The Listening Post: April 2011

Warmth starts to arrive for real, and pop music is the order of the day.

  • Mighty BabyMighty Baby. Rolled Gold, a collection of band demos by Sixties mod Freakbeat band The Action, was a sterling set. Though not released until 1995, the album stands up alongside such legendary albums as There Are But Four Small Faces and S.F. Sorrow. But the songs from Rolled Gold were also the end of the band, who then rose out of the ashes of The Action as Mighty Baby. Their self-titled debut was recorded in 1968 but not released until 1969 and it’s an excellent collection of late Sixties British psychedelia. While a lot of the British psychedelic scene was marked by a taste for music hall and stories of wizards and knights, Mighty Baby’s roots as a hard rock band kept their music grounded. There’s some Middle Eastern stylings in “Egyptian Tomb,” “House Without Windows” relies on the standard “I met a man while I was journeying down life’s road and we talked about the meaning of life” hippie cliche, and “At A Point Between Fate And Destiny” is as pretentious and boring as the title suggests (as well as including lyrics about an “ancient hermit”—strike three). But what makes this album more listenable today than much British psychedelia is the muscle behind the songs. There’s a high level of musicianship and most of the songs rock…something you can’t really say about bands like Tomorrow or even early Pink Floyd.
    Grade: B+
  • The Best Of The Lovin’ SpoonfulThe Lovin’ Spoonful.The gentle folk rock stylings of The Lovin’ Spoonful underpinned several songs that can only be considered classic anthems of the mid-60s. There’s simply no denying songs like “Daydream,” “Summer In The City,” “You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice,” “Do You Believe In Magic?”, “Jug Band Music,” and “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” Perhaps best of all is the achingly beautiful, “Darling, Be Home Soon.” Forty plus years ago the Spoonful were blasting out of every AM radio in the country, and much of it is impossible not to like. At their best, they wrote classic pop tunes. Having said that, there’s also an ephemeral air to much of this. The songs float precisely because they are lighter than air. These are songs that are instantly enjoyable coming out of a radio while laying on the beach or enjoying the summer air. But aside from the aforementioned classic tracks, most of the rest is simply lightweight, enjoyable pop. It’s as temporary as an Abba album track. The Best Of The Lovin’ Spoonful makes a compelling case for the band as enjoyable hitmakers with some high quality songs that you may never have heard. They’re not as serious or hard rocking as The Rascals, but they have more hipster credibility than Dionne Warwick. While it’s playing, it’s a great listen. When it’s not playing, you will remember only the handful of classic tracks.
    Grade: B+
  • Mars Needs Guitars!Hoodoo Gurus. Strip away early R.E.M.’s indecipherable mumble and sinister atmospherics, and shine up the choruses and you’ve got Hoodoo Gurus. From the opening power pop salvo of “Bittersweet” the Gurus pile on hooks and catchy choruses. “In The Wild,” “Death Defying” and “Like Wow–Wipeout” are indisputable highlights, but the album is consistently solid, a triumph of songwriting and execution, marred only by a too-shiny production straight out of 1985. Unfortunately many of even the best albums from this time period struggle against the awful production that was a sign of the times, and Mars Needs Guitars! is one of those albums. The album also ends on a weak note, with the title track and “She” providing a decent, but lackluster, finale.
    Grade: B+
  • Jesus Of CoolNick Lowe. Homage must be paid first to the album title. How awesome is calling your first solo album Jesus Of Cool? Answer: pretty freakin’ awesome. Unfortunately, it was only released in the UK under that title. The American version, with a slightly altered track listing bore the also quite cool title Pure Pop For Now People. Nick Lowe was always something of an anachronism in popular music. He had the heart of a rock ‘n’ roller from the Fifties and Sixties, with an intense pop sensibility that rendered his music as catchy as only the very best power pop can be. He also had a very skewed lyrical sense that you can see in the works of modern day Lowes like Brendan Benson; there’s really no question about it: “Marie Provost” is the best song ever written about a dead movie star whose corpse is eaten by her pet dachshund, and “Nutted By Reality” is at the top of the short list of songs written about castrating Fidel Castro. You can also hear where early Elvis Costello got much of his sound, especially on Armed Forces, which featured the hit single “What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)?”, written by Lowe and first recorded by Lowe’s band Brinsley Schwarz. Only “Shake And Pop” and “Tonight” lag a bit. “Shake And Pop” sounds uninspired, especially when compared to Rockpile’s ferocious version of the same song (called “They Called It Rock” and included as a bonus track). “Tonight” simply doesn’t go anywhere. But the lowlights are rendered irrelevant by classic pop rock tracks like “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass,” “So It Goes, ” “Marie Provost” and a killer live version of Lowe’s single “Heart Of The City.”
    Grade: A-

The Listening Post: August 2010

The long, hot summer continues and I am escaping the swelter into the past of Mod/freakbeat-type stuff from a bygone era.

