Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mitch Mitchell RIP


Eric Clapton, John Lennon and, most famously, Jimi Hendrix Experience (among an impressive array of others) drummer Mitch Mitchell was found dead in his hotel room yesterday. He was 61.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Cure - "4:13 Dream" (Geffen Records 2008)

It’s been four years since The Cure released the remarkably lackluster eponymously titled The Cure, continuing with Robert Smith’s stated intent beginning with 1989’s brilliant Disintegration to release a new Cure record every four years. Well, in spite of truckload of accolades, awards, and recognitions it’s been a rough couple of decades musically for the band. Wish, the 1992 follow-up to Disintegration, was spotty at best. It certainly had its fair share of moments but an equal weight in phoned in, weak material. 1996’s Wild Mood Swings continued this directionless direction and was an aptly titled record that didn’t know what it wanted to be. Bloodflowers, released in 2000, returned to the more familiar, melancholic ground The Cure operates most comfortably on. Smith hired nu-metal producer Ross Robinson and gave us 2004’s The Cure, referred to by Smith as “Cure heavy”. Whether an attempt to update their sound or simply an uninspired exercise in order to maintain the four year interval, or both, the record was a fucking disaster. I can think of two listenable songs on the whole thing, and that’s being generous. With longtime keyboardist and collaborator Roger O’Donnell’s departure in May 2005 and Smith’s stated intention not to replace him my hopes dimmed for the future of a band I once considered one of the best in the world.

They say high expectations can lead to disappointment, and that the inverse is true. I had pretty low expectations for 4:13 Dream, but after listening to the thing ten or more times I’ve gotta say that this is strongest Cure record since Disintegration. Not that it bears much sonic or mood resemblance to that record, but in its tight focus. Finally, after all this time, a record with a solid vision behind it. That vision is guitar drenched pop, and it turns out they’re pretty good at it.

With the stripped down lineup of Smith, Simon Gallup, Porl Thompson, and Jason Cooper, whatever keyboard is in there (Smith is credited with “keys”) is strictly backdrop. Anyone familiar with the band’s body of work knows that by 1985’s Head on the Door Smith had forsaken minimalism for lush production, and this record is no exception. Working with producer Keith Uddin (Bjork, Nick Cave, Oasis, and about a thousand others) the two produce a sonic landscape of layered guitars and subtle rhythms that just sounds fucking great.

Opening with “Underneath the Stars”, a song bearing the most familiar Cure hallmarks of the record, 4:13 Dream abruptly veers into the overtly sexual “The Only One” – both terrific pop songs but stylistically very different. The record proceeds to move around through mid to up tempo hooky numbers, almost all catchy as hell and displaying a satisfying range of the lyrical subject matter that Smith is so good at. From the bouncy, tongue in cheek “Freak Show” to the more melancholic longing of The Hungry Ghost”, it’s all in there.

While this all may give the impression of disjointedness, it’s the confidence of this record that ties everything together and really makes it work. It seems Smith has found his way to remain contemporary without resorting to ill-considered plays like “Cure heavy”. The Cure reportedly recorded 33 songs for this record, initially intended as a double record, but decided instead to pick and choose, and they really hit the mark as far as how well these songs fit together as a whole (there are band propagated rumors of a second release of “darker material” before Robert Smith’s birthday (April 21st) – something I think would be only fair considering this album’s release was delayed by seven months).

Complaints? Of course. All five of you who actually read this blog know my opinion of Jason Cooper’s drumming. There’s no way it was going to be easy to replace Boris Williams but it’s difficult to credit that Cooper was the best they could do. While a serviceable timekeeper, his uninspired electronic drum fills and general lack of creativity serve only to diminish the superb bass skills of Simon Gallup. The one song on which there is some semblance of the bass/drums interplay that was such a hallmark of The Cure prior to Cooper is “Sleep When I’m Dead”, a song apparently composed by Smith and Gallup during The Head on the Door sessions.

Also, while the intentions of a song like “Freak Show” are good, it’s a little bit much. Its jerky arrangement and almost spoken lyric make it stand out, and not in a good way. That being said, I have no doubt that it’s the big hit in all the dance clubs as I type this.

So, is 4:13 Dream a brilliant record? No. Does it give an indication that Smith has another masterpiece along the lines of Pornography or Disintegration in him? Not necessarily. But what it does show is that Robert Smith still has it in him to produce great pop records that adapt with the times without compromising that distinctly Cure essence. For me, anyway, that’s enough.

3.5 out of 4 dreams

Monday, November 3, 2008

John Daly RIP


Chairman of Film and Music Entertainment Inc. John Daly died Fridy at the age of 71. He produced flicks like Platoon and The Last Emporer. There's a lot more interesting shit about his early career if you want to look it up, but I'm too sick of writing about the recently deceased to research it and cast it into my own poetic prose.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Studs Terkel RIP


What can I say that you don't already know about the man if you gave a shit about him. I'm really going to have to stop noting these passings. Rest in peace, Studs. 93 is a pretty good run.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tony Hillerman RIP


I'm going to have to stop writing eulogies. This is getting ridiculous. Here we go:

Tony Hillerman was an American writer. He wrote mysteries set in the American Southwest that involved Native Americans and their spiritual beliefs. Lots of people liked his stuff and he sold millions of books. I never read anything he wrote even though a couple of people have told me I should. He died Sunday at the age of 83 of pulmonary failure.

I hate to sell him short but, while immensely popular, Cormac McCarthy he wasn't. Or so I'm told. Plus, I'm sick of this blog being a litany of dead cultural personalities and their life stories. Sorry, Tony. Maybe I'll get around to you some day.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Levi Stubbs RIP


R&B wonder and frontman for The Four Tops Levi Stubbs died today at age 72 from several complications arising from cancer he was diagnosed with in 1995. The Four Tops and The Temptations pretty much defined the male side of the Motown sound in the 1960's, and Stubb's has the distinction of being the first defined "lead vocalist" in an R&B group. They couldn't have picked a better one.

Edie Adams RIP


Groucho Marx once said of Edie Adams, “There are some things Edie won’t do, but nothing she can’t do.”

For an actress, singer and comedienne who could count playing the foil to comedian Ernie Kovacs on his TV show, spending twenty years as the spokeswoman for Muriel Cigars, starring most memorably in film in Billy Wilder’s Oscar Award winning picture The Apartment, winning a Tony Award for her portrayal of Daisy Mae in Broadway’s adaptation of Lil’ Abner, and numerous nominations for and winning of other awards among her achievements I’d say Groucho hit the nail on the head.

Edie Adams died of lung cancer and pneumonia yesterday at the age of 81. Nice job, Edie. I really don’t think they make ‘em like you anymore.




Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Zack and Miri Make a Porno" and the Latest Loss of Childhood Innocence

I suppose it started with the Comics Code Authority in 1954. For those of you who don’t know, this was an industry self imposed set of restrictions on comic book content established to avoid government regulation by The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which was set up specifically to focus on comic books (this during The Cold War – you’d think The Senate would have had bigger fish to fry. Like Joe McCarthy). Yes, to protect America’s tender, impressionable youths from lurid, immorally seductive images and ideas conveyed by fanciful cartoons drawn and pressed on paper. If you want the details look it up – it’s every bit as absurd as you might imagine.

Then came the countless studies that continue to this day on the terrifying impact that television is having on youthful minds. Television romanticizes violence, sexuality and drug use. Television reduces intelligence. Television causes autism. The Red Chinese use television to brainwash political prisoners. Tinky Winky is gay. It’s inevitable that television will at some point produce a generation of homicidal, crack smoking, homosexual, idiot-savants that will destroy the country, if it hasn’t already happened.

Need I mention rock ‘n’ roll music, which was leading our impressionable youth into Satan worship, drug abuse, and suicide in the 1980's? That one landed in The Senate as well, thanks to our latter day hero of the centrist-left Al Gore. If he’d spent that energy on environmental politics maybe people would have started listening sooner. Anyway, as Gene Simmons pointed out, had subliminal messaging in rock ‘n’ roll music worked his would have been, “Buy more KISS records!” I venture to say he’s not alone in that sentiment.

Now video games are the bugaboo. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wouldn’t have shot all those people at Columbine High School if it weren’t for the nefarious influence of violent video games in their lives. Nor would the handful of school shooters since. Pre-existing mental instability, unchecked bullying, and poor parenting didn’t enter into it at all. It was that one last round of Doom that pushed them over the edge. This is proven by the fact that the millions of teenagers out there playing violent video games are even now oiling their carbines.

