Monday, December 31, 2007

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "The Road to God Knows Where" (DVD - Mute Films 2005)

The first thing you should know is this is not a concert film. It does, however, come packaged with a live performance on another disc - Live at The Paradiso - which alone is worth the purchase price. However, as anyone who's seen Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds live will tell you, it's something you've just got to see for yourself. Even on video. The Road to God Knows Where provides an entirely different, if no less interesting, perspective.

Filmed during The Bad Seeds North American tour over February and March of 1989, The Road to God Knows Where should be required viewing not only for fans of Nick Cave, but anyone interested in pursuing a career on the creative side of the music business. The pacing is slow and can seem at times to be tedious, which easily could have been deliberate on the part of filmmaker Uli Schueppel. Peppered with brief live moments, only the beginning or end of sets or songs for a large part of the movie, in combination with long intervals back stage, on the tour bus, in hotels, etc., the film provides about as realistic as possible capture of what it's like to be on tour in a rock 'n' roll band. Especially a misunderstood one skirting the fringes of success.

This isn't as apparent in the first half of the film. Cave is admittedly uncomfortable in front of cameras and his self-consciousness, along with that of the rest of the band, is apparent. It leads to some unintentional moments of comedy - Blixa Bargeld trying to pretend he knows the words and can sing along to "Lost Highway" as Cave strums and sings is pretty funny stuff considering Bargeld's musical pedigree. Primarily, though, it sticks to the soul breakingly monotonous nuts and bolts of touring - long bus rides, sound checks, waiting backstage, photo shoots, sycophantic fans, and pushy music writers. The focus is on the bands' attempts to find something, anything, to pass the time and keep it together. They do this admirably, at least while the cameras are rolling, but as things wear on and nerves start to fray the self-consciousness fades away. Things start to get really interesting.

While the band doesn't turn on each other, their frustrations emerge in almost cartoonishly exaggerated reactions to the pitfalls they encounter. This may be film trickery - Scheuppel dropping us into the middle of an altercation and not providing the context - but it certainly seems like the altercations covered went from zero to sixty almost immediately. The standouts involve promoters who were clearly not expecting a professional touring outfit to show up and had either not read the contract or willfully ignored important details.

The first is more drawn out and involves a promoter who did not, ahem, provide the agreed upon promotion. The venue is close to selling out - a development the promoter obviously thought was not remotely possible - and the band is insisting on more money versus refusing to play at all. Cave stalks off in the middle of the argument leaving Bargeld, rather unfairly, to carry on the fight. The resolution is not mentioned, but the band does play.

The second covers an explosive confrontation over the size and wattage of the venue's sound system. The contract specifications for sound have not been met and soundman Victor Van Vugt, tour manager Rayner Jesson, and Cave are facing off with the promoter over the inadequate system. The promoter ignorantly puts his foot in it saying, "This system was fine for Flock of Seagulls!", which leads to Cave again stalking off after a declaration that the band won't play if the contract isn't met. Almost immediately the promoter puts his foot in it again when he makes a derogatory reference about Cave, "that other guy", to Jesson. "Our boss," replies Jesson, "The man you signed the contract with." We're once again not privy to whatever settlement is reached, but the band does play.

In addition to these standout blow-ups, you see Cave and the rest becoming increasingly glassy eyed and distant in their interactions with anyone outside the group. There's a subtly tense backstage conversation between Jesson and Cave in which the tour manager seems to be suggesting that they cancel most of the rest of the tour. Cave's frustration with press people boils over with a writer and photographer from L.A. Weekly, towards whom he directs open eye-rolling hostility. The sense of relief at dealing with a promoter they know in San Francisco is palpable.

Schueppel shot this film in fairly high contrast black and white which, given the stark winter landscape through which the band is traveling, works well. It's not quite as effective when the band reaches Los Angeles, but that hardly ruins things.

As the film progresses and tensions mount the live performances become longer and more pervasive. This change cleverly provides the release for all the tension, both with the band and the viewers. Right before launching into "New Morning", the last performance of the film, Cave announces, "This is the last song of our North American tour. Thank God for that." After the ride just taken with him, one can easily relate.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4

Friday, December 28, 2007

Woven Hand - "Mosaic" (Glitterhouse 2006)

David Eugene Edwards is perhaps the most iconoclastic musician working in popular music today. 16 Horsepower, his previous project, began as an exploration of Appalachian folk and country with Edwards' use of dramatic, heavily Christian themed lyrics lending it an air of authenticity lacking in most other bands mining the same vein then or since. By Secret South, the bands third record, Edwards had taken the band in a more experimental direction, and the lackluster Folklore, 16 Horsepower's final release, half-heartedly continued this trend. The disappointment of Folklore can likely be attributed to the fact that, by the time the album was being recorded, Edwards was pouring his creative energy into Woven Hand (16 Horsepower is the only band I've heard of citing "political and religious differences" as the reason for their breakup). In spite of giving the impression that there's a functioning band at work Woven Hand is, quite simply, what Edwards is calling his solo work (all I know about the provenance of the name is that it's a really obscure Bible reference - you'll have to look elsewhere for chapter and verse). Working as a solo artist has given Edwards the freedom to more deeply explore experimental song structures and instrumentation and deep, heavily Christian themes of sin and redemption.

With each release Woven Hand has strayed farther and farther from Edwards' unerring pop sensibility and into experimental realms, pulling influences from Middle Eastern, American Indian, and Eastern European musical instrumentation and structures (among others less prevalent). His dark vision of the sinful path, reflected in the music and lyrics, and humanity's one and only source of redemption has become more and more apparent and increasingly fundamentalist in spite of his use of arcane biblical references to spin his tales. So much so that it can make a committedly non-religious person like myself uncomfortable.

Mosaic, Woven Hand's fourth release, builds on this trend and takes Edward's music farther afield than any release yet. From the ominous, sparse instrumental opener "Breathing Bull", which seamlessly transitions into the heavily Middle Eastern influenced Bible beater "Winter Shaker", you know you've entered David Eugene Edwards' universe and you're in for a soul tempering wild ride. These songs eschew any traditional song structures for the most part and focus on mood and intensity, both of which are unbelievably heavy. The mood is almost relentlessly dark, focusing on sin and the failure to abide God's word. The lyrics always mention the path to redemption in some form or other but also stress the fact that, in this vision, anyway, the way is so hard it's damn near impossible to follow without constant, severe diligence and unquestioning faith.

