The Listening Post: May 2012

A remarkably good month for listening.

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

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

The Listening Post: April 2012

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

Thanks, Levon

When I was about twelve years old I was in the living room of my parents’ house when I heard music coming from my sister’s bedroom upstairs. At the time my musical tastes ran the gamut from the Beatles to the Beatles. There were radio songs I liked, of course, and it’s possible that by this time I’d discovered my brother’s scratchy copy of Hot Rocks, the seminal greatest hits album by The Rolling Stones. But having no money of my own with which to buy records, and a general distaste for most of the newer songs that played on the radio (disco was starting to become big), my tastes were very limited.

Which is why I still remember how the music coming from my sister’s bedroom was like a punch to the solar plexus.

Virgil Caine is the name
And I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came
And tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65
We were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember oh so well

I was absolutely floored. Knocked. Out. Then when the chorus kicked in I ran up the stairs. I had to know what this song was, who was singing it, and I had to know right that minute. It was a song I’d heard before on the radio, but it was years past its time on the Top 40 station I listened to and my memory of the song was a distant one. Hearing it that day I instantly recognized it, and it touched a chord deep inside of me.

My sister showed me the album cover, which struck me as very strange. Five wet, scraggly men standing on a muddy road, and on the back cover a photo that looked like it had been taken in 1876, with a lyric from “The Dark Town Strutter’s Ball.” And was that really the name of the group? The Band? Really? On the inside of the gatefold, more photographs that looked so out of time.

My sister dutifully played some of the songs for me, including “Rag Mama Rag” because I was taking piano lessons at the time and that song had fantastic piano playing in it. At the time, a lot of the album went over my head, but “Rag Mama Rag”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, and “Up On Cripple Creek” reached into my soul. They’re still there, though by now they’ve been joined by the rest of that extraordinary album, unquestionably one of the greatest of the rock era.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three songs that resonated so deeply with me were sung by Levon Helm. That raspy, gravelly, yet powerful, voice added so much weight to the songs he sung. This was a man who sang with authenticity. Not pretty, his voice was real. It was the voice of the South, of cotton fields and scorching heat, of the ghosts of rebels long forgotten. Richard Manuel sang like an angel, and Rick Danko sang like a fallen angel, but Helm was the voice of the soil, never even trying to hide that Arkansas twang. So strong was his presence that it is sometimes forgotten that he was the sole American in a rock band that virtually invented Americana. A Canadian wrote the Civil War song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but he relied on the American in the band to bring the song to life, to invest in the words a dignity and pride in the enormous heritage of the Old South. It was a new voice for most rock listeners in 1969. It was not the yokel voices of the old-fashioned country singers, nor the voice of the slack-jawed redneck caricature in which so many non-Southerners believed. It was the voice of pride, not in slavery, but in sticking up for beliefs. It was the voice of defeat, and carried an unheard acknowledgment that defeat may have been necessary. It was stately and grand, overflowing with gravitas. It was the voice of Levon Helm, who gave the song a seriousness that neither Richard Manuel nor Rick Danko could approach. And the fact that this same voice could be turned to rip-roaring, rafter-swinging effect in joyful, bawdy, life-affirming songs like “Rag Mama Rag” and “Cripple Creek” only made Helm that much more valuable to both his band and rock music in general.

Recently I’ve been listening to Helm’s solo album Electric Dirt (review to follow in the April Listening Post). His voice on the 2009 album is not as strong as it once was, but considering that it was once believed he would never sing again after he was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late-90s, it is remarkable how good he sounds. The album itself is a fine one, full of the fire and vigor of a man half his age with none of his health problems. To see him do these songs in one of the Midnight Rambles he staged in his barn would have been amazing. I’ll always regret not going to one of the Rambles.

Levon Helm has died, joining his Band-mates and fellow singers Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. One of the greatest rock and roll singers of all time is silent now, but the music he left behind tells his tale.

Listen to it.

The Listening Post: March 2012

Spring comes early, bringing much in the way of change.

  • Born Under A Bad SignAlbert King. The first Stax LP by Albert King is really a compilation of his earlier singles. It’s also one of the great blues albums of all time. From the indisputable classics of “Born Under A Bad Sign” and “Crosscut Saw”, both perennials of bar bands everywhere, to lesser-known but equally compelling songs like “Personal Manager” and “As The Years Go Passing By” Born Under A Bad Sign is the sound of one of the great bluesmen at his peak. One listen and it’s immediately clear how much debt Eric Clapton owes to King. The debt is so deep that it would be easy to mistake almost any one of King’s tight, high wire leads for Clapton’s solos on the Disraeli Gears album. King is a deep, rich singer, and his stinging guitar work can be heard in almost all subsequent electric blues. When you combine this with the fact that his backing band on the album is Booker T & The MGs, one of the greatest, most sympathetic, bands in rock history, you’ve got a combination of blues and soul that can’t be beat. It is soul that is the secret ingredient here, replacing the grit and howls of traditional blues with a texture that makes these songs stand out in a crowd. Many of the songs here have been covered to death, but these are the versions that will last. Cream’s version of “Born Under A Bad Sign,” or Free’s version of “The Hunter” may be more well-known, but these are the timeless originals that will still be here long after the covers have faded.
    Grade: A+
  • Sloe GinJoe Bonamassa. Most blues performers are eager to flaunt their intimate knowledge of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. With good reason, I might add. Joe Bonamassa is something of an exception. He’s far more beholden to Cream, Free, and the British Blues Boom of the 1960s than he is to the founding fathers of blues. Bonamassa is a blues-rocker, the likes of which we really don’t see much anymore. As a performer, he’s considerably better than latecomers like the pedestrian Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the execrable Jonny Lang. However, he’s also not the 21st century’s Great White Hope for blues. Stevie Ray Vaughan, he’s not. What Bonamassa is, is a decent, if somewhat sterile, singer and virtuoso guitarist who is completely besotted with late-1960s blues rock. Sloe Gin suffers from the same malady that affects too many albums in the CD era—it’s too long. That problem can be solved by eliminating the eight plus minutes of the title track, a go-nowhere cover of a song once recorded by Tim Curry (!). Minus that particular time suck, Sloe Gin is a rock-ribbed exercise in simulated British blues, of a type not heard since the heyday of Rory Gallagher. In fact, if there’s a single guitarist whom Bonamassa most closely resembles, it’s Gallagher. Like the celebrated Irish guitarist, Bonamassa mixes his hard electric blues rock with acoustic guitar workouts. Perhaps somewhat ironically, it is these acoustic tracks the provide many of the highlights of this album. “Around The Bend” features magnificent finger-picking and a vocal that comes as close as anything he sings to true soulfulness. “Jelly Roll” is a fine, funky take of a song by John Martyn. “Richmond” is truly beautiful, mixing light acoustic picking with subtle accompaniment. “India” is an acoustic/electric raga that Michael Bloomfield would be proud of, and a track that owes some debt to Mountain’s “For My Friend” in its alternation of gentility and ferocity. It is these acoustic tracks that add flavor and texture to the album and that elevate it to a higher level. There are some great electric workouts, like “Ballpeen Hammer”, “Another Kind Of Love”, and the blistering “Black Night” and the balance of the album is smartly chosen songs played with lots of fire. Bonamassa may be lacking in some authenticity, but so were the majority of British bluesers that he calls his influences. But for those (like me) who complain that nobody’s making music like Cream, Blodwyn Pig, Led Zeppelin, or Free anymore…well, Joe Bonamassa is proof that such music still exists.
    Grade: B+
  • Other Worlds (EP)Screaming Trees. Even the best bands have to start somewhere. Screaming Trees started in 1985 with this 6-track EP, which is very much a product of the times. Far from the dark, swirly, guitar-heavy crush of their later albums, Other Worlds is nearly a tribute to Chronic Town-era R.E.M. It’s practically a parallel universe version of the début EP from Athens’s finest, right down to the herky-jerky rhythms that border on danceable, high vocals (good Lord, is that really Mark Lanegan singing?), and subtle lyrical psychedelicisms. Other Worlds doesn’t hold up as well as Chronic Town, mainly because R.E.M. emerged as a mature band with a distinct sound while Screaming Trees are still searching for their sound at this point. But “The Turning” (a different version of which would show up on their début LP, Clairvoyance, in 1986) and “Now Your Mind Is Next To Mine” (great title, that) are excellent examples of the early Trees sound, while “Like I Said”, “Pictures In My Mind”, and “Other Worlds” are very good. Only “Barriers” is lackluster. Screaming Trees did some great work later in their career, but this is the sound of a young band having fun and trying to figure out their path. Very good on the merits, but hardly essential listening.
    Grade: B
  • Live On Ten LegsPearl Jam. I have never seen Pearl Jam in concert, though I’ve seen all the films, videos, etc. They are an astoundingly good live band, maybe the best since the prime of The Who. As players, they are some of the best in rock music today. Matt Chamberlin is a ferociously good drummer, and Mike McCready doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition he deserves as a guitar player. Add in Jeff Ament’s bass, Boom Gaspar’s keyboards, and Stone Gossard’s rhythm guitar and you’re talking about a level of musicianship that most bands would kill for. And then there’s Eddie Vedder who brings a raw level of excitement and passion to his performances that remind you of Roger Daltrey. Vedder is not the stadium showman, à la Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, or Freddie Mercury. It’s abundantly clear that Vedder’s idol is Daltrey, whose powerhouse vocals and intense, contained sense of impending violence was like a bonfire on the Who’s stages. Live on Ten Legs is the band’s second live album, not counting the dozens (hundreds?) of “official” bootlegs they released as tour souvenirs in a successful effort to beat bootleggers at their own game. This album is not as feral as 1998’s Live On Two Legs, but it’s close. It gathers highlights from their 2003-2010 tours, and takes pains not to overlap any songs with the earlier album. What that means is that some of their live showstoppers like “Even Flow”, “Black”, and “Do The Evolution” are not here. But it also means that “Alive”, “State Of Love And Trust”, “Rearviewmirror”, “Jeremy”, and “Yellow Ledbetter” finally get an official live release. There are also two cover songs: Joe Strummer’s “Arms Aloft” works perfectly since there is a lot of similarity between Strummer’s music and Pearl Jam’s. Less successful is an attempt at “Public Image” featuring Vedder trying his best to mimic John Lydon’s snotty vocal delivery. It’s not a bad attempt, but it doesn’t really work. Pearl Jam and Public Image, Ltd. are very different bands. Similarly, a lengthy jam on “Porch” serves only to sap the power from the song. There are other flaws: the version of “Yellow Ledbetter” is surprisingly ramshackle, and “Jeremy” suffers from overexposure…even the band sounds like they don’t really want to hear it. On the other end of the spectrum, “World Wide Suicide”, “Love and Trust”, “Alive”, “Animal”, and “Unthought Known” are amazing, surpassing the studio versions in almost every instance. Mike McCready really shines on “Nothing As It Seems”. There is also a great version of “I Am Mine”, one of the most tuneful Pearl Jam songs ever recorded, and a song that deserved to be a huge hit single, but was released at a time when Pearl Jam’s star was receding. The album is a notch below Live on Two Legs, but it is conclusive proof that Pearl Jam is still one of the most incendiary live acts in the world.
    Grade: A
  • After The Flood: Live From The Grand Forks Prom June 28, 1998Soul Asylum. The Minneapolis band doesn’t get enough credit. They were so much more than “Runaway Train.” They had the good fortune of sticking around long enough to come through the door that Nirvana opened, unlike their real peers (and betters) The Replacements and Husker Du. Fortunately for Soul Asylum, their writing and playing peaked just at the time when alternative rock was becoming mainstream, and their hard-edged melodies were suddenly radio-friendly. Sure the awful video for “Runaway Train” was built for heavy consciousness raising rotation on MTV, but they actually found a few kids from that video, so all sins are forgiven. Besides, it was a truly great song until MTV beat it into your head every hour on the hour. In 1998, a huge flood hit Grand Forks, ND, destroying much of the town. As the waters receded, area high schools had a collective prom in an Air Force hangar that had been used as a refugee center. The prom band was Soul Asylum, which is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard since my brother’s high school class pooled their prom money and instead staged a concert by Edgar Winter’s White Trash. If you know the studio albums, there’s not much on here that you haven’t already heard in versions that are equally good or even better. Soul Asylum has always had a reputation of being a great live band, and it’s abundantly clear that they’re having a good time here. The songs are tight, loud, and bursting with exuberance. What elevates the album are the cover songs. The opener is a ferocious version of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and the set closes with the all-time great prom song “To Sir, With Love” and a fantastic version of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” In between they work in a stellar version of “The Tracks of My Tears,” and a poignant “I Can See Clearly Now”. One can only imagine what the teachers and parents thought of their kids’ prom band covering Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” inserting the F-word into “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and declaring that “suits are a pain in the ass.” But it’s Soul Asylum, and you can take the Minneapolis guttersnipes out of the gutter, but you can’t take the gutter out of the guttersnipes. This is a really solid album, with great cover songs, and well-played, well-chosen originals. The only misstep is not going further back in their repertoire, at least to some of the great tracks from their Hang Time album, but that strikes me as likely a record company decision.
    Grade: B+