This brings us around, of course, to movies. In 1930 The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (now The Motion Picture Association of America) adopted The Production Code to avoid any “lurid” content from making it into films (again – look it up). This was a little different in that it was intended to protect EVERYONE from the profane and vulgar imaginations of the riff-raff involved in the motion picture industry. In 1968 The Production Code was abandoned for the (now) MPAA’s film rating system, designed to keep “morally questionable” content out of films. This had more of a focus on children, arbitrarily deciding at which age a child was capable of safely absorbing which kind of content. The holds, of course, slipped here with the advent of cable television, video cassette rentals, and the DVD revolution. Still, no rabid hordes of bloodthirsty nymphomaniac teenagers running wild in the streets. At least, as in the cases mentioned above, no more than usual.

Which brings me to my point. Kevin Smith’s new movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno has raised something of a furor. Several TV stations, newspapers and cable networks are refusing to screen the ad. The City of Philadelphia has ordered all poster ads pulled from its bus stops, and The City of Boston is considering doing the same. Fox Sports has agreed, at the team’s request, to not show the ad during Dodger’s games as the ads damage the Dodgers’ “family friendly” image. Kevin Smith had to beg the MPAA to drop the film’s rating from “NC-17”, a box office killer, to “R”. Why all the hubub, bub? The last word of the film’s title. Yes – “porno”. This five letter word is now the overwhelming threat to the morals of a new generation. It doesn’t matter that the movie isn’t a porno, or even a sex comedy for that matter. It has the word “porno” in the title.

And I thought the 1954 Senate being scared of comic books was absurd.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Neal Hefti RIP


Let’s face it. It doesn’t matter that Neal Hefti scored The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park. It doesn’t even matter that this unbelievably talented trumpet player sat in with orchestras conducted by such luminaries as Count Basie and Harry James among others. Impressive achievements all, but, in the end, they just don’t matter.

Finally, it doesn’t matter that Hefti scored what is generally agreed to be possibly the most puerile, asinine television series of the 1960’s (Adam West disagrees, and I’ll probably get my ass chewed by modpro for saying it, but that doesn’t change the ugly truth). What matters, in the final analysis, is that theme song. A song that burrowed its way into the consciousnesses of at least two generations of kids. One of the coolest theme songs of all times – right up there with The Munsters.

Hefti always said that the Batman and Robin theme song was the most difficult piece he ever wrote, and it shows. It made that piece of crap show worth watching. Well, at least the first minute of it. And usually the whole grim half hour, as aspects of the song would show up periodically throughout the episode, especially during the fight scenes. He won a grammy for that song, and a more deserved one has never been handed out.

Neal Hefti died today at the age of 85. A pretty good run and a pretty distinguished career. But man, that song…

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Tin Pan Alley, Nick Reynolds RIP

Nick Reynolds, one third of the legendary folk trio The Kingston Trio, died Wed., Oct 1st 2008 of acute respiratory illness at the age of 75. A little slow on the uptake for me here, I know, but it’s been a hell of a week. I’m sitting here with a bellyfull of painkillers right now and they’re hardly doing me a lick of good in any respect. Anyway, back to Nick.

It’s hard to appreciate the impact The Kingston Trio had on pop music in the early 1960’s. Brian Wilson appropriated their idea of dressing nattily in identical striped suits and utilizing soaring harmonies to make an impression. Peter, Paul and Mary pretty much wanted to be them, and The Mamas and the Papas lifted arrangements directly from their songs (something that an inner circle member of pop-culture royalty like John Phillips denied to his dying day). The Trio took great inspiration from early mainstream folkies like The Weavers and Woodie Guthrie, of course, but also, and somewhat more unlikely, from the Calypso sounds of Harry Belafonte (hence their name). Most importantly, The Kingston Trio helped usher the second wave of American folk music into popular culture, something that would result in the development of artists such as Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie and, most staggeringly, Dave Van Ronk and an angry little Jewish kid from Duluth who went by name Bob Dylan.

It’s sad to see you go, Nick, but you certainly more than did you part.

On another sad note, the owners of a five building stretch on West 28th St. in Manhattan’s Chelsea District lovingly referred to as Tin Pan Alley have placed the buildings up for sale, the real estate listing recommending the buildings be razed to make way for a new skyscraper. From the 1890’s to the late 1950’s, when The Brill Building and it’s corresponding rise of rock ‘n’ roll (or what passed for it coming out of Brill) changed the face of things, Tin Pan Alley was one of the two cultural heartbeats of NYC, the other being Greenwhich Village. In its heyday The Alley gave us luminaries like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, and in its latter days the respectful and nostalgic revisionism of a genius like Tom Waits.

The New York Historic Districts Council along with the local tenants are, of course, up in arms about this and ready to fight city hall in order that this cultural historic hub of American music and musical theatre be saved from demolition. Many of you probably remember how well that went over with the massive push to save punk rock Mecca CBGB. Let’s just say that I’m of the opinion that we’re about to see yet another irreplaceable landmark of American cultural development succumb to soulless big money interests. No big surprise there. With the slow, agonizing death of American culture itself, who amongst the fascist pricks want to be viscerally reminded day to day of the physical expression of the phenomenon that they've so blithely destroyed. If they even have the hearts, minds or souls to give a shit. If you get the chance, stop by while you can.


Finally and unusually I’ll go ahead and end on a positive note. I received a package today from Jeff Smith over at Saustex Media containing the advances of their two upcoming releases – The Service Industry’s Keep the Babies Warm and The Summer Wardrobes’ Cajun Prairie Fire. I love both bands, and can’t wait to give a good sit down with them and write up my thoughts on them for you folks. They say high expectations lead to disappointment, but neither of these particular bands have let me down yet.A little farther down the road we’ve got The Cure’s incessantly pushed back (over six months now – the tour has even already come and gone) 4:13 Dream and The Supersuckers Get it Together, both of which I’m excited as shit about sinking my teeth into, so the next couple of months will hopefully be short on RIPs and long on some completely unbiased record reviews. Be back atcha when I get all that writing done.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman RIP


Well, what can I say about this that hasn't already been said? Paul Newman was one of those actors that became iconic in his lifetime and, to me at least, it never occurred to me he would die. There are few actors in the entire history of film with a body of work as impressive, but if he never made a film before or after Cool Hand Luke it would be enough to place him among the greats. Safe travels, Paul. As long as there are people on this planet you won't be forgotten.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Richard Wright RIP

Jeez, you try and take a break around here and cultural personalities start dropping like flies.

Richard Wright, keyboardist and founding member of Pink Floyd, died of an undisclosed form of cancer Sept. 15th.

While Pink Floyd is largely identified with Dark Side of the Moon and the bloated, self-indulgent concept albums to follow the fact of the matter is The Pink Floyd began their existence as a psychedelic outfit that, by 1967, were the biggest band operating on the famed London Underground scene. Along with guitarist/vocalist Syd Barrett (RIP 2006), considered one of the most innovative British guitarists of the time, Wright contributed to the creation of a sound, despite widespread attempts at imitation, literally and utterly unlike any other. Take a listen to Piper at the Gates of Dawn or any early Floyd singles and tell me there’s anything out there that stand up to their twisted pop genius. Barrett may have been the driving creative force, but the sounds created on those early recordings and, by all reports, their shows during this period would not have been possible without Richard Wright. It’s impossible to say what would have happened had Barrett’s musical career not succumbed to mental illness and drug abuse, but I can say with certainty it wouldn’t have been the narcissistic sledgehammer that was The Wall.

Anyway, pretty much any fan of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll, especially fans of bands like The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Richard Wright. Not to mention the bands themselves. The stuff he did before David Gilmoure replaced Syd Barrett in Pink Floyd is more than enough to make up for all the rest.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace RIP



This almost slipped by me in my self-imposed isolation.


David Foster Wallace, author of The Broom of the System and, most famously, Infinite Jest committed suicide on Sept. 12th at the age of 46. I'd be lying if I said I'd read Infinite Jest. I tried but gave up on the grounds that I couldn't make heads or tails of the damn thing. Still, Wallace is the first writer from my generation who achieved "literary" status to die. While his work held no resonance for me at the time I tried to read it, I'm not going to slam a guy who earned comparisons to Juan Luis Borges and Thomas Pynchon. That's a lot more than I've, and I expect you've, done.


I guess I'll give Wallace another try. Now that I'm older, wiser, and, most importantly I suspect, sober, Infinite Jest will make a whole lot more sense to me.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sabbatical


To my 5 or 6 loyal readers and those of you stopping by, I'm taking a brief break from this enjoyable if somewhat rigorous (for a lazy slob like myself) pop culture blog. While still high Summer here (which I have every expectation will last at least until Halloween) the Autumn doldrums have already knocked me on my ass, and the attendent brutal insomnia that attends it has brought me down with one of the nastiest late summer colds I've ever had (I say that every year). If the past is any indication it will last until March.

