The Listening Post: January 2011

A freezing, snowy January…which can only mean it’s time for Mark Lanegan.

  • The Winding SheetMark Lanegan. The undeniable highlight of this first solo album by Screaming Trees singer Lanegan is a harrowing version of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Later, Nirvana would take Lanegan’s arrangement almost note-for-note and give a goosebump-raising performance on MTV’s Unplugged. In fact, Kurt Cobain sings a very prominent backing vocal on Lanegan’s version, his cracked and tormented voice beautifully underpinning Lanegan’s doomy baritone. Nothing else on this album is on a par with this performance (though the opener, “Mockingbirds” and the other Lanegan/Cobain duet “Down In The Dark” come close), but there are more than enough gems to make the album a solid listen. It’s not Lanegan’s best solo album, undermined by several so-so tunes in the middle of the album (“Woe,” “Eyes Of A Child,” “The Winding Sheet”) and a crackhead junkie nightmare worthy of William S. Burroughs near the end (the mercifully short, but terrifying, “Juarez”). The sound of solo Lanegan is here in full on The Winding Sheet, very different from his work with Screaming Trees. The sound here, as on all his solo efforts, is intimate, dark, and scary. Lanegan is combining the feel and groove of blues with the sound of rock music and creating music that sounds like both and neither. It’s potent stuff, even if the songwriting chops run a little short on this album.
    Grade: B
  • The Fire Of LoveThe Gun Club. So this is what the White Stripes might have sounded like with a bass player in 1981. This isn’t punk rock, it’s not blues, it’s not rockabilly. It’s all these things. Long before Jack White took blues music and grafted it to a punk attack, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Gun Club were playing a version of Robert Johnson’s “Preaching The Blues” that sounded like Billy Lee Riley And His Little Green Men on a cocktail of amphetamines and Red Bull. Pierce howls his way through eleven tracks that range from very good (“Promise Me,” “Cool Drink Water”) to brilliant (“Sex Beat,” “Ghost On The Highway,” “Jack On Fire,” “Black Train”). Fire Of Love is an encyclopedia of Southern music: blues, country, hillbilly, rock. It also is deeply ingrained with that Flannery O’Connor-ish Gothic darkness that is a hallmark of the South. Just listen to “For The Love of Ivy,” when Pierce sings of his plans when the girl he loves rejects him: “Gonna buy me a graveyard of my own/Kill everyone who ever done me wrong” before concluding “I was all dressed up like Elvis from Hell.” That’s brutal stuff, and Fire Of Love is not a feel-good album. The body count on the album is as high as you’ll find on the most violent gangsta rap album, but here the tales of sex and murder are downright chilling, not cartoonish braggadocio. Compare Snoop’s rhymes about putting a cap in someone with “You slaughtered your loving man/Killed him in his sleep/The blood and crying of his murder/Simply stains your sheets/Now you’re a ghost on the highway…” It’s like hearing songs written by Charles Starkweather. It is masterfully recorded, avoiding all the 1980s production techniques that instantly carbon dates so many songs from that era. It is a triumph of performance, sound, and writing.
    Grade: A
  • ZumaNeil Young & Crazy Horse. For awhile there in the 1970s, it must have seemed like Neil Young could do nothing wrong. Starting with 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and running right up until 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, Young was amazingly good. Sure there were a few missteps here and there but his career during that decade was a model of consistently good songwriting and recording, a stark contrast to the incoherence and largely dreadful work he did in the 1980s. Zuma emerged in 1975, hot on the heels of the tortured Tonight’s The Night (which had been recorded two years earlier, but released just five months before Zuma). This is a much more accessible and easy-to-like album, filled with huge chords, an open production, and solid melodies. Crazy Horse is in fine form, and “Cortez The Killer” gives Neil an excuse for a guitar workout, even if the lyrics praising the bloodthirsty Aztecs are unforgivable (while it’s not a perfect parallel, imagine if he’d written a song saying that the Germans knew no war before the invasion of Normandy and you’ll get an idea of the historical idiocy of the lyrics). There are some nice acoustic numbers, notably the lovely “Pardon My Heart” and “Through My Sails,” a song rescued from an aborted album with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The withering putdown of “Stupid Girl” drags a bit, but otherwise Zuma is an excellent collection. “Don’t Cry No Tears,” “Looking For A Love” and “Cortez The Killer” are among the best songs of Young’s best period.
    Grade: A
  • Zero Hour EP and …PlusThe Plimsouls. Rounding out the month are two brief offerings from L.A.’s Plimsouls. Zero Hour is an outstanding 5-song EP released in conjunction with their first album. Featuring a slightly different version of the LP’s “Zero Hour” plus four other tracks, it’s a beautiful listen, opening with the gem “Great Big World” and closing with an rip-roaring live version of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” That the EP also has the brilliant “Hypnotized” and the raveup “How Long Will It Take?” is just icing on the cake. …Plus is four songs that were released as bonus songs on the CD of their first album (as was the Zero Hour EP). The outtake “Memory” is excellent, and there are bloodcurdling live versions of “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Hush Hush” along with a good, but unremarkable instrumental called “When You Find Out.” The live tracks bear out the reputation of the Plimsouls as being one of the very best live bands of their time. This is raw, exciting rock ‘n’ roll, not to be missed. Garage rock at its finest.
    Grade: A

