deviate all that much between tracks. The songs don’t rock hard, nor are they soft. This is edgy, shoegazing, groove music. It’s all atmosphere. Playing in the background of a party or club, this would fit the bill. Listening to a lengthy collection, like this two-disc compilation of their best songs, reveals the limitations. Too much of this sounds the same. The good news is that most of it sounds good. The bad news is that it’s simply too much of a reasonably good thing. There are a few songs that I would consider great: “It Girl”, “Vacuum Boots”, “Prozac Vs. Heroin”, “Nailing Honey To The Bee”, “That Girl Suicide”, “Hide And Seek”, “Mary Please”, “Talk-Action=Shit”, and their crowning glory (aimed directly at their friends and rivals) “Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth”. Most of the rest is of a consistently high quality, as befits a good “best of” collection. But the songs are best appreciated in short doses. Clocking in at over two hours, the songs start to blend into each other because they nearly all share that same sound. As a result, it’s a difficult album to rate. Basing it on each song, the album should probably rate a notch higher than the grade I’m giving it. With a couple of exceptions, like the dreadful “She’s Gone”, the songs are solidly in the B+ category. But as a listening experience, Tepid Peppermint Wonderland lives up to its title.
    Grade: B