- Electric Dirt—Levon 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.
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 Songs—Johnny 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.
- Sound Affects—The 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.
- Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A Retrospective—The 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.
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.