Jack White: Lazaretto

Jack_White_-_Lazaretto

In 1967, blues guitar genius Michael Bloomfield quit his day job with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band to create a new group. The Electric Flag was devoted, in Bloomfield’s words, to playing “American music”. Rock, blues, soul, country, and R&B all figured into the mix. They released one album before Bloomfield, always a guy with a short attention span, left. The album, A Long Time Comin’, is a flawed gem. There’s some superb blues (“Texas”), some great soul (“Over Loving You”), and a wicked rave on the old R&B song “Wine (Spo-Dee-O-Dee)”. In attempting to be all-encompassing “American music” the album falls short. It was too big a concept, one that required over-thinking on the part of the band’s leaders. Years later, Gram Parsons dubbed his music “Cosmic American Music” but no matter how you sliced it, Parsons was a country boy. His two solo albums are staggeringly brilliant, but they’re almost pure country. Perhaps the most successful attempt at “American Music” was the Stephen Stills project, Manassas. Over four sides of a self-titled album, Manassas toured the music scene, touching on everything from rock to Latin music. It’s a lost classic LP (the band was so good Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman said it was the only group he’d quit the Stones to join), but it also has that quality that marred the Electric Flag album: the concept isn’t organic. Sides are neatly divided into themes. A second album was a flop.

The problem with these attempts at “American Music” is that they fail to recognize that American music is as much a melting pot as the country.

Which brings me to Jack White.

White has, as far as I know, never referred to his music as “American”, cosmic or otherwise. He simply plays what he wants to play. The White Stripes were blues run through a Led Zeppelin filter and played with punk rock intensity. The Raconteurs are straight up classicist rock music and power pop. The Dead Weather explores White’s interest in dark, Gothic, industrial music. His first solo album, 2012’s Blunderbuss, was a masterpiece of songwriting and performance. His latest album, Lazaretto, falls short of that mark, but in some ways clarifies White’s vision. Lazaretto is American music.

Unlike the earlier albums discussed, White doesn’t separate the different genres. He puts them all into the melting pot and what comes out is uniquely his. The best example on the album is the title track. There are hints of progressive rock in the keyboards and synthesizers, the guitar is screamingly loud in the finest rock tradition, there are bluegrass violins playing over the end of the song, the groove is funk, and the vocal delivery is rap. Yes, he’s even a good rapper. Of course, since this is Jack White the lyrics are about being quarantined in a leper colony, making models of people using coffee and cotton, and having discussions with God, rather than the bling he’s wearing. I’ve never cared for rap; I find it too repetitive, not melodic, and far too much of it is disturbingly racist and sexist. But if more rap songs had lyrics about leper colonies, and were set to an instrumental backing of scorching lead guitar and Appalachian fiddle, I’d be on board.

What White has done with this song (and with the other song that uses a rap delivery, “That Black Bat Licorice”, is combine the dominant strains of popular music from the past sixty years: blues, rock, country, and rap. He’s also added in his trademark eccentricities in the lyrics. “Licorice” makes references to Roman hypocausts, Nietzsche, Freud, and either the Egyptian god Horus or the Roman poet Horace (I’m guessing the latter). It also has the lines “I mean, she’s my baby/But she makes me get avuncular/And when my monkey is jumping/I got no time for making up for her” which, aside from being funny, is a sophisticated rhyme scheme.

White’s humor is clear throughout. The man may be the PT Barnum of rock and roll, a prankster and promoter of supreme ability. Consider the vinyl version of the album, which is the highest selling vinyl record in over 20 years. White has brought his showmanship to the grooves of his record by forcing people to interact and actually think about putting on music. Side one of the album is a standard shiny LP, but side two is flat matte to reproduce the look of old 78 RPM records. Side one of the album plays backwards…that’s right, you drop the needle at the end of side one for it to play. The run out groove on side one is etched with holographic angels that can only be seen from a certain angle. There are two extra songs on the vinyl LP…hidden under the label. One of these songs is played at 45 RPM. The other at 78 RPM, making Lazaretto a three-speed record. The first song on side two (“Just One Drink”) has an acoustic intro or an electric intro, depending on which groove you drop the needle into. Lastly, there are continuous loops of sound at the end of each side, similar to the run out groove on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And if you got the LP from White’s exclusive website (The Vault), the album was blue and white vinyl instead of black, and the cover was black and white instead of blue. It’s all promotional, but it also forces the listener to experience the tactile sensation of playing music, a sensation that any music geek will tell you increases the connection with the music in a way that you don’t get with a sound file. It certainly lacks the convenience of an MP3, but it’s actually fun to see and experience the process. And Jack White is clearly having a lot of fun…probably more than anyone in the music business except Dave Grohl. White is rock’s greatest eccentric and musical wildcard since Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

The album also jams country, Delta blues, piano ballads, Zeppelin riffs, and just about anything else you can think of into its eleven tracks, frequently combining some or all the elements into a single song. The opener, “Three Women” is an updating of Blind Willie McTell’s “Three Women Blues”, though it lifts the “Lordy Lord” chorus from McTell’s “Broke Down Engine Blues”. It’s one of the most straightforward songs on the album, in stark contrast to the delightfully schizophrenic “Would You Fight For My Love?” “Temporary Ground” features White duetting with Lillie Mae Rische on a song that blends country and rock; “Entitlement” takes a vicious, and well-deserved, stab at the Entitled Generation; “High Ball Stepper” is an instrumental that sounds like Emerson, Lake and Palmer jamming with Led Zeppelin; “Want And Able” would fit perfectly at the end of any White Stripes album; and “Just One Drink” is country as played by the Rolling Stones, sounding like a lost track from Exile on Main Street. And if the connection to “American music” isn’t clear enough, White even throws in a lyrical reference to “Wine (Spo-Dee-O-Dee)”, the song the Electric Flag covered as their R&B track.

Jack White has come very close to perfecting “American music”…a stew of blues, rock, country, folk, bluegrass and, now, hip-hop. He hasn’t done it by trying his hand at different styles, the way Bloomfield, Stills, or Parsons did. Instead, White has completely assimilated the music he loves and spits it back out through the prism of his own prodigious talent. Lazaretto is not as good as Blunderbuss; it tries too hard in spots where the previous album seemed effortless, and Lazaretto takes several listens to appreciate where Blunderbuss was instantly likable. Nevertheless, it’s another stunning collection from a great musical talent that is peaking in his creativity.

Grade: A

Wild Tales, by Graham Nash

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Honestly, Graham Nash has always kind of annoyed me. He seemed to be the weakest member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, though most of their hits were written by him. Even more than David Crosby, Nash was the “hippie” in the band. He could sing beautifully and his harmony vocals were never short of amazing, but there was just something that seemed very lightweight about him. Maybe it was hearing the execrable “Marrakesh Express” one too many times when I was growing up that made me anti-Nash. Or maybe it was just that he was the quietest, most laid back member of a group notorious for their egos and volatility.

At the same time, I absolutely love The Hollies, the band Nash formed in England in the early 1960s. Yes, they were strictly second-string in the British Invasion, and their filler-to-fabulous ratio is a bit high, but The Hollies’ Greatest Hits is one of the most flawless pop albums ever released. It shines in its perfection. So when a friend of mine lent me Nash’s autobiography I decided to read it to learn more about The Hollies as much as for any other reason. Surprisingly, I’m less anti-Nash now.

He’s still annoying. The political tangents he goes off on throughout the book are unbelievably strident and reveal a man who doesn’t so much think about these issues than absorb and parrot whatever his fellow travelers and friends tell him. Nash also has an ego the size of Jupiter and he’s not shy about his talent. The book is full of bragging about his vocal abilities and songwriting. On the first of these, his bragging is justifiable. Nash does have a great singing voice and is as good a harmony singer as anyone in the business. On the latter, his songwriting, his boasts are a bit much. Nash has written some really good songs and a few great ones. He’s also written a lot of junk. Despite his claims to the contrary, only Neil Young went on to do considerably greater work after CSNY released Deja Vu in 1970.

Nash is a musical figure so locked into the 1970s it’s hard to picture him beginning in much the same way the Beatles or Stones did. Nash met Allan Clarke in grade school and they discovered that they could sing together. In forming the Hollies, they combined their talents with a love of the Everly Brothers. Nash’s stories here are charming, especially the one about how he and Clarke staked out the hotel where the Everlys were staying in England and actually got to meet them and talk to them. Nash’s love of music is readily apparent, and he makes it very clear that what he always loved most was harmony. In the early days of the Hollies Nash and Clarke perfected two-part harmonies but when guitarist Tony Hicks joined the band, and proved he could sing equally well, they branched out past the Everly Brothers and started working on three-part harmonies, which created a very different dynamic and sound. In this sense, the Hollies were the perfect training ground for Nash.

When Nash met David Crosby, another singer deeply versed in harmony singing from his time in The Byrds, and Stephen Stills, a multi-talented musician, songwriter, and singer, he was able to instantly blend his voice with theirs. Their vocal tones were so perfectly complementary that they sounded like nobody else. It was harmony singing, but a style and level of ability unheard in rock music.

Shortly after they recorded the Crosby, Stills & Nash album, Ahmet Ertegun floated the idea that Neil Young join the band. Nash protested vehemently, afraid that Young’s voice would not blend and worried that Young’s reputation as a somewhat mercurial character would upset the balance. It was only after Nash met Young that he agreed. But in some ways, Nash was right. Neil Young was far too beholden to his own instincts to be a good member of any band. While Young brought a harder edge and some truly great songs to the band, he was far too difficult to work with.

It sounds like a really big deal, but the truth is that in 1969 Neil Young was far from being famous. He’d left Buffalo Springfield and was floating around doing session work and his first, unsuccessful, solo album. Today, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is considered a “supergroup” but then Crosby, Stills, and Young were journeymen. Arguably the biggest star in the band was Graham Nash, and his star shone brightest in England.

For a band that did very little work together in the 1970s (they released only two studio albums and one live album), they remained hugely popular. Their 1974 tour was the first stadium tour in rock music. They toured and recorded in various permutations. Stills recorded an album with Young, Crosby and Nash worked together and apart. This was how Nash originally envisioned the band: CSNY would be a home base that they could all return to while being free to make music in any other outlet they wished. But through it all, none of the side projects carried the same weight as when three or four would collaborate. The 1977 album CSN was meant to be the followup to Deja Vu, but ended up the sequel to 1969’s Crosby, Stills & Nash after Young dropped out of the sessions. Neil Young didn’t record with the band again until 1988’s American Dream (and the less said about that godawful mess the better). At this point, the band is thought of as CSN and sometimes Y.