North vs. South was a success from my point of view. I got to see old friends from the road that I literally get to see once a year, saw some terrific bands I've known forever and shared stages with in the past and got to check out some really hot shit up and comers. If you're able to find anything by Monkeytown, get it. The name doesn't match the music (I exhorted them drunkenly to change their name after their set) and their music blew me off my barstool more than once. It could have been the booze, but I don't think so. They're one mighty motherfucker of a band from good old AusTex.

I didn't get a chance to talk to any of the three promoters afterward, so I'm not sure how they felt coming out of it, but I do know that next year is on. God bless Mike McCoy, Hunter Darby and Baby Grant Johnson for keeping the fire burning.

I'll be back atcha soon enough. The new psych meds will kick in, the weather will get nice, Jeff Smith over at Saustex Media will send me his latest release to review, someone will die, or I'll pick up something that's gotta be written up. The Cure's new one is currently set to drop Oct. 14th so you know I'll certainly be back in the saddle by then. In fact, I need to start flashing my fetching virtual smile at some people to get an advance of that bad boy.

Take care, y'all, and I'll be back to the rants before you know it.
Oh, and if you want your band reviewed, please send a copy of the CD and a ONE SHEET to 5508 Coventry Ln., Austin, TX 78723. If you don't know what a ONE SHEET is, please find out. I have neither the time nor inclination to sift through a 50 page press kit, nor do I have any patience for e-kits. I don't care if I'm living in the past. I also still type with two fingers. Take some comfort in the fact that I don't like slagging unknown bands (I save that for for those already on major indie or major labels) and if I don't like your stuff, I won' trash you here. I'll send you an honest email detailing why it didn't appeal to me and even return the promo at my own expense if you like. Believe it or not, I know quite a bit about this shit and my opinions are well informed. If that gives you any solace.

Take care of yourselves, say whatever passes as a prayer to you that I don't end up under "24 hour psychological obseration" over at the Seton Psych Ward, and keep an eye out. Like herpes, I'm gonna show up again.

Thanks,MC

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

North vs. South Music Festival


This weekend marks the 5th anniversary of The North vs. South Music Festival, held in Lawrence, KS for the last four years but moved to Kansas City for this go round.

Conceived by Mike McCoy, Hunter Darby, and Grant Johnson, three of the more prolific musicians operating along the IH-35 corridor (amongst other parts of the country), the idea originally was to take the best indie bands from the two notorious music cities at opposite ends of IH-35 (that's Austin and Minneapolis if you can't figure it out) and have them meet in the middle roughly on the anniversary of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence, KS during The Civil War (look it up – I ain’t your history teacher). Not a competitive event at all, the philosophy was to bring together two very different and yet oddly similar musical scenes for the purposes of fun, networking, seeing a lot of great music one might not be exposed to, and getting shit faced drunk. It has been a smashing success the last four years, and there’s no reason to expect the fifth won’t be as well.

In the last five years the festival has expanded to include acts from all over the country and, this year, even an international act (Australia). If this isn’t a sign of expanding success I’d be hard pressed to say what is.

The point here is that this is a grown from the ground up, DIY music festival showcasing unsigned and indie acts. This kind of shit doesn’t happen anymore, and it’s a Goddamn shame it doesn’t. I’ve been accused of harping incessantly on the “good old days” of the music scene of the 1980’s and it’s probably true – that was the milieu in which I came up. At the same time, there was an entirely different culture and approach to underground music at that time that seems to have all but disappeared. A music festival like North vs. South, while still cool, wouldn’t have been such an anomaly back then, as such things were cropping up in towns and cities all over the nation. In Austin alone you had the Woodshock festivals, not to mention the staggering juggernaut that is South by Southwest which had equally such inauspicious beginnings. Houston hosted The Westheimer Arts Festival, which gave more than equal time to indie bands.

What’s missing here in the 00’s? A spirit of cooperation? An idea that we’re all in this together and, while there are only so many of us that will ever make a dime off playing music, we should be supporting one another and applauding those that break out rather than treating it as a cut throat competition that plays directly into the smarmy club owners and promoters hands? An inspiration to, if the clubs won’t come across, find some like minded artists and make your own venues wherever you can? Guerilla promotion? All these things, unless I’m just missing it. The internet seems an ideal, not mention inexpensive, way of accomplishing a lot of this, but every music “cooperative” I’ve found on line smacks of some kind of ponzi scheme whereby you, the artist, shell out for a “premium” package which ultimately buys you exactly nothing, and which is even less help for those that opt for the “free” services they offer. They also, through “top rated band” bullshit, engender that same sense of cutthroat competition that is strangling the indie scene.

There are a few exceptions I know of. While exclusive, the Orange 6 collective out of Athens, GA seems to be pretty effectively circumventing the powers that be, and God bless them for that. Nothing else comes to mind at the moment, but consider I’m sleep deprived, stressed out, clinically mentally ill, and have to get on an airplane in 18 hours when I absolutely detest flying (like, panic attack detest – I have to be sedated).

I’m really not one to talk. While I have organized and promoted indie shows with some degree of success (and am currently trying to put one together with extremely limited success so far), I’ve never gotten together some like minded people and attempted something on the scope of North vs. South. The idea has occurred to me, and even entered preliminary planning stages, but fallen apart due to lack of interest and the daunting amount of work and capital it would take to make it successful. That’s not to say it can’t be done. It’s just to say I’m kinda lazy.

I’m proud to be a charter member of North vs. South, having played all four previous festivals and playing this one this coming Saturday, even when, as last year, I had to pull something together at the last minute. It reminds me of the good old days of indie music, as sick as I’m sure you are at hearing that term.

It would do America’s ailing underground music scene a universe of good to see events like North vs. South cropping up around the country. It would certainly do my ailing faith in the vitality of underground music a universe of good - people doing it just because they love it, not because they want to be Conor Oberst. In the words of a Homestead Records era J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. (then simply Dinosaur), “I’ll just keep on hopin’.”

You can find info on North vs. South at www.myspace.com/northvssouthmusicfestival.

LeRoi Moore RIP



LeRoi Moore, saxophonist and co-composer for The Dave Matthews Band, died yesterday at the age of 46 from complications arising from an ATV accident June 30th. Talented motherfucker but honestly, with the exception that the loss of any human life is a tragedy, from a musical perspective I don't really give a shit. Dave Matthews is lowest common denominator pablum - music for the masses in the worst possible way. It's a shame to me that Moore chose such a vapid vehicle in which to express himself.

My opinion of Dave Matthews was not improved by the fact that the band went ahead and performed with the ringer who's been sitting in for Moore since his accident at The Staples Center last night, the night of Moore's death. Seems to me the death of a bandmate and, ostensibly, a friend would merit not a moment of silence, but an entire evening. Concerts can be rescheduled. Tribute shows can be planned. Dead bandmates aren't coming back. The lack of respect is reprehensible and certainly indicates where Dave Matthews priorities lie. It ain't with the music.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes RIP


Soul music luminary Isaac Hayes died yesterday at the age of 65 due to causes yet unreleased. Hayes survived a stroke in January 2006, but seemed in good health – he recently finished work on the upcoming film Soul Men (co-starring with, in a somewhat chilling turn, comedian Bernie Mac) and was preparing to begin work on a new album.

Hayes began his professional career in 1964 as a session musician for Stax Records, recording most famously with Otis Redding, although that was by no means the extent of his experience. He hooked up with songwriter David Porter and collaborated on a number of songs, most notably the Sam and Dave hit “Soul Man”.

His career as a recording artist began in 1967 with the release of Presenting Isaac Hayes, but it wasn’t until 1969’s Hot Buttered Rhythm that he came to prominence. Superstardom deservedly came with 1971’s brilliant “Theme From Shaft”, a number one hit that snagged him an Academy Award.

Hayes was an iconoclast for his time, musically opting for a smooth, laid back delivery as opposed to the more frantic presentations of his contemporaries and, visually, eschewing the loud colors, flared pants and afros in style at the time for a shaved head and a whole, whole lot of gold. The beginnings of many of his songs on early records are spoken word and today considered one of the predecessors of the rap genre.

In addition to an up and down musical career Hayes starred in several films, was a noted philanthropist, provided to voice of Chef on Southpark, and, unfortunately, an outspoken advocate for Scientology.

Dubious religious affiliations aside, Isaac Hayes was a brilliant songwriter, a charismatic performer ahead of his time, and a prolific, more than passable actor. That’s a pretty respectable legacy to leave behind.

