Wrapping up nearly four years of commuting four hours a day.
- Tin Can Trust—Los Lobos. It’s been a very long time but Los Lobos—one of the greatest live bands in the world—has finally delivered a worthy followup to their 2002 gem Good Morning Aztlán. The fact is that the twenty years since their 1992 masterpiece Kiko has been pretty patchy. Colossal Head and This Time were hurt by uninspired songs and kitchen sink production. The Ride, an album containing duets with a number of other artists, was only partially successful. The Town And The City was better, but lacked a lot of the excitement and vigor that Los Lobos is more than capable of dishing out. But Tin Can Trust has it all. From the opening strum of acoustic guitar before it’s accompanied by a seemingly bottomless bass in “Burn It Down” the album leaps out of the speakers. It’s one of those rare albums that you know you’ll enjoy as soon as it starts. There are a couple of misfires: the jammy instrumental “Do The Murray” and the spacey “Jupiter Or The Moon” put a dent in your listening experience. Overall, though, these are exceptionally good songs. “Tin Can Trust” is a beautifully melancholy song about trying to make it in a bad economy, “All My Bridges Burning” features a great guitar solo and stunningly evocative vocal. Their version of “West L.A. Fadeaway” is yet more evidence that the Grateful Dead were better songwriters than performers. This version simply destroys the Dead’s original. Tin Can Trust also contains two extraordinary Spanish-language mariachi songs, proving that traditional Mexican music and rock ‘n’ roll can peacefully coexist when they’re played by a band that is this good. And at their best, Los Lobos is insanely good. Tin Can Trust falls a little short of albums like Kiko, The Neighborhood, and By The Light Of The Moon, but it’s still an extraordinary piece of work.
- Little Feat—Little Feat. The first album from California’s Little Feat is often overlooked even by fans of the band. That’s a shame, because it’s great. The second album, Sailin’ Shoes, had a little more weirdness to it, and a superior version of “Willin'” which makes its début on this album, so for most people it’s the second album that really begins the band because that was where their vision really started to take hold. But that’s not to say this album is devoid of that weirdness. Band leaders Lowell George and Roy Estrada were straight out of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, one of the weirdest bands of all time. Just check out titles like the slide guitar workout “Snakes On Everything”, “Brides Of Jesus”, “Hamburger Midnight”, and the brief, irresistible album closer “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie.” There’s also a failed cover of Howlin’ Wolf via Captain Beefheart in the rote blues “Forty Four Blues/How Many More Years.” Still, the Wolf cover is the only false note on the album. The album is blues, but it’s been run through the ringer and emerges as something skewed. It’s a band that’s close to achieving their own sound, but they’re not quite there yet. The difference is between the version of “Willin'” that appears here and the one that appears on the next album. In either version, it’s one of George’s best compositions. But while the Little Feat version is great, the Sailin’ Shoes version is the way the song is supposed to sound. Still, the album begins with two classic Feat songs (“Snakes On Everything” and the brilliant “Strawberry Flats”) and ends with a run of three songs that are as good as anything that came out of that California/Laurel Canyon scene (“Crack In Your Door”, “I’ve Been The One”, “Takin’ My Time”) before climaxing with the jaunty fun of “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie.” Little Feat is very close to being a lost classic.
- Pezband—Pezband. Who? Yeah, good question. The surprise is not that there was once a band called Pezband. The surprise is that this, their début album from 1977, is so great. This is classic power pop. Hearing it in 2012 it’s almost impossible to remember a time when music like this was being pumped out of radios everywhere. As with most power pop bands they lack some of the power of the very best practitioners of the style, but they’ve got the pop down perfectly. The best power pop outfits (Badfinger, early Who, the Jam, Brendan Benson) combined the pop hooks and choruses of the Beatles with a thicker, heavier guitar sound. In so doing they created something different. It was reminiscent of the Beatles without sounding like the Beatles. It was harder-edged like the Rolling Stones, but more melodic. Pezband plays up the melodies and hooks while putting the heavy guitars into a background role, but unlike most of the second tier of power pop bands the heavy guitar does have a place. In fact, the final song “Close Your Eyes” ends with a wall of cascading drums and a truly ripping guitar solo. This was a band that could really play. This song, as well as “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “When I’m Down” are power pop on a Badfinger level. The rest of the album isn’t quite up to that very high standard, but only “Tracer” and “Gas Grill” slide into a more generic level. The rest of the album is full of well-written, punchy, hook-filled wannabe hit singles. What’s surprising about Pezband is that they didn’t become as well-known as their fellow Chicago brethren, Cheap Trick. Certainly the songs were there.