Throughout the book Nash is almost exactly how you imagine him to be. He’s still very much enamored of the hippie mentality and still pays a lot of lip service to that long ago ethos. The political lectures scattered throughout the book are annoying, even if you admire Nash’s exuberance and beliefs. Graham Nash is a musician who was at the beginnings of the English rock scene (The Hollies played Liverpool’s Cavern Club more than any band except the Beatles). He played at Woodstock and was at Ground Zero for what became the California sound of the 1970s. More Woodstock, fewer lectures about nuclear power, please. (His lectures might have been more palatable if he didn’t sound like all of his information came from a Greenpeace pamphlet.)

The book is somewhat misnamed. A better title might have been Mild Tales. The truly wild tales of decadence and licentiousness were the ones starring Crosby. Long Time Gone, the autobiography of David Crosby, is a far better book, both for his musical reminiscences and for the genuinely terrifying portrait of drug addiction Crosby paints. In fact, the wildest tales in Nash’s books are the ones about Crosby’s descent into an unparalleled Hell of addiction. Graham Nash had a taste for women and drugs, but never seemed to really lose control. He was remarkably self-possessed and self-assured as a young man breaking into the music business and remained so for his entire career. This, and his basic charm, make him likable (although it also fuels his unlikable ego). His love of music and photography, and his restless creative spirit are also abundant. The book makes a nice companion piece to Long Time Gone, and I’d be curious to see a good autobiography of Stephen Stills, another character blessed with musical genius and titanic ego. (Neil Young is too eccentric to write a decent autobiography, but Shakey by Jimmy McDonough is a fascinating biography.) Separate and combined, their lives are one of the most interesting rock stories ever written, spanning almost every music scene from England’s 1950s to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s to Los Angeles in the late sixties and throughout the seventies. For now, only Crosby and Nash are speaking up.

The Beatles: Revolver

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For decades now, whenever some music magazine that’s staffed with old hippies (*cough* Rolling Stone *cough*) makes a list of the Greatest Albums of All Time (by which they mean the greatest albums since 1964), they invariably settle on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the choice for number one. But a funny thing happened several years ago when VH1 created a list of the 100 Greatest Rock Albums. As voted on by critics and musicians, the number one choice was Revolver. Since then, Revolver‘s stock has risen sharply while Pepper’s has dropped.

The rise in Revolver‘s status coincides directly with the release of the album on compact disc in 1987 when, for the first time, the original version of the album was released in America.

Revolver was the last Beatles album to be eviscerated by Capitol Records, and was probably the most damaged aside from the movie soundtracks. The American version of the album was a hard-hitting classic, long considered one of the very best albums by the band. When the English version was released in America, it was a revelation. As great as the American version was, three of the best songs had been removed.

U.S. EditionU.K. Edition
1. Taxman
2. Eleanor Rigby
3. Love You To
4. Here, There, and Everywhere
5. Yellow Submarine
6. She Said, She Said
7. Good Day Sunshine
8. For No One
9. I Want To Tell You
10. Got To Get You Into My Life
11. Tomorrow Never Knows
1. Taxman
2. Eleanor Rigby
3. I’m Only Sleeping*
4. Love You To
5. Here, There, and Everywhere
6. Yellow Submarine
7. She Said, She Said
8. Good Day Sunshine
9. And Your Bird Can Sing*
10. For No One
11. Doctor Robert*
12. I Want To Tell You
13. Got To Get You Into My Life
14. Tomorrow Never Knows
*Released in America on the LP Yesterday…And Today

What makes the song removal even more unfortunate was that all three songs were John Lennon’s. As a result, George Harrison is a stronger presence on the American version as the writer and singer of three songs while Lennon is relegated to the album closers on each side. This has the effect of making the album seem lopsided. Paul is here, there, and everywhere and George is hot on his heels, but Lennon gets only one song more than Ringo.

No discussion of Revolver should begin without mentioning the cover art. Designed by their friend from Hamburg, the artist and bass player Klaus Voorman, the front cover of the album took the mildly hallucinogenic cover of Rubber Soul and exploded it. In stark black and white, the Beatles appear as line drawings, with only their eyes and George’s lips looking like cut and pastes from photographs. The four heads take up the entire cover while old photos (including some from the back cover of Rubber Soul) and surreal comic versions of the Beatles that look like they were drawn by Edward Gorey appear in their hair. Some of the photos are stretched or distorted, all of them are odd in either appearance or placement: Ringo in an old-fashioned bathing suit, George in a safari hat, John looking like he’s grown a giant Amish-style beard, a younger Paul hiding behind the cartoon of his own ear. And the single word in all capital letters: REVOLVER. In all of rock music to this point there had never been an album cover even remotely this strange. On the back cover, below another all-caps REVOLVER and the significantly smaller words “The Beatles” is a black and white photo of the band in the studio, sitting together, looking at each other instead of the camera, wearing sunglasses. revolver-backIf there’s a photo of a band where the group members look cooler than this, I’ve never seen it. This is the band in their “We’re The Coolest People On Planet Earth” phase (see also the videos for “Rain” and “Paperback Writer” from the same time period). The back cover of Revolver is one of the all-time great rock and roll photographs. The Beatles were looking less like the gear fab Mop Tops on Rubber Soul, but here they put that image behind them forever.

If the cover didn’t prepare you with the idea that the Beatles were up to something new, the music sure did. Their first album, Please Please Me, kicked off with Paul’s exuberant “one-two-three-four!” and three short years later Revolver begins with George’s slurred, off-time and off-beat, slow count in on “Taxman”. This was clearly a different group. For starters, it was George who kicked the album off, with his strongest song yet, a withering protest against Britain’s outrageously confiscatory 95% tax rate. His songwriting at this point was floating in that rarefied air with his bandmates Lennon and McCartney. But the song was also unusual. The guitar was heavy and distorted, unlike any heard on a Beatles song before. The ferocious guitar solo, played by Paul McCartney, exploded out of the speakers and was designed to mimic the feel of Indian music, George’s latest passion. The song sounded both Western and Eastern: the instrumentation of one with the scales of the other.

“Taxman” (and, in fact, all of Revolver) is also a perfect example of why the early Beatles are best heard in mono, rather than stereo. Listening to the stereo of “Taxman” can be downright painful, especially on headphones. Virtually all the music except the tambourine and the guitar solo comes from one speaker. The mono version is louder, punchier, and fuller. It’s also a different mix: the very prominent tambourine comes in earlier in the mono version. This is true throughout the album. The mono mix is clearly superior, and is the version the Beatles were fully involved in creating (the stereo mix was done by George Martin with no input from the Beatles). Song endings are longer (“Got To Get You Into My Life”), sound effects are placed differently and are more abrupt (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), vocals sound fuller (“Eleanor Rigby”). Generally speaking, the Beatles are worth hearing in mono all the way up through the White Album; on Revolver the mono mix really shines.

Shortly after “Taxman” ends in a welter of guitar and righteous indignation, McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” tells the story of the lonely titular character and the equally sad priest who presides over her funeral. The story is told over a pummeling string section; no traditional rock instruments are used, and John and George are only present in the backing vocals. But where McCartney’s (and George Martin’s) use of strings on “Yesterday” was light semi-classical, the strings in “Eleanor Rigby” pound in a staccato fashion that sounds vaguely like Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to Psycho. The strings are playing in the place of rock and roll instruments; “Eleanor Rigby” could be rerecorded with heavy electric guitars and still maintain the same vibe. The strings on “Yesterday” sweetened the song; here they hammer home the sadness. “Eleanor Rigby” was McCartney’s finest moment to this point, a direct response to the challenge posed by Lennon’s increasingly sophisticated lyrics on Rubber Soul and to Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys album that was changing the way rock music could sound.

McCartney’s presence on Revolver was amplified by Lennon’s absence on the US version, making it sound like Macca had taken control over the band. On the official release it was clear that McCartney had assumed co-leadership duties with Lennon. Prior to Revolver, The Beatles had been Lennon’s band. On Revolver, they became Lennon and McCartney’s band. Lennon’s first track on the album was “I’m Only Sleeping”, a hymn to laziness or, perhaps, the stupor of being under the influence. At this time, Lennon was smoking a lot of dope and taking LSD like it was candy. Both drugs are reflected on the track. Marijuana informs the lyrics about a man who doesn’t want to do much of anything except lie in bed, sleeping and watching the world go by. Acid informs the music by inserting backwards guitar into what is otherwise a conventional rock track. Throughout the song snippets of backwards guitar rise from the background before erupting in a solo. The tone of the guitar gives the song an Eastern feel but also a psychedelic edge. Lennon’s voice also sounds unlike any of his previous vocals. It’s identifiably Lennon but here he sings in a higher, more nasal, register that adds just a bit more of an edge to the song. By this point on the album, I’m sure more than one first time listener was asking what the band was doing.

The answer is that they were challenging themselves and their audience about what the definition of rock music could be. George’s second song was a nearly pure Indian raga called “Love You To”. It’s the best example of George’s blending of rock and raga. A heavily fuzzed guitar and subtle bass are subservient to Indian instruments, primarily sitar, tambura, and tablas, but it’s still readily identifiable as rock music. Much like “Eleanor Rigby”, “Love You To” is a rock song played by mostly non-rock instruments. Through it all, blended with the music is George’s vocal. He sings the song in a flat, almost monotone way that perfectly complements the music.

On Rubber Soul the Beatles started branching out beyond love songs. Songs like “Nowhere Man” and “Think For Yourself” were the first songs the Beatles had done that weren’t about love in a boy-girl relationship. On Revolver, there are only three love songs, including two of the best that Paul McCartney ever wrote. “Here, There, and Everywhere” may be McCartney’s finest moment as a balladeer. The lyrics are sentimental and sweet, but not cloying or obvious. Some of the lyrics are downright gorgeous: “changing my life with a wave of her hand” and the ingenious way he works in the words of the title show the significant growth in McCartney. “Here, There, and Everywhere” is the Beatles first love song for adults, and makes a nice companion to “For No One”, the heartbreaking love song on side two. Here, McCartney sings about the dissolution of a relationship in a similarly adult fashion. Here the story is not that of a relationship that is over, but one that is on life support. “In her eyes, you see nothing” sings McCartney in the album’s most devastating line. “She says that long ago she knew someone/But now he’s gone/She doesn’t need him.” While the obvious interpretation of the lyrics is that Paul is observing somebody else’s relationship and commenting on it, “For No One” has always seemed far too personally heartfelt to me. The fact that McCartney says it was written about an argument with his girlfriend, the actress Jane Asher, also makes it personal. When seen as a song about himself, the switch from second person to third person further emphasizes the alienation the lover feels as the love is pulled away from him. Without his love, the song’s narrator can only see himself from the outside: first as an involved character in his life story “you see nothing” and then, as the relationship ends, as a faceless and nameless “him”. In a style of music that is replete with songs about broken love, “For No One” is one of the best, a perfect marriage of lyrical and musical pathos. The French horn solo, first hummed by McCartney, transcribed by George Martin, and then played by Alan Civil, is one of the greatest moments on the record, capturing all the wrenching emotion of the lyric and translating it into music.