Man, I’m getting sick of typing RIP after people’s names.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bernie Mac RIP

I almost missed the news on poor Bernie. My wife and I are busy tearing our house apart to lay new floors and I decided to take one last stroll through the entertainment news before I dismantled the computer. I’m sure anyone reading this knows more than I do by now.

Bernie got his start as a comedian on Chicago’s South Side, putting on performances for his peers while he was only in high school. I don’t know many details (there are very few comedians whose careers I follow – I’m far too negative a person to enjoy most comedy), but from the brief bios I read his career took a steady upward trajectory from there. Possibly his proudest moment was his inclusion the The Kings of Comedy tour and, resultantly, his segment being included in Spike Lee’s 2000 film The Original Kings of Comedy documenting the tour. That was by no means a swan song – his output has remained steady and, according to everything I could find written on him since, of professional quality.

Bernie died yesterday from sarcoidosis complicated by pneumonia at the age of 50. I’ve got a feeling that, like many comedians performing timeless and quality material who predeceased him, he’s left a legacy that will far outlive the man. Nice job, Bernie – keep ‘em laughing on the other side.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn RIP


Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a titan of Western literature, died yesterday at the age of 89. The author of the seminal and essential, stunning and horrifying 1973 trilogy Gulag Archipelago was very deservedly the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1970 for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and Cancer Ward, among others.

It’s a miracle the man lived to 89. He was arrested in 1946 for making what were considered seditious comments about Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend and spent roughly the next decade in the brutal Soviet penal system. His first novels, starkly realistic portraits of the abuses of Stalin, were published while Nikita Khrushchev was in power and anxious to erase any Stalinist legacy. Post Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn was continuously harassed by the KGB until he was finally exiled from The Soviet Union in 1974. His fame was likely the only thing that saved his life.

While intensely critical of the abuses of Stalin and “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, he was equally disgusted by the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism and, after 1994, voluntarily allowed himself to fade into obscurity.

Much like Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, Gulag Archipelago is an almost sickeningly detailed account of the evil perpetrated under a totalitarian regime and exposed to the world that Adolph Hitler wasn’t the only monster in human skin pulling strings in the 1930’s and 40’s, and that it’s impossible to say which one was taking a page from the other book. Ostensibly bitter enemies, they certainly shared a vision on how to dispose of threats real and imagined within their respective spheres of influence.

At least part of Solzhenitsyn’s legacy is this – the idea that “it can’t happen here” is profoundly naive and the result of allowing yourself to believe it can possibly aid in the creation of the kind of dystopian hell Solzhenitsyn’s novels describe. When Thomas Jefferson, for all his failings, said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” he wasn’t fucking around. I try to keep politics out of this blog to prevent it from decaying into an online slap fight about who’s right and who’s wrong, but I think it’s applicable here. I see a lot of bile being hurled back and forth out there, but a dearth of vigilance and a complete disregard for the idea that I may disagree with what you say, but will fight to the death for your right to say it. Patriotism is loving your country, not your government. Loving your government is called nationalism, and history has shown that, before too long, it generally leads to conditions described in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s work. Whoever you think is the better President, Congressman, Senator, or whatever, I think his novels can and should be taken as cautionary. End of political diatribe.

Another giant of Western literature is dead, and I’m wondering where the ones stepping up to take their place are. If I’m just missing them somebody let me know.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Eric Hisaw - "Nature of the Blues" (Saustex Media 2008)


I first ran into Eric Hisaw at the deservedly notorious Hole in the Wall in the mid-90’s. This was, of course, before The Hole became the sterilized, family friendly, soulless thing it is today. The owners/managers took a refreshing interest in giving smaller acts a venue from which to build an audience and actually booked bands that were interesting and challenging. One of those bands was The Lone Star Queens, a bluesy cowpunk (for lack of a better term) outfit fronted by the charismatic, abrasive Hisaw. While I didn’t have the easiest time getting along with him, I fucking loved his band and there was no question that there was some serious talent going on with the songwriting.

The years have passed and both Hisaw’s personality and sound have mellowed and, while the first has made him really easy for me to get along with, more importantly the second has served to really push the nuances and subtleties of his songwriting to the forefront. Eric’s third release, 2006’s The Crosses, was something of a breakthrough for him, providing long deserved recognition both nationally and internationally. Powerful and oozing pathos, it certainly seemed like a hard act to follow.

Well, not only has Eric Hisaw followed The Crosses, he’s clearly surpassed it. Nature of the Blues is a brutally honest, often dark, and very dramatic record. The songs that aren’t obviously autobiographical spin tales of broken people, desolate places, and ends of the line with such a bona fide confidence that it would be impossible to consider that he hadn’t experienced something at least very similar in his life. Story songs, autobiographical or not, can easily become onerous to listen to. Hisaw deftly avoids this with his lyrical skill – those that won’t identify directly with the material will, like reading a Raymond Carver story, get the vicarious thrill of a tour through the dark side of one corner of the American experience, in this case that of the blue collar southwest.

While the first two tracks are by no means weak, the record really takes off on the third track, “Carnival”, an almost existential rumination on feeling trapped in the small town of your childhood and teenage years and the seeming hopelessness of finding a viable way out. It barrels along for the next five songs, each stronger than the next, before downshifting for the slower, more introspective “Tomorrow”. Things pick up again for the last four songs, the standout being “Jake”, which takes the prize for this record. Lines like “I’ve never known success / so boy you do your best / to turn out better than me” are fucking priceless and capture perfectly a bleak kind of hope that is pervasive throughout the record.

Roots rock rarely gets better than this, and it’s a shame that more mediocre artists (I’m not naming any names – enough people in Austin hate me already) take the lion’s share of the local music industry’s attention. I don’t think it will be long before somebody wakes up and notices this powerhouse that they have willfully or accidentally forgotten to give his due. I doubt he cares much – he seems to be doing pretty well outside of Austin. And it would be just like Austin to ignore one of its under-rated best until they’ve moved on.

My recommendation, to Austinites in particular but also to anyone reading this, is to pick this one up. That is if you enjoy interesting and challenging roots rock that provokes an emotional response as opposed to something you can just dance to. There’s already enough of the latter stinking up the scene.

Eric Hisaw’s record release for Nature of the Blues is Friday, July 25th at Jovita’s on S. 1st St., 7:00 PM.

3.5 out of 4 Carnivals

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Old 97s / Sleepercar - Floore Country Store - San Antonio, TX - 07/18/2008


I can’t say much for Sleepercar, as I only caught their last couple of songs. Gotta say that, while their energy was to be admired, the music didn’t make an impression on me. It’s pretty standard practice to close a set with a few of your best, most memorable songs (oldest rule of show business – leave ‘em wanting more). If Sleepercar was adhering to this paradigm then I unfortunately have some serious doubts about them. I’ll wait to hear the record before passing final judgment, but God knows when that will happen.

An Old 97s show, in the right venue, is always something to behold. Floore Country Store is one of those venues – large enough to comfortably hold a crowd that will generate an enormous amount of enthusiasm and energy (around 500) while not being so large that the sense of intimacy and camaraderie with the band is sacrificed. I’ve seen The Old 97s in every setting from a smallish club to an arena, and they’re never so engaging as in this setting.

The songs roll out of them like a hit parade, each one sounding at once as familiar as your favorite Old 97s song – even if you’ve never heard it before or had time to get familiar with it. Even their weaker songs, of which there are more than a few from their late 90’s/early 00’s offerings, take on a new and exciting life.

They ambled unceremoniously onto the stage with an enthusiastic “Howdy, y’all!” from bassist Murray Hammond and launched into “The Fool”. Immediate technical problems arose, as Murray Hammond’s mic had cut out sometime between “Howdy, y’all!” and his first backing vocal. Always charmingly unprofessional, Rhett Miller took a long tuning break while the band vamped on the opening riff of second song “Barrier Reef” for 16 measures or so. Once Rhett wandered back center stage and started the song Hammond’s mic kicked in and it was four on the floor for the next hour and a half.

While they're in the midst of ripping a song out of their instruments it’s difficult to believe this is a band that, by their own assertion, never practices. It’s occasionally at the beginning and often at the end of songs that it’s easier to believe. The fact that some songs lurch into gear and many others simply fall apart rather than end is part of that unprofessional charm I mentioned, and certainly feeds the camaraderie that builds between audience and band as the show progresses. It’s a beautiful thing to observe.

I think one of the reasons seeing the band in this kind of setting really appeals to me is it reminds me strongly of the punk/underground shows of the 1980’s. This is really unsurprising as all four of these guys came up in that milieu, but, man, do they engender the whole feeling of being a part of something and that there’s no real line between the guys on the stage and the people in the crowd (while avoiding the epidemic violence that ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, ruined that scene). It helps that the audience is generally so enthusiastic, and this was certainly true at Floore. Most of the crowd sang along, danced, and went nuts to almost every song in the set right up until the first encore, which is where my inevitable complaint comes in.

