Monday, June 28, 2010

Reverend Horton Heat: Highway to Hell! (1996)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Jim Horton Heath--a.k.a. the Reverend Horton Heat--has never been officially ordained, but that hasn't stopped him from attracting a fanatical flock during the course of his many circuit rides throughout America's rock-and-roll clubland. Armed with nothing but a guitar and more rockabilly fervor than you can shake a pompadour at, he and his rhythm section have spent the '90s preaching to the lost and helping them stay that way.

"I can't imagine what it would be like to be a real reverend," Heath chuckles. "To have to write a sermon every week!"

One look at the titles of the Texan's most recent songs explains why he'd consider the task of sermon preparation daunting. After all, what would even the most liberal churchgoer make of sermons with names like "Baddest of the Bad," "Liquor, Beer, and Wine," "It's Martini Time," and "Big Bad Rocket of Love," especially when the man delivering them would as soon show up wearing an AC/DC T-shirt as a suit and tie?

"AC/DC," muses Heath. "Now that's a fuckin' rock band, there."

So is Heath's trio. Despite the fears of some that It's Martini Time, the Reverend's new Interscope album, might not put the pedal to the heavy metal the way his 1994, Al Jourgensen-produced Liquor in the Front did, new songs such as the Ramones-like "Generation Why," the Nick Lowe-by-way-of-New York Dolls "Now, Right Now," and the aforementioned Billy Zoom-worthy "Big Bad Rocket of Love" definitely leave skidmarks on the good intentions with which the road to post-Stray Cats rockabilly hell is paved.

Or, to put it another way, by turning up the heat on rock 'n' roll's past, Heath and Co. cause a musical grease fire that, along with the Reverend's brimstoned singing style, puts a revival fervor in his ministry that even Al Jourgensen--Mr. Ministry himself--couldn't quite match.

Surprisingly, Heath, whose offstage manner is far less inflammatory than his onstage one, has a more sober view of It's Martini Time. "I think we went a little bit back to novelty on this one," he observes. "'Cowboy Love,' 'It's Martini Time,' and 'That's Showbiz' are all basically novelty songs."

Speaking of "Cowboy Love," the track most likely to provoke sociological discussion wherever the new album is played, one should point out that while it isn't the first recorded song about homosexual cowboys--Ned Sublette's classic "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly" lays claim to that honor--it certainly deserves an honored place in the canon.

"We have a lot of cowboys here in Texas, and some of 'em are gay cowboys," laughs Heath. "Since there are gay country-and-western clubs both here and all over America, I thought it was a scene that should be documented, especially after what happened to Jimbo [Wallace], our bass player, and one of our sound guys in Fresno."


What did happen?

"They got a cab, and they told the driver to take 'em to a bar that was popular and happenin' and had a lot of cars. He said, 'Well, there's this one country-and-western bar,' and Jimbo and the sound guy said, 'O.K., let's go there.' Well, they went in there, ordered a beer, and looked around, but they didn't figure out they were in a gay country-and-western bar until they saw a black cowboy french kissing a white cowboy."

Heath laughs again. "They need their own songs, you know? And they gotta be real country songs, too. More than anything, that song makes fun of being white trash. In the way I sing and the way I deliver the song, I'm really makin' fun of myself."

Not that Heath is all self-deprecation and comedy. "That's Showbiz," far from towing the narrow novelty-rock line, is a bitter, deadpan, beat-style recitation a la Tom Waits and T Bone Burnett that excoriates not only show business but also the "little people who spit-shine and polish [his] long and jagged trail to the top." As the last of It's Martini Time's fourteen tracks, it doesn't end the album on a downer so much as provide the more fanciful numbers with a context in which they take on a significance greater than the sum of their parts.

Like any good rock 'n' roll album, however, It's Martini Time's parts are pretty impressive on their own. "We always have at least two good rock 'n' roll beats on our albums," Heath explains, "and what I call a rock 'n' roll beat is a fast four-four, like Jerry Lee Lewis's 'Great Balls of Fire' or 'Whole Lotta Rosie' by AC/DC. We have three fast rock 'n' roll songs on this new album. Then we have a slow rock beat. Then we'll do a fast swing and a medium swing, or sometimes we'll do two fast swings. Funny, but if you take the four-four really fast, it's called bluegrass. If it's a little slower, it's called speed metal."

Songs like (the non-gospel) "Time to Pray" and the Reverend's cover of Bill Haley's 1951 "Rock the Joint" embody his knack for bridging bluegrass and speed metal particularly well, the latter coming complete with Heath's note-perfect performance of Haley's famous "Rock Around the Clock" guitar solo. It is, according to Heath, a solo that was years in the works.

"The first band I was ever in was this '50s band that had these two really talented brothers. I was the guitar player, but when we did 'Rock Around the Clock,' I'd sit on the sidelines because one of the brothers could play that solo and I couldn't. He'd play it, and I'd be sitting there thinking, 'I'm gonna learn that solo if it kills me.'"

Obviously, Heath survived. He has also managed, so far, to survive his far more lethal and well-publicized substance abuse. "I tell you what: coke and heroin are tour enders. You can do coke, do a great gig, have a good time, and get in the van and start drivin' to the next city, but when you get there, you're not worth a shit the next day. I'm not even supposed to be drinkin' anymore because when I get drunk, I can really get out of hand and make everybody's job a lot more painful. I've just come around to seeing that gettin' drunk isn't the coolest thing I can do."

Noble thoughts, and one wishes the good Reverend the best, but his new album is called It's Martini Time, a title that gives rise to the question, "When, if ever, is it not martini time?"

"Just about any time is martini time," Heath laughs. "I've had 'em for lunch. I've had 'em for dinner. I like mine with a twist of lemon, straight up, but you've gotta shake it real good to where it's got that layer of ice on the top. That's what I really like."

"I've never had 'em for breakfast though," he says. "A martini breakfast -- I've never done that."

Tiny Tim with Brave Combo: Girl (1996)

(As published in Real Groove ... )

Tiny Tim with Brave Combo
Girl (Rounder)

Here we have fourteen songs that represent not only the first significant recording in years by that paragon of peculiarity, Tiny Tim, but also Mr. Tim's genius for never having met a song he didn't like. The liner notes call him "a living treasury of romance and music," and the eclectic tracklist supports the description. Beatle tunes ("Girl," "Hey Jude"), pop standards ("New York, New York," "Over the Rainbow," "Bye Bye Blackbird"), and flat-out corn ("Sly Cigarette," "I Believe in Tomorrow") follow one upon the other, linked by Mr. Tim's vibrato-heavy baritone--at sixty-something, he seldom summons his famous falsetto--and Brave Combo, the Grammy-nominated sextet known for its ability to master everything from polka to Oriental folk. The tight, lively playing keeps Girl from sheer novelty, providing the often campy songs with a solid musical grounding and tempering Mr. Tim's more unnerving vocal eccentricities. Not that a tempered Tiny Tim isn't plenty eccentric already, but with Brave Combo he seems less like a sideshow attraction and more like a well-preserved escapee from a time capsule sealed in the days of minstrel shows (if minstrels had done "Stairway to Heaven").

No One: Today Chicago, Tomorrow the World (2001)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

It’s a pleasant afternoon in early May, and from a location somewhere between two East Coast stops on his band’s tour with Slaves on Dope and Hinge A.D., Murk--the lead vocalist of the Chicago-based metal band No One--is musing into about the competitive nature of the Windy City music scene.


“There’s, like, a hundred bands in Chicago trying to get noticed,” he says in a calm voice that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the hysterical, jugular-shredding one he uses to perform. “But I think the competition is healthy, definitely. A lot of the bands share the same following, there’s a lot of good local support, and everyone’s working hard to get a record deal or whatever.”


How No One avoided settling for “whatever” and ended up signing with Immortal Records (Korn, Incubus, Too Much Stereo) is a story Murk enjoys telling. “We were actually aiming for February to start shopping for a record deal, but what happened is we recorded a demo in September, sent a bunch of stuff out, and immediately there were three labels that wanted to sign us. We were shocked.”

By the time the shock had worn off, No One was a member of the Immortal Records team. Unfortunately, with fewer than ten compositions to their names, Murk, B-Larz (guitars), Flare (bass), and Billy K (drums) were now faced with the challenge of composing part of their debut album in the studio--either that or else risk being known as No Can Do.