The third love song, “Good Day Sunshine” kicks off the second side of the album. It’s a far more straightforward number than most of those on the album. It could have fit well on Rubber Soul or even Help! but that doesn’t diminish its many charms. For starters, it’s one of the few songs on the album that can genuinely be called “upbeat”. It’s a happy tune, propelled by piano and McCartney’s extraordinary vocal. It’s one of those songs that is simply impossible not to like. If it sounds slight in comparison to the rest of Revolver, that’s because it is. But lightheartedness was always a part of the Beatles’ arsenal. For every “Tomorrow Never Knows” there’s a “Good Day Sunshine”; for every “I Am The Walrus” there’s a “Yellow Submarine”. Revolver was, for the Beatles, a heavy album in lyrical terms. Politics, drugs, loneliness, and death are all explored. “Good Day Sunshine” goes a long way towards pushing away the gloom of what could have been a very bleak album. As such, it is “Good Day Sunshine”, “Got To Get You Into My Life”, and “Yellow Submarine” that, as much as anything, make Revolver a Beatles album. The secret weapon of the Beatles (and almost any good band) was their sense of humor and fun. An album without those elements simply would not have worked as well. It is the very lightness of these songs that is what makes them so good. They stand on their own as great, fun songs but also leaven the album as a whole.

Still, if there’s a weak link on the album (and actually, there isn’t) it’s “Yellow Submarine”, a children’s song that puts The Goons into popular music while calling back to Spike Jones. Lennon always claimed that it was one of the most fun times he ever had in the recording studio, and it’s easy to see why. The song is filled with silliness and Lennon loved that type of humor, and the stories of the recording session include tales of Beatles roadie Mal Evans leading a conga line while banging on a bass drum and assorted EMI employees raiding the archives for sound effects that were then used with great abandon. “Yellow Submarine” is a classic Beatles song. To adult ears, it can be a little wearing. Ringo’s voice is…well, it’s Ringo’s voice, and the sing along chorus is a bit cloying after awhile. Still, there is a lot of fun in the song and it is essential listening for any child under the age of ten. The stories of the recording also prove a central truth of the Beatles: through their restless creativity and boundless energy, they were changing the way music was recorded. In stuffy EMI studios, where microphones had to be placed precisely and where the recording engineers wore white lab coats, the Beatles were anarchy unleashed. They challenged all the rules of the studio and, therefore, of recorded rock music. “Yellow Submarine” is a perfect example of that. In the studio the Beatles were free, while on tour they were prisoners. Recordings like “Yellow Submarine” went a long way in setting the precedent that studios could be used to do more than record, that they could be used to create. It’s a legitimate question to ask whether the Beatles would have felt the freedom to experiment like they did on “Strawberry Fields Forever” without first flouting convention on “Yellow Submarine”.

George appears in the spotlight for the third time with “I Want To Tell You”, a far more conventional rock song than his first two offerings. Or is it? In some ways “I Want To Tell You” is every bit as radical as Lennon’s songs on the album. The lyrical matter is about the difficulty of communication, and the music matches it. Strange chords, a discordant piano, the climax of Lennon and McCartney singing “I’ve got time” in a way that mimics an Indian raga. McCartney’s bass pounds the listener and George’s riff that slides in and out of the song is a winner. The riff was so good that Jimi Hendrix played it on the BBC before launching into a version of “Day Tripper”. When Hendrix tips his hat to your riff, you know you’ve got something special. The backing vocals from Lennon and McCartney are jarring, they underpin George’s lead vocal but are more strident and difficult. There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on in these two and a half minutes. Musically it’s far more complex than “Love You To” or “Taxman” yet it doesn’t seem that way when you listen. It’s only when the listener burrows into the song that the weirdness of it is revealed. While it sounds conventional on the surface, “I Want To Tell You” is Harrison at his most daring while playing in the confines of traditional rock music. His Indian-inspired songs may have sounded stranger to Western ears, but this is where he was truly experimenting with song structure.

John Lennon was the main songwriter for “And Your Bird Can Sing”, with some help from McCartney. The subject is very much a mystery as the words don’t really seem to make much sense. My best guess is that it was written as a joke to Mick Jagger about his girlfriend, Marianne Faithful. That was one of the rumors, at least, but what is one to make of “And your bird is green/But she can’t see me” or “When your bird is broken/Will it bring you down?” Lyrically it’s a slice of surrealism (charitably…it could just be nonsense) that comes across as silly. Lennon later criticized the song as one of his throwaway tracks, but Lennon was his own worst critic. Musically it’s another matter. The music on “And Your Bird Can Sing” is fantastic. The lead guitars, two locked in harmony played by George and Paul, lay a foundation on which you could build a city, and McCartney’s bass throbs in the background, providing another lead instrument deep in the mix. It’s another upbeat, hard rocking moment. Coming right after “Good Day Sunshine” on side two, it seemed to show a turn away the heavy vibe of the album before “For No One” brought back the darkness.

The four remaining songs on Revolver could not be more different, yet they all share one thing in common. The subject in all four songs was inspired by the same thing: the band’s increasing experimentation with mind-altering substances. McCartney’s “Got To Get You Into My Life” sounds like an upbeat, soul-style love song and there’s a reason for that. It is an upbeat, soul-style love song. The object of McCartney’s affection in the song is not a woman, though. “Another road where maybe I could see another kind of mind there,” Macca sings as if his heart was about to burst out of his chest. McCartney later admitted that the “you” in the song’s title and chorus was actually marijuana. Still, the lyric was disguised enough so that it didn’t raise suspicions among listeners or critics, and the song is so catchy and joyful that the music overwhelms the lyrics. Driven by a punchy and powerful horn section, with a short but very electric guitar solo, and McCartney raving in his Little Richard voice over the fade, “Got To Get You Into My Life” was more proof that the Beatles were no longer bound by the sound that had propelled them to the top of the charts. Anything they wanted to try was valid and their level of fame (and the money they brought in to EMI) ensured that they were given carte blanche. Revolver is nothing if not stylistically diverse: rock, pop, soul, raga, ballads, orchestration, psychedelia, and novelty songs all coexist seamlessly on one album that’s less than forty minutes long.

“Dr. Robert” was John’s ode to a physician who peddled a lot more than health. Originally inspired by a New York physician named Robert Freymann who was famous for providing amphetamines to his rich clientele, the final character in the song is probably a combination of several people, including John’s dentist (the man who first slipped LSD in John’s and George’s coffee at a house party). In a more innocent time like 1966, it’s possible to imagine that the song could be written off as merely a song about a doctor. With hindsight, the drug references are obvious. “Take a drink from his special cup”, “If you’re down he’ll pick you up”, “You don’t pay money just to see yourself”, “He helps you to understand” are all blatant allusions to drugs in the context of the song. “Dr. Robert” is “a new and better man”. The guitar, heavy and distorted, plays in short, choppy bursts under Lennon’s double-tracked vocals before the chorus abruptly shifts into a dreamlike harmonium and Lennon’s floating vocal of “Well…well…well, you’re feeling fine/Well…well…well, he’ll make you”. Again McCartney plays a stellar bass line that flows in the verses and ebbs in the chorus, providing a harmonic counterpoint to those choppy guitars.

It is the songs that end each side of the album that are the clearest indication that the Fabs were into something very new and very different. “She Said, She Said”, which closes side one of the LP, is a fairly accessible rock song, but the lyrics were something else entirely. Only a couple of years earlier John Lennon had sung about wanting to hold your hand. Now he was coming out of the gate with “She said ‘I know what it’s like to be dead/I know what it is to be sad’/And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born”. The lyrics reflect a nightmarish party where the band and their guests were tripping on acid and the actor Peter Fonda kept trying to tell them a story of a near-death accident he had as a child. According to Lennon, Fonda kept walking up to him saying “I know what it’s like to be dead”, a statement that had the understandable effect of freaking out Lennon during his drug-induced trip. This was a pop/rock song that had lyrics like no other before it. There had certainly been songs about drugs and death before, but never in a context like “She Said, She Said”. For an audience that was not “turned on” the lyrics must have been completely baffling, yet the music was straightforward for the most part. The guitars were incredibly loud and sharp, bordering on shrill, and Ringo especially shines throughout the song. John sings in the same nasal voice that he used on “I’m Only Sleeping”. It’s both a thrilling record and an exhausting one. At the end of the song the listener can be excused for being puzzled, alienated, or confused. While accessible, the music was heavier than any other Beatles song except perhaps for “Papberback Writer”/”Rain”, the magnificent single that preceded Revolver by a couple of months. The vocal was John distorting himself and the lyrics were unrelievedly dark and mysterious. What makes it all the more alienating was that the song immediately follows the happy, jaunty “Yellow Submarine”, providing the first of the two greatest contrasting song segues in the Beatles’ career.

The greatest contrasting song segue in the Beatles’ career, maybe in the history of recorded music, is found on side two. “Got To Get You Into My Life” was a finger-snapping, toe-tapping, head-bobbing slice of happy music. The song that followed it…wasn’t.

When Bob Dylan toured England in 1966 he was visited in his hotel room by Paul McCartney. McCartney brought an acetate of a new Beatles song to play for Dylan. When it was over Dylan said, “I get it. You don’t want to be cute anymore.”

If there was a final nail in the coffin of the Mop Tops, and a first glimpse of what was to come, it was “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the concluding track on Revolver. Beginning with a harsh buzzing sound, the song takes every pop/rock song structure and abandons them. For the pop audience, this was something the likes of which had never been heard before. The only readily identifiable sound is Ringo’s drums, playing a repetitive pattern that never deviates, behind what sounds like seagulls flying overhead, harsh backwards guitar that rises and falls, menacing sound effects, calliope sounds, and swells of distorted keyboards and horns. Most of these sounds were either backwards or sped up, frequently both. With the exception of that hypnotic drum beat and a brief snippet of piano during the fade, there is no standard music at all on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. And floating above it all is Lennon’s voice: “Turn off your mind/Relax and float downstream/It is not dying” he sings. “Lay down all thoughts/Surrender to the void.” Even Lennon’s voice switches at the 1:30 mark. Suddenly he sounds a million miles away, his voice just another sound effect. “Play the game existence to the end/Of the beginning…” Lennon had told their engineer that he wanted his voice to sound like a thousand chanting monks on a mountain top, but the sermon here is about the mind expanding effects of LSD. The vocal effect was produced by running John’s voice through a rotating speaker (called a Leslie).