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The Listening Post: January 2010

A new year, and new (to me) tunes:

  • Whiskey For The Holy GhostMark Lanegan. The solo albums of Mark Lanegan make for great winter listening. After last month’s rehab album, Scraps At Midnight, this month I turned to his full-scale addiction album. Whiskey For The Holy Ghost is, like the rest of Lanegan’s solo oeuvre, a dark and scary listen. When your sound is as identifiable as Lanegan’s, your success depends entirely on the quality of the songs and this is where Whiskey resonates. There are several moments of absolute brilliance on this album: “The River Rise” with it’s haunting vocals and acoustic guitar, the brutal hard rock of “Borracho,” “Carnival,” which sounds like a Hell-bound version of the Fisherman’s Blues-era Waterboys, the gorgeous “House A Home” and “Sunrise,” the elegiac “Judas Touch.” Only “Riding The Nightingale” and “Beggar’s Blues” fail to rise to the top. They are both dirges, and long dirges at that. They aren’t awful, and sound of a piece with the rest of the album, but don’t match the exceedingly high levels of quality that Lanegan has for the rest of the disc. Grade: A
  • I Am The CosmosChris Bell. There’s a tendency to think of this album, compiled posthumously by the singer’s brother, as being some type of great, lost Big Star album. Bell was the founder and guiding spirit behind that great, great band, but dropped out of the lineup after one album. While this is not a great, lost Big Star album it is clear that all of the elements are there for what might have been. Many of the recordings are rough, some sounding like no more than demos, and as a result there’s a certain low-fidelity to the album as a whole and some of the songs sound unfinished. What’s here is largely great. The title track (released as a single in 1978) and “You And Your Sister” are stunning, as good as the best work of Big Star. “Get Away,” “There Was A Light” and “I Don’t Know” also could easily have been standout tracks on #1 Record. Unlike the first Big Star album, there are tracks on here that don’t really go anywhere. “Make A Scene” is a decent little rocker, but never quite crosses the finish line. “Speed Of Sound” has a lovely sound, but is wrapped in inertia. “Fight At The Table” is a by-the-numbers rocker. While there’s nothing that’s actually bad on the album, these songs prevent the album from reaching the levels of brilliance that Bell manifested with Big Star. Having said that, the bulk of the material that is good is very good, and much of it is great. That makes for a fine album. For Big Star fans and lovers of prime power pop, this is essential listening. Grade: B+
  • Five Leaves LeftNick Drake. The English folk singer Nick Drake is one of those music legends that many people have heard of, but few have actually heard. Kind of like an English folk version of the Velvet Underground. Like the Velvets, he is now a cult figure and that’s no surprise. Good looking, melancholy, talented, and died young…all the elements of a cult figure in the making. His debut album, Five Leaves Later, is impressive but I’m not entirely sure I get it. The album kicks off with the beautiful gem “Time Has Told Me,” but the rest of the album never quite hits that level. There is much on this album that is very good. For starters, the playing throughout is absolutely exquisite with jaw-dropping bass from Danny Thompson on much of the album. Richard Thompson, another English folk legend/cult figure also appears on “Time Has Told Me.” There are also some nice string sections created for a few of the songs, and the acoustic guitar playing is excellent throughout. Drake’s got a magnificent voice and is a very good guitar player, but after hearing so much about the man I expected much more than a somewhat dour version of Donovan. The problem with rating the album is that the individual songs are quite good but listening to the album makes me feel lethargic. Much of this sounds like a good Richard Thompson album, but falls short of sounding like a great Richard Thompson album, while “Day Is Done” is vaguely reminiscent of the softer, acoustic sections Jethro Tull’s “We Used To Know” (at least, that’s the song that pops into my head whenever “Day Is Done” comes on). It’s a good album for a quiet night, I suppose, but it fell short of expectations. Grade: B
  • thickfreaknessThe Black Keys. You gotta love these guys. More traditional than the White Stripes, the Black Keys mine the same territory as a bluesy guitar/drums duo. The advantage they have over the Stripes is a better drummer, but they lack the brilliant vision of Jack White. The Keys play their blues pretty straight throughout, but it’s a nasty, distorted blues. There are none of the clean single note solos of an Eric Clapton, nor do they have the volcanic intensity of a Stevie Ray Vaughan. Instead there is a thick, fuzzy tone that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early ZZ Top album. The Keys, like the Stripes, are minimalists, preferring thick chords, short soloing, and letting the songs speak for themselves. From the opening note of “Thickfreakness” through the staccato distortion of “Hard Row” to the heavy fuzz of “Have Love, Will Travel,” the Keys know how to make the blues sound fresh. Only “Everywhere I Go” falls flat, while “No Trust” and “If You See Me” are too static. Otherwise, this is an album full of rough diamonds. Along with the Stripes, the Black Keys are doing an invaluable service of updating the blues while keeping the spirit alive. Grade: A
  • LibertadVelvet Revolver. The sophomore effort from the Guns ‘N Roses/Nine Inch Nails/Stone Temple Pilots “supergroup” is a nicely organic “band” effort. Despite the fact that they imploded in a maelstrom of egos and addictions shortly after the album was released, Velvet Revolver sounds more like an actual band than Audioslave ever did, or Blind Faith for that matter. Much of that is due to the fact that the lead guitarist (Slash) and rhythm section (Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum) do have a long history as a band, but they were smart enough to let singer Scott Weiland’s unerring sense of melody run on top of the riffs. There are great things on this album, like the bruising opener, “Let It Roll,” the ballad “The Last Fight” and even the cover version of the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head.” There are also a couple of lumpen riff rockers like “Get Out The Door,” but overall this is a solid collection of hard rock songs that combine the best elements of Guns (the scorching lead guitar) and Stone Temple Pilots (Weiland’s formidable voice and melodies). There’s nothing really to rival the absolute best of either Guns or the Pilots, but much of what here stands alongside what those bands did on a good day. Grade: B+

