Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dean Station - "Raising the Root" (Self-Release 2007)

Dean Station's latest release makes me wish I had an eclectic staff of writers covering most musical genres. Neo-folk is just not something I know very much about. While fairly knowledgeable about the pre-World War II folk music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the Folk Revival that brought a pre-rock 'n' roll Bob Dylan to fame, I have never paid a tremendous amount of attention to contemporary folk practitioners I didn't know personally. I do have some limited experience, which I feel like I should explain as this will be the basis of my review.

Austin in the late 80's was home to two seemingly disparate subcultures - the punk/post punk crowd and latter day hippies. I was very much in the camp of the former. Austin had an almost sentient talent, at least at that time, for blurring distinctions and bringing together groups of young people with very different world views. Maybe it still does. I've gotten too old to keep up.

Part of this unlikely comraderie was forced upon us all by the common enemy of roving gangs of drunk frat boys looking to beat up "faggots". If there are any drunk frat boys reading this know that I'm not tying to bait you. This is just how it was. Maybe it still is. Again, the age thing. Largely, though, these two groups met at the crossroads of The Butthole Surfers. It's hard to imagine for people too young to remember what it was like hearing a new Surfers record at that time. Neo-psychedelia informed by a punk rock sensibility and a relentlessly avant-garde presentation insured that you absolutely never knew what to expect. Their live shows, however, were a different matter. You were guaranteed a 2 - 3 hour long trip festival, and neither the punks nor the hippies were averse to the use of LSD. This meeting ground led to friendships that led to punks hanging out at hippie parties and vice versa with little or no hostility. It was in this context that I was first exposed to the style of music Dean Station plays.

It was inevitable at hippie parties that you would have 3 - 5 people with guitars, occasionally mandolins or banjos, and bongos harmonizing along to original or covered tunes. I would be lying if I said it didn't drive the punks, myself included, to the other side of the yard. The fact that Dean Station was formed in Albuquerque, NM and currently hails from Boulder, CO certainly suggests this kind of musical expression is still going strong and in no way unique to the Austin of 20 years ago. Apologies for the lugubrious introduction. All that being said I will now attempt to be fair to Dean Station.

Raising the Root is an appropriate title for this record. While drawing from folk and bluegrass traditions, husband and wife team Amanda and Levi Dean attempt to raise the bar on both by bringing non-standard arrangements and structures to most of the songs here. The result is something, when one brings the lyrics to bear, earthier than either. From the misunderstood protagonist of album opener "Feather" to the non-religious inspirational message of "Pocket Full of Grace" there is a very hippie sensibility saturating the lyrics on the record. Even the outrage expressed in "Mid January", the record's strongest track, has a mellow core, and this is a very mellow album. Assuming authorship by the Dean handling the lead vocal, Levi Dean's lyrics are typically more introspective, as on the sad lament "Desire", than Amanda's more outspoken and positivistic themes. There are, of course, exceptions.

While I may seem overly focused on the Dean's lyrics, it's the lyics that are on showcase throughout the record. The (beautifully harmonized) vocals are very much out in front of the rest of the mix. Since Amanda Dean admits to considering herself more of a poet than musician and the production credit goes to Doug Deforest and Dean Station (DeForest also handles some bass duties on the record) this would seem to be by design. It's not necessarily a bad thing, except for the fact that it very much overshadows the more than competent performances delivered on a range of eclectic instruments. This record would have had more resonance with me had the Dean's musical ability been given more attention.

In the end, while I admire the Dean's stretching of the boundaries of what constitutes folk music, they seem more comfortable on songs like the more traditional country stomp of "Flat Footin' Girl" or in the waltz time signature of "Stay".

I saw Dean Station when they passed through Austin on their last tour (Seven months?!? I barely lasted 21 days when I was their age (24 and 26). You've gotta admire them for that.) and was very impressed. If my description of their music sounded less than appealing to any readers out there, I encourage you to see them live. For Raising the Root I'm going to have to go half and half and remind you to consider that I'm entirely ignorant of any innovations that Neo-folk has enjoyed over the last 20 years. I sincerely hope that adherents of the genre got a resonably good impression of how this record sounds - while it's not my cup of tea I'd be ingenuous in saying that it won't serve many palettes well.