The “music” was pieced together by Lennon and McCartney, after Paul had played John tapes of avant-garde music that he’d been experimenting with. The buzz is based on Indian music, with the entire song being in the key of C, with no chord changes. The “seagulls” were sped up laughter The lyrics were inspired by a Timothy Leary book about The Tibetan Book of The Dead, with some lines lifted almost verbatim from Leary’s book.

The days of “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” were officially over. “Tomorrow Never Knows” was an unsettling, trippy, avant garde music that, amazingly enough, still manages to be an accessible, likable song. Other musicians, most notably Frank Zappa, were working in this territory at the same time, and the Beatles themselves would revisit this style with “Revolution 9” on the White Album, but “Tomorrow Never Knows” manages to pull off the staggering trick of being both non-musical and rock music at the same time. Zappa’s sound collages were just that: there was very little that was musical about them. The Beatles had proven that even the most far out sounds can work not merely in a pop song, but as a pop song. In one burst of creative genius and throughout one album, they’d proved that the old rules no longer applied. The entire musical world was listening and wondering where the Beatles could possibly go from here.

Is this the greatest album of the rock era? There’s really no objective way of saying that. But any good collection of music from the second half of the 20th century is not complete without Revolver. It is one of the crucial building blocks on which the music of the past fifty years is based. Absolutely essential listening.

Grade: A+

Johnny Winter, RIP

Early in my senior year in college, I was approached by the school newspaper’s academic adviser. He told me that every year there was a prestigious dinner party that included all the high-ranking college officials, the Board of Trustees of the school, and the heads of the “important” student groups (newspaper, yearbook, radio station, and student government). Since I was the editor of the college newspaper, I was expected to attend. He made it clear to me that this was an excellent opportunity to schmooze with all the important players in the Administration and that my attendance at this function was, while not mandatory, highly encouraged. This dinner was important. These were not people you wanted to blow off.

I blew it off, sending my temporarily on-again girlfriend in my place (she was in student government in some long-forgotten capacity). The same night, Johnny Winter was playing a show in a small club called Manhattans, only twenty minutes from my house, and I wasn’t about to miss that.

I’d seen Winter in concert once before, playing on a bill with Mountain’s Leslie West and Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee. It was a co-headlining tour with Lee and Winter switching off as the main attraction. Over thirty years later I can still picture Winter on the stage of the old Palladium in New York City. Rumors (even in 1983) were that Winter was nearly completely blind and that he barely moved on stage. What I saw was the opposite. While his vision may have been largely gone as a result of his albinism, Winter twirled around the stage like a whirling dervish, gracefully wrapping himself up in his guitar cord and then unwrapping himself by twirling in the opposite direction. He never missed a note, and he played a lot of notes. It was a stunning performance.

I saw him one more time, opening for The Gregg Allman Band at Pier 84 in New York, one of the greatest concert venues ever. Once again he put on a show of dazzling virtuosity on the guitar.

Johnny Winter had a rocky career. He started brilliantly and achieved massive success, but became addicted to heroin and lost his way in the early 1970s. Winter was the first high-profile rocker to announce his addiction and then disappear to kick the habit. He came back two years later with the excellent Still Alive and Well album after first testing the waters by appearing on stage with his brother Edgar. (This appearance was captured on Edgar Winter’s album Roadwork, introduced by the famous line “A lot of people ask me, ‘Hey, where’s your brother?'” to a thunderous ovation.) Winter’s albums for the next ten years were largely uninspired. He had a lot of pressure on him from his management and record label to focus less on blues and more on rock, a fit that was never quite right. His best rock albums (and they are great) were his earliest: 1969’s extraordinary Second Winter, 1970’s Johnny Winter And (his best pure rock album), and 1973’s Still Alive and Well. But blues was where Johnny Winter felt most comfortable. He single-handedly revived the career of Muddy Waters in the mid-70s when he produced Muddy’s excellent comeback album Hard Again, and managed to sneak out one solid blues album (Nothin’ But The Blues) in the midst of his career as a rocker.

It wasn’t until the mid-80s when his fame was largely forgotten, that Winter found a home on Chicago’s blues record label, Alligator. No longer beholden to men in suits who wanted him to play more commercial rock, Winter embraced the blues again. He formed a tight band and recorded three incendiary albums, Guitar Slinger, Serious Business, and, especially, Third Degree. Since then his output has been spotty. Poor health, failing eyesight, management problems, and a methadone addiction (the byproduct of his attempt to quit heroin in the early 1970s; he traded one addiction for another) all contributed to a series of albums that were lackluster at best.

Winter never again achieved the fame he had in the late 1960s and early 1970s when young music fans were besotted with guitar virtuosos. How famous was he? Two of the biggest and most famous live albums of all time, The Allman Brothers At Fillmore East and Frampton Comes Alive were recorded when the bands in question were opening for Johnny Winter. He didn’t need to scale those heights again. He spent the end of his career as he spent his formative years, playing blues for a smaller, but still devoted, fan base. Despite his poor health, he never lost a step on the guitar. His lightning fast runs and nearly out of control slide playing were every bit as potent when he was playing Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festival as they were when he was playing the Fillmore East or Woodstock.

Rock music has lost a great player today, but the blues has lost a legend. RIP.

The Listening Post: March-June 2014

Music to fade out the long, cold winter, slide through spring, and crash into summer.