The Listening Post: February 2012

  • De NovaThe Redwalls. The cover of De Nova tells you all you really need to know. The cover, featuring the band and a strange symbol is a sly homage to the classic second album by Traffic. The Redwalls are an unapologetic classic rock throwback band. In spirit they’re like The Grip Weeds, but while that band focuses their sound on a Byrds/Who mashup, the real touchstone for The Redwalls is the power pop bands of the early 1970s, especially Badfinger and The Raspberries. There’s nothing original here; the album sounds like a compilation of lost tracks from the great power pop bands. But that’s okay. While originality isn’t their claim to fame, who wouldn’t want to hear a great lost Badfinger album? Hooks and catchy choruses abound, the playing is uniformly excellent, and sometimes the songs are really great, especially the slower songs like “Thank You”, “Build A Bridge”, and “Hung Up On The Way I’m Feeling”. There are a few lesser compositions that play all the right notes but sound less than inspired (“Love Her”, “On My Way”, “Front Page”, and “How The Story Goes”) and the high-energy closing track, “Rock & Roll” is about as creative as its title. Still, listening to De Nova is like listening to a great rock radio station in 1974, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
    Grade: B
  • Rocket To RussiaThe Ramones. There have been attempts in the past to compile a “Best of” the brudders from Queens, but those attempts were destined to fail. The simple relentlessness of the Ramones would drive most listeners insane after 40 minutes. The Ramones are best appreciated in their early albums, especially the first four. Each of them clocks in at less than 33 minutes; there’s simply no time to get bored. Of these four, Rocket To Russia is the longest, featuring fourteen songs in a pummeling 32 minutes. It was also their first attempt at growing up…sort of: there was an actual ballad on the album, the excellent “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow”. At their heart, The Ramones were totally in thrall to the early days of rock and roll. On Russia they do a blistering, yet loving, cover of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” and The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”. But this is still a Ramones record, where cretins hop at Rockaway Beach, where Sheena’s a punk rocker, where teenagers are lobotomized by DDT, and where a happy family gulps down Thorazine. It’s all great, great fun. A half hour of prime Ramones is almost impossible to resist: they’re like the Archies, but sped up and full of steroids. Great, dumb, fun.
    Grade: A
  • After Bathing At Baxter’sJefferson Airplane. Take six talented musicians and singers, fill them with psychedelic drugs, pour them into a recording studio with an unlimited budget and time, no adult supervision, and what do you get? The third Jefferson Airplane album. First, the good: the band’s innate talents are enough to get them over the finish line for much of the first part of the album. “The Ballad Of You, Me, And Pooneil” has some bizarre lyrics but the song is about folk singer Fred Neil, who was a bizarre guy. Still, there’s a great vocal attack from Grace Slick and Marty Balin, and Jack Casady starts to step up on bass. “Young Girl Sunday Blues”, the great “Martha”, “Wild Thyme (H)”, and the frenetic “The Last Wall Of The Castle” are all very good. None of them, except “Martha”, compare favorably the songs on the previous album, the classic Surrealistic Pillow, but they’re still worthy additions to the Airplane canon. The rest of the album is far more problematic. “Rejoyce” is an okay piano tune that has what may well be the zenith of hippie solipsism in the line “I’d rather my country die for me.” “Watch Her Ride” and “Two Heads” are a little beefier musically, but are held down by uninspired playing and dated psychedelic lyrics. The combination of “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” starts promisingly with the “Won’t You Try” section but collapses into boredom once “Saturday Afternoon” rolls around. Worst of all are “A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You, Shortly”, a mercifully brief sound collage, and the atrocious jam “Spare Chaynge”, which is ten minutes of your life you will never get back. Those two songs make up almost 25% of the album, a mortal blow from which it can never recover. What hurts Baxter’s the most is the lack of songs from the Airplane’s best songwriter, Marty Balin, who co-wrote only “Martha”. Too much of the rest falls victim to Grace Slick and Paul Kantner at their most pretentious.
    Grade: C+
  • More Fun In The New WorldX. The fourth album by Los Angeles’s best punk cum rockabilly band, X, is a triumph on almost every level. The last album produced by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, More Fun In The New World is the album that X always wanted to make. The furious punk rock attack of their début album is still there in the form of barn burners like “Make The Music Go Bang”, “Devil Doll”, “Painting The Town Blue”, and “I See Red” but the album also features change-ups like the radio-friendly “The New World” and “True Love”, the pop catchiness of “Poor Girl”, the tone poem “I Will Not Think Bad Thoughts”, and even a cover of “Breathless” that falls short of Jerry Lee Lewis’s hit but still allows the band to indulge in their love of pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly. Oddest of all is the album closer, “True Love, Pt. 2” a white boy funk song that uses “True Love” as a starting point and that beats the Talking Heads at their own game. It gives the band a chance to pay tribute to some of their favorite songs, from “Be Bop A Lula” to “Land of 1000 Dances” to “Mother Popcorn” to “One Nation Under A Groove”. It also references songs as disparate as “Skip To M’Lou”, “I Been Working On The Railroad” and, surprisingly (and hilariously) Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”. It’s completely infectious and probably would have sounded great on the dance floors of 1983 America. Throughout these thirteen songs the band is as tight as Lana Turner’s sweaters, and the Slick/Balin-inspired vocal attack of John Doe and Exene Cervenka is relentless. Whether More Fun In The New World, or even X in general, should really be classified as punk is open for debate. What is settled is that when they were at their best, this was a great band with great albums. There’s not a bad track on this.
    Grade: A+

The Doors: A Lifetime Spent Listening To Five Mean Years, by Greil Marcus

In the Afterword to this slim book, Greil Marcus says that the book was a lot of fun to write. I’m sure it was, but it wasn’t a lot of fun to read.

The book is not an analysis of the music of the Doors, nor is it a biography, nor is it a review. It is a deeply personal examination of a select group of songs or, in some cases, performances.

Sometimes the examination doesn’t even cover the entire song. For example, the chapter on “Strange Days” is about the first seven seconds of the song. Marcus maintains that Ray Manzarek’s brief keyboard introduction holds everything the Doors were striving to do…and that the remaining minutes of the song are psychedelic drivel.

Other chapters are so cryptic they defy a description. From the chapter on “My Eyes Have Seen You”:

Another staircase: Tenochtitlan, to the top, in a sprint, then looking down as the fireworks begin.

That is the entire chapter: a mysterious reference to the Aztec capital and, I assume, the stairs leading to the top of the sacrificial altars. But maybe not. I don’t know. Whatever, the sentence provides no real glimpse into the song.

Then there are chapters that have almost nothing to do with the song. There is a lengthy chapter on “Twentieth Century Fox” that is little more than a reminiscence of Marcus’s time spent at a Pop Art exhibit in Paris.

It’s frequently confusing. Marcus writes in a prose that borders on hallucinatory. The opening chapter about “L.A. Woman” steps to the gates of surreal. And yet, Marcus often succeeds at capturing the spirit of the Doors through his prose. A dry examination of the Doors—focusing on what the keyboards were doing, or how John Densmore modified a salsa beat for a particular song, or how Jim Morrison’s voice was recorded—can be fascinating. Just watch the Classic Albums DVD of The Doors for a really interesting look at how the particulars of the music came together. But what Marcus appears to be shooting for here is to have his prose match the anarchic spirit of the band: this is written language that gets arrested onstage, that exposes itself, that flies so high on LSD you think it can never come down, that stops in the middle of what you’re reading and takes off in a new, different direction. This is not expository prose, this is the textual equivalent of a Doors concert.

Of course, Doors concerts were notoriously iffy affairs. When they were on target, the Doors were incredible. When Morrison wasn’t too drunk and/or high, the Doors made magic. But then there were the nights like in Miami, when Morrison was reduced to a drunken cartoon whipping out Mr. Mojo Fallin’ (or pretending to) and berating his audience as a bunch of slaves. Marcus unfortunately succeeds in approximating those nights, as well.

The chapter on “Twentieth Century Fox” is the longest in the book, and torture to get through. The chapter on “L.A. Woman” is little more than a book review of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice. He writes of the “cocktail jazz” version of “Queen Of The Highway” as if he were a Beat writer in a jazz club, imagining an alternate history where the Doors are the Ray Manzarek Quartet, waiting for the opportunity to play with Chet Baker. All very yada-yada-yada, and says nothing about the song. At least, nothing that someone who isn’t Greil Marcus can appreciate.

There are some excellent chapters, though, where the style of writing catches the reader and gives the same sort of head rush that great music can provide. “Take It As It Comes” gives weight to a great, largely forgotten, song. An examination of a performance of “The End” from the Singer Bowl in 1968 clearly shows the tension between band and audience, as the crowd was already trying to reduce the band to the single of “Light My Fire”. There is even a chapter (“The Doors In The So-Called Sixties”) that gives an appreciative view of Oliver Stone’s over-the-top movie, The Doors. My memory of that movie is not a good one—too many naked Indians, too much precious self-referential dialogue—but Marcus makes me want to see it again.