It was a challenge to which they swiftly rose, coming up with not only nourishing filler but also potential hits. “‘Shedding’ was written in the studio,” Murk recalls, “and it will probably be our second single. So was ‘Down on Me,’ and it ended up being the album opener. I guess we came through in the clutch.”

Fans of the band will get to make up their own minds on June 19, the day No One’s eponymously titled disc hits the streets. Meanwhile, they can begin gathering evidence by attending a No One show and grabbing the official three-song teaser the band is giving away to whet the appetites of its audience. Consisting of “Mindless,” “Cut,” and the long-player's first single “Chemical,” the sampler achieves in miniature what the long-player achieves at length, namely the establishment of No One as a “modern metal” monster.

Murk credits the album’s producer Jimmy K (Disturbed, Loudmouth) for a good deal of the album’s razor-sharp sonic definition. When it comes to the bigger picture, though, Murk credits No One’s manager Steve Richards, an industry insider previously best known for managing the nine-piece metal band Slipknot. “He really understood our music,” Murk explains. “The songs, the lyrics and all that, touched him personally.” So much so, in fact, that Richards wouldn’t rest until he’d secured the group a second-stage spot on this summer’s very prestigious Ozzfest tour. “It wasn’t easy getting that,” says Murk. “They worked on that for, like, a solid month.”

There is, however, an even bigger picture, one that becomes fully visible only at those moments when the glow of the fiery blast furnace at the quartet’s core approaches critical mass. In the picture’s background is Chicago itself; in the foreground is the role it has played in making No One the Someone’s they are today. “Chicago’s a blue-collar kind of town, and we all came from blue-collar backgrounds.”

There’s something, he says, in the daily grind--“struggling with life, paying your bills, getting fired from your job, dealing with crap at work”--that can foster in a group of young, aggressive musicians the sort of No-Nonsense approach reflected in No One’s songs. “On the other hand,” he continues, “I also think that what the songs are about is pretty universal. I think someone in Germany could relate to the same exact situations.”

Given No One’s abrasive, pummeling sound, of course, it would help for that German Someone to be a Rammstein fan. “Yeah,” laughs Murk, who in addition to Polish plasma (he was born Mark Murawski) also has German and Irish blood. “Irish, German, Polish--that’s pretty much what everyone in the band is,” he says, adding that its many decades of assimilating Europeans has made Chicago particularly hospitable to those possessed by the Catholic Work Ethic. There are, he notes, “a lot of pubs around.”

“Seriously, though, I know that Chicago is filled with a lot of hard-working musicians, people who will do whatever it takes to be successful. I don’t really know if it has something to do with the area--I don’t know how it is in other parts of the country.

"But in Chicago people take their music very seriously.”

Los Lobos: Colossal Head (1996)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Los Lobos
Colossal Head
(Warner Bros.)

For this album's first five songs, Los Lobos rummage through their bag of time-tested east-L.A. rhythms and riffs, tweaking it a little here (the eerily detached narrator of "Everybody Loves a Train"), relaxing it a little there (the loose-limbed funk of "Revolution"), and filtering it all through an unusually murky mix that emphasizes both Conrad Lozano's bass and Steve Berlin's down-and-dirty sax. Then everything gets weird. "Life Is Good" pays tribute to la vida buena so lazily that it sounds as if the band recorded it after a big meal and ten minutes past siesta time, and what follows that sounds like the music they dreamed about after they nodded off. From the good-timey, War-like "Little Japan" and the metaphysically acute but equally slow-motion "Manny's Bones" to the not-so-metaphysically acute but equally slow motion title track and "This Bird's Gonna Fly," the music grinds on so sluggishly, sleepily, sensuously, and shamblingly that it's all the fellas can do to get through the disc-ending instrumental "Buddy Ebsen Loves the Night Time" without falling apart altogether. The odd thing is, you can't really call this somnambulant suite unpleasant--just strange. Or maybe "unfocused," except unfocused albums aren't supposed to be any fun, and this one is fun as only deconstructivist barrio jukebox music can be. You don't suppose Los Lobos could've gotten their "reified" and "refried" beans confused, do you?

The Iguanas: Super Ball (1996)

(As published in B-Side ... )

THE IGUANAS
Super Ball (Island)

Those who love the idea of New Orleans music more than the voodoo-dabbling, washboard-strumming, accordion-playing, Neville-worshiping reality of it all may find in the Iguanas the blend of Crescent City swagger and real-world connectedness they think they crave. For one thing, the rhythm section of Rene Coman and Doug Garrison, who spent much of the '80s with Alex Chilton honing their interplay, bypass the second-line altogether and now turn out Tex-Mex shuffles instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever taken a siesta ("So Tired") or danced a cha-cha ("Benny's Cadillac"). For another thing, outsiders such as Chilton and Dave Alvin make cameos that extend the album's frame of reference beyond the bayous and swamps. For a third thing, the dual frontmen Joe Cabral and Rod Hodges write songs like "Rock Star" and "Benny's Cadillac," songs with clever, detailed lyrics and instantly hummable hooks. True, they also write Freddy Fender-style filler ("Mil Demonios," "Cuarto Rojo," "Lupita," "Que Tristeza"), but they never succumb, in their singing or in their playing, to that lassitude responsible for the transformation of so much more "authentic" roots music into an unfunny joke.

The Gig: The Hollisters (2000)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )

The Gig: The Hollisters
9:30 P.M. Thursday, June 29
The Texas Club
456 North Donmoor-at-Florida Blvd., Baton Rouge
Cover charge: $5


A fter years of new Dylans, music fans finally have a new Johnny Cash in Mike Barfield, the baritone lead singer and main songwriter of the Houston-based honky-tonk quartet, the Hollisters. “My voice ended up being the deepest one in my family,” says Barfield, bemused. “I don’t know why that is.”

As the main Hollister--the group’s co-founder Eric Danheim left last year--Barfield does the majority of the interviews, even if, as he's doing right now, he has to man a cell phone and drive the group’s 1997 Dodge tour van to a rehearsal simultaneously. That the “check engine” light has come on concerns him, especially since the van is only “a little bit” overdue for an oil change, but his concern is allayed by the inclusion in his cell-phone agreement of a guarantee of roadside assistance in case of emergency. “I’ve already used it once,” he says. “So you can at least get a wrecker out to where you’re at.”

Traveling plays a recurring role in the Hollisters’ songs. In addition to their cover of Eddie Noack’s “Walk ’Em Off,” their new album, Sweet Inspiration (Hightone), includes such Barfield-Danheim originals as “Thrill of the Ride,” “Holes in the Road (Dumptruck),” and “Two Trains.” And although their first album, 1997’s Land of Rhythm and Pleasure, featured a song called “Better Slow Down,” they haven’t: what distinguishes the Hollisters from Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two more than anything else is the high-gear into which they kick themselves at the drop of a Stetson. If anyone had cut a rockabilly rave-up as hot as Sweet Inspiration’s “Love Rustler” at Memphis's Sun Studios in 1955, the smell of scorched blue-suede would’ve haunted Carl Perkins to his grave and taught Cash a thing or two about rings of fire.

As it turns out, Memphis is on the Hollisters’ summer performance itinerary, but, given current gasoline prices, Acadiana residents might prefer to inspect the group a little closer to home in Baton Rouge this Thursday at the Texas Club. Barfield says the show will most likely consist of two sixty-to-ninety-minute sets and that the group will play most of the songs on its two albums, plus “whatever else suits our fancy.” “Sometimes you gauge what the crowd’s in the mood for and play what you think is going to get the best response,” he says. “I’ve got some new original material, but being in a country-oriented band, sometimes you’ll get in a situation where a crowd wants to hear some things that aren’t yours.


"I don’t mind doing some old Conway Twitty thing once in a while, but we’re not a cover-country band at all.”

What the Hollisters are is the latest incarnation of a band that started in the ’80’s as the Rounders. By 1994, after several years of breakups and false re-starts, the group had reformed as the Hollisters (the name comes from a minor character in The Andy Griffith Show), with the Webb Wilder bassist Denny Dale and the Atlanta-based drummer Kevin Fitzpatrick complementing the Barfield-Danheim axis.

