The Listening Post: March 2011

Signs of spring, lots of tunes.

  • Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, Volume II: The Solstice BareSmashing 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.
    Grade: A
  • Peter Green’s Fleetwood MacFleetwood 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.
    Grade: B+
  • One Step BeyondThe 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.
    Grade: B+
  • 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.
    Grade: C+
  • Whatever Turns You OnWest, 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.
    Grade: C+
  • Collapse Into NowR.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.
    Grade: A
  • Chutes Too NarrowThe 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.
    Grade: B+
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The Listening Post: April 2010

April enters like a lamb, bringing warm weather and fresh music:

  • Diamonds In The RoughIan Person. From the guitar player of Sweden’s best band, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, comes this solo project. It has a lot in common with Soundtrack, especially the love of classic rock songs and structures. The influences on Person are clearly evident throughout the album: “Spiders” is sunny, ’60s pop, the title track is mid-70s Stones, “Fool’s Parade” sounds like a first pass at The Who’s “Overture” while also borrowing liberally from Ravel’s “Bolero,” “Summer Song” and “Make You Mine” nick the guitar tone from Big Star’s “Watch The Sunrise,” “The Delivery” is flamenco, etc. The big touchstone seems to be Tommy-era Who. If this criticism makes it sound like Person is just rehashing better songs by better bands, the truth is the opposite. These songs borrow the tone of their classic forebears, but are not copies of earlier songs. Diamonds In The Rough is an aptly-named gem of an album that pulls off the neat trick of sounding classic and fresh at the same time. The vocals are confident and relaxed, the guitar playing is superb. Person manages to make the album sound like a band project even though he is the main musician throughout, which is also no small feat. There are too many instrumentals for my tastes (five—and while a couple of them are truly excellent and none of them are bad, this is where the album stumbles). Overall, it’s a great achievement for Person to make an album that ranks alongside the best of his more well-known band efforts. More, please. Grade: B+
  • Stink (Deluxe Edition)The Replacements. The sophomore effort from The Replacements was the 1982 EP bearing the all-time classic title Stink. It was not as much fun as their magnificent debut with the equally all-time classic title Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, mainly because the humor was more obvious. Where the humor of the first album seemed natural, the humor on the followup seems forced (although hats off to “Dope Smoking Moron”). Paul Westerberg was not, at this point, a great songwriter, but he was at least a fun songwriter with an enormous amount of potential. But with the shining exception of “Kids Don’t Follow,” the songs on Stink are even more primitive than the ones on their debut. If you don’t think it’s possible to get more primitive than “I Hate Music,” just give a listen to “God Damn Job.” True, “Go” is a break in the Stink ethos of loud, hard, and unbelievably fast, and sounds more like the type of songs Westerberg would start to write on the next full-length album, Hootenanny. But while the lyrics on Stink sound like they were written twenty minutes after the song was recorded, the music is pure adrenalin: Westerberg, the Stinson brothers, and Chris Mars simply pummel the listener into submission, but since the original EP is 8 songs and only 14 minutes long, the effect is cathartic, not overwhelming. The deluxe edition features four additional songs and every one of them is a winner. “Staples In Her Stomach” is a prime example of early Replacements, as good as anything on the first three albums, and deliriously fractured versions of “Hey Good Looking” and “Rock Around The Clock” show that there was a depth of musical knowledge underneath the party-til-you-puke image the band projected. The fourth bonus cut is a home demo of a magnificent Westerberg song called “You’re Getting Married” that slows the tempo and clearly indicates that Westerberg was already starting to move past what he would later call “noisy, fake hardcore.” While Stink sounds like a bit of a rush job copy of the debut album, it’s still a whole lot of fun, and the bonus tracks make it even better. Grade: B+
  • Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, Vol. 1: Songs For A SailorSmashing Pumpkins. I’ll leave it to the hard core geeks to determine whether this is really the “Smashing Pumpkins” or just a Billy Corgan solo project under a more famous name. True, Corgan is the sole remaining Pumpkin, but then the Pumpkins were always the Billy Corgan Show. The guy played almost all of the instruments except drums, wrote almost all the songs, and sang everything. In the history of the Smashing Pumpkins, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha were little more than coat hangers for Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain. Corgan was the Pumpkins and if he wants to hire a bunch of people to replace Iha, D’Arcy, and Chamberlain…well, sure. What do I care? The last effort by the Pumpkins was their “reunion” album Zeitgeist which came and went without a trace, buried under a mountain of sludgy guitars. While there were some good moments on that album, the overall effect was like being beaten to death by jackhammers…loud, and unpleasant. What was missing from Zeitgeist were actual songs. The Pumpkins were always at their best mixing brutally hard rock (“Cherub Rock,” “I Am One”) with psychedelic dream pop (“Disarm,” “1979”). Pumpkins or not, this is what Corgan has returned to on this EP, the first of 11 projected EPs to be released under the catch-all title of Teargarden By Kaleidyscope. These four songs represent the best stuff Corgan has turned out since Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, and seem to indicate that Billy’s had his iPod set to a Led Zeppelin playlist. “A Song For A Son” revels in its Zeppelin IV-isms, and features scorching guitar work from Corgan, while “Widow Wake My Mind” combines a 1970s summertime breeze pop with Houses Of The Holy crunch. “A Stitch In Time” has a breezy acoustic/psychedelic feel. The final song, “Astral Planes” is the weak link. Musically it’s not at all bad but there’s only about five words in the song, repeated endlessly. If you’re going to write lyrics, make an effort. Otherwise, just leave it as an instrumental. Just for the record, I don’t really miss Iha or D’Arcy, but while the new drummer is excellent, replacing Jimmy Chamberlain is all but impossible. All songs are available as free downloads from Smashingpumpkins.com, and the actual EP will be released at the end of May. Grade: A.
  • The White StripesThe White Stripes. This blast of blues from Jack and Meg White is so primeval that if you listen closely you can actually hear the sound of red, white, and black dinosaurs off in the distance. Call it “Peppermintsaurus.” From the opening drum kick that starts “Jimmy The Exploder” to the squall that is “I Fought Piranhas” the debut album contains all the elements that would make the White Stripes one of the most exciting acts to come along since “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blew out of radio speakers. But just because all the elements are there, doesn’t mean they’re all in place. The White Stripes is defiantly primitive and the bluesiest of all their albums, and at times it reaches greatness: the covers of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup Of Coffee,” and the traditional “St. James Infirmary Blues,” are standouts. They are also all cover versions. The only original that rises to their level is the brooding “Do,” though several others are nearly as good, especially the furious “Screwdriver” and the molten metal Detroit blues, “The Big Three Killed My Baby.” But like the product put out by the Big Three, there are also clunkers: “When I Hear My Name,” “Little People,” “Slicker Dips” “Wasting My Time” and “Cannon” are riffs in search of a song (though “Cannon” has a welcome shout out to Son House by incorporating a couple of verses from “John the Revelator”). But this album also marks the first, welcome appearance of “Suzy Lee” (who would show up later on “We Are Going To Be Friends” from White Blood Cells), the excellent acoustic blues of “Sugar Never Tasted So Good,” and the twisted dance of “Astro,” which features a closing guitar solo that hits you like a taser. Jack and Meg would do better, but this is a fine album. Grade: B