What comes through loud and clear, and what I find the strangest part of the book, is that Marcus doesn’t really seem to like the Doors. He’s clearly a fan of the first album, but little that follows it. He even writes of “the hundreds of times” he listened to the first album and “the few” times he played the others. He shows absolute contempt for Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade (whose opening track is ridiculed as “‘Tell All The People’—not to buy this album!”), and finds little good to say about even such classic albums as Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman. The subtitle of the book is “A Lifetime Listening To Five Mean Years” but it’s obvious that most of that lifetime was spent listening to one 11-song album. It makes one wonder why he even wrote the book. Clearly the Doors mean a lot to him, but for all of his rapid-fire non-sequiturs and kaleidoscopic prose, the reader is left wondering why he holds them so close to his life.

The Listening Post: November 2011–January 2012

Life interferes with blogging sometimes. Hence the lateness. But music still provides the soundtrack.

  • Feeling You UpTruly. Where on Earth did this album come from? Oh, Seattle. Truly was a very late-entry into the Seattle sweepstakes. While they formed in 1990 and released a couple of singles on Sub-Pop, their first album didn’t see light until 1995 after Cobain had killed himself and the pop-punk of Green Day was ruling the alternative airwaves. But Truly had a pedigree: the bass player was Hiro Yamamoto who was part of the original Soundgarden, and the drummer was Mark Pickerel, who played with Screaming Trees. And yet, the album sounds nothing like what you would expect. Far from the crushing weight of Soundgarden or the molten psychedelia of Screaming Trees, Feeling You Up is a densely textured dreamscape of an album. The songs slide and glide, swirling like a thick fog. There’s an almost Stone Roses-ish quality to some of this, minus the annoying pretensions to dance music. There’s no shortage of rock on the album, but the heavier moments are heavy in a 1960s way, not in a grunge/punk way. The production throughout is stellar, with every instrument and sound effect clearly jumping out of the speaker. Songs like “(Intro)/Public Access Girls”, “Wait ‘Til The Night”, “EM7”, “Come Hither”, and “Leatherette Tears” feature strong melodies backed by music that is both heavy and trippy. Only the title song, a boring instrumental, falls flat. Feeling You Up sounds like nothing else from 1997, and holds up beautifully all these years later.
    Grade: A
  • Up On The SunMeat Puppets. The third album from Arizona’s Meat Puppets is where they found the sound that would carry them through the rest of the decade. Meat Puppets was all LSD-addled hardcore dirge, and Meat Puppets II had great songs but paper-thin production. But Up On The Sun carries both tunes and excellent production. The elegantly wasted country-rock the band called its own is in full flower here. There are no songs on this album that are less than good, solid listens, and much of it either approaches or achieves greatness. Even the tossed-off songs, like “Maiden’s Milk” with its insane whistling melody, “Hot Pink”, and “Seal Whales”, are a reminder that bands simply can’t get away with stuff like this anymore. The indie labels of the 1980s, like SST for whom the Meat Puppets recorded, allowed bands much more leeway, and on albums like Up On The Sun it allowed those bands to create works that hung together as a cohesive whole. While “Maiden’s Milk” might draw confused reactions if it were to pop up on an iPod playlist, it fits perfectly after the opening track and before the excellent “Away.” There was a sound to these records, with even the weak parts providing texture. The strongest tracks (“Animal Kingdom”, “Swimming Ground”, “Buckethead”, “Too Real”, “Enchanted Forest”, and “Creator”) are among the finest tracks the Puppets ever recorded, equaling or surpassing the classic triptych of “Lake Of Fire”, “Plateau”, and “Oh Me” (not coincidentally the three songs Nirvana covered on Unplugged) from Meat Puppets II. Meat Puppets recorded better albums later. With a couple of exceptions this band got better as time went on, but this is the album where they first successfully blended country with punk and psychedelia. It’s the cornerstone that later albums like Mirage and Huevos built upon.
    Grade: B+
  • Safe As MilkCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band. An early exposure to Beefheart’s notoriously difficult Trout Mask Replica put me off the Captain for a long time. I’m still not sure I’m ready to swim with the Trout again, but Safe As Milk, the début album from the Magic Band, has gone a long way to convincing me to give Trout another chance. Safe As Milk is generally considered Beefheart’s most immediately accessible album but it’s still bizarre enough to draw puzzled glances from most listeners. Beefheart is a blues aficionado, and he mixes Howlin’ Wolf with early Frank Zappa and the avant-garde to craft a mutant strain of blues that is unlike anything else. Beefheart’s vocal range is simply astounding, and confounding. He sings like a real soul man on tracks like the fantastic “Yellow Brick Road” then growls like a feral beast on others like “Electricity” and “Plastic Factory”, his vocals sounding like Howlin’ Wolf with a sore throat. It’s difficult to believe both voices come from the same man. The surrealism of the lyrics (song titles give a clue: “Zig Zag Wanderer”, “Abba Zaba”, “Sure Nuff ‘N Yes I Do”) and the off-kilter, Zappa-inspired arrangements (the opening of “Autumn’s Child” could have been lifted directly from Freak Out) make this a challenging listen, but it is more than worth the effort. This is blues and pop music, dressed in psychedelic and avant-garde finery. On repeated listens, great melodies start to emerge and the band, led by a young guitar virtuoso named Ry Cooder, is more muscular and musical than Zappa’s Mothers. A classic.
    Grade: A+
  • NumbHammerbox. Released in the same year as Nirvana’s In Utero, Pearl Jam’s Vs., and Smashing Pumpkins’s Siamese Dream, Seattle rockers Hammerbox simply didn’t stand a chance. Which is too bad, because Numb is a good, rocking album with two tracks that belong on any anthology of the Northwest rock scene: the ferocious “Hole” and the grunge ballad “When 3 Is 2”. The rest of the album falls short of the standard set by those two songs, but none of it is bad and songs like “Hed”, “No”, “Outside”, “Trip”, and “Simple Passing” are very good. The musicianship is excellent throughout, and Carrie Akre’s a vocal powerhouse. The album’s a bit uneven, with several tracks mired in a sort of generic “grunge” sound, but when it’s good it’s very good.
    Grade: B
  • Dry As A BoneGreen River. Before Pearl Jam, there was Mother Love Bone. Before Mother Love Bone, and before Mudhoney, there was Green River, named after the notorious serial killer that haunted Washington and the Northwest. Green River was the boot camp for Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner and Mother Love Bone’s/Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. Formed today, this would constitute a grunge rock supergroup, but back in the mid-1980s it was just the first outlet for musicians who would later become famous. The fact is, the desire for Green River’s work to be a lost, neglected gem—like a rudimentary Temple Of The Dog—meets reality. There are some good moments on Dry As A Bone—”Searchin'” and a scorching version of Bowie’s “Queen Bitch”—but the album itself is flat. Green River lacks all the elements that make Mudhoney and Pearl Jam superior outfits: melody, lyrics, tunes. This is flailing sub-Sabbath riffing. As a historical document, it’s interesting in the same way that hearing a young Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker playing in The Graham Bond Organization is interesting. But these players would get a little older, refine their talents, and produce better work than this. Dry As A Bone does not sound like the work of a band. It sounds like musicians trying to find their way.
    Grade: C-
  • Some Girls (Deluxe Edition)The Rolling Stones. Please, oh please, let the next deluxe re-release be Beggars’ Banquet… Following last year’s deluxe reissue of Exile On Main Street, the Stones have now put out a 2-disc version of Some Girls. This is actually a better example of a deluxe edition than Exile. The second disc has no songs that otherwise appear on the album. This has the effect of making it a new, lost album from a period when the Stones were doing truly great work. While the bonus disc is not as strong as the original album, it is still an excellent batch of songs, ranging from the hilarious skewering of Claudine Longet, the French singer and wife of Andy Williams who beat the rap for murdering her boyfriend, Spider Sabich (“Claudine”), to the simple piano/vocal of “Petrol Blues”. Along the way there are country influences (“Do You Really Think I Care” and a cover of the Hank Williams song “You Win Again”), traditional blues (“Keep Up Blues”) and the reggae lilt of “Don’t Be A Stranger,” and even a raunchy, comic, update of “Stray Cat Blues” (“So Young”). The New York influence that permeated the original 1978 album is also there, with references to the city, the subways, and even the specificity of “the D train.” What is not here is the disco influence that gave the world “Miss You” but, considering the near-travesty of 1980’s Emotional Rescue album, perhaps that’s for the better. Keith sings the ballad “We Had It All” with great tenderness, and they romp through a cover of “Tallahassee Lassie.” The twelve extra tracks constitute a strong album that would have been a worthy successor to Some Girls and, while it’s easy to see why a track like “Claudine” was shelved (the subject was already dated by 1978, and the lyrics may well have touched off a libel lawsuit), it’s difficult to understand why these gems were left on the cutting room floor.
    Grade: A+ (original album)
    Grade: A- (bonus tracks)
  • Clear SpotCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band. “Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long lunar note and let it floooooooooooooat,” says Captain Beefheart as guitarist Rollo does just that, using a slide to ride a single note for all it’s worth in “Big-Eyed Beans From Venus”. It’s a pretty good summation of what you get with Beefheart: a bit of surrealism (what is a “lunar” note?), great musicianship, avant-garde lyrics. 1972’s Clear Spot is more mutant blues, and as accessible as 1967’s Safe As Milk. The arrangements are more straightforward, even as some of the lyrics become a little more outre (what is one to make of “Big-Eyed Beans From Venus”?). Clear Spot seems to me to be the best entry point for anyone interested in Beefheart’s career. The music blends blues with soul and rock, while Beefheart’s vocals once again range from the sublime (“Too Much Time”) to the ridiculous (the aforementioned “Big-Eyed Beans”). Along the way, there are a few missteps like “Circumstances” and the spoken word piece “Golden Birdies”. But those missteps are offset by tough blues rock tunes (“Crazy Little Thing”, “Long Necked Bottles”, “Nowadays A Woman’s Just Got To Hit A Man”) and songs that are just flat-out beautiful (“My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”). Beefheart’s voice is an acquired taste, like Howlin’ Wolf’s, but at the end of the day it is a simply extraordinary instrument. Clear Spot is not quite as good as Safe As Milk, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great album.
    Grade: A
  • Parallel LinesBlondie. Thanks to the disco crossover “Heart Of Glass” and the tough rockers “One Way Or Another” and “Hanging On The Telephone” there was no escaping Blondie’s Parallel Lines in 1978. The edited version of “Glass” (it cut the words “pain in the ass”) was all over AM radio, and “Another” and “Telephone” were all over FM. Blondie was so ubiquitous at this time that I never bothered to investigate the album, even though I liked the singles. In fact, those singles were so prevalent that even now, 34 years later, I can only hear them so many times before I reach for the “skip” button. Fortunately, there is much else to like about Parallel Lines. Blondie shared a love of early 60s pop music with some of the other NYC punk bands, but while the New York Dolls camped up their “girl group” tributes (“When I say I’m in love you best believe I’m in love L-U-V”) and the Ramones absorbed the hooks and melodies of bubblegum music and regurgitated them at 100 MPH, Blondie pays tribute to that era with unabashed sincerity (listen to their version of “Denise” from the Plastic Letters album). Which means that for all the hype of Blondie being a “punk” band from the hallowed halls of CBGB’s, Parallel Lines is a pretty straightforward pop album. Drummer Clem Burke adds power to the pop, and a song like “Fade Away And Radiate” is both musically challenging and lyrically interesting. But Debbie Harry’s sultry delivery ties almost every track back to groups like the Ronettes of the Shangri-Las. The singles from the album are the best songs here, matched by a few tracks but never surpassed, but overall this is a very good album.
    Grade: B+
  • More Songs About Buildings And FoodTalking Heads. The first album from Talking Heads, ’77, was brilliant. This album, their second, is as consistent as its predecessor, but only hits the same heights three times: the last two songs, a hit version of Al Green’s “Take Me To The River” and “The Big Country”, stand taller than the nine songs that lead up to them and “I’m Not In Love” features a herky-jerky rhythm and stop/start chorus that makes the song endlessly listenable. That doesn’t mean the rest is bad, only that those three songs are amazing. The other eight tracks are uniformly excellent, making this an album with no truly weak spots. If the album suffers at all it’s only because it sounds very similar to ’77, and the first album will always get the nod over the second when both albums are cut from the same cloth. Where the album succeeds in besting their début is in the musicianship and production. ’77 was largely David Byrne’s show, but here the Heads sound more like a band of equals.
    Grade: A
  • Black SessionGrant Lee Buffalo. One of my Top Concerts of All Time was the alternative rock also-rans Grant Lee Buffalo at Irving Plaza, in 1998 when they were touring behind their final album, Jubilee. Black Session is a bootleg recording from what appears to be French radio. The sound quality is excellent, despite the occasional between-song intrusion from a French DJ, whose only recognizable words (to me) are Grant-Lee Phillips, Paul Kimble, Joey Peters, and, strangely, Kurt Cobain. The show dates from the Fuzzy era, circa 1993, and goes through that album’s highlights: “The Shining Hour,” “Jupiter and Teardrop,” “Fuzzy,” “America Snoring,” “The Hook,” and “Soft Wolf Tread.” There’s also a solid run-through of the as-yet-unreleased “Demon Called Deception,” a quick take on the theme to the movie Deliverance, and an unreleased track called “Stockton”. With the exception of “Stockton,” a song that is wrapped in its own pretensions and has understandably never been officially released, the live recordings here breathe fire into the studio versions and, in most cases, surpass them. The drums snap harder, the bass throbs with more intensity, the guitar wildly swings between intricate 12-string picking and harsh distortion. Grant-Lee Phillips, one of the best singers of the day, howls throughout as if his life depended on it. It’s a stark reminder of what live rock music is supposed to sound like, and casts a large shadow over Phillips’s post-band career as a balladeering acoustic troubadour. “Stockton” is a bummer of a closing song, but the ferocious version of “Fuzzy” that precedes it is more than enough to forgive all sins.
    Grade: A