I’ve found the “acoustic interlude” at a rock show obnoxious since at least the days of Uncle Tupelo, which is the first band I can remember doing it. I didn’t fork over my money to watch one member of the band self-indulgently hog the spotlight and the audience’s attention to play their thoughtful, acoustic songs. It’s boring and it shatters the energy of a wonderfully careening set like a bottle hitting a wall. For the love of God, Rhett and Murray and anyone else out there doing it, save it for the fucking coffee shop. Or your solo tour. If you simply have to play these songs slap together an arrangement that includes the whole band. I don’t think I’ll be the only one that thanks you for it.

To be fair, The Old 97s as a whole band were able to more or less pick up where they left off for the final two encores and close things out with a truly rafter rattling rendition of “Timebomb”. It was hard to ask for or expect anything more after that.

Overall, this show was so close to a home run as makes no difference. I know bands dream of selling out arenas and enjoying the freedoms that such a level of success brings, but I’m glad The Old 97s have settled into the level of success they’ve found. It’s enough to keep them comfortably viable and doing what they do for years to come without shoving them into a realm in which they don’t translate. As it is, give me a medium sized room, a sound system, The Old 97s, and 500 rabid fans, and I’m sure as shit going to have the time of my life.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Alejandro Escovedo - "Real Animal" (Manhattan Records 2008)


A good way to tell the difference between a true Austinite and someone who just lives here is to ask them what they think of Alejandro Escovedo. If the say, “Who?” you know you better quickly find some generic small talk to fill out the conversation if you want to continue it at all. At least if you’re a sanctimonious, opinionated ass who dwells to the point of obsession on the subjects of Austin music, art and politics. You may not be such a person. I sure as fuck am and so are most of the people I call my friends. One fairly common rule of thumb amongst people like yours truly is this – you don’t fuck with Alejandro Escovedo.

The man has led a life and had a career far more interesting than any fictional rock ‘n’ roller, or for that matter most real ones. As co-writer and guitarist for The Nuns, one of the earliest punk bands to appear on the West Coast, he opened for The Sex Pistols final show along with The Avengers at Winterland in San Francisco. He proved to be the glue in cowpunk outfit Rank and File (California version cowpunk, not to be confused with the anarchic mayhem of music so categorized in Austin and represented primarily by The Hickoids), as Rank and File lost direction and ultimately dissolved with Alejandro’s departure. He went on to front the seminal Austin roots rock legends The True Believers (to use a tired cliché, if you were able to look up “seminal Austin band” in the dictionary there would be a picture of The True Believers next to it). After leaving The True Believers he launched a solo career in 1992 with the release of the astounding Gravity, a record so passionate and emotionally charged that it’s immediately impossible to forget. A string of brilliant, passionate, primarily melancholic records followed. In the midst of all this he fronted and wrote the material for Buick McKane to allow himself an outlet for his need to play balls out rock ‘n’ roll, battled a near fatal bout with Hepatitis C, and led a dramatic personal life involving wives, ex-wives, friends, ex-friends, collaborators and ex-collaborators. He’s never achieved mainstream success, but just about every critically acclaimed serious artist out there cites him as an influence, and many of them count him among their friends.

That’s the short version. Like I said, you don’t fuck with Alejandro. Unfortunately, after some careful listens of his latest release, Real Animal, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of, if I’m to write an honest opinion piece, doing just that. Bear in mind I love Alejandro’s body of work – anyone can hit a bump in an otherwise smooth and beautiful road.

I don’t think there’s been a more anticipated release from an Austin artist since Spoon’s Merge Records debut Girls Can Tell in 2001. The promotion leading up to the release of Real Animal has stressed that it’s a collection of songs exploring Alejandro’s musical journey from The Nuns to present, including personalities encountered, befriended, and idolized. This it certainly does, and while the stories are there, this is where the record ultimately musically fails.

Where Alejandro’s best work has a natural and seemingly easy flow to it, much of Real Animal sounds forced, as though inspiration was passed over in favor of cramming these sets of story lyrics into often incompatible song structures, arrangements, and instrumentation. These failings are most evident in songs like “Chelsea Hotel” and “Chip n’ Tony”, which are trying so hard to be “rock” songs they come across as pale imitations of the same. Alejandro’s rock credentials are well established, with catchy solo songs like “Castanets” to the raw power of Buick McKane at its best, not to mention most everything that came before. It seems strangely out of character for him to be recasting himself as something he already is, and without the deftness of hand and easy grace of his earlier work.

Other problems crop up. Tony Visconti’s production and arrangements are almost uniquely unsuited for Alejandro’s brand of music. While a layered lushness, compressed guitar tone, and choral background vocals may have been perfect for other projects on his resume such as The Moody Blues, T. Rex, or David Bowie, it is glaringly out of place here. “Sensitive Boys” is certainly reminiscent of Bowie, but its disingenuous melancholic tone (when Alejandro usually does melancholy so well) makes it sound sappy and the Vegasey semi-choral background vocals are so out of place they go the rest of the way to ruining the song. This shows up again in “Golden Bear”, ruining an otherwise perfectly serviceable chorus. Alejandro has proven adept and even ingenious in incorporating strings in his songs, but the string arrangement on “Nuns Song” is positively jarring over his appropriately snotty reminiscence of the life and death of his 70s punk band.

The record is by no means a total wash. In spite of an unwieldy musical breakdown in the middle of the song, opener “Always a Friend” is a hooky singalong that pulls you in immediately. While hampered by Visconti’s over-production “Sister Lost Soul” is a definite keeper and the strongest track on the record.

All the songs on this album were co-written by Chuck Prophet, a long time contemporary and friend dating back to Alejandro’s California punk days, and I can’t help but wonder if this is what made the difference. Two old friends reminiscing about the good, or for that matter bad, old days is sure to be entertaining to them, but rarely to outsiders. In this case the phenomenon translated to the music being made, which is a shame considering both of these guys are such talented and powerful songwriters on their own.

As for Alejandro Escovedo, I’ll anxiously await his next record and hope that he allows the songs he writes to flow from within rather than directly out of the past.

2.5 Real Animals

Thursday, July 10, 2008

FreakAngels

I mention in my profile that I'm into comic books. Well, I am. Big old comic book fanatic and have been as long as I can remember. Not the superhero shit. I'm also not some obsessive collector type. I don't go to conventions or dress up in costumes. I read 'em and, after I've accumulated a pile, dump 'em off on the local used book store.

Anyway, it's my opinion that some of the better, more literary writing and storytelling going on in this day and age is occurring in this format. FreakAngels is a free weekly online comic written by Warren Ellis, who happens to be one of my favorite writers. I encourage you to check it out. If you dig it, sneak into a comic shop when no one is looking and buy some of his stuff. Ask the guy or gal behind the counter to recommend writers in a similar vein - he or she will talk to you way too long but you'll end up with a list of writers that will blow you away. Eventually, maybe, you'll even be able to admit to others that you're into this stuff.

So if this makes me a geek, as my wife maintains, so be it. I don't really give a shit. Check it out and see if you're one too.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin RIP


"I look at it this way... For centuries now, man has done everything he can to destroy, defile, and interfere with nature: clear-cutting forests, strip-mining mountains, poisoning the atmosphere, over-fishing the oceans, polluting the rivers and lakes, destroying wetlands and aquifers... so when nature strikes back, and smacks him on the head and kicks him in the nuts, I enjoy that. I have absolutely no sympathy for human beings whatsoever. None. And no matter what kind of problem humans are facing, whether it's natural or man-made, I always hope it gets worse."

George Carlin said that in 2005. It has a lot of resonance with me. A lot of Carlin’s material does. His knack for slicing open the absurdities of human existence and American culture and mores in particular was second to none – not even his legendary pal Lenny Bruce. Everything and everybody was a target at which he had no hesitancy in taking aim, and I doubt there’s anyone who didn’t find themselves in the crosshairs, at least in a general sense, once or twice. I’m not sure it would have been nearly as effective had he not had the humility to readily confess he himself was just as guilty of many of the absurdities he so keenly dissected.

I consider myself a pretty misanthropic guy, and you’re unlikely to find anyone who knows me that would disagree. One of the more impressive things about Carlin to me was that he consistently managed to make me uncomfortable. He made the extremity of my beliefs about our culture and society look mundane in comparison.

This is what it’s all about, folks. Nothing is ever going to get better without someone throwing your inadequacies, absurdities, laziness, lack of engagement, and lack of compassion right back in your face and making you squirm. Trying is good. Carlin made you try harder.