When Danheim’s wife moved to Seattle last year, accompanied by her Hollister husband, Barfield lost not only a guitarist capable of twanging up a storm but also a songwriting partner capable of helping him come up with such saloon-friendly ready-mades as Sweet Inspiration’s “Drinking for Two” and “Tonkin’.” The good news is that Danheim’s replacement, Chris Miller, whose previous employers include Wayne Hancock and Marcia Ball, has proven an able replacement, and Barfield’s deep roots in honky-tonk country have kept him supplied with a steady stream of (sweet?) songwriting inspiration.

They’re roots that Barfield has occasionally gone out of his way to cultivate--like the first time he met the former Buck Owens' Buckaroos bassist Doyle Holly. “He was driving a tour bus for Natalie Merchant,” Barfield remembers, “and he was coming to Houston. So I took this old album I had that had his picture on it, and he signed it for me. It was funny because they thought I was trying to get into the show, and I said, ‘No, I just want to see the bus driver.’”

Barfield laughs. “Then later on we opened for Merle Haggard, and Doyle Holly was driving that tour bus. So he came up--I’d given him a copy of our first CD--and he said, ‘Man, I really like the CD, but live, that’s where it’s at. I think you guys have really got a good career ahead of you.’


"You know," says Barfield, "that was just the bees knees for me. That’s probably the best compliment I’ve gotten so far.”

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (1993)

(As published in Brian Q. Newcomb's Syndiacte ... )

Blind Willie Johnson
The Complete Blind Willie Johnson
(Columbia/Legacy)


Blinded at seven and dead before fifty, Blind Willie Johnson lived the quintessentially hard life of a street-singing gospel-bluesman. From 1927 to 1930, he recorded thirty songs that comprise his entire legendary legacy, and this two-disc set gathers them all. With the exception of "When the War Was On," a WW I narrative, the music reflects the rich tradition of spirituals, hymns, and revival songs unique to the South in general and Johnson's native Texas in particular--none of which would matter today if Johnson's singular performing style hadn't transformed them from items of historical interest into living testaments of faith. Over his eloquently lyrical slide guitar, Johnson sang in an intense, gravelly growl that brooked neither sentimentality nor pretense and that sounds at times, even by hard-gospel standards, downright shocking. Some of these tracks sound less than inspired, but many of them--especially "God Don't Never Change," "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," "It's Nobody's Fault but Mine," and "Lord, I Can't Just Keep from Crying"--stand among the most powerful acoustic music, gospel or otherwise, ever recorded.

Brooks & Dunn: Steers and Stripes (2001)

(As published in Blender ... )

Brooks and Dunn
Steers and Stripes
(Arista Nashville)


From drawled vocals to working-class concerns, the tenth-anniversary album from Brooks and Dunn is unmistakably country, but its prominent drums and loud southern-rock guitars also mark a break with the duo’s honky-tonk roots. B&D are even singing harder nowadays, as if their prime-time slot at last year’s Republican convention woke them up to the larger sociopolitical ramifications of boot-scootin’ boogie. By framing their expanded country dance vision with testosterone hooks and soft-hearted ballads, they all but guarantee increased enrollment on their bandwagon. For older fans, “Lucky Me, Lonely You” is hard Bakersfield honky-tonk to its core, and “Deny, Deny, Deny” is as hilariously pathetic an excuse as any ne’er-do-well husband (or ex-president) ever tried to foist upon the little woman.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Roll Over, Mark McGuire, and Tell the Eagles the News (2004)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )

WASHINGTON (Roiders)--With fallout from Major League Baseball's steroid scandal metastasizing apace, the silence on the issue from one particular segment of corporate America has become conspicuously loud: the Recording Industry Association of America.

Many attributed the RIAA's initial reticence on the issue to its inability to focus on two litigation-fraught controversies simultaneously (illegal mp3 downloading being the other). But now that such high-profile figures as Barry Bonds and President Bush--the most powerful men in baseball and the world respectively--have become involved in the debate, the decision of the nation's most powerful music-disseminating body to hit the mute button has a growing number of music lovers dreading the confirmation what has been rumored for years: namely, that much of their favorite music was created by musicians whose performances were enhanced by illegal drugs.

"It it can be proved that the Eagles recorded the bestselling album of all time while high, I think an asterisk should go beside their name in the record books," says Donny Osmond, the erstwhile teenage heartthrob whose reputation in the music world for chemical abstemiousness is second only to Ted Nugent's. "I always thought it was weird that Eagles: Their Greatest Hits could sell millions while an obviously superior Osmond album like Crazy Horses has become a garage-sale staple."

According to unnamed sources close to RIAA chairman and CEO Mitch Bainwol, the absence on the organization's website (http://riaa.com) of any comment relevant to the uproar is part of a "rope-a-dope" tactic that the RIAA is deploying in hopes that the scandal will "blow over." "Secretly, however," the source confides, "the inability to discuss the situation without saying 'dope' or 'blow' has the more superstitious boardmembers convinced that the music industry as they know it is about to go up in, er, smoke."

Other record-setting artists being targeted for investigation by an as-yet-unnamed federal panel include Michael Jackson (whose recently revealed fondness for "Jesus juice" has cast suspicion on the legitimacy of his multi-million-selling Thriller), Pink Floyd (whose Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall have sold more than 38,000,000 copies combined and whose founder, Syd Barrett, has been an acid casualty since 1967), and Elvis Presley (the perennially popular "King of Rock-and-Roll" whom the RIAA recently declared the "best-selling solo artist in U.S. history").

"Ever since Albert Goldman's hit-piece Presley bio came out in '81, people have believed that Elvis had a drug problem," says an RIAA insider who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But everyone knows the King's real probem was a slow metabolic rate brought on by the incompatability of consuming too many fried mashed-peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches and wearing overtight jumpsuits."

Meanwhile, the RIAA has been quick to dismiss the significance of the recent arrests of Art Garfunkel and David Crosby on charges of marijuana possession. "Listen to their crap," says an RIAA spokesman. "If rock-and-roll were baseball, their songs would definitely be three-strikes-you're-out."

DC Talk: Jesus Freak (1995)

(As published in Kamikaze ... )

DC Talk
Jesus Freak
(Forefront)


For believers who experience vicarious affirmation from the mainstream success of contemporary Christian musicians, this album may seem too good to be true. Not only has it gone where no other Christian album has gone before (number sixteen during its first week in Billboard), but it rocks too, mining from its mixture of grunge, rap, and alternapop-in-general a soulfulness that most young bands--sacred or profane--wouldn't know from Adam.

Of course, Jesus Freak has predecessors. In 1981, four years before Amy Grant's first top-forty hit, Benny Hester snuck a song from one of his Myrrh albums onto the lower rungs of the singles charts, and the next year, After the Fire scored with a Falco song and toured with Van Halen. Somewhere in there, Cliff Richard notched a half-dozen U.S. hits, and even the one-hit wonder Charlene turned out to have a testimony. But these performers weren't nearly as in-your-face about their faith as DC Talk, who by calling their new album Jesus Freak have performed the Christian equivalent of NWA's calling their 1991 album Niggaz4life: taken a term of derision and rehabilitated it into an honorific.

In fact, Jesus Freak's most enduring cultural contribution may be its transformation of derogatory or essentially meaningless religious phrases--"so help me God," the overfamiliar Godspell lyrics of "Day by Day"--into spiritually potent slang, making it harder than it's been in some time to hear such phrases without pondering their deeper meanings. The last time DC Talk attempted such a recontextualization, they chose "Jesus Is Just Alright" and caught some flak for reviving a song that some considered blasphemous. But it worked--so well, actually, that the live version on the "Jesus Freak" CD single upstages "Jesus Freak" itself.

But what will secularized kids who get curious enough about this odd bestseller to buy or home-tape it make of what they hear? Chances are, they'll find plenty to like. "So Help Me God," the title cut, "Day by Day," and "Like It, Love It, Need It" stack shout-along hooks on a solid foundation of programmed percussion, metal guitars (courtesy mainly of the great Dann Huff), and vocal gymnastics ranging from Kevin Smith's Bono-esque wailing and Michael Tait's soulful soaring to Toby McKeehan's precision rapping. And the slow, introspective numbers ("What If I Stumble," "What Have We Become") maintain the creative tension by matching easy-going music with honest meditations on the flesh's demands on the spirit.