2 out of 4 on this one.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Grinderman - "Grinderman" (Mute Reords 2007)

At some point I'm going to move away from records by or inspired by Nick Cave. Honest. But not now.

Grinderman was born when Nick Cave and Bad Seeds members Warren Ellis, Martyn P. Casey, and Jim Sclavunos retired to Misère studio in Paris for a Bad Seeds songwriting session. Whether or not any progress was made on future Bad Seeds songs remains up for speculation, but what is certain is that some mighty powerful work was done, the result being the songs that constitute Grinderman's eponymously titled debut (The Bad Seeds record Dig! Lazarus, Dig! releases on March 3rd, 2008).

This is the best work Cave has produced in years, and I mean no slight whatsoever on Abbatoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus (2004), Nocturama (2003), or No More Shall We Part (2001). It's just that this record hearkens back to an earlier incarnation of Nick Cave, one in which straight up rock 'n' roll (albeit very avant-garde) played a larger part while at the same time toning down the relentless darkness and angst that characterized those years. That's not to say it's entirely absent - this is Nick Cave we're talking about - but there's an element of whimsy here that I've never perceived in his music before. And, not surprisingly, he incorporates it well.

A good example is the song that seems to be getting the most attention from this release, "No Pussy Blues". It's a hysterical piece about the extreme lengths the narrating chacter goes to get the object of his attention in the sack, only to be told repeatedly "she doesn't want to". While amusing, the lyric, in combination with the driving fuzz bass, creates an urgent sense of tension establishing just how badly this guy has to have this girl. The release arrives in loud, wah-wah drenched fuzz guitar instrumental breaks in which our protagonist's frustrations boil over. It's a masterfully put together song that, while recognizably a Cave composition, displays a fresh perspective on his songwriting.

You get some more moments that, while not necessarily surprising per se, are certainly a departure from the rest of Cave's recent body of work. There's the blues driven fuzz rock of "Depth Charge Ethel" that contains one of the hookiest guitar riffs to come from Cave's direction in a long time. "Go Tell The Women" is a twisted, loungey number reminiscent of Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones era, right down to a Marc Ribot-esque guitar part. Lyrics like "We are scientists, We do genetics, We leave religion, To the psychos and fanatics" woven into this audial ensemble makes the track indispensible, as well as an immediate Nick Cave classic.

While the departures are a refreshing diversion, there's plenty here to satisfy those Nick Cave fans perfectly content for things to remain as they are. Several tracks are immediately reminiscent of The Bad Seeds, even going so far as to having distinctly Blixa Bargeld reminiscent guitar runs (Bargeld is not listed in the credits, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility he showed up for some of these sessions). "Honey Bee (Let's Fly To Mars)" sonically has unmistakable overtones of The Birthday Party, albeit toned down and with conspicuously non-Birthday Party style lyrics. The record closes with "Love Bomb"- in many ways the most standard Cave offering on the record. While the music is more straight up rock than we're accustomed to hearing from Cave, it's overlaid with his signature semi-spoken Southern Baptist preacher possessed by demons vocal style. And friends, he's lost nothing over the years in assaulting you with that kind of delivery.

Grinderman has been widely compared to The Birthday Party and, while there certainly are elements of that here, I think that the comparison is selling the record as a whole short. The bile that Cave was spewing back then is only vaguely present in an offstage kind of manner, the music is not as determinedly anarchic, and the tone The Birthday Party set is, quite frankly, missing entirely. Methinks there may have been a tad bit of wishful thinking on the part of those making such comparisons.