The man is dead. He died yesterday at the age of 71. Thankfully, for once, there’s someone out there ready to have a good shot at filling the void. It’s my hope that, in time, Lewis Black might surpass Carlin as Carlin did Lenny Bruce. But there’s no question those are some pretty big giants shoulders to stand on.

If it turns out there is an Invisible Man in the Sky, I’d sure be interested in finding out who wins the slugfest. I know who I’d put my money on.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dog Days


I just wanted to let my 5 or 6 loyal readers know that posts are likely to be a little thin the next couple of months. Between Alejandro Escovedo’s new one Real Animal next week and Brian Wilson’s That Lucky Old Sun in September there’s really not a whole lot being released that I give a shit about. Courtney Love’s latest crime against humanity is due sometime in “spring/summer 2008” and you better believe I’ll be on that like a hobo on a dead junkie, but otherwise this summer just doesn’t look that promising for interesting releases good, bad or in between. At least releases interesting to me.

I’ll try and get the Alejandro review up before I leave town on the 28th (it’s already been reviewed from The Austin Chronicle to Rolling Stone so my opinion isn’t likely to have much impact anyway), write up the occasional noteworthy show I catch, note the inevitable RIPs, and certainly find a nugget or two of offensive cultural goings on to rant about, but that’s likely to be it ‘til September when things pick up again. Or maybe I’ll actually go see a movie and write about that.

Anyway, before I get too far off track, expect posts here at Cultural Senescence to succumb to the dog days of the Texas summer, as so much else has over time.

Notwithstanding slavery, The Indian Wars, Jim Crow, Japanese internment camps, institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia, the current administration, the last seven presidents (at least), and The Jonas Brothers try to remember that the old USA isn’t that bad a place to live and enjoy your Independence Day. With a little help… Well, a lot of help, it might be a great place to live one day.

Before you fall under the misapprehension that I’m softening in my old age bear in mind that I’m not holding my fucking breath.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Cure, 65 Days of Static - 6/9/08 - Toyota Center - Houston, TX


First, let me dispense with 65 Days of Static. They sucked. Tight? Professional? Sure. They played four songs in their half hour set, all of them long (obviously), self-indulgent instrumentals that didn’t go anywhere. Eight or nine minutes of waiting for an actual song to start before realizing you had just heard the song. Four times. Who listens to this shit?

Although The Cure has literally never let me down in terms of live performance, I had some trepidation about this tour. The line up was a more stripped down version of the band than any since their earliest days – Robert Smith on vocals and guitar, Porl Thompson on guitar, Simon Gallup on bass, and Jason Cooper on drums. Given that The Cure has relied so heavily on keyboards to fill out their sound in the past I was pretty certain the performance quality would suffer for their lack.

This didn’t prove to be the case. Robert Smith is nothing if not adaptable. While some of the songs did sound thin, the new arrangements allowing for guitar or bass to cover keyboard melodies worked surprisingly well and lent them a rawness and urgency that is unusual for this band. If you’re 100% dedicated to the more ethereal presentations of The Cure then this was not the show for you. Even typically keyboard heavy songs like “Hot Hot Hot”, “Just Like Heaven” and “Plainsong” worked well in this guitar heavy configuration – something I would have never expected.

Playing for three hours the band stuck primarily to material from Head on the Door and beyond through their main set and first encore, especially Head on the Door and Disintegration, pulling only four songs from their forthcoming record amidst a smattering of songs, both well known and obscure, from from Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Wish, Bloodflowers, Wild Mood Swings, and The Cure. They did reach all the way back to Pornography to pull out a stunningly effective “100 Years” – Smith may have just gotten really good at faking it, but he sure as hell sounded as angry as he was 25 years ago when that song was recorded.

That Smith still has a fire burning in him was, to me at least, reinforced by the (audience pleasing, I’ll grant) raw power of their second encore. Consisting of songs from The Cure’s earliest days – “Boys Don’t Cry”, a brilliant combination of “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” and the rarely heard live “Grinding Halt”, and “Killing an Arab” – this mini set really kicked things up a notch. In spite of the fact that three of the four are de rigueur crowd pleasers, the band imbued them with an energy that hearkened back to the days when Robert Smith’s vision for The Cure was one of a punk band, and they truly tore up the stage with them. We listened to Seventeen Second’s “A Forest”, the third encore and last song of the night, as we were leaving and it sounded every bit as good as everything that had come before.

It was difficult to get a feel for the new material on just one live listen, but they sounded good enough to intrigue me and fill me with hope that the upcoming album will be a dramatic improvement over the disappointment of 2004’s The Cure.

My one complaint – Jason Cooper on drums. While competent, he displays none of the creativity of Boris Williams. He doesn’t hit nearly as hard and depends way too much on electronic drums. In a band as reliant on heavy rhythms as The Cure he is, in my opinion, a real liability.

Overall, however, The Cure have done it for me again. Of the many reasons I love this band their live performance is way up there on the list. It’s not many a stadium act that can keep me entertained and at times enraptured for three hours. It’s not many a stadium act that can maintain the kind of focus and energy The Cure bring to the table and never look like they’re phoning it in for three hours. In fact, I can’t think of another. Not too bad for four old guys.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Bo Diddley RIP


Bo Diddley died today at 79 after surviving a stroke and a heart attack last year. All I've been able to find out is "heart failure".

What the fuck can I say about this? I guess just this - Thank you, Bo. May your destination be as kind and inspirational to you as you were to us.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Earle Hagen RIP

The man that composed and whistled that infectious Andy Griffith Show theme song died at the quite respectable age of 88 this past Monday night.

Now I know many, probably most, of you (myself included) have spent many an insomniac night with that damn tune echoing through our skulls, but Hagen was no novelty performer. He also composed and performed the themes for I Spy, The Mod Squad, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Gomer Pyle.

Okay, maybe I'm not making such a great case for him.

But here you go - before finding TV fame he played with both The Tommy Dorsey and The Benny Goodman Orchestras. He co-scored the 1960 Marily Monroe star vehicle Let's Make Love, and later took on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes solo. He also co-wrote "Harlem Nocturne", which you probably think you don't know but would recognize in under a measure. The man performed and recorded music for 72 straight years, and while it may not have all been Mozart, it sure hit the higher rungs of pop culture (and scraped the bottom). Let's not forget that Mozart in his time was pop culture and managed both as well.

Good job, Earle. We should all be worthy of such a legacy.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Old 97s "Blame it on Gravity" (New West Records 2008)

When I met my future wife in 1994 or so she had just moved to Austin from Dallas, and she wouldn't shut the fuck up about a band called The Old 97s. She was on a mission to get everyone she knew and everyone she met into this band. Being a sanctimonious music snob/geek who was certain that the only bands of worth that Dallas had produced were The Loco Gringos and, more recently, The Reverend Horton Heat I took her enthusiasm as evidence that The Old 97s were, well, a chick band. Try not to hate me too much - I'm a big enough person to admit it and, for the most part, have outgrown such off the cuff sexism. Anyway, at the the time I paid them no mind at all.

In 1996 I was driving out to a recording studio in Bee Caves to help out on a friend's record when a song came over the student radio station. I was so blown away that I pulled over to wait for the airbreak so I could write down the name of the band. You've probably guessed that the band was The Old 97s - the song was "Big Brown Eyes" off of Wreck Your Life. I don't know if I ever apologized to my wife to be for doubting her, but if I didn't I should have.

The music on that record, and especially their 1997 follow up Too Far to Care, struck about every chord in me there was to strike at that time. The songs were surly, fiery, angry, desperate, humorous, absurd and melancholy - sometimes all at once. Rhett Miller wailed exceedingly clever lyrics in one of the most engaging voices out there, Murray Hammond hit spot on harmonies, Ken Bethea laid down hooky, perfectly placed guitar licks, and Philip Peeples drove the whole thing relentlessly from behind the drum kit. They eschewed fully traditional pop structures and song lengths in the interest of telling a good story and, man, could they tell a fucking story. It was what country music, real country music, should have evolved into.

God knows it wasn't going to last. 1999's Fight Songs was a big disappointment to me. With exceptions of tracks "Crash on the Barrelhead" and "Nineteen" the record fell totally flat - the energy was gone and the songs sounded pedestrian and mundane. The clever lyricism was missing and the record as a whole was just boring - not much different than other guitar pop bands of the time. 2001's Satellite Rides was a bigger disappointment still with, to my mind, "Buick City Complex" being the only memorable song. It was after this release that the band parted ways with Elektra Records. I don't know the details, but whether they initiated it or not it was the best thing that could have happened to them at this point.