The album's only misstep is Track Thirteen. Untitled on the cover, it turns out to be one of Kevin Smith's "poems." Program around it, and hear why, at least for now, more people are listening to Jesus Freak than to almost any other new album in the land.

L7: Hungry for Stink (1994)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

L7
Hungry for Stink
(Slash/Reprise)

Two of these songs--"Stuck Here Again" and "Fuel My Fire"--capture L7 at their hell-hath-no-fury best and manage to pay homage to X, Girlschool, and Janis Joplin simultaneously. The other highlight, "Riding with a Movie Star," is what the Ventures would sound like if they were women whose lives were living hells. Like the Breeders' "Cannonball" but with fewer words, "Movie Star" is punk-metal James Bond surf boogie for our unkinder, ungentler times. But most of the album is sloppy and rife with confessions like "I haven't changed my clothes in weeks / I'm wallowing in my own stink / My ass is sore from lyin' in bed / Am I alive or dead?" Good thing this album wasn't released in scratch-and-sniff.

John Austin: Moody Blues (1992)

(As published in Brian Q. Newcomb's Harvest Rock Syndicate ... )

"I wrote all the songs on this album in a bathroom underneath the chapel at Moody," confesses Glasshouse recording artist John Austin. "The acoustics were great."

The album Austin's talking about is his recently released debut, The Embarrassing Young--"another dose of melancholy for the Christian market," as he calls it--and "Moody" is the venerable Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, where Austin earned a degree in theology when he wasn't jamming in the men's room. Now, at twenty-three, Austin considers himself a former singer-songwriter because he's putting together a full-time rock-and-roll band to enrich his Windy City live shows.

"We have a band basically," says Austin. "We just keep going through bass players."

One can't help feeling a little sorry for those bassists. They have to live up to the standards Austin became accustomed to while recording his LP with the likes of David Miner (T Bone Burnett, Leon Russell) and Tim Chandler (DA, the Choir). "I felt totally spoiled working with them," says Austin, "and with [the guitarist] Buddy Miller. Buddy didn't even listen to an entire song before throwing down these incredible hooks."

What spoiled the novice album-maker even more was the producton savvy of Mark Heard, who oversaw the five sixteen-hour workdays into which the entire recording process was crammed before his untimely death last August.

"The album was meant to be a demo tape to shop to major labels," Austin explains. "I hooked up with Dan Russell, who's a publicist on the U2 tour right now, and he set me up with Mark. I borrowed six thousand dollars and flew out to L.A. for a week to make a demo, and we did ten songs.

"But by week's end we were in a position to avoid further debt, I thought it would be the smartest thing just to sell it to Glasshouse. They reimbursed me for the money I borrowed, and that was fine with me."

There was, however, one glitch in Austin's rapidly developing career scenario, a glitch that most serious musicians, Christian or otherwise, become acquainted with sooner or later.

"Glasshouse was pretty happy with the first ten songs," says Austin, "but they said, 'We need two more songs to sort of justify this album being in our market. We need a radio single.'" So Austin flew back to Los Angeles and recorded the plaintive "We All Need Love" and the infectiously upbeat "Back to the Garden."

"It's definitely not overproduced," observes Austin of the finished product. "Mark wasn't into that. He liked the raw. I think Glasshouse was sort of scared of that. They wanted to hear more mysterious textures."

Perhaps Austin's new live band will add those textures.

"I'm excited about the sound that's coming out," he says. "These guys have great stage presence. They're all a bit older than me, but there aren't any ego problems because they've been through it all.

"They just want to make good music."

Richard Marx: Rush Street (1992)/Paid Vacation (1994)

(From Rock & Roll Disc [unpublished 'cause the magazine folded) and the Illinois Entertainer respectively ... )

Richard Marx
Rush Street
Capitol CDP 7 95874 2
Total disc time: 65:35 (AAD)


Merit: **½
Sound: ****

Buried amid the pointless "hard rock" that dominates this overlong bestseller are three pretty solid pop songs and two chart-topping smashes--the slinky "Keep Coming Back" and the spooky "Hazard"--that deserve every bit of their market share. But for the most part Marx is trying too hard, cramming too many minutes into too many songs and singing them in a strained voice that owes more to Kenny Loggins than it does to any of the vintage rock-and-rollers whose records Marx told Jay Leno he collects.

Richard Marx
Paid Vacation
(Capitol)


Marx has so refined his mixture of rock, pop, and R&B that only Bryan Adams can boast more homogenized hooks-per-minute. And that's no put-down. Though none of this album's dozen rival Rush Street's "Hazard," only one of them--the fifty-four-second throwaway "Baby Blues"--doesn't draw a bullseye on a ready-made audience.


His guest list this time includes Luther Vandross, Lionel Richie, Fee Waybill, and, on the country-tinged "Nothing Left Behind Us," Vince Gill. True, they're subordinated to Marx's over-riding radio-friendly aesthetic, but they also inspire him to up his game with first-rate production and the least histrionic singing of his career.

Still, he does leave himself vulnerable to detractors convinced that he'll never outgrow his wimpiness: "There are too many nonsmokers dying each year as a result of second-hand smoke," he writes in the liner notes. "Demand a smoke-free environment." Next: Rock Against Cholesterol.

Boukman Eksperyans: Libète (Pran Pou Pran’l!) (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Boukman Eksperyans
Libète (Pran Pou Pran’l!)/Freedom (Let's Take It!)
(Mango)


Combining worldly rhythms and other-worldy invocations, Boukman Eksperyans creates the unsettling effect of making Haiti's infammatory mixture of superstition and corrupt politics seem seductive, and in so doing they've made the most political religious album and the most religious political album to come along in some time. The songs range from the soulfully sweet ("Ki Moun") to the sweetly soulful ("Zili," a prayer to the Virgin Mary with some Hoodoo for good measure), with lots more in between. In Peye Pou Peye" ("You Must Pay") and "Jou Male" ("Day of the Shock"), anti-oppressor choruses accompany vengefully rocking polyrhythms, and the liner notes decidate the album to a late bandmember whose death the band blames on President Clinton's medicine-impeding embargo. Despair, however, never rears its head, not with Boukman dancing all over it as if their lives depended on it--which in Haiti they probably do.

David Lee Roth: Your Filthy Little Mouth (1994)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

David Lee Roth
Your Filthy Little Mouth
(Reprise)


The last time Nile Rodgers produced a comeback album for someone named David--Bowie's Let's Dance, in case you'd forgotten--he hit paydirt. In David Lee Roth, however, Rodgers faces a bigger challenge. Roth is, after all, something of a one-trick stud. So we get a steady flow of sex jokes and boasts broken up by the occasional bluesy, world-weary lament. Not that the jokes aren't funny ("She was atomic / without a doubt. / The cowboy shirt she wore / contained a lot of fallout"), but coming from a playboy old enough to be Eddie Vedder's dad, they make Roth seem more like a self-parody than ever. Maybe if he'd trimmed the CD from fifty-six minutes to the thirty or so he was good for way back when, his raunch would sound less like paunch, his rock less like schlock. The lone exception: "No Big Ting," in which cabaret calypso meets Al Jolson in a catchy, goofy tribute to Roth's genius for musical miscegenation and not sweating life's "little shit."

Southern Culture on the Skids: Finger-Lickin' Good (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

If the simultaneous ascendancy of Bill Clinton and Jeff Foxworthy hasn't convinced you that the South is rising again, maybe you should check out Dirt Track Date (DGC), the major-label debut by Southern Culture on the Skids.

Heating up their lyrics about white-trash decadence with a generously lubricated mixture of rockabilly, swamp choogle, and boozy blues, the one-woman, two-man band from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, comes on like genuinely stray cats who know it's both the heat and the humidity that put the woogie in the boogie.



They also know that by calling themselves Southern Culture anything and by looking like Jed Clampett's poor relations they run the risk of getting pigeon-holed as a "novelty act," the B-52s of hickdom.

"I'm getting tired of being written up as 'hayseed, crazy hillbillies--Go have a hoedown good time!'," fumes Mary Huff, Southern Culture's bass player and occasional lead singer. "Don't get me wrong. We are a total party band. But our music really rocks, too. We don't hide behind any kind of schtick."