- Collider—The Sam Roberts Band. Say this for Canadian troubadour Sam Roberts: He’s consistent. Unfortunately that’s what makes this album difficult to review. There’s a lot of this album that’s good: “The Last Crusade”, “Without A Map”, “No Arrows”, “Longitude”, “Twist The Knife”, “Partition Blues”, “Tractor Beam Blues” are all solid songs that sound like almost every other Sam Roberts song. Truthfully, if Collider was my first exposure to Roberts I would probably think more highly of it. Some of these songs are really very good. But this is Roberts’s fourth album, and the songs are all starting to sound alike by this point. “Without A Map” is good, catchy, well-played. But it’s hard to differentiate it from songs off We Were Born In A Flame, Chemical City, and Love At The End Of The World. It’s just another Sam Roberts mid-tempo song, high on craftsmanship, low on inspiration. To be fair, there are only two clunkers on the album. The turgid “I Feel You” and the languid “The Band Vs. The World.” However, there are also moments when the craft of songwriting meets inspiration, “Let It In”, “Graveyard Shift”, “Streets Of Heaven (Promises, Promises)” and “Sang Froid” are all Sam Roberts at his best. Collider is a Sam Roberts album. This is what he does. As with the others, it’s almost start-to-finish enjoyable. But if you’ve heard Roberts before, you’re hearing him now.
- Oceania—Smashing Pumpkins. It’s been a long time since I was looking forward to a Smashing Pumpkins record. Bill Clinton was President. After the departure of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain following Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, Billy Corgan seemed like a man who didn’t know where to go next. The band continued to release some great songs, but no great albums, until they broke up in 2000. Corgan followed the band with Zwan (whose one album is unfairly forgotten) and a solo album that was heavy on synthesizer noodling. Responding to pressure from fans, he reunited with Chamberlain and released Zeitgeist in 2007. It was a monstrously loud, riff heavy noisefest, and it wasn’t too difficult to figure out that Corgan was giving those fans who wanted him to rock out again an overdose of what they wanted. But in the last few years, again without Chamberlain, Corgan’s been releasing free downloads of a project called Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, and the songs have been excellent. When he announced the release of Oceania, it appeared that he’d made peace with the legacy of the Pumpkins, and was once again ready to put out work of a high quality.
So close…yet so far away.
Oceania is halfway to being a great Smashing Pumpkins album on the order of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. For the first five songs, it’s easy to be convinced that Corgan is back with a vengeance. The one-two punch of “Quasar” and “Panopticon” are flat-out terrific heavy rock. “The Celestials” and “Violet Rays” slow the pace, but continue the high quality. “My Love Is Winter” is one of those things Corgan does so well: melodic hard rock with psychedelic touches. After twenty minutes, Oceania is great enough to make you forget albums like Adore and Zeitgeist. Then it falls apart. Almost completely. “One Diamond, One Heart” has a great chorus but the music is straight out of 1985: washes of synthesizer over a robotic keyboard. “Pinwheels” takes two minutes of synth noodling before turning into a forgettable ballad. The title track is over nine minutes of prog-rock nothingness, culminating in a guitar solo that Corgan’s done so much better so many times. “Pale Horse” sounds like a lost Depeche Mode song that should have stayed lost, despite harrowing lyrics and a chilling final line: “Please come back, Pale Horse.”
Fortunately, Corgan picks it up again. “The Chimera” returns to heavy guitar rocking again with a catchy chorus. Musically it probably has more in common with Zwan than with the prime Pumpkins, but that’s okay. It’s one of the best tracks on the album. It’s followed by two more excellent songs, the sliding and gliding “Glissandra” and the hard groove “Inkless”, before limping to a conclusion with “Wildflower”, a nearly-five minute tone poem that would have been a good two-minute album closer, but is rendered almost unlistenable by its length. Better luck next time, Billy.
