The Listening Post: May 2012

A remarkably good month for listening.

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

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

The Listening Post: 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-