The instrumentation on this record includes, and I'm guessing on some of these, guitar, banjo, piano, violin, organ, bass, standard drums, tympani drums, guiro, sorna, chemnitzer concertina, and, I'm pretty sure, didgeridoo. The tympani, concertina and didgeridoo maintain a constant low end drone on almost every track, lending the songs the ominous quality that has almost become signature for Edwards work. The guitar, where it appears, serves as both a rhythm and melody instrument - especially apparent on "Truly Golden", one of the more accessible songs on the record. The organ serves a similar purpose, alternately contributing to the ominous background wall and serving as a cathedral like melody instrument. Violin and sorna are reserved for song melody and contribute heavily, along with much of the percussion, to the pervasive Middle Eastern feel of the record.

Relief from the overwhelming Christian thematics appears in "Swedish Purse", which lyrically suggests it is a love song to Edwards' wife. Don't let the fact that it's a love song lead you to believe that you get a break from the overall sonic darkness - that remains heavy as hell (no pun intended). There is a break from the doom laden musical bent in "Bible and Bird" - a loping, country/folk instrumental in a standard 4/4 time signature. As this is the only song with musicians other than Edwards credited it makes a kind of sense that it would be the most traditionally structured piece - good luck to the most experienced musician trying to follow the logic of almost any other song on the record.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention production. Edwards is credited as producer (as he has been on every Woven Hand release) and his production is, as you have probably gathered, a dark, dense, wall of sound with very little open range. While this would be too much for many recordings it works pretty effectively considering what Edward is communicating here and often places the songs in a geographic context.

Mosaic is not a good starter album for the casual listener - hard-core fans only and those drawn to the esoteric (and perhaps some world music afficianados) will appreciate what's going on here. A good place to begin with Edwards is any of the first three 16 Horsepower records (Sackcloth & Ashes, Low Estate, and Secret South) or even the eponymously titled first Woven Hand record will do - Edwards natural ability with pop structures and hooks married to relatively unusual instrumentation will give you a good foundation from which to continue.

As a long-time and devoted fan I think this record is a knock-out. Edwards is without a doubt one of the most creative and unusual musicians out there, and the farther out he goes the more I seem to like it. The allure of the music and the poetic nature of the lyrics is strong enough to shield me from the discomfort of the heavy-handed Christian thematics. I'll venture to say the same will be true for the majority of listeners. It helps that I respect Edwards' beliefs even if I don't agree with them.

Edwards is an admitted fan of Nick Cave (as am I) and the similarities still show through his experimentation. I would say he's the light in response to Nick Cave's darkness, but there's plenty of darkness here. Let's say instead that, while Cave's songs are almost universally existential and hopeless, Edwards provides his listeners with at least a single strand of hope. I'll leave it up to you to decide which is better.

Rating: 4 out of 4

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Happy Holidays

I'm gone for a few days, into an actual dead zone with no internet access. Hope those few of you who check in here have a safe and happy holiday, however it is or whatever it is you celebrate. Even if it's nothing at all.
If you find yourself out and about over the next few nights, here's a suggestion: go see a local band that performs original music. If you don't like 'em you can always check out and head for that brew pub that was your original destination and only be out about five bucks and an hour of your time. As someone who's played the literal night before Christmas let me tell you - it'll mean more to them than you can possibly imagine. In addition, you might discover somebody you really like. What a nice gift that would be, eh?
Talk at you folks after the shouting is over.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

They Shoot Musicians, Don't They?

In Mexico, in the last 18 months, thirteen musicians have been violently murdered, some of them tortured before finally expiring. Three of these murders have occurred in the last month.

The music of Western culture has always contained an element of danger involved in its creation and aftermath. Murders abound in its history. Mozart was likely poisoned to death out of jealousy (although not by Antonio Salieri as a certain Hollywood film would have you believe). Robert Johnson was poisoned to death, likely for sleeping with a roadhouse owner's wife. Who can keep track of the murders associated with Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap anymore - Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, DJ Scott LaRock, Jake Robles, Yafeu "Kadafi" Fula, Deshaun Holten (AKA Proof), King Tubby, Michael Mensen, Brandon Mitchell, The Mac, Charizma, Mr. Cee, Hitman, Seagram Miller, Jo Jo White, Dion Stewart, Fat Pat, Malcolm Howard, MC Big L, MC Ant, Bugz, Freaky Tah, Q-Don, Bruce Mayfield, Eclipse, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts, Tonnie Shepard, Jam Master Jay, and the list, spanning roughly 15 years, goes on. And let's not forget the suicides - Ian Curtis, Richard Manuel, Michael Hutchence (although many consider that one debatable), Kurt Cobain, of course, and a slew of drug overdoses that may or may not have been deliberate. Troubled people are drawn to creative pursuits, and their ends are often untimely. Unfortunately with the rap scene many of these performers come from criminal backgrounds in which violence is an all too common response to conflict resolution. Music is a dangerous game, as evidenced by its casualty list, but this fact has been largely ignored in the main stream press - these were not typically public deaths and there seemed to be a sense of "well, they probably had it coming" amongst those who weren't fans and didn't know the details.

Two events occurred in the U.S. that have played a role in reversing this attitude. The first was the vicious rape and murder of Mia Zapata, lead singer of Seattle punk band The Gits, on July 7th, 1993. The police and the press tried to foist this off as "bad girl gets in bad place and inevitable happens", but the Seattle music community was not content to let a brush off be the end of the story of this talented, passionate, well-adjusted and much beloved musician. Largely through donations and the help of some fairly prominent national rock stars, not to mention the dedication of one bad ass private investigator, this cold case was solved in 2004 when Mia's assailant was brought to justice. It opened quite a few eyes to the fact that musicians aren't just a bunch of junkies living on borrowed time.

