The Listening Post: January 2016

  • Higher TruthChris Cornell. The last time we heard from Chris Cornell the Solo Artist was 2009’s Scream. It took him six years, a reunion with the mighty Soundgarden, and a solo acoustic tour, to recover from that steaming mess. Scream, a train wreck collaboration with Timbaland that buried Cornell’s songs under a mountain of electronic dance music, was such an embarrassing fiasco it would have killed the career of a less established star. It took 2012’s excellent Soundgarden reunion album King Animal to gain back Cornell’s credibility. Fans didn’t shrug off Scream as a misstep in a long career; it was almost universally hated. This just makes Higher Truth that much sweeter. Cornell has followed up what is certainly one of the worst albums ever released by a major artist with the best album of his solo career. cornellInspired by his recent solo tours, Cornell strips down the production on Higher Truth to focus on the subtler, more acoustic side of his sound. That’s not to say that this is an acoustic singer/songwriter album. There’s no shortage of indications about who Cornell really is on the album, and he’s not Jack Johnson or James Taylor. He’s the howling banshee lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave, two of the heaviest rock bands of all time, whose voice could peel the paint off your walls. Taken as a whole, Higher Truth sounds like a serious rock band playing a mostly acoustic set before the big show starts (there are electric instruments amid the mandolins here: check out the buzzsaw guitar solo on the first single, “Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart”). There are many ballads (“Dead Wishes”, “Before We Disappear”, “Through the Window”, “Let Your Eyes Wander”) but there are also plenty of songs that blend balladry with the intensity of heavier rock, held in check by the acoustic presentation (“Murderer Of Blue Skies”, “Higher Truth”, “Circling”) . There’s even a song (“Our Time In The Universe”) that successfully blends rock and electronic dance music, the synthesis Cornell failed to create on Scream, by sticking to conventional rock instruments and melodies and attaching them to a beat and chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place in the world of strobe lights, DJs, and Ecstasy (as a bonus track there’s a more straightforward rock mix of this track, as well as three other songs that maintain the quality and sound of the main album). This variety has the benefit of keeping the album fresh. Too many acoustic albums are sleepy affairs, as if the electric guitar was meant for rock and the acoustic was meant for slow, confessional ballads. Cornell reminds the listener that this is not the case: acoustic instruments can rock, too.
    Grade: A
  • The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12: The Best of The Cutting Edge, 1965-66Bob Dylan. Most bands are lucky if they have an album’s worth of first-rate outtakes collecting dust in some studio archive. There’s usually a very good reason the songs that don’t make an album are left unheard. Traditionally, the best of them have been released as the flip sides of singles and sometimes when there is enough stuff that’s really good it gets released in some sort of rarities package. For years the gold standard of this was the Who’s Odds And Sods, a 1974 collection of unreleased songs that contained real Who classics like “Long Live Rock”, “Naked Eye”, and “Pure and Easy” alongside odd treasures like “Now I’m A Farmer”, the early pass at Tommy of “Glow Girl”, and Townshend’s anti-smoking song for the American Cancer Society, “Little Billy”. But rarities collections are invariably hit-or-miss affairs, at least until Bob Dylan unleashed The Bootleg Series on an unsuspecting world. dylanThere are some previously unreleased songs on the twelve (and counting) packages, but most of the tracks are alternate or live versions of songs that have been previously released. All too often, alternate versions are a letdown: a slightly different mix, a poorly recorded demo. But this is Bob Dylan and his alternates are usually radically different takes on familiar songs. Take, for example, the version of “Visions of Johanna” on The Best of the Cutting Edge. The Blonde On Blonde version is a stately, haunting ballad dripping with some of Dylan’s best wordplay. A previous package (Vol. 