And they don't. But if they had to they could probably hide behind Huff's hair, which is what is known in the vernacular as "big." Judging from the band's PR photos, her 'do adds at least a foot to her stature.

"It's hard work actually," she confesses, "but the end result is worth it. I prefer hot rollers to sponge rollers because they go up faster. Then I whip it up into a big concoction and tease it until it's nice and solid and stands up by itself. Then I need anywhere from a quarter to a half can of Aquanet. The fun part is putting it up. The nasty part is getting it out after a show in which it's been drenched in sweat. You have to rip out all the rats and start from square one the next day."

Huff has, in fact, become so identified with her hair that she maintains it "twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” “Some days I think, 'I don't feel like doing this. I think I'll skip it.' Then I show up at the show and get yelled at and cursed at by people who have paid to see us. So I'm locked into doing it, I'm afraid."

Of course, most bands would kill for audiences that cared enough to curse at them for not doing their hair, and Southern Culture knows it. In fact, the band values its fans so much that it seldom come off the road. The constant touring provides the subject matter for at least one Dirt Track Date song, "Fried Chicken and Gasoline," a kind of "Running on Empty" for the kudzu crowd.

According to Rick Miller, the trio's all-purpose frontman and Huff's common-law husband, they also go out of their way to involve their fans in their shows.

"During 'Eight-Piece Box,' we'll hand out chicken. Sometimes we'll get a couple onstage and have them do the chicken mating dance while they slow-twist and feed each other drumsticks. Sometimes we'll get girls who look like they could eat five boxes of chicken, and they get up there and just devour it while we're playing! We even get girls who are exhibitionists and--well, let’s just say it's always an eye-opener. Chicken becomes a metaphor for many things."

Miller sees “Eight-Piece Box,” which comes replete with puns on "eating," "breasts," and "thighs," as an excavation of rock 'n' roll's original, double-entendre-enriched roots.

"A lot of people say, 'Oh, that's not serious,' but it's very serious. If you listen to old R&B or rock-and-roll, there are all kinds of songs like that. I also love the lyrics of a lot of '20s and '30s jazz songs, which can be so dirty--'Roll My Wiener,' 'Ice Cream Man,' all that stuff. It has that bawdy, earthy humor that I think is totally missing from a lot of records today."

Dirt Track Date's instrumentals convey the same dirty vibe. "Make Mayan a Hawaiian" staggers and sways like grass-skirted fat men in the wee hours of a luau. "Galley Slave" finds Huff making like an opera singer atop the sound of grunting oarsmen. "Skullbucket" rumbles with Link Wray-inspired raunch.

Miller likes telling stories about the group’s years on the road. Having opened for porn films, shared bills at prisons with the Void Brothers (a holy- rolling gospel act), and performed for naked spelunkers at a National Caving Association's all-night revelry, he has plenty to tell.

He’s even hung out with the rockabilly madman Hasil Adkins, whom Miller once watched eat a pound of raw ground round before a show.

"You know how it comes in those styrofoam trays with plastic over it? Well, he had made a little hole in the plastic, and, as he was talking to me, he pulled out strands and threw them into his mouth. He finished before the soundcheck started and then put on a hell of a show. I thought about trying it myself, but all I could think was 'trichinosis.'"

Raw hamburger, fried chicken, Aquanet, sweat -- it's all just more grease for Southern Culture's skids.

And they ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.

Leave It to Bieber


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Elvis Speaks! (1985)

(As published in the February 8, 1985, issue of my university's newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum ... )

A Golden Celebration, Elvis Presley (RCA). Hi, I'm the ghost of Elvis Presley, and I want your money ("that's what I want"--oops, sorry, that's someone else's song, er, well, all of my songs were someone else's songs, weren't they? Hyuck, hyuck.)

Anyway, back when I was the proud inhabitant of that famous Elvis body with the wigglin' hips (before it got all fat and bloated, you know the one), I sang some meeeean songs, yes sir, songs like "Hound Dog" and "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Don't Be Cruel" and--what? Oh, you already own those. Well ...

I'll bet ya my Uncle Clem and all my non-famous cousins (who are still jealous, I swear) that you don't have these versions of my songs, the ones right here in this brand-new six-record set with my human face embossed in gold on the cover. Honest, gang, this is essential stuff!

Like on this one record here you can hear me singin' on both The Milton Berle Show and The Steve Allen Show (great names they gave shows then, don'tcha think?) in 1956. The girlies (they're "Mama" and "Auntie" to y'all now) are screamin', and the recording sounds like peachickens scratchin' their claws across peachicken-sized blackboards so's you can hardly bear to listen and--what? Whaddaya mean you've heard better sound on second-hand copies of Velvet Underground albums? That was low ...

Anyway, on Sides Five through Seven you hear me knockin' 'em dead at (are you ready?) the Mississippi-Alabama Fair & Dairy Show! That's right, me live from Tupelo, Miss. amid nothin' less than pigs and cows. Why, you can practically taste the Red Man. You can go ahead and clap now.

On Side Eleven you get "Collector's Treasures--discovered at Graceland, date unknown." Well, I know the date, but I'm not tellin', haw, haw. Truthfully, though, I hid those "collector's treasures" ("My Heart Cries for You," "Suppose," and "Write to Me from Naples") so's no one would ever find 'em. Why? Listen and learn.

So, all in all, you get (count 'em) six mono LPs, one air-brushed photo of me in my prime and suitable for framing, six versions of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Hound Dog," five of "Love Me Tender" and "Don't Be Cruel," and four of "Heartbreak Hotel." I know you already have those songs, but you don't have these versions! Besides, there's more songs too. The price? Uh, well (giggle, giggle), it's $49.99. Why do you ask?

A Valentine Gift for You, Elvis Presley (RCA). Then there's other new record of mine, all fit and ready to give your sweetheart on Valentine's Day. It's got a smiley picture of me on the cover, and the record itself comes in red plastic. You know, red--the color of cupids, those little paper hearts, and the gooey cherry filling inside the candy that you have to give that day. So buy it.

What's on it? Well, it's got "Are You Lonesome Tonight" on Side One and "Can't Help Falling in Love" on Side Two. What? The other songs? Well, there's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" and lots of other songs I did but no one cared much about. I guess it's 'cause they're so mellow and sugary and all. But it's great for snugglin' up with your honey on the ol' fourteenth of February, right? Right?

Rocker, Elvis Presley (RCA). If you don't want any of my other new records, at least buy this one. There's no hocus-pocus: no glossy photos, no rare studio screw-ups or anything. There's just music and lots of it. Heck, it's even on black vinyl.

It's called Rocker 'cause that's what I was before I went into the Service (and what I sat in a lot after I came back, but that's another story). All in a row, here's what you get: "Tutti Frutti," "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Rip It Up," "Jailhouse Rock," etc., etc. Get the picture? No oozy slow songs or nothin', just good ol' shakin', rattlin', and rollin' from the King (whose ghost I so proudly am). Shoot, my "Tutti Frutti" is lots better than Pat Boone's and almost as good as Little Richard. That about says it all.

So while I do want your money, I need your love. Buy one or all of these records 'cause to know me is to love me. (Poof!)

Terminator X & the Godfathers of Threatt: Super Bad (1994)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Terminator X & the Godfathers of Threatt
Super Bad
(P.R.O. Division/RAL)

Chuck D got people to like Public Enemy by convincing them they were racist or chicken (or both) if they didn't. But no one would've listened in the first place if it hadn't been for Terminator X and his sonic arsenal, the latest model of which is on full display here with over a dozen rap acts of varying renown along for the ride.

Of course, since Terminator X talks with his hands, it's the rappers who set the agenda, and in so doing they prove once and for all that punk's nihilism has come home to roost in hip-hop. With the exception of Whodini's catchy "It All Comes Down to the Money" and the Punk Barbarians' raving "Put Cha Thang Down," the majority of these cuts deliver one crude blow after another to those facets of human intelligence--taste, language, logic--that most distinguish us from the beasts.