I would say instead that this is an example of a gracefully aging iconic musician and songwriter proving to the world that he can still kick out some badass rock 'n' roll if he's so inclined. While containing inevitable elements of both, it's not The Birthday Party and it's not The Bad Seeds. It's Grinderman, and taken simply on its own merits it's one beautiful monster of a record.
Rating: 4 out of 4

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Big Sell Out

I've gotten into countless arguments with musicians and others regarding whether or not selling a song for commercial use (in, for example, a commercial) is a perfectly respectable way for a band to make money and get exposure or if it cheapens and commodifies a song and strips it, and the artist, of dignity. You can probably guess what side of the argument I fall on. Then again, as a friend of mine who had just sold a song for use in a commercial once pointed out, I've never been offered $25,000 for 30 seconds of material. What would I do were I to find myself in my friend's shoes? I have to honestly say I don't know. That's some pretty weak shit from an opinionated, sanctimonious asshole like me, huh?

Anyway, here's a link to a blogger who addresses this issue much more adeptly and with considerably more humor than I could manage. Maybe it's how I'm reading it, but I think the guy's on my side.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

As you lived, Ike...

The San Diego County Medical Examiner's office released the news late this afternoon that Ike Turner died of a cocaine overdose. Hardly surprising, I guess, considering the vile lengths to which he went to keep himself in supply during his youth, but I think I covered that fully in the eulogy I wrote for him a few weeks ago. It was a well known fact that he was struggling with pulmonary emphysema (which the nose candy probably actually helped relieve), but he apparently was suffering from hypertensive cardiovascular disease as well. It doesn't take a medical professional to tell you that piling speed on top of something like that is like lighting the fuse of an M-80.

I discussed before the struggle in myself to reconcile the music geek in me who thought the man a genius and the (barely) functioning member of normal society in me that finds his actions with regards to his wife Tina, his other female back up singers, and various others utterly reprehensible. At what point can one say the ends justify the means? And, more to the point, did he really need to be such a sociopathic, selfish son of a bitch in order to make the unbelievably powerful music he created? Somehow, I think not. "Rocket 88" came from some deep part of the human soul, but it wasn't an evil part.
In the end I guess I have to be satisfied with the fact that Ike died as he lived. It seems somehow unfair that he went out flying high on the same shit that led him to cause so much misery. If life isn't fair, rock 'n' roll sure as shit isn't.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Cult - "Born Into This" (Roadrunner 2007)

The Cult has always been a band striving to keep up with the vagaries of pop culture and adapt to the prevailing musical whims of the record buying public. Unlike a band like, say, Metallica, who has seemingly shifted with the tides without ever losing the core of what they are all about, The Cult has had to work at it, and it's noticable. They pulled it off with great panache for three records in the late 1980's. 1985's Love presented an infectious set of pop songs that incorporated both post-punk ethos and the neo-psychedelic sensibility that was making the rounds at that time. 1987's Electric, largely thanks to the almost preternatural ability of producer Rick Rubin to read shifts in consumer tastes, arrived on the forefront of the return of muscular, bare bones rock that would become championed by the likes of Guns 'n' Roses. Electric was a record comprised of catchy hook after catchy hook, each stretched out to song length. And it worked. Then enter 1989's Sonic Temple and producer Bob Rock. Any pretense toward post-punk was entirely gone by this point and the band had wholly embraced the hair metal revolution. The record still yielded some infectious hit songs (and the band was at their live performance peak at this time) but it was becoming apparent that the train was about to come off the rails. How many times can a band change its stripes without beginning to look wholly disingenuous? After this point The Cult lost me entirely.

This would all be academic if the songs were there, and frankly there were fewer and fewer memorable ones as the records rolled out. All of this may seem like a blowhard's history, but it's actually pretty pertinent to reviewing Born Into This.

Produced by Martin "Youth" Glover, known for his work with the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Crowded House, and Depeche Mode, Born Into This plays like a band trying to sound relevant without losing whatever cred it had accrued to itself in the past. With the post-punk revival in full swing you certainly find pervasive elements of that on the record. Of course, muscular, riffy rock is having a resurgence as well, so there is a liberal amount of muscular riffage injected as well. Sprinkle in some of the neo-neo-psychedelia (I guess?) floating around (Flaming Lips, anybody?) as well. Overlaying it all you have the ambient, dare I say New Wave, feel that a producer like Glover has made his signature. Somehow, beyond all reasonable sensibility, it works really well sonically. We're left with a record that certainly makes The Cult sound relevant and even pretty interesting after all this time.

