Music to fade out the long, cold winter, slide through spring, and crash into summer.
- Morning Phase—Beck. 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.
- Flip Yer Wig—Hüsker 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.
- You Were Right—Brendan 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.
- Dig Out Your Soul—Oasis. 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.
- Fables of the Reconstruction: The Athens Demos—R.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.
- Sunday At Devil Dirt—Isobel 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.
- The Golden Age Of Glitter—Sweet 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.
- Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete Sessions—R.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)
Without the daily four-hour grind of commuting, I’m not listening to as much stuff these days. But there are a few things that have sparked the ear.
- King Animal—Soundgarden. It’s not supposed to work like this. Bands that broke up nearly two decades ago and then reunite should not put out new material that is this good. Of course, it helps that Chris Cornell has made good music fairly consistently since Soundgarden’s 1996 opus Down On The Upside. And drummer Matt Cameron has certainly kept his prodigious chops intact by joining Pearl Jam. Nobody’s really sure what guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd were doing in the time between Upside and King Animal, but they certainly kept in touch with their instruments. The Achilles heel of almost every album Soundgarden released at their peak (Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, Upside) was their insistence that every bit of data that could be squeezed onto a CD was squeezed onto a CD. At 52 minutes long, King Animal sounds positively short compared to the earlier albums. What the length of those earlier albums meant was that some songs were too long, or there were songs included that would have been left off in the days of vinyl: filler. Even an alternative rock classic like Superunknown has several songs that would have been better off never seeing the light of day.
King Animal is the shortest Soundgarden album since 1986’s Ultramega OK. It’s also the most consistently good album they’ve ever done. There is nothing on here that surpasses the classics that blared out of car radios back when you could actually hear music like this on car radios. There’s nothing as good as “Black Hole Sun” or “Blow Up The Outside World” here, but the songs on this album are not far off from those peaks and they’re all on that level. There are no sub-Sabbath dirges like “4th of July” or “Half” here either. The opening tracks are a statement of purpose. “Been Away Too Long”, “Non-State Actor” and “By Crooked Steps” serve notice that Soundgarden is back and that they’ve lost none of the chemistry that made them such a formidable presence back in the early- and mid-90s. The balance of the album brings the heavy (“A Thousand Days Before”, “Blood on The Valley Floor”, the punishing “Attrition”), but also plays up the band’s secret weapon: swirling, vaguely psychedelic instrumentation and melodies. It was this secret weapon that made “Black Hole Sun” so arresting when you first heard it. The reaction is similar when hearing “Bones Of Birds”, or “Black Saturday” (a close cousin to “Burden In My Hand”). There are curveballs like the album closer, “Rowing” which rides a Shepherd bass line straight to the delta and sounds like a Charley Patton field holler updated for the iTunes generation. There’s also “Taree”, an ode to growing up in the Northwest that has a time signature that defies description. “Eyelid’s Mouth” is a moody, sinuous mid-tempo number that ends in a welter of rhythmic riffs and searing lead guitar over Shepherd’s rubbery bass.
What the future holds for Soundgarden is unknown. Matt Cameron is an essential ingredient both for his drumming and his songwriting, and it’s doubtful he’d be willing to leave his very lucrative day job with Pearl Jam. But if the next album is as good as this one, whatever the wait is it will be worth it.