Where to start? On "Sticka" Chuck D, MC Lyte, and the Ices Cube and T decry "censorshit" on the grounds that there's "as much ass" in a Jane Fonda workout video as in a 2 Live Crew clip. On "1994 Street Muthafukkas Gong Show" Postman bids us to remember that "mutha had ya, mutha fed ya, and mutha fukked ya." Then he laughs, but as jokes go it's not that funny. (Ask your mother.) And there's a lot more along similar lines. On top of it all, the Terminator thanks Allah, who along with his only prophet Mohammed appreciates the publicity, I'm sure.

Heavy Vegetable: The Amazing Undersea Adventures of Aqua Kitty and Her Friends (1994)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Heavy Vegetable
The Amazing Undersea Adventures of Aqua Kitty and Her Friends
(Cargo/Headhunter)


Eleven of this album's seventeen songs clock in at under two minutes, and one of the longer ones only makes it past three minutes with the help of extended amp hum. Nevertheless, despite (because of?) its penchant for lyrics and song structures that only reveal the method in their madness after lots of listens, Heavy Vegetable isn't (just) fooling around.

The filial-hate tantrum "Junior," for instance, gains resonance coming as it does after "Black Suit" (in which mosh-pit-worthy power chords erupt while lead singer Rob Crow's dad ominously watches him writhe in the Intensive Care Unit). Likewise, the suicidal Eastern religionist whom Crow wishes would jump ("Krishna on the Ledge"), the onanistic farm animal ("Johnny Pig"), and the guy who just plain smokes too much ("Head Rush") imply the exhilarating variety of the physical world without getting all Gerard Manley Hopkins-like about it.

But what really whips these ditties and fragments into a coherent whirlwind the explosive drumming of Manolo Turner. Guitar-playing, singer-songwriting weirdos we will always have with us, but drummers who honor both Keith Moon and Buddy Rich, if only for two minutes at a time, are special indeed.

Ear of the Dragon (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Ear of the Dragon
(Fortune 5)


As an Asian-American myself, I speak without prejudice when I say that this "first-ever compilation album of Asian-American rock 'n' roll" makes no sense. What cultural subgroup, after all, has fewer defining characteristics than ours, comprised as we are of the most thoroughly Americanized of America's adopted peoples?

Aside from Shonen Knife (who aren't included here as they're Asian-Asians) few if any rock bands with Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, or Hawaiian members sound significantly different from the average white band, the nineteen bands on this album included. From aMINIATURE's harsh blend of U2 and the Clash to Dolomite's evocation of Nick Drake, these sons of Oriental immigrants sound like suspiciously like descendants of pale Europeans.

The daughters offer some respite. Yanti Arifin sings "Losing My Cool" like Chryssie Hynde auditioning for the Waitresses, and Cub's Robynn Iwata sings "Secret Nothing" like someone who's spent lots of quality time under the boardwalk. But that still leaves fifteen bands, ranging from the wretched (J. Church, David Pajo Band) to the merely O.K. Lo-fi sound, low-flying melodies, and an uncanny resemblance to the boring parts of Urgh! A Music War predominate.

Wayne Kramer: The Hard Stuff (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Wayne Kramer
The Hard Stuff
(Epitaph)


Having perfected his punk-metal skronk as one fifth of the legendary MC5, Wayne Kramer can reasonably expect to sell a few thousand copies of this album on nostalgic name recognition alone. The good news is that although he hasn't taught his guitar any new tricks in the last twenty years, he still knows how to make it sound like a garage full of lawnmowers. The bad news is that not only does Kramer sing like a rock critic, but he also solicits lyrics from one in the person of Mick Farren. Even worse, Kramer's lyrics are worse than Farren's.

Farren: "We are deprived / of the self-destruct relief of wild-bunch conflict" ("The Realm of Pirate Kings"). Kramer: "Truth and love are my law and worship, / form and conscience my manifestation and guide" ("Poison"). Farren: "Those souls on TV ain't really crying. / They accept that they were born to die" ("Hope for Sale"). Kramer: "Wilson moved his family out of the city / where times are tough, life is fast and hard and gritty" ("Crack in the Universe").

So, Henry Rollins's gushing liner notes and the clever "Sharkskin Suit" notwithstanding, what The Hard Stuff amounts to is forty-seven minutes of revved-up, punk-metal guitar rock like they don't make anymore welded to songs that you hope they'll never write again.

Chris Mars: Tenterhooks (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Chris Mars
Tenterhooks
(Bar/None)


No one has ever accused this erstwhile Replacements drummer of singing pretty. Even so, not only do his vocals on Tenterhooks seem gratuitously Jonathan Richman-like, but they're also subjected to an answering-machine-sounding electronic tweaking that renders the lyrics barely intelligible.

All of which is too bad because, as the lyric sheet reveals, there's a curiously unresolved tension at work. Empathetic numbers like "Brother Song" and "Mary" (in which Mars tries to cheer up depressed loved ones) duel with sarcastic, pissed-off songs like "White Patty Rap," "Water Biscuits," and "E.I.B. Negative" (in which Mars disses clean rappers, Tupperware moms, and Rush Limbaugh and his audience respectively).

As for the music, it's as under-recorded as the vocals, making the Sesame Street jazz of "New Day" and the rinky-dink disco of "Water Biscuits" almost provocatively weird. As for "Hate It" and the B-movie instrumental "Floater," they clatter past like post-grunge little engines that could, as gleefully oblivious to grown-up production values as anything on The Shit Hits the Fans.

Shaw/Blades: Hallucination (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Shaw/Blades
Hallucination
(Warner Bros.)


Shaw is Tommy and Blades is Jack, and with Michael Cartellone on drums for three tracks and Ted Nugent gone huntin', Hallucination could almost pass for Damn Yankees Unplugged--except it sounds nothing like Damn Yankees. With dovetailing, reverb-free vocals that soar higher than the Eagles' and acoustic-guitar work to match, these eleven songs duck arena-scale pyrotechnics in favor of a campfire intimacy you don't have to be a Boy Scout to enjoy.

The lyrics hold up too, what with the political cleverness of the title track ("We paid the price in Viet Nam / while crosses burned in Birmingham, / in Memphis now the church bells ring / while L.A. crowns a different King") and sober, cliché-free observations that make it sound as if life really might begin at forty ("The Night Goes On").
Held together by a mixture of inspired near-plagiarism (second-hand Tom Petty and Beatles haunt several cuts) and plain, old-fashioned attention to detail, Hallucination is a loose, gently rocking, stripped-down gem that proves no frills doesn't have to mean no frills.

Bad Brains: God of Love (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Bad Brains
God of Love
(Maverick/Warner Bros.)

Mediocre Rastafarian music is like mediocre Christian music: You don't have to be a believer to give it the benefit of the doubt, but it helps. This goes quadruple for Bad Brains. Not only to you have to suspend the usual disbelief (Haili Selassie is Jesus and smoked dope is his sacrament?), but you also have to convince yourself that alternating reggae and heavy metal makes for a logical incarnation of the faith because God of Love won't convince you by itself.

Some of the metal isn't bad--all the cannabis in the world won't deaden the impact of reverie-wreckers like "Tongue Tee Tie" and the title cut, and "Thank Jah" is almost goofy enough for Funkadelic. If only the same could be said for the reggae, which comes off so generic that only a spliff the size of Warner's loss-leader budget could convince you it made you see God.

Between the extremes comes the non-metal, non-reggae "Rights of a Child," wherein H.R. asserts that "[e]very child has a right to be loved. / No baby, no baby is poor. / Our God has given us this." It sure beats the pro-life stuff blasting from the Bible bookstores.

Senser: Stacked Up (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Senser
Stacked Up
(Atlas/Ultimate/A&M)


No matter what its music sounds like, when a band becomes known for its politics first and its music second, it's suffering from PPMS: Peter, Paul & Mary Syndrome. Senser, who has earned the praise of the British press for "raising" the public's awareness of facism and racism, suffers from PPMS big time. How much more aware of facism and racism can a politically correct person be these days?

Senser has also earned praise for having a female frontperson (Kerstin Haigh), a Saudi Arabian frontperson (Heitham Al-Sayed), and a killer smoke-and-light show. But neither demographic diversity nor visual special effects translate particularly well to CD, so Stacked Up lives and dies by its sound--a pummeling blend of Slayer-esque metal and hip-hop that will have moshers and other sensitive youth dropping like well-swatted horseflies and loving it.