The Listening Post: October 2011

Finally, Autumn.

  • On FyreLyres. The 1984 début album from Lyres is a superior collection of organ-heavy retro garage rock. Band leader Jeff Connolly is completely enamored with 1960s Nuggets-style music, but comes off as a genuine practitioner of the craft and not a mere copycat. On Fyre features songs that qualify as genuine garage rock classics as surely as anything by the Music Machine, the Standells, or the Chocolate Watchband. “Help You Ann,” “Don’t Give It Up Now,” “She Pays The Rent,” “I Really Want You Right Now,” and “You’ve Been Wrong” are all original compositions that sound like they’ve time traveled from 1966. Covers of two Kinks songs—”Love Me Till The Sun Shines” and “Tired Of Waiting For You”—are faithful and fantastic. On “Love Me Till The Sun Shines” it’s downright spooky how much Connolly’s voice has the same tone and timbre as Dave Davies, who sang the original. The album stumbles a bit with “I’m Telling You Girl,” which mangles a Kinks-style riff and lacks anything resembling a tune. “Not Like The Other One” and “Someone Who’ll Treat You Right Now” are okay album tracks, but well below the high standards set by the rest of the album.
    Grade: A
  • Army Of AnyoneArmy Of Anyone. Call them “Audioserf.” It’s amazing what a difference one band member can make. Army of Anyone was the second attempt by Stone Temple Pilots to replace the notoriously unreliable Scott Weiland. The first, Talk Show, released a surprisingly good album that played up the poppier side of STP. Army Of Anyone, with Filter vocalist Richard Patrick replacing Weiland and Ray Luzier taking over for Eric Kretz behind the drums, accents the heavier side of STP. As the drummer, Luzier is excellent, superior to Kretz. But while Patrick has a great voice, he’s simply not Scott Weiland. The secret weapons of STP are Weiland’s melodies and the way his voice weaves into the music. Weiland’s voice complements the music, riding with it. Patrick seems determined to bludgeon the listener with bombast, even as he comes close to getting Weiland’s extraordinary sense of melody. There’s nothing wrong with the quality of his voice, but his style is overwrought. Almost every chorus sounds like he’s about to launch into Filter’s signature tune “Hey Man, Nice Shot.” There’s some great stuff on this album: “Father Figure” is the proto-metal sound they seem to be shooting for throughout, but it’s the only song where every piece locks together perfectly. “A Better Place,” “Non Stop” and “Disappear” are almost as good. “This Wasn’t Supposed To Happen” is strongly reminiscent of the softer side of Stone Temple Pilots, mainly because Patrick tones down the histrionics and concentrates on the melody. It’s no surprise that it’s the track where he sounds most like Weiland. The rest of the album falls below that level. None of it is bad, but there isn’t much remarkable about any of it either. It’s likely that this was a one-off collaboration, since the DeLeo brothers have reunited with Weiland and Kretz. In a way, that’s too bad. The album is good, but there is great potential here. It reminds me of the first STP album, Core, in that sense. Whether Army of Anyone would have followed this with something as majestic as STP’s Purple is anyone’s guess, but the talent was there.
    Grade: B-
  • Last Words: The Final RecordingsScreaming Trees. Seattle’s best unknown band has a reputation of being grunge also-rans, but they were so much more than that. The albums Sweet Oblivion and Dust are every bit as good as more famous albums from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains. The Trees broke up in the late 90s, a few years after their last and best album, Dust. Singer Mark Lanegan went on to concentrate on his solo career, and the rest of the band drifted into obscurity. Now comes Last Words, a collection of tracks the Trees had recorded for the followup album to Dust, but had never released. This is not a rarities collection, but really an unreleased album that’s been sitting in the can since 1999. Had it been released at that time it’s difficult to see how it would have been viewed as anything less than a letdown after Dust, but all these years later it comes as a nice reminder of how great a band they could be. What mars the album is that it sounds somehow unfinished. There’s a solid skeleton of great songs, and a lot of meat on the bones, but what’s lacking are finishing touches. Songs like “Crawlspace,” and “Tomorrow Changes” are good, but sound more like solo Lanegan than full-fledged Trees songs. Much of the rest sound like outtakes of songs from Dust. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because Dust was so great. “Revelator,” “Black Rose Way,” and “Anita Grey” sound the most finished and are the best tracks on the album. The rest of the album is very good, but lacks the power of earlier songs like “Nearly Lost You” or “Witness.” The result is an album that would have been truly great if they had just done a few more takes, maybe added a few more overdubs, or tweaked the writing a bit.
    Grade: B+
  • Pleased To Meet Me (Deluxe Edition)The Replacements. The best band that never happened hit their songwriting peak with 1987’s Pleased To Meet Me, an album that perfectly combined thrashy punk rock, power pop, and acoustic tenderness. The march of progress the Replacements were on reached its culmination here, with all due respect to the masterpieces that preceded it, Let It Be and Tim. The only flaw of Pleased To Meet Me was the production that put a shiny gloss on the record and smoothed out the drunken charm of the earlier albums. Tracks like the lovely acoustic ballad “Skyway” suffer the most from the production. Rather than sounding like a troubadour with an acoustic guitar, “Skyway” practically glistens and it detracts from the desired effect. The Replacements were many things but this was the first time they could be called “smooth.” Fortunately the eleven bonus songs on the Deluxe Edition are, with the exception of “Cool Water,” the sound of the scruffy ‘Mats near and dear to the hearts of fans. There are three songs in the bonus tracks that appear on the album: a studio demo of “Valentine,” what sounds like a run-through of “Alex Chilton” and an early pass at “Can’t Hardly Wait.” None of these come anywhere near the quality of the official releases, but all are fascinating. “Alex Chilton” and “Valentine” sound like outtakes from the rough, brilliant Let It Be. There are brutally ragged versions of “Route 66” and “Tossin’ ‘N’ Turnin'” that give a sense of the anarchic heart of the band, and the studio demos of “Birthday Gal,” “Bundle Up,” “Photo” and “Kick It In” are loose and fun, though it’s also clear that these songs are not as good as the ones that ended up on the finished album. None of the bonus tracks are really essential, though all are worthwhile, and the alternate versions of the album tracks give a tantalizing glimpse into how much greater this incredible album might have been with a little less shine and a little more ragged glory.
    Original album grade: A+
    Bonus tracks grade: B+

The Listening Post: August/September 2011

A little late with this one but sometimes life interferes with blogging.