- Even If And Especially When—Screaming Trees. Opening with the terrific garage blast of “Transfiguration” the second full-length album from Seattle’s Screaming Trees is a continuation of the sound the band had forged, but the more overt psychedelic touches have been toned down and the guitars turned up. What comes through—sporadically, to be sure—is an early version of what would later be called grunge. “Straight Out To Any Place” could have fit nicely on the radio in the wake of the alternative rock explosion of 1992, and their first truly great song “Pathway” would not have sounded out of place on later Trees albums like Sweet Oblivion and Dust. What mars this album is that the band were still learning to write. Despite several gems, most of Even If And Especially When is standard issue garage rock. Quite good and fun to listen to, but not memorable in a way that later Trees songs would be. At this point, the Trees were still a band with great potential, but only good execution. It’s an improvement over their first album Clairvoyance, with songs like “Transfiguration”, “Straight Out To Any Place”, “Girl Behind The Mask”, “Cold Rain”, “Pathway”, and “Back Together” rising to the top. That puts half of this album solidly in the very good to great range. Of the other songs only “In The Forest” misfires. The others are simply decent album tracks that are quickly forgotten when the album ends.
- Throw It To The Universe—The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. And so, the best musical export from Sweden comes to its end. This is the last album by TSOOL, and it’s an odd one to go out on. What’s missing here is the pulverizing hard rock of which the band is capable. This is a laid back, groove-oriented album, heavy on lyrical reminiscences and fond farewells. The title track opens the album with both an introduction and a goodbye: “We say hello to say goodbye/We are the soundtrack of your life” sings frontman Ebbot Lundberg over a musical track that starts with a strummed acoustic guitar and builds to a solid rock climax. It’s one of the few outright rockers on the album, sharing it’s slow build properties with their previous album’s opener, “Babel On.” The second song, “You Are The Beginning”, is a lush, beautiful ballad. Most of the rest of the album splits the difference between these opening songs. There’s a heavy acoustic presence on the songs, and the majority of tracks ride a mid-tempo groove. This could get boring, but the album sensibly hovers just above the 45-minute mark. With 13 songs, nothing overstays its welcome, and the musical interplay between these guys is so good it makes each song a pleasure to hear. Even on the slower tracks there’s enough going on musically to keep things interesting. The lyrics are some of the best they’ve written, with nearly every song addressing the end of the band in some way: “we’re about to dissolve into oblivion”, “need to start again”, “the turning of the final race is here…now we’re back to be gone”. “Shine on/there’s another day after tomorrow/there’s another day after the end” sings Lundberg as TSOOL concludes their final album. This isn’t their best album, but it’s a fitting end.
- Secret Treaties—Blue Öyster Cult. Forget the admittedly funny Saturday Night Live skit with Christopher Walken recommending ever-increasing amounts of cowbell be added to BÖC’s classic rock staple “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” It was an odd skit coming about 30 years or so after the last Cult fan graduated high school. But then, BÖC was an odd band. For a period in the early to mid-Seventies, they were the bizarro cousins of Black Sabbath, relying more on science fiction than horror motifs. They were intelligent where Sabbath wasn’t, and while the Sabs relied on molten slabs of granite riffs, BÖC relied more on speed and the jack-rabbit runs of guitarist Buck Dharma (Donald Roeser). They were dubbed “heavy metal” but they were really more of a psychedelic-tinged hard rock band. Secret Treaties, released in 1974, should put the lie to the notion that BÖC was heavy metal. Sure there are plenty of hard riffs, but the songs are far more melodic than most metal, and the music relies more on interplay than on crushing guitar. Lyrically they keep an eye on the dark side without resorting to the cartoonish doom and gloom of Sabbath. The topics here include the closing days of World War II (“ME 262”), drug experimentation with horrific side effects (“Flaming Telepaths”), what appears to be a song about interplanetary conflict (“Astronomy”), and one whose lyric was inspired by former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas (“Harvester Of Eyes”). Even the loaded title “Dominance and Submission” is not about what you think: it’s about New Year’s Eve in 1963 being the dividing line between the old and new music (“In Times Square people do the polka/Dominance…Submission…Radios appear/This New Year’s Eve was the final barrier”). Most of it’s pretty nonsensical, but just go with it. The melodies are great, the words are fun even if you don’t know what they’re about, and BÖC was a band that understood intricacy in their playing. This is a very good album.