But will sloganeering letter bombs like "What's Going On?" and "Eject" actually rock anyone's vote? Probably not, because with a Saudi rapping so fast that you notice little but the "fuck"s and a woman whose recipe for peace is "Breathe in, breathe out" ("Peace"), the finer points of Senser's worldview--assuming there are any--tend to get lost.

Michael W. Smith: I'll Lead You Home (1995)

(As published in Kamikaze ... )

Michael W. Smith, I'll Lead You Home (Reunion). When I was in college ten years ago, the only people I knew who listened to Michael W. Smith were the girls in Campus Crusade for Christ. But since then Smith has evolved to where you can now actually hear folks asking Casey Kasem to play "Place in This World" and "I Will Be Here for You" as long-distance dedications. And with I'll Lead You Home he goes for broke, enlisting the production skills of Patrick Leonard* (Madonna, Toy Matinee) and riding a Reunion Records promotion blitz that has already turned Home into a big seller. And it deserves to be, if only for
the orchestra-enriched trilogy "The Other Side of Me/Breathe in Me/Angels Unaware" and the buoyant "Calling Heaven." Only occasionally does Smith's voice prove too shrill or his persona too corny for Leonard's spit and polish. And "Straight from the Heart," which Smith produced himself, rivals Bryan Adams and Richard Marx both.


*A relevant interview with Patrick Leonard:
http://wittenburgdoorinterviews.blogspot.com/2009/06/door-interview-patrick-leonard.html

Babes in Toyland: Painkillers (1993)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Babes in Toyland
Painkillers
(Reprise)

Hissing, scratching, and spitting, these three riot grrrls come up with fifty-one minutes of outtakes (four), alternate versions ("He's My Thing"), and a live set at CBGB's that medleys ten cuts from Fontanelle and defines their aesthetics as follows: tortured guitars, psychotic toilet-stall poetry ("Tralala was a baldhead girl / Your mind's gone greasy it slides right off me"), and a drummer named Lori Barbero who favors Burundi-style bashing over rock-and-roll timekeeping (probably because she can't keep rock-and-roll time).

On paper it looks promising, kind of like a Nancy Spungen tribute act. And no doubt the Babes mean well. But by disc's end the only detail to emerge from the chaos is the lead-singing of Kat Bjelland and only because she hisses, scratches, and spits under the influence of more raw adrenaline than anyone except maybe Iggy Pop has a right to.

Does the crowd at CBGB's applaud, you ask? A little.


Candlebox: Candlebox (1993) / Lucy (1995)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Candlebox
Candlebox
(Maverick)


Candlebox has the dubious distinction of representing both the "Seattle sound" and Madonna's dud-prone Maverick Records at a time when public interest in both appears to have peaked. With this in mind, the quartet's strict adherence to the rudimental formalities of blues metal has an air of nobility, of refusing to jump from a sinking ship. But since nothing weights music down like "nobility" (cf. Sting), its hardly a reason to listen.

Apparently incapable of dreaming up or ripping off an actual melody or hook, these rookies bludgeon the two or three riffs and tempos they do know as if, through sheer force, they could generate the spark that will set their career ablaze. They can't and they don't. Not that they don't bludgeon well, but little here will change the minds of cynics who believe that Ms. Ciccone started her label as a tax write-off first and a fun factory second. 3

Candlebox
Lucy
(Maverick./Warner Bros.)


If someone hadn't decided to include a photo of Candlebox inside Lucy's cover--a photo that proves the foursome's taste in grungewear is as dull as their taste in melodies--you'd swear, on the basis of the "music" contained within, that the lads must be testosterone-crazed pec-flexers of the first order, so mightily do they bash out the only two chords they know, so jugular-burstingly does Kevin Martin shout his anthems of anomie. "You want to scream," he screams in "Simple Lessons," eerily predicting with an accuracy worthy of Nostrdamus the reaction of any sane person to this album.

Those keen on technicalities could argue that not all of these songs have only two chords, and they'd be right: "It's Amazing" has only one. For that matter, the awkwardly titled "Vulgar Before Me" seems to have all of two-and-a-half. Candlebox fans could also argue that a group's knowing only two chords doesn't necessarily preclude its using them creatively. After all, Peter Klett can even play the chords fast on one song ("Best Friend)," slowly on another ("Butterfly"), and then reverse the chords and play them fast ("Bothered") and slowly ("Butterfly Reprise") again. Heck, he'll even play them mid-tempo ("Drowned," the title cut)!

Actually, "Best Friend" is fairly decent as two-and-a-half-chord rave-ups go. But let's cut to the chase: In the two years since it received a score of three from me in these very pages, Candlebox's debut has sold three million copies. Do you think Maverick/Warner Bros. will blame me if Lucy only goes double platinum? 2

Friday, June 25, 2010

Billy Idol: Cyberpunk (1993)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Billy Idol
Cyberpunk
(Chrysalis)


No line in rock-and-roll cuts both ways as incisively as Patti Smith's "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," and Billy Idol's grafting it into his techno version of Lou Reed's "Heroin" borders on genius. But this album's smarts end there, and, with the exception of the rocking "Shock to the System," so do its high points, making Cyberpunk the least vital Idol ever.

Under the influence of Timothy Leary, Idol has wrought a tediously dense, high-tech concept album dedicated to the thesis that cyberpunk information access and virtual reality will help the human race wriggle out from under religion and government and evolve to the next level. But why anyone should seek insights on religion, government, or evolution from Idol (or Leary) remains a mystery.

Come to think of it, Idol probably doesn't know that much about heroin either. And before it's over, even "Shock to the System," which highlights his enthusiasm over the L.A. riots of '92, ends up rocking the cradle of hate.

Primus: Les Is More! (1993)

(This was published in a much different form in B-Side. Unable to get it into the pre-Lollapalooza issue, the editor included it in the post-Lollapalooza issue and added paragraphs of her own take on Lollapalooza's performance [and, obviously, rearranged and-or deleted a good bit of what I'd written]. What follows is the shorter original version.)

As many have observed for some time now, there's not much that's alternative about "alternative" music anymore.

If nothing else, the success of groups like R.E.M., Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, 10,000 Maniacs, and New Order should have taught us that often the only difference between an alternative band and a mainstream one is sales.


Nevertheless, Primus, whose 1991 Interscope debut, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, went gold, remains as alternative as they come, from its de-evolutionary name (they began as Primate) to the weirdness that permeates every level of its public image.

Take their new album, Pork Soda. In one song a guy named Mud murders a "fat bastard" with a baseball bat. In another a guy named Bob hangs himself. In another someone goes insane at the Department of Motor Vehicles. And in another someone with a cat named Allowishus gets off on watching Ren and Stimpy in the nude.

Ask Les Claypool, the trio's lead-singing bassist, to explain the widespread appeal of such twisted topics, and he laughs. "Beats the hell out of me," he says. "I really don't know."

Claypool does know, however, that Primus's large fan base has a lot to do with its landing the closing slot on this summer's Lollapalooza tour, a tour that, as of this writing, lists Alice in Chains, Arrested Development, Dinosaur Jr., Fishbone, Front 242, and Rage Against the Machine among its other scheduled acts.

Closing a day-long festival like Lollapalooza is an honor, but it also poses challenges. Claypool's manager, for instance, has just informed him that Primus won't go onstage until ten o'clock each night.

"Pretty damn late," muses Claypool. "Be we wanted to play in the dark, so I guess we'll get to.

"I think it's going to be interesting to see who sticks around. It might be a challenge to keep that many tired people entertained. But we're excited about it, not only from the performance aspect but also because we get to be part of a big, carnival atmosphere and get in for free.

"One of the exiting things about being last," Claypool continues, "is that we're going to be able to drag Fishbone out onstage with us to do some kind of jams. We toured with them before, and it was one of the best tours we ever did."

One Primus song likely to mutate into a Fishbone jam is "Hamburger Train." One of Pork Soda's two instrumentals, it captures Claypool, drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, and guitarist Larry "Lar" Lalonde in a rare, all-stops-out frenzy. In the process it captures another resolutely alternative aspect about the band: their sound. Unfunky funk, unpunky punk, all odd angles and inverted structures--it stands in stark opposition to whatever passes for conventional rock or pop at the moment.