  • Learning To CrawlThe Pretenders. When 50% of The Pretenders died shortly after the release of their second album—rock-solid bassist Pete Farndon and ace guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, both of drug overdoses—few people gave the band much chance of coming back from such a crippling blow. To pretty much everyone’s surprise, The Pretenders followed this loss with what many consider their best album. Kicking off with the fantastic “Middle Of The Road,” a song that sounds as fresh today as it did in 1983, Chrissie Hynde and über-drummer Martin Chambers lead their new compatriots bassist Tony Butler and guitarist Robbie McIntosh through a collection of tunes that rank in the top-tier of Hynde’s writing. “Back On The Chain Gang,” “Time The Avenger,” “Show Me,” and “My City Was Gone” all got tons of radio play, and deservedly so. They are all excellent. Add in a terrific Stones-y swing at country and western with “Thumbelina” and the hypnotic ode to the drudgery of everyday living, “Watching the Clothes,” and you’ve got an album that’s just shy of perfection. It falls somewhat short of that mark with the dull ballad “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” and the thudding “I Hurt You,” and sequencing both of those songs consecutively near the end of the album could have sunk the entire listening experience had it not been saved by the closing “2000 Miles,” a song that’s become a Christmastime staple on rock radio (but which sounds out of place in a non-winter setting).
    Grade: A-
  • The PretendersThe Pretenders. Arguing about the merits of the first Pretenders album is a lot like arguing the merits of the first Clash album. It’s kind of pointless. The début album from The Pretenders has highlights that are so high they make you easily overlook the lesser material that rounds out the set. “Precious,” “The Phone Call,” the brutal “Tattooed Love Boys,” “The Wait,” the Kinks cover “Stop Your Sobbing,” the beautiful “Kid,” “Brass In Pocket,” and the pounding “Mystery Achievement” are enough classic tracks to rate the album among the best that the late 1970s/early 1980s had to offer. At its best, this is a first album for the ages. But there are holes here, as well. “Space Invaders”, a repetitive instrumental set to match the then-popular video game, is pointless and dull. At nearly six and a half minutes, the droning “Private Life” is enough to send the worst insomniac to sleep. “Lovers Of Today” is a good ballad hindered by excessive length. But when “Space Invaders” is sandwiched between “Love Boys” and “The Wait,” “Private Life” between “Kid” and “Brass In Pocket,” and “Lovers Of Today” gives way to the closing brilliance of “Mystery Achievement”…well, who cares about a few bum tracks when the rest is so great?
    Grade: A-
  • The Natch’l BluesTaj Mahal. The second album from blues/rock/folk legend Taj Mahal is one of the strongest blues albums from any blues artist. Most blues musicians prior to the 1960s worked strictly in a singles format. LPs by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were usually just collections of previously released singles. Coming up in the post-Beatles era of the album, Taj painted on a canvas broader than a 45 RPM single could hold. Elements of folk music, rock, and even bluegrass all informed Taj’s blues. Even his name was a nod to something that existed outside of the dark nightclubs of Chicago or the juke joints of Mississippi. The music here is pure blues, and it’s fantastic from start to finish. While the instrumentation is strong throughout, the element that puts The Natch’l Blues over the top is the warm gruffness of Taj’s superb voice, recalling Otis Redding at his most soulful. That voice, combined with the eclectic instrumentation, gives songs like “Corinna,” “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Steal My Jelly Roll,” “She Caught The Katy and Left Me A Mule To Ride,” “The Cuckoo,” and the tornadic album closer “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love” a sound that has all the timeless hallmarks of blues combined with a distinctly modern edge.
    Grade: A+
  • As Safe As YesterdayHumble Pie. Anyone who’s heard the live album Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore knows that Humble Pie was a blues boogie band with a penchant for lengthy, mind-numbing jams. You’d be forgiven for taking a pass. But their 1969 début album, As Safe As Yesterday, is a very good album filled with great tunes and a lot of craft. Kicking off with an excellent version of Steppenwolf’s “Desperation” that highlights Steve Marriott’s English soul boy vocals and Peter Frampton’s tasteful lead guitar, and peaking with the title track’s organ-heavy rough-hewn psychedelia and the wonderful “I’ll Go Alone,” Yesterday provides the missing link between The Small Faces and The Black Crowes. There are songs on this album that could easily be put on any Black Crowes album, and most fans wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. There’s also some junk. “Alabama ’69” is the biggest offender, a country pastiche that’s an even bigger smear of an entire state than Neil Young’s “Alabama.” The fact that it ends with two minutes or so of faux raga music is baffling and indulgent. “A Nifty Little Number Like You” is a good song that stays well past it’s freshness date and has a brief drum solo built in. “Growing Closer” is another pseudo-country number, good but unremarkable. “Stick Shift” tries but never succeeds in getting out of first gear. The album is strongest—and very strong, indeed—when it sticks to the blues-based boogie: “Buttermilk Boy,” “Bang,” and “What You Will.”
    Grade: B+
  • Keep On MovingThe Butterfield Blues Band. For a brief period in the mid 1960s there wasn’t a better blues band in the world than Paul Butterfield’s outfit. Their first album was an in-your-face blast of pure Chicago blues, highlighted by the twin guitar attack of Elvin Bishop and Michael Bloomfield. Years before Eric Clapton hooked up with Duane Allman for Derek and the Dominos, Bishop and Bloomfield laid the groundwork for having two searing guitar players in one band. The second album, East-West, was even better, featuring the majestic instrumental title track that combined hard-core blues with Eastern raga rhythms for a song that was both thrilling and incredibly influential. By the time of Keep On Moving, the Sixties had taken their toll. Bishop and Bloomfield had moved on, and Butterfield had embraced some of the hippie-isms that ruled the day. Hence tracks like album opener “Love March,” custom-made for the Woodstock generation and light years from the urban grit of their first album. Keep On Moving is a decent record. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it, but it also lacks much of what made the Butterfield band so great. Except for a stinging solo on the terrific “Where Did My Baby Go?” there’s a noticeable absence of burning coals lead guitar. I understand that it’s almost impossible to replace Mike Bloomfield, but it seems like they didn’t even try. Here there’s more of an emphasis on horns. The horns sound great, but there’s still some magic missing. A great deal of the album is simply very ordinary: “Love March” is a cute piece of nostalgia for aging hippies, “No Amount Of Loving,” “Morning Sunshine,” “Losing Hand,” “Love Disease,” and the title track are nothing special. Only “Where Did My Baby Go?”, “Buddy’s Advice,” and “Walking By Myself” stand anywhere near the level of Butterfield’s best material. The true highlight of the album is Paul Butterfield’s soulful voice and amazing harmonica, both of which elevate even the most mundane tracks to a higher level, making Keep On Moving a rewarding, if uninspiring, listen.
    Grade: B-

The Listening Post: July 2011

Melting in the summer heat.

  • Eternally YoursThe Saints. When Australia’s The Saints first kicked down the door in the Year of Punk with “I’m Stranded” they immediately set a very high bar for themselves and any other punk acts to follow. Though they’ve been largely forgotten by punk fans, “I’m Stranded” remains one of the greatest punk rock songs ever recorded. The album from which that song came was a strong collection of buzzsaw riffs and gargled vocals, but it was the band’s second album, Eternally Yours, that best defines the band. As time and the 1980s progressed, the Saints became more of a classicist rock band, marrying guitar-based hard rock with swinging, soulful horn arrangements. At its best (1987’s All Fool’s Day), the results were spectacular. 1978’s Eternally Yours carries the seed of this later sound. The opening blast of horns on “Know Your Product” is so breathtakingly in-your-face that you could be forgiven for thinking that the horn arrangements carry over to the rest of the songs. Once heard, this opening salvo is not forgotten, and while the horns do crop up again (in more muted fashion) on “Orstralia” the rest of the album is a solid wall of high-energy guitars. What matters here is the songcraft. For all of it’s punk brilliance, “I’m Stranded” would have been one of the lesser songs on this album precisely because the songwriting itself is so much better. Horns or not, these songs swing in a way that the first album didn’t. As early as this sophomore effort, the Saints were starting to branch out, incorporating not just the horns but acoustic guitars. The effect is to make this a far more listenable album than their first, while it retains all of the punk attitude and whiplash tempos.
    Grade: A
  • DirtAlice In Chains. I’m not sure this was the right time to immerse myself in Alice in Chains. With the sun shining brightly and the pretty girls on the beach and in the streets walking past in their summer finest, the relentless gloom of Alice’s drug-stained world was a tough listen. No wonder I alwways associate the alt-rock explosion of the early 90s with wintertime. Still, there is some greatness here. The opening blast of “Them Bones” is one of the best album openings you will hear, while “Dam That River,” “Sickman,” “God Smack,” “Down In A Hole” and “Would?” are all essential recordings. Many Alice fans would also put “Rooster” in that category, but I find the song dull. “Angry Chair” and “Rain When I Die” are also excellent, meaty slabs of Jerry Cantrell’s heavy metal guitars and Layne Staley’s tortured voice. But there is also enough mediocrity here to drag the album down. “Junkhead,” “Dirt,” and “Hate To Feel” are okay, but nothing special while “Intro (Dream Sequence)” is a 45-second waste of time. It is possible that heard another time this album may have sounded better to me. I found while listening to it that oftentimes I simply wasn’t in the mood to hear these songs of despair, drug addiction, and death. But for now…
    Grade: B
  • Summer Of A Thousand YearsThe Grip Weeds. The gloom of Alice in Chains sent me running to the catchier, more summery harmonies and melodies of The Grip Weeds. However, this was not a particularly impressive effort. With a band as retro as the Grip Weeds it’s hard to criticize them too harshly because everything sounds good. Which means that more depends on the performance and on this album the Weeds simply don’t sound all that inspired. All of the elements are there: the Keith Moon-style drums, the Byrdsy harmonies, the Beatley guitars, a fabulously smart cover song (the Who rarity “Melancholia”), but what sounded explosive on The Sound Is In You sounds muted and by-the-book on Summer Of A Thousand Years. None of it is bad, but a lot of it simply sounds the same. It’s possible that had this been the first Grip Weeds album I heard I would feel differently, but it’s the third album of theirs that I’ve put into high rotation in the past year or so, and it’s all starting to sound the same. Sure it’s good, but what else do you have?
    Grade: B
  • Alone TogetherDave Mason. I haven’t listened to this album in probably more than 25 years. Back then I thought, “It’s good…but I’d rather listen to the second Traffic album.” This album is more than good. This is the last gasp of someone who was, briefly, a truly great songwriter and performer. Backed by a bunch of the raggle-taggle gypsys of Delaney and Bonnie’s band, Mason comes up with many of the best songs of his career. The opening “Only You Know And I Know” is the classic track, though it was never a hit for Mason, but the other songs are at least as deep and resonant. There’s a bit of a singer/songwriter vibe to much of this, but Mason turns in a much stronger set of songs than most of the mellow California crowd. “Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving” and “World In Changes” are gentle acoustic-based tracks that beats Stephen Stills at his own game, with the latter featuring a swirling keyboard solo when you least expect it. “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” rides an insistent wah-wah guitar back to Mason’s days with Traffic, the exquisite “Sad And Deep As You” is a piano ballad that is almost inexpressibly lovely, and the album closer “Look At You Look At Me” starts gently and builds before erupting into a shredding guitar solo that carries the song and album out. Alone Together is a forgotten gem of classic rock…excellent songwriting, strong performances.
    Grade: A

The Listening Post: June 2011

The sounds of summer begin.

  • Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968Stephen Stills. The title says it all. On 4/26/68, Stephen Stills crashed a Judy Collins studio session and, when it was over, bribed the engineer to stick around so he could record some demos. “Just roll tape,” he said, and then sat and played 13 songs that he’d been working on but had not yet recorded. It seems hard to believe in 2011, but back in 1968 Stephen Stills was one of rock music’s best songwriters. Floating between the dissolution of Buffalo Springfield and his hooking up with David Crosby and Graham Nash, this is Stills performing loose, ragged, acoustic versions of his new material, some of which would become rock standards. There are beautiful versions here of “Wooden Ships” (minus the verses that would be added by Paul Kantner and David Crosby), “Helplessly Hoping,” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (which sounds nearly fully formed. There are also songs that would pop up on solo albums and with Manassas. The problem with the album is its roughness. By the third song his guitar is drifting in and out of tune. All of the songs on this album are good. The problem is that the majority of them are available in far superior versions elsewhere. Why listen to a rough pass at “Black Queen” when you can get a fully realized version on the first Stills solo album? As interesting as the early version of “Wooden Ships” is, it pales in comparison to the CSN version and doesn’t belong on the same planet as the Jefferson Airplane version. Which leaves the tracks that aren’t available anywhere else. Of those, the opening “All I Know Is What You Tell Me” is the best, a great track performed beautifully. The others (“Judy,” “Dreaming Of Snakes,” “Bumblebee,” and “The Doctor Will See You Now”) are good tunes that might have been great when recorded properly and fleshed out with further instrumentation and vocals. Just Roll Tape is an interesting album to listen to a few times, but it remains nothing more than a curio for obsessive fans.
    Grade: C+
  • John, The Wolf King of L.A.John Phillips. If there is a more screwed up person in the history of popular music than John Phillips, who allegedly had an incestuous affair with his daughter that lasted for years, I can’t imagine who it could be. But while the very mention of his name is guaranteed to bring shudders of revulsion, the fact remains that the guy wrote some great music, at least until the drugs and alcohol turned him from a musician into a full-time reprobate with tons of money. Phillips’s ear for harmony and vocal arrangement may be unparalleled in rock music. The best of what he did with The Mamas and The Papas are triumphs of songwriting and arranging. When he released John, The Wolf King of L.A. in 1969 Phillips was at his peak as a songwriter. This was his first solo album and he put aside the folky stylings of The Mamas and The Papas in favor of a more country/Byrdsy sound. Wolf King was clearly influenced by the growing popularity of country music in rock circles, as shown by albums like Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Bradley’s Barn, and The Gilded Palace Of Sin. Young, stoned, and filled to the brim with talent, this was also the last music Phillips released that was worth anything. The drugs took him that quickly. But this album is a minor masterpiece of country rock from the gorgeous opener “April Ann” to the epic closer “Holland Tunnel.” The album is California to the bone with songs like “Topanga Canyon,” “Malibu People,” and “Down The Beach,” and serves as one of the cornerstones of what became both the California sound and the singer/songwriter movement in the 1970s. While it didn’t do all that well on the charts, it’s clear that people like Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt were paying close attention. Phillips isn’t as strong a singer as Papa Denny Doherty, but his rough voice fits the material well, and the instrumentation is top-notch, courtesy of studio pros like The Wrecking Crew, and contributions from James Burton on guitar and Darlene Love on backing vocals. A very good album, mellow with a solid groove that prevents it from getting boring.
    Grade: B
  • Reckoning (Deluxe Edition)R.E.M. The second album from R.E.M. stands as one of the great albums of the 80s. For a long time it was considered to be nothing more than a little brother to Murmur, but it’s really every bit as good as their first LP. On the 25th anniversary of its release, it was remixed and rereleased with an additional disc featuring a live concert from the Aragon Ballroom in 1984. The live disc features tunes from both Murmur and Reckoning and their debut EP Chronic Town, as well as versions of the as-yet-unreleased “Driver 8” and “Hyena.” There’s also a nice cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” The problem with live albums…all live albums… is that they must meet certain criteria to be considered as anything more than tour souvenirs or contractual obligation releases. In order for a live album to truly achieve the type of greatness a studio album can attain some, or preferably all, of these standards need to be met: 1) for the majority of songs the live versions are better than the studio versions of the same songs, 2) there are unreleased songs (or cover songs) that are available nowhere else, 3) the live versions are noticeably different than their studio predecessors (acoustic versions, different arrangements, etc). A live album where there is precious little difference between the live tracks and their studio counterparts is, frankly, pointless. Consider the original version of the Who’s Live At Leeds, largely thought to be the greatest live rock album of all time. Six songs: three of the songs had no studio counterparts (“Shaking All Over,” “Summertime Blues,” “Young Man Blues”), one song had only been available as a single (“Substitute”), and the other two were presented in radically altered form (“My Generation” and “Magic Bus”). None of this is true on the live show packaged with Reckoning. The songs are presented in a very similar way to the studio versions. The “unheard” songs that were performed that night are now part of the R.E.M. canon. There are lots of missed notes and flubbed lyrics. At times they sound like they’re not really sure what song they’re performing. Because of this, there’s actually a certain charm to the recording. This is really live, warts and all. The songs are all played with the reckless abandon of a band that is not ready for the arena circuit. My guess is that this would have been a great concert to see, when the excitement generated on stage and the immediacy of the music would allow you to overlook flaws. But as a recording, preserved for posterity, those flaws are very evident. Still, there’s simply no denying the songs here. From “Femme Fatale” to “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” there isn’t a single song on the disc that isn’t great. Extra points awarded for a band that’s got this many great songs on a live disc, especially when it isn’t that horror known as the “Greatest Hits Live” album. At 54 minutes, it also falls short of the other monstrosity, the “Double Live” album. But as enjoyable as the ramshackle nature of the live disc is, it’s simply not essential listening, unlike the studio Reckoning.
    Grade: A+ for the original album
    Grade B+ for the bonus live disc

The Listening Post: May 2011

  • Wasting LightFoo Fighters. Dave Grohl’s second best band has just released their best album since 1997’s The Colour And The Shape. Maybe the best album of their career. It’s clear that spending a lot of quality time with Josh Homme has rubbed off on Grohl. The songs on Wasting Light are thick and muscular, like the best work of Queens Of The Stone Age or Them Crooked Vultures, but contain no shortage of the 1970s power pop sensibilities that Grohl brings to the table. For a guy who burst onto the scene with Nirvana, a band that wore its indie punk rock credibility like a badge of honor, Dave Grohl obviously spent an enormous amount of time listening to big 70s stadium rock. He clearly owns more than one Wings album hidden in between the Bad Brains and Black Flag LPs. The negative rap on Foo Fighters has been that they swing wildly between the extremes of stadium ready power pop like “Learn To Fly” and squalling noisefests like “X-Static.” At their best (most of their singles and a whole bunch of album tracks), they combine these elements to create heavy, driving rock music with huge, soaring hooks. That’s the sound of Wasting Light. This may be the Foo’s hardest rocking album, just as it may be their catchiest. Yes, “White Limo” veers off in the “noise” direction thanks to its heavily distorted vocals, but the rest of the songs are a complete validation of Grohl’s omnivorous approach to rock music. “Burning Bridges” rides a pummeling riff with an explosive chorus, “Rope” has a choppy, staccato rhythm for the verses and a chorus that is among the most melodic you’ll ever hear in a hard rock song. “Dear Rosemary” features a great guest vocal from Bob Mould (no stranger to marrying heavy punk with catchy choruses), “Arlandria” may be their best song since “Learn To Fly,” a near-perfect synthesis of heavy and hooky. “These Days” inverts the formula (and brings back the Nirvana formula) and presents a gentle, melodic verse and a crushing chorus. “Back & Forth” deftly blends Queen-ready verses with a Husker Du chorus: arena punk rock. “A Matter Of Time” and “Walk” mine similar territory, running Grohl’s childhood listening experiences through the prism of punk rock. “Miss The Misery” is a bit of a letdown, but not bad, and “I Should Have Known” reunites Grohl with Krist Novoselic in a heartfelt (but still hard rocking) song about Kurt Cobain, where Grohl channels all the anger and sadness that the Nirvana singer’s suicide clearly caused. Wasting Light is the Foo Fighters at their best.
    Grade: A
  • Boscobel BluesThe Greenhornes. Released in a very limited edition on Jack White’s Third Man Records, Boscobel Blues is a brief, 7-track collection of demos recorded by The Greenhornes around the time they released the great EP East Grand Blues. Three of these songs (“Pattern Skies,” “I’m Going Away” and “”Shelter Of Your Arms”) ended up in re-recorded versions on that EP, two others (“I Need Your Love,” “Saying Goodbye”) were remade for their most recent LP, ****, and the remaining two tracks have never been officially released. The difference between the tracks on Boscobel Blues and their official releases is striking. Jack White claims that these demos are his favorite Greenhornes songs and it’s easy to see why. The songs are well-recorded but far from pristine. There’s a real grit and nastiness to these versions that is toned down on the official releases. The guitar solos are more ragged, the performances are loose and raw. The effect is akin to hearing a live album, but recorded in a studio. Of the songs that are available elsewhere, these demos are at least as good as, if not better than, the official releases. Of the two unreleased tracks, the first (“Open Your Eyes”) is the weakest. It’s a good song with a great guitar solo, but maybe a bit too derivative of the Greenhornes’ garage rock influences. The second is a rip-roaring heavy garage version of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” that does for Brown what the Who did for Eddie Cochran when they covered “Summertime Blues” (or, ironically, what the Who did for Brown when they covered “I Don’t Mind” and “Please Please Please” on their first album). Excellent throughout.
    Grade: A+
  • Rated RQueens Of The Stone Age. There are some bands that seem to evoke a geographical location. A band like the Doors or the Red Hot Chili Peppers are pure Los Angeles. There’s a real Southern Gothic feel to early R.E.M. Queens of the Stone Age is a brutally hard rock band that nevertheless evokes (for me, at least) the desert. Listening to Rated R is like hearing the soundtrack of a long drive through the Southwest United States, with the top down on the car, sunglasses on, wind in your hair, and desolation on your mind. There’s nothing in the music, per se, that leads to this thought, though band leader Josh Homme is from Arizona. There’s just something about the sound. The opening riff fest “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” sets the table brilliantly. The lyrics of the verses are a simple repetition of “Nicotine/Valium/Vicodin/Marijuana/Ecstasy and alcohol” while the chorus is a stuttered “Cu-cu-cu-cu-cu-cocaine” and there’s a hilariously over-the-top guitar solo. The first half of the album bounces from strength to strength. There’s the extraordinary and catchy “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret” that sounds like a great lost Foo Fighters track (it’s abundantly clear why Homme and Dave Grohl united for various Queens songs and the Them Crooked Vultures project…they’re cut from the same musical cloth). “Leg Of Lamb” carries a distorted syncopation and sounds like a heavy Beck track. “Auto-Pilot” is a gently rolling song punctuated with stabs of electric guitar that creates an enormous amount of tension that breaks into a brief acoustic and harmony vocal bridge. After four excellent songs comes “Better Living Through Chemistry,” which indulges the dirge/stoner rock Josh Homme can lapse into. It’s not terrible, but it’s too long and it lays there like the bleached bones of an animal in that desert sun. Fortunately the album picks up again with “Monsters In The Parasol,” but the rest of the album is a bit of a dodgier vibe. “Monsters,” and “In The Fade” are the only songs in the second half that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those first few songs, though “Tension Head” comes close and “Lightning Song” is a very good acoustic instrumental. Other than that, “Quick And To The Pointless” is aptly named and “I Think I Lost My Headache” starts as a another dirge and ends with nearly three minutes of tuneless horns…a sad ending to an otherwise good album.
    Grade: B+
  • Wild GiftX. If Rated R was top-heavy, X’s sophomore album Wild Gift is bottom heavy. Most of the elements that made their first album Los Angeles so remarkable are back, notably the vocal attack of John Doe and Exene Cervenka and the rockabilly/punk Chuck Berry-isms of guitarist Billy Zoom. But there’s simply no way that Wild Gift can be considered on the same level as Los Angeles. The former is one of the greatest punk albums of all time and one of the great rock albums of the 1980s. The songs on Wild Gift are simply not as consistently great. Although considered by many to be a classic X song, “Adult Books” does absolutely nothing for me, “Universal Corner” and “I’m Coming Over” are performances in search of a song. These three songs, none of which are bad, per se, arrive as tracks 3-5 of the album. Surrounding these songs is greatness. The 1-2 punch of “The Once Over Twice” and “We’re Desperate” that starts the album is surpassed only by the eight songs that end the album. The buzzsaw guitar of “It’s Who You Know,” the vaguely Mariachi Chuck Berry sound of the guitar fills “In This House That I Call Home,” and the ferocious blending of Doe’s and Cervenka’s voices on “When Our Love Passed Out On The Couch” are standouts. It’s not as good as their first album. Few albums are. But despite a lackluster interlude near the beginning, Wild Gift is a stellar sophomore effort.
    Grade: A-

Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, by John Lydon

This is the story of Johnny Rotten.