The Listening Post: December 2009

Rocking the Pod last month:

  • Before The Frost…Until The FreezeThe Black Crowes. When The Black Crowes burst onto the scene in 1990, their ambition was clear. They were dead set on reviving a classic rock sound best exemplified by bands like Faces and The Rolling Stones. The music was bluesy without being blues, soulful without being soul. Over the years they’ve followed that path with some great success (their soul-infused second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion) and some real clunkers (the Zeppelin-isms of the unfortunate Lions). What the Crowes were never able to really convey was any sort of real authenticity. They always sounded like the guys who got their blues influences from bands like the Stones and Aerosmith. On Before The Frost, it sounds like the Crowes have stepped back and started listening not just to Muddy and The Wolf, but also to the old American folk music. It’s still a great big rock record, recorded mostly live in Levon Helms’s barn, but the Crowes have never sounded more like a part of the American canon of popular music. From the Middle Eastern-infused semi-instrumental “Aimless Peacock” that opens the LP, through the rock balladry of the the closing “The Last Place That Love Lives” this is a raw, rootsy album. There are plenty of guitar hero moves from Luther Dickinson (“Been A Long Time” “And The Band Played On”) mixed in with folk and country songs that sound like they could be covers of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music (“The Garden Gate,” “Appaloosa,” “Shine Along,” “Roll Old Jeremiah”). There are gentle, soulful ballads (“Lady Of Avenue A”), Stones-y disco (“I Ain’t Hiding” which starts like “Miss You” but ends in a ferocious jam), and country blues (“A Train Still Makes A Lonely Sound”). Through it all Chris Robinson’s vocals have never sounded better and the Crowes have never provided a more sympathetic backdrop. This was released as “Before The Frost” with a free download of “Until The Freeze” if you bought the regular CD. However, they also released the two combined with a different running order as a double LP, and that’s the version I think works best because the couple of clunkers that do show up (“The Last Place That Love Lives,” the generic “Kept My Soul”) are lost in the midst of so much material, where they would stand out more on shorter releases. Grade: A-
  • Scraps At MidnightMark Lanegan. At the current time, Jack White is getting a lot of well-deserved press for his modernistic, garage rock recasting of the blues. But White’s not the only one out there who is working in this field. Since the demise of the great Screaming Trees, singer Mark Lanegan has been quietly recording some of the darkest, scariest blues records this side of the Mississippi Delta. The fact that the music itself doesn’t conform to standard blues tropes is testament to his incredible talent. Scraps At Midnight is the sound of rehab, of coming down from your high and looking your demons square in the eye. All of the pain, desolation, and fear of the blues can be heard in these sparse, mostly acoustic songs. From the opening track (“Hospital Roll Call” where the only lyric is a horrifying repeated intonation of the word “sixteen”—allegedly Lanegan’s rehab room number) through the winding, Trees-ish psychedelia of the closer “Because Of This,” Lanegan takes the listener on a guided tour of Hell. It’s a harrowing listen, and not at all instantly likable. Like Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night or John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, this isn’t an album to play when lounging by the pool at a family barbecue. Also like those albums, it reveals it’s greatness only with repeated plays. If you’re up for the ride, a peek into the heart of darkness, then this is modern blues that pays off on the effort. Grade: B+