There is a general formula in place for almost every song on the record, which consists of a sparse, driving, chunky verse building into a loud, layered, rocking chorus. Cult fans will recognize this as a standard Ian Astbury/Billy Duffy song construction that has served them pretty well across their career together. The tragedy here is that, while the formula may be in place, the hooky, memorable songs just aren't.

That's not to say the songs are necessarily bad. The title track has a nice groove reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain's Automatic era, and "Citizens" hearkens back to The Cult's own Love era. "Illuminated" and "Savages" could have been re-worked outtakes from Sonic Temple, and album closer "Sound of Destruction" is an inspired slab of rock 'n' roll that almost approaches The Cult at their finest.

On the other side of things you have the nearly unlistenable "Holy Mountain", an acoustic piece that comes out of nowhere and nearly lays you flat. Lyrics have never been Astbury's strong point - it's just never mattered because they were bellowed in his unique voice in the context of a great pop hook. However, "You're a wild thing, You say wild things, But much too wild, I think" over a flat sounding acoustic strum is damn near unbearable. The "hit" on the record, "Dirty Little Rockstar", is a weak reworking of "Wildflower" from Electric with none of its power and charm.

Born Into This isn't a terrible record. It's just not a terribly interesting one. It's a shame, knowing the kind of power The Cult are capable of. Here's hoping they'll harness that muse for their next attempt.

Rating: 2 out of 4

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

T. Tex Edwards & Out on Parole - "Pardon Me, I've Got Someone To Kill" (Saustex 2007)

Thom "Tex" Edwards has led a storied career - drop in just about anywhere and you're going to find something interesting. His Dallas based punk band The Nervebreakers may have played the first punk show in Dallas in 1977. They opened for The Sex Pistols at The Longhorn Ballroom in 1978. The Nervebreakers also backed up Roky Erikson in 1979 at The Dallas Palladium. By the end of their run in 1981 they were considered the biggest band in Dallas. "Move It", a staple of Tex's SoCal based rockabilly outfit Loafin' Hyenas, was recorded by The LeRoi Brothers. Those are the high points. That's a pretty solid career right there for an underground musician. But after all this T. Tex, for all intents and purposes, went solo.

"Pardon Me, I've Got Someone To Kill" was initially released in 1989 on Sympathy for the Record Industry and, after an all too brief flash as a "novelty record", slowly faded into obscurity. Hearing the remastered re-issue of this record (plus one unreleased track) is like a breath of fresh air for those that appreciate the below the radar, native Texan country music that displays an irreverent love of the genre.

This record is T. Tex paying a kind of twisted tribute to country songs about prison, murder and excess that span decades. Not that many of these songs need much more twisting. Most stick to traditional country arrangements and instrumentation, but that's by no means the whole story. You get Edward's take on The Bugs' 1964 freakshow "Strangler in the Night", which has lyrics penned by Albert DeSalvo, AKA The Boston Strangler. The version on this record far out does the original, with Edward's manic spoken word vocal over placid, almost Hawaiian music a paragon of sheer lunacy. Then you have the cover of Porter Wagoner's (remember him? He launched Dolly Parton's career) already exceedingly strange "Rubber Room" which, unlikely as it may seem, adds an endearingly psychotic charm to the song. Also standing out is Eddie Noack's "Dolores", bringing in a latin 8ths beat and a distinctively Western feel.

I could go on and on about the unique spins T. Tex Edwards puts on songs by everyone from Johnny Paycheck to Lee Hazlewood to Country Swing pioneer Howard Crockett, but it's better left for you to explore for yourselves. While this record is certainly de rigeur listening for late night booze and drug fueled parties, it's also a blast to listen to just about any other time. Fabulous Thunderbirds/LeRoi Bros. drummer Mike Buck's production does a wonderful job of conveying the sense that the wheels could fly off at any second while Edward's appealingly loose vocal melodies keep everything strung together. These guys clearly had a lot of fun making this record, and it's infectious.

