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: October/November 2009

Rockin’ the Pod the last couple of months:

  • Is This Real?Wipers. Coming from out of the Pacific Northwest, Greg Sage’s punk band Wipers were an enormous influence on the alternative rock scene that exploded out of Seattle in the early 90s. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan, and Nirvana covered two Wipers songs (“D-7” on Incesticide and “Return Of The Rat” on the With The Lights Out box set). One listen and it’s clear to see the influence. The album sounds very much like what you might expect Nirvana to sound like in 1980. Thick, sludgy guitar tones that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in 1991, plus some really catchy melodies. The subject of alienation and despair play their part as well. It’s unfortunately easy to picture a young Cobain listening to “Potential Suicide” on his headphones in his bedroom. Still, this is a remarkably good album and it’s easy to see why the Northwest alt-rockers took this band to heart. Had they come on the scene eleven years later, Wipers might have been huge. Grade: B+
  • Little MoonGrant-Lee Phillips. At this point, I’m not sure it’s possible for Grant-Lee Phillips to write a bad song. Pretty much everything he puts his golden voice to is meticulously crafted, lush, and strong. The problem, for me, is this: in my mind, Phillips is a prisoner of his former band, the spectacular Grant Lee Buffalo. Back in the mid-90s, the Buffalo were releasing brilliant albums filled with epic rock songs full of invention, drama, and intricacy and ballads in the finest traditions of American folk music. Since going solo, Phillips has released several albums of adult contemporary rock. Gone is the howl that sent shivers down the spines of listeners, gone are the bombastic hard rock songs with lyrics full of literary and historical references. In their place are vocals delivered in a half-whisper over a strummed, mostly acoustic background. His two most recent albums, Strangelet and Little Moon, contain a few songs that might charitably be described as rockers or, at least, “up tempo,” but for years I’ve waited and hoped that Grant would put down the acoustic 12-string and strap on the electric 6-string. On Little Moon, almost all the “rockers” are front-loaded on the album, leaving the second half sounding like he’s singing his child to sleep. My preference for rockers aside, the first half of the record is the best, from the feel-good opener “Good Morning Happiness” through the tough “Strangest Thing” and the folky title track, and peaking with the one-two knockout punch of “It Ain’t The Same Old Cold War, Harry” and “Seal It With A Kiss.” “Nightbirds” is a lovely acoustic ballad that closes out the first half. The second half is much more problematic. “Violet” is another acoustic ballad, not particularly interesting. “Buried Treasure” has the feel of a ballad from Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon, but “Blind Tom” is a ballad too far, a story-song where the story isn’t very interesting. “One Morning,” the fifth consecutive ballad, is also the best, managing to get some blood flowing again in the chorus. It’s brilliant. Unfortunately, it’s followed by another ballad, “Older Now,” which comes complete with a string section. By the time the album closes with the jaunty sing-along, “The Sun Shines On Jupiter,” it seems like the second half is twice as long as the first. There is no denying that almost every song on Little Moon is a stand-alone gem. Listened to in sequence, they leave you kind of sleepy and wondering whatever happened to the guy who sang “Lone Star Song.” Grade: B
  • Lady SoulAretha Franklin. Many moons ago, I had an Aretha Franklin compilation called 30 Greatest Hits. Despite my long-held admiration for Franklin, I could never get into the album. I think now that it was because it was simply too much. The best way to appreciate Aretha Franklin is to listen to her original albums, the way they were intended. Lady Soul, released in 1968, contains the singles “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Let’s face it: for those two songs alone, the album is going to rate highly. Add in great album tracks like “Money Won’t Change You,” “Niki Hoeky,” “Since You’ve Been Gone,” and the tough blues “Good To Me As I Am To You,” and you’ve got one of the best soul albums ever recorded. The album does have one or two flaws. Franklin’s got an unbelievably great voice, and once or twice succumbs to the temptation all truly great singers face: oversinging. She oversings Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” but still delivers a great version. Much less successful is her version of the Rascals’ song, “Groovin'”. I don’t think this soul girl had the hang of the laid back hippie “groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon” vibe. While she does a passable job throughout most of the song, she’s hampered by Mamas and Papas-like backing vocals and at the end sounds like she’s commanding her lover to “GROOVE!!!” after she tells him that life would be ecstasy with “you and me ENDLESSLY!!” Those minor quibbles aside, this is Sixties Soul at its best. Grade: A+
  • Dusty In MemphisDusty Springfield. As if to prove that soul wasn’t relegated to America, Ireland’s Dusty Springfield released her masterpiece in 1969, with the timeless “Son Of A Preacher Man” the centerpiece. Springfield’s got a great voice, though it’s nowhere as commanding as that of Franklin. The soul vibe coming from Springfield is decidedly mellower, with strings and a sympathetic backing replacing the grit of the American soul players. Dusty in Memphis plays like a more soulful version of the classic Bacharach/David songs that were brought to life by Dionne Warwick. Mostly, this works. “Just A Little Lovin,'” “Don’t Forget About Me,” “No Easy Way Down” and “I Can’t Make It Alone” are magnificent, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with “Preacher Man.” Nearly as good are the two songs she shares with Child Is Father To The Man, the début Blood, Sweat and Tears album from 1968: “So Much Love” and “Just One Smile.” Once or twice, the style fails her. “The Windmills Of Your Mind” sounds schmaltzy and “In The Land Of Make Believe” borders on easy listening, despite an engaging melody. Grade: A
  • Oh, Inverted WorldThe Shins. I’ve never seen it, but in the movie Garden State there is apparently a scene where Natalie Portman tells Zach Braff that The Shins will “change your life” before playing the song “New Slang.” Well, I wouldn’t go that far. “New Slang” is unquestionably a killer song and the highlight of a very good album, but on a “change your life” scale it doesn’t really measure up. The oddest thing about the record is that the sound of it reminds me of 1980s indie rock, and I wasn’t even aware that “indie” was a sound. This may be simply because they carry a lot of R.E.M. in their guitars. There are also elements of classic rock, from the opening of the first track, the magnificently-titled “Caring Is Creepy”, which channels the Beach Boys, to the Raspberries vibe of “Know Your Onion!” The first half of the album is the best. The songs that follow the centerpiece of “New Slang” are good but unremarkable, the two exceptions being the excellent power pop “Pressed In A Book” and the unlistenable “Your Algebra.” All told, this is a fine album with moments of brilliance. Grade: B+
  • Fleet FoxesFleet Foxes. This is a strong and fascinating début full-length album from these guys. Unlike many début albums, Fleet Foxes sounds like a fully mature band creating a fully mature work. The harmonies are stunning while the rootsy music is sympathetic and beautifully played. Songs like “White Winter Hymnal,” “Your Protector,” “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Oliver James” have a timeless feel that makes them sound as ancient as they are contemporary. Only “Heard Them Stirring” and “Meadowlark,” while good, are not up to the level of the rest of the album. The biggest obstacle Fleet Foxes will face in their career is the need to expand. The sound of this album is the sound of a band on their third or fourth album, not their first. It will be interesting to see where this band goes in the future. As good as this album sounds, another one just like it would suffer more than most from familiarity. As it is, even on this album many of the songs blend together in their sound. But the sound is great. Grade: A.