Spring comes early, bringing much in the way of change.
- Born Under A Bad Sign—Albert King. The first Stax LP by Albert King is really a compilation of his earlier singles. It’s also one of the great blues albums of all time. From the indisputable classics of “Born Under A Bad Sign” and “Crosscut Saw”, both perennials of bar bands everywhere, to lesser-known but equally compelling songs like “Personal Manager” and “As The Years Go Passing By” Born Under A Bad Sign is the sound of one of the great bluesmen at his peak. One listen and it’s immediately clear how much debt Eric Clapton owes to King. The debt is so deep that it would be easy to mistake almost any one of King’s tight, high wire leads for Clapton’s solos on the Disraeli Gears album. King is a deep, rich singer, and his stinging guitar work can be heard in almost all subsequent electric blues. When you combine this with the fact that his backing band on the album is Booker T & The MGs, one of the greatest, most sympathetic, bands in rock history, you’ve got a combination of blues and soul that can’t be beat. It is soul that is the secret ingredient here, replacing the grit and howls of traditional blues with a texture that makes these songs stand out in a crowd. Many of the songs here have been covered to death, but these are the versions that will last. Cream’s version of “Born Under A Bad Sign,” or Free’s version of “The Hunter” may be more well-known, but these are the timeless originals that will still be here long after the covers have faded.
- Sloe Gin—Joe Bonamassa. Most blues performers are eager to flaunt their intimate knowledge of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. With good reason, I might add. Joe Bonamassa is something of an exception. He’s far more beholden to Cream, Free, and the British Blues Boom of the 1960s than he is to the founding fathers of blues. Bonamassa is a blues-rocker, the likes of which we really don’t see much anymore. As a performer, he’s considerably better than latecomers like the pedestrian Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the execrable Jonny Lang. However, he’s also not the 21st century’s Great White Hope for blues. Stevie Ray Vaughan, he’s not. What Bonamassa is, is a decent, if somewhat sterile, singer and virtuoso guitarist who is completely besotted with late-1960s blues rock. Sloe Gin suffers from the same malady that affects too many albums in the CD era—it’s too long. That problem can be solved by eliminating the eight plus minutes of the title track, a go-nowhere cover of a song once recorded by Tim Curry (!). Minus that particular time suck, Sloe Gin is a rock-ribbed exercise in simulated British blues, of a type not heard since the heyday of Rory Gallagher. In fact, if there’s a single guitarist whom Bonamassa most closely resembles, it’s Gallagher. Like the celebrated Irish guitarist, Bonamassa mixes his hard electric blues rock with acoustic guitar workouts. Perhaps somewhat ironically, it is these acoustic tracks the provide many of the highlights of this album. “Around The Bend” features magnificent finger-picking and a vocal that comes as close as anything he sings to true soulfulness. “Jelly Roll” is a fine, funky take of a song by John Martyn. “Richmond” is truly beautiful, mixing light acoustic picking with subtle accompaniment. “India” is an acoustic/electric raga that Michael Bloomfield would be proud of, and a track that owes some debt to Mountain’s “For My Friend” in its alternation of gentility and ferocity. It is these acoustic tracks that add flavor and texture to the album and that elevate it to a higher level. There are some great electric workouts, like “Ballpeen Hammer”, “Another Kind Of Love”, and the blistering “Black Night” and the balance of the album is smartly chosen songs played with lots of fire. Bonamassa may be lacking in some authenticity, but so were the majority of British bluesers that he calls his influences. But for those (like me) who complain that nobody’s making music like Cream, Blodwyn Pig, Led Zeppelin, or Free anymore…well, Joe Bonamassa is proof that such music still exists.
- Other Worlds (EP)—Screaming Trees. Even the best bands have to start somewhere. Screaming Trees started in 1985 with this 6-track EP, which is very much a product of the times. Far from the dark, swirly, guitar-heavy crush of their later albums, Other Worlds is nearly a tribute to Chronic Town-era R.E.M. It’s practically a parallel universe version of the début EP from Athens’s finest, right down to the herky-jerky rhythms that border on danceable, high vocals (good Lord, is that really Mark Lanegan singing?), and subtle lyrical psychedelicisms. Other Worlds doesn’t hold up as well as Chronic Town, mainly because R.E.M. emerged as a mature band with a distinct sound while Screaming Trees are still searching for their sound at this point. But “The Turning” (a different version of which would show up on their début LP, Clairvoyance, in 1986) and “Now Your Mind Is Next To Mine” (great title, that) are excellent examples of the early Trees sound, while “Like I Said”, “Pictures In My Mind”, and “Other Worlds” are very good. Only “Barriers” is lackluster. Screaming Trees did some great work later in their career, but this is the sound of a young band having fun and trying to figure out their path. Very good on the merits, but hardly essential listening.