Claypool's bass, for example, and not Lalonde's guitar, is the foremost instrument of the band's sonic palette.

"I've always been a big fan of bands that sound that way," says Claypool, quite possibly referring to Peter Gabriel, XTC, the Residents, the Meters, and Pink Floyd, acts Primus covered on their 1992 EP, Miscellaneous Debris. "But I think we may have surpassed some of them as far as bass volume goes."

Primus's most alternative characteristic, however, is Claypool himself. His loony, cartoonier-than-life personality defines the band at every level.

"People that know me definitely know that I'm a pretty sarcastic person," he cackles. "And among our group and our friends, our humor tends to be an abusive type of humor. It's all in good fun, but I would imagine a lot of that does come through in the lyrics."

I remind Claypool that Lalonde has said the band knows a lyric has hit the mark if it makes them laugh hysterically. Claypool agrees.

"When we're on the road, I'll call Lar's room and say, 'Hey, listen to these lyrics!' And if I can get him to crack up, then I know I've done something good. He's a good cheese meter."

And which musicians, besides themselves, make Primus laugh?

"I'd say Hank Williams, Jr.," says Claypool. "Whether or not we listen to any of his music, it's always good to see him stomping around before Monday Night Football."

Poor Old Lu (1993)

(As published in CCM magazine ... )

Astute readers of C.S. Lewis may notice something familiar in the name of Seattle's latest quartet of alternative-Christian rockers, Poor Old Lu.

"It comes from a quote in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," explains Aaron Sprinkle, the band's nineteen-year-old guitarist, keyboardist, and spokesman. "I think it's in Chapter Three. Lucy has just come back from Narnia for the first time, and no one believes she was there. So they say, 'Poor old Lu. Been gone so long, and no one noticed."

The story of the band is also similar in another way to the magical adventures of Lucy and her friends: With seemingly no more effort than it would take to walk into a wardrobe, Poor Old Lu has gone from a group of woodshedding Christian kids on Washington's Vashon Island to a nationally signed band whose new Frontline album, Mindsize, exceeds the alreday-high expectations of their growing, underground following.

"God really laid this deal in our laps," says a bemused Sprinkle. "We weren't even pursuing Frontline. They'd heard of us from our first demo, but they were one of the last labels we'd considered because we were more into the Blonde Vinyl kind of thing."

Enter Sprinkle's father, an associate pastor at Seattle's Calvary Fellowship and, as it happens, a friend of Randy Stonehill.

"About a year ago, my dad gave Randy our demo, but we never heard from him. Then finally he gave my dad a call and apologized. He'd never listened to it, but his wife had and made him listen to it. And he really liked it. The next time he came up, he said, 'I'm having lunch with Terry Taylor tomorrow, and I'm going to make him listen to it."

Equally impressed with the foursome, Taylor and then-Frontline head of radio promotion for alternative music and metal Brandon Ebel pitched the band to the label. One live showcase later, Poor Old Lu found itself with a contract.

Shortly thereafter, they found themselves with Taylor in the studio. Having grown up in awe of Daniel Amos, Sprinkle, his younger brother Jesse (drums), Nick arber (bass), and Scott Hunter (lyrics and lead vocals) couldn't have asked for a better hand at their controls. It comes as no surprise then that Mindsize boasts a sonic clarity and depth that belies the quartet's rookie status. Each of the twelve tracks works a haunting variation on indie rock's obsession with minor chords, abruptly shifting tempos, and oblique lyrics sung in cool, detached tones.

"Terry taught us a lot," admits the elder Sprinkle. "He would help us take out parts of songs that were redundant and that made the songs boring. But the memories I have of recording with him aren't of doing a guitar track or working on music. They're of hanging out and having fun. We got to see sides of him we didn't know about. We got to hang out with him as a friend and a brother in Christ."

According to Sprinkle, Poor Old Lu is only one of Seattle's several first-rate alternative Christian bands, meaning that, like the secular scene spearheaded by Nirvana, a similar Christian scene has sprung up in the Northwest.

"When Frontline was up here the first time, I was shopping all these bands that were my friends to them. And they looked at me and said, 'What are you doing? We've never seen a band--especially one that we're coming to sign--shop other bands!' But I thought, 'Why wouldn't I want them to have the chance to reach more people?

"There's a band called Soulfood, a rap band called 3NP, a hardcore band called Blenderhead, and a funk band called Don't Know. We have parties where we play and pack the house with hundreds of people. And tons of unsaved people come. There's almost a revival thing happening."

Poor Old Lu, says Sprinkle, plans to tour next spring with Adam Again and Mortal, at which time other regions of the country will have the chance to experience Sealttle's almost-revival-thing for themselves.

PJ Harvey: Dry (1992)

(As published in Rock & Roll Disc ... )

PJ Harvey
Dry
Indigo 162-555-001-2
Total disc time: 40:08 (no SPARS code)


Merit: ***½
Sound: ***½

It's tempting to dismiss Harvey as less than the sum of her influences, among whom she must surely count Patti Smith, Sinead O'Connor, and the Velvet Underground. Where else could a young woman have gone these days to learn the art of welding brutal, scraping guitars to lyrics obsessed with the violence of romance? Yet even on the songs in which she tries too hard and her rhythm section not enough, something's at work--a hook, an image--saving the music from (complete) pretense. And when she gets it just right ("Dress," "Sheela-Na-Gig," "Joe"), she may as well be the future of punk.

Rush: Roll the Bones (1992)

(As published in Rock & Roll Disc ...)

Rush
Roll the Bones
Atlantic 82293-2
Total disc time: 48:06 (DDD)

Merit: ***½
Sound: ***


Unbeknownst to many, Rush spent the '80s streamlining itself. Starting with Permanent Waves, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart quit blending Yes and Zeppelin and began sounding a lot like the Police. Not that Police fans will admit it. They'll argue that Sting sang more soulfully than Lee and that the Police's bare-bones approach had nothing in common with whatever Rush was was playing. Well, I dare any Police fan to explain the difference between "Synchronicity I," for example, and Roll the Bones' "Dreamline" or "You Bet Your Life"--the same chirpy guitars, the same light-yet-virtuosic drumming, and the same earnest singing about fate's role in the grand drama that is life. Lee no longer sings like a helium-sucking parrot, and at no point does the band condescend to its fans. So why not become one?

Todd Rundgren: An Elpee's Worth of Productions (1992)

(One of my many reviews that went unpublished in Rock & Roll Disc when the magazine ceased publication in 1992 ... )

Todd Rundgren: An Elpee's Worth of Productions
Rhino R2 70519
Total disc time: 73:22 (AAD)

Merit: **½
Sound: ***

Rhino's knack for creatively repackaging old music fails them a little this time. By chronologically assembling eighteen songs that Todd Rundgren produced for other performers over as many years, the compilers prove merely that when he works with great bands (the New York Dolls, for inastance) he gets great results and that when he works with crap bands (Meat Loaf and the Tubes, for instance) he gets crap--just like any other producer. Of course, there's plenty that falls somewhere in between, and if you program the Bourgeois Tagg, Grand Funk, Fanny, and Lords of the New Church cuts consecutively, you'll brighten your day. But given the inclusion of ho-hum songs from Hunter, Jill Sobule, the Rubinoos, and Rick Derringer, wake-up calls from Hall and Oates' War Babies and Badfinger's Straight Up would've been nice.

Marvin: The Mandolin Man (1992)

(One of my many reviews that went unpublished in Rock & Roll Disc when the magazine ceased publication in 1992 ... )

Marvin
The Mandolin Man
Restless 7 72582-2
Total disc time: 44:37 (AVD)

Merit: ***½
Sound: ***½


The V in the SPARS code stands for "vinyl," which to Marvin Etzioni (ex-Lone Justice) sounds better than the coated, laser-read plastic of CDs. So what we're really hearing here is a digitally mastered recording of the playing of an LP. And you know what? There's no difference. So these eleven brooding folk songs either stand or fall on their own. When Marvin captures the contrition and the hope that are his main concern, he rivals Leonard Cohen, and both God and man come out looking good. But when he slows down a great pop ballad like "Can't Cry Hard Enough" until it sounds like a dirge and then pitches it out of his range, only T Bone Burnett (whom Marvin sings exactly like) comes out looking good because at least he'd know enough to rock it up a little.