In my research for this review I ran across quite a few write-ups decrying this record for treating what are essentially dark topics in a jocular and irreverent way. I couldn't disagree more. Poking fun at the darkness is one of the most positive ways we humans deal with the bad cards we get dealt and the insanity pervasive in the world around us. As many a Texan has been heard to say, "Gallows humor - without it we'd all lose our lunch."

T. Tex Edwards' stuff, along with much more, is available at http://www.saustexmedia.com/.

Rating: 4 out of 4

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Stevie Tombstone - "Devils Game" (Saustex 2007)

Stevie Tombstone has been kicking around, largely underappreciated, for more than 20 years. His seminal Atlanta, GA based "swampabilly" outfit The Tombstones made a few deserved waves in the late 1980's and have resurfaced sporadically through the present day. In between these reunions he's been turning out some damn impressive solo efforts, and Devils Game is a nice overview of his early years as a solo artist.

Devils Game is a compendium of Tombstone's now difficult to find 1999 release Second Hand Sin, three acoustic versions of Tombstones songs, released in 2000 as Acoustica, recorded live at at the Atlanta Tattoo Arts Festival, and a few alternate song versions, compilation contributions and other odds and ends to finish things off. While this description may give the impression that this record is disjointed, nothing could be farther from the truth. If anything this packaging illustrates Tombstone's sonic consistency and his ability as a songwriter.

What springs immediately to mind upon listening to Devils Game is Tombstone's vocal similarity to Jason and the Scorchers' Jason Ringenberg, although the style and themes differ considerably. These two artists may be mining the same mountain, but they've struck very different veins. It's a credit to Second Hand Sin's producer, Scorchers bassist Jeff Johnson, that he didn't succumb to what must have been a temptation to influence these songs in a Scorchers direction and instead created a sound that complements Tombstone's melancholic, cautionary tales and murder songs.

This part of the record is characterized by booming acoustic guitars backed with fuzzy electrics, slide guitar and pedal steel, all overlaid with Tombstone's by turns weary and passionate vocals. A couple of departures arrive with "Same Old Tune", a straight up country tune, and "'Til the Day I Die", a loping country prison/murder song complete with sawing violin. While these two may jump out the most, all of the Second Hand Sin songs stand on their own legs. The different story each has to tell and the subtle variations in instrumentation make for a very satisfying listen.

As mentioned above, the Acoustica part of the record was recorded live. I'm not given to appreciating live recordings, but Acoustica works for me on two levels. First is the remarkable sonic similarity to the Second Hand Sin tracks - clean up the audio slightly and get rid of the crowd noise and these three tracks could have easily been the last three on Second Hand Sin. Second, the songs here are acoustic reworkings of three of The Tombstones songs, featuring Stevie Tombstone on acoutic guitar and vocals accompanied by Tony Fox on sax and violin. It's really very entertaining hearing these songs performed this way and the the fact that they work as well as they do is a testament to Tombstone's ability.

The bonus tracks that finish off Devils Game are a pleasant surprise in an era when bonus tracks tend to be second rate studio outtakes and poor recordings of songs that didn't work. The first is a Stonesy rock alternative take of "Same Old Tune" which has every bit as much going for it as the countrified album version. "Folsom Prison Blues" is a servicable take on the Johnny Cash classic, from the Dear Johnny tribute record, which surely brought a smile to The Man in Black's face. You get "So God Damned Lonely", which is a straight up country rock/cowpunk rumbler very much in the Jason and the Scorchers tradition. "Old Wedding Ring" is a dark, powerful rumination on a failed relationship that might be the best on the record. Finally, you reach the closer, "Christmas on Red River", a blue-collar take on the ugly side of Christmas that wouldn't have been out of place on one of Waylon Jennings late 70's releases.

Hickoids frontman Jeff Smith's Saustex label is doing a hell of a job getting deserving records out there that have been lost in the shuffle, and promoting the artists responsible for same in their current endeavors. Stevie Tombstone is an excellent example, and Devils Game is well worth picking up both for those unfamiliar with his work and for fans who have been hopefully waiting to see this material released on CD.

You can find Devils Game, Stevie Tombstone's other work (solo and with The Tombstones), and a ton of other cool stuff at http://www.saustexmedia.com/.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4