It has to be tough to be John Lydon. Reading Rotten, the combination memoir/oral history of his time in the Sex Pistols when he was known around the world as the dreaded Johnny Rotten, the reader is struck by several things: 1) Lydon can be very, very funny; 2) Lydon can be very, very arrogant; 3) Lydon is cynical to the core.

The Sex Pistols really were a shot heard ’round the world. It’s easy to forget all these years later what a profound impact the Pistols had, especially in England where they were condemned by decent people everywhere (including on the floor of Parliament) and championed by the disaffected, unemployed youth who saw England collapsing under a Labour government that promised them the world and delivered a massive decline in the economy and in international prestige. Look at what London was like in 1976 and it’s so very easy to see that for the youth of a nation there really was the possibility of there being “no future.” More than any other band from that era, the Pistols articulated this through the words of Johnny Rotten.

“We’re the flowers in your dustbin,” yelled Rotten. “There’s no future in England’s dreaming.”

These two lines from “God Save The Queen,” the Pistols’ wicked broadside at the English monarchy, are probably the two best lyrics that ever emerged from punk rock. They capture the zeitgeist of mid-70s London in 17 syllables.

England, especially London, was being ripped apart. On one side was the national pride of an older generation that had defeated those filthy Huns (twice!), a monarchy that had grown ever more detached from every day life, and a government that was mired in scandal and crony politics. The rock stars of the day had left the streets and were flying in private jets, snorting the best cocaine money could buy, and writing ever more pompous and self-indulgent music. They no longer spoke to the kids who were buying the records.

On the other side of this divide were the scabs of a nation driven insane, the youth crippled by high unemployment and filthy living conditions, disenfranchised from society, with no future. Enter The Sex Pistols.

Partially the creation of a self-described anarchist Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols were always much more than some angry version of The Monkees. They wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and channeled their own voices. They were thieves and delinquents and, in John Lydon, they found an unlikely poet.

Bassist Glen Matlock may have had a strong hand in making the music of the Pistols as good as it was but the power of the band, the reason they are still talked about today, rested entirely in Johnny Rotten. Of the punk rock movement, he was the King, with guitarist Steve Jones, Matlock, and drummer Paul Cook his loyal court and Sid Vicious (who replaced Matlock on bass before their first—and only—album) his sad court jester.

Anyone interested in the band needs to read Jon Savage’s extraordinary book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock & Beyond. The book provides a truly exhaustive bio of the Sex Pistols while also taking time to survey the rest of the English punk scene: the Clash, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, Adverts, etc. The story is largely the same in Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs but while Savage’s book is a model of a survey biography, Lydon’s book is both helped and hindered by the fact that it’s so personal.

John Lydon is an acquired taste, both as a singer and as a personality. He’s maddening, enlightening, insufferable, enjoyable, arrogant, humble. Rotten is a good book if you like the subject (and I do). It’s also very rambling as events are presented in only the loosest chronological order. Amid Lydon’s recollections you also get his opinions on everything from older rock and roll (hated almost all of it except the Doors and Alice Cooper), his punk rock peers (hated all of them except the Buzzcocks), religion (hates it), politics (hates it), his fans (hates a lot of them), his bandmates (hated them), conformity (hates it), and everything else in between (hates it). The book would be a drag to read if Lydon weren’t so damn entertaining. Yes, he hates almost everything that isn’t him or created by him, but he vents his spleen in a way that’s almost charming, and often funny. He deflects charges of arrogance and cynicism by retreating into a “What do I know? I’m just a working class lad?” schtick, but the reader will definitely walk away thinking that ego is in no short supply in the Lydon household. Even the many quotes sprinkled throughout the book from Billy Idol, Chrissie Hynde, and others, including entire chapters written by other people, are of the “John was a great guy and a genius” sort.

The big problem with all of this, to me, is that like most cynics, Lydon is far more content to destroy than he is to propose acutal working solutions to problems. All too often these days, sarcasm is mistaken for a quick wit. It’s not. A quick wit can playfully nip with pointed teeth or eviscerate with a scalpel’s blade, but sarcasm is incapable of doing anything but bludgeoning and tearing. Wit is subtle, sarcasm is not. It is designed to belittle and disarm. Sarcasm is the hallmark of a cynical soul, and there’s precious little wit but plenty of sarcasm evident in Rotten. Aside from some non-formed treacle about how everybody needs to just be themselves and not part of a herd mentality, Lydon never actually says what he is for. Parts of the book reads as if he were a political conservative. Other parts read as if he were a socialist. All of it reads like someone who’s still locked in an inchoate, adolescent, rebellious phase.

Lydon slams the fans who showed up to concerts dressed like him because they were just copying someone and not thinking for themselves. He lambastes other, older bands for not being different enough. He never considers that maybe the hippies he mocks for their group mentality and similar ways of dressing were trying just as hard as he was to be different and individual and that this movement for individuality was co-opted, much like the punk scene. He tears down his peers and never once gives them the benefit of a doubt that they may have been just as sincere in their sound and beliefs as he was. He reminds me of Holden Caulfield, the snotty adolescent protagonist of The Catcher In The Rye, passing judgment on the “phonies” he sees all around him and Lydon, like Caulfield, thinks almost everyone else is a phony.

Rotten is a good book. It’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a fascinating chapter in rock music history, and Lydon’s sense of humor and storytelling ability are excellent. But the reader is left with one of two possible conclusions: either “Johnny Rotten” is a put-on, a character played by John Lydon, or John Lydon is a deeply cynical man whose relentless sarcasm could suck the life out of a room the size of Madison Square Garden. If the former, then Lydon is even more of a phony than those he chastises for their lack of authenticity. If the latter, well, it has to be tough to be John Lydon.

Is this the story of Johnny Rotten? Only he knows for sure.

The Price Of Fame

When asked how the Beatles avoided ending up like Elvis Presley, Ringo Starr said something along the lines of “There were four of us, and we kept each other sane.”

There was only one Elvis Presley, and his life was a trip down the rabbit hole of fame. Having recently finished Peter Guralnick’s outstanding two-volume biography of Elvis, Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking Of Elvis Presley, I’m particularly struck by the sheer overwhelming power that fame has to destroy.

There are very few people who reach the levels of fame that Elvis reached. I can think of only the Beatles and Michael Jackson. Theirs was a fame that could only happen in the television era, when images of pop stars were being broadcast into living rooms all over the world. Frank Sinatra made the girls swoon, and his presence was ubiquitous on the radio and in movies, but it pales in comparison to the absolute mania that was created by Presley.

Elvis was not equipped to handle fame. He was poor, smart but not well-educated, and impossibly young when he burst onto the scene with “That’s All Right, Mama,” one of the most seminal of all rock and roll songs. Those early years, under the guidance of Sun Records svengali Sam Phillips, was the real prime time of Elvis’s career. While he did much excellent work at RCA, the truly essential Elvis recordings are the ones he did with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black on bass. Over 50 years of rock and roll has elapsed since then and time and technology may have served to diminish these somewhat primitive recordings, but back then these tracks must have been explosive. They are still vital and exciting today, crucial to understanding the development of rock and roll music. The moment in “Milkcow Blues Boogie” when Elvis interrupts the slow, plodding pace of the song to rev up the band to hyper speed (“Hold it, fellas…hold it. That don’t move me. Let’s get real, real goin’ for a change”) is as apt a symbol for the birth of rock and roll as has ever existed. It is like hearing the exact moment when, as Muddy Waters once said, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.”

Fame came very quickly for Elvis. Sympathetic DJs, some of whom didn’t even know whether or not they liked the songs only that they’d never heard anything like them, picked up on Elvis and the young audiences, hungry for something new, came running. Stampeding, in fact.

The best-known Elvis tracks are the early songs he did when Sam Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to RCA. These tracks are the basis for a million Elvis compilations: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” etc. But Elvis was a huge star before he went to RCA. Today it sounds like a big mistake when we hear that Sun sold Elvis to RCA for a mere $40,000. To some, this seems almost on a par with Decca Records dismissing the Beatles by saying that “guitar groups are on the way out.” But the fact is that 40K was a huge amount of money for such a deal. RCA wasn’t buying an unknown, they were buying a star that was on the cusp of being a superstar. And Elvis had outgrown Sun Records, a small, local label. Sam Phillips loved Elvis, but Sun was on the verge of bankruptcy and selling Elvis’s contract allowed Phillips to keep the label afloat…and give the world Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison, among many others.

Of course, the deal was really with Col. Tom Parker, a former carnival huckster and manager of Eddy Arnold. The Colonel knew next to nothing about rock and roll music, and never bothered to learn. But he knew a star when he saw one, and that was Elvis all over. Having been fired by Eddy Arnold, Col. Parker drifted, looking for his next break, and found it with the kid from Memphis. What Parker also understood was marketing. He packaged Elvis and sold him on a mass scale, and Elvis’s career went into the stratosphere. TV, concerts, movies…The Colonel always had another deal in the works that would get Elvis out front. When Elvis was drafted it would not have been that difficult to get an exemption for such a famous star, but The Colonel insisted that Elvis do his time in the Army. To not serve would look bad to his fans who expected Elvis to do the honorable thing.

It was Parker who, thanks to several unreleased recordings for both RCA and the fact that RCA now owned all the many unreleased Sun recordings, kept Elvis in the public eye while the singer was stationed in Germany. By combining recently recorded songs with older, unheard songs, Parker was able to craft long players and singles to be released during the two years Elvis was out of the limelight. By rushing the production on movies before Elvis left, fans could still see Elvis in new films. When Elvis finished his time in the Army, it was Parker who arranged for a huge welcome home party and a television special hosted by Frank Sinatra. To many people, it was as if Elvis had never left.

But Elvis had left. John Lennon once pithily observed, “Elvis died the day he went into the Army.” There’s a frightening amount of truth in that simple quip.

Far from living the life of the average soldier, Elvis was allowed to live off base with his family and a circle of friends from Memphis, all of whom he transported to Germany with him. He did his soldier duty (quite well, apparently) but in his downtime he was living a more pampered life. During this time he was also given amphetamines. At the time, they were considered wonder drugs that would give you tons of energy, were not addictive, and had no side effects. The Army handed them out, and Elvis liked them. A lot. The pep pills instilled in him a love of pharmaceuticals that would eventually kill him. Elvis seemed to genuinely believe, almost right to his dying day, that these pills were harmless. It was this disconnect with reality that allowed him to be strongly anti-drug while being a drug addict.

Elvis had a love of movies and wanted very much to be a movie star. His role model was James Dean, and Elvis believed that he could fill Dean’s shoes after the actor was killed in a car accident. All he needed was a good part in a good film. His movie career began promisingly. The early films he made before he was drafted, Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole are considered the best he ever made, not that that’s saying much. They were, at least, serious attempts at creating a screen persona.