- Live On Ten Legs—Pearl Jam. I have never seen Pearl Jam in concert, though I’ve seen all the films, videos, etc. They are an astoundingly good live band, maybe the best since the prime of The Who. As players, they are some of the best in rock music today. Matt Chamberlin is a ferociously good drummer, and Mike McCready doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition he deserves as a guitar player. Add in Jeff Ament’s bass, Boom Gaspar’s keyboards, and Stone Gossard’s rhythm guitar and you’re talking about a level of musicianship that most bands would kill for. And then there’s Eddie Vedder who brings a raw level of excitement and passion to his performances that remind you of Roger Daltrey. Vedder is not the stadium showman, à la Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, or Freddie Mercury. It’s abundantly clear that Vedder’s idol is Daltrey, whose powerhouse vocals and intense, contained sense of impending violence was like a bonfire on the Who’s stages. Live on Ten Legs is the band’s second live album, not counting the dozens (hundreds?) of “official” bootlegs they released as tour souvenirs in a successful effort to beat bootleggers at their own game. This album is not as feral as 1998’s Live On Two Legs, but it’s close. It gathers highlights from their 2003-2010 tours, and takes pains not to overlap any songs with the earlier album. What that means is that some of their live showstoppers like “Even Flow”, “Black”, and “Do The Evolution” are not here. But it also means that “Alive”, “State Of Love And Trust”, “Rearviewmirror”, “Jeremy”, and “Yellow Ledbetter” finally get an official live release. There are also two cover songs: Joe Strummer’s “Arms Aloft” works perfectly since there is a lot of similarity between Strummer’s music and Pearl Jam’s. Less successful is an attempt at “Public Image” featuring Vedder trying his best to mimic John Lydon’s snotty vocal delivery. It’s not a bad attempt, but it doesn’t really work. Pearl Jam and Public Image, Ltd. are very different bands. Similarly, a lengthy jam on “Porch” serves only to sap the power from the song. There are other flaws: the version of “Yellow Ledbetter” is surprisingly ramshackle, and “Jeremy” suffers from overexposure…even the band sounds like they don’t really want to hear it. On the other end of the spectrum, “World Wide Suicide”, “Love and Trust”, “Alive”, “Animal”, and “Unthought Known” are amazing, surpassing the studio versions in almost every instance. Mike McCready really shines on “Nothing As It Seems”. There is also a great version of “I Am Mine”, one of the most tuneful Pearl Jam songs ever recorded, and a song that deserved to be a huge hit single, but was released at a time when Pearl Jam’s star was receding. The album is a notch below Live on Two Legs, but it is conclusive proof that Pearl Jam is still one of the most incendiary live acts in the world.
- After The Flood: Live From The Grand Forks Prom June 28, 1998—Soul Asylum. The Minneapolis band doesn’t get enough credit. They were so much more than “Runaway Train.” They had the good fortune of sticking around long enough to come through the door that Nirvana opened, unlike their real peers (and betters) The Replacements and Husker Du. Fortunately for Soul Asylum, their writing and playing peaked just at the time when alternative rock was becoming mainstream, and their hard-edged melodies were suddenly radio-friendly. Sure the awful video for “Runaway Train” was built for heavy consciousness raising rotation on MTV, but they actually found a few kids from that video, so all sins are forgiven. Besides, it was a truly great song until MTV beat it into your head every hour on the hour. In 1998, a huge flood hit Grand Forks, ND, destroying much of the town. As the waters receded, area high schools had a collective prom in an Air Force hangar that had been used as a refugee center. The prom band was Soul Asylum, which is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard since my brother’s high school class pooled their prom money and instead staged a concert by Edgar Winter’s White Trash. If you know the studio albums, there’s not much on here that you haven’t already heard in versions that are equally good or even better. Soul Asylum has always had a reputation of being a great live band, and it’s abundantly clear that they’re having a good time here. The songs are tight, loud, and bursting with exuberance. What elevates the album are the cover songs. The opener is a ferocious version of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and the set closes with the all-time great prom song “To Sir, With Love” and a fantastic version of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” In between they work in a stellar version of “The Tracks of My Tears,” and a poignant “I Can See Clearly Now”. One can only imagine what the teachers and parents thought of their kids’ prom band covering Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” inserting the F-word into “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and declaring that “suits are a pain in the ass.” But it’s Soul Asylum, and you can take the Minneapolis guttersnipes out of the gutter, but you can’t take the gutter out of the guttersnipes. This is a really solid album, with great cover songs, and well-played, well-chosen originals. The only misstep is not going further back in their repertoire, at least to some of the great tracks from their Hang Time album, but that strikes me as likely a record company decision.