  • Morning PhaseBeck. The most instantly noticeable thing about the latest offering from Beck is the sound. It is crystalline in its clarity, with a precise separation among instruments; each individual note can be heard clearly, as if the band was playing in your living room through the world’s greatest sound system. In other words, it sounds almost exactly like Beck’s 2002 masterwork Sea Change. In fact, the similarity in the sound is so striking a casual listener could easily believe that both albums were recorded at the same time, in the same studio, by the same producer. But Morning Phase is Beck’s album, even if the production borrows very heavily from Sea Change producer Nigel Godrich’s sonic palette. Beck has described this album as his “1970s California-sound, singer-songwriter” album, but it’s definitely not that. There are barely any trace elements of Jackson Browne, the Eagles, James Taylor, or any of the other artists associated with that state and that decade. There is a hint of Byrds in the vocals, especially in the the layered voices of songs like “Heart Is A Drum”, and the prominent acoustic guitar that provides the musical accompaniment for the songs was the weapon of choice for the sensitive songwriters. But this is Beck, so there are all sorts of odd elements thrown into the mix. Synthesizers swish in like wind, chimes ring, understated piano fills gaps. It’s a very laid back album, perfect for early Sunday mornings, but it also takes a few listens to get into. At first listen, the songs blend together in a sleepy, indistinguishable mélange. The deeper the listener goes, the more treasures the album reveals. Beck’s vocals are stunning throughout, and the instrumentation is lush and layered. Morning Phase contains nothing as strikingly brilliant as Sea Change‘s best moments, but it is never less than a warm and beautiful listening experience.
    Grade: B+
  • Flip Yer WigHüsker Dü. The first album that proved Hüsker Dü was more than just noisy thrash punk rockers was the sweeping double album rock opera Zen Arcade, but it was the two albums that followed that really set the band apart. The second of these albums, Flip Yer Wig, is a loud, in-your-face, distorted punk album that further explores the territory the band was staking out on Zen Arcade and New Day Rising. That territory was pure pop music. Long before Nirvana became famous for doing the same thing, Bob Mould and Grant Hart were writing songs that combined chainsaw guitars and wall of noise production with Beatles melodies, and the effect is thrilling. Hüsker Dü had put aside the sheer noise of their earliest recordings and had fully embraced the idea that punk rock could be bracing and loud but also tuneful. At first listen, Flip Yer Wig can be very disorienting and alienating, but if given the chance the melodies start to rise from the distortion. Despite the ferocity of its attack, Flip Yer Wig is one of the catchiest albums of the 1980s. The band would go even further in this direction on subsequent albums, though they never lost that punk edge. At this stage there are still a few songs here that serve as reminders of the band’s origins in the hardcore punk scene. “The Wit and the Wisdom” is an instrumental noisefest that’s a throwback to the Zen Arcade-era, and the less said about the mercifully brief “The Baby Song” the better. But those flaws are no match for the pop music perfection of “Makes No Sense At All”, “Games”, “Green Eyes”, and “Flexible Flyer”, or the pummeling “Hate Paper Doll”, “Every Everything”, and “Divide and Conquer”. There’s even the quasi-psychedelic closer “Don’t Know Yet” to strengthen the band’s ties to 1960s pop music. Hüsker Dü was never music for the faint of heart: this is loud and very aggressive music. But they were blessed by having two superior songwriters in Bob Mould and Grant Hart, who were on the same page and who shared the same love of pop. At a time when it was frowned on in punk circles, Hüsker Dü proved that punk could be as melodic as pop without sacrificing one ounce of edge. In doing so, they were one of the bands that made the world safe for the alternative rock explosion of the early-90s.
    Grade: A
  • You Were RightBrendan Benson. Jack White has talked about how in the Detroit rock scene of the late 1990s, a scene that included the White Stripes, all of the songwriters on the scene wanted to be Brendan Benson. With good reason. Jack White has gone on to prove himself the (far) superior talent, but Benson’s innate tunefulness and songwriting savvy are so well-honed that he’s nearly incapable of writing a truly awful song. You Were Right, his latest album, is another collection of the power pop gems that Benson seems to have in unending supply. The biggest criticism of Benson (similar to Paul McCartney) is that the lesser songs in his canon are the ones where it seems like he rushed or failed to put on the finishing touches. His worst songs have half-baked lyrics or lackluster melodies, both problems that could be fixed if he put in a little more effort. There are a few of these songs on each of his solo albums, but they’re easily overwhelmed by the good stuff. You Were Right is not as strong as his previous album, What Kind Of World, but it’s still a success. The biggest problem with this album is that many of the performances seem uninspired. All of Benson’s hallmarks are on display here: catchy choruses, dark and funny lyrics, harmonies, melodies, strong vocals. But the production seems somehow thin, as if the album was a collection of professionally recorded demos. Benson’s power pop was always more closely aligned with the early Who singles or Badfinger’s harder rocking moments, but on this album he sounds more like bands like the Shoes or Pezband. That’s not a bad thing at all; these are solid, catchy tunes. What’s missing is the fire that drove the best of his earlier work. Some of You Were Right is truly great, especially the first three songs (“It’s Your Choice”, “Rejuvenate Me”, and “As Of Tonight”) and all of it is an easy and pleasurable listening experience. But Benson is suffering from the curse of high expectations. His fans expect a home run almost every time, so it can’t help but be a bit of a disappointment when he only hits a double.
    Grade: B
  • Dig Out Your SoulOasis. The final album by Britain’s most tuneful yobs is a return to form, yet retains striking differences from the Oasis of Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? fame. What’s mostly gone are the giant, stadium-sized hooks that made the earlier albums the best that Britpop had to offer. There’s no “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Champagne Supernova” here. This has the curious effect of making Dig Out Your Soul sound more like a lost album by The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. Of course, TSOOL was a great band in their own right, so that doesn’t mean the album’s bad. In fact, the first half of it is extraordinarily good. The first five songs are probably the best sustained chunk of music Oasis released after their stunning odds-and-sods compilation The Masterplan. “Bag It Up”, “The Turning”, and especially “Waiting For The Rapture” and “The Shock Of The Lightning” are all excellent songs, and “I’m Outta Time” is nearly that good. It’s the second half of the album that disappoints. None of it is bad, but the second half simply doesn’t equal the first. There are some fine moments here: “Ain’t Got Nothing” rises to the peak of the first songs, and “Falling Down” and “To Be Where There’s Life” are also very good. But “(Get Off Your) High Horse, Lady” is mediocre, and the two songs that end the album do so on a low note: “The Nature of Reality” and “Soldier On” are listless and uninspired. It’s a shame that the Gallagher brothers weren’t able to sustain the quality of those first songs. Had they done so, Dig Out Your Soul would sit nicely alongside Definitely Maybe.
    Grade: B+
  • Fables of the Reconstruction: The Athens DemosR.E.M. In 1985, R.E.M. issued a direct challenge to their fans. After two brilliant albums of muted music and indecipherable, elliptical lyrics, the mighty Murmur and Reckoning, their third album sounded like it came from another band. This other band shared some of R.E.M.’s tendencies (mumbled vocals, inscrutable lyrics) but Fables Of The Reconstruction was a collection of often bizarre folk tales, layered with odd sounds and effects. At the time some were calling it R.E.M.’s “psychedelic” album, though that’s not anywhere close to the mark. That’s what makes this disc so interesting. Packaged as part of the 25th anniversary release of Fables, The Athens Demos collects rough versions of the songs from Fables, plus demos of B-sides and songs that turned up on later albums. What’s surprising here is that so many of the songs that appeared on Fables already have the stranger elements in place: the weird sonic textures that sounded like they were dreamed up in the studio with producer Joe Boyd are mostly present and accounted for in these rough studio recordings. In some cases the lyrics are not complete, or are slightly different, but most of the music is right there in the early stages. Yet the remarkable thing here is that the songs sound like the band that recorded Reckoning playing the songs from Fables. The feel and overall sound of the demos is far closer to the earliest R.E.M. material. Joe Boyd kept the weirdness of the songs, but applied a lot of polish to the recordings. Fables sounded clean, but the demos sound more like Murmur than the finished product. None of the recordings here are as good as those on the final album: lyrics are flubbed or not there, and the quality of the recordings themselves is rushed and sloppy. But The Athens Demos gives insight to the growth and songwriting process of the best band of the 1980s. This is most evident on “Throw Those Trolls Away”, a genuinely terrible song with really bad lyrics that one year later would emerge, significantly altered, as the ferocious “I Believe” on Lifes Rich Pageant. The Athens Demos are not essential listening, and won’t make anyone forget the spectacular Fables, but for those fans who are interested in the process of writing and recording, or who always wanted to hear what Fables might have sounded like if Mitch Easter had been kept as their producer, it’s worth a few spins.
    Grade: B
  • Sunday At Devil DirtIsobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan. The co-founder of Belle & Sebastian, the lovely Isobel Campbell is a dark, dark lady. To look at her is to see a stunning blonde beauty, but to hear her music is to dive deeply into a modern folk blues. For a series of albums she’s turned over the main vocal duties to former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan. His voice, gruff and soaked in whiskey and cigarettes, provides the perfect vehicle for Campbell’s tales. It would be easy to mistake these albums for Lanegan’s solo work. Lightly picked acoustic guitars, throbbing bass, strings, and barely there drums provide the majority of the musical accompaniment, but it is the vocals that carry the album. Lanegan’s voice is deep and resonant, the sound of a man haunted by his past even as he tries desperately to escape it. Campbell is the ghost that haunts him. She sings like a memory feels. Her voice is ethereal, whispering, seeming to come from nowhere but the farthest reaches of the listener’s mind. She’s not so much partnering with Lanegan here as she is providing a balance: she is his opposite vocally, even if both draw their lyrical inspiration from the same dark places. She is the sole writer of these songs, but takes the lead vocal only on one song (the terrifying “Shotgun Blues”). But it’s not fair to say that she is merely a backing singer or a harmony vocal. She may not be as prominent as Lanegan, but it’s Campbell that drives the album. Sunday At Devil Dirt is a fine collection of modern folk ballads, complete with tales of wandering, loneliness, infidelity, murder, and death. Campbell even goes to the source of all dark literature by rewriting Edgar Allan Poe on “The Raven”. This is about as far away from “commercial” music as you can get; it won’t be playing on the radio any time soon. The songs here tap into something much older, and much more satisfying. It can be a challenging listen, and isn’t the sort of thing you put on at the family barbecue. This is music for the night, when the ghosts come out.
    Grade: A
  • The Golden Age Of GlitterSweet Apple. The indie/alternative rock “supergroup” Sweet Apple is to 1970s arena rock as the Rutles are to the Beatles: both a loving tribute and a band that can stand on their own material, however derivative it may be. Their second album plows the same field as the first, though the accent here is more on power pop; there’s nothing as gargantuan as the first album’s “Blindfold” or “Do You Remember?”, but all of the elements are still firmly in place. Heavy guitars? Check. Catchy choruses? Got ’em. The obligatory acoustic number to show your sensitive side? Right there at track 4. Arena-shaking vocals? Of course. “Wish You Could Stay”, featuring a cameo from Mark Lanegan, starts the album on a very high note. It may be the best song the band has ever done, a near perfect combination of heavy guitar and pop sensibilities. Of course this means the rest of the album falls short of that intro. The band wears their influences on their sleeves, but the influence is one of sound. They don’t sound like Zeppelin or the Who or Queen or Grand Funk Railroad. They sound like all of them at the same time. The one exception, oddly enough, is “We Are Ruins” which practically channels the Brian Jonestown Massacre. As side projects go, Sweet Apple is a good one. The band is clearly having a lot of fun playing in the style of the music they grew up listening to and, while The Golden Age of Glitter may fall a bit short of their first album Love & Desperation, it’s still a nice reminder of just how good the 1970s could be when it came to rock and roll excess. There are no Golden Gods in Sweet Apple, but there are clearly four guys who spent their childhoods kneeling at that altar.
    Grade: B
  • Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete SessionsR.E.M. Way back in 1984, R.E.M. appeared on an MTV show called The Cutting Edge, which focused on underground bands. They were interviewed and performed a few songs acoustically. In 1991, R.E.M. was one of the most popular bands in the world, riding very high with the success of “Losing My Religion” and, unfortunately, “Shiny Happy People”. They once again took their acoustic instruments to MTV, this time appearing on the show Unplugged. In 2001, R.E.M. was past their peak and had assumed the role of elder statesmen, but once again took to Unplugged. Now that they are no longer a working band, they have released a complete compilation of both of these later performances, and the album serves as a reminder of just how potent R.E.M. could be. The 1991 performance with the original band is better. The band is loose, the songs are powerful, and there’s a very intimate feel to it. Not everything works (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” falls flat when stripped down) but some things work unexpectedly well (“Radio Song”). The rest is a trip through then-recent R.E.M. history. The accent is on the newer material; with the exception of a shimmering “Perfect Circle”, a cover of the Troggs hit “Love Is All Around” and the obscure B-side “Fretless”, all of the songs came from their four most recent albums. This is the band in the middle of their glory years, and they knew it. In the 2001 performance, drummer Bill Berry is gone and the new material is not as strong. Still, there are six songs from their then-current album Reveal, plus another three from the previous album, Up, and all nine of those performances prove what I’ve long suspected: R.E.M. was writing very good songs, and losing their way during the recording process. The songs from Reveal and Up benefit greatly from these performances. The album versions sound sterile and cold, but in these performances it’s possible to hear the same band that had appeared on Unplugged ten years earlier. But the heart of the 2001 set is the classic R.E.M. in the middle: “Losing My Religion” (the only song to appear in both performances), “The One I Love”, “South Central Rain”, “Country Feedback” (which works beautifully), “Cuyahoga”, and the indescribably gorgeous “Find The River”. These songs simply outshine everything that surrounds them, but the important thing is that the newer songs sound like they fit in, even if they’re not quite as good. This is not true of the album versions. Oddly, the most organic song on Up, “At My Most Beautiful”, lies limply and sucks the air out of the room, but the heavily electronic “Sad Professor” shines in the stripped down format. R.E.M. lost a lot when Bill Berry left, but Unplugged reveals that the songs they were writing in the wake of his departure were still of an exceptionally high caliber, and deserving of better treatment than what they got in the recording studio.
    Grade: A+ (1991 show)
    Grade: B+ (2001 show)

The Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue

The Rolling Stones Emotional Rescue

In 1978, Some Girls proved that the Rolling Stones were still a major creative force and a rock and roll band to be reckoned with. In the age of punk, the Stones had proven themselves as fierce as any of the young upstarts who were dismissing them as dinosaurs. By ramping up the guitars, speeding up the tempos, and still being open to the current music scene, the Stones had planted a flag for all the remaining bands of the 1960s.

In 1980, they dug up the flag and buried it under a landfill.

Emotional Rescue is not the worst officially released Rolling Stones album, but it’s certainly near the bottom of the barrel. At least Their Satanic Majesties’ Request was an interesting failure and contained two classic Stones songs. By comparison, Emotional Rescue is a tired slog through the music scene of the day, populated by songs that were recorded but deemed not good enough for the previous album and a handful of new tracks. But even in 1980, the songs here sounded out of date. Disco was still king in 1980, but it was being absorbed by New Wave and post-punk and starting to manifest itself in some interesting ways. Some Girls showed that the Stones were paying close attention to disco and punk; Emotional Rescue indicates that they’d stopped listening to anything new in 1978. It is not the sound of a vital band; it is the sound of old war horses trying to emulate the sounds that the kids are listening to these days.