After the Army, deeply indebted to Parker for keeping his career afloat while he was out of commission, Elvis turned over more control to the Colonel. He was now Parker’s boy and willing to do anything his manager asked.

For Parker, the rock and roll thing was a sideline. What he really envisioned for Elvis was a successful career in movies. As the Sixties progressed, the only new music Presley recorded were songs for movie soundtracks. What made matters even worse were the deals that Parker had crafted. Both Elvis and Parker were entitled to a large share of the net profits for any movie that starred Elvis. Parker realized that those profits would be higher if the movies were made more cheaply, so he used his considerable clout to make sure that Elvis movies were made with C-level talent on rushed shooting schedules. Many of Elvis’s movies were filmed in two weeks, and then it was on to the next movie. The result of this was an endless series of bottom-dwelling films, rehashing the same plots, cheaply made, and released with no fanfare. Elvis’s name would ensure a good box office for a few weeks, and then the movie would disappear into oblivion. Elvis’s dreams of being a real actor were crushed by Parker’s desire to churn out the cheapest available product, The soundtracks, the closest thing to albums Elvis was releasing, were atrocious. While some of the earlier movies had great songs like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Return To Sender,” by 1964 the movies were weighed down by such God awful songs as “Wheels On My Heels,” “Harem Holiday,” and the immortal “Petunia, The Gardener’s Daughter.” The same man who ten years earlier had electrified a nation’s youth with his unbridled sexuality, good looks, and devastating talent was now hamming it up and singing songs that were light years away from the music he had helped create. The same month the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Elvis’s contribution to music was the soundtrack of Double Trouble, featuring songs like “Old MacDonald” and “Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On).” Elvis could not fall back on live performance. Parker had shut the door to concerts, preferring to concentrate on the films. The single most exciting performer of the early rock and roll era performed almost no concerts in the 1960s. Even the unplugged reunion that Elvis had with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana in his 1968 TV special was undermined at every turn by Parker.

The ’68 special, dubbed his “Comeback Special” did light the fire in Elvis again. Combined with a disheartening experience when Elvis went outside the recording studio and stood, unrecognized, on the sidewalk as hippies passed him by, Elvis finally confronted the Colonel about getting off the movie bandwagon. He completed the films he was contractually obligated to do, while turning his attention back to creating new music and giving live performances. The music he created in the late 60s is excellent. From Elvis in Memphis is one of Presley’s best LPs, though it lacks the stripped down, raw simplicity of his early works. There’s a high gloss production of the songs from this era, which include classics like “Suspicious Minds,” “Wearin’ That Loved On Look,” and “In The Ghetto.” But Elvis’s talent shines through the gloss. For the first time in years, Elvis sounds confident and sounds like he actually likes the songs he’s singing.

Unfortunately, so much of the music he did afterwards was hurt by the increasing layers of production (tons of backup singers, string sections, you name it) and by a decreasing level of interest on the part of the singer. His early Vegas shows after the Comeback Special are considered some of the best shows he had ever done, some of the best that Vegas had ever seen (a town known for its shows). It wasn’t long, though, before the near constant intake of pills met the rigors of performing regularly. These tours were the first Elvis had done since he started taking pills, and the combination was more than he could tolerate.

From the time he went into the Army, Elvis had been coddled. The friends and relatives that he surrounded himself with, that he put on the payroll with no job description other than “hang out with Elvis” got the fame bug. They became drug addicts and drunks, none of them faithful to wives or girlfriends, all of them the patrons of the Elvis Presley Welfare State. They told Elvis whatever he wanted to hear, and made sure that they were there at Christmas time when Elvis handed out expensive gifts. This “Memphis Mafia” was formed with the idea that his old friends were the only ones he could trust. But they were seduced by the fame as well and became the worst sort of fawning sycophants. Their refusal to confront Elvis when they recognized the path he was on was practically criminal.

The women in Elvis’s life were no better. Most of them were much younger than he, confused by Elvis’s sexuality, which seemed to have been arrested when he was a teenager. They enjoyed being with Elvis, even if they didn’t understand him. Most of them turned a blind eye to his ever-increasing drug intake or, when the truth could not be avoided any longer, left him. They would lie in bed with Elvis, watching tapes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and listening while Elvis read from the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Although it dragged on for several more years in name, Elvis’s marriage to Priscilla ended the day Lisa Marie Presley was born. Such was the disconnect in Elvis’s psychology that he felt he could no longer make love to Priscilla because now she was a mother. She, of course, eventually sought the affections of someone who understood that mothers are also women.

In the early years Elvis was very much a Mama’s boy, protected and shielded by his mother who died just as Elvis was going into the Army. Through the 1960s and 1970s he was shielded from reality by Col. Parker who used Presley for his own gain (granted, Elvis made a bit of money in the bargain…quite a bit). He was blocked from reality by the Memphis Mafia who never did or said anything that might knock the gravy train off track. The women in his life, with the seeming exception of Priscilla, wanted only to be with ELVIS, the man whose name was in lights. And worst of all the drugs deadened him to any perception that he might have about himself or about what the real world had to offer. Through the last 15 years of his life Elvis succumbed more and more to the fame virus. He became isolated, withdrawn, lonely, paranoid. His once svelte figure ballooned. He forgot the words to his songs in concert, and gave lengthy rambling monologues that insulted his band members and alienated his confused audience. He would sit in the upstairs of Graceland watching his friends on closed circuit television, wondering about their loyalty. He had surrounded himself with friends and physicians who bowed before the altar of fame and got any drug the King of Rock and Roll wanted. He had everything he ever wanted and that’s not good for anyone. Fame of the type Elvis had creates its own world, and it cuts you off from the rest of humanity. You can trust nobody, your friends are using you, everybody has his or her hand out. The Beatles survived because there were four of them and any time one of them would drift into the fame world the others would bring him back. Michael Jackson did not survive, and his story in many ways is a parallel to Elvis’s story.

Elvis began as a young upstart. The first volume of Guralnick’s biography paints a portrait of a kid who seems like a genuinely nice guy, with good manners, polite, shy, deferential to his parents, respectful of women, brimming with talent and energy. He was the All-American kid, circa 1955. The second volume will break the heart of anyone who ever thrilled to the music of Elvis Presley. In the end, the All-American kid ended up on a bathroom floor with his pajamas around his ankles, having fallen off the toilet, with his face mashed into a pool of vomit.

The price of fame.

The Listening Post: April 2011

Warmth starts to arrive for real, and pop music is the order of the day.

  • Mighty BabyMighty Baby. Rolled Gold, a collection of band demos by Sixties mod Freakbeat band The Action, was a sterling set. Though not released until 1995, the album stands up alongside such legendary albums as There Are But Four Small Faces and S.F. Sorrow. But the songs from Rolled Gold were also the end of the band, who then rose out of the ashes of The Action as Mighty Baby. Their self-titled debut was recorded in 1968 but not released until 1969 and it’s an excellent collection of late Sixties British psychedelia. While a lot of the British psychedelic scene was marked by a taste for music hall and stories of wizards and knights, Mighty Baby’s roots as a hard rock band kept their music grounded. There’s some Middle Eastern stylings in “Egyptian Tomb,” “House Without Windows” relies on the standard “I met a man while I was journeying down life’s road and we talked about the meaning of life” hippie cliche, and “At A Point Between Fate And Destiny” is as pretentious and boring as the title suggests (as well as including lyrics about an “ancient hermit”—strike three). But what makes this album more listenable today than much British psychedelia is the muscle behind the songs. There’s a high level of musicianship and most of the songs rock…something you can’t really say about bands like Tomorrow or even early Pink Floyd.
    Grade: B+
  • The Best Of The Lovin’ SpoonfulThe Lovin’ Spoonful.The gentle folk rock stylings of The Lovin’ Spoonful underpinned several songs that can only be considered classic anthems of the mid-60s. There’s simply no denying songs like “Daydream,” “Summer In The City,” “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” “Do You Believe In Magic?”, “Jug Band Music,” and “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” Perhaps best of all is the achingly beautiful, “Darling, Be Home Soon.” Forty plus years ago the Spoonful were blasting out of every AM radio in the country, and much of it is impossible not to like. At their best, they wrote classic pop tunes. Having said that, there’s also an ephemeral air to much of this. The songs float precisely because they are lighter than air. These are songs that are instantly enjoyable coming out of a radio while laying on the beach or enjoying the summer air. But aside from the aforementioned classic tracks, most of the rest is simply lightweight, enjoyable pop. It’s as temporary as an Abba album track. The Best Of The Lovin’ Spoonful makes a compelling case for the band as enjoyable hitmakers with some high quality songs that you may never have heard. They’re not as serious or hard rocking as The Rascals, but they have more hipster credibility than Dionne Warwick. While it’s playing, it’s a great listen. When it’s not playing, you will remember only the handful of classic tracks.
    Grade: B+
  • Mars Needs Guitars!Hoodoo Gurus. Strip away early R.E.M.’s indecipherable mumble and sinister atmospherics, and shine up the choruses and you’ve got Hoodoo Gurus. From the opening power pop salvo of “Bittersweet” the Gurus pile on hooks and catchy choruses. “In The Wild,” “Death Defying” and “Like Wow–Wipeout” are indisputable highlights, but the album is consistently solid, a triumph of songwriting and execution, marred only by a too-shiny production straight out of 1985. Unfortunately many of even the best albums from this time period struggle against the awful production that was a sign of the times, and Mars Needs Guitars! is one of those albums. The album also ends on a weak note, with the title track and “She” providing a decent, but lackluster, finale.
    Grade: B+
  • Jesus Of CoolNick Lowe. Homage must be paid first to the album title. How awesome is calling your first solo album Jesus Of Cool? Answer: pretty freakin’ awesome. Unfortunately, it was only released in the UK under that title. The American version, with a slightly altered track listing bore the also quite cool title Pure Pop For Now People. Nick Lowe was always something of an anachronism in popular music. He had the heart of a rock ‘n’ roller from the Fifties and Sixties, with an intense pop sensibility that rendered his music as catchy as only the very best power pop can be. He also had a very skewed lyrical sense that you can see in the works of modern day Lowes like Brendan Benson; there’s really no question about it: “Marie Provost” is the best song ever written about a dead movie star whose corpse is eaten by her pet dachshund, and “Nutted By Reality” is at the top of the short list of songs written about castrating Fidel Castro. You can also hear where early Elvis Costello got much of his sound, especially on Armed Forces, which featured the hit single “What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)?”, written by Lowe and first recorded by Lowe’s band Brinsley Schwarz. Only “Shake And Pop” and “Tonight” lag a bit. “Shake And Pop” sounds uninspired, especially when compared to Rockpile’s ferocious version of the same song (called “They Called It Rock” and included as a bonus track). “Tonight” simply doesn’t go anywhere. But the lowlights are rendered irrelevant by classic pop rock tracks like “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass,” “So It Goes, ” “Marie Provost” and a killer live version of Lowe’s single “Heart Of The City.”
    Grade: A-