Spring and more tunes are in the air:
- Seconds Of Pleasure—Rockpile. Not quite a forgotten classic, this is still an excellent album of old fashioned, 1950’s-style rock ‘n’ roll. Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe have always been rock and roll traditionalists, playing a brand of music that has clearly visible roots in rockabilly, Chuck Berry, and blues without sounding like they’re copying the style (a la The Stray Cats). The album opener “Teacher Teacher,” which was all over the airwaves when I was in high school, is the best moment on the album but there are gems aplenty, from “Heart” and “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time)” to “Wrong Again (Let’s Face It)” and “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine.” This is an album that may sound somewhat anachronistic today, but would still be a hit at any party. Not essential listening, but great fun from start to finish. Grade: B
- Heaven Tonight—Cheap Trick. The thing about Cheap Trick is that they’re a frustrating band. Blessed with talent, and capable of writing incredibly hooky power pop, they were also very inconsistent. Heaven Tonight is considered by many to be their best studio album and if that’s the case, it’s too bad. It’s not that the album isn’t good. In fact, overall it’s very good. But that’s only because the good material on it is great. There’s some not-so-hot material on the album, like the sub-“Kashmir” riffing of the title track, or the “Peter Gunn”-esque “On Top Of The World,” or the arena-ready posturing of “Auf Wiedersehen” or the annoying call-and-response vocals that mar the otherwise very good “On The Radio.” But this mediocre material (and it’s mediocre, not awful) is saved by the sheer brilliance of “Stiff Competition,” the cover of The Move’s “California Man” (complete with the sly incorporation of another Move song, “Brontosaurus”), the bouncy “How Are You?” and, most of all, by “Surrender,” one of the greatest of all 1970s rock songs. Grade: B
- The Sound Is In You—The Grip Weeds. Any band that names itself after John Lennon’s character in How I Won The War has got my attention. That’s way too cool a joke to ignore. But even without the name, 1998’s The Sound Is In You is a worthy listen. It’s a stellar album, filled with great musicianship and very strong songs. There is a very clear debt to the rock music of the 1960s, especially The Byrds and The Who. Much of this album sounds like a cross between those two bands. “Strange Bird” especially sounds like it was lifted completely off one of the first couple of Byrds albums. But from the real start of the album (not including a minute long “Intro”), “Every Minute,” to the fantastic closer “Inca,” there isn’t a disappointing note on the album. The band’s influences shine brightly throughout. In many ways you can play “Spot The Influence” on almost every track, from the blatantly obvious (“Strange Bird,” and their great take on the Buffalo Springfield rarity “Down To The Wire”) to the less obvious (the furious acoustic strumming that opens “What’s In Your Mind” harkens back to the Moody Blues’s “Question”, “Games” name checks the first Flying Burrito Brothers album), but the Grip Weeds manage to synthesize these influences and come out with a nicely updated take on 1960s garage rock. In that sense, they’re the garage rock equivalent to the more classic rock-oriented The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. The album rocks hard, but is never less than insanely tuneful and catchy. Fans of hard guitar rock, furious drumming, great harmony vocals, and hooks you could catch a whale with are well-advised to check this out. Grade: A