- Document (Deluxe Edition)—R.E.M. The golden children of Athens, GA are in the process of re-releasing all of their albums in 25th anniversary editions. The original albums have been thoroughly remastered, a second disc of unreleased material is included, along with a poster, postcards, liner notes, etc. They’ve done a great job with this, but then R.E.M. has done a great job on almost everything they’ve touched in their career. Document was the first R.E.M. album that broke through to the mainstream based on the Top 10 hit “The One I Love” and the FM/MTV favorite “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” but what’s so remarkable listening to it again after so many years is just how bizarre the album is. There may have been a hit single here, but Document was far from a bid for mainstream acceptance. Even that hit single was just one verse repeated three times (with a slight change the third time) and a one word chorus: Michael Stipe howling “Fire!” as if he was being tormented in Hell. The backing vocal in the chorus (Mike Mills singing “She’s coming down on her own now”) was inscrutable even if you could discern it. “The One I Love” was a fluke hit, most likely due to its beautiful production and a complete misunderstanding of the darkly vicious lyric. It was 1987 and Document sounded nothing like the Pet Shop Boys or Michael Jackson. “They’re numbering the monkeys/The monkeys and the monkeys/The followers of chaos out of control” sang Stipe on “Disturbance At The Heron House”. Who knows what it meant? Who cared? Army Special Counsel Joseph Welch is heard in his famous rebuke (“Have you no sense of decency?”) of Joseph McCarthy in the politically charged lyrics of “Exhuming McCarthy”. Stream of consciousness lyrics touching on everything from Donald Trump to, of course, LEONARD BERNSTEIN!! are rattled off at breakneck pace in “End Of The World”. “Strange” is a cover song of post-punk heroes Wire. The guitar that opens and punctuates the verses in “Finest Worksong” is discordant and distorted. And these are the songs that are on what’s usually considered the radio-friendly side of the album! Maybe in another universe, but in 1987 America this was as far from radio material as you could get. Side two is even stranger, with “Fireplace” (an ode to the Shakers), “Lightnin’ Hopkins” (which has absolutely nothing to do with the famous blues singer), the completely incomprehensible “King Of Birds”. Then there’s the album closer about a drunk who lives in his car behind the Oddfellows Local hall, where he drinks 151 proof rum and rants at the members of the order.
Document was a breath of fresh air in 1987 when I spent the autumn listening to it until it had burned a hole in my brain. It is still a breath of fresh air; it’s a brilliant, confusing, mysterious album whose lyrics and instrumentation consistently undermine it’s radio-friendly production. The second disc included is a live show from Holland that shows the band at the end of an era, and at their creative peak (which lasted for many more years). In 1988 R.E.M. would sign with a major label and begin their assault on superstardom. In this show, they are still very much the little band from Athens, Georgia but they are putting themselves in place to dominate the music world.
Grade: A+ (original album)
Grade: A (live disc)
- The Solution Is The Problem—Mark Scudder. The first album from singer/songwriter and one-man band Mark Scudder (available on iTunes and through his website markscudder.com) is a low-budget affair with grand pretensions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though Scudder sometimes gets a little carried away. Recorded at his home, with Scudder playing every note, The Solution Is The Problem swings between bracing post-alternative rockers (album opener “Moving To Silence”) and hushed acoustic ballads (the title track). Scudder is clearly a guy with music in his blood. His voice is limited; you can hear him straining when he goes for higher registers. However, he plays all the instruments with no small degree of skill (the exception, as is usual in most of these non-Dave Grohl one-man band albums, is drums, where Scudder is only adequate). Still, the album never really sounds like a band. Even when all the instruments are charging ahead and Scudder is joined by some backing vocalists, as on the anti-Occupy Wall Street broadside “Occupied”, it still sounds like the meticulously crafted work of one guy. This has the effect of making the album seem static. There’s no sense of spontaneity. Still, it’s hard to argue with music that’s this well-played, and Scudder does yeoman’s work here. His lyrics are quite good, and his conservative politics are certainly unusual for someone in this field whose name doesn’t rhyme with Bed Stugent. Throughout the album he takes shots at the Occupy movement, and at an unnamed left-wing television host (“Follow Me (The Hypocrite Song)”), and “Free” is a statement of broad intent whose target is either unnamed or too many to name. But politics is only part of the game, and thankfully not that big a part; politics in rock music (whether it’s on the Left or the Right), is best done in either small doses or obliquely.
There are two big flaws with the album. The first is that many of the songs sound the same: strummed acoustic guitars and Scudder’s deep voice eventually building to anthemic choruses or finales (“Free”, “I Want To Be With You”, “Alera”, “Occupied”). The songs are best when this device is used sparingly or when Scudder finds a groove and sticks to it (“Moving To Silence”, the excellent “I Will Love You If You Let Me”, “Follow Me”). The second, and more serious, flaw is that nearly every song is several minutes too long. Of the eleven tracks, only two come in under five minutes while a whopping seven are over six minutes, and four of those are over seven. The finale, “Real Hope”, is a nearly eleven minute-long instrumental soundscape that comes perilously close to New Age. Virtually every song on the album would have benefited from some judicious pruning. Mark Scudder is a talent to watch, but he would greatly benefit from playing with other musicians and from adhering to Rock and Roll Songwriting Rule #1: keep it short and powerful; it took the Beatles years before they wrote a song as long as the shortest one here.