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert) featured a beautiful, live acoustic version that downplayed the music and highlighted the words. The version here (a rehearsal) is a rollicking, fast-tempo rocker so unlike the other versions that it may as well be a different song. Or the version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that sounds like it could be played by the house band at a Mexican cantina, tying the music to the opening line about being lost in Juarez in the rain when it’s Easter time, too. Or the solo acoustic version of Bringing It All Back Home‘s electric “She Belongs To Me.” Every one of the songs here is noticeably different than the previously released versions, and every one is a gem. One of the interesting things about it is how many of the songs sound like kissing cousins of “Like A Rolling Stone”, particularly the songs recorded after Highway 61 Revisited. Both the music and the phrasing of lyrics, in many cases, bear a strong resemblance to the most famous of all Dylan songs. The final versions are, of course, very different, but in these early workouts and rehearsals, the music had really not yet finished its journey. Some of these songs are early versions with incomplete, or different lyrics (for example, Dylan has yet to add the word “just” to the song “Just Like A Woman”, and “Tombstone Blues” has a slightly different chorus); some are demos (there’s an abbreviated but wonderful piano demo of “Desolation Row” as well as a full band version of what became the acoustic conclusion to Highway 61). The Bootleg Series has been truly extraordinary, and there are still depths to be explored. The quality of the material stands on its own, revealing just how restless and creative Dylan was at every stage of his career, and this latest collection culls material from the zenith of his musical output, when Dylan was burning across the cultural landscape and leaving a scorched earth in his wake. Twelve illuminating and musically valid compilations of Dylan outtakes later, it’s almost possible to construct an alternate history of Dylan’s entire career. There are still gaps, mainly from about 1973 to the mid-80s, although 1975’s Rolling Thunder tour has a package and a few songs from this era appear on Vol. 2 and Vol. 3, but rumors abound that the next package will begin to address this with outtakes from the Blood on the Tracks/Desire era. Amazingly, the alternate history is nearly as interesting as the real one. Dylan may be the only musician in the world to be able to claim that.
    Grade: A
  • Song ReaderVarious Artists. Rock music has always had its eccentrics and musical iconoclasts. Bob Dylan is one, as is Neil Young. In recent years, Jack White has garnered a reputation as a musical maverick who does what he wants with little regard for convention. Add to this Beck, who emerged in the 1990s with an oddball folk rap song and who has proceeded to hopscotch his way across the musical landscape, following his whims and his muse wherever they take him. In 2012 word got out that Beck was going to release a new album, which he did. Being a musical eccentric, Beck didn’t release Song Reader in any physical form meant for listening. It was not released as an LP, a CD, or in any digital format. Beck released his album as sheet music. beckIt was an odd stroke of genius. YouTube became the home for the album, as thousands of people posted videos of themselves performing new Beck songs. The record industry being what it is, a physical release was inevitable, and in 2014, Song Reader was released, featuring twenty different artists performing the songs in their own style. Categorically, this is a Beck album, although only one song (“Heaven’s Ladder”) is actually performed by the songwriter. Stylistically it’s all over the map with artists as diverse as Laura Marling, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Norah Jones, David Johansen, Jack White, Jack Black, Sparks, Loudon Wainwright, soul singer Swamp Dogg, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy all taking their turn interpreting the songs Beck wrote. This is not a tribute album, one of those well-meaning but usually artistically bankrupt compilations where artists do soundalike versions of a performer’s best-loved songs. Because there was no Beck template outside of notes on a page, the artists here were able to make the songs their own, and it shows. Norah Jones’s “Just Noise” is a wonderful, sweeping shuffle. Jack White puts his standard guitar crunch on “I’m Down” and it sounds like a track from one of his solo albums. Jack Black, no great musical talent, tackles the humorous “We All Wear Cloaks” like a drunken Tom Waits. Marc Ribot does an old-fashioned jazz turn on “The Last Polka.” Colombian star Juanes provides a Spanish language version of “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard”. Perhaps the most affecting song here is Swamp Dogg’s beautiful version of “America, Here’s My Boy”, the heartbreaking, angry, and bitter tale of a father whose son has died in combat. The diversity of sound and feel on the album makes it hard to imagine that the songs are all the product of one man, and that works in the album’s favor. It allows the listener to hear Beck with fresh ears, and realize just how talented the man behind the curtain really is.
    Grade: B+

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The Listening Post: March-June 2014

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

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