The opening track, “Dance, Pt. 1”, is as imaginative as its title. It’s a disco/funk track that is better than “Hot Stuff” but nowhere near as good as “Miss You”. It’s actually a pretty good groove, and Mick Jagger is convincing even as the rest of the band is coasting. “Get up/get out/Into something new” Jagger snarls. The nights he was spending at Studio 54 are clearly his muse here, but the lyrics are mostly nonsensical; he seems to have put almost no effort into writing them.

The Stones follow this with a rocker, opening the album with a disco/rock salvo that mirrors Some Girls. But “Summer Romance” is no “When The Whip Comes Down”. While “Romance” is one of the few genuine winners on the album, it’s also an archetypal post-Exile on Main Street rock track. It pales in comparison to the vastly superior rockers on Some Girls, but it’s a good album track here, and probably would have fit on Goats Head Soup or It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Summer Romance” does, at least, have an excellent guitar solo, and Charlie Watts swings like a demon. There’s also an excellent bass line from Bill Wyman. In fact, Wyman is the unsung star of the album. For years his bass had been largely buried in the mix, but as the Stones paid homage to dance music, the rhythm section rose in importance and Wyman’s bass once again came forward. This album is actually a potent reminder of what a great bass player Bill Wyman was, and a sad reminder that the bass that was so prominent in the 1960s had become muted in the 1970s.

“Send It To Me” served notice that the Stones were checking off boxes on this album. “Dance” was the disco track, “Romance” the rocker, and “Send It To Me” is the obligatory reggae filler. It’s a lazy shuffle that Charlie Watts sounds half asleep on. The entire band plays it as if they simply don’t care. Jagger tries to put some life into it, but his delivery is once again undercut by half-baked lyrics about a mail-order bride. The Stones were never particularly convincing when it came to reggae, and this is readily apparent here. There’s no inspiration at all, just lazy playing.

The band returns to rock with “Let Me Go”, but the song simply sits there. Keith Richards and Ron Wood chug along nicely on guitar, but the song sounds like it’s going somewhere only when Jagger and Richards start harmonizing on the bridge. That moment passes in the blink of an eye and it’s back to the chug. There’s a decent guitar solo and once again Wyman plays like an old pro, but Watts now sounds like he’s completely asleep. The drums aren’t bad, especially in the breakdown about two and half minutes into the song, when Watts wakes up and reminds the world that he’s Charlie Watts and he doesn’t play bad drum parts, but nothing could save the song from its mediocrity. In the context of the album, “Let Me Go” sounds better than it actually is because it’s at the very least a rock number, and it’s the Stones playing the music they were born to play. It’s all the more disappointing because the song segues into “Indian Girl”, a too-long acoustic ballad that features some nice, tinkling piano parts and some genuinely lovely pedal steel from Ron Wood. But despite some interesting Mexican mariachi-style horns that add a nice touch “Indian Girl” is boring. The acoustic guitar is so laid back it might as well not even be there. Jagger talk-sings over the fade as the song disappears into nothingness. It’s too bad because on an album where the lyrics can best be described as weak, “Indian Girl” is a political rumination about the indigenous population of Central American countries at a time when that section of the world was being torn apart by conflict. It’s a serious subject and a heartfelt lyric, married to a tune that never happens.

The second side of the album kicks off with another rocker. “Where The Boys Go” was picked up by rock radio at the time because it was one of the few songs on the album where the Stones rocked unapologetically. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good song. There’s a fine guitar solo, but Jagger sings much of the song in a faux-Cockney accent that is, at best, distracting and, at worst, silly. There are also prominent female backing singers that add nothing but stridency to an already half-assed vocal. Yes, it rocks. Yes, Charlie Watts is now fully awake and pounding. But “Where The Boys Go” is tuneless and pointless. Like “Let Me Go” it sounds better in context but this is the weaker song.

The Stones had cut their teeth on blues music. Jagger famously said, in his first newspaper quote, “I hope they don’t think we’re a rock and roll outfit”. But while the blues always underpinned the Stones, the traditional form had largely been eschewed by the band. “Down In The Hole” was the first traditional 12-bar blues the Stones had done in many years. There’s a great harmonica and for the first time on this album the band sounds like they’re fully invested in the music. It’s not a great blues song by any stretch, but it was good enough that the Stones should have taken a cue from it and started doing more straight blues numbers. It’s a style the Stones always excelled at, and “Down In The Hole” provides a highlight on an album drowning in indifferent writing and playing.

The Stones were smart enough to put only one real disco song on Some Girls, and “Miss You” had a bridge that came out of the rock world. While you could dance to “Beast Of Burden” it was disguised enough to pass for a rock ballad on first listen. But the title track for this album is the single purest expression of Jagger’s love of disco that the Stones ever did. It bears almost no trace of rock. There are good things here: as required by the Gods of Disco, the rhythm section is spot-on (Wyman’s bass is outstanding) and the song is an earworm, making it somewhat listenable even when you’re not on the dance floor. There’s also a great saxophone in the fadeout. But there’s plenty of bad here, too. Jagger sings the entire song in a tortured falsetto, and does a proto-rap that is nothing short of excruciating; Richards and Wood are almost invisible; there’s no warmth at all and nary a trace of emotion in the performance. “Emotional Rescue” is a time piece. It’s forever locked into 1980 and it must be admitted that it evokes a time and a place for those of us who were around at that time. As was true of most disco, however, the songs that worked when you were dancing do nothing when you’re sitting at home or driving in your car. That goes double for this song because its style was based on heavily electronic Euro-disco, and not the more organic American dance music. “Emotional Rescue” was shocking enough as a Stones song that many fans started reaching for the torches and pitchforks, but it’s not as terrible as it seemed when it first was released. It’s also not good.

As if sensing that “Emotional Rescue” was a bridge too far, the Stones followed it with the one legit Stones classic on the album. “She’s So Cold” is the only track on this album that could have fit on Some Girls…probably because it was written and first recorded for that earlier album. Wyman again provides the support; his is the car the band rides in. Jagger’s vocal delivery is excellent and the lyrics contain the trademark misogyny and humor that marked so many of the band’s best songs. As they are throughout the album, the guitars are fairly muted but they are at least solid and Richards and Wood blend seamlessly.

Unfortunately, the Stones couldn’t sustain this level even for one more song. “All About You” has some wonderful harmonies on the chorus, but this is the first of many of Keith’s sleepy, album-closing ballads. Keith hasn’t written and sung a great ballad with the Stones since “You Got The Silver” on Let It Bleed, and “All About You” is never more than pleasant and boring.

Taken as a whole, Emotional Rescue is saved from being the Stones worst album by the fact that it sounds like the Stones at least had songs that they were performing (as opposed to the riff-based jams of Black And Blue). But there’s no question that the album is occasionally painful to listen to, and only once truly engages the listener. Satanic Majesties was a druggy experiment that went awry; Black and Blue was an audition turned into a contractual obligation album. Emotional Rescue was a different animal completely. Emotional Rescue was the Stones doing what the Stones are supposed to do…and failing.

Grade: D+

All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In, by Mark Lewisohn

All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In, by Mark Lewisohn

For most Americans the story of the Beatles begins fifty years ago today when a plane carrying the four longhairs from Liverpool landed at John F. Kennedy Airport, and kicks into gear two nights later when the band played on The Ed Sullivan Show to what was then the largest television audience of all time.

Of course, that is not where the story begins. The Beatles didn’t spring forth fully formed, like Athena popping out of Zeus’s head. In one incarnation or another they’d been playing and singing for almost six years by the time Sullivan introduced them. These six years are probably the least known but, in many ways, the most fascinating and important period in the band’s history. Now author Mark Lewisohn has finally released the first volume of his projected trilogy about the band, and the work more than lives up to the expectations.

Lewisohn has long been known to Beatles fans as the world’s leading expert on the subject, the author of the essential The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions that details almost every minute the band spent in the studio. He’s as close to an “official” expert the band has; with their permission he was given access to every note they’ve recorded (including all the unreleased stuff), he’s written liner notes and books, and he wrote the biographical prefaces to The Beatles Anthology (the officially sanctioned story of the band, in their own words). With Tune In, he’s outdone himself.

This is not simply a biography of The Beatles. This is the Moby Dick of rock and roll biographies. It is so richly detailed, so deep, and so complex, that it’s like seeing the Beatles for the first time in high-definition Technicolor after years of viewing them in grainy black and white. Lewisohn leaves no stone unturned here. True, it’s not really that important for even obsessive fans (guilty!) to know how much George Harrison paid for an amplifier in 1962, but those nitpicky details are deftly woven into a narrative arc that emphasizes the story over the minutiae. It’s a story told with cheek and humor, completely appropriate for the subject, and is bathed in loving detail. Lewisohn is clearly a huge fan, but he’s not worshipping at the altar here. Paul McCartney could be petty, narcissistic, and jealous. John Lennon was often cruel and cutting. Pete Best, it is clear, was a lousy drummer who couldn’t keep time if the lives of millions were at stake. None of the Beatles practiced monogamy, though both Lennon and McCartney demanded their girlfriends be subservient in almost all ways.

The early years of the band contain stories that all hardcore Beatle fans know:

  • When John was five he was forced to tearfully choose between his mother and father;
  • the head of Decca records refused to sign the Beatles, telling their manager Brian Epstein “Guitar groups are on the way out”;
  • George Martin heard the Beatles demo and liked it enough to bring them in, agreeing to sign them when he met them and was impressed by their humor and spirit;
  • when Pete Best was fired it was because the Beatles were jealous that their “mean, moody, and magnificent” drummer got all the girls;
  • bassist Stuart Sutcliffe died a sudden, shocking death;
  • after he was sacked, Pete Best told his best friend, Beatles roadie Neil Aspinall, to continue working for the band because “they’re going places”;
  • the Beatles never tried marijuana until they met Bob Dylan;
  • Lennon and McCartney spent the early years feverishly writing songs together.

The stories are so well-known, why do we need another Beatles biography? Well for starters, this is the first biography that states with complete authority that not a single one of these stories is true. Lewisohn has talked extensively not just with the people closest to the band, but their neighbors, schoolmates, employers, and everyone else with whom they had contact. His command of the facts and of the story is so overwhelming that the reader is left in awe of both his basic knowledge and the years of research he put into the book. When the facts are unclear, Lewisohn acknowledges it. When he cannot speak authoritatively, he presents all known sides of the story. Still, the number of myths he dispels is astounding.

