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

You can pick up Chuck’s Wagon at

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.