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: 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+