The sounds of summer begin.
- Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968—Stephen 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.
- 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.
- 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
Signs of spring, lots of tunes.
- Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, Volume II: The Solstice Bare—Smashing Pumpkins. The second of 11 proposed EPs by the reconstituted Pumpkins (at this point really just Billy Corgan) is yet another winner. Corgan’s released nine songs from the projected 44-song opus he’s calling Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, and every one of them has been a winner. The second EP has nothing as good as the first EP’s “Song For A Son” or “A Stitch In Time” but it’s more consistently good. Corgan has embraced the swirling psychedelia that made for so many memorable Pumpkins singles and that he abandoned on the last full-length album, Zeitgeist. The result is that Billy’s got his groove back and that this project is (so far) the best stuff he’s done since Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It even compares well against the titanic Siamese Dream. It could fall off the earth at any time, and hoping that the remaining 35 tracks will be this good is probably a fool’s hope but so far, so good. “Freak” is a hard-charging riff rocker, “Spangled” a pretty ballad about love in the moonlight, “Tom Tom” is heavy pop, and despite an awful 80s-style synthesizer riff, “The Fellowship” eventually builds into a satisfying rocker.
- Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac—Fleetwood Mac. Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham turned Fleetwood Mac into a California-sound hit machine in the mid-70s, but in 1968 they were rising from the ashes of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and playing a ferocious British version of Chicago blues. What makes the early Fleetwood Mac rise above most of their British blues contemporaries is the genius guitar playing of Peter Green. Green had the chops of Clapton but was capable of playing with more subtlety, and he played with more of a real feel for the blues than guys like Alvin Lee and Kim Simmonds. He also played straight blues far better than either Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page. It’s this guitar playing, sharp, empathetic, and brilliant, that makes this first Fleetwood Mac album better than most others of its type. It’s not on the level of Mayall’s album with Clapton, but it’s still excellent. Elmore James is a key figure here, and Green plays a hellbound slide guitar, particularly on “Shake Your Moneymaker.” The languid, almost underwater guitar tones of “I Loved Another Woman” and the acoustic “The World Keeps On Turning” are the other standout cuts. As a rhythm section, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are solid, but this is Green’s show, so a song like “Looking For Somebody,” which puts Green in the back seat behind an unconvincing harmonica, drags, and some of the tracks are a little on the generic side. Overall, though, this is one of the better examples of British blues.
- One Step Beyond—The Chocolate Watchband. For me, this is the most satisfying album by the garage rockers, even if it’s the least garage rock-oriented. The sound here is based strongly on Jefferson Airplane. Songs like “Uncle Morris” could have fit nicely on Crown Of Creation. “Flowers” starts like the Moody Blues before it turns into Love. The garage roots are not completely gone. “Sitting There Standing” is a rough and tumble guitar rocker that brazenly rips off the Yardbirds song, “The Nazz Is Blue” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” is a Humble Pie-ish rocker. Clearly originality was not the Watchband’s strong suit, and in 1969 that may have been important. From the perspective of 2011, this is a very good collection of late 1960s psychedelic-tinged rock. There are a couple of clunkers, especially the two bonus tracks, but this is a fine album and highly recommended to fans of late 1960s rock music.
- Wrecker!—Mono Men. Seattle’s roots-oriented garage punkers deliver a decent effort with this 1992 release. It’s a very hard rocking album, with lots of punky raveups but it’s mainly a triumph of style over substance. A lot of it’s good, especially in the first half of the album. “Watch Outside,” “Your Eyes,” and “Last Straw” offer a muscular opening, but the only truly great song (“Testify”) is tucked away near the end of the album, though “See My Soul” comes close to that level. In the meantime, there are by-the-numbers rockers like “One Shot” and “Swampland,” and some strictly mediocre filler like “Tomahawk” and “Don’t Know Yet.” It’s a good album, but far from great.