  • Friday On My MindThe Easybeats. It’s hard to tell with a lot of the records from this era whether the album is a genuine artistic statement from the band, or if it’s just a cobbled together collection of singles. That’s especially true with non-American bands since the American record labels frequently released bastardized collections of songs as albums. Either way, Friday On My Mind from Australia’s Easybeats is a winner. For starters, it has the classic title track which remains the single best waiting-for-the-weekend song in rock music, a song of such effervescent joy that it would make even the sternest curmudgeon sing along. But then when you add “Do You Have A Soul?” “Saturday Night,” “You Me We Love,” “Pretty Girl,” “Happy Is The Man,” “Who’ll Be The One,” “Made My Bed, Gonna Lie In It” and “Remember Sam” you start talking about an album that stands alongside the best albums of its type. If the caliber of the songwriting isn’t quite up to Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards levels, there’s still no question that the team of Harry Vanda and George Young (older brother of AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus) are still first-rate tunesmiths. There’s also a punky cover of the perennial ’60s standard, “River Deep, Mountain High,” a by-the-numbers Mod raveup called “Women (Make You Feel Alright)” and a throwaway tip of the hat to nascent psychedelia (“See Line Woman”). Whether Friday On My Mind is an artistic statement from the band, or a make-a-buck package from an American record company is, in the end, irrelevant. It’s a fine album, and much of it brushes the edges of brilliance.
    Grade: A
  • Rolled GoldThe Action. The Action was a middling R&B band out of North London that had the distinction of being signed to EMI by George Martin, the producer for, and man who signed, the Beatles. They played around for a few years doing the usual Sixties covers like “Land of 1000 Dances” and songs by Goffin and King. In 1967 they went into the studio and recorded a series of demos that showed the influences of bands like the the Small Faces and the Who, as well as the growing psychedelic scene. The record company hated the demos and refused to release the album, and the band broke up. In 2002, Rolled Gold was released and it’s a gem. The obvious touchstone for the album is The Small Faces, but it would be unfair to imply that The Action is strictly a second-rate copy of that great band. These are startlingly good songs, beautifully played and sung. Only the slow, acoustic-based “Things You Cannot See” is of a less than extremely high quality, and it’s not bad at all. Of the rest, “Come Around,” “Something To Say,” “Brain,” “Look At The View,” “I’m A Stranger,” “Little Boy,” “Follow Me” and “In My Dream” are as good as anything that came out of the London Mod scene in 1967 (and yes, that includes the Small Faces and the Who). The remaining songs are nearly as good. How this album never saw the light of day in 1967 is a mystery. Had it been released it would today be considered a cult classic along the lines of S.F. Sorrow or Something Else By The Kinks.
    Grade: A
  • No Way Out…PlusThe Chocolate Watchband. Things really were different in the 1960s, and some bands just couldn’t get any respect. The Chocolate Watchband was a rough and tumble garage rock band who scored with the brutal “Are You Gonna Be There (At The Love-In)?” a musical question that sounded like it was being posed by the Manson family, and not the Earth mothers who wore flowers in their hair. Once they went to the studio to record an album, however, the record label and their management started swapping out members and replacing them with session musicians. Even the lead singer was replaced for some songs. The end result of that is that this a band with no real identity since it’s nearly impossible to know who is playing what. Given that, this first album (in this expanded edition) is surprisingly good. The replacement players did their parts well, playing in the garage/punk style of the original band. There’s a fine, raw version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Hot Dusty Roads” and a somewhat psychedelicized take on Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” but the album is at its best on the punishing, fuzz-drenched rockers like “Love-In,” “Let’s Talk About Girls,” “Milk Cow Blues,” and “Sweet Young Thing.” The ballads “Misty Lane” and “She Weaves A Tender Trap” are also excellent and there’s a decent, but loose run-through of “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” Where the album falls apart are the faceless psychedelic instrumentals “Dark Side of the Mushroom,” and “Expo 2000,” and the dreadfully dull “Gossamer Wings.” No Way Out…Plus is a good collection with a few songs that should be pictured in the rock ‘n’ roll dictionary next to “garage rock.”
    Grade: B
  • Take A Vacation!The Young Veins. The two main songwriters from emo-weenies Panic At The Disco apparently ran out of mascara, so they split up that band in order to go all the way back in time to the mid-sixties. Everything from the Beach Boys-style cover art to the mid-Sixties production of the music mark Take A Vacation as an album strangely out of time. That said, this is a good collection of catchy songs. It’s far from a grand artistic statement and as an album it doesn’t stand up to the best albums of the decade for which they pine. This is not even close to being a Beatles or Stones album, and it’s a several steps below the second tier of mid-Sixties bands like the Hollies. The Young Veins have to settle for releasing a uniformly pleasant batch of very catchy, finger-snapping, toe-tapping songs that are in one ear and out the other. Yes, it’s a good way to listen to tunes for 29 minutes, but why would I want to go back and listen to this when I can listen to The Hollies’ Greatest Hits?
    Grade: C+
  • Love & DesperationSweet Apple. For those about to rock, Sweet Apple salutes you. Sweet Apple is apparently an indie rock supergroup, though the only name I’m familiar with is Dinosaur Jr.’s guitar genius J Mascis, who plays the drums on this collection. The album was the result of a gathering of friends in an attempt to help one of them, band leader John Petkovic deal with his grief after the death of his mother. The end result is twelve tunes that rock in a style unheard in decades. It’s not that this is the heaviest or fastest thing you’ve ever heard, it’s that it echoes 1975 in a more seamless manner than the Young Veins’ mimicry of 1965. Forget the cover art that shamelessly steals from Roxy Music’s Country Life. There are no pretensions to Roxy-style art rock. This is also not the arena rock of Queen or Bad Company. Sweet Apple is the unrepentant outdoor summer festival rock of Grand Funk Railroad, minus the shirtless poetry of Mark Farner, the bong-rattling bass of Mel Schacher, and the competent drumming of Don Brewer. “Do You Remember” and “Somebody Else’s Problem” are great heavy rock, and “Blindfold” rides an asteroid-sized riff into your skull and climaxes with a corrosive guitar solo that will turn your brain to goo. Nothing else on the album rises quite to the level of these three songs, but all of the rest is pretty darn close. If you like your rock music heavy in that stadium boogie style, but played with an alt-rock edge, Sweet Apple hits the bulls-eye.
    Grade: B+