The other event was the on-stage murder of "Dimebag" Darrell, former Pantera guitarist, on December 8th, 2004 at the Allrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio. This tragedy (whatever you think of Darrell's music it was still unarguably a tragedy) opened people's eyes to the fact that musicians are as much targets as politicians, labor organizers, or other prominent public figures. That such a thing hadn't happened before in the roughly fifty years of rock history is kind of amazing.

In Mexico, we're starting to see the assassination of cultural figures as a political tool. Some of these artists performed what is known as "narcocorridos" - songs which glorify the underworld life, sometimes choosing to glorify the exploits of one gang or cartel over those of another. Some others are directly affiliated with underworld organizations and serve as a fifth column for them. These, however, appear to be in the minority. To the degree that it is understood by Mexican authorities many of these artists are being "adopted" by various gangs and cartels without their approval or often even knowledge. When one cartel wants to hit another, they take out their enemies' unofficial "mascot", both making their point and expressing to the authorities, "You can't touch us - we kill celebrities at will. Who else can we successfully target if you come after us?". It is therefore not unsurprising that all of the thirteen murders remain unsolved. This would seem to be the case with Sergio Gomez, lead vocalist of K-Paz de la Sierra, who was abducted December 2nd of this year and found beaten, tortured with a cigarette lighter, and strangled to death the next day. K-Paz de la Tierra has no political or underworld affiliations and specialized in performing torch songs of unrequited love.

How long before such tactics appear north of the Rio Bravo? As Oppenheimer put it so depressingly and succinctly after the first successful test of a nuclear weapon, "The genie is out of the bottle." It's hard enough trying to make a living as a performer without a gang of knuckle-dragging thugs hanging a sword of Damocles over your head. Such a prospect will certainly do nothing to encourage music with strident social and political messages - the kind of messages that have kept rock 'n' roll so vital for so long.

Maybe the mantra will bear out this time - "It can't happen here!" I some how doubt it. I also doubt that this turn of events will somehow reverse the long, painfully slow spiral of American culture into its ultimate, uninspired cesspool.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Wilco - "Sky Blue Sky" (Nonesuch 2007)

I talked some in my review of The Drams Jubilee Dive of following certain artists through stylistic changes successfully because they retain that certain essential something that makes them them. Jeff Tweedy is an artist that has managed this masterfully. There are no two Wilco records that sound the same, but you can recognize a Wilco record when you hear it whether or not you've heard it before. This isn't easy to accomplish, and it's no less impressive considering the wide ranging experimentation Wilco has indulged in over their past three records.

Sky Blue Sky has been touted as Wilco's "return to form". I'm not sure what "form" it is being discussed here, as Wilco has never exhibited a consistency that I would say pidgeon-holed them. A.M.? Being There? While these two early records definitely harken back to the country rock/ of Tweedy's former project Uncle Tupelo, they are still departures from that band's sound, and each is a departure from the sound of the other. I'll agree that A.M. and Being There are closer stylistically that any other two Wilco records, but Being There represents a definite step in a new direction that presages the revolutionary changes to come. With Wilco there's no "form" to return to. There's only forward motion, for better or worse.

Sky Blue Sky does nothing to buck this trend. The audial experimentation of Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born is hardly present at all in Wilco's latest offering. In much the way Summerteeth owed quite a bit of its sound and spirit to Brian Wilson's more experimental production work, Sky Blue Sky owes a considerable debt to mellow 70's songsters like Paul McCartney and, yes, even James Taylor. This is most evident in the Wings-esque "Shake It Off" and the more McCartney on his own inspired "Walken". The James Taylor reference comes more of the overall feel of the record rather than any specific sonic similarities. There are other comparisons to be made, but let's just leave it at the fact that this record sounds a lot like a mellow, mid-70's album.

That, of course, is not the end of the story. Tweedy's predilection for experimentation pops up in places, most notably in the outro to "Side With the Seeds", a turn almost ruined by the self-indulgent guitar solo that crashes into it. A similar sort of guitar histrionics shows up in "You Are My Face". This kind of instrumentation works to great effect in a song like "At Least That's What You Said" from A Ghost is Born, in which the guitar takes over from the vocals in expressing the violence of an argument between two people in the second half of the piece. Given the overall lower key feeling of Sky Blue Sky it just sounds out of place.

Looking back over this it reads like a negative review (especially if you hold mainstream 70's music in the same contempt that I do) which is hardly the case. Remember that McCartney's a master at crafting a pop song and making sure it's produced in such a way that serves the song well. The same can be said of James Taylor. You don't have to like their music, but in the construction they knew what the hell they were doing. In spades. This record may sound like it was produced in the 70's for a soft rock audience, but the production suits this set of songs very well, and there's not a bad one among them. Tweedy is a remarkably powerful songwriter, and he continues to prove it on this record. Sky Blue Sky has been described by some as "boring". While there is a noticable absence of existential and emotional angst that has characterized much of his previous work, it's not "boring". Rather it seems the ruminations of a man who's finally laid many of his demons to rest, and these stories are certainly good for some pop gems. Towards the end of the record "What Light" and "On and On and On" jump out and grab you with both hands.

The final track of the record is "Let's Not Get Carried Away", a blast of Tattoo You era Rolling Stones inspired rock 'n' roll. While Tattoo You may have come out in 1981, I still consider it the coda of 1970's mainstream rock. What perfect inspiration to end Sky Blue Sky.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Drams - "Jubilee Dive" (New West 2006)

I'm not a fan of giving a recording artist a bad time for changing their sound or style, breaking the mold or whatever. Leonard Cohen did it. Bob Dylan did it to (eventual) resounding success. Gibby Haynes made a pretty good go of it with "Gibby Haynes and his Problem", which is a damn fine record that sounds very little like The Butthole Surfers. I think what makes these changes in direction ultimately successful is that, although the sound or approach may be different, you can still hear whatever essential element it is that makes the artist unique. Dylan may have gone rock, but he's still unavoidably Dylan.