Drag It Up, released in 2004 on New West Records, finally showed signs of life. The rawness was back, things were getting clever again, and the songs, with a couple of notable exceptions, were strong and memorable. It seemed like the boys were on their way back. Blame it on Gravity proves the supposition to be the case, I'm happy to say.

From opening rocker "The Fool" followed by the gear shifting slinky Latin-8ths "Dance with Me" this record jumps right in feeling like classic, clever, attitude driven Old 97s. The pop direction they explored in the Fight Songs/Satellite Rides era is present in songs like the Posies-esque "My Two Feet", a big difference being that this is spirited, original sounding pop as opposed to the seemingly phoned in efforts on those two previous records. Mostly, however, you get a satisfying dose of Old 97s country rock goodness with everything that has made the band great intact and those elements that have weakened them largely absent.

Long time Rhett Miller collaborator Salim Nouraliah produced this effort, and what a job he did. On top of a drastic return to form on the part of the band, Nouraliah provides a healthy degree of experimentation in terms of song dynamics and especially the use of varying guitar tones within songs to give things an extra kick. It adds to the already overall listenability of the record and provides an addictive element that should lend this release a long shelf life.

I'm older. You're older. The Old 97s are older. I think one of the coolest things about this record is that they're playing to their audience again. Not to a pop crowd or a AAA format crowd, but to those that have grown up with them. We're all a little more reserved with families and jobs and such, but like to be reminded that at heart we're a bunch of surly, fiery, angry, desperate, humorous, absurd and melancholy kids who want to rock. With a touch of wisdom that ultimately makes the whole thing successful, that's a reminder that Blame it on Gravity gives us.

3.5 out of 4 Johnny Cash songs

Monday, May 19, 2008

Scarlett Johansson "Anywhere I Lay My Head" (Atco 2008)


Way back in 1986 a mediocre actor named Don Johnson, who was hot shit at the time thanks to his leading role in the hit series Miami Vice, released a record called Heartbeat. Despite the fact that he pulled in some heavy hitters like Tom Petty and Ronnie Wood to lend this vanity project some kind of credibility it was still roundly panned for the steaming pile of crap that it was.

Joe Strummer was in the middle of shooting his first film appearance as Simms in Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell at the time of this record’s release. When asked in an interview if he thought it might be inappropriate that a successful musician transition to acting he self-deprecatingly replied, “When Don Johnson quits making records, I’ll quit making movies.”

Well, Don Johnson quit making records (thank God) and Joe Strummer quit making movies (RIP), but that hasn’t stopped anything. Musicians seem to have an easier time making the jump to acting – Method Man, Mos Def, Tom Waits, John Doe – than actors to music – Keanu Reeves, Corey Feldman, Russell Crowe and, finally, Scarlett Johansson.

Ms. Johansson attempts to lend her vanity project, Anywhere I lay My Head, credibility by stocking it almost entirely with Tom Waits covers. I’m not joking. I wish I were. I would have rather spent forty-five minutes listening to her belch into a microphone than be subjected to her slaughtering this iconic musician’s material.

I like her acting. Honestly, I do. That’s why I’m going to address five words to Scarlett that have been heard so many times by actual musicians it’s become cliché – don’t quit your day job.

This piece of crap falls out of Atco's ass Tuesday, May 20th 2008.

1/2 out of 4 I don’t give a damns just because she looks so damn good

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Chuck's Wagon - "Chuck's Wagon" (Self-Release 2007)


With song titles like “Wreckless”, “Heartbreak”, and “You Lied” you get a pretty good idea of what to expect from the Chuck’s Wagon eponymously titled 2007 follow up to their debut EP Bootleg Special. Or at least you think you do.

Chuck’s Wagon is the brainchild and songwriting vehicle for Sydney, Australia’s Chuck Stokes. With the support of an impressively competent backing band, Chuck has been making some waves in Australia since he put the project together in 2005, and he’s brought his take on honky tonk over to Texas twice since September 2007.

While drawing clear inspiration from masters of the form Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kistofferson, there’s a rock ‘n’ roll undertone to Chuck’s Wagon that is evocative of Gram Parsons and Bruce Springsteen’s more countrified material (which is far superior to his rock ‘n’ roll outings in my humble opinion). It may be true that none of this is necessarily breaking new ground, but it is lyrically that Stokes really stakes out his own parcel of the genre.

A couple of good examples are “3AM”, which one would reasonably expect to have something to do with last call, and “Jesus”, a song for which you could be forgiven for assuming that the name speaks to the content. Neither proves to be the case, and it is this consistent defiance of expectation that really makes the songwriting stand out from the pack. The fact that the unexpected stories being told are so clearly uncontrived and coming from an honest place only serves to make them more appealing and worthy of many listens.

The production/engineering credit goes to Steve Newtown, a venerable and well known roots music producer down under. In spite of this, to my ear at least, the production is the weakest link here. There is a kind of warm coziness to the sound that leaves very little open sonic space and is reminiscent of the often over-produced establishment Nashville sound of the 1970’s – something I’ve never found appealing. Something a little more spare, more like Lee Hazlewood’s work with Gram Parsons, would have served these songs better. The incredibly cool reverb drenched pedal steel that shows up in places would have truly been a knockout punch in that context. Still, the songs are uniformly strong enough to overcome this and by mid-record it’s less than a distraction.

Chuck is headed back Texas way later this month and into June with long time blues and roots Aussie guitar slinger Kinnon Holt at his side, and it’s my recommendation you go check him out. As a touring act from abroad he not only needs your support, he deserves it. You can check out tour dates at www.myspace.com/chuckswagon.

You can pick up Chuck’s Wagon at www.cdbaby.com/cd/chuckswagon.

3 out of 4 chuck wagons, baby.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Steve Schroeder RIP

In the heart of Wichita, KS, one of the most unlikely places on earth, stands what is, in my opinion, the coolest bar and music venue in the Midwest. Kirby’s Beer Store has been an essential stopover for touring bands for decades. In spite of the fact that it has a maximum capacity of about 50 people (that’s being generous), the PA is a piece of crap, and you play for beer and tips, the very ambience and character of the place has made it a deservedly world famous place to play.

Over the course of the last 15 years or so I played Kirby’s at least a dozen times with three different bands. In that time I became good friends with Kirby’s owner Steve Schroeder. In a universe populated by self-important scumbags drunk with their miniscule amount of power and the fleeting ability to affect a band’s immediate destiny Steve was an anomaly. He was generous, friendly, and always genuinely happy to see me and whatever gang of musicians with whom I was traveling whether he had met them before or not. He never once turned me down when I asked him for a booking, something otherwise unheard of in my experience.

Steve died of an illness a couple of weeks ago. I just found out. I don’t know what killed him. I don’t know the fate of his legendary venue. Two things I do know – playing Kirby’s Beer Store was the inevitable high point of every trudgerous trip I made up and down the IH-35 corridor thanks to Steve Schroeder, and this shitty ass year just got exponentially worse with his passing.

Steve, be at peace my brother. You made the world a better place in your time here, and that’s more than most people can take with them. Especially amongst the owners of live music venues.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Eddy Arnold RIP


The man who wrote and sang "Make the World Go Away" (in association with the great Chet Atkins), possibly one of the greatest country songs of all time, died this morning at the age of 89. Arnold pioneered a blend of country, folk and pop that, along with his melancholy, baritone voice, placed him among the great pioneers of the genre. Give a listen to any one of his songs and reflect on Nashville's bullshit current claims that their Botox constructed stable of stars play any kind of blend of country, folk and pop.

Safe journies, Eddy. You earned 'em.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Political Rip Off



I don't like presidents. I don't like people of "presidential caliber". In my opinion, if you've reached a point where you're able to aspire to be, arguably, the most powerful human being in the world then you've pulled some evil, Machiavellian shit to get there. Oh, I vote. I try to vote for the nitwit who's going to accelerate the destruction of our way of life more slowly than the other. Anymore, though, it doesn't seem to me that there's much of a difference. But I'm not writing this to bitch about politics - I'm writing this to bitch about the co-option of rock 'n' roll songs by these dandied up jack-booted thugs.

Now, if you're some knuckle dragging nationalist schmuck like Toby Keith who wants to endorse a fuckwad like George W. Bush, well, that's one thing. But these people use recording artists' material all the time without so much as a "please" or "thank you" in order to try and make us proles think of them when we hear certain songs. Advertising 101. In the world of advertising the artists a) grant permission for the use of their material, and b) are financially recompensed for its use. This is not true of political campaigns.

Alejandro Escovedo refused to play his song "Castanets" live for years when he found out George W. Bush was using it at campaign rallies.

John Mellencamp asked the McCain campaign to stop using his song "Our Country" at rallies as he didn't agree with McCain's politics. Surprisingly, McCain's people complied.