Lewisohn wisely avoids foreshadowing for the most part. There are a handful of references to what will come later, but Tune In is set in the time it covers. This gives the book a sense of immediacy that too many biographies lack. The story builds gradually, sprawling over 800 pages (not including the end notes!), and covers only the time period ending on January 1, 1963. At book’s end, the Beatles are still over a year away from landing at Kennedy Airport. At book’s end, the airport was still called Idlewild because Kennedy himself was nearly a year away from Oswald’s bullets. Ed Sullivan, Shea Stadium, Sgt. Pepper, the Maharishi, Apple Records…these are stories for future books. Tune In ends with “Love Me Do”.

But this is the story of The Beatles. It’s all there. The guys that charmed the hardened and cynical New York press and won over the hearts of America are present and accounted for. The irreverence, humor, and restless creativity that later made Revolver are here in their early stages. Too many Beatles books think the story begins where this book ends; the early years are dismissed as a time when an amateurish act went to Hamburg and learned how to be a good band.

Essentially, that summary is true. The Beatles were a band with limited skills and a small repertoire who went to Hamburg, Germany to be the house band at the Indra Club, the sleaziest bar in town, before making their way up the musical ladder to the Kaiserkeller, the second sleaziest bar in town. Hamburg was such a high pressure situation that it turned the rough coal of the band into a brilliant diamond. It was in Hamburg that their repertoire expanded enormously because they refused to repeat any songs on the same night, and they had to play for four and half hours a night, six hours on the weekend. They learned songs on the fly, essentially rehearsing in front of crowds of drunken and often violent locals and sailors. In Hamburg they learned to put on a show, pressured by the Indra’s manager who would bellow “Mach schau! Mach schau!” (“make a show”). The show they put on, had it been seen in 1977, would have been called “punk rock”. Stomping, jumping, screaming, joking with and at the audience…the young band developed a visceral, exciting act to go with the music. They went to Hamburg as Liverpool’s also-rans. Nobody thought of them as being anything special. The best band in Liverpool was widely acknowledged as Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, featuring drummer Ringo Starr. When they came back from Hamburg, they were the best, tightest, band in Liverpool, probably the best band in England, and possibly the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. As such, they became stars in their hometown, attracting a rabid, fanatical following.

They would return to Hamburg four more times, the last two times being brief contractual obligations around the time of “Love Me Do”. Each time they appeared in a higher class of low-class bars. By the time they came back from Hamburg for the third time, they had played the equivalent of almost four and a half hours every night for eight months. That’s just Hamburg, and doesn’t include their countless sets in Liverpool’s Cavern Club. When you consider that type of pace, sustainable only by the young (and full of amphetamines), it’s nearly impossible to imagine a band becoming more tempered. Even when Stuart Sutcliffe quit the band in order to stay with the woman he loved, they carried on as if nothing had happened by forcing McCartney to (reluctantly) play bass. But Lewisohn also takes great pains to point out how unusual the Beatles were. It wasn’t simply that they were the best band in Liverpool, something that almost everyone in the city acknowledged in 1961. They were different. At a time when nearly every band in England was modeled after Cliff Richard and the Shadows (a singer and backing group), the Beatles all sang (even Pete Best would sing once or twice a night), and they sang harmonies, something no other band in Liverpool was doing. They were very funny, bringing their boundless love of The Goons and John’s Lewis Carroll-esque wordplay into their act. They were more than a rock ‘n’ roll band; they were the first rock group, comprised of inseparable friends (and Pete Best on drums). Lennon was clearly the leader at this time, but McCartney and Harrison were near equals. There was no star; they were all stars.

The entire history of the early years of the Beatles is laid out here and, despite the millions of words previously written about the band, there are a wealth of revelations. John, Paul, and George played as a trio named Japage 3? Brian Epstein was not their first manager? George Martin was forced into producing the Beatles as punishment for having an affair with his secretary? A recording contract was offered only because EMI wanted the publishing rights to “Like Dreamers Do”? Beatles roadie and right-hand-man Neil Aspinall, a teenager himself, was having an affair with Pete Best’s mother…and is the father of Best’s half-brother? Aside from a few very early attempts when they were still known as The Quarrymen, John and Paul didn’t start writing in earnest until after they got a recording contract? Brian Epstein became the manager of so many Liverpool acts not because he liked them, but because it enabled him to hold a near monopoly on the Liverpool music scene (and thus promote the Beatles even more heavily)? The Beatles introduced the fledgling Detroit music scene to England, by being the first band to do a Motown song on the BBC?

This is the complete story of the early years. Many myths are destroyed; many are confirmed. The true story is better than the myth. The drugs and drink are here; the rampaging, insatiable sexual appetites of young men away from home and living in squalor on Hamburg’s naughtiest street are here; the German art crowd of “Exis” is here, teaching the young band through their example that there are no rules to art; Brian Epstein’s tawdry, dangerous taste for rough trade sex is here; the violent streets of post-war Liverpool are here; most of all, the music is here. Large sections are devoted to who the young band was listening to, who they liked, and who they didn’t like. Barrels of ink are spilled detailing their love for Elvis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and Carl Perkins among many others. It brings them alive in a way that is not just “the Beatles as pop music icons” but, rather, young men in love with rock ‘n’ roll. They were music obsessives, scouring the record shop at NEMS (managed by the young Brian Epstein), for the latest and greatest singles from America. They were The Beatles as the world knows them and loves them, at a time before anyone outside of Liverpool and Hamburg had heard of them.

The book is not without flaws, but most of them are frustrating and not serious. Lewisohn often describes interesting photographs, but doesn’t include them with the photos in the book. Sometimes the level of detail is all too much. There are several dog whistles to Beatles fanatics (even including some Rutles references) that would sail over the heads of non-fanatics. The next volume is not due out for another five years, and the finale five years after that…and that is the most frustrating thing of all. Regardless of these picayune flaws, All These Years, Volume 1: Tune In is the definitive biography of the savage young Beatles, and Mark Lewisohn is their Boswell. It is difficult to imagine anyone else even bothering to tell the story after this. Any future books about the band will more likely be narrowly focused to an event, an album, or even a song. There is simply no further need for another biography. Tune In sits along Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis Presley at the pinnacle of books about rock and roll music.

In The Basement Bars: Grant-Lee Phillips, The Turning Point, And Looking For What’s Real In An Age Of Artifice

With a few notable exceptions, I gave up on going to concerts at the Enormodome back in the early 1990s. Sitting directly in front of the stage at a tiny local venue called The Turning Point, blues legend Buddy Guy handed me his glass of brandy and asked me if I could hold it while he tuned up. Suddenly the idea of sitting in Row Y Bother at Giants Stadium, watching a concert on gigantic televisions, no longer really appealed to me.

That memory came back to me the other night when I was talking with singer/songwriter/troubadour Grant-Lee Phillips after a stellar, loose set at that very same Turning Point. He took the stage looking a little discombobulated after not enough sleep the night before and immediately started joking with audience before launching into four straight unreleased songs, all of which were excellent. From there the rest of the show was a mix of songs spanning his days as the leader of alt-rock cult legends Grant Lee Buffalo through his latest, lovely, acoustic album Walking In The Green Corn. Throughout the night he joked with the crowd, invited a truly embarrassed waitress onto the stage to sing “Happy Birthday” to her, took requests, and played one extraordinarily good song after another with passion and humor. After the show he greeted everyone personally, sold a bunch of CDs, launched into an impromptu Tom Jones impersonation, shook hands, and thanked everyone for their support and for coming that night.

I don’t know whether he was disappointed with the size of the crowd, or the venue. The Turning Point is a very small place in the basement of a restaurant, and it was only two-thirds full. Phillips has trod some of the biggest stages in the world, when Grant-Lee Buffalo was opening for R.E.M. and the Smashing Pumpkins during the heyday of the alternative rock explosion. But though the crowd was small, it was warmly appreciative. They were all clearly fans, which Phillips noted from the stage after hearing the breadth of requests being shouted, thanking the crowd for being there with him throughout his career.

I often wonder why an artist such as Phillips, who has received raves from critics and his fellow artists, who has released one strong album after another, is playing The Turning Point while Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are playing to tens of thousands of people per night and having their faces and music splashed all over television and Entertainment Tonight. I don’t know whether Phillips cares about any of that. He certainly shouldn’t. He’s played the giant stages. He’s collaborated with legendary rockers like Michael Stipe and Robyn Hitchcock, among many others. He’s been voted “Male Vocalist of the Year” by the critics at Rolling Stone magazine. He has no reason (except maybe financial) to worry about how many people he’s playing to now. He’s been there, done that, and probably owns the T-shirt. He should feel very secure in the art he’s been creating for over 20 years; it’s extraordinarily (and consistently) good. He’s never released a bad album, and for me Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon ranks near the top of the best of the 1990s alternative rock scene. Though I’ve quibbled with the running order and hushed tones of some of his solo albums, I’d be hard pressed to think of a bad song he’s released.

You need to go back to the Beatles to find a time when the best artists were also the most successful in terms of sales, concerts, and radio. Since then, while there have certainly been many great and successful artists, much of the most interesting music has bubbled under the surface. It’s being played in the basement bars like The Turning Point and on the few remaining independent radio stations. The underground has always been there. It’s where you find Arthur Lee hobnobbing with the Velvet Underground, where the MC5 and New York Dolls engage with Richard Thompson and The Minutemen, and where Big Star and The Replacements blend seamlessly. It’s where real people are making real music for real reasons. It’s where a man with the songs, a guitar, and a voice can move the souls of an audience through the sheer power of music in ways that even great artists are incapable of doing when the audience is too large and too remote. That’s the message of Grant-Lee Phillips’s performance at The Turning Point. It’s a venue that holds, at most, about a hundred people, but legends have stood on that tiny wooden stage. Some of these legends had achieved enormous levels of fame and, presumably, money. The Kinks’ Dave Davies gave one of the best shows I’ve ever seen there. Blues masters like Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Mick Taylor, and John Mayall have played there. Richard Thompson, Lonnie Mack, Leslie West, Robbie Krieger, Roger McGuinn, Levon Helm, Eric Burdon, Rick Danko, Dr. John, Ronnie Spector and many others have played there. It’s also been the home base for local bands like Joe D’Urso and Stone Caravan and Finn and The Sharks.

Whether it’s former superstars whose days of playing Madison Square Garden or Woodstock are behind them, or artists who have never and, likely, will never achieve those levels of stardom, it is in basement bars like The Turning Point where you can still find the real thing at a time when the culture is preoccupied with what cuts of beef Lady Gaga is wearing tonight or what deity Kanye West is comparing himself to.