Therein lies my problem with The Drams. Switching gears from the aggressive southern rock/ of Slobberbone to the much mellower, poppier, AAA formatted (that's Adult Album Alternative for all you non-radio geeks out there) sound is pretty much impossible for me to do. When you consider that three Slobberbone guys - Jess Barr, Tony Harper, and songwriter/mastermind Brent Best - created this project it just starts stinking of cashing in. Not that I can blame them - Slobberbone put out a string of great records and toured relentlessly for years while remaining unable to break the commercial ceiling. They're owed some success. I just wish they had not gone about it in such an obvious, pandering way.

The Drams remind me a lot of bands I had pretty much forgotten about - bands like Collective Soul and The Wallflowers. I'd pretty much forgotten about them because they were pretty much forgettable. Generic "intelligent" pop that is deliberately produced to be slotted into AAA format radio stations (in Austin KGSR is the big one of these). Slobberbone could have changed their name and toned down their attack, retained their spirit and vitriol, without slipping into this musical wasteland. Instead Slobberbone broke up, 3/4ths of them started The Drams, and hum drum city got a new house band.

There are moments where Best's strengths as a songwriter shine through. "Fireflies" has a clever turn of lyric: "Finally seen that it's over, See the beauty where you are, Appreciate the fireflies, baby, Just in case we never see the stars". Very nice. Unfortunately there's a completely inappropriate and annoying Nicky Hopkins-esque piano wandering around all over the already over produced song. "September's High" shows some of the old spirit, but again suffers from that bright, shiny, lush production. "When You're Tired" stands out the most - it's emotionally engaging, the lyrics are solid, the music is sparse, and the production fits the song for a change. "Des Moines" has the best set of lyrics and is melodically the strongest - the chorus works really well also, placing it just behind "When You're Tired" in my estimation.

Overall, though, this record just sounds lame to me. I've already beat the dead horse of the production, but that's to say nothing of the fact that Best's typically powerful, sometimes snarling, voice primarily sounds whiny here. "Shortsighted", the song seemingly slated for single status, brings this new vocal quality to an almost unlistenable level. I would never have believed that Brent Best could sound like a wimp, but he sure does on most of this record. When you combine this with the fact that this seems to largely be a confessional record, detailing the isolation, rigors, and ennui of living on the road, it really starts to sound like some whiny kid feeling sorry for himself. I feel plenty sorry for myself most of the time without listening to some guy complain about how hard it is being a rock star.

My old band played with Slobberbone a half dozen times or so before they outgrew us and, man, what super nice guys. They also rocked your face off. I'll wait for the next Drams record before I pass a final personal judgement - maybe they just got saddled with a shitty producer - but if this is Brent Best and the boys' new direction then I'm getting off this ride before the disappointment turns to nausea.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Young James Long (Southern Records 2006)

I don't know if you've ever had the misfortune of laying on the ground in front of some shitty roadhouse while the bouncer is kicking your teeth down your throat. I never have, thank God, but I'm certain Young James Long is the band that you would likely hear emanating from said roadhouse as they tore up the stage while you were getting your ass kicked.

This is blooze rock distilled down to its essence - short, aggressive blasts of angst that are over before you get a sense of what's really going on. The brevity of the songs (the longest is two minutes and four seconds) works in their favor, and all of them launch in with a effective groove that carry the song musically. PW Long's howled, slurred, and mumbled vocals don't give you much of an idea of what the songs are about, but they definitely give you the feeling that it's some creepy, ominous, sexually charged (not in a good way) shit that you're probably better off not knowing.

A very important component of rock 'n' roll, at least for me, has been its ability to scare the shit out of parents. Elvis did it. The Beatles did it. Jim Morrison did it. All the punk bands did it. These days parents are offended by idiots like Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor because of the staged and scripted crap they spew, but they know it's ultimately harmless. Young James Long is not harmless. Young James Long might stop your father's heart. Young James Long is like your mother walking in on you while you're masturbating. My dad's reaction when I played him The Butthole Surfers way back in 1987 was disgust, not fear. Young James Long is pissed. They sound pissed and scary. What are they so pissed about? Who knows? It might be you. That's scary.

This is down and dirty blues rock that would have fit right in at the ramshackle roadhouse where Robert Johnson got himself poisoned. Nobody would have cared that it was three white guys playing it. This record shoves everything Jon Spencer did right back up his ass. Pussy Galore could share a stage with them, but they'd end up mopping the floor - at the wrong end of the mop.

PW Long played guitar and fronted Mule and PW Long's Reelfoot, and put out a couple of solo records (the newest is "God Bless the Drunkard's Dog", available only on vinyl - it's worth buying a turntable to listen to). All his stuff kicks ass, be it misanthropic blues rumblers, introspective acoustic offerings, or something in between.

Kirkland James played slide guitar for Kansas City blooze rockers Tenderloin, no slouches in their own right. I don't know if their stuff is still available, but if it is go get it.

Taylor Young plays for both Young Heart Attack and Polyphonic Spree. I hate both bands, but his drum work on this is more than adequate to keep the adrenaline fueled bile pumping right along.

There is nary a bass guitar on this record, but don't worry. The bottom will still shake the glass out of your window panes. How? That's just how mean these guys are.

Five songs. Seven minutes thirty two seconds. That's a pretty quick ass-kicking, but it'll leave you in traction for a while. Then you'll listen to it again.

Rating: 4 out of 4

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Sad Year in Review

We lost a lot of fine folks in 2007 - great musicians, not-so-great musicians, individuals that changed the industry for the better, and some other fearless folks not involved in music that did everything they could to shore up the crumbling wall of American and Western popular culture. As these great people pass, I find fewer and fewer rising to replace them. Even with those that don't impact popular culture with quite the same resonance as others we have still lost a unique entertainer that many, many people took enjoyment from.

I have been accused of being behind the times. That great authors, painters, poets, etc. exist on line - that in my relative ignorance regarding new technologies I'm missing the new generation of artistic geniuses. I admit that this very well may be true. I am not, however, convinced that one can experience such things as the chill radiating from a Mark Rothko original while standing a few feet from it, or the joy de vivre emanating from a Matisse, in an electronic medium.

