Melting in the summer heat.
- Eternally Yours—The Saints. When Australia’s The Saints first kicked down the door in the Year of Punk with “I’m Stranded” they immediately set a very high bar for themselves and any other punk acts to follow. Though they’ve been largely forgotten by punk fans, “I’m Stranded” remains one of the greatest punk rock songs ever recorded. The album from which that song came was a strong collection of buzzsaw riffs and gargled vocals, but it was the band’s second album, Eternally Yours, that best defines the band. As time and the 1980s progressed, the Saints became more of a classicist rock band, marrying guitar-based hard rock with swinging, soulful horn arrangements. At its best (1987’s All Fool’s Day), the results were spectacular. 1978’s Eternally Yours carries the seed of this later sound. The opening blast of horns on “Know Your Product” is so breathtakingly in-your-face that you could be forgiven for thinking that the horn arrangements carry over to the rest of the songs. Once heard, this opening salvo is not forgotten, and while the horns do crop up again (in more muted fashion) on “Orstralia” the rest of the album is a solid wall of high-energy guitars. What matters here is the songcraft. For all of it’s punk brilliance, “I’m Stranded” would have been one of the lesser songs on this album precisely because the songwriting itself is so much better. Horns or not, these songs swing in a way that the first album didn’t. As early as this sophomore effort, the Saints were starting to branch out, incorporating not just the horns but acoustic guitars. The effect is to make this a far more listenable album than their first, while it retains all of the punk attitude and whiplash tempos.
- Dirt—Alice In Chains. I’m not sure this was the right time to immerse myself in Alice in Chains. With the sun shining brightly and the pretty girls on the beach and in the streets walking past in their summer finest, the relentless gloom of Alice’s drug-stained world was a tough listen. No wonder I alwways associate the alt-rock explosion of the early 90s with wintertime. Still, there is some greatness here. The opening blast of “Them Bones” is one of the best album openings you will hear, while “Dam That River,” “Sickman,” “God Smack,” “Down In A Hole” and “Would?” are all essential recordings. Many Alice fans would also put “Rooster” in that category, but I find the song dull. “Angry Chair” and “Rain When I Die” are also excellent, meaty slabs of Jerry Cantrell’s heavy metal guitars and Layne Staley’s tortured voice. But there is also enough mediocrity here to drag the album down. “Junkhead,” “Dirt,” and “Hate To Feel” are okay, but nothing special while “Intro (Dream Sequence)” is a 45-second waste of time. It is possible that heard another time this album may have sounded better to me. I found while listening to it that oftentimes I simply wasn’t in the mood to hear these songs of despair, drug addiction, and death. But for now…
- Summer Of A Thousand Years—The Grip Weeds. The gloom of Alice in Chains sent me running to the catchier, more summery harmonies and melodies of The Grip Weeds. However, this was not a particularly impressive effort. With a band as retro as the Grip Weeds it’s hard to criticize them too harshly because everything sounds good. Which means that more depends on the performance and on this album the Weeds simply don’t sound all that inspired. All of the elements are there: the Keith Moon-style drums, the Byrdsy harmonies, the Beatley guitars, a fabulously smart cover song (the Who rarity “Melancholia”), but what sounded explosive on The Sound Is In You sounds muted and by-the-book on Summer Of A Thousand Years. None of it is bad, but a lot of it simply sounds the same. It’s possible that had this been the first Grip Weeds album I heard I would feel differently, but it’s the third album of theirs that I’ve put into high rotation in the past year or so, and it’s all starting to sound the same. Sure it’s good, but what else do you have?
- Alone Together—Dave Mason. I haven’t listened to this album in probably more than 25 years. Back then I thought, “It’s good…but I’d rather listen to the second Traffic album.” This album is more than good. This is the last gasp of someone who was, briefly, a truly great songwriter and performer. Backed by a bunch of the raggle-taggle gypsys of Delaney and Bonnie’s band, Mason comes up with many of the best songs of his career. The opening “Only You Know And I Know” is the classic track, though it was never a hit for Mason, but the other songs are at least as deep and resonant. There’s a bit of a singer/songwriter vibe to much of this, but Mason turns in a much stronger set of songs than most of the mellow California crowd. “Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving” and “World In Changes” are gentle acoustic-based tracks that beats Stephen Stills at his own game, with the latter featuring a swirling keyboard solo when you least expect it. “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” rides an insistent wah-wah guitar back to Mason’s days with Traffic, the exquisite “Sad And Deep As You” is a piano ballad that is almost inexpressibly lovely, and the album closer “Look At You Look At Me” starts gently and builds before erupting into a shredding guitar solo that carries the song and album out. Alone Together is a forgotten gem of classic rock…excellent songwriting, strong performances.
Hot town, summer in the city. The broiling New York July was a time of vacation, and not a lot of listening time.
- Strange Change MachineThe Grip Weeds. The brand new album by New Jersey’s finest is a 2 CD set with over 80 minutes of music. There is a lot of really good stuff here, but the album suffers from the same problem that plagues most double sets: it should have been pared down. There’s nothing bad on the album. Even the worst songs (the Doors-y instrumental “Sun Ra Ga (Pt. One),” the brief “Green Room Interlude,” the silly “The Law,” the Seventies soft-rock of “Nothing’s Ever Gonna Be The Same” and the fruity “Love In Transition”) are pretty good, but without them the album would have been a 60+ minute powerhouse instead of a meandering 82 minutes. As is typical with the Grip Weeds there’s nothing here that you haven’t heard before. They wear their influences on their sleeves and their tributes to the Sixties and Seventies rock music they love is practically defiant in its brazenness. Continuing their habit of selecting a really choice cover song, they do an excellent reading of “Hello, It’s Me” finding a perfect spot in between the glacier-paced Nazz original and the sped-up kitchen sink production of Todd Rundgren’s hit single. “Hold Out For Tomorrow” manages to geekily tip a hat to the Beatles and the Stones in the same line: “Rubber soles/Worn shoe leather/Pocket full of holes/Kicking over stones/In a moonlight mile.” The aforementioned “Sun Ra Ga (Pt. One)” sounds a lot like the Doors jamming on the Middle Eastern vibe of “The End.” The Byrds-y harmonies appear all over the place, with Kurt Reil’s Keith Moon-influenced drums providing an extra hard rock edge. “Be Here Now,” “Thing Of Beauty,” “Strange Change Machine,” “Coming And Going,” “Hello, It’s Me” and “Long Way (To Come Around)” are the definite peaks, and the majority of the rest provides a lot of great rock ‘n’ roll kicks. The Grip Weeds aren’t particularly original, but their influences are in all the right places and they’re so good you don’t care about originality. There’s a place in the world (the older I get, the bigger that place seems to become) for bands that are more concerned with rocking out with good solid songs than they are with being on the cutting edge of the music scene. Strange Change Machine is about 65 minutes of high-energy, butt-kickin’ rock and roll in a solid classic rock style, and about 15 minutes of reasonably good filler.
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-