In some ways, it’s too bad that a songwriter and singer the caliber of Grant-Lee Phillips doesn’t reach huge audiences. His music is excellent, his lyrics are as good or better than far more popular wordsmiths (Bruce Springsteen comes to mind), he’s a very good guitarist, and he’s got the voice of a wicked angel. He should be reaching a mass audience. If my opinion means anything to anybody out there, go now, do not stop, and buy Mighty Joe Moon. It will open doors, and you will hear what Mumford and Sons, Of Mountains and Men, and The Lumineers wish they sounded like. From the righteous fury of “Lone Star Song” through the plaintive beauty of “Rock Of Ages” you’ll hear the lineage of The Band and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music put through an alt-rock ringer. And when it has sunk in, go buy everything else. You won’t be disappointed.

It isn’t fame, fortune, or induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that matter. It’s not about how many paparazzi are chasing you down the street. What matters is the music and how it connects to your heart, how it moves your soul, how it lifts you up. It’s getting harder to find the good and the true in this age of artifice, when we’re bombarded with the cult of celebrity, as if fame is the equivalent of accomplishment. But it is there. It’s in the basement bars of America like the Turning Point, and Grant-Lee Phillips is a shining example of a talent that burns brightly even when few are around to hear it. Long may he play.

The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #1. Christmas Must Be Tonight

Sure the entire list is subjective and, of all the artists who appear here The Band would be my favorite, but my personal prejudices don’t distract from the fact that this is a stunning song. The song was buried halfway into the pretty lousy Band swansong Islands, a contractual obligation album thrown together after The Last Waltz, but it’s got all of the hallmarks of The Band at their best. Garth Hudson’s swirling keyboard underpins a rootsy modern folk song about the birth of Christ written from the perspective of an awe-struck shepherd abiding his flock by night. Rick Danko, with help from Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, brings a high level of pathos and yearning to the vocals. “Fear not, come rejoice/It’s the end of the beginning/praise the new born King” sings Danko in his vulnerable high tenor, and it’s clear that Robbie Robertson has written not merely a great Christmas rock song, but a great Christmas carol. This is the last great song by The Band, and one of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever recorded.

The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #2. Jesus Christ

By the time the album Third/Sister Lovers came out, Big Star was a band in name only. This was Alex Chilton’s baby, and the album is a swirling, difficult listen. There’s great beauty on it, and also real darkness. But buried on the album was this little slice of pop music perfection; a strangely discordant intro, a chorus that sinks its hooks deep into you, a saxophone fade out, and a lyric that straightforwardly tells the story of the Nativity. “Angels from the realms of glory/Stars shone bright above/Royal David’s city/Was bathed in light of love/Jesus Christ was born today” Chilton sings in one of the most sincere vocals ever recorded. “The wrong shall fail/And the right prevail.” It’s entirely possible that this was written for former Big Star guitarist/songwriter Chris Bell, a Born Again Christian, explaining the final line “We’re gonna get born”, but regardless of the inspiration the marriage of beautiful pop music and a completely non-ironic telling of the story of Christ’s birth puts this song on the list.

The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #3. Christmastime

Another entry from the Very Special Christmas series, this one is by alternative rock superstars Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan and company perfectly evokes the wonder of Christmas morning by looking at it from the perspective of parents watching their children and thinking back to their own childhoods. “Now the word is given/It’s time to peek inside/It’s time to let the toys out/So anxious for your look of joy and delight.” It’s almost impossible to believe that a lyric this tender and charming came from the same guy who wrote “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “Zero”, and the suicidal ruminations of “Today” but there was always so much more to Corgan than darkness and anger. He rarely gets the credit he deserves as a great songwriter but this song, which deserves to be a Christmas standard, should prove that there was a lot more to alternative rock than rage and angst.

The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #4. 2000 Miles

A lot of people wrote off The Pretenders after half the band died at the peak of their popularity, victims of their own addictions. But to everyone’s surprise they came back with a third album that was as good or better than their best work. It was also their last truly great album. It’s a standard rock album, circa 1983, but the final track was a gorgeous ballad called “2000 Miles”, a song written for the late ace guitarist James Honeyman-Scott. The lyric is steeped in loneliness, but it’s the fact that the sadness occurs at Christmastime that gets this song on the list. “I miss you/I can hear people singing/It must be Christmas time,” sings Chrissie Hynde. Though written for a deceased friend, it can be easily understood by anyone who is alone or separated from someone they love as the holidays arrive.

The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #5. Run, Rudolph, Run

One of the most awful Christmas traditions is the novelty song. Songs like “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”, the Chipmunks, or that atrocious version of “Jingle Bells” as performed by barking dogs are a blight on the Holidays and an insult to the Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes. But Chuck Berry’s jokey ode to Santa’s foul-weather friend Rudolph works. Yes it’s a novelty song, as was the original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (both songs were written by Johnny Marks), but even though the lyrics are filled with humor it’s not a joke. Also, Chuck Berry gave Marks’s tune one of his standard guitar riffs, blending a bit of “Johnny B. Goode” with the melody of “Little Queenie”, which means that it is as rock and roll as any song released in the past 60 years. There’s also a terrific version by Keith Richards, which he released as a one-off single in 1978. So this one’s a two-fer. The Chuck Berry version fits in beautifully with the best of Berry, and the Richards version ramps everything up and produces an absolutely glorious mess.

The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #6. Thanks For Christmas

Released under the pseudonym “The Three Wise Men”, this was actually XTC at their Beatle-y best. The band had put aside their herky-jerky New Wave beginnings and their misguided attempts at funk and started concentrating on the lessons they’d learned from their forefathers in the 1960s. Aside from some brilliant conventional work, they also produced this perfect little pop gem that revels in all things Christmas.

The Listening Post: December 2013

Hard, soft, and pop perfection.

  • Lightning BoltPearl Jam. Picking up where Backspacer left off, the tenth studio album from Seattle’s last survivors finds the band lacking energy. The album starts very strongly, delivering several high-octane rockers and one classic Pearl Jam ballad (“Sirens”), but somewhere around the 30-minute mark the songs suddenly start drifting. It’s almost as if the band was replaced with Pearl Jam soundalikes beginning with “Let The Records Play”, a stale rewrite of Vitalogy‘s furious “Spin The Black Circle”. There’s also a full-band version of one of Eddie Vedder’s solo ukulele songs, “Sleeping By Myself”, before the album closes with two somnolent ballads (“Yellow Moon” and “”Future Days”). What’s particularly noticeable about these tracks is how lethargic Vedder sounds. His vocal on “Yellow Moon” sounds like he’s just woken up. It’s surprising coming from one of rock greatest vocalists, but for much of the album Vedder simply sounds like he can’t be bothered. In contrast, Lightning Bolt features some of Mike McCready’s best guitar playing, especially on “Sirens” and the punky “Mind Your Manners”. McCready is an extraordinary guitar player who doesn’t get the credit he deserves; he’s capable of both shredding like the best heavy metal players and playing stunningly lyrical runs of great power and subtlety. Apparently Pearl Jam had begun recording the album and then stopped for a year while drummer Matt Cameron rejoined Soundgarden. This may be the reason the second half of the album sounds like it was recorded just to get it over. In 2006, Pearl Jam released what may be their best album, the intense, cathartic Pearl Jam, and followed it with Backspacer where the band sounded (for the first time) like they were just having some fun. Lightning Bolt, despite the strong first half, sounds like a band that’s running on fumes.
    Grade: B-
  • Walking In The Green CornGrant-Lee Phillips. It’s getting harder to identify Grant-Lee Phillips as the guitarist/vocalist with the alternative rock cult band Grant Lee Buffalo. His old band played a beautiful mix of tender, acoustic ballads, modern folk, and bone-crushing rock. As a live act they could blow the roof off the venue. Grant-Lee Phillips was the undisputed leader of the band; he wrote the songs, played the guitar, and sang everything with a voice that alternated between a blazing bellow, a note-perfect tenor croon, and a sweeping falsetto. His guitar of choice, a 12-string acoustic, was run through enough distortion pedals to create a powerful electric sound the equal of any of their more popular alt-rock brethren. The band was loved and respected by their peers, and played huge stages with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. But Phillips’s solo career has been decidedly different. The Sturm und drang is gone, the distortion pedals locked away. What’s left is the quiet, tender stuff. That’s fine by itself, because Phillips writes and sings so beautifully. Walking In The Green Corn, a meditation on his Native American heritage, is full of lovely ballads. The instrumentation is very spare, and Phillips sings in a “don’t-wake-the-kids” voice throughout. It gives the album a quiet, dreamlike sound. It also makes the songs blend together. The album is a coherent whole, but the songs don’t stand out individually. Conversely, all ten of the songs are stunning but listening to all ten songs in a row is a bit boring. This was the problem that plagued Phillips’s last album Little Moon, which featured six straight ballads on side two. It makes the album difficult to review because the songs are so good, but the cumulative effect of them is a drowsy haze. As such, Walking In The Green Corn is a nearly perfect Autumn album to be playing in the background while enjoying the falling leaves and the first fires on cool nights, but it’s not something you’d play at a party or when you want an active listening experience. It’s a soundtrack, and a good one. But it’s not built for sitting by the stereo and listening.
    Grade: B
  • Nothing Can Hurt Me: Original SoundtrackBig Star. They’re probably the greatest lost band of rock history, an act whose legend far outstrips their actual accomplishments. But even as legends, Big Star remains largely unknown. They sold very few albums. The original, best, lineup released only one LP. Their third, and final, album is a notoriously difficult listen swinging between the pop perfection of songs like “Thank You Friends” and the stark, harrowing “Holocaust”. Now comes Nothing Can Hurt Me, the soundtrack to a new documentary about Big Star, featuring demos, alternate mixes, and random ephemera. The audience for this release is the same audience for all Big Star releases: a tiny, obsessive group of fans that hangs on every note. The beauty of the soundtrack is that it hangs together like a real album, making it a great place for a new fan to start. With the exceptions of “Thank You Friends” and “Back Of A Car” all the major Big Star classics are here and sounding cleaner, crisper, and better than ever. In some cases, like “In The Street” (known to some in a bastardized form as the theme song to That ’70s Show), the difference in the mix is remarkable. The vocals are clearer and the music practically explodes out of the speakers. In most cases, the difference is more subtle. What it all means is that this release is not really necessary. The essential Big Star albums remain #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers, and they remain crucial listening experiences for anyone who wonders what the Beatles might have sounded like if they’d continued into the 1970s. But while it’s not necessary, there’s also no denying that this soundtrack is a festival of delights. For the die-hard fan the different mixes are great fun (and the new mix of Chris Bell’s solo song “I Am The Cosmos” is considerably better than the muddy mix on the original CD release of Bell’s album); for the new fan who wouldn’t know the difference this is still an album that has one perfect pop song after another. Based on the music alone, this soundtrack delivers in spades.
    Grade: A