- Whatever Turns You On—West, Bruce & Laing. One part Cream, two parts Mountain. How could it go wrong? On paper, this should work in spades. Jack Bruce is an extraordinary bassist and singer, Leslie West stands shoulder to shoulder with Eric Clapton as a guitarist, and while Corky Laing is no Ginger Baker he’s still an excellent drummer. Somewhere in the mix, it did go wrong. There are several inspired moments on this album, but that’s all it amounts to. The album opener “Backfire” is a solid rocker squarely in the Mountain tradition (and let’s give it up for Leslie West as a singer, as well as a guitarist), “Sifting Sand” is a power ballad done right, with the power surging through the entire piece, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Machine” rides a Sabbath-style rhythm with about 45 seconds of Floyd-style spaciness, and “Scotch Crotch” has a great Jack Bruce vocal over a charging piano rhythm. The problem here is that the rest of the album seems uninspired at best (“Token,” “November Song,” “Dirty Shoes”) and turgid at worst (“Slow Blues,” “Like A Plate”). West, Bruce & Laing sounds like a great idea, and every once in a while they give you a hint as to what they may have been capable of doing, but overall the album is a letdown.
- Collapse Into Now—R.E.M. Since the departure of drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. has been a band adrift. They piled on drum machines and electronic squiggles on the weird Up, toned down the electronic elements for the lackluster Reveal, went slow with the humorless Around The Sun, and then released a brief album of punky rockers with Accelerate. All of these albums had at least a couple of moments of greatness, but great moments on albums was a serious comedown for a band that released some of the best albums of the past 30 years. Collapse Into Now is the best album they’ve done since New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Once again, R.E.M. sounds like they’re having fun. In this case, the fun comes from going through their closets and trying on the suits they once wore so well. Collapse is almost defiantly retro, but it doesn’t imitate the past so much as it insinuates the reasons that R.E.M. was such a great band. Much of it sounds like old, unreleased R.E.M. songs from the first half of the 90s, compiled on a mix tape by a fan who knew what he was doing. The overly repetitive and somewhat dragging “Oh My Heart” is a sequel to Accelerate‘s “Houston,” “Blue” deftly combines of Out of Time‘s “Belong” and “Country Feedback” with New Adventures‘s “E-Bow The Letter.” Songs like “Discoverer” and “All The Best” rock as hard as anything from Monster without that album’s reliance on distortion, while the ballads act as a glue that holds the album together. The lush “Walk It Back” may be their best ballad since Automatic For The People. Despite a title that sounds like the punch line to a naughty joke, “Mine Smell Like Honey” explodes into the best chorus these guys have come up with in 20 years. Throughout the album, bassist Mike Mills provides prominent backing vocals, which has always been R.E.M.’s secret weapon. There are also some guest stars helping out. Electronica singer Peaches fills in for Kate Pierson on the great, but inscrutable, “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” and Eddie Vedder provides a wordless howling backing vocal on “It Happened Today,” while Patti Smith reprises her “E-Bow” role on “Blue.” Collapse Into Now is R.E.M. playing it safe, but also playing to all of their many strengths. It isn’t on the same level of the albums from their heyday (few albums are), but it proves that R.E.M. can still deliver the goods, and do it far better than most younger bands.
- Chutes Too Narrow—The Shins. I never knew that “Indie Rock” was an actual sound until I heard The Shins. For me, “indie” was always about record label or, at least, about not conforming to any sort of mainstream conventions, but the actual bands ran a pretty wide gamut in terms of their sound. But then I heard The Shins and thought, “Oh, indie rock.” It’s a backhanded slap, or a fronthanded compliment. The Shins have a really good sound. They’re tuneful and melodic, and play a good combination of solid rock and wistful ballads. Chutes Too Narrow, their second album, is a very good collection of songs that seem to float in the ether. There’s nothing here that feels really substantial, but everything on here is thoroughly enjoyable, from the effervescent power pop of the opening “Kissing The Lipless” to the lightly plucked acoustic ballad “Those To Come” which closes the album on a bit of a down note. Along the way The Shins hit greatness with “Saint Simon” and “Turn A Square” but most often settle into a very good groove that mixes power pop, guitar jangle, and ballads. They’re the thinking man’s Rooney, with none of the annoying quirks that mar that band’s output. Very good stuff indeed.