I've also been accused of being American/Euro-centric in my views, which is certainly true. I don't feel like I need to rail against the death of culture in The Thirld World because it seems to be thriving in most of these places, at least the ones where artistic expression is allowed at all. I would dearly like to see particularly the U.S. reach a point where our society is culturally on a level with the rest of the world.

I believe rock 'n' roll, among other emotion based forms of music, bucks the trend of this cultural slide. That gives me hope. End of sermon.

Anyway, here's an incomprehensive list of those 2007 took from us:

Tony Wilson - Founder of Factory Records and operator of The Hacienda, the center of musical culture in Manchester in the late 70's/early 80's. He was central to the rise to prominence of Joy Division, New Order, The Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, and Oasis, among others. If Western music had a hundred more like him there would be a lot less shitty music out there.

Hilly Kristal - What needs be said about Hilly? He opened a little shithole dive in The Bowery called CBGB in 1973, intending to cater to Country and Blues acts. Instead, he accidentally became the big daddy of American punk rock and, by extension, British punk. If he wouldn't have given Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell a shot that day in 1974 who knows what rock 'n' roll would look like today. I venture to say it wouldn't be pretty.

Linda Stein - Co-manager of The Ramones with Danny Fields. She is widely attributed with arranging The Ramones gig at The Roundhouse in London on July 4th, 1976 - a show largely considered to be the cohesive launching point for British punk.

Lee Hazelwood - Wrote "These Boots are Made for Walking" for Nancy Sinatra in 1966 - talk about your women's lib, especially from a guy known for country music. He worked with Duane Eddy and produced Gram Parsons after Merle Haggard turned Parsons down. Haggard fucked up.

Brent Liles - Original bass player for Social Distortion - his playing can be heard on "Mommy's Little Monster". He kept working his whole life, and ended his days as the bassist for Agent Orange.

Brad Delp - Lead singer of Boston. I hated Boston, at least after the 7th grade when I knew better. Still, his howling wail and asinine lyrics made tens of millions of generally stoned people very happy. Plus, he got to share the stage with Tom Scholtz - a man considered "the best guitarist in the world" for about five minutes in 1982 0r '83.

Ike Turner - I wrote extensively on Ike in my last blog. Gigantic son of a bitch. Still, "Rocket 88". Man, that song.

Porter Wagoner - Again, what needs to be said? The man was a giant. Highlights - He launched Dolly Parton's career (I don't care how you describe yourself - punk, metal head, goth, emo, OG, raver, redneck, whatever - if you don't respect Dolly in spite of the mountains of cheesiness surrounding her, you need to do some research), wrote "Green, Green Grass of Home" among a string of other hits, and opened for The White Stripes in the summer of 2007, receiving an overwhelmingly positive response at the end of his performance. Pretty cool for an old guy who expected to get booed off the stage.

Kevin DuBrow - Who cares if Quiet Riot never wrote any of their hits? DuBrow got to be a second rate David Lee Roth, live a massive 80's hair metal rock star life, and get more ass than a toilet seat for five or so years in the early 80's. His band may have sucked but, again, he made millions of mostly stoned people very happy. Well done.

Joe Zawinul - played keyboards for Miles Davis on "Bitches Brew" and, along with Davis, helped create Jazz Fusion. He went on to play with Weather Report. Jazz isn't my thing, but even not knowing much about him I'll be the first to say this guy kicked mucho ass.

Chad Butler (AKA Pimp C) - I don't really know anything about Hip-Hop or Gangsta Rap, and I think "Urban Culture" is the biggest corporate marketing sham since the hoola hoop, but I'll give this to Chad - he's the first rapper I'm aware of that didn't die from gun violence or drug abuse. He's to be commended for that.

George Osmond - Father of those annoying Osmond siblings, not to mention their manager and the person responsible for propelling them to fame. I'll leave it at that.

Bill Pinkney - Last surviving member of the original line-up of The Drifters. Yeah, there's still a band called The Drifters, but it ain't The Drifters. Man, what a voice.

Max Roach - Jazz drummer who played with the likes of Dizzie Gillespie and Coleman Hawkins. Again, don't know much about him, but what a badass.

Don Ho - No more "Tiny Bubbles" for Hawaii. It'll never be the same.

Michael Brecker - Played sax for James Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, and plenty of others. Never liked their stuff and never paid attention to the sax. I guess he must've been a pretty good side man, though.

Frankie Laine - Old Leather Lungs. A jazz singer that performed non-stop from 1930 to 2005. He was one of the most vocal white jazz performers in favor of civil rights. It didn't make him any friends. At least not any white ones. I'm not a jazz fan. Still, what a badass.

Dan Fogelberg - Looks like he'll have the distinction of being the last famous performer to die in 2007. The undisputed king of "soft rock", he's best known for the song he wrote for his father, a big band leader, on his death - "Leader of the Band". Not my thing, but he sure knew what he was doing. Even my grandmother likes him.

Donda West - Mother of Kanye West, the famous R&B performer. I'm no fan of contemporary R&B (love the old stuff, though), but that doesn't mean I don't mourn Kanye's loss and wish him my best. Not to sound mercenary, but pain like he's experiencing can often lead to some brilliant fucking music. I'll check out his next record.

Mikey Donaldson (AKA Mikey Offender) - bassist for seminal Austin/Houston/San Francisco hardcore/thrash/crossover band The Offenders. If I'm not mistaken he sat in with the Dirty Rotten Imbeciles on an occasion or two. I don't think you could find a a faster bass player who could still hit all the notes.

Byron Scott - Amazing Austin guitarist also known for his pork-pie hat, enormous smile, and ubiquitous amiability. He was also a friend of mine. Byron was in about a hundred bands, the most influential (I guess) being The Trouble Boys who got to open for The Specials, The Stray Cats, and The Clash. Rumor has it he was hanging out with Jukebox the afternoon Jukebox conceived The Hickoids, although I'm sure there are other members of The Hickoids that would vehemently dispute that.

Tennyson LeMaster - Occasional drummer for both The Hickoids and The Gay Sportscasters. An unbelievable drummer, a super nice guy, and one dapper dresser.