For an example on the other side in addition to the Toby Keith reference you had Barack Obama appearing on stage at the 2008 Austin Music Awards and "performing" with Asleep at the Wheel and Joe Ely. Presumably these two support Obama and were happy to have him. Fine.

Now, forgetting for a moment the fact that a bar showing the super bowl gets charged broadcast royalties for the songs playing at the stadium and emitting from the TV speakers while political campaigns don't get charged royalties at all, let's take a quick peek at the place of patronage in history and a (literally) little Federal agency called The National Endowment for the Arts.

In the admittedly morally questionable history of Western Civilization the importance of talented artists of all stripes has, until relatively recently, been acknowledged. Poets, composers, artists, actors, sculptors, etc. sought out patrons from the nobility. The kings, queens, dukes, earls or whatever would pay the way of select artists and thereby allow them to focus on their work. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Mozart, Beethoven, and Shakespeare are among the many cultural luminaries that would in all likelihood be forgotten were it not for patronage. Granted, a social structure built around nobility is an autocratic, racist, classist abomination and these nobles didn't provide patronage out of the kindness of their shriveled black hearts. They did it because having a Da Vinci or a Mozart brought distinction to one's court and, ostensibly, the envy of other nobles. Still, the artist got to do nothing but make art and eat - two things mutually exclusive today.

The USA's enlightened response to this, which it took until 1965 to initiate, was an act of Congress creating The National Endowment for the Arts. Out of federal budgets exploding into the hundreds of billions of dollars the most money the NEA has ever been allotted for grants is 180 million dollars. The allotment for 2008 is 144.7 million dollars. When you consider the federal government is operating at a roughly 97 trillion dollar deficit, I'd be interested to see how much of that money actually endows any artists.

And yet our intrepid leaders don't even twitch at the thought of using artists' material to sell themselves. The honor of it should be its own reward, or some shit like that. No matter how you slice it it still smells like shit.

If you or your band want to pimp a candidate you support then more power to you. If a candidate is using your song without your approval then you're being ripped off and mis-represented. The music itself is cheapened and demeaned. And the inherently slimy somehow become even slimier.

What's the answer? I don't fucking know. It just pisses me off and I wanted to rant about it. I'm fully confident that it's only going to get worse.

As far as these asshole politicians are concerned, let me take a little bit of Bob Dylan out of context here - "Show me someone who's not a parasite and I'll go out and say a prayer for him."

Good luck finding one.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Albert Hoffman RIP


Say what you will about it, the man's invention has been inextricably bound with pop culture for more than 40 years. I'm of the opinion that rock 'n' roll would have ultimately lost all potency and power without it. Feel free to disagree. For me, Dr. Hoffman, thank you for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Brown, Love, Skip Spence, Syd Barrett, Black Flag, The Meat Puppets, Brian Wilson, etc., etc., etc. They may not have all made it through intact, but what they made while they were was some truly genius shit.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Texas Showdown and the De-Austinification of Austin




Austin American Statesman writer John Kelso writes in his April 20th, 2008 article (http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/04/20/0420kelso.html) that he's sick of old Austinites "crabbing about Austin losing its long-standing traditions". He lists defining Austin institutions that have been forced out by rising rents/development - "Liberty Lunch, Steamboat, Chances, Club Cairo, the Black Cat Lounge, the Electric Lounge, and next month, the Texas Showdown Saloon". He goes on to say, "...I'm afraid most new Austinites don't really care if the old Austin is taking a hike. And why should they? If you didn't see Stevie Ray Vaughan play at Hut's, how would you know what you missed?"

Here's why.

Austin has maintained itself as hub of cultural oddity for as long as any long time resident can remember. My history here being filtered through alternative culture/punk rock I can say with confidence that no other city in the US could have produced bands like The Big Boys, The Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, or The Hickoids. Name another band in the 1960's that sounded anything like The 13th Floor Elevators. Or The Sir Douglas Quintet (technically from San Antonio, but I feel pretty secure in including them here).

I remember a time when one could walk down Guadalupe St. perusing amusing, absurd, offensive, and pretentiously artistic band flyers while passing unique, independently owned businesses serving one's needs for clothing, coffee, books, food, records, art, or general wierdness. It was a reputation for such that made Austin a destination to begin with, and the fact that newcomers "didn't see Stevie Ray Vaughn play at Hut's" has no bearing on the fact that the soul of this city is being sucked out of it.

Here's a list of defunct businesses that were located on or near Guadalupe either overlooked or forgotten in the sparse media coverage of the closing of The Texas Showdown.

Mad Dogs & Beans - Just off Guad on 24th St., this tumbledown shack of a burger joint served some of the best and cheapest artery clogging chow in the city. They also served beer to wash it down. Sometimes they had free punk rock shows in the parking lot with free beer.

The Varsity Theatre - I've read a couple of laments of the closing of Tower Records, a CD/Video superstore that was an attempt at corporate expansion originating from the first Tower Records in Los Angeles. I was glad to see it go, for no small reason that it occupied the space where The Varsity had stood. Cheap art house cinema in a cool old theatre right on the drag. What could be better? Certainly not Tower fucking Records.

Les Amis - A small, dark cafe' behind The Varsity on 24th serving vegetarian fare, good wine, a decent selection of beer, and a completely unique ambience. One of my favorite places to study.

Inner Sanctum Records - A basement record store crammed to the ceiling with vinyl of all kinds, and a proprieter who knew where you could find any specific one.

The Cadeau - Crazy ass clothing and accessories for queens, freaks, or anybody else that didn't consider tan bermuda shorts, a frat t-shirt and a ball cap fashion.

Quackenbush's - Fuck you, Seattle - this was a real coffee shop. Studying on their clautrophobic patio drinking double cappucino's, adding to the haze in the air chain smoking Silk Cuts, and watching two UT professors continue a glacial chess game that's been going on for months is not an experience one can replicate at a Starbucks. The book store next door, also now gone, the name of which I sadly can't remember, was awesome too.

Sound Exchange - THE punk rock record store in Austin. New and used. In a pre-internet era it was the only place to find copies of magazines like Maximum Rock 'n' Roll so you had some idea of what the bands you liked were up to and what new bands were worth checking out. Daniel Johnston didn't paint that mural on the outside wall for whatever lame-ass shit hole is there now.

Technophilia - As much as we resisted the Compact Disc revolution, when it became inevitable this was the coolest place to find 'em, at least before hold out Sound Exchange gave in and started carrying them.

I'm certain there are more I'm missing. The Texas Showdown, a mainstay for 26 years and occupying the site that legendary punk club Raul's once occupied, is next on the chopping block. It's literally the last business on "The Drag" with any character at all, and I don't just say that because I've been drinking there for my entire adult life. As of May 25th it's history, that part of Austin history that newcomers apparently shouldn't care about, and it's literally the last place on Guadalupe worth a tinker's damn. Some might make a case for The Hole in the Wall, but the business operating in that location, in spite of carrying on the name, is a soulless franchised shell of what The Hole in the Wall really was.

Why should they care? This is ostensibly what they fucking came here for. The most insidious thing is that the developers and landlords are cleaning up replacing these beloved places with chain or chain subsidiary operations designed to look all Austiny and unique. Go check out the Triangle development and see for yourself.

Hope springs eternal with the Red River and North Loop districts hanging on, and thank God for that. It's just too bad there are "districts" at all - most of Austin used to look like this. I suppose I should give props to S. Congress as well, though there's something way too fabricated in its aspect for me to trust it entirely - "Hey! Look folks! Here's the wierd Austin you moved here for! All on these few blocks!". As for the venerable Emo's, I remember when it was an attempt at a chain like expansion originating in Houston, and its "No Cover! Ever!" policy put all the cool downtown punk clubs right out of business. Funny how quickly the "no cover" policy evaporated after that.

But back to Guadalupe St. and the closing of my favorite bar. Right now it's hard for me to give a damn that this bullshit is happening all over town because The Showdown's fall is hitting me where it hurts. I don't drink anymore for health reasons but I'm not perfect, and when I fall off the wagon that's where I do it. Or at least I will until May 25th.

The Broken Spoke. The Continental Club. The Horseshoe Lounge. La-La's Little Nugget. The Carousel Lounge. The Poodle Dog Lounge. Those are the last of the last, and I wouldn't lay bets that any of them except The Continental will be around in five years, so get ready to pony up a $20.00 cover and pay $5.00 a beer to get a taste of what Austin was like before it was replaced with a facsimile of itself.

I'd like to think those newcomers who aren't supposed to care will somehow be able to tell the difference, but no-one's ever accused me of being an optimist.

Drink up, Austin. You don't have to go home but you can't stay here.