- Bleach (Deluxe Edition)—Nirvana. There’s really no escaping the fact that Bleach is an album that many people want to be great, but which simply isn’t all that fantastic. After the towering Nevermind and the blistering In Utero, many Nirvana fans sought out Bleach expecting an unheard classic. The inclusion of the brilliant “About A Girl” on MTV Unplugged only helped whet the appetite. But Bleach gives new meaning to the term “spotty.” About half of the album is great or at least very, very good. “Blew,” “School,” “Love Buzz,” “Negative Creep,” “Swap Meet,” “Scoff,” “Mr. Moustache,” and “Downer” are all prime slabs of early grunge music. As songs, they are somewhat lacking but they more than pass the audition based on sheer power and conviction. Here was a young band full of sound and fury and even at this early stage Kurt Cobain’s razor-ripped throat was enough to make a believer out of anyone. Best of all was “About A Girl,” one of the very few songs that could have easily fit on the later Nirvana albums, a true masterpiece that showed Kurt’s devotion to the Beatles. The rest of the album? Strictly mediocre riff-fests like “Floyd The Barber,” “Big Cheese,” “Paper Cuts,” and “Sifting” show a band that still hadn’t quite settled into a songwriting groove. But now the album has been re-released with a 12-track live concert from 1990 attached and it’s a stunner. The live show is recorded better than the actual album, and includes most of the highlights from Bleach as well as more well-known later tracks such as “Dive,” “Sappy,” “Molly’s Lips” and “Been A Son.” The performance is never less than ferocious. Sure, it’s a sloppy live show. Nirvana was a pretty sloppy live band, and while Chad Channing does a great job he’s no Dave Grohl. But for a band like Nirvana, sloppiness could be an asset. Because the performance is so frenetic and furious, it never sounds choreographed. The very realness of it leaks from every note, including the missed notes. The live show is not on a par with their recently released performance from the Reading festival, and it’s not as good as the bootlegged 1991 show from Halloween, but it still gives a great opportunity to hear the young band before they knocked the music world off its axis. Grade: B for the original album. Grade: A for the live tracks.
- Sin & Tonic—Mono Men. Lost in the Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Soundgarden/Alice In Chains tsunami that ushered alternative rock into the mainstream were Seattle’s Mono Men, who brought a more garage rock aesthetic to the punk/grunge movement. There’s no mistaking this album for any of the albums by Seattle’s first tier, but it’s a standout from the second tier, on a par with Flop’s Flop & The Fall Of The Mopsqueezer. Where Flop wrote power pop songs that placed equal emphasis on both the pop and the power, Mono Men dispense with the pop side of the equation and substitute a more roots-rock sound, even delving into quasi-surf instrumentals (“Monster”) and Blasters-meet-The-Clash rockabilly (“Waste O’ Time”). While there are only a few real standout tracks (“Mystery Girl,” “Hexed,” “Waste O’ Time”), the balance of the album is consistent in its excellence. Only the boring “Afterglow,” “Scotch,” and “No Way” drag the album down a bit and, of those three songs, only “No Way” goes nowhere. Grade: B+
- Clairvoyance—Screaming Trees. One of the best bands from the Seattle “grunge” explosion was also one of the most overlooked. Sure, people knew “Nearly Lost You” because it was on the Singles soundtrack, but Screaming Trees had been a recording outfit since the mid-1980s and several of their albums, especially their later albums like Sweet Oblivion and Dust, were as great as anything that came out of the Northwest alt-rock scene. Clairvoyance is their debut album from 1986, and it only hints at how great the band would later become. The sound of the band was closer to the Los Angeles “Paisley Underground” sound than it was to Seattle grungers like Green River, and a very Doors-y keyboard is at least as prominent as the raging guitars. It’s also hard to believe that it’s Mark Lanegan on vocals…his voice on these early songs is very different than the whiskey-and-cigarettes vocals he would later use to such great effect. The highlights include “Orange Airplane,” “You Tell Me All These Things,” “Forever,” “Lonely Girl,” “The Turning,” and the title track. Unfortunately, none of these highlights are great, and much of the rest is very mediocre. The band had not yet figured out who they were at this point, and many of the songs are heavy on feel and light on actual songwriting. Tracks like “Standing On The Edge” and “Strange Out Here” sink like anchors, and while the remaining tracks are listenable they’re not particularly memorable. There’s promise here, but the Trees would do much, much better. Grade: B-