Hank Thompson - In 1946 Hank started a band called The Brazos Valley Boys, and in so doing introduced the world to something called Western Swing. Indeed, he would become known as "The King of Western Swing". Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, whoever else mined this genre, owed their career to Hank. He wrote "The Wild Side of Life" and "A Six Pack To Go". He was also the first performer to record a live album - "Live at the Golden Nugget" - in 1960. This is a short list of the man's accomplishments. Here's to you, Hank.

That's it for musicians, at least those I know about. Here's a shorter list of non-musicians who still made some pretty serious (most of them positive) impacts on our dying culture:

Yvonne De Carlos - Who? She was Lily Munster.

Evel Kneivel - Speaks for himself.

Calin De Forest (AKA Larry "Bud" Melman) - What can I tell you that you don't already know? Or should already know?

Kurt Vonnegut - One of the last great American literary authors.

Norman Mailer - Another one of the last great American literary authors.

Marcel Marceau - Make fun of mimes all you want. This guy did more for stage and screen acting than you ever will. A lot more.

Molly Ivins - Humorist and political commentator. This woman had balls of brass. She stood up to Dubya and told the nation what a psychopathic monster he is (with a deft turn of humorous phrase) when every other journalist and commentator was scrambling to save their jobs by calling him a hero. I think she's a big enough soul to spit on him from Heaven just to give him a little relief as he roasts in hell.

Well, there it is. Certainly not an uplifting subject, especially when the list is so long. We need to start keeping our eyes out for the next generation of good ones. Not to say that there aren't any out there now, but we seem to be losing them faster than we're getting them.

That's a pretty lame ending to this, but I really don't know what to say.

Back to music reviews next time.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

See Ya, Ike

Ike Turner died at the age of 76 on Wed., Dec. 12, 2007. With the release of his song "Rocket 88" in 1951 he heralded a new form of popular culture called Rock 'n' Roll. That alone is a massive achievement for which he should always be remembered. He was a remarkable songwriter with a canny ability to read what the public wanted before they knew they wanted it. His bringing aboard Annie May Bullock, AKA Tina Turner, to handle lead vocals and look fucking amazing doing it is a testament to this and the collaboration led to both of their finest work. He continued working until the end of his life, garnering accolades and awards along the way. Quite an impressive feat.

Unfortunately, for me at least, this becomes a case of the artist overshadowing the art. There's no question Ike routinely beat the shit out of not only Tina, but his other female back-up singers as well. He must have had one hell of a Svengali thing going on to convince them to stick around as long as they did. It wasn't for the money - these gals were notoriously under-paid. Even worse, Ike would pimp out the women after shows to bring in more cash to feed his drug habit. My dad saw The Ike and Tina Turner Review at a frat party in the early 60's in which this happened. He didn't recall if Tina was one of the girls on offer, but the fact that any of them were is utterly repulsive whether or not Ike's wife was involved. Even though my dad's an attorney I've never known him to lie or even exaggerate details. There's certainly no percentage in him lying about this - he loved The Review and wouldn't sensationalize his experience by inventing a sordid detail like that. One can be relatively certain that, if it happened at an OU frat party, it probably happened all the time.

Ike denied these things ever happened, but it always smacked of him protesting it a little bit too much. In interviews, were he not asked about it, he would find a way to work in the fact that he never abused Tina or any other woman he worked with. Who would want to own up to something so reprehensible?

If he had owned up, apologized, and tried to make amends, I wouldn't be facing the dilemma I find myself in now. I love the guy's music, but can't listen to it without thinking about what a horrible human being he was. Overlooking the excesses of my musical idols typically comes pretty easily for me, as long as it's not unabashed, obvious greed, cold blooded murder, or child abuse, and I can enjoy the art in spite of the words or actions of its creator. Turns out I can't get past Ike's excesses. More's the shame. He was one motherfucker of a songwriter.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Those Poor Bastards - "Songs of Desperation" (Gravewax Records 2005)

I pissed off a lot of people on for my brief review of this record. I don't really care. I stand by that review and will expand on it here.

Those Poor Bastards have been described as "old time Gothic Country", "sounding like they were recorded in the 1930's on broken equipment", "the background music for themes of sold souls, empty lives, and certain death", a "miserable, primitive duo", and as displaying "hints of Marilyn Manson to Nick Cave, Throwrag and maybe even a hint of a demented Adam Ant with a shot of pilled up Johnny Cash". In addition to the bands named above, they are also compared to Tom Waits, The Cramps, and The Louvin Brothers. I gathered all this from their website.

When I first heard of these guys I thought, "Wow! That sounds awesome!". I'm a huge fan of the darker side of country music, low-fi production when it makes sense, creepy rural American gothicism, apocalyptic themes, and an uncompromising anti-corporate stance. I'm so fucked in the head that I have to take three kinds of psychiatric medication or else the only reason I can find to get out of bed is to try and kill myself - I have a predilection for bleak, depressing music. I love (probably unhealthily so) music that focuses on loss, despair, hopelessness, and failed redemption. This band had everything in place for me to love 'em. So what went wrong?

Well, first of all, they don't sound like they "were recorded in the 1930's on broken down equipment". They sound like they were recorded in the 2000's and used a bunch of tricks to make them sound like they were recorded in the 1930's on broken down equipment. So much so that it's overbearing. Far be it from me to criticise low-fi studio trickery, but there's a point past which such production quits serving the material and starts sounding like a couple of guys fucking around with a 4-track to see how many weird sounds they can get out of it. That "old-timey" sound shouldn't be so distracting that it's easier to get annoyed than enjoy what's happening in the music. Those old Edison tubes don't sound like shit because the people who recorded them wanted them to. Aspiring to reproduce their sound is ridiculous. That's not to say low-fi and studio weirdness can't be used to remarkable effect. Once Lou Barlow got it down he became a master at it, particularly with Folk Implosion. Even with Sebadoh, who I never liked, the songs at least sound cool. The Grifters are another one that sounded great using this kind of production. Burying the songs in a bunch of clearly contrived tape hiss, distortion, muddiness, and other gimmicks makes me wonder what a band is trying to cover up. In this case, unfortunately, it's the songs themselves.

Let's look at the comparisons made:

Marilyn Manson sucks. Period. There's nothing musical going on there - it's all gimmick. There's a place for it, certainly, and Marilyn has an illustrious string of predecessors. All of whom, actually, had a lot more going on musically than Mr. Manson. The comparison works in that way - Those Poor Bastards seem to me to be more about the gimmick than the music also. Style over substance has been the norm in American culture for at least the last half century, so TPB are hardly breaking ground in that regard. Neither is Marilyn Manson.

Nick Cave. A fucking genius. While he may be Australian he certainly did his research into the kind of American back woods mythology that fascinates the listener while making them squirm. His voice alone wrings powerful emotion out of his bleak, existential lyrics causing us to identify with his twisted characters while simultaneously being repelled by them. Just listen to "Mercy Seat". He crafts moody, ominous music to reinforce this, and almost always succeeds in creating a song in which the music and vocals intertwine to paint a compelling, layered and emotional audial picture. Those Poor Bastards lyrics sound, frankly, like a bunch of Goth kids hanging around a graveyard trying to out-Goth one another. Or a couple of guys passing a bong back and forth asking each other, "What's the creepiest thing you can think of?". They're so over the top that they venture into self-parody. When placed in the context of the contrived, scratchy, "old-timey" production it just becomes ludicrous. Lefty Frizzell wrote a simple, creepy, honest to God death song that's ten times better than anything on "Songs of Desperation". It's called "The Long Black Veil". Somebody should give these guys a copy.

Throwrag - no idea. Never heard 'em so I can't comment. If they sound like Those Poor Bastards, though, I doubt I'd like 'em.

Adam Ant - ?!?

Pilled up Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash, pilled up or not, had infinitely better ideas about death, loss, pain, redemption, the unredeemable, and a myriad of other forces at work in the human condition than these guys. I don't recall a single Cash record, even from his pilled up days, that droned on song after song about a bunch of disingenuously freaky, morbid, self reflexively weird crap.

Tom Waits. Another fucking genius. His songs, largely created with unusual, old instruments and found items, carry on a tradition begun by Kurt Weill and The Threepenny Opera. It pulls in a healthy dose of Vaudeville through a Fellini-esque filter. Lyrically his songs span points of view from the down on his luck lounge lizard on the underside of skid row to the frantic, stream of conscious ramblings of a chain gang escapee making his way through some rural hell. He delivers all this with a voice that sounds like Louis Armstrong after a six month crawl through gin mills and heroin flops while smoking five packs of cigarettes a day. Waits admits that his persona is a character he invented, but he pulls it off so well that one never feels shammed or that Waits is delivering something contrived or insincere. This is a lesson Those Poor Bastards would be wise to take.

The Cramps. I love The Cramps. They're a cartoon band. There's nothing the least bit serious about them and they don't try to pretend there is. They're also a shitload of fun, both on record and live. The closest Those Poor Bastards come to The Cramps is Lonesome Wyatt's voice sounds a lot like Lux Interior's.

The Louvin Brothers. Ira and Charlie Louvin made country songs based in Appalachian folk and Gospel music. While they wrote songs of a secular nature also, their hearts were very much in redeeming people's souls through music. When they put out "Satan is Real" (as gimmicky as it looks today) it wasn't a gimmick. They meant it and they wanted to save your soul. Whatever you think of their message or how they presented it there's one thing for certain - the Louvins were very sincere about it. There is nothing on "Songs of Desperation" that sounds the least bit sincere to me. But I think I've covered that opinion quite thoroughly already.

It boils down to this - if I knew that this band was being ironic I might be more inclined to enjoy them. I hope to God they're chrortling at the idea of anybody taking this stuff seriously while they're recording it. It would make a lot more sense and might even make the music listenable.

If you're interested in intense, dark, apocalyptic, Appalachian gothic type stuff you should check out anything by David Eugene Edwards (16 Horsepower, Woven Hand). His music has all the elements that Those Poor Bastards seem to be striving for, but does it a hell of a lot better. It doesn't hurt that he's a true believer in the evangelical sense. If you don't work your ass off for salvation, boy, you ARE going to hell. I don't for one second entertain the idea that he's right about this, but he's deadly serious about it. That alone makes his music infinitely more entertaining than "Songs of Desperation".

Those Poor Bastards are playing with Hank III (one of their biggest supporters) here in Austin on Jan. 5th 2008. Maybe they'll somehow hear about this review and find me and kick my ass. There would certainly be something sincere in that.

Rating: 1 out of 4

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Interpol - "Our Love to Admire" (Capitol 2007)

This was the first record I bought when I realized I was losing touch. I found myself saying all the same bullshit the 30 and 40 somethings said that really pissed me off when I was a teenager and in my twenties. I was automatically writing off bands I'd never heard because they were new and had some degree of indie cool. My bad. I went with Interpol first because I saw them compared to Joy Division - one of my favorite bands. They were a good choice for re-entering the contemporary music landscape after a decade.

The Joy Division comparison is an apt one - Interpol clearly draws a large amount of inspiration from Joy Division, from the jagged and repetitive guitar lines to Paul Banks' vocal similarity to Ian Curtis. This is no bad thing, though, as Interpol are not slavish imitators. The production, on this record at least, set them apart quite distinctly. It's layered approach gives the record a full, ominous sound. It compliments Interpol's musicality very well, and brings to the forefront the abundance of hooks these songs have to offer.

There's not a weak song on this. Standouts are "Mammoth", "All Fired Up", and "The Heinrich Maneuver" though, to be honest, they only barely stand out from the rest. Interpol slings a lot of bile - the anger in these songs is almost visceral. It's to their credit that they manage to convey this through the medium of the hook-laden pop song. Not pop in the Britney Spears sense, of course - Big Star pop, Replacements pop. You get the idea.

This was the first I'd heard of the post-punk revival. As a big fan of original post-punk I think it's really cool that this is going on. Apparently there's a lot of stuff out there for me to check out once I get done looking into Interpol's other releases. It's good to know there are angry young bands out there bucking the trend of cultural decline so evident in other art forms. But then, when you get right down to it, that's what rock 'n' roll has always been about.

Much thanks to Interpol for bringing me in from the cold.

Rating: 4 out of 4

Dinosaur Jr., Awesome Color, Grand Champeen - Emo's - Austin, TX - Dec. 7th, 2007

Let me preface this by saying that the original line-up of Dinosaur Jr. is one of my top 5 bands of all time. The eponomously titled first album, "You're Living All Over Me", and "Bug" are damn near perfect records. The real reasons J.Mascis broke up one of the most powerful rhythm sections (Lou Barlow on bass and Murph Murphy on drums) will forever remain between the three of them, but it was a bad play up there with the worst of them. Some would argue that it worked out well - J.Mascis became a huge alternative rock star, Barlow got Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, and Murph moved on to The Lemonheads. Well: post-"Bug" Dinosaur Jr. sucked. Big time. Those two J.Mascis and The Fog records are alright, but still not his best work. While I like a lot of Folk Implosion stuff Barlow's nearer and dearer project Sebadoh bored the shit out of me. Their records grated on me. I walked out of at least three Sebadoh shows unable to stomach the self-indulgent and self-reflexive "weirdness" being presented. Murph joined The Lemonheads - a band that hadn't made a good record since "Hate Your Friends". At least he was drawing a paycheck.

I wept with joy when I found out the original Dinosaur Jr. line-up was touring together again after 19 years, although I had reservations. I chewed my fingernails to the quick worrying that the new record would be a terrible let down. I was certain that they would be disengaged and boring live - in it for the money. Neither is true - "Beyond" picks up where "Bug" left off and totally kicks ass. I've seen them twice now and have been as blown away as I ever was in the old days. At long last, on to the review.

Grand Champeen is one of Austin's best live bands. They are always tight as shit and play with over the top energy. They didn't disappoint and seemed to even kick it up a notch for the whole "opening for a legend" thing. Champeen sounds a lot like Soul Asylum would have if Soul Asylum had been any good (yes, I've heard the pre-"Gravedancer's Union" stuff. Doesn't do it for me like The Replacements or Husker Du. Sorry Minneapolites - I know I just made enemies of you all). Champeen's weakness is that, with all their cool tempo changes and jagged start/stops, the songs start running together after a while. I've never left a Champeen show thinking, "Wow - that one song is really stuck in my head". A lot of people disagree with me and it's very possible I'm just missing something. I'll keep going to see them. A live performance like theirs more than makes up for a minor weakness that I might be totally wrong about. They were the perfect opener for this bill and I couldn't be happier for them that they got the opportunity.

I knew absolutely nothing about Awesome Color going in. I was interested to see them solely on the grounds that they were touring with Dinosaur Jr. Must be pretty good, right? Whatever it was they were doing it didn't float my boat. Although thoroughly competent music-wise they didn't really seem to know what they wanted to be. If their songs had hooks or, for that matter, were in any way memorable I could have overlooked this. None of my bands have ever known what we wanted to be. I watched for three or so songs, then went outside and sat down where I could listen. Everything sounded the same. The last song they played developed a pretty cool groove but it wasn't nearly enough to save the set. I've read articles since calling them "psychedelic" and comparing them to The Stooges (never mind that The Stooges weren't psychedelic). I beg to differ - they weren't psychedelic and they certainly didn't compare favorably with The Stooges. Sorry Awesome Color. Maybe I should check out your records and listen for what I'm missing.

The main event - Dinosaur Jr. Lou Barlow looked like he had just woken up and there seemed to be some tension crackling across stage between him and J.Mascis. Always endearingly unprofessional on stage, Mascis indulged in his typically lengthy on stage tuning. This seemed to annoy Lou more than anything else. Every time Lou tried to say something to the crowd J. would interrupt with loud guitar noodling. Recipe for disaster, you might think. Nope. From the opening chords of "Freak Scene" which kicked things off these guys kicked ass eight ways to Sunday. They drew liberally from their back catalog, high points being "Repulsion", "Bulbs of Passion" and "In a Jar" among many others. They played most of "Beyond" as well. Noticeably missing were "Forget the Swan" from the first record and "Back to your Heart" (hands down the best track on "Beyond"), both Barlow's. One or both may have been dropped from the set due to what happened after "Lightning Bug", Barlow's other cut on "Beyond". A group of five or six weak idiots started booing Lou, apparently still being caught up in the Mascis/Barlow conflict that is now seemingly resolved. Lou visibly rolled his eyes and pretty much looked at the ground for the rest of the set. The only other down point was Mascis' extended, masturbatory guitar solo at the end of the first set. I know that this why a lot of people revere him, but I'm a song guy and this ten minute long exercise in self-gratification annoyed the shit out of me. To be fair, though, the crowd loved it. In spite of the tension and the idiots in the crowd Dinosaur Jr. put on an outstanding and memorable show. If I was blown away back in the 80's, I was doubly so this time. Maybe because watching these three guys my age put on an intense, high energy show was inspiring at the least.

A word about Emo's in Austin - the sight lines suck, the outdoor area is poorly designed in the extreme with the floor rising and falling in various places, many audio dead spots in which the otherwise excellent sound system sounds awful, and very poor consideration given to moving large numbers of people in and out. It gets packed like a sardine can and you can forget about going to get a beer or taking a restroom break unless you're willing to spend a ridiculous amount of time doing it. This was the case for the first half of Dinosaur Jr.'s set. Thankfully they played "Feel the Pain" at the halfway mark (the only song that appeared on a non-Barlow/Murph record) and fully a third of the crowd, satisfied at hearing "the hit", left. This made it a lot easier to breathe and, since it was only hardcore Dinosaur Jr. fans remaining, enjoy the show.

Overall, this show was well worth the $20.00 ticket price. Hopefully the onstage tension was temporary and not indicative of a looming second break up. This isn't a band having a reunion. This is a band having an amazing comeback and they're at the top of their game. As long as these three guys stick together I'll keep buying the records and seeing